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.

1 comment:

trish said...

Benji!!!!!!!!!! It's Trish....Sue forwarded your blog to me! AMAZING!!!!!! Your writing and the photos are great. Come to Baltimore!!!!!!!!!! We miss you...we lov e you...hope to see you soon!!!!! www.tenpachisalons.com