Incidentals

THE COUNTRY LEFT IMPRESSIONS on me.  Things I noted from time to time and wanted to communicate.  Indentations on the soul.  They began with five second reminders on my tape recorder or jotted notes in a journal.  Incidentals.  They became indurations after I’d written them out; when they stood more clearly than my recollections; when the words and their voice became my memory, reminded me of who I was.  There are things the words remember . . .

≈      ≈      ≈

A barber and his worker

I am seated in a 50’s style barber chair—stiff, ovular pads of black leather posted on a frame of polished chrome—staring into my own eyes, trying to maintain this locked gaze in the hope that it will block everything else out.  A portly man with an angry voice and breath smelling of curried lentils is bending over my shoulder from behind.  Wisps of black hair creep down his oiled scalp, salted with flakes of dead skin, and to see this I have broken the gaze with my reflection, given him an opening should he look up to the mirror.  But his eyes are fixed on my throat, where his swollen hand moves without pause, guiding a straight razor across a mole and down to my Adam’s apple.

“And you know why AIDS is such a problem here?  It’s all these rituals and initiation ceremonies.  You know what they do to the girls?  Just try to find a virgin.”

I don’t feel compelled to answer, or ask why this fifty-something Portuguese emigrant would be looking for a virgin, nor do I move for that matter, with the razor caressing my gullet.  I’m thinking about the thirty percent HIV rate in the country and the fact that this razor has been used on hundreds of clients—that the richest hotel in Blantyre is a block from here and that prostitutes willing to have sex without a condom for an extra fee can be found nearby, waiting for the guests—that this would be the first place for such guests to get a haircut if they wanted to—that I should have stuck with the ten Kwacha buzz cuts in the market in Zomba.  I suppose he takes this silence as complicity, because he goes on.

“They breed like animals, you know?  They think humans are animals.  Isn’t that right Simon?”  He turns to the black worker sweeping the floor.  “Take this boy here.  He comes from school and tells me that humans are animals, can you believe this?”

I can believe it, and am tempted to tell him so, but he’s no longer waiting for an answer.  “You want to hear something?  You want to know why?  I’ll share something with you.  A man went into a shop to buy a brain.  On the shelf he saw four jars: a European brain, a yellow man’s brain, a red man’s brain and a black brain.”

I stare at my eyes in the dullest gaze I can muster, attempting to block his voice with concentration.

“He asked the shopkeeper how much the yellow brain cost and the man said one thousand Kwacha.  Then he asked after the European brain and this man said eight hundred Kwacha.”

The barber pauses for effect and looks into my mirrored eyes, and I notice this because I’ve glanced up in surprise—I’m thinking the joke might be on the white folks after all.  Maybe he considers his olive Portuguese skin yellow and thinks the joke’s on me.  But he didn’t say white, he said European.

“Then he asked about the red brain and the owner told him it cost twelve hundred Kwacha.”

I can’t tell where the joke is going, but I do wonder what “red” people he’s referring to.  The Portuguese appear red in the masking traditions of the Chewa—angry, red faces, one and all.

“Finally, he asked about the black brain, which was up on the top shelf.  ‘That one,’ said the shopkeeper, ‘that one is two thousand Kwacha.’”  He finishes with the razor and raises a towel from the counter to wipe it off.  “‘Why so much,’ asked the man.”

He looks at me and asks, “Can you guess why?”

“No,” I answer quickly, a mixture of curiosity and dread escaping through my voice.  I’ve given up hope that the joke will be on the European.

“Tell him Simon.”  He glances across the room to the young man who is now bent over the dustpan, trying to lose himself in the task of gathering tufts of straight hair.  All straight.

“Go on, tell him.”  The voice has become a growl.

“The black brain has never been used,” he mutters quietly.

“What?  Say it louder.”

“The black brain has never been used!”  This time it’s nearly a shout.  Simon looks up at us, anger sparking in his eyes, his fist clenching the broom and dustpan like a spear and shield, his chest heaving beneath the torn blue t-shirt he wears.  I close my eyes and hear a broken laugh.  When I open them again, Simon’s teeth have disappeared behind a weak grin.

“You see?  They even joke about how stupid they are.”  The barber smiles, flashing grey fillings.

And I say nothing, as he dumps the straight hair from my apron to the floor.  I even tell him to keep the change as I hurry out of the shop.

