Saturday, November 1, 2008

Last Malawi Post 2008

It has been over four months since I last updated this blog. So much has happened since that time. One of my personal mysteries of travel is the rate at which time occurs. I sat at a computer in Malawi four and half months ago and I felt both blessed and cursed with the idea that four more months remained before my departure and return to the United States.
Well, here I am, sitting beside one of my best friends in his home in Albany, New York.
I’m typing away on the laptop I left in New York City for my cousin to use while I was away in far-away Malawi.
Waterfall close to Lukwe Camp, on the Livingstonia Escarpment

[Malawi? Where is that? North of Mozambique. Someplace with roughly the same area as the state of Pennsylvania. What will I be doing there? I’ll be volunteering with an HIV/AIDS outreach project. I’ll even go so far as to get the project tattooed to my arm in bold, black print. TCE. Total Control of the Epidemic. My year will crawl by. I will miss home and all the amenities and comforts which I take for granted every day: New York style pizza, Civil Rights, WASP-talk, and the unspoken agreement that pedestrians do have the right of way. I will change and become and alter and grow and it will shake the very foundations of my being, and….yada yada yada]
A Big Blue Star Chalet at Nkhata Bay.

So, my last word on spending a year in Malawi: one day you wake up, and you realize that Malawi is your home. You walk down the dirt road with clouds of dust kicking up at you in the dry wind, and you are just in front of your house on your street. You walk through the hovel of shanty shacks, with the half-roof shelters of the open and stifling city market nearly falling in upon you, with voices and bodies bustling in a frenzy for any sale whatsoever, and you are just shopping. You are followed by four of the cutest, dirtiest street-kids you have ever seen. They climb on you, wrestle you, smile at you, and show off for you. You buy them a bunch of bananas. You sit with them and discuss life in profoundly broken English and Chichewa. In that moment, you are more touched, moved, and inspired; more comfortable and simply with the feeling of being completely at home then you can ever remember being back in your country of origin.

The United States? Where is that?

Akidu Bwanali and I agreed that we would meet at 7:30 in the morning in Mathindi to start our Big Walk. I was there on time along with Officer Chifundo (of the Chileka Airport Police) and about 8 Field Officers. I was wondering where Chimvano (the Community-Based Organization for whom this event had been set up to benefit) and Akidu were.
After a long 30 minutes, we managed to get a hold of another Field Officer by phone. Akidu was with them, as were about 50 members of Chimvano. They had met at a primary school a few kilometers north of where we were. They were walking towards us, and just coming out of a cell phone dead-zone. Whatever the source of the miscommunication, we met up on the side of the road a few minutes later and we started walking together.

The Mchere Youth Organization

Officer Chifundo had agreed to join us as a volunteer. I met him at the airport when a friend of mine—a guy named Bela—had run into some Malawi-exit headaches two months before. Officer Chifundo was the kind, compassionate force of nature who advocated on behalf of Bela having a smooth afternoon and night after he’d missed his flight—due to what I remember being his own negligence.
All the ticketing agents had disappeared. The security workers and the cleaning crew around the check-in counters just laughed and spoke in Chichewa as Bela frantically sought a solution. He was alone at the airport and his connecting flight in South Africa wouldn’t be waiting for him. That’s when Officer Chifundo stepped in. He facilitated the whole process of flying out early the next day. He is a police officer—not an airline representative—but he saw a need, and he stepped in. He even went so far as to walk down the road with Bela to get him situated in a lodge for the night, and to walk the four km back to that lodge an hour and a half before he was to be on duty—at 4:30 in the morning—to meet with Bela and walk him back up to the airport.
I met Officer Chifundo the afternoon when Bela missed his flight. I was so impressed with the way the two of them had bonded. How relaxed, approachable, and human this police officer was. I ended up telling him about this fundraising walk I was planning. When I invited him to participate, he declined my offer to pay him by asking, “Will you be paid extra money to walk for this cause?”
School construction site in Pasani.

So he was there alongside us. It worked out perfectly, because the two police officers, who were signed on to direct traffic for us, never showed up. Close to our half-way point, one of Officer Chifundo’s workmates from the airport saw him with us—in uniform. This individual confronted him in heated Chichewa. I intervened. The man left. About an hour later, Officer Chifundo’s boss drove up on the side of the road. He began to say things which I couldn’t understand. But the tone can best be described as sugar-slimy. Pretend-sweet with a hard and subtle edge of domineering. Again, I intervened. There were over 60 individuals on the other side of the road. Standing in an awkward configuration alongside the major trucking route between Blantyre and Lilongwe. We needed a police presence (with his shiny fluorescent vest, and his crisp “Malawi super-starched” uniform), and I wasn’t just going to stand by while this jerk berated my friend for doing a good, voluntary deed on his declared day off. The boss wavered finally, and gave me a triumphant smile. “You can have him today.” He shook his head and brought his lower lip in tight to his jaw, “When he reports for work tomorrow, then he will face disciplinary action for working outside his jurisdiction.”
Pasani School Site

I asked him to wait. “Hang on, sir. Please. This man is doing a good thing.” I told him about the cause. I told him about the other police officers who had failed to show up. Finally, when he had repeated his disciplinary intentions three times, I told him that if he did anything that might have a negative effect on Officer Chifundo, that I would write a letter of personal complaint. I promised that letter would reach his superiors. I would make it my personal mission to make his life 10 times as difficult as any disciplinary action would make Officer Chifundo’s.
Officer Chifundo saw me off at the airport 3 and a half months later. He had that same noble energy. Easy to be around. With an untarnished record. I even saw his boss as I left the waiting area to board my plane. I wondered if he recognized me.


Pasani site.


Back to the Big Walk: As we walked, we sang songs in different languages. The most memorable one, when translated, speaks of the need for unity in fighting for a common cause. Folks in the villages came out and waved. We marched and sang. I had over 250 little plastic bags filled up with water for the participants to drink as we moved along. A couple of kilometers before we reached the Roundabout, our project truck met us with 30 orders of chips (French fries) which had been donated by a local restaurant in Blantyre called Krazy Foods. At about 2:00 p.m. we sent the participants back up north in a big, flat-bed truck. They paid 4,000 Kwacha for the transport. We raised almost 40,000 Kwacha altogether (almost 300USD). That money went into a slush fund for orphan school fees. I pushed and pushed the Chimvano members to fundraise in their villages for this cause. I wanted them to own not only the cause, but to also own the results of the effort.

Stephanie at far left with a group of children posing on the way to Bembeke.

The following evening, all 100 Field Officers who work in Blantyre came over to my house for the night. A gathering of over 2,000 TCE Field Officers was about to commence in Mozambique. Representatives from all over Sub-Saharan Africa, India, and China would be in attendance. A convoy of busses—our transport south in the morning.
I knew it would be insanity to share the house with all of the Blantyre Field Officers. But nothing could have prepared me for the reality of a house with over 100 people in it. At that point, we had very little furniture. We did have a television with a DVD-player, though, and that got put to use very quickly. I kept walking into the living room to witness this sardine-packed group of men sitting, squatting, and standing in rows to watch any action film available (they love Jean-Claude Van Damme, Steven Seagal, and Jason Statham). I’d walk out to see them for 30 seconds, then, shaking my head, I’d walk back to the relative quiet of my quarters. Only a few guys set up in my room. It’s nice to have a small number of close friends in a situation like that. The ones who knew they were invited didn’t need an invitation.

