This is a post I wrote in August 2015, near the end of my time in Chikwawa, Malawi with EWB (Engineers without Borders Canada).
I don’t remember why I didn’t post it two years ago, but I found it collecting dust in the mess of my drafts and decided that it deserved to see the light of day.
There are many things that I loved about that time in my life and many things that I regret. I experienced a peace and happiness living in the village that I have never experienced again, if only because I am not as naive as I had been then. This post embodies some of those feelings.
A rooster’s crow pierces through the haze of my slumber. I open my eyes to the light streaming in through my uncovered window which filters onto my bed through the blue mesh of my mosquito net. It must be 6 o’clock. Sleepily, I rise and wrap a chintenge (African cloth) around me like a skirt, tucking the ends tightly so that they won’t slip while I sweep the yard outside. So begins my morning at the village where I live, in Chikwawa District, Malawi.
The first chore of the morning, for any household, is to sweep away the remnants of yesterday’s activities. And it just so happens to be my job. As I rhythmically circle round the yard, huge dust clouds choke the air in my wake. The distinct patter of water splashing into a bucket is the sole accompaniment to the shushing of my broom. Reluctantly, the village around me stirs and comes alive.
Breakfast is almost an afterthought in the morning. Before the cooking fire is lit, already the yard is swept, last night’s dishes washed, and laundry hung out to dry. At our house, most days, the cooking fire is set for the tea. That word is synonymous with “breakfast,” but it is also the word for hot water saturated with copious amounts of sugar. Another thing I’ve gotten used to here.
On weekdays, my shoes fill with sand as I walk to the Chikwawa District Water Office. It is dwarfed by the surrounding unkempt yard partially occupied by rusting play pumps. The building is a sad comparison to its neighbouring government counterparts, with its cracked walls sorely in need of a new paint job. Inside, there is a wealth of motorbikes and PVC pipes, a computer at a table, and an oddly placed spare office desk that had been dragged out of the boss’ room for me. Aesthetically, the office doesn’t amount to much but it has proven to be completely functional otherwise… when there is electricity. And the staff are some of the most hardworking and passionate government employees I’ve ever met.
At around half 4 (16:30), I trudge back across the sandy bumps and winding paths to our yard. As long as the sun is up, the routine is like clockwork. I fill a basin with water and carry it from the tap, through the house, and into the bathing stall in the backyard. My hair is strategically dowsed first and I use my little red cup to immerse the rest of my body in methodical sections. Outside the bathing stall, my host cousin is watching the fire, waiting patiently for the water to boil to cook that day’s last meal.
After brushing my hair and hanging my towel out to dry, a number of things may happen before dinner is ready. There are days when I try (and fail) to help my host sister cook nsima (staple Malawian food made from maize flour). Sometimes I waste away the hours chatting with friends. Perhaps I brought my laptop home with me and all the village children crowd around as Disney cartoons faintly glow in the otherwise darkened yard. No activity happens in solitude. There is community buzzing all around until the last of the candles are snuffed out at 9 and everybody is soundly sleeping in their houses.
The few minutes in my room before I drift off to dreamland are the ones when I am the most alone. Although I am usually too tired from the day’s activities to collect my thoughts properly, even in that moment. So I let my mind slip further and further… and I fall asleep to the sounds of night. The last thing I usually remember is the bray of a cow, or the bark of a dog – underlying it all are the even breaths of my host sisters sleeping on the mat next door.