PictureThe impressive, large two-story church in Chigoma
MAY 16: Today was a fairly slow day, since we had nothing on the schedule other than hiking from Uchesse to Chigoma.  After one last tea and doughnut breakfast at the chief’s lakeside stand, we take our tents down and hike up the beach to Chigoma.  Hiking two hours in sand in the Equatorial sun is challenging, but we get there.

Joe does not want to camp on the beach here because unlike Uchesse, this beach would not be secure while we were gone during the day.  So… up we go to the chief’s house.

The mfumu of Chigoma has a very nice house by local standards; in fact, it is a pleasant, cozy home by any standard, I should think.  The brick house is plastered with cement inside and out, which moderates the temperature considerably.  As in Ngofi, a Mozambican flag flies on a slightly crooked wooden flagpole within the chief’s compound.

In our initial visit on the mfumu’s porch, we learn that one of his twin two-year-old granddaughters came down with malaria that morning.  This is the same chief who told us on the way to Ngofi that one of his five sons (who was in his thirties) had died recently in Malawi.  Death and illness are certainly not strangers here.

After some time of visiting, the amayi invites us inside the chief’s house.  In the front room, a simple wooden dining table with two wooden and two plastic garden chairs is set for us on one side, and their malarial granddaughter is lying on a floor mat cushioned with various fabrics on the other.  We are served some delicious boiled peanuts and tea, along with borehole water.  The table is covered with a plastic tablecloth, then a lace one, very much as one of my grandmothers used to have in her farm kitchen.  The walls are decorated with many family photos taped to wall calendars from 2008 and 2009, as well as with local craftwork of small baskets and wooden spoons.  A curtain separates us from the back family room and sleeping quarters – three rooms in all in the main home.  As with all homes here, the kitchen is either outdoors or in a separate building, so as not to put the smoke in the main house. We thank the amayi for the truly delicious peanuts and head to our tents for a while. 

After about an hour, we are invited back, for nsima and beans!  It turns out that the peanuts were not lunch, and our hostess is concerned that we have not eaten yet.  This will be important for us to remember as we move forward.  Manda Wilderness staff tries very hard either to bring all the food that volunteers will need or to pay for food as we go during the journey.  Above all, they work at never causing a family to feed volunteers at the expense of feeding themselves or their children.  Although I do not think this mfumu’s family would be in such a position, I understand how important this policy is.  I feel honored to have been invited to eat in the mfumu’s home.  We eat our lunch while listening to the labored breathing of the little girl on the other side of the room.   It all seems so incongruous to me, but nobody else appears to give it a second thought.  As lunch finishes, the child awakens and thrashes feverishly.  Joe goes over and picks her up gently, taking her to her grandmother.  Her sister is running around and playing, oblivious to her twin’s condition.

After lunch, we pass the school and head to the large and extremely impressive church to hear the choir practice a little. They are practicing in the shade of a huge tree outdoors. They are quite good; I think it will be fun to work with them tomorrow.  On the way back from hearing four of their songs, we buy onions from one of the market stalls.  The onions will improve the taste of our spaghetti since it is quite plain otherwise.    

The night is very noisy until about 11 or so, because the mfumu’s nephew has a bar that is part of the compound.  I am beginning to understand a bit of the routine of a village at this time of year: first off for my part, around 8 o’clock, I am ready for bed!  I think it is because I am so much like a little child here, trying to observe and learn and understand and remember everything.  I get a little overwhelmed by the end of the day and tire quickly after the sun sets at 6.  Dinner is usually at 6:30 or 7, and the village falls fairly quiet during that time.  Villagers, of course, stay up and visit one another when dinner and the day’s chores are over.  Bars begin to play loud, repetitive music until about 11 or 11:30.  Then, all is quiet until 3 in the morning, when roosters begin to crow.  People really start stirring around 5 (earlier if they work in another village), and the children who do go to school – not a given here – go around 7 in most villages if their school meets for a full day or they are in the “first shift” in villages that do not have full-day schools due to space limitations.

