Behind the church was a lean-to, featuring on its west side an unfinished fence that had recently been painted red. Beside the fence, under the shade of a pawpaw tree, sat an elderly man who looked up as if expecting company. Three children then appeared in the doorway, quickly morphing into four and then six as some circled from behind the lean-to and others came running down the path on the other side of the fence, as if they too knew of the foreigners’ arrival.
Mwembe spoke to the man, who didn’t get up.
“Which Banda?” the man answered, showing off his English and several missing teeth. Mwembe continued in Chichewa as three teens brushed by him to join the others, excitement sparked by the unfamiliar. Maya and Aman smiled and lifted their open palms to say hello to the gathering. Before anyone could respond, the man slowly raised himself from the ground, brushed at his jeans, and proceeded to the path beyond the red fence. With Mwembe close behind, the students followed him in silence through tall rows of barren corn husks.
After a few minutes, they reached a small clearing where two dirt houses sat with thatched roofs. A smattering of corncobs lay strewn about before the one on the left, but the man abruptly pointed to the one on the right. He then spun around and marched away, the corn closing in behind him.
Mwembe approached and called out for the Bandas. In the doorway moments later appeared a skeleton with oily black hair clinging to her neck.
In Chichewa, Maya greeted her without missing a beat. “Moni. I’m Maya and this is Aman.” Nothing. “Are you Solomon’s mother?” Maya then looked to Mwembe for him to start interpreting. “We are law students from the United States . . . We met with your son earlier today.”
The woman blinked. Into the door frame silently stepped a tall man with the face of a child. His soft look and grey eyes reminded Maya of Solomon. Suddenly the woman turned and with her sinewy fists pounded at his chest. Squealing out in protest, as if imitating a mouse, he fell over backward into the dark.
Maya glanced at Mwembe, but he showed nothing. “We are trying to help your son,” Maya offered, her hands facing upward. “Would you feel comfortable answering a few questions?”
To the west, a boy and a girl ducked behind a sapling tree that cast a thinly protective shadow. The woman turned and stepped away from them, heading over to the clothesline and walking south through damp, unidentifiable garments until she disappeared into the corn. Maya worried she wouldn’t return. Minutes passed, maybe ten, when a man emerged on a slope to the east with the woman not far behind him. They hobbled barefoot over to their doorway, where the man directed the woman to sit on a stump. He was less emaciated than she, but severe malnutrition marked his skin, eyes, and protruding ribs. Aman tried their introductions again.