Tools for the job.


The other Field Officers—from Zomba—met us on the main road when we pulled away from my house. There were nine busses altogether, with over 200 individuals in total. We drove 70 hours south to cover the distance. I always thought I had the skinny on the cross-country trip. My Mom and I used to drive from California to Michigan and back once a year. But this experience cured me of any notion that I had hitherto truly experienced travel by road. The roads were so bumpy. We got 3 flat tires just on the way down. We slept on the bus. Arguing for the seat you want to keep so that you can hopefully doze off for a few minutes. These guys would start in on a topic and they would sound as though they were fighting. They were never more than heated discussions, for which there wasn’t a volume knob. For the entire 70 hours of the return trip, I had the trepidation which accompanies diarrhea when you ain’t got a toilet, and you know you ain’t getting one.

More waterfall views on the Livingstonia Escarpment.


I got my nickname during that trip to Mozambique. Chisale. The Field Officers were all very pleased with me. I had struck gold in a partnership with a South African department store called “Game.” I went into Game’s Blantyre location and had a conversation with Sandra. Sandra is the manager accountable for outreach. I told her about our trip to Maputo, and requested Game’s support with any kinds of snack foods to supplement our “bare-bones” food budget for the ride to and from the event. She ended up with enough boxes of chocolate truffles, and bags of potato crisps to fill 6 full-size grocery carts. Each Field Officer had a box of chocolates worth more than 10USD each. This was not sustenance, but it made a huge difference for the morale of the Field Officers as we traveled.
On the way down, one of my fellow passengers, close to the sugar-low of a chocolate coma, in a mumbling crescendo, shouted out: “Wa wa, Chisale!!” And that was it. Everyone in the bus started in on it. Next thing I knew, they were all fully awake and laughing, asking me where Ana Chisale was. I never distinguished if Ana Chisale is Chisale’s wife, girlfriend, or sister…


Pasani School Site.


The trip wasn’t to Maputo, but rather through Maputo. We came to our destination in the middle of the bush in a village with no stores called Changalane. A teacher training college for my organization was hosting the event. They had tents set up for all the men in one part of the camp, and for all the women in another. I shared a tent with 9 of my Field Officers, and really enjoyed bunking up with them. We would tell stories and laugh and then I’d fall asleep without expecting it and wake up in a tent full of the warmth of 10 breathing bodies. I had laughed at them when I’d seen all the extra blankets they had packed. Not until we got there did I realize how necessary those blankets would be. It was beyond cold. It was frigid. I don’t remember who was next to me, but I do remember that he had two blankets and they were big enough to cover both of us.
The showers weren’t any less intimate, but I was not in favor of that scene. It was just as cold in the morning as at night, except somehow more so. Maybe it was due to the impending daylight and the unspoken expectation that we were due to face the day in a fashion conducive with social outreach. It was a work-conference, after all. Polished, clean, awake, personable, not grumpy as hell. That first morning, I walked over to the thatched-reed walls of the men’s shower facilities. Big metal trash cans sat up off the ground, balanced on three outward-pointing cinder-blocks, filled to maximum capacity with water, heating over an open wood flame. I nicked a small bucket and filled it up. Took off my shoes and walked into the group shower stall mud-pit, with about 10 soapy strangers comfortably soaping up their dark-skinned nether regions, as I—wonderfully aware of their curious eyes upon me—awkwardly stripped down to my ill-affected wintertime birthday suit. Every shower after that one was spent sneaking into one of the few private showers located in the dormitory buildings. The water was cold, but the environment was private. You do the math.


Community Volunteer Carpenters for Pasani School Project.


The conference itself was big. I don’t have any other words for it. Those readers who are familiar with either my project or the organization at-large, will understand the use of the word “big” as a limiting, but also limited descriptive. There was a lot of philosophical punch thrown into everything. A bias similar to that of an anti-drug after-school-special with the blanketing emotional obtuseness of a hallmark moment. This weekend was, in some ways, the greatest success I’ve ever seen in an initiative put on by this organization. We had amazing food that was prepared on time and with impeccable taste by five different kitchen teams for every hungry mouth in attendance. Large groups came from Angola, Namibia, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi, and of course Mozambique. These teams came long distances. They were ready for the content of the weekend, and they were ready with high-energy and intention. But I still walked away from this weekend, and from my general involvement in this project with the feeling that I had just stepped out of some strange obligatory (almost church-ey, despite no religious affiliation) youth program. There is something condescending in the way I saw our project relate to the Field Officers, and vice-versa. From the way we pressure them with idle/empty threats to report their statistics with integrity, to the way things are spoken to benefit the ears of the person listening, rather than to have any real impact on the issues at hand.

Shavorne, one of the new volunteers to the project. I'm normally a terrible photographer, on account of my shaky hands, but this one turned out well. I snapped it over my head without looking.


Over the next 3 months I saw my efforts go towards a couple of great projects. I battled with myself over whether or not my working on things outside of my contractual obligation was a good use of my time. I stood in Officer Chifundo’s shoes—outside of my jurisdiction for causes I cared about. I sat in my supervisor’s office, attempting to defend my commitment to see a preschool construction project come to full fruition. I wasn’t working on it on my days off—I was working on it every day, and my contractual commitments (however vague they might have seemed to me to be), were suffering.

Pasani School in progress.


The school is doing well now. I received a big chunk of funding from a friend named Ciara. She was instrumental in this project moving as far as it has. As of now, the roofing is complete. They should be finishing the flooring any day now. The rainy season will no longer cause the school to close. No more damage will be incurred by the partial construction status and its vulnerable brick walls. It took a few weeks to take action on site. The location of the school puts it on the property of the Group Village Headman for Pasani. This is a traditional government position, and an important one. When GVH Pasani passed away at the end of September, I thought maybe the project would be a bust. But my primary point of contact in the community told me to be patient. That the community would go through its normal grieving period. A new GVH was appointed, and everything went back to normal. I have a couple of different advocates continuing to manage this project as it expands. Costs have risen due to an astronomical increase in the cost of sheet metal as the primary roofing material. I am no longer fundraising, and I will generate the surplus for our budget myself. The primary costs we had to push back are for food and for the teacher training. But these will go through easily. It is just a matter of patience and time.
A friend named Katja referred a college-aged orphan to me to find him housing in Blantyre. She’s been working where he grew up—in Zomba. He showed up in Blantyre the day before classes began at the College of Accountancy. I met him outside a big grocery store, and we introduced ourselves over a Coca Cola. I brainstormed with him on where he might be able to crash for the next 5-6 months of his first semester. We ended up going over to Doogles. Doogles is the big backpackers lodge in Blantyre. He had received about 35USD from Katja. I thought it was important that he spend that money on comfortable accommodations for at least 2 or 3 nights, so that he could go to his first day of classes well-rested. I told him that I would come back with whatever cash I could get for a big bottle full of coins I had saved up. That ended up being about 35USD as well.
We met on Tuesday night, and I began chatting about his situation without realizing what I was doing. Well, due to that chatting, about $400USD in unpaid school fees got picked up by a young English woman who was just completing a short stint volunteering at a local orphanage. Her name is Sophie. She remained in contact with me over the next couple of weeks. Her Dad wired the money from the UK directly to the school in Malawi. I also chatted with Ciara that same night at Doogles. She was also finishing a short volunteer stint around Blantyre. She had a lot of money fund-raised, and an orphanage that refused to furnish a budget for projected needs. She wasn’t comfortable donating money she had raised to go into some discretionary spending account. After a year of witnessing discretionary spending action, I can’t say I blame her. She ended up supporting both the pre-school project and a scholarship for James and his cost of living.
I kept in close touch both with Katja and with James over the next three months. We were waiting for the wire transfer to come through from Ciara, and both Katja and I continued to support James with smaller amounts of cash in the meantime.
James ended up with over 100,000 Kwacha for six months cost of living expenses. That is approximately 16,500 Kwacha/month—just about 100USD. The government-set minimum wage is approximately 20% of that amount. Whenever I found myself questioning whether or not these resources were being well spent on James, I took a look at my own expenses. I thought about how I struggled to maintain myself on 26,000 Kwacha in a single month (with subsidized housing, full health-coverage, and work-related transport/communication allowances covered without my “stipend” being touched). And then I’d look at James: a good, quiet, kind kid of 18 years old; a kid who has climbed his way up into a college-level program so that he can have the opportunity to support his three younger siblings and his ailing grandmother. I’d shake my head, smile, and relish the opportunity to hand these resources off to a great guy—a great guy who will never stop being thankful for the support, and the trust I’ve shown him.

