“ Hello Mama!”, My dad yells from a safe distance.
“Ehhhhh!”, responds a passing Malawian women on a dirt road.
“ Ok dad, you can still say that, but you should really try, ‘ Muli bwanji amayi [ how are you woman]”
I’ve decided that it’s time to teach my father some introductory Chichewa
“ Alright, so its just… murri bringi? [untranslatable]” My dad spurts off.
“Ok yeah, whichever, you should just feel free!”, I say through a laugh.
My old man came to the dark continent two weeks ago to, first and foremost, visit his first born son and as that first born son I should start off this blog post in sincere gratitude for his coming. I would guess that many parents of Peace Corps Volunteers feel some kind of parental duty to track down their sons or daughters into their geographic obscurity and in some way share in a visceral village experience. That’s what we did, my dad and I.
He arrived on the 12 noon flight into Lilongwe dressed like an over-50 model for Colombia Sportswear and on the verge of kidney failure. I knew that my dad’s first instincts in a wearisome travel situation would be to find a cold coke and a carpeted room at the Best Western. We unwound upstairs at the airport lounge with a couple of cold cokes and some plates of chicken and rice. As I finished my chicken, I saw a sort of sad look come across my dad’s face. He was watching me eat. And then I realized that my dad has probably never seen someone gnaw off the cartilage of a chicken bone and suck out the marrow. Within thirty minutes of our reunion, I had unintelligibly revealed aspects of my village existence as a person who is protein deprived and opportunistic. Immediately sensing his shock and thinking fervently of Peace Corps goal 3, I grabbed his unfinished chicken and repeated the carnage, maybe even drooling this time for effect, trying to hold eye contact. This was my perfect opportunity to set a precedent for our 9 days together, after all being together in a new hemisphere would offer up a bounty unavoidably strange things.
“ Hey!, so I just don’t want to be stuck in some village tonight.”
“Ok dad, but if we got stuck here over night that wouldn’t be the end of the world”
“I’m sure they’re all very nice, but we have no idea where we are.”
“ We’re headed in the right direction, don’t worry all roads lead to Ntchisi Boma [town]”
In our visit we covered nearly 1,200 kilometers from Lilongwe to Liwonde, Salima up to my home in Chinthankhwa village. Up north through Mzuzu, and on the lake shore of Nkhata Bay. We conquered Ntchisi Mountain in a 4 wheel drive diesel truck only to be overtaken and made small by an immense rain forest encircling the summit (we walked in the rain forest). We were assigned a wildlife guard named Danger, who took us on a boat safari up the Shire River. He had a keen eye for interesting predatory birds and lived up to his name by sitting on his life jacket the entire way. While visiting a game park in Salima district, we had a temporary battery failure in our rental truck. Of course this happened at around dusk with the window down in a field of zebras. For my dad and I this was in bitter contradiction to all of the hope we had placed in name brand recognition. AVIS car rental is not only alphabetically high in the yellow pages, but they want to be payed well too. I kept with a saying that I had picked up as a Forest Service employee, “you get what you pay for”, yet this pragmatic expression served no remedy, we payed for the best and we were still stuck in a field of zebras. This was the perfect segway into the premise that things breakdown in awkward places all over this country and we should count ourselves blessed that there were no natural predators in the park or overly pregnant women in our party. We spent the evening in perfect safety, zebras are really just sort of adorable, clumsy animals. We cooked soup over a fire, found a few cold beers at the park office, and caught up on all of the small technicalities we’d been missing in each others lives for a year and some months. And we could catch our breaths and get back to center from the previous nights activities at Mvu Camp. That previous night we had been both pampered and driven into perilous situations with elephants , that was sort of their package deal at Mvu. Our Malawian guides were almost hyper-punctual, which from my end seemed deeply ironic and perplexing; this was vacation? But my dad saw a lot of amazing game animals, which turns out was to be our second objective of the trip. At the end of one safari drive we emerged into a clearing of tiki torches, a roaring bonfire, and fifteen servers and cooks on the ready to accommodate our culinary needs and dietary preferences. This…was our ‘bush dinner’. I am not of the right perspective to gloat on, this was a vacation and not a bush dinner and I had to try especially hard to avoid the literal-ism. I found myself in a few Chichewa conversations with the staff, they all lived in a nearby village, and that’s where I had to stop. I felt a wave of guilt overtake me, I felt like I was a fake and trying to prove something to these Malawian nationals, so I sat back down at a table of wine, drinking up the sophistication volunteered by diplomats and psychiatrists from Scotland.(and of course my father). I ate the most delicious food I’ve ever tasted in my young adult life, there were multiple tea breaks and soft music in wooded places. Although the place was literally surrounded by wild animals, my did and I still felt safe enough to take our own photo shoot with the matching bathrobes that were discovered in our private chalet. This was essentially the ultimate ‘Reward Challenge’ that my dad and I had dreamed about through all those years of watching Survivor (CBS) back in Ohio. We finally won! Or that’s how I felt anyway, I know he had to pay for everything. Mvu Camp was a pretty wild excursion, but I felt deeply that this trip would be a waste if my dad and I only wanted to float around to renowned luxury destinations. More than anything from this trip I wanted to show him the 90% of Malawi that was so far unseen. The good, the bad, the existence of the village, the existence of mine.
