The World Service is on repeat, so I have had to resort to the English language service of MBC Radio 2, which delightfully is doing a special on George Michael! I’m not sure why – no explanations are forthcoming. Either G.M is terribly popular in Malawi (doubtful), or Radio 2 has a very select listenership, or the DJ is a massive fan, and has perhaps launched into an off-the-cuff biography just to share his love with lucky us. If so, the detail of his knowledge is impressive, if a little unnecessary.
The other day we went to assess a potential new clinic site, out in the middle of nowhere. We set out early, stopping in the market to buy provisions: soft drinks (two each), bananas, salted roast peanuts, ‘milk scones’ (huge, delicious white buns known locally as ‘Bin Ladens’ because after you eat only one ‘you are destroyed’, as Nurse Gloria put it). We drove south past the lagoon that is the breeding ground for chambo (a big-boned, big-toothed, tasty cichlid fish that is widely eaten), turned west and drove about an hour down weaving dirt roads, through the fields of sprouting maize and scattered mudbrick houses, over gorges and down escarpments, until we came upon a beautiful school compound, recently built by the Norwegians. Under the ancient mango tree in the dust courtyard, against which leaned a tangle of uniform black bicycles, sat about forty men in suits, who all stood up in unison to reveal the half-bricks they’d been perching on as we clattered up in the jeep. They were the chiefs of the surrounding villages, who had come to help make the case to WMF for the area having a clinic. We were greeted by a smartly dressed man with a gold tie-pin, and taken into his tidy office, with a high shiny tin roof and walls crammed with posters covered in useful information about the schools, objectives, statistics, maps etc. Courtesies were exchanged, and a long discussion ensued in Chichewa. After that we were taken to a classroom, and placed on a bench in front of our audience (the chiefs) who were sitting patiently at the desks. In turn, we all stood up and introduced ourselves (the forty chiefs included) each person receiving a burst of applause. Then there was a short silence. No-one seemed to want to be the first to speak. One older man cleared his throat and stood up. He spoke for about ten minutes, receiving the odd laugh or applause. This seemed to encourage the others, and as soon as he sat another was on his feet. He gestured confidently, and joked successfully, earning more laughter and applause. When he was done two people stood up, and there was a tense moment of eyeing each other before the younger one conceded the floor with a gracious smile. He took his turn next. All these speeches were addressed to us, and I had to look as though I was paying close attention, nodding appreciatively even though I didn’t understand a word. During the fifth or sixth speech – I was beginning to wonder whether the speechifying would be as exhaustive as the introductions – Mr Dezi whispered as discreetly as possible (neither of us taking our eyes off the speaker, who was only five yards away) that they were making their case. It sounded strong. He thought we would start a clinic here soon. Now he could stop the speeches. When the speaker sat down, Mr Dezi stood up, tall in his bright orange trousers and white labcoat. As he spoke I could finally let my attention wander. There was an enormous jet-black hornet, the type with a tiny waist, purple-black slivers of wing and long droopy legs, on the ceiling above me. It was having a rest from searching for food I think. Its spread feet hugged the surface of the wooden beam gently. It was nibbling something, stubby antennae waving about distractedly as its head bobbed purposefully over the chewed object. A beautiful creature, I thought.
A faint wailing sound drifted into my awareness. I remembered our young captive, still in the jeep. On the way to the meeting, as we passed through a small village, there had been a sudden loud bang and something ricocheted off the windscreen. The jeep screeched to a halt, and instantly Mr Dezi and the driver Mr Mussa were out of the cab, sprinting over the field, hurdling bushes as they chased down a terrified boy. The impromptu hunt disappeared from view behind a hut, and a moment later they reappeared, holding between them a raggedy, grubby boy of about twelve, who was wriggling, rolling his eyes, and protesting at the top of his voice. He was placed rather unceremoniously in the back of the jeep, which did nothing to calm him down, and off we drove. I was a bit mystified as to what we were to do with him. Mr Dezi showed me the reason for the commotion: a large catapult made out of a tree branch and strips of rubber inner-tube – a pretty fearsome weapon. The boy meanwhile continued to holler at the top of his voice as we sped further and further into the countryside. At one point he started beating his hands on the back of the seat next to me, until it suddenly collapsed forwards. He was so surprised he stopped wailing. I was a little concerned about the legality of our actions: technically, had we kidnapped him? But Mr Dezi explained everything was fine; we would return him to his home as soon as we finished the community visit.
The general meeting with the chiefs was closed, and we adjourned to the smart office, where three five warm bottles of Sprite were lined up on the desk (next to a miniature flagpole sporting the Norwegian flag), one for each dignitary (which including me and the driver Mr Mussa). There was more discussion, thankfully this time in English. Mr Dezi told them the prospects for a clinic were good. We aimed to start soon. The area had a population of 45,000 and only one health centre, which might mean one doctor, two clinical officers and about three nurses, if that. Certainly not enough medicines. There was more talk in Chichewa (about where a shelter for WMF to use would be built, and when).We said our thankyous and got up to leave, just as the loud raspberry exhaust of a motorbike came into earshot. The Head Chief had at last arrived, a pleasant man, well presented in a crisp white shirt with gold cufflinks, black trousers spattered with flecks of red mud. He apologized, saying he had mistakenly come the day before. He was very pleased about the clinic, and assured us that a venue would be constructed forthwith. We all stepped outside into the bright sunshine, for a group photograph with all the chiefs. We waved goodbye, and were off. Our prisoner sat quietly in the back, his bottom lip sticking out.
After quizzing the boy for directions we returned him to his home, only to be told by a neighbour that his dad had gone to the police station, claiming his son had been abducted by Satanists. I know the World Medical Fund is a secular organization but I thought this was pushing it. Tucking our tails into our trousers, we went and sat with the boy, his father (also shoeless, in worn-out shorts and shirt), the local bobby and his wife, amongst the plants potted in beheaded plastic bottles, on the narrow verandah of his small brick house. Mr Dezi relaxed back in his rickety three-leg bamboo chair, and negotiated quietly in Chichewa (this is very unusual in Malawi), gesturing occasionally towards the jeep. The policeman spoke to the boy, and the father, who seemed relieved that the crack in the jeep windscreen pre-dated his son’s mischief. The catapult was handed back to the dad, which I was a bit sorry about as it would have been fun to play with, and we went home.