The roads were incredibly bumpy. I really didn’t want to drive. I had people bouncing all over in the back of the truck. The well sat so far downhill. At first the ladies and kids were shy, but we said, “Muli Uli, Nili Makado” and they laughed. Some babies screamed at the sight of Mzungus. Then they started to sing and dance, and it was such a beautiful thing, living in the moment with the beautiful people of Malawi.
On day two, I was yanking out a heavy bag of bottled water when the plastic handle let loose and I punched myself right in the eye. I saw stars and I couldn’t open my lid, it hurt so badly. My first thought was retinal detachment, since two people in my family have suffered from this. And it has to be treated immediately, or I could lose sight. What should I do? I had insurance. Call for a helicopter? This could be serious. But what if it wasn’t? It would be so embarrassing to be flown out only to be diagnosed with a new floater. So I took a deep breath and tried to calm down. There were several times when Bob and I thought we might be in medical danger – a slight cough, is it TB? A headache, is it malaria? As I looked around at the sweet kids at the well, I saw one boy with a pussy eye almost swollen shut. He gently rubbed it. It had to be so uncomfortable. When would he see a doctor? Would they have the right medication for him, or would he have to live with this indefinitely? One girl was shaking. Did she have malaria? Would there be medication for her, and aspirin to bring down the high fever and chills? We complain about our health care, but it’s not like this!
I have to drive again. It’s OK on the tarmac. It’s OK on the dirt roads even if it shakes your teeth out and makes you wonder if your spinal column is up to the task. It’s the narrow gravel slippery roads on the side of a hill that get me. It looks like the truck could roll so easily with just one slip. And it’s the boulders that look high enough to pop a gas tank or any other indispensible parts under a truck. It’s the bridges made of “twigs” that don’t look like they’d hold a person, let alone a one ton vehicle. It’s the streams and gullies. Sometimes I feel like I’m heading down a double black diamond ski hill, only the moguls are boulders. Yesterday we got stuck in the mud and the wheels were spun in deep. I was sure we would be sleeping in that truck for the night. But the workers pushed and we got out. Now Bob, on the other hand, loves the driving. He says people would pay big bucks to be able to off road like this. For him, it’s a blast.
The women, with the help of the kids, manage all of the water. Some walk far to get to the well. Some hike down steep inclines. Getting there is one thing. It’s walking back, with five gallons of water on your head that’s the hard part. Five gallons, that’s forty pounds sloshing around up there. They fetch water not just once or twice. Some go six times a day. A doctor told me one of the biggest complaints is backaches. With fetching water, hoeing, sweeping and all their other chores, it’s no wonder!
So many babies, and some moms look like kids themselves. We’ve sung more “head shoulders, knees and toes, hokey pokey, ABCD, and happy birthday” than I thought possible. Terrie thought it would be fun to sing “Zip a dee doo da”, and it was! The kids giggle and jump around. Then the women join in. They sing so beautifully. They talk and smile and sing, and can they dance! While everyone circles around singing, two women get in the middle and start a sort of dance competition. Suddenly I’m being pulled in. So I jump and dance and we all laugh.
I find myself connecting most with the old ladies, the ones with no teeth. I know they must be younger than me! But they don’t have flabby arms with all that water fetching. An old feisty lady was dancing. She had such bad cataracts that I don’t know how she could see. Her pupils were like milk. You could tell that she loved to play with the kids, because they were all dancing around her. One jumped up and pulled her scarf off and she got a shocked look on her face. Then she laughed and went back to dancing. When things calmed down, they gave me a baby to hold. So sweet, and a little wet with no diaper. I thought they might ask me to take him to America like others have done. But they took him back. The field officers are great. They don’t slow down, even for potty breaks. Some villages don’t have latrines, so it’s off to the field you go.
It makes me shudder to see the looks on the villagers’ faces when the clear water pours out of their new well. It’s heart wrenching to look at their previous source of water – a dirty stream with cows and pigs hanging around, or a muddy pit with water the color of clay. Speeches given by headmen are daunting. They talk about how they have waited years for clean water, about how they have been battling diarrhea all their lives, about the babies who have died. One headman said (through a translator), “Not only do we get clean water, but Mzungus have come to our village and now our children are able to see white people before they die.”
One field officer talked about how clean water impacts lives. Families who live in the cities avoid visiting grandparents in the villages, because they don’t want to expose their children to the dangerous water. Clean water is a blessing to the village, as well as to the extended family.
One field officer told us about how he did not develop for the first four years of his life. Every night his mother thought that this would be his last. He had cerebral malaria. Than at age four, he recovered. He has dedicated the rest of his life to God.
Well, you can’t play the license plate game here with so few cars and all definitely local. But it would be fun to play the T shirt game. I bet I saw a T shirt from every single state – Wisconsin Badgers, Indiana University, Colorado Rockies. These are all worn by folks who haven’t a clue what their own shirt means. How about “Don’t eat yellow snow”, “What happens on spring break stays on spring break”, or “War is hell, but moving is a close second”, “The world’s longest stationary bike race”. As I looked closer, I realized that many were of cartoon characters from 30 years ago, Smurfs, Blues Clues, Tweedy bird. Where have these shirts been over the past three decades? Now many are frayed to shreds, but still serving a purpose. One nice older man had on a Christmas T shirt, the kind a kindergarten teacher would wear with a snowman and a lighted tree. One little girl had on an outfit that I swear was my sister’s Halloween clown costume forty two years ago. I wondered if this girl was the envy of her neighborhood, or if she hated putting that thing on every day. She sure looked cute!
The people we met are just like us in many ways. They love their children. They laugh and sing. They are smart and thoughtful. But in one glaring way we are worlds apart. I have more than I could ever want, and they have next to nothing. While I’m eating more food than I can even stand, many of them are going hungry. While I can go on shopping sprees to my heart’s content, they simply have no expendable money. While I can travel the world over, they can barely leave their villages. There is something very special about the villages – silent starry nights, no traffic, close caring ties that come from depending on one another, peaceful days, uncluttered by the rat race of western societies. Would I want to trade with them? No. The hunger would be too great. The illnesses would be too overwhelming. But I hope I will remember to pray for them. I hope I will remember to support them, especially during times like these when their crops are dwindling and they have to wait for new food to grow.