They are a part of me: a red backpack and a black fanny pack. Wherever I go around Embangweni, people know me by the red pack and the black pack. As I approach the School for the Hard of Hearing every day, kids race to meet me and take the red one. The black, they know, stays on me always. Sometimes that red pack is almost too heavy for the little ones to carry to the chapel, but no way, having won the race, will they relinquish it to a bigger child. The pack is always filled with some new treat or teaching aid but, to their credit, not one child has ever attempted to unzip it and peek inside! They lug it proudly into chapel and leave it on a “teacher chair”. After chapel there will be another contest to see who gets to take the red pack to a classroom and — more importantly — which classroom it will go to! Disappointment when it isn’t going to the bearer’s class, but it will be delivered promptly none-the-less.
The students have memories of the red pack (or its several predecessors) and of the things that come out of it; I have more memories that refill it year after year. Nine years of memories seem a lot and yet there are always new ones to tuck inside and bring back to the States. 2009 was no exception. Lots of material things got toted down the dusty red dirt road between the guest house and the school; many more memories were carried back at the end of long hot days as the sun began to go down in the wonderful red blaze of a Malawi sunset. I traded the “It Bag” of small toys that I use for therapy for memories of a few kids mastering a new sound. Learning to say “wa” (as in “ndowa”) doesn’t sound like much, but in the world of deafness, it is wonderful! The teacher and I grinned at each other when Esther mastered this for the first time — high 5’s and a bear hug for her. And when Franklin pulled out the toy truck and said “galimoto” without holding the final “o” for about 5 minutes — another thumbs up day! But the best memory of the It Bag this year didn’t come from the Preschool block where it is used. Rather, I remember Standard 7 erupting when I pulled the bag out to show something to their teacher. “Hey! We remember that! It used to have a chicken and a car and a pail and bafa and…….!” Some proof that the years of doing therapy have had some small impact.
The red pack carries my water bottle which is essential for a light-skinned gal prone to dehydration. Nobody at school really understands why, but they know I need my water! And I remember the first day at school in 2009 when some of the older girls came into the class where I was working and handed me a big Sobo bottle full of water.
At Marion Medical Mission we are fond of quoting Mark 9:41 as a statement of what we do. The deaf students didn’t quote it, they did it.
Sometimes the red pack has things for the staff. Probably the best thing I ever bring is a container of dry creamer! I dole out two or three containers at tea time over the course of my stay; they tell me that next time I should just bring an Action Packer full of Creamora. There is always a contest to see who can take the last bit of powder and thus be able to claim the empty bottle as his own. They are, I am told, a great thing to hold sugar so the ants don’t get in. And the memories that go home when the Creamora is gone? All those tea time discussions ranging from politics to U.S. geography to what life is like in the U.S. “So, Mama Carol, in America….” begins many talks, often pushing the boundaries of my knowledge. But the best memory is of the red pack making its way back to the guest house carried by Mr. Hara, Headteacher. Late each afternoon he escorts me at least to the edge of school and often further after our teacher workshops. “It is our culture”, he reminds me if I suggest he is tired and I can carry my own pack. Those few minutes give us time to discuss school issues without interruption; time to worry together over the kids we seem unable to help; time to rejoice over the victories and make grand plans for the future. All we need is a lot of money….
So many memories! The graduation ceremonies for the vocational education students and recognition of those who had completed Standard 8 and gone on to secondary school. A Sunday afternoon spending time with those secondary school students playing Frisbee and just talking about “stuff”. All the hugs after Church. The apparently unending supply of questions from Standard 8 and their ability to use a new sign language program on my mini computer. The frustration over the child who remains a puzzle. Oh, Gift! What do I do to help you? Forty pounds of gap-toothed 6 year old who simply never seems to “get it”. He puts his arm next to mine and rubs them gently. “Different”, I sign. “We are different.” No response as he tries to pick off my freckles. He reaches up for a hug, and I give it gladly, but I just can’t reach inside his mind. Frustration.
Joy abounds, too! The soy milk production project has caught the attention of the Malawian Minister of Agriculture and she invites the school to come to a nationwide exposition on food production. She provides funds for travel and so 2 students and 2 teachers are off with the soy milk machine for the long trip toward Blantyre. At the exposition, they set up a display and are honored beyond telling when President Bingu wa Mutharika not only spends a good 5 minutes talking with them but shakes hands — twice! Mr. Hara is glad he and the other teacher were wearing neckties, because those without ties were told to go sit in the grandstand when the President came. My red pack is glad it once carried a package of neckties from Russ down to school!
Joy when the deaf school students stand up in Church and sign “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands”; when they ring the handbells for introit and are asked to ring another; when they ask me to sign the hymns for them. Extra joy when I realize the secondary school students have taught sign to some of their hearing friends and those friends are now signing part of the worship service. We are worrying about how to do “inclusive education” but the students have already started it. Red pack doesn’t go to Church, but the black one does. I feel a bit under-dressed without red on my back and yet decide one Monday to leave black at home. The teachers tell me they didn’t recognize me without it. (How many white women come down to the school most days, anyway? Only one, as far as I know.)
Red pack and black pack on a white body walking on red dirt under a smoky blue sky. Small black hands reaching for red; larger black hands reaching for my white one in greeting. Embangweni. Malawi. As Robert Frost once wrote: “You come, too.”