Sunday, July 5, 2015

Going to the Village--George's Post

Virtually everyone in Blantyre, old or young, well off or poor, has a meaningful tie to a village, whether in the northern, central or southern regions of Malawi.  Even those who have lived in Blantyre for one or more generations usually have extended family or ancestral property somewhere outside of Malawi’s large towns, tying them to the land and the communal life of farming, hearkening back to the precolonial period when everyone lived in villages and larger cities were unheard of.  Malawi, though having a surprisingly high population density, is an agrarian based society, with close to 80% of its population living in the countryside.  The villages of Malawi include large trading centers, straddling the main highways (paved roads), linking Blantyre, Lilongwe, and Mzusu, the three magnet cities in the southern, central and northern regions, with the other larger communities—Chikwawa, Thyolo, Mulanje, Phalombe, Liwonde, Zoma, Balaka, Ntcheu, Machinga, Dedza, Salima, Kasungu, Ntichisi, and Nkhata Bay; smaller regional markets; rural communities scattered throughout the countryside, many well off the main highways; and loose clusters of homes virtually everywhere, tiny pricks on the human map, connected by dusty and rutted back lanes crisscrossing Malawi. 
Of course, the primary linkage Malawians have to the villages is “familial.”  One may live (or in Malawian English, “stay”) in Blantyre or some other larger city, but still have family in the “village”—parents, grandparents, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins—the list is seemingly endless.  Often it is impossible for a Westerner to keep track of, or even understand at a very basic level, the network of family members still living in the village.  Part of the reason for the confusion is the fluid nature of the relationships among Malawians.  So many fathers and mothers die early, leaving behind children for someone else to raise, be they grandparents, older siblings, aunts, uncles, or just someone else willing to help out due to a generosity of spirit.[1]  Understandably, biological ties give way to ties of “stewardship”—what matters most is who raises the children.  And Malawians rarely speak of these relationships as “adoptive” or “foster” arrangements—they are the real ties and are recognized as such.  Another reason the family relationships are hard to decipher is the vernacular Malawians use to describe their relationships with kin.  While they surely know the distinctions between “natural brothers,” on the one hand, and “step-brothers,” “half-brothers,” “cousins,” or for that matter “lifelong friends,” on the other hand, often they speak loosely—referring to all as their “brothers.”  Only when questioned narrowly can one tease out the more precise relationships.  A Malawian’s village orientation depends upon whether the father comes from the north or south (and whether bride price or “lobola” is paid).  If from the north, and if lobola is paid, the home village is the father’s village in the north.  If from the south, the family regards the mother’s village in the south as the “home” village.  These orientations are somewhat breaking down in modern families, where there is more equality between spouses, with families splitting time between the home villages of the father and mother. 
As important as family ties are, Malawians frequently are tied to villages because the family retains land in the countryside—creating a link to family villages that is tangible.  Land has the capacity to produce value, and even wealth, and keeps families connected with one another.   Some of these land interests have been in the families for generations, harkening back to the days their forbearers left behind their migratory customs and began cultivating crops, breeding animals, establishing deeper roots.  We have yet to receive a satisfactory answer to the nature of their land interests—whether they “own” the land or only have a right to its use with the blessing of the local chief.  Nor do we know whether, or how often, these proprietary interests can be traced through generations, creating a sense and feeling of continuity, or whether the land interests are periodically realigned or are bought and sold, much as they are throughout the rest of the world.
But what is obvious is the land represents a source of food for those living in the cities—something of critical (in some cases—life and death) significance to poor people where food can be painfully scarce—but something easily taken lightly by Westerners where food is readily available.  Families with village land work, cultivate and harvest the land themselves, shuttling back and forth, or leave the land to be worked by others until some future time, when they may want its use returned to them.  The land’s value can be measured in terms of the number of 50 kg bags of maize the land can yield in a year, maize representing the staple crop used to produce corn meal or “nshima,” the most traditional Malawian food stock.  A household of four can get by on 10 to 15 bags of maize a year.  If they can harvest more than their needs (which we understand to be uncommon), the excess can be sold off as a cash crop, generating kwacha to pay school fees, purchase clothes, buy medicine, cover hospital visit costs, and buy food stocks not produced locally.  Other crops grew in the villages include pigeon peas, cassava, tomatoes, lettuce, cabbage, rape, mustard plants, and beans, all products routinely used in local meals.  The pride Malawians take in their villages suggest that land ownership or control may give them the same sense of “belonging” and permanence that is commonly experienced in the United States.[2] 
During our stay in Malawi, we have had a few opportunities to go into villages, in each case for no more than an afternoon,[3] so we certainly lack the experience to speak with confidence about the quality of village life.  But even our limited experience has left us with a few impressions, which I think would be borne out by further visits.  As elsewhere in Malawi, life is essentially communal in nature.  People are everywhere, walking the roads, riding bikes, carrying bundles on their heads.  One finds the occasional motorized vehicles—a motor bike, truck or car.  While Malawi’s population growth is not out of control, children, from infants, toddlers, small children to adolescents, are noticeable.  The day we spent visiting Brother Tsegula’s village was illustrative.  No one, adults and children alike, was in a hurry-- relatives, friends, and neighbors slowly assembled, greeting the Tsegulas, welcoming us, and then gathered into small groups, sitting on the ground, in front yards and along the dirt road.  That was perhaps not surprising—the Tsegulas had not been to the villages for a number of years—and “azungus” such as Carole and I are frequently attractions.  By late afternoon, the group, including a pack of children, had swelled in number to 35 to 45.  What was unexpected was the length of time people stayed around—literally for hours, casually visiting, observing the minor spectacle, mulling about.[4]
The children, from toddlers to early teens, watched us constantly, and intently, as though watching TV and expecting entertainment.  As the day wore on, the children would play casually, forming and reforming little play groups, idly passing time, but never straying too far away, not wanting to miss what might happen.  For a while, some younger ones, discovering their reflections off the sides of the truck, danced in the dust, the silly antics of kids, amusing themselves, delighting in the reflected gyrations of the truck.    For the most part, the play was good natured, not the spats, fighting and mean spiritedness one can see at home, though I did notice two little boys, one little more than an infant, egging on one little girl, teasing, grabbing, then running away.  She was not going to let them escape unpunished, chasing them off, slapping, reaching out to catch her little tormentors.  As they got more comfortable with us, the circles around us tightened.  But whenever we would turn around, starting in their direction, off they fled, squealing and shrieking with delight.  To get a break in the early afternoon, Carole and I walked down the dusty road for the better part of an hour, none of the kids or adults following.  But as we came to the crest of a hill, children in the isolated homes would call out, consumed with curiosity, a few bolder ones gathering and following us on the path.  It conjured up images of the pied-piper of Hamlin.  Apparently, the kids were out of school, having just written exams, with extra time on their hands.  Shortly before we left, Carole lead the kids in singing and pantomiming several beloved primary songs, to great success, as they learned “head, shoulders, knees, and toes,” “do as I’m doing,” “itsy, bitsy, spider went up the water spout.”  Like children everywhere, if engaged, they are all “eyes” and “ears.”  Their interest seemed inexhaustible, the game only stopping when Carole got tired.    
