October 31, 2004
I have been to a lot of shindigs in my life, but I have never seen anything like the celebration that Dan and I attended on Halloween. We drove about two kilometers from our house, up the hill to Ndirande. Ndirande is the worst slum in Blantyre. Fifty thousand people are crowded together, for the most part without water, plumbing or electricity. The building that we entered was large, and covered practically every inch of space on the plot of land where it was situated.
We arrived at 8:30 a.m. and the celebration was already in full swing. I entered the building, and enjoyed live music for about an hour. Things were scheduled to begin at 9:00, but because nothing ever starts on time in Malawi, it was 9:30 before things really got rolling. At that point the guests of honor made their appearance.
Then, an announcement was made, and everyone who had been sitting and listening to music got up and left the building. I followed. There were hundreds of people, all decked out in party clothes crowded in the tiny yard and driveway. Even the building was decorated. There were garlands of blue and white fabric, which commemorated the special day, strung up over the entrances and inside, Crepe paper and balloons of coordinating colors adorned the ceiling. Even the people who were hosting the party were dressed in the special fabric –dozens of them! They made it into dresses, shirts, hats, turbans, ties, shawls and skirts. It really added to the festive air.
Then everyone got quiet, and you heard three loud bangs. Then everyone started singing a special song. After that we were led around the outside of the building. When the short trek was completed, a mad rush took place for everyone to get back inside the building. There were two reasons for this. First, there were not enough seats inside for the huge crowd, so there were hundreds of chairs and benches outside, and if you wanted the best view, you ran to get inside. Second, just then, it started to rain, so if you wanted to be dry during the party, you had to get inside. I decided that I would rather be damp than crushed by the crowd, so I stepped aside and waited. Someone noticed me standing there, and asked me to come to around to the back entrance. (Being the only azungu (white person) there makes you stand out a bit.) I was led to a special seat with other myiabusas –people dressed like me.
Once everyone was crammed into the building, (and you could not have squeezed another person in anywhere –people were sitting on every chair and bench, crouching in the isles, and standing all around the walls) the party really got going.
The Master of Ceremonies got up and asked one of the five choirs to start singing. We listened to the best acapella singing that I have ever heard, and then were treated to dancing as well. Then it was time for an opening prayer. Here in Malawi, everything starts with prayer. After that there was an hour of introductions. Special visitors who had come from all over Blantyre and the southern region of Malawi were introduced and each one brought formal greetings. Even Dan and I had to stand up and say how happy and honored we were to be able to attend this auspicious occasion. The tribal chief (a beautiful woman dressed in native costume) got up and congratulated everyone too.
After that there was a song that everyone sang together. Then the real celebrating got going. Some of the special guests got up and read various selections, others led the partygoers in unison recitations. Then one man got up and spoke for about 40 minutes. Everything was in Chichewa, so I could only guess at most of what was being said. Finally the minister of the church got up, with the biggest smile I have ever seen on his face. Yes, this party was for the opening of a brand new church building! The Rev. Greyson Mputheni, the pastor, practically jumped for joy after the special blessing of the gleaming Kachere CCAP (Church of Central Africa Presbyterian). Dan was asked to speak on behalf of Blantyre Synod, and he challenged the congregation to make the church this full each and every Sunday.
Despite the fact that we had been worshiping for over 3 ½ hours everyone was still jubilant as a final hymn was sung and the benediction given. Mini buses were lined up outside the church to take everyone to the banquet halls for a celebratory lunch. (Very few people can afford cars in Malawi.)
We took the pastor, the Rev. Mputheni, and some of the other clergy (honored guests) with us in our truck to Grace Bandawe Conference Center where huge bowls of steaming rice, Nsima (a thick corn paste similar to grits that is the staple of the Malawian diet), cole slaw, beef stew and braised chicken, African style, were ready for us to eat. Yet another fantastic choir sang while we feasted.
It was a party that I will never forget.