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 façade 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!

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