It has been three weeks. I have been back in Thyolo for less than 24 hours when I decide to go to a local football match. Elvis is the coach and his team is number one in their division.
I am nearly at the pitch when I cross paths with a young girl of about 14. She stops dead in her tracks and looks at me with equal parts fear and confusion. This is a common reaction and I respond by taking two quick steps in her direction. She jumps backwards, nearly spilling the pot of water balanced so expertly on her head. Her fear quickly turns to embarrassment when she sees the broad smile on my face. I am harmless, the smile says. She laughs and continues on her way, making sure to give me a very wide berth.
The football match is scheduled for 2:30. I arrive at 2:34. The pitch is void of players. Some kids kick around one of the makeshift balls that are common here (lumps of plastic bags melted together into something slightly bigger than a softball). Elvis explains that the visiting team has not arrived because they were detained by the police. “Maybe there were too many people in the minibus,” he guesses. He has no real explanation as to why the home team is nowhere to be seen.
I sit on the ground as Elvis turns his attention to other matters. Some children sit near me, but not too near. It feels strange to be regarded in such a way. To be so alien that your very existence frightens people. I suppress the urge to lunge at them. To see them scatter in terror.
A man approaches me. He squats, holds out his hand, and introduces himself as David. David then proceeds to tell me his life story.
He tells me about his time in South Africa. He worked for a shopkeeper. He was there several months, then the police began to harass him. In the end, he was deported. He relays the story in severely broken English, with many pauses. The expression on his face alternates between frustration (he knows the English, but can’t quite think of the correct words) and sorrow. He has the slow, rueful cadence of the chronic alcoholic.
I make an offhand remark about a local beer and his eyes light up. “You know the Chibuku Shake Shake?” he asks. He seems much more comfortable with this English. “Of course,” I say. “The beer so nice you have to shake it twice”
“The International beer,” he says, quoting the label. “No Chibuku in South Africa,” he informs me. He then lists four or five other African countries that do not have this gruel like alcohol sold in litre sized milk cartons for 75 cents that asks to be shaken before consumption. He seems confused as to why it wouldn’t be available in more places. After all, it says “international beer” right there on the box.
David has exhausted his English. We sit in silence for a moment. “So,” he says. “Can you help me?”
I am not sure what he wants me to help him with. He then proceeds to tell me, for the second time, about his life in South Africa. This time he tells the story in Chichewa. The pauses are fewer but the frustration and sorrow are the same. I tell him I can not help him. I am not a rich azungu. I am just a poor volunteer with very little money. I say this lie with great conviction knowing full well that the phone in my pocket costs more than most people in this country make in three months.
David let’s out a long sigh. He looks at me one last time with the hope of help. I offer none. Then his expression changes. It is as if a cloud has passed. He gives me a big smile and sticks out his hand. “My brother!” he says.
“Achemwene anga,” I reply shaking his hand. He leaves. I look around. While I was talking to David the children have slowly been creeping closer to me. Now they are right next to me.
The football match is about to begin. I try not to make any sudden movements.