Sunday, April 5, 2009

pumkins galore and grief in a different culture

Pumpkin burgers:
1 small 20 kwacha pumpkin (use a 50 kwacha one if you are serving more than just yourself)
1 medium onion
4-6 cloves of garlic
2 tbs oil (sunflour or olive preferable. Kazinga is REALLY unhealthy)
bout a half cup flour
1/2 ts salt

    To cook pumpkin: Cut pumpkin in half. Remove the yucky inner part, feed to either the cats, chicken, piglets or goats. Cut the remaining parts into pieces and steam in about three inches of water while boiling peas, chickpeas, lentils or beans. You don't have to be boiling something else of course, but it's really a waste of firewood, energy, and sunlight if you don't. After about 20 minutes take a fork, scoop out soft and mushy part of pumpkin into a bowl. Leave the legume of your choice in to boil for a half an hour longer.
To make the burgers:  Chop up onions and garlic, mix them in the pumpkin. Add salt. Take a fork-full or spoonfull and coat lightly with enough flour to be able to form the mixture into a patty. *It is important to COAT! Don't mix the flour in with the pumpkin mixture! Just don't.* Heat a skillet on medium fire, coat the bottom LIGHTLY with oil of your choice, fry up pumpkin patty. They will be crusty on the outside, gushy and yummy on the inside. If you want them less gushy (but why?) you can either:
a) wait until the pumpkin mixture cools a bit
b) throw an egg, a quarter cup flour, and about 1/2 ts baking powder into the pumpkin mixture.
    Warning: Does not keep well. Unless you have a refrigerator, then I don't know. But really you should mix any extra pumpkin mush with cinnamon and a TINY bit of cloves (unless you want to clear out your sinuses) and have it for desert.
    So as is probably obvious from the recipe, it is now pumpkin season at site. Which has been wonderful. Pumpkin headlines the list of “things I didn’t like in America but love here.” Unfortunately pumpkin season also coincides with sick season in Malawi -- although I think that has more to do with weather/rain patterns and the population of mosquitos than with the sudden appearance of any particular squash.
    So far there have been quite a few funerals around my village, but the only one I have attended has been for a student who died right before I got back to site. Since the funeral was on Tuesday classes were cancelled, and the whole school went over to his families house to pay our respects.
    It always surprises me how differently grief is expressed here. In America grief is a personal thing, private, hidden almost. When we are struck by a sudden loss more often that not we want to be alone. In Malawi your entire family, extended family, and really anyone within a five mile radius camps outside your house for two days and immediate family stays on longer, sometimes for around a month (this is supposed to make you feel better?). During the actual funeral people throw themselves down at the foot of the coffin (while the preacher or even another family member is talking) screaming and crying and beating the ground.
    It was also very different to be at the funeral of a child. At the one adult funeral I went to (see my last post) there was, of course, a pervasive air of sadness, but also one of resignation, and acceptance. People kept saying things that roughly translated to, “this is a terrible event, but such is life.” Whereas at the student’s funeral everyone kept saying “why, why” and repeating the phrase “he was so young.” It seems it doesn’t matter how much of your under five population gets taken out by Malaria each year; or if AIDS, malnutrition and meningitis are cutting a decent sized swath of your teens, there is a universal understanding built into our consciousness as humans that children aren’t supposed to die.
    For me the whole funeral was surreal. I was impressed by the anthropological aspects of it as much as anything. Half of me kept wanting to ask, "so, why do you do this this way? What's the cultural significance?" The other half of me couldn’t stop picturing my student as I last remembered him -- taking chalk from me to write an answer on the board. He was smiling shyly, and as he took the chalk from my hand he made a sort of half bow.
    The whole week after the funeral I kept staring at the space at his desk, expecting him to come back even though I had seen the lid of his coffin nailed on – usually a pretty good indicator you are not returning. The whole thing made me want to hug each of my 15 Malawian siblings and inform them they are not allowed to die until they are 105 and have accomplished every single solitary thing they wanted in their life… and then some.
