THE MOMENT OF BETRAYAL contains a surprise for both parties. Like the undiscovered gift—guitar of my fourteenth Christmas. Certainly it stunned the boy of that time, lost in expectation of a Walkman or the latest Lego set, but never expecting a guitar. Nor wanting one. Likewise the father, who took a chance in buying for his non-musical son the most expensive present ever given in the family. Call it an experiment, a way of gauging reflections. Finding how many dreams were plaited through that first opaque burst of semen and spirit; how many survived in the boy. How resounding the echo of that fifteen-years-gone moment.
To an observer, the letdown is preordained. This boy is not the boy that his father was. Mother knows the child won’t play guitar. But father and son are blinded by proximity—linked by a sequence too immediate for reflection. The closeness of the moment—the expectation—is distracting; youth and experience turn to each other wondering how to face the crisis. How did we disappoint each other? Where do we go? And at that moment it’s impossible to know who let whom down—the roles are not yet clear. Seconds later, when the question is answered, surprise turns to sorrow.
So it is at the instant of true betrayal—no one knows just what will happen. There will be hurt, yes, but the pattern for its cut is not yet traced. Until the questions are answered, by a look, the garments for betrayer and betrayed hang unfilled. Anything can happen.
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Four weeks after arriving in the country I was standing on a trail some 2700 feet up the Zomba Plateau, the valley floor laid out in neat parcels of land divided as cleanly as the cuts of meat in the market. Mangochi, Zomba, Phalombe, Blantyre, Mulanje—each district name corresponding to a boma, or village; each village to the name of its Chief. The lines between them were not clear to me, but the landmarks gave a reference by which to connect the dots. The village-riddled flatland between Lake Chilwa and the Mulanje Massif marked Phalombe territory. The one paved road led to Blantyre. Its path went on to cleave the high patch of Thyolo from its lowland neighbor, Chikwawa, bedland of the Shire River. The panorama was incredible. Mountains rising straight out of the plains; a quilt of forests and fields undulating on the frequency of their dips and troughs; Africa, stretched out below with the angular jaunts and patchwork hide of a well-muscled leopard, lazing in the sun. But the view was at my back.
Across the trail from me stood a young man with a fearful look in his eyes. And there too was I, menacing and angered; ready to pounce. The young man reached up, pulled a pair of sunglasses over his eyes, and took off sprinting down the trail. He had just tried to steal my wallet.
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Sylvia and I had decided on the Potato Path, a well-worn trail used primarily by native Malawians, for our ascent up the 3000 feet of the Zomba Plateau. It was a steep route, doubtlessly more difficult than hitching a ride to the top, but we were both trying to get back into shape and expected it would do us some good. We marked the first hour with all the usual small-talk questions between people who hardly know each other, made not so distant by our common background—we were Americans and we ran cross-country in college. In Malawi, that’s no small similarity. I asked about her job with Habitat for Humanity and she asked me about my thus-far stalled research on medicinal plants. As we left the road from Zomba and actually started up the path, though, our conversation ceased. Comprehending the panted gasps of someone five feet behind you on a trail is not impossible, but they usually stop talking anyway.
It was after about half an hour of steep hiking, we took our first break in the ascent that I began to feel uneasy. As we climbed out of the trees into a clearing, Sylvia exclaimed, “This is God’s country! It’s at a time like this when I know God is looking down on me.”
I had heard her mention God a few times on the way up the mountain. The stray “Praise Jesus” here or there on the hike had clued me in to the fact that Sylvia, like most Malawians whom she helped to find housing, was a devout Christian. But the comments I’d heard in our first two hours of acquaintance had not prepared me for the deluge of testimony that would come when she could breathe. Perhaps her exuberance had accumulated pressure, like the Coke bottle in my backpack, as we lurched up the hill in silence. Whatever brought it on, the ejaculation was incredible.
