We drive over rocks, bumps, decayed wooden bridges that look on the verge of collapse, dirt roads that look as though no vehicle has ever driven there before. When we finally stop, we are deep in the village of Phetembe. No other vehicle in sight. No other white person in sight. An older man greets us but, before formal introductions, we must wait until his son joins us. When the son comes, Mr. Mwalabu, the project manager of Villages in Partnership, Malawi, leads the introductions. He introduces himself, the field worker Matope, and my Mom. In Malawi, she goes by Mayi Liz, Mayi Nelson, or Mayi abusa. Mayi, meaning mother in the local language, Chichewa, is the prefix given all women. Mayi Abusa is the name given to the wife of a pastor. Mr. Mwalabu refrains from introducing me and allows Mayi Liz to try her Chichewa.
“Uyu ndi mwana wanga” she says – this one is my daughter. She turns to me, “how do I say lastborn?”
“Womaliza,” it is probably the only word I will say for the entire visit. Hierarchy is very important in Malawian culture – as a younger person I am expected to be seen and not heard. And in an important meeting like this, I am all too happy to just observe.
The men laugh, happy to see white people at least try to learn their language.
In their own turn, the men from the village introduce themselves. Everything is translated as neither speak English. Mr. Ndala and his son are here to show us a piece of their land. VIP is in search of land where they can build a secondary school. Here, in the heart of these villages, any student who makes it through middle school must travel miles to a secondary school. Hours of walking increase dropout rates, as it cuts into time to study and quickly becomes a wearisome walk. A new secondary school would be a gift to everyone in the community.
Mr. Ndala walks us around the perimeter of his land. There are no markers to indicate the edge of his property, and as we walk through the brush, it is difficult to understand how they have decided where the property ends. We seem to be trudging through the middle of a field as far as I can tell. To our left lies a line of trees and I cannot understand why they are not the property markers.
It seems like a sizeable piece of land although even this is hard to tell when we are walking on foot. When we arrive back where we started, Mr. Mwalabu indicates we should go to a more private area to talk in depth. We retreat to Mr. Ndala’s house. My Mom and Mr. Mwalabu drop behind to confer. I hear her whisper “should I ask about price now? Or should we wait for another meeting?”
In a land where I will never fully understand the culture or customs, trust in our Malawian staff and partners is of the utmost importance. They guide us through proper ways of showing respect and teach us the correct customs. I am reminded of the importance of honoring this relationship as a partnership. We are not the experts – we are collaborators coming to learn as much as we teach. I am always impressed with my Mom’s ability to honor this aspect of the work.
When we reach Ndala’s house, we sit on a reed mat and begin the meeting. First my Mom admires the land. She compliments the beauty of the area, the hospitality of the community. In turn, Ndala and his son speak to the importance of having a new school where young people can be propelled into new stratus of life and ideas. It also might help keep them away from the bars and opposite sex, which is an added plus. A secondary school, they say, will bring light to our village. It is a beautiful sentiment.
After 20 minutes of compliments, the conversation circles around towards the main point. “When we came to consider land,” my Mom says, “we had to consider 3 things. Size, if it was flat, and price.” The word lingers in the air. Price. “So… what can you offer?”
Of course, they will not make any decisions during this meeting but at least we will walk away with a baseline. It is clear the men are ready for the question. “If you were a business man, we would charge you 12 million kwacha. But because you are coming to build a school, we will charge you 9 million.”
My Mom says she was hoping to pay less. I can see her excitement rise – the negotiation. I hate this part. She loves it. “I will have to go ask my superiors. Maybe you can meet us somewhere in the middle?” I smile. Of course, the superiors comment is only half true. She is, after all, executive director. They agree to compromise when she returns from her “superiors.”
More pleasantries are exchanged. After another 20 minutes, we depart. In America, an exchange like this would be infuriating. 1 hour of meeting for what added up to about 5 minutes of actual exchange of information. But in Malawi, we take it in stride. At least it wasn’t 3 hours.