Monsters and Dust

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Day 4

SAFI, the School of Agriculture for Family Independence, is having their graduation today. This is a two-year agricultural program, sponsored by NuSkin, wherein the students — grandparents, parents, children — learn, most for the first time, about nutrition and farming, or why a tomato might be better for you than the feed corn that is the dietary staple. But for poor, low-yield farmers, the last thing they would do is take a chance on a crop that might fail. “Well, baobobs are everywhere, and they have fruit. Why don't you at least plant more baobabs and eat fruit?” someone in my group suggests to our driver, who laughs at him. “Oh, no, the fruit tree, its roots go far, and ruin the foundation of your house. It makes your house crumble!” He shakes his head as if to ask why we don't know any better.

There is a tent set up for the celebration, and streamers created from blue and pink toilet paper blow festively in the wind. After the introductory speeches, I move from my folding chair to sit in the dirt with the kids. They try on my sunglasses and I take pictures to show them how they look on my digital camera. Delighted! There is a DJ and he's bumping music as the graduates line up to accept their diplomas. The line sways perceptibly: they're all dancing. Dancing in line, dancing while accepting their diplomas, dancing off with diploma in hand. Why don't we dance when we graduate, I wonder; too much pomp and circumstance? The red dust kicked up by the dancing graduates rises around us, and the wind blows more dust, and more people come to sit on the ground. One girl sitting next to me quietly tucks her fingers into my ballet flat, between the arch of my foot and the leather, and keeps them hooked there for a while.

Then the top student in the class gets up to speak. The native language here is Chichewa, and our translator, though he remains matter-of-fact, becomes a bit uncomfortable with the message he's got to deliver: “If you want us to continue what we have learned here, you must help us.” It is not enough to teach someone how to farm here, he explains, if a man cannot afford the seed to sow. “Villages like this are a drop in the bucket,” NuSkin's CEO tells me afterward. “But you have to start somewhere. The next step is helping them get to the next step.”

As the day winds down, word of a charitable presence has spread to nearby villages, and soon there are hundreds of children and teenagers surrounding our vehicles as we prepare to leave. Unlike the populations of all the selected villages and schools we've been shuttled to, these kids are in tatters. And they are not joyful. One boy comes up to me, a safety pin holding the two pieces of his shirt together, and demands, “Give me your money.” Then he becomes more adamant. “Give me a pen. Give me your camera.” I think he may be starving to death.

Lindsay, our primary guide throughout the stay and a native Malawian of British expat parents, ushers me into her car. We pull away onto a lumpy dirt road and then onto a paved one, driving in relative silence compared to the calamitous mob that had gathered. “Oh, look at the dancing tree!” she suddenly calls out and points. Sure enough, there is a man dressed in a giant triangle of leaves, jumping up and down and holding a stick on the side of the road. “Those guys used to freak me and my brother out when we were young,” she says. “They'd usually come by around Christmastime, and since we didn't have a wall surrounding our house, they would just wander into the yard. I had nightmares for years!” She laughed, then paused for a bit and said, “In other parts of Africa, that kind of crowd back there would be very intimidating and dangerous. But Malawi really is such a peaceful country.”