Ndamera, a village in the district of Nsanje, is at the tip of Malawi in its southernmost region, remote and isolated. Being below sea level, the weather is hot and humid and the temperature can top 45 degrees Centigrade in October and November. Just days before I left, a neighbor told me that I should read The Lower River by Paul Theroux, a novel about a former Peace Corps volunteer. He returns to the area he worked in, hoping to relive those happy times 40 years ago, only to be greatly disappointed by the lack of progress in the region. Crumbling structures remained -- the school he had helped build was in ruins. Almost all the people he knew had died and the inhabitants could not care less about education, were manipulative, hostile and were only interested in fleecing him.
The hot and uncomfortably humid days blended together to make him listless and helpless. He was unable to rescue himself from sinking further into a morose state. It was so despairingly dark that I regretted having read it just before I left, wondering what I had gotten myself into. In his Dark Star Safari, Paul Theroux described the Nsanje district as a place “so buggy and malarial it had been Malawi’s Siberia for decades, a penal colony for political dissidents. Undesirables were sent to the southern region to rot.”
The Shire House where we live is nestled deep in the village looking plush and incongruous compared to the smaller houses in the bush. It was recently built and MSF rents it from the owner. There is a screened front porch with rattan chairs to lounge in, a large living room, dining room and kitchen with a spacious pantry. From the screened porch at the back, one could see mountains in the distance.
The house is very spacious with six bedrooms. All have en-suite bathrooms except three, one of which is mine as I am the last one to arrive. The team is comprised of two doctors, a nurse, a health promoter, a laboratory person, and a logistician. It is an all women and international team, with people from Australia, Belgium, Philippines and USA.
The most wonderful thing is, there is a kitten here and she just arrived the week before me from Blantyre. Playful and cute, she will certainly make this place feel like a home. She is here to catch mice, but for now she is just chasing them around.
My first night in Shire House she decided to spend the entirety of it with me, snuggling and occasionally getting up and nibbling on my earrings, necklace and bangle. Since then she has continued to sleep with me. A few names have been floated around; Scruffy, Mimi, Engine. I gave her a Chichewa name, Kuyvina, which means to dance as she seems to do a lot of it and is quite frisky. Roger is a young black security dog, but his situation is appalling, cooped up all day and at night he is let out but tied to a short leash by the gate. No time to run around and be free.
Me with Shire House kitten
At the MSF office, I had a few days of briefings. There is so much information given to me and so many new faces and names that I am completely overwhelmed and saturated. My role here is as an MD mentor in HIV/AIDS for 14 health Facilities in Ndamera, working in conjunction with the Ministry Office of Health (MOH).
Over the weekend I took a three hour walk into town. People are mostly friendly whenever they are greeted. Mulikwanji means “hello" or "how are you?”, and didikwano means “I am fine”. “Zikomo Kwambiri means “thank you very much”.
There is a church at the entrance to our village which I was told has been under construction for roughly 20 years. They ran out of money because someone siphoned a large amount of the funding. It looks quite grandiose for Ndamera, almost like a cathedral.
Market day is Wednesday so there were few people selling tomatoes, cooked corn, and fried pork, with little shops selling soda, chips, sweets, salt, pepper, sugar lotions... A bicycle tire-repair man set up his shop by a baobab tree.
Soon I found my way to the Shire River. Young men congregated on the graveled beach, and howled at me to come and take their pictures. A couple of them went to a more secluded area to bath, soaping their glistening naked black bodies and dipping into the water to wash. This is the Shire Port; there were three vessels there which looked more like pleasure boats than cargo ships, and the locals were not of much help when I inquired about the nature of the port.
My suitcase finally arrived after almost a week of being missing. It had at least five tags on the handle, having spent five days in Paris and then several rush tags to Nairobi, Lilongwe, and finally expedited via Ethiopian Airway to Blantyre.
On Sunday morning I ran through two villages, crossing two dry riverbeds and finally connected to the only tarmac road to Ndamera. A sign said “Chididi” at the T-junction, pointing to the dirt road I came from. Before this road was built a few years ago, the last 45km to Ndamera used to take three hours – now it takes about a half hour.
The houses in the village are of red bricks, some plastered, tin-roofed or thatched, and many also have outhouses. One could have electricity or running water depending on financial means, otherwise there are boreholes scattered in the villages.
Retracing my way since there were no true landmarks here to prevent me from getting lost, I was followed by a group of bare-footed laughing children. I felt like the Pied Piper of Hamelin.