Most everyone has a place that inspires reflection and contentment: a Paris café, a salmon run on the Miramichi River, your grandmother’s kitchen table. Roberta Laurie is an Alberta Rotarian who finds her place at a Malawian school for girls. The result is intriguing and joyful. Weaving A Malawi Sunrise never patronizes. Laurie is a delightful writer whose reportage is so skillful it draws readers who have no interest whatsoever in Malawi or the minutiae of public education.
Formerly Nyasaland, the country is small, corrupt and poor. The median age is 16. The national dish is catfish. Malawi has a million child labourers. May 14, a federal holiday, is the birthday of a local despot who ruled till age 96.
Laurie recalls her first encounter with Malawi while listening to a visiting lecturer: “She came to speak at our weekly Rotary Club breakfast meeting in Stony Plain, Alberta. So while digesting a full stomach of scrambled eggs, pancakes and sausage, I listened to her stories of poverty, hunger and – yes – hope from a faraway country whose name I hardly recognized and whose location I couldn’t begin to find on a map.”
The author is hooked – and so is the reader as Laurie recounts the country and its people without platitudes or condescension. She is wary of First World superiority. Malawi did not embrace public tax-funded education with the abolition of school fees till 1994, fully 130 years after Nova Scotia pioneered the practice in Canada, yet Laurie cautions foreign-funded schools are no remedy: “Children begin to perceive their sponsors as more deserving of their respect than their own guardians,” she writes; “It isn’t uncommon for African aid projects to collapse or go awry. In fact, it happens far too frequently.”
Madonna famously adopted a Malawian boy in 2006 and pledged millions for a new school designed by a New York architect. The school was never built, though Madonna did plant a tree. Laurie cannot contain her scorn.
Teachers earn $120 a month, a pittance the author blames on creditor restrictions to public service pay imposed by the International Monetary Fund. At Laurie’s adopted school tuition is paid in maize and beans. The neighbouring poor eat termites for protein.
Of course there is more to it than this. Weaving A Malawi Sunrise cites vignettes of the Third World like the striking absence of municipal lighting – “Darkness descends like a velvet curtain”, she writes – and the plague of township dogs: “They are vicious and unpredictable. I have not met a Malawian who is not fearful of dogs, and their fears are valid.”
What is it like to walk to school in Malawi? Laurie recounts the daily four-kilometre trek of students: “The girls were between thirteen and sixteen years old and none of them owned shoes,” she explains; “Along the way they crossed five streams, two lacking bridges. They also passed two graveyards, where the girls were afraid of encountering witches and hyenas, and they cut through numerous farmers’ fields where, during cultivation season, they were frightened of being chased off or harassed.”
Weaving A Malawi Sunrise is kind and eloquent, by turn angry and evocative in the manner of a writer who tells of finding her place. Laurie remembers Solstina, a schoolgirl who endured an unhappy marriage and many hardships for the privilege of taking a classroom exam: “Before I finish Solstina’s story, there is something else I’d like you to know. When the women of Malawi speak English, their voice sing. It’s as though something magical transforms their voices. There is a lilt and a rhythm that makes their voices sound like song. Solstina has one of these voices, and when she says, ‘Ahh, no’, it is like a sigh. As I type her words, I can her voice. It makes me want to weep.”
By Holly Doan
Weaving A Malawi Sunrise: A Woman, A School, A People by Roberta Laurie; University of Alberta Press; 432 pages; ISBN 9781-7721-20868; $39.95