We’re exhausted. I’m not sure I can get down on the ground to sit on a mat one more time, or draw one more colorful mkango (lion). It’s the end of the first week of random household surveys, and the end of the third week straight that I’ve worked without a full day off. I have had two migraines, brought on by a combination of dehydration and the shoulder strain of hauling packs full of gear around all week. Even the bus is losing its charm. It seems like there’s always someone on board who reeks of the small, anchovy-like fish that are so popular to bring from Lake Chilwa to the market at Zomba Town, if not a bale of the little stinkers themselves. I’m really not sure how anyone could put something that smells that rotten into their mouth. I’ve also come to dread the moments when the conductor reaches for the sliding window to lean out, waving down would-be riders on the roadsides. It is always attended by a blast of sour and salty body odor for those of us jammed in the back of the minibus, where all is shoulders, elbows and knees. Forget personal space.
We have three surveys left today, but are getting just a moment’s reprieve by being invited to sit on someone’s porch instead of the ground. My feet are stained sienna from the dust. My chitenge is covered in dust from a windstorm we were caught in yesterday. Every crevice of my pack, the storage clipboard, and the sack carrying the bags of salt and sugar we bring as gifts for participants is gritty with dust. I’m exhausted from trying to keep our team’s spirits up all week despite long walks in the hot sun, only to find out that the household is outside our study boundary; or returning two or three times in the hopes of interviewing someone whose house was randomly selected, and having the neighbors repeatedly tell us they will “be back from the fields soon,” though at no particular time. I’m weary from always having to be the most prepared, most organized, most unflappable, most adaptable, most cheerful person for my research assistant and translator. I’m tired of working latest and rising earliest. It’s the middle of Ramadan, and I am awakened at five o’clock every morning by the call to prayers in our neighborhood, cutting through the pre-dawn stillness. I fall asleep every night trying to return an email to a professor or read over a grant prospectus on my cell phone.
And as horrible as it sounds, we’re so tired that we are even starting to dread seeing a bright-eyed face peek around the corner at us, as one child is bound to be followed by a gaggle of little grabbing hands, snotty noses and shouting voices. Sometimes it seems as if a riot of words are pelting us, none of which we can respond to. We are at times mocked for our ignorance by adults and children alike, and though they may mean it in jest, our patience is fraying around the edges from the strain of hearing our “I don’t understand” parroted by a chorus of voices, followed by peals of laughter and more words we don’t know. For every Chichewa phrase we learn, there are a torrent of things they say that we can only guess at by the context, voice intonation and gestures. I remind myself that they can’t know how many times we’ve sat on the hard packed ground that day, how many pictures we’ve drawn, how many kilometers we’ve walked, how many blisters have torn and healed under my dusty sandal straps over the past three weeks. To them, we’re always a fresh curiosity.
When we were warned about culture shock, this wasn’t quite the scenario I pictured. The din. The smells of privies, warming in the sun. The bug bites on my ankles and shins. The un-brushed-teeth-breath behind the smiles and unintelligible conversation. But even here, we are the University of British Columbia. We are the face of science. And we are the arms of Western compassion reaching out to show these people we care. So we’ll keep sitting in the dirt in front of their houses; keep drawing pictures with their children; keep laughing at ourselves when they do; keep greeting passerby with an unimpeachable “Muli bwanji?” (Are you well?); keep taking small steps in our tightly knotted zitenges. One foot. And then the other.
While people are in some ways the hardest part of what we’re doing, they’re also responsible for the brightest spots in my week. Through our time in the villages, a small handful of kids have leapt out of their bleak surroundings and won a place in my heart. They’re bright. They’re talented. They’re born leaders, and yet they have nothing going for them. Without intervention, they’ll be lucky if their parents can afford to send them to secondary school, and college is almost unheard of out here. Even at their young ages, they’re already leading their peers, excelling in their studies, or navigating the adult world with grace.
We reluctantly brought out the notebook and crayons in one village with a particularly raucous gang of kids, and with a couple of words, the boy ringleader silenced the cries of his cohort. They proceeded to politely share the notebook around the circle clockwise for an hour, each drawing a small sketch before passing it to their neighbor. He even facilitated his little friends switching colors, which is usually a contentious process. I was floored. There was no shoving, elbowing, tearing paper or yelling over each other. The children were delighted to be drawing with us, but in a perfectly orderly fashion.
In another village, a charismatic seven year old has been systematically teaching us Chichewa and proving his chops in English each time we see him. His pronunciation is impeccable, and he insists on the same from us. He knows the name for everything, and patiently but persistently repeats it for us until he approves of our mastery, without ever raising his voice to compete with his peers. There’s an impish glimmer in his eye and he has a broad smile; he is not only sharp as a tack, but extraordinarily confident and charming.
And then there’s the young girl. She is already a perfectly self-possessed, composed young lady, but I’d be surprised if she is ten years old. She sits alone by the roadside after school, selling fritters while the other kids play. When she once brought us a message from her mother, she approached deliberately and calmly sat down beside us, making polite small talk before relaying the communication. She is always serious and observant, and has a hauntingly mature, lovely face for such a young soul.
For me, it has been a fresh reminder of the venerable Julian Simon’s contentions against the Malthusian school of thought. Yes, global population growth is straining resources. Yes, agricultural advances can’t keep pace with the demand, and people are starving or under-nourished; suffering is rampant; and it’s a battle we aren’t winning. But on the other hand, you never know where you’ll find the next innovator; you can’t predict where the genius will arise from to address these challenges. With more people come more ideas, and more solutions for the well-being of humankind. Each one of these children is one in 7.3 billion, and I look forward to watching them bloom over the next four years I’m working here.