PictureA small part of the field of wildflowers on the path between Litanda and Mbueca
JUNE 24 [continued]:  We begin the trek to Mbueca with a very brief, gentle climb on a path I had not yet seen.  Part of it is through an incredible field of yellow wildflowers that had been a cornfield high on the mountain until corn season was over.  Walking through this field certainly makes the climb more bearable!  My pack does not feel nearly as heavy today; I am convinced that I was fighting something off to have felt the way I did three days ago.    

PictureBricks lined up and curing for the new clinic. The two school buildings are in the back, with the concrete water tank in front of the brick building. Completely cured bricks are visible behind the brick schoolhouse.
After the pass, we merge back to the path I recognize from the trip to Mandambuzi.  The remainder of the hike was indeed much easier when most of it was downhill.  If you have hiked with a heavy pack, you will know that it takes much more thigh muscle going down, but I do not find that difficult.  It seems very little time at all until we arrive at Mr. Joe’s house; I learn that that is where I am going to stay tonight!  Needless to say, I am excited and honored to be staying in someone’s home instead of in the tent I have always been in everywhere else.

Joe shows me to my room:  it is the front bedroom, which has a rope bed with a blue mosquito net and a nice blue quilted bedspread.  There is a wooden chair to put my belongings, and the window has a screen.  As in all homes here, doors are used for outside entrances; inside doorways are made private by hanging a sheet or, rarely, a curtain.  It was just this way on my grandparents’ farm.

The backyard at Joe and his wife’s home is a constant scene of activity.  Once again, a pack of clothes for sale is present.  People are coming and going in a constant stream of visitors, many of them trying on clothes from this large pack (a tarp, really) that has been spread out in the “back yard.”  Young and old, mfumu and field worker – at one time, the mfumu and his son, the lay leader of the Anglican Church in town, a very old woman from the village, two mothers with six children between them, and two young men straight from the field with mud still caked on their legs were all visiting at the same time, gathered in the yard with Joe and his wife and their daughter and with me.  Everyone was talking and laughing at the same time, and for once there was no hesitation in including me in the general merriment; I was just part of the scene.  I felt I could just breathe and enjoy.  It was fantastic!

One of the women was going into the house to try on a tight t-shirt.  It should be said that many women regularly dress in what might be thought of in the West as a rather provocative way on top, so that is not all that shocking.  Women here nurse their children on demand regardless of circumstance, and it is not uncommon for young mothers as a matter of utility to walk around in tight clothing with one breast exposed so their baby can have access to nutrition as needed.  What was surprising with this woman was when she emerged from the house wearing a pair of tight jeans; this just simply is not done here!  Women generally wear skirts and zitenje that are below the knee, and nothing form fitting below the waist.  I have never seen a woman wear something like this here before.  She is in a backyard and it is like a party, so it is apparently okay; and immediately everyone begins to cheer and laugh and clap at this audacity.  The deacon turns to me and gives thumbs up.  “Nice, eh?  Maybe for a bar… she should buy them.”  After much teasing, she does just that.  I add this to my list of cultural anomalies I hope to understand eventually.

My favorite shopper was actually the chief’s son, playing out a scene any parent would recognize.  He was in his early-to-mid teens, and he was really looking for a blue t-shirt.  He was trying to decide between one with a large graphic Spiderman or, interestingly, the one that appeared to be his favorite, a lighter blue t-shirt that had a map with an arrow pointing to India and the slogan “Building Schools: Transforming a Generation.”  He tried both on – the men were using an outbuilding to change. All people went one at a time into a changing area, never in pairs or groups.  This appears to be a modest and private culture except at the lake, where bathing is expected.  He really wanted a t-shirt, but his father the mfumu wanted him to get a pair of pants that would be good for church and “for Cobué,” i.e., the “city.”  I could tell the son did not like the pair of pants that his father favored but knew he was going to get them anyway.  His father was in no hurry to go anywhere, so this young man was trying on several pairs of pants, hoping to find something else they could agree on.  He did end up getting other things in the end, but of course that pair of pants was in his pile. They were new, again with the tag still on: Old Navy (again!), $4.99.  He got them for 180 meticais, or about $5.50.  This is a crazy world.

