Thursday, March 29, 2007

Village Stay - Part 3: The Work

Note: See below for parts one and two of this post if you haven't read them yet.

On the first day I stress repeatedly that I want to work with the villagers on whatever they normally do each day. I learn through conversation that in the village, work starts early in the morning, at about 5:00 or 6:00am, and continues only until about 12:00pm. At this point most work stops, as it is too hot to be working. The afternoon is spent relaxing and chatting, playing games, or doing small chores around the house. At least this is true for the men. The women are working constantly, whether making food, cleaning, or any of a hundred small tasks that must be done around the house each day.

I ask if there is a person or group of people responsible for digging and maintaining the wells and latrines. I would love to help out with this, as it is what I will be doing in Zambia. I am in luck because Frank, the headman’s son who I am staying with the first night, is the one responsible for this and he is starting a well the next morning.

We wake up on Tuesday morning at 5:30am and after a quick wash and brushing our teeth we head to the household who will be getting the well. Frank will dig the well, with the help of some of the teenage boys in the village, and the family who is getting the well will pay him 5000 MK (Malawian Kwacha) which is approximately $45.

The first step is to decide where the well will go. It appears as though this has already been decided because there is no discussion, we just head to a spot near the house and use a hoe to clear it of grass and plants. Frank then makes the outline of the well in the dirt and uses the hoe to dig about a foot down. The well is a little over one meter in diameter. The method of digging now becomes a matter of using a spade to chisel the dirt loose and using a bucket to remove it from the hole. We slowly get deeper and deeper, and in only 5 hours we are about 7 feet down. They want me just to watch, but I insist that I help them. It is hard work to say the least, but it feels good to help, and I think I have taken the first steps to gaining trust. We stop at about 11:00 to clean up and eat.

On the second day we are up early and attack the well again (after I spend an hour in Mr. Chalema’s garden. More on that later). After only a few minutes of digging we reach rock. We have had it easy until now. We switch from the large flat spade to a chisel and hammer. I again have to insist that I be allowed to get down into the hole and help. Frank spends an hour at a time in the hole without a break, chiseling. I can only last 15 or 20 minutes before my arms are aching. At about 9:00am Frank and the group insist that I leave and get washed up and rest. I want to agree. My arms are dead, and my hands are ripped and hurting. However I stubbornly refuse and jump down into the hole for one more round of chiseling. It is exhausting work, but it feels great. I think, or at least hope, that I have gained some respect. Not long after someone calls for me from elsewhere in the village and I have no choice to but to go. I am glad for the break, but would like to stay and see the well to completion. This will be the last day I work on the well, as my other mornings in the village were taken up by other tasks. When I left the village they had still not finished.

The main food eaten in Malawi and Zambia is Nsima (although it is called Nshima in Zambia). It is made from Maize flour, and is a doughy substance that you roll into a ball with your hands and dip it into some other dish, called a relish. The relish can be anything from chicken or beef stew, beans, or a wide variety of vegetable dishes. Nsima is eaten for both lunch and supper. Most Malawians will tell you that unless they have had their Nsima, they haven’t really eaten that day. When I tell them that we don’t eat Nsima in Canada, they are amazed and ask how we have energy for the day.

While eating lunch on Tuesday I tell Seveliano that want to learn how to make Nsima. So later that afternoon, when it becomes time to make supper, Seveliano brings me to the Chalema’s house, and this is how I meet Gogo. We first prepare the relish. Tonight it will be Okra, or in Chichewa “Ndelele”. She sits with me and shows me how to cut the okra, and then we head to the kitchen. The kitchen is a small mud brick hut with a thatch roof. Inside the kitchen is a small mud stove that we cook on. We boil up the Okra and then place it aside. It is time to make Nsima.

The first step of making Nsima is sifting the maize flour to ensure there are no lumps (lumps in your Nsima is equal to a cardinal sin in southern Africa). Gogo shows me how to sift and then gets me to do it. I think I am doing the exact same thing that she showed me, but of course I am doing it wrong. I think it is something in the angle at which I’m shaking the sifter, but I can’t figure it out. Eventually Gogo laughs and just lets me do it. The next step is to add two handfuls of maize flour to a pot of almost boiling water (if the water is boiling it is too hot and some cold water must be added). The pot is now covered and cooks for 15 minutes. During this time I sift more maize flour, still not doing it properly. Now comes the fast paced Nsima action, and if you’re not on top of your game it will end in disaster. Maize flour must be added by the handful, all while constantly stirring the pot. It’s not just normal stirring, it is again all about the angles. You must lift and turn the Nsima. As more and more flour gets added the Nsima gets thicker and thicker, making stirring increasingly difficult.

