“Give me my money,” the girl says. She is identical to all the other girls with her green primary school uniform and her close cropped hair. You have probably walked past her dozens of times. On other days she may even have greeted you in the exact same way. On other days you may have even returned the greeting with a smile and shrug.
On other, sunnier days.
“What?” You stop walking and look at her. Her legs are ashy. Her feet are shoeless. A thin crust of dried snot hovers just below her nostrils. On other days you would have kept walking. On other days you would not have said anything.
It took me a few days to notice that Mr Steak had disappeared from school.
“I have not seen our friend for a while,” I say to Mr Jerry in the elliptical vernacular that is common in this part of the world. He looks at me quizzically. “That one,” I say, motioning in the direction of Steak’s desk.
“Oh. He has gone to get a transcript,” Jerry says, “In Mzuzu.” Thyolo is in the South of Malawi. Mzuzu is in the North. Nothing unusual about the journey taking a few days.
The music adds people. The people multiply into a crowd. The crowd divides into groups and subgroups. Students. Non-students. Boy childs. Girl childs. The curious. The bored. Mendazi merchants. Beggers.
Two students have been stationed at the door to stamp hands and collect the entrance fee. One is the boy with the jaunty hat and the “OH SHIT!” shirt. The other is a girl with pink jeans and sunglasses. Her shirt says “California”. Her cleavage agrees.
The lack of parental supervision reminds me of the film “Bugsy Malone”, in which a young Scott Baio and Jodie Foster played Prohibition era gangsters in a world without adults. As if to prove my point, a seven-year-old girl walks by wearing high heels. Continue reading →
It is 1:30. I am a few hundred meters from the school, but can already hear the music. I cross the dirt road and walk past the primary school. The thump…thump…thump in the distance is calling.
I arrive at the school. A classroom has been converted for the event. A speaker is turned outward to maximize the noise pollution. With each step the music becomes more potent. The noise penetrates my body. Deeper and deeper it goes. I feel it throbbing within me. Assaulting me with an aural wall of scrunching electronic bumps and bass.
Just outside the makeshift disco, the boom is deafening. Inside it’s not much better. When I walk in I find about ten children. All boys. All under the age of twelve. Half of them are shirtless. Most of them are shoeless. They bump and grind with imaginary partners. The deejays sit in front of an old CRT computer monitor. They fiddle with some dials. They look bored. It is something of a massive letdown. Continue reading →
Day 20. Friday. 2:15 PM. The first week of the term has ended. Exam results are not yet in, which means I have taught exactly zero classes. I have made few friends. I decide to get a drink with a colleague. His name is Mr Steak.
On my way to the bar I encounter some children. They don’t look at me. They goggle. Offhand murmurings of “azungu” ring in my ears like the low-pitched thrumming of an electrical generator. It is a constant, inescapable tinnitus that follows me everywhere. I try to ignore it. I fail.
The bar is conveniently located directly behind the church. Calling it a bar is a rather generous assessment, though. Even by the standards of the local bottle store, this place leaves something to be desired. It is a simple storefront; with a pair of large speakers on the bar and a steel cage in the back that appears to hold nothing but a few dozen boxes of Chibuku. Continue reading →
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. Continue reading →
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.