PictureMr. Joe presenting school supplies to the standing students of Level 4
Surprise! I am still here; we are not leaving until tomorrow, after all.  Mr. Joe has been ill and away from work.  We will use today for preparation of supplies and for research for me, since these villages have other tribes, languages and religions than I have worked with thus far.  Thus, there WILL now be a hiatus in my posting.  See you in a week!

JUNE 11 (continued): After turning into the dooryard of the hut where we would stay, we sat in the shade of the hut of the nduna.  The nduna is second in command in a village. He is selected by the chief based upon his merits as an advisor, so this position is not hereditary.  We had stopped by the mfumu’s house on the way, but Mr. Joe explained that he lived a little too far out and had too little access to water to make it possible for us to stay there.

This hut was built in the fashion that seems more common in the inland villages.  The lakeside villages appear to use bricks or grass more predominantly for walls, but here the walls are sturdy bamboo sticks laid horizontally and then covered with a thick layer of mud that dries like cement.  The mud can be of different colors depending upon where it was obtained, so each hut can be decorated in different colors and geometric designs.  I like this style very much, as each home is individualized and seems to say a little bit more about its family than do the other styles.  Sometimes families with children have the sides of their walls covered with schoolwork and drawings, like a giant chalkboard.  I especially like those houses.

I am very surprised by this inland valley. I am more accustomed to the valleys of the Rocky Mountains, where rain shadows generally prevent good conditions for crops. These mountains clearly do not have that same effect, as I can see that there is a wider variety of food grown here than by the lake.  There is a lemon tree growing in the yard among other fruit trees.  Joe picks some green lemons and we each take a half to eat.  It is surprisingly good – or perhaps my tastes get modified when I am out in the villages.  Mr. Marcos had cut two canes of sugar earlier in the day, and they cut some of that off for me to try as well.  I really like it, especially how much liquid is inside along with the sugar.  You chew and chew the cane sort of like a fibrous chewing gum until all of the sugar water is gone, then you spit out the remaining plant fiber.  Only after my lemon half is gone does it occur to me how fantastic it would have been to eat the lemon and chew on the sugar cane at the same time!  I hope I will have the opportunity to try it some time.

The nduna invited us to lunch around 2:30: cassava nsima with goat and usipa.  The meal is of course generous and unexpected, but I believe it has been warmed over from the earlier prepared lunch and so is a little dry and hard to eat after a long, dry hike.  I manage a piece of goat and two-thirds of a loaf of nsima.  I actually like nsima a lot, both corn and cassava; but I find it expands logarithmically in my stomach.  How natives here can manage a full loaf or a loaf and a half is beyond me.  Still, because I never eat a full loaf, my travel companions always assume I don’t like it, and then despite my protestations they go to the extra trouble of preparing spaghetti or rice for me.  Such will be the case once again on this trip.

This family appears to be quite prosperous: the farmland is lush, and the chickens and baby chicks are too many to count.  I do count at least fourteen goats in his herd, which is extremely impressive: families are doing better than most if they have one or two goats.  In addition to the lemon tree, there are other native fruit trees I do not yet know growing in the dooryard.  There are three compost piles, which I would later learn were a direct result of training from the Manda Wilderness Farm Project.  I can see already that there are at least a few farms inland operating on a vastly different scale than anything I have seen thus far.

Around 4, we go to the church to hear the choir at the invitation of the choir’s chairman.  It is about a mile away, and on the way the chairman shows us elephant damage where the herds have trampled some grass near the river.  It is very rare to have crop damage from elephants already at this time of year, and the locals are worried.  Obviously families do not have enough cassava to share with a marauding herd of elephants.  It takes very little damage of this sort before conflicts between humans and elephants begin.  Often in this region it results in families leaving the village; this is what we have heard may already have happened in Matepwe.

As we approach the church, it becomes clear very quickly that we have entered another league entirely where choir preparation is concerned.  Upon hearing our approach, the choir has actually left the church and hidden from sight behind some nearby huts.  As we round the corner and see the church for the first time, we hear them singing nearby but cannot yet see them.  Twenty-five singers approach in two lines, dancing and singing as they go.  They form a human passageway between the church and us.  At this point, the choirmaster appears at the far end of this passage and bows to us, then comes to take me by the arm in the local fashion to indicate we should pass through.  The choir is singing “We are coming; we are coming slowly.  We will be there soon.”  As we go through the line, they turn in our direction but never look directly at us.  After we pass and enter the church, they continue the song as they merge lines and dance into the church single file, taking their places for rehearsal.  I found this entire welcome ceremony intensely moving; there is not a doubt in my mind that I will carry this moment with me for the rest of my life.

