Alice, Let's Go to Malawi: Calvin Trillin With The Peace Corps
by Jack Allison (Malawi 1966–69)
After being in Malawi for six months, I was ready for a break. Since the USA’s Independence Day and that of Malawi were only two days apart, some enterprising Peace Corps Volunteers up north declared that what was needed (warranted?) was a bipartite celebration. Volunteers were invited from all over the country.
I rode my motorcycle all day to Ntchisi to meet up with my best PCV buddy. The next morning we set out on yet another full days’ journey to Mzuzu that lasted well into the night.
The party was wild and crazy, and I got loaded. While making out with a gorgeous Volunteer, we were rudely interrupted by her irate husband — I’d just met her, so I had no idea that she was married . . .
Rather than die at the hands of crazed, blottoed husband, I hopped on my cycle for the 2 1/2-day return trip home. It was winter in Malawi, and the cold night air helped to sober me up rapidly. The journey back to Nsiyaludzu Village was punctuated that night by warthogs that ran in front and alongside of my motorcycle, as did a leopard for two measured miles. I dared not stop, even though my bladder was full.
Mid-morning the next day I had a flat tire. Fortunately, it occurred just as I approached a small garage out in the middle of bloody well nowhere.
It still took a long time to get the tube repaired.
Later, as nightfall was approaching, I was cold, weary and starving. I was also dangerously low on both money and petrol. I decided to take the night at an African rest house, never done by white folks, that is Brits, save for PCVs. After negotiating a lesser room rate than proffered, I had a modest African meal of curried goat meat with nsima, the Malawian staple. Nsima is known as cornmeal mush to this Southerner, or as maize porridge to the British, which is cooked into large patties which are very hot to the touch — villagers eat with their hands.
Not long after retiring to my small room, the soft knock at the door was a darling 15-year-old girl who was just beginning her career as a prostitute. Although never known as a prude, I just could not bed her.
Next came a visit from the owner of the rest house, who tried in vain to convince me to provide work for this youngster. He even lowered the price from $1.00 to 50¢. I still couldn’t do it. He and I did have an engaging conversation in English initially, for he wanted to practice his second language. Since I was just as eager to learn more Chichewa, we compromised: he spoke mine, and I, his. Pleasant encounter, although he was obviously disappointed that I wouldn’t allow the girl to spend the night with me. Now, had she been a few years older . . .
When I arrived home the next day, my houseboy, Sami, acted a bit strangely. When I asked in Chichewa, “What’s been going on,” he retorted sheepishly, “Anthu akuba anabwera.” That means thieves had come by. I thought that he’d said “Anthu akuda anabwera”: Africans came by (to visit). I said, “Black folks? Who were they?” He said that he didn’t know, squirming increasingly.
As I entered my hut, reality kicked me in the gut: my bed had been stripped, my foot locker emptied, and my paraffin (kerosene) lamp was missing. My kitchen was a small separate room out back — my paraffin stove and all my pots and pans were gone, too.
What a violation! The chief was visibly upset, as were all of my neighbors. They were embarrassed. Although most villagers had next to nothing, they collectively let me borrow enough “stuff” to sleep on and to cook with.
Shortly thereafter I received a note from the PC office in Blantyre that an American evaluator and his new bride were coming to make sure that the Peace Corps was doing its job properly. Turns out this chap was Calvin Trillin, a fledgling writer who was hungry — he took the job to evaluate our Peace Corps project to both eat and to serve as his and Alice’s paid honeymoon.
The day of their arrival I was conducting my weekly under-fives baby clinic. Mommas would bring in their infants and toddlers for their immunizations; I would also give them advice about what to feed their children beyond breast milk, and how to boil and store drinking water. Before leaving the clinic I would set up a date for them to return in order to do a cooking demonstration. The goal was to get them to add the flour of pounded up peanuts (groundnuts to the Brits) and a smashed cherry tomato to the child’s maize porridge to get more protein and vitamin C in their diet.
