The results of the fire on the mountain. The baobab, as usual, is just fine.
AUGUST 3: The staff and volunteers gathered to say goodbye to me and to help load up the Mozambican film crew so that we could all leave on the speedboat. We had some trouble getting out of the harbor because the kumwera kept pushing us back into the rocks so that the boatmen could not lower the motor. Eventually a man who happened to be at the lodge selling tomatoes with his family jumped into the water fully clothed, pushed us out far enough to get the motor down, then swam back to shore. He had no particular connection to any of us; he just jumped in to help because that is what people do. Looking towards the new fire.
I waved as long as I could see anyone, which wasn’t long because of the kumwera. Thankfully, these were the roiling, rolling type of waves that heave you up and set you down, rather than the stunning canyons of a month ago. We were all given hooded ponchos, and because I was in the back I had to pull mine down over my face because I was getting drenched by the spray. I was very happy about this, actually, because it meant I could not see what was happening as we rounded Mala Point, always the most difficult part of the journey.
On the other side of Mala Point, things began to calm down as they always do simply because you have rounded the point, but then they began to calm down to the point that by the time we docked at Cobué the lake was almost calm - though one could see the waves were still rolling a bit further out. Fishermen had appeared almost as if by magic; a sure sign that conditions were improving. Thus I stepped out of the boat lighthearted. Maybe I should have been sad that I was leaving, but to be honest, after last month, all I cared about was the waves and having a smooth voyage. This is very similar, by the way, to the reaction one gets asking someone here if they enjoy their job. They look at you unable to comprehend the question. If it earns enough money to feed the family, it is as enjoyable as it needs to be. If the waves are smooth and the journey is pleasant, then the farewell came at the right time; it was time to go.
I got out of the boat and proceeded to Migração to get stamped out for the last time. The office was locked, and I was about to call the phone number on the piece of paper taped to the door when an older man came out of the building next door. That building is very curious: one half is the customs and maritime police office, but the other half seems to be a house where a family lives. I have always wondered about their connection to the duties at hand. When I had come up the hill to Migração two women were there outside that family’s door, and they looked at me with faces of anxiety that I have come to recognize as the fear local people feel when they see a white person and do not speak any European languages. “Mwauka bwanj?” I said in the local dialect [How have you awakened, the equivalent of “Good morning”]. Their faces changed instantly into broad smiles. “Ndauka bwino, kaya inawo?” [I awakened well, but I don’t know about you?] each said almost in unison. “Ndauk, zikomo.” [I have awakened as well, thank you] I answered. And upon hearing this conversation the older man emerged. I think he might have been hiding until he heard the Nyanja, because now we conducted the entire exit interview in that language. He explained to me that the regular immigration officer (the one with whom I rode in the chapa last month) was sick. I expressed my condolences and then we got down to business. He knew how to record the forms in all the books, but he must not have known how to change the exit stamp, as he stamped my passport with yesterday’s date. Oh, well. With my departure now set for the day before - if any police stopped me to ask why I was still here, I went back down to the boat. In fact there was a policeman at Julius’ beach, but he knew me from town and he had gotten extra chicken at the choral festival, so I knew I was fine. “Okay, Mr. Mark,” Mr. Brighton from Nkwichi said. “We can go to immigration now.” He had been so busy helping the film crew he had not noticed I had already gone and done it.
We got back in the boat and headed diagonally across the lake toward Likoma. The water was roiling again halfway there, but it soon calmed down once more and I was glad my last boat ride on Lago Niassa / Lake Malawi (at least for now my last ride) was a good one. The immigration office on Likoma is at the airport in the afternoon, which was convenient because I had arranged for vehicle transport to Mango Drift since my bags were so heavy. Immigration was smooth, with the rookie officers rookies no longer. They wished me well and hoped to see me again. “I hope so, too.”
Just as I got out of the airport, Georgia from Mango came by in the transport, and I hopped in. We took the winding roads to the primary school on that side of the island, and then we stopped because the road goes no further. A worker at Mango was waiting and scooped my heavy red duffel suitcase before I could even reach for it. He put it on his back (it has backpack straps, though I don’t think they are very comfortable), and we began our walk to Mango down the steep path with many sharp rocks, he in his bare feet with my 35 – 40 pound suitcase.
Once I was checked in, I wanted to go to Mbamba Bay one more time to see the stores and get a few things. I took the shortcut, which is straight over the top of the mountain to the other side, then rejoining the main road near the secondary school. Going up the path, I noticed that there had been a fire recently in the mountain. I wondered what had happened, since there is of course no lightning here during this time of year, and it is not the time for field clearing nor is the top of a mountain the place to clear for a field in any case. It made the path a little more difficult because the occasional inevitable slip on a loose rock made your foot slide further than usual with no grass to stop it.
That night the mystery was solved. I found out that a mentally disturbed man on the island has recently taken to setting fires in the southern part of the island. The fire site I had walked over had only been set the night before, and teams of islanders had worked hard to beat it back before it swept down the mountain and burned the lodge and the village. Of course we are talking about them doing this with cloth and with hoes; there are no ways to get water up there to use for firefighting. Fortunately, not only did the dirt road serve as a firebreak; but also just as the fire reached the road, the wind shifted and pushed the blaze back into itself, effectively burning it out. Ready to go up the hill
AUGUST 4: I slept hard last night, very different from the last few nights when I have awakened at 3 in the morning for some reason or other and stayed awake. As I was repacking for the plane flight, everyone outside began rushing around running from one end of the beach to another, calling out. The man had set another fire, this time just on the other side of the mountain; and the men were rushing off to see what they could do to stop it.
Originally I was to ride a boat to the fancy resort Kaya Mawa, then get off the boat to get on the safari vehicle with the guests there for transport to the plane. This fire meant the manager Kevin and all other men were unavailable, so one of the men who was chasing the arsonist called out to a woman who works there to bring my bag to the school, where Georgia once again would pick me up to take to Kaya Mawa by vehicle. Again before I could reach for my bag to protest that I could do it, she had scooped it up and placed it on top of her head, making her way through the sand and then up the sharp rocks in her bare feet.
Getting to Kaya Mawa, it turned out that there was one too many guests to go on the safari vehicle, so they asked if I would mind getting to the airport on a quad bike. I wouldn’t mind at all! We made it well before the big safari vehicle, which allowed me to call and confirm my taxi on the other end of the flight. It was all so strange: in Mozambique there were no calls (except by tenuous skype connection), no flights, no taxis, no quad bike or safari vehicle transport, no airport. Here, a mere twelve kilometers across the water, there were all these things, and I knew Lilongwe would feel even more jarring.
The flight itself was very different from that first solo journey. I was flying this time with eight vacationers who had come to stay in a luxury resort. It was interesting to me how different I found their conversations now than I think I would have three months ago. How can so many people travel so far and pay so much money in order to not really see what is before their eyes? Then again, who knows how much I have missed?
As the plane lifted and banked towards Mozambique and then turned away from it, the finality of this portion of the journey finally hit me. At first I was feeling very sad and sentimental, then I suddenly found myself angry with me for reasons I can’t quite describe. Sentiment is a luxury, I suppose, unavailable to those I just left. Better to just keep going.
We landed at Lilongwe and transferred the mounds of luggage and souvenirs to the luggage carts. I was met by my driver, who whisked my suitcase into the taxi and we were off. Now I was moving to a new level of wonderment, seeing paved roads, multi-story buildings, grocery stores, gas stations, ATM machines, banks, water treatment plants, ads for internet companies and phone money transfers… all things I have not seen for three months.
I was back in Old Town in no time it seemed (being used to taking a day to go twenty miles) this time in a hotel near the Post Office, which also serves as a crafts market – or aggressive salesperson gauntlet to run as quickly as possible, depending upon your mood. Today it felt more like a gauntlet to me; everything was just a little overwhelming, and I tried to run my errands as quickly as possible so I could get back to the hotel and just relax. The hotel has a bed with an actual mattress instead of a foam pad, electricity and lights, wi-fi and a private bathroom with a sink and a shower – again all things I have not seen in a quarter of a year, and things that I am appreciating as the daily miracles they are.
At lunch I chatted with the waitress in Chichewa. The restaurant here is designed for ex-pats, and the menu reflects that fact, with burgers and lasagna and club sandwiches, foods I had actually forgotten about! When she came to take my order, I teasingly asked here where the nsima was. “Nsima?! Have you had nsima?” “Ah, many times; I have been in the villages.” This is a sort of code here, and together we began launching into what the menu didn’t have: nsima, mphunga, mchicha, usipa, chambo, kampango, mbuzi, etc. etc.” It was funny and fun but bittersweet at the same time. Those are foods I may not have again, and it was odd for me to think how much I will miss them. I ordered a burger and fries. It was good.
As the muezzin began the sunset call to prayer, I settled in to my room. Tomorrow the thirty-hour flight journey begins: Lilongwe to Blantyre to Addis Ababa to Rome to Toronto to Boston, and then the drive home. I am trying to picture how North America is going to look to me after three months and ten thousand miles away from home, but of course I have no way of knowing. It’s as much a part of the adventure as coming here; and everything will still be just as new.
A monkey friend, waiting to earn his daily bread.
JULY 31: Last night was the loudest I have ever heard the lake since I have been here. It was an unbelievable roar at my hut a few hundred feet from the shore; it must have been deafening right at the lakeside. It was difficult to sleep, but I was too much in awe of the sound to want to sleep much anyway. The beautiful Böhm's Bee-eater. A rare bird elsewhere, it is quite common here. It's a dark picture... but can you see the two long tail feathers?
This morning we learned that a fisherman had drowned overnight just off the shore from the farm. He was from the second village south of here. Apparently his family had warned him not to go out at night alone in a canoe, but whether for need of food or money he did. His body has not come up yet, though apparently one shoe did wash ashore. I am not sure how the family was notified so quickly, but now they are on their way through Mbueca to begin the search here.
English teacher Trish and I accompanied Mr. Elias on a hike: I was his “experimental tourist” to see how giving a tour in English would go. We were hiking to Peter’s Rock, which is a mountaintop about three miles out. I have been looking forward to this hike for a long time. Elias accompanied me on the ill-fated voyage to Luiga, and his knowledge of the local flora and fauna is renowned. Sure enough, he showed us a thick plant looking like aloe that grows in a mound symbiotically with only one kind of tree. He pulled one of the leaves out and peeled it to show us how one can make a rope or strong string out of its internal fibers by folding a long fiber in half, rolling it in the palm of your hand to braid it, then combining those braids if you wish and drying them in the sun. He showed us the solo tree, which he said his ancestors once worshiped by bringing sacrifices of flour to the root of the tree. If the flour was gone the next morning, your prayer would be answered. We saw bush bucks and huge black ants that he warned us to stay away from because they would eat your flesh while you stood there if they could get on you. We even saw week-old tracks of a herd of eight zebras. I did not know zebras lived in mountains, but apparently during dry season they go to the tops of the mountains where it is still green. I certainly kept my eyes out for the herd, but no luck. I imagine they were long gone by then.
