Day nine at site. I leave the house early to attend a meeting at the school. The wind whips around me as I leave the house. Thyolo is a district of wind. It comes down from the mountains and whooshes through the treetops. Often, I lie awake in the middle of the night, listening as it catches on the tin roof of my house. The noise is rather sinister, the sound of many hoofed beasts escaping perdition as the howls of the damned scream after them. As I walk to school I am grateful for my jacket and my baseball cap.
I arrive at the school at 8:11AM. There is no one around. I sit. I wait. A young girl of about eight emerges from the gray mists surrounding the tea fields. She is quite thin. She carries a stick in her hand and a baby on her back. She shuffles past me. I wave and she responds in kind. She adjusts her chitenje and turns slightly, allowing the infant a chance to gaze upon the strange pale creature from a far away land. The baby does not seem terribly interested. “Iwe!” the girl shouts to some unseen friend before disappearing back into the fog.
Elvis arrives. He has been busy since last we saw each other. There have been many funerals. One was the mother of a man who works at the primary school. Another, a boy who died from the lingering aftereffects of tuberculosis. “His lungs were damaged and he was very weak,” I am told. In addition to that, two students have died during the holiday, one from a fall and one from a sudden, unexplained illness. I try to lighten the mood by asking how his wife and children are. “My youngest, Tamandan, has malaria,” he says. I make no further attempts to lighten the mood.
Elvis looks at his watch and sighs. “It is 8:30. Time for the staff meeting to begin. And no one is here.” He pulls out a couple of chairs from the staffroom. I would give the chairs a 5.5 on the comfort scale (a surprisingly high score for this part of the world). We sit. We wait. A man passes. His shorts are dirty and his sandals are held together by a few crude stitches. In his hands he carries a noose. I ask Elvis what the noose might be for. “Maybe this one, he needs to hang something.” I do not ask what that something might be.
We have been waiting for quite some time. The school consists of five buildings. We are sitting just outside of a building that contains the staffroom, library, and the headmaster’s office. Next to us is a building that was used for classes, but now is a storage area for broken desks, firewood and old mops. Across from us are the other three buildings, two of which are for classrooms and the other is Elvis’ office.
I ask about the large pile of moldy bricks near us. It appears as if the hill has grown around the bricks, the earth slowly reclaiming them, returning them to the dirt and mud from which they emerged. “A few years ago there was a donor. He said he would help build teachers’ accommodations. We fired the bricks. He came to look at them and said we did not have enough. So we fired more bricks. But then the donor disappeared. We had many bricks but no money for houses. So most of the secondary school teachers live far away and it takes many of them a long to arrive at meetings.” Many of the them. But not me.
It is nearly 10AM. There are thirteen teachers expected to be in attendance. Five have shown up. Elvis picks up his chair. “I think we can begin the meeting now,” he says as he walks into the staffroom. As I collect my chair I see the young girl returning. All that remains of the fog are thin tendrils. The baby still perches on her back but the stick has been replaced with a large bucket of water. Even at a young age, she is an expert at balancing the water on her head. I wave, but she doesn’t see me. As she walks away I notice the baby is sleeping – the wind no doubt having a soothing effect as it whispers its lullaby through the treetops.