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On Bringing My Child to Malawi—Some Morning Musings

Updated: Oct 18, 2023

By Gillian Kessler:


Note: In 2017, inspired by the incredible years of work her father had done in Malawi, Gillian Kessler and her sister, Hilary, had an idea to begin an annual Arts Empowerment Camp there for young girls as a way to give them more agency and connect them with their creative gifts. It’s a weeklong extravaganza where a group of teachers from all over the U.S. offer all kinds of workshops, including music, poetry, drawing, and dance. After a hiatus due to COVID-19, the camp celebrated it’s fourth year this past summer.


I finally slept well last night after too many nights of restlessness—3 a.m. wakeups where I can’t seem to get back to sleep, wandering around the dark house, trying to get glimpses of the full moon, wondering why my husband snores so much, if my daughter is still up on Snapchat, if my son will make the basketball team. It’s been an all-encompassing fall reentry after an all-encompassing summer, and then yesterday (Sunday), I took a much-needed break from it all. I watched a lot of TV. I folded a lot of laundry. I tried to let my jenky knee rest a bit because it’s big and swollen and annoying. Because I’m almost fifty, and my body is a new sort of beast.


There are so many things I can and need to write about. My summer. Holy hell, my summer. My daughter, Elie, and I on so many airplanes in so many wild places. The way we spent that first night in Chicago with my old friend and fellow teacher, Tina, and the wild fireworks show that took place outside our hotel window. Meeting Hil and the crew in the Chicago airport (the first of many plane delays), the way they danced on the train, the video they sent—my first taste of the wild lovefest that was to follow. I see the red glow of the sun as we make our way toward Ethiopia in the dawn darkness. I see the strange trays of meats and sauces and the little bottle of white wine that I thought might help me sleep but just made my belly a little wonky. I see our arrival in Blantyre, the way Elie looked out the window with such presence, how peaceful she really is inside. I love the snapshot of us all with Ted, our Malawian friend and camp leader, at the Kabula Lodge right after our arrival; our faces aglow with anticipation, with a sort of “we made it” satisfaction.

Our camp greeting was nothing short of brilliant. The drums pounded with radical welcome, the girls crowded the bus with hugs and smiles and smells that let us know, oh so clearly, that we had arrived. There are circles of bodies dancing, chanting, shaking, laughing. It’s the true definition of the word "abundance." It’s the true definition of the word "presence."


Elie breaks into a smile that I’ve never seen before, slightly reminiscent of her five-year-old self. That smile lasts the entire week. I capture it on film again and again. Dimples. Joy. Connection. Awe. It’s perhaps my favorite thing about the whole experience.


This week isn’t for me this time. It isn’t me unearthing the famed country of Malawi that my dad spent so many years in. It’s not about my wacky little idea to start an arts empowerment camp here as a way to do some good work with the girls of this country that my dad loves so much. It’s not about the writing techniques I’ll attempt to teach (by the way, haiku is not meant for the Malawian girl writer—why be confined by syllables? Let’s just wildly applaud all the words!). It’s about getting to know my daughter in a new way. It’s about lifting her out of the world of devices and products and TikToks that teach you what’s what, of crowded public-school hallways and shelters in place, of pimple patches and friend drama and struggling through algebra. This world elevates her, places her in an entirely different zone of comprehension. She’s thrust into the center of the circle; over a hundred girls surround her, with elders and children and other villagers on the periphery beyond. She introduces herself to the group, and her dimples pop. When she walks out, her gait is different, more confident, she holds the microphone in her hand like a boss.



As the week unfolds, I will see less and less of her at camp, as she will be with Zacky, leading the girls through another rendition of “Down to the River to Pray” and “Amazing Grace.” She adopts their accent as she sings with them, “oooh sistah les go down, les go down, come on down. . . .” She’s their age and conscious of not wanting to present as anything other than another human enjoying this magical time of connection. She is no more than them. She is love like them.

We leave the campsite full, and each afternoon presents a new opportunity for deeper uncovering, deeper depth. There’s the soccer game, which is nothing like a soccer game I’ve ever attended. The DJ’s music is loud and wonderful and the children gyrate and laugh to the beat. They follow my father around like he’s a creature from another land, his 84-year-old heavy-footed gait, his cane and floppy safari hat. The way he smiles at them and says “Muli bwanji” as he reaches out his hand. Elie is swept up in the energy, the girls, the children, until she’s asked to join the team, and before I can put it all together, she’s walking out to the center of the field. She’s not a soccer girl, hasn’t kicked a ball since third grade, and she’s now running down the grass, giving the other girls a high five, all in. The game seems to be going on forever, and when I ask Ted when the game will be over, he says, "We will play until Elie kicks the ball.” I love this new cultural role she’s been given; she is one of them in this moment, she will bring it.


The pictures of us leaving the field are my favorite from the week. You can feel the rush and joy and spontaneity of the music, the pulse of the people, the way we jumped into the dancing circles, bodies pressed together with absolute awestruck attachment. The children run after our bus when we finally leave, hands reaching, running, running, their wild waves. There is nothing like this adoration.



Another day of camp swings by, and we learn more and more about ourselves, our students, how to work together with language barriers, cultural differences. Hilary brings books for the village kiddos, made by her seventh graders, and we sit in a circle, listening to them read in English and Chichewa. I think of all the hours I’ve spent listening to children read, realize it is one of the great joys of my life. Something so simple and satisfying and real, one word after the next. My Missoula colleague, Julie, passes out some markers so they can color on their books, markers from a big bag my niece put together of her extra art and school supplies. They grab the colors from Julie’s hand, these colors like gold bequeathed their way. It’s an unexpected joy, this sitting on the earth together, an authentic moment of bridging two very different worlds through language and story.