Since coming to Malawi, we have used images from our digital camera, much like earlier tourists to Africa employed candy or gum, as little inducements to entertain and make connections, especially with those who do not speak much English.  After snapping a few photos, I display the images on the camera’s recorder.  Adults are usually pleased to see the images, but the children are universally delighted with the results.  Once used to the attention, they come running, whenever the camera is raised, immediately striking a pose, instinctively mugging for the camera.  After a while it becomes impossible to get a candid photo, except when taking a photo from distance using the zoom lens.  The Malawians are accustomed to photos, since virtually every adult has a cell phone, with photo capability. 
Given their ties to the villages, those “staying” in Blantyre often travel back and forth to the villages, especially if the villages are close at hand.  They go to see family, take care of aged relatives, plant maize and other crops, help with the harvest, gather crops or bags of meal to take back home.  Children may be sent to the village for school, especially at the primary levels, or to visit family or, if parents have died, to be raised by a great aunt or grandparent.  As a result, families are often split, sometimes from long periods, with part in the city and part in the village.  For example, the wife and children (especially when young) may stay in the village, while the husband works in the city, commuting on weekends and on holidays.  In addition, it is also common to return to the villages for funerals.  And while funerals are uncommon back home, they are not uncommon here.  Almost weekly we hear of the death of an aunt, uncle, parent, brother or sister, or child, who is somehow related to a Church member.  Culturally, Malawians find it critical to support the deceased’s family, even if they are not close friends or well acquainted.  If money is available, meaning that it can somehow be dredged up,[5] the normal convention is for the deceased to be buried in the village, even if he/she has not lived there for a number of years.  But the cost for transport for the poor is always a consideration, so we have known some families to bury their loved ones in Blantyre, rather than to incur the costs of transporting them to the home village for internment.  Some Church members have not been back to their family villages, especially those far away, for years because of the cost of transport. 
Village farming, at least as far as we have seen[7], bears no resemblance to the high tech farming practiced in the United States and throughout first world countries, nor, for that matter, even to the farming practices I remember my Grandfather Smith employing on a small farm in northern Utah in the late 1950s, when I was still a small boy.  There are no tractors, combines, ATVs, flatbed trucks, to plow, harrow and harvest crops or transport equipment and crops; no silos, barns, storage bins to house agricultural equipment, shelter livestock and store crops; no wells for which to pump underground water for personal or farm use; no irrigation lines or rigs to irrigate crops outside of the rainy season.  Certainly there are no air-conditioned computerized tractors, standing the height of two full-grown men, commonly found today in the United States, allowing the modern farmer to manage acre upon acre of commercially operated farms.  But perhaps, most startling is the absence of the herds of livestock one expects to see on farms—no large herds of dairy cattle or commercial operations for raising hogs, chickens, or cattle.  All we have ever seen in the villages are small animal pens, constructed of wood slats or pools, for the occasional milking cow, a couple of pigs, and a few goats.  Most village homes have roosters, hens and chickens; rabbits, guinea pigs and other small farm animals.  Along the roads, driving between Blantyre and Lilongwe, one comes across small herds of goats or cattle being driven by small boys, bare footed, switches in hand, intent on keeping them off the highway.  Most animals are road savvy, especially the goats, otherwise they would have long since become road kill.  The land around the villages is a patchwork of small hand-cultivated plots, the short, parallel, furrows mounded and weeded using the traditional short-handled wood hoe called as “khasu,” found everywhere in Malawi.  It can be purchased at the Blantyre market for 1,500 kwacha or roughly three US dollars.  The small garden-sized plots are sometimes hand watered with buckets or watering cans, using water drawn from nearby small streams or springs.  But, in and around the villages, we have yet to see a network of ditches to provide more widespread irrigation, either because diverting the water for this purpose is illegal or because it is something beyond their imagination or interest.  The Malawians appreciate the need of rotating crops, so cultivated fields, and those left fallow, are side by side.
When compared to life in the city, village life is, at the same time, both better and worse.   The cost of living in the countryside is markedly less than that of the cities—housing costs are limited, since most live in self-made, family owned, homes, eliminating rental costs; the basic staples of the Malawian diet—maize, beans, cassava, mustard leaves are locally produced; avocado, guava, banana, papaya trees can be found throughout much of Malawi.  Families rarely incur charges for electricity or water, since those utilities are not available in most villages.  Most villagers live off the land, and cover the few cash expenses they do have—school fees, hospital costs, airtime—out of the sale of excess cash crops and from small jobs of piecework.  The pace of life is slow, time available to visit with friends, attend to the garden plots, and care for the sick.  Children are not under undue pressures at school.  Everyone knows one’s neighbors.  The weather is not harsh, the growing season long, sufficient water during the rainy season, and into the middle of the year, until the fields turn from green to brown, as crops begin drying up.  Some Malawians, when approaching retirement, think of going back to their home villages, both to cut costs, but also to reconnect with family and their native roots.
But what the villages lack is what villages lack everywhere—employment opportunities are limited, not much beyond agricultural work and small trades; little in the way of technology and modern conveniences—electricity and indoor plumbing are rare; no internet service, other than that available through local internet cafes; transportation is supplied with bicycles, occasional motorbikes, and old cars and trucks, poorly maintained and serviced, susceptible to frequent breakdowns.  The local schools use the national curriculum, are burdened by crowded classrooms, with up to 90 students per grade, have limited supplies of course books, library materials, and basic writing materials—paper, pens, pencils, erasers.   Adolescents and young adults are hard pressed to find many outlets to give vent to their youthful energy and passions.  The cities in Malawi, though on a more modest scale, offer the same enticements as large cities the world around—more employment (though even here, employment opportunities are scarce); better schools; more recreational opportunities; broader exposure to cultural events; access to an array of technological improvements.  Hence, there is no reason to predict the worldwide migration of the rural population into the cities will abate anytime in the near future. 

