In Search of Fisi…
Chimwemwe HIV Committee
I seem to be bouncing around from meeting to meeting since I have arrived here. Whether it is with out Village Committee, with Tom and Pam at the lodge, or with Goodwin at the Primary School, I have found myself in a circle, on a stool or sharing a school desk with some one it seems several times a day. We made the trip this morning into M’Pamila to meet with the Chimwemwe HIV committee to discuss with them how our group can assist them in the next couple of weeks and how our organization can help the over the next several years.
I had guessed that we were going to have the meeting at their support group house that sits next to our friend Eston’s home (his daughter is the founder of the group), but instead we found ourselves led to to a hillside that overlooked a small valley. Eston was to be the translator for the meeting and when he stood in front of us and began to read a prepared speech, I could see that this was not going to be a typical meeting.
The Chimwemwe HIV group is every reason why we want to assist communities in Malawi. This is a group of 15 HIV positive people who are, at their very core, there for each other. For the women, many of their husbands have passed away, leaving them to care not only for themselves, but for their families as well (a couple of these women have 7 children). The group meets frequently, mostly to be together and to find ways to help the orphans and the elderly in the community, even when these men and women have almost nothing themselves. They are strong now in numbers, yet there was a time not too long ago when their group was not so big and they were rejected and seen as “useless” (they were even denied government fertilizer because it was felt that giving them coupons would be a waste). It was during this time that they found solace and comfort from each other. They knew that they would get better as long as they could take their drugs. They knew that they could work the same way they could before they became sick. They knew that they were useful, and not useless as they were being called in the village. And they helped each other believe this. When they found another who was positive they encouraged them to join the group. When they saw someone in the village who showed symptoms of HIV, they encouraged them to get tested, and if they were positive and then they were given the knowledge and the emotional support I imagine one needs in a time of such personal tragedy. Joanna, Lindsay and I were talking after the meeting and we were commenting on how interesting it was that during this part of the presentation that Eston was using words such as “fortunately” and “luckily” and “we were thankful that…” when talking about instances of people testing positive for HIV. And it is because this group of people know that knowing your status is the first and most important step in taking control of your new life. During the meeting the group talked about how fear, pride and denial keep so many at risk people from going to get tested (three of the women in the group said that their husbands refuse to get tested despite the status of their wives). The ARV drugs are so well developed and they are so effective nowadays that HIV is no longer a death sentence, it is more like a chronic and manageable disease and the group members know it.
Now they are an accepted part of the community and their new goal is to spread the word to other communities about accepting HIV positive members into the communities and for those who are at risk for being HIV positive to get tested.
It was a brilliant meeting and they capped it off by performing a small play about HIV positive community members being accepted as equals into the community. We were very humbled by the committee and we are excited to work with them and help develop their message to the community.
In Search of Fisi
After lunch Eston invited us on a hike to see the Hyena caves on the western side of Ntchisi Mountain. Oh sure, we said, what an interesting thing to “see”. I wonder what we would have said if he had asked “Would you like to go “inside” a Hyena cave?” if he would have gotten any enthusiastic responses (except of course from Scott). But yet there we were at his house after lunch, excited to “see” the hyena caves. Everyone was looking at this as an adventure and I thought, as a leader maybe this wasn’t a good idea! I know hyenas always run from people and never attack people and that we would be safe, but it still seemed so strange to “find” a hyena. I hoped I could borrow Eston’s walking stick again as it really helped me out on the last trip. However it was not a walking stick he pushed into my had by a six foot iron tipped spear. “Why a spear,” I asked. He looked at me as though I had two heads. “For the Fisi (hyena in chichewa) of course.” I wonder if I went pale or something because he laughed at me and then pushed down the trail. It reminded me how in Malawi they often do things for you to project the feeling of safety when in our culture it makes us feel it is unsafe or dangerous. I remember my wife telling me how they put up iron bars on her house in 1998 when she was living here in the Peace Corps. It made her nervous as though thieves were running around to keep out of her house…but they said it is to make you feel we are keeping you safe. Also one time they asked if they wanted to give a gun to her nightwatchman..again it brought fear to her, but they said it was a friends gun and didn’t it make everyone feel safe…Haha..no! She declined and reminded them her nightwatchman just sleeps in the garden. Anyway I am digressing.
