Saturday, August 11, 2007

We are in the village, Tukombo. It's very poor. People eat cassava three times a day. Cassava is a white root vegetable, covered with a dark brown skin--mostly starch. They soak it and ferment it, and scrape it and bake it into a hard fluffy gluey ball and eat it rolled in their hands, dipped in sauce, or with meat and vegetables. We, the foreigners, have meat and fruit and vegetables with every meal, but the villagers don't.

My intestines are pretty well glued together with cassava at this point. 'Nuff said.

They greeted us singing and dancing. A whole troupe, moving together, singing, "Thank you, Masankho, thank you for bringing the visitors from America." It was overhwelming. They had been dancing and singing for hours, with an accompanying drum. We were overhwelmed, but then, everywhere we've gone, we've been greeted by a singing and dancing contingent. The Africans redefine graciousness.

The women wear bright cloths wrapped around their waists for a skirt, and a shirt--any shirt. They carry huge burdens on their heads; buckets of laundry, bundles of firewood, baskets piled with cassava. The men wear shirts and pants. They make wood carvings. They should be fishermen, but for complex political reasons, in this region they have not been supported to fish. Almost everyone is ragged and dusty and many people are very skinny.

Yesterday we were taken by bus to seven of the hundred and something projects that Masankho's family funds and organizes through their organization, Kudo. The visits included a trip to a girls' school, a trip to an elementary school, a piggery, an orphanage, to see the cassava wells where the women soak and clean the cassava, skill-building centers where students learn to use tools and a market where we bought crafts. On the bus, off the bus.

The old cassava wells are in a muddy swampy area, where women have to stand up to their ankles in filthy water, where leeches, snakes and crocodiles are a danger, as well as predatory men who lie in wait. With funds that Masankho#s aunt helped raise, they have built some new clean cassava wells from concrete, which are safe and protected and raised up.

The rest of Malawi eats maize, which is more nutritious than cassava, but for political reasons, this region, Khata Bay, has not been given seed for maize.

The orphanage was the hardest place. The children there looked hungry--they were skinny, with old eyes. I asked how old one little girl was--I would have guessed four. She was seven. Another I thought was ten was fourteen. They clustered around us hopefully, but we didn't have anything for them. We give cash to the foundation, some of which should come down to them. But those kids--to see kids literally in rags, and all dirty, some with eyes swollen and red from conjunctivitis, the bigger ones carrying the smaller ones around on their hips, just out there in the middle of the woods. The adults who worked there looked as skinny and ragged and exhausted as the children. I wished so much for something to give them. I want to go back there.

The weather is beautiful, warm, not too hot. I haven't had to use insect repellant once, although I am faithfully taking my malaria pills. The land is gentle and inviting, leafy, green, and African. I love this land!! I can understand how homesick an African would feel for it--the air is gentle here, we are on the shores of Lake Malawi, which is so big it feels more like being at the shore of an ocean. It even has waves.

For all its problems, the village is a beautiful place, with little paths connecting everything. We've seen plenty of chickens, some monkeys in the trees, African cattle, which are much smaller than genetically engineered American ones. Because of the weather, people mostly live outside. They have thatched-roof hits, some with one or two or three rooms. The children play with toys made out of straw and sticks and a stray wheel, or an empty plastic bottle. There is no trash. Nothing is wasted.

I feel completely at home here, drinking Nescafe with powdered milk, eating rice porridge for breakfast, holding babies on my hips, trying to learn the rudiments of Chichewa, practicing the dances. For me, the pain and fatigue of the journey to get here have dissipated and I feel good, but about a third of our group is complaining of congestion, head colds, or other ailments. I feel like I want to stay and stay, helping out in the kitchen, holding babies, doing whatever I can to make myself useful.

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