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.

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