The Absence of Light

Maybe that is the starkest difference: how dark the nights are.

It is the lean season here in Malawi. Eighty percent of the population are subsistence farmers, and in this languid stretch of October and November, before the relief of the rainy season, food reserves are empty and the new crops cannot yet be harvested. Money is short. People are hungry.

The national electricity company, ESCOM, has instituted a new system of energy rationing for Lilongwe. We are on 24-hour cycles with power, and then without. I say “we” but that isn’t really true. My home is on the street that leads to the President’s house. We almost never lose power.

This rationing system means that the few areas of Lilongwe that do have street lights are dark. So dark that almost everyone drives with their high beams on, blinding me as they rush past. Even with high beams, it’s hard to see the people on their bikes, who rise like ghosts out of dirt paths that merge with the freeway.  I say freeway, but the M1 is a simple, old, two-lane road.

That is my life in Malawi, saying one thing to try to make sense, but meaning something totally different.

I’ve been wrestling with words lately. I write out full 2,000-word blog posts and then delete them, frustrated and overwhelmed by the impossibility of explaining myself, of getting it right. I edit reports and write technical proposals at work and find myself misspelling words and misusing adverbs. I am learning French and after every hour lesson, my jaw aches from trying to shape my voice to another language. I have so much I need to say. So many moments I want to bring to the light, but the words do not seem to fit.

Here are some of  the things I struggle to describe:

  • How to explain the beauty and loneliness of a single ancient Baobab Tree, standing firm and alone on a red earthen plain?
  • How to describe how nsima tastes, the maize meal porridge that people eat with their hands, forming into smooth balls and dipping into greens, beans, and meat?
  • The utter joy of meeting a new friend you really, really like
  • The release of tension in my neck when it rains
  • The way my heart creaks open when I find photos of my family I’ve never seen, on my father’s old cellphone
  • The relief of a clear WhatsApp call
  • The instant bond of a book club, when everyone hated the book and there is plenty of wine.
  • The anxiety as the front page of the New York Times loads on the screen

I’m starting fresh with the blog. Aiming to write once a week.  I hope these new entries can serve as a liberation, a way to say the messy things I need to say.

Be warned: I write like I speak. Expect long train-car sentences twined together with commas, too many adverbs, a lot of feelings, a lot of questioning, and nothing exactly right. All I want is for this to sound like me.

Can you hear me?

3 thoughts on “The Absence of Light

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