PictureMr. Joe helping set up camp. The fishermen's shelter is just out of range to the right.
MAY 14: After Lily and Joe meet with the local Manda Wilderness Committee of Ngofi, we leave for Uchesse.  I have run out of borehole well water by that point, and there is no chance to go back and fill up again.  The hike from Ngofi to Uchesse is long and hot, and once again I feel dehydrated.  It is amazing how much the hot sun and my lack of water color my perceptions.  Maybe it was just too much adjustment for me to make all at once, and I should go back to give it another chance; but I cannot say that Ngofi was one of my favorite places.

Uchesse, however, I already know immediately upon our return, is.  I liked the mfumu here when we first passed through. His is very tall, very funny and very levelheaded.  When we returned to his home from Ngofi, the amayi [this word technically means “mothers,” as the plural is used to be polite, but it is used to refer to the female head of the household as well] informed us that he was at the lake, where he usually is during the day, sitting under a fishermen’s shelter selling tea and doughnuts (unsugared doughboys) to the fishermen as they come in or prepare to leave for the day’s catch.  Sure enough, after a five-minute walk down to the lake, we find him there at his post.  Along the lake in the villages, there are long wooden shelters, between twenty-five to fifty feet long and fifteen feet wide.  They are open to the air on all sides, with thatched roofs.  These provide a place for the fishermen to hang out in some shade between outings, to chat, to eat, to drink tea or any other beverage they might choose, and even to sleep.  They are altogether very pleasant places.

The chief is set up in one corner, with a large plastic tub filled with his doughnuts, a thermos of hot water on a tray with spoons and a few mugs (Minnesota Fair!  Happy Mother’s Day! and other such used American mugs that have somehow made their way here), a measuring cup with a sieve bottom, a bag of tea leaves, a bag of sugar, a tin of powdered cream, and a basin for washing cups.  The chief tells us that you get two doughnuts free when you buy your tea.  He is quite a businessman!  Lily purchases tea for all of us.  I can only manage one doughnut because I am still so dry, but it is quite tasty.  To make tea here, you reach in the bag, take a pinch of leaves, put them in the measuring cup on top of the wet leaves already there, then pour the water from the thermos. It is delicious.

We settle in and start to chat, along with any fishermen who are not asleep.  I am getting used to the fact that nobody expects white visitors to speak Nyanja, even at my relatively basic level.  The chief asks me if I am from Malawi or Canada.  His English is very good.  I tell him I am from the United States and he wants to know how I came to speak Chichewa – this is almost everyone’s third question after my name and where I am from.  When I tell him by books and by computer, he is as surprised as everyone else here that such resources exist for the local languages.


At this point I should probably clear up the confusion you may be feeling about Chichewa and Nyanja.  Locals regard them as two separate languages, but as far as I can tell from my experience until now, they are more like separate dialects, as far apart as English in Southern Texas and in Scotland, say.  With effort, I can use my Chichewa learning to get by, and Joe is beginning to teach me some of the differences.  Based on what I learned at home, Nyanja as a rural dialect preserves some “old-fashioned” elements, particularly in formality and politeness, which have been lost in the language of the cities of Malawi.  I am also beginning to learn the sprinkling of common Swahili words that one encounters being this close to Tanzania:  Karibu!  Asante!


The conversation turns to my solar backpack.  Single solar panels are actually fairly common here; one can buy them in many town markets, and homes frequently power an LED light or two and a radio from the battery attached to them.  Young children of about seven or eight are occasionally tasked with climbing onto the family’s roof three times a day: once early in the morning to place the panel, once mid-day to turn it, and once at night to bring it down so it doesn’t fall or get taken overnight.  Restaurants usually have enough of a solar array to power loud sound systems (as I discovered in Ngofi).  The chief asks me how much my solar backpack costs.  Uh-oh.  I round the amount down to $350, though it was probably really a little closer to $400.  The fishermen want to know how much that would be in Malawian Kwacha, the more common currency here than the Mozambican Metical.  The chief immediately whips out a solar calculator and comes up with 1,200,000 MK, which is too high by almost an order of ten; it is more like 140,000 MK.  Still, I feel embarrassed, knowing that the average annual family income in this region is 40,000 – 120,000 MK.  I will soon learn that this is sort of inquiry is simple curiosity, with no apparent hard feelings at all – but I do not know this yet, and I tell them that I bought the pack with a grant rather than my own money, which is true.  I’m not sure if they understand the word “grant,” but I suppose it makes me feel better.  The fact is, I would imagine many present were interested in the technology and looking forward to the time it becomes affordable for them.  Such a thing would be very practical for the fishermen and for farmers working in a field all day.  While we are talking, someone comes to buy some more tea.  The mfumu lifts the creamer container, only to find a black scorpion hiding underneath, the most dangerous kind of scorpion that lives here.  Calmly, the mfumu slices the scorpion in half with the handle end of a butter knife, so as not to dirty the business end for the customers.  He places the knife back in the tray with the mugs.    

PictureUchesse's choir. Mr. Mngulu's hands are clasped in prayer.
Joe meets with the women on the beach, who sit under a separate shelter near an open fire doing cooking and washing, to ask if he might use one of their pots and a bit of their fire.  He cooks spaghetti and sauce again and brings it over.  A toddler who lives with a woman in a separate shelter, a businesswoman from Likoma, wants to try some.  She likes it, once she figures out how to use a fork to get it in her mouth.

After our chat, we went back to the chief’s house and picked up the hiking boots Lily had left on our way to Ngofi.  They have been beautifully sewn all the way around, and glued in many places for extra security.  We also arranged to pay the family for some mustard leaves for our evening meal.  We then went to the church to observe some of the group’s rehearsal.  I recorded and videoed some of it, they gave us a speech of welcome, and we left to let them finish this preparatory rehearsal in peace.

