Our field house is a modest brick structure in the traditional Malawian style, with a peaked roof and windows in the eve. It is surrounded by a tidy yard that is used by the young children of the neighborhood and wandering dogs. The roof must have leaked for years, leaving behind kaleidoscopic stains in the paneled ceilings that move us to pray precipitation can be averted until August. Only two stove burners will turn on, and they both burn everything. The fridge is basically a pantry with a light in it. We also share the kitchen and washroom with a host of tiny ants.
On the bright side, there is a toilet that flushes (eventually) and a manual hot water heater that doesn’t quite live up to its name, but at least produces enough lukewarm water for six hasty bucket baths each night. We have all made do with less, and there have been no complaints. Each of the three bunk rooms is lit by a bare bulb hanging in the center of the room, and partially covered by a twiggy rattan shade. Everyone has their own cot, with the blankets and the bottom of the mosquito net neatly tucked up under the mattress. But the most charming feature of our field station is not the faded Monet prints and waiting room art (i.e. The Great Chile Poster) tacked to the walls, nor the brilliantly mismatched assortment of bedding, but the delightful housekeeper, Beatrice.
A widowed mother of three with an endearingly British take on the English language, Beatrice was our miracle when we realized how challenging it is going to be to squeeze in full field days around erratic chicken bus schedules and early winter sunsets. She cooks, cleans, and washes our clothes by hand 6 days per week so that all we have to worry about in the dark evenings is data entry and equipment maintenance…for the astounding sum of about $35 USD per month. While we fully intend to compensate her well beyond that, it’s an interesting window into the informal economy here.
Today, I had the opportunity to go to Zomba Town to do the shopping with her. Along the way, she patiently fielded my questions about local life. Both electricity and water are modular. If you have money, you go purchase a quantity of electricity or water as you would purchase airtime for a cell phone. If things are tight, you just don’t have electricity or water at home for a while. You use a neighbor’s hose spigot, or get water from a community water source. Malawian children attend a different school than international children, but it is very important to locals that their children get an education. It was so important to Beatrice that she refused to move back to the village where her mother lives after her husband’s death. When she lost her last job at a large estate because the household returned to their native country, she simply moved her children back to the small home she built with her husband and kept doing whatever she could to make a living and keep them enrolled.
Beatrice and I certainly attracted some curious stares, as it is an uncommon sight to see mzungu in a rural area, let alone one traveling with a local. It’s a 30 minute walk to the main thoroughfare of downtown, with some remarkable hill climbs and descents along the way. Road maintenance may be as rudimentary as sweeping weeds into potholes. Pedestrians always cede to vehicles, and though it’s a left-hand drive country by virtue of its English colonial legacy, the reality is that most vehicles will weave down the middle of the pavement if there is no one else in the immediate vicinity. Anyone on foot knows to scatter like chickens in front of a broom when an engine approaches.
The shops all sell pretty much the same staple goods; choice is a luxury. White rice, powdered maize, rolled oats, canola oil, white flour, white bread, canned beans, canned peas, canned corn, chickens, canned fruit, instant milk, butter, formula, milk, cartons of juice, soda, and a few junky chips and pasta products. The redundancy doesn’t mean that brand competition is dead though, and thanks to the dual official languages of English and Chichewa, there is just enough lost in translation to make even a jet-lagged traveler laugh out loud. Apparently, Jungle Oats give you a “Fuller fill,” and while the competitors’ products “turn to porridge in your bowl, Vega Spaghetti is still live on your fork.”