Volunteers’ Stories: Allie

Allie’s Story (“African Allie’s Blog”)

“I had an incredible time over there, and would go back in a heartbeat! I definitely recommend Africa for your next vacation…it’s a place that’s as beautiful as anywhere in the world, and the people are guaranteed to touch your heart and change your life.”

Editor’s Note: Allie was a volunteer at Mwaya from mid October 2004 to mid March 2005. While she was in Malawi, she was able to tell her family and friends about her experiences via a blog. She has kindly agreed to let us reproduce a slightly edited version here — it is very long but well worth reading!

Thursday 28 October 2004

So, Malawi. I finally made it here! The travel was a little hellish (a full three days of flying, sitting on buses, and walking in 95 degree heat), but I’m psyched to be here and am continually fascinated by the way of life over here. A little bit about Malawi first…

It’s hard not to be overwhelmed by the poverty here. Most of the people I’ve met are easily remembered because most only have one or two outfits, so even if I don’t remember their face I recall their clothes! There is no electricity or running water at the schools or clinic, no doors on the schools, and no classrooms for the 1st and 2nd grade (they have class outside, but once the rains come I think they’ll have a four month unplanned vacation). Most of the families live in self-constructed mud and straw huts…the more well off families have a “toilet” outside, which is basically a hole in the ground surrounded by a little shack, and I try not to think about what the others do to relieve themselves. Everyone cooks over open fires (including me, I’ve become a regular Girl Scout), but the people here usually only eat nsima, which is like extremely thick grits made out of cassava or corn, and occasionally fish that they have caught themselves in the lake. The average salary of a worker is about $1 a day (the doctor at the clinic gets $2, lucky guy)!

Despite the extreme poverty, I am so impressed by the friendliness and the attitudes of all the people here. I literally have to say hi to every person I meet walking around….by the 100th greeting of the day it gets a little old, but the smiles are always appreciated! I’ve been offered lunch just about every day that I’ve been here…I feel guilty eating their food since they have so little, but most people seem happy to have a guest and are curious about me and my life. I’ve met the chief of the town (he gave me 15 bananas as a present!), and I would like to meet the witch doctor soon and see what that’s all about. There are a lot of traditional beliefs here, including witchcraft, and the men are free to take as many wives as they wish! Most of the really young children scream when they see me (I think some of the mothers tell them that white people are devils), but the older ones follow me everywhere and run out from their houses if they see me pass on the path…I’m never lacking for company!

My accommodations are AMAZING! The chalets are built right on the sand of the lake, which is crystal clear and Caribbean blue and green…there’s apparently a reef out a couple hundred feet but I haven’t had time to go exploring yet. We have brand new showers and toilets (a completely unexpected luxury) that work via a water tank that the women fill daily with lakewater (they carry the most INSANE things on their heads, including the water tanks, tree trunks, etc., all while toting babies strapped to their backs), and a refrigerator that runs on gas. There are mango and pineapple trees right outside my window, chameleons and lizards running around, palm and bamboo trees everywhere…it’s completely unspoiled tropical paradise, something most people would pay big bucks to stay at. And I basically have it all to myself!! The sun comes up around 5 (THAT was an adjustment), and I wake up every morning to the sounds of the birds (SO colorful) and the fishermen coming in, banging on their boats to celebrate another night’s catch.

As for my volunteer work, I am currently working with the doctor (who’s really a nurse but prescribes the medicine anyway) keeping the records, weighing and taking the blood pressure of the women in the antenatal clinic, and also working in the wound dressing room, where I’ve promptly learned to suture! I’m still kinda observing and feeling things out, trying to figure out where my help is most needed, but it’s so hard to leave a Western mindset behind and try to understand the villagers concerns, attitudes, and beliefs from their perspective. I’m tentatively planning a village-by-village survey of their greatest health, economic, and social/political concerns, since many people have been here volunteering and teaching and donating money but never bothering to find out what is most important to the villagers!! Although this is not what I had in mind when I came over, I am becoming more convinced that there is a great need for a greater understanding of the people before anyone else can come in and make more changes. For example, many people think malaria is caused by rain, or go to the witch doctor instead of the regular doctor for certain ailments…I want to learn about and try to understand tribal beliefs so that any future changes can be made within that context, because any changes made my well-meaning volunteers will be rejected if they contradict age old traditional beliefs! I am in the planning stages right now, working with the school headmaster, the local village chiefs, and the public health officers at the clinic, but I’ll be sure to keep you updated when things get going!

Other interesting tidbits:

We had a pet baby monkey for about a week! Some boys came by trying to sell it (I think they had killed and eaten the mother), but we basically took it away and took care of it. He stayed in my chalet and we fed him with milk from a syringe…I hated giving him away because we had become quite attached to one another, but we didn’t have the time to watch him all the time (he screamed when you put him down, they’re used to their mothers carrying them around 24/7). He was sooo cute, only the size of a newborn kitten, but he would yawn, hiccup, cling onto your ankles, coo when you picked him up…and he threw temper tantrums and acted like a human baby in many ways also!! We think he was a blue monkey (his skin was blue, and he had light brown fur with huge ears and a long tail), but not really sure. He’s the only monkey I’ve seen so far, but apparently there are lots of others, including baboons, which the villagers trap and eat, ugh!

Fried bananas (green, before they are ripe) are my favorite food here! They taste just like french fries, awesome. We also eat lots of papaya, mango, tamarind, and other unidentified but delicious tropical fruits. I have yet to get sick, but I came close when someone served me a bowlful of minnows (eyes, tails and all)…I couldn’t say no because they had invited me, but I definitely did not enjoy chewing a bowlful of whole little fish! Another interesting lunch…chicken eggs, from WITHIN the chicken. I watched them kill it and pluck it and take the eggs out…they actually taste just like the yolk of a hard boiled egg, very good. At that same meal they served me the gizzard and liver, because apparently that means that the chicken was slaughtered for you. Great, thanks.

I saw the most incredible thing…it looked like a rainbow in a huge ring around the sun!! The villagers believe that when this happens, a king has died somewhere. I have never seen anything like it!

And my favorite comments from the past 2 weeks…”I want to go to America, so I can be white!!” — one of our night watchmen, on the assumption that if my skin turned tan in the sun, his would lighten if he stayed out of the sun. Another great one…”And your parents were happy with only two girls and no boys?!?” — one of the village women, when I told her I only had one sister (boys, and lots of children in general, are highly valued…most families have 6-12 kids).

There are a million other stories from just the first two weeks, but that’ll have to do for now. I can’t get to the internet very often (I’m about 4 hours away from where I’m staying), so I apologize if I don’t update this weblog often. In the meantime, send me letters and I’ll write back!! Happy Halloween almost…I’ll be sweltering in the 34 degree heat (I think that’s about 95, yuck)!

“To ask is to find the way.” — Tonga tribe motto.

  • Allie on a matola
    Allie on a matola
  • Allie loved sharing her time with the local children
    Allie loved sharing her time with the local children

Tuesday 9 November 2004

Well I’m definitely past the honeymoon phase of my trip! I still love it here, especially the beach and the beautiful surroundings (the mangoes, papayas, and bananas outside my window are starting to ripen), but things with my volunteer work have hit a few snags. Sometimes I feel like I’m more on an extended vacation than actually doing any good over here. What the people need in many cases is a LOT of money, trained workers who are going to stay here and not leave in 5 months, and someone who speaks their language…I don’t meet any of those criteria right now, and although I’m trying to learn a little bit of Chitonga, everyone falls over themselves laughing whenever I try, real encouraging!

I am no longer working at the health clinic regularly…I became so frustrated by the same (preventable and minor) illnesses coming in to the clinic that I decided that health education would have a far greater (and longer-lasting) impact than simply trying to give medicine to everyone who comes in with malaria, food poisoning, diarrhea from water-borne bacteria, etc. So after a bunch of planning and discussion I started a health club of sorts in the community, working with kids mostly ages 10-17. We had our first meeting yesterday, and I had to laugh because the kids showed up with notebooks and pencils in hand, ready to copy whatever notes I was going to give them….apparently their idea of a health club was me lecturing about AIDS, malaria, cholera, whatever. Kinda funny, but also sad because that’s the only way schools are run over here. Kids are treated as little incompetent fools, with no worthwhile or original ideas of their own, and taught only to copy down and memorize whatever the teacher tells them. The schools are an absolute disgrace…the teachers teach for about 5 minutes an hour, none of the kids understand or pay attention, the teacher couldn’t care less if the kids understand or not, and the teacher is free to whip the kids with tree branches if they are out of line. VERY educational.

Anyway, the kids were pretty taken aback that I wanted to have a discussion and hear their ideas about what problems exist in the community and what they think is most important to address. We had some silly relay races and played some other team-building type games, which everyone loved but took awhile to get into…everyone gave me this look like, “what the hell does this have to do with health club?” The kids are still pretty shy but I think it went well, and we’re meeting now three times a week. Some of the things that the kids want to work on are sanitation and hand washing, especially concerning their “toilets,” better access to safe water, better nutrition by growing one’s own vegetable garden, and learning about specific diseases that are common here like AIDS, cholera, malaria, bilharzia, etc. Up until yesterday I was really thinking about booking an earlier ticket home because I didn’t think that there was much I could do to help, but now I’m pretty optimistic that this club will work out and be pretty beneficial (even though the kids came about 45 minutes late and I almost cried cause I thought no one wanted to come to my club)!

