Saturday, March 28, 2009

The Baobab tree in the courtyeard at Gracious.
A village on the side of the road to Mangochi.
Scenary along the road to Mangochi.
More scenary and a hut inthe distance.

Typical view from the widow of a matola.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Linguistic Endeavors

I would like to share with you a riddle that was posed to me by a particularly intelligent student who was bored with his math exam. (Imagine several large arrows directing your attention toward this note at the end of the exam.)

My God is Wonderful, Invincible King

Answer this proverb (brain-teaser).

What is the most powerful than god, evil than devil, while the poor have it, and rich look for it. What is it?

-Dr. Morris Katunga

“Well”, I thought to myself, “it sounds like it would be a good word for one of my Chichewa flashcards.” I now have a treasured stack of white notecards each bearing a term that I have memorized. I refer to them as ‘my words’, as in “Jesse, did you take my words to school again?” I asked a teacher for a word to add to my collection the other day and he gave me the word “chikondi” meaning love. What a nice word to learn.

As I gradually increase my Chichewa vocabulary I find myself becoming casually enchanted with words. I’m not exactly sure when the affair began. It was certainly fueled by a package from my Grandmother containing New Yorker shorts stories brimming with the creative sentences of the modern American writer; and it is sparked whenever I correct verbal slippage, such as a student’s biology exam that declared that males have a “white” chromosome. With this newfound enthusiasm for language, a bright orange and red book has become a regular companion. The lucky book is Dictionary: English-Chicehewa-Chinyanja Fourth Edition Revised and Enlarged. Yes, I like to read the dictionary. But this isn’t just any dictionary. The choice of entries is quite unique; it has so many words for so many different situations such as ‘love potion’ or ‘eyelid disease’. For the religiously inclined visitor (half of the white folks in Malawi are missionaries) the text is full of Bible characters. They even have the Maccabees. Reading a dictionary has never been so entertaining. I actually find myself flipping through the pages looking for juicy tidbits. But, what really makes this reference book a page turn is the fact that whenever possible, the authors chose to define words using proverbs rather than some bland English synonym.
Deciphering the proverbs has become a pastime that rivals my shelf of already read books. Here’s a few if you are up for a challenge. Answers are at the end.

1) “Walira mvula, walira matope.”
If you cry for rain you cry for mud.

2) “Chalaka bhaka nkhuku siingatole.”
What a duck cannot pick up cannot be picked up by a chicken.

3) “Ukapeza anzako akukuzinga mason awe tang’ola ako.”
When you find your friends frying their eyes, you have to do the same. (Yes I did mean to type “frying”)

4) “Chala chimodsi sichiswa nsabwe.”
One finger cannot press a louse.

5) “Chakudza sichiyimba ng’oma.”
What comes does not beat a drum.

6) “Nkuhyu zodya ana zimapota wa wamkulu.”
Figs eaten by the children trouble the adults.

And if those were too easy:

7) “Mphuno salota.”
The nose does not dream.

Malawi has such a wealth of lingual gems. Another good example are slogans. Our container of Gold Band margarine proclaims: “Nature’s Best – Only Better!” A sticker on a fence in Magochi proudly boasts the colors of the Malawian flag and declares, “Peaceful Elections: Yes We Can!” (Now picture a shop across the street selling chitenje plastered with a gigantic Obama head.) Jesse pointed out the best slogan so far when, on a recent trip to our favorite run-down resort, he noticed the faded text on the monogrammed rubber checker board upon which we were playing checkers with bottle caps. Mulangeni’s original slogan, which was painted in big blue flaking letters on the weathered cement wall at the entrance, was “Simply the Best of Lake Malawi.” The checkerboard, which must have been a more recent revision read: Mulangeni- “Probably the Best of Lake Malawi”. Oh the difference that can be made a single word.

Tonight we are treating ourselves to pizza cooked by a nearby NGO called Utawaleza Farm. We’ve bought various vegetable from them depending on what they are harvesting, but best of all we can buy chickens there that are already dead and frozen. We rode down to the farm yesterday on our newly acquired bicycle (more on that later) to buy chickens and whatever other vegetables we could find. They only had tomatos and eggplants and no chicken. So we ordered a pizza for today as a treat (you have to order one day in advance), and had spaghetti with an eggplant sauce for dinner.

