It is finished. My last view of Malawi was the waving flag on the tarmac, the terminal doors left open to the muggy air, and the rush of engines that carried us far, far above the umber landscape, dotted with the whites of tin roofs and greys of thatched ones, until the Chiperone clouds blowing in from the south to bring chill winds and rain hid it away.
My last day had been a perfect one; a grand review of all things Malawi to remind me, back in the metropolis that is Vancouver, of everything I am missing. I rose with the birds to clear skies dotted with clouds. I loaded my packs with the last of my belongings, and heavily laden as they were with data and research equipment, I was fortunate that my things still fit. The focus group charts were neatly bundled in brown paper and masking tape at the bottom— a parcel that represented one of the more intense weeks of my working career. We had completed the last of the household surveys on Wednesday, and the final focus group on Friday morning. It was now Monday. One of my indefatigable research assistants walked to the road with me, where a passing driver, likely amused by the head and legs protruding from in between double backpacks, a straw hat and a large basket, gave me a lift to the fringe of downtown.
I continued slowly down the highway, past the artisan market and the shops and the alley of giant trees that had all become so familiar, trying to imprint them in my memory. I joined a straggling line of people waiting for a chance to ride matola, and finally succeeded in hailing a freight lorry, heading towards Blantyre. The conductors in the back, who would become dock hands when the truck arrived at the warehouse to pick up its cargo of sugar, were surprised to see a mzungu who knew the ropes, but very politely made room for me in the bed against the cabin, so I would be sheltered from the wind. I waited to see what my neighboring hitchhiker would pay them before paying myself— a trick we have learned to avoid overpaying because we are white. It’s just a curl of paper, slipped between hands, but the color gives it away.
We rumbled through Zomba and out into the mosaic of villages and quilted fields, where the sun was shining furiously and the fresh air was whipping my ears and face. I watched the rugged hills and scattered woodlands, the shaded graveyards, the shabby market shelters, and the smiling faces on the roadsides flash past. In Limbe, my fellow passenger and I had to clamber out and make our way down the clamorous city street, taking care not to step into the mucky gutters, where bits of rubbish and trickling puddles covered with a sheen warned of foul things. I caught two mini-buses to complete my journey, and even had to pay the last driver off for the empty seats to make it to the airport on time.
At Chileka International, I settled in for a wait at the back of a nearly stagnant line, jammed with people waiting to check their luggage at the two open counters. There seemed to be a completely unnecessary amount of misinformation about where the tail of the serpent truly lay. I ended up waiting for 20 minutes where a uniformed woman appeared to have indicated with a wave of her hand, only to be informed when I reached the front that “Sister, the queue is over there.” He was pointing to the constipated stanchions where groups with four to six immense rolling cases— certainly large enough for bodies, I thought to myself— had been arriving while I was errantly lolly-gagging in the “priority” line.
Back I went to wait my turn, while boisterous ex pats helped their arriving friends to cut, and every time the line painstakingly rounded a corner in the stanchions, someone seemed to slip ahead of me, carefully avoiding eye contact. The building was sweltering and the din of voices and crush of people was making me rather nauseous. But like everything, it eventually ended… with a superficial exit interview, bag search and full pat-down from the female customs officer in charge. She appeared daunted by the amount of stuff crammed into my carry-on rucksack and merely looked in and poked gingerly at the top before handing it back and shuffling me onward. The plane was late, of course, but I was glad of the opportunity to wet my neck in the washroom and buy a cold water bottle before boarding. And then, not soon enough and yet somehow too soon, we were rolling out to the runway, away from everything that had been my life for two months.
I sometimes step onto a clean, spacious city bus and tap my pass on the electronic reader, only to find myself wistful for the spirited argument with the bus driver over fares (the trick is to display a nearly ferocious certainty and repeatedly state the fare price for locals— ayi, ndi four hundred; ndi four hundred— until he yields), and the curious smiles of the crowd jammed onto three bench seats. Instead, my fellow passengers inch away ever so slightly so that we don’t so much as brush pantlegs when I sit down, and continue staring intently at their phones. It’s a far cry from exchanging single words scrawled in a notebook over a seat-back with an ebullient deaf boy who is desperately curious to know if I’m from China, where I’m going, and if I’m married. I sometimes wonder if I’m the only one on the bus gazing out the window at the shops, the apartments, the neighborhoods and the forest we spin through on the journey to campus. If I close my eyes, I can still imagine in their place the jaunty rows of maize, the scattered clumps of banana and bamboo, and the solitary mango trees fading away towards the foot of a mountain island— a monadnock— rising above the plains, half shrouded in drifting smoke.
I keep the photos of my young friends from the villages handy for when a sunny office on the third floor of the Forest Resources Center, silent except for the clatter of my fingers on the keyboard, becomes a bit lonely. Just kids being kids, goofing off in front of a camera like they do the world over; dancing, laughing, throwing up their hands for dramatic effect. Even my somber images of words carved into the crumbling wall of a deceased man’s house are punctuated by the emergence of a grinning face over the windowsill that seems to say, Look at me! This is the past, but I’m the future of Malawi. In nine short months, I’ll be preparing to see them again, and until then, I have my work cut out for me letting the scientific world know about what we learned this summer. It’s an end, and a beginning…