MAY 17: Rehearsal, scheduled to begin at 7:30, began between 8:30 and 9.  We rehearsed until 11:45.  Around three hours is about right for a rehearsal, I am finding, given the physical activity, singing and the heat of the day.  Once again we cover breathing and posture, keeping the head up and back straight even when bent over in a dance, how to stop songs together, and keeping the choirmaster in the front and center for the directing at the festival.  This choir is more experienced here, so they learn both the refrain and verse for “Chauta.”  We do not go over “Mtima Wanu” as a larger group, but I will have a chance to work with the choirmaster and two soloists this afternoon, so I plan to teach it to them to teach the choir after we leave.

I ask the choir if they have any questions.  One singer asks a very good question about stagger breathing, and I explain how that can work.  The choir is concerned that the judges will penalize or even disqualify them for breathing mid-phrase, or for coughing or stumbling onstage.  I work hard to explain that the ensemble’s music making and movement in dance are most important.  It is becoming clear that choirs do not know what judges are looking for at the festival.  I will try to make that more a part of my presentation without making it a main point.  The competition aspect of the festival is very important, and I am learning that villages take these honors very seriously.  People know which village “won” the choir festival, the canoe races, the netball games and the soccer games in the Wilderness Area for many years back.  I want to try to emphasize the idea of making music together and learning from one another more, but that is not how people think of the event at all here right now; it will probably take much more time than I have here to foster that spirit of togetherness in music.

In the afternoon, I meet with the choirmaster, Mr. Chingomje.  He asks me many interesting questions about easing tensions within a chorus, encouraging good attendance and timely attendance (!), and also about touring – his dream is to take his chorus to Malawi to tour.  Apparently some church choirs in this region use touring as a fundraiser.  I tell him I will do research to see what is available for cultural grants for touring, but of course I can make no guarantees.

Two of the three soloists from the morning return to master the verse of “Chauta.”  I estimate them to be fifteen or sixteen years old.  We have a wonderful time singing the piece a few times in harmony then Mr. Chingomje leads us in a closing prayer.

The two soloists, Joe and I walk back to the center of the village together.  On the way, one of the girls is trying to read aloud Joe’s book in English on sustainable fish farming, as well as his questionnaire for his socioeconomic data.  She does quite well, pausing only for the word “bamboo,” which she was pronouncing like bambo – the Nyanja word for “father.”  She asked Joe to tell her what it meant, and he told her to ask me.  “Nsungwi,” I said.  “Ah! Nsungwi,” and she kept reading as we walked through the cassava fields in that hot, hot sun.  I wonder where her intellectual curiosity will lead in a village like this.  Will she be a leader in the village? the church? or might she move some place else to further her education?  Chigoma has a more extensive school than most villages, but it only goes to Level 7.  I fear she is past that already.

The chief has one sensitive grandson of about ten who spends much of his time quietly on their porch, daydreaming or carefully organizing an extensive bottle-cap collection.  He plays quite happily with the other children, but he seems happiest just to think on his own.  He observes us visitors very carefully, though he tries to conceal just how intently he is taking in everything we do.  I wonder what place he will find in the village as well.

When we arrive back at the compound, the amayi has already prepared a feast for us: nsima, beans and goat meat.  This is indeed a special meal clearly prepared intentionally for us, and there is no way we could have gotten back from the church to cook before she had begun preparing this food for us.  There is nothing for it but to accept the honor of this dinner in their home and to enjoy what has been cooked. To do otherwise would be disgraceful.  As is customary here, the guests dine alone inside the house while the family eats elsewhere.  When we are finished, we go out to find the mfumu and amayi and thank them for their hospitality.  Back inside where we have just left, Lily and I see the children of the compound rush into the front room and grab the pots, most especially the meat pot.  They dip their fingers in, grabbing at nsima, beans and meat with sauce, and lick the pots clean.  Clearly, they were promised our leftovers.

It is very easy to see why Christianity has such a strong place in Nyanja culture.  The New Testament speaks directly to daily life here, not some historic past that bears no relation to “modern times.”  The villages, the fishermen, the waves that come up unexpectedly, the farmers, the famines that strike without warning, the illness, the death, the children, the aged, the poor, the rich – and make no mistake: we are the very, very rich here, struggling through the eye of the needle….  All the parables are NOT just stories here.  They are very real, very close, and they carry great promise to those who hear them and learn them by heart.


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    A choral conductor walking cheerfully over the world...


    May 2013