I have been keeping busy tutoring about 10 kids for their entrance exams for secondary school (two of them have their exams today, I have my fingers crossed!), but there are still plenty of things to do at the lake. Geoff and Liz Furber, the owners of Mwaya Beach Lodge and the founders of the charity, arrived last Friday and have been busy with projects of their own. It’s definitely nice to have them around because they have access to all the donor money! In the span of one week, they have initiated projects such as putting a roof on the school so the kids can have school in the rain, renovating the midwife’s house at the health clinic (it was disgusting before so they couldn’t keep a midwife for longer than 30 days), and starting a tree and vegetable nursery on land near the property, complete with gardeners and other staff who would otherwise have no job. The tree nursery is especially important because the people here cut down every tree they see, either to burn for firewood or to clear the land for agriculture. It’s awful, it’s turning much of the country into a scorched desert and causing a lot of erosion and destroying animal habitats. One of the people who works at the beach, Peter, is employed solely to rake leaves all day. On Monday he complained that there were too many leaves, and suggested cutting down one of the trees that is currently dropping leaves. Huh? When we told him that eventually the other trees would lose leaves also, he replied, “well, at least there would be fewer!” People here seriously either couldn’t care less about the environment or have no clue. Every single night the sky is lit orange with brush fires set to “clear the land.” The result is that most of the land around us right now is black and charred, but nice and “clear!”

So anyway, it’s definitely nice to have the gravy train around for awhile, especially because they can sponsor my projects or I can suggest other projects that I think are urgent. They also brought some AMAZING food from Zambia (like steak, chicken, pork)…things you could never find in Malawi, or you wouldn’t want to eat even if you did find it. We also have two new kittens that they brought with them…good timing since our baby monkey Gus died two days before they arrived. I saw the bigger kitten, Shelly, catch a gecko the other day, but she got really confused when it played dead and then dropped its tail…she went after the still-wriggling tail and the rest of the it got away. Hilarious. I’m just hoping she doesn’t run into the monitor lizards…I saw yesterday that was about 3 feet long, even I wouldn’t want to go near that!

Other random stories from the past few weeks:

I went to a funeral for the chief of the neighboring village. The men of the village (and me) sat around for 4 hours under a mango tree, talking and generally sorting out community affairs. Turns out that the only time people gather is when someone dies, so that’s the time for business. Turns out also that sitting for 4 hours while people speak in another language is extremely boring. One thing I did find amusing was that they read aloud everyone’s contribution to the funeral fund. No one can afford a casket or food or anything for the funeral, so everyone donates some money according to rank and station in the community. Apparently people get real pissed off if you don’t give enough, and they keep elaborate records of what you donated for other funerals…funny because they don’t keep records for anything else. It’s kinda like a big pissing contest…like you gave 80 kwacha, but Nundas gave 100 so he’s obviously better than you! After 4 hours the women were invited to join, then the religious figures came in with the casket. I almost choked when I saw what the “pastor” was wearing….a pink sequined gown with matching hat that would have made any Vegas showgirl proud! It was blinding in the sun…maybe that was the point. Anyway I decided that I will not be going to any more funerals unless it’s my own.

I found out why the babies scream when they see me and why kids beg in the streets. I witnessed a mother telling her baby that if she didn’t take her medicine, I would kidnap her and eat her. Sweet. Karen (the other volunteer from Ireland) told me also that she saw a woman whispering into her baby’s ear, “Give me money.” All the little kids say it, either “give me money,” “give me sweets,” “give me pens,” or some other variation, but I don’t think they have any idea what they are saying…their parents just tell them something and they repeat it! Just like all the kids screaming either “hello!” or “goodbye!” incessantly and inappropriately…they have no clue what they are saying.

If a man here dies, one of his brothers has the obligation to marry his widowed wife. If there is more than one brother, they kinda present the woman with a stick, which indicates his intention, and she gets to choose. Lucky lady don’t you think? “Which of my brothers-in-law should I have sex with?”

The African weight loss plan was accelerated a little this week….I got a little “intestinal bug” and was barfing and dealing with the toilets quite a bit as well. I started taking Cipro a few days ago and feel better, but I didn’t eat much for about a week and even had to drink this horrible oral rehydration fluid (kinda like salty, sugary water) because I had lost so much fluid. Fun times! Note for the future: riding in the blazing sun in the back of a pickup truck that was used that day to haul manure around over a rocky bumpy road is not the best way to cure an upset stomach!!

An African looking through a fashion magazine is one of the greatest things that you will ever see. Some of the comments….”Are those sausages??” referring to a lipstick ad in which the lips were quite large…”Is that a curtain?” referring to some sharply cut bangs that hung in the face…”Is she in jail?” referring to some large chain link bracelets that a model was wearing. Spectacular. They also LOVED the little perfume ads, and rubbed them all over themselves.

The most annoying creature here is called the lakefly, which is like a tiny gnat and can go right through the mosquito nets and breed in the trillions. About once a week they hatch and you can see a black fog over the lake…I don’t know how the fishermen don’t suffocate out in their boats, they’re SO thick. Anyway, apparently people bring out nets when the swarm comes in and make lakefly pie or fry them up. Delicious. Liz and Geoff also told me that they once witnessed little kids picking bugs off the windshield of their Land Rover and eating them!

The stars here are incredible. I supposed they’re the same stars as anywhere but it’s so dark and still that it’s amazing. The effect is even better when the fishermen are out on the lake with their lanterns….it looks like a sea of thousands of bobbing stars, like the sky just continues right onto the lake.

I played soccer for the first time on Tuesday (people here are crazy for it…the “football matches” are the biggest event in town). Our ball? Crumpled up plastic bags tied around with string. Very dusty and dirty, very difficult, and TONS of fun! The people thought it was hilarious that I played also, since only the boys play here (the girls play netball, kinda like basketball), and I had a crowd of people watching the white girl play with all the boys!

“Is it true that you live on top of each other??” — Force, our gardener, in disbelief that people would live in apartment buildings “on top of each other.” People here also don’t seem to believe that there are actually poor people in America, and that there are black people “just like them” there also. I would love to take some of these people home with me just to watch their reactions as they encountered all the crazy things in our “developed” world!!

That’s all for now, but thanks for all the encouragement and such! Keep the letters coming…the first couple only took a week to get here and it’s like Christmas getting a letter out here! Hope everyone is well!

Wednesday 1 December 2004

Whew! Where to start? It’s been awhile since I last updated the log, but thanks to everyone that wrote me little encouraging emails…it’s nice to have some contact with home! Keep the emails and letters coming! A lot has happened in the past month, but here’s the shortened version…

The rains have started (almost) in full force! I have NEVER seen rain like this before, I wake up every morning scared half to death because it sounds like the chalet is going to blow over! It’s not too bad because it usually only rains in the morning and clears up by lunchtime….and it gets SUPER clear after the rains, we can now see Mozambique across the lake, about 60 miles away! The rains have also brought out all the critters, most of which I would rather not know exist! The termites hatched out of the ground last week, and the locals were tripping over themselves the collect them…apparently termites make a delicious relish to eat with their cassava nsima! We’ve also had to battle flies, lakefly swarms that literally could choke you (and look like clouds of black smoke moving across the lake), the beginning of the mosquito breeding, some amazing (but REALLY loud) frogs, geckos and other brightly colored lizards, more monitor lizards, crabs, and these delightful creatures called rain spiders….they are about 6 inches across, have long hair sticking up off their skinny little legs, and move faster than anything I’ve ever seen before! One night at dinner one of these buggers crawled up my leg…I thought it was one of the kittens because it was so fuzzy, until I saw both of them chasing each other across the kitchen! VERY appetizing! We’ve taken to eating in the pitch black, both because the lights attract all the bugs to our dinner and also because sometimes you’d rather NOT know what’s crawling in your dinner!! I still go swimming every day, and have even taken to swimming at sunrise at 4:45 because it’s so beautiful, but now with the rains I’m a little nervous…the rivers have washed out into the lake, which means the crocodiles, which were in the rivers before, are now free in the lake! I now make all the local kids swim with me and flip them off my shoulders and have relay races…they think it’s great fun, and it makes me feel a little better about the crocs!

