The other day I was talking with a friend about her experiences in Jamaica, where she went with a group from my high school to work on building projects in impoverished areas. After her and I began to talk about both our experiences in different worlds, we came to a similar conclusion: it’s all about the people you interact with.
From the moment the rooster rudely awakens me in the morning to the second I close my eyes and enter the dream world, my day is filled with characters.
Every morning a young man named Matthews comes to our guesthouse to help me translate the text messages from Chichewa to English sent between St. Gabriel’s and the community health workers using FrontlineSMS, a project set up here in by my brother. The translation of these messages will benefit projects of my mother, brother and my brother’s accomplices. We work hard for two hours – pounding out around 300 translations every session. Matthews is quiet but extremely hardworking: he is using the money we pay him to help translate to buy books for school. I routinely ask him, “Matthews, are you tired? We can stop if you’d like” only to have him respond, “No, it’s okay”. The two of us get in a zone as we try to make sense of each other – a fusing of two cultures. Coincidentally, my brother, currently in Neno, Malawi, is working with Matthew’s brother, Henry in implementing FrontlineSMS there. Josh has similar positive reports for Henry. Funny the way things are connected: two pairs of brothers working with each other, hours away.
When Josh described Henry, he said he was “the Alex of Neno”. Alexander Ngalande is the superstar nurse here at St. Gabriel’s. He is a cheerful and extremely friendly person: the right type to head the Home Based Care program. Whenever I run into him in the hallways of the hospital, I can’t help but smile. One time I walked into the ART clinic seeing him update the databases, a pleasure he normally reserves for me and exclaimed, “Alex, this is the first time I’ve seen you actually do the mastercards… You must be having a lot of fun,”. Alex playfully responded, “It’s going about as fast as an airplane landing”. Alex is committed to his important role at the hospital and a pleasure to be around.
Alex helping me load FrontlineSMS messages onto a USB drive
Just a few rooms down from where Alex works at the ART Clinic is the pharmacy, where I go to after working with Matthews to see if my help is needed by Sister Honesta Bicycle (you didn’t read incorrectly – her last name is Bicycle). Not surprisingly, she always welcomes my help. Sister Honesta is honestly one of the funniest people I have ever met and a blast to hang out every day with. She asks many questions about America, planes, sports and why I haven’t visited the nun convent yet.
While I’m working in the pharmacy, Peter, a health attendant in the male ward, often drops in to chat with me. He is also a community health worker and is trying to become more involved in the hospital – often a huge help to my mother as she performs physical therapy. A recent conversation brought a wealth of wisdom that I don’t think he realized he was giving. I had asked him if he could have any job in the world, what job would he have. He told me that he would be a nurse or an accountant, but he does not have the money to go to school. It really made me think about the opportunities that have been given me because of the country I am from. Not only that, but I now see those opportunities (a college education at a school like Carnegie Mellon) as a mandate to give the gifts I’ve been given back to the world in whatever way possible. To much is given, much is expected. I hope to hold to that as I take advantage of the opportunities that I see many are not offered.
During lunch break, my sister and I often go for a run. On the winding paths through the landscape we encounter many people from the villages built around the trail and those walking on it. The other day, I was running by myself and a man, around 25 years old, started to run with me. I knew none of the Chichewa he was speaking, but I saw the wide smile on his face as he ran, in his crocs and jeans, with me for 15 minutes: a surreal experience to say the least. After I had turned around and run back to his home, I stopped to thank him.
Man that came with me for a run
Today my sister and I were running and a flock of children came to run with us, all under the age of 6. They are much like the children that wait to play soccer every day with us after work. Playing soccer with them is always a joy – they go wild when I run fast and score goals, demanding high fives and excitedly yelling the score of the game. Their laughter and smiles could light the world – two universal gestures that never seem to lose their value.
Kids that followed us on a run all the way to a bridge
Sometimes at the soccer field we run into Deus, a longtime family friend here in Malawi. Last weekend we came to his family’s house to see a traditional Malawian meal cooked: chicken (slaughtered before our eyes), rice, vegetables and nsima (corn flour mush – a staple here). I even got the experience of eating an egg that was inside the chicken. They were very committed to helping us learn the process, explaining every step along the way. Deus has a 3.5 year old son named Prince Patrick, who is playful and a blast to interact with as he pokes you and runs away into another part of the house.
Deus and his wife, Regina
After dinner at the guesthouse I will occasionally go to the other house for a game of cards with the other visitors. They hail from all over the world: Scotland, the Netherlands, Belgium, Ireland and America. It’s a melting pot and the card games are always fun and exciting: competitive spoons is making a revival here in Malawi.
As I sit in my bed each day, all I can do is reflect on the people I meet and interact with every day. They are the heart of life and the connections you forge with fellow human beings can provide valuable lessons. I am hope I can internalize these lessons.
Life is a people sandwich, take a bite.