The next day after camp, we are told we’ve been invited to see Lydia’s house. I’ve never been to one of the girls’ houses (or to any Malawian home, for that matter), so I have no expectations, just ride down the bumpy roads with the precious presence that, on the best of days, goes hand in hand with traveling. This is what I see out the window right now. This is the human I get to meet right now. This is the moment, and I don’t know what’s next, but I sure am content right now.


The earth is red, and goats and children dot the landscape with their movement, their colors. We sit outside Lydia’s house, and Ted asks us if we have any questions of Lydia, of her mom. We learn she has a three-year-old. We learn she wants to become a journalist. Her mom takes care of her daughter when she’s at school. Both mother and daughter have the most beautiful, love-filled smiles I’ve ever seen. They speak about their lives with pride, with calm, with strength.



After our time connecting out front, they ask if we’d like to go in the little brick home that sits behind us. We nod and enter. Low, thatched ceiling, nothing in the way of furniture, a palm mat on the floor for sleeping, a shelf with Lydia’s things. She explains: my comb, a pencil for my schoolwork (a small snub of a pencil in a dented metal box), some lotion for my skin (a mostly empty bottle). One tomato.


There’s something about that shelf that unlocks something in me. I think about my bathroom drawers bursting with crap: makeup and sunscreen and hair products and pills and potions for any ailment anyone in my family could come up with. My kitchen is another beast of abundance: half-eaten boxes of things that we’ve grown tired of, rows upon rows of spices, cooking oils, condiments. I feel the hum of emotion overwhelm my body; I take a deep breath. Tina and I are the last ones with Lydia in her house. As I reflect now, I realize it was one of the moments of deepest connection for me; the calm safety of my wise old friend, the same calm confidence in Lydia, my deep knowing of how my favorite state in the world is to exist in this sort of love-filled, authentic connection.



We leave Lydia’s quietly, something that we rarely are in our sparkle-filled van. We will never forget Lydia’s home. Lydia’s pride. Lydia’s story.


When I see the girls the next morning at camp, there’s a new sense of knowing, of depth. We prepare our songs and dances, poems and projection. There is a show to do! Villagers will come from miles around. The speakers will be loud, and the local talent nothing short of wonderful. The elders will speak. We will be asked to join in, and our smiles will radiate toward Mount Mulanje, will reach and reach and reach in ways we never imagined.


On this day, I will lose Eliana for the first time and, for a moment, have that feeling I had when she was a toddler wandering around a supermarket or airport, that one brief moment where my eyes couldn’t land on her and I imagined her lost or abducted, my heart still until she popped out again. We were walking toward the performance space in waves of humans, and I couldn’t find her in eyesight of my group. I’d later learn she had left without me, her ease with the Malawian girls leading her toward the site as if she’d been there many times before.


I realized then that the entire time we’d been in Malawi, she was always at the forefront of my mind: where she was, how she was doing. This trip, while about so many humans, so many concepts, so many profound joys was, first and foremost, for me, about her. My child. My child seeing the world. I’ve been here on this adventure, I’ve been present, but it’s been in this almost quiet, backseat-y way. I see myself in relation to the gorgeous team of teachers I’ve worked with all week. I’m not young and fabulous like Erica and Austin, not a superstar like Tina or a seasoned goddess like Hilary, blissed out on the magic of the new like Julie, gracefully easing in with confidence like Zack, not the wise doctor/father Don, the root of all this bounty. I’m the mom of a teenage girl in Malawi. I always feel that first and, while it’s not all that glamorous, it’s the state of this moment, and it feels totally right. I am, for now, whole.


The goodbyes are always the worst. Elie is at this new level of comfort with the girls, and they chat, huddled together in the street. She tries to balance a box of food on her head like they do, and it wiggles and wobbles like their laughter. The sun is setting and the air has that magical glow that comes when you leave a day forever changed, leave a day and know you will never feel this sort of first again.



We look out the window quietly, the red road ahead leading us to the comfort of our hotel rooms, our chicken korma dinner, a Malawian gin and tonic. The juxtaposition is enormous and gorgeous and so full of life force. I see again how this country has called my father back again and again, realize as I write these words that Hilary and I might just be stepping into our own legacy, our own way of finding ourselves through these new relationships in this new land. Now our legacy also includes my child, her path forever altered by these moments, by this love, by this risk of vulnerability, by this now.

 

Gillian Kessler can be found dancing to loud music, teaching exuberant teens to appreciate language, writing in the early morning when everyone is asleep, and exploring the wilds of Montana with her beautiful family. Gillian studied poetry at Santa Clara University with Edward Kleinschmidt, UCLA Extension with Suzanne Lummis and, more recently, in Missoula under the exceptional guidance of Chris Dombrowski, Mark Gibbons, and Phillip Schaffer. Her poems and essays have been published in Mamalode Magazine, and she writes frequently for Flapper Press. Her poetry was featured in the anthology Poems Across the Big Sky Volume II. Her first collection of poems, Lemons and Cement, came out in 2017. Gillian was also recently selected as one of the poets for the Montana Poetry Series. Her latest work, Ash in the Tree, was published by FootHills Press in July 2021.

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