I did have a chance last week to see some real live African mammals! The kids from the environmental club at the school took a trip to Nyika National Park, and I went along as a chaperone of sorts (it was pretty funny sleeping in a cabin with 10 Malawian girls, especially when they braided my hair…I looked like Medusa!). It was so beautiful there! It looked more like the rolling hills of England or Ireland than Africa, and it was refreshingly chilly at an altitude of about 2400 meters. I laughed at all the kids shivering and bundled up the entire time…they are definitely not used to “cold,” even though at the lowest it was maybe 50 degrees! We saw a bunch of animals, including reedbuck, roan antelope (huge!), zebras, baboons, blue monkeys, humongous white herons, and the most beautiful butterflies I have ever seen!! We also were serenaded by the hyenas and jackals at night, although we didn’t see more than their shining eyes in the trees. On the way home we also stopped at a place called Vwaza Marsh Game Reserve, where we saw an amazing bull elephant and about 50-60 hippos! The hippos were my favorite…they were all crowded together in this little pond of water because most of the lake was dried up, and we got to get REALLY close to them. They make the funniest noises, sounds like a grunting chuckle and is highly amusing! Even though I had seen many of these animals in zoos before, it was completely different spotting them in their natural environment. I was spellbound…it was so beautiful to see the antelope and zebras bounding along the horizon! It’s really sad though because they still have a big problem with poachers from Zambia…they come over, kill the animals, then run back where the Malawi government has no jurisdiction. The African people in general seem to have absolutely NO respect for animals or natural environments, it’s terrible. I mentioned before about all the forest clearing and burning, but lately I have seen people wandering around the villages with their latest catch: bushbabies, monitor lizards, baboons, snakes, etc. They are even using mosquito nets to catch the really small fish in the lake, so soon there will be no fish left either! Whenever the people here come across a living thing, rather than watching in fascination like I do, they kill it. Disgusting and really disturbing. Anyone thinking about a trip to Africa, do it soon…in a few years the entire continent will be voided of all animals and any natural landscape!

Well besides all my extracurricular activities I have been doing some work as well! The health club has evolved into this great health project. Basically I divided all the kids into groups and gave each group a topic like Nutrition and Cooking, Hygiene and Sanitation, HIV/AIDS, etc. I wrote all the information on each topic in a little booklet, and gave the kids the task to come up with a story, drama, song, dance, picture, painting, or some other creative way to teach others about that subject. Once everything is prepared, we will then become a traveling circus of health information, and go to all the nearby villages to perform for all the people. This should keep us busy for awhile, since there are about 20,000 people within a few miles of the beach! The ideas so far have been great…we have a song about the symptoms of a sexually transmitted disease, a drama about the changes that occur during puberty and menopause (performed by two boys, it’s great), and some pictures depicting the ways you can and cannot get HIV. This part really is the fun part for me now, because now we get to start crafting, painting, and getting costumes for the dramas together! I am really proud of all the kids, even though in many cases I have NO CLUE what they are saying…all of the songs, dramas, demonstrations, etc. are written in Chitonga, the local language, since most of the adults in the area do not speak English. It’s nice working with the kids because most of them can speak English pretty well and are clued in about health issues, but I found that it’s really the adults that need the health education the most. Hopefully this will be a fun way to get a lot of information out to the nearby villages! The joke around the beach is that this is Allie’s birds and bees club, because many of the topics are about sex, STD’s, pregnancy and family planning, etc. There are two new volunteers here now, from Holland, and they brought this enormous model penis that bends and is disturbingly life-like…anyway, I’ve taught the kids how to put on condoms, all about menstruation, the “inside sexual parts,” etc. When I walk around the village now I hear “Hello Madam,” “Mzungu!” (white person), and “penis! vagina!” Fantastic. At least they’re listening!

Other than the health club I’ve been tutoring a 14 year old girl in English and math….all of the kids I was working with before passed their exams to go to secondary school! I was psyched! I’ve also been playing a lot of soccer…the boys are amazed that a girl can play football, let alone a mzungu! The girls have also taught me how to play netball, a cross between basketball and handball, but they absolutely run circles around me, it’s so embarrassing! The kids have a little bit more free time now that school is out, but they also all have to help farm every day now that the rains are coming and it’s planting season. No wonder everyone has so many kids around here…they’re a cheap source of labor, even when they are 3 or 4 years old! If the kids are old enough to walk, they are out with the family in the field, and if they can’t walk, they are strapped to their mother’s back while she works! Definitely no time for ballet and piano lessons here!

Anyway there are lots more crazy stories from Mwaya Beach but I can’t possibly fit them all here…every day is such a new experience, and I am constantly surprised by the crazy things I see here! On the matola (pickup truck) ride here, there were fish hanging from the rearview and sideview mirrors, a woman carrying a chicken in a plastic bag with just the head sticking out, a boy who was either wasted or narcoleptic and slept on my shoulder the entire way, and a total of 22 people, 2 bikes, and various luggage just in the back of this small little pickup truck!! Oh, there was also a bird caught in the spokes of the bicycle whose wing was ripped off but was still very much alive, and a little baby who kept fishing his mother’s breast out of her shirt….it’s never boring in MALAWI!

Wednesday 8 December 2004

Hello! I’ve had a few questions about the people, the culture, and the lifestyle in general here, so I’ve included a description of the village and its inhabitants!

The people here belong to the Tonga tribe, which is found only in Malawi along the lakeshore. There are about 5 or 6 other major tribes in the country, each with their own language and customs. The people along the lakeshore live better than the people in other rural areas because of the lake — it is stocked with lots of fish (for now!), which provides a good protein source for their otherwise very poor diet, and is also a good source of fresh water for bathing and watering crops, etc. People in the “cities” live better and often have electricity and more money, but in Mwaya there is just about nothing. There are two small grocery stores in the town, with each the size of a kid’s lemonade stand. To buy other goods, there is a traveling market of vendors that come every Friday to sell clothes, hardware, food, goats, seeds for planting, etc. The market is always entertaining…almost the entire town shows up to chat and see their friends, even if they can’t buy anything! We have to travel to Mzuzu, where the email access is, to buy good vegetables and other food items…a 100 km journey each way! We get certain things like milk, bananas, papayas, and eggs brought to the beach by the local children, but mostly we have to travel pretty far for food!

Most of the people do not have jobs here. There is about 60-70% unemployment in Mwaya, and those who are lucky to find a job (like our cook and clothes washer) are paid anywhere from 50 cents to 1 dollar A DAY! It’s very difficult sometimes to encourage kids to go to school, since even if they do graduate there aren’t any jobs available! Most of the kids finish primary school (some are 20 years old by the time they do!), but relatively few continue to secondary school, their equivalent of high school. This is slowly changing in Mwaya with the presence of RIPPLE Africa, because the charity sponsors the top ten kids in each class to go to secondary school, an impossibility otherwise because the tuition averages around $500-600 a year…almost two years salary for some people! The people who do not have jobs usually try to find temporary or odd jobs, like fixing roads or clearing trees, but mostly they are just subsistence farmers. Some have enough land to sell some of their crops, but it makes it hard to pay for things like clothes, houses, and transportation when you don’t make any money! I always try to buy the things that the people bring to sell (like bananas and eggs) even if I don’t need them…mostly they only ask for about 1 cent per banana or mango anyway!

As for clothes, the people are fairly equally divided. Most of the adults wear traditional dress, which for men is simply pants and a button down shirt, and for women a sarong type skirt, a sleeved blouse, a head wrap, and usually another large cloth wrapped around the body for carrying a baby on the back. The dress is very conservative, despite the blazing heat, and most of the adults seem to take pride in trying to create a good appearance. The children, however, are a totally different story. Some of the families have upwards of 10 kids, most of whom go naked until they are 5 or so. After that, they have 2 pairs of clothes, which always seem to be dirty and holey and either way too big or way too small. None of the kids wear shoes except for special occasions, and the adults usually only wear plastic flip flops…EVERYONE here wears flip flops, sometimes it’s kinda funny to hear everyone flopping around! And if you ever wondered where your donated clothes went….here they are!! I’ve seen shirts from all over the US, and just last week I saw a boy in Chintheche with a “Valley Forge, PA” shirt on! The kids don’t seem to care what they are wearing. The shorts are always amusing, since only boys wear shorts here…I saw a boy a few weeks ago wearing a pink cotton pair that said “Princess” across the back!

The family units here are IMPOSSIBLE to figure out! The men are allowed to marry more than one wife (each of whom usually has a separate house), and extended families often live all together in a little group of houses with a shared kitchen and latrine. To complicate matters more, they call their cousins “brothers” and “sisters,” their aunts “mother,” their uncles “father,” and so on. Many of the parents have died (from AIDS usually), so a lot of the families have adopted kids of family members living there also. In sum, the families are usually an enormous clan of about 50 people, each of which has a different surname since the wives do not take their husband’s name but the kids do! Most of the women have from 5-12 children, so if a man has 2 wives he might have 20 kids! I’ve pretty much given up trying to figure out all the relations in the village…I think that everyone is related somehow and that it’s all an inbred mess anyway!

