Drops of Change

Mud splatters my white socks as my shoes land in a puddle. It’s rainy season in northern Malawi, a small African country located in the center of the Rift Valley, a geological fracture extending from Ethiopia to Mozambique. Today, I am undergoing a crash course in water and sanitation and learning about the new and improved water supply system for Livingstonia, a Presbyterian mission overlooking Lake Malawi, the third largest lake in Africa.

As I tramp along the Khondowe Plateau toward the mission’s water source, I can’t help but long for my easel, my watercolors and my sable hair brush. The rainy season has brought out every shade of green. Strokes of olive, pine and avocado wet the rolling grasslands while rows of tobacco and maize glisten under the lemon-lime glow of the January sun. I feel like Dorothy stumbling upon the Emerald City, except my ruby-red slippers are clunky, mud-soaked shoes.

Lake Malawi
BY Toccoa Switzer

The air smells of damp earth and burning wood. Smoke billows from a cluster of thatched roof huts. A faint clucking noise drifts from a chicken coop, its rickety body resting on ostrich-like legs made of bamboo. The only other sound is the thump of footsteps. Ahead of me are three engineers, two Malawian, one Tanzanian. The latter designed the updated water works project. He is a tall, gangly man with the face of a teenager, but he speaks a sophisticated language, one of hydraulics, intakes and infiltration.

Jim, an American missionary, walks behind me and my three colleagues from North Carolina. He is tall too, but with broader shoulders. He wears a wide-rimmed hat, navy T-shirt and Wrangler jeans. Although soft-spoken, he projects a cool confidence, an “I can wrestle a crocodile to the ground” kind of air. I am glad to have him around — even though the engineers assure me there are no wild beasts within miles. “Only in the game parks,” one adds. Still, I stick close to Crocodile Jim.

Trained as a geologist, Jim oversees the installation of bore wells, irrigation systems and latrines with sanitary platforms. He also teaches villagers how to turn human waste into useful compost by mixing it with wood ash and soil. It is a push to stop open defecation, still commonplace in parts of Malawi’s rural, agricultural society.

Strokes of olive, pine and avocado wet the rolling grasslands while rows of tobacco and maize glisten under the lemon-lime glow of the January sun. I feel like Dorothy stumbling upon the Emerald City except my ruby-red slippers are clunky, mud-soaked shoes.

“How much longer?” I ask.

“Not long,” Jim says. “It’s really muddy here. Watch your step.”

The boggy footpath oozes with a thick, velvet sludge but several patches are flat and polished, slick like black ice. In these spots, I straddle the track to avoid slipping. It is hard to do this in a long skirt. It is even more difficult to jump a stream. Somehow, I manage.

Normally, I don’t hike in a skirt. But a friend who traveled to Malawi a few years ago urged me not to bring pants of any kind. “Change is slow in Malawi,” she said. “Trust me. It’s still very conservative.” She explained how the country had been locked in a time warp for almost thirty years under the authoritarian regime of Hastings Kamuza Banda, who assumed power in 1964, after the country gained independence from Britain and immediately took steps to isolate Malawi from the rest of the world — banning such things as television, books and periodicals. Banda also instituted a strict dress code for women, forbidding them to wear trousers or to show their thighs. Although Malawi became a multi-party democracy in 1994, it still maintains many old-school traditions and attitudes, particularly when it comes to women. Taking my friend’s advice, I packed four skirts, all ankle-length. The one I wear today is denim. Hopefully, it won’t show much dirt.

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