And it was directed at me. After convincing herself that we were indeed in God’s Country by repeating the statement five times, Sylvia asked about my religion. I gave her the answer I’d already come to consider routine, so many times had I been asked the question in the last month: “I believe in something, but nothing I’ve found in organized religion.” I didn’t feel up to explaining myself at that time. Didn’t feel up to telling her that though I saw evidence of god all around me—the dense canopy overhead, filtering light to our shoulders in showers of jade; the baboons that had walked down the trail fifty feet in front of us and wore in their faces the imprint of Darwin’s distant mirror; the countless species of ants checking our path, orchids punctuating our climb; too much variety of life for humans to count, let alone imagine—that there was indeed, had to be, some greater power in the world, and that it often appeared to have a purpose, a reason; that there was in fact a beauty to feel humble before and that I was feeling an awe at least somewhat analogous to that which had brought about Sylvia’s small sermon—that despite all of this, I still didn’t see a sign that Jesus Christ or Muhammad or anyone else was the one special envoy of God set down to earth to save us from sin, thereby justifying the crusades, the inquisition, the betrayal and destruction of the Aztec empire, the Fatwa against Salman Rushdie or any of the bad things that tended to happen in the name of organized religion. The truth was, I was sensitive on the matter. I knew that religion guided many of my friends, that much good could come out of belief, but I’d never found a place that I could fit into any system. I’d never found a prophet I could believe in, and I didn’t particularly want to. I certainly didn’t want to be converted, and I’d become sensitive on the matter in Malawi because when people asked about religion they didn’t ask “if” you were religious, they asked “which” religion you belonged to. Generally, if you told them none, you were a ripe target for conversion. I didn’t mention any of this, which was probably a good thing, because Sylvia went on to say that she liked people to be able to worship in all sorts of ways. That was why she referred to herself by the broad term of Christian—even though she was Catholic. I thought that perhaps there might be some other options to consider, but I really didn’t want to get into it, so when I saw the young man walking up the trail behind us, I welcomed the diversion.
We had started our ascent pretty quickly, but either the talking or the toll of the first 1800 feet had begun to wear on Sylvia, her legs winding down as her religious fervor heated up. It was no surprise, then, that this fellow caught us right away. He said hello and slowed his pace to ours. After a few attempts, we finally sorted out that his name was Bertie; I was George, and Sylvia was Seeva. Bertie’s intervention had, thankfully, brought Sylvia’s sermon to an end, but in doing so it left an uncomfortable silence broken only by the subliminal chirps and croaks of the forest and the gasping noise of our own shuffled ascent. There was a tense moment of indecision—if we began a conversation, Bertie might feel obliged to stick to our slow pace, if we didn’t we might appear rude—but Bertie started to talk, asking where we were from.
And thus it began. All the small talk Sylvia and I had been through that morning called back to the cause of afternoon. It wasn’t unpleasant. Bertie’s English was decent, and we were happy to have the company. He was 28, and had worked for the forestry department on the Zomba Plateau for the past eight years. He knew all about the pine plantations we were walking through, including the age of certain trees, and when they were due to be cut. He even knew that the purple and green creepers we saw along the trail could be used for medicine by people in southern Malawi, though he couldn’t say what they were used for. Though Bertie made no sign to show it, it soon became obvious that we must be holding him up. Our pace seemed to slow with every step and I realized that, to someone who made the journey every day, this was certainly not the fastest way up the mountain. When Sylvia asked for the first break, I invited Bertie to go on without us. He politely refused—as he would at least three more times in the course of our ascent—saying that he wanted the company. So when I broke out the water bottle we cemented our friendship, drinking from the same lip despite worries about tuberculosis, meningitis, and cholera.
Between the next two breaks we lumbered up the hill at a pachydermal pace, stopping along the way for yellow berries, or Mulunguzi (God’s food). They tasted like raspberries, but flavor was secondary; they were an excuse to stop climbing. I tried to convince Bertie to go on without us again, this time in Chichewa: “tikwera pang’onopang’ono, mukwera msanga.” (We will climb little by little, you will climb quickly.) But he only corrected me with the infix “ku” for the present tense—tikuwera, we are climbing—and kindly decided to stay with us. At the last break, Sylvia decided to go ahead while Bertie and I were looking at a plant. She knew we would be able to catch up and the path had, thus far, seemed safe enough. She disappeared on the trail ahead of us as Bertie and I went back to examining a plant relative of the Marsh Mallow.
