The walk out to Ntonda Village was about 10 kilometers from the health center I was working at in Blantyre, Malawi. Mrs. Nkhata, my nurse counterpart, had helped me select Ntonda two years ago as a pilot village for my literacy program and mosquito net distribution center, because of their cooperative nature and their dynamic village headman. I was reaching the end of my Peace Corps service in this tiny, landlocked nation in Southeastern Africa and this was to be my last visit to the village.
Mrs. Nkhata and I walked through the tall, overgrown grasses down the familiar path. Luckily we were at the start of the dry season, so the path resembled more of a road than the quagmire it became during the rainy season. As we came to the crest of the hill that Amayi (mother) Makawa's house sat on, I could hear the joyous singing in Chichewa. The house was typical of those in villages located close to the city, made of dark mud patched over homemade bricks and topped with a corrugated tin roof. The same two gnarled geese ran about the yard, snapping at each other's backsides. Twenty or so women sat in a circle in the yard clapping and singing, with children strapped to their backs sleeping peacefully as if nothing in the world could wake them. Around them danced the most joyous of them all, Amayi Makawa. Her head was wrapped in a dingy chitenje (cloth); her long blue coat was threadbare and barely covering the chitenje she had wrapped around her waist. Her dusty feet were a sharp contrast to the blackness of her skin. When she turned to greet us, her entire face was lit up from the enormous smile spreading across it. Her eyes shone like two welcoming beacons from the depths of the deep crinkles on her face. It was impossible to tell how old Amayi Makawa was. The sun and hard work of being a Malawian woman had taken their toll on her body, but her amazing energy rivaled any of the young women sitting around her in a circle. She was leading the women in a song about using condoms to stop the spread of HIV and AIDS.
Amayi Makawa held the much respected role of the traditional birth attendant in Ntonda. Her birthing room was separate from her house but made of the same, rustic materials with a dirt floor. It was kept immaculate and comfortable for the women who gave birth there. She had received formal training through the health center, although her experience with hundreds of births surpassed any sort of knowledge we might have given her. But it was the other position she held in the village that was truly unique; Amayi Makawa was also the village headman, or headwoman in this case, the leader of Ntonda Village. She had fallen into this top position, traditionally held by a man, when her husband had been to be too much of a drunk to fulfill it. And she had proven to be a much better village headman than her husband had ever been. He would eventually succumb to an AIDS-related illness a few years after she was named headwoman.
During the first rainy season I was here, she helped carry cholera-stricken villagers the ten kilometers to the health center, risking infection with this highly contagious disease. She had been instrumental in the success of the literacy program and the mosquito net distribution I had arranged in her village. While other villages sold their mosquito nets to the Indian-owned wholesale stores, Amayi Makawa made sure her village was educated on the repercussions of catching malaria. "How can you harvest your maize if you are sick with malaria?" she asked them. During the literacy campaign, she has walked with the women in the program to the tiny, tin roofed shack the village used as a school to make sure they attended.
Amayi Makawa stepped out from the circle and trotted toward us with her right hand extended for a handshake and the other hand lightly touching her elbow as a sign of respect. But she did not drop to one knee and bow her head as the other women in the village did when speaking to men and educated women. Her head was always held high. "Muli Bwanji! (How are you)" she chimed, shaking my hand in a powerful grip.
"Ndili bwino, kaya inu? (I am well, and you?)" I answered and instantly Amayi Makawa's head leaned back as a loud laugh flew from her mouth. In two years of visiting her, she still thought it was a hoot when I attempted a few words in Chichewa. Her laugh ended with "Eeeeeeeeeeee, a-ah " as her eyes looked into mine once more, her head shaking gently. She began chatting faster than my Chichewa skills could decipher so Mrs. Nkhata stepped in to translate.
"I am honored that you brought so much abundance to Ntonda," she began. She continued to speak of the literacy program and how the children had mosquito nets to sleep under. "Ntonda will always remember you and Malawi is very sad you are leaving us. You are a great woman. I will pray for you everyday." The warmth was pouring from her and tears were beginning to form in her eyes. Her hands were now holding mine, shaking them up and down. I now turned my head upward and let out the long "Eeeeeeeeeeee, a-ah ," shaking my head lightly.
"I will always remember you, Amayi and I will tell everyone in America what a great woman you are." I gave her the picture Mrs. Nkhata had taken of us the last time we held a clinic at her house. Amayi Makawa squealed with delight and began to dance around, holding the picture above her head. The other women began clamoring around her, trying to steal a glimpse. She dashed into her house, the entire group of women following. Mrs. Nkhata and I made our way to her doorjamb and watched as she put the picture on the only shelf in the house that held a picture of Jesus Christ and a Fanta calendar from 1991. She turned to face us with that ever present smile radiating from her face.
Our good-byes that day were tearful, but joyous. Amayi Makawa sent me off with nearly a bushel-full of their precious maize and the melodies of another Chichewa song ringing in my ears. I left Malawi soon after that last trip to Ntonda Village and returned back to California.
I received a letter not too long ago from Mrs. Nkhata and she wrote that Amayi Makawa is going stronger than ever and had even petitioned the City of Blantyre to start another literacy program in Ntonda Village. Although she is getting on in her years and her adult son now helps her run her household, Amayi Makawa is one of the busiest traditional birth attendants in the Blantyre district. And yes, our picture together is still proudly displayed on the same, single shelf. I wrote Mrs. Nkhata back to pass on my well wishes to Amayi Makawa and to let her know that I think of her often. And to tell her that my copy of our picture is framed and sits proudly with the pictures of my family and my best friends.
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