Monday, December 15, 2014

The Bandas--Part I--The Setting--George's Post

The Bandas live high up the slopes of Mount Soche, in the last cluster of homes just before reaching the boundary line demarking the end of the private land and beginning of the government land. Here Carole carefully weaves her way over last stones, before entering into the Bandas’ small plot. The sun is directly over the home, sinking slowly into the late afternoon sky.
The government owes the top of the mountain and has closed it off to development. It is unlawful to build homes or other structures, or to log or cultivate or otherwise exploit for personal use, government law. This path bifurcates the government from the private lands.
Now the mountain slopes are, however, stripped bare of trees, since they were all cut down before current regulations were in place and enforced. Wood is a premium for kindling fires and building materials. The mountain slopes are covered only with bounders, some of gigantic size, rock outcroppings, and low scrub.
The private land is under the control of the local chiefs, who, while they do not own the land, control its transfer. No parcel can be sold without their approval. The chiefs exact fees or commissions for consenting to transfers. A steep, heavily rutted, dirt lane winds to within a hundred yards of the Banda’s home. Carole and I have driven to the top of it a few times, but recently we have left the truck further down the road, preferring to climb a few extra hundred yards. The last stretch is so rocky and uneven, that driving is not worth the wear on the truck and the risk of puncturing a tire. In any event, even from the end of the road, we have a five to ten minute climb up the steep path to the Bandas’ home.
We pass head-high brick walls, climb through the small yards, and wind our way through cultivated gardens, a dozen brick homes, outhouses and other small buildings—including a number of unfinished structures. Everywhere there are stacks of hand molded bricks, some fired and others waiting to be fired.
By now the local kids know us—not surprisingly for them we make quite a curious sight—amusing themselves by chanting “azungu” as we pass. Shy at first, but now more at ease, they frequently approach us. One little girl, probably six (though ages are hard to gauge—the Malawian children, certainly due to diet, are much smaller than children at home) likes taking my hand. She rubs it, perhaps intrigued by its whiteness and the hand’s softness.
The land is rocky, and large boulders and rocks are everywhere.
But over the years, the Bandas and their neighbors have planted small orchards of mango, avocado and citrus trees, and cultivated tiny patches of maize, and other crops. Using hand made hoes, the Bandas and their neighbors carefully tilted deep farrows in the loamy red soil to make welcoming beds for the seeds they will tenderly work into the land.
Right now it is dry and dusty—red soil dusting our shoes and my pant legs—and everyone is anxiously waiting for the seasonal rains to begin. The rains are a month late and, thus far, we have only had a couple of brief showers to break the heat and give some moisture for the plants. Here, as everywhere in Africa and throughout the world, water is the source of life. So we, like the Bandas and their neighbors, hope the weather will soon turn. [Over the last week, the first seasonal rains have finally come. Most late afternoons storm clouds quietly gather, followed by claps of earth shaking thunder, and spectacular lightning shows. The rain, when it finally comes, comes in torrents, lashing the earth, and striking the tin roofs of the small homes with such violence so as to drown out the possibility of conversation. All of the homes are virtually identical—they are built of red or brown home-made bricks, mortared with either cement or a clay/mud mixture. Most homes have no facades, but some, like the Bandas’, have been plastered with a concrete or mud paste. This is Brother Sangala’s home, not far from the Bandas’.
The Bandas’ home has been white washed, plastered with a concrete paste and painted, frequently with two complementary colors, here white and gray. The Banda children—Comfort, Conscious and Corney—pose attentively, arms hanging at their sides, like little mannequins in a shop window.
Most roofs are of corrugated tin, but some are of straw. They differ somewhat in size, but this high on the mountain, all of the homes are modest in size. A main room, for the family to gather, eat, and welcome neighbors, off which there are one or two small rooms or ante-chambers, separated by thin curtains for privacy. There is no indoor plumbing and no water. Each home has a small outhouse close at hand. While electricity is common lower on the mountain, homes clinging higher on the steep slopes often lack electricity or have only an isolated wire to the home solely to fire a single naked bulb hanging from the ceiling in the main room. One advantage of being high up the slopes is there is usually a nice breeze. So even in the brutal heat of the mid-day, if one keeps to the shade, the breeze keeps one quite comfortable. Many homes, like the Bandas’, have pleasant porches, shaded to create a little oasis for the family, a refuge from both heat and trials of the day.