As mentioned before we recently inherited a bicycle. There are many places, such as Utawaleza, that are not too far to walk but would require a minimum of 20 minutes to get to. While having lunch at our friend Austin’s house a few weeks ago we mentioned that we’d like to find a bicycle. A few days later he came by the house, wheeling a magenta mountain bike with him. He told us we could use the bike if we fixed it up. “What’s wrong with it?” Jesse asked. To demonstrate Austin turned the pedal with his hand. Nothing happened. “So what’s wrong?” I thought to myself, and then felt stupid a few seconds later when I realized that that was exactly the problem. The bicycle didn’t go. Turns out it was a simple fix. The bicycle mechanic just down the road fixed it in 30 minutes for about 25 cents. Once a metal carrying rack for the back was procured for me, Jesse and I had ourselves a genuine Malawian taxi. Needless to say, our maiden voyage down to Utawaleza Farm elicited laughter up and down both sides of the road since what were two anzungu (white people) doing sharing a bicycle, don’t they have a car?

I am looking forward to touring the countryside on our new mode of transport. Gone are the days of paying 50 kwatcha each just to get to Maldeco (previously referred to as Madego since that’s how everyone pronounces it). I anticipate that our two wheels will open up new horizons to be explored with exciting adventures just around the corner. That is, if the rain ever lets up and we are able to get out of the hut. Until next time.


Proverb Answers:
1) Bad things always accompany good things.
2) If I smart person (or older person) couldn’t solve a problem, then a dumb one (or a young one) won’t be able to.
3) When in Rome do as the Romans.
4) Teamwork solves problems.
5) Misfortune comes unannounced.
6) If children cause trouble, then their parents have to deal with it.
7) You never know what will happen next (danger!).

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

A Chicken Isn't Just a Chicken

Saturday was so eventful that I accomplished nothing of what I wanted to do (laundry, school work, email writing) and almost everything of what I didn’t really need to do, but would at least make for a better story. The story begins the night before, Friday night that is, when Jesse and I were walking over to our friend Ayub’s house to buy some eggs. We’ve been visiting him a lot lately since his wife is on a two month trip back to Afghanistan to visit her mother and Ayub is all alone and very lonely in the house. We had just started down his road when along he comes in his car with a fellow teacher Kyle in the front seat. They are on their way to Palm Beach (the resort where the Nighswander’s house is and where Kyle is living) for a relaxing evening on the beach. Change of plans, we are now headed to Palm Beach with Kyle and Ayub. Hopefully the chicken we are thawing for dinner will keep until tomorrow.

At Palm Beach we meet two old British men who are full of crazy tales and passionate about HAM radio. We chatted with them for a while (my side of the conversation consisted of a lot of head nodding) and learned many new things about England, my favorite being the British hand symbol which is equivalent to the American middle finger. The first two fingers are held apart and slightly curved, which originates (according to our new friend) with archers during one of the conflicts between France and England. Two fingers were all that the French soldiers could see of the British archers, thus the birth of a rude gesture. After an hour spent talking and playing pool, I’m really not sure how the British have avoided the loud reputation that Americans have been saddled with.

After a delicious meal several courses larger than our usual fare, we returned home to be met at our door by an MCV night time security guard. “Mr. Austin said that he would pick you up at 10 am tomorrow morning.” What? When did we make arrangements to meet Austin on a Saturday? Austin is the one who met me and Jesse at the airport in Lilongwe when we arrived. After about five minutes I finally remembered that Jesse had talked to Austin on Monday about maybe visiting his home and meeting his wife this weekend. Be careful in Malawi about suggesting plans. They become permanent much more easily than in the US where a cell phone call 10 minutes prior to the scheduled event is necessary to ensure that everyone actually shows up. Thankfully, this was a suggestion that we had been intending to follow up on.

Saturday morning brings school at 8 am. I don’t actually have to be there, but I go and get a little grading done and write some notes for next week’s classes. 10 am comes much sooner than 2 hours and Austin is right on time. He’s come to pick us up on a bicycle. This means that he will ride back to Namyasi and we will catch a matola. Surprisingly, despite our vehicle having a motor, we arrive at the destination at the same time.

