A Village Scene

As we sat down to lunch at Mitch’s today, a vendor came up the driveway and camped politely outside the door of the house.  It was the second visit we’d had in half an hour.  The first had been a man selling handmade greeting cards and he’d been sent away without selling any.  I still had some left from his visit to my house last week.  The man at the door this time was selling a handcrafted pull toy.  It was composed of a cardboard platform mounted over a set of ten spindly wire wheels.  On top of the platform was a village setting made up of wire figurines with painted bamboo faces.  As the platform is pulled along the ground, the wire wheels turn numerous axels, which drive the figurines.  The woman at the well begins to pump up and down; the man in the field hoists his hoe above his head and lets it fall; another woman pounds maize with a large wooden pestle, and a goat raises its head from an afternoon meal of grass—all of them smiling.  The underworkings of this machine are incredibly complex.  Everything is fashioned from wire, and it all comes together just so.  Quite obviously, a lot of time had gone into its construction.

Mitch bought the toy for something like a hundred kwacha (about $6.00 U.S.).  He came back in the house and set it next to the other village scene he already had.  “What could I do?” he asked, dismayed, “The guy looked hungry and no one else was going to buy it.”  He was right; the man who sold it really did want to get rid of it; he probably needed to eat.  But of the hundred kwacha he received, chances are that half of it went to buying more wire, leaving him little to eat with while he started on the next scene.

The toy is intriguing for the first few minutes.  You pull it along and see quaint villagers moving up and down in their tasks.  Looking underneath, you marvel at the ingenuity which went into something like this—the engineer who came up with these movements must have a great deal of skill.  But the wonder of the toy fades quickly.  The motions of the villagers don’t change, and there’s never a hope that they will.  The man who made this toy today will make another next week, provided he can find a piece of cardboard for the platform.  If he’s lucky someone will eventually buy it, stow it, and complain to his lunchtime guests that there was nothing else he could do.  Crucially for Malawi, though, all the motions will be performed with a smile.

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I have, for the most part, avoided the news since coming to Malawi.  This is fairly easy to do, as there are no TV stations and the radio is often in Chichewa.  My main source of information tends to be secondhand Malawian newspapers, which are at least interesting if not in line with western journalistic standards.  There was a story the other day about the man whose house was burned because he had been accused of witchcraft—the last word his dying nephew had said was this man’s name, and the angry crowd of relatives felt this was evidence enough to convict him.  And there are plenty of stories about healers.  Last week, I read that yet another herbalist had come up with a cure for AIDS.  No one was allowed to test it though, because scientific analyses would destroy the power of the plant.  In a psychological sense, this may have been a valid claim, but I still question the healer’s wisdom in telling people that they need only drink his concoction to be safe from the disease.  One of my all time favorites was the story about the man who urinated usipa (a tiny, salty fish that’s popular here) because he’d been an adulterer.  The paper went into great detail on this one, saying that his crime had caused a dam to form in his bladder, which allowed the fish to reproduce there.  When he urinated, the fish would, quite painfully, come out, but worse yet, they would swim back up his stream of urine before he could zip his fly.  I quote: “He tried to just turn around and close his pants very quickly, but to no avail.”

Since I moved into my shared house on the plateau, I’ve come across these papers fairly often, and I usually try to read them while I’m eating my meals.  Such was the case last week when I came across the article about Ndirande.  I’d just returned from a filthy trip to the field where I’d stayed in a rest house with no running water, mosquito infested rooms, a communal bath tin with two inches of murky liquid at the bottom, and a five inch hole in the floor for a toilet.  (After staying in conditions like this, it was little surprise for me to read, two days later, about an outbreak of Cholera in Blantyre.  The outbreak has since spread to the towns of Nsanje and Chiradzulu.)  I hadn’t had a thing to eat all day, and was exhausted by the half-day, ten-miles-an-hour-bad-road drive home in the oven of afternoon.  Needless to say, coming back to the house was a relief.  I’d made myself a huge plate of pasta with basil, peanut, garlic and vegetable oil sauce (not quite pesto) and was set to enjoy the feast when I noticed the huge front-page picture of a charred human body.  The headline said, “Ndirande Burnings Begin Again.”

I don’t know if I can describe the shock or despair that came over me as I looked at the picture of a smoking body prostrate on the ground, back arched off the pavement and forearm raised at a right angle, lesions visible all over the skin, and a curious mob crowding around.  Whatever sickness I felt became greater still as I read the story.  The man had been accused of murder and some friends of his alleged victim had heard he was in town.  They rented a car, drove to his house at 5:00 a.m., kidnapped him, tied him up, and beat him before a cheering crowd.  It was at this point that someone borrowed a cellular phone to call the newspaper.  “There’s going to be another burning, so you’d better get over here quick.  I’m telling you to hurry or you’ll miss out on the fun.”  The police were not called at this time.  Next the man was hacked with pangas (machetes), hands still tied, until he ceased to move.  Someone was sent for petrol while the crowed jeered and chanted.  Witnesses say he was still breathing—though he was beaten further if he tried to make a sound—when the vigilantes doused him with fuel and set him ablaze.  The burning apparently happened before the newspaper or police arrived, though the former obviously did not miss it by much.

I wrote home about my sadness the day after reading this story and was promptly answered with the news that a disgruntled worker had killed four associates in Connecticut.  The bile of vengeance is clearly not unique to Ndirande.  What was striking about the killing here was the general acceptance of it.  “Ndirande Burnings Begin Again.”  Apparently this happens quite often.  The newspaper article was written in an almost jovial tone, and if there was a note of censure, it was more in keeping with the chiding of a child for swearing than the stern opprobrium owed to torture and murder.  Witnesses who were interviewed were happy and excited to have been a part of such a great event; the reporter, upset only that he hadn’t arrived on time.  I left the dinner table nauseated that evening.

