Brother Tsegula's knowledge of plants and agriculture is extensive and it is fascinating to follow him around and find out the names of everything.
He is preparing this particular field for pidgeon peas, which is a frequent ingredient in a relish for nsima. He has already planted the seeds in a separate area and as the tender shoots came up, he covered them with leafy branches for protection. When they are big enough, he will transplant them into this field.
(You can see one of the several houses in the background.)
On day as we were visiting, Brother Tsegula mentioned that it had been many years since he had been back to his village. George immediately offered to take him to his village one day and that was even before we realized it was not even that far away! But even short distances, such as 45 minutes out of the city can seem very far when transport is expensive. Brother Tsegula has spent years supporting his 10 children by working in various government agencies and also taking on contracting jobs. We were surprised to find that just a few years ago, he left the family for about four years while he went to another city to manage some jobs. Brother James Tsegula is a true patriarch.
We told him we would pick him up at 9:00 am on a Thursday morning. When we arrived at the family home, he and Sister Tsegula were ready, along with sons George, Alexander and Innocent. Our destinations was a village was in the Thyolo district, south of Limbe.
Eventually, we turned off the main road and drove a few kilometers on a nicely maintained dirt road. Brother Tsegula told us that the current president of Malawi, Peter Mutharika, came from the next village just down the road.
It was quiet when we arrived. The family had tried to reach some family members earlier to notify them of the upcoming visit but had been unsuccessful. So it was a real surprise to them when the car pulled up. Brother Tsegula went off in search of family. He found his older brother Joseph, 72, not too far away along with his wife and a grandchild.
For years Joseph had worked at the government-owned TV station in Blantyre but had retired back to the village.
Sister Tsegula is one of the loveliest people I know. She speaks very little English but we give lots of hugs. Whenever I come to visit, she insists on carrying my (heavy) purse for me. When I watched her get out of the car and meet her in-laws after many years, I was so impressed by how easily she fit in and how everyone seemed so happy to see her. She had felt carsick during the short ride, but getting out and being among loved ones revived her spirits.
The women chatted for several hours while the men wandered about.
It was difficult for George and me to keep the family connections straight: brother, sister, aunt, uncle, cousin, niece, nephew, and even Mother can be used in ways that can be confusing to us, but they all seem to know when it is literal or when it is a term showing respect or affection.
No doubt there was one person who really touched Brother Tsegula's heart. He referred to her as his mother, but she was really (we think) a later wife to his father after his mother died.
Brother Tsegula was very solicitous of her, making sure she was well looked after by the other family members. You could tell that she still worked hard at the domestic duties.
We enjoyed walking about the area while Brother Tsegula showed us where the house had stood where he was born, where some of the gardens had been and the placement of the long-gone fruit trees. Because the homes are built of mud and clay bricks, within several years there might not be any evidence that there had been any building at all. The brush takes over and the family has only memories. But we could tell the homestead had been in a beautiful spot, not too far from the river and was a commanding view of the entire area.
It was not a valley, but there were some interesting rock formations and hills in the distance.
You can see that the wet season is long past, the maize has been harvested, and the landscape is mostly dry and gold.
Some gardens are planted year round.
This cabbage patch is being hand watered by bringing water from the nearby river.
We walked toward the river.
We are standing by the river where Brother Tsegula had so many happy memories of swimming, watching the women do their laundry, and carrying the water (maybe not such happy memories) back to the home. The water still looks clean. Close to the river is a deep well. It just looked like a hole in the ground, but when the river is not very high, this was a good source of water, especially for drinking and cooking. It doesn't look as if it is being used now since it was covered with dry leaves. Joseph said it was now contaminated, but James said he thought it was still usable.
Innocent, 22, walked along with us. He had actually been back to visit the family village about three times in the last ten years.
Alexander, 25, had not been to the village that he could remembers and he told us that this was a beautiful day for him - to meet so many family members. Alex is the branch mission leader in Zingwangwa.
All day long, different family members continued to join the group, making the day better and better.
At one point, one of the women brought out a bowl of cassava root and offered it to me first and to George. Brother Tsegula said this was a custom to offer guests. I did not dare refuse because Brother Tsegula said he had been chastized earlier for not getting the "guests" proper chairs to sit in. We had unthinkingly dismissed the earlier offer, prefering to sit with them and not on chairs.
When the bowl of cassava was offered, I was surprised to see that it was soft and had been cooked.
I made the mistake of taking a small one, so then I had to take another since everyone had noticed!
Actually it was quite good, with a texture and blandness similar to a potato. A little salt would have done wonders. It did make me realize that I was a bit hungry. It was getting to be mid- afternoon by this time.
Life in the village continued around us. We were sitting by the main toad that connected the villages and it was easy to see that day-to-day living was made difficult by the lack of all of the things we take for granted: transportation, stores, indoor plumbing.
