“You have to eat the Chambo the Malawian way.” My friend Clara explains to me. “Suck the eyes, munch the bones.”
Chambo is the delicacy of Lake Malawi, a medium-sized silver fish endemic to the country. I’m on a work trip in the north, and we haven’t stopped talking about Chambo since we left Lilongwe.
The fish is sliced in half and grilled, served with nsima, sauce and vegetables. My three colleagues are watching me intently as the waitress places the steaming plate down. I am doing my very best Anthony Bourdain, which is to say, I’m going to eat every part of this damn fish if it kills me.
I summon my strength and pop the eyeball into my mouth. “Savor it!” My colleague Wisdom instructs. My eyes are watering. The gelatinous marble is rolling around in my throat. I choke it down with a shriek and coughing fit.
My colleagues dissolve into laughter. They proceed to pop the eyes out of their fish skulls and eat them with relish.
“Nom nom nom!” Wisdom says, kissing the eye, theatrically tossing it in his mouth. He pulls out the pupil and picks his teeth with it.
Yep, I’m back in Malawi.
I landed at the Kamuzu International Airport on January 4th to a changed country. The flat fields that surround the airport, once red and vacant under the summer sun, are now green meadows. Maize stalks the size of toddlers stand in every vacant piece of land: along the road, in ditches, and in between houses. The trees hang heavy with fruits and vines of all colors.
I was gone only three weeks. Oregon in January is not a particularly hopeful place. The weather is cold and -increasingly- icy, the sky a relentless steel grey. The rain never ceases. The promise of a sunny day is still four months away.
It felt like a kind of sorcery to get on a plane in Portland, wearing a down jacket and a beanie, only to gradually peel away the layers until the plane lands in Africa. It was brain twisting to get off the plane and see the sun.
I left Malawi at the beginning of the planting rains, when farmers were rushing to prepare their fields and put kilos of maize seed into the ground. At my job we were rushing too, racing the oncoming rains to deliver necessary agricultural inputs to vulnerable farmers. When the rains arrive, it’s torrential. Fields that aren’t plowed or seeds that haven’t germinated yet get washed away in the downpour.
But now I’m back and the rains have come. As my coworkers and I drive north, the endless fields of maize become interspersed with tobacco, with squat, flat leaves the size of outstretched palms. As we drive we see solitary women farmers, bent at the waist, their hands in the soil.
Later, during a meeting, a field officer stands up and declares, “Agriculture is life in Malawi. We are all farmers.” The room erupts with applause.
It’s 7:00 am. Five of us are piled into a car, and my colleagues are speaking animatedly in Chichewa.
“I would like to see the scientific proof of that.” One says, switching languages mid sentence.
“Of what?” I say.
“Turning people into cows.”
“It happens in this village.” Wisdom gestures to the small red brick homes we are passing. “People who are jealous use witchcraft.”
“I don’t know…” I say. “If I were a cow, I would just use my hoof to write: HELP IT’S LIZZIE.” I raise my right hand like a hoof and paw at the imaginary dirt. “SOS CALL MY MOM.”
My colleagues roll their eyes at me, but soon everyone is raising their hands, miming a hoof, writing the phone numbers and love notes they would leave behind. We ride all the way to work planning our cow escapes.
Throughout our four-day trip, our driver continually pulls the car over just so he can show me something.
There are panoramic views of the lake. There is a family of baboons that sit on a certain stretch of highway waiting to be fed by passing cars. There is a sunset that sprays oranges and yellows into the darkening sky. Sometimes we pull over to buy fresh grilled corn, mangoes, pineapples, or explore a back alley market that sells the cheapest tomatoes. I’m awed by it all, these glimpses into moments of life I’ve never seen.
It’s common for native Chichewa speakers to swap the “R” for the “L” sound in English, which makes Lizzie and Elizabeth pretty challenging. So, I have a few names here: Eleeza, Riz. On this trip, my coworkers nickname me, “Taonga.” Thankful.
“She’s excited about everything!” Clara laughs at me, as I point out a chubby monkey eating a mango.”Look at her: she loves Malawi!”
It’s true, I do.