(Short story originally published at Peace Corps Worldwide, January 10, 2014)
When the Peace Corps recruiter called to offer Pete Seward a position teaching English in Malawi Seward asked, “Where’s that?”
Seward thought about that. Where the application had asked for geographical preferences, Seward had written: “Anywhere in the Pacific. Definitely not Africa.” So he reminded the recruiter of this.
“I do see that. But, let me ask you. Why don’t you want to go to Africa?”
Seward had no real answer. His distaste for Africa was conceptual. Africa loomed large as a dustbowl, riddled with disease, starvation, and conflict. An assignment in the islands was more his speed, the proper blend of adventure and simplicity, minus the nagging question of hunger, drought, and disease. Unsure of how to convey this without appearing callous Seward said, “Africa’s dry. Africa’s dusty.”
“I lived in Malawi for three years,” the recruiter told him. “Not all of it is dry. My site was on the lake.” She emphasized the wonders of Malawi, the loveliness of the countryside, the friendliness of the people. “They call it the Warm Heart of Africa.”
Seward stopped listening. He felt cheated. He knew nothing of Africa. He couldn’t make a case against going there to someone who’d lived there for three years. And his spirit of adventure was being trampled by somebody who’d been there first. To stop her talking he said he got the picture and agreed to go.
The recruiter rattled on. “There’s lots to do. You can get certified in scuba. There’s a mountain in the south and game parks to the north. There’s wood carving and batik design. You can learn to dance. You can learn to drum.”
Dancing? Drumming? Seward looked out at his father’s land. They had yet to mow the fields. He watched the butterflies flitting across the high grass and saw the flowers exposed by the wind. He lived on rich, moist land at the heart of America. He tried to imagine himself squatting in the African dust with a drum.
The buses carrying the Peace Corps trainees from the airport moved south through the flat dusty plain. The countryside was dry and withered, completely deforested. Acrid smoke filled the air. Concrete shops and rickety bamboo stalls appeared at intervals. Women carried bundles of firewood or large plastic buckets on their heads. Men on bicycles wobbled off the tarmac to make way for the buses.
As they neared the capital, the number of vehicles increased. The road became crowded with bicycles, and children selling fish out of baskets. Slender youths sold cheap watches strapped to cardboard panels. The bus slowed, and they moved forward by inches through the old part of Lilongwe with its general goods stores and dirty concrete stoops, a lone traffic light, more suggestion than enforcement, bony dogs, goats, and chickens. Masses of people crowded and stared as the busses inched past.
The crowd thinned, the shops and traffic decreased, and the bus picked up speed. That was it. That was the capital.
Seward, a stranger to the 20 others on the bus, a foreigner to everyone outside his window, felt lost and alone. What could he possibly learn in such a place but how to live in squalor?
At dusk the bus rumbled off the tarmac onto a narrow dirt lane, plowing up dust. A group of children chased the lead bus and more children swarmed around Seward’s bus, jumping and laughing and smacking the window. The bus stopped at the edge of a football pitch surrounded by the single-story brick buildings of the agricultural college. The other trainees stood and leaned over Seward to open the windows. The children sang and laughed and shouted and the trainees crowded the aisle and pushed to get off. Seward joined the pushing, but not from a desire to meet the children. He wanted a shower. He wanted a meal. He wanted to lie horizontal after 40 hours in transit.
Beneath the soft pink sunset the children surrounded the trainees. They danced and sang and pushed the trainees to the center of a great circle. Seward resisted. He watched without emotion until a young boy led him by the hand to the center. Finally the Malawians themselves moved into the center of the circle, forcing the Americans back out, many of them wiping tears from their eyes, emotional, drained, lost in the new African night.
The trainees moved on to Kasulu village where they spent weeks living with village families and eating village food – boiled maize and stew. The diet did not vary. They learned the local language. Seward followed his host father around the swept compound and repeated the words for cow, goat, chicken, tobacco, dirt.
