This is a mostly true story , although some aspects have been dramatized for just the same effect as a Cheerio on a Cheerios box is enlarged to show texture and strawberries.
In the traditional Authority of Mwansambo, nestled in the foothills of Ntchisi Mountain, in a forgotten and overpopulated corner of Nkhotakota District, in the central region of Malawi in the Warm Heart of Africa, there is a group of Non-Malawian nationals called the Brundys’ .
This is their story.
After months of speculation I did , just yesterday, meet a Brundy. It was a woman, I don’t remeber her name and for her privacy I won’t try to recall, but she was a Brundy. I was in Mwansambo Trading Center, about a 30 minute bike ride from my village and had been in “town” earlier in the morning for a meeting with a group of brick makers. But on this morning I was not thinking about bricks, I was thinking about Brundys’. In the market (imagine a low-end, open air, unregulated Whole Foods) it seemed that there would be a Brundy close by. After all, from everything I’d gathered Brundys’ are business owners. Running into a loose acquaintance we chatted until we had obliged each other in small talk and then as seriously as my voice would permit I asked, “oh hey Moses, do you know of any Brundys’ that are living in town.?” Moses pointed to a tuck shop across the road. I thanked him and wasted no more time.
In the blaring heat of the mid-day sun and under the ceaseless stares of a thousand old men gnawing on raw vegetables, I stepped up to the cardboard and chicken wire store front with three things to inquire. What is a Brundy? Where do Brundys’ come from? What is this Brundy eating for lunch?
This all started months ago in a conversation under a banana tree. I was helping a friend to cut down an unrippend bunch of bananas and simultaneously scheming about the unrealized potential in growing more banana trees along the local river.
“You know, we really could plant a lot more banana trees here Thomas.” I suggested, looking at all the wild and uncontrolled suckers shooting out the base of the tree.
“Oh, you mean like the Brundys'”, Thomas replied
“Like the Brundys’!”, I parroted, “what’s a Brundy?” and then I almost lost my balance in excitement.
“Brundys’ are a certain group that is living somewhere there by Mwansambo.”
“So they eat a lot of bananas?”
“Yes, and they are not taking (eating) nsima, just staying (eating) with bananas and meat. Is that good?” [Malawian-English]
“No, I don’t think so Thomas”, I replied in a stoic kind of sarcasm.
It was apparent in Thomas’ question that he had already formed a deep mistrust of these Brundys’ because of their indifference to Malawi’s staple food, nisma. My imagination immediately tried to conjure up what an ethnic group of people called the Brundys’ might be doing in an unsuspecting rural community like Mwansambo. They couldn’t be nomadic if they relied partially on bananas. They couldn’t be war mongers if they lived in Malawi. Maybe they were black, maybe they were yellow, maybe they were white. I drifted in though and quickly envisioned a straw hat beard and bonnet wearing community of Amish. Something as radical as living in America without electricity is certainly comparable to a group of people in rural Malawi abstaining from nsima. Brundy, what a powerful, imagination invoking word, and I really hope you think so too otherwise this whole story will sound dumb. I started to get a sense that I had encountered this people group from childhood somewhere, maybe in a children’s book. The Brundys’, some gang of pillaging antagonists, probably trolls, terrorizing the countryside; a child’s first exposure to the realities of chaos and instability, and taxation. I should be fair and say that Brundys’ could also be altruistic, noble creatures, but I think they would still be trolls.
But is Brundy really a country? In a land without internet, facts are found within the village elders, so back home I began to ask around Chinthankwa Village. I found that people in my village had varying views as to where the Brundys’ had come from. Some had thought they were business owners that had drifted up from South Africa. Some people though they were refugees from Mozambique or Rwanda, or the DRC. I also found that the village elders were not especially knowledgeable in the field of geography, and mostly dismissed my inquiry in exchange with requests for antibiotic cream. The response I got from my friends in village led me to several inferences; 1. Brundy is definitely a country in Africa; 2. It’s a small country; 3. Their language was sort of French; 4. And these Mwansambo Brundys’ drive through the village at high rates of speed in their bouncy compact SUVs and they are the primary reason why we maintain our two earthen speed bumps outside the Chief’s house.
Peace Corps Goal #2
Back in Mwansambo Market, I’ve asked this women, “hey you,… are you a Brundy? What are you doing here? Where do you come from? (still having no proof that Brundy is a country) Do you take nsima?
As this woman methodically answered these questions the mysteriousness of the Brundys’ collapsed as she tried in earnest to answer my question and quell fits of sporadic laughter. The answers she gave caused the other worldliness of the word Brundy to be deflated to the state of a barely street worthy bike tire.
She responded,” Yes, I am Burundian, This is the shop of my husband….Burundi, it is a country, we speak Burundi and French”, and finally she added the piece that truly made her an adoptive daughter of Malawi, “and yes I do take nsima.”
In the unremarkable nature of this discovery I was able to reflect and appreciate my own experience as a foreigner in Malawi. These 4 questions that I had asked this Burundian woman are roughly the exact same 4 questions that I’ve been answering throughout my first year of being in the Peace Corps. For me personally it’s been flattering , annoying, tiresome, and hilarious, graceful and embarrassing to answer these questions for every perfect stranger that has passed by. This encounter with this Burundian was really sourced from my own unrestricted and genuine curiosity of this new people group. I have done what Malawi has taught me best. The take away message maybe is … sometimes… if you’re curious you should just be straight forward and ask. (even if you have Google on your Blueberry)
It was a sudden and unavoidable curiosity that almost caused me to fall over under that banana tree, but it was also a powerful and genuine curiosity that brought most of us as PCV’s to different posts around the world, and it’s the same curiosity that causes one hundred Malawians to approach you in a crowded market with relentless inquisitiveness. And so that is my VSV commentary for any fellow PCV’s that happen to stumble upon this message. You know that you are the object of intense curiosity in your village and you can either find a way to reciprocate that curiosity or be continually annoyed by it. This method of confrontation may sound awkward, but maybe awkwardness is a state of mind. Maybe awkwardness is just the same as he gaseous state of the ozone layer and you just have to find a big enough and fast enough meteor to burn through and get down to earth. At this point after meeting with a Burundian, I would be even more arrogant than I have already been to deny Burundi its nationhood. But what I do know now, by the candle light of my home office, in the middle of Chinthankwa village is this. There is an ethnic group living 10km away in Mwansambo. They have immigrated from a place called Burundi, they eat bananas and meat, maybe nsima, but probably rice. And as my counterpart Paul so often times says, “They’re just human beings.”