Two sizable river crossings, an ever widening olympic-sized mud hole, and about 15 tortuous kms lies between the 'sugar' highway and nkhate market. Bicycles are this roads' semi tractor trailers, loaded to the tooth with goods of all imagination. The occasional galimoto vrooms past, springs long blown by the unimaginable load of goods under goods under goods under people. Just last week one of the makeshift side-bed extensions on these illegal but long ignored 'matolas' gave way up north and 14 people went the way of gravity at 50 miles an hour to another world.
Another two river crossings, an almost impassable 3 foot flash flood carved gulch, and about 10 more tortuous kms beyond nkhate lies the small village of makhwila. Like most of Malawi the people here live off the land, relying on the old barter system for diet diversity and household goods. In a place where there are no newspapers, little formal education, and the occasional electricity, makhwila is truly a world within a world.
I paint this isolate description to demonstrate the pervasiveness of what we've done. "Whats new?" I ask it every week upon arrival. Last week I heard of the return of cholera with the coming of the rains. 6 deaths in a week as the waters rush over the land flooding latrines, flooding houses, barefoot children playing, touching, and like any child oral fascinations giving way but this time to an easily eliminated but deadly disease where the only medicine is replacing the exact measured amount of fluid excreted. The epidemics continuation is old news this week for everyone's talking about makhwila's new hotspot.
Introducing makhwilas newest bottle store--the "Obama night club." Yes even in makhwila, 10 kms from the middle of nowhere, where there are no newspapers, no schools, no television, his election was reason enough for someone to pour everything they had into opening up their very own business. "Yes we can" it reads in hand painted lettering outside (how could it not?), though somehow the meaning is less clear to me than the already vague mantra of the campaign trail. Nonetheless, yes you can now buy liquor to your hearts content makhwila. A whole new job market too--on the road I saw a man, dripping with sweat, balancing 4 cartons of 25 carlsbergs each towering 4 ft above his head. Yes we can...
Flashback: Through the intermittent fuzz of Blantyre's 98.7 BBC came these now famous chants reaching my ears 10000 miles away from the streets of the Chicago which I know so well. Inside our little truck emotion around--"We're breaking in now to make a historic report... (a short silence)... All major networks in the United States are now declaring Barack Obama the next president elect of the United States of America. " From the back seat cries of "Oh thank you, thank you Jesus," and "Jay, is it true? Is it really true?" as I gently slide my sunglasses over my eyes as I struggle to keep it together. Passing roadside mother and child rushing somewhere, passing man straining to balance bike overloaded with firewood, passing children in tattered school uniforms on their way to school--soon hushed whispers will turn to cries of elation and spread like wildfire across the countryside that one of us--yes one of our very own African brothers--has been chosen and lifted to the highest seat. Chosen... And now images of all of my friends there in that great city by the lake amidst the crowds of every nation and race, all celebrating the ushering in of a truly new and distinct era in the world. And somehow, though the hills of zomba, the vast expanse of flatlands of southern Africa, and a big blue ocean did their best to break us, I felt like I was there, like we were there, like there was now everywhere.
It did take some time for news to spread throughout Malawi, and I was more than honored to become my country's ambassador of good news, at least for a few days. The reactions varied--shouts of joy, tears of elation, the occasional jaw-dropper after what was initially understood in english was re-confirmed in the mother-tongue. Before that Tuesday in November I think it was pretty well general knowledge that one of African descent was contesting the highest office in the US of A, but through conversations my sense was often that this arrival to the end contest had somehow been enough; somehow, for lack of better words, it was too good to be true. I'll never forget that morning when after senator john finished his concession speech one of the nurses spoke in honest expectation "Thats it? He's not going to contest the results?" The example set is the beautiful sting of our democracy: Like it or not, the people have spoken.
And now three months later I can attest that Barack has officially gone culturally mainstream. The airwaves bounce with rhythms and melodies from coco t's "we need bar-aaaaaaack" or some other artists' equally humorous "Bar-ack Obama, Bar-ack Obama, Bar-ack Obama, Hey! Hey!" And Tanzania's Obama designs have now reached Malawi and I daily feel his stare on the street from the behind of the woman in front, his giant face plastered on the infamous and hot-selling 'obama chitenjes.' A little eccentric perhaps but certainly an improvement on the old Osama bin Laden chitenjes. To round out your picture I saw a minibus the other day broadcasting "We (heart) B.O." Well put.
I would imagine they broadcast images of Kenya in the states on election night. Take it down a notch or two and that was Malawi also. We didn't have a national holiday and to my knowledge boys weren't named barack and girls michelle on the day of the results, but there was a feeling in the air, a smile on people's faces, chants of "o-ba-ma, o-ba-ma, o-ba-ma" in the streets of Blantyre. I recall driving home later that night and seeing for the first time I could ever remember in my travels someone waving an American flag in public, as if for only a day we were all under one flag. But do people here think there lives will somehow radically change with the coming of the new American president?? Can't speak for all but generally speaking, no. Sure, perhaps there's some small belief that there may be more aid for Africa or it may be easier for Africans to immigrate to the states, but the aid that trickles down is so intangibly remote and the mere concept of immigration so wildly distant to the common Malawian that it seems the greatest effect of Obama's election has been its very concept. 'Our son' they fondly refer to him here as their Africa has to many for the first time made a splash of cannon-ball proportions in the world pool. The forgotten continent feels for a time remembered, its far-off leader in daily remembrance. My 'mwadzuka bwanjis' have been recently replaced by a new eerily near chichewa sounding greeting as I daily fall out of the car to a good morning "Obama?" "Obama!!" I happily reply.