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Tom and Ruth share tea with old friends at their Palm Beach home (2008)

Two of our Malawian neighbors were already sitting on our Khonde (porch) waiting for us when we arrived at our thatched roof cottage at Palm Beach at noon last Saturday.  Over the next 6 hours until nightfall, we (mainly Ruth) held court for total of 15 visitors

A blown tire from jumping off the road to miss a truck was the only eventful event from our trip from Blantyre to our cottage at Palm Beach.  Before we arrived, we stopped in Mangochi to buy another tire (you never travel without a spare).

Most of our visitors came to greet us on our return and tell of their family happenings since our last visit.  Usually it is about the status of their gardens, comments about the dry January (which does not bode well for quality of maize that will be produced) and their family’s health. Always they ask us about our life this past year, inquire about our family and how was our travel.  Interspersed are the sickness and death stories.

One of our favorite night watchman who had early tea on our khonde every day, probably in his fifties, died last October.  English 28, a coal black, tall, striking visitor from the next door village, lost his newborn son two weeks ago. Dolores, in her late 20’s, a favorite of Ruth’s , who she found a job for, is in the hospital and not doing well with TB associated with HIV.  Death is accepted here as a very real and frequent part of life.  When Ruth told English how sorry she was about the death of his son.  His comment was “It happens”.  There is the same sadness, but death is strikingly more a part of daily life here.

And then there was the gossip, complaints about the government, and the requests! The gossip is much the same as in the states.  Who is cheating on their spouses! What friendships have fallen apart in the last year and why?  Who lost their jobs and what they did to lose it.  As is at home, there sometimes is a kernel of truth, but there is always another side.

The government complaints don’t come from the villagers (because what the government does or does not do has very little impact on them).  The complaints come from what I would describe as the Malawian middle class—working as civil servants, clinical officers, leaders of non government organizations (NGO’s).  The fuel shortages are driving everyone “crazy” (it is a foreign exchange issue); the incredibly cumbersome bureaucracy (our friend Henry Kangunga spent three days in queues in Blantyre registering his car).  There are rotating blackouts of
electricity almost every night because of lack of generating capacity.  (Our new LED headlamps are very useful).  For us, it is a great source of stories and humor. We are here for a month.  It you ask a Malawian about how they deal with this, the universal response “It is terrible…”  But they have no alternative.

The requests are unique to this part of the world. In the first 24 hours they included chimanga (maize), tennis shoes, milk powder, school fees, bicycle, tubes and tires for a bicycle, electricity for a house, soap and something for his
daughter “who had no blood”.

Malawians are very polite and these requests are from villagers whom we know. The requests are genuine.   The soap and food requests we can usually honor with the extra soap we always bring and the small packets of rice and sugar that Ruth always buys when she arrives.  For the more substantial requests we let them know that most all of our extra money goes to the Malawi Children’s Village but we will see how much of our money is left at the “end of the day”.  When we leave, most of our clothes and especially tennis shoes stay here.  One year when we left our cottage, I drove out in bare feet because I had an extra pair of shoes at the Malawi Children’s Office down the road.  I must admit there is a certain satisfaction in giving your stuff away…especially to the folks from the village whom you know.

After a few days, it is easy to get into the rhythm of life here, very much set by the sunrise and sunset (almost equal in this part of the world 6 am to 6 pm).  At 5am (to beat the sun, we are in bed by 8 pm)) on our first morning at Palm Beach, we took off on our morning run up the mile of dirt road to the main highway.  On our return, there was this great commotion behind us.  It was the running club with matching Alaska Pacific University Fun Run Tee shirts who were trying to get our attention.   The running group had been established by the 15 faculty and students
on a work/study program from APU a few weeks earlier.  We had heard rumors that they existed and might surprise us.  They did.  With much fanfare, we struggled to keep up with them back to our cottage.   We have been running with them every morning.  More truthfully, trying to keep up.

Yesterday, I was running ahead with one of the 14 y/o boys, Ruth and the others were behind us.  I thought I understood his question, but had to repeat it,”Where did you find her?”  I was tempted to say, the local Kandodo store, but realizing that English is a second language for him told him the truth (secondary school). His response:  “she is a wonderful woman”.  It does not get much better than this, and I could not agree more.

As I write this it is 7 am at the cottage we are waiting for petrol (gas) to arrive.  We had a several day respite, and then nothing.  The rumors are it should arrive today…and we have cell phone connections up and down the highway watching for the fuel truck.  We have just enough to make it into Mangochi to refuel, perhaps a bit more.  In the meantime, you change your plans for the day and drink Chombe Tea.  As the locals say with a smile, “This is Malawi”!!