Friday, 20 September 2013

Muddy Bricks and Trainers

Thank God I didn’t buy new shoes!

All the roads in the “centre” of town are paved, and although crumbling at the sides where the pedestrians walk, there is not much drama walking around. The road outside my guesthouse which leads me to one of these wonderfully, albeit crumbling paved roads, is no such vision of convenience. The road outside my guesthouse is a soil track that every day is worked upon to try and turn it into a concrete one. Every day I win/attempt to win small battles with this road. Being soil, it gets everywhere so, there is not much point in hoping I’ll arrive either at work or at home without also carrying one, maybe two coats of terracotta dust with me. 

My challenges lie in whatever task to build the road the day brings; giant heaps of soil piled so high, and so wide it’s like walking around roundabouts; large, deep holes the width of the road so I’ve got to use my spidey fingers to cling onto a wall for fear of falling in; but worst of all, is when they work with water. It averages every other day, usually when I’m on my way home, and sees the road swimming. Water plus soil turns the surface into clay which I get the privilege of walking through. Squelch, squelch, squelch, all the way home. 

Needless to say, I’ll be throwing my trainers away after my time here. Two weeks in, nine to go. I got straight to work which I am really enjoying. I'm not getting any complaints and I’ve even been asked by the finance manager to help him with a private project; setting up a school for very poor children in the area. The job of creating and implementing the procedures for lendwithcare have not taken as long as everyone anticipated which I am happy about, as it means most of my time will be spent monitoring, and training the officer we hire to takeover from me.

Week one I visited some of our clients in Chipata. On the Tuesday morning I was given a motorbike helmet. I stood with a deadpan expression and everyone laughed as I asked them to tell my family and friends that I love them were anything to happen to me. On the back of the bike I went and once we had turned our second corner, driven over our second “speed bump” I relaxed, thighs fully clenched, into the ride. I was expecting a 20 minute journey so 60 minutes later, as we arrived at the client meeting, I clambered down from the bike and stumbled over to meet the Safwa group…my thighs were a little shaky.

What a welcome to their life! First thing I did was use their toilet - a drop hole similar to ones I used as a child in the mountains in Cyprus - and watched as if in slow motion my sunglasses unhooked themselves from my t-shirt and fell down the hole...oops! Everyone thought this was quite funny and a wonderful way to introduce myself. They were all so happy and excited to meet me, and I too with them. They laughed as I repeated their greeting to them: mulibwanji. At first I thought they were laughing at the mzungu trying to speak their language – apparently not! I was not meant to repeat, but instead reply nilibwinomulibwanj. How was I supposed to know!

House construction
After a prayer, the loan officer I had travelled with started the meeting; a repayment and an ‘importance of savings’ meeting. At the end he translated some questions I had for the women; what impact the loans had made, for them and their family; what the consensus was among the community about women becoming the breadwinners. All very positive answers. These loans had clearly changed their lives and they wanted to be sure that I felt their gratitude. They even sang a song about me to which we all clapped and danced to. I felt so honoured by their welcome and kept reiterating that MicroLoan, and already some lendwithcare lenders, may have given them their loans, but they were the ones working each day to see their businesses succeed.

My favourite, if it’s ok to say I had a favourite, was the group’s treasurer; it seemed as though her eyes could tell a thousand stories but still looked young, and hopeful. Throughout my time with them she was smiling at me. She initiated the song they sang and kept engaging with me. She was generating enough profit from her business to allow her to start building a second house for her family; for her son when he grows up. Clearly the proud mother, she took me to see the work in progress and in only a short period of time the foundations had been laid, and the outer walls were being built.

My second visit was not as successful as my first and although I did not meet any clients, I did learn quite a lot. The women had not turned up for the meeting – a common problem as many of them are busy working. My driver/rider this time round was much more talkative – something I was a bit worried about; whenever he spoke to me on the bike we would end up swerving left and right. We passed “briefcase businessmen” traveling the quiet roads to Malawi with sacks and sacks of mealie meal to which he gave me a detailed lesson on the mealie meal market. Mealie meal is white maize flour that is eaten religiously as nshima. Nshima can be eaten like porridge for breakfast or as the highlight at dinner time. When made up it looks a bit like mashed potato but is the consistency of putty. It is eaten with almost every meal, with hands, torn off like bread and dipped into sauces. I’ve made some myself and it is yummy! Mealie meal costs twice as much in Malawi, as it does in Zambia. Being so close to the border, it is quite common to see these trucks, laden with their sacks of mealie meal, travelling the quieter roads to get to Malawi’s markets.

I was also taught how they make bricks. It is a predominantly male job and sees soil wetted, and moulded into a rectangular brick shape and then then lain out to dry (covered with leaves if it get too hot to prevent cracking). Once they are dry, they are arranged into a large pile (so that it looks almost like a small room), covered with mud and a fire is lit inside. This turns the mound into an oven. This sets the bricks and their colour changes…to a lighter terracotta. And voila! Bricks to build your house. It is very common to see these mud covered piles in every small congregation of houses/ mud huts with thatched roofing. They stand next to houses, and are only distinguishable by their dark, mud coating. Otherwise they are the same size as the houses.

So now that you are all experts on the local cuisine and the construction industry I will say bye bye as I'm worried I may have lost some of you to this essay, and I need to go back to cleaning the mud from my shoes!!!

This article was originally posted on the Microloan Foundation blog.

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