Friday, 24 January 2014

Ten years today

Today marks ten years since I first set foot on the African continent; in the nation of Malawi to be more exact. What followed was an adventure that lasted three years, and which will no doubt will linger in my consciousness until I'm gone. 

To mark the occasion I thought I'd share some stories from those whirling days. A few of these might be familiar to some, but I hope the indulgence can be forgiven as I'm going back through these stories as much for my own reflection as for anything else. 

I'll start with this one, a golden moment that struck me down. It's a bit long, I'm sorry, I'll try to keep the next ones shorter. 



In the back of the open truck were eighty singing girls, two other teachers, and I. The girls were sitting on the floor, hanging off the edge, standing and leaning into the wind, or clinging to the roof of the cab. I was clutching the rim of the tailgate with eight others. The students were the school football and netball teams, as well as the fifty most vocal supporters, who had been up since three that morning practicing their songs. We were off to play Monkey Bay Secondary School.

For the four hours of the journey the girls sang, clapped, chanted, beat drums and blew on a trumpet which they’d borrowed for the day. All this despite being jammed into a space designed to carry a load of sand, and not being suited to so many bodies. . As we sailed along, cutting a path between fields and plains, villages and baobabs, pure ecstatic joy was exhaled with their shouts and left a buzzing trail behind us.

Several trading posts flashed by: crowds of milling people, the smell of smoke and roasting meat, the noise of chatter and arguments. There were weather-beaten billboards with pictures of condoms talking to one another, and a newer one with a sombre picture of the President reminding us that Speed Thrills, But It Also Kills.

Lines of barefoot people trod the muddy roadsides. Bicycles with loads of firewood stacked impossibly high swayed along the edge of the tarmac, and our speeding vehicle came within centimetres of scattering their load over the road and fields. A table decorated with bright pyramids of tomatoes sat in the sunshine while it’s owner napped in the thick shade of a mango tree nearby. In a field of weeds a crumbling building proclaimed to be an International School of Business.

Over bumps and around corners I feared for my safety and held on tight, but I appeared to be the only one concerned with such trivial matters. The girls waved their arms around, they let the sun warm their backs and the wind cool their faces. Their light green school blouses had been swapped for t-shirts and were now being whirled in the air above them, or wrapped around their head as a scarf. They sang traditional songs, radio hits and hymns, and when they ran out of songs, they sang them all again. They leaned over to beat the side of the truck, they stomped and clapped. People on the roadside stopped to stare at this circus, these travelling loonies who announced themselves with the blast of a trumpet and then sped by with a cloud of music hovering overhead.

It was a day out, African style. Part of the reason for the girls’ excitement was that this trip was a rare taste of freedom. The compound at St Mary’s Girls' Secondary School (like most Malawian secondary schools, it was a boarding school) was fenced in, and the students weren’t allowed out for the whole term except on special occasions. These included sporting trips, religious gatherings and perhaps they will be allowed out for a few hours on a public holiday (when they race to buy greasy hot chips and have discreet meetings with boys from Zomba Catholic School). Most of them will set foot outside the school only once or twice a term, so when they do go, there’s reason to celebrate.

The girls of St Mary’s didn’t have an easy ride through life. They had seen more than they perhaps should have, and lost much of what was rightfully theirs. Once I had asked Patience, a fifteen year old, how her holidays had been.
“Not fine” she replied.
“Oh, why not?”
“My father, he was sick and I spent the whole time caring for him.”
 “But he’s better now?”
“No. The funeral was yesterday.”
With HIV/AIDS the way it is, she was hardly the only one in such a situation.

Our truck crawled up the hills and sped down the other side. The highway going north from Zomba was well-made, and easy travelling. We passed the police roadblock at Liwonde, then crossed the Shire River. The girls paused in their singing to admire their country’s largest river. The water from here flows south through the steaming lowlands, where hippos and crocs lurk in the shallows, and mosquitoes hover in droves, and further south still into Mozambique, where it meets the Zambezi and eventually enters the Indian Ocean. But that was a world away; none of the girls had seen the ocean. Half of them had never even seen Lake Malawi, only a hundred of kilometres north from here. After Liwonde, we turned right, onto the lakeshore road and immediately entered tropical lakeside territory. Baobab trees, old and gnarled, sat like stationary elephants by the road. Palm and banana trees lined the water’s edge. Mangoes were for sale in baskets, and paw paws and fresh fish. There were stalls selling large woven mats, round or rectangular. The air was hazy and the hills to our left were almost obscured from view.

“Mister Giddo, can you swim?” Rose, perched next to me on the tailgate, asked. She had to shout to be heard above the rushing wind, and several others turned to listen.
“Yes, most people in Australia can swim” I replied.
“What if the water is deeper than your head?”
“No problem.”
“What if the water is ten metres deep?” she asked.
“Sure” I said, which was met with oohs from several others who’d been listening.
“What if the water is one hundred metres deep?”
“I reckon I still could.”
There was scoffing of disbelief, and one voice said “Eeeh, it can't be true. One hundred metres, habali!”

When they arrived at school at the start of term, the girls carried on their head a suitcase containing their bedding, uniform, and a couple of changes of clothes; and in their hand a bucket for their washing. They had no phone, no magazines, no radio and no tv. Some had no pencil to write with, and no soap with which to wash. What entertainment existed was largely up to their own invention. They sang, danced and prayed together. Their favourite hobby was chatting. But once they had scrounged together the school fees, they focussed on education and worked with tireless ferocity to pass their exams. If I walked through the school late at night, I saw them hunched on the cold concrete footpaths, memorising pages of notes from their dog-eared notebooks. There was one girl beneath each of the bare light globes, so they were evenly spaced like marker beacons. In class, they listened with devotion to the words of their teachers and followed instruction to the letter. My job as a teacher was made easy by their self-regulation. If one of them happened to murmur while I was speaking, half the class would turn around and silence the delinquent with an exaggerated shhhhhhh.

In the weeks before the Monkey Bay trip, I had been weighed down by questions that surely come to any visitor to Africa. How is such poverty possible, when others in the world have so much? What does this say about human beings, how can we allow this and believe ourselves the clever species? And what is my place in all of this? I came here to help, a gesture of goodwill, so why do I now feel more guilty than ever? By being here, am I simply reinforcing stereotypes - I am the white man, all wise and caring, let me assist you poor, helpless people? I was collecting worries, filling my pockets with them so they came with me everywhere, and every day I stuffed more in. When my pockets were bulging, I shoved still more under my hat, so that even sitting quietly I was sweating, and had a pain in my head.

In the truck surrounded by raucous singing, looking at the many faces gleaming with smiles in the warm sun, I had an unexpected glimpse into something beyond. Like a thought that flits in during the moments before sleep, this knowledge didn’t have sharp edges or a definable shape, but it left a lingering feeling of goodness and warmth.

I saw that amidst the chaos of life, within the tumble and the uncontrolled falling of events, that there is order, there is a reason, and above all else that everything is going to be alright. Just for a slippery moment, the problems of the universe, the worries of this life, all were gone. 

The girls clearly knew this already; they had a grasp on something I struggled to understand. They knew that life is hard with misery never far away, but there are undoubtedly sweet things to savour on the journey. These are not necessarily big, complicated things – an old friend to chat with, a green avocado to eat, an afternoon free of classes - but that couldn’t diminish the delight of the girls. They understood that the more simple the things you’re delighted by, the greater your chances of being delighted.

They had food. They had friends around them. They had hope for the future, and now there was this day of sunshine and freedom. Theirs was a life unfiltered, and they knew how to show delight.

St Mary's girls. Form 2, 2006.


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