For chapter 1 click here: Chapter 1
His morning ritual of running was one way Owen was getting to know the parts of the town near his host family’s house in Lilongwe, Malawi.
“You’ll be all right if you stay on the main roads.” His host, Mr. Jelani Aguda, had warned him.
There were thirty volunteers in his batch undergoing the pre-service training for the Peace Corps — mostly men with five women. He hadn’t met everyone or gotten to know them. He had been busy getting used to a foreign country and adjusting to living with his host family. War duty in Vietnam had been stressful. He was placed in many dangerous situations and never had contact with the locals except on R&R visits to bars or restaurants. As a Peace Corps volunteer he hoped it would be different — a chance to meet people and help them.
The Peace Corps administrators had received him and other volunteers who had flown with him from New York. They were taken in a minibus to stay with their host families. Staying with the locals was part of the assimilation with the Malawi culture.
On the fourth day, as he ran, he heard a woman’s voice. He ignored it first, but when he heard it again he turned and looked. An attractive blond woman, with pig tails bouncing, was closing in on him. He slowed down.
“Nice morning for a run don’t you think?” She said.
“Sure is,” he replied.
“I saw you in class. I didn’t know you were a runner.”
Owen had noticed her too and thought she was attractive. But he hadn’t tried to talk to her.
They were quiet for a while. Owen didn’t know what to say. He hated such moments.
“Where you from?” Rachel broke the silence.
“Off course, I should’ve guessed. It’s the logo on your cap. But it could’ve been Ohio.”
“They only have a big O I believe.”
“Where you from?”
Owen didn’t like what he said, but couldn’t think of anything else.
Even at the early hour the streets had started to get crowded. Owen and Rachel ran by the side of the road, trying not to collide with people who were walking, not to mention stray chickens and dogs. They passed some mud huts with thatched roofs. Ladies in local garb were sweeping the areas in front of the huts with a straw broom. They smiled as the runners passed them. Some men were carrying boxes on bicycles or bundles wrapped in white cloth on their head. Occasionally, white trucks and small cars would raise a cloud of dust as they passed by. Even at the wee hours of the morning the roads were full of people.
Owen reflected on his days in Pauls Valley. He had dated a few girls growing up there, and when he was a student at the university in Norman. All of them had lived close to home, never venturing outside of the United States, even for a vacation. He had never developed a close relationship with anyone in particular.
They had approached what seemed to be an open air market. Vendors were setting up their displays. Owen and Rachel decided to head back.
They had stopped running for a moment. Owen wiped the sweat from his forehead. Rachel wiped her face across her shoulder.
“Guess we should be heading back,” Owen said.
They worked together to find their way back. At a fork Owen had to go right. He remembered the two-story building at the end of block from his host family’s house.
“See you later.” He said as Rachel waved and continued on.
Back at his host family’s home Owen retreated to his quarters. He bathed using a tumbler and heated water in a bucket. He ate breakfast with the hosts, dressed and took a bus to his training facility.
Owen thought Rachel was different from the other girls he had known back home. Here was a girl who had chosen to come abroad to help the poor and the needy in a foreign land. He wanted to get to know her more, but didn’t want to seem anxious.
The pre-service training included technical, cross culture awareness, local language, personal health and safety. The class had rows of tables facing the instructor.
Owen spotted Rachel sitting in the second row. He waved at her from a distance.
“You mind?” He said as he made his way to sit next to her.
During the afternoon break she told him, “Once this is over, I’m planning to teach English at high school level. What about you?”
“I studied biology. I’m interested in health care.”
“What you did after graduation?”
“I was drafted. Just completed tour of duty in ‘Nam.”
“Vietnam, huh? I’m glad you are back in one piece.”
“Yes. You can say I’m lucky. It was tough. I don’t know why our country is involved in this horrible war. Anyway I paid my dues.”
“I’m surprised you chose to be a PCV so soon.”
“I don’t know. Here’s an opportunity to explore the world outside America. Maybe, I want to be a children’s doctor when I go back.”
“That’s great.” Rachel sounded like a mother consoling a child.
That night he made an entry in his diary.
“I met a nice girl from Minneapolis today. I was surprised she runs. I haven’t met many girls who are athletic. I don’t know much about her yet, but it would be nice to have someone from my own country to talk to. It can get lonely in a foreign land.”
