Sunday, June 20, 2010

Reach Out and Touch

TVM on my family's TV set It's Sunday June 20th as I write this, and I’ve just finished eating dinner with my host mother and host cousin Aaron. Aaron turns on the TV because the second featurette in a series that the only public television station in the country, Malawi Television (TVM) has just started. The program is called Reach Out and Touch and the commentator tours around rural communities in a particular region of the country, this particular episode featured the northern region, and interviews people living in vulnerable situations such as child headed households, people in need of and without access to medical care and the elderly living in poverty without community support.

The program does not actively ask for donations to any particular fund or organization, but instead to the featured individuals directly. Bags of maize are bought to feed children, wheelchairs for the infirmed and hospital bills paid for those who are ill. The program is only broadcast in Malawi, and all donations come from fellow Malawians. It is interesting to see that, at a time when foreign NGOs such as EWB are running programs based on “building capacity” instead of building dependence and thus avoids hand-outs, the program created by Malawians to address their own country’s issues does the opposite.


I’m Breaking the Habit

Where I do my most productive work. Habits are one of the universal human qualities. No matter where you go in the world there are always repetitive things to be done on a day to day basis and being habitual is so hard wired into our humanity that even things that aren’t necessary, or good for you become bad habits (I was so thoroughly convinced that coming to Malawi would be the end of my nail biting, but alas old habits die hard).

I know that back home in Canada, the most habitual part of my day was definitely the mornings going through the same little cleansing rituals before I was ready to start my day: brushing, washing, soaping, scrubbing, rinsing, conditioning, shampooing, shaving, after-shaving, trimming, moisturizing, dressing then nourishing. Eventually even continuing on to classes on campus becomes habitual and some days a little bit mundane. I can definitely say that I have yet to have a mundane day in Malawi. However some things never change, and my mornings are just as habitual as ever, and they last about three times as long.

Don't worry mom/EWB National Office I now tuck this part of the net under the bed, and am thus far malaria-free (though I don't know what I will do come a second chicken attack)I wake up in the morning, usually to the sound of roosters and light rain on the corrugated aluminum roof and tie up my mosquito net to protect it from chicken damage, as there are particular poultry around the house that seem partial to my room, and laying eggs in my bed. Then I make my bed and throw on the clothes I was wearing yesterday.

Still bleary eyed I stumble outside and sit with my aunts in our kitchen Boiled bananas was a treat for breakfast one morning. The kitchen can be seen in the background. as they heat bath water for the kids, and Loveness, my host cousin sweeps debris in the yard with a dry-grass broom. The kids in the family all have to get off to school, so they are first to bathe, scrubbing themselves down (or sometimes being scrubbed down by Mrs. Longwe, my host mother). They then get dressed in their blue and yellow, or blue and white school uniforms, get a piece of bread in a plastic bag, or a bowl of rice thrust in their hands and they’re off down the path. Finally my bath water is heating.

Being almost a head taller than anyone in my family makes bathing slightly challenging. There is no running water in Mpamba so a bucket of warm water is taken into a small brick stall with a chitenje curtain and a piece of corrugated aluminumMy luxirous, though too short bathroom covering half the top.  Unfortunately the stall is only about 4 and a half feet tall, so I find myself squatting low over the bucket rinsing, soaping and rinsing again. In Malawi I’ve lost the luxury of conditioning, shampooing and all these other niceties of my old bathroom. Amazingly one bar of soap does it all, it makes me wonder why I waste money on all these other products. 

After bathing I towel dry and quickly scurry back to my room to get dressed for the day as it’s chilly in the mornings, and usually drizzling (the rainy season doesn’t really end until August). If it’s one of the rare days I’m off to the district water office in Nkhata Bay Boma (the district capital) for a meeting to which CCAP (my partner organization) has been invited I throw on my black “bwana[1]” dress shoes, slacks and a dress shirt, but most days it’s jeans, flip-flops and a golf shirt for field work.

