Monday, March 26, 2007

Village Stay - Part 2: The People

Note: See below for part one of this post if you have not read it yet.

Before getting to the village I was told that I would be staying with the Village Headman’s son. He speaks a little bit of English I am told, so I will be able to communicate. His name is Frank, and I find out that he is 28. He is not married, and lives in a tiny hut by himself, although his younger brother and some of the village teenage boys sometimes stay in his hut as well. Frank is quiet and not extremely friendly. It turns out that his English is quite limited, and communicating is very difficult. Luckily another villager, Seveliano spends most of the day hanging out with me, and his English is much better. Seveliano is 23, and lives with his brother’s family. He used to live in Lilongwe where he worked as a bricklayer, but returned to the village last year after his father died. His mother had died the year before. Seveliano is also quiet, but very friendly and we connect quickly. Seveliano will spend the entire week with me, and we become good friends.

I don’t sleep much the first night. I am feeling very overwhelmed by everything. For the first time since arriving in Africa, I am experiencing culture shock. I am aware that I am very ignorant of everything around me. Communicating is difficult, I don’t know what is appropriate and what isn’t. How can I possibly understand what it is like to live in the village? I have so much that these people do not have, I have endless opportunity. It seems ridiculously foolish that I would come here hoping to understand what it is like to be poor when these people cannot even fathom the wealth that I have waiting for me back home in Canada. I sense tension between Frank and I. I think maybe he is thinking the same that I am thinking. I lay there feeling embarrassed about my fancy MEC backpack that I brought my clothes in, embarrassed about my mosquito net, about my expensive hiking boots that I wear. It is a long night.

The morning brings with it better spirits. I have renewed enthusiasm and determination to make the most out of my village stay, to learn as much as I can. That afternoon I am taken to another family to learn how to make Nsima (more on cooking later). The Chalema family is absolutely wonderful, and is exactly what I need. There are 6 of them living in the house: Mr. and Mrs. Chalema, two of their daughters, Doreen and Memory, and Doreen’s two small boys, Precious and Trevor (that’s right, crazy coincidence!) Here is a picture of Precious (on the left) and Trevor sleeping with Seveliano on the right. How could I post about staying in a rural African village without the token cute kid picture!

Mrs. Chalema speaks no English and insists that I call her Gogo, which means grandmother (it also means grandfather which got very confusing!) She is a wonderful woman and is very kind to me. She understands that I want to learn and so every time she is doing something she calls me over and gets me to help her. She is also constantly teaching me how to say things in Chichewa (the local language) and by the end of the week my Chichewa has improved considerably, and I can usually understand the basic idea of what people are saying to me, as long as they speak slowly. After I have made dinner (don’t worry, I’ll go into detail on this in the next post) and we have eaten, Gogo tells me that I will be staying at their house tonight. I am thrilled. Seveliano and I head to Frank’s house to get my things. Frank does not seem to mind. I end up staying with the Chalemas for the rest of the week and every day I have an amazing time eating with them, talking to them, working with them and getting to know them better.

Mr. Chalema takes me out each morning to his garden where we spend our time working and talking about Canada and Malawi. Mr. Chalema speaks a little bit of English, and my Chichewa is continuing to improve, so conversation is surprisingly easy. He is fascinated by my stories of Canada, and is eager to teach me about Malawi and the local culture. We talk about poverty, and as with many Malawians he repeatedly tells me that Malawi is a very poor country. It makes me wonder how much of that view is caused by the international community telling Malawians that they are poor. If Malawians had not been told by the world that they were poor, and that they need our help to develop, would they still think that? When I tell Mr. Chalema that we have poor people in Canada as well, he can’t believe it. I tell him that we even have homeless people living on the streets and he says something that is so incredibly profound, yet simple at the same time. He says “I guess people are just people all over the world. It doesn’t matter where you are, in Canada or Malawi, there are poor people everywhere.”

Doreen is 23, the same age as me. She has two children, but there is no father around. I obviously don’t ask. Doreen goes to school everyday. She is in Form 4, which is the same as grade 12. In just a few months she will graduate high school. She says that she would like to go to University someday, but doesn’t think she will be able to. After graduating she will stay home to raise her two boys and work around the house with her mother. Doreen’s English is pretty good, and we are able to talk easily. This is Doreen sitting in front of the Chalema’s house, where I stayed.

Her sister Memory is probably around 16, although I did not ask. She is also going to school, but doesn’t speak English. Memory is very quiet and very shy. The only interaction I have with her is practicing my greetings in Chichewa. She gets a kick out of this, and it’s hard to tell if I’m saying them right because she usually just giggles. Doreen’s two boys, Precious and Trevor are extremely cute and full of energy. Precious is 2 and Trevor is 1. Whenever I am sitting in the house, they run back and forth between sitting next to me and hiding behind the cloth that hangs in the doorway. They love this game, and it amuses them the whole week. One evening I put my headlamp on Precious and he loves it. Every evening after that he asks to wear it before he goes to bed. The family gets quite a kick out of this. The name of the woman in the background of the next picture, holding a sleeping Trevor, is Lozi. She is the Chalema’s neighbour and is also extremely nice to me.