The clinic was more hectic than usual, compounded by the disruption of our guests. Because my hut was only 10′ X 14′, we had lunch outside: goat stew, nsima, rice, curried turnip greens, and bottles of warm soda.
Lunch was going well until a large, loud crowd began to wind its way from the main (dirt) road 1/8 mile down the village path to us. Even before the enlarging, angry throng reached my hut, I was totally undone with what I saw. Sami had been tied with twine around his arms and wrists so tightly that all four sites were bleeding. Moreover, what was even worse was that there was a similar string around his penis, and he was being led through the village literally in tow.
Culturally, Malawians are much more stoic about enduring pain than Americans or Europeans; therefore, I was moved by the tears flowing down Sami’s face. I begged the leaders to please untie Sami. Initially they politely yet firmly disagreed. After a protracted dialog, the compromise was to release his penis.
Cal and Alice Trillin were in an obvious state of disbelief. Alice was blond and fair; she became ashen, and remained totally silent throughout the two-hour ordeal. Cal frowned and simply shook his head.
Three days later a police Land Rover delivered all of my missing articles to my hut! People in the next village had noticed that some of my clothes were hanging out to dry, and when they approached that hut, a strange man was using my frying pan to cook over an open fire. I was told that this chap had recently been released from prison, having served time for burglary. Apparently he had convinced Sami to facilitate his wiping me out.
Sami spent a year in prison. Not long after his release we bumped into each other at the market in Blantyre. When our eyes met, he quickly ran away, ignoring my pleading for us to chat. He was lost in the crowd, forever.
As for Calvin Trillin? Well, a few years later I began to notice his name in The New Yorker, and then on the cover of books like Alice, Let’s Eat.
You know, in some ways I always kind of think that writing his Evaluation Report for the Peace Corps on our Malawi project was one way Calvin could take his lovely wife, Alice, out to dine while on their honeymoon. I also think the Trillins got their taste for good food from watching my cooking demonstration back in Nsiyaludzu Village.
As we RPCVs always say, the Peace Corps brings the world back home, as well as, into the pages of The New Yorker.
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Jack – You have had an exciting life in areas where you really do the most to help people. As one of your former professors, may I say that I admire you and find that your experiences really overshadow those of mine and many others. I salute you AGAIN. Larry Adamson
Jack Allison’s story is another example of how many exciting (for lack of a better word) adventures volunteers have had all over the world. Reading these stories shows that our personal experience really wasn’t all that unique: that we are legends in our own minds only.
What a great story! But, my interest was drawn to your description of your clinic work.
“The day of their arrival I was conducting my weekly under-fives baby clinic. Mommas would bring in their infants and toddlers for their immunizations; I would also give them advice about what to feed their children beyond breast milk, and how to boil and store drinking water. Before leaving the clinic I would set up a date for them to return in order to do a cooking demonstration. The goal was to get them to add the flour of pounded up peanuts (groundnuts to the Brits) and a smashed cherry tomato to the child’s maize porridge to get more protein and vitamin C in their diet.”
I have many questions, that I hope you might answer. Please excuse my ignorance. My first question is: “Were already a doctor when you served as a Volunteer?” “If not, what was your training?” I was a health education volunteer in Colombia, a few years earlier than your service. My other questions come from my experience.
So here they are:
1) Where the needles used for vaccinations sterile? If so, how were you able to do that? Had the British equipped your clinic?
2) At what infant age were you advising moms to supplement breast milk? We were encouraging moms to introducing food at one month, even tho the traditional practice was to nurse for six months w/o supplementation. The latter practice is now considered best practices.
3) What were the energy sources that the women had to boil water?
4) Was birth control an issue?
5) There are some studies that suggest that women who nurse w/o supplementation and whose babies are constantly suckling derive some contraceptive effect from that practice. If moms and babies are separated or if babies are being supplemented and suckle less, the contraceptive effect can be lost.
This the technical/medical history that I have not been able to find in the Peace Corps public record.
Loved the story.
One of my PCV colleagues was also robbed. One of the things that was taken was her tent. She eventually got most of the things back but her tent had been made into very large trousers.,