Years ago, cartoonist Charles Shultz wrote a book called “Happiness is a Warm Puppy”. With apologies to him, here are some Malawian views.
CONTENTMENT is walking from Deaf chapel to Preschool to begin the day. Almost always the same two kids holding my hands while a third proudly carries my pack. Emma and Andrew are the two hand-holders; most of the rest in too much of a rush to saunter with us. Even Gift, who last year hung back so he could compare his black skin with my white one, now rushes on ahead. It’s o.k. The two with me don’t have much else to do. They have little or no language, oral or signed; not much understanding about what is going on in the classroom. Andrew has, however, begun to greet me with out-stretched hand each morning. I say “monire” and he can usually answer “yewo”. Emma has yet to reach that point. So we cross the stretch of sun-baked earth between chapel and preschool block swinging our hands: large white and small black. Sometimes Mr. Hara joins us and a line of big and little, black and white stretches across the path. In just a few minutes we will be surrounded by the rest of the class and hands must part so I can sign to everyone. For the moment, contentment.
LOVE is all around at the Deaf School, although sometimes in disguise. It shows up as a big girl combs a smaller one’s hair; an older boy helps a young one tuck his shirt in before chapel. A boy in Standard 2 returns to class after a stay in the hospital; he is greeted with handshakes from his classmates and the teacher. They are so relieved that he is back and healthy. The boy named “Blessings” from Std. 6 stands to do the chapel prayer and several students sign urgently: “He doesn’t know sign yet. Someone sign for him.” At least 3 teachers do so; Mr. Hara gently stops him mid-sentence to move his hands away from his face so others can speechread. If you do it for the least of these, you do it for Me. Small girls —some of them only a day or two at school – approach Hara after chapel and hold out tiny fingers for his nail clipper. “You aren’t afraid?” he asks. What a silly question! Of course they aren’t. Love is there in his eyes, in his touch.
PRIDE: After chapel , Mr. Gondwe has a poem prepared for Education Day: we are the trial run. Tamara is signing it as he speaks. They must have worked for hours on it as her sign is fluent and beautiful. The rest of the teachers are ecstatic; Mr. M Kaunga calls Tamara back from her seat and hands her a 20 Kwacha note for a job well done. A week later she takes second place for poems at Education Day and is called forward at assembly the next morning for recognition. Her prize is re-awarded so all will know how well she did; then Mr. Gondwe presents her with a sack containing half-a-dozen eggs. A second group of students are recognized for their play which also took second place at Education Day. The students know how proud the teachers are of them, and that they behaved well in the presence of some 3000 other students. We are especially proud of the handbell choir, which ended the event by ringing the National Anthem.
CARING: One morning two of the older girls approach with two small ones in tow. “These are our babies,” they tell me and I understand the little ones are new at school. The older girls will care for them, making sure they are clean and properly dressed; that they know where to go and how to behave. They will share a bed at hostel and, should they decide to try to run off and go home, the older ones will go with them as far as it takes to convince the little ones to come back to school. I am struck a few weeks later as we sit outdoors for dancing to see the two small girls cradled in their “mothers” arms — sound asleep and safe. A few feet away one of the big boys (6 feet tall if he’s an inch) similarly shares his chair with his “child” who is about 10 years old but new at school. Lanky arms and legs intertwine and the older is obviously teaching some sign language as the event goes on.
FEAR is a new emotion for me in Embangweni. Never before in some dozen trips here; a little apprehension at times when the situation was new, but never fear. Maybe I had gotten a little cocky about it because this is a remote area where there can be dangers. So on that morning when I pulled aside the shower curtain — thinking there was some moisture there that didn’t belong — and saw a snake, there was real, unadulterated fear! Very few animals scare me (chickens being one of them) so I was surprised at my own reaction. A shriek — rapid exit of the bathroom and the room itself —yelling at Jim “SNAKE!!!!!”. I know I must have yelled, because several men from the newly-arrived Marion team came to the room to see for themselves, cameras in hand. Jim ran to the pump shop and recruited several men who came with sticks and not a little fear themselves to dispatch the snake. It wasn’t very big, but was indeed probably a black mamba. I shook for the next hour and decided to use the self-contained net tent instead of the mosquito net “just in case”. Did not enter the bathroom for the next 3 weeks without pulling aside the shower curtain to check for reptiles.
FRIENDSHIP is meeting and sharing without the bother of a common language. Two elderly ladies greet me one day and thru body language suggest we should dance. My own body language convinces them that this msungu really can’t dance. We laugh together and it is enough. An elderly gentleman passes me often on the path to school. He pantomimes, I use what little Tumbuka I have and we clasp hands with a laugh. It is enough. Women at the hospital Guardians Shelter are delighted when we show them digital pictures of themselves. No need for language to express what fun this is for them and us, too. Being together is enough. I sit in church one Sunday in the midst of the deaf school students and find myself lost in both spoken and signed Tumbuka. But I know the order of worship; can tell what number a hymn is; the sacrament of Communion is the same no matter the language. I am worshipping my Lord and it is enough.