The books are on my mind. A container with 40,000 textbooks had been on its way from the U.S. since July. They would be arriving by boat in the beginning of September. I made contact with the shipping company; did all that I could to coordinate the paper-work and smooth delivery of these books. Only 10-15,000 were for my project. The rest were to be claimed by the Father of a Catholic Parish close to Lake Malawi. I still had not met him when I received word that the boat had come into port in Beira, Mozambique. I had spoken to him a couple of times. I knew that he was counting on me. I knew that he had paid around 9,000USD for the shipping costs of bringing his share of the books to Blantyre. I knew that I had no idea how to manage this process—this was a brand new world of actions to take.

Stephanie and I with a young girl on the way to Bembeke.


The month of September flew by, and I found myself beginning to wonder when these books would be making the short inland distance from Beira to Blantyre. I spoke with Father Federico. We met in town on Monday, October 6th. I’d been into the office of the shipping company myself twice during the previous week. With Father Federico I had a secret weapon: this Italian dude speaks perfect Chichewa.
I didn’t know he spoke Chichewa, and I couldn’t have anticipated what a huge difference it would make. I was scheduled to fly out of Malawi on that coming Friday. Father Federico was heading back to Italy on the Monday to follow. As soon as we had spoken our complaint, the office crew began to speak over our heads in Chichewa. That’s when the secret weapon took effect. He stood up to them, and he charmed them. I still have no idea what got said in that room, but I do remember the tone, the laughter, and the nuance. They respected him. Maybe it was because he is a man of God. Maybe it is just in his personality. I don’t know. But I do know that I received a phone call the following morning, alerting me that the container had made the 2 and a half day trip in 24 hours; it was waiting for us to go to the border, and to clear it through the customs process.
Here is an excerpt from a letter I wrote later that Monday:
[i changed my ticket today. went into the south african airways office in blantyre. i asked the manager if he'd be willing to change my ticket and not charge me the $175 fee. i told him about the container of books. how i've been working for 3 and a half months to get these books into malawi. he told me to book my ticket for next wednesday with one of the assistants in the front of the office. then he proceeded to delete my ticket for this friday from the computer system. my eyes must have been as wide as dinner plates. he told me to come back and see him after the container arrived in town. i don't know what's going to happen. I have a feeling that he's going to take the fees off. it is just so cool the way he handled it. he's added this little bit of mystery to the process. i asked him if there was any chance that my ticket would disappear from the system if i left the $175 fees unpaid until next week. he shook his head as he looked at me from over the frames of his glasses. he told me that he'll be looking out for me. then he launched into this monologue about how much more important my presence has been to malawi then these fees will be to his company. how he--as an educated malawian--has all the wisdom that his teachers have passed on to him in his brain. how he uses that knowledge every day. and how this consignment of books will contribute to the learning and knowledge of tomorrow's leaders. how it must have taken sweat to get it here. and how it would be somewhere else if it weren't for me standing firm and saying, "bring it here." i was almost crying as he finished saying all of this to me. we shook hands. he said that he can never shake the hand of an enemy. it is only with a friend that he can shake hands. because in that physical gesture, there is partnership, peace, and love. how do these people exist? i'm so touched by this simple exchange and his profound sense of kinship with humanity. i will bring him a box of donated books so that he can give it to a school close to where he lives.]
Those fees didn’t get paid. They just disappeared. I ended up donating a new set of Encyclopedias to him. His daughter is a teacher in a school that can use such books. We agreed that she would snap some photos and do a write-up on the school and the busy, little beneficiaries. If there is one person that will always come to mind when I think of Malawi, it is Gray Ndovi of South African Airways. He was a manager with that airline for two years before Apartheid ended. He has remained. Such stories we humans can have. Just the idea of the stories this man has amassed in his lifetime—just the idea makes my skin tingle; makes everything else quiet. me still.


During my last week in Malawi I thought about all the things I still think about now that I’m home. I think of my best mate’s wedding. Jaco and Salma. Being his best man in Malawi. I think about the goat I watched through its slaughter. I try to remember the taste of my own revulsion and sadness as I watched the Muslim Priest pray over the animal and slice its Hallal throat.
Jaco and me.

I think about the 300 kgs of fertilizer being put to use in a village—the name of which I can’t remember. I think about farming subsidies for foreign crop inputs. And of the pre-supposed need of such a thing as fertilizer, which—in the long run—depletes the soil of its natural resources.
Anthony Chilobwe, TCE Field Officer
I think about Malaria, and the death of one of our own. God rest your soul Anna.
I think about all the stories I have yet to share with you. The stories friends would tell me as they held my hand after a few games of pool. The music that comforts me and breaks my heart because it reminds me of home. The vacation north into the mountains and into the lake. The friends who have so little. The friends who have so much. 2 guards with 2 cell phones who make each and every phone call with a level of gratitude I will never know. A future doctor. A life of travel. A pot of biryani. A baby on the way. Falling in love. Wonky pool tables. Time well spent in the blink of an eye.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