In the afternoon I finished making all the DVDs by around 6. That night, there was a nice surprise party for me with staff and volunteers Malcolm, Wezi, Ines, Lily and Trish. They had loaded opera into a computer in my honor and we had a very nice time.
AUGUST 1: Today with the change of month it began to dawn on me that it really is getting to be time to leave. Volunteer Adrian left. Adrian is a true character, someone you would not believe existed in real life unless you met him. He is a real Zambian bushwhacker with the thick Afrikaans accent. He is an expert on fish and was here to consult on the fish farm project in Litanda. He dresses as if he were on permanent safari and has a heart of gold, although he is brash and will jump in and do something if you aren’t doing it the right way. If you think of Crocodile Dundee and then imagine that Mr. Dundee would be like Julia Child compared to this man, then you have some picture of what I am talking about. Today as he was leaving, he was asking Mr. Joe if he had any questions about fish before he left. When Joe said that he didn’t, he bellowed “THEN YOU AREN’T THINKING ENOUGH ABOUT FISH!!!” And with that, he scooped up the lodge’s dog and began tossing him in the air. When the dog would turn and growl and bite, he would say “EHHHH??? WOT’S THET???” then groom him in a way that he would instantly calm down, explaining all the while some escapade or other he had had with a crocodile or some such thing – then up in the air went the dog again and the whole cycle repeated. I’ve seen some sights in my time here, but that whole scene was unforgettable. When it came time to leave, he shouted “TIME TO LEAVE?!?!? THAT’S WOT I’VE BEEN TRYING TO DOOOOO, EHHHH??? TIME MANAGEMENT!” and off he trooped to his next adventure, never looking back. I wonder if I could ever do that.
Wezi and Ines went on the boat to get to Lichinga today to get supplies. They are hoping to get back in time to say goodbye to me again, but I really doubt that it will happen. The lake is so rough, better to wait than to travel at night on those waves.
This afternoon I had to say goodbye Joe and Mr. Richard, which was very hard. I am not really ready to write about it now. They are accompanying Stephen and Beth Bigger and Lily to Mcondece, where they will be learning from Stephen how to make music videos. I am thrilled that Richard is going to be able to use his talents, especially to learn skills that will help him achieve his goals online. Things do happen here – pang’ono pang’ono.
This evening was the first big cloud of lake flies that I have seen. It was one of those clear evenings where one can see the mainland of Malawi all the way across the lake, and somewhere in the middle this giant black cloud was rolling up from the surface of the lake. It began to go straight up, then the wind carried it in a long plume – thankfully, away from us.
At the evening’s meal I said goodbye to Lily and the Biggers. Slowly people are leaving on errands and appointments. I thought that would make me feel sad, but it feels organic somehow. I too have been on a long appointment and run many errands. Nkwichi opens its beach to each of us and closes behind us when we leave. And life definitely goes on. I already know when my boat leaves the shore in two days, everyone will turn and go back to their own appointments and errands. I know because I have done it myself. The lake washes the beach clean, and the next day starts. At least I have brought a new song. That will stay behind. And that is enough.
AUGUST 2: This morning the body of the fisherman washed ashore – here on the beach at Nkwichi, a mile from where the accident occurred. The kumwera is that strong. By the time I was walking to the office at 6:30, staff and management were lifting the body and covering it with a tarp so the family would not find him half submerged in the sand. Obviously the mood has been subdued all day. The family came to take his body by 7:30. Once again the remains were too far decomposed to allow him to be carried back to the village. Once again someone was buried far from his home village. This time the burial was just outside the entrance to the Farm, where the owner of that land previous to Nkwichi is also buried.
There is not much to tell about today. I packed, I wrote, I organized, I packed some more. I spent time in the office, making sure I wrote letters to people to whom I had promised something, letting them know what was going on. I wrote to one choirmaster to let him know about his request that I research the possibility of financial assistance for tours. The results were not good, I am afraid. As people discover I am leaving, they have begun pulling me aside, quietly asking for things. A bible in English. Candlesticks for an altar. A speaker system. An amplifier. A keyboard. A laptop. All things that are impossible to attain or even obtain here, but which countless people who step on these shores and leave a few days or months later appear to be able to easily afford, breezily swinging about their equipment, taking all sorts of images and recordings. Surely it does not hurt to ask, especially someone who seems to understand that it is not any kind of begging request. If possible. If possible, I could use a…. I have written these requests in a notebook that I will keep in case I learn of any grants or funding that might make some of these things happen. I am never sure what to say, but I respond that I myself cannot afford these requests, and I know that they are not asking me to; but that I will try to contact organizations or institutions who might be able to help. And I will. But to them, I know, I will be another rich person leaving with all his fancy equipment and nice clothing and ability to travel that maybe they could never, ever even imagine affording - making empty promises as he steps on the boat. Again, life will go on. But I know now that, deep down, people will wait nonetheless. And hope. I know this because some villagers have told me themselves of promises they heard or thought they heard from visitors years ago. For me they will probably wonder sometimes what came of that rich old man who taught a nice song and tried to speak the language. Will he be able to get us pitch pipes? Candlesticks? A laptop? He might. He might. I think he promised. He did; I know he did. Well, perhaps this time….
Tonight I watched a bee-eater make its circular flight, snatching an insect in mid-air and returning to exactly the same perch. They are beautiful birds, and I have loved watching them and the precision with which they do that same thing over and over. The monkeys are up to their usual mischief: yesterday they even stole my cake I was saving for an afternoon snack by coming right into the office when nobody was looking. Well, why not? They are not so different from us. Each of us just wants to have enough to eat after all, and we will do what it takes to get it, whether that be making hopeful requests to foreigners who seem to have the world at their fingertips, or fishing alone in a kumwera in the middle of the night.
AUGUST 3: Time to go. There is a film crew of four from the government of Mozambique’s Council of Tourism here to record the highlights of Nkwichi in three hours. For myself, I don’t think I have seen all the highlights in three months!
I have checked and double checked my luggage to make sure that there are no stowaways: African roaches, scorpions, giant spiders, or flesh-eating ants. All clear.
The kumwera is still very strong. I am glad we are going on the speedboat; it rides the waves much better than Miss Nkwichi, even if I am fond of her.
No ceremony: just step on the boat and ride away. Maybe I’ll be back some day. I hope so. For now, it is on to the next adventure, whatever that might be.
All of us performing "Chauta." Photo: Kristina Low.
After the Ball is Over My "room" at Khango beach, with sand floor (it is literally on the beach) and Thomas the Tank sheet.
JULY 27: The Festival went just fine when it finally got underway. I did not get to see much of the choirs because I was busy adding scores and running to the stage to tell Mr. Patson which choirs to announce could go to get their dinner. I knew I would not have to worry about not being able to see the watch, though, because all the guests from the lodge, manager Kristina, volunteer Ines and one of the judges, Stephen Bigger, each had at least one camera or video camera documenting the entire event; I had my camera from my grant there as well to use to make the DVDs for the choirs. The bank of machines facing the stage looked like a press conference, and I realized I have been here long enough to find the sight jarring and even a bit ridiculous.
We all enjoyed our time together singing "Chauta." The audience loved it, too... seeing us all there from twelve villages (eleven in Mozambique and one in the United States) performing as one.
The third place choir received notebooks and pens as well as a pitch pipe, the second place choir got a robe for the choirmaster and a recording session as well as an opportunity for a choral exchange with an ensemble from the United Kingdom, and the first place choir received a certificate for new choir robes for each of them as well as embroidered hats that said “Winner” in Nyanja (Woyamba – which literally means “a person who comes in first). The winning choir, Chigoma, then sang one of their selections again as a sort of “victory lap,” and the band played and people danced until 1:30 in the morning.
As the band was playing, the kitchen volunteers took apart the cooking and eating areas and packed them up. When the band finished, we at the church started taking things down and loading them into the truck to be taken back to Julius’ Beach. We were very fortunate that the new generator had enough fuel to light what we were doing until we were finished, which was at 2:30. Not wanting to hitch a ride on the back of the truck, Mr. Joe and I walked down to the beach to get ready to board the boat to take us back to Nkwichi. Anzanga [my colleagues]... all honorary URI choirmasters for a day. L to R: Bernard Matifalo, Chicaia; Benjamin Jackson, Utonga; Jaime Chimphanga, Mcondece; Paulino Luis Kalumba, Litanda; Ernest Mkandawile, Khango; Joseph Salimu, Mbueca and Manda Wilderness Community Trust
We waited. And we waited. And we waited. We became afraid that maybe the boat wasn’t coming back. Female volunteers with their crying infants patiently sat down in the sand, waiting until we learned what might happen or until someone thought of what they could do or where they could stay. We knew there were no rooms available in Cobué because of the festival and because Choda, a traditional women’s dance, had been performed in Chicaia that day – two cultural events that draw people from miles around. Some people began to walk back to their village rather than wait for the boat. I began to consider staying awake all night at Julius’ pavilion and walking back when it got light out.
The speedboat came at 3:30, and some tempers were a bit short from being overtired. Eventually, all were on the boat except for two young mothers from Namisse who had to walk home in the dark with their infants tied to their backs, a prospect that obviously did not make them very happy.
After we dropped off the volunteers at Mala, we arrived at Nkwichi at 4:45 in the morning. I slept for an hour or so, waking up at 6 to begin my Sunday work.
JULY 28: Despite the fact that the festival is over, events have been speeding up, not slowing down. The day after the festival was spent transferring video files and making DVDs, organizing materials for the choirmaster training, writing the festival portion of my final report, and of course packing.
It became clear very early in the day that there would be no way that I would have all the DVDs done by the time the choirmaster training was finished. This worried me; because I had made the promise that these DVDs would be done before I left. There would still be a few days after the training of course, but people are so used to broken or forgotten promises from visitors that I knew it would likely look as if that was what was about to happen again. Still, there was not much I could do about it - best to move on and make absolutely certain that they were done before I left Mozambique.
For the first time since coming I did not have dinner with anyone. It was arranged to have my dinner at my hut, but that often means that it is delivered there. By the time I realized that I would need to go to the kitchen to get it, it was 8:30 and I was too tired to do any such thing. I fell asleep by 9, which was actually later than I had expected. Too much excitement, I guess.
JULY 29: I was up a little before 6 to get ready to board the boat for Cobué. We were scheduled to leave at 7:30. Originally, we were meant to leave at 6, but two guests from France were departing on the same boat, so we needed to alter our plans to accommodate them. When we learned of this the day before, Lily sent a letter via one of the staff at Nkwichi to Joe in Mbueca so he would not have to start walking at 4:30 to be there by 6.