Each house usually has about 3 or 4 rooms. The houses are usually made of brick (self-made from the red clay here), with plaster on either side. The roofs are made of thatched straw, but since these leak quite a bit (especially with the ferocious rain we’ve been getting lately), so the more well-off families save up to buy some polythene sheeting to put underneath the thatch. There are usually only a few tiny little windows in the houses, so they are ROASTING hot! Definitely not too much concern for circulation…but then again, the Malawians seem to thrive in the heat and think it’s freezing cold if it’s anything below 70! Most families do not have any furniture (some have beds), so usually you just see the bare floor with mattresses on the ground. The laundry is, funny enough, often hung inside the house to dry, so it’s often a maze of clothes and drying towels inside the house as well. The kitchen is a separate little hut outside the main house, but it’s basically constructed the same way (with slightly bigger windows) with a spot for a fire pit in the center. They generally use three big rocks supporting some type of wire frame for the stove, and use an ENORMOUS amount of firewood every day. In the south of Malawi almost all the trees are gone, and the increasing population in the north is causing a huge amount of deforestation. There’s also usually a latrine type structure, which is really just a giant hole in the ground surrounded by tree branches or straw thatch for some privacy. These “long drops” take some getting used to…I still don’t quite have the technique right, I’ve peed on my pants a few times! The area around the house (and around much of the village) is just dirt…there’s hardly any grass because of all the slashing and burning. Each family often also has about 2-5 chickens, maybe a cat or dog (for catching rats, snakes, and for protection, NOT to have a pet!), and the occasional goat or cow. Each family also has a garden, but they only grow cassava, and maize in the rainy season. The soil is crap so it’s difficult to grow other vegetables in our village, but there are lots of different veggies in the area. An average diet for a day might be cassava nsima (like a thick porridge, but the consistency of play-doh), a relish of small fish and tomatoes and onions, and maybe beans as well. For a snack the people eat a huge amount of bananas and mangoes, since they are EVERYWHERE on the trees here. Almost no one eats breakfast, and they eat a HUGE quantity of the cassava or rice to fill up so they don’t have to eat much of the other things. I went to one house and they served me an egg, something they eat only once or twice a year because they are too expensive (they cost about 10 cents each). Malnutrition is rampant here, although most of the people appear well-fed and are not outright starving. Vitamin A deficiency is especially common, so there are a LOT of children and adults who are blind or cannot see very well.

Many of the people in Mwaya are very religious, and attend church for several hours each week. Our carpenter Jeff always makes me laugh when he comes home from church…he’s glowing and so happy, saying that “he’s heard the word of God, so he can continue for another week!” Almost everyone is Protestant Christian of some denomination, although there are a few Muslims in the area as well (not in Mwaya). Many people also believe in witchcraft though…they go to the see the witch doctor or traditional birth attendant instead of the hospital, and take all these mysterious potions and pills that these people concoct. In some cases they do know some very useful herbal and home remedies, but sometimes they do quite a lot of harm as well. Most of the medicine here is psychological…people go to the health center to get “tablets,” or some kind of medicine, and even if you simply give them aspirin when they are convinced they are going to die they inevitably come back the next day feeling “strong and fit again!” Sometimes I laugh at them, but sometimes it’s really not funny. One of the girls that I am tutoring now refuses to come to the beach now because she is afraid of the woman who washes our clothes, Martha. Martha is apparently jealous that I’m giving attention to Emily, the young girl, and Emily is now afraid that she will try to poison her or use some black magic to harm her. She is dead serious, and almost started crying one day when I asked her to come, so I now have to go to her house or the school to avoid the witchcraft that Martha is practising!

The Tonga people also have a lot of traditional beliefs…one of my favorites is the prohibition against pregnant women eating eggs, because they believe their babies will be bald if they do! Children under 5 also cannot eat eggs because they will get epilepsy. People do not have sex during menstruation because they believe the blood is poisonous, and they also do not have sex during pregnancy or after menopause…presumably the best times for these people because they already have a million children and really do not need more! It’s strange here because many people argue that poor families like these have children to do the work and to help the parents when they are older, but people here seem to do neither. The girls do work, but the boys, who are more valued, are free almost the whole day. Also, once a girl marries, she is no longer considered part of the family…she becomes property of the husband’s family. Marriage is a whole different affair here…according to one of the kids, most of them are accidents because if a girl gets pregnant, her family marches her to the boy’s house and hands her over. Alternatively, if a boy wants to marry a girl, he kidnaps her and takes her to his house. His relatives then send a message to her family that she is there, and they send a small amount of money (maybe $3) so the family does not try to get her back. The girl’s relatives then go to visit her and ask her if she knows the boy…if everything’s OK, the boy then gives the girl’s family more money and they are married, no legal work involved! The boy eventually pays quite a lot of money for his wife…sometimes up to about $100 if she is pretty and educated, because it is reasoned that the girl’s family has lost their investment of paying for the girl’s education when she marries. Since no one has that kind of money, the husband pays in installments, like a mortgage, and I’ve heard that if he’s having trouble paying for his wife, he can invite some of the fishermen or villagers to come sleep with her — for a price, so he can pay for her. Some people do get married in churches also, in the same way we do, but there are still really no legal marriages. People do not get divorced here, although they seem to have NO qualms whatsoever about affairs and having multiple girlfriends and such on the side…no wonder AIDS is so rampant here! The economic situation is also a problem…because there are no jobs in Mwaya, many of the men move to other places to find work, leaving their family behind and acquiring a new wife or girlfriend (or several!) in the process!

The situation here is not desperate yet, but it is getting pretty alarming very quickly. The people are overfishing the lake and have started to have trouble catching fish, they do not use farming practices like composting, irrigation, crop rotation, etc. so the land, which is pretty awful to start with, is getting worse and worse. They slash and burn almost all the land to clear it for farming or to cut the trees for firewood, so there is a massive amount of soil erosion and desertification in the area. They have destroyed the habitats of many animals, and killed all the others…they seem to kill anything that moves, even if they are not going to eat it. I’ve seen people kill baboons, bushbabies, cormorants, fish eagles, monitor lizards, snakes, and all kinds of other creatures…soon the only creatures in this area will be people, and they will be out of luck with no trees for shade, mangoes, or firewood! The population is growing immensely, even despite the high mortality rate due to AIDS, malaria, and other infant problems. It’s unsettling to think about the future of Africa…it really is such a beautiful and unique continent, but soon enough almost all of it (and all the animals that attract the tourists and at least a little bit of income for everyone) will be gone. It’s very sobering. I can see why people often ignore Africa, at least in America…it seems like a lose-lose situation no matter what you do! Despite all the problems, the people are some of the friendliest that I’ve ever met. I’ve never encountered such fantastic hospitality and so many smiles, despite all the hardships they endure. It really is an amazingly beautiful landscape, and I come across all kinds of unique plants and animals every day (although some critters I wish I didn’t know existed!). It’s been an incredible experience for me so far, and I feel extremely privileged to have the chance to meet and interact with these people in such a meaningful way. I’ve seen and experienced things that tourists never come close to, and I’ve made some really great friends here. I’ll definitely miss all the kids here when I return…they are the reason why I keep trying to work for change, despite all the seemingly solutionless problems all around. Life in Africa is incomparable to anything at home…it’s wild, adventurous, heartbreaking, exciting, and unique, and I’ve loved every second of it! Anyone who has the chance, come to Africa to experience everything there is here before it is all destroyed!
Wednesday 22 December 2004

Merry Christmas everyone! It definitely does NOT feel like Christmas here, but we’ve made some garlands (out of construction paper links, just like 2nd grade!), some Christmas cards, and even three little stockings for each of us! I’ll be sure to take pictures of myself sunburnt on the beach on Christmas Day, hehe! I DEFINITELY do not miss the weather back home right now! Although it rains every day, the storms are INCREDIBLE, and I love to sit in my chalet and watch them roll across the lake from Mozambique.

Not too much to update this time. I moved into a different chalet (because three of us were in one, with three empty ones), and it has a beautiful view of the lake. I can see the beach and waves from my bed, and I am treated to a bedside view of the sun rising over Lake Malawi every morning! That definitely gets me up in the morning…once the sun comes up around 5, it gets REALLY hot! I can also see the bathing area from my deck, which is kinda funny because I see all the people bathing and washing clothes all day…the kids are super, they jump around in the water and splash around buck nekked, happy to play in the water and unaware of any social constrictions on nakedness! It does seem empty though without Karen, Geoff, and Liz, who left on the 14th…it was nice to have the extra company (and swimming companions)! They have also left me in charge of Mwaya Beach Lodge and all the activities of RIPPLE Africa…yesterday I paid all of the workers, and I have to settle employee issues and give time off, blah blah blah. I feel like I spend more time doing the management stuff than anything else! The workers around the beach call me “boss” now though, kinda funny…

I finally gave in and decided to resort to bribery…I offered the health club kids lunch of nsima and beans and soft drinks, and I got a great turnout!! After lunch last week, we took a trip to Kachere Health Center. It was really great…the doctor and the public health worker gave all the kids a tour of the place, talked about the most common diseases, answered questions, showed them how the HIV test works, and even let them use the stethoscopes to listen to their heartbeats! The kids were really attentive and asked TONS of questions and really seemed to enjoy themselves a lot. It was also a chance to test out their newly written dramas, songs, and poems, and they also demonstrated how to use a condom, the parts of the female anatomy, different food groups and food safety, and several other topics. A little refinement is needed, but they did great! They also learned a lot, something that came back to haunt me yesterday…

Funny events of the week:

I asked the kids to write a description of how to use a condom. Isaac, one of the kids who comes to visit me every day, wrote something like the following: Open a new condom. You can’t use an old one, so don’t wash it out and leave it to dry in the sun. Do not use the same condom for more than one wife. A condom is better than a plastic paper (a little plastic bag, which are apparently also used commonly as protection…can’t be too comfortable!) Open it with little force, so you don’t tear it. Hold the top and put it on the end of the excited penis. Roll it down, and once the condom is on you can get on with your job (your work). When you are done, take the condom off carefully and do not spill. Tie it in a knot so the children cannot drink the semen. Do not give the used condom to your children to play with (they blow them up like balloons and play football). Also, if you have more than one wife, don’t forget that the other one wants a bone also (I swear to God, that last sentence is verbatim)! Definitely not the same warnings or instructions that I might write, but certainly relevant to the area!

