One of the most charming and novel aspects of village life is the nonchalant coexistence of man and beast. I sometimes feel like when I sit on the bamboo mat outside a house, I am just a spectator looking in on a colorful diorama. One day last week, a cat wandered past us, flicking its tail as it slipped in the door of the cottage behind us. Several minutes later, a chicken approached the stoop, and confidently strode inside. Though I was pretending to pay attention to the survey, in the back of my mind, I was waiting for the altercation that seemed inevitable. Nothing happened, and some time later, a boy walked in to get something, walked out and closed the door. Another twenty minutes passed, and then there was a clatter like a pan had fallen from a counter, and a burst of clucking. No one outside seemed particularly concerned, and silence resumed.
A few days ago, a goat that was being bullied by several others galloped across our bamboo mat and straight into the house next to our survey respondant’s, followed by her pursuers. After a brief interval, an entire herd came thundering out the front door on their dainty hooves, and set off on a steeplechase around the family compound until a younger woman, who also appeared from within the house after our respondent yelled something wearily in Chichewa, tethered them each to a picket in the yard by looping a long strip of fabric around one leg. The convicts bleated balefully over their interrupted game, but eventually resigned themselves to rummaging through weeds and green branches in the circumference of their leads.
I think perhaps it’s their desire to keep life close to them that leads people here to share their space with animals. The AIDS infection rate remains at around 12% of the national population, down from 15% just a few years ago, and death is present in the villages every day in some way. Many of the households we visit in our survey process are headed by an elderly woman, who is caring for up to seven children and young adults. Most commonly, these are her grandchildren, but other relatives occasionally appear in the list as well. Given the time of year, it is possible that some men of working age are away, seeking paid labor to support their families during the long season before the next major crop can be planted at the onset of the rainy season. But we know that these elderly caregivers with leathery faces and hands, elegant in turbans of faded cotton and chitenges worn smooth as silk around their shoulders, are most likely alone in the world.
Even for the households that escape AIDS, commoner maladies like cholera still stalk rural roads and fields. USAID and other organizations have partnered to deliver piped water to many communities in this region from an upstream valley dam, and to install liquified chlorine dispensers that are maintained by the local hospital. Yet households at some distance from a tap or living in villages excluded from the project often guide us to creeks and shallow wells when we ask to see their water sources. These are the same places they scrub clothes and soiled diapers, wash dishes, fill their cups, and trench diversions to their crop fields from.
Two of the villages reported that the work crews were in the process of installing a tap on their land, but one day, simply failed to return. They never knew why, and in the end, each community banded together to install a well. When one woman explained how sometimes they must wait several hours before the hand pump will raise any water, we asked how deep the well was. It was sickening to discover that over fifty households depend on a borehole only two meters into the ground. The second village, comprised of seventy households, has a slight advantage from being at lower elevation, but even that is unlikely to spare them from thirst for long. These villages were passed over for chlorine dispensers as well, and the children in the village at higher elevation were clearly ill. Even our attempts to engage them in coloring were met with mostly glassy, apathetic stares; barely a smile peaked through their mucus encrusted upper lips and smudgy faces. Those who were more lively had racking coughs. I wrote to USAID’s Malawi Program Officer that night to inquire about the contacts for the project, and how to petition for inclusion of these two communities in the tap and chlorine interventions, but am still waiting for answers.
The homesteads of departed villagers without surviving family are customarily redistributed by the village head to neighboring households, but it is considered bad luck to live in the house of a dead person. In spite of the significant cost of construction and value of a complete structure, these homes often sit empty and are slowly pillaged for materials. Windows, doors, bricks from the roofline, wooden casements and decorative elements seem to go first. We pass buildings that have decayed into a shell, open to the rain from above and the swirling winds that carry dust and dry leaves through the village commons. The crumbling walls and holes where windows once were seem to remind us that we all return to where we came from.
Just outside some of the villages, you will find dense copses of ancient mango trees, untouched by coppicing or harvesting for fuelwood. Below them lie the tombs of past chiefs. These may be polished stone slabs with headstones, or simply bricks, stacked and mortared into a long, low box above the soil. They are sited along the main paths, so that villagers pass them every day. Hens with a huddle of cottony chicks frequently range through the grounds and gullies for seeds and insects, and can often be seen napping in the roadside weeds with their clutch. Schoolchildren pause in the puddle of deep shade on their way home, giggling and chattering. Birds call from the higher branches. It is a culture that reveres the dead, but cherishes the living.