A common feat for visitors to Nkhoma Hospital is the few hour hike up Nkhoma Mountain which overlooks the hospital and on a clear day provides pristine views of the surrounding community. I had intended to make the journey a bit earlier but the task remained on the back-burner until my last weekend in town. And so on a late, lazy Saturday, I set off down the small dirt road near the local church where on the following morning choir voices would fill the air. I was out searching for a path intersecting the maize field, one of many starting points to the top of the mountain. Just about a week earlier, the Scottish students and I went on a reconnaissance mission and were able to find the path; this was the flimsy veneer of confidence which fueled my Saturday morning adventure. Some directions were better than none (thanks Anna!): when you get to the lake turn right, follow the path between the two peaks in the distance, veer left for the path to the mountain hut, behind the hut will be another path leading through the rocks to the top. Like the saying my fellow Kilimanjaro climber, Sid, passed on to me – when things don’t go quite right “T.I.A., man….This Is Africa.” This is Africa but I should have realized by now that when the limit of man is tested, something greater seems to intervene here. In my case, intervention came running down the road in the form of a fifteen year old Malawian who goes by the name Dalitso. Without so much as proper shoes, a bottle of water, or a second thought, Dalitso made a half-day commitment to climb the mountain with the lost, wandering American.
Dalitso and I had first met two weeks earlier when I was finishing up a late-afternoon exploration stroll with Claire. We stopped at the local soccer field to take a few photos of the action when Dalitso and his friend, Gift, approached us. Seconds later, I found myself with footage of street-side acrobatics. I should have known they had a trick up their sleeves…after all, This Is Africa.
Before we continued on our way, the boys scheduled a time to visit us at the guesthouse for a repeat performance – of course, we obliged. They ultimately came by twice to visit, once with a well-practiced routine and the second time just to chat. Only vaguely aware that their athleticism was a loose form of capoeira, a Brazilian martial art variant combining dance and music, these two may as well have been reinventing an art form.
Our conversations started slow, two parties trying to find some common ground. Dalitso and Gift lacked access to internet or computers, they did not own a mobile phone, there was no live music for him to quench their thirst, and they knew nobody who performed capoeira. I had made the three hour journey to Lake Malawi the weekend before to chill out; they lacked the expendable funds to make the one hour journey to the capital city of Malawi, Lilongwe. The outlets they spoke of were limited to television and watching movies he uploads to his flash drive from a rare computer. You see, it is cheaper to buy a decoder which connects your flash drive to the television, than to own a DVD player. The more words we exchanged, the more evident it became how different our lives diverge. We hadn’t planned on meeting again but somehow I found Dalitso and we walked the path to Nkhoma Mountain together.
At the pace we started walking the maize path, I knew the hike would be a challenge but I was grateful to have Dalitso’s navigation skills. About twenty minutes in, we hit the lake and then started a gradual ascent. He asked to hold my backpack so we could move quicker but I refused both because he was already helping enough and because I knew in about one weeks time I would set out to trek Kilimanjaro – and I needed all the extra training I could get. As we hiked onwards, our conversations delved deeper from politics to music to education. We spent some time on education – it was common ground. Dalitso also valued education, it brought out a passion in him which I hadn’t seen when discussing other topics. His favorite subject was science, at the moment, biology. Walking and talking made us thirsty. I had extra water and gave him a Nalgene to drink out of – he modestly refused at first but finally gave in when I showed him the three liters of water hidden in my Camelbak.
It was a challenging climb overall, as the rocky terrain meant using both hands and legs to power over boulders. As with anything worth doing in life, the hard work paid off. The views from the top were truly breathtaking. I was in good company and with good company came good conversation.
I had a half-loaf of bread in my backpack which I gave to Dalitso at the top – I was exhausted and far from hungry but it was lunchtime on just another afternoon for him. The kid struck me as both bright and generous, a lethal combination which has the power to make even strangers feel comfortable. After some time relaxing at the top, he asked me “Do you know where I can get college scholarships?” He caught me by surprise and I lacked an adequate response. I had no information and had nowhere to direct him. Back home, we have resources at our disposal. We can Google anything and surely get a response; the limiting factor is time and energy but on top of that mountain, I had nothing for this kid. Doritso responded that he would figure things out when the time came. He laughed it off and changed the subject. Dalitso asked how we would keep in touch because when I left he would not have any Americans to chat with. Again, I did not have an answer. He lacked access to phone, internet, and money for postage would not be money well spent. I knew the chances of us keeping in touch were slim, but we both agreed that one day when he found access to internet he would email me – it seemed our only viable, semi-optimistic option. We soon found ourselves with less to talk about on the way down the mountain; I was deep in my own head and I suppose it takes two to conversate.
