By Ivy Kuperberg
Ivy Kuperberg worked for a year for PIH's partner organization in Malawi, Abwenzi Pa Za Umoyo, as the assistant to the project's Country Director. The following is excerpted from an article in which Ivy describes an event that revealed both how much she shares with her closest Malawian friend and colleague (her "twin") and how wide a gulf separates the experiences of those born in the United States from their peers in poor countries like Malawi.
That snake does not look friendly.
It’s 6:00am and I’m doing my daily run through the African bush. Jay-Z pulsing through my iPod, I round the corner of the maize fields and come upon something distinctly green and succinctly unhappy. I take half a second to let my life flash before my eyes and then whip around and sprint back into the village. The staff houses fade into the distance and I bang on the door of the mud and thatched roof dwelling of Magdalene Johnson.
There’s no answer. Where in the world is Maggie? Maybe she ran to fetch water?
I look around wildly for a Plan B. The sun is just starting to rise over the mountains, a beautiful sight if I wasn’t so terrified. It’s morning in Neno, Malawi, one of the poorest districts in one of the poorest countries in the world, and instead of celebrating my one year anniversary at Partners in Health (PIH), a global health non-profit, I’m becoming the poster child for Ophidiophia.
I take up a slow jog towards my house, keeping my eyes peeled for any more ferocious fauna. At home, I dart through the screen door and make a beeline for the bathroom. Too lazy to heat up the water, I submerge myself into an icy morning shower.
I’m almost finished toweling off when there’s a frenetic banging on my door. Slipping into my culturally appropriate outfit of a long skirt and t-shirt, I hop to the door while attempting to strap on my sandals. The screen opens to reveal the Hospital Maintenance Head.
“Modi Bwanji? (Good morning how are you?)” I ask him.
“Ndi Bwino (I’m good),” He responds automatically. “Where is your twin?” he demands.
“Where is my what?”
“Your twin?” The Head looks at me expectantly.
“Oh. You mean Maggie. You mean she’s not at work?”
* * *
My house is right across the street from the Neno District Hospital, and I quickly skip across the dusty road to the main entrance. I pass the Emergency Room and peak into the Rehab Clinic my Malawian roommate, Claire, is running.
“Bo bo (what’s up)?” I shout into the room.
Claire looks up. “Bo bo.” She grins.
“Hey, have you seen Maggie? The Head came to my house looking for her. And she wasn’t at home this morning.”
“Your twin?” Claire asks, shaking her head. “Haven’t seen her.”
Maggie is not really my twin; my birth in Beverly Hills and her concurrent birth here in Malawi makes that physically impossible. But it’s not the birthdays that earn us the nickname-rather, it’s our affinity for high heeled boots in the middle of rural Africa, and our penchant for watching music videos of Rihanna and Chris Brown together at sunset. Both of us hail from the city (Maggie’s originally from Blantyre, Malawi’s financial capital) and have both found out that while you can take the girl out of the city you can’t take the… well you know the rest.
I step outside again, and am met with a throng of people at the pediatric clinic. The crowds are especially thick today, the veranda flooded by mothers with babies and toddlers tied to their backs. I peak into the throng to see if I can spot Maggie. Her youngest brother, Thomas, wasn’t feeling well last night. Between eating French fries and watching Disturbia, Maggie had mentioned taking Thomas to the clinic. Maybe she’s in line? I stand on my tip toes to get a better view and almost crash into a 3 year old. Lost in my thought, I then run smack into Dr. Jay, who’s about to climb into a car. “Sorry!” I say and then remember that he was the doctor on call last night. “Hey,” I say to him as he sticks one foot into the car. “Have you seen Maggie at all?”
Dr. Jay turns his head around and I prepare for more twin talk. But instead he nods. “Yeah, she came in last night with her brother-we referred him to the main hospital.”
That being said, I decide to call the city hospital just to see how Maggie’s doing. The nighttime rides can be pretty long, and bumpy. I hear a click on my phone and the patient registrar comes on the phone. I ask whether they have an 8 year old named Thomas Johnson in the wards. The registrar tells me to wait a second while she checks the rooms, and five minutes later she comes back on the line. “There’s no one here by that name,” she informs me.
I’m very confused.
* * *
That evening, I feel a buzz and take out my phone. A text message appears on my screen. I open it up, and the words flash across the screen. On shaky legs, I rush towards the hospital, nearly bowling over three boys playing a makeshift soccer game in the road.
The ambulance pulls in, bringing patients back from the city hospital. As the lowering sun’s rays bouncing off of the vehicle, I watch as the patients disembark, clutching their cloth bundles of food and medicine. Their chitinges are bundled tightly around them as they walk off in various directions, towards the market, towards home.
There’s a long, slow moment. And then--
Maggie appears, gingerly climbing out from the torn leather seats. She blinks into the setting sun and slowly removes a bundle of belongings from the ambulance. Nobody follows after.
Her gaze settles on me, and five feet away I feel the millions of miles between us, the ones that can be invisible when you’re sitting two feet apart from one another, but are nevertheless always there. There’s 10334 miles between Beverly Hills and Neno, and those miles, what they mean, never goes away.
We look at each other in silence.
And then I break it.
I think back to this morning, and remember the Head calling Maggie my twin as if it was the most natural thing in the world.
A joke. A lie.
And there’s the rub. Because for whatever does make us similar- the superficial hair and clothes, the not so superficial fitting in-there are things that Maggie will experience that I never will. My brother won’t die of cerebral malaria. And my parents won’t die of AIDS.
Maggie is an orphan. She’s raising her brothers, and lives without a safety net. Even when things are going well, it only takes one thing—a paycheck delayed too long, someone getting sick—to make it come crashing down around them.
We’re both still standing there, and it’s starting to get dark.
“You want to start heading home?” I ask quietly.
She takes a deep breath and watches as the sun disappears for the day. Then she turns back to me. “Yes.”
We start back down the path, each holding our own bundles, and our own burdens. For what else can you do in times like these but walk silently beside each other?
[posted November 2009]