The Warm Heart of Malawi
The bees outside the window caught Rori’s attention. They hung in the air beyond the screen, buzzing a dazzling sound of freedom. She on the other hand was stranded, out of time and place. Neither free nor landed.
Jack returned to his seat, ready for more remote learning. As she did every day, Rori helped him get back get online for his classes. His learning disabilities were extreme enough that he needed a full time assistant to help him with distance learning and Rori was his personal aid. I was plucked out of a remote corner of Africa where I was teaching aspiring college students and help only one privileged boy each day now.
For a fleeting moment as Rori listened to the bees' droning grow louder, she saw the color of Jack’s skin change it's hue. Before her eyes, he seemed to become darker complected, the color of raisins bathing in the warm African sun.
“Rori, did you hear me” Jack’s voice boomed, breaking through her revery. Rori nodded and reached for the keyboard to start his Zoom call.
Why is this day full of daydreams and memories? Rori wondered as fragments of her life in Malawi broke through the firewall in her mind. She saw the eager faces of the children who met her outside her school every day. They would chatter to her excitedly as she walked home, asking her who was the smartest, the prettiest, the likeliest to go to college next fall. Or they would ask her what she would eat for dinner, then beg to help feed her chickens and pig. The children were an angelic force in her life and their joyful bodies pressing in around her as she sat on her porch confirmed that complete goodness existed in this corner of Malawi where she had come 10 months earlier.
Rori reached out to redirect Jack as he wrestled with submitting an assignment online. The oddness of computer-based education during Covid gripped her. There were no computers in schools in Malawi. The resources there were meager and attenuated, yet despite having so little, her students’ minds were receptive and very able.
I hang between worlds, Rori thought as she helped Jack continue his online work. My heart resides in Malawi but my body exists here in North America. She knew there were healers in some of the villages in Malawi who helped people whose spirts had abandoned their bodies. When will my spirit return to my body? she wondered as she pointed Jack to a new link.
Somehow, thankfully, this day was moving quickly and almost over. It was tedious helping one young boy with distance learning as compared to the daily thrill of teaching a room full of Malawian 18 year-olds who could dream no bigger dream than graduating from college with life-changing opportunity awaiting them.
As Rori reached into her bag to get her phone, she noticed her small black notebook from Africa in a side pocket. The notebook was simple and love-worn and she had read its contents countless times. Mr. Kazembe, the headmaster at her school, had thrust the notebook into her hands when she learned about the evacuation orders.
“One day is not enough time for you to say good-bye Rori, I know” he had said as she wiped away tears. “Your students will want to write you their goodbyes in your last class today. Pass this notebook around the class and let them say what their hearts need to so you can keep their spirits close when you leave.”
That last day with her students was a blur, a heartbreaking day that was saturated with shock and quiet grief. Unlike many people in the outside world, people in her village were only dimly aware of the swath Covid19 was cutting around the globe. Nonetheless, they were learning every Peace Corps volunteer in their country was being evacuated and that they would soon lose Rori.
Now holding the black notebook in her hand, Rori felt a little less between these two worlds. Listening as the bees’ humming grew even louder outside the window, she opened the small notebook’s cover. Instantly she was transported back to verdant Malawi and to the warm hearts of the people there.
On the first page of the notebook her student Agness had drawn a picture of them arm and arm dressed in the colorful dresses that women wore in Malawi. Agness’s words under the picture said ‘You are the color of sunflowers year round. You are also the color of love and I will always feel you.’ As tears filled her eyes, Rori turned the next page and saw another student’s note. ‘Dear Rori - your shoes here are forever filled with good memories of teaching us. Please come back one day and fill your shoes again. Thank you strongly for your amazingful teaching, Alinafe.’ Through her tears, Rori smiled at their expressive English. It was flawed, but perfect, nonetheless. She closed the notebook at that point; Jack’s school day was over and she was eager to be on her way.
“Rori, your Uber’s here” Jack announced. He noticed so many things instantly she reflected. His ADHD made focusing on school hard, but it created a wide-angled awareness in him and he never missed a thing. She wondered what it meant that ADHD was virtually undiagnosed in Malawi. Was it that life there was just simpler and easier to track? Did the ever-blue skies and simple life rhythms create more focused, contented minds?
Sliding onto the back seat of the Uber, Rori realized she still held the notebook in her hand. She continued to look through the pages, her tears falling slowly like unrepentant raindrops in early spring. She was only dimly aware of the driver and even less aware that he had been noticing her outpouring of emotion. After she had read half of the loving messages from her former students, she closed the notebook and exhaled deeply.
“Looks like you wish something in your life had turned out differently” the driver commented.
“Yes, I do. I wish I was still where I was when Covid started” Rori answered.
“Sometimes wishing is all we need to bring about our heart’s desire” he responded. Rori thought about that obliquely for a moment. Part of her brain was skeptical but the other part was drawn in by his voice. There was more than a hint of a foreign accent in its gentle cadence and something else in him began lifting her spirits.
“What is your heart’s desire?” the driver continued.
“To have a way to return to Malawi and to continue to teach. And to build a library there. A friend and I had plans to do that, but we were sent home because of Covid and our dreams crashed.”
“Such beautiful, selfless dreams” he said. “That’s not what I hear from most of my passengers when I ask them the same question” he added. “Usually they’re too drunk or self-absorbed to have a heart’s desire like yours.”
Something about the driver’s lilting voice and deep sincerity assuaged Rori’s heart. It reminded her of what she felt every time she was with Mr. Kazembe. He had taken Rori under his wing when she arrived and had become like a father to her. He had a profound humility and a soothing peacefulness about him that made adjusting to her new homeland easy. The driver somehow caused her to feel the same way.
The rest of the drive home Rori fell silent, listening to music with her headphones. When they arrived, she thanked the driver and left the car, feeling like an inchoate burden had begun to lift.
Although it was mid-day, Rori felt a deep fatigue and the sudden need for a nap. She climbed the stairs to her room, dropped her bag on the floor and collapsed heavily on the cool bed. Sleep absorbed her quickly and her soul took flight into a lovely series of dreams where she was walking barefoot on African soil. Her closest African friend Chisimo also met her in this dreamscape. They went running together as they often did while she was in country, laughing together as they crisscrossed the village and worked up their runners’ high. The next fragment of the dream brought a sequence which included a man who resembled the Uber driver. He was wearing ceremonial African attire and held a long staff with encrusted with beautiful beads. He began to dance in a circle, chanting a rhythmic song that Rori seemed to recognize. She began to sing with him in the dream, the words exhilarating her and making her spirit feel deeply connected again, the way she had always felt in Malawi.
Beginning to awaken from the dream at this point, Rori thought she heard bees buzzing. Only half awake, she realized she felt like her entire body was actually an enormous beehive, bustling with ardent bees. The thought startled her and she began trying to cast out handfuls of bees as quickly as she could. Soon she realized her attempts were futile; the bees were endless and could not be cleared out. That realization settled her and with the relaxation came this understanding: I am the Queen Bee.
Fully awake now, Rori sat up in bed, realizing the night had passed and it was the next morning. She quickly grabbed her bag and pulled out her phone, seeing a text from Jack’s mom on the home screen. “Your car is here and we wondered if you are coming today?”
“Yes, I’m coming,” she tapped back, feeling a strong wave of confusion. She opened the Uber App to see the log of yesterday’s Uber ride. It did not show up. There was no sign that she had taken Uber at all yesterday. She checked her online banking to see if there was a charge applied from Uber, but that too did not exist. Looking through her bag, she continued to search for clues as to how she had gotten home. She never found any or her black notebook which also seemed to have vanished into thin air.
Knowing she needed quick transport back to Jack’s, Rori arranged a lift from a friend who quickly came and got her. When she arrived at Jack’s, she spotted her car in the same place she always parked it. The mystery of the traceless Uber gnawed at her, but she had to get inside.
As she entered the house, Jack’s mom approached her. “Just a little while ago, a man rang the doorbell and asked if I would give this to you. He said you left it in his Uber yesterday.”
Karen handed Rori her black notebook which now had an envelope protruding from it. Going to the next room, Rori opened the envelop and lifted out a note which had a folded piece of paper affixed to it. She read the note first, which said:
‘Let your love be like the misty rain,
coming softly but flooding the river.’
Dear Rori - Queen of the Bees,
you can now return to Malawi
and flood the land with your love.
Mesmerized, Rori unfolded the piece of paper attached to the note and stared wide-eyed at a cashier’s check made out to her for $20,000 dollars. No personal name was signed on it but she saw it had been issued by the International Bank in Malawi.
Holding the check and her small notebook together, Rori gazed at the bees circling outside the window as the song from last night’s dream rose to her lips. The sky outside became the brilliant blue of the African horizon and she felt the warm earth of Malawi under her feet. I am coming back to you my beloved Malawi she whispered, just audibly. I will fill my teaching shoes once again and spend more days under African suns.