Our group included the seven of us (Munda sat this long hike out), Eston, Eston’s nephew, and Eston’s very shy 11 year old granddaughter all trudging though the forest to “see” the hyena cave.
I asked Eston how many times he comes out to the caves and he said only a handful of times a year, but he grew up running all over the mountain and chasing hyena since he was a boy. Once he became taller than the hyena he began chasing them. They actually went after his chickens a few months ago at 3AM (he lives in the forest) and he ran outside yelling with his spear. He still likes the see them run! He and his brother, who is a forest ranger in the area where we were hiking (we met him along our hike) used the forest as their personal playground as kids, something the younger generations have no interest in doing anymore. Eston is 69 years old and though he has the physical make up of a 30 year old, his knowledge and passion for the forest is unmatched. Along the hike we pasted by a graveyard and Eston half joked that that is where is body is going when he dies. But I (and many other people who are working with us on our conservation project) fear that it will not only be his body but his incredible wealth of knowledge of the forest that will be going as well. He loves the forest. He loves to show off the forest to anyone who shows an interest. As he pointed out the younger generations don’t go into the forest unless they are gathering fruits or firewood. There is no one like him.
We reached a point in the path where if you looked closely you could make out a trail in the grass that led off into the bush. Eston stopped us and pointed down the trail and said “the hyena’s cave is just 500 meters down that path. From now on no speaking.” He didn’t want to them to run away without us seeing them running. He was hoping they wouldn’t smell or hear us. And off he went down the path that was made by hyena.
It was quite intense as we silently climbed the hill toward the caves. I held my spear out in front of me like an idiot brainstorming how I would handle a fully grow pissed-off-because-you-messed-up-my-early-afternoon-nap hyena. Eston laughed as me as he explained they would run from his granddaughter. Eston and his granddaughter were in the front and I was bringing up the rear of our column with Eston’s nephew and Susan as we made our way past where the hyena cubs play (we could see their tracks) and up to the huge rocks along the side of the mountain. We heard rustling to our left and Susan and I could see something moving about 50 feet below us running away. Fisi! We followed Eston farther up the trail until we found the group standing at the mouth of a huge cave. Eston had a look of disappointment on his face. “There are no hyenas here. They must have heard us coming”. Seeing that we were no more than 10 feet from their front door I can say I did not share his disappointment. He grabbed my arm and pulled me forward. “We are going to climb above the cave and rustle them out. Again I had to remind myself it was a hyena, not a lion, elephant or water buffalo (which don’t live here in Ntchisi) out of the cave. While the rest of the group was excited and understood there was no danger, I thought again if this was the right thing. Eston said “Then they will run past here,” he pointed to a clearing to our right. “And they all of us can see them”. All I got out was “Climb up the what?” before the next thing I knew I was on my hands crawling up the side of the cave with Eston and Ickber to “rustle” out the hyenas (what a great idea to go “see” the hyena caves…). We reached the top of the cave and oh darn no hyena, oh well let’s leave right now… but then Eston started making a strange call. Is that hyena? “No,” he said. “I am trying to sound like a wounded monkey,” he said rather casually I thought at the time. Why would you want to sound like a wounded monk… Oooohhh, like bait (what a great idea to go “see” the hyena caves…).
“Unfortunately” the only encounter with a hyena was seen by Susan, Eston’s nephew, and myself as some brush moving in the small ravine below us as we moved up the mountain. When Eston, Ickber and I climbed back down the side of the cave to where the group was Eston announced that the hyenas were gone and that we should have a look at the cave itself. Scott, Evan and the ever bold Ickber took turns pushing a flashlight into each and every nook inside the cave before the rest of us slowly wondered in. Eston pointed out some interesting parts to the cave, where and how the hyenas used it, and how deep the cave goes. Then it was time for all of us to climb above the cave and enjoy the view from on top of the huge rock. As we were walking back down the same trail we had so silently crept up, I could not help but laugh as the girls bellowed out in unison “A Whole New World” from Aladdin as we skidded and tripped our way down the mountain (what a great idea to go “see” the hyena caves…).