Gogo can eventually tell that we are done, and it is thankfully right before I am about to tell her I can’t stir anymore. We carry the pot inside the house and prepare to dish up. The entire time I was cooking there were about 50 people surrounding me, watching, laughing, offering suggestions on how I should be doing things better (all in Chichewa of course). They don’t follow us into the house however, it is only the Chalema family, myself, Seveliano, and the Chalema’s neighbour, Lozi. I now must learn how to dish up the Nsima. There is a special spoon for this, and I used it to make small mounds of Nsima on the plate. When Gogo does it they are perfectly shaped and smooth. Mine are pitiful piles of Nsima in comparison, but Gogo is patient with me.

When all is dished out, bowls of water are laid out so we can wash our hands and it is time to eat. I am beaming. This is a wonderful evening. We chat over our Nsima, laughing over my cooking, while Gogo continues to teach me new words in Chichewa. It has been a great day!

For the next two days I get up at 5:00 in the morning and head to the garden with Mr. Chalema. The first day we start by ploughing three new rows in his garden, and then planting some sweet potato. Mr. Chalema lets me do most of the work. He is very patient and shows me the proper way to cut the sweet potato shoots and then place them in the ground. He tells me that these are my sweet potato plants, and that they will think of me when they eat them. When we are finished with this we walk the short distance to the river (it’s more of a big stream than a river) to see if there are any fish to be caught. It is about 6:30 at this point, and the sun is still low in the sky. The view is breathtaking. I stop for a minute just to stare, and take a few pictures.

We get to a spot in the river where Mr. Chalema has built a dam out of mud, and left a small spill way for the river to go through. In the spill way he has placed some traps made out of bamboo. We pick up one and it is full of small cat fish (they howl when I tell them the name for these fish in Canada). This will be supper tonight. We head back to the village stopping along the way to pick some fresh guavas and bananas from the garden for breakfast. I change clothes and head to the well to work.

On Tuesday afternoon Seveliano and the headman had taken me to the neighbouring village to meet a women’s group who were planting Irish potatoes and making mud cooking stoves. They are excited to meet me, and ask me to return on Thursday morning so I can see them make one of the stoves. So on Thursday, after working in the garden Seveliano, myself, and Mr. Robson (another man in the village who has been spending time with me) head to the neighbouring village, Kalimbila. The women are just beginning their work, and they insist that I join them.

We mix the mud, a combination of dirt, cow manure and water, and then head into the small kitchen hut to begin construction. A layer of bricks if placed down first, as the base. The mud is then placed on in layers, using a flat wooden mallet to pack each layer down tightly. Two pots are used as molds to create holes for the fire, and the mud is packed around them. When we are finished packing the mud, we create a small stand on the edge of the holes to rest the pots on, and then cut out an access hole in the side of the stove leading to the cooking hole, in order to put fire wood in and provide air flow. The final step is to coat the entire thing in a thick black muddy substance that is simply described as mortar. I’m not sure how they make it. The entire process takes about an hour an a half.

I ask my Gogo later what the purpose of the stove is, as she’s had one for a year now. I know the answer, but I also know that often times villagers will do things because an NGO comes and tells them to, but they don’t really understand why. These are the projects that fail after a short time and are ineffective. She tells me that you can cook faster, with less wood than just on an open fire. She understands completely. When we finish the stove the women insist that I learn how to cook pumpkin leaves, another relish, and that I join them for some Nsima. It is again a wonderful meal, full of chatting and laughter. I return to Chandiwe very happy.

It is amazing how much work I was able to do in the village. As I mentioned before Gogo fully understood that I wanted to learn and let me help with everything. There were countless other tasks that I helped with, that I left out due to space constraints. There is one more that I would like to talk about, but I’ll include that in my next post. I think and hope that I was able to gain a bit of trust by working alongside the villagers. Their expectations of me before I came were that I would need to be taken care of, and would not want to get my hands dirty. Maybe this is because of past interactions with muzungus, or maybe it is an unfounded stereotype. Hopefully I have been able to break down the stereotype, at least for some people.

