As I stepped out onto the tarmac at Blantyre airport and looked up at the bright blue Malawian sky, I didn’t feel like I had just been traveling for the past 20 hours. I felt refreshed and excited. Excited that I was finally in the country and amongst the people that have been such a central part of my life for the past six months. A few minutes later, after making my way through customs, I found myself engulfed in the welcoming bear hugs of Liz, and VIP staff members Daniel Bonongwe and Kondwani Mihowa.
It meant so much to me to not only have Liz waiting for me with a hug, but to also have Daniel and Kondwani welcoming me to their country and immediately making me feel at home. Strangers quickly became friends and coworkers as they took my luggage, helped me exchange American dollars for Malawian Kwacha and asked me how my flights had been. While Daniel and Kondwani drove my luggage off to N’amangazi Farm (our base of operations for the next month) Liz, Jordan (Liz’s youngest daughter) and I took the VIP Landcruiser and headed off to Limbe Market, to buy supplies and to get a taste of urban Malawi.
Limbe Market was a chaotic blend of sights, sounds and smells that strongly reminded me of the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul. As we parked, we were surrounded by a group of 7 or 8 teenage boys and young men, who wanted to be our “bag boys” as we made our purchases in the market. As we passed by rows of stalls we entered the market itself, a large, partially open-air warehouse full of vendors selling mounds of apples, carrots and bananas, sacks of fragrant spices and groundnuts, fresh fish, chickens and goats and mouth-watering mangoes, oranges and pineapples. Liz navigated us through all of the hustle and bustle like an old bro, sniffing out the freshest produce and the best bargains.
After we made bought carrots, oranges and some of the freshest pineapple I have ever had, and tipped our bag boy, it was time for our ride from Blantyre to Zomba and our base at N’amangazi Farm. As we drove down the two lane highway that connects these major cities I was struck by the constant fires that were burning just off the road and of the dozens of people that we passed carrying large bundles of wood and sticks for burning. Many of the fires we saw were cooking fires to prepare the night’s meals and to boil water, while others were rubbish fires to burn off trash. As the smell of burning wood wafted through the air, I was briefly reminded of the danger that these constant fires can pose. In May, our medical team treated a young women who suffered from epileptic seizures. During one of her seizures she had collapsed and fallen into a rubbish fire, badly burning her arms and her upper torso. Liz is planning to meet with her in the coming days to see how she is recovering. As we drove along, we passed by several roadside markets and itinerant salesman selling everything from universal treats like chips and fried dough, to more specific delicacies like barbequed mouse. Curious as we were, we skipped the barbequed mouse and bought three pieces of delicious piping-hot roast corn. As we were enjoying our roasted corn we reached Zomba, passing by the Central Hospital and the Zomba Central Prison, where the Grammy Nominated album I Have No Everything Here was recorded by a combination of the guards and prisoners, as highlighted in a recent 60 Minutes special.
Finally we turned off the highway and made our way to N’amangazi Farm. A beautiful conference center and active farm nestled at the foot of the imposing but gorgeous Zomba plateau. As we settled in to our new home away from home Liz introduced me to Trudi Veldman, a biochemist from the Netherlands, now living in Boston. Trudi traveled to Malawi last year with VIP on a friendship trip, and fell so much in love with the people, especially the children, that she has returned this year for a month, to give hands on science lessons to the 7th graders in our Catchment area.
As Liz, Jordan and I chatted with Trudi we learned that an old friend of Liz’s was staying at the farm for the night, Pastor Silas Ncozanna. Abusa, as Pastors are affectionately called in Malawi, was a rare man indeed. Liz told me that in the early 90’s Abusa had been part of a small delegation that had gone to speak with the then leader of Malawi, “President for Life” Hastings Banda. Banda had ruled over Malawi since it gained its independence from Great Britain in 1961 and had shown some willingness to use violence to maintain his grasp on power. Abusa and the delegation that went to see Banda were able to convince him to step aside peacefully and to let democracy run its natural course. As I spoke with Abusa it was clear that he was as comfortable speaking with a world leader as he was with the most common of people. His wisdom, kindness and soft-spoken humor marked him as a natural leader.
After our talk with Abusa and a wonderful home cooked dinner prepared for us by the farm staff (the first of many to come) I walked Liz, Jordan and Trudi up to their house near the top of the farm and said goodnight. As I stepped back outside, I gazed up at the night’s sky, amazed by all the stars that I could see, despite the presence of the full moon. I smiled at the shadow of the Zomba Massif, excited for the chance to climb it tomorrow after church, and walked back down the hill to immediately fall asleep under my mosquito net, dreaming of tomorrow’s adventures.