Aaron, my host cousin offering me powdered milk and sugar fo my teaGoing back out to the kitchen, I try and help my aunts prepare the second batch of breakfast and they shoo me away. About 20 to 40 minutes later a hot piece of chigumu[2], a steaming bowl of rice or a plate of hot boiled sweet potatoes and cassava is in my lap, always accompanied by a cup of tea and the question, “you don’t take sugar!?”.  Something I seem to explain almost every morning.

After I’ve finished eating and brushing my teeth with lightly chlorinated water from my water bottle I walk into town with Foster to his shop, where his wife has already opened for the morning and either wait for a minibus to Mzuzu or Mpamba or meet with Ben (another area mechanic) and Chance (a health surveillance agent) with their bikes to do some surveying around Timbiri, the Traditional Authority (TA) that Mpamba lies within.

Once my day is underway it’s been about three hours from me waking up, which is considerably longer than waiting in line for a residence shower that I used to dread back home.


[1] Boss in Chitonga

[2] Malawian corn bread

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Market Day

Wednesdays are market days in Mpamba, where I am living with local Area Mechanic Foster Longwe. And man, are these days ever going to be a highlight of my week. The rather quaint town bursts to life as everyone is buying or selling something to everyone else, and I’m fairly certain I’m the only Mzungu (Foreigner/white man) within thirty kilometers, which is fairly overwhelming as everyone walks up to meet me. This is however quite refreshing after being subjected to the onslaught of MZUNGU! MR MAN! TALL MAN! I experience in Lilongwe and Mzuzu (two of Malawi’s larger cities).

Mpamba on Market Day
As opposed to a normal day in town.

I went into market day with a long list of things to get… but between the extensive amount of time bartering, as well as being stopped ever ten feet for an introduction I’ve barely dented my list. This wouldn’t be a big concern except for the fact that I am running dangerously low on toilet paper, and have yet to find where any is sold. I really have to discover the Chitonga (local language of the Tonga) word for TP.

Bathroom issues aside (none yet, and I’m keeping my fingers crossed it stays that way), I’m starting to adjust to living in Malawi, bit by bit. My focus right now is learning as much as I can about what value I can add to my work here (I promise there is a post to come explaining that) as well as persevering into gaining a working handle on Chitonga. The fact that everyone who can speak English replies to my “Mwuli” (How are you?) with, “I am fine and you”.


Just as an aside, I am learning that one of the challenges to expending an area mechanic business into a well digging venture is securing loans for your customers. This way you can be paid a lump sum from the bank, instead of receiving installments from your customers. If anyone has any information about lending operations in Malawi my email is above in the “Disclamer” tab.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Lasting Impressions

 I need to start this post with an apology. I'm sorry it's been such a delay between my first post and this, between distance to Internet, unreliable connections and computer glitches I've had trouble getting my first post up. But now that I've bested this hurdle I hope to be much more frequent in my correspondence.

The most natural thing to do, upon arrival in Lilongwe, Malawi would be to put together a post of first impressions detailing the dazzling disorientation of markets, inflated prices, experiences with white privilege, new foods (including a great hot sauce!) or the strangely intense sun (though Google tells me that Toronto and Waterloo are both stifling in comparison to the temperature here in Malawi). I've heard people describe their first experience in Africa as completely alien, like being in a movie, completely overwhelming or any combination of the three. After a couple weeks I don't think that any of that accurately describes what Malawi really is, or really feels like (thought I obviously can't speak for the rest of the continent, but only assume the same). For this reason I don't want to write a post about my first impressions because they're not really that representative of or relevant to my experience. Instead in the following paragraphs I want to outline what, after these few weeks are things I think will be lasting impressions* of Malawi (at least the 4 cities in Malawi I've been to thus far).