Each night after dinner as we sit and chat before going to bed, I bring out my camera and show the Chalemas the pictures and videos that I have taken that day. They absolutely love this. Whenever a pictures comes up that they are in they howl with laughter. I have promised them that I will try to develop some of the pictures and send them to the family in the mail. Mr. Chalema shows me the picture frame hanging on the wall that holds pictures of the family, his mother, and one of his son’s weddings. He tells me that he will put the picture of himself, Gogo and I in the frame along with it and show it to everyone who comes to visit.

On my last evening there we are sitting in the house with only a tiny oil lamp to light the room. My phone beeps as someone sends me a text message. We had been talking about Mr. Chalema’s other children, who are all spread out around Malawi. He and Gogo had 11 children in total, but three died, I don’t know when. Doreen and Memory still live at home and the other 5 are all over the country. Mr. Chalema timidly asks me if my phone can call any phone in Malawi and I answer yes. He then, very quietly and very sheepishly asks if he would be able to pay me to use the phone to call his son in Mzuzu, a city in the north part of Malawi. I say yes and assure him that he doesn’t need to pay me. He calls his son and talks only for 2 minutes, then hands the phone to Gogo, who also only talks for a minute or two, and then they hang up. They are beaming. I ask him how long it has been since they talked to their son. They tell me that he left the village 4 years ago, and the last time they talked was 3 years ago. Two days later, back in Lilongwe my phone rings. It is Mr. Chalema’s son, calling to thank me for letting his parents call him.

Meeting Seveliano and the Chalemas was one of the most wonderful experiences of my village stay. I am still in awe at how welcoming and helpful they were to me. My Gogo and I were able to really connect, even though she did not speak any English, and my Chichewa was extremely limited. I think if Seveliano had lived in Canada we would have been good friends. Both he and the Chalemas seemed to fully understand why I was there, and were more than happy to help me learn. I am quite sad knowing that I may not ever see these people again. I promised that I would try to return at some point to visit, but I know that will be difficult. I tried to explain to them how grateful I was to have met them and spent time with them. I hope they understood.

Note: Still more to come. The next post will be about the work I did while in the village. Everything from digging wells to cooking dinner!


Dayna said...

Trevor - I absolutely welled up reading about the Chalemas' phone call to their son. Everything you talk about puts our world into sharp context. These people sound wonderful - I can't wait to hear more! (And your pictures are fantastic!)

Sue Titcombe said...

Trevor, it is absolutely amazing to read these posts. I'm not surprised by your sleepless night that first night. It must be a lot for you to process.

I can't imagine a better way to learn the culture than to be taken in by a family like the Chalema's. I'm also really intrigued by the "English" names they've given their children (Memory and Precious especially). Are these translations from Chichewa?

We prayed for you last week at staff devotions, but as I don't have an address to send a card to you, I'm letting you know this way. You continue to be in our prayers.

We love the updates, keep them coming.

AsHLeY.r. said...

You've really out-done yourself T-bone!

What an incredible post, I cried all-over my desk at work (a potentially embarassing situation if someone entered my cube)!

I appreciate this so much - it's really helping me think how (un)prepared I am for various aspects of the placement!

BTW: will be having my 2nd interview this week, cross 'em for me!

It's almost April now, before long Holly will be joining you. I can't believe you've been there for almost a month now.

Take care - oh yeah! I think next month our RESULTS topic will be howz-abouts sending us some entertaining photos of you in your mosquito net?! Also if you have any thoughts I can share with the group - that'd be cool.

Bye for real! (for now!)

Chris said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kath said...

Okay - Precious wearing your headlamp? That is the best picture EVER!!

Just reading your words and seeing the faces of the Chalema family makes me wish I was there with you. As Dayna already said, it quickly puts our lives in Canada into perspective! I wish I could have been there to see them talk to their son - what an amazing moment!

I know there are so many more of those amazing moments yet to come for you! Thank you for sharing them with us. I can't wait to read the rest!

Miss you and love you tons! ~Kath

Erin said...

hey trevor! wooooo, so many more blog posts ... i'm glad i checked today! it's so exciting - who knew you were such a great writer? (i guess i would have, if i'd asked ... my bad.) ANYWAY my point is i think your blog is great, your writing style is gripping and your stories are priceless! way to go!

i can't wait for more. but in your next post, include an update on your work situation - when can you get started? and how are you holding up with the wait?

hope you're doing well, miss ya! oh by the way, i took down all the paper in the house - but i kept your pictures up ;) - trevor remains!

later skater

Anonymous said...

Trevor-I am Dana S. & work with your mom. I am enjoying your story ever so much. I showed my husband your blog and he remarked "Are you sure he is an engineer! He writes like a journalist/author!" I can't tell you how great it makes me feel to know someone who is doing what you are doing. I just have to add how proud your mom is of you. She just beems with pride when we ask how you are doing-Her feelings are so visible! I can feel what a good person you are through your writings and through stories your mom tells. Please continue to update us and let us know if there is anything we can do to help you and your endeavours in Africa. Stay safe & I will keep you in my prayers.- Dana S.

Chris said...

What an amazing experience. You have been blessed so much already in your time in Africa.

How many times do you meet other Trevor's? This one was all the way in Malawi.

Good writing brother, keep putting it down. Also, the pictures are great. I love the one with Precious and your headlamp!

Proud of you!

Brenda said...

Good for people to know.