≈      ≈      ≈

Zomba’s neck bent back like a daisy 

We buried Zomba the other night amidst a lightning storm.  My friends Dean and Chris had brought their dog Zomba over to the house where I’m staying.  We were talking outside when a Land Rover came roaring along the road at about a hundred kilometers per hour and brushed Zomba in the head.  The impact sent him flying to the side of the road with a dent in his skull but the Land Rover didn’t even slow.  Dean, Chris and I gathered around, as did a few of the night watchmen from nearby houses.  Our watchman, Lushigi, came out too.  He was the one who had trained Zomba as a puppy, since he’d worked for Zomba’s former owner before coming to work here.  It was a strange time for Dean and Chris, I’m sure—watching their dog whimper and bleed his life away on the pavement.  Someone suggested a panga (machete) to finish it quickly, and Dean decided to take the neighbor dogs home, so he wouldn’t have to watch.  The panga wasn’t necessary in the end.  Zomba stopped whimpering, his breathing began to slow, and then the convulsions set in.  It was over in about five minutes.

For Dean, Chris and me, it was our first experience with death in Malawi.  For the watchmen, even Lushigi, it was a matter of momentary sadness.  Death is an everyday part of life here.  Perhaps that’s why they knew what to do so quickly.  Within minutes of Zomba’s death, Lushigi and the neighbor’s watchman had run back to the houses and returned with makasu (hoes).  A grave was quickly picked out of the ground next to the road and Zomba’s still-warm body tossed in.  His head landed unnaturally—neck bent in the awkward curve of a “u,” ears touching his back—and in reaction to this distortion, or the slight whimper from Chris, Lushigi leaned into the grave and righted the dog’s head.  The first spades of dirt made a hollow drumming as they echoed off Zomba’s thin-walled chest, but this quickly died away, replaced first by barking from the neighbor’s dogs, and then, like the echo of wind through a canyon, all the dogs in the area.  This detail should not romanticize the death of Zomba; the fused reaction of watchdogs to each other’s barking is a regular phenomenon in the town.  It happens almost every hour.  It may not even have been strange that the neighbors chose the time of Zomba’s burial to wail.  To those of us who were watching, though, it seemed a fitting end.

After the makasu had been set aside and the grass tramped back across the disturbed land, Dean, Chris and I each chipped in fifty kwacha for the watchmen who had dug the hole.  It may have seemed strange to Lushigi to receive fifty kwacha for fifteen minutes work and the death of a dog, when he got nothing but an advance on his pay at the death of his daughter a month ago, in the week after Christmas.  His second dead child in less than a year.  Lushigi didn’t remark at the strangeness though, and maybe it didn’t even occur to him.  It may just be me who spends out hours pondering the inequities of this place.  They haunt me.

They’ve haunted me especially in the last week, as the differences between my situation and that of the Malawians have become all the more clear.  I recently bought a Land Rover.  Since I won’t be affiliated with the National Herbarium as I’d planned, I’m on my own for transportation, and the area where I’ll be researching requires a four-wheel drive.  Busses do not run to the villages on any regular schedule, and those that do run rarely make it in the rainy season.  With this rationalization behind me, I spent my next four month’s living allowance on a ‘73 Land Rover last week.

Since that time the rationalization has begun to falter.  It’s not a problem with the car, yet.  Aside from the bad mileage the car works well.  What bothers me is the ownership.  I drove to the PTC (one of the two grocery store chains in Malawi) the other day and was immediately accosted by beggars.  This happens to every white person here, and perhaps most of them go through phases, like me, of giving at first, then closing their fists in despair.  I’d taken to walking past the beggars in recent weeks.

But driving up to the store, my position was different than when I’d walked.  The people knew I had money and they followed me from the car to the store, then back to the car, sticking out hands and pleading all the way.  And last week I couldn’t ignore the wizened eyes of the woman outside my car window as I closed the door.  She stared at me with a slight smile on her face and shook her head.  Somehow I was able to shell off the other three surrounding the car—the man with one eye who wanted to sell me pineapples, the other woman who walked with a crutch, and the child in rags—but the eyes and the smile stayed with me.

Maybe it had something to do with a son’s instinct.  She looked to be about the same age as my mother, and I could imagine this woman’s family, waiting for whatever she might bring home.  What if I were her son, or she were my mother?  But these are retrospective arguments.  I don’t know if I thought of my family when I looked into her eyes, I just know that they were human.  That they begged for my help.  That despite the truth of any arguments to the contrary, I was in a position to provide help and I was refusing it.