“People eat this stuff [nsima] all the time then?”
“Yeah dad, that’s what they grow. That’s sort of a central pillar to their culture.”
We traveled north to Central Lake Shore Malawi. We parked the AVIS truck and set off by bicycle at a modest pace into favorable winds; it was a Tuesday. We angled out for eighteen kilometers off the paved M-5 road going straight west towards Nyenje Hill. We arrived in Chinthankhwa village in time for lunch, which unbeknownst to my dad meant nsima at my counterpart Paul’s house. There was to be no other option, Paul and I had been playing out this scenario for at least a month. This was our…’bush lunch’. Magari, Paul’s wife had swept and cleaned and wrangled up the kids into their new clothes just for this occasion. For Magari, and most Malawian woman, cooking nsima for a visitor is a high stakes ordeal, which comes with great satisfaction, duty and a certain anxiety of which I have no business trying to explain. She’s a wonderful wife. She and Paul have 3 amazing kids, and of course my dad already knows all of this through our correspondence over the past year. We all convene at Mwangodonna village, everyone is nervous and probably thinking the same thing, “Is this guy gonna eat nsima?”.
As we pass through ‘town’, groups and crowds of onlookers; old men perched up in their stoops, agogos [old women] nearly falling off the dusty path as we pass by in customary respect. Young kids poking out of shrubs and trees, students in matching school uniforms starring blankly at this strange passing figure. Everyone is murmuring the same thing, “ awh awhhhh… bwanji, kodi awo akudya nsima?”. [is this guy gonna eat nsima]
“Amen!”, Paul declares, as he takes the cover off a bowl of fresh steaming nsima. This is his signature short-cut prayer and prompting for his guests to start eating. My dad appears to be speechless, I know that this is taking all of his best energy to be here and I’m so glad that he can share in this experience, so I take the liberty of grabbing him a nsima patty and putting it on his plate. Meanwhile, Paul gives an explanation of the side dishes. Sweet potato leaves cooked in peanut flour and a bowl of beans. And from there we just sat together on the reed mat and ate lunch and chatted. Merriam, Paul’s youngest daughter, provided the entertainment for us, dancing off balance in the corner of the room the way most toddlers do when their head still overshadows the rest of them. Various members of Paul’s extended family emerged in the door frame to greet this mythical person claiming to be my father. My dad was so caught in the moment I could tell that he was still speechless, but comfortable in this situation. He was overwhelmed with the hospitality and in that way everything was the way I had hoped for, it was simple, memorable, close to perfect. I watched my dad take a swig of borehole water from the communal cup. He was transfixed in the moment, too thirsty to worry about the chlorine deficit in the drinking water. This was my fathers first move of integration. I hope he’s still not sick from. The remainder of our visit to the village involved making a celebrity out of my father, visiting with chiefs, friends, and neighbors, briefly attending a funeral, and a quick tour of Mwansambo town ( not historic).
I guess that it would be a little presumptuous to conclude with anything further into my fathers experience in Malawi on his behalf. He can do that pretty well, I think he took over 600 pictures. We did have a brief trip and the scenery did move by fast, but however brief we can boast that this was a once in a lifetime opportunity for both of us. While visiting my home we were off the grid, out of the tour books, standing in a village of friends and neighbors. We did make a vacation of this trip, we were pampered here and there, but we also spent some time planted firmly outside of what we would call ‘comfortable’. The saying is true, ‘you get what you pay for’, the truck turned out to be dependable, lodge accommodations where stunning, and the quiche was exquisite, but you may just remember and cherish most what’s given freely and with the warmest hospitality; a lunch of nsima and beans with the Mvula family. This is the Warm Heart of Africa Dad, I’m glad you came.