When Carole and I are out and about, children frequently cry out “azungu” to get our attention, sometimes from close at hand, but occasionally from great distances. We usually acknowledge their cries by responding with “bo,” meaning “hi,” which is the customary greeting of children and young folks, or by signaling a “thumbs” up or by the wave of a hand. There is, for example, one cluster of small kids, none probably older than five, who live across the ravine from the Zingwangwa meetinghouse, close to a 100 hundreds away. Whenever they spot us making our way to the Church, their chants of “azungu” ring out loud and clear, and they keep yelling until we respond. For some it is clearly a game—they score points with their buddies if they can get from us an awkward reaction; for others an opportunity to try out or showcase a few phrases in English; and for yet others a source of amusement or brief diversion from the day’s routine.
These beauties we met not far for the "Living Waters Church" (an evangelical congregation).
For the most part we try to be good sports, wanting to create a good impression for the Church, and knowing that, wherever we go, we are constantly being observed. People are always about, so these little exchanges are not just between us, but are frequently played out on a wider stage populated with neighbors, vendors and other bystanders. There’s no harm, even if they are mocking us—our pride can survive a few jabs from kids. But we usually find their attention to be good natured and focused upon us without malice. If the kids are close at hand, we usually have a quick exchange. The bolder ones will politely offer “how are you?” The shy ones are mute and cling to the back of the little packs, are skittish, and bolt when we approach. On occasion I will ask if I may take their picture, speaking slowly with the absurd notion that slow speech will actually help them understand, while at the same time pantomiming the “taking of a photo.” Kids, even the reserved ones, are usually open to being photographed. Once I snap their shot, I toggle to the “photo” display mode, so that they can see themselves. This invariably elicits a giggle or excitement. The older kids can understand some basic English, starting English classes in Standard 5, the equivalent of our fifth grade, while the younger ones are only able to yell basic greetings. Chichewa is spoken in most homes, so English definitely qualifies as a second language for Malawai educated children.
Our encounters with these marauding packs of kids, most often knotted in groups of two to five, are fluid, brief and haphazard. They last only long enough to exchange the most basic of greetings, a few hand signals or a wave, and sometimes a photo. Then we are gone, moving on to our next appointment, the kids resuming their play. If we are in the streets for an hour or so, something which can readily happen as we try to find the homes of members not previously visited, we can easily bump into 10 to 20 groups of kids. They find it to be an endless source of entertainment, because it is rare to find westerners (i.e., white people) trudging the backlanes of Soche, Zingwangwa and Chilobwe, certainly not tourist spots or places where one expects to encounter expats. Rarely do the kids follow us for any distance; it is as though they are rooted to a circle around their homes and community. They move freely within that space, but are not inclined to venture much outside of it. Most likely they simply lose interest after a few minutes, and can’t see the point of keeping us company, not knowing our destination, and knowing that, sooner or later, we are going to move on, far beyond the boundaries of their neighborhoods, because we certainly don’t belong where they live. To them, we are passing through, something temporary and elusive. Our foreignness could not be more dramatically displayed --white skinned, dressed in Church attire, non-Chichewa speaking, a senior couple, white haired (in my case, but not Carole’s), wearing name tags. The smaller ones do not know we are missionaries, but the older ones somehow have figured that out.
Some of you may recognize the three Banda kids--Comfort, Conscious and Corney.
In a few neighborhoods, including Soche, some kids are starting to get used to us, because of our prior visits to the homes of Branch members. They have frequently watched us visiting the Bandas, Phiris, and Brothers Sangala and Petro, doubtlessly wondering what we are about. Slowly we are losing our novelty and are beginning to have the familiarity of “old friends,” though we don’t yet know their names, nor know for sure where they live. Yet as we begin trekking up the lower slopes of Mount Soche, they emerge, as though by magic, among the clusters of homes off to either side of the wandering trail.
Almost every visit to the Bandas draws these four girls out for a quick chat. You can see Carole disappearing in the distance.
This band of four we found at the local spring above the Banda's home on the way to Brother Sangala's.
It is easy for us to get lost in the higher reaches, the lanes are confusing and chaotic, and often we find ourselves walking directly in front of someone’s home or through their private yard. It is especially difficult to find Brother Sangala’s home, first we work our way across a high ravine, at the edge of the private land, amid small fields, brick homes, outbuildings (including outhouses) unfurnished houses, piles of unused brick, clothes lines for airing laundry, and small creeks. Each time I hope to recognize the paths to Brother Sangala, and each time I get confused.
This photo captures the "rockiness" of the way, but not how serpentine it is.
Friday of this past week was particularly frustrating. I knew we are close to Brother Sangala’s, but somehow we found ourselves turned around, his home somewhere below us and off to our right—at least that’s what my sense of direction told me. Here the paths are very rocky, the footing treacherous, and the way unclear. Finally passing several older kids, off amusing themselves with some sort of play, we asked for directions to Mister Sangala. At least one of the older ones understood our plight, gesturing down the hill. Within minutes we attracted a small mob of 10 to 14 kids, our largest audience to date, following us as we painfully worked our way off the steep slope toward a lower cluster of homes. After coming off a particularly treacherous ridge, and down a narrow path, we were forced to cross directly in front of a home with a family dog. He was not happy with the unexpected intrusion, snapping and snarling to warn us off; but our little band of intrepid companions, with whoops and hollers, swept away his resistance and cleared the way for us, much to our relief. After wandering for a few more minutes, we finally found Brother Sangala’s home, only to be met with a locked door. Before heading off of the mountain, we took a couple of photos of our companions, feeling much like the pied piper of Hamelin, but without the magic flute.
This photo below reminds me of a Richard Scarry's picture. You should see how many children you can find in this frame. The person is the background (with a black blouse) is one of the mothers who looked on with amusement, so she doesn't count against the total. We are just above Brother Sangala's home when this picture is taken, his is not the home in the photo.
We encountered this band of superheros when heading off Mount Soche, returning to our truck.