June Update

The District Commissioner for Blantyre has his office in a governmental complex on the south-east side of the city (Remember that the District is like a small state for this country―something like a county to those of you in the U.S.). He and his associates handle concerns and requests that come in from both urban and rural populations. These concerns can range from funding for community initiatives such as materials for community lessons to permits and partnerships with the local police to see grassroots events come to a full fruition. They've got to handle the concerns, or refer them to the proper agencies. They have a small staff and a big job.
I went to visit the District Commissioner early in the month of May to request a permit for a fundraising "Big Walk." I've been planning for this event with one of my Field Officers since April. We agreed that it would be best to start a few kilometers north of Lunzu and to walk south through town along the M-1 until we reach the big roundabout where you can split off towards Chileka and the airport, or choose one of two roads which take you directly into Blantyre. The walk will be slightly more than 20 km. The M-1 is the main trucking highway running north towards Lilongwe, the capitol city. We will need a security force of police to keep the walk from being dangerous.
When I first went to visit the D.C. I found him at his desk in his office. I didn't expect him to have the time to see me, but he did. He asked me to type up my request and told me that he would look it over and write a letter on our behalf to the police, authorizing our raising of funds, as well as our event itself. When I went back with the letter, he wasn't in the office. I went back a third time, and found myself in the same situation. I got his phone number from his secretary, and got him on the phone. He suggested that I see the HR manager for their department. He told me that she could write and sign the letter in his absence. I went to see her. She is wonderful. Listens to Christian, country music. Has the frenzied energy that only an elegant, over-worked, social-service career-minded mother, who loves her job, can have. She laughed as she typed up the letter. We talked about good days and bad days. How you never can tell how a day is going to go unless you follow your gut. How you can change a day around depending solely on your attitude. She gave me two dozen copies of the permit/letter―all stamped and signed, as well as just as many stamped and signed contribution forms for fundraising. She packed them all into a huge monstrosity of a manila-style envelope, which I had to fold twice to fit into my bag. And off I went.
I've remained in contact with different book donations organizations over the last couple of months. "Books for Africa" is one such organization. They are located in the Twin Cities, Minnesota. I found out that we could receive a portion of a container of books (to be shipped to Blantyre in July), but that we would need to cover the shipping costs to get our portion of the books here. That amount seemed to be too much. Roughly $3,500 USD. But I remained in correspondence with my contact at BFA, and I managed to find the resources to take care of the shipping charges. Sometime towards the middle of August, we will receive 35,000 donated textbooks, including encyclopedias, primary, secondary, and post-secondary materials. 25,000 of these books will head north and a little east up to Mangochi and a friar named Father Federico. His parish is funding a library expansion. 10,000 of the books will arrive for my project. Our biggest challenge is going to be in managing the distribution of the books, and the monitoring of the libraries as they receive and integrate these new resources. I want to split the books between the Field Officers I work with in Blantyre North, to those in Troop South, and to the two Troops in Zomba. If any of you have anything that you would like to send for use in the Fields (office or art supplies, HIV/AIDS materials, or any other ideas you have), please pack them very snugly in a well-sealed box, and ship it to the following address in MN. BFA will include your parcel in our shipment. It won't arrive until close to my departure date―I'm flying home on the 9th of October―and I would appreciate it if you would focus primarily on filling parcels with items to be used by and left for the Field Officers.
The address for BFA is:

Carole Patrikakos
Development Associate
BFA Warehouse
715 Minnehaha Ave. E.
St. Paul, MN 55106

Here is a note from Carole as well:
{Mark ALL four sides and the TOP of the box:DO NOT OPEN: Malawi shipment: DAPP/Ben M
And, have the people send me an email when they post the boxes. They should pack them well- don't leave any empty space in the box, or it will get crushed in transit.}
---------So, if you want to send a parcel, let me know asap, and I'll give you Carole's email address.

Also, if you've expressed an interest in contributing to the final portion of the shipping charges―the port/custom fees to get the books into Malawi, now is the time to mail those checks. The best option is to send a check to my Stepmom in Tennessee. She will manage the bank transactions. Let me know if you need that address, and I'll send you a separate email including it.
I am working on an update of both the primary school I've funded the building of, and the trainings of local leaders as volunteers in our HIV/AIDS social awareness project. My camera broke, so I'm waiting―rather impatiently at this point―for my project to get me the digital camera they have, so I can snap some photos of the school, the prospective students, and the local leaders.
I climbed up to the top of Mulanje Massif with a group of six friends. Before we climbed up we stayed in the same place I stayed over New Years. A really hospitable rainforest biologist (who specializes in discovering new species of butterflies) opened his home for the second time. But this time we didn't stay in the valley. We climbed up to the top one day, slept in a Presbyterian rental hut, and climbed down the other side the following day. The massif is huge. It took an hour and a half to hike from the top of our path up to our accommodations in the middle of just one of the sections of plateau. We found a group of rock pools overlooking the valley to the west and north. I jumped in to the coldest water that has ever touched my body and I screamed. Then I shaved two weeks of growth off of my face in one of the streams rolling off the mountain.
My day-to-day activities are in a cycle. I get comfortable and happy and then something changes. People are always coming and going here, including myself. I'm learning just how flexible I've become, and am becoming―to sustain a feeling of self-worth and satisfaction even as I deal with loneliness, failure, and frustration. I'm looking forward to coming home, but I will never regret the time I'm spending here.
-- Ben Mielenz

Thursday, April 10, 2008

April Update



Last week I traveled up to Akidu’s field to meet with a Community Based Organization which he has been brainstorming with. The organization is called “Chimvano,” which I understand to be a Chichewa word for connection and communication. They are busy teaching life skills, providing local health-care, and a wide array of services to the areas in Group Mponda (surrounding villages).
They wanted to meet with me to discuss an idea for generating funds to cover orphan school fees. I knew Akidu had something up his sleeve, but I didn’t know what. Turns out that they want to organize a 20 km “Big Walk.” I love this idea, because it will necessitate the support and involvement of their own community. It is tentatively set for June 30th. This date should give us plenty of time to get everything set up. If any of you have experience with “walking fundraisers” (that means you, Mom!!), get in touch with any suggestions. If we have 50 people walk, and each of those 50 gets 25 sponsors from around where they live, for 5 Kwacha/km, then we’ll end up with 125,000 Kwacha to give to Chimvano. That is a humble goal, and a lot of money. 100 Kwacha from each sponsor is a lot of money to give, but it is a reasonable amount if the event is planned far enough in advance. I’ll walk too. But I’ll go for bigger money with the shops in Blantyre.


We had to walk 6 km to get to the meeting and back to the tarmac. On the way back, we dropped by Akidu’s Mother-in-Law’s place. He is building a brick house for his wife and kids there. The brick fa├žade is done, and now he is saving for the sheet metal to construct the roof. He went to the back of the house, and brought back a plastic grocery bag full of groundnuts. These groundnuts are in shells shaped like peanuts, except they taste nothing like peanuts. They are unlike anything I have ever tasted before. The bag was full to the brim. I knew he was going to give them to me, but I didn’t say anything until we finished walking the last half-hour back to the tarmac. He was on his way to meet another Field Officer at a meeting that was about to end. So before he could offer me the bag, I reached in for a handful as I started to say my farewell. He cocked his head to the side and looked at me with brows that were all the more furrowed because they hardly ever are. “Benja, these are for you to take home.” I stretched my hands out and shook them like my head, “But Aki, you could take them to the meeting in Innocent’s field.” He stared me down. “No, they are for you to take home with you.” I nodded and I thanked him. We laughed. Said our goodbyes, and I boarded my bus with a bag of groundnuts so heavy that it was difficult to lift.

When I got home, I met with Lisa and Stevence. Lisa is my housemate/project leader’s (Spelile’s) daughter. She is 13, and here on a month and a half break from her studies in Zimbabwe. Stevence is Spelile’s nephew. Also from Zimbabwe. He is here for 6 months. I think Stevence is about 17. They are both a welcome addition to the house. We have so much space in this house, with hardly any furniture. Before those two got here, I felt like I was a squatter. Lisa is especially great. We’ve fallen into a routine of older brother/little sister with ease. I’m writing this update from home, and she was just in my room marveling at how fast I can type, and interrupting me with a swipe of her hand as she tried to find the letters to enter the next words in the sentence. We had a water fight last night. She is great. As all three of them are from Zimbabwe, they have been waiting with un-ease for the Mugabe-stalled elections to come to a close. A few days ago, it looked like a sure thing that the opposition party was going to win, but now, there is little information coming out of the country. Recount scandal rumors abound. Sound familiar?