Isaac again: “Why is your body 7 different colors? We only have two. And why do you just wear pants?” — This was while teaching the boys to swim….I have tan lines all over, and this perplexed all the boys, who have one color on most of their body, and another color on their palms and bottom of their feet. They also were very amused that I wear my bikini all the time around the beach (because of the heat, and also because I go in the water all day)…they called me a “huli,” which means a prostitute (kidding!). “Pants” refers to underpants, which they don’t distinguish from a bathing suit.

Vitu, one of the boys, came by the other night at dinnertime selling eggs. It was dark, and there were a bunch of insects buzzing around the lamps. While he talked to us, he casually caught and ate several of the bigger flying critters…I almost fell off my chair laughing, which prompted him to do it even more once he saw my reaction! Definitely not the same concept of dinner that I have!

I dressed a wound on Caesar’s behind. Caesar (the name for anyone born by Caesarean, so there are a few of them), one of the carpenters, was SO embarrassed, and still can’t look me in the eye. I can’t look at him without imagining his pink scalloped-edge undies either, so I guess we’re even!

On the way back from the trip to Kachere, we passed a crowd of cheering people…they had caught and were attempting to kill a crocodile — not the easiest task considering the thickness of their skin, their sheer size, and their nasty attitude! I didn’t see the conclusion, but I hope no one is missing any limbs today!

I saw my first couple of snakes here. One dropped out of the mango tree and has made me completely paranoid about walking under any of the mango trees anymore…he was about 5 feet long and really skinny. The other was happily dozing in the same tree, but we identified him with our wildlife guide as a green mamba, one of the most poisonous snakes in the world that also happens to have no antidote. As long as he stays in the trees….

The boys brought us this tiny squirming pink thing the other day, a “baby hippo.” Well, I definitely believed them for awhile (even though the thing was only about 3 inches long)…it looked exactly like a hippo! Turns out it was really a baby mole whose mother they had killed for supper…even though it was only a mole, I felt bad for it, so I didn’t want to just let it starve. Instead, we fed it to the cats, who had a really nice snack…I’m very impressed by these kitties, they’ve killed several rats, birds, chameleons, snakes, and lizards. Quite the hunters!

I showed some of the people the pictures that I brought with me, including the one of me skydiving. The reactions? “Why didn’t you just wait until the plane landed?” “What did you do with your baggage?” (as if I had just waited until we flew over the spot I wanted to visit and jumped on out). “Why didn’t you die when you hit the ground?” From a fresh perspective, skydiving does seem pretty insane!

And the curiosity of the kids, sparked by the trip the health center…”Madam, how does a person masturbate?” I just about choked on my drink and started cracking up, expecting everyone else to join in on the joke. No laughter. They sat there stone-faced…it was a perfectly serious (and innocent) question! So I tentatively started an explanation…although I’ve had no trouble up until now teaching the birds and bees, this TOTALLY caught me off guard! The follow up questions were even worse: “But HOW exactly do you touch yourself? Do girls do it too? How do girls touch themselves? Can you show us? If you don’t masturbate or have sex, can the sperm poison you?” I was cursing the doctor for teaching them about the ABCDE’s during the health center trip…A for Abstinence, B for Be faithful, C for use a condom, D for death, and E for Enjoy yourself. It is supposed to be a kind of multiple choice…choose A, B, C, or E or risk Death. Before this trip, however, none of the kids had any clue about (E)njoying themselves (masturbation), which left me in charge of answering all the questions. They thought it was interesting and weren’t embarrassed at all…I’m pretty sure I was bright red, and not from my sunburn! At least they are listening to the things we’re talking about!

I miss everyone and hope y’all have a Merry Christmas! I wish I could just jet home for Christmas dinner at least! I managed to find a bottle of red wine from South Africa though, and I’m going to a party thrown by one of our night watchmen, so it will definitely be memorable! And as a reply to all the inquiries as to whether I would like any supplies, games, crafts, etc….it is VERY expensive to send things here, and right now I do not need anything concrete. I could, however, use some more money for the supplies, transport, food, prizes, etc. for the health club performances and the health fair which I am tentatively planning. Anyone interested in helping out, the best thing really is money! You can either send a check to my parents (made out to me) to support my personal projects, or to RIPPLE Africa to support one of their many ongoing, worthwhile projects. It’s the season for giving! Love to all!

  • Allie playing netball with the girls
    Allie playing netball with the girls

Thursday 30 December 2004

Hard to believe how much I have to report after only a few days! I am now in Lusaka, the capital of Zambia…this place is unbelievable, it’s so modern and so backward African at the same time. Definitely way ahead of anything in Malawi though!

Right after I wrote my last entry I had my first encounter with the police. We got back in the truck to go home from Mzuzu, and, since I had an enormous headache, I decided to lay in the bed and take a little nap. When we went through the police checkpoint, however, I woke up to a face staring down at me in wonder. Granted, I’m sure it was a pretty unusual sight…two “Blackians” in the front seat, and a young white girl laying down in the back using bags of peanuts as a pillow…but he pulled us over and decided to check everything in the car. He discovered that our handbrake was broken, and proceeded to write us a ticket and give us a fine. Fair enough I guess, but he demanded that we pay the fine right there! I had spent every last kwacha that I had in Mzuzu, so all I had in my pocket was 1 kwacha 50 tambala, about the equivalent of a penny! The officers started cracking up laughing, in disbelief that a mzungu (white person) would have so little money! They must have thought that I was lying, because they decided to impound the car until we could find the money. Well, short of selling my body there was no way to get money, because we were 60 miles from home and didn’t even have enough money for a minibus. To be honest, I could have gone to the bank and used my Visa card, but I had the feeling they were just being picky and I refused to pay if we didn’t have to. So anyway, they took us into the station, where we met the boss, the boss’ boss, the boss’ boss’ boss…it was a sideshow circus in there. I held my ground though and told them I was a volunteer doctor (little exaggeration), that I worked for a charity, and any money they took would be taken directly from the money to buy medicine for the local people. That didn’t really work that well, but the following exchange did: “Well, we don’t have enough money to pay, and we can’t get home to get more money, so we have to sleep in the truck” “That’s not allowed” “Then we’ll sleep on the streets” “That’s not allowed either” “Well we have a big problem then!” I was being a little obnoxious, but it worked and they let us go and tore up the ticket! I still had to pay something though, you don’t get anything for free in Malawi…I had to give the chief boss my address at home, because he said he wanted to be my penpal! I stifled a laugh and wrote it down and we went on our way! Such an adventure!

When I got home I went with the girls to Kande Beach to celebrate Anneke’s birthday. We got there too late for dinner, so we settled on tea and banana cream pie for dinner..that’s definitely not the first time I’ve had cake for dinner here either! We admired the Christmas tree and lights and everything…it was decked out in ultimate cheesy Christmas decorations, complete with Christmas songs blaring at the bar. We chatted about their trip to Nkhata Bay Hospital (they had spent the last three days there), and what they told me was astounding. Apparently for hundreds of people there are only 8 nurses (only 2 at night), one qualified doctor, a handful of medical assistants (who act like doctors here) and some midwives. If you want something, you get it yourself…forget about getting a glass of water! The mothers cared for their own newborns, even if they were very ill and in the single incubator in the hospital, and the pediatric ward was so crowded that they had three kids in one bed, lying sideways! The “intensive care” looked exactly the same as everywhere else, and only one nurse was there most of the time…at night there could be no one. A little bit of a misnomer to me! It was clean although the building is very old, but literally the nurses do NOTHING…although they have limited resources, they could still provide some type of care! The people in the hospital are usually EXTREMELY ill also…they wouldn’t be there if they weren’t. Not a place I would want to stay!

