A Half Winter with Beth

My girlfriend Beth came to Malawi for a month and two weeks at the end of June. She left a few weeks ago in mid-August and now I think that it’s safe to say that things are back to normal. I say back to normal as in living off of unclean dishes for days at a time in the loyalty of my dog, through the hot winds of summer in my underwear, while writing at my desk through another indistinguishable afternoon. For me things are back to normal. Beth’s visit here was an acceptation, an almost unnatural, but very happy, intrusion into the law of village living and to my Peace Corps service. I would be a liar to with close that the following week after Beth’s departure back to Saginaw was the loneliest week of my life. This was maybe somehow unexpected and exasperated by a sudden change in season; the winter is gone now and it’s pretty dern hot here. But I guess this change in season is what has to happen next, and this change makes the season you cherished most that much greater in the coming year. This is written for Beth, hopefully not over-dramatically, but just as a recap of an incredible and life changing time in both of our lives.
Lilongwe has a funny airport with security guards that are liable to solicit the gullible for a free soft drink ( it’s harmless in asking) and you can make your way up to an observation deck, where for the equivalent of 30 cents you can watch your visitors arrive and depart. This is undoubtedly a very reverent Chewa cultural practice. It’s strange to think how some of these tribal customs find their way into international airports. My friend from the Peace Corps, Amber, came with me as she was expecting her parents to come in on the same flight as Beth. She had thought of every including balloons and party whistles; we also made signs. As the planes were landing on the tarmac my bouquet of cheap balloons were sporadically popping at my feet like shotgun blast. I found that Lilongwe airport is no exception to a public that is disinclined and startled to the sporadic ‘balloon fire’ of the overzealous.
After a year and some months, I was waiting for Beth to arrive in some sort of half reality and there I sat halfway in reality in a tropical country with a bouquet of pathetically cheap balloons. I don’t think that there was any sort of doubt as to who I was waiting for. Much of my attraction to Beth is in her sense of authenticity and genuineness as a person. But what about me? Am I as true to character as when we separated 14 months ago? My grandmother says that I write well, but did I write honestly enough? Could I have purposefully, or not, outlined my circumstances and attitudes, my reality in any way that could let Beth really know what she had gotten herself into by coming to Malawi? Sometimes, out of self-preservation, I’m a jerk now. Would that be highly unappealing?
In all these months of devoted letter writing we never really made a plan for this airport scene. I thought,
“I should kiss her, definitely! why not? Take her hand,.. wait no take her bags first. Walk over to the side out of the way, then hold her hand.” In mid-thought I watched her come through the last gate, my half reality was over; this was real life. Seeing each other through the crowd was such a shock that I have no real recollection as to any of the genial things people should say after an extended absence, but Beth was forward thinking enough to have a picture taken of that moment.
“ This is Beth, my real life girlfriend, she is real, she is here.” I told myself coming to my senses. From the first hour we had too much to talk about, which for both of us was a huge relief. There was the looming threat for a potentially crippling silence, which we had both envisioned as one of the major catastrophes that occurs with couples in long distance relationships. Yet that was effortlessly diverted, we had too much to share and to my own relief Beth was still the same girl that I said goodbye to in March of 2012.
We caught a free ride down to the lake and thus began a 6 week time together that we could only figure so much as to term ‘hyper-dating’.* I knew that Beth would have been more than willing to take the long dirt road down to my house to sleep off the jet lag, but that’s an awful thing to do to a person and she would have resented me for it later; my house keeps out the wind and rain but is no bed and breakfast. Although there really are no graceful transitions into third world poverty, we took several days along Lake Malawi to relax and make up for lost time.
My home was ready. I had cleaned thoroughly the week prior and I had a guest bedroom that was classically adorned with Star Wars bed sheets and further furnished with a mosquito net, a softwood bed frame and a horse calendar. I think now how pathetic it is for a host to not furnish a bedroom with a proper night stand or even a coffee table, but that’s discrediting my true genuine intent for being hospitable. Upon arriving to my house, I really did have some anxieties about this sort of domestic frontier life we had both ventured into. Beth found out in a week what I had no business trying to explain in writing ( ie: this is my village, these are my neighbors, the language they speak, this is what women do and how they do it, this is what men do. Jesus is king here, but so too is corn in a more temporal sense; that’s our sustenance. These are our village chiefs, the men under the tree wearing second hand blazers and weathered dress shoes. Those are the neighbor boys skinning a goat in the back yard. That’s a synthesized Presbyterian ‘pop’ hymn. That’s a cassette deck, this is a youth disco, that dog is as good as dead and there’s nothing we can do about it.) And I sensed that Beth was ok with these oddities this culmination of 1980’s pop culture and African bush living. She had come with selfless ambition to see Malawi and her open heart to it all settled my anxieties before I could give them a second though. She was a champion among the young women and little girls of Chinthankhwa village. They were awestruck by her every move, by all her best qualities. They studied her carefully and trusted what they could to her ever-present curiosity. I’m afraid that Beth did more for my dozen neighbor kids, in terms of attentiveness, then I’ll ever accomplish here and its true that we all miss her sorely.