I took a few handfuls of groundnuts out of the bag and washed them in their shells. I then put them in a pot with some boiling water for 30 minutes or so. When they were finished cooking in their shells, they no longer had a bitter, raw, styrofoamy taste. They were closer to a peanut, but meatier. I shelled and ate them until my belly hurt.
We have a night-guard who arrives here at 6 in the evening and leaves at 6 in the morning. This man makes 5,000 Kwacha in a month. He supports his family with that income, and stays out in the cold night air from dusk until dawn. His pay scale doesn’t leave him with enough money to care for his family and to feed himself. I get paid more than that amount in a week, and I sometimes struggle to get from Wednesday to Wednesday. On nights when I’m home and cooking for myself, I try to cook enough to offer him a dish. His face lights up when he sees that there is food for him. Last night, he gave me back his bowl once it was empty. He smiled while patting his stomach, “No more hungry, boss.”

I caught a bicycle taxi the other day. A rectangular cushion sits on top of the back tire. That’s the passenger seat. It was a 16 km trip to get to Michael’s field to give him office paperwork for a meeting the following day, and another 16 km to get back. The road slopes up and down a lot to get there. I’m more than 200 pounds, and this guy on the bicycle—Maxwell (I called him Maxwell Power)—wouldn’t let me get off to walk up the hills. He said he wanted to see his own power. By the time we got back I could feel his legs shaking as he pressed against the pedals. The only time we got off the bike was when we passed some branches lined up across the road. Somebody had died, and to show respect, nobody rides their bikes past. Everybody walks. As we walked, I experienced yet another moment of being moved by just being here. The air was still. People were walking in both directions along this back-country dirt road. They only whispered while between the points where branches were pulled across the road.
Myself and a Malawian friend of mine (Angela) both celebrated our birthdays on March 30th. We got together at Jaco and Salma’s place and had a barbeque. I haven’t seen Angela since before she got a job, and was eager to find out how things have been going for her. She is a single mom living at home with her folks. The folks are retired and live in an area close to Blantyre City. When I met Angela, she was getting by with her parent’s support, hanging out in her friends “hair extension” shop. She was overwhelmed with the responsibilities of raising her youngster (a cute little guy named Joy), and talked all the time about her fantasies of getting out of Malawi—all of which involved the stars colliding in her imminent good fortune. She has since landed a job doing research with a Fulbright Scholar south of the city. She is getting paid really well. And she is working very hard. She participates with this scholar in her research by approaching rural community members, speaking in Chichewa and finding out their concerns on behalf of the data being collected. She also earns extra money by translating her interview tapes from Chichewa into English. The money keeps coming in, and her parents continue to support her and Joy. For now, she is able to save almost all of the money she earns in her salary. Getting to the U.S. to continue her education and pursue her dreams is looking more and more like a reality and less and less like a fantasy. I’m really proud of her!

We’ve continued taking pictures of the TCE Volunteers. I’ve snapped approximately 80% (+/- 500) of the photos I’ve got to take to get the job done. Yesterday I spent most of the day cropping and reformatting the pictures I do have. I’ve got them just the way I want them, and have imported them all into Microsoft Word, but I’m hoping to find a good I.D. template buried in one of the office hard drives. I don’t want the volunteers to end up with a poor excuse for an I.D. printed off of a Word File. Any suggestions for crafting an I.D. template in Microsoft Office?
I’ve contacted some book donation organizations in the UK and the US to get a partnership going. I’ve got 2 solid leads. I will be meeting with 2 administrators from Book Aid International this coming Monday at the TCE offices in Blantyre. They are keen on finding out more about TCE and other projects under the DAPP umbrella. I have no idea what results to anticipate from this meeting.
The other lead is with Books for Africa (Minnesota). They have a container of assorted donated textbooks coming to Malawi through Blantyre in the next couple of months. Another organization has coordinated this containers arrival, but can only afford the shipping charges for a 20 foot container, rather than a 40 foot container. I’ve been emailing Carole from BFA for the last 3 weeks. She has been working to connect both our organizations to share the shipping charges for a 40 footer, leaving us with 10,000 books and the other group with 25,000 books. We have to cover close to $4,000 in shipping charges to get these 10,000 books here from MN, and into Blantyre. There is a lot more coordination and troubleshooting to be done to ascertain whether or not this will fly. There are some things I can do to get cash on this side of the ocean, but most of the workability is going to fall on you guys. I mentioned this last month, and heard back from a number of you who are interested in contributing. Please get back to me ASAP with pledges of specific amounts and any other inquiries or comments. I’ve got until the end of the April to make the deal or break it.
Best Wishes as winter approaches for Malawi, and spring approaches for most of you!

Friday, March 7, 2008

March Update

I've got a new Chichewa tutor. There's a neighborhood woman who has a little vegetable market set up a couple of blocks away from my home. In the morning and in the evening as I pass, she quizzes me (in Chichewa) about what she taught me the last time I walked by. I'm starting to grasp past, present and future tenses of verbs, as well as some basic sentence structure. All that she asks in return is that I never pass by with anybody else's produce. I can only buy from her. This is an easy choice, since her goods are the best anyway.

It has been a slow month work-wise. Some challenges have arisen. Primarily, my ability to be in the right place at the right time is limited by my means of transport. Between 70% and 80% of the areas where I'm supposed to be working are pretty far off the tarmac. I can get to these places with the use of bicycle taxis for a reasonable (if a bit pricey) figure. But by the time I get to where I can meet with the Field Officers it is already mid-morning and they have long-since (cross your fingers here) started untrackable treks into their individual areas (10X10 -- 20X20 km). So if I co-ordinate with them to meet, they will be wasting the easiest, coolest (temperature wise) hours of the day waiting for me to get to them from urban-land. We have some motor-bikes that are pending registration. The fuel costs are relatively low compared to mini-bus transport and bicycle taxis. I'm hoping to have one of these motor-bikes allocated to me for field visits. If I'm to stay until October, it would definitely be worth the cost of a Malawian motor-bike license. I go in with another staff-member to apply for a provisional next week.

Co-ordinating with Field Officers is also a challenge due to the cost of phone-time. The Project Leader has authorized my budget proposal to receive $5 extra each week for cell-phone units. I refuse to pick up the phone when the Field Officers call me. Receiving a call is free. Placing one isn't. And while they make more than Malawian college-accredited primary school teachers, their salary is not enough for them to be spending their personal money on keeping in touch with me. So I return their calls with a call back on my dime. This never functioned with my budget either...

As an administration we have recently found that the Field Officers are reporting statistics in their weekly reports that are grossly inflated when compared to the figures that are listed in the documentation that they keep on their persons for individual household visits. We have recounted and given them some slack to work with. The goals that are set forth for them on a weekly basis (i.e. # of HIV tests, # of TCE volunteers, # of TCE compliances) can often detract from quality. When it comes to future big funding, quantity is of the utmost importance. But when it comes to the communities where we are at work, quality is our only worthwhile goal. If a Field Officer only speaks to 5 families a day, but has a life-altering conversation with each one, the results will be far more tangible than if they have 25 quick bursts that alter nothing. We need to be in the fields more of the time monitoring their progress and conducting visits with them. Without this monitoring, they could easily match their weekly reports to fabricated household statistics. This is a serious risk.