The next morning, as he ran, Owen kept looking back expecting to see Rachel. She didn’t show up. Perhaps she went early or was going later. He had no way of knowing. It wasn’t that she had promised to meet him every day. Still, he felt uneasy. He couldn’t remember doing anything that could have annoyed her.
When he arrived at the training center Rachel was in a different seat. There were other volunteers sitting next to her. Owen waved at her and she waved back with a smile. He wondered if she wanted to distance herself.
During a break Owen walked over and asked if she ran that morning.
“No,” she said with a serious face as if she had committed a grave error. “I didn’t feel good. It’s this food. I like it, but my stomach doesn’t. You like corn? They eat a lot of that here, don’t they? What do they call that dish – Nsima?”
“Somehow I get a reaction eating that,” Rachel continued. “I think it’s a temporary thing. It’ll go away.”
“I hope so,” Owen replied.
His tour of duty in Vietnam had been harsh, eating C-rations. But that was during a war, and he had no time to think of food when they had an order to keep moving. He was finding it rather difficult to adjust to the Malawian food also and craved for a juicy hamburger with French fries or just a simple tuna sandwich.
Owen spent time with his hosts on most evenings. Mr. Aguda taught humanities in the local High School. Mrs. Aguda was a housewife. The Peace Corps wanted Owen to spend as much time as possible with the Agudas to learn the Malawian culture and language. Although the Agudas spoke English well they talked frequently in Chichewa, the national language. Owen learned a few words within the first two weeks.
When alone in his quarters, Owen would sit on a chair strumming his guitar. There was no TV or radio in his room. He had brought copies of To Kill a Mockingbird, Confessions of Nat Turner and The Naked Ape, but he would get tired of reading in the dimly lit room. He would often wonder what his mom and dad were up to back in Pauls Valley.
The weekend following his meeting with Rachel, Owen planned to explore the city. Mr. Aguda had heard him play guitar in his room and recommended that he visit the Kumbali Cultural Village.
“You’ll like our Malawian dancing and drumming,” Mr. Aguda said.
Lilongwe wasn’t exactly a backward town. Buses and taxis were available albeit not that timely as one would expect.
Owen called Rachel to see if she was interested in going with him.
“I’d love that,” she said.
Owen walked over to where Rachel was staying. They took a taxi to the Village. The Village had various activities to cater to tourists — bars with music and many choices of cuisines.
Owen had his arm on Rachel’s shoulder as they walked. She didn’t seem to mind.
“Muli bwanji?” He said to people. How are you?
They smiled in response.
Owen and Rachel had dinner in the place offering the hamburger and chips. As they came out of the restaurant they crossed a bunch of young men playing soccer in a small field. There were people gathered around to see the game. It appeared that it was just an exhibition match not a tournament.
A few blocks away about half a dozen musicians had gathered. They sat on the dirt ground with their instruments and were getting ready to start their program. A couple had acoustic guitars and one had two drums perched on a large wooden block. There was no official stage for the performers. Owen went over to the restaurant and bought two beers. Rachel and he settled on the grass.
First a solo performer sang a song. Then there was a chorus sung in a soothing, lilting rhythm, kind of like jazz. Owen couldn’t understand the language but the tune was so captivating that he wished he had his guitar with him. He could have accompanied them as a background player. Maybe on my next visit, he thought. They stayed at the Village way into the night.
When they returned to Rachel’s house she thanked him for the nice time they had together. He walked her to the door and felt like kissing her but didn’t.
“We should do this again,” he said giving a hug.
“Yes, we should,” she said and went inside. Owen waited for a while outside and then walked back to his host’s house.
“We had a great time today at the cultural village. Rachel is a nice girl. I would like to get to know her more. Wonder what her family is like? It would be great if we both are assigned to the same location after the training.” Owen wrote in his diary.
On the last day of the pre-service training they learned that Owen was going to be volunteering in Zomba and Rachel in Blantyre, 35 miles apart. Owen was uneasy. He wasn’t going to see her every day. Was he falling in love? He didn’t know. They barely knew each other so it was strange that he felt that way, but it was something he couldn’t explain.
For chapter 3 click here: Chapter 3