Mandambuzi

7/10/2013

 
PictureView north from the chief's house. Behind the distant mountains are the villages of Mcondece, Matepwe and Magachi
JUNE 22: I wake up feeling much better, both in mood and in body.  It has been a consistent surprise to me these past two months, but as usual I am not sore from the hike other than where the shoulder straps of the pack have been.  This is the third backpack I have tried (the lodge has some spares which one can sign out) and it seems this is a problem that is unlikely to be solved due to the weight of the pack.  Given how sore I expected to be the entire time I was in the villages, this comparatively minor inconvenience has come almost as a relief.

I was hoping at some point before now to hear the story behind this village’s interesting name.  Manda means “cemetery,” and mbuzi means “goat [or goats].”  Thus the name “cemetery goats” would seem to have a legend behind it.  The closest I can get, though, is someone telling me “there was a cemetery around here and it had some goats.” A person at the lodge recently speculated that the civil war and the resulting two-decade population dispersion utterly destroyed the local folk tradition.  There is certainly merit to that theory.

This morning’s meeting begins around 8:30 with just the choirmaster present.  He is relatively new to his position, and it turns out that he has concerns about discipline in the group.  Apparently there is one talented adult male singer who feels himself to be above the rest of the group and sees no need to come to rehearsals.  The sopranos are young and inattentive.  I tell him I will watch carefully during rehearsals and try to say things that reinforce what he has been teaching.  I also let him know that no singer can be above the good of the group.  This is a difficult message to hear when one has a talented singer, but if he is not following the same rules as the rest of the ensemble, it will bring down the discipline of all the others as they observe what he is allowed to do.

Slowly other members of the choir begin to come in.  It soon becomes clear that my concerns yesterday about the difficulty of this day may be justified after all.  The choirmaster wants to talk to me further about his issues, but the committee keeps interrupting with their own ideas and things they want to talk about.  At times they simply talk over him as loudly as possible to make sure I hear what they want to talk about.  At first I make every attempt to address my comments to the choirmaster only, but I can see that he is gradually withdrawing and allowing the choir to take over the meeting.  Soon he has become an interested spectator at his own meeting, reduced to looking to me for answers to their questions.

Someone wants to talk about judging at the festival; I explain what I am doing to standardize the adjudication. 

Another person wants to complain that their choir is never invited to the lodge to perform.  I should explain that sometimes the local choirs are invited to Nkwichi to perform for guests when the lodge has many visitors at the same time.  The invited ensemble then receives a stipend for having come.  This has proved to be something of a windfall for the most villages closest to the lodge, Mala and Mbueca, but other choirs naturally would like the opportunity.  I am not here as an employee of the lodge and must be very careful what I say, so I simply tell them my standard response to this matter in these more remote villages:  I will bring their request back with me to the lodge, but they should understand that the lodge must know months in advance that the rooms will be booked, then they must send a letter to the choir being invited, then the choir must respond in a timely fashion and be sure to send as many singers as possible on the day of the performance.  I then make a point in front of them of writing their request to perform into my journal, just as I have recorded all other comments, suggestions and requests in each village.

The next complaint comes from a tall woman who is unhappy because the first two years of the festival there was not enough water for the singers to wash their hands before the dinner that is provided for them.  She is quite exercised about it: “This is a matter of respect!  Respect for those who have come on this day!”  I ask her if this was a problem last year, and she admits that it was not.  I suggest that the two people who coordinate the festival are continuing to learn what is needed and have improved the event each year.  I also suggest that anyone who may see something that needs to be done on the day of the event would be very welcome to volunteer to assist, as well as to notify those working that day as to the problem.

The complaints and comments are coming at a steady pace, and I am really seeing why the choirmaster is concerned about the discipline of his ensemble.  I decide to take a rather drastic tactic compared to what I have done anywhere else.  I turn back to the choirmaster only and in front of the gathered assembly tell him as if speaking to him privately “I want to return to what we were talking about earlier.  It is very important that if the group wishes you to be choirmaster that it allow you to tell them what you need to do the job.  If the choir is unable or unwilling to do that for you, then I think you should consider whether you wish to continue in the position with this group.  I suggest a meeting soon after today’s events, when you have had time to think about what you need to do your work and how it can best be accomplished.”  As I had hoped, this quiets the complaining and talking over the choirmaster.  He thanks me in front of them and tells me that he will indeed do that.

I look over at poor João.  He is squirming because of the difficulty of translating all of this and because he knows some of these people and probably finds this new view of them very uncomfortable.  He is being forced to tell them words he might not have chosen to say and must feel caught in the middle.  He keeps apologizing for his translations: “You are good at Nyanja.  Please tell me if you think I am not saying something correctly.”  I am assuring him he is doing fine.

About an hour into this meeting, Joe suddenly appears around the bend in the path coming directly from Mbueca.  He has been hidden from view by tall grasses almost right up to the point of his entering the churchyard.  João cannot jump up fast enough from his place next to me on a bench.  “Here you go!” he almost shouts.  “This is your place.  I need to go now and get back to the farm.  They need me.”  He does not leave right away, though, since that would be rude.  He has no choice but to stick it out until lunchtime.  I am sure he is relieved that he is at least no longer in the translator’s chair.

By this point in the proceedings, enough of the choir has gathered that we can actually do some rehearsing.  I observe four songs: two seated and two dancing.  The church is tiny, but the choir is not!  The congregation has two churches: one is large and is used during the rainy season.  This tiny one is used during the current rice-harvesting season, when few can spare the time to go to church.  When the ensemble is dancing, the twenty-five of us present take up well over half the space available to the congregation.