During visits to sites that are reasonable to access by 7:30 a.m, I am constantly surprised at the types of initiatives that these folks are organizing of their own volition. For example, a couple of weeks ago, I met with Patrol 3 in Lunzu and we hiked a few km down a dirt road and arrived in a village. We worked with local women for an hour to clean a well. This involved stripping out all the weeds and trash around the well, and then scrubbing green muck from the concrete basin and chute. The best means for this type of scrubbing are used corncobs. At first, it was kind of gross. But once I got into the rhythm of it, I was totally blissed out with the simple act of cleaning--shoulder-to-shoulder--with the community. The group then sat down with the Village Headman, and the Field Officers gave a lesson on the need for sanitation in order to prevent illnesses other than HIV/AIDS; like cholera and malaria. The discussion was all in Chichewa, but I've begun to be able to pick up more from the tone and body language. The culture here is very honest and forthright to an intimidating degree. In the villages, strenuous manual labor is on the menu for daily living. It is my belief that this level of daily action creates a context where the people don't want to waste their free time dancing politely around any potentially awkward subjects. They say what they want to say, shrug their shoulders, laugh out loud, or cock their head to the side and stare their dancing partner down. This makes it very easy to discuss just about anything with anybody. But it makes it very difficult to change someone's attitude about something once their mind is made up.

I've been taking a lot of pictures of TCE volunteers--"Passionates." Each one works in a specific capacity to further our work in the fields. Some concentrate on organizing and supporting youth clubs. Some distribute condoms--just to give you a general idea. These Passionates live all over the place. So we did our best to find a few central locations where they could gather, we could snap a few photos, meet them and greet them, and continue on to the next site. This is being done so that we can produce individual identification cards for the Passionates. This will help us keep track of who is doing what, and where. It will acknowledge them for the work they do. Through this, more people may realize that TCE is a community force. That while there is an organization fronting the project, at it's core, it is a project that will either be sustained (or undone) by community participation (or a lack thereof).

I've stepped away from fundraising for a couple of months now. Been sitting with the expected role hanging over my head. A foreign pocketbook. It is dehumanizing to us and to the local population to have it taken for granted that we will give them resources which they could source for themselves if they were to work together with some common priorities in mind. Another volunteer--from Hungary--was asked to source gardening equipment while attending a village meeting. She asked them what they've done during planting and harvest times in the past. They pointed to buckets and some basic tools. "Well. Use those," she said. They were shocked. I was shocked when I heard about it. When I first arrived, I took for granted that at each meeting, in each village, I would be asked to give them something, and would be expected to respond to each request individually. In fact, it always seemed to build up to that important moment. I would feel like a politician, delivering empty promises to sustain my popularity with the people. I haven't offered anything except my presence in the last month or so. It doesn't function well to come here and throw resources to the wind. It is unmanageable. It is unfocused.

During this time, I've thought about what single thing I could focus on delivering to these communities. What would have the strongest impact. Our project stays active in the field for 3 years. After that contract period, it is up to people to fight the good fight. To keep on educating each other and maintain control over the health and wellness of their communities. The footprint I'm going to leave behind will be libraries. During the next two months I'm going to source as much free HIV/AIDS literature as possible. There is a sister project that sells secondhand clothing, shoes and books. In June, I will purchase as many used books as possible. I hope to start ten libraries with at least 100 books each in different villages to the north of Blantyre. Please keep this project in mind. I have seen firsthand how NGO's can easily mismanage large amounts of money. I have seen how quickly money can disappear with development interests that diverge into far too many initiatives for any of the results to be truly self-sustaining. Libraries will empower the people to educate themselves, to be literate, to be engaged and invested in their own development. Please plan ahead, and get together some cash to send along the wire to my bank account in Malawi. This will not be tax-deductible. I know that some of you can send large amounts. For most of you, $50 with a $35 wire transfer fee is all that I ask. For the long-term impact that these libraries will have, that is a mere drop in the bucket. Please consider it seriously. There is still plenty of time between now and when the books will be purchased. Also, if you question the workability of this venture, I am very open to dialogue. You know where to find me...

I tried to trade pictures with a departing teammate, and I ended up with an empty camera, an empty CD and no cable to connect my camera to a computer. I'm trying to get those pictures back, and waiting on a USB cable. As soon as I get the cable, I'll be posting a bunch of new pictures.

Happy Birthday, March Babies!!!!

