Today I woke up to a bright and beautiful day at the lodge, seeing it for the first time in daylight. Our first full day in Africa. Now, we could see that we overlooked a brilliant view of the city of Blantyre rooftops scattered among a feral-looking variation of trees. With the view came a cacophony of various sounds in the background. Roosters crowing. Children shouting. Music blaring. Horns honking….Another rooster crowing.
Blankets of flower-laden trees hugged the side of the front entrance patio and the sides of the lounge balcony. Flowers were everywhere, all around the lodge. I even found one type that I’d remembered collecting down in St. Kitt’s in the Caribbean, a simple white flower with five to six petals surrounding a soft yellow center, and a beautiful, subtly sweet fragrance inside. Little did I know that I’d soon find another form of wildlife I’d also seen in St. Kitt’s: monkeys.
Katherine and I had jolted awake unpleasantly from the first of our alarms that went off; I’d hit snooze for another twenty minutes. Though we’d slept long and hard, we still ambled slowly upstairs to breakfast, as blue skinks and geckos skittered across our path up the steps. Before leaving for the orphanage, we called the airport twice to ask about my suitcase. Both times, there was no answer.
When we were ready to leave (thankfully, Katherine had a pair of shorts and sunscreen for me to use for the day), Mac, our “cultural liason,” picked us up in an old rickety bus, and all fifteen of us (drivers included) piled in. It felt a bit like squishing into a clown car, if you’ve ever wondered what that feels like. And what a bumpy ride that followed! We first drove through the city of Blantyre and stopped at a back to exchange our currency. I walked out with about 40,000 kwacha. I’d never even come close to holding forty thousand of anything in my life. Needless to say, we walked out feeling quite rich, and hopped back into the van to proceed to the village, where we’d be spending every day for the rest of the week.
The name of it was Baluti. As we drew nearer, the buildings gradually shrank, the road shifting from concrete pavement to dirt. Laying eyes on the community for the first time was fascinating. Produce vendors piled gatherings of tomatoes, potatoes, onions, leafy greens, and even small piles of coal for sale on blankets and tarp. Occasionally a goat would canter across the road, and there were chickens everywhere. And the people! Everybody stared, some with skepticism or wariness, but many smiled, bright white teeth against ebony skin, and waved at our van or even called out, Azungu!
The van stopped at Mac’s house, and he invited us inside for tea and coffee. I learned that he manages the orphanage and therefore assumes great responsibility over the kids (the name of the children’s center is Chimwemwe, the Malawian word meaning “we are happy.”) Mac led us through the gate, some of us (okay, maybe just me!) bouncing to a Black-Eyed Peas song blaring right outside. We’d heard mostly American music since we’d arrived. What was funny is that a lot of it was from several years ago, stuff we were listening to in middle school!
Behind the gate lay a dirt yard, with half a dozen chickens clucking and pecking around the perimeter. Several trees offered the relief of shade. A long clothesline, hanging garments from tiny diapers to larger t-shirts, hung from a shed on the left to a corner of Mac’s house, on the right. Susan, Mac’s wife, greeted us happily from inside, then exchanged rapid Chichewan with Mac. As she emerged from behind a corner hallway, a small boy appeared behind her, no more than five years old, hiding shyly behind her long skirt. This was J.J., Mac’s own little boy. Overwhelmed by a full room of strange azungu, he usually stayed hidden from us for the rest of the week.
I pulled out my camera to shoot brief video clips of the setting. Following a sudden burst of shrill voices outside, eye through the lense, I followed the noise back outside, and zoomed into movement behind a tree. Four children, all boys of various ages, peeked out at us from behind a tree next to the house. I’d captured the first kids we saw on film!! They grinned and waved at us, and it wasn’t long until they had us all in a circle to show us a clapping game they seemed to like. By now everyone was outside, either participating in the game or snapping pictures. The oldest, Michael, introduced himself to us intelligently in what English he knew. He was twelve.
After several more minutes Mac led us a few blocks down the dirt road to the current orphanage facility. Having forgotten the key, he ran back to the house to retrieve it, and as we waited, a steady trickling of more children began to surround us. Boys, girls, all between the ages of maybe three and thirteen. We found that they loved having their pictures taken. After each snap, they’d rush around the holder of the camera to see themselves inside these funny black boxes. Videos were even more entertaining. Either resulted in an eruption of shrieks and giggles, then squeaky chatter in Chichewan. We had a great time, exchanging names, snapshots, and high fives.
Mac returned with the key, the door was unlocked, and all of us – new little friends included, now numbering around fifteen or twenty – entered a large empty room except for several stacks of plastic chairs in the corner. They all rushed to help, snatching up chairs and handing them out as quickly as they could, as if they were racing each other. Once we were all seated in a large circle, Mac explained to us what work we’d be doing. The new facility, about a ten minute walk (more of a hike, as we’d soon discover) from the current facility. Men from the village had already begun construction; hiring a company was too expensive, hence why volunteers were a big part of their progress.