Perhaps a bag of maize along with a mat.
This would be feed for the livestock.
Most likely she is coming from the maize mill where the dried kernels were ground into meal.
And water, always the carrying of water. She is carrying an empty enamel basin on top of water filled to the brim in the blue bucket!
I love the little girl in pink having a good time in the background!
There are not many animals in the village.
The cow produces milk not for consumption by the family (unless there are small children), but for selling at the market.
Hens and chicks have full run of the place. For a long time, I watched a rooster giving chase to the various hens.
George took note of the various chitenges.
The children always have a special place in my heart.
I just sat among them and tried to show them how much I loved being with them. Many smiles, many hugs, and lots of laughs!
They watched us and they watched us hour after hour, breaking out into big grins if we smiled at them at all. Eventually I got up and led a group in singing "Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes" over and over, loudly and softly, fast and slow! We moved on to "Do As I'm Doing" and "Itsy, Bitsy Spider". It was only after one of the adults translated "spider" into Chichewa that they understood that one! Then we sat down again.....
One of the women brought Sister Tsegula a large plastic bag full of tomatoes and a while later, one of the family members brought her a basin full of assorted beans.
These she dumped into the bag of tomatoes.
We finally indicated that it was probably time we should be going. Within a few minutes, because we hadn't been paying attention, we realized that many of the adults, especially the Tsegula family, had all disappeared. We didn't see them go up or down the road, so we just waited...and waited. About 45 minutes later, Brother Tsegula came and got us and told us to follow him. We walked down the road a ways to the home of one of his aunts. We were told to walk inside, and there on the table, was spread a typical meal of nsima, relish, and a stew of small fish in tomato sauce. Each of the hot plates was covered with another plate to keep it hot. We were given chairs and the rest of the family stood. Perhaps we looked hesitant, because Brother Tsegula told us that this was the Malawian tradition, and as guests we MUST eat with them, implying that it would be quite offensive if we refused (even nicely).
First, he showed us how to pull off a piece of the nsima with our right hand only and mould it into a small ball. It was hot but we took it, and then he showed us how to dip it into the relish and fish stew. All of this is done with one hand. We each had a plate and was able to scoop some of the relish and stew onto our individual plates.
Nsima is a very bland thick maize porridge that I think is very similar to polenta.
Relish is a term used for any vegetable dish that is served with nsima. Usually it is made of greens, in this case mustard greens, with perhaps some onion and some herbs.
The fish were not the ubiquitous small fish, but they called them usipa which I think is a catch-all name for many species.
I noticed that about half of the food was designated for George and me. The other half was for Brother Tsegula and his three sons. Sister Tsegula, who helped served the food, was not eating simply because she was still recovering from the car ride and didn't want to eat anything before the ride home!
As we conversed, George asked them about this traditional meal and also, because we are interested in food and the Malawian diet in general, asked them what they typically ate for breakfast. No one really responded until Brother Tsegula responded that they did not eat in the morning. They would arise early, go work in the fields or go to school and do work around the house, but they did not eat in the morning. Perhaps if there were children, they would fix them a bowl of porridge but that would be exceptional for an adult. Only around two o'clock would a meal be served, similar to the one which we were eating. George asked if they felt hunger and Brother Tsegula said he would be honest with us, and yes, they were hungry, but they knew it was not possible to eat more than one meal in the entire day. This was simply the way they lived.
As you can imagine, this was sobering news for us, because though we know the poverty statistics for Malawi, it suddenly had real meaning for us. These are people that we love and care about, who are offering us this meal, and yet have so very little themselves. We had noticed that the entire time we were there, NO ONE in the village had gone to get food (other than the cassava) or disappeared long enough to eat something, and this included the children. They know they have a certain amount of food and that food has to last them until the next maize harvest. The rains and flooding this year caused severe damage to the fields and yields are lower than normal. Everyone talks of how many bags they were able to harvest and it is not good.
Following the meal, we walked slowly back to where everyone else was still waiting.
We all moved to a shady spot where the family gathered around, and Brother Tsegula asked if George would give a blessing on the family. First, I spoke a few words, then George (both translated by Alex), and then Brother Tsegula. Then George said a beautiful prayer.
We said our many, many good-byes.
Since we were driving back to Blantyre, we were able to take two village family members back to the city also, along with a bag of maize and some other foods from the village.
When we arrived back to the Tsegulas, Sister Tsegula was insistent that I take many of the tomatoes, despite my pleadings that she keep them for the family. Then she took several handfuls of the beans, poured them into my bag, insisting that the family had given them to her so she could share them with us.
Brother Tsegula gave me the look that said "Take them. This is the Malawian way..."
Being in the village was a time I will always treasure because I observed the love of such a loving extended family. They had very little but were generous with what they did have and were happy just basking in the company of one another. Alexander was right when he said this was a beautiful day.