Thursday we held a little Christmas party for the staff at Mwaya Beach Lodge…we only bought drinks and some peanuts, but it was such a huge treat for them to have beer! We relaxed under the mango trees and enjoyed the breeze, and all the workers stapled their Christmas tree construction paper cards to their shirts, very cute. The highlight of the day, however, was a delivery from Mzuzu. We work with a single company for almost all the construction materials, and it’s usually the same person that comes to deliver things, Kamlepo. This time I had been swimming in the lake when he came, and, as the manager, I had to sign for the bags of cement or whatever else he had. He looked me up and down, and said, “You look very very nice. I would like to take you to Livingstonia on vacation.” So far a pretty standard attempt at picking me up (although, as a businessman, he was the first who offered a trip somewhere). I kept refusing his offers, and he finally gave up, but when he started the car he called me back over. It was then that he really laid all the cards on the table: “I am single, I am a virgin, and I am looking for a wife!” I choked and started cracking up laughing, saying that I really appreciated his brutal honesty, but that I wasn’t interested in marrying in Malawi because I wanted to live in America. No problem for him: “No problem! You take me to America! Your home becomes mine, your people become my people! Think about it!” And with that he drove away, leaving me in hysterics and with a fabulous story to tell everyone! The Dutch girls thought it was pretty amusing as well, but Anneke said, “Well, maybe you could get a free trip to Livingstonia out of it!!” I hope she was kidding….

Christmas Eve was a pretty relaxing day at the beach…I cleaned my chalet, the kids came over to color, and I set up one of the empty chalets for some guests, a husband from Germany and a wife from Ethiopia. The most interesting part of the day was a chat with one of the boys’ fathers…apparently he had been considering moving to America to work. I didn’t want to be the shatterer of dreams, but I set about telling him all the things he would need. The plane ticket alone would be too much for anyone here, and there’s no way to get a work visa in the States right now. They asked about the price of various things, and I really don’t think they believed me…they have no concept of that amount of money. They also have this illusion that everyone there is rich and happy, and when I tried to explain that there are poor people there as well they didn’t really listen. Granted, the poor people at home have a lot more monetarily and materialistically than the people here, but I think the life is a lot more miserable. If you’re starving in DC, you can’t go out and pick mangoes or go fishing for food, and you can’t simply build yourself a house out of mud and wood from the forest. If you get sick, you can’t go to the doctor at all. I told him that he might make about 7 dollars an hour and his eyes lit up, but after that it was impossible to explain that that amount of money would get you absolutely nowhere. It was definitely a frustrating and sobering conversation, and it was very difficult to explain that, while I have a lot of things and enjoy a good life, it would not be the same for him if he was in the USA. I guess he just imagined he would acquire everything that I have just by moving there…

Christmas Eve dinner was fantastic! We asked Force for a chicken, which came squawking and very much alive! I didn’t want to kill it, so I gave it to the cook, and later on when I went to the kitchen there were a few blood drops and feathers on the floor…delightful. It was very nice to have chicken for a change though, and Harry cooked up a delicious dinner of mashed potatoes, creamed sweet corn, and carrots and green beans (all fresh of course!) cooked in with the chicken. We also cracked open a bottle of banana wine that I had bought in Mzuzu…it was very sweet and not much to my liking, but the other two enjoyed it as a dessert wine of sorts. We had fresh pineapple for dessert, and we sat around and sang every Christmas carol we could think of, me in English and them in Dutch (although they knew a lot of the English ones as well). We chatted about our various traditions, and I hung up the little stockings that I had made. The picture of them turned out great….the ash from the fire was flying all around, and in the picture it looks exactly like snow! Malawian snow!

All the Christmas carol singing must have alerted Santa Claus to where we were, because he managed to find us in Malawi! Our stockings were full when we got up, and we opened them over a breakfast of banana bread and freshly baked biscuits and jam…it’s amazing how much baking you can do over an open fire! After breakfast (brunch really, we all got up around 10:30, VERY unusual when we’re normally up around 5:30), we hung up the garland that I had made on one of the trees. Harry our cook came wandering over and looked curiously at the garland, so I invited him to help hang it….he loved it, especially when we wanted to take pictures of us decorating! Harry the Ham! You can’t take any picture when he’s in the vicinity because he jumps into every one of them! I have a very nice picture of our tropical tree decorated with construction paper and the stockings, with me posing in front in my bikini. I even had a sunburn courtesy of the swimming the day before…aren’t you jealous?!

After that I decided to walk to Kande Beach to call home, an hour and a half walk north along the beach. It was a fairly pleasant walk because it was cool and overcast, and, as always, I met some colorful characters along the way. One old man was washing at the edge of the lake and didn’t see me until I was right in front of him…he was absolutely COVERED in soap bubbles head to toe, but he was so flustered and embarrassed when I walked by. I just greeted him and walked on by, smiling to myself. When I finally arrived at Kande, however, I learned that the phone was broken…so much for my journey! I definitely didn’t want to walk back right away, so I sat down to have a few (cold) beers and chat with the people there. A lot of the people that own the nearby lodges were there (all the white folk that live here stick together like glue), and one of the guys offered me a ride home so I settled in and had a few more beers and enjoyed the afternoon and the party atmosphere. Kande is a popular stop for the overland trucks that run budget trips for young people, so there were lots of new faces and it was nice to meet some different people for a change! It was getting dark, however, and Johnny, the guy who promised me a ride, had disappeared. I looked around but he was no where to be seen. I walked for a little while on the beach, but it was getting dark — there was no way I would make it home in time and I didn’t want to cross the crocodile river in the dark when I couldn’t see one coming at me! I tried to bribe some of the fishermen to give me a boat ride home, but I quickly discovered that there was no way I would make it there…the canoes are dug out of trees, are about a foot across, and are IMPOSSIBLE to balance on! I would have been dumped in the lake several times before we reached home! I resigned myself to sleeping at Kande, and headed back. I felt really guilty because I was supposed to be at a Christmas party at Yona’s house (one of our night watchmen), and the whole village, including the chief, was supposed to be there!

I walked back to Kande and went into the restaurant, where everyone was finishing their dinners. Caroline, the chef, graciously offered me a plate as well since they had leftovers, and I nearly kissed her when I saw what it was…real turkey, gravy, potatoes, green beans, and other assorted veggies! I have no idea where she got turkey from, but I was extremely grateful. My belly pleasantly full, I wandered over to the bar and joined a group of Aussies and Kiwis from the overland truck. We went swimming, had a few more beers and hung out for awhile, but suddenly Johnny reappeared! He said that he couldn’t find me when he left, but agreed to take me then. I showed up at the party more than a little tipsy, but everyone else there was WASTED as well!! People here don’t drink very often, but when they do it’s quite a party! People were dancing and singing and generally being drunk, and I sat next to the Chief and took in the scene. People kept coming over with their babies for me to hold…is it good luck or a blessing if a mzungu holds your baby? I love the little kids here though so I didn’t mind…in fact it made me feel pretty maternal and made me want my own kids, especially since most of the mothers are younger than me anyway! I got home pretty late (maybe 11:30, the middle of the night here) and I plopped into bed. The morning came entirely too early and I crawled out of bed, head pounding, and tried to pack my suitcase for our trip. It didn’t really help that a lot of the kids came to say goodbye to me, since I won’t see them again before they head off to school. Ordinarily it would have been great, but early in the morning in the throes of a crazy hangover is not my best time!

I managed to get my act together and get ready in time, to the astonishment of Anneke and Elly. Apparently some of the boys who had walked me home last night had knocked on their chalet and said that I shouldn’t sleep alone, that they wanted them to check on me, blah blah blah. I wasn’t out of control at all, but women don’t drink here at all so I think it was a novelty to see even a partially drunk woman. Kinda sweet that they were looking out for me though!

The walk to the road was not too pleasant…a few miles of dragging my suitcase over the sand. Thankfully I packed pretty well and remembered all the important things, but I just didn’t bring the right bags to put things in! I was absolutely dreading the minibus ride…it’s bad enough on a normal day, but I already felt pretty horrible and did NOT want to sit and breathe Malawian body odor for 7 hours! Angels were smiling on me though…the first car that came to the roadblock was a Malawian businessman heading to Blantyre, and he agreed to take us to Salima, which is directly east of Lilongwe on the lakeshore road. My first hitchhiking experience! It turned out to be fabulous…his car had leather seats, air conditioning, and a CD player, he was very friendly, and he drove about 80 miles an hour the entire way in the middle of the road. The trip that should have took about 5 hours was cut back to 2, and we traveled in complete luxury! Once in Salima we still had to take a minibus, but I was so thankful for the unexpected lift that I didn’t mind too much. We arrived in Lilongwe (in the rain, of course) and headed to the camp…again I wished I had a backpack instead of a suitcase! We had a nice dinner and breakfast, a nice sleep, and we set off around 8 for Zambia!

