Nsanje is at the tip of Malawi at its southernmost region, remote and isolated and the lowest point is 200 meters above sea level which explains the hot and humid weather and temperature could 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 going back to close to this area hoping to relive his happy times forty years ago, only to be greatly disappointed seeing the crumbling structures including the school he helped to build and by the lack of progress in this region. Almost all the people he knew had died and the inhabitants could not care less about education; were manipulative, almost hostile to him and were more interested in fleecing him. He also described the hot and uncomfortably humid days that blended together making him listless and helpless and 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 Nsanje “Once known as Port Herald, Nsanje was 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 nestles deep in the village looking plush and incongruous compared to the smaller houses in the bush. MSF recently helped the owner to build it and would maintain it and use it rent -free for the next three years. There is a screened front porch with rattan chairs to lounge in, a large living room, a dining room and a 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 of the team to arrive. We are two doctors, a nurse, a health promoter, a laboratory person, and a logistician. It is an all women and international team; 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 and will certainly make this place feel like a home. She is to catch the mice in the house and for now she is just chasing them around or is scared by them; they are half her size. My first night in Shire House she decided to spend the entire night with me, snuggling and occasionally getting up nibbling on my earrings, necklace and bangle and since then she has chosen 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 and she seems to do a lot of that being quite frisky. And so her name is Kuyvina. Roger the young black dog is our 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.
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 a MD mentor in HIV/AIDS for 14 health Facilities in Nsanje working in conjunction with the Ministry Office of Health (MOH).
Over the weekend I took a three hour walk into the town, people are mostly friendly whenever they are greeted: Mulibwanji (hello, or how are you), didikwano (I am fine), zikomo Kwambiri (thank you very much). There is a church at the entrance to our village which I was told has been under construction for roughly twenty years but runs out of funds apparently someone has siphoned a large amount of the funding. It looks quite grandiose for Nsanje, almost a cathedral.
Market day is Wednesday so there were few sellers of tomatoes, roasted ears of corn, fried pork and little shops selling soda, chips, sweets salt, pepper, sugar lotions…A bicycle tire-repair man set up his shop by a baobab tree. I found my way to the Shire River, young men congregated on the graveled beach howling 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. Later I learned that there are many crocs and hippos in the river. This is the Shire Port, there were three boats 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, it 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 Nsanje; 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 45 Km to Nsanje used to take three hours and now about a half hour. The houses in the village are of red bricks, some plastered, tin-roofed or thatched and many have outhouses. One could have electricity or running water basing on one’s 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.