Close your eyes and imagine what the process would look like for a teenage girl choosing a bathing suit for her debut at the beach, first time ever….
I imagine it like this….3-4 different stores, at least 20 suits to try on, first alone, then with friends to narrow it down. Gawking, preening, “my body’s not this, my body’s not that”, this one is over my $75 budget. Probably hours and hours before the momentous decision. Am I right women and mothers of teenage girls?
Things are different in Malawi. Sister Martha and I planned a day at Lake Malawi for the girls. These are orphan teen girls that the nuns at the convent mentor and I see in a group once a week as well. All but 1 had NEVER seen the lake or gone swimming, do not own or ever worn a bathing suit. How was this going to work, and of course there is no money for any of this.
The used clothing market in Mzuzu is AWESOME, but it is becoming winter here and temps are often 50 on awakening so would they even have bathing “costumes” as they are called here? Friday was D-day and Sister Martha headed for the market to do other shopping and briefly scouted the clothes. She found a vendor with TONS of suits and immediately picked and bought 10, for 500MK each or roughly 70 cents each, SCORE!
Ok, so we have a nun picking out the suits? Imagine that back home! She met with the girls in the afternoon and doled them out as the girls sat eagerly waiting, politely and with no fuss over who was getting which suit. If the suit fit, they kept it, if not, they traded. Everyone was thrilled and eagerly awaiting the 2 hour car ride in the morning.
We made it to the beach by 9:45, overcast, very windy and cool enough for a sweater but it did not deter them. After a vigorous game of kickball where they all ignored the rules, we were sweating and ready for a dip. Since no one really knew how to swim, they were instructed on safety and chose a buddy to stick with. 11 girls, 2 nuns, and ME!
They clamored for the water and crashed, plunged, dove, ducked, dipped for 2 hours before we had to haul them out and take a quick break before lunch. The water was delightfully warm, thank you Africa, and they couldn’t get enough of it. What teenage girl brings her washing to the beach? Alinafe…
Most have never been to a restaurant. We had lunch prepared for us and all sat at a communal table in the café: chicken, rice, greens, okra and of course Fanta and Coke. They inhaled lunch and followed with a craft project donated by Carol, my site-mate and colleague. They thoroughly enjoyed this and got all glammed up with the jewelry they made.
Sister Jane was celebrating her 33rd birthday so we sang Happy Birthday, about 25 times, and gorged on birthday cake, yes from Shoprite. They also did an impromptu choir rehearsal in preparation for tomorrow’s service.
I hit the shower and all the girls headed for the lake for another swim. When I emerged from the shower area, the girls AND the nuns were all lathered up from head to toe, shampoo and body soap and were bathing in the lake, mostly tops down, bottoms covered. Yikes! The security guard chastised them for the lathering, not the nudity, and directed them to the changing area but they all ignored his directions and continued their ritual, oblivious to men, women and children walking nearby.
Does any of this matter? You bet….I was in awe of everything about this day; the beauty of the lake, the humility and grace of these girls who so lovingly accepted their used and ill-fitting bathing suits without a blink, the bond of friendships we share in such a short time, the contrasts between teen girls in Malawi and the US, the simplicity with which we can do life, their smiles and laughter….all of it pushes my heart open wider and wider.
I am able to pause here in Malawi, to clear the decks of “things to do”, of time to keep; to take in and appreciate the little things, the joys, the laughter, the heartache behind the silence and simplicity. It is bittersweet for me now as I count down the days to completion of my service here.
But is it complete? I have been drawn into this culture like a moth to a flame, like steel to a magnet, and I am not done. I don’t know how, when or what will bring me back but I am returning because I am having too much fun and this is just too darn interesting, deep, and meaningful to let go of completely.