Unfortunately it has been raining during our entire trip, but it has nonetheless been fantastic! South Luangwa National Park has been called the hidden gem of African game parks, and for good reason!! There were very few people there, and we rarely saw another game vehicle. They have not had a problem with poaching in the past, so the animals would come within 5 meters of the car, completely unafraid, and I COULD NOT BELIEVE the diversity and quantity of wildlife that we saw! At Nyika we only saw one or two animals (who would inevitably run away from us) occasionally, and really we only saw three different animals. Not there! I’ll definitely try to write more about the experience later, but it really was pretty indescribable and awe-inspiring…it’s pretty comical to read my journal because I used so many adjectives, superlatives, and exclamation points that it seems ridiculous and overexaggerated, but it’s true! I’ll have to show everyone all my pics, because even I can’t believe the safari over the past few days! We unfortunately didn’t see any of the cats (they have leopards and lions and other smaller cats), but I didn’t mind because I had never expected to see so many of the other animals! The big cats didn’t want to get their paws wet in the rain, typical!

A listing of the animals that we saw in the park, more description to follow when I get back to Malawi and have more time to describe it in full…

LARGE ANIMALS — Elephant, Thornicroft giraffe, impala, puku, hippos, zebras, buffalo, spotted hyena, warthog, crocodile, and waterbuck. We even saw three groups of elephants in a giant fight, trumpeting and tusk-clashing and all, got stuck on the road behind a giraffe for about half an hour (no hurry in Africa!), saw baby impalas playing and leaping about, and saw hippos lazing in the water, yawning and even rolling over. We also saw tons of baby animals…because this is the rainy season, it is also the mating and birthing season because there is plenty of food.

SMALL ANIMALS — Bandit mongoose, vervet monkeys, baboons (who chased the dogs at the camp, very funny!), water monitor lizard, genet, scrub hare, and rats.

BIRDS — Great African owl, lilac-breasted roller, helmeted guineafowl, woodland kingfisher, southern ground hornbill, brown hooded kingfisher, yellow and red-billed oxpeckers (the ones that sit on the big animals’ backs and eat lice and bugs), southern crowned crane, hammerkop, bateleur, long-tailed glossy starling, pied kingfisher, great white egret, open-billed stork, red-billed hornbill (like Zazu from the Lion King), Lilians’ lovebird, cattle egret, gray laurie, gray hornbill, and the saddle-billed stork. I think we saw a few more on the night drive, but I wasn’t writing them down. One doesn’t go to a park like that and look for birds specifically, but they were absolutely incredible! Some of them were HUGE and fantastically colored…I definitely enjoyed them just as much (well, almost as much) as the bigger animals!

I have to run and meet the rest of the group, but I’ll definitely write again when I get home from the trip….Victoria Falls next, one of the 7 natural wonders of the world!

Wednesday 5 January 2005

WHEW! Back in Malawi finally after lots of driving on roads that were more like one giant pothole than road! The safari turned out to be an incredible experience, it was so great to see animals and to see another African country. In many ways, Zambia was very similar to Malawi, but I was also surprised by some of the differences as well. In general it’s a richer and more economically stable country and has much more industry and big farming than Malawi, but the scenes from many of the rural areas were very familiar. I’m a little road weary (and my shoulders and knees aren’t too fond of traveling anymore…on these roads it’s more like a roller coaster than a car), and I’m excited to head back to our little paradise at the beach this morning!

As I mentioned before, South Luangwa National Park was incredible! We had gone to Nyika National Park about a month before, but it looked more like Ireland, with rolling hills and very few animals, than Africa. This place was right out of a movie…the muck was about a foot deep, the vegetation was dense in some areas but gave way to wide open spaces in others, huge baobob and spiny acacia trees overhung our safari truck (open top, even in the pouring rain), and new animals seemed to greet us around every turn! I really liked seeing the big herds of animals, but most often we saw small groups of females and their young or solitary males. At our camp we saw tons of baboons (who fought with the dogs at the camp) and heard hippos walking around and bellowing in the water all night long! I didn’t leave my tent at night for fear of coming face-to-face with a hippo, and I nearly peed my pants waiting for the sun to rise before I went out! We went on three game drives (four hours each, in the morning, afternoon, and at night), and each time was unique…the only constant was the rain, they don’t call it the rainy season here for nothing! I especially liked the night drive, even though we didn’t see too many animals then. We drove around with an enormous spotlight and swung it around the area into the bushes, and the animals were pretty easy to spot, even from a distance, because their eyes would shine REALLY bright in reflection of the light…we essentially drove around looking for eyes, then found the eyes’ owner afterward! There were tons of baby animals, and we saw some pretty unique things. I especially liked the hippo that rolled all the way over and lolled around with all four legs in the air…I don’t think that is common behavior for a hippo, but he was enjoying himself! He also decided to show off for us and picked his body out of the water and yawned these enormous yawns…I think their jaws can swing open about 180 degrees! I wouldn’t want to be on the receiving end of those teeth! We also saw a few hippos in a huge pond covered with water hyacinth and lily pads…they looked like enormous floating green mountains, really strange! We made friends with a female Thornicroft giraffe (which are found only in South Luangwa Park) who wouldn’t share the road with us, and we also stumbled upon a three-way elephant rumble. Initially we pulled up, stopped the engine, and stood up to watch all the action, but when the action suddenly came our way everyone sat down and shut up REAL fast! A few of the bulls and larger females were standing right in front of the car, so when the other elephants would charge them it looked like they were coming right for us! It would have been amusing to see a picture of all of us in the car, I’m sure our eyes were huge and mouths hanging open! A little too close for my comfort, but since we all lived to tell the tale it was an incredible sight! I think the entire Park heard all the commotion!

The next major stop was Lusaka, where I last wrote from, although all the campsites en route from South Luangwa to Victoria Falls were very nice. All of them had bars, swimming pools, and hot showers, an unexpected luxury! None of us really went swimming though…it rained every day of the safari so I think we all had enough water for awhile! One camp near Lusaka was also a wildlife reserve, and when we ate dinner that night we were surprised by a whole family of zebras strolling past our tents! They were just grazing, taking their time, completely oblivious to us…that’s some nice dinnertime entertainment! From Lusaka we headed south to Victoria Falls and the town of Livingstone, which is located right on the border with Zimbabwe. We stopped at the Choma museum on the way, which had exhibits about the traditional life of the Tonga people. The Tonga people in Zambia speak a different language than those in Malawi, but they all have the same ancestors and fairly common customs, so I learned a lot about the life of the people where I live as well. It’s a shame that no one wears nose bars, animal hide skirts, and the beautiful beaded bracelets, necklaces, and headdresses anymore…the pictures of the dress, the dances, the items used by witch doctors, the traditional crafts, etc., were amazing! The boring Western world has infiltrated too much of the culture unfortunately…there aren’t too many places left in Africa where the people still dress traditionally.

We finally arrived at our campsite at Victoria Falls on New Year’s Eve, where we promptly set up our tents and set off on a booze cruise to admire the last sun rays of 2004. The campsite was situated right on the Zambezi River about 10 km upstream of the Falls, and the scenery was stunning! On our cruise we saw TONS of hippos rolling around in the water and being lazy, and I finally saw a crocodile!! We had seen a few glimpses of them in South Luangwa, but they are extremely shy and would go under water (or dash into the water) as soon as we got anywhere near them. Since crocodiles can hold their breath for 45 minutes or so it was never worth sticking around until they came out, so all I saw prior to the cruise was a tail retreating into the water or little spikes and some eyes sticking out of the water. The two that we saw on the cruise, however, were sunning themselves on the rocks on an island in the river, and just as I got my camera out to take a picture, one of them decided to go for a little stroll — a perfect side shot, thanks mister! I love the way that they walk, it looks like a little kid who has peed their pants! These guys were pretty lazy, but I wouldn’t want to test the speed of a crocodile…judging by how fast they disappeared when they saw us in the Park, I wouldn’t want to be anywhere near them! We also saw a lone bushbuck getting a drink from the river, but the noise of the boat (and all the drunk people on the boat) scared him off pretty quickly. It was a perfect place to be to watch the last sunset of 2004!

After the cruise, we headed back to the camp for a shower to get ready for the New Year’s Eve party that night at the bar. On our way back we had another encounter with a crocodile, this time about two feet in front of us!! It was only a baby, maybe a meter and a half long, but it definitely scared the hell out of all of us because we didn’t see it until we had just about stepped on it! Typically, he ran away and disappeared into the stream, but my heart was pounding for a little while after that! We relaxed in the tents for awhile, then walked over to join the fun. The bar at the campsite was a beautiful two-story wooden open air structure with a huge patio overlooking the river, it was gorgeous!! The people, however, were not so gorgeous…it was PACKED with super wasted Aussies and Brits (mostly), and the line to get a drink (which cost $2!) was about half an hour long. I know I’ve been in Africa for awhile when I balk at paying $2 for a beer (most of the time they are 50 cents)! I got my only beer of the night and went out to sit with the rest of the tour group under a huge tree growing right through the deck over the water. I had bought some sparklers in Lusaka, and we entertained ourselves by playing with them for awhile, and when it turned midnight a bunch of other people set off rocket fireworks over the river, it was great! The drunk people and obnoxious tourist attitudes got to me pretty quickly though, so I didn’t stay too long. I’m not used to being around other tourists, everyone seems so careless and completely unaware of the “real” Africa all around them! There are so many luxury, tourist oriented places to stay in Africa that you can almost forget where you are…these people obviously had, and their behavior was pretty disrespectful to the area and the local people. I must be getting old…any other time I would have been in the middle of the drunk fest myself! Maybe I’m just more sensitive to where I am because I literally live with the people in the village. It’s such a unique experience that no tourist will ever come close to, and even other volunteers for government agencies or NGOs work with all other white people in an office with computers and air conditioning and SUV’s. I am incredibly grateful for my opportunity to meet and interact with the local people. They no longer treat me like a visitor or tourist, but a friend and a neighbor. It’s fantastic!

