Monday, February 23, 2009

Happy Valentines Day!

I’m writing this post on February 14th, even though I probably won’t have a chance to upload it to the internet for a few days, but I thought a holiday would be a good excuse for a blog entry. I normally don’t celebrate Valentines Day; the pink and white and red plastered all over commercial properties in the US is usually a celebration that I don’t want to take part in. It is no wonder then that February 14th snuck up on me so that I had no idea why, on Friday evening, Jesse insisted on going for a walk down to our local shop without me. I should have had a clue; early that day my math students had balked at me assigning work on Saturday saying “but tomorrow is Valentines Day!” I had no idea this particular tradition had made its way to Malawi. Nevertheless, I was sweetly surprised Saturday morning when I awoke to find that Jesse had bought me cookies and drink mix and best of all red pens (which are ever in demand to grade my never-ending stack of papers). He had raided the store for all of their sweets, hoping to bring a little Valentines Day to Malawi for me.

Today I had the privilege to visit a village near Ruth and Tom Nighswander’s house. Ruth needed to pay a house call to the grandmother of a man Musa who they knew and she invited me along to see the village. We drove into the village along a dirt path that Musa assured us was the main road. We stopped in front of one of the nicer huts and got out to greet Musa’s grandmother. She received us graciously into her home and we entered followed by a swarm of all of the village’s children. Her hut was made of mud brick with thatched roof. There were no windows, so it was very dark inside, but I could still see the bits of colorful advertisements and a few photos that she had decorated the walls with. One of the prized decorations was a photograph the Ruth had taken a few years earlier of her and Musa with another volunteer from Anchorage. The hut had several rooms, divided with actual walls. However, there were no doors, only curtains. We sat on a set on very nice wicker furniture complete with a coffee table. As Ruth talked with Musa about his grandmother’s health the children crowded closer and closer, and when she brought out her camera they were thrilled to have their pictures taken with me.

Before departing we asked if we could see the back yard where the grandmother cooked. She obviously thought this was a silly request, but it was quite interesting for me to see the rest of a village home. Her back yard was fenced in with bound dried-grass wall and the ground was clean swept dirt. It was quite private in back, a quality I had not expected and I saw several structures which I could not put a function to, but would guess were for storing food or other provisions. Most interesting to see was the night’s ndiwo simmering in a pot balanced on three bricks with a piece of sugar cane slowly smoldering to provided the fire (Ndiwo is a relish to eat with nsima to give the corn mush flavor, ndiwo can be made from beans or vegetables and the grandmother was making hers with fish). The use of fire wood is a large ecological problem in Malawi. I read that the land was once covered with forest, but has now been completely denuded as people gradually cut down trees for cooking fires. This isn’t a recent problem either, and people struggle to find a cheap fuel for their fires at the same time that they struggle to have enough food to cook. I wondered how many people the grandmother was cooking for that night and as I watched that small amount of ndiwo simmer over the miniature fire thought again of how much people here must conserve their limited resources.

The thing that I noticed the most while in the village was the astounding number of children. I only saw two adults while I was there, but I saw at least forty children. Maybe more adults would return later in the day, but judging by the ratio of adults to children that I see every day; I imagine that most of those children rely on a small number of adults for their care. Sometimes I feel as if I am living in a nation of children and that all of the adults are missing. And yet, the country functions so I know that there are enough adults.

The freedom given to children is also astonishing to me, having grown up in a much different environment. Young children no more than 8 years old do so many things by themselves, without any apparent supervision by adults. They walk down the side of the road, easily looking both ways for traffic and moving away from speeding cars. They carry siblings in cloth slings on their backs, and water in large pots on their heads. They walk with their friends to the lake or to neighboring villages. They say hello to Jesse and I when we walk by on the road, sometimes holding out their hands demanding “give me money” or “ndalama”, depending on the state of their English education. Sometimes a group of children will start following us talking to us in Chichewa. I’m never sure whether they want something or whether they just want something to do so I usually let them follow for a few hundred meters before I turn around all of a sudden and with my hands on my hips pretend to chase them back. This is of course met with gleeful squeals, but does nothing to keep them from following and I have to end the game by waving my hand and carefully saying “Goodbye” or “You go back” (accompanied by a pointed finger). I finally learned this week how to ask “what do you want?”, but after using it a few times, I realized that the ability to understand the answer is a necessary prerequisite to asking the question.