Bertie seemed particularly interested in this plant, though he didn’t know its name or any purposes it might have. He kept picking new leaves and holding them up to the light as if the next one might reveal some heretofore hidden secret. They were handed to me in turn, and I attempted to maintain a polite interest. I slowly realized that Bertie was doing the same thing. Noting my fascination with plants, he was trying to effect the same curiosity. I was flattered if also surprised by this discovery, and it gave me the courage to suggest we press on. As Sylvia was probably well ahead of us by this time, I climbed at a fairly quick pace. Bertie didn’t seem to be in a hurry though; he kept pausing to show me another view. We were nearing the top of the plateau, and our trail occasionally rounded a corner to reveal the spread of hills and villages below. At this bend he called a halt, pointing to the distant outline of Mulanje and the shimmer of Lake Chilwa to its left. At the next, ten meters later, he beckoned again; here was Phalombe district and there, Chingale. Every few steps something new could be seen, and Bertie wanted to show me which parcel began where, at which mountain range this district started and what road marked the edge of so and so’s territory. He tried to draw the expanse before us like the hyphenated lines on a butcher’s cow map, but I couldn’t see it clearly, or perhaps didn’t want to, as I was beginning to worry about catching Sylvia. It was half an hour since she had left us, and the sun had started to fall.
I suggested that we catch up to her, and that’s when he reached into my pocket. It’s the kind of thing you don’t really expect. A guy who’s talking to you, looking into your eyes, in fact, reaching into your pocket, casually, and pulling out your sunglasses. He examined them with all the botanical attentions he had given our plants on the way up. Turning them over to see every angle; holding them up to the light and running his finger along this edge; looking for the quality of the reflection from this side and that. His confidence and nonchalance about the whole thing began to reassure me; maybe it was a cultural norm to be inquisitive; reaching into others’ pockets isn’t really any more than that, is it? When he asked me if they were prescription or not though, I began to wonder. And when he put them on first, followed by a request for permission, I wondered a little more. Still, he was polite about the whole thing. Our conversation was continuing. And he hadn’t made any more advances at my pockets.
“Do you like to drink?”
I didn’t know if Bertie was hinting for more water or if it was a general question.
“I suppose, what do you mean exactly?”
“Drinking liquid. Do you like to drink liquid?”
“Well yes, I usually drink liquid.”
“So you go to the bahs, eh?”
“Oh . . . liquor, you said liquor. I guess I drink liquor on occasion. I sometimes go to bars back home.”
“What do you drink?”
At this point, I was unsure where the conversation was going. I’d already made it clear that I needed to catch Sylvia, and it looked like Bertie was trying to start a conversation about weekend habits.
“Actually, I don’t drink liquor that much. I sometimes have beer, sometimes wine.”
“What kind of beer?”
It was an idle question. Aside from Chibuku, the ferment-in-the-carton brew that was thick as a milkshake and tasted nothing like beer (though it claimed that title), there was only one type of beer in Malawi.
“You drink Carlsberg back home?”
“Oh, you mean at home. Budweiser, I drink Budweiser.” It was a lie, but I figured it wouldn’t make much difference to Bertie; I really didn’t want to get into an explanation of the Northwest Microbrewery phenomenon.
“Are there lots of beers back there?”
“Yes, quite a few. I think I’d better be catching Sylvia now, she’s probably worried.”
Bertie looked as if I’d jabbed him in the stomach with the butt end of a broom. He was obviously warming up to one of his favorite subjects, beer, and I’d cut him off before he really got a chance to start. His look of pain only lasted for a second though; it was quickly replaced by the half sunken brows of contrition.
“I’ve got to be heading back now,” he said, looking down the trail we’d just come up. “I’d like to drink some beer tonight, so if you could give me some money for beer . . .” His voice trailed off as he noticed my befuddlement.
