I hadn’t brought a dress to Malawi, but that was okay, Josephine said. “They’ll know you’re visiting and didn’t know”, she told me. My practical shirt and trousers hardly matched her elegant dress, and she was wearing lipstick, for another thing, but at least it was clean.
We set off for Mass at Maula Parish Catholic Church in Lilongwe just before 8am, pulling into a driveway crammed with more cars than I’ve seen outside a church in years. With a Christian population estimated at 85%, Roman Catholics make up 20%, and the devotion of the general population is such that they will assemble in their hordes and finest clothes at 8am on a Sunday, just like we used to, en masse, in Ireland.
Josephine is one such devotee, a woman who proves you can expound the moral lessons of your faith, even while working in an area as challenging to those very morals as reproductive and sexual health advocacy and reporting. On hearing that I was also Roman Catholic, she was genuinely overjoyed. Before dinner on my first night in Lilongwe, we’d made plans to go to Mass the following Sunday.
Children, hands drawn together in gentle but firm prayer, in dresses that grazed the wooden floorboards and in minute three-piece suits, led congregants through the densely packed aisles. A teenager with a sonorous voice inflected with the borrowed rounded vowels of the United States updated the community on its recent fundraiser. Josephine – talkative in the most endearing way – was the most quiet I’d seen her all week.
Her devotion reminded me of my mum’s, of my grandmother’s, the kind that does not need to convince you it is there but sings its soundness in how it roots her. When she commented that she could tell I was invested in the ceremony, I felt delighted, a small and young but deep part of me validated. She bought rosary beads for my mum and I, tsking and tutting out of her that we’d missed the priest so he couldn’t bless them.
Later, we walked the streets back to her aunt’s home for lunch, seeing the city for the first time outside of a car. Roadsides were lined with verdant ditches, snaking past gated homes for when the heavy rains come, and the noise of the frantic city was substantially quieter. In the great Sunday tradition, our good intentions of getting a walk in before lunch fell by the wayside as Josephine hailed a “bajiji”, one of the local taxis that crisscross the city, following route maps known only to the drivers and their regular customers. Piled in with Josephine’s nephew, we wound our way to her aunt’s home, nestled under the shade of a mango tree.
There, in the serene silence of a home momentarily left to its own devices, I realised that while organising this trip I never imagined what my downtime would look like. I pictured the flights, the interviews, the very likely nights of homesickness and a lot of waiting, but I didn’t anticipate this: washing dishes for Sunday lunch, learning how to make rice the Malawian way (half cooked with water, half with steam), with a wrapper tied around my chest in lieu of an apron and Josephine giggling, snapping photos to send to Golden who was missing this admittedly adorable moment.
Suddenly and enduringly, I found a piece of home in Malawi.
You can’t plan for these moments, the same way you can’t plan for the moment in the day when Josephine’s aunt calls to tell you there’s an Irish priest in the parish over that we should meet. You can’t schedule for the hour you’ll spend going to meet Fr Francis Taylor of Dublin, who has spent nigh on 40 years in Lilongwe and greeted us at his open door in a shirt emblazoned with a traditional pattern, his skin tanned. For those 20 minutes, saying words like “Donnybrook”, “Killiney” and “ah, sure” felt novel, bizarrely so.
I still stop and smile at the incredible turn of events that landed me at an Irish priest’s home in Lilongwe, smiling for photos and calling “slán go fóil” after him as we said goodbye – mostly because Golden wanted to hear some Irish, but also because I felt deliriously close to my Irishness. Maybe this is what Saoirse Ronan feels like.
“Lads, this is my last interview”, I said as we drove to meet Weston Msowdya, the Executive Director of the Centre for Youth Development in Malawi, a service provider and advocacy group working in sexual and reproductive health services. It was a comment Golden would appropriate the following day as we set off for the airport: “Charlotte, this is the last time you’ll leave the hotel”; “Charlotte, this is the last look you’ll get at the streets of Lilongwe”; “Charlotte, this is the last time you’ll listen to ‘Arrest the President’ before going home” – the Ice T belter had somehow become our anthem over the week.
Driving past the government buildings that almost a week earlier had represented everything I knew I didn’t know about Malawi – its complex social issues, class barriers and multifarious political woes – we discussed articles we all wanted to write in the future, the creative pipe dreams we carried with us and the publications we aspired to see our bylines in. It felt like the early days of college, when everyone is shockingly open and generous with their plans, willing to share and understand one another.
Our last chat before I set off on a 25-hour travel day back home was – fittingly enough – about Anthony Bourdain, whom neither Josephine nor Golden had heard of before. I told them about how open he was, how he let the people he met in diverse and frequently disorientating countries do the talking, how he listened, how he just really loved food and people. I hammered home how incredible a journalist he was, how much of an inspiration he was to me in my work. I then told them how much I would miss the local chicken, with darker meat and leaner legs.
It was only when my Malawian friends had left me and I made it through security that I realised I’d forgotten to buy some Malawian gin for home. I held my Malawian rosary beads – blessed the day before by the Irish priest we surreptitiously met – and brought a piece of Malawi home with me anyway.