Friday, February 8, 2008

February Update

I'm listening through the window to the amplified song of a Muslim singer at noontime. There is a soft breeze carrying playground noises of school children in from up the road.
I saw the guy with the asthma again. This time, I had no money to give him. I tried to teach him a yoga breathing excercise. He wasn't struggling nearly as much to breathe this time, but he wouldn't follow my lead. I covered one of my nostrils with my thumb and inhaled through the other. He looked at me as though I hadn't been listening to anything he had said.
"Darama, Isay." Money, friend. I waved at his hand to get him to do what I was doing. He just shook his head, and looked at his own outstretched palm. I patted him on the shoulder and walked away.
This week we organized three TCE (my project: Total Control of the Epidemic) volunteer trainings for local leaders. Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. The first event was at Mathindi Day Secondary School. Mathindi is north of Blantyre just a couple hundred meters off of the tarmac that stretches north to Lilongwe. We hosted 11 Group Village Headmen and 1 Traditional Authority on that day. The Group Village Heads are responsible for the needs of a number of small villages and each of those village's individual Village Heads. The Traditional Authority is responsible for the needs of all the Group Village Heads who are in their area. To give you an idea of the level of responsibility which a T/A has, let me give you some population numbers. Their are 50 Field Officers who I work with in Blantyre North. Each of these FO's works with approximately 2,000 people. That's 100,000 people total. In Blantyre North we work primarily in 3 T/A's: Kapeni, Lundu, and Makata. To truly get an idea of what this level of responsibility entails, you have to go off of the tarmac and see what kind of distances exist between different villages and their trading centers, and along what kind of roads one must travel to traverse those distances.
Yesterday, I met up with a local distributor of a UK based herbal supplement (Mariandina) who I had invited to the trainings. His name is Bwighane. (pronounced Wee-Hahn-Ee) He is very interested in getting word out about the goods he is distributing. He is clear that even though the costs are subsidized to be affordable to a Malawian economy, the product he represents is way out of the price-range of those who live in rural catchment areas. I think it's a noble effort to be taking samples of his products to these communities in spite of the fact that very few will be able to afford it. But business is a funny thing. You never know what will generate what...
I had initially hoped he could participate on Wednesday in Lunzu. Lunzu is a big trading center (distinct from a village as business is always happening with trading--lot's and lot's and...lot's of vending), which is alongside the north/south highway only a few miles north of Blantyre. But he couldn't make it due to a car-maintenance appointment. I told him that we would be meeting way out in Dziwe on Thursday. That I'd be happy to meet him in Lunzu, but that we could also take a rain check and have him at another meeting in the near future. I had only ever been on the dirt road as far as Chilangoma (which is still a far clip from Dziwe) and even that stretch of road is not very friendly to shock-absorbers. He said it would be no problem and that he'd meet me in Lunzu just after 8 in the morning. I got there early and bought drinks, bread, and excercise books with a co-worker from TCE, and saw him off on a motor bike. A few minutes later, Bwighane drove up in small, fairly low-riding, older Mercedes. I hopped in and we started on our way. We made it out to Chilangoma with no issues. A couple of miles past Chilangoma we came to the top of a valley. We both caught our breath. Ahead of us was a road made of rocks. Some small. Some big. Some bigger. Some boulders. He went for it, and other than a couple of small scrapes against the metal fender everything ran smoothly until we started our ascent up to the opposite lip of the valley. We reached a point where we couldn't move. He asked me if I could drive. I said I could, and while I laughed, I said I'd rather not. We were both laughing and cursing casually. But we were also both really scared. I got out of the car and he just managed to maneuver the car into reverse. He punched the car from first into second and I waved him--as best I could--out of the jam. The road got quite a bit better after that. We got from Lunzu to the school in about an hour and a half. It's only 15 miles. Before the training started we realized that one of his tires had a puncture. He kept his cool, and we switched it out for his old spare, and confirmed that there was a much flatter road back to Blantyre going through Chileka rather than Lunzu.
The training went well. Each of the trainings were in Chichewa. The Headmen speak enough english to greet with formalities. Similar to my skill level in Chichewa. I listened and followed the agenda. We discussed what our goals are in TCE. Information, Education, and Communication. We talked about the statistics we have gathered at this point in the beginning of the 2nd year of our 3 year program. These men took the meeting as an open forum and discussed freely. They voiced their concerns and one even asked how to put a condom on properly. There was a demonstration with both a male and a female condom on an empty Coke bottle. Pictures were taken and will be posted soon. I believe that these meetings will have a great impact. Beyond acknowledging their leadership, we have invited them into a dialogue, and have trained them in the facts of HIV/AIDS, and introduced them to methodologies which embrace positive social change. These men exude power. They are the strongest people in their communities. Everyone defers to them. If they use this education they have received and take it upon themselves to act as TCE volunteers, there is no limit to the difference that they can make. It is a daunting task for our Field Officers to have a real impact in their catchment areas when they are each accountable for 2,000 people. Between now and May my work in the field will primarily be with volunteers, so that the Field Officer's efforts will not only be effectively monitored, but also bolstered.
After the training yesterday, Bwighane and I started on our way to Chileka and the distant tarmac--still unseen--on the horizon. These roads were much more passable, and we even had a bit of rain which softened them up nicely. Once we had gone a couple of miles we found that the rain was more than we had bargained for. A small dip on the side of the road took possession of our spinning wheels and I got out to muddy up my shoes and push alongside five shirtless villagers--strangers--who took it upon themselves to silently join me in the effort. We got back on the middle tracks of mud and I took off my shoes and got in the passenger seat. We connected to the base of Chileka road. This road takes one past the airport and back into Blantyre. It was still dirt, and very wet at that. We got stuck behind a minibus that couldn't extricate itself, and were directed to the side and through a puddle that looked like it would swallow us. Once beyond the bottleneck, the minibus operator demanded that we give him 30 Kwacha for the directions. He refused to take into consideration that we needed to maneuver because his vehicle was blocking the road. We didn't give him anything, and as we drove away, he accused Bwighane of not being a real Malawian. We came to our final impossible task. A slope upward which sat on a slant almost spiralling up towards dry ground with a deep ditch both on the left and the right hand side. He took it slow and slid off the road before we had reached deep-ditch territory. I got out barefoot and four Malawian men joined me in pushing the car back to flat ground in reverse. We all pushed from behind, and I watched as the front tire began to slide down to the left. I yelled and everyone came to the side of the car and pushed towards the center of a small space. One man was pushing against the back of the side, and I watched his face wrinkle up in fear as the spinning tire at his knee inched towards the ditch and his total lack of footing. I joined him, against my better judgement, and somehow the car sidled up to a workable position. I gave them 500 Kwacha to split amongst themselves and with muddy feet and pants, and shakier hands than usual, I marvelled at the experience as we took to the luxury of pavement.
My teammate who came here with me has decided to leave the project. I think it is for the best though. He's got other plans and this project and this work don't align with those plans. Another volunteer will be arriving on Sunday night from the U.S. She is an energetic, fun Brazilian woman I met while I was preparing for the trip last fall. Her name is Camila. I am looking forward to her arrival.
This month has seen quite a few volunteers from different projects heading home at the end of complete contracts. In three short months I have gone from being one of the new ones to being a local who knows his way around. The rainy season is dissipating. Until yesterday, we had gone six days without a drop.
As the political machine winds it's gears in the U.S., Malawi prepares for it's own Presidential election in 2009. The transport situation has gone through all possible channels, and we now have to pay 150% for each ride due to a constitutional stipulation which prohibits more than three people sitting in a row (up until yesterday, we sat in cheaper rows of smooshed in fours). This is a seriously sore point for most mini-bus passengers. The state-declared living wage is approximately 80 Kwacha/day. The shortest ride on the cheapest transport now costs 50 Kwacha. Any distance longer than 3 km is going to be 60 Kwacha or more. There is also a law against vending on the street, which the authorities are just now beginning to enforce. The markets are already over-crowded with people who are barely getting by selling their wares. Bingu wa Mutharika (the president) stands on a serious anti-corruption platform. But in an economy like what you find here, it is often difficult to distinguish between corruption and tolerance. Driving north through Chirimba towards my home, you look out of the window of your transport and you see slums as far as the eye can see. Lining the foothills that climb up to city elevation, are countless roofs of plastic and rusted out aluminum siding. My friend is a Malawian political science major. He recently took a couple of weeks working with an NGO taking a government-designed social welfare policy to rural areas. This policy needed to be translated into a number of local tribal languages. The policies are headed off by a letter from the president. He told me how each of the Chiefs that they met while they were on the road, praised the president for the initiative. We wonder if this policy will ever see the light of day once these rural populations cast their votes for who they want to see in office.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Malawi Update #8

