As strange as it sounds, Malawi looks like my North Carolinian college town in early fall when the days are still warm. Leaves fall, golden yellow and brown from some of the trees, dancing at the wind’s whim. Puffs of dust dance alongside, leaving everything with a fresh sprinkling of rich, red earth, particularly my shoes.
The air is saturated with the smell of campfire — that special scent that tucks itself cozily into the pocket of your favorite flannel. Mountains jut up from the landscape in haphazard form; humbling you, making you know your place in nature’s hierarchy.
The drive from the airport is a blur of color. I experience that odd sense of surrealism you get when you’re living out what will ultimately become a defining moment for you, shedding the thin, translucent layer of your former self and letting it drift out the car’s open window.
En route to a district hospital, we pass young boys returning from school clad in navy blue uniforms, running with sticks, laughing in the sunlight, and leaving rusty dirt clouds in their wake. I see men sitting idly in the doorways of their small cement shops, each structure bearing hand-painted signs chipping slowly away with the passage of time.
I see people tending to their land, plastic buckets filled with water, goats grazing in the grass, thickets of bamboo, whistles and whooshes from vans speeding inches from our car, crumbling brick buildings — the bricks matching the coppery earth from which they were conceived. I spot three small girls playing in the shade by a water pump. They stop to wave at me. We trade smiles.
Once we arrive at the district hospital, we tour two different neonatal wards — one currently in use and a new one that will soon to be up and running. We’re surrounded by women and newborns wrapped in vibrant, mesmerizing fabrics called chitenjes.
In stark contrast to the color, these women’s eyes pierce through you. They share long benches in darkened hallways, holding babies in their arms as if waiting on someone. We weave through the hospital’s halls, and it becomes more apparent that they’re simply just waiting — waiting for time to take its course, waiting for God to bless them with a healthy baby.
A relief from the dark hall is the new neonatal ward – not yet filled with small patients. Two large windows give the room a warm, hopeful energy we hadn’t yet seen. The walls are a polished cream, displaying eighteen wooden, blue-padded cots. You feel a little like you’ve walked into a dollhouse. Circling the room, my imagination fills every cot with a newborn and busy nurses hurrying about.
We leave the new ward for the current one. We meet a mother and her newborn daughter who has yet to be given a name. The mother sits next to her baby, watching on as it recieves life-saving oxygen. She’s stoic beyond comprehension — fortitude embodied staring fear straight in the eye.
I think how horrible it must be to feel so helpless. To bring life to another person only to have to sit by and watch her struggle. I think how unfair it is to this tiny baby to not be able to get the absolute best care to ensure her survival. I think how the mother feels having to wait weeks before naming her daughter because she isn’t sure if she’ll make it or not.
But then my mind flickers back to those frolicking girls on the hillside near the water pump, dresses swaying with the carefree movements of their lithe bodies. I think of the bright smiles that start always at the Malawians’ eyes, ensuring you of their genuine, kind-hearted nature.
There is something so uniquely untouched in these people. Life here is simple and peaceful. It’s playing outside as a kid, it’s smiling at a stranger, its having a coffee and making small talk before getting down to the business of the day.
I run my hands over the folds of the smooth chitenje in the market — my fingers tracing the swirls of color. I think of that bright and welcoming neonatal unit, so new that it still smelled of paint and new beginnings, and think that despite all of the pain and poverty, this place is most certainly on the beautiful and hopeful side of maybe.