The beads of sweat were gathering on Maddie’s upper lip and she tasted the salt. She’d been told not to wear her blue jeans, only skirts below the knee, but it didn’t matter, she was still dripping. She could see the vapor rising off the banana trees. She pinched her shirtfront and shook it.
They had left the university vehicle behind and were traipsing thru the dry, narrow footpaths in the mountainside. Places you couldn’t get to in a car. The pace of their walking was limited by the temperature, of course. When she looked down at the ground and saw spidery cracks in the red earth. When she looked up into the distance she saw wispy clouds hiding the mountain peaks.
Now they came upon a stick fence and Joseph Mliko, the interpreter, clapped his hands and yelled out a greeting before stepping tentatively inside the small compound.
“Wait,” Maddie whispered. “Shouldn’t we wait for permission to go in?”
A small black woman peered out of the thatched hut and then emerged with a child in her arms.
This is how Maddie first met Mama Tsongo in Nyasa village, in Malawi.
“Hi! How are you? I’m Maddie Hawkins. I’m from…the United States.” Did the woman know where that was? Maddie spoke slowly and enunciated clearly. “I’m here because…to gather some data…information.”
She paused to let Joseph catch up on the translation of Chichewa to English. Her eyes flicked down to the two little faces hanging onto Mama Tsongo’s skirt, to the other curious eyes peering from behind her. It was a small crowd of children. The little one in Mama Tsongo’s arms had a fly crawling all over his face. His droopy eyelids were crusted with a gritty white substance. The ones standing behind her had round bloated bellies, matchstick legs. Kwashiorkor, Maddie recalled, clear signs of malnutrition. Lack of protein, actually. She panicked, trying to remember if she had any snacks in her backpack.
Was this woman their mother or their grandmother?
She looked back up because the woman had become excited. She spoke rapidly and her voice rose and fell like a Miriam Makeba song.
Joseph translated , “She says, welcome back, tall daughter of Ahhfrica. She says you are home,” his round face smiled the words.
“Thank you. That’s nice,” she smiled at the diminutive woman, then asked Joseph, “What does she mean? Welcome back? I’ve never been here.”
“She thinks you are one of the lost children,” he answered.
“The lost children?” She puzzled.
“The children that disappeared. They were taken by the slave traders.” He gestured to indicate some remote point back in history.
Maddie felt a sudden jolt. “Oh my God!” she said, looking into the little woman’s eyes. Mama Tsongo reached up and pulled her down gently, cupping her face and patting her arms with a worn black hand. An uninvited lump pained Maddie’s throat. Things she had been taught—the Middle Passage, the journey of Africans to America, the grievous holocaust of nine million souls—these welled up in her mind. How surreal.
She had gone to Malawi for a simple college internship in agriculture, and discovered she had a deeper connection. It had become sort of a pilgrimage, a return to a heritage and a past imprinted in her genes.
Her internship with Malawi University lasted three months. Whenever she came from Lilongwe to Nyasa village to gather data on the heirloom bean mixtures grown by the Malawi farmers Maddie went to Mama Tsongo, ostensibly to document her farming practices, but more out of attraction to her wise ways.
She appeared well over fifty and had the air of an elder, but Maddie discovered she was in fact only twenty-nine years old. She was the third wife in a polygamous marriage and she claimed she was the mother of thirteen children.
“Thirteen children? You’ve borne thirteen children?” Maddie wasn’t sure she’d gotten the number right. Her Chichewa was very rudimentary. Holy Mother of God! Hadn’t she ever heard of birth control pills?
Don’t be stupid Maddie. Here? How? From whom would she get them? How many crops would she have to grow and sell to afford a month’s supply?
Abstinence then. But would she have a choice about that?
“Only seven are living,” Joseph added.
Maddie drew in a thin stream of air. Slowly, to assuage an ache in her chest. How did a woman endure the loss of six children?
She couldn’t just let it pass. It wasn’t just a survey question anymore. Something was required of her. So she used the words she knew, to speak to her directly.
“And…and you’ve lost six?”
“Six.” She nodded, an ancient smile in her eyes.
This figure could have been attributed to poor counting ability because it was so fantastic, but Maddie found she could not discount it, because Mama Tsongo actually described the placing of the dead children by introducing the living children who flanked them in the family line. She put her hand on the head of each child as she pulled them gently to stand before Maddie. Some tried to go back and hide behind her skirt, others just stood there gawking at her, showing all their teeth in their smiles.
My God. So much innocence. Mama Tsongo’s pride seemed to be in how many of her children she had managed to keep alive, despite miscarriage and infant mortality.
Maddie asked to walk around her plot and Mama Tsongo showed her the rocky field, no bigger than a postage stamp, on a hillside with a forty-five degree slope. Like many African farmers, eighty percent of whom are women, she grew her beans on a plot she neither had the right to own nor inherit. With that same devotion with which she had nursed each one of her children, she wielded her hoe and tended the hillside. And all her watchful effort yielded no more than a few bushels of beans.
Bundles of dry bean plants hung from the sides of the hut to dry. Mama Tsongo showed her the clay pots where she stored her harvest. If the beans were covered with ashes, they might be protected from weevils, and feed her family until the next crop.
Maddie sensed that for Mama Tsongo, farming was a high stakes game, with a deadly margin of risk. A bad rust infestation that reduced her harvest could also reduce her family.
Maddie saw a lot in those three months. With the mind of a privileged American she registered shock at every new discovery, every sign of ingrained and wrenching poverty. She dreamed of making a difference. She dreamed of producing some revolutionary new bean variety, with high yield and immune to disease. But she felt powerless to change the pattern of things.
Then she came home and became engulfed by the seductive apathy of the academic grind. Mama Tsongo and her brood receded slowly into a realm of unreality, far and distant as the outer orbits of a self-centered universe.
But the mark left by that waif-like woman lay dormant until the day, mid-way through her Ph.D., when Maddie found herself angrily crying in a bathroom stall. That day, the memory of Mama Tsongo took on a symbolic importance in her affairs. A saying drummed into her from childhood resurfaced, “Be anxiously concerned with the needs of the age ye live in and center your deliberations on its exigencies and requirements.”
And it was the combination of this saying, that ebony face, and the ignoble circumstance of the moment she found herself, sniveling in a bathroom stall, that propelled her to break the inertia that bound her, to finally assert herself. And to move her dreams from the nebulous province of longing, into the realm of possibility.
I’LL POST SOME MORE OF “THE HARVEST OF REASON” TOMORROW. IF YOU CAN’T WAIT THAT LONG TO FIND OUT WHAT IS GOING TO HAPPEN YOU CAN GO TO THE “BUY IT HERE” TAB ABOVE.
I’m really interested in your comments. Please join this global bookclub discussion by leaving a comment below (in the comments box).
DISCUSSION QUESTION 1 How many of us dream of doing something to change the world and feel powerless to achieve it?