After lunch, where for the first time I had the delicious local green mchicha, which is usually cooked with peanuts, we returned to the yard for a bit.  After a bit, Joe offered to take me around to see Mbueca.  I joked with all there that I had thought I wanted to see Mbueca, but now it seemed to me that I might see Mbueca better if I stayed in Joe’s yard!  On the way to start our tour I asked Joe if his yard was always that busy, and he said it usually is when he has a day off from the lodge.  Some day off!

Mbueca has three churches: a tiny Roman Catholic church with a 6 foot by 6 foot or so side room that currently serves as the health clinic, the somewhat larger Assemblies of God church, and the truly large Anglican Church.  This church is obviously the oldest and most attended.  It is built on top of a rise looking out over the lake and up into the foothills.   It is an impressive setting for a church.  The congregation has nice, high wooden benches to sit on for services.  The choir will not be rehearsing on floor mats here.

We also saw the school, which has four classrooms in two buildings that serve five grades.  Three of the classrooms are completely finished and one is in progress, although it already has a large crack from settling.  Two of the classrooms have the nice desks like the ones we saw in Mcondece.

Outside the school there were rows and rows of bricks.  Joe explained that these were being made for the new clinic, which would be next to the school.  The original plan had been to build it in the northern part of the village, which had taxed itself and found a site “under that palm tree over there,” but the southern part of the village had complained that the tree was too far from them.  The north told them fine, but we have raised the money already.  If you want it closer, you must make all the bricks.  The south agreed, and now work has begun.  Joe showed me the pit where the men dig the dirt – quite a task in dry season.  The women fill buckets of water and bring them the mile or so from the lake and dump the water into a large concrete tank just outside the school.  The dirt and water get mixed and poured into brick molds to cure.  After a day they are ready to remove from the mold and cure further in the sun.  Finally they are stacked to await building.  This is brick-making season, and one encounters new houses under construction and other building projects in all the villages now.  Mbueca’s goal is to make one thousand bricks for the clinic.  This was their third day of work and they were making good progress.    

PictureMbueca's Anglican Church Choir. Mr. Afonso Ndungulu, choirmaster is in the back row center in the light shirt.
By the time we got back to the house, Joe set two chairs out on the front porch so we could watch the sunset over the lake.  There were still people in the back, and the mfumu came to join us in the front.  We talked about many things including, surprisingly, the United States again.  The lay leader had wanted to know about it, too, earlier in the day.  When I said I was from America, he assumed I meant Brazil; this is not an unusual assumption here.  I normally remember to say Yunaitedi Statisi.  The deacon was then telling other people that that meant I was close to England, then!  I did not think I should correct him in front of his congregation.  Still, people were curious in Mbueca and wanted to know about crops and population.  They could not believe my tiny state could support one million people.  The Manda Wilderness is half the size of Rhode Island and has twenty thousand people who struggle to get enough to eat with the resources they have.  No wonder people are curious as to what can be grown to eat in such a country that can support so many people in such a small area!

The chief stayed a very long time and seemed to be waiting for an invitation to dinner, which he received, refused, but came anyway.  It turns out that the mfumu is Joe’s wife’s eldest brother and is a family regular, apparently without his two sons.  We had a very pleasant meal together, and then it was time for bed.

Joe has a little black and white cat that is one of the few domesticated animals I have seen here that is not mistreated.  When I got into bed, it hopped up by my feet and began purring.  I didn’t have the heart to take it off the bed to lower the mosquito net; and as it was a breezy night with no mosquitoes, I felt fine leaving the net up.  It was one of the best nights of sleep I have had in all my time here.

JUNE 25: After a breakfast of bananas and tea, we went back to the Anglican Church, which is a bit of a climb that last bit to the churchyard.  Some choir members were actually there at the scheduled start time of 8:30, and by 8:50 the choir was warming up.  They “warmed up” by singing five or six songs along with their keyboard setup, complete with the seemingly obligatory blinking multi-colored lights on the speakers, car battery, inverter, cables and all other equipment necessary to get an electronic keyboard to work in an area with no electricity.  The festival is a cappella, however.  They had brought all this equipment and gone through all that work merely to warm up.  They would not use the keyboard again for rehearsal the rest of the day.

