Tales of a
21st Century Gypsy

February 24, 2006. Event in Mangochi

Yesterday the staff of my project in Malawi went to a grand shindig, a cultural experience, and a chance to see the stunning Malawian countryside. Or, depending on how you see things, a long boring event in a language I couldn’t understand, in the hot sun, with a bumpy three hour drive to get there and an even longer drive back.

While we were stuck out there in the sun not knowing what was going on, I might have thought the latter. But it didn’t take long before I thought it was a grand shindig indeed.

It was the launch of the Presidential Initiative on Aquaculture Development, otherwise known as PIAD. Until a month or so earlier, it had just been one more COMPASS activity, to encourage aquaculture as a resource-based business, and to develop realistic standards for the financial returns that small-scale investors could expect if they were purposeful, intelligent, and perhaps a bit ambitious. Then the president of the country, Bingu wa Mutharika, decided it should be a Presidential Initiative.

I’m not sure that changes anything about the initiative, but it sure made the launch into a Big Shindig. Since it had morphed into something that might make the press, the whole COMPASS staff were invited to go up to Mangochi, some three hours from Blantyre, to attend the launch, listen to the president’s speeches, watch the dancing, and listen to the singing. I was of two minds about going. When I thought about the heat and the language problems, I figured it would be a bore. But then I’d remember that I’d never had a chance to go to the launching of a Presidential Initiative, and I thought I should go.

So I went. And I’m glad I did.

The event was held in a big open field next to a school. There were a few lovely big trees at the edges of the field – baobabs, in fact, one of the most amazing trees anywhere – and a long shed for the VIPs. Other than that, everyone was out in the full sun. The Malawian sun in the middle of the day is Hot. Very Hot. It’s not like the sun in Boston, or Boulder, or perhaps even Tucson. It’s overwhelming. Fortunately I’d brought sunscreen, but there was no way I was leaving myself out there to roast. So I pulled a chair under a baobab off to the side and behind the shed with a bunch of other people – white people, people who weren’t interested but were obliged to go, people who didn’t really care about seeing the president or the musicians but were there to schmooze. Every half hour or so we’d shift our chairs as the patch of shade slid across the ground, until our spot got so crowded that there was no more room to shift.

I shared my spot under the tree with two Danish men. Someone kept bringing them bottles of ice water, and I didn’t have enough. Well I’m not shy, so I asked for some of theirs, which they were happy to give me. Once they’d settled on the chairs next to mine, I offered them some sunscreen, which they were happy to accept as well. Turned out they were into aquaculture themselves, though that wasn’t what had brought them to Malawi or to this event. Their brother, whom I’d seen earlier looking horribly uncomfortable in a dark suit, was working with a Malawian aquaculture company, and my new friends had come to Malawi to visit him, and conveniently escape a few weeks of the Danish winter. I’d heard the COMPASS side of the absurd organization of this event; they’d heard their brother’s side. Their English wasn’t much good, but we swapped tales of disorder and last minute changes in plans, and laughed about how silly it was. One of them had a trout farm back home, with a campground and a lake where the summer guests could fish. The other had a blue mussel farm, at least if I understood his fuzzy English. They had never been to Africa before, had never seen anything like Malawi at all. So they were glad their brother had given them this chance to get out of the ordinary, even if it was way too hot and they’d gotten burnt to a crisp out fishing the day before. They were sweet.

I talked to a pair of young Canadian women, too. One had red hair and whiter-than-white skin, and before we’d even introduced ourselves, she and I immediately offered each other sunscreen. Both women were fisheries interns, the red-head – Ellen - teaching undergraduates even though she’d only just finished her own BA, the dark skinned one – Anne – doing research. I’d figured Anne to be of Indian descent, but someone later said she looked Sinhalese, so her parents were probably Sri Lankan. She sounded as Canadian as anyone, though, so I guess I should describe her as the Toronto one and Ellen as the Prince Edward Island one.

Anne was great fun to talk to. She was really excited by her research on natural fish spawning in aquaculture ponds, and looking for a way to return to Malawi to continue it. She had all kinds of hopes of continuing work in international development, first using her technical skills but then moving into management and project design. She was frustrated with the folks in the home office – I don’t know which home office that was, perhaps Ottawa – who didn’t understand what the field work was about, and kept asking

for things that couldn’t be done, or made no sense. So she hoped that eventually she’d be able to make things work better, so the projects could really do what they aimed to do instead of wasting time on things that wouldn’t work. It was delightful to talk to a young person with such enthusiasm and such a sense of what she wants to accomplish. I hope she gets there!

We’d been told to be there at eleven, but of course nothing started then. At eleven thirty or so, the Malawian musicians whom COMPASS had hired to entertain the crowd started playing, perched on a truck under another huge tree. Suddenly hundreds of children streamed across the field to listen and goggle at them. It was the Ben Michaels band, the best known musician in Malawi. I’d actually heard his band a few days earlier; they were the warm up to a jazz concert at the French Cultural Center in Blantyre. So I felt in the know – an unusual occurrence for me in Malawi! They were better at the Big Shindig

than at the cultural center, though mostly I forgot to listen. Not only had COMPASS hired them for the launch event, they’d commissioned Ben Michaels to write a song about aquaculture, which we’d heard at a staff meeting a couple of weeks earlier. So he was almost one of us!

