Some may recall Mr. Rodger’s song: “It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood, a beautiful day in the neighborhood. Won’t you be my neighbor?” I’d like to introduce some of our “neighbors”. Some of the people with whom we are developing relationships and who have been neighborly to us living in Malawi.
First, there’s Kam, the gardener, who takes care of the acre of land around the rental house we live in. He rides his bike to work everyday, probably nearly an hour. Unlike most bike riders he does wear a helmet, as do both the other two guys who work here and ride bikes (compliments of a previous tenant). The yard around our house is a beautiful garden with a variety of trees, bushes and lawn. The back third of the plot he uses to grow corn for his family (which he has shared with us also). He does all his work by hand from cutting the grass, to pruning trees and bushes, to sweeping the driveway. All with a rhythm and diligence that reflect the pride he takes in the grounds he grooms. Here is a picture of some of his handiwork and his garden.
Next, is Kam’s wife, Rabina, she is the housekeeper. When we first arrived she was on maternity leave with their fourth child, William, who was born in December. They also have a 13 year old son, who goes to a secondary school away from home, A ten year old daughter and a 7 year old son, who live at home and go to school. Then there’s William who comes to work on Mom’s back each day. Rabina speaks English well, so I have enjoyed getting to talk with her some of the time she is here each day. Unlike Kam, who rides a bike here, she takes a mini bus. She arrives in her street clothes (as does Kam) and changes into her work clothes, a house dress. This has caused me to realize that you really can’t tell people’s jobs by seeing them walking around on the street. I’ve noticed the nannies at the Nursery do the same thing, change their clothes when they get to work. A great idea if you want to preserve your clothes and you have a more physical job.
Rabina is the laundry and housecleaning fairy. I am truly being spoiled! (Side note: Many of you reading this may be thinking “How colonial to have house help!” I thought so too, but when we took over the lease for the house we were told it came with four employees, so we were fairly warned, and while I could do the laundry and cleaning myself it is far better to provide jobs, income and the dignity of work. Unemployment is three to four times what it is in the US, so providing work is a good thing!)
This is Cosmas (left) and Joseph (right), the two night/weekend guards. They are both extremely polite, friendly, helpful and competent at keeping the house and property safe. Cosmas is single. Joseph is married with two children and a third on the way (expected any day!) Their presence is not only a deterrent to anyone who might try to break in but they also watch over the front gate so no one comes onto the property who isn’t invited. Sounds strange but there are a lot of unsolicited requests that come to the gate, people trying to sell any number of things (think of door-to-door sales people multiplied!) One could spend a lot of time “answering the door” if it weren’t for them. They also take care of feeding the two watch dogs, Foxy and Rex.
The previous tenants “rescued” Foxy and Rex from the local animal shelter. They have been spade/neutered, are up to date on their shots and are outside dogs. Although they do try to come into the kitchen to poke their nose into the compost bucket if you don’t close the door all the way. Cosmas and Joseph prepare their food and feed them. We reap the benefits of having their warning barks, cutting down on any unwanted critters in the yard (i.e. snakes, rats) and being welcomed by their friendly greeting, all with only having to buy their food. It’s a pretty sweet deal for pet care.
On days I go to the market for vegetables I see Emmanuel, from whom I buy tomatoes, green peppers, carrots, eggplant and green beans. We bargain a little but now that I know the prices and he knows I will return every week we mostly just exchange greetings and a little about the day.
Then there’s Charlos William, who sells bananas, avocados, sometimes pineapples or grapefruit. He is quite a character with deep lines in his face that speak of any number of interesting stories. He also greets me warmly and says he “gives me a good price” because now I am always coming to see him.
The first few times going to the market was a little overwhelming, to say the least. Being in an obvious minority (white) also means you are “rich” by comparison in African standards. I’ve learned it is better to just accept this perspective, no matter how misconstrued it may be because I alone cannot change it, but I do have to live with it, so better to accept it with humility and try to live with grace. Now when I go to the market I have a strategy that helps me as I try to live out of God’s graciousness. First, I go with a list of what I need and if I don’t know the price of something I ask Rabina who much should it cost or go into the local grocery store to check the price (it should be less than they sell it for), a fair price is important for both the seller/buyer and it is in part my responsibility to know what price that is. Second, I greet/buy from the same venders and try to buy from each of them (spread the days earnings around) because building community relationships is important. Third, but most importantly, each time, as I approach the market I ask God to open my eyes to His image in the people I will encounter and to see His beauty and wonder. As I do these three things, especially the third one, I find I am enjoying the market more, getting more comfortable with it and I am more able to engage with those I meet honoring their dignity and self-worth. I’ve also found that as I continue to come I am less “swarmed” by all the venders trying to sell me things and more accepted when I say “No thank you, not today.” especially if I say it in Chichewa.
There are other “neighbors” as our patterns get established and our days here grow into months, like the checkout attendants at the Shoprite grocery, the phone minute vendor by the hospital, the paper boy at the end of our street, even the workmen two houses down on our street who see me frequently walking by. Now they greet me each time “Hello, madam” or “Hello, mama” (meaning older woman–respectful, but more familiarly or friendly, it is not considered rude, age is still very respected in this culture). We don’t know all their names but our familiarity with each other is growing and we are accepted more as part of this community for the time being. It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood!