A troop of scampering feet carried the enthusiastic youngsters toward me. `Azungu! Azungu!' they called out their mantra to a Westerner. The inevitable follow- up: `Give me ten tambala!' I soon learned was the legacy of a couple of well-intentioned European tourists, who a year previous to my arrival, had handed out all of their change to local kids. While it was well within my means to give to each the requested amount of less than a cent, and bring smiles of cheerful gratitude to their shining faces, prudence bade me to refuse in the hope of diminishing such a dependent habit. I chuckled when I heard the quieter, less inflated request of `Give me one tambala!' from a lone boy. I walked further along the rutted dirt roads of Nkhotakota (translated "zigzag"), a sleepy lakeshore town in Malawi, the poor southeastern African country where I was a new schoolteacher. Life was most abundant here in the multitude of young children, eager to find fun and novelty, free to roam with their morning chores completed. The abundance of youthful exuberance gave Malawi a fresh, innocent veneer that belied the tough and problematic lives experienced by many of those same children.
I often met Happy on the rocks, from where he would watch me during my frequent swims in the lake. An athletic fifteen-year-old, he seemed aptly named, with a ready ability to smile, his shiny white teeth prominent in a gleaming dark brown face. `You swim a long way --- it is dangerous,' he greeted my return. After some weeks, he invited me to his hut, where, being an "azungu", I received a lot of attention from his neighbors. He was living with his cousins, as his parents had died several years earlier. I saw the small dark room, with hard mud walls and a straw mat on the ground to mark his sleeping area. He had a small, battered brown suitcase there, inside it a few tattered magazines, old clothes, and schoolbooks, marking his only worldly possessions, apart from the worn-out clothes on his body, and a prized, cheap wind-up watch, given to him by some friendly tourists. His conception of westerners was one of limitless wealth, which compared to his meager possessions was close to the truth.
`At home, do you have a helicopter?' he asked me.
`No, not even a car,' I replied.
`Why not a helicopter?'
`They are too expensive, only the richest can afford them.'
`Oh,' he said, unconvinced --- after all, helicopters and airplanes appeared in abundance in any of the action films that were shown publicly in the town.
A few weeks later his watch and magazines were stolen. When he told me, it seemed like it was hard for him to speak or even breathe, as though there was a tight restriction around his chest.
`They were in my suitcase.'
`Do you know who did it?'
`It was my cousins,' he replied.
`Can you tell your aunt or uncle?' I asked, starting to share his pain.
`My cousins will beat me. I cannot tell,' was his only reply.
On another occasion Happy appeared without his ever-present smile. He grimaced and held his stomach when I offered him a mango, as I was enjoying one at the time.
`Too many mangos!' he replied. `I have a bad stomach. I have only eaten mangos today.'
It was early evening, gone dinnertime for most people, so I realized that Happy had visited, perhaps with his last hope of eating anything substantial that day. Normally he just ate once, sometimes twice a day, but the maize he grew in his own small patch of land had done badly. I should have realized, given the earlier experience with his cousins, that Happy's wellbeing was not a high priority for them. After a few slices of bread, Happy went away feeling much better, but I was left troubled --- how many more people were there in the town like him, and what good would my temporary help do in the long-term?
As more weeks went by, I became less comfortable with Happy's visits. More and more often he was really just coming to ask for things, not to talk or learn, even not wanting help with his schoolwork. When a friend visited from Europe, he invited us both to lunch in his hut. His tall friend, Jacob, joined us afterwards. We saw Happy's maize, which was lower than that in the surrounding plots --- either he was a poor gardener, or had been given the worst land --- but was more promising than the previous season's provision. We walked back, and my friend spoke about England. Happy interrupted, `when it is Christmas, you will send me a big stereo!'
I noticed Jacob roll his eyes and shake his head. My friend was taken aback, and politely refused. I thought about Happy's postcards from tourist "friends" and realized that he saw the best way to get by in life was to befriend westerners and hope they would act like true friends. I soon found that local Malawians had a low opinion of Happy. Fellow teachers objected to the fact that I let him into my house so much --- he had visited more often than had any of them. They were sure he would steal from me. I could not tell how much of what they said was from jealousy, and how much for concern of my wellbeing. Clearly, in a very hierarchical society, with children at the bottom --- though Happy was lucky enough to be a boy, so not the lowest of the low --- having no parents made Happy a near outcast. It was no surprise that he found it easier to smile and gain acceptance from Westerners than his own community.
The small, wide-eyed boy sat down on the empty bus-seat across the aisle from me, and gave me a big grin. `Hello teacher,' he said.
`Hello, what is your name?' I asked.
`Mabvuto,' he replied.
I nodded, recalling another Malawian boy who had told me that his parents had named him "Mabvuto", meaning "problem" or "trouble" because an extra mouth to feed caused difficulties for the family.
Soon the conductor walked up the aisle checking tickets, and I noticed Mabvuto looking disturbed. `Where are you going?' I asked.
`Lilongwe,' he replied, naming the capital city where I was also heading, a five-hour ride away.
The conductor spoke to him angrily in the local language, Chichewa, demanding a ticket or the fare. Mabvuto pointed towards me, and looked up at me, pleading with his eyes. I felt mean as I shook my head, so the conductor roughly dragged him from his seat to remove Mabvuto from the bus. Those bright, wide eyes looking up at me, containing hope and fear, regarded me with accusation, causing me to doubt myself and my failure to assist --- even though paying for the ride would have been tantamount to kidnapping in a western culture.
During the following months I saw more of Mabvuto, and allowed him to earn the nickname "bottle boy" by returning and collecting the deposits from all my empty soda bottles. He was not very talkative about himself, and would sometimes refrain from answering questions.
`Where do you live?' I asked.
`Nkhotakota,' he replied, giving the name of the town.
`Where do you sleep?' I asked, meaning to find out which relatives he stayed with, having found out that his parents were dead.
He looked away, kept his eyes on the ground and did not answer.
When it came time for me to leave the town and clear out my belongings, I left him the jar of change that I had collected over the year, in exchange for some mangos he had collected. He beamed with excitement. `You are very kind!' he praised, on receiving something that far outweighed the price of mangos in Malawi, but could barely buy one back home.
I returned to Nkhotakota several weeks later and saw a less excited Mabvuto.
`I went to Lilongwe,' he told me.
`How did you pay?' I asked.
`You gave me the change,' he replied.
I was puzzled, as I thought there was nowhere near enough in the jar --- perhaps some Western coins had increased its value.
`Did you like it?' I asked.
He looked down again, and I wondered if a dream had been broken, much as in the days when people thought the streets of London were paved in gold, the reality was a grotesque comparison. He had spent three days there, sleeping in the streets, presumably having to steal for food and perhaps his ticket home.
`Will you go again?' I asked.
Then he looked up, and smiled broadly. `Oh yes, when I am bigger!'
Lafiosa never spoke to me. In fact, the infant barely opened his eyes during the times that I saw him, and was yet to speak his first word to anyone. His grandmother looked after him and eleven other grandchildren, somehow managing single-handedly to feed them all by toiling day after day in her maize and vegetable plots. I visited them with an American friend, who had been disturbed to see how tiny Lafiosa was at the hospital. On learning that the little boy had no mother to feed him, she had begun bringing infant milk powder to his home on a regular basis.
One day she arrived at my house to ask me my blood type and whether I could be a donor for Lafiosa. The infant was at the hospital, very weak and in desperate need for a blood transfusion. Of course I couldn't refuse, so I went and saw that the baby got what he needed. My friend told me that in the following days, Lafiosa got notably stronger and my "azungu" blood was much acclaimed for bringing him some health. The readiness of Malawians to evoke Western superiority at such a basic level was disturbing, but at least Lafiosa lived to fight another day. He will need more than "azungu" blood to help him through the years without parents. Like so many other children's parents, they had died from Aids, leaving orphans to the uncertain care of an uncaring world. Whether he will make it to the age of Mabvuto, or Happy, or beyond, and how he will get there, is tomorrow's story.