I was trying to figure out what had happened here. Had this guy followed us all the way from town? That wasn’t possible. Had he just hopped onto the potato path when he saw two azungu (white people) headed up? Not likely; he didn’t catch us until after our first hour on the trail. So what in the hell was he doing walking up the path when all he planned to do was head back down? It didn’t add up.
“Actually, I probably can’t give you money for beer, but you’re welcome to come up to the cottage with us for dinner tonight. I don’t think there’s any beer there, but we’re gonna have a good meal of rice and veggies.” The furrow in his brow fell another three notches as I delivered my speech.
“Your friends wouldn’t want me there.”
“No, trust me, you’re quite welcome. No worries at all. Why don’t you come along?”
“I don’t mean to beg sir, but I’ve just spent the last hour with you, we’re friends now, can’t you give a friend some money for a beer?”
First of all, I didn’t think we were really friends at this point. Second, I didn’t know what he was getting at with the guilt trip about the hour—I’d tried to tell him to go on without us. But he did have my sunglasses on, and I did feel a bit like reciprocating for the kindness he’d shown in stopping along the way to talk to us. I decided to check and see how much money I had. I pulled off my backpack and retrieved my wallet.
Bad news. I had only two notes, a hundred kwacha—which was far too much and had already been designated to buy the final supplies for our dinner—and a ten kwacha—enough for one beer. “I can give you ten kwacha, but that’s it. Why don’t you just come join us for dinner.”
The hurt look changed to anger, “Now that’s a problem!” As he said this, a hand swung out and flashed in the air above my wallet. Missing.
That’s the moment. The look in his eyes: bewildered, reflecting my own. He had the ten kwacha, but somehow he’d completely missed my wallet. Perhaps I had pulled it away or maybe he’d misjudged his swing; whatever the case, the situation was a surprise for both of us, and a moment of silent disbelief passed between our locked stares.
“You’re God Damned right it’s a problem!” I started as if to jump on him, and he took off down the trail. With my sunglasses. I was still shocked, but anger was beginning to find its place in my mind too, and I gave chase. Twenty feet later he dropped the glasses.
I had almost hoped he wouldn’t—hoped I could show him . . . what? That my legs were in better shape than his? That despite his walking up the mountain every day he didn’t stand a chance against a pair of feet that could keep chasing for an hour . . . two if necessary? That I was one mzungu who he shouldn’t have picked to mess with, or that he shouldn’t have picked on any of us at all.
The white people in Malawi, the minority. The visible source of money, and power. The targets. The favored. The truth of these stereotypes is more frightening than their existence. Was I chasing down the trail or fleeing? Did I run with the anger of betrayed or fear of betrayer? In the instant of locked gazes, I honestly didn’t know. And today as I sit writing years later I still don’t know. I know his interest in plants was a lie. Maybe the job was a lie too. The friendship was a lie, but how far did that lie extend? It would be easy to say Bertie was a thief and leave it at that, but that would leave the situation unexamined, the story untold. Why did he drop the sunglasses, why miss the wallet, why stand there in amazement for three eternal seconds allowing the betrayal to sink in, to stain the rain softened trail where we had stopped? Why that time to let my anger rise? Was he inexperienced? What had he planned to do if Sylvia was there; rob both of us? He didn’t have a weapon. Why had he planned to go up the path in the first place? Why not accept the dinner invitation? Why stand there and stare with a look that says, “God, what have I just done?”
Chances are, Bertie never asked himself these questions. He lived in Malawi—third poorest country in the world—when you see a chance there, you grab it. Or try to. Chances are that Bertie didn’t have a plan when he started out with us, that things just built up as the afternoon wore on. A matter of pressure and altitude.
