The Global City You’ve Never Heard Of
Driving up to my Peace Corps site in Malawi reminds me of the drive to my grandparents' home in the Sierras.
The vehicle winds up curving mountain roads, leaving behind the valley and lakeside beaches. Baobabs emerge from the earth like dead hands with fingers reaching towards the sky. Passing over a certain gulley, you almost always see a troop of baboons. The drive makes you anticipate your destination to be a remote village with the typical features one expects of a Peace Corps Volunteer’s site: small and isolated with few connections to the outside world.
In fact, my village is just the opposite. I want to tell you about my walk to work so you can get a feel for the place that I now call home.
At around 7:15 AM, I leave my home, a colorfully painted rental unit at an orphanage run by an elderly Italian woman. After passing through the gate and crossing the tarmac road, I continue down a dirt trail next to the Greek Orthodox church, where I find children who are walking to school. Without fail, they loudly yell, “CIAO! CIAO!” Many people assume I am Italian. They usually try out greetings in other languages as well since we are only about 15 kilometers from the Mozambique, a former Portuguese colony. “Good morning! How is it? Como estas?”
Down the hill from the church, a minaret from a small mosque peaks out of trees. As I come down the hill beside it, I see its sign “African Muslim Agency,” written in English and Arabic.
Across the street is the Bible translation project. In a small brick unit, a South African Baptist and his team work on translating the Bible into the local language, Ciyawo. His wife, children, and their pet rabbits live in a nearby village.
Continuing down the street I reach the Cosmos bakery, run by a Greek man named John. John is elusive; I have yet to meet him. But his employees are very friendly. They typically greet me in Ciyawo as I pass. Across the street is a general store, appropriately named Agora.
Tucked in the trees behind the bakery is another translation project: an Australian professor and his team are working on a Ciyawo-English dictionary. Why so many translations groups? Apparently the Ciyawo spoken in my village is the most “pure;” it has fewer influences from other languages, which makes it an ideal place for linguists to work.
I continue walking. As I get closer to the town center, I hear radios blare, motorcycles revving, and bleating from the bitter goats. What are bitter goats? I’ve heard various versions of the legend, but apparently these goats were bewitched in order to prevent a widow from losing them after her husband’s death. Because of their bitter taste, no one kills or steals them. They roam the market, and on two occasions a sick goat came to our health center, waited outside the clinician’s office as if it were a human patient, and died.
In addition to the goats, I pass shops selling soap, cooking oil, spaghetti, candles, and instant chicory coffee. Roadside vendors offer piles of vegetables, heaps of clothes, and a fermented maize drink called “thobwa”. The town also has a lodge, restaurant, a thatched theater, beauty salons, and a traditional healer selling mosses and barks from the forest.
The town ends at a small river. I cross the bridge, scramble up a small hill, and finally arrive at the health center where I work. I greet the guards in Chichewa, the most commonly used local language in Malawi.
In the twenty minutes it takes me to get to work, I am greeted in five languages, pass two academic translation projects, and meet people from an astounding variety of belief systems and cultures. And that’s just the beginning. My village is also home to an elite Muslim boarding school for girls. Its well-manicured campus is run by a principal from Sudan. There is also a Catholic parish and school, complete with Italian nuns. I attend the Presbyterian church. Our choirmaster is half Indian and his last name is “Patello,” a Malawian variant of the surname Patel.
This small Malawian border town tucked away in the hills is home to people with real differences. Those with PhD's live five minutes away from the illiterate. Church bells ring in the morning, the call to prayer punctuates the day, and drums from initiation ceremonies pound through the night. In a recent op-ed in the Times, Ross Douthat argues that, “Each Western “global city” (like each “global university”) is increasingly interchangeable, so that wherever the citizen of the world travels he already feels at home.” My village is certainly not interchangeable with any place I have been. However, I am happy to say that it is already feeling like home.