A side note about matolas. One, when space get tight, men should stand. Women should not stand, and any sitting woman is liable to be handed a baby (this happened to me on the return trip from Namyasi). Two, do not expect your matola to have enough fuel to take you where you are going. However, if you do run out of gas, your conductor will arrange a bulk transit fair for all of his passengers on the next passing matola (our conductor paid 500 kwatcha for 14 of us on the way into Mangochi). Three, a matola is like a mother’s lap, there’s always room for one more (or 14 more).

Back to Austin. We walked through the village to Austin’s house where he lives with his wife and two boys. We were introduced and led out back to sit under a tree and visit while lunch was being prepared. One of the boys immediately brought out a carved wooden board with 4 rows of eight holes each and a pile of gumball sized seeds. Bao is the name of the game and it is incredibly popular in Malawi. So popular that I usually see a makeshift board scratched in the dirt under any large tree where people a liable to wait for any length time. Stones are usually used for the pieces, but I liked to look of the large grey seeds that Austin’s son brought out with his board. In case you are thinking – yes that game sounds familiar, it’s like Mancala right? Wrong. That’s what Jesse and I thought when our friend and fellow teacher Andrea taught us how to play, but the rules are completely different. For one, pieces are not captured by landing in empty spaces, but by landing in full spaces and game play zigzags back and forth according to a complex set of rules. I’ll try to post the rules to this blog at some point. For the mathematically inclined, the question of how to win the game in the fewest moves is and interesting one, but I think that I have to become a much more skilled player before I can answer it. Suffice to say, at age 8, Austin’s eldest son could already move the pieces faster than I could follow, finishing with a loud slap when he placed the last piece of each turn. Game after game was played for the two hours we sat there, with the neighboring children vying for a place at the board.

It seemed to be a boy’s game, so while they were playing I taught the girls how to make paper airplanes. As soon as they figured out what I was about, they raced off to who knows what rubbish pile and back with zillions of scraps of paper which appeared to be someone’s biology notes. No one really got the hang of folding a plane, but throwing them was easily understood by all and for several minutes the air was full of flying paper and squeals.

So passed the time before lunch. Soon enough we were seated at the table have a meal of rice and rooster (killed special for us) marinated in a delicious sauce. Swimming in the sauce was an organ that looked strangely familiar, but not as something I would normally eat. “What is this part?” I asked Austin before taking a bite. It was the heart. In Malawi, the way that you show a visitor he is welcome is by serving him chicken. If he is very welcome, you kill one of your own chickens, and if he is especially welcome you kill a rooster and serve him the heart to show that the rooster is genuinely his. If the rooster heart wasn’t enough to make us feel welcome, they even brought cold water from a neighbor’s refrigerator for us to mix Sobo (an orange drink).

The meal was delicious, and the only downside was that I was constantly looking at my watch creep toward 1:30. A sports game was scheduled for 2:00pm that day and as a sports patron I was obligated to be there. I knew that no one would be there on time, but still, I expressed my regrets immediately after lunch and headed back out to the road to catch a matola back to MCV.

I finally arrived back to MCV at 2:30. The opposing team was already there, but our students were, as usual, missing. Luckily, that showed up soon after I arrived and we were able to start the netball game only one hour late. My suggestion that we play the football game concurrently so as to save time politely ignored (the football game subsequently finished around 6pm). Our girls played fabulously. We just received a new teammate (she started school just this week, two weeks before finals) and she can make every basket she shoots. She’s definitely an asset to a team that can deftly pass the ball up the court, but can’t seem to make a shot once they get to the end. With the new girl’s help, we trounced the other team 21 to10. Some day here, I’ll try to post some footage of a netball game on this blog.

I left the field once the netball game was over for some much needed recovery time in the shade. I hadn’t had a chance to reapply sunscreen and was feeling thoroughly roasted. Rest was not to be had for long; there’s alawyas dinner to be made. After such a delicious chicken lunch I didn’t feel like cooking yet another chicken for dinner, so Friday’s chicken went back into the fridge. It should keep until Sunday. Night was coming and Jesse, Kyle, Ayub and I had plans to check out a local pub that night due to a rumor of the possibility of live music.