    I thought about this as Trouble (what I call the three year old) lay in my lap, absolutely burning up from Malaria. I want to believe (as everyone else here seems to) that because I am white I can magically solve any problem. I want to think that if any one of my siblings was ever in real danger I could save them – by finding and commandeering a vehicle and rushing them to the city, or paying all their medical bills, or giving them medicine from my kit. As if vehicles charge to take you to the hospital (they don’t) or I could magically make a vehicle appear out of nowhere (that’d be cool) or dry up the roads to make them passable when they are pure mud (probably not good for the environment, even if I could) or as if any of the medicine in my kit was actually safe for children (really, really, really not.) But still I want to believe that even though things happen to other children, my kids are immune. As if by caring for them I could keep them safe. As if the price of living in this world isn’t, and hasn’t always been that you have to love people, without ever being able to protect them. (I should add here that Trouble came through the Malaria okay. Twice. He really bounces back into being a meddlesome brat remarkably fast.)
    Despite the circumstances, this past stay at site probably ranks as my best time yet. The highlight was probably my trip to Livingstonia.  A while ago, Tin Tin (this is the name he requested I use), a guy from my group, had mentioned that he was going to Livingstonia, and since you have to pass through my village to get there I decided to tag along. Since the road is actually a nice combination of dirt, rocks, hairpin turns and hills, there’s really no reliable transport to Livingstonia. So we basically started sitting in my market around eleven in the morning, waiting to grab a ride with whatever passed through.  We were really lucky and in about an hour managed to get into a small car with a family heading up to visit some relatives, and we only had to get out and push the car through mud once.
    Livingstonia is unequivocally gorgeous. It’s set into the mountains like my village, except the forest is much more of a jungle, and it’s higher up in the mountains, so you are looking down over the lake. At night or early in the morning I would catch monkeys jumping through the trees. It also has two huge waterfalls that plummet over a cliff more than 150 ft. high down into a river that cuts through a valley that is the definition of “verdant” if ever a valley was.
    Other than the general peace and tranquility and beauty though, there really isn’t much “there” there. Tin Tin and I ended up visiting a Dutch couple who live in the middle of the forest there (in a truly amazing house) and do agriculture work. They told us about a really interesting program the Malawian government is doing where they plant lots of different food plants around a school and then give the crops to the students to eat throughout the school day. Considering my students ball up paper and eat it throughout the day, I’m really interested in this, and am going to try to get my school involved. We’ll see.
    Other than that, Tin Tin and I mostly hung out with a second year health volunteer and her mom, who were coincidentally staying at the same place as us. They taught us a really cool group rummy game, as well as Bananagrams, a sort of personal speed scrabble, which is now my favorite game ever (watch out Grandma, I'm taking you on in Maine).
    After seeing Livingstonia Tin Tin and I hitched a ride with the health volunteer and her mom down to Chitimba. The road is dirt, and punctuated by no less than 20 switchbacks which all serve to remind one that every time you get into a car in Malawi you are accepting your own mortality. About half way down we encountered a six foot long brown snake sunning itself in the middle of the road. It was not nearly as excited to see us as we were to see it, and expressed its sentiments by rearing up on the back two thirds of its body and waving its head menacingly at us. Since we were in a car this didn’t really have any effect except that Frank, the driver, rolled up his window. Turned out it was a black mamba. COOL!
    Chitimba is quite possibly my favorite place in all of Malawi. I wouldn’t want to live there (it’s way touristy and H-O-T!) but sandwiched between the mountains of Malawi, the mountains of Tanzania sitting right at the edge of the lake; it’s unbelievably beautiful. Mr. Misuli, my site-mate’s old headmaster, had been transferred down there, so we stopped in for lunch. We had beef (“we would have prepared fish, but we know Madam Maggie does not take it”) nsima, greens and cola outside, all while Misuli and his wife apologized, explaining they would have prepared more if they had had more advanced warning we were coming.