And that my refusal was, at its heart, probably more out of a fear of giving than of any concern about money.  In a country where help is so desperately needed, I don’t feel justified to give.  The size of the problem is the problem.  If you give to one person, where do you stop, how do you judge who deserves?  The poverty is as endless as the geometric growth of the population, as devastating as the scourge of AIDS.  These are not similes; they are an attempt to trace the limits of the crisis, to put a frame around the void.  Population experts say that AIDS, despite its frequency, will only make a dent in the population.  That’s the way people talk here—AIDS, one of the country’s greatest disasters, is sometimes looked to as a solution.  (That’s not what it is though; even in harsh, practical terms, the economic drain caused by AIDS is greater than any potential benefit by reduced population size.)  In this atmosphere, to help—to feed a family for the night or to prevent the spread of AIDS in a village—is to peer at the edge of a black hole.  It is frightening, overwhelming, and has the potential to swallow the individual.  It is probably this fear that kept me from giving to the beggars.  It is this argument, this glance into the endless problem, that I repeat every day as I wake and leave the safety of my mosquito net.  And it is this argument, this affirmation of my impotence as shield, that I held up against the hail of the woman’s eyes when I drove off in my Land Rover the other day.  But the strength of her stare and the weakness of my weakness were made all the more apparent, all the harder to rationalize, by the fact that I was driving a car.

Friends here tell me that survival is a matter of building up a thick skin—acquiring a callus.  I don’t expect it’s the same as getting callused from running.  That was easy.  I went through the pain and the burning of my feet, yes, but my body did the work.  Creating the callus was not a matter of consciously thinking each dead cell on top of the previous one.  Shielding yourself from the suffering here is different; it’s a very conscious process.  You have to first kill the initial surge of compassion, which has some umbilical tie to all humans.  Then you must stack layer upon layer of further rejection—killing a little part of yourself each step of the way until the person you are, ten months later, is no longer recognizable in a letter or journal entry.  When I ran, my feet were deformed—toes twisted and wrapped round their quarter inch of dead-skin pads; ball and heel thickened like leather.  This was somewhat disgusting, but was also a source of pride for the runner—a way of telling the miles that had been passed.  In a way, the callousness that expatriates build here can be reckoned by a similar standard.  Just as other runners and I would compare our battered feet while sitting round the ice bucket, I have been present at gatherings where the central subject is how well one can deal with the “native problem.”  People like to explain how they are “firm” with their workers, how they brush off the beggars, and how Malawians are digging themselves into a hole.  These are all reasonable conversations, in their own context; they are all ways of affirming one’s place in a world that is foreign in so many ways.  But I don’t yet feel comfortable joining the talks.  I don’t want to.  When injury forced me to stop running, the calluses went away.  By analogy, I might be able to build up a skin to the problems here and slough it off when I return home.  But can’t trust my self to a metaphor that I don’t believe.  I don’t think I want to get this callous—the deformation may last.

≈      ≈      ≈

Rain and njala

Cool, dry, and wet.  There are three seasons in Malawi, and during the latter, which runs November to March, the rains are a constant of life.  The water here comes on a scale unlike anything I had imagined living in the temperate Northwest.  Surging and receding in waves.  In the finer moments of boredom I have recognized, by the tenor of the thrum on the roof, more than five distinct levels of intensity during a storm.  And measured them too.  In three heavy minutes, you can fill a bucket for washing clothes.

Sometimes there will be a period of hours or days before the rain: a time of dense, trapping humidity.  Thicker than the mists, but less visible too, the moisture can wet the ground, or call sweat to your skin like a hot shower after a long run.  I hung clothes out to dry the other day, as I could see the sun, and found them, after three hours, damper than when I’d left.  In these times, the rain can be a release.  When the moisture finally broke tears last week, I went out to enjoy it wearing only a pair of shorts and sandals.  The water was warm and the pressure better than any shower I’d yet had in Malawi, but I quickly became conscious of the strange nature of my celebration.

