Sunday, December 16, 2007

Update #6

The heads of state for Malawi just drove through downtown Blantyre. Lots of jeeps and off-road vehicles full of infantry men in full military gear filled the backs of the cabs. Big guns with intimidatingly wide barrels pointed out the back as flashy new luxury sports sedans with tinted windows cruised by in the siren-accompanied procession. Before they arrived, the city was silent for five minutes as police officers held traffic still at every major intersection.

There was a mini-bus strike earlier in the week. The government was attempting to impose a law that would require the operators to leave one of the four seats in each row empty. When one gets into the transports, they are sandwiched in as tight as sardines, and in order for the day to be profitable, this sandwiching is the standard they operate by. So on Thursday, the drivers and workers joined together for a strike. The government was advocating on behalf of the passengers, but by the time Friday came around and the busses were back on their routes, the riding public seemed to breathe a collective sigh of relief just to be getting to their destinations, even as they continued to cram into the seats in rows of four.

My house is much emptier this weekend now that the project leaders whom myself and my teammate share the house with have left for the holidays. I came home Friday to find them boiling 2 whole chickens and plucking their feathers out onto the countertop. They butchered the bodies as I cooked a hurried dinner and tried to stay out of the way. The had a plan for each and every part of the animals--except the feathers. They cleaned out the intestines to boil and eat. Even the feet and the heads ended up in the pot. They were preparing all this for their all day bus ride home to Zimbabwe. For nearly 2 weeks, we'll have the house to ourselves. It is so quiet and I love it. One of the two who lives with us sings African gospel tunes constantly while she is in the house. It would be great except that she repeats four stanzas over and over for indefinite periods of time. I have yet to put my earplugs in but I have been sorely tempted. On occasions when the repetition drives me just a wee bit too insane, I will respond from my room (with the door closed) by singing classic songs from U2's Joshua Tree. I'll sing 2 verses of whichever song is freshly in mind, and then the house will be magically silent for long enough so that I can reconnect with my sanity. I left my iPod in the care of a friend in the U.S. and I've been surprised by how many songs I can sing from memory as I'm walking to and from work.

Last night we invited the neighbour kids over from across the street. We'd been at their house watching their cable television with them when it came time to cook dinner. So the two boys, Blessings--13, and Johns--8 came over to our place and we made a big meal for all of us. I cooked pasta with a sausage, tomato, and vegetable sauce, and Jong Soh made a vegetable filled, Korean miso soup. The miso was lovely, healthy and altogether tasty, but the kids didn't take a shine to it (John's wouldn't even try it). However, I have since nicknamed Johns "Pasta Monster." Once the meal had been demolished, sans miso, he took the empty spaghetti pot and put it on his head to seek out the noodles stuck to the bottom in an up close and personal kind of way. Johns reminds me so much of my nephew, Payten. Super cute kid. Great fun. Great personality. Loves to show off and pose for the camera with more noodles on his face than in his mouth. Completely natural troublemaker. I have some great photos of last night as well as of the entire trip so far (I didn't take pictures of the heads of state for fear of being shot and/or arrested). My A.A. sponsor up in Albany, NY, created a blog on my behalf, and I should be uploading some great shots early this coming week. Please share the blog with anyone who you think might be interested. I'll continue to send out the emails, and upload the same updates with pictures here: http://beninmalawi.blogspot.com/

A former teacher of mine has promised to support our initiatives here. She and her son are each donating $200 for us to distribute to worthy causes. The first will be a primary school in the backyard of the Village Headman for Lunzu. We will buy approximately $40 worth of cement (200 kgs) and they will be fully equipped (they've already got the bricks) to finish the construction of the school in the first couple weeks of the new year. I spent much of the week troubleshooting with local banks to set up a personal savings account through which I can accept wired monies without suffering the loss of huge Western Union international surcharges. I managed to square away an account with a reputable bank yesterday, and I've got my account number and routing information ready to be sent to anyone stateside who would like to make a non tax-deductible contribution. I didn't anticipate taking on this role, but it's a great cause which hosts many, many smaller great causes. To those of you waiting for the account information, I will send it Monday morning. Please get in touch if you're interested. There are no wiring fees on this side of the ocean, and no hidden charges. I will maintain meticulous records of the spending, as well as the results, and I will send that information out in these weeklies.

I've been writing this email in my journal so that I can save money at the internet cafe. I'm in an enclosed courtyard in front of the Malawi Stock Exchange. A guard let me in and I've been sitting beside him the whole time as I've been writing. The only sounds are the traffic, a few voices, his billy club softly tapping the ground, and the chirping of the birds. It is a sunny, breezy day. I should have done my laundry this morning. The weather is rarely so conducive to having dry clothes.

I visited the Museum of Malawi last weekend. It costs 20 Kwacha for the natives, and 200 Kwacha for visiting travelers. There no surveillance cameras, and the main room has the feeling of an atrium which should be affixed to a medium-sized office building. There is a display of pinned Malawian insects which my Mom--with her entomology loving soul--would absolutely swoon over. She's saying "Oooooohhhh," as she reads this... Other exhibits include lots of history about the tribes, natural resources, currencies, tools of different time periods, and of course a chronicle of the life and times of Dr. Livingstone and the Scottish missionaries. The biggest display by far details the traditions surrounding "Gule Wankulu" (spelling?). This is the big-deal Malawian tribal dance. It makes use of animal costumes which are usually made out of vegetable materials. The animals symbolize different strengths and passions within the community. I believe that the dancing can happen during the day or the night, and that there is always a narrative element involved. It is stereotypically a very sexual dance, and training for the dance usually starts for youngsters when they are very young. It is closely related to a Mozambican tribal dance.

I was walking to the Post Office to mail a letter to the U.S. when a man walked up to me. He was seriously struggling to breathe. He held up an asthma inhaler and pointed towards it, while speaking a perfectly undstandable universal language of wheezing. He really looked like he was gonna collapse at any moment. I never give money to the kids who make it their full-time jobs to beg in the city. Instead, I tell them to go to school, and will give them a banana or another piece of fruit if I've got one. But this guy really needed help. And he needed it immediately. I walked with him slowly to the pharmacy. They didn't have the inhalers. We walked to another pharmacy. It cost roughly $7 USD. I wanted to save the money, but I bought it for him anyway. As he pushed down on the unit and inhaled twice deeply, he leaned against a wall, and looked at me without a smile, but with hard eyes which were beyond gratitude. Later, I told a friend about the experience, and how I'd wanted to save the money, but had wanted more to see this man take an easy breath. They suggested that I might have saved his life. That was the day the mini-busses were on strike. Most of the day was spent sitting on my butt waiting for a task to fall from the sky.

I'm trying to adapt to this new philosophy: Each day that I am alive, Each day that I'm here, There is a reason for my being. This reason--however beyond my knowing--is firmly in existence. That is how I am learning to be here.

Love, Ben

1 comment:

Mom said...

What an awesome young man! You make your mother proud!