He continued by describing the state of the education system in Malawi, which is poor. A small percentage of kids reach secondary school, and a much smaller number make it to higher education. In most cases, staying home to help raise siblings and care for the family become a more immediate priority. So, in lieu of this information, he showed us blueprints of what they were planning to build for the new orphanage, including a library, computer rooms, a sewing room and a kitchen, sort of like “home ec” classes. The idea was that if children either couldn’t afford the time or money to go to school, here they would at least be provided the chance to learn skills to help sustain themselves. As we listened, the kids looked around intently, studying us with curious expressions. I let one little boy siting next to me wear my sunglasses. They were so big on his little head that they nearly covered his entire face. It was hilarious!
Our job, we were told, would be the hardest part of the work. Right now, the property had to be flattened, meaning mounds of dirt had to be cleared and the rocks removed. With that, our meeting was concluded. We returned the chairs, locked the door back up, and began our hike to the site, in the midst of the mountains. All the kids followed us. They raced in between our group, grabbing any of our hands that were free, looking up at us to ask us our names and tell us theirs. That was about the extent of their English. Both of my hands were claimed in seconds. The others scampered around us, giggling, shoving each other, still studying us in fascination. Just behaving as children would.
From time to time we’d pass a set of speakers someone had set up outside their hut would blast some sort of dance music, and I’d swing the kids hands and shake my hips to dance along with it. The gaggle of small boys walking behind me roared laughing.
The walk continued, uphill and downhill, past houses of clay, stone, and straw. Past families milling about outside, babies strapped to mother’s backs, men gathered against walls of their local shops, children stopping in their tracks to stare. Some of their smiled and waved. A lot of them, adults too, would give us the thumbs up, which seemed to be another way they’d “wave,” which was also pretty amusing.
We finally reached the site, an open terrain high up surrounded by higher mountains, overlooking a heavily foliated outer edge of the village. It was already partially flattened, as four men were already toiling away, hard at work in the hot sun. But even the flattened area, which was a small percentage of what needed to be done, was still roughened with lots of large rocks. Mac addressed the men, who were breaking down the stone and moving the smaller pieces to a pile on the far side. Translating for us, he explained our task, which would be to continue flattening the area, mostly removing the rocks today. So off we went.
The children LOVED helping! They would bustle together and form their own assembly lines, even the littlest ones, passing rocks from the area to be flattened to the rock pile on the other end. Others dispersed quickly, as those of us volunteers who’d start games for them to play were far more fun! We took turns shoveling and hoeing, taking breaks periodically for shade and water and sunscreen. One small boy had climbed up in the tree and seemed to be enjoying his view of us. We fist bumped. It was a gesture the boys seemed to know well and loved to reciprocate.
At one point when I was breaking for water, Katherine and I tried showing them how to whistle. A lot of the kids were able to whistle right back! Then we cupped our hands together and whistled through them that way. But when the kids tried to do the same, their mimicked whistle came from their voices, so they sounded more like Indians chanting. That made us laugh.
After only an hour and a half of work or so, we were all pretty beat, and it was time to head back (I imagine Mac knew we weren’t used to this sort of heat, so he took it easy on us for day one!) On the way back, he took us to the home of the village chief to meet him. Off the rocky path back in Baluti, we turned and entered through a large gate, where we were invited to sit on the steps leading to his house entrance. A man with intelligent eyes and a big grin, he looked like he was in his forties or fifties. Mac, translated for us, had each of us introduce ourselves by first name. The chief would nod and repeat each of our names with us. When it came Nick’s turn, the chief repeated “Nick” then pointed to his neck and asked, “Neck??” and laughed. That nickname (haha! Get it? NICK name??…never mind) became the running joke for the rest of the week.
Then Mac communicated to us our grateful the chief was for our presence and help here and that he feels that through us, God has answered his prayers. I hadn’t expected to get emotional so early in the trip, but of course hearing that made me tear up.
The last thing we did before leaving was line up in Mac’s house to wash up, a stream of brown water running down from our filthy hands and faces. Running water is not a common luxury in Malawi, so we took turns dipping plastic bowls into large tubs filled with clean water, then pouring it over each others hands. We said goodbye to the kids, promising to return tomorrow, loaded back into our van, and drove into town for lunch. The food here is surprisingly Western – I got to have pizza and a chocolate milkshake! :)
Right around the corner was a ShopRite, so we went and bought snacks to take home, laughing at seeing several familiar name brands (they had Lays chips and Crunch bars, even Mars bars!!)
The night back at the lodge was nice and relaxing, spent journaling or playing cards, which we ended up doing a lot the next two weeks. Shower, dinner, group reflection, and it was finally time for bed. I went to sleep quite a happy camper; not only had the day been a great success, I’d just gotten word that the Blantyre airport had my suitcase! We were leaving early to pick it up in the morning!