I’ve never seen anyone walk into the rain on purpose here; maybe it’s something only a foreigner would do.  Malawians are in many ways a very sober people, and this celebration of an everyday event might seem out of place to them.  In the cities, at least, rules of decorum take precedence.  Perhaps more importantly though, the people here are forced to hold a great respect for nature; a respect that does not admit for frolicking in the rain.  The rain and the water flow into their mythology.  They sometimes talk about napolo.  It means dragon in one sense, but the concept also incorporates flooding and water and the fury of the mountains.  The biggest napolo in popular memory occurred here in Zomba back in the ‘40s.  It wiped out a good portion of the town, destroyed many crops, and killed more people than any disaster in recent history.

We’ve had nothing like a napolo in Zomba this year, though watching the water come down the Mulunguzi River after a rainstorm, it’s not hard to imagine.  The force and speed is incredible.  A six foot wide trickle quite suddenly becomes a forty foot torrent, creating waterfalls and digging out earth along its path.  The soil is an orange red here, and the worn term “river of blood” quickly comes to mind during the rains.  Curried chocolate milk is a more apt visual image, but it doesn’t quite give a sense of the danger or power of the water.  In January, an entire village was washed out by floods in the Phalombe District—the place where I will be doing my research.  The water came down from Mt. Mulanje and just took the village away.  It also knocked apart bridges and destroyed roads.  In Malawi, the repairs will take years.

And so the rains earn respect, dictating both life and death in this land.  If flooding is a problem it is small compared to the alternative, for in the absence of rain people starve.  Eighty-five percent of the populace lives in rural villages on whatever they can coax from the earth and sky.  When the rains fail, so does their system.  I arrived in November to a debate about whether to plant maize or wait.  Scientists were predicting the effects of El Niño in different ways—some saying that the rains would be late, some saying they would be short.

They were wrong.  The rains this year have not fit a pattern that anyone guessed.  They came heavily through December and January—much more so than usual—and then stopped completely for three weeks—not a drop of rain in the middle of the season.  They’re back now, at what people tell me is a more normal intensity, but the damage has been done.  The maize dried up and had to be harvested ahead of schedule.  They call this early corn green maize, for obvious reasons, and people often eat it as they’re waiting for the rest of the crop to finish.  But it’s rarely harvested in bulk, and Malawians tell me they’ve never seen a harvest as early as February, which was the case this year.  There will be lean times ahead; there will be hunger.

When I talk about hunger, I make a supposition based on hearsay.  I have not seen a person in the last throes of starvation and I do not know how many people die from lack of food each year.  Perhaps that is why it’s so easy for those of us in the city to forget the suffering that surrounds us.  But in the last month I’ve learned a new word: njala.  It means hunger, but can also mean starvation.  You hear this often if you listen to the beggars or the radio, or even to the conversations of the workers around the house.  And if you’ve got the expectant ear of someone trying, albeit halfheartedly, to understand a new language, you can’t help but notice when a known word flows by.  Astringofsenselesswordsandthen  njala morewordsthatmeannothingandthen  njala  thesepeoplemustbespeakingof  njala.

What I know of starvation I learned in a biology classroom.  There are two types: one where proteins are missing and one where there just aren’t enough calories to live.  The first is called kwashiorkor.  This is the one that often appears on television, where the kids have large bellies.  That’s swelling due to a loss of blood proteins and the upset of osmotic balance around the gut.  I haven’t seen this here, but I know it occurs because a book I have refers to a traditional Chewa “cure” for kwashiorkor.

The second type of starvation is perhaps less visible.  Scientifically, it can be reduced to a matter of pathways—glycolysis, Krebs, and oxidative phosphorylation—the cycles that give us energy.  Biologists know that fats and carbohydrates, in proper balance, are needed to keep these cycles moving.  That we can go without carbohydrates for a while, but that proteins must then be sacrificed to make glucose for the brain.  They know that starvation is literally the process of eating the body away and that when the proteins run out, using fat in their place poisons the system, kills the brain that is so desperately grasping for sustenance.

I ask myself if it could be the early stages of this slow poisoning, ketosis, that gives the more aggressive beggars their angry look.  But plain old hunger can also have radical effects on personality.  It’s a survival mechanism; it’s programmed into our brains.  We even have a simple sort of brain in our stomach to deal with these important issues.  I learned these facts in a physiology classroom; only here did I come to recognize that fact and reality stand worlds apart.

And perhaps it was this recognition that led me out to the rainstorm last week.  Coming as it did, after three days of intense but invisible moisture, the rain was an honest release.  And though my frolic may have seemed a strange celebration, it was the most honest tribute I could give to the power of water.  Sometimes even reality needs to be washed away.


WET

 

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