“Wait until you go to Malawi”, my friend Anne told me. “My mom is going to make sure you have a real village experience”. We stood talking outside of my medical school campus, on the eve of my departure for this southeast African country, the homeland of my friend. We had spent many nights talking about her childhood in Africa, as she spoke of her family of 8 living in two rooms at the back of a church. She watched many of her school friends die of cholera, and when times were hard she ate the same porridge for every meal. She spent most of her life in a village, which she said is the heart of Africa, where most of the living and suffering occurs.

To understand Africa, you have to go to the village. After all these conversations I was curious to experience Africa for myself. Not just because of its tragedy, but also because of the warmth and spirit I perceived in my friend.

On arrival in Lilongwe, I was greeted by the pleasant breezes that accompany July in the southern hemisphere. I marveled at the giant golden and fuscia blossoms on the abundant trees. We were met by Emma, my friend’s mother, who took us to her home. One day we accompanied a medical team to a rural area where we learned how to immunize babies while they did malnutrition training. Children with bulging bellies and ragged clothes ran up to us wide eyed. When we moved towards them they ran away giggling and screaming. We blew bubbles we had brought, and they jumped and swung at them, chasing the breezes that carried them across the maize fields. Another day we bought rice and clothing, and distributed it in a village that had been particularly hard hit by a recent drought. I heard of two women who had collapsed and died in a field while scavenging for pumpkin leaves to eat. The people were restrained;there was no stampede like one might expect with a hungry mob. They seemed to understand that a community must stick together, and if one suffers they all do. They only expected enough to survive that day. One little girl of around 8 had no clothing- she had wrapped a piece of cloth around her waist for a skirt. We gave her a yellow dress. She was transformed from grimy waif to princess. She ran home to show her parents.

We attended a wedding in the village, which was unique from any nuptial I have attended before or after. It began with the dancing. Men and women formed lines outside the church. The music began, and feet moved up and down, side to side to the powerful rhythm. The procession moved into the church, the men and women side by side, harmonizing, swaying, stomping. Some of the women were moving their tongues rapidly- ululating, it is called. Even the young children were stomping and bobbing in time with everyone else. The whole congregation joined in a glorious intertwining of melody, harmony and dance. The crude brick building with the dirt floors and splintered wooden benches was transformed into a cathedral of celebration for this occasion.It was marvelous. Truly, I thought, the Africans have music in their blood. The bride came last, in her borrowed white dress- the village dress that is worn by every bride that marries here. Her hair was adorned by a sprig of fuscia blossom taken from a tree outside. I expected her face to be uplifted, her eyes bright, caught up in this ecstatic moment. But she did not see this as “her” day, as most American women would. She had been sternly instructed by her elders that marriage is a serious business, and it is not appropriate to be giddy and light. She must have been honored by their serenade, but she lowered her head humbly, and her face remained serious throughout the ceremony. The groom, waiting at the front, also looked sober and frightened. After they were pronounced we filed out of the church to more jubilant singing. Seventeen of us piled into the back of a pickup along with the sound equipment and several hundred kilos of rice as we made our way to the reception. One could have spent a lot of money and not attained the atmosphere we experienced there. As we arrive women surrounded our vehicle, their colorful chitenji skirts swirling in rhythm and they sang and chanted. We made our way to the fires where huge pots of rice bubled, and skewers of goat meat roasted enticingly. A fragrant cloud of smoke hung in the air. We saw women coming in and out of their mud houses with thatched straw roofs. In the village was a circle of singers, and inside the circle drummers pounded violently on their instruments while old men in tribal costumes gyrated in the center. I didn’t notice the newlyweds much at the reception. I think the main reason for the occasion was for the community to enjoy a big party.

Our penultimate trip was our overnight trek into Thonje, a small village accessible only by hiking 40 minutes up a dirt trail. We arrived at the local church, and were greeted by a bouncing, giggling crowd of Malawian children. With bubbles, a Frisbee, and some songs sung by both sides the language barrier was quickly broken. We were welcomed into a hut and sat on the floor. Nseema, a cornmeal based dish with the consistency of cold mashed potatoes, was offered. We ate with our hands, mixing in goat meat and vegetables. We saw them cook over the fire, and tried to stir the stubborn porridge ourselves, realizing why these women have such defined arm muscles. Emma took us through many of the daily village chores. We carried a large bucket of water on our heads (thankfully only half full), sifted rice from the hulls (with too much rice ending up on the ground), and smoothed out the mud floor of the church on our hands and knees with the other women. In all these activities, I noted a spirit of cooperation and real community between the villagers. When it was time for bed, we laid our blankets on the floor of the church, and the women of the church came out to sing for us. Their strong beautiful voices carried through the night air, their chitenjis swaying to the rhythm of their African hymns.

I found myself reflecting on the different villages I had visited, the many nameless faces impressed into my mind. I felt that I had truly seen the heart of Africa. My eyes were opened to their suffering; poverty, hunger and sickness. But I also saw the triumph of life and hope in the African people; it came through their music, their smiles and their communal strength. I was especially touched by their simple faith in God that perseveres through agonizing loss and cruel deprivation. Without feeling entitled to an easy or happy life, and without a drive to be better than one’s neighbor, they bore many hardships and worked cooperatively in a way many westerners would find impossible. Though there are many material things they could receive from us, I realized there was also much we could learn from them.

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