Unfortunately, Joe never received this letter, so I got to the office at 7 only to find Joe already waiting there.
On the way to Cobué, we saw a crocodile sunning itself on one of the rocks at Mala Point. I had not seen a crocodile doing this since the first day I came in May, so it was a nice sight to see… from a distance.
In Cobué, we met up with the Catholic priest, a Korean man named Padre Tarsisio. He unlocked a classroom next door to the malaria clinic as we were taking kneeling benches from the church. There were five choirmasters in attendance: the directors from Chicaia, Cobué (Khango), Litanda, Mcondece and Utonga.
We began our sessions with the usual introductions and a prayer, and then I handed out nice transparent folders for everyone with the first handout already inserted, as well as a pen for each choirmaster. These materials were very much appreciated, as I knew they would be. There is a lovely custom here that when one is handing something to someone else, each presents or receives the item by holding it in one hand while supporting that arm just below the elbow with the other hand. It does not sound like much, but it actually is a very elegant gesture that somehow seems to instantly add value to what is being exchanged.
The morning began with a lecture on the anatomy of the voice and the way the voice is produced in the body. This was all very new information, and some items did not have Nyanja terms, so Joe and the choirmasters were coming up with new words to describe some of what we were discussing as we were discussing it. Although I knew this was likely, the process took a little longer than I thought. Mentally I began to restructure the day to accommodate a slower, more thorough pace than originally planned.
After a session of around two hours, it was time for tea, which is traditionally taken here at about 10:30, though we left for Mr. Bondo’s around 11. As we were getting ready to go, the choirmasters asked if we might reconvene at the secondary school, since they did not want to meet next to the sick people or to disturb them by trying some of the things I was demonstrating. I have to say I thought this was a good idea, because for whatever reason, near the chalkboard where I was working there was a multitude of mosquitoes swarming about. On our way out we thanked Padre Tarsisio for his hospitality and then carried the benches back to the church.
After tea we reconvened at the secondary school. We spent an hour in which I explained the importance of warm-ups, practicing some with them and giving ideas for warm-ups that could address specific issues (the men’s voices are tired from a day of heavy digging, the choir needs to work on extending high notes, etc.). After each demonstration, the directors were writing notes, frantically trying to absorb all the information that was being given. I knew all of it was new, so I was realizing I would need to shorten our sessions in terms of time to about an hour at most before a break or a discussion. Fortunately, it was time to go back to Mr. Bondo’s for lunch at 1.
Lunch was nsima, chambo and cabbage. I have gotten pretty good at eating vegetable sauces with nsima, but the fish I still find challenging. The fish sauce is of course no problem, but chambo is a bony fish, and dipping the nsima in the wrong way still means a mouth full of bones and little meat. Well… one more opportunity to practice.
After lunch we had one of my favorite sessions of the day. As I mentioned before, one of the choirmasters, Mr. Bernard of Chicaia, had won a pitch pipe. He had come up to me later that night and asked me what he was supposed to do with it. This afternoon, the choirmaster from Utonga, Mr. Benjamin, who tended to ask a lot of very good questions, started the time by saying that a frequent problem he had was accidentally starting a song too high, causing his sopranos discomfort and making the song sound bad. What could he do about this?
I first asked who had a keyboard, knowing of course that this was not a given. I was prepared to lecture on using a rubber band stretched on a board, which would give a consistent pitch when plucked. In this group, however, all had keyboards, although one choir had just bought theirs and did not yet have any of the equipment to power it or provide amplification, and one had one but it was broken. I pointed out that electric keyboards will often make a small sound when the keys are pressed even if broken, and that that will be all he would need if it can do that. I drew a diagram of the keys and explained the letter names that go with them, then showed how they also matched the letters on the pitch pipe. We even got into some discussion of the flats and sharps, as they became very interested very quickly. I explained how the keyboard or pitch pipe can be used once one knows what pitch will begin a piece most comfortably for the choir: the choirmaster can write it down and use that same letter each time, knowing it will work. I do believe this was one of the most exciting parts of the day for them. Mr. Benjamin very reasonably asked if it would be possible to get pitch pipes for all of them, since it is an incredibly useful tool for them that is not readily available here. This seemed a sensible request, and I promised to do something about it upon my return. What a wonderful (and inexpensive - for us, anyway) project it would be to supply thirteen villages with a pitch pipe each.
We had a brief session on finding inspiration for composition – brief because most of these choirmasters already have composed at least one song. Finally I gave a handout with a diagram of the different elements of choral music: melody, rhythm, harmony, text, etc. The advanced element that appeared to draw the most interest from the group was the idea of shaded dynamics. Currently, choral music here is either loud or soft, with no in between and no rising and falling of volume within the phrase. Stephen Bigger loaned me some very nice speakers, and I demonstrated nuance by using some recordings. This was an expansion of a concept that already exists here, and I have a feeling that this might be incorporated into some songs soon. Other elements such as articulation (notes given special attention by cutting them short or making them longer or giving them special stress) did not appear to be of as much use to them currently. That is fine. My idea was not to come and tell them to use these various items, only to let them know that they are available and to let them decide what new ways they might want to use them. That would be most exciting: to hear the elements of music combined in new and interesting ways that the choirmasters of Manda Wilderness invent.
We ended at 4:30, because the two choirmasters from the inland villages were a little bit like tourists; they wanted to be able to wash in a lake, and they wanted to do it before any crocodiles might come, since they did not know where the beasts might hang out near there. Joe and I went to Khango Beach (Julius’ backpacker “hotel”). My hut was smartly furnished with one complete and one broken wooden chair, a brand new mosquito net (MOST important), and a big bed with a foam mattress that only sloped a few inches from top to bottom – covered with Thomas the Tank Engine sheet and a nice blanket carefully folded exactly in the middle of the bed to make it easier to tuck in the mosquito net at night. It was good to have a mosquito net, because all the water for washing or flushing the gravity toilets is kept in giant open metal drums.
Dinner was back at Mr. Bondo’s: rice, nsima, cabbage and more chambo, though I passed on the chambo. I just don’t like it that much, and I would rather use the nsima on the cabbage. After dinner, Mr. Jaime of Mcondece asked Joe if he could help him set up the voice recorder he had won for being best choirmaster. I tried to make out the tiny instructions by lantern light while Joe pushed buttons. To test it, the choirmasters sang “Chauta.” I tried to sit and listen, but I just had to join in on the bass part to strengthen it, since we were a little tenor-heavy. Once again it was indescribable to hear the piece this way, clearly entering the repertoire of the region. I sincerely hope Mr. Toppenberg won’t mind, but I have to believe he will be thrilled when I tell him.
We walked back to Julius’ where many people were gathered around the television to watch the Portuguese telenovelas playing on Mozambican stations. Cobuéans (?) take their soap operas very seriously, and men, women and even some children were huddled closely near the set until one in the morning, cheering and catcalling the good and evil characters, sounding as if they were watching a sporting match. This actually helped me fall asleep, as I like that kind of sound. The high pitched whine of tiny mosquitoes kept me awake for a while though and woke me up from time to time during the night. The net really was excellent, though, and I woke up without any bites. I wanted to turn on my light so I could do Sudoku puzzles or something to pass the time until I fell asleep again, but the lake flies are small enough to pass through a mosquito net, are attracted to light and will fly into your eyes, ears and nose if they are not covered.
JULY 30: On this day, I spent the morning explaining the judging rubrics for the festival for both the choirs and the choirmasters. I explained what a rubric is and how it can be used as an evaluative tool. It was also important to show how it makes judging fairer: rather than simply ranking which choir a judge feels is best to worst, the judge must justify their decision based on a set of standards. The numbers they select then provide information for feedback as far as which items the choir did well and which they will want to improve.
After explaining the rubrics and taking questions, I then met with each choirmaster and explained what the rubrics said regarding their choir and their own performance. These choirs had all done well, so it was not a difficult chore requiring diplomacy, as it might have been in a couple of cases had some other directors been there. Some of the judges’ comments were quite harsh, and I would have needed the ability to soften the wording without watering down the message.
As I was meeting with each choirmaster outside, the others were working together on topics of interest to them, exactly as I had hoped might happen as they got to know one another. Sometimes I would hear applause, laughter or snatches of song coming from the classroom. When it was time for tea, the choirmasters from Utonga and Litanda walked down the main business road of Cobué, singing duets. These villages are of course quite far apart; if the conference achieved nothing else, it helped all these men to know that they had friends in other villages who share their passion for music. Maybe next year they will greet each other at the festival as friends and colleagues rather than rivals. Choral music is unifying as it is, but the profundity of its effects was never better demonstrated to me than the seven of us walking the dusty roads of Cobué on our way to tea.
We met Lily and Stephen and Beth Bigger on our way to Mr. Bondo’s and they joined us for tea, leading into lunch. This was the time for the group to hear what judges look for in a performance and for them to ask their questions of a judge for the event. Without trying to draw attention to it, I sat off to the side to let Stephen take up the session. He will be staying after I leave, and it was good to have him there to see how things work and for me to know that his work with the Mcondece choir in making their recording is sure to be a success.
The concluding speeches were very kind. I know that much is merely the politeness of the region as the men went around the table thanking me and telling me that they had learned much and would carry it back to their choirs, but I appreciated it all the same. I returned the favor by thanking them for the same. I know my choirs will see what I will be carrying back to them that I have learned.
The kumwera was beginning to pick up by the time we finished at Mr. Bondo’s. I thanked Mr. Bondo for all his help – including hiding me from the police! – since I knew I might not see him again before I left. This was my first farewell, and I was surprised how emotional it made me feel. Though I could not presume to call him a friend, Mr. James Bondo was one of the people who made me feel absolutely welcome in Cobué, and his kindness, decency and good nature shine through in all that he does.
We boarded the speedboat and made our way back to Nkwichi. Joe actually had to sit on the front of the boat to keep us weighted down properly. The waves were not yet too bad, but we all had to wear rain ponchos and make sure our equipment was securely stowed in the tarp. I knew it was a matter of time before the waves picked up, and I was happy when we came in to dock.
Now I have reports to write and DVDs to finish. I also have the process of letting go, saying goodbye, to go through. I still have plenty to do.
JULY 27: Chigoma! Chigoma took first place. Second place went to Mcondece, and third went to Chicaia. Third place was a bit of a dark horse, but was no doubt due to the fact that Mr. Matifalo has created his own compositions and the completely adult choir of eight singers performed them with utter conviction, a novelty in this region that the crowd went wild for. Hurrah! The award for best choirmaster went to Mr. Jaime Chimphanga of Mcondece, a very-well deserved award for one of the most musical choral directors I know in this or any other culture. I play one video recording over and over of my time there in Mcondece in which he improvises a sermon over the choir, singing “behind the time” (a difficult concept to explain – sort of singing out of rhythm while being completely aware of and in relation to the rhythm), but even as he was singing behind the time, he was dancing in rhythm and indicating with his arms when the choir should enter or stop singing. A genuine master class.