Usually Jesse and I are not followed by packs of children when we go walking; however, our presence always draws some form of attention. The very young children (less than 5 years of age) never fail to call out to us when we pass on the road “azungu!” (meaning white person). I’m not sure whether they mean it as a declaration that foreigners are passing by or to catch our attention so that we will wave, but I’ve started yelling back “mwana” (meaning child) and the reaction to this is usually a startled look followed by a big grin. I think the largest motivation that I have to learn Chichewa is to be able to speak to the children.

Daily life here passes quickly; quickly, but not hastily or frantically. It is more a realization that the sun it setting on yet another day and I have already been here for 7 weeks. It is the end of another week and I not sure of the details of all of the events that have happened. However, the most meaningful experience that I have had so far is the experience that has been built by so many repeated small observations and occurrences, rather than the daily journal of my life. I do not keep a notebook. I do not document what I have done each day. Instead, what I have thought each day gradually collects into recurring ideas, which finally become cohesive and tangible when I write these entries. As you read these entries, please forgive the absence of a linear progression from one event to another. I hope you are instead able to take some meaning and enjoyment as I create a different sort of memento of Malawi.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

An Excursion to Cape Maclear

Last weekend, after a month of being in Malawi, Jesse and I finally traveled outside of the 10km radius around MCV.  We had received many recommendations about places to visit while we are here in Malawi, and the closest of these was Cape Maclear, so that was where we headed.  

Getting to Cape Maclear was easier and cheaper than our colleagues at the school had led us to believe.  Instead of a 250 kwatcha matola ride from MCV to Monkey Bay and a 500K ride from there to Cape Maclear, we managed a series of three free rides; the first was with a Malawian music producer on a business trip up from Blantyre (the commercial capitol) and the next was an Italian man who oversaw the paving of several of the area’s roads.  The Italian dropped us off at the point where the dirt road to Cape Maclear intersected the main paved road to Monkey Bay.  A matola to and from Cape Maclear only runs a few times a day, so after waiting at the end of the road for about twenty minutes awkwardly surrounded by a group of children silently proffering their jewelry and carvings for sale, we decided to start walking up the road until the next vehicle happened by.    After only a few minutes, a shiny black pick-up came racing down the road. Once again, we hitched yet another free ride, this time with an Icelandic man who was working with an NGO that provides education and clean water in the area around Monkey Bay

The drive to Cape Maclear along the 18km dirt road was beautiful.  Rolling hills were covered in boulders that made me regret my decision to leave my climbing shoes back in the United States.  There appears to be tons of climbing in the area, but I doubt that anyone has take advantage of it.  The rocks are just waiting for some adventuresome climber to spread the news to the rest of the world’s climbing community.   The road through these hills was scenic and quite rustic.  At first the road itself did not seem as bad as I had been led to believe.  I did not realize until our return trip in the bed of a matola truck that this was because of the padded seats and new shocks of the Icelander’s truck.  Several times on the way back I bounced so high that I felt as if I was riding on a wooden trampoline.      

When we arrived in Cape Maclear we were immediately set upon by the dozen of so crafty salesman who haunt the beach waiting for white tourists to leave the safety of their resorts.  At first they seem friendly, with greetings of “How are you sir?  Where are you coming from?  Have you made any arrangements for dinner/snorkeling/insert tourist activity here yet?”  A simple “No we’re not interested” does not suffice to keep them at bay.  One young man wanted to sell us a “local” dinner on the beach of fish and rice for 1500 K (a price that will normally buy a nice dinner for two at a resort).  When we laughed and said “no” he kept pestering us to name our price until we were forced to rude tell him to leave us alone.  These interactions gave me quite a negative impression of the town itself and made me understand why tourists often hide in the resorts where security keeps vendors like this away.  It is unfortunate that the situation occurs, but I am not sure if there is a good solution.  Since I did not come to Malawi to hang out with the other tourists at the camping resort where we had rented a tent for the night, I took the next best escape route and headed out on the water. 