    After lunch a card-playing team (not even kidding) from a neighboring village came in, so while Misuli engaged in some very competitive Uno (also not a joke), LB (that’s the wife) Tin Tin and I went down to the lake. Since there were girls bathing naked (still serious) Tin Tin decided to hang back and play with some local kids. I jumped in anyways (try getting me within a mile of water and keeping me out of it) Thus is was that I ended up playing tag with a bunch of naked girls, while LB yelled at me from the shore anytime I got in past where I could touch (Madam Mag! What will I tell your mother if you drown?!) It’s funny, sometimes I get so used to being here, I forget I’m actually living out in a village in the middle of Africa. Then moments like this happen and I remember that oh yeah, this is really quite different.
    We spent the night at the house of the British ex-pat couple who hosted the Christmas party. Talk about different. We watched the sun set over the lake from atop a small mountain in back of their house, sat in the yard drinking fruit juice, and then had lamb chop, fresh bread, real butter, and squash soup for dinner. Followed by ice cream floats for desert. Then we sat on the couch and watched ESPN. Now, I’m used to seeing movies, Zambian T.V. shows, and random clips of the B.B.C. here. But sports? American sports? Wow.
    In the morning I went to the local secondary school, which is a public boarding school, simply one actually funded by the government, to try to get one of my students enrolled. I was told I needed an official letter from the head of my school, signed, and then stamped with the official school stamp (which I had.) Then I was told I needed to take this letter to the head of transfers at the Education Office in Mzuzu get an official (signed and stamped) letter of transfer from them, bring it back to the school, and then the student would be enrolled. Lord. Sometimes it seems to me Malawi kept all the worst of British culture (ruddy bureaucracy) and left behind the best (parks, theaters, and scones.) Oh well.
    Back at Lura school was effectively over, since all we had to do was give exams. I’m not sure how to sum up my first semester of teaching. I feel like now, after three months of teaching, I’m finally ready to really start. Now I know what I’m doing, and have a pretty concrete plan of what I want to accomplish, and how I want the year to go. I also have all these ideas and paths I’ve started for things I want to accomplish in the next two years, but when I sit down and really think, “what have I done?” It’s hard to point to anything concrete. My biggest accomplishment is probably that each one of my sibling now comes to my door asking for “buku” and has a favorite book. My four year little sister, goes around saying “cookies, cookies” (her favorite is a cookie monster story). Unfortunately she applies the term "cookies" to any baked good. I’m trying to get her to differentiate – "No, that's a cake, that's a muffin, and that's a baguette. Can you say baguette?"
    Mostly I’m really proud of what I’ve done just being here. I’ve sort of got this “yes, I have survived in Africa six months!” feeling. I have lived without electricity for half a year, gone without cheese and chocolate for whole months at a time. I can get get my own firewood from the forest, carry water on my head and not only cook, but bake over a fire.  Milkshakes and happy penguin dancing all around!


Steve said...

Two quick thoughts:
1 - That's cool about pumpkins coming into season. I didn't get into root vegetables soon enough when they were in season and am regretting it now.
2 - Verdant is one of my favorite words. The sights sound awesome.

La gata fina... said...

HAVE YOU MET MADONNA YET? lolllllzzzz jk jk jk!

sal said...

Margaret, this whole thing is beautifully and honestly written. sorry i am so far behind in reading. From pumpkins to life and love --
hope you are doing ok and i'm thinking of you.

Sue Borah said...

Margaret, I enjoyed "pumkins galore!" and reading about your life in Malawi. I was at Majete Wildlife Reserve in southern Malawi in 2007 with Peace Corps Response (after two years in Tanzania with PC). Your words made it come back and caused me to remember how much I enjoyed Malawi and the people. I especially enjoyed your cooking instructions . . . you know, I believe I was better cook in Africa than I am now. I'll look forward to reading more of your stories . . . stay well and stay happy.