DEAD MICE, An African Tale – Turning Experiences Into Stories

By Jackie Houchin

In last week’s Writers in Residence blog post, Gayle Bartos-Pool asked the question, “What do I bring to the party?”  She went on to tell of her extensive and varied experiences and personal contacts that have helped in research for her detective and spy novels. It got me to thinking about what I “bring to the party” of my story writing.

(1) I have a good knowledge of the Bible. (2) I’ve been on three short-term mission trips to Malawi, Africa. (3) I have 3 granddaughters who were once little and to whom I told and wrote many stories. (4)  I teach the 4th-6th grade Sunday School class at church and I occasionally help in the K-2nd grade Junior Church.

What a set up for writing children’s stories that take place in Africa and that have a Bible truth woven into them. Hey! That’s just what I am doing. I write the “Missionary Kids Stories” series (about a family serving in Malawi) and I send them out to about a dozen young kids (6-11) at church via email every 1-2 weeks. They are entertaining (according to  the kids) informative about Africa and mission life (occasionally gross as in the story that follows), “safe” (one mom’s comment), and have truths from the Bible as a take away.

Here is the first one I sent out, introducing the family and setting up the series. It is the shortest and simplest one. The stories vary in age level depending on the MK (Missionary Kid) who is telling the story. Stories five and six – told by a teenager – is one story in two parts with a cliff hanger at the end of five.

Dead Mice

Introduction

 These stories are about the (make-believe) Matthews Family, who went to Malawi, Africa about eight years ago to be missionaries.  This family has a dad and a mom, and seven children (three boys and four girls including a set of twins). As part of their names, each of them has the month that they were born in as a first or middle name, like Melody May or April Grace.  All of the stories are written to you as letters.  The first story starts like this: 

Hi kids!

My name is Melody May, and I have a twin sister whose name is Charity June. I also have three brothers and two more sisters. We all have the month we were born in as part of our names. It’s really cool I think, but some people think it’s weird.

My mom – her name is Mrs. Matthews – is really fun and creative. She picks out all our names. My dad – his name is Mr. Matthews – just smiles at her with love and agrees to the names.

People call me Melody, but they call my twin sister “June.” You may wonder how twins could be born in two different months. Can you guess how? It’s kind of tricky.

I’ll let my brothers and sisters tell you about themselves in other letters, but right now, let me tell you about what happened to my sister June and I a week ago.

We are MKs (Missionary Kids) who live in Malawi, Africa. Our dad is a college teacher at the African Bible College. We go to a school there too, but in a different building.

One day, an African boy in our class showed us a mouse… a really DEAD mouse. Then he dared us to do something with it. At first June and I refused, but then…..

Here’s how it happened.

The boy’s name is Kukana (Koo-KAH-nah). On that day, the first day of the new school year, he dared us to EAT a dead mouse! Ewww! Would YOU eat a mouse, especially a dead one? (I guess a live one would be worse!)

There are kids from America and Canada and Holland and South Africa in my class. There are many Malawian kids too. We have three grades in our classroom because, well, our teacher is very smart and can teach three grades at once! At least that’s what I think.

That day, when Kukana stood up in class with a closed box and told us he brought something for us to eat, we all smiled. We thought it might be some roasted peanuts, or those small super-sweet bananas they grown in Malawi. Yum.

Then he opened the box and reached in and held up this really stiff, black, hairy thing.  Some of the new girls screamed, but June and I didn’t. We almost did, but we grabbed each other’s hands and squeezed real tight.

“This is a mbewa,” he told us.

(You say mbewa like this – mmmmm-BEE-wah.)

“They are very tasty to eat,” Kukana said.

Then he held the mbewa up high by the stiff tail, tilted his head back, put the old dead mouse’s head into his mouth… and crunched it off!!!!!  He smiled big as he chewed it. The Malawian boys cheered and stomped their feet!

Our teacher frowned a little, but she didn’t say anything.