Cape Maclear is a point of land that juts into Lake Malawi so that the view of the lake from this town is just gorgeous.  The sunset over the water was particularly beautiful, though difficult to capture on film.  There are a few small islands within kayaking distance (or swimming I suppose), and it was to these that we headed when we rented said kayak and a set of snorkeling gear.  Under the rays of the burning bright sun (whose unfortunate effects I didn’t notice until much later that night) we paddled out to the closest of these islands and beached our kayak on a rocky outcrop.  The rocks were covered in a thin layer of very slippery algae, which made exiting the kayak a bit interesting, but made the snorkeling absolutely phenomenal.  The algae growing on the rocks attracted all sorts of brightly colored fish for which the area and Lake Malawi are famous.  The iridescent blues and greens and reds would not look out of place on a coral reef, but here there was no coral in sight.  Instead, the fish dart back and forth through clear blue water that surrounds numerous underwater boulders.  It was quite a sight to see thousands of these colorful and varied fish swimming all around.  The clear water is certainly a testament to how well they do their job of algae-harvesting.  (Jesse has posted  video of our kayak outing on his blog that you should definitely check out.) 

With such a wealth of fish, it was no surprise to see all sorts of fishing birds such as the Kingfisher who would hover backwards, hummingbird-like, then plunge down toward his quarry, or the eagle who looked remarkably like our own American bald eagle dip her feet into the water and snatch out dinner.  The lake was also covered in human fishers, out in their white dugout canoes and armed with nets.  Some of the canoes would work in teams, with a net stretched between the two boats.  One such pair of canoes decided to pull in their net in using our rocky landing as a base.  Not knowing that they were there to fish, at first I was afraid that the canoe headed straight toward us was yet another irritating vendor intent on capturing our tourist dollars.  After a brief introduction (Muli bwanji?  Ndili bwino, kaya inu?  Ndili bwino.  What kind of fish do you have?  Yes.  Fish.) it became clear that their English was in no way up to the standard of a ruthless salesman and they wanted nothing more than to be left alone to pull in their net.  They did oblige us with a few photos though. 

All said, the trip was a balance of pleasant and unpleasant, but I am very glad that we went.  Despite its proximity, I’m not sure if I will return to Cape Maclear anytime soon, but I did learn from a teacher today that we missed the best part which was the National Aquatic Park nearby.  I will have to return at some point to see that since I heard that they offer quite a lot of information about the various species of fish that are endemic to Lake Malawi.  I look forward to that and to our next adventure.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

This Place Where I Have Arrived

Week three in Malawi has just concluded and my sense of place has finally returned.  I know where to buy chickens and eggs and beans and rice.  I know where to go for a relaxing dinner and a quick swim.  I know where to find notebooks and pens, clothsline and rat traps.  I even have begun to negotiate the second-hand clothes section of the market where I duck under hanging shirts and dig through piles of imported unwanted Western –style clothes to find something suitably professional to teach in.  Unfortunately, I still haven’t learned where to find the unbelievably delicious large green mangos that Jesse and I first sampled after flagging down a bicyclist on the side of the road two weeks ago.


The location of places in this small part of Malawi are described as either up the road or down the road.  The road is the main passage for all types of traffic- foot, bicycle, car, and truck, and, being recently paved, one can observe a terrify range of speeds from all manner of vehicle.  Nevertheless, this is the road upon which we live.  MCV is located several kilometers north of the town of Mangochi along this road.  The distance is far enough that, for us, walking under the hot sun is not a particularly good option (especially since the medication that Jesse takes to prevent Malaria increase his chances of quickly turning into a lobster).  Biking would work, except that as mentioned before, bikes share the road with cars that do not seem to obey speed laws or the left-side driving convention.  With no way to procure a helmet, I don’t want to risk a collision.  So, the only way to get to town is to catch a ride on a passing minibus or metola.


A metola is a curious phenomena that exists around the world under many different names that seems to spontaneously arise in any economy in which very few people have cars and subsidized public transportation is non-existent.  The basic principle is a man and his friend drive back and forth along a route, picking up passengers and dropping them off, the only passenger limit appearing to be the number that can cram in the vehicle and still have the door shut.  One man drives while the other is responsible for collecting a not-quite-standardized fare.  In Malawi a metola does not have the door-closing passenger limit, since the vehicle of choice is a pickup truck (think Toyota Tacoma not Ford F350). 