Together, without any words exchanged, they performed three excellent songs while dancing, not seated as is usual at the beginning.  Clearly this “rehearsal” was a planned welcome performance, and they had already warmed up.  Likely they were informed soon after we entered the village.  I listened intently to learn what I could about what they might want me to work on, since this would be a different sort of work.  The songs had minimal sharping and were very coordinated.  After three songs, the choir sat down.  It was time for speeches.  The choirmaster welcomed us, and then the chairman gave his welcome.  Everything was in a very formal, deliberate style.  Joe chuckled because the chairman was addressing me as “madala,” a word I did not know: “We are very honored to have the madala with us to teach us all he can from his knowledge.”  Joe tells me that madala is a highly respectful, honorific title for an old man.  Terrific.

Next comes Joe’s introduction of me.  I am startled as I rise to make my speech, because the choir claps loudly in unison when Joe finishes.  For the musically inclined, the rhythm was two dotted eighths followed by an eighth note, then a quarter note sharply performed with extra accent.  I then rise to give my introductory speech in Chinyanja.  The choir responds with the same rhythmic clap.  Clearly this is their way to applaud or indicate thanks or assent.  Everything they do is prescribed and choreographed.

After the formal speeches, the choir sings three more songs, this time seated, thus inverting the standard rehearsal format I have observed thus far.  We then take our leave, the choir applauds rhythmically together again and we go, as they remain seated silently.  Tomorrow should be fascinating.

JUNE 12:  After the previous days adventures, I slept very well.  We are in a high mountain valley now, so the night is the coldest I have experienced thus far.  I estimate it might have been in the upper 40s.  “Nkozizira” becomes a term I will hear frequently on this trip: “It is cold.”

After a breakfast of rice and beans, we first go to the school.  Manda Wilderness has received a gift of pencils, colored pencils and paper from a generous donor, and Joe has asked me to take photos of their presentation to send back to this person or foundation.

There are two rooms in this schoolhouse.  Currently there is one teacher in town.  Mozambique hires teachers for schools, but they do not receive their first salary for three months. At that point they must make the lengthy and inconvenient journey (four hours on chapas IF there are no stops or mechanical problems) to the provincial capital of Lichinga to collect their paycheck.  After this initial trial period they must make this same paycheck journey every month of their stay since there is no postal service here.  In order to ensure that the national language of Portuguese is properly taught, teachers are often assigned to communities outside their tribal home and language to force the use of Portuguese.  Of course, this also means these teachers are unable to speak with the people in the village until they have been there a while. Frequently, teachers leave for their first checks and simply never come back; it is just too difficult an adjustment.  This teacher is from the area, however.  It is believed that the other teacher is likely to come back.  In the meantime, school goes on.  This teacher will take the five grades himself each day.

When we enter the first classroom, half of the children stand in unison and remain standing as long as we are there. “Bom dia, senhor professor!” they say in unison to us: “Good day, Mister Teacher!”  Clearly they have learned this greeting as a rote response to their teacher entering the class, but they do not know what it means.  The teacher explains that we are not the teachers, so they should only say the first part.  He asks them to try again.  Rote learning is not that easily removed from the brain, though, alas.  “Bom dia, senhor professor!” they say a second time.  We all laugh, and Mr. Joe begins handing out school supplies as I take pictures.  This classroom has the rather odd combination of first and fourth grade.  It is the fourth graders who are standing; the first graders apparently are not expected to do so yet.  Once the supplies have been passed out and the pictures taken, Joe takes them right back from the children.  School supplies are much too precious to entrust to children.  The teacher will keep them at his home and distribute them each morning and collect them at the end of the day.  He will now spend the rest of his morning shuttling between the 1 / 4 room and the level 2 children in the other room.  In the afternoon, level 3 will be in one room and level 5 in the other.  I wonder how he manages. At least Mcondece is a fairly sparsely populated village, so class sizes are much more manageable than the hundred or so students in a classroom I have seen in other schools.    

PictureMr. Joe with the seated students of Level 1. The valiant and currently lone teacher of Mcondece is looking into the camera. These nice desks are VERY uncommon in the villages, by the way.
The photo op finished and proper leave taken of the teacher, we go to the church for rehearsal.  We wait for just a bit, but not long.  A different member of the choir than the chairman or the choirmaster is berating the members.  Some of the adults respond while the children sit still, eyes forward.  Joe laughs because the adults are saying they were late to rehearsal because it was too cold this morning; they had to wait for the sun to come up to get ready.  The chastised adults have it better than the children, though!  The choir has an appointed choir disciplinarian: an older tenor stands outside with a stick.  As children come late, I can just barely hear him outside asking their reason, telling them it is not an excuse, and then beating them soundly with two raps across their bottom.  One older girl enters the church rubbing her sore backside.  Beatings of children are not at all uncommon here; it is one of the difficult things for me to witness in the villages.  Only one child, a boy, escapes this fate.  After a brief discussion, he is allowed to pass untouched.  I wonder whether his excuse was really good or if he is the child of an important personage.

