Adam asked a good question a few months ago, about how it feels to be here and doing things like finding a family to stay with in Ntcheu. I didn’t have a good answer for a while – when I first arrived in Malawi I spent a lot of time with Luke Brown, the EWB volunteer working at CU before me, getting myself up to speed on all the work he and Brett Stevenson had done at CU before I arrived. Since we only had two weeks and were often working at night it made sense for us to stay at the house of our CU colleague Loti, where we had electricity (as well as a fence around the yard, satellite tv and a houseboy who cooked and insisted on doing my laundry). It wasn’t quite the level of integration into Malawi life that I was looking for, so once Mr. Brown headed back to law school in Canada I commenced my search for a family…..
The adventure begins…
There’s a very intriguing road by Loti’s house leading into the villages outside of Ntcheu. One sunny Saturday I headed down it. Down the hill and across a bridge, I ran into a friendly elderly man. We walked along, having a conversation in garbled Chichewa and English that neither of us really understood. (I thought he was telling me he worked at a high school library, I realized later that he thought I wanted to go visit the high school library when he ordered one of his grandchildren to escort me there). Eventually we came to his house, and he introduced me to his wife. She gave me a pumpkin.
The next day I came back with Loti in tow as translator to ask if this man knew of anyone in the village (Kandoda village) who might have a room I could stay in. After a discussion with his daughter and her husband, who had a house in the same yard, they decided the best thing would be for me to live with the daughter, Len, and her husband, Mr. Maganga. It took a much longer conversation to convince them I should pay them anything for rent or food, but eventually we agreed that I would move in once I got back the next weekend from my week-long village stay, and that I would pay them 500 kwacha a week for food (that’s $3.60 a week, and I couldn’t convince them to let me pay them more!)
(Adam mentioned that he would probably feel intimidated knowing he had to find a family, and it really struck a chord with me. Finding a house was one of the big scary things I couldn’t imagine myself doing before I left Canada. Even as I was talking to my future host parents I was incredibly nervous, in addition to being excited. A lot of the reason why I felt brave enough to go out and just talk to people was because I knew I had a safe, comfy home base at Loti’s house and could ask him to translate, otherwise I would have been lost!)
Actually, a funny story from the other day proves how lost I would’ve been without Loti to translate. The EWB short-term volunteers arrived in Malawi 2 weeks ago, and a few days ago I introduced Janelle, the volunteer who’ll be working with CU in Ntcheu this summer, to a friendly lady who has a stall in the market. I embarked on a conversation in my rudimentary Chichewa to ask where this lady lives and explain that Janelle is looking for a family to stay with in Ntcheu. She seemed surprised and amused, and said she would let us know next morning. The morning after her husband was waiting as we approached. He came up to Janelle with a big smile on his face, shook her hand warmly, and said “So, I hear you want help finding a husband!”
…the adventure is interrupted…
I travel a lot between the two project field offices (in theory an hour apart in Dedza and Ntcheu, although in practice up to three hours accounting for waiting for a minibus and all the stops a minibus makes along the way to drop off and pick up passengers!) so it was only two weeks later that I was back in Ntcheu and ready to move in with the family. Then Mr. Maganga came to Loti’s house one morning to tell us that he had moved out of the compound he shared with his father-in-law, because he suspected the environment was making his kids sick. (I don’t know exactly what he meant by this, but I suspect that there was no latrine at the compound, something I had forgotten to check when I agreed to move in). He said he had moved into neighbouring Benne village in a house next to his mother’s, and that I was welcome to move into a room in her house. I checked it out, we agreed on a trial period of a month, and three weeks after meeting the Magangas I moved in with them.
… and continues…
I have a very small room in Grandma Maganga’s (I call her agogo, or grandma) house all to myself, with nails to hang my clothes on, a handy hoe handle stuck under the roof thatch to hang my mosquito net from, and a reed mat and blankets for my bed. I sometimes share my room with a cat, the guinea pigs that my agogo raises, or the rooster who seems to sometimes sleep in the house. (It’s my animal magnetism ;) My agogo sleeps in the other bedroom with 3 or so kids, and two other kids sleep in the third room in the house.
