Blantyre is the largest city in this small country bordered by Lake Malawi on its east side. The people from the surrounding villages have swarmed into the city in the last few years because of an ongoing drought. With the rivers and meager waterholes drying up subsistence farming no longer works. In the outlying villages there is still a semblance of order and community. There is little trash because everything is used and plastic (except for water containers) doesn’t get this far, but life in the peri-urban areas (a nice name for the slums) is poles apart.
We start our last day at the Blantyre District Water Board meeting. While we wait for the Minister of the district, John Bande (not related to the despot), a Christian member says a long prayer. Not being a head-bower, I study the motley group. I’m drawn to the evil-eyed stare of a proud Muslim (obviously not a head-bower either) in traditional robes and turban. No other woman would dare look him straight in the eyes. Hope I don’t run into him alone somewhere. The few women in attendance sit in the back and wear traditional wraps and headdresses in astonishingly bright designs and colors. The men are in drab Western apparel.
I realize that patience is not a virtue, but a necessity in these third-world countries. When the minister finally arrives with a guard in tow, we are introduced and go through the formalities of greeting and thanking us without the music and dancing. We leave en masse with the guard to walk through the sprawling peri-urban area outside the city center to see the water kiosks – the next step up from a hand-pump well. These are brick booths over a well with a series of faucets on the outside. Each water-bearer must pay a small fee for the clean uncontaminated water. The water manager of each area collects the fees and educates the people in care and self patrol of their kiosk to eliminate vandalism. The goal is to have at least one water kiosk every 500 meters, but they’ve got a long way to go. We walk through the tightly packed mud shacks, jumping streams of raw sewage running in gutters clogged with garbage. We see deep black water holes screaming contamination, each with a slimy rope attached to a filthier bucket for drawing water. We watch brightly colored wash flapping in the breeze, skewered raw meat black with flies, women grinding corn. It’s life in its basic form.
A group of aggressive boys huddled together yell at me for taking their photo. This is not like the villages. I’m close to meltdown, The sun’s too hot, the stench too strong, my ankles too swollen. I opt out of the final latrine tour. I’ve had it. Too much pain, dirt, and sickness to bear.
One by one, a crowd of little children gather around the bus to stare, giggle and point at the lone white woman. I feel like a monkey in the zoo. Things get out of hand as a gang of older boys saunters by chanting, “Azungu, Azungu, Azungu!” and I become frightened. Nelson appears and shoos them away translating, “They’re saying Whitey, Whitey.” Now I understand being a minority, being the oppressor not the savior.
Tomorrow we’re off to L’lwonde National Park, spending our last day and night being tourists. We all need a break.