The name of the establishment was the Zithele Pano Pub (ZPP), which the owner (a very friendly woman named Vikki) explained meant “it all stays here”. This is a phrase equivalent to the English, “what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas”. It’s quite a good name for the bar, especially for a small town where everyone knows your business anyways. Prior to the ZPP and a few chance encountered with Malawians from Blantyre, I was under the impression that Malawian women always wore skirts. Not so, at least not for the younger ones. They all were out on the dance floor shaking their booties in tight jeans and halter tops. I was glad to see that the modern woman has reached Malawi, but felt severely underdressed in my school-marm skirt and baggy tank top. Unfortunately that night the only music to be found was a DJ playing American hip-hop and Malawian pop music, but we heard rumor that maybe next week….

So that was my Saturday. As far as the week before, my biology class is just finished up a unit on genetics and evolution this week. I think that maybe 5 out of 60 students actually understood genetics, so the last week when I was teaching evolution I changed tactics and presented it as a story. I told them the story of Darwin and the finches of the Galapagos Islands as well as the story of how the peacock grew such a large tail. It was certainly more fun to teach that way, but I’m not sure if they got much more out of it. At least they appeared to be more entertained, especially when I got to the part in the Peacock story about the females liking the males with the larger tails.

When I started the evolution unit, I wasn’t quite sure what reactions I would get from some of my very Christian students. I began by asking my class “why are there so many different types of life on Earth?” Mostly I got blank stares in answer, but one boy (a very talented gospel composer) replied “because Jesus made them that way.” Well, I don’t think it was Jesus himself, but I replied that, yes, that is the explanation from religion, but that evolution is biology’s answer to that question. So then he asked, well which one is right? Of course, the only thing I could tell him was that that was for him to decide and then I moved on with my lesson.

For such a religious seeming country, I am surprised to find such an openness and tolerance of religion. Several teachers have asked me which church I go to, and when I explain that I’m Jewish and there isn’t a church for me in Malawi, they are immediately interested to hear about what Jews believe and compare it to their own Christian or Muslim religion. Just yesterday, walking back from the netball game, a student started asking me about my beliefs. “Oh so you read the Old Testament but not the New Testament,” she replied after learning that Jews don’t believe in Jesus as a prophet. Her responses were full of curiosity without any apparent judgment. Based on her and other students’ interest in my religious views, I think a comparative religions class would be quite popular here. I think its unfortunate that the only religion class taught is Bible Knowledge.

So far, it appears that the attitude toward religion is much healthier here in Malawi than in the US, where religion is practically a taboo subject in public places. Yes, I fully support the separation between church and state; it is necessary to allow everyone to feel comfortable with their nation’s governmental institutions. However, sometimes I wonder if our hesitation to talk about beliefs and cultural differences creates more of a problem than if we did flaunt our religions. I also wonder what makes people here are more open about religious differences.

Lately I’ve been trying to increase my Chichewa vocabulary. Since I only know about 30 words, this is not difficult to improve on. Last week I wanted to know the word for one of my favorite foods here. I looked it up in the dictionary; the first entry is the word nkhuku (coo coo), a nice accurate description of a chicken. The third entry under chicken was chitsekulamuvi, the definition: “a chicken given to a divorced wife in order to reunite”. I asked several of my colleagues, “Really? A literal chicken?” Yup. Evidently, in Northern Malawi, it is the women who do the divorcing and if a husband wants to get back together he must present her with a chicken. So there’s your Chichewa word of the day: chitsekulamuvi. What with rooster hearts and make-up chickens, I get the sense that this bird has some importance here. I will have to investigate further.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

A Day in the Life

Wake up around 6:15 . If the electricity is on, I boil a pot of water to cook nsima for breakfast and maybe fry an egg. Don’t forget the powdered milk and sugar for the nsima, otherwise it tastes just like the nsima I will have for lunch. If the water is on then it is an especially lucky day; I will even wash my face before I go to school.

I get to school just after 7:00am and when I arrive I must greet all of the teachers. This involves walking around the room to each teacher there and saying “Good morning, how are you?”. I like to arrive early- then the teachers get to greet me. This is easily accomplished since I live about 30 seconds away from the school.