After the warm-up, I received two very formal welcomes from the choirmaster and the choir chairman, during which they said that they were here for training and wanted to do anything I wished; they were here to learn.  In my speech I assured them that I would work on many things but that I, too, was here to learn and was looking forward to all that they would have to teach me as well.  I work very hard from the outset in each village to make clear that we will be working together and that I am not coming as an authority imposing outside notions but rather as a colleague here to work on concepts of mutual benefit.

This is another choir with good, energetic dance.  Some of them bob their heads excessively when they move, and we work on that.  They began to concentrate so much on proper alignment that it affected the fluidity of their dance.  I assured them that the two concepts did not have to be mutually exclusive; as the day progressed it did get better.  I hope their integration of healthy posture will continue to improve and become more organic with time.

We also talk about starting, stopping and facial expression.  This ensemble does not sharp as much as most others, which is nice.  The sopranos scoop when they get tired during a song, so we talk about that.  The basses are nodding enthusiastically when I bring this up to them; but to be fair, the songs in Mbueca are quite lengthy: usually at least seven minutes of energetic dancing and singing!

As with other highly disciplined groups, this choir is a little slow to pick up “Chauta,” but we get there eventually; and they do seem to enjoy the song.  We have had a good morning’s rehearsal; in fact, it is actually one o’clock!  The schedule calls for me to work with the choirmaster after lunch, so I begin to make a nice thank you speech.  There are usually two speeches I give: a preliminary thank-you-for-your-hard-work speech, then the choir gives a response, then my it-has-been-a-pleasure-good-luck-at-the-festival speech.  This time, though, the choirmaster rises to explain that they have planned to spend the entire day with me in training, and that they have brought lunch and we are to stay!

This threw Joe and me off completely.  We had to explain that I at least had to pack, since I needed to be on my way by four in order to be back at the lodge before dark.  We walked as fast as we could the long mile to Joe’s house, where I threw things back in my pack; then we were back on the path to the church, where we arrived at two.  Fortunately, lunch included nsima, so it was still not quite ready to serve.  The keyboard player had figured out the chords to “Chauta” and had given it a beat as well.  All the children of the choir were singing the eight-measure refrain over and over and over.  Those who find repetitive mantras a path to enlightenment would positively glow in the Nyanja culture.  I guess the piece was a hit with the Mbueca choir.

The choir brought a floor mat into the church for me and for Joe.  Lunch was nsima, rice and chambo with tea.  I enjoy most local foods, but chambo is not my favorite fish; I prefer kampango because chambo is bony and therefore a little hard for a novice like me to eat with nsima.  I always get bones embedded in the nsima when I dip it, which makes me a little nervous about swallowing the nsima ball.  I manage a polite amount and fill up on nsima and rice mostly, which of course is just fine.

By three, we are ready to start again.  We reviewed “Chauta” again twice more seated and then we added movement.  We reviewed one of the shorter songs from the morning (one that I hope they use at the festival because of its unique dance); we had our real parting speeches, during which they announced that they would like me to return sometime between the 10th and 15th of next month (!).  I left at four, but the choir remained seated; they had come to rehearse until five.    

Joe’s cold had moved to his throat as a raspy cough, which had been making his work as translator difficult all day.  I told him just to take me on the path back just far enough to where there were no possible wrong turns I could take and I would go the rest of the way.  I make it back just as it is getting really dark and go to the beach to meet the current guests and a new volunteer, here to teach staff English.

I take what has become my customary long shower after a long time away, this time under the half moon.  The lodge needed my huts battery for guests, so I use all my solar lanterns to find my way to bed, first making sure I put all my clothes high up in my new laundry basket.

Now I have worked with twelve choirs and officially visited thirteen villages (Matepwe had no choir of course).  I have Mala, the closest village, and Luiga and Chissindo, the two furthest, still to visit.  I fall asleep listing the villages in the order I visited them.  It is hard to believe that this portion of my work is coming to a close.  Still, I do have at least one major trip ahead, one with entirely new challenges I have not yet faced.    

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    A choral conductor walking cheerfully over the world...


    May 2013