NEW YORK – A severe drought and hunger crisis in several African countries remind me of the first of many times I visited that continent. I think about Malawi, a country where I went several years ago on the first of many missions for the United Nations. I had to evaluate the health situation of refugees coming from war-torn Mozambique who had crossed the border into Malawi. Following my trip, I was left with a most powerful and endearing memory of my stay there.
On arriving in Lilongwe, Malawi’s capital city, I discovered that my only piece of luggage had been lost in transit. I only had a satchel with some toiletries, a book and the clothes I was wearing. To say that I was annoyed is an understatement. I couldn’t see how I would manage the four weeks’ mission in these conditions.
As it turned out, I managed well. I washed my clothes every night at the hotel, bought another pair of pants and was relieved not to have to carry my heavy luggage every time we visited the interior of the country. My colleagues looked at me with envy. Never before had I been so happy to own so few things.
On one of the trips we passed through beautiful tea plantations that had as a backdrop a wonderful view of Mulanje Mountain, the highest both in Malawi and in South Central Africa. The lush vegetation made me miss my hometown in Argentina, Tucuman, equally lush and beautiful.
Our hosts wanted us to visit a vocational school, aimed at providing practical education to adult Malawians. I was very interested in the visit because my wife had been involved in adult education for several years and I understood its value.
At the school, we went through several rooms where we saw people, mostly women, learning different skills. Some young women were learning to weave on looms, another group was learning how to make wooden furniture, and a third group was working on basic reading and writing in English. In this last group, I became fascinated at how adults of different ages went through the rudiments of a new language, despite the obvious difficulties that the task represented.
While I was observing the students in this group, my companions had gone to watch another class. A short time afterward, I followed them but, since I had come late, I was unable to get close to the students in that group and remained outside the room. Still, I was able to realize that this was a music class and that the adults were singing to us.
The song was a wonderful melody of how beautiful their country was, how powerful its rivers, how green its mountains and how plentiful their tea plantations. It was a song full of longing and appreciation for the beauties of their country. Their voices were so well attuned, and they carried the melody so well that it seemed obvious to me that they had been practicing that song for a long time.
Although unable to see the singers, I was still able to enjoy their singing. When the song ended, however, and my companions were leaving the room I was finally able to see the singers. Only then did I realize that I had been listening to a choir of blind men.
Dr. Cesar Chelala is an international public health consultant and a writer on human rights and foreign policy issues.