Classes start at 7:30 am and there are nine 40 minute periods in a day. (Why did I complain about 6 periods in high school?) After the first three periods we have a 30 minute tea break and after the second three periods we have an hour lunch break.

Lunch time at 12:00. The nsima arrives at least 20 minutes into the lunch hour. Sometimes the administration arrives instead to tell us that there is no food today because (fill in excuse here). Nsima is accompanied by kidney beans and a pinch of cooked greens. If a teacher is feeling generous he or she will cook a couple eggs to supplement our meal. If a teacher is feeling especially generous they will buy (and share) some fish from the fisherman who stops by the teacher’s office everyday to advertise his catch.

Back to class at 1:00pm. I have no classes on Thursday and Friday afternoons, at least that is according to the current schedule. The schedule changes on average every two weeks as new teachers arrive. Classes are officially over at 3:00; I usually teach two to six periods a day and have the rest of the time to make lesson plans and grade homework and tests. This always takes much longer than expected since time must be allowed for aimless staring across the room. It is usually too hot to think for more than 20 minutes at a time. The temperature dictates whether I will be found planning lessons in the teachers office during the periods that I don’t teach or back at my house in the cool dark shade.

The day is not finished after nine periods of classes. Every day from 3:00-4:00 the students have an activity. On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, the activity is “Prep” during which they are supposed to study or receive an extra lesson. However, I often observe them “studying” while fast asleep. My prep time is spent tutoring new students who showed up in the middle of the term, having no clue about the topics we have covered so far in class. It is the end of week 8 of a term with 13 weeks and just last Thursday a new student came during the middle of my class. I guess school begins here whenever a person has the money to pay for it.

On Tuesdays the students go to various clubs and societies. I am in charge of the Math Club, which astonishingly enough is the largest club at the school. The first day we met, I asked the students why they signed up for Math Club. They told me, “because madam, we have trouble with math and want to be better”. Wow. Can you an entire American school full of students with that attitude? I had to reassess my vision of a Math Club in which we do lots of fun new problems to include some practice with their normal math classes.

Thursdays are reserved for sports. The two sports are football (soccer) and netball (a cross between basketball and ultimate frisbee). Both are played outside under the glaring sun on a crudely shorn field of grass. As the girl’s sports patron, get to stand outside and watch the girls run back and forth yelling at each other in Chichewa. I’m not sure what exactly my job is. I tried to make the girls put on shoes when they run across the grass, since who knows what is living on the ground, but they informed me that they didn’t have sports shoes and were unable to play in their school shoes.

Most days school fills my day until 4:00 when I finally return home. Then I get to decide whether I want to lay in my hammock with a Fanta or get started making dinner. One would think that getting home at 4 would leave plenty of time for other activities in the evening, but it gets dark at 6:30pm. The availability of electricity usually determines what I do in the evenings. Sometimes it’s a rush to make dinner before the power goes off.

Dinner is sometime after 4:30 but before 7:00. We have a rotation of meals: beans and rice, chicken and fried potatoes, chicken soup with rice, or beans and fried potatoes. Supplement this with occasional leafy vegetables or fresh baked bread.

After dinner and before bed is a time for sitting in the dark and deciding if I am tired enough to go to sleep. Some nights we watch saved episodes of television shows on the computer or play ‘Tanks’ or ‘Zuma’ (two especially addicting computer games). Some nights we play cards. Most nights I read. At least twice week I end up asleep in bed before 8 o’clock.

So that is a day.

Three items of note this week:

1) Jesse found a projector and screen and on Friday night showed Jurassic Park to a packed house of students who stay nearby. Most touching to me were the kids who asked, “so did those dinosaurs ever exist?” and my form four biology students who wanted to ask me about dinosaurs the next day.
2) I saw a monkey in the giant Baobab tree in the courtyard at school. He seemed completely unperturbed by the being surrounded by a couple hundred students in classrooms.
3) Jesse went to Mangochi to find candles, superglue, and money from the bank. He came back with a haircut. He likes the fact that he no longer has any hair to dry when he gets out of the shower, but I think he looks like a Qtip. I have now threatened to go get a “haircut”.