The Miss Nkwichi left sometime between 6:30 and 7 in the morning. This was a one-boat peacetime operation worthy of D-Day in terms of planning. To give an idea, I alone had packed a complete change of clothes for the evening performance (a sport coat, tie, dress pants and dress shoes that I packed just for this one occasion), the sixty five judging sheets each for the choirs and choirmasters, the informational handouts the choirmasters needed concerning food and travel reimbursement, the music for “Chauta,” a pitch pipe, the award certificates, nice pens to write the village names on the certificates, paper and pen to write the information for any original compositions that came my way in the early afternoon, my iPad to document these original compositions (for submission to earthsongs, an American publisher of world music), matches to light the candles on stage, tennis shoes to change into once we had waded out of the boat and I was off and running errands, my computer to show a slide show of all the photos of choirs I had taken in the village to show during the time I was adding all the scores, my video camera… oh, and my PASSPORT!!!
The boat also was carrying pots and basins for cooking, 65 chickens (kept frozen in the Nkwichi solar-powered coolers, 715 mustard green leaves (they are sold by the bunch in averages of five), 15 kilograms of tomatoes, 7 kilograms of beans, a giant bag of nsima powder, giant wooden serving spoons made specially for the festival, prizes for the choirs and choirmasters, crates of empty wine bottles to serve as candle holders, the candles themselves, a generator and lights newly bought for the occasion and all the wires to hook them up, sleeping bags and blankets to accommodate the choirmasters from far villages who were staying overnight, and more bags and boxes that I never knew what they contained. In addition to staff and volunteers from Nkwichi, we picked up a total of ten women volunteers and their six infants in the villages of Mala and Namisse (which is actually part of Mala), making a total of twenty-six people on the boat – a chapa on the lake, I thought to myself. We were so full, we had to shout out to the village volunteers in Utonga that they would need to walk to Cobué because the boat would sink if we picked them up! It was good to know boatmen are more sensible than chapa drivers, who would have picked them up anyway.
When we landed on Julius’ beach, we immediately started loading the truck to bring our supplies from the beach up the hill to the “kitchen,” otherwise known as the remains of the Catholic school that was gutted and burned during the wars. Again as we were loading, I had a chance to marvel at the strength of women’s heads and necks here, as I watched one petite woman struggle to receive and lift a car battery. I was rushing over to take it from her when she made a quick push to the top of her head, and instantly her posture changed and she quickly and almost elegantly carried the car battery to the truck.
We unloaded the supplies at the kitchen as some of the children went down to the beach to load giant drums of water from the lake to bring back for cooking. I made my way to the church to begin to set up the chairs for the chiefs and honored guests. The morning was a lot of waiting punctuated by occasional trips from the truck to drop off a few more tables and chairs. Mr. Joe and Mr. Rafael began to work on the wiring for the new generator and the lights for the stage. I was trying to figure out how to hang the giant welcome banner, and I was putting out our “candle holders” on the steps of the church. Occasionally a child would walk by, see me and burst into “Chauta, Chauta….” It was happening; we were really going to do this after all this time.
The band Body, Mind and Soul arrived and began setting up. They had a huge amount of equipment, and we needed them to set up their massive (by local standards) sound system on some of the twelve bench pews that we had brought for the choirs. We did not need twelve pews anyway; we knew each waiting choir would only have a maximum of twenty singers.
Some people had gone to the boardinghouse to get it set up for the choirmasters to stay the next three days. The building was still an empty shell, and it needed to get the mattresses set up and mosquito nets hung. Despite the measurements I took, the curtains had arrived too small, and only two windows could be fixed to be private. We made sure the curtains were on the windows looking towards the neighbors then made sure the choirmasters’ beds were set up in those rooms.
Lunchtime (spaghetti) came at two. No choirs had come to sing their original creations; that was scheduled at one. One choirmaster had come to say that his village was hosting a traditional women’s dance that afternoon and that he would not be able to come at one (which of course I already knew by then!), but could he bring the group at five? I wanted to encourage the creation of original pieces, so I told him I would be happy to do that.
Last minute errands and details were beginning to pile on; we were putting on a more elaborate event electrically and presentationally than heretofore. Time was flying, but the choirs were still operating on African time. I knew the choirs would be late for our rehearsal; but I had not counted on the judges from Lichinga arriving then, when I was doing something else, announcing to Mr. Joe that they were going to go eat something and would be back later. There would not be time to explain the judging system to them before we started, especially because they spoke only Portuguese and all my interpreters would be too busy doing other things.
The six o’clock start time scheduled for the event came and went as we waited for final wiring and the cords to be secured, for the judges to arrive and for me to take videos of two late-coming choirs with original compositions. Then it was time for rehearsal of “Chauta,” which was more an open dress rehearsal by this point. The choirs were thrilled to do the piece together, and we all applauded for one another at the end of our run-through. This was an auspicious beginning.
Then, it was time! I would love to give a detailed report of all the groups and who did what; but to be honest, my evening was a blur of adding score sheets, running up to the stage to let Mr. Patson know which choirs to announce could go to the kitchen to get their nsima and mchicha, and writing names on certificates and judging sheets. I was happy that my opening speech in Nyanja was well received. Mr. Joe came up on stage just in case I got into trouble (I almost did at one moment when my mind went blank, but I found a different way to say what I wanted). I did see the choirs from time to time and noted that the posture was markedly different in many ensembles from the first encounter I had had with them. This was enough information to let me know that I had been of some assistance to them, which freed me up to concentrate on the tasks at hand to make sure they had as good an experience as possible.
The awards ceremony went off without a hitch, and the band played until 1:30 in the morning. We couldn’t begin to disassemble things until 2. When we got to the beach, there was no boat for us yet. The lodge guests had taken the speedboat back, and the volunteers and staff family members had taken the Miss Nkwichi. The speedboat arrived to get us around 3:30 in the morning, and because it took time to load the boat and to drop people off at villages along the way, it was 4:45 before I was back in my hut ready for some sleep. I was up by 6:45 in order to get the DVD transfers begun.
I have some photos of preparations but none of the actual event; I am hoping to take those from the videos later when I process them. In the meantime, I don’t have time today to post any (and the lodge is running low on bandwidth for the end of the month) – maybe I can put some pictures in a later post. Pardon the lack of editing on this post; I hope it makes sense. All is well in the choral world in the Manda Wilderness today. Tomorrow I will learn more about how the choirmasters are feeling about the entire event.
Surprise! I got a picture up of our afternoon setup work... the judges tables and amfumu's chairs facing the "stage." Note the wine bottle candle holders. The speakers on the sides are resting on church benches.
JULY 21 to 26: So, this is it: the week before the choir festival. I would love to say that this feels like a grand culmination, a big moment where everything comes together in one grand gesture that summarizes the entire journey…. Actually though, I wouldn’t love to say that, because it isn’t true. It doesn’t feel that way, and it makes sense that it doesn’t.
Even though my title here is “Guest Choir Director,” I have spent months now working in the villages themselves, spending time with the choirmasters and the singers and those who worship with them and work with them and live with them. My interest in the choirs on the day of the festival tomorrow will be with each and every one of them – not about whether they will win or not, but has this group improved to match the potential they showed? Will another group get over its performance anxiety and show what they can do? Has that other new choirmaster gained the confidence and authority to lead his group? Will the audience and judges see any of what I have seen, or will their experience necessarily be different merely due to circumstances – rehearsal versus performance?
In truth, my real role as “Guest Choir Director” at the festival will consist of three minutes of “Chauta,” sung after all the choirs have performed and are waiting for the results. This is why the festival does not feel like a culminating event to me. If anything, the capstone experience for me will be the time I will spend in training and conversation with the choir directors next Monday and Tuesday. Then I will
be the guest director, speaking to other choirmasters about their issues, successes and concerns.
That said, there is much I am doing and will do in relation to the festival itself other than the time I spend directing. I spent this past Sunday making sure I had all the documents together that I have spent the past month creating or revising. These documents included the new rubrics for adjudicating the choirs and choirmasters; the information sheet the choirmasters will receive upon arrival in Cobué that tells them how to get the food for their group, where they will warm up, and what time they will perform; and all the handouts for the choir training. These all had to be put on USB drive so that I could send them with Lily as she went to Lichinga to run all manner of errands for the festival. This is the first year of a much-needed five-year grant to support the festival, so she is going to buy lanterns, cooking pots and spoons as well as a generator that will allow the festival to run for years to come. Of course there are more ephemeral needs, too: sixty-five chickens, twine to block off the areas for the amfumu and the judges, pens for the judges, etc. Also, since the choirmasters will be staying at the new boardinghouse until the choirmaster training is over, there are mattresses and blankets to buy.
Monday I began to work on getting my final report structured. I was still not certain when I would be leaving yet, and it could conceivably have been as early as the 1st of August, since that is the last date for which there is a boat scheduled to go to Likoma. That would give me one day to write the part of my final report concerning the festival and the training, so I thought it best to begin to write the part about my village visits and recommendations for the future before things got really busy.
Tuesday was spent finishing those portions of the final report I could write. It was also time to really work on specifics concerning the choirmaster training: when will we cover each topic? I also met with Patson concerning the general outline of the script and how he would be most comfortable to have it laid out for easy reading in the dark. He will be reading it from a clipboard with a booklight attached. Most of the lighting will be candles and lanterns, although this year we are hoping to string some stronger lights by lashing a bamboo pole vertically to the netball hoop on the playground near the church. The hope is that this will create a little more light on people’s faces, rather than only at their feet.
Wednesday supplies came back from Lichinga, including the certificates and the handouts. This is the time for organization and making sure things go in the right piles for the correct days. Any errors cannot be easily corrected; once that boat leaves Nkwichi we must take what we have! I also practiced using the fancy video camera I brought, and processed all the rehearsal videos I have taken so that they are ready for transfer onto DVDs for the choirs. I will be spending all of the Sunday after the festival making these DVDs. We will arrive at Nkwichi between two and three in the morning, and I am hoping the computer can “grind out” the video transfers onto iPhoto, then iMovie as we all grab a little sleep – IF the new batteries have any reserve power to work overnight.
Yesterday was the day of ups and downs. Most things were going well, but we discovered that we were five judging sheets short for the choirs, and that the wrong choirmaster judging sheets had been copied last month (they had been stored away when they came back, since there were more pressing concerns at the time). Fortunately, a boat was on its way to Likoma, so the boatmen were able to take the correct USB drive to Likoma to get the file copied. Electricity was out for lunch when they were there, so we will need to hope it arrives on the boat today or tomorrow.
