An Excerpt from “Art of Life”: Arriving in Blantyre

Posted by on Jul 7, 2014 in Twenty Years On

An excerpt from the book Art of Life by Jennifer New.

eldon bookIn the last week of the trip, Dan put a new sticker on Deziree’s bumper: “Positive Vibrations.” They needed the sentiment as they skirted the Mozambique border on their way to Bantyre. The area had a trashed, desolated look. The purpose of the trip, largely overlooked in the past several weeks, suddenly came into acute focus. In the face of the very immediate war, the frivolity of the lake and their disagreements became moot.

While the abandoned road was a chilling reminder of war’s destruction, the camp provided a complex human view. When they arrived on July 31, three weeks after leaving the Kenyan coast, many of the group found Mwanza, the refugee camp, to be much bigger and better organized than they had anticipated. The civil war had been raging in Mozambique for more than a decade, and many of the children in the camp had grown up there, never having known another home. Rows of mud hits lined dusty lanes. A shelter for group meetings and cultural events was being built in the center of camp, and this is where the STA members slept for a few nights.

During the day, they scattered around the grounds to gather information about the refugees’ needs and the work of various aid organizations. Some visited the medical area, where babies were weighed and scant amounts of medicine administered. At another large hut, they saw a busload of new arrivals. Each one was given a blanket, a food bowl, a bar of soap, and a water container. Eventually, theses newcomers would be assigned a small plot of land on which to build a hut, as well as a space in the community garden. For meals, the STA group ate with the refugees. The ubiquitous, simple corn mush gave them a newfound appreciation for the canned beans and spaghetti that had been their standard fare.

Despite the refugees’ meager means and difficult situation – beyond anything the Westerners could imagine – they seemed imbued with life. Babies were passed from lap to lap. Elders maintained respect and order. They were connected, even content, in the face of upheaval.

At dusk the first evening, Dan sat on top of Arabella and donned his old-man mask. Immediately, he was surrounded by a hundred laughing, screaming children. Little boys, their arms stretched skyward, begged to join him. One at a time, he pulled up a new apprentice and then hid with him under a coat while transferring the mask to the boy’s head. When they pulled off the coat and exposed the newly masked boy, the crowd erupted into waves of glee.

That evening, Hayden and Chris, hearing of a dance, followed the sound of drumming until they came to an open space where a large group had formed. They stood back and watched as two concentric circles, one of women and the other of men, moved through a series of pantomimes to the beat of enormous drums. One of the dancers led them gently into the circles, where they joined in, dipping and turning their bodies. As they danced, Hayden and Chris realized what they were doing, reenacting the war in Mozambique and their fellow dancers’ flight to Malawi.