Wednesday, August 13, 2008

More Thoughts From the Road

Want to write more about the trip to Chilimbondo in the Dambe Traditional Authority. We drove for about an hour and a half from Neno on a rocky road ever higher. Went through several areas where there were no villages, but everywhere there were signs of human cultivation: furrowed fields on the hillsides, crops planted in the flood plains of tiny streams, even a few stands of wheat glistening a tender pale green in the sun.

And of course, hillsides dotted with just a few saplings plus the odd mature tree standing as a lonely sentinel on the ridge. I remarked on this to one of my benchmates in the back of the ambulance. Fifteen minutes later he pointed out a thick grove of magnificent tall trees on the side of the hill and told me that it surrounded a cemetery. No one had cut the trees for firewood or burned them to make charcoal out of respect for the dead.

Several times the driver had to slow down almost to a stop to work the ambulance around a boulder or a dip in the road. Before every blind curve, he tapped on the horn a couple times to announce our imminent arrival. And often, in fact, there was a group of children playing or women carrying water, parcels or stacks of firewood. We passed a few bicycles being pushed up the hills or coasted down the other side.

As I was admiring the driver’s skill and the ambulance's brakes, I suddenly remembered the report from a couple weeks ago that a heavily laden truck with 50 people had overturned on a dirt road near Mzimbe, killing at least half the passengers. Then I thought about about the accident we passed on the road to Lilongwe. No point dwelling on the risk—it was out of my hands—and I pushed those thoughts away.

Came to the top of one ridge and suddenly there was a large community of at least 150 or more huts spread out on the slopes below us. We passed through the village and saw oxen—our first in quite a while—along with the usual goats, chickens and, of course, people. Most of the buildings were round mud huts topped with thatch—although every now and then you would see a square one or even a brick structure. Very few homes this far out had roofs made of iron sheets.

Caught myself thinking, as we passed through the village again on the way back, how authentic it all looked. The rondavels capped by thatch, the simple designs painted on a few of the homes. But then, as always with me, that second thought. Did that mean I had been disappointed by the sturdier brick structures I had seen in Embangweni, some with satellite dishes sprouting from their iron sheeted roofs? Would I deny anyone the chance for electricity, running water, better communications, health care and education out of a misplaced loyalty to some artificial ideal of the authentic—whatever that is?

Realize I am projecting my own struggle with what is authentic in my life and my chosen profession onto these sturdy huts. Reminds me of all the bright young people I met in Massachusetts this past year who have become so enthusiastic about global health. One of the biggest attractions—no matter what they may say about justice—seems to be that desire for meaning, to see that you are making a difference every day and not just to take it on faith. Our motivations are always mixed.

Must be coming to the end of the trip. All these ruminations. Well, that’s normal, I guess. This is the time to reflect before I start collating the interviews, the impressions, the memories I have gathered and buckling down to write. Or in the immortal more direct words of Andrew Quinn, one my compatriots in Nieman fellowship, “I am learning a great deal. But is it going to translate into copy? Sheeeeez.”

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