Banana Fritters Abigail Long
The two girls sat on the small wicker couch in the living area of the tiny concrete house. The room was rank with unfamiliarity, as the dark faces in front of them observed them, scrutinizing. Who are you? why have you come? they seemed to say. Anna counted a dozen different people around her and wondered if the whole village would come to get a peek of the “Asungus.” The white people. Mira wrinkled her nose a bit as the smell of dead animal wafting up from below her and wondered if a mouse had crawled inside the couch and died. Perhaps it had starved and was lying there, rotting right underneath her. She tried unsuccessfully to ignore its intrusive pungency.
Soft murmurs of chiYao floated around them, broken every so often by titters of what sounded like mocking laughter as the villagers’ curious eyes watched the two sweating Asungu girls on the couch. Understanding nothing, the girls wiped their wet hands awkwardly on their laps. Why had they come? To see, to understand, they had said, confidently. They would leave Mira’s uncle and aunt in their nice home in Mangochi and visit here in the tiny village of Mpondas, living with a Malawian family in their home for a few days to learn what is was like to live as they did. But here, sitting on a stinking wicker couch, pasty white in a crowd of Africans, they wondered if they could actually ever learn what is what like.
The crowd slowly dispersed and Mama Gladys brought out a large grinding bowl and pestle and began to grind a handful of ground nuts. Thump, thump, thump, thump, the pestle pounded like a heartbeat that seemed to say Not Home, Not Home. Mama went on grinding and pushed pestle into Anna’s hands with a small smile. Anna took hold of it firmly, trying to hide her shyness. How hard could it be? But pestle was heavy, and she couldn’t get the ground nuts to the same fineness as Mama Gladys had. Mira could do no better. Mama Gladys laughed at them, but it felt different somehow when she laughed—it felt safer. She kindly took the pestle back to end their embarrassment. Again started the Thump, thump, thump, thump, but now it said
She left the girls on their own and went next door to the other house that they shared with relatives, to continue working on dinner. That night, Mama Gladys served them fish and Ugali, a corn flour mixture that reminded them of unsalted play dough. It was sticky and smelled of nothing. The girls struggled to pull off the heads and tails off the fish and maneuver around the bones and the glassy eyes. In the end, they were left with mangled carcasses and just ate the ugali instead. They ate alone in the dim light with a candle while the other family members left them to themselves and ate in the other house. The privacy was welcome, they told themselves. They were so very out of place, after all. We’ve had enough laughter, they though, enough eyes on us. As time passed, the light grew dimmer around the small table, and their single candle burned without a movement in the still air. Their repose was suddenly broken by scratching noises from the small room behind them, the place where they were to sleep. Mama had given up her only bed to let the girls sleep off the ground. It took up nearly all of the room, and crammed around it were various belongings, jumbled and tumbling, a haystack of plastic woven bags and empty rice sacks stuffed full with odds and ends. Anna looked behind her and saw the cause of the noise. “Mira!” Her eyes grew wide. Two rats were running around on top of their backpacks and on the bed.
They fearfully entered the room, bearing a candle and a flashlight like talismans.
The rats scampered away, sensing the girls’ approach. The piles of belonging
surrounding the bed loomed, offering their crevices and dark corners as hiding places. The girls looked at each other in unease. “They could be anywhere in here. What if they crawl onto the bed when we’re sleeping?” asked Anna. It was disconcerting;
but everything in this flickering light of the candle and flashlight seemed disconcerting. There was nothing to do now that the sun had gone down, and soon the mosquitoes would come out, hungry for blood. So they got into bed, carefully tucking the blue mesh of the mosquito netting in securely all around every edge of the bed, blocking themselves in from the outside world. It would keep out the mosquitoes, and perhaps deter the rats. They lie under the netting, sweating and trying to sleep. As they listened to the murmuring of their host family in the next house over, talking and laughing, a dark heaviness pressed itself onto their throats, their stomachs had a strange hollowness. When they finally fell asleep, their faces were wet with more than sweat.