Today we spend packing and double-checking. As you can imagine, coordinating such a large endeavor in a place with no cars or trucks, phones or computers, takes numerous cross-checks and recalculations. One plans something once then alters the plans five times then spends the rest of the time clearing up misunderstandings from the changes and making sure the new information is processed and implemented. The more people are involved, the more confusing it gets. Mistakes are bound to happen;
The band, Body Mind and Soul, from Mzuzu, Malawi is already in Likoma, which is a huge relief. The venue Lily arranged there two weeks ago when we were running errands is ready to go for a concert with them on Likoma tonight, then they will take the boat Saturday morning to come to Cobué and set up their equipment.
The judge from the United States, Stephen Bigger, arrived with his wife last night. It was nice to have a fellow choir conductor here at the lodge; and despite his fatigue, we had a nice long talk at dinner. He will be staying for a while after the festival to teach how to use equipment in order to record and distribute the music of some of the winning choirs. He will be doing his training in the village that wins the prize, and it will be after the choirmaster training. He will likely be here a few days after me.
That is the final piece of news: I have a flight on the 4th from Likoma. This means I will have until the 3rd or even possibly the morning of the 4th before I must leave Nkwichi. I am happy about this, because it gives me a chance to process everything that has happened in the last three months, and also to visit any places I have not been here or revisit some of my favorite spots without the pressure of deadlines or preparing for another village trip.
As you can probably tell, this is a quick post to catch up to today’s date – a first for this blog so far! The boat leaves early tomorrow morning and comes back early Sunday morning, so I will not be able to post anything from the festival. I am hoping to put something up on Sunday letting you know of the results of the festival; a one-day lag here is practically the equivalent of live-blogging! If my computer rebels at all the demands being placed on it that day, I may not be able to write anything at all, but I will try.
After Sunday, I return to Cobué for the two-day training. This means another delay in posting. I was very glad when I learned I would be leaving the 3rd or 4th after all; ending my experience here with time in Cobué is a bit like spending a Summer in artistic retreat near the Great Lakes and ending one’s time there with a concert and convention in Toledo, Ohio (sorry, Toledo… and yes – yes I have been there). At any rate, if I am not too involved in my farewells I will try to write a bit before leaving Nkwichi. Thanks again for your patience I move into another time of scheduling uncertainty. If you have been reading a while, though, you know this is not unusual here. I’ll write when I can!
Our guest of honor, Mr. Samuel. photo: Kristina Low
JULY 14 to 20: This week was spent almost entirely at the Lodge and environs, with the exception of the 14th, when volunteer English teacher Trish and I went to Mala church for the service. The service was unique in my experience in that the choir was not present. This surprised me on one hand, but on the other it made sense since this is a school break and they had had a long rehearsal the day before. This was the shortest service I have attended here yet: only one hour. Once again I had to use my Nyanja for the typical introduce-yourself-as-a-newcomer portion of the service, but there was a unique twist this time: my first time as a translator into Nyanja for someone else! Everyone seemed to understand me, so I guess I did all right.
My time at the lodge is punctuated by wildlife sightings and hikes to special places nearby. It can be very strange working in an office from seven in the morning to five in the afternoon when one is in a place like this! I find I do better if I get out for a couple of hours in the middle of the day; this gives me a chance to process what I have been doing and I don’t feel quite as bad about spending the rest of my daylight hours inside a building, no matter how nice the view.
Mr. Elias, who accompanied Mr. Joe and me to Luiga, wants to be a tour guide for guests. He spent his time living in the wild during the years of the wars, so he knows a great deal about the local flora and fauna. For his English lessons, Trish has been going on walks with him so he can practice his skills as a guide. Sometimes they come back with a few leaves to brew into an herbal tea. They are all tasty, but each has also had a medicinal purpose, too. I can tell that fifty years from now, scientists will discover the medicinal value of plants here only to hear from a local resident, “Oh, my grandfather told us about that, but we never believed those old stories.” It really is a shame there are not anthropologists and biologists here recording this knowledge gained from years of survival in the wild. Much of this information is not being passed down to other generations for the practical reason that there is no longer any need for it in current day-to-day life.
One day, Trish came back from a walk with Elias and relayed the story that he had shown her a particularly interesting species of tree. Wanting to have him engage in practice for times when guests might want more information, she asked how old the tree was. He stood for a long time, looking it up and down. Finally, he said “thirty-one years.” Surprised by such a definitive answer, she prodded “are you sure it’s not just thirty?” He then proceeded to explain to her exactly what markings on the tree told of its growth and how the good years alternated with the bad in such a way that he could count the age exactly by looking carefully at its trunk and branches. I can only aspire to that level of oneness with my surroundings.
Still, my own meager sensibilities rejoice in what I can see and hear. This week I have enjoyed seeing the African fish eagles fly directly overhead as the sun set at the beach. I have laughed at the funny call of the hornbill, which sounds a bit like a cross between a grumpy cat and an old squeeze toy someone stepped on in the middle of the night. At a secret beach area I have found a bit of a hike from the lodge, I have observed a crocodile lumber its way from a small pond that is rapidly drying up all the way to its usual nighttime home out in the lake. It makes this trek about every third night just at dusk, apparently alternating with some other secret daytime hideouts, where it feasts on the frogs that have come out to sing recently.
And as annoying as they can be, one just can’t help but laugh at the antics of our troop of twenty or more vervet monkeys that come through every other day or so and try to steal any bit of food they can, including our breakfast rolls if we are not near them! They have even been known to sneak into the office and lift the lid from the banana box, only to drop it with a clatter if they get discovered, running away with their scolding “eh, eh, eh, eh” – which they hate to hear said back to them. I am glad I have videos and pictures of my little “friends.” Secretly, I think we are all glad when they get a little something once in a while – as long as it is not the last roll or banana!
The famous lake flies have begun to make their annual appearance. These tiny flies only a little bigger than gnats fly in giant swarms; later in the season they will be so thick as to actually appear as black clouds hovering over or near the lake. They die each night, only to be replaced by the next batch. They are a local delicacy; locals all around the lake eat them wrapped in steamed banana leaves. I have to admit I am curious about that, but my dear wife told me before I left that she was so repulsed by the thought that if I tried it I might just as well stay here because she didn’t want to be kissing anyone who ate flies! I guess that settles that.
On Friday we had a giant feast to commemorate Nkwichi’s first retirement. Mr. Samuel, a day watchman here, has contributed enough into the Mozambican equivalent of Social Security that he is now able to draw a pension, although he or a friend or relative must take a trip into Lichinga every month to collect and cash the check, as there is no bank any closer than that.
All the employees and volunteers gathered to honor him, complete with the laudatory speeches and good wishes that come at any retirement dinner. He truly is a delightful man, and the others on staff clearly hold him in high esteem, as the crowd fell silent to hear his soft voice over the roar of the lake when he gave his thanks and advised everyone to work hard and work well. Then the managers of the Lodge and two of us volunteers served the long line of employees looking forward to the feast. The goat had come into the Lodge late, being an older and stubborn goat not so willing to come to a new place, so the food was not ready until 2:30. This made those who had been working unloading more thatch from the boats extra hungry. I don’t know how anybody can eat two loaves of nsima, let alone three, but there were several who did just that this day! We had nsima and goat but also kampango, beans, cabbage, mchicha, and at the end, a sweet cake (there is no frosting here; cakes are very much like cornbread). Really, if you substituted catfish for kampango (which it is anyway, just a special species unique to this area), mustard greens for mchicha and cornbread for the nsima, you would have had a standard feast from most parts of the American south! There was laughter and boisterous talking and second helpings (and third helpings), and we had many pictures at the beach before the party broke up at the end of the workday.
The staff of Nkwichi and volunteers of Manda Wilderness Community Trust. Photo: Lily Bunker
JULY 13: Mr. Joe and I set out from Nkwichi a little after seven in the morning. Our destination today is Mala, my last village in which I will be working with the choir. I was scheduled to come to Mala well over a month ago when I went to Utonga, but the choir sent me a message while I was still in Utonga that it would not be able to rehearse at the scheduled time due to conflicts with the school schedule. This being a Saturday at the start of a traditional three-week Winter school break, it should not be a problem this time.
I have to admit that going to Mala feels like a bit of an anti-climax after all the journeys I have taken. The main part of Mala is only a forty-minute walk from the lodge, and most of the employees of the lodge live there (with the remainder mostly in Mbueca and four coming all the way from Utonga). In fact, Nkwichi itself is technically part of Mala, so I am really walking to the center of “my own town” (kumudzi kwathu).
Regardless, Mala has a very good choir. In fact, it placed first at the choir festival last year. Their choirmaster, Mr. Andrew Kaiwala, received the “best choirmaster” award. He also works at Nkwichi as the staff manager, and in the village he serves on the school board, which is meeting today at two. I’ll need to do everything before then so that we are out of the church so the school board can meet there.
When we are almost to the church, we run into someone Joe knows (naturally) who is headed to Nkwichi from Utonga. The mfumu there has sent this man to let us know that there will be volunteers at the festival from his village for the kitchen and for general errands, and also to ask why rumor has it that the lodge is only buying thatch from the villages of Mala and Mbueca this year to re-thatch roofs during rainy season… what’s wrong with Utonga? We thank him for the information about the volunteers and wish him well with his other message, not having an answer for him one way or the other regarding the thatch.
We arrive at about 7:45 for a scheduled 7:30 rehearsal to find Mr. Andrew alone again, naturally. He is outside the church reading his Bible – I am happy to see that it is the more modern translation, the same one I have. If he looks up Psalm 23 later he will find the exact words we are singing in “Chauta.”
I know that the choir is not likely to arrive until around 9, so I propose we have an impromptu choirmaster meeting now while we wait. Since Joe and Andrew know me well by now, they both have more questions for and about me than anything else. Andrew wants to know about my background at home: Do I sing? How many choirs do I lead? What else do I teach? They want to know if I get paid for all this, and I say that I do. I ask Andrew if he gets any stipend for being choirmaster at his church. “Who would pay?” he asks laconically. I tell him one Sunday he should announce there will be no offering that week; he will be passing a hat around for money for the choirmaster. Both of them laugh heartily at this suggestion. I ask if the lay leaders get any money for their effort in leading the services and preaching the (lengthy) extemporaneous sermons. Andrew explains that if they run into financial difficulties they might speak to the church committee about it, and they will help if they can but otherwise, no.
Andrew asks what sorts of issues I face with my own choirs, which I thought was an excellent question. He is delighted to hear that I face the same musical and personality issues that he faces here; indeed, I assure him that they are universal problems wherever choral music is sung. He asks me to help him with motivation in the group, since he has younger singers who are not there because they really want to sing but because their friends are in the group and they want to be with them. I assure him that this is a common refrain as well, but I tell him I will do what I can.
