From the Top of the Mountain

By Mady Hughes
Sept. 7, 2018

My abode sits in a little nook within the confines of my school’s campus, protected by tall walls made of brick and shaded by the canopy of fruit frees: mango, papaya, and banana. You can sprawl out on my front porch, close your eyes, and hear nearly everything. 

The friendly voices of the guards chatting with visitors, mothers giggling with each other at the water tap and the squeals of their children, trying to run away from the bees and the geckos and my dog. You must close your eyes longer to focus on the animals’ calls and songs, as they are incessant and eternal, providing the background music to all the day’s chores. A symphony, or cacophony rather, of roosters- COCK A DOODLE DO- and birds harmonizing and sheep shrieking at god knows what. I would like to have a word with whoever claimed that roosters only make their infamous, deafening cries at the break of dawn.

 Head west toward the sunset and you will be greeted by the market; by men and women selling their goods and wares and everything in between. My tomato man, Mr. Westere, will flash his magnetic smile at you and will chuckle wholeheartedly as you proclaim that you want “anyezi mawiri” instead of “anyezi muwiri.” And before you know it, everyone within a 15 foot radius is giggling and he slips an extra onion in your bag, maybe because of your earth-shattering humor and zest for life, but probably because of your unwavering loyalty to his business.

 The vegetable stands are a way to get your feet wet, to dip your toes in the metaphorical water, before slipping into the depths of the market alleyways. With music booming and smells wafting and people everywhere, these alleys never cease to remind me that I’m in Malawi. You must maneuver carefully—oh, zikomo, zikomo!—and seek out the small shop windows where the men sit and eat their nsima and sell the staples of life.

 “10 eggs, please. Oh, and you have spaghetti? Two bags of that!”

And while he packages your purchases you inhale deeply and enjoy the aromas of soaps and detergents and your eyes fix on the kids playing mancala. You find yourself wanting to play mancala with them but that’s another experience for another day and you continue being swept away by the commotion of it all.

 One wrong turn—oh there are so many wrong turns—and you’re in the vast expanse of the fish market. You’re exchanging polite smiles with the vendors and simultaneously wonder if you will ever be cultured enough to eat fish the Malawian way, bones and all. After you come to terms with the inevitable answer to that question you continue down the corridor, desperately wishing for the sweet fragrance of soap and detergent to take the place of the fishy musk you’re currently confronted with.

 At the first chance you should take the left turn that will guarantee your departure from the fish market and into the east-most corner of this commercial grid. Here there are houses where women look up at you and smile and you smile back and they return to chopping their tomatoes or defeathering their chickens. You wonder if you will ever be able to cook anything other than rice and eggs.

A classic Malawi market, complete with items to buy, thatch stands, and a dirt path in between.
Mady's market

Continuing down this path will spit you out onto the main road, where taxis come and go and men whisk by on their bikes with goats somehow strapped to the back, their beady eyes peering at you. Here you will find the shops with the coolers full of ice-cold Coca Cola and once the first sugary drop of soda touches your lips, you will swear to yourself that you will never take ice-cold liquids for granted ever again.

Wander northwest, past the health clinic and behind the wide open field of the primary school, and you will be enveloped by the canopy of banana trees. They have a way of convincing you, whispering in your ear, to sit down and enjoy the cool shade that their billowy leaves offer. You will be entranced and protected by this impossibly green wonderland, a portal into a tropical, directionless world. It seems endless, is this banana-tree-world all I will ever know? Which way did I come from? Do I ever want to leave? Just follow the roosters’ songs and they will lead you home.

After begrudgingly leaving the banana oasis, cross the wide open field of the primary school and find the row of important houses. They may start humble and unassuming, but as you continue down the path the homes will blossom, literally. Front porches overgrown with pink, red, purple flowers- gossamer tendrils gracefully lining the columns and hand rails. It is lush and unbelievably colorful and something out of a Wes Anderson film. At the end of the path is the home of the village headman, the chief, and he embellishes his home with the most ornate flora of all. You will wait under the colossal tree in his front yard for him to emerge from his home, assuming either a bended knee or a squat, depending on your gender, and pay respects before engaging in business or conversation

A mountainous landscape view of Malawi in dry season
Village views

Continue back eastward, in the direction of my little abode, and walk alongside the tall wall made of brick. Pass the home with the odd looking, black and white speckled ducks on your left and you’re going the right way. And up the mountain you go! Deep breaths and big steps, but be careful of loose rocks. Up, up, up until you’ve found the out-house near the top. You’re not quite there yet! Scramble up the massive boulders until you’ve reached the small tree on the summit and plop down, feel the sun on your skin, and look out over the small corner of the world that I just finished detailing for you. You can see everything from here—the markets and the banana tree patches and the row of important houses with breathtaking flowers.

And you can see my house, the small little square of land and brick and mortar that I consider my sacred space. Sometimes you can hear the monkeys atop the mountain too, a fauna symphony that tends to make me uneasy, but is appreciated nonetheless.

It is here, atop this mountain, where perspective is gained and the scope of reality is felt. I exist in a tiny corner of the world where Americans almost never venture—the number of foreigners in this village could likely be counted on one hand—yet I am here, in this space, for two uninterrupted years. The weight of this truth can be crushing; how I am supposed to effect change here? Will I be good enough for them? And other times I sit with more selfish thoughts, the sadness brought about by homesickness and the isolation that inevitably comes with living in the trenches of a culture other than your own, speaking a language other than your own. But here, atop this mountain, I realize how small this village is and how small we are and suddenly it is okay to be afraid or homesick.

This is one little corner of the world amongst many, and you are one human.

There is only so much that can be done, but you must try.

A black and white headshot of a young women with long hair