On our first adventure into Mangochi, we had the joy of experiencing Malawian transit first-hand.  The metola that pulled over to pick us up was already packed to the gills (at least I thought this until I saw another metola several days later with at least half again the number of people). Despite my protestations that there wasn’t enough room, Jesse and I were hoisted aboard.  I ended up sitting on a boy named ‘John’s lap and Jesse crouched in the bed of the truck until he was asked to stand to make more room.  At one point I counted 23 of us in the back of the truck and 4 in the front.  Thankfully, the metola driver had some sense of the safety of us passengers in the back and plodded down the road at a nice safe speed of 35 mph.


As for Mangochi, I do not have much to say.  It’s a town where we can purchase supplies, but I’ve yet to find a reason to go there apart from restocking the pantry.  The more interesting adventures occur within a 2km radius of our little cottage.


Last weekend I had the privilege of experiencing two events that gave me a little insight into the importance of religion here in Malawi.  The first was the official opening ceremony for the new school year.  Three hours of Saterday morning were dedicated to school prayers in which student religious groups sang songs and local clergy and administrators gave speeches.  Prior to Saterday I had believed that most Malawians are soft-spoken.  In class I often have to walk right over to a student and bend down close to hear the question they are asking.  And it is virtually impossible to practice one of my favorite pastimes of eavesdropping in on conversations since a discussion between two people is usually held at a volume a librarian would envy.  However, the unamplified sound of eight students singing hymns together in the hall where we gathered for the ceremony was almost deafening.  In addition to volume, the students could sing harmony that rivaled the prestigious acapella groups at my alma mater.  What those college groups accomplished with twenty members, these high school students created with 6-8. 


The other remarkable aspect of Saterday’s ceremony was the religious acceptance that pervaded the entire program.  The region around Mangochi is in a large part Muslim, so the two main speakers were an Islamic sheik and Catholic priest.  The speeches were both greeted with enthusiasm as well a the appropriate Christian or Muslim call and response.  The linguistic ability of those in the room was also commendable, as the ceremony was conducted in three languages: English, Chichewa, and Arabic.  Even though the 3 hours passed slowly, in the end I was glad that I attended.


On Sunday, due to Jesse’s friendly chatting with a man named Bennett, we were invited to attend church at a small Anglican church across the road.  One doesn’t turn down invitations like this, and since we were curious to experience local religion, we accepted.  A student named James came to escort us in the morning and to act as translator since the entire service would be in Chichewa.  Three things stand out in my mind after the two-hour service.  One, church building was perhaps one of the most humble religious structures I had ever seen.  Measuring 20ft by 50ft, there were no chairs, only woven grass mats, and the wooden ceiling beams sagged under the weight of a tile roof.  Small glass-less windows lit the room and the alter was cover with a simple white cloth and a few flowers.   Being visitors, we were provided with two chairs in which we awkwardly sat as the congregation sat before us on the floor.  Two, the singing was amazing.  The sound of the congregation singing together was beautiful and fervent, with no voice timid or silent.  I would have liked to join in, but the words were all Chichewa and the melodies unfamiliar.  Three, an isle down center divided the men from the women and children, with the women’s side out-numbering the men by at least 5 to 1.   I was absolutely astounded by the number of small children-  some sitting in their mothers’ laps, others tawdling from one lap to another, and still others, probably not more than 2 or 3 years old, wandering out of the back of the church on their own.  All were adorable, and I spent the hour that the preacher gave his sermon, entertained by their small theatrics.  After the service we were greeted by every member of the congregation and I got to shake many hands- many shyly offered by the little ones.


Perhaps my previous description of the singing did not fully convey my appreciation.  Let me clarify: I am in love with the singing here.  On nights that the power goes out, the girls and boys that live at MCV gather in impromptu groups and sing for hours.  It is such a treat to lay in bed listening to their songs in the dark.  It is a sound that I have never experienced in the US.  I wish that I could record the songs and bring them home with me at the end of the year.  I will have to go out and join them one night to see if they can teach me their songs. 


I will have to save the rest of my stories for the next post.  To my friends and family in the US – I hope you are all well.  Take care.  Until next time,