Chapter One

Summary: Chapter One

William grows up in Masitala village, outside of Kasungu, in Malawi. When he was a child, “magic ruled the world.” He tells the story of how some boys gave him gumballs that they had found. After eating them, he hears that a trader lost them, but the trader asked the witch doctor (the sing’anga) to curse whoever ate them. William immediately feels that he has been poisoned and goes to his father. His father pays the trader, despite not fearing magic. William tells the story of a powerful magic hunter, Mwase Chiphaudzu, who saved the village from a dangerous rhino and then later from the Ngoni tribe, who were invading. William grew up with and respected such stories. 

William mentions his grandfather, who was a skilled hunter and had to deal with cobras and lions. William does not fear cobras or lions when wandering the forest, but instead fears the Gule Wamkulu: magical dancers who prey on young boys. After surviving the cursed bubblegum, William fears that he will be captured and put to work by a witch doctor. William’s father, a Presbyterian, teaches him to respect the power of juju, but that religious faith would always be stronger. 

William describes playing games with his two friends, Geoffrey and Gilbert. He says that their childhood games were like the games that American children play, acting as soldiers, or building cardboard trucks. William talks about the risk in getting a haircut in the trading center, because the power would often go out before the barber finished. William ends the chapter talking about the folktales his father used to tell him (and the other children). His father was “a born storyteller, largely because his own life had been like one fantastic tale.”

Analysis: Chapter One

Magic is portrayed as a strong cultural force in Malawian society and William’s life. Though William is ultimately drawn to scientific research, he is raised in a culture that respects magic as an essential element of life. The incident with the gumball shows how William is affected by this reverence for magic. Possessing a scientific mind, William is still susceptible to his culture’s beliefs as a child. Despite Trywell’s rationalism, William’s father is also caught up in the magic of their culture. He tells William tales of magical leaders who provided for the people. This magic may be camouflage, but Trywell expresses some hope that these tales are real. This is because, in Malawi, the people have very little power over their own lives. Believing in magic is a way to believe in the power people have to affect their own lives for the better. Ironically, this is the same impulse that leads William down the path of scientific invention. Like his father and other Malawians, William wants to believe that the people have enough power to make themselves safe. It is only through scientific development that this can happen. William’s relationship with magic will grow and change as the story continues.

Malawi is introduced as a harsh and unforgiving place where people work to survive against many challenges. Under constant threat of war, famine, and poverty, poor communities in Malawi get poorer, and corrupt, rich leaders get richer. The government has cleared trees and hunting lands that prevented floods. Officials have not considered the lives of their citizens, only their desires. The pressures and challenges of Malawi’s physical landscape make William feel angry and powerless. His options are severely limited. His village does not have electricity, and therefore they cannot pump water up from deep underground. William and his community are vulnerable in this setting, and William is pushed into innovation by dire need.