There was a meeting a couple of weeks ago with folks from a couple of different NGO's. Myself and Jong Soh attended. There were three members of a much smaller organization (The three who were at the meeting are the only staff-people of the organization, and one of them is going home to Switzerland tomorrow after a 2-year stay). The name of their project is: "boNGO," which stands for "Based on the Need for Grass-Roots Organization." They have been active now for a couple of years. They work directly in the community--one on one--hence, the grass-roots bit. A college student who is studying Political Science was also there. The meeting was organized in an effort to bring together foreign workers, volunteers, and native Malawians, who all work in the field of Development in one capacity or another. We met at the house where 2 out of 3 of the boNGO folks live. It is a big, lovely home in Nantcholi with 3 dogs, 2 cats and a monstrous botanical paradise. The owner of the home is a Swiss woman who married a Malawian architect. The house reflects an African sensibility with a spiral staircase sense of adventure. He has since passed on, and she maintains close to an acre of fenced in flowers, herbs, cacti, and everything else you can imagine that's legal, green and lovely. The two hosts of our event rent out a couple of her extra rooms.
We sat down in the living room and we each had the opportunity to share a challenge that we have faced, or are facing, in our work. The first person to speak mentioned that he will be going home to Chicago soon, and that he is constantly confronted with the challenge of how to take his experience here home and make an impact back in the States. The second to speak is a Malawian. He brought up the challenges facing each of us as we first define the how, where, when, why, and then the entire realm of Development for ourselves, and then, when working to cause something, tailoring that definition so that we can actually work together. I shared how my biggest challenge has been to communicate clearly with people. Straight-talk. Once we had these topics written down, we discussed each of them in turn. I was really surprised at how useful the meeting ended up being. It was not formally structured. It was set up by us and for us and we drank tea felt and no pressure to have our agenda look any certain way. Our intention was to understand each other and ourselves just a little bit more. The most interesting result of the meeting for me, was that I saw how each of these challenges exist not only here in the Malawian NGO world, but that they are also real challenges back in the daily reality of the U.S.
The last few weeks have been challenging. Getting through the first month and a half and then through the holidays, I found myself comfortable with the way basic things happen here. Functions like catching a bus. Knowing how much things cost. How long it will take to get from one place to another. Being able to start to distinguish between the sound of a Malawian laughing happily, and a Malawian's laughing sarcastically, or worriedly, or with embarrassment. I made some friends. All of this contributed to me feeling at home.
Over the past week, I've been thinking a lot about who is responsible for whether or not the work I do here has any kind of lasting impact. It's not rocket science.
It is just as easy to blow things out of proportion here as back home. There is an inflated sense of importance. The work I'm here to do either makes me better than I would be if I were at home, or a failure if I'm not good enough. There is an inflated sense of entitlement. The locals look at me as a bank. I'll walk by with no money and they will hold out their hands and demand: "Give me my money!" I have this sense of entitlement, too. "Give me my purpose!" As if someone is keeping that safe for me until I earn the qualifications to hold onto it myself. These are some of the thoughts and realities that have been crawling along my spine, swooning deliciously to be kept secret. But I can't keep doing these updates unless I share more than the pretty picture.
Objectively, there is simply a list of tasks to invest time and energy into. There are statistics to analyze, and a database to restructure. There are volunteers to meet and a campaign to acknowledge them and take their photos for I.D. cards. There is fundraising to be done here and back home. There are meetings at the office. Meetings in the field. There is a difference to be made here.
Since the holidays, I've felt like blaming my organization for a lack of structure. Over the past week, I've corresponded with a couple of folks back home, and I've realized that if I feel that any part of my trip here is ineffective, it is really up to me to mobilize and make a change in attitude and action. The best and the worst thing about the organization I'm working with, is that they leave me to structure most of my own initiatives. But that's the way life works outside of this project, so is it really much of a surprise to find the common thread?

Friday, January 4, 2008

New Year's

I can't believe it has been almost 3 weeks since I wrote a blog update. Time has begun to reach warp-speed. Next Friday will mark 2 months that I've been living here in Blantyre. Today, I'm going to tell you about my New Years celebration. Christmas was alright. Pretty lonely and homesick, but survivable. I've got my roommate here, and we can be homesick together when it gets to be that time. But New Years... New Years was awesome....
Jong Soh and I went to Mulanje Mountain. We left on Sunday, the 30th. We caught a bus in Limbe and rode for a short hour and a half to get there. Just as we were driving into town, I asked one of the other passengers where we should get off to get to the pizza parlor. He told us to get off with him.
We did. He escorted us to his office. Turns out that this guy is one of the professional guides for the mountain. Mulanje is arranged with many separate plateaus, and has a circumference of over 400 km. I had heard before that this was a famously beautiful place to visit, but not until I was sitting in his office, looking over his maps, did I get just how expansive the experience of Mulanje could be. He gave us the breakdown on the different ascent points, and recommended that we catch a ride to Likhubula and start from there. He explained the differences between the accomodations offered by the Malawian Forestry (he works with them) and the CCAP (Presbyterians). There are lodges available to rent at the base of the paths, and huts available on the plateaus. You can hire guides and porters to carry your bags for you. His strongest nods were towards the Lichenya Hut and it's surrounding areas. He talked about a crater, a stunning view south to Mozambique, and a couple of phenomenal rock pools, along secluded rivers.
I asked him about the Mulanje legends. Some say that you can find fully cooked meals along the paths. That there will not be a sign of preparation. Not even a footprint. These storytellers tell that the food is left by spirits. That you must excercise extreme care lest you literally get sucked into a river or disappear forever in some other way. There are documented disappearances. To all of this, Patrick laughed, and gave his expert opinion about the most recent disappearance of a Dutch woman who was a volunteer at the Mulanje Mission. She had 2 boyfriends while she was there. One was a native, and the other was a fellow volunteer at the Mission. After a going-away party for the volunteer boyfriend heading back to Europe, she went for a day hike up the mountain. Patrick outlined the distance she could have made during that time. It was not a large distance. He says that the locals have always suspected foul play, but that nothing could be proven, and that the native boyfriend is kind of a big deal around Mulanje, so they let that sleeping dog lie. 12 hours after her disappearance there was a heavy rain, and by the time the helicopters came out to look, there was not even a trace. This story along with the legends really piqued my interest in this foggy, vast, mystical place. Patrick volunteered his time and really educated us about where to go, where not to go (the rainy season isn't the right time to tackle the Boma Path, or Sapitwa--which translates roughly to: "No Go Zone" or "Don't go there").
I walked into the Pizza Place ready to ditch the friends we were meeting for the holiday. I wanted to go catch an hour ride to Likhubula and start up with a guide first-thing in the morning. But instead we stayed and met our friends. Well, really we met my one friend and three strangers. Simone used to volunteer for our organization before returning to Switzerland. She has been back in Malawi for 2 years working with a primary school that she has run with a very small group of people in a remote village. Her friend Erica is with CrisisCorps (a shorter term PeaceCorps experience--working with HIV/AIDS testing and counselling). Erica found a free house to crash at over the holiday. I didn't know what to expect from any of them, but I was pleasently surprised by a great mix of people. Jako is from South Africa and came up to Malawi for a job managing the affairs of a plastics manufacturing company. He donated his pick-up truck in exchange for the holiday accomodations. Salma is Jako's partner. She is from Mozambique. They have been in Malawi for the last 6 months.
It was a breath of fresh air talking to Erica. She is adopted. I'm adopted. We are both non-practicing Jews from birth. We both come from a school and a love for campy, queer, feminist theory. We instantly hit it off. Our dialogue reached a point of completely shutting out the others (one Swiss, one Korean, one Mozambican, and one South African), when we started talking about "The Aristocrats," and burst out with a version of "Happy Birthday Mr. President," at the same time. We ate really good pizza, and I pulled out a package of Oreo's (sent from Mo in Ellicott City--thanks Mo!!!). Jako took care of the bill which none of rest of us could do anything but pretend to be able to afford, and we all piled into his truck and drove to a lovely house with mango and papaya trees, aloe plants, and a lovely front porch. There were enough mattresses to go around and we stayed up way too late (putting together a glow-in-the-dark puzzle of a dragon) to be able to get up and go hiking the following morning.
We took one short hike up to Likhubula Falls. We swam in a deep rock pool at the base of a waterfall. I swam as close to the falls as I could get, but the current wouldn't let me get closer than 20 yards. What made this whole experience so wonderful, was that each of these people heard my concern about my first New Years as a newly sober person, and even as Jako drank beer, and other refreshments were partaken of, I was fully supported and acknowledged for my commitment and convictions. I was afforded the opportunity to be a part of a great community, and I didn't have to sell myself out to do it. At around 11:00 on New Year's Eve, we sat in a circle and took turns voicing things from the year we were letting go of, hopes and goals for the coming year, and acknowledgements of each other. Jako took on giving up alcohol. This is big for him. 6 months ago he quit some other drugs which have been haunting him for nearly 20 years. He will turn 40 next year. I now have a chance to support him as I have been supported during this first year of my sobriety. It brightens me up the way people show up in our lives exactly when they should, and not a moment before.
Now I'm back in Blantyre.
Planning my next trip to Mulanje.
Care to join me?
Happy New Year, Beautiful People!!!