Seward grew frustrated. “Yesterday you called it something else.”
“Many words for dirt,” said his host father.
Father. By his years he was no older than Seward. But he supported a thriving compound: two wives, many children, in-laws, two grandmothers, a grandfather. Not a meal passed without Seward feeling guilt about eating these people’s food. On the radio Seward heard news of drought and famine. Still his host mother brought generous portions, large bowls of boiled maize and stew. His host father and the grandfather kept him company at the rough table in the earth hut that had been cleared for his use. They did not eat.
“Please, eat,” Seward said.
Seward could not refuse.
The old man stared. His face was carved with deep wrinkles and his back slightly bent. He moved slowly. Each morning he left the compound with a stick, a bow, and three small arrows. A litter of brown pups led him along a well-worn path. Each evening he returned with the same stick, bow, and arrows.
“Where does he go?”
“What does he hunt?”
Seward’s father shrugged.
“I’m going with him.” Seward had nothing better to do. The purpose of the village stay was to learn culture and receive a battery of inoculations. Seward could learn culture by playing games and writing on flip charts, or he could follow this old man deep into the bush. His body needed a day off from being stabbed by the Peace Corps medical staff.
The old man walked steadily for hours. Before he reached the only hill for miles around, the old man stepped off the path and lowered himself into the dry, brittle grass. Seward also stepped off and crouched in the dust and grass. They did not speak. The old man didn’t take the water Seward offered. No antelope came along. Seward thought the old man had fallen asleep when he rose just as suddenly as he’d stepped off the path. The dogs gamboled after him. They returned to the compound in time for dinner: boiled maize and stew.
The next day’s hunt produced the same results. And the next. No antelope. The old man hadn’t said a word to Seward, nor had he taken the water he was offered. Fearing he was a curse to the old man’s hunting, Seward stayed behind the following day.
The old man returned before noon and stood in the scant shade outside Seward’s hut, calling out in a loud, excited voice. Seward wiped the nap from his eyes and stepped outside. The old man bore a small antelope over his shoulder. He launched into a long, excited story in the local language, animated by gestures and smiles and nods. Seward smiled and nodded along though he had no idea what the old man was saying. The entire compound had gathered around to witness the fuss.
When the old man left, Seward’s father used the word for drum.
“I thought it was an antelope.”
His father shook his head. “He makes a drum for you.”
Seward, who had done nothing but eat these people’s food, felt embarrassed. He hoped to discourage the gift. “There’s nothing I can do with it,” he said.
“He will teach.”
“I can’t drum.”
“He has nothing less to offer you.”
Seward wasn’t sure he’d heard correctly. The local language continued to confound him. “Nothing else to offer?” he asked.
“Nothing less to offer,” his father said. “And it will be his honor. You have come to teach. But first, you must learn.”
Amid the shimmering green tea fields of the south, a day and a half from Kisulu, Seward took up his position teaching English at the Mulanje Girls Secondary School. The wide granite plateau of Mount Mulanje reached grey and flat into the sky, a striking landmark on the low green plain. The mountain attracted rain to the area most of the year, and during the winter months thick blankets of fog lay low over the earth. Mulanje was lush. Even as the dry, crooked fingers of cracked earth gripped the rest of Malawi, the land around the Mulanje Girls Secondary School remained rich and green.
Rain fell heavily outside the cramped staff room where the Headmistress sat at the tables that formed a tight square. She wore a royal blue Habit and a starched white veil. She folded her hands on the table and her face bore the concentration of prayer. Four other teachers were seated apart, avoiding each other’s eyes. The lights were off.
Seward entered the musty room. He checked his mailbox though he knew it would be empty. Nobody spoke. The odor of mildewed books dampened the room. The hall clock ticked. Rain beat down on the corrugated iron roof.
Three more teachers entered. The Headmistress looked over her shoulder at the door and sighed impatiently.
“Can we begin?” she asked.
There was a low murmur.
“Can we begin now?”
