While I was away in Africa, upstate New York erupted in green. Green thickly covered the hills that I stared at from my Greyhound bus seat, en route to Binghamton, and from my passenger seat as my husband drove the last leg of the journey home. Greenery, bathed in sunlight, glowed with life.
“How would all this look different if there was a drought, do you think?” I asked my husband, as we made our way north on Route 89, Cayuga Lake a deep, cold blue to our left.
He thought. “Well, the lakes would be evaporated a great deal, if it lasted years. The trees would all be brown. They would be dead,” he said.
I imagined a layer of drought, the dryness, over the trees, the canopy that was shading us as we sped closer to home, where our kids were waiting for us.
“It’s just so different,” I said, remembering the dried fields of maize, the clouds of dust that had ended up in my eyes and that I cleaned out of my nose every day when I was at MCM. We coughed that dust; our eyes had watered. Drought had yielded a meager harvest. Several of my classmates had given Aunt Phoebe, Social Director of MCM, a twenty dollar bill for the 150 students to have an extra egg or a goat as part of their lunch while we were there. When we listened to the elders in the villages these children lived in, every adult spoke of hunger and lack of food, and that they were not eating because there was nothing to eat.
As my husband and I drive home, the back of our minivan was filled with food: grapes, peaches, carrots, peppers, jam, bread, some meat for dinner, a spaghetti squash. We had made a detour stop at Wegman’s in Ithaca before driving home on Route 89, next to the lake. I remember the weight of the large cart under my hands as we maneuvered our way through the produce aisles. In my head, I remembered passing out the steaming plates of nsima, greens, and goat to individual children as they entered MCM’s smoky dark kitchen. The hearty mounds of fruits and vegetables spread before us. My mind’s eye could see the rustling of the thin, bleached stalks of maize. After two weeks eating more flour and grain products than I had been used to, I admit that I relished plucking handfuls of produce from tables, grateful it was summer, that I could bring my kids home a cold, crisp watermelon, grateful I could cook again, grateful for…
It’s hard to finish that sentence.
Gratitude alone is too simple, too clean. Gratitude rubs up against guilt, and coils around ideas of what is enough—what is justice—and finally rests, held by the arbitrary circumstance of life.
At the cash register, we ran the Visa card. $130 dollars. Out of habit, I took out my phone and used the calculator: MK 91,000. That’s got to be more money than most families in the villages make in a year. I thought about the men who drove us and acted as interpreters. Alistair and Charles would be stunned witnessing the same calculation.
I wondered how long this feeling would last. Re-immersing into my own culture would come eventually, just as I had adjusted well to the routine of the last two weeks. I wondered what pieces would stick with me that I could take forward. Like the food I looked forward to nourish my body with, what memories, what insights, would also become a part of me, stick to my ribs?
My first full day home was spent mostly on the couch. I felt ungrounded, despite getting all of my children off to school and taking my husband to the airport for a business trip. I needed to sit still in the dark and smell the earthy fur of my dogs. Every room I had wandered through at home, I had been making calculations of volume: mentally determining how many brick homes from the villages we saw would fit in my kitchen (three), my bedroom (two or three), the living room (three).
I remember reading in the study abroad preparation materials that the OIP provided for us that coming back home could be a challenge. It is normal to have the experience that friends and family would not be able to relate to the experiences we had had. I spent an embarrassing amount of time texting some of my fellow Malawi travelers, telling them I missed them. Swapping jet lag experiences. Sharing how guilty we felt using small appliances, drinking water from the taps in our homes. I’ve spent a lot of time looking at our pictures. I played the CD of Malawi music every day—given to us from Alistair, our driver and friend—as I prepared dinner.
I was a visitor in Blantyre, Malawi, for two weeks. I was not a savior, nor was I a tourist. My visit was a powerful experience, mainly because of the emotional impact of the relationships I began with people, my fellow travelers and the kind Malawians who assisted our work with MCM, cared for us at Annie’s Lodge, and navigated the journey for us back and forth between those two points, every day.
There are only nine people from Binghamton University who I know can share the deep experiences we had the last two weeks. Dr. Lisa Blitz regularly counted us all, several times a day, to make sure all of us were accounted for: “one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine,” she’d say, with her right hand’s pointer finger bobbing in the air with each word. Counting is associated with accountability, my personal responsibility for how I am changed and act in the world as a result of these last couple weeks. Whatever memories stick for us all, my fellow travelers and I, may we carry them forward with us in our work for awareness and justice and in our relationships with those with whom we continue to travel, as visitors, in life.