Pill Bottle Tick Tock


That daily dose of malaria protecting goodness. If you have a prescription for it in your name, you know you’re traveling far, most likely somewhere hot, most likely somewhere remote, most likely somewhere poor.

96 tablets. Enough for my entire stay in Malawi. Two days before. Seven days after. Every single day in between.

When I took the first pill in Seattle, my container was nearly full. Looking at it was daunting. Each pill meant another bucket bath, another night under a dusty insecticide treated mosquito net that will produce unprecedented sleep inhibiting allergic reactions, another conversation that will take twice as long because of language barriers, another look at an iPhone that will never ring. Each pill represented another 24 hours that will be at least 6 hours ahead of everyone who loves me. Twenty-four hours of having to adjust, negotiate, learn, relearn, unlearn and compromise. Time, needless to say, moved slowly. Each day, each pill, just never seemed to make a dent in the pile.

But as my workmate says when I present a new idea about changes to the organizational structure and work processes (my main internship task), “change is hard, but we can get used to”.

It wasn’t until a few days ago when I tossed my second can of Deet in the trash that I realized that time had escaped me. I grabbed my pill bottle to find less than half remaining.

Looking at the container now, I find myself a bit saddened. There seems to be a different script narrating my nightly pill-taking ritual. Each pill flushed down the back of my throat means one less picture I’ll take, one less walk through the market, one less conversation with the ladies in the kitchen who greet me so excitedly and make fun of my American cooking, one less fruit I’ll discover, one less moment in “the bush” that recalls stories my mother told me about her childhood growing up in Jamaica.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m excited to go back home. I’m looking forward to seeing my friends, reuniting with family at a cousin’s wedding that will take place just 3 days after I land, falling back into my normal routines, enjoying fast and reliable internet powerful enough to stream the new season of Orange is the New Black, cutting these darn braids out of my hair to free my afro, preparing for my half marathon and most importantly, getting a serious pedicure (these dirt roads are not kind).

But something happened between seven weeks ago and now. Now the thought of leaving tugs at me a bit and I wonder about the futures of the people I’ve met like Mercy. She’s the lodge cook who has a severe burn on left leg that left her with only three toes and whose knives in the kitchen are so dull, I struggle to cut a cucumber when I use it. How she’s able to prepare ANY food is far beyond my understanding. She told me today that she has a fiancé who lives in Blantyre, a commercial district almost three hours away. Quickly after telling me this, she advised that I should pray to God to send me a nice husband. I wonder if she’ll leave Balaka and her post at the lodge after they get married. I wonder how many children she’ll have.

I’m curious about the lodge guard whose name I do not know. Turns out he’s actually a trained high school biology teacher who just wasn’t selected for the limited open positions in the government schools. He has a 5-month-old baby and just works here to make ends meet until he finds a better job.  Balaka is very rural and the lodge is a 15-minute walk from the main road. As you can imagine, there’s not much to do as a guard here so he passes the time reading a small worn down Bible. He told me one Sunday that sometimes he doesn’t go to church and prefers to read the Bible to know God.

I think a lot about Nunga, my new best friend in Lilongwe, a recovering alcoholic (2 years sober now) who currently runs a support group called “Overcomers” at her church every Saturday and dreams to build clinics in Malawi that will help adolescents with mental illnesses and drug additions.  I wonder what will happen to her kids, who I met one night when we had dinner together at her house, and whether their interests in bugs and animals will sway them in a different career path than she hopes for them. I wonder if she’ll tell them her story.

I wonder about one of the driver’s daughters, who despite his disapproval, continues to pursue a career in journalism and was recently accepted into a university for a journalism degree. I wonder how he’ll manage to pay the school fees, since saving money is extremely difficult and not commonly practiced here.

This is not a reflection to portray how little people have and how much I have in comparison. This is not about guilt. This is not a reflection to sort out what I could do to impact these people’s lives. This is not about charity. This is not a reflection that ends saying that these people who have so little, somehow find a way to be so happy. This is not a fairytale.

This reflection is about realizing that everyone has a story that began before I met them and will continue long after I leave. My interactions with them and the relationship we develop will more than likely become a distant emotionless memory with the passing of time. They may forget me and I them. I am confident, however, that we’re learning from each other, even if it’s just in this moment. I hope that creates powerful ripples in each of our lives that push us to be more understanding, patient and open to differences. This reflection is about possibility.

I’m not sure how one makes the transition from counting pills each night to this; how does one go from worrying about their future to worrying about others’? I’ve never stayed abroad this long before to cycle through these stages. There’s something to be said about it, though. Maybe one day I’ll figure out what that is.

Story by Jodi-Ann Burey.