A little while later there was great excitement as four helicopters were spotted heading towards us. The President! The President! They landed behind the school in great clouds of dust, and the presidential entourage took off down the road in a torrent of black cars, sirens blaring and lights flashing. So much for him doing anything in our big sunny field any time soon. Turned out he was off to look at fish ponds, go out in a boat, and with great pomp

and ceremony toss a fish or two in the water so this would indeed be a presidential initiative. Accompanied by the brother of my Danish gentlemen friends, as it turned out.

Several groups were on the program to entertain the president, so while we waited they entertained us. Fifty or sixty girls in green school uniforms marched out into the field swinging their arms and singing something that I couldn’t quite understand even though it was in English. Something like “We are Daicon! Who are you? You are we? We are Daicon!” I don’t know what it meant. They clustered in a tight group in the center of the field, stamping their feet and clapping their hands in rhythm, singing their song over and over. Perhaps they were from the school next door. Perhaps they would remember this exciting event for years, the time they got to perform for the president. Somehow it reminded me of nothing so much as Robertson Davies’ descriptions of small town events in rural Canada after the First World War, in the Deptford Trilogy. So it was 2006 and Malawi instead of 1918 and Canada, but perhaps the spirit was the same.

Next a group of women wrapped in skirts of every color and pattern streamed into the middle of the field and formed their own tight huddle, shuffling, waving their arms, and swinging their shoulders as someone led them in song. Some of them wore skirts with photos of the president and the initials and symbols of his party – DPP, and ears of corn in neat clusters. Some had small babies strapped to their backs, who slept right through the dancing

and didn’t seem to slow their mothers down at all. When they had finished their dances they stormed out to the road en masse, and a few minutes later they stormed back, chanting something about the president. His supporters, I guess. Later a troop of men swarmed in with banners, also presidential supporters.

Finally the president and his entourage returned from their excursion on the lake. As word of his arrival reached the crowd, they filed into the field, umbrellas up to protect them from the sun, and dozens of military police keeping them in place. A stream of 4-wheel-drive SUVs went by, loaded with heavily armored men, and the president’s car raced past our spot under the tree. That was all we saw of him – at any rate, I suppose he was the man inside, waving at the crowd. After that, he was hidden from our view by the big VIP shed. There was a presidential motor home, too; it headed behind the shed, where the staff plugged it into shore power and roped it off. After some discussion, we decided it was for presidential bathroom breaks, though we never saw him head back there.

Then the speeches started, and we got hotter and hotter and less and less interested. Lots of talk, little of it in English. Even when it was in English we could hardly understand. We’d catch the occasional word – USAID, COMPASS, World Fish Center – but that was about it. The schoolgirls in green did their marching again. The ladies in lovely colors and patterns did their dancegain. Another group of ladies, all wearing skirts in the newly-manufactured PIAD fabric – light blue with little fishes on it - did another set of dances. Anne told me they were all from the Fisheries Department, and the president’s office had shown up with the fabric and told them to dance. Apparently all Malawian women know how to do these dances, so they didn’t need to practice. They’d flow onto the field in response to some calls we didn’t understand, dancing and waving their arms. Then they’d flow back and settle in the bits of shade around us, nursing their children, sucking on plastic bags of ice water, and looking thoroughly hot, bored, and tired. Then another call would come and they’d jump up again to dance some more, with the babies tied on their backs, then return to the fidgety older children whom they’d left waiting.

Finally we couldn’t take the heat any more, so my colleague Rachel and I retreated to the shade of our bus.

The trip back was fun. For Malawians, excursions into the field are also shopping trips, as they stock up on everything that’s cheaper in the country than in town. First stop, though, was for a crate of sodas and some chips and peanuts, which John bought for the whole bus. Then at an ice cream place, where Rachel and I treated everyone to cups of vanilla soft ice cream. We stopped near the lake for dried fish, which added a pungent odor to the already steamy bus. We stopped for people to look at baskets and woven reed mats, which were very pretty indeed. We stopped to pick up freshly baked cassava bread, which we’d ordered from the bakery on our way out in the morning. We stopped for fruit. We stopped for dried mushrooms. By the time it was dark out and the heat had broken our bus was so full of merchandise that people couldn’t even get into the aisles. As we neared Blantyre the rain hit, and cold drops flew in the windows on the wind.

In the bus, conversation and jokes flowed, everyone laughing loudly all the time. The joke teller was one of the computer guys, whom I’d hardly heard speak before. Everyone called up to the receptionist, sitting in the front, and she laughed and called things back. Alas, Rachel and I had no idea what it was all about, since they were speaking Chichewa. But still, it was nice to be part among the staff on a social occasion instead of at the stiff Monday morning staff meetings where we go around the room and people tell in a monotone what they’ve been up to. When we made it back to Blantyre, we drove all around town like a schoolbus, one person after another loading up her purchases and clambering off the bus at her home. Finally Rachel and I were dropped off at our hotel, too tired to eat dinner, just looking to jump into the shower and feel clean and cool off after the hot day.

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All text and photos on this site © Joy E. Hecht.