Joe and Andrew are stunned when they learn that my university has 16,000 students. They start calculating, “That’s Mbueca, Mala, Utonga, Mandambuzi…” I tell them that it is basically all the people in the Manda Wilderness minus Ngofi. They shake their heads as I tell them the University has its own housing, many school buildings, its own police force, places for people to eat, etc. Andrew is trying to figure out where the money comes from for me to get paid, and I try to explain how a university works and how students sign up for classes. I am not sure if I explained that part clearly enough to him.
They also ask what instruments choirs sang with in the United States. I explain that we, too, sing a cappella, but that we also might sing with an organ, or a few instruments, sometimes drums alone, sometimes a symphony orchestra (a term Joe did not recognize until I start naming its instruments, then he knew what I meant right away). Andrew asks me if we ever sing with a keyboard. This question brought me up short. He was referring to the electronic keyboards I have mentioned that are enormously popular here. Mala won one last year as their prize for coming in first place. These are items of considerable prestige for a church here to have. They are hooked up to large speaker systems with big batteries run by solar inverters and are played loudly before during and after the service, to the delight of all. Mandambuzi’s mfumu came to me personally in front of his village choir and assembled villagers to ask me to help them get one for their town. How (and why) would I explain that such a keyboard is regarded as a beginner’s instrument in the United States, Canada and Europe and is often given to children as one of many Christmas gifts, only to be stored in a closet somewhere more often than not or perhaps given away, sold or simply broken a few months later? The keyboard they got would cost under $150 at home, but with shipping and exchange rates costs over $300 here. By now you know that this is a huge amount of money here and would take months or years to save. For reference, the average village church offering – a good indicator of money beyond necessities for a church-going family - appears to be the equivalent of two to four dollars for a congregation of between one and two hundred. This explains the pride such a purchase brings to a village church, let alone to a choir that has won one as a result of its music making. I pause for a long time to think very carefully, then reply that not many choirs use keyboards quite the same as the ones they use here, but that many choirs do use electric organs. This answer appears to make sense to them, and indeed, the electronic instruments are equivalent in terms of their meanings to their respective ensembles.
By now (around 9:30), enough of the group had arrived that we could begin. As usual, we start with the group singing from a seated position. I am shocked by what I am hearing. The group is out of tune, and many of the singers are slumped over. The sopranos are too soft, which is an absolute and undreamed of first for me to hear from a choir here! Many of the children have a bored, faraway look in their eye. We have a lot of work to do!
I begin as I so often have with a posture and breathing lesson. This is a culture that values experiential learning, so I have the group slouch and sit up straight during the same song, slowly altering their posture within and between phrases so they can feel and hear the difference. Of course the difference is evident right away, and this sets up a good rapport for the remainder of the session.
We progress to adding dance and begin working on presentation as we work other technical issues. We even talk a bit about stage deportment between songs since I know this choir has considerable performance experience from their frequent singing for guests at Nkwichi.
We move to the video work. Here their pride in presentation begins to take over, and each video is progressively better in terms of how the group looks, which means posture is better, which means the sound is better – the good cycle that attention to how a group carries itself engenders. The difference is so drastic between the first and fifth song, I show them the first video again at the end so they can see the difference themselves.
As we close, Andrew gives the group a long pep talk, telling them that there is a lot yet to do (very true) and that they can not assume they will win this year just because they won last year. He thanks me and closes with a prayer. We take the group picture and I hand out pencils, again a huge hit with everyone.
The Mala St. Lucas Anglican Choir, Mr. Andrew Kaiwala, choirmaster, kneeling in front
We are done with everything by one, which would make lunch very brief for Andrew, were it not for the fact that the school board meeting was scheduled for two. This meant of course in reality he had at least two hours to get home, have lunch and be back.
Joe and I are back at the lodge by two (the real two), and I spend the rest of the day in the office revising the script for the festival and preparing topics and handouts for the choirmaster training.
My time in the villages has come to an end. I have visited fifteen of the sixteen villages in the Manda Wilderness, and I have worked with the thirteen choirs that exist and that will be representing their respective villages. It is a bittersweet feeling, since I learned so much and loved the experience more than I could have thought possible. I feel guilty that I am a little blue today about the idea of staying at a luxury eco-lodge for two weeks, but I know why I have those feelings and let myself have them. Tomorrow will be another beautiful day at Nkwichi, and I know I will feel much better.
At night I sit on the rocks at the far end of the beach and gaze northward, where the first villages I visited lie, remembering how I felt that first trip when everything was so strange and new. I name to myself every single village I have visited, one by one, slowly, thinking of the people I met, the music we made and the experiences I had in each as I name it. Then, I get up and head to my hut. I have work to do tomorrow to get things ready for the festival. And besides, I have saved a bar of Belgian chocolate all this time. This chocolate was a gift for each of us that a French volunteer brought back from Europe the second week of my time here. I promised myself then I would eat it only after I had completed all my visits. How many times have I thought about that chocolate bar between my journeys, when I knew it was lying at the bottom of my duffel, waiting for me! Somehow, though, when I get to the hut this night, I don’t feel like having it.
It is still there.
The men I saw in Uchesse, just beginning to load their bicycles to take over those mountains in the distance, to Magachi.
JULY 12: This morning a nineteen-year-old orphan named Rashid hiked the four hours from Cobué to Nkwichi in hopes of being able to speak to someone about how to get started here in a career in music. I cannot be certain, but I have to think some sort of word had gotten to him that a singer was at Nkwichi and he decided to seize the opportunity.
We set up a hasty translation rectangle with the people we had present around the office at the time: I spoke English to Lily, who translated to Portuguese to Elias, then Elias translated to Nyanja to Rashid – and backwards in the other direction. We sat around the large rectangular wooden table just outside the office so that I could face Rashid. When the concepts were in my vocabulary, I attempted to speak to him directly at first, but that was too intense for him, as he seemed intimidated by the entire situation, so I switched back to English.
It took him a while to get out his story. Speaking of any topic here is often circular, with each round bringing a new small bit of information, until by the eighth time the full story has been revealed. Here is an example of how one side of a conversation might go:
My name is Rashid.
I woke up well.
My name is Rashid, and I live in Cobué.
I am a nineteen-year-old orphan who lives in Cobué.
I am nineteen, and I am an orphan.
I am an orphan who lives in Cobué, but I grew up in Mbueca.
I live in Cobué now, but my family comes from Mbueca, where I grew up.
And so on. Keep in mind that there is another side of the conversation in there, though:
My name is Rashid.
-Hello, Rashid! How did you wake up? [the standard morning greeting]
I woke up well.
-I’m glad to hear it. Where have you come from?
My name is Rashid, and I live in Cobué.
-I see. That is a long way to walk! Are you coming from school?
I am a nineteen-year-old orphan who lives in Cobué. [an orphan that old would not be able to go to school any longer]
And so on.
Eventually it came out that Rashid had attended the Assemblies of God church in Mbueca, but moved to Cobué with the goal of becoming the best singer in the Manda Wilderness. Before moving, he had carried rice from Mandambuzi and Litanda to Mbueca in order to earn money. When we say carried rice, we are of course not talking about small bags one gets at a grocery store. I took a picture when in Uchesse of a group of men who had laden their bicycles with giant bags of bread, rice, corn and other supplies. They then use the bicycle as a sort of wheelbarrow, which they then push up the mountain path. This young man had done this until he had saved around 500 meticais [fifteen dollars], enough money to hire a local boat to Likoma Island and back, and while on Likoma, to go to a recording studio and for the fee of 3000 kwacha (nine dollars) lay down two takes of a song he had written. Clearly this took a great deal of perseverance. With his permission, I uploaded his piece into my computer to listen to later.
With additional discussion, it became clear that his real desire was to become a composer, something that this area could actually use, since all the choirs sing the same pieces as each other, year after year. I just don’t know if there is any money to be made with composing. I gave him the names of the choirmasters of Khango (Cobué) and Chicaia and recommended that he get to know them. That way he could learn the tastes of the Anglican choirs in the area, since theirs is the dominant vocal cultural model here and most likely to provide him with leads. He might offer to give them a song for free, then if they like it, to see if they might be able or willing to provide a small fee for any future creation. Through word of mouth, he might begin to make some money through these sorts of commissions, perhaps being fed and offered a place to stay in a village when he made his song, much as a troubadour might have done a thousand years ago. This very slow form of making money would only be a supplement for whatever jobs he might do to make a living in the meantime. He thanked me and said he would try. Then I wished him well and told him to be sure to come to the Choral Festival to learn what types of music the choirs were singing. He said he would, and I told him to please come see me if I didn’t look too busy at the moment. Again he said he would, but I wonder if he will, given his shyness.
After he left, I listened to his tracks on my computer. He definitely has potential as a composer and understands how to lay down tracks in a recording studio. He did not say he had hired a keyboard player – I don’t think he would have had enough money, so he must have that ability too. His singing needs work for intonation; I think he correctly analyzed his talents.
That night, I wondered how many fifty pound bags of rice I would be willing to cart over a mountain to make six-and-a-half minutes of music; and I wondered whether I could regain that youthful hope – more like faith - that someone, somewhere, might listen, might care, and might help me become better as a musician and even help me find a way to feed, clothe and house myself by pursuing my passion. I really hope he will check in with me on the 27th. I know I will be thinking of him until then, and for many years to come.
JULY 10: Lily and I checked out of Mango Drift and headed back into Mbamba Bay. Despite the treatment of the day before and a prolonged dip in the lake, the puppy still had quite a few fleas, and they had gone into its ears to avoid all the measures taken against them. Lily wanted to take it back to the vet for more medicine, which she got.
We had brought three posters in Chichewa (actually more in Nyanja dialect) to hang up in strategic spots on Likoma Island. Our first stop was the library. Likoma Island has a very nice library. As I asked for a place to hang the poster, Lily spoke to a man about the possible booking of another concert on the island for the band that was coming to play at the choral festival. It would make the trip less expensive for them if they could cut their costs by giving two concerts.
