Our 6th stop on the road, khuta bay, seems abandoned. A small palapa hut with a few men dotting its posts are smoking near the only shop. That is, until we stop at our 49th mile mark and children and teens alike emerge from the bush and trees on both sides.
They clambor around the bed of the truck to say hello and peer in the windows with eagerness and curiosity. The village chief leads us to an empty plot of sand with the waves of Lake Malawi as our backdrop. Walking our bikes over in the sweltering mid day sun, a procession of children follow in droves and giggle as we go.
We set up camp and hover somewhat impatiently as Joseph, our cook, makes yet another perfect meal. Gathering water from the lake to shower with makes my mind spin with the possibility of bilharzia or worse but we chlorinate and wait while people gawk and close in around us. It can be an overwhelming undertaking to perform a simple task such as showering. On the beach. In a tent.
For many we are the first azungu, or foreigner, to be here. Weston, our Malawian friend, described this as something to be very proud of, as many of us have made mention of the children screaming it as we pass. He tells us that it is a dying wish of many elders to see foreigners come to their land and see beautiful Malawi. For some, we are something they only hear about and now they can see.
Night falls and we sit by a fire and tell our highs and lows. I dread this because my real low is that the group is not together and it’s hard to explain. I can’t help but feel a little frustrated with this aspect. The camping and the biking are not the hardest part, as I thought they would be, but rather learning new personalities and how to be together as a team.
The next day we break off into groups to visit families and see what makes up a day for them. I surely hit the lottery here. Mphatso, one of our Malawian drivers, Served today as our interpreter. Our family spoke Tonga, we have been learning Chichewa, and he is learning English. Can you imagine? First we meet the matriarch who only speaks tonga. Her done, Laston, speaks all three and translates for us. Last on shows us how they make the traditional dish nsema, made from cassava root (you may know it as tapioca).
First the root is fermented in water for 4 days and left to dry for 4 more. We use large round mallots to pound into powder and sift. The small family of 3 neighboring houses crowds around to watch and laugh as we try. They are surprised we can do it. The women here are undeniably strong.
Next we prepare the meal of nsema, the greens from bean plants and small fish. The mother makes the nsema into a form of art with her weathered hands and smooth rhythm of the wooden paddle against the bowl and grain.
We take our lunch on the floor of the porch and are served first, as Malawians are not without the best of manners. The men and women and children all eat separately. When we’ve finished, as if they’ve peered into my dreams, an African dance party erupts.
The women chant and clap and sway their hips to the sounds. There is no need for conversation when you have music and dance. We spend the next hour dancing and the feelings of comfort and a guttural happiness filled this moment. We flow with ease. The grandmother pulls me into center and shows me how to hip shake with the best of them and the women all cheer. The small girls join in and in this moment we’re electric.
We say our goodbyes and return to camp and I run straight for the lake and dive in. Gone is the feeling of dread of what I may catch, it’s too hot to care. I’m fully refreshed for dinner followed by Milky Way stargazing like I’ve never seen. The lack of city light makes a perfect backdrop so clear you can see it all.