Annabelle Farrugia – 2017

Upon leaving last year, looking back at the village while the van made its way downhill, I promised myself I would come back, someday. So here I am, one year later. I’ve been asked several times about the reasons as to why I’m not going to some place I’ve never been before, for a complete different or new experience. Sometimes, I ask myself the same question, and I find that I always go back to two main things in this place that can lure you right back at it.

The place where you were born determines much of who you are, be it luck or destiny. It determines your whole life, and there are only a handful of things that are in our control about this. Used to a busy lifestyle, with a set limited time-schedule for literally everything I do in a day, be it work-related, meeting friends or simply grocery shopping with my mother, I came back, selfishly, also for the peaceful, and slow paced days.

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Living in a rural village, days here are calmer, simpler, and you don’t need to look at your watch or phone anxiously every 2 minutes. You know you have to wake up, because you hear children singing while they’re getting ready for school and you can’t really go back to sleep anyway. If you’re lucky, you wake up before them, go outside of your room when it’s still chilly, hear the tangible silence and look at the hills behind you, with mist rolling down on them like a grey cat moving silently on its paws. While you’re walking around, you’ll hear birds and cows’ bells as they’re grazing, which make you feel like you’re in some Heidi episode. Most of all, during the day, you hear the hard, indescribable laughter of children while they’re playing and going about their day. Finally, you know it’s 6p.m. because the village turns quieter while everyone goes back home as the sun starts setting and crickets chirp loudly.

This lifestyle, somehow, makes people calmer, and yes, happier. I believe that the one thing that allows them to be so serene, travelling through life lightly, despite the hardships that they constantly face, is that they live in the present. They do not worry about tomorrow, or their future. Maybe it’s because they cannot really plan, when their tomorrow depends very much on the weather, or the cattle, or what other unexpected job opportunities may arise; or maybe, it’s simply the culture. Hakuna Matata. Now sometimes this can become frustrating, especially if you’ve agreed to meet someone at a certain time, and they arrive hours later, walking calmly, with a smile on their face. It may not always be positive in other important matters, when it comes to the family’s child planning or the children’s needs in the future for instance.

Be that as it may, everyone here seems to have this ability, to sit and relax, detach and reflect; something that we are not really or truly taught to do. Personally, I try to keep it in mind when I’m at home; I consciously make an effort to remind myself to be present, be it a simple conversation or an important meeting. As hard as I try, sometimes, my mind still wanders into other things, more often than not, into the things on my to-do list which is always endless. Our mind is not trained to stay still; and when you try, it becomes boring or even frightening. So we try to occupy every minute of our time. Here, I find it easier. It’s almost as if the simplicity and the energy of the place give you a yearning, an urge and the actual chance to think, to question things, to reflect, and to take it all in.

Along with the lifestyle, the people within the community made a huge impact on me, too. It’s difficult to put into words how extraordinary these women are. Literally, they manage to achieve everything they set their mind to, being the running of the household from dawn to dusk and all the manual hard work that living in a rural village with no direct access to water and firewood entails; their children’s upbringing; the openness for understanding, learning, growth and improvement; or even initiatives for new ways to generate income for their family. All of this, with a smile on their face.

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Initially, I used to ask myself how all this work, lifestyle, or call it culture, does not manage to have its toll on them. How do they manage to smile all the time, or even laugh about it sometimes? If it were me, how would I feel? During a discussion with Masaai women in which we considered culture, women’s roles in society, their freedom for choice and decision-taking, marriage and family, we also spoke about the challenges they face every day. In doing so, I realised that they are tired, stressed and fed up, they do not fear change, as sometimes we tend to believe. However, they do not pity themselves.

How many times do we brag about our busy lives, our lack of time for ourselves, how badly we need a break; how many times have we whined about our work and the challenges that it brings with it or compared ourselves to others and thought about how some have it better than us? But really, what do we do about it? It isn’t hard to fall victim to life’s different struggles, and there are, and will always be times when you feel unhappy, vulnerable or like you have too much on your shoulders. But self-pity is what keeps one frozen at depicting himself as a victim, rather than a human being with the potential to develop a pro-active attitude for change. I believe that one vital thing we can all learn from these women, among several other values, is their ability to have an open mind and while devoting themselves so passionately to their families, and their community.

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Finally, I have always loved children. Being a teacher, I am more used to teens rather than younger ones, but I’ve always felt happier in general, when I’m around them, so you’ll always find me sitting at the table with my younger cousins during those rare big family reunions. Children are all the same, everywhere. They get attached to your company, even more because they’re very intuitive, and most often they are able to tell whether you really want to be with them, or not. They voraciously call your name even when you specifically say you’re going to rest, just to make you get up, walk to the door to hear them say “Come. Play.” I’m still in the process of learning to say no to that.

I love how they’re curious about everything around them so they’ll ask all sorts of questions to satisfy their curiosity and sense of wonder. Moreover, they have the ability to make a toy out of, literally, anything they find, be it soil, bottle caps, sticks, leaves or beads. Boys play with tires, paper footballs, or sometimes volleyball in between two trees with a net made of thorns. Girls build their own ‘doll house,’ but they don’t play with dolls. Their houses are actual spaces separated with stones, in which they create their own version of bedrooms, and a kitchen, with miniature tables and chairs to sit on while being ‘women’, and therefore, cooking, making tea, and other chores. They even have meetings to decide whether they will cook ciapati, ugali or mandasi, all this while never leaving the younger siblings out of sight, because that is their responsibility as well. I love how they all gather to sing and dance, with such passion, that you’ll find it’s almost impossible not to join them.

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So yes, the children; their presence, their innocence and their smiles. I love the way they immediately answer ‘learning’, without any hesitation, when asked what they love about school; not a reply I’m usually accustomed to hearing back in Malta. So being at school, attempting to understand their education system a bit better, and trying to understand how their learning experience can gradually improve and be more fruitful for their future, makes me feel a bit anxious sometimes, but excited, keen to become more involved, and yes, very happy to be back here.