Right from my arrival it's been extremely evident the effect decades of NGO and other humanitarian activities have had on this country, and it's people. I was extremely taken aback when, while visiting a very rural area just outside of Mpamba (where I'm living with a very nice family) a child ran up to me shouting, "Mzungu Mzungu!" This is not at all an uncommon experience, as any white person who's been to Africa will tell you (and thankfully warned me). However, nothing prepared me for the child, in town in Mpamba (the village I'm calling home) who ran up to me, screaming "Mzungu!" who then, when I turned around bent down on one knee, presented me his upturned palm and said in a surprisingly demanding voice, "give me money". I was completely taken aback, but once able to temporarily get my wits about me again, I responded, exasperated, "Andalamma, andalamma" (money, money). He apparently found this hilarious, and we had a short conversation in my very limited Chitonga as I discovered that he'd completely used up all the Chizungu (English) he knew. I will leave you, the reader to decide what significance of this is, and I wish I could say it was an isolated incident, but I have been met with upward palms on many other occasions, most recently through the window of the minibus I rode to submit this post.

Another clear opinion that many Malawians I have come across, particularly outside the bottle store (Bar or Pub) that Foster, my Malawian counterpart owns is that, because I am a Mzungu, I must be somebody's bwana (boss). Thus despite my age, the bewilderment I can often feel expressed on my face and the flip-flops and dusty jeans I'm usually wearing I've very often been asked,

"Mzungu! Hey, good to know you. Ah yes, I am good. And how is your family? Sure, sure. . . Listen, I am looking for a job, can you help me?"

So I reply, usually through the smell of some beer, or cane spirit, "Umm... probably not. What kind of work are you looking for?"

"Ah, anything, I can do anything."

Now, despite the obvious notion that that is one impressive CV tempting me to say Anything? Wow, you should run for president then! I can't help wondering what seems to be stopping so many Malawians (as I seem to go through this very similar exercise at least every other day) from securing dependable employment. Or is this just wishful farmers hoping they can get out of what is definitely a very laborious profession and make more working for an NGO?

I make this observation because, from what I have seen and heard from many others the non-profit sector in Malawi doesn't just deliver "aid" but is an industry in of itself, employing vast numbers of people. My first dinner in Malawi myself and half of the Southern Africa Junior Fellows had dinner with a family of three in Lilongwe (the capitol city). The mother in the family was an extension agent with an NGO which EWB is partnered with helping farmers access fertilizer (among other things attempting to improve Malawian food security). Of her two children, her son is an accountant for World Vision, and her daughter works at a local university as assistant to a professor researching the AIDS virus. As you can see, this whole household is completely dependent on an economy supported by donor funding. An interesting thought.

This is clear (though anecdotal) evidence of how dependent the Malawian economy is dependent on foreign aid, here development is an industry in the truest sense of the word. It makes one wonder if the Malawian economy will ever function independently, and in how long?

Well, that was a very pessimistic view of what some of my experience has been, but really it has not been bad at all. Despite a few surprises, people in Malawi have been warm and really happy to have conversations with me in mostly English we me throwing in words from my limited Chitonga, which usually just leads to confusion.

As well, the stars here have been astounding. I don't think we've had a night that wasn't clear yet, and living in the city back home I always forget the beauty of the night sky. Every now and then Aaron, one of Foster's nephews laughs when he finds me swaying from the conversation in the evening (which is mostly in Chitonga, as Foster and his niece Veronica are the only family members truly fluent in English) to stare at the sky.

The Malawian food is something I'll not soon forget after leaving Malawi I am sure. Eating nsima (pronounced sima, or shima depending on where you are in Malawi) is truly a hands-on experience, and I'm still working on developing enough toughness on my right hand to pick up the maize, or cassava based ball of starch. I am quite certain though, that after only a few weeks I've exhausted the limited repertoire of Malawian cuisine and tasted every option there is to taste. Just the other night I fell asleep after being stuffed with maize nsima, completely full but fore some unexplained reason, intensely craving cinnamon. I suspect this is because, when it comes to spices salt is the only one any Malawian I have meet favours... and do they ever favour it! I am truly enjoying Malawian food, and am hoping to put together a collection or recipes... perhaps as a tab in this blog. If you think that would be something you'd like to see, leave a comment!


*Please feel free to argue in the comments whether even this is a better representation of Malawi, as I am definitely not thoroughly convinced myself