[1] Within the Blantyre Second and Zingwangwa Branches alone, we know several families raising someone else’s children—the Chikapas have “Time,” President Chikapa’s nephew, the Mkandawires “Wisdom,” the sons of Brother Mkandawire’s deceased brother; the Bandas “Emily,” Brother Banda’s niece.  Sister Kandioni’s home has been a virtual haven for orphaned children or those struggling to get along with parents or other caregivers—Maria and Felix Paul, and Fistani.  Faith and Lyford Ngwira are raising “Mike,” her sister’s son.  

[2] We sensed this when visiting Brother Tsegula’s village in the Thyolo District, an hour’s drive from Blantyre.  He spoke with fondness, almost reverence, when pointing out the land historically belonging to him and his extended family, even though some of those parcels had not been cultivated by the family for a number of years.   He left us with the impression that the family could, by making a claim, recapture the land’s use.  It is hard to think this could happen so easily given the likelihood of intervening claims. 


[3] We have visited the villages of Davie Mangani, our daytime security guard/gardener; of James Tsegula, a Zingwangwa member; and of President Kanjala, the Blantyre 2nd Branch President.  We also attended the funeral of a Church member held in a small village outside of Mpemba.

[4] Brother Tsegula had not been able to forewarn his family and friends of the proposed visit, despite trying to raise them on the phone.  So once we got there, he climbed back up the hill, disappearing for ten minutes, then returning with his elder brother Joseph, two years his senior, a slight wiry man, wearing a knit cap, which he never relinquished.  Gradually, great aunts, uncles, cousins, and spouses gathered, content to chat, catch up on old news, renew acquaintances, and gossip.  Except for a few slight breaks, no one left during the four hours of our visit.

[5] Rarely does a family have at hand sufficient savings to cover the costs of a funeral or, if they do, the funeral may largely deplete those reserves.  Along with the hospital costs of unexpected illness, marriages and funerals are two of the extraordinary expenses that families are occasionally called upon to bear.  Rather than lose face in their community, families frequently go into debt for cover those costs.  The Mormon Church strongly counsels against this practice, urging members instead to opt for simpler, more modest, yet appropriate ways, of honoring their deceased loved ones.


[7] Of course, Malawi has some large commercial agricultural enterprises, which conduct farming using more modern agricultural equipment and techniques.