The Deputy Headmaster piped softly, “Let us begin.”
“The girls are ready?”
The Deputy’s voice quavered: “I think the girls are not ready. It is raining…”
“I am aware of the rain. But the girls must be ready. The duty officers will have to punish the girls who are not ready.”
Mr. Nkhoma left the room. Over the steady pounding of rain could be heard the noise of the students coming to order: a shout, the scampering of plastic shoes against concrete, hysterical squeals. A windblown wash of rain pelted the roof.
The Headmistress asked, “Are there any announcements?”
“Then there are no announcements but my own?” She looked disdainfully at the teachers before her, rose suddenly, and exited followed by the Deputy. The teachers milled about. They started conversations in the vernacular. Excluded from this camaraderie, Seward followed the Deputy.
The students, all in rough blue skirts and white blouses, had gathered around three sides of the courtyard. A score of chairs lined the corridor facing the students. The Prefect stamped her foot and called the girls to order: “For staff arrival, Shoes Boom!” Five hundred feet stamped in unison. A profound human hush fell over the courtyard, a hush filled by the rain gurgling overhead in the gutters. Behind Seward the rest of the staff ambled casually to the chairs and stood facing the students.
Rain beat down and splashed up from the earth. The students crowded beneath the narrow iron roof as the Prefect led them in the National Anthem. The Anthem ended, the teachers sat, and Seward cringed at what came next: The Bible reading. One of his own students stuttered and mispronounced her way through the passage. After the reading came the prayer, followed by a choral group. The Headmistress rose, stern and silent. The girls straightened and waited for the scolding. Afterwards the Prefect stamped her foot and called, “For staff depart, Shoes Boom!”
Seward returned alone to his house, passing by the chapel. The rain pouring from the gutters sang a hollow hymn. Seward’s mail was being stolen. His students weren’t learning. His cook had asked for yet another loan to repair his roof. Seward’s shoes were soaked. Africa wasn’t dry; Africa was worse than dry.
Seward entered his home and smelled the familiar village cooking that his housekeeper prepared for lunch each day. He picked up his drum beside the door and brought it to his back patio to beat along with the rain.
At twenty minutes to five Seward carried his drum past the seniors sitting in the grass outside the chapel. He’d been roused from his nap by the broken bell and the call of the Wildlife Club leaders: “Wildlife Club Mem-bahs!” – kit-klank, kit-klank – “Wildlife Club Membahs!” – kit-klank, kit-klank – and then softly, so it was more audible for the force of its mutedness: “Wildlife Club Membahs…”
After a final shout the calling ceased. Seward could hear them singing:
“Make friends with nature
Is our motto…
Make friends with nature
Is our motto-o-o…”
Eventually the singing gave way to gospel numbers, which the girls sang with beauty and reverence. Seward entered the whitewashed concrete classroom and set down his drum. On the board in colored chalk the students had scribbled lion and elephant heads, the lion heads like growling suns, the elephants like snakes with ears. Amid the wildlife was written: “Welcome to Wildlife Club, New and Old Membahs! You are most welcome!”
The thirty members sang:
“The Lord is my shepherd
I shall not want
He makes me to lie
In green pastures…
He leads me beside
The quiet waters
He restores my soul…”
They sat on desktops, rocking and swaying, their arms around each other’s shoulders. No longer dressed in their dull blue and white uniforms, the girls wore colorful, bright zitenje wrapped as ankle-length skirts. They wore tee shirts and tank tops and flip-flops.
“What’s this,” Seward asked when they stopped singing. “The Religion Club?”
“Ah-ahhh,” the students shouted.
“We are welcoming you, sah,” said the club chairlady. She had a raspy voice. “You are late.”
“I’m very sorry,” Seward said. “Thank you for waiting. Did you tell them about the plan for the day?”
“Do you have the seeds?”
“Have you read the instructions?”
“Sah,” she rasped, crossing her arms at her chest. “You do not teach farmers how to farm.”
