The African sun blazed overhead as we rumbled along.
From the back of a Jeep I gazed at the rolling landscape – a vast panorama dotted with fruit trees and the grass-roof huts of scattered settlements. In the distance a range of mountains rose against the horizon. I was about to enter the heart of Malawi.
This trip was a reward for helping raise a record amount of money for a international aid program. Now I was in Malawi on my way to see the new well, funded in part by our efforts.
But first, a visit to the old water hole.
After several hours, we rolled into a village. We jumped out of our vehicles, shouting “Moni” and “Muli Bwanji” (“hello/how are you” in the local Malawi Chichewa language) to the crowd of curious villagers that had gathered. The villagers laughed at our clumsy greetings and then shook our hands and beckoned us to follow them.
We’d gone about a mile when we came upon a larger crowd. All of the men of the village, along with a few women, formally introduced themselves. Many wore threadbare t-shirts bearing faded logos of far-away consumer societies.
As they uttered names I could never remember, I felt the scene take on a surreal edge. It was as if my trip had become a movie and I was a spectator watching.
The procession continued. It was a gruelling walk downhill in the scorching heat and the sweat dripped down my back. But my physical discomfort was lightened by the children who ambled alongside me.
These children were the life of the villages and represented the possibility of the future. I learned more from them than from anyone else I met. They were not yet old enough to have developed animosity toward outsiders. To them, I was just another person – except for my odd-coloured fair skin, wild curly hair and the strange words that came out of my mouth. It seemed that time stood still as we laughed and played together.
Many of the children I met had to spend long hours caring for younger siblings. And some were just too hungry or too tired to play. The eyes of these kids spoke volumes. They seemed like adults in child-sized bodies, little beings that understood too well the delicate line between life and death.
I often wondered what they must have thought of me, with my clean clothes, my perfect teeth, my pockets filled with unknown treasures, and my carefree attitude. Was it hard for them to see me stroll into their world like I owned it? I felt self-conscious – or was it shame?
My thoughts were interrupted when our procession came to a halt at the old water hole. Peering down into the murky water, I sensed that something terrifying lay beneath the surface. It was the colour of midnight and foam floated along its edges. Insects buzzed about, drawn perhaps by the stench of feces.
A hush descended on the crowd as the village chief began to speak. Though he was a short, older man, the chief’s voice carried authority. We all stood motionless as he addressed us through an interpreter.
He greeted the ‘delegates’ from Canada and thanked us for coming. Our people had been very kind to his people, he said, adding that he and his entire village owed us their lives.
I felt strangely uncomfortable with such a naked expression of gratitude. I doubted whether the majority of ‘my people’ in Canada could care one iota about the plight of this little village in Africa.
Motioning toward the water hole, the chief went on. For many years, it had been the village’s only source of water and had to serve many purposes. Livestock drank from it. Women washed clothes in it. On unbearably hot days, the children cooled themselves by splashing about in it.
And every day, girls from the village would go down to the water hole and fill rusty pails with water for cooking and drinking.
The chief held up a ladle, bent down and scooped upsome water. I looked at the disgusting brown liquid and almost gagged. No wonder disease ran rampant in the village. No wonder so many children had died.
The chief explained how drinking from the water hole had reduced his people to the level of the cattle who also drank there.
After he finished his speech, the women who initially greeted us began to sing and dance joyfully. I felt they were turning a page on a dark past and celebrating the hope of the future as we moved on.
When we arrived at the new well, the chief thanked us again. He said that by giving his village clean water we had given them life itself. The villagers were strong and healthy, fewer children were ill and diarrhea was no longer a silent killer. But most importantly, the villagers’ humanity had been restored.
I couldn’t get to sleep that night. After tossing and turning for what seemed like hours, I crawled out of my tent to sit outside. My trip to Malawi had given me much to think about and I was glad for the quiet time alone. After a while, the pitch-black sky began to turn a deep blue, and then cobalt-gray. Suddenly, the sun’s first rays erupted on the horizon.
A new day had dawned.