The next morning, the sadness of the night melted with the sun. The day promised a new flavor with the arrival of their language helper Agi. She stopped by to take them on a tour of the village. As they walked through the village, Agi told them the names of the plants on the side of the path and pointed out the way to the main road and the maize fields. Huge baobab trees rose out among the houses, like giants looking down at them. As they passed by, children peeked out of their houses or ducked behind rocks and trees, shouting ‘Asungu,’ and laughing hysterically at the strange white visitors. “Come, we’ll take this path,” Agi told them, leading them to a more obscure route to avoid a parade of curious observers. Where there weren’t children, there were goats wandering aimlessly and nibbling anything that looked edible.
Before they could visit all the sites of the village, the impending rain clouds made them hurry back, reaching the house just as the first drops started to fall. Mama sat on the porch with an old neighbor woman, chatting while cutting up pumpkin leaves for the noon meal. They held large handfuls of the leaves bunched together, letting just half an inch stick out from inside their hands, slicing it off with swift sawing motions using large panga knives. A pile of the shredded leaves lay in front of them. Mama held out a knife and the leaves to the girls, and they tried to copy her even, rhythmic movement. They moved too slowly though, fearful of cutting themselves, so Mama continued the task herself. Mama served the leaves to them for lunch, boiled, with some goat meat still on its bones. It tasted a little better than the fish had, though the leaves were a little limp and the spines of the leaves gave it a sandy texture, and the bones of the meat were hard to maneuver around. They finished lunch with a cup of hot black chombe tea. Mama even brought the good sugar in her special dish for them.
After lunch, Anna and Mira decided it was time to risk making fools of themselves, and consulted their notebooks for some of “useful chiYao phrases” they had written down.“Mama, Can we have water for a bath?” they asked, reading the chiYao haltingly from the paper. She laughed at their tentative, accented pronunciation, but heated them up buckets of water. They each took their turn taking a sponge bath standing on the bricks in the grass fence enclosed bathing area. It felt good to wash off some of the sticky sweat, dirt and smell. “Sikomo, Mama,” they said. Thank you.
When they were finished, the girls sat in the yard outside the kitchen shelter and watched Mama and her mother make Chitumbuwa, or banana fritters.Mama threw together ufa, or corn flower, bananas, a little sugar and a little salt for the dough. Anna wrote the recipe down in her journal to remember it. Mama taught them words as she cooked, speaking in her low, soft and sweet voice. “Mtwe,” she said, pointing to her head. They repeated after her, and tried mashing the banana fritter dough a little. Mama dropped the dough into the bubbling cooking oil. “Ligasa.” she said. Hands. “Koyo.” Shoulder. The girls watched the dough puff and brown, and suddenly they felt a sense of belonging. They murmured the words over and over to themselves as the fritters rose and bobbed in the oil.
It rained again in the late afternoon, so Agi taught them a game like jacks played with a small round green fruit and some large black seeds. She was quick, and her hands flashed as she moved the seeds out of the circle she’d drawn before catching the green fruit she’d tossed into the air. They tried but could not do it, so they taught her to play Rummy, and they played until Agi left them to go home.
Mama gave them beans and ugali for supper, with bread and tea. She still let them eat by themselves, but the girls didn’t feel as misplaced anymore. Something
had changed; when Mama gave them their plates of food with nod of her head and left them, it said “I honor you, my guests, I respect you.” The girls wondered if they were worthy of all the attentions she had given them. They pondered this as they crawled into bed for their last night in Mpondas. That night, the dark cloud of sadness did not visit them. Perhaps it was because they knew they would not have to spend another night there, or perhaps it was something else.
In the morning, Mira’s cousin Steven biked over from Mangochi with a small trailer attached to the back. They loaded their belongings inside and then stopped to take pictures with Mama and her children, and with Agi. Then they walked alongside Steven to the main road where they hired two bike taxis. They perched on small seats on the back of the bicycles, and their drivers took off, following Steven down the road, away from Mpondas. They were glad to return to Mangochi and leave the feeling of being an outsider, the rats, and lonely nights, but they also thought of Agi, and of Mama and her soft, low voice. They thought of the banana fritters, bubbling and browning in the oil and they realized there were things to remember about that little thatched roof cement house in Malawi. Yes, there were even things to miss.