Only on reflection did I realize another reason for my discomfort.  Going to bed that night, I picked up my journal to make a quick list of the day’s activities.  I looked back to my last entry, a five pager, and realized I’d begun writing at 5:00 a.m. Tuesday, the same time the man had been kidnapped.  I had woken early that morning from a disturbing nightmare in which someone was about to start beating me.  I had written that I knew I could outrun this man if I could only move, but movement was impossible.  I had also written the following: “If this means death to come, here’s powerful evidence for foresight.”

It’s strange to think that I know exactly what I was doing as that man died.  Stranger still is the thought that some psychic disturbance could have reached me at the exact time of his strife.  I had, that Tuesday morning, ascribed the nightmare to the effects of my antimalarial drug, Lariam.  It apparently does different things to different people (some lose their hair, one in 100,000 go mad), but one of the more agreed upon side effects is the occurrence of vivid dreams or, more often, nightmares.  I can attest to this, as I’ve had many since my arrival, and can pretty well look forward to the day after my weekly dose for bouts of insomnia or nightmares.  It is, of course, impossible to pin the dream on drugs or some sort of psychic sensitivity; I mention these things only as a way of approaching the frightening mystery of the event.

I can think of one other time that I knew exactly what I was doing as someone was dying.  Ted Bundy was executed in the electric chair on my birthday, and people in my junior high (as well as the local radio station) kept track of the actual time so they could celebrate.  T-shirts and concessions were sold outside the Florida prison, and a mock interview was conducted on the hour, complete with screams and electric chair sound effects.  I sat in a desk in Basic Law class, nauseated by the carnival.  It’s an eerie parallel, one that forces me to recognize that the joviality of communal vengeance that I find so frightening is not unique to this foreign land.

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The Choir at Mua

The scratchy, whiny voice on the tape recorder comes to an end.  There is a pause, and then, susurrations of song.  Faintly at first, then surging and receding in waves.  Voices, drums, a choir of joyous pomp.  The music calls forth a picture . . .

A young man at the back of the church.  He removes a hand from his breast pocket and tries to mimic the crossing motion over the chest.  Since childhood this has confused him. Top bottom left right, top left right bottom, top right left bottom; sixteen possible crosses.  He does not get it this time.

The music has stopped for a time, to be replaced by a voice he cannot understand.  His attention wanders to the walls lined with shields.  Wooden scenes carved in the shape of swelling Vs.  Apex down on one, up on the next, creating a v-n-v pattern along the walls.  They are the same fourteen scenes he has seen stained through glass in other churches—seven on each side, as they always are—but he has never before considered their story as he does today, its human reality.  Who was this person?  What did he intend?  Questions obscured for the young man’s generation by the mystery and fantasy attached to the figure—a backlash so effective that he has never, until now, wondered about the life of this man, who really did exist.  The shape of the shields may have something to do with his thoughts.  V, n, v, they face up and down like cups.  He cannot help but think of the horseshoe adage and luck—how each successive scene has the power to catch or spill good karma.  Just like life.  Days ago he felt guilt at his good fortune owning a car in this poor land, today that car sits broken on a roadside, halfway between this Catholic Church and the town where he lives.

The music begins again, following a pattern he now recognizes: high voices first, then tenors, then the drums.  Finally, basses join in, suffusing other sounds.  The cadence matches human time, calls forth the beat of blood.  When the congregation stands, he feels the impulse to dance and refrains, like those around him, from all but the quiet creasing of knees.  A party has formed at the back of the church and now begins to work its way up the aisle.  Young girls bearing gifts of pumpkin and maize flour lead the procession in a dance they learned that morning.  Two steps forward, one back, chest and head tucking down to become the motion—simple, hypnotic.  They present their offering at the altar, and the pews begin to empty as the congregation follows suit.  Two clear lines form: women on the left and men on the right.  Not until now has the young man noticed that the church is also divided in this way.  He rises when the line comes to his pew and joins the cycle of the group.  The chime of coins tossed in beat with the music gets louder as he works up the aisle, then fades as he falls off to the right and back to the pew.

With a new song, the cycle begins again, this time for communion.  He stays seated, contemplating the wooden figure of Mary and the crucifix behind the altar.  This Christ is smaller than the one in the museum, and perhaps less intricate, but the Tao is just as vivid, its essence borne of a mutualism between craftsman and his medium.  Long-dead xylem resurrected in the hands of a carver, its grain giving life to the form he will create.  The young man thinks back on the museum—the carvings, masks, pictures and songs—and once again finds himself awed by the mission.  Before this visit, his definition of missionary work encompassed little more than the obliteration of native culture.  This was different.  Father Bouche had been there for thirty years collecting and recording information about the culture.  He had attained chief status in several tribes and was an initiate into numerous secret societies.  The Chewa, Ngoni, and Yao who opted for Catholicism at this mission found a place where their culture was respected.  Mutualism was the key to this magic.

The song has finished and, as the voice of the priest fades away, he realizes that the service is also over.  The pews begin to empty from the front, a parade of satisfied faces.  The ceremony here, the bearing of the parishioners, and the gravity with which people view religion is something he is not at all used to.  He is tempted to think that this is true belief; the joy of song and smiles after the service, true joy.  It is certainly different from the experience of church at home.  But he has only been to one mass, it is too early to start talking about redemption.  No, this is not his church, or this time his catechism, but for a moment he wonders on the power that brought them forth.



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