As usual, a big thanks to everyone that has been posting comments, I enjoy reading your thoughts and am glad to share mine with you. Some of you have been asking for updates on my Visa/work permit situation. Still no word yet. More waiting. It’s frustrating, but I’m trying to make the most out of my time here. The village stay was really good for me. I was going a little crazy being in the capital so getting out into the rural areas was great and I have renewed energy and enthusiasm! Hopefully it won’t be long before my permit comes through and I can head to Zambia to start work. As for an address, I still don’t have one, sorry. It will likely be a while before I have a reliable address that you can mail things to. If there is anything that urgently needs to be gotten to me (I can’t fathom what that would be!) send me an email, there are other options besides mail for getting things to me for the time being.

One more village post to go. The next will be about my last day in Chandiwe village.


Chris said...

Glad to hear they let you work and get your hands dirty. I am sure that it was fun even though it was hard work. Just think of all the things you wouldn't have done and people you wouldn't have met if you hadn't been having visa problems. It's all about the journey.

Later little brother, take care of yourself.

Dana S. said...

I thoroughly enjoyed your stories, but I have to tell you, I had a chuckle. My thinking is that the men do not participate in the cooking?? When you said that all the women were gathered round & giving suggestions. They probably thought this was amazing to see a man wanting to cook! It must have been entertaining for all. Thankyou for sharing & take care.
Your mom's work buddy Dana S.

L said...


Nice to see those hands of yours gett'n some honest work... kinda looks like you've been in the climbing gym all day!!!

Okay, but I have to tell you, reading your journey is eye openning, a great reminder of the importance of relationships, putting differences aside, and we all can learn from that.

Buddy, I can't go into it all... suffice it to say your journey and sharing it with everyone has been of great benefit to me... as you have time to add more in the future, I will be reading them for sure.

Continued prayers as always...

AsHLeY.r. said...

Glad to hear you and Frank are getting on better!!!

I'm amazed by how much learning you managed to pack into this week! Fishing, gardening, well-building, mud stove-making, meeting new friends, learning goes on and on!

Awesome coincidence with the well-digging. Way to stick it out when times got tough and your hands got to' up! I couldn't help wondering to different would the situation be if you were a female volunteer? Would Frank have accepted your offer to help with the well? How clearly defined are gender roles there? Perhaps more flexible for foreigners....hence their amusement with your nsima cooking attempts!

Anytime you have thoughts on these types of interactions and you could take a guess on "would this be the same for ashley, or different?", I'd love the insight!

I was really impressed (probably not quite the right choice of word!) by Mr. Chalema's response to you when you were planting the sweet potato. I can't believe in such a short time you've made such an impression on them that they say such wonderful things to you (about the Trevor sweet potatoes that when they eat them eventually they'll think of you).

Thanks for this post per usual, I'm eagerly awaiting the next one!


Ps. had 2nd inteview last night - should find out this weekend. thanks for the support!

dayna said...

Describing the work on the well reminded me of the jackhammering you guys did last summer to help out my dad; I thought about how much hard work that was, and how much more difficult chipping through rock by hand would be. No jackahammer in the village!
As much as we appreciate the work you did everytime we use the deck, I'm sure your new friends will appreciate the help you gave them even more. I'm sure they're inspired by your enthusiasm, just like me!

Marilyn C. said...

hi Trevor,
Guess what! This is my first blog comment ever!! The honour goes to you!I can't tell you how much we are enjoying your writing and pictures-they are wonderful-maybe you'll write a book someday.What I especially appreciate is how much of your heart you are sharing with us.It makes all of us who care for you feel more connected with your experience-Thank-you!
We miss you-always in our prayers,
P.S.- I just know your Mom is wondering how you're caring for those blisters and that your Dad is
proud of the great work ethic he instilled in you!

neil said...

Hi Trevor,
Sounds like jackhammering would be easier but working with your hands with a hammer and chisel seems much more fulfilling. I must admit the jackhammering was fun though. As I sit on the deck this summer I will be reminded again of all the help you guys gave us, but I will especially think of you and all the help you are giving these wonderful people. The world we live in is so different and yet in so many ways we are all the same. Thank you for sharing all this with us, we are all more richly blessed. We are so proud of you. God bless.
Mr. C.

Erin said...

hey trevor! sounds like you're challenging all kinds of gender stereotypes - very cool!