Kukana smiled again, real big, and there were little bits of black fur in his teeth!  He leaned very close to June and me and showed us his icky tongue, trying to scare us, I think.

Then he ate the rest of it….. even the tail. There were more hoots from the boys, and this time Mrs. Molenaar said, “Okay. That’s enough. Now tell the class about mbewa. Why did you bring it – and eat it?”

Mrs. Molenaar knew about mbewa – we could tell by her look – but she wanted Kukana to explain about this “famous Malawian snack food.”

“We eat mbewa because it’s good protein food,” began Kukana.

June and I looked at each other, our eyebrows raised way up and our eyes got big. OUR family eats  eggs, chicken, fish, and sometimes pork or beef for protein.

Kukana went on, “Village families here in Malawi are very poor. They raise goats and sometimes cows to SELL but not to EAT. They do this to have money for beans and maize to eat, and seeds to plant.”

I thought about what else OUR family eats. We like the beans, tomatoes, pumpkins, and peanuts that the villagers grow. We also eat yogurt and canned fruit and oatmeal. Sometimes Mom cooks nsima (nnnnnn-SEE-mah) which is made from white corn, called maize, and tastes like thick hot cereal without any salt. (Mom adds some for us.) Poor Malawians eat that every day. Sometimes that is all they HAVE to eat.

“There’s LOTS of mbewa around,” said Kukana. “You just have to catch them. We go to where old maize stalks or dead grass is piled up. We stand around the pile with sticks. Then someone lifts up the pile with a long pole and mice run out everywhere.  We have a lot of fun killing them with our sticks!”

Kukana laughed and all the boys laughed too.

“Then we put five or maybe ten of them on a long stick and roast them.”

Kukana looked right at June and me, opened his eyes really big and added, “….just… like… your… marshmallows!” Then he laughed in a mean way.

That made us feel mad and scared and icky, but we didn’t do anything. I think it was then, that I started to think….. maybe I WILL eat a dead mouse!

Mrs. Molenaar gave Kukana a stern look and he finished his talk like this. “Sometimes our fathers burn off the maize stubble (old stalks) in our fields. Then all the people stand around the edge of the field to catch the mice that run out.”

Mrs. Molenaar told the rest of it. “After the mice are roasted, which dries out the bodies but doesn’t burn off all the fur, they will keep for quite a while. Maybe you American children have tried jerky. It’s a bit like that.”

She turned to Kukana. “Did you want to share your mbewa with the class?”

He walked through the desks with the box down low. All the Malawian boys and girls took one out and started crunching and chewing. One American boy, named Benji took one too.

When the box came to June and me, my sister leaned way back, but I….. I reached in, grabbed a stiff hairy burned mouse and took it out.  Before I could think about what I was doing, I leaned back, held the thing up, and crunched off its head!!!!!!

This time June DID scream. “Melody! Noooo!! You are going to get sick and die!! And Mom will be very mad!”

I didn’t look at her. I stared at Kukana as I chewed the prickly, scratchy thing. It tasted kind of like burnt peanut shells and grease to me. Finally I swallowed it and stuck out my black-specked tongue to prove I ate it.

Kukana was surprised. He smiled at me (nicely, this time) and gave a little nod.  After that, he didn’t tease June and me. He kind of respected me, and since I was usually with my sister, he didn’t dare tease her either. After a while we even became friends.

Let me tell you a secret now. I didn’t finish the dead mouse.  I passed it to the boy behind me who snatched it up and ate it.

And you know what else?  I didn’t get sick and die.

I just became a Malawian.

But Mom DID get mad at me and told me never to do that again. I promised her that I wouldn’t. I figured I would never HAVE to do it again.

Later in our Sunday School class at the International Bible Fellowship church where my Dad sometimes preaches, I learned what Paul wrote in one of his letters in the Bible. He was a missionary to MANY countries. I don’t know if he ever had to eat mice, but he did say in 1 Corinthians 9:22, that he wanted to “become all things to all men that he might save some” for Christ.

