THE MAIDENS DO MCHINJI!!
Travel is unpredictable. Which, for some, is its appeal. No matter your plans, the trail has its own intentions, and we are all subject to its whims. The best experiences and the greatest people you meet come, more often than not, as complete surprises while traveling! A couple weeks ago Emily, Ben, and I traveled to Mchinji, Malawi with our good friend Aaron Maluwa, for what we thought was just an assessment for potential water projects in the area. However, we soon found ourselves immersed in local politics, tribal ceremony, and rarely experienced rural culture.
Mchinji, Water, and Politics!
Mchinji is an economically depressed region in Central Malawi with little to no access to electricity, water, or improved roads. Though economically depressed, the area’s vibrant people are rich in culture, and kindness. It is also the home of Aaron’s extended family. You should remember Aaron from the Museums of Malawi. Aaron asked me recently to tour Mchinji to see if I could help with improving access to safe water. Though Aaron lives in Blantyre, his heart still belongs to Mchinji, and he spends a great deal of time and money providing assistance. He helps pay the salary of teachers, supports orphans, has helped build a medical clinic, and is helping construct a maternity ward. It is not surprising that the Malawi Congress Party has asked Aaron to run for Malawi’s National Parliament! Therefore, between village assessments, we traveled the campaign trail with Aaron for a first-hand view of the insane world of Malawian politics.
The adventure began as we pulled into Aaron’s family home and were greeted by traditional welcome songs and dances by his family. By family, I mean his entire extended family. Ben even joined along! Aaron has helped build a small village for them to live and farm. Everyone was so kind and eagerly shared their home with us. They loved Ben, and he loved exploring the village with his new friends. Speaking of new friends, we met one of the coolest women ever, Eva, from the Czech Republic! Eva, has spent her life traveling the world, providing eye glasses to the less fortunate, and volunteering as a teacher. She is one of the coolest people ever, and has so many incredible stories from her travels. You never know who you’ll meet on the trail. I hope one day I can be half as cool as she.
On the Dusty Political Trail!
The next few days were spent traveling from village to village on bumpy, dusty, dirt roads as Aaron made stump speeches to the communities. The travel was incredibly arduous for us all due to the road conditions. Often, we would have to navigate collapsed bridges and pitted roads. When we would arrive at a village, the entire community would come out and surround the truck singing and dancing. We had to have security ride on the outside of the vehicle to keep the jubilant crowds at bay. Sometimes, it was almost impossible to maneuver through the crowds.
Aaron would be introduced by several local political leaders before making a speech to the crowd. It became very apparent that the current member of parliament was not well liked. Often, in Malawi, dissatisfied constituents call their representative an “Honorable Member of Parliament” which is derogatory slang for a representative that fails to deliver on their promises while receiving all the benefits of office. As we drove around the district, we observed several half-completed and abandoned projects started by Aaron’s rival but never finished.
Politics, Party, and .......... Punches to the Face?
The week ended at a traditional chief induction ceremony, which is a huge party, complete with masked dancers and a parade. This was exciting, as not many foreigners get to see these events, not to mention have full access to photograph them. This is because many of the traditional areas are so close to urban centers that noise complaints, and taxes on gifts provided the chief to help recoup the cost of ceremonies have prevented the free expression of culture. It is, sadly, a dying part of Malawian culture, and I’m glad I got the opportunity to share it with y’all.
As we pulled up a huge crowd surrounded the truck, and our security had to pull people off of the truck. They all wanted to see Aaron! It was a bit scary trying to get through the press of people to our seats.
Despite trying to keep politics out of the event, the ceremony turned into a tense standoff between Aaron and his rival. They both made speeches to the crowd, which included an event where they threw money onto a blanket to help the new chief recoup the costs of the ceremony. Unfortunately, the crowd behind me surged forward to try to take some of the money, and I found myself surrounded by fist fights, and people being whipped with sticks by event security. It was a bit tense, but did make for some good picture taking opportunities. Eventually, the crowd calmed and Arron’s rival, seeing his support, left the event!
Soon the tension dissipated and the revelry continued as traditional masked dancers performed for the crowd, with one performing magic by turning sand into sugar. The dancers scaled tall poles and performed acrobatics high above the crowd’s heads, secured only by a single rope tied to their ankle.
We only stayed a short time, as Aaron worried for our safety due to the failing light and intoxicated crowd. Again, as we left, we were surrounded by the crowd and had difficulty getting the truck through. As we drove away one of Aarons political supporters clung to the side of the car and sang songs to Ben about the campaign, and asking God to ensure Ben’s safety and health.
I’ve always hated the term “poor” to describe people who are from a lower economic stratum. While, the people of Mchinji live in poverty, even by Malawi standards, they are not poor. They exhibit a richness of character, warmth of heart, and strength of purpose, all the while working to improve their families’ lives with dignity and resolve. We met people who draw water from holes in the ground, or live with terrible infections due to inadequate access to basic medical care, but, despite these conditions treated my family, especially Ben, with kindness and love.
I’m very happy to report that after speaking to WaterStep about Mchinji, they have donated systems that should be delivered in the next couple weeks. From there, with Aaron’s help, we will create a local team that will continue to work with myself and WaterStep to address the areas water and sanitation issues. I will continue provide updates on our Mchinji project and Aarons campaign, so stay tuned!