“My elders have reported to me that they are out of razors and have asked if I might help them get some.”
The speaker was K. Banda, a guard (yes, male) at our complex and a friend. He had asked me one Sunday in August to go with him and another brother to church in Mponela for a gospel meeting, which turned out to be a pleasant visit to a church in a village within Mponela’s jurisdiction, a village which neighbors K.’’s home village. We were able to meet K.’s wife and at least one of his children and lots of church members from all over Mponela who had come for the event. We know his church, which now needs razors.
I wondered why. Some African Americans have to shave regularly or grow longer beards with a dangerous interim where curly facial hair tends to turn inward and cause bothersome if not serious infections on the face. I presume Africans might have a similar problem, but I’ve not seen or heard of it firsthand. Kay asked me how much razors cost.
I use one of those multibladed gizmos which Gillette sent me and every other American male in the mail on the “if you try it you’ll like it” theory, and then I’m buying the heads from them for life--or until something better comes along. I clean up my beard once a week here and haven’t bought razors in ages. I have not a clue how much a pack of Bics would cost here in Malawi, but I’ve seen them and their Chinese knock-offs in the stores.
I’m trying to explain all this to Kay, who speaks very little English--I’m not even trying to touch this subject with my Chichewa. Malawians do not differentiate between the “R” sound and the “L” sound, so I begin to correct Kay’s English since I’m not making much headway explaining permanent handles and replaceable heads of multi-bladed razors. “Laser. That’s a special kind of ‘torch’ (the English word for flashlight in this part of Africa) which is very powerful, very strong. It can burn holes in things.” If I can’t explain razors how am I going to explain lasers which I myself hardly comprehend, but I’m on a roll. I write in the dust “Laser”, then “Razor”, then we do a little speech therapy. (I get a lot of this from Malawians. Turn about’s fair pay.) K., probably more frustrated than I am at this point, writes out in the dust his understanding of the word, “Raises” and we launch into the even more foreign concept, at least for Malawians, of getting paid a little more. Actually, this was a big cue to what he was really after, but I missed it completely.
Then, like the locks on some of our doors around here, the conceptual key finally falls into place and the mental bolt turns. Kay explains that he’s looking for “What’s used for Holy Communion instead of wine.” Raisins!!! In a laudable attempt to be Biblical about worship, to do what first century churches did, many congregations in tropical Africa, churches in villages which have no electricity and have no spring for a spring-house, soak and then boil raisins to extract the essence of grape as juice: fruit of the vine, African style. The only problem is that raisins are almost as rare as grape juice. Both can be bought here, but grape juice is considerably more expensive. Both are imported—no grapes are grown here, and it costs a lot to move all that water around the world. (Most liquids we consume, with the exception of hard liquor--greater than 100 proof--are mostly water, heavy and costly to move.) African struggles to do communion right, however, are another story.
Kay Banda was not looking for a shave for his friends at home, or a light saber, much less an increase in pay. His elders are just looking for a little help in getting raisins to make “fruit of the vine” for the Lord’s Supper. Transportation issues and other short-term problems have kept us away from the grocery store for several days, so we may be in town this afternoon, certainly before the weekend, and we’ll see how much raisins are for Kay and his church back home. And we’ll continue plugging away at better communication skills with our Chichewa friends here in Malawi.