We pitch our tents on the beach here.  We can do this because the chief often returns there at night to sell a little more tea to the shift that comes to shore in the middle of the night, so there are always people around for security.  We wash some of our clothes and ourselves in the lake.  By this time the inevitable entourage of children has gathered around Lily’s tent, where she and I draw sand pictures with them.  I am not a good artist. They get my njobvu (elephant) right away, but one boy thinks my mphaka (cat) is an mbalame (a bird)!  After drawing a ng’ona (crocodile) with an open mouth, which they all get, I make an appropriate sound effect they like, and with laughter, we part ways so that we can all have dinner.

For dinner we have rice with mustard green “sauce” – a green vegetable, my first in four days!  Needless to say, it tastes phenomenal.  I am finally getting re-hydrated, and I try not to dwell on the fact that the chief’s family gets its water from a borehole and that I could have had that water on the way up two days ago if we had known.  After making our thanks for the greens and the use of the fire, we hike back to the beach, and I fall asleep to the sounds of the waves and the motors of some big boats leaving for the night, along with the shouts and laughs of all along the shore.

MAY 15: We woke up to a nice, cool morning, although I think it was a little cold for Joe and Lily.  One of my tent poles had snapped at the top overnight in the wind, so my tent was a little lopsided.  It certainly hadn’t bothered my sleep!  The sand felt good after the hard ground at Ngofi, and my hips felt a lot better, since I tend to sleep on my side.

Breakfast here in this part of Africa is always tea and a plain bread roll, but since we are in Uchesse, we do as the Uchessians do and have doughnuts again with the chief.

We meet the choir again at São Barnabe Anglican Church at nine o’clock for a rehearsal scheduled to start at 7:30, with Mr. Mngulu, the choirmaster, and twelve more in the ensemble: three sopranos, five altos, three tenors (including choirmaster), and two basses.  One bass and one soprano in particular have very good voices.  Nonetheless, this choir has been disbanded for two years and only met again for the first time a week ago.  As you can imagine, this creates many issues.

We spend our morning working on breathing, vowel formation and seating formations for practice.  They had been sitting on three parallel benches, with the women facing out toward the congregation and the men gathered on the backbench facing in toward each other and away from the women.  I suggest they rearrange the benches to a U shape, with the men in the middle and the entire group facing one another.  They take this suggestion and change it to reflect cultural norms here, so the basses take one leg of the U, the tenors and male altos (quite common here) take the middle, and all the women take the other leg of the U.  At this point they begin to hear their harmony and tuning better, though there is still a long way to go.

They wanted more instruction on vocal technique, so I have the younger girls try to find some head voice to extend their range.  The local style for sopranos tends more to a nasal belt, but all get the general idea right away. We sing for a while with a floating descending [hu] in the middle of the treble clef for a while, five notes descending.  It seems to help a bit, but of course this will need more than a few hours of instruction to develop.  We also worked a little on dance unity (!), which I find a little easier to comment on than I had expected.

I think this group picked up “Mtima wanu” better than “Chauta,” though Joe feels differently.  We break for lunch and head back to the chief’s home for a spaghetti and sauce, with borehole water to drink.  My favorite word in the English language is becoming “borehole.”

Our afternoon rehearsal was scheduled to start at 1:30, so we began at 2:30 and worked until 5.  I am starting to get used to this concept of time.  There are few if any clocks in these villages; so all time must be an estimate.  Some people at the rehearsal are the same and some are different.  We work on the same principles as we did in the morning, as well as ways for the choirmaster to start and stop the group.  I think of using my phone to give them immediate audio and video feedback, which is a very successful technique.  Most of them have never seen themselves before, so it comes as something of a surprise to them how they actually are moving as opposed to how they thought they were moving.  I also show the choirmaster more ways that he might work with the group teaching parts.  All in all, it was a productive afternoon.  The choirmaster asks if we can come back two or three more times before the festival.  We take the group’s picture, and we leave the church to the sounds of adolescent voices – not just the ones in the choir - singing “Chauta” at the top of their lungs.

At night, we eat as guests of the chief’s family in his yard.  Cooking is often done in the open this time of year.  The amayi cooks dinner for us while the mfumu mixes the dough and cuts his doughnuts. Then when we are served, they put on a pot of oil to fry the doughnuts.  Lily and Joe express surprise that the mfumu knows how to cook.

“Ah, I learned to cook in Lichinga [the capital of the province] in the Seventies.  I worked in the restaurant.  I want a job at the Lodge, Lily.”  He is teasing of course; the lodge is a long way from Uchesse.  Joe starts to laugh.

“A job?” Lily asks.

“Yes.  I know how to cook all kinds of things.”

“Ah, but we have many cooks already at the lodge, I am afraid.”

“Not for the lodge, Lily.  For you.  I will be your cooker-man.”

Joe finds this absolutely hilarious.  I am thinking of the soft spot I am learning that Lily has for fresh doughnuts, and the picture of the mfumu making fresh doughnuts for her every day at Nkwichi is indeed funny.  Lily smiles as well as she says, “I will certainly give it some thought, chief.”

Amayi gives us nsima (a sort of firm round loaf made of corn meal or cassava that one dips into sauces) and Joe exchanges a bag of our uncooked rice for it.  Nsima with beans is very filling, which is of course the point.  They also serve us a smallish, bony fish that I found difficult to eat in the dark, since it was very bony.  This is a very filling meal, and we head back to the tents full and tired from a long, productive day.

One more night in Uchesse under the stars at the beach    


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    A choral conductor walking cheerfully over the world...


    May 2013