Inside, rehearsal has begun.  From time to time, a man next to the disciplinarian touches his arm, jerks his head toward the door, and the swift arm of justice rises and leaves briefly.  Shortly after, he re-enters just after a child with downcast eyes.  We continue with our songs of the Eternal Love of God.  I am discovering that this choirmaster, Mr. Jaime, is a bit vague with numbers.  He announced (everything is a formal announcement here) that they would perform two seated songs as a warm-up, but they actually sang four.  This choir is clearly ready for more advanced training in matters of breathing, posture, movement and tongue position.  I haven’t done much work with tongue position in many of the villages, but this group appears ready to discuss this.  It is unclear to me though whether they fully understood the concept, as it appears to be difficult to translate into Nyanja.

After a couple of songs with dance, in which I make some minor corrections, we begin work on “Chauta.”  They pick it up quickly, naturally.  They are a bit confused and perhaps offended that they may only sing the refrain at the festival and that they must pick one or two singers to perform the verses.  I explain that some choirs are new and were only able to learn the refrain; we do not want to embarrass the new choirs by showing them up with how much more quickly some groups were able to learn.  I can tell by the group’s faces that they are not particularly concerned with these inconvenient newcomers and want to sing the entire piece whenever they do it.  I reiterate the plan firmly but politely.  I think we got that cleared up, but I am not entirely sure.

When the choirmaster hears that I will be making a video of their performances so that they can see them for the immediate feedback, he announces that they will now perform ten songs (!) the remainder of the morning, from which I can select and later record the five best for the afternoon session.  It is both refreshing and a bit disconcerting to rehearse with an ensemble that is so direct and formal with its intentions and wishes.  I have become accustomed to a much more roundabout approach by now.  I have to recalibrate!  I agree to this plan and they begin.  “Ten songs” actually turned out to be five; I select three.  I am certainly not going to be in the position of selecting only the two songs for them to perform at the festival, and then take the blame if they don’t go well!  These three songs really are the most rhythmically and melodically complex that I have heard so far, although not the most complex in terms of dance.  Two pieces in particular I am really looking forward to hearing again: one with a solo trio (!), and one with a gospel choir-like repetition section building from the sopranos down as the choirmaster takes a spirited solo.

At lunch we return to the nduna’s house.  As we pass people and greet them, I am noticing that people are even more formal here than they are in the lakeside villages.  People always rise to speak in formal situations, with much thanking and courtesy.  There is near universal use of the ultra-formal address in greetings.  Normally, Chichewa and Chinyanja use “iwe” forms for children, animals and intimate family and friends, and the plural “inu” for other situations.  So far this is like many other languages. There is a third form, though, which is “iwo,” which actually means “they” under normal circumstances.  Thus you are addressing someone “How are they?” “Do they want to do something…” etc.  In studying the language, books said that this form was more or less obsolete, but I am here to testify that it is in fact alive and well in these more remote villages.  Needless to say, this style takes some practice to get the hang of, to look directly at someone and address one person in the plural third person.  Try it in English!  I hope I don’t make any bad faux pas as I learn this new form of address.

The afternoon session was spent mostly taking and reviewing videos.  Here the ensemble’s Achilles Heel was revealed.  The group is so trained, so regimented and rehearsed, that any form of audience causes their adrenaline to go way up.  Their tight disciplinary system causes them to freeze with worry that they might do something wrong, especially on video.  Of course this means they begin making mistakes they did not make before, including the sharping I have heard everywhere else but not here. I remind them of the low breathing work we have done. We also talk about facial expression, especially expressions of happiness or joy.  It will be interesting at the festival to see if any of this work transfers into their system.  We add movement to “Chauta,” then the choir sits in preparation for the concluding speeches and prayer.  I first ask if the group has any questions.  The women and children sit, eyes forward, while the men huddle and whisper for a brief conference.  The chairman stands and clears his throat, then looks me in the eye.  “Palibe mafunso,”he says then sits down – “There are no questions.”  Then we pray, give our formal speeches of farewell, the choir claps rhythmically, and our official time together is over.  Five people stay to work on the solo section of “Chauta,” so apparently the small choir part of the morning’s explanation did make sense to the group after all.

Upon parting, the choir chairman hands Joe a letter with a list of demands they would like Manda Wilderness Community Trust to meet.  Joe schedules a meeting with the choir’s leadership committee for the next morning to respond before we leave.

We head back to the nduna’s compound, past the elephant damage, past the bridge where women are washing their clothes in the river.  Dinner is goat again, as well as chicken!  It is certainly not dry this time; everything is delicious and simply prepared.  Does this family have meat every night?  Surely not.

Tomorrow our journey will take us through Matepwe.  If there are any people left, we will check to see if there is still a choir and if it wants some training.  Otherwise we will continue to Magachi.    


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    A choral conductor walking cheerfully over the world...


    May 2013