After a man working at the library put the poster up in a prominent place on the front door, we walked to the next logical place for our notice, the cathedral. I explained my purpose to a man who was working outside in the gardens, and he conferred with another man also at work in the garden. Lily sat down to wait, probably recognizing what was going to happen. The first man asked me to follow him and led me up a path about a quarter of a mile past the library complex, past part of the school, the hospital and several houses. We climbed the stone steps to a large building, and he gestured for me to wait in a chair. Soon a woman appeared and crouched on the floor; we exchanged niceties and the man explained my purpose. As she appeared to be going into the house, a young man emerged. In English, he told me that he was the new deacon and had just begun the job that day. I congratulated him and wished him well, then explained my purpose for the third time. After careful consideration, he recommended that I hang a poster on a tree outside the cathedral, since otherwise people would only see it on Sundays and only if they went to church. He had specific trees to recommend that he noted were strategic to the crossroads. We made our farewells, and the man led me back toward the cathedral. When we found a promising tree, we would look for a nail that was already there to hang the sheet of paper. If we could not find one, my assistant would go to another tree and dig a nail out with his bare hand, then bring it over, where we would pound it in with a rock. Thus, after a hike, four-person committee meeting and an expedition with a guide, in forty-five minutes I had managed to hang two pieces of paper on trees. But this is life here.
At the cathedral garden, I met back up with Lily, who was once again surrounded by children fascinated by the puppy. She had just been getting up to go into town to run her other errands, knowing I would understand why she had left and where she was going. Headed into the main part of town together, we ran into the choirmaster of Chicaia, who had come over to the island, he said, to buy some sugar (and likely visit relatives, since sugar is available in Cobué). We had not yet received a letter from him, but he confirmed that his choir would be at the festival and that he was coming to the training.
We got our exit stamps the day before with that day’s date on them, so I went to the immigration stand just to make sure he thought that was okay. “Oh, it will be no problem,” he assured me. To tell the truth, I really wasn’t very worried about it. The officers in Mozambique knew him, and we had his phone number. I knew a simple phone call would straighten the whole thing out if there were any questions.
Once I had gone to the Malawian immigration stand, I had no more errands, so I went to the boat to wait. Lily needed to buy one more dog, this one a little older by only a few months. After I had been on board for about fifteen minutes, a child waded on and tied this new dog to a post that held up the boat’s canopy. Shortly after, Lily boarded with a bucket of maize scraps [gaga] that she had managed to find to use as chicken feed at the farm. This substance is practically like gold here (remember we had been unable to find any in Cobué any time someone had looked), so this find was quite an accomplishment.
Now fully boarded and settled in, we began the journey back to Mozambique on the Miss Nkwichi. Lily passed out some delicious “scones” (which here are really just long loaves of plain bread) that she had bought in Mbamba. We looked hopefully at the lake, deciding that there were not the whitecaps there had been the day before. This should be a much smoother ride.
Alas, we were wrong. The trip back was very bumpy. Fortunately, the rocking was mostly from front to back rather than from side to side, which I think is better for motion sickness. I know I am more comfortable with that form of rocking, and I am not prone to feeling ill. It was not a smooth journey by any stretch of the imagination, and the new dog got seasick twice; it lost the little bit of my scone I had fed it in the harbor when we thought it was going to be an easier trip. The wind was quite strong and it was chilly on the water. These dogs were very thin from lack of food since birth, so we were trying to wrap them in empty rice bags and rain ponchos as they cowered on the floor.
It was a real relief to reach Cobué, and I think that was probably the first time I had ever felt that way about the town! We had a bit of a wait for immigration. The policeman we had met the day before was there and Lily and he were teasing one another. In Portuguese, they had a brief back and forth about who was lazier, then their conversation turned to the lake. “The lake was very rough today,” Lily began. “Ah, yes,” said the policeman. “A friend called me from his boat and told me that it was very choppy. But Mala Point…” he made a cautionary sigh and whistle. Mala Point is the rocky point that juts out between the main part of the village and Nkwichi; we must go around it to get to the lodge. Lily was joking still. “Will we live?” He returned her tone. “Ah, my friend, I do not know. We shall see.”
The younger immigration officer arrived. As we worked on the forms, he and Lily were discussing things in Portuguese, which she told him I could understand fairly well but could not speak. She said that I spoke Nyanja instead, at which I added “pang’ono pang’ono” [an expression that has multiple meanings: slowly, little by little, bit by bit, etc.]. He looked up at me as he was filling out his own forms and attaching the visa to my passport. “Ah, no!” he said. “You are very good.” Not true, but still very nice to hear. Maybe he was remembering my rather eventful day the week before when I was trying to explain my passport in my solar backpack. Regardless, it’s always nice to get encouragement as I keep working on my language skills.
When we got back to Julius’ beach, there were two girls who were going to Mala and needed a lift. They waded in after we boarded, handing their bundles to me to put on the floor next to the dogs. We first made a short journey to the other side of Cobué to pick up some nsima powder and fabric. All the way to Mala, boatman Mr. Cristovão stayed very close to the shore where the waves were not quite as heavy and we all felt better psychologically because the shore seemed within reach. One of the girls seemed quite uncomfortable. I gave her a pillow and she tried to lie down and sleep the journey away.
We came to shore at the very edge of what I think of as the village of Mala, closest to Nkwichi, and the girls got out of the boat with their loads. I looked out at the lake. We had reached Mala Point. The waves were crashing hard against the rocks and spraying up in huge geysers. Lily had said that if the waves were rough we would need to dock in Mala and walk the rest of the way or sleep in the boat. The boatmen appeared to think we could make the run for it. As we started to back out from the beach I held my breath and then let it out in a long, controlled exhalation. I knew I would need to remind myself to breathe. I could see I was about to be in for something I had never experienced.
As we got closer to Mala Point, the waves, which were so mild looking at a distance, first gained whitecaps and then began to show their height. Undoubtedly some readers may have gone out in the ocean on a slow motorized scow, but I had not; and make no mistake, this three hundred mile long and fifty mile wide lake is very like an ocean without salt. We began pitching, sometimes front to back, sometimes side to side, and worst to my way of thinking, sometimes diagonally. We would pitch up, then drop precipitously into canyons of water ten feet down. Water was sometimes pouring over the front of the boat. The dogs were cowering, too frightened even to whimper.
The early English explorers of the area had noted the lake’s strange tendency to have waves that came in threes, then an interval of relative calm and then another batch of three. I remembered reading about this as we continually ran into this phenomenon. We would often ride the first wave relatively comfortably, then sort of hang at the top of the second one before plunging precipitously down right in front of the third, that wave looking as if it were about to swallow us up until it got under us and lifted us again. The poles holding up the canopy were creaking, making the boat sound as if it was going to get pulled apart or topple over from the wind taking the canopy; although I knew better, the groans and creaks were unnerving nonetheless.
Even when we had been hugging the shore, Lily had felt a little queasy and was now lying down on the bottom of the boat, cushioned by pillows and backpacks and holding the dogs, covering herself and them with rain ponchos. At one point as we crested a huge second wave and plunged I yelled involuntarily, “Whoa!!” because it caught us by surprise and rocked us diagonally. Lily was curious and started to get up just as the huge ten foot wall of water was coming at us. “Don’t get up! Don’t get up! You don’t want to get up now!” I cried out. She lay back down.
Cristovão was a master at slowing and speeding the motor to ride the waves as much as possible rather than plowing through them. At times, though, the boat was not all in the water but buoyed up on the wave just at its center. At those times the motor would rev sickeningly, sounding as if it wanted to stall; but then it would regain its place in the water and start its normal reassuring purr. It was Cristovão’s mastery of the boat’s motor and boatman Mr. Richard’s relative calm as he went about securing ladders and oars and various items that were sliding around that convinced me to try to stay calm. It was very odd, but once I had started watching the waves I couldn’t keep my eyes off the scene; I was unable to look away. It was too fascinating, frightening and frankly exhilarating all at once. I wanted to see it, remember it, and was committed to seeing how it would all end. It was riveting.
The most difficult part was the perception of a landlubber that we were constantly moving away from the shore instead of toward it. I do know there were times we were riding very large waves wherever they were taking us, whether by choice or by force I do not know. Then when that set of three would be mercifully finished, the motor’s whine would rev up again and we would move perceptibly forward.
Over and over I was singing one of the songs I had learned in the villages: "Ndaniko anayenda pa nyanja? 'Mbuye Yesu anayenda pa nyanja!" [Who walked on the lake over there? The Lord Jesus walked on that lake!] It was always a catchy tune and one for which I understood the words right away; but I realized that up to now I had understood only the sound of the words and what they said. Now I could say I truly understood their meaning and how important this story was to someone who had been on water like this, particularly its conclusion of the waters being calmed by faith. Once again the local intertwining of daily life and religion became clearer to me, although I have to admit not at that exact moment - upon reflection later!
We were almost there at last; we had rounded the point and were making our approach to the lodge. My heart sank as we went parallel to and halfway down the beach at Nkwichi. Were we actually going to have to dock somewhere else? In reality, Cristovão was using the action of the waves to practically push us into the harbor as he turned us to back in, the diagonal action of the waves rocking us to and fro the whole time we turned. As we came into the docking area with unbelievable precision, the second boatman, Mr. Richard, threw his arms out and caught hold of one of the poles on the dock, then quickly took a rope and fastened us to it.
It had been quite a ride. I looked back at Cristovão, who had an almost surprised look on his face. Then he broke into a huge smile, and I laughed. “Mwayendetsa bwino!” [You have driven this thing well!] I said. Now it was his turn to laugh. “Yes, thank you!” said Lily, who later told me that was the roughest she had seen the lake when she was in the boat.
The dogs were thrilled to get out of the boat; I could only imagine what they must have been thinking about what was going on. Lily got them some food from the kitchen, which they devoured. I went up to the office to get some work done with what was left in the day.
And I told myself that, if the lake is ever like that again, I will be more than happy to walk the four hours to Cobué.
JULY 9: We left early in the morning from Nkwichi on the slow boat Miss Nkwichi, which I think has been my favorite boat all along. It is slow, which allows for one to see the scenery, especially nice at night under a moon (as happened at the end of my first hike), but it is also sturdy, for those days when one must go on the lake when there are kumwera winds. Today is such a day. Someone gets seasick on the way; the rest of us just try to look at the horizon and enjoy the ride as best we can in spite of the rocking.
The boat is loaded with empty bottles and containers. The managers of the lodge are making a run to Lichinga in the lodge’s truck parked at James Bondo’s in Cobué. There they will get all the supplies the lodge will need for the coming month. Lily and I are making a run to Likoma: I because it is that time once again for my visa, and Lily because the farm needs a dog or two to fend off monkeys and baboons from stealing all the food just before it is ready for harvest. The farm had a very nice dog, but about three weeks ago he simply disappeared. Nobody knows if he wandered off or if he was attacked by baboons or another wild animal. Since he has been gone, however, farm staff has spent much of its time chasing primates instead of doing the jobs needed around the town.
Since we had to stop in Cobué for immigration anyway, Lily and I were going to run errands for the choral festival while we were there. This was old-fashioned small town errands and visiting at its finest, and I enjoyed it immensely.
When we first landed, we helped unload the crates and bottles onto the beach. Then, while the boatmen and managers were going to take them up to the truck, Lily and I struck out for our errands.