“Right,” said Seward, shaking his head. “Let’s go! Let’s saddle up! Let’s go plant some trees!”
“Yahhhhhh!” The girls roared. They jumped from the desktops, raving and waving, boiling out the door, high stepping, laughing, shouting, waving their arms in the air just like the creatures from Where the Wild Things Are.
Seward followed the raging herd along the concrete corridor around the courtyard and out under the archway down the stairs, escorted by Regina and two others.
“Sah,” said one of the girls. “What is the drum for?”
“It is a drum to fight deforestation.”
“Who will play it?”
The girl asked to carry the drum, and Seward handed it to her.
Across campus the mob of Wildlifers had grown. The singing, more raucous than usual, had attracted much attention. The groups of students sitting in the grass around the netball and volleyball courts stared, smiled, pointed and laughed at the Wildlife Club.
“Are all these students members of the club?” Seward asked. The group had nearly tripled in size.
“No, sah. They are not all members. They are just bored. They creep out of the woodwork because they see that we have something to do.”
“What exactly are those ones doing?” A few of the students were swinging short-handled, knobby hoes over their heads, as if wielding medieval weapons. “Somebody might get hurt.”
“No, sah. They need the hoes to clear the beds. The seeds we will plant in the plastic tubes filled with mud from the river.”
They marched out the side gate and down along the fields with their high, soft furrows. The students were singing the Wildlife song again: “Make friends with nature, is our motto…” Seward didn’t sing, but his heart was light.
The field sloped towards a line of mahogany trees. Left of the field grew a thick row of banana trees, bamboo groves, and tall elephant grass. A slow, muddy stream fed the bush.
The students stampeded down the field and gathered around a bed overgrown with tangled weeds, thorn, and scrub. They picked the red flowers springing among the bushes that grew along the stream; they chased butterflies; they held hands and chatted. A few stuck flowers in their hair. Nobody did anything that looked like tree planting, until Regina reproached them with an officious air.
Laughing, they kicked off their flip-flops and stepped into the rich mud of the trickling river. They scattered up and down in the deep foliage, their colorful zitenje like flowers and butterflies in the dense vegetation. They continued to sing as they scooped the mud and poured it into the plastic tubes. Seward took off his shoes, rolled up his pant legs, and hunkered down to play.
The drumming came softly at first, a soft murmur inaudible over the shouting and singing. But as the pounding increased and the volume lifted the drumming rose to meet the singing voices, the drumming coming louder and louder, coming together and blending with the voices until Seward became the drum, not hearing the voices and not seeing the flowers or the butterflies or the students deep in the vegetation scooping up the mud.
His legs burned as he squatted, bent at the waist over the drum, pounding the antelope hide stretched tight by the old man who’d taught him how to play. Seward pounded out the rhythm of his happiness, in a trance, not seeing, not hearing but only feeling the rhythm of the drum and the rhythm of his life at that very moment. Someone brought out a whistle. The girls at the edge of the circle clapped and sang and danced and whistled and Seward pounded the drum and filled the day with a happiness he could only have learned from an old man who had nothing less to offer him.
[Ben East taught English in Malawi before taking up various teaching and diplomatic assignments with the state department in West Africa, the Middle East, and throughout the Americas. A native of Connecticut, he recently returned to the States after nearly two decades overseas. He lives in Virginia with his wife (also a Malawi RPCV) and two sons, and is working on his third novel. His fiction has appeared in The Foreign Service Journal, Atticus Review, and Umbrella Factory Magazine.
Of Green Ben writes, “The story got its start in the deep sense of loneliness and isolation I felt on a rainy afternoon tucked away in the bush, no mail, no friendly voices, not even a stick of dry firewood to cook my oats — Jungle Oats — for which I had as seasoning only Rajah curry powder. That loneliness, the sense of adventure that inspired me to seek it, and the wonderful discoveries of life’s vibrancy that followed all still live within the story. I find them there each time I read it, despite its many iterations over the past 15 years.”]