I rarely spend time in the house though unless I’m sleeping or changing clothes, and I think of the courtyard outside the house as my living room and the veranda-like step that encircles each house as the couches. There are five houses opening onto the courtyard – my agogo’s house, Mr & Mrs Maganga’s house that they share with 4 or so kids, and three other family homes with about three kids each. I’m not actually sure how the other three families are related to the Maganga’s yet – my Chichewa isn’t good enough to ask and the Maganga’s speak barely any English.My living room!
Len has a kitchen building in which she cooks, and the other families cook on hearths on their porches. There’s also a latrine and bathing shelter in the courtyard, made out of grass.
Benne village is at the base of Mt. Ntcheu, and usually I arrive home at dusk after the sun has gone behind the mountain. Usually Len has already finished cooking the relish for dinner (relish is anything eaten with nsima. The maganga’s can’t afford much meat so we usually have canola leaves, pumpkin leaves, small dried fish or beans) and is boiling the water to cook nsima. After dropping my bag in my room and greeting everyone else, I usually sit be the fire or on the veranda and try to chat. Sometimes I bring out my Chichewa guide and the kids pronounce words for me. Ayerson is my particular favourite for this – he’s about 10 and as far as I can tell he’s the only one of the kids who goes to school. (I asked Len why the two girls who are old enough don’t go and she said it’s because they don’t feel like it. Ayerson seemed to say it was because they can’t afford the uniform fees, so I’m not sure if I really understand yet.) Ayerson’s English is a bit better, and he sits beside me and tries to translate things for me. (Yesterday at dinner, out of the blue, he piped up with “Baby cow – mwana ng’ombe.” There wasn’t a baby cow in sight, but I’ve stored it away for a time when I need one :)Ayerson washing his feet before school.
Everson, the baby of the family, is also a complete cutie. He’s about 18 months, and he likes nothing better than playing with my phone. He’s even started saying ‘Hewo, hewo!’ into it, which cracks the family up.
I usually wake up between 5:30 and 6 am, now that I’ve learned to sleep through the rooster that starts crowing outside the curtain in my doorway at 4 am. I seem to have been given (or maybe I took) the chore of sweeping the courtyard in the morning, which takes about half an hour. By that time, Len has heated the water for my splash bath (she or one of the girls collects it from the borehole pump at the school, about a minute’s walk away), and I bathe, dress, eat a bun and drink some tea, and head out by 7 am. I stop by Loti’s house to pick up my laptop and usually grab another cup of tea, then I head into work for 8. It’s a 5-ish minute walk from the Maganga’s house to Loti’s house, and Mr. Maganga usually insists on accompanying me. Then it’s a half hour walk to work, although I sometimes catch a ride with Loti on his motorbike.
One of my host sisters, Chipililo, sweeping the yard.
One of my host sisters, Chipililo, sweeping the yard.
The Magangas make clay pots for a living, so Len is sometimes already working on them when I leave in the morning. (Actually, so far I haven’t seen Mr. Maganga working on the pots, so I’m not actually sure what he does during the day, although he’s told me he doesn’t have another job).Clay pots drying in the yard. These will sell for about $1.50
A neighbour smoothing the surface of a pot.… where will it end?
I’m nearing the end of my month’s trial period with the family and I’m not sure if I’ll stay with them much beyond that. Partly that’s due to work pressure – I think it’ll make sense for me to spend a few weeks in mid-June in the CU head office in Blantyre getting to know the people there, which will mean leaving Ntcheu for a while. Also, I don’t know if this living situation will make me happy in the long run – not necessarily for the reasons I might have expected. The food is great, I feel healthy here, I get a good night’s sleep on my mat and I feel like I connect with my family despite the language barrier. But I also find it difficult to balance my life at the house with my life in town – it gets dark here early and so when I’m home after dark I stay there, which can make it hard to find time for my other friends in Ntcheu. I do really value the look into village life that I’ve gotten with the family – it’s especially neat for me to see how they use water and hygiene. (To give you an example – CU promotes hand-washing facilities to get people washing their hands. My family doesn’t have a hand-washing facility but I have often noticed Len washing her hands with the water soaking in the dirty dishes that sit outside the kitchen during the day. That makes me wonder whether it would be better to work with what people already do, like by encouraging soap use with the dish-water, rather than encouraging new facilities that might be seen as less convenient.) No matter where I end up living, I hope to keep a connection to this family.