However, absent shade, heat can be oppressive. The equatorial sun--almost directly overhead at mid-day--is intensely hot. We always feel the heat and wilt when it’s really hot. Coming from Seattle, where it is rarely baking hot, we are not inured to the heat. But the Malawians each day are out and about, early in the mornings, at mid-day, and late into the afternoons, walking the streets, carrying bags, bundles and head loads. They are either less affected by the heat or are made of tougher stuff. No doubt a combination of both. There is no discernible break in activity during the hottest times of the day. Though kids often keep to the shade in their play and women and babies when at leisure stay under the covered porches and back in the trees. Perched high up the northern flank of Mount Soche, the Banda’s home, as that of their neighbors, has magnificent views to the north, overlooking the hills and high plateaus of Blantyre and to the northeast the distinctive ridge line of Mount Nirande.
Mount Nirande reminds me of Turtleback Mountain on Orcas Island, its shape resembling a turtle with a large hump attached to an extended neck and head. We have often exuded to Bandas and their neighbors about how beautiful the countryside is. This comment evokes little response, nothing more than a slight nod, so we don’t know if they care little for scenery or take the beauty for granted. Or perhaps they would prefer living lower and closer to town, and find our comments puzzling. Who would want to be in the hills and deal with all of the inconveniences of being away from shops, pharmacies, churches and markets? Only a foolish person would want that. Here is there is no premium attached to securing great view property. The poor live high on the hillsides, while the more affluent choose to live closer to town and on the flats. In any event, the roads up in the hills are awful, rendering access to the highest building sites challenging at best. Proximity to a source of reliable potable water is not just a matter of convenience, it is also a matter of family health. Water is so heavy to transport—and the only feasible means of transport for these poor township folks is to carry it on their heads in large tubs or drums, Fortunately, for the Bandas a fresh water spring is located in a narrow ravine within a couple hundred yards of their home. Even now towards the end of the dry season, and before the replenishments that comes with the early rains, the spring has produced enough water for the local community. We have never explored the spring, seeing it only from a distance—not wanting to intrude upon their privacy-- but we can see the women and children gathering in the ravine to collect water, cleaning clothes and engaging in the idle chatter of the day. One advantage is the spring is located above the homes, so, for the most part, they carry the water downhill. The first home I visited, after coming to Blantyre, was the Bandas’. We wanted to share with the Bandas a short thought about spiritual gifts and church unity, and to elicit their support in finding the homes of other Branch members living in Soche. Now I know there is nothing unusual about the Bandas’ home—many homes in Soche, Zingwangwa and Chilobwe are like theirs. But then, that being my first home visit, I was shocked by the primitive living conditions. The main room (the only room we entered) was roughly 12 by 16, a rough concrete floor, devoid of furniture other than four high backed wood chairs, flanking two of the four walls, and a small two shelf bookcase in the corner. The unpainted walls are barren save for several of Brother Banda’s small crudely sketched drawings, and five unframed and faded family photos. Apart from the front door, the main room opens up into three small chambers or closets (we don’t know which), each covered by a thin curtain. During our visit, Sister Banda accesses one of the closet-like areas to prepare a small menu for the kids and for a bucket of water for washing the kids’ hands and faces. There was no light in the room and it was dark, even though it was not yet late afternoon. Everything is swept back behind the curtains after use. A slight breeze slips through the front door, left slightly ajar, keeping it from becoming too stuffy or humid. Nothing in the room speaks of comfort or convenience or beauty. It is stark, austere, and uninviting, a cold place to raise and nurture children. The severity of the setting is, however, redeemed by the small stash of well-used books in the corner bookcase. Who knows what wonders or treasures or imaginary worlds those books conjure up for Comfort and Conscious and Corney. The home is without water and without pumping, and the outhouse is 20 paces from the front door. I find it hard to fathom, but the living conditions are far more primitive than those my grandparents endured when growing up and living on small farms in small townships in rural Utah in the early 1900s.