It’s not really an answer, but it’s what I tell myself to escape the mystery. I try to avoid thinking of the uncertainty I met in that place. But the encounter with Bertie was only the first of many that taught me uncertainty is a part of life in Malawi. It’s something you have to learn in a place where most people experience the death of a family member two or three times a year, where somewhere between 20 and 40 percent of the population has AIDS, depending on which latest flawed survey you believe. A place where the motto for things getting done is “anytime from now”; where members of parliament drive around in brand new Mercedes Benz’s while the villagers who voted them into office starve on a diarrhetic diet of mangoes and nothing else; where, outside the authority structure of the village headman, no one is held accountable for their actions and corruption is the norm. In Malawi, you don’t ask why, because anyone who did during the thirty-year dictatorship of His Excellency, President for Life, Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda quickly found their views assimilated in the belly of a Shire River crocodile. Banda is gone now—he was deposed in ’94, and he died of pneumonia right about the time I met Bertie—but the fear and acceptance he strove for continue in his wake, pulling the country down to join the leader they still admire so much. And no one asks why.
I knew a professor in college who hated the term “closure.” He thought it was a fantasy and, in the academic framework of Liberal Arts College, Small Town America, it certainly did seem chimerical. I thought back then, and still agree that “closure” when talking about matters such as race riots or the death sentence is completely ridiculous. Executing a murderer doesn’t bring back the victim—doesn’t end the family’s pain. But in America, we at least live by the illusion of closure. We strive for it in business transactions, crime sentences, stages of education, job responsibility—everything we do works towards an impression of finality. I had no idea how much this meant until I found myself in a place where no one even bothered. When I met Bertie, I’d been waiting weeks for permission to do the research that was completely cleared and set up before I had come, and no one could tell me why. My desire to know was as foreign as my skin there, and thus Bertie, though sharing the surprise of the moment, would not have comprehended its effect on me. The way I tried to gather the fragments of the afternoon together as I raced up the rest of the path; to fit the splinter of responsibility next to the scattered shards of cause. This search for closure would make no sense to him. He might have understood the way I instinctively feared the next Malawian I encountered on the trail and hated myself for doing so. Distrust and guilt transcend cultural barriers. He might have grasped the anger with which I recounted my story to Sylvia, who I found waiting at the top of the path. But the only thing I know I shared with Bertie is the surprise of the moment, the mystery before the chase, the wonder that would soon turn to pain.
This writing began with an enigma: the impossible comparison of gift and betrayal. A fourteen year old child and his father; two young men in Malawi—bound only by the thin twine of authorial subconscious—a search for simile gone awry. The awakening of fallen expectation is all the two events have in common, and yet the similarity thrums with the loudness of blood through my ears. To an observer, my intentions in going to Malawi were generous: I went to study plants; to help preserve knowledge that was dying out; to learn from healers because the next generation of Malawians, Bertie’s generation, didn’t want to learn. I went to write the healer’s story if any would share it; to weave a pattern for the patchwork of tradition that remained. But chasing Bertie down that trail, chasing his enigma to the next day’s scribbles on a sweat-stained notebook, I wonder what I was running after that day:
I don’t know if my presence in Malawi is a betrayal. Trying to justify my intrusion is like trying to explain why someone would cut out the image of the Mona Lisa and paste it over the top of a character in Guernica. It’s hard to believe that this place and my home coincide in time if not experience and crossing the boundary is a strange fog. I know coming over here has changed my life. I know I’m already worried about the world I’ll face when I return home. I’m glad I’m here, but should I have come? Do I have a right to observe the pain here from a distance—experience the hardship second hand—to write the victim’s story with his back as my desk? Will my presence here make any difference and is leaving a pattern behind really a good thing to try? Is the thread of some collective unconscious, spun out from this most ancient womb of humanity, bond enough to allow an exchange without the sting of betrayal?
I keep coming back to that moment, and I begin to think that betrayal is secondary. What matters is the shared surprise—the unexpected glimpse of ourselves reflected in the fallen expectations of another. In that instant, mystery is everything and mystery dies. I’ve had trouble letting the mystery go. One thing I know: upon arriving in Malawi, I needed to make music. For the first time in my life I wanted to pull chords and release them in the tow of a moment; call up order in air for the time of a song. I started to play the guitar again. Some betrayals are illusions. Some are gifts.