It is true that the young sopranos have attention problems, but it is also true that no one has space to get in front of them and teach them or monitor what they are doing.  This afternoon I think I will want to try to rehearse in a circle, but there will not be room in the church.  Maybe we can try it outside.

The big action of the day comes at the lunchtime break, when someone comes by the chief’s roadside table and unpacks a satchel of clothing.  In no time, the choir and others have gathered around the table, picking through the clothes and trying them on.  Some clothes still have their original tags on them [Old Navy: $5.99], some have red and blue dots from thrift stores, and others even have a few holes in them.  Interestingly to me, people were shopping first by color, and then by graphics, only last by what seemed to me like the quality of the item of clothing.  Colors and styles do not have the same gender classifications here as they do in the United States.  Pink of any type is a very popular men’s color, even if the t-shirt has a picture of a white ballerina on the front.  Women wear sports t-shirts that sometimes have double entendres they surely must not understand.  The choirmaster comes by and purchases what in a former life were women’s Capri pants. They fit him perfectly as full-length pants. The Nyanja people tend to be short as a rule; indeed, only now is the scab on the top of my head healing fully from all the church entrances I banged into the first week I was here until I finally got used to the height difference.  For now during lunch, I watch the colorful parade of people and clothes and learn something about the local sense of style.    

After João leaves us after lunch from the churchyard but before the afternoon rehearsal begins, the chief stops by the church and says in front of the choir and townspeople who have assembled to watch the rehearsal that the church wants a keyboard and needs funding.  He looks at me directly.  “Would you care to respond?”  This request comes as a surprise.  I explain that as a volunteer I am not in a position to make any commitments to such requests, but I will try to see if I can find any sources of funding when I get back to the United States.  Perhaps there is a church congregation that might want to adopt this cause.  What else can I do?  Some choirs have saved up for their keyboards from earnings they get from their singing; it doesn’t seem fair to just give keyboards away.  On the other hand, choirs in the more remote villages really don’t have any opportunities to earn money with their singing and the congregations love to have a keyboard available for their services.  I am at a bit of a loss as to a solution to this one, though I have contacted two church music organizations in North America to see if they might be interested in this cause.  No response so far.

The afternoon rehearsal is very interesting.  When the first piece did not go as well as the choirmaster wanted, he came up with the great idea to have the group form two lines facing each other.  This almost worked, but his youngest choir members had some left/right confusion and were always on the wrong foot because they were looking across for guidance.  Before I could say anything about a circle, he came up with the idea of a square.  This formation worked much better for the group.  I was happy he came up with this idea on his own, and I had another chance in front of the group to exhibit approval of his leadership and rehearsal techniques.

The choir really does have discipline and attention problems, and I reiterate again in front of the ensemble that the choirmaster must have a meeting soon with his group to discuss discipline and consequences.  I am saying it as much to give him the courage to follow through as I am saying it to them to remind them of the morning’s discussion.

This choir actually had some trouble learning “Chauta.”  To tell the truth, I am not sure that this choirmaster’s ear is his strong suit.  He is not singing the eight measure tenor part correctly, even though I have been singing it with him eight times straight through.

The video review sessions really help the group to see that they really must begin to act together to prepare for public performance.  I hope that my reinforcement of the choirmaster’s authority will help get the group out of their current quasi-dysfunctional status.  I wish them well at the festival and Joe and I head back to the mfumu’s compound.

This evening the mfumu visits with us a bit before dinner.  I believe he is the first person in the villages to take an active interest in where I come from.  He is asking about what sorts of crops they grow in America, how do people make their money, what are the jobs available.  He is incredulous that many of our jobs are solely technology based.  But what do people make? What do they grow?  I try to explain the vast size of our nation and the differences among states in terms of what they can grow and what jobs are available, but of course this is outside his experience.  He also wants to know if we eat nsima, and if so is it corn or cassava?  He has heard that they grow much rice in Toronto; is this true?  I appreciate his curiosity and do my best to answer his questions.

By now I know this chief’s home is a busy place day and night.  People who saw Joe and know him have been stopping by to say hello to him.  A radio is playing Malawian radio stations somewhere in the compound.  A satellite dish is aimed toward Tanzania, though I do not see the glow of a television.  There are LED lanterns glowing from the windows – not too brightly so as not to attract too many mosquitoes.

Children are outside playing just before it gets too dark; the most popular game for boys is the old-fashioned tire rim pushed by a stick.  There is another game both sexes play in these villages which one child is “it” and throws a ball at the others.  If he or she hits the child they were aiming for, that child becomes the new “it.”  If they miss, however, they have to chase the ball while the child at whom the ball was thrown fills an empty soda bottle with sand or dirt.  Once the bottle is full, the child who finished filling it gets to spray its dirt all over the other children.  Then this bottle filler becomes the new “it.”

Joe is chuckling to himself.  I ask him what is so funny.  He tells me that it appears my name in the villages has become “Madala Amdala,” which roughly translates as a respectful “Old Man Grandpa.”  Given that the average life expectancy here is forty-eight, I can understand.  I am actually a little flattered that villagers care enough about my presence here even to have given me a name.  It is true that they find my name hard to pronounce.  It basically comes out as “Maliki Konili.”  I have come to introduce myself by pronouncing my name its usual way, then giving the Nyanja pronunciation of my first name, which the group will then often repeat.

In some ways, I feel more incorporated into the culture after these last two days.  I am a little less starry-eyed and idealistic.  I am able to anticipate some cultural expectations and adjust my interactions accordingly.  And now I find out I have come to be known in the area by a nickname of sorts.  Madala Amdala.

And no, dear students at URI, you may not use it. 
 



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