In the afternoons, Beth spent time with Elmira, Paul’s wife. As I sit now and write, I feel like this particular relationship was one that I cherished deeply. It is true that Paul is my brother, but Elmira if I’ve never explained, is a saint among women and mothers. I really always have felt a pathetic chasm of indebtedness to her for all that she has done for me, but I’m confident that Beth’s presence was my own sort of authentic gratitude to give to her. Elmira was elated to teach Beth ‘zinthu zamayi’, or ‘all things women’. Even through a language barrier, they gave each other something that was beyond the depths of language, and I know that Beth cherishes that too. What I’m really getting at is that Elmira didn’t just settle for being a proper hostess, but she was a patient teacher to Beth.
Together we took on a building project in Chinthankhwa, which is no less than a trial by fire situation for a newly dating couple, but as of today a quarter of the brick work is finished, and more amazingly the house has been fully paid for! It’s still unbelievable to me how committed Beth was to this project from the very beginning. Beth had bought her plane ticket in December and from there God had really spoken to her heart about doing something to serve the Chinthankhwa community. She defied conventional odds of human strength and determination by raising over 7,000 USD, while at the same time finishing her senior year in nursing school. That’s an outright miracle! Beth had prayed for this opportunity while at the same time, roughly, I was met with a serious and semi-urgent problem at our under-5 medical clinic in Chinthankhwa. My friend Shadreck Komponge, our health surveillance assistant came to me one day and explained that he , his wife and their three sons were living in the medical clinic. They had been living out of the clinic for the past two years, obviously living there out of necessity rather than comfort, as they had been assigned to a health center without housing. ‘Zimachitika kunoku’, as they say, or ‘it happens here’. Beth heard me talk about this situation and we decided to do what we could to build a house. Early on we found some wisdom in Psalm 137:1 (Unless the Lord builds the house, its labors’ labor in vein.), which we made a point to be our focus; we didn’t just want to walk in and be seen as donors with deep pockets. The community was on board with a 25% in-kind contribution as well as a local Malawian run ministry, Timothy Harvest Ministries. God provided the funds through unusual means and Beth was there to connect the dots. She made t-shirts, held a pop-can drive, a garage sale, and raised money through a dental clinic. I think that was really the body of Christ in true spirit, at a grass roots level. But this has not been the Extreme Home Make-Over show that you’re imagining. For us it has been so much more meaningful in that without the bricks and timbers contributed by the community, without the diligent oversight and consultation from Timothy Harvest, without the pop-can drive in Saginaw, Michigan, none of this plan would have come to fruition. While Beth was here, we were able to purchase all of the building materials and see the foundation completed. Beth was the spark in this project and in this ‘town’, for that matter, and we still miss her.
After six weeks had passed of our full reality together, it seemed confusing to leave each other again, and somehow be contented to return to weekly letters. Letters certainly are endearing, but now we had too much to share and waiting has become an obnoxious discipline to adhere to. To those around us, it seemed reasonable for Beth and I to be married… on the spot, at the primary school in my village. I think about that now and how unreasonable that would have been for our parents and friends and family and our culture, “that’s a reckless decision, maybe even a miss calculation!” they might say. But for us in this time together in the full reality that was our village existence, marriage seemed to be more than reasonable. ie there’s wood that need splittin’ and water a plenty to draw. I guess this won’t be a very complete thought ( now I’m in a internet cafe and its 100 degrees), but I want to try in making the point of how modern conveniences such as a microwave can truly hide the need we have for others. A women’s toughness in carrying water for a half mile in the African sun, makes you a pretty dependent man and so on… I’m still working on that, don’t read too much into it; that took a strange turn.
Beth left me with the greatest memory of laying around my house one winter morning. Of course Beth brought a book on dating and it was now in front of us asking that the two of us should look at each other and ask some serious questions. That was a great exercise, and I know that the author genuinely wanted the best for the blossoming relationships of his readership, but by the end of our time together, it felt silly to ask things so rigidly and from a manuscript. We had seen each other in full light and in dark in the best and the worst of moments. We can’t hide anything any longer, we are both terrible liars. We just say what we have on our minds, and that’s why we’re both very awkward people, but that’s also why I love this girl so much. I’ve tried to explain Beth to many of my friends and those that ask. I like to explain that this relationship would not have worked out with a million other girls that I could have known, and in that way this girl is one in a million and I’m overly blessed to have her in my life.

* Hyper-dating; It is what dog years are to human years. It is all the elements of standard dating (time together, stress, happy and sad circumstances) accelerated to a speed that is just below a civil marriage. Dating hours are held to the equivalent ratio of dog to human years 6:1. (that’s science.)

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About jeff G.

I am a Peace Corps Volunteer serving in Malawi. I work as a forestry advisor near Nyenje Forest Reserve in the district of Nkhotakota. I like reading, chatting with friends,biking, farming, and eating nsima, at least that's all I do anymore.

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