As you know by now if you have been reading many entries, Cobué is situated on the lake. Almost immediately from the beach, the town begins to rise into the foothills; no matter where one lands on the beach it is necessary to begin with a short uphill hike to get wherever you want to go. I often wonder about people in wheelchairs who might want to see this part of the world. In most places it simply would not be possible. Cobué is such a place. I think the immigration officers would come down to the beach, though, if they could bring all of their books, stamps and cards. Then the person in a wheelchair could land at Nkwichi, perhaps. I'm just not sure.
Anyway, you can think of the roads in Cobué (the actual, genuine honest-to-goodness someone-could-drive-something-on-this roads) as being in something of a U shape, with the U lying on its side, prongs to the right. The top leg of the U, then, is uphill; and the bottom leg runs parallel to the lakeshore though up several feet from it. The picture two previous entries before taken from James Bondo’s window shows the tailors’ store, which sits where the U takes its turn from the lakeshore segment, where all the stores are and where the secondary school and borehole well are, to the upper segment, where many of the government buildings and the primary school are. The big Catholic Church takes up much of the curve of the U, with the church to the south of the road and the rectory and former school to the north.
Since it is close, our first errand is to the Catholic rectory. We hope to find the priest and ask if he might be willing to deliver a benediction before the festival, since the church is hosting the event. Mr. Patson had lectured Lily before that there must be a prayer this year, since the event cannot be considered to have started properly or be blessed without a prayer. Unfortunately, nobody answers at the rectory, so we move on up the hill and turn the “corner.”
Lily wants to stop in at the primary school just to visit briefly with the headmaster. She is usually so busy with whatever project is at the fore at the moment that she says she seldom has time to simply visit with people and learn what needs or concerns they might have regarding the work of the Trust. Their visit is brief; all is well at the primary school at the moment.
Our next stop is the office of the chefe do posto. We want to be sure to invite him and his wife to the festival, where he will have a place of honor and be asked to say a few words if he is able to come. It is around eight thirty and he is not in his office, although the man working in the main room hastens to assure us that he is busy at work from his home and will be there soon. We ask if he might be able to come to the office so we can speak to him. The man offers us two chairs and we sit in the corridor waiting for him.
As we wait, one of the police officers pulls up on his motorcycle; the main police station is next to the office of the chefe do posto. Lily jumps up and flags him down. We need two police officers to provide security for the event; would he and his colleague who did it last year be available and willing to do the same this year? He says he must discuss the fee with his colleague and that he will meet us at the maritime police station (in the picture two entries ago) when we come back down the hill. With that, he speeds off.
Shortly after, the man comes to tell us that the chefe do posto has arrived and will see us now. We go into his office, where he is seated under a giant portrait of President Guebeza. We exchange the standard greetings and pleasantries. It turns out he will be on vacation during the time of the festival and will likely be in Metangula with his family, but he is not certain. Lily lets him know there will be a place for him regardless and if he were in town he would be welcome to say a few words of greeting. He thanks us and gets to the point he wants to get to. Lily has brought him a digital camera from a previous trip to the United States, and now he wants to work the video portion of the camera. It takes a while to figure it out, but eventually Lily is able to show him. He then shows us some of his pictures. He turns to me: “Here is one of the chapa we took together!” It is full of people, as it must have looked when he arrived in Metangula. Life here certainly circles around in strange ways!
As we leave, Lily asks the chefe do posto to say hello to his wife for us. He tells us that she is at home and would be happy to have a visit; she has nothing else to do now. This means of course that we must now go and say hello, so off we head to their home. Their two youngest children are working outside; they have six children, three boys and three girls. The boy is an older teenager; it turns out that he is deaf which is why he is not in school. People with handicaps are treated with respect here, but there is little available to help them integrate into regular, everyday life. The girl is sweeping and putting sticks and leaves in a box to take out of the compound; we never find out why she is not in school. Mrs. Posto is inside but comes out on hearing we are there. Of course the chairs come out in the standard arrangement: a chair for me, a slightly lower bench for Lily and Mrs. Posto sits on the doorstep of the home. Our visit is actually quite brief, only long enough to find out that she is not in good health (heart problems, perhaps brought on by stress) and to learn a bit more about her family. She too explains to us that they are likely to be in Metangula during the festival, and we let her know she is invited to come if they are in town, and that we will save them seats. With that we head back down into the main part of town.
Our first stop there is James Bondo’s. We are hoping we can store items such as firewood in his lodge, and that he can cook for the choirmasters during choirmaster training. It takes him a good while to do the math for all these various unexpected requests, but eventually we settle on a good price. If thirteen choirmasters come to training, they will need breakfast and lunch for three days and dinner for two. He agrees to do all this for the equivalent of $134, roughly $1.30 per meal per person. Lily settles the bill for Joe’s, Elias’ and my stay at his restaurant the week before. For the tea on the day of my detention he charges nothing. “We are all friends here, and we must help one another. I will not charge for this.” I have come to like Mr. Bondo, more each time I come to Cobué it seems. With thanks for this generosity, we exit the front door of his restaurant onto the walk facing the road.
The policeman is waiting by the maritime office. Lily asks if we can meet with him on our way back, but he tells us he is very busy and must speak with us now. He wants 1000 meticais for the two policemen to work at the event, or about $15 per person for a six-hour event. Lily says this is much too high, and she pulls out her computer to show him that in last year’s budget it was only 700 meticais. Faced with this evidence, he agrees; but he does complain that they did not get enough chicken last year, only two bites each, and they were tough! She agrees to feed them better, and egos thus salvaged with a slightly sweeter deal, we are able to move on.
We walk down to the secondary school, checking on the way to find out the price of ground corn for the nsima for the choirs. We don’t find anyone who knows at the moment, but a boy says he will go try to find out. While Lily speaks to the director of the high school, I go down to the new boarding school for girls. Since Cobué has the only high school in the entire Manda Wilderness, the Trust has built a boarding school for girls from the other villages to come and study at the high school. The actual dormitory is finished; it will be able to accommodate sixty to seventy girls in four rooms. There are no kitchen or toilet facilities yet; the hope is to have the boardinghouse completely ready by the start of the new school year . We will be using this boardinghouse to give the choirmasters a place to stay for the two days of training after the festival, but Lily needs to go to the secondary school office to check with the school’s director to see if we can use the school’s toilets and devise a place for the choirmasters to wash. While she is working this out, my job is to measure the windows of the boardinghouse for mosquito netting and privacy curtains. I finish quickly and return to the headmaster’s office. He and Lily are conversing fluently in Portuguese. He readily agrees to all our requests; it is clear that the high school and the Trust have a good relationship.
On the way back through the shopping area, the boy has found someone to tell us the price of corn flour. It is sold by the bucket here, and the man assures us that one bucket holds twenty kilos of corn flour. I am a little skeptical, but since I am not the one who will be picking it up or using it, it doesn’t really matter what I think. We are not buying it now at any rate, just getting prices.
We continue our journey back up the lakeside road to arrange for chairs and tables. Mr. Ntali has six plastic tables and twenty chairs for 250 meticais. We will need more chairs than that, but we take what he has. We go to immigration and check out with no problems at all, to my relief, then head down to Julius’ beach. Before we board the boat again, we speak with Julius and arrange for twenty more chairs for 200 meticais. We got a lot done to prepare for the festival!
Taking the Miss Nkwichi to Likoma from Cobué is like going on a cross-country trip on a tractor. The boat is lumbering and slow, and the waves are again tossing us back and forth rather strongly. The boat is creaking, and my side of the boat almost touches the water a few times. Lily, who never gets seasick, is a little green; and I can feel it, too. It takes us two hours to make a crossing that takes about half an hour on the speedboat.
When we arrive in Likoma, we stop at the beach outside an immigration officer’s house because we have arrived during lunchtime. He stamps us in and out, “to save time tomorrow.” He uses the exit stamp for today for our exit tomorrow, and I only hope they don’t give us a hard time about that back in Mozambique. Then we get back on the boat to go to Mbamba, the main village of the island, in order to start running errands on Likoma. We are a bit leery of getting back on the boat, but this side of the island is sheltered from the kumwera and we have a smooth ride.
First we try to regain our land legs by having lunch at the Hunger Clinic. The waitress seems as unhappy about serving us as she did the first time I came here two months ago. I order in Chichewa, though, and she manages a little “Hmm!” under her breath before she heads off. A drunken man who hung around the restaurant two months ago is back again, this time inside. He starts to rail at Lily and me, but the owner comes out and points at me. “He speaks Chichewa!” “Ah!” says the drunken man. “Muli bwanji?” [How are you?] I answer him politely. For whatever reason, my ability to speak a few words in Chichewa seems to have defeated whatever purpose he might have had, and he left. We finish our huge portions of rice and beans and mchicha [local greens] in peace and pay our 350 kwacha each – a little over a dollar apiece.
I am going to check us in at Mango Drift then rejoin Lily in town. I head out and am soon accosted by a teenager whose name is Alexandria. He appears to have been named after the Egyptian city, and he is very interested in geography and in practicing his English. He goes to the secondary school and is in his second year there. He wants to be a journalist or a pilot, but his mother remarried and his stepfather told him he had to leave in the next five days. He is looking for a job, maybe at Nkwichi. I explain a little how things work there. I mention that Lily is here because he seems to know her (or at least of her), and I tell him that she is looking to buy a dog. He just so happens to have a dog and will check with his mother to see if he can sell it. He shakes my hand and goes his way.
After I check in at Mango Drift, I head back into town. I eventually find Lily outside the local veterinarian’s office with her new puppy. The puppy is cute but starving and riddled with fleas and parasites. She went to the vet to get flea powder; the treatment is working but causing the puppy to itch terribly. She buys some nsima from Alexandria’s mother’s nearby restaurant to feed the dog, and it eats it ravenously. Then she wraps it, fleeing fleas and all, in her scarf to carry to Mango Drift. We are accompanied almost the whole way by children who are fascinated by us and by Lily’s cargo. A nice older man joins us and insists on carrying some bags for us. He is speaking some Chichewa to me, but the children are telling us “Give me money! Give me balloon! Give me sweetie!” I know that this abrupt way of speaking is simply a direct translation of Chichewa to English; Chichewa’s politeness comes from the verb form you use for the command, not by putting in extra words like “please.” Thus, in translation their requests sound like demands. It puts Lily off a bit, and she tells them that they must keep going to school, learn enough to get a good job, and then they will be able to buy their own balloons and candy.” This answer pleases the older man very much, but I don’t think the children understood it.
The night at Mango was very pleasant. A beautiful sunset, a dinner with some beef (I believe my first beef since I have come to Africa), and a fairly good night’s sleep, although those biting fly things are over here, too, apparently.
No long stays this time: we will be returning to Mozambique tomorrow.