I hope Kukana will someday want to know Jesus too. Maybe he will listen to me now when I tell him the gospel story ….. BECAUSE I ate the mouse.

mk-mice-and-boy

mk-mice-1

~~ Facts ~~

          Malawians DO eat mice like this for protein. Sometimes you can see them along the road, selling mbewa still lined up in a row on the roasting sticks, or in piles on a piece of cloth they spread out on the ground. They also eat big grasshoppers for protein which they fry in oil and sprinkle with hot pepper. 

The End. Or is it?

Madeline GornellMadeline (M.M.) Gornell is the author of six award-winning mystery novels. Her current literary focus is Route 66 as it traverses California’s Mojave Desert. Madeline is a lifetime lover of mysteries, and besides reading and writing, is also a potter. She lives with her husband and assorted canines in the High Desert. For more information, visit her at website or Amazon Author Page.

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In my last post, I talked about “Openings.” Recently, the knowledge our reading personalities (our likes and dislikes) differ, was not only reinforced to mebut also the thought of writing about “Endings” came to mind as a good idea.

On the “our reading personalities differ” front, after reading the latest selection from my Book Club, I mentioned the book in a couple places and to a couple people because I liked some parts of the book a lot. Then I asked for and received input from both fellow authors and my Book Club. All their thoughts caused me to think again about how important Endings are. I already knew how special they were to me (both as an author and as a reader). But there’s knowing, and then there’s knowing.

I liked this particular book especially for its opening and ending (fond of unresolved characters, symbolism, and lyricism). I found the middle sagged, and the issues weren’t ones that particularly grabbed me. So, here’s my “readers are different” reinforcement anecdotes. Among other items, feedback I received was:

  • Didn’t like the end because it was too open ended—i.e. what happened to…
  • Almost put it down because didn’t like beginning
  • Didn’t like beginning or end, but loved the story, mainly the dialogue and the issues…

Smile!

I’m what I call a “Pantster” when it comes to writing. That means specifically, I usually write the beginning first, then the end[i], and finally fill in the middle. And that filling in the middle jumps around a lot—but that’s the fun part. That’s where the plot twists and turns come in. My personal joy in writing.

So, at the risk of possibly once again offering more than you want to know about how writing actually happens for one particular author, here’s even more. The kind of endings I love to read:

  • Tie to the beginning, giving the reader that “Oh yeah, I remember how all this started” feeling,
  • Endings that leave readers with pictures in their minds—not just mental, but photographic too,[ii] (in color with all the senses involved is even better!)
  • And highly desired, is leaving a symbolic nugget of some kind.

I live in a rural desert area, and if I want to get anywhere near civilization, I have to drive over one of two Burlington Northern/Santa Fe railroad tracks. One train line I usually get caught sitting at runs along Route 66. Several days ago, the train was relatively short compared to some, and it stuck out visually that there was an engine on both ends. And in my mind, symbolic at that moment in time, the lead engine was pulling the reader along the story track, but when at the end of the line, the ending engine would take your mind farther past a particular book, or back into the book. I know, fanciful and a flawed example in several waysbut sitting there, waiting for that train to pass gave me several ideas on how to improve my current ending.

And yes, every time I open my WIP, I “touch up” not only the beginning, but also the end.

I’m hoping there might be a writing tidbit here about the importance of the impression your reader is left with at the end–given all our differing likes and dislikes. Having readers of your offering who not only say, “wow,” I liked that, or even “ptooie,” what an awful book; but more–such as a not easily forgotten image(s) left in their minds. And just maybe ideas and thoughts taking them farther than the tale just finished. For me it’s a lofty goal, but one that keeps me striving, keeps me writing.

I also want the ending sentences to be lyrical—and what exactly I mean by that is another blog for another day. (translation—I haven’t figured out yet what exactly I mean by that. One of those “I know ‘it’ when I experience it in other books” kind of thing.)

Happy (writing) trails!


[i] Sometimes it’s the end first, then the beginning. [ii] Fire Horses by Robert Haig is a prime example for me.