You see, when I look down from a birds eye view, my world really does seem flat. My world is as large as I have read, seen, heard, and built with my imagination. I believe the world we find ourselves in is only as large as our minds are able to travel – and this variable changes based on our environment and temperament. One must be both willing and able to push the mind’s limits and expand boundaries. Malcolm Gladwell writes about outliers and how a genius-like quality is not necessarily inherent in an individual but a product of nurture and environment – I think there is so much truth in that. A core difference between those in underdeveloped parts of the world and me remain clear: I have access to the endless amounts of information on the internet, through books and libraries, movies, televisions, and Universities. More importantly, I am surrounded by people who share in this endless information so that our daily exchanges continually expand our body of knowledge. Doritso is limited by access, crippled by a system with weaknesses he has not yet grown to understand; weaknesses certainly beyond the control of his generations passed. The weaknesses are deep engraved and I humbly acknowledge my limited insight. I am far from an economist, banker, or historian – so if my interpretation is wrong now is when you should feel free to step in and shed light.
Let’s start in the private for-profit sector. What benefit is there to support a country where local currency is weak, infrastructure poor, fruits of the land uniform (maize and tobacco), and its population generally uneducated. I am genuinely not sure but the Chinese are betting on Africa’s future, as can be seen through their government donations for buildings, such as the one set to be the tallest in Ethiopia. From the non-profit sector much is being done it appears – all the foreigners I met seem to be volunteers or aid workers contracted both through governmental and NGO operations, undeniably a worthy cause. They are admirable for providing essential short-term change and optimistically laying the groundwork for long-term development. Change is slow – this is true and likely Obama’s next campaign tagline. I challenge though that the longevity is at risk in a country plagued by systemic problems which cause everyone to take three steps back before being able to take two forward.
There is a current fuel crisis in Malawi – which seems to have been ongoing for a few years now, to the point where gas stations have signs that say ‘out of fuel’ and vehicles line up waiting for fuel trucks. The cause of the fuel shortage depends on who you speak to but the most plausible explanation is the weak Foreign Exchange. The currency of Malawi, the kwacha, is weak and US dollars are scarce. Some locals think the crisis is more due to the United Kingdom limiting aid to Malawi after Malawi expelled the British ambassador for criticizing South African leadership – seems like a possible contributing factor. Regardless of the cause though, demand remains high and supply low – fuel prices are rising from the existing high prices seen in the world market. With the cost of fuel up, so rises the price of travel and doing business. The effects are seen when shopping in Malawi – both necessary and luxury goods are expensive and I’m told steadily increasing. How can people with significantly less earning power spend the same as we do? Food shortages are common and widespread – leading to a current hunger crisis. With malnutrition comes increasing rates of disease, increased mortality rates, and decreased life span – a sick cycle of destruction. And although this would appear to be a worse case scenario, people of Malawi are thankful that the country is free from violence unlike others nearby.
Then, there is the issue of devalued Malawian currency. The bank rate is roughly 160 Malawian kwacha to 1 US dollar. But, in the parking lot of the main market the kindest thug looking gentlemen will change your money at a black market rate – with 50 and 100 US bills getting roughly 280 kwacha to the dollar. I have heard if you change 1000 dollars during one transaction, you can get a rate of about 400 to the dollar, more than twice the bank rate. Malawians are paying a premium for dollars but at what cost? The fact remains, they have no other option to play at the table. Devaluation of currency is a complex topic and probably deserves some space on my bookshelf – the whys are always tough questions to answer.
I have always believed that you can see the intention of a man when you look into his eyes and Dalitso was a good, honest kid striving for more – hungry to achieve. He carries the weight of the world but walks with a pride that amazes me – and I’m proud to have had the opportunity to look him in the eye as an equal – he deserves it. Despite our differences, we share something in common; like so many others, we are striving to achieve something bigger than ourselves. His dream was to come to America, something I did two days ago when I returned home – a bittersweet thought. Dalitso reinforced an important fact to me – the depth of inequality in this world is growing. With every day that passes, so passes time which adds exponentially to the centuries of unequal growth between corners of the world. As we speed ahead, many will stand still. There is no good way to end this post but to hope that those who are in positions to make an impact are choosing to do the right thing, not for themselves but for the greater good. It is easy to forget that we are products of circumstance.