The next morning came quickly…I couldn’t sleep all night because all the various campsites were BLARING their music until about 6 AM. I definitely am turning into Allie the Grouch I think…me complaining about people partying? Anyway, we got up and got ready to go whitewater rafting! We went in the gorge directly below the Falls, which is rated as the wildest commercially rafter river in the world…my muscles are still telling me that that moniker is well-deserved! Our day started off amusingly…while we were trying on life jackets and going through our little briefing, a vervet monkey stole our breakfast that was waiting for us on a nearby table!! This caused a HUGE racket as all the monkeys fought over their prize, and I couldn’t stop laughing as close to 50 monkeys screamed and jumped around in the trees above us! Even the zebras in the field across from us looked over to see what all the fuss was! I now know what kind of monkey our little orphan was though; although he looked nothing like the adult vervets, I saw a few mothers in the trees carrying their infants…just like Gus! Apparently the adult males have bright blue scrotums, and the babies all have blue skin when they are little. Mystery solved!

We hiked down into the gorge below the falls, enjoying the beautiful rainforest path the whole way down. Although there are no other rainforests in this part of Africa, the spray from Victoria Falls supports a rainforest all year round…it’s an interesting habitat! There were no animals in the forest, and the trees were so dense that it was a little dark underneath. We finally got to the bottom, negotiated a boulder field, and climbed into our raft. After a little practice, we attempted Rapid #1, the first one after the Falls and a Class 5 rapid! No starting out easy on this adventure! Apparently about 5 out of 6 boats flip over or crash into the wall on this rapid (or else just swirl around to the start again), but we made it through on the first try. Pretty good!

The real excitement started on Rapid #5, also a Class 5…we made it about halfway through before a wave blindsided me and washed me out and away from the boat! Another girl also fell out, but she held on to the boat. I went through the entire rest of the rapid on my back, tossed and heaved around by all the waves. Every time I came up for air another wave pounded me back down, and it seemed like an eternity before I reached the end! I was coughing and sputtering from swallowing about half of the Zambezi when one of the “rescuers” in a kayak grabbed the back of my life jacket. He smiled and cheerily asked, “Well, what are you doing out here?! Are you enjoying your swim?” These waves are nothing to these guides (a few of them were Olympic whitewater kayakers), but I was in no condition to exchange pleasantries at that point! It was actually pretty fun, and not really as scary as I thought it might be…the Zambezi, although it has CRAZY waves, is extremely deep (over 100 m in some places), so you don’t have to worry about bashing into rocks if you fall out (although whirlpools and suction can be a risk), and every rapid is followed by a calm pool where the boat can pick up the stray bodies and everyone can collect themselves before heading to the next one. After that, I was ready for some more action…

Rapid #8 was our next destroyer. On all the Class 5 rapids (and most of the Class 4), our guide would instruct us to paddle like mad until right before the rapids, then get down and hold on for your life! He must have been in the army; it was like “FORWARD! FORWARD! FORWARD! GET DOWN! GET DOWN NOW!” I got a video of the whole experience, and it’s REAL funny to watch everyone hit the deck and clutch the rope. It’s a pretty disorienting experience, because while you are in the rapid you have no idea where you are, where the boat or other passengers are, or where the next wave will hit. It’s also pretty simple…hold on and pray! Anyway, we had a choice on this rapid of three different straights…one that had about a 99% chance of flipping, one that had about a 75% chance, and one that was 50/50. The adventurous spirits on our boat chose the 75% (we’re not totally suicidal), and we promptly became one of the 75%! The boat flipped over sideways, and since I was on the bottom I got pushed down by everyone falling on top of me. That was a little bit scary, since I went pretty deep and as I was ascending, I kept expecting any second to break the surface…but I didn’t, at least not for awhile. A bunch of the rest of the people came out under the boat, but I was carried downstream ahead of everyone…another joy ride down the rapids without a boat! I didn’t swallow as much water that time though, and my rescuer grabbed me again, teasing, “You again?! Can’t you hold on?” It was a good time to flip though, because we had to get out of the river and walk around the next rapid anyway. Rapid #9 was a Class 6 rapid, which means professionals only and a good chance of drowning. Just looking at the churning water scared me, it looked like a giant washing machine that would just eat up any boat or person. In fact, our guide said that the suction there is so strong that it can even break your life vest and suck it right off of you, leaving you to descend to a watery grave. Delightful thoughts!

After that rapid we took a little lunch break and swam in the water for awhile. It was a delicious feeling…the water was filled with air which created all these tiny little bubbles wriggling to the surface. It felt like swimming in champagne! Although the water was very warm, it was also a nice break from the burning heat of the sun. We all put on sunblock that day about 3 times, but the water kept washing it off and left everyone with very burnt knees and thighs from sitting down! After our sandwich we went to a little cliff where we could jump off rocks about 15 m high into the river. It was fantastic thrill and I managed not to break my ankle or anything, but I got an IMMENSE fat lip because a piece of my life jacket flew up and hit me in the face! It didn’t hurt, but it was huge and purple…the guides said it made me look more beautiful, that it gave me a pouty look. We ran a bunch more rapids without too much trouble after that, until we got to #13, nicknamed “The Mother.” Once again, a Class 5, and although I didn’t fall out entirely I became the highlight of the day (and the video) by falling halfway out. My face and shoulders were in the water, but I was still clinging to the rope and desperately trying to stay in. My butt and legs were straight up in the air, and, as I was sitting directly in front of the guide, he grabbed one of my legs (while still trying to paddle with the other hand) to pull me back in! It felt absolutely ridiculous, and looked even funnier on the video, especially on slow motion on the “Highlights of the Day” reel! Swell. One other rapid, the last one, claimed a few people (thankfully not me that time!), and we also got the chance to swim through a couple of the tamer rapids. It was such a great feeling to float along on my jacket, carried along by the current. The gorge itself was gorgeous (about 100 m on each side), and it was a beautiful sunny day. We lucked out!

The walk up the gorge was not really an experience that I wish to repeat or remember. It was basically like rock-climbing for half an hour, and the path was so steep in most places that they had constructed little ladders from tree branches to climb up. Not what you want to do after a day of grueling activity! I definitely didn’t think I was going to make it, especially because I was wearing sandals and was still walking awkwardly from the huge blister-come-crater on the bottom of my big toe that plagued me the entire trip. We were rewarded by some dinner and drinks at the top though, and we all definitely slept well that night (although no one could move the next day)!

The next day we took a tour of Victoria Falls, one of the 7 natural wonders of the world. After seeing it from the Zambian side, I REALLY regret not going to Zimbabwe to see the whole thing! I could have spent weeks there, and I definitely will be back at Victoria Falls before I die! It was simply indescribable…there were rainbows everywhere created by the thick spray that comes from the Falls (and supports the rainforest), the path through the upper edge of the gorge was awe-inspiring, and the Falls themselves were so unique. They literally looked like they were springing out of the Earth; although the river above the Falls was huge and swollen, the area only meters above the Falls looked like a little rocky stream you would find anywhere! You could even walk within a few meters of the precipice, and a bunch of Zambians were bathing and playing in a little pool about 2 meters away! There seemed to be no indication of the incredible 131 m drop other than the huge hole in the earth. People can even walk across the entire top of the Falls in the dry season! Not at all like Niagara, where, if you fall in within a mile of the falls, you are in big trouble. The Falls were also separate, some bigger and some smaller…I guess I had expected a huge river leading to a curtain of falling water and ending in another huge turbulent river. Not at all! It was very rocky, and even at the bottom the water seemed to disappear…the river immediately below the Falls was very calm and serene, so much so that jet boats could go right up to the Falls with no problem! It really was so incredible, I stood and watched in awe for what seemed like 10 minutes but really was 3 hours. I WILL go back, and I encourage everyone else to as well!

The next two days were pretty unremarkable, as we drove for about 20 hours total to get back to Lilongwe. The road wasn’t as bone-jarring as the roads near South Luangwa, but they weren’t the greatest either. I am exhausted but now filled with happy memories of all the incredible sights I witnessed this week. I am convinced that there is no place on Earth as beautiful as Africa!

(I hope everyone had a happy holiday season! Please excuse my excessive use of superlatives, adjectives relating to beauty or excitement, and exclamation points. None of these really can do justice to Africa…I think that I’ll make up a new set of words and punctuation marks for my purposes. It may seem like I’m exaggerating or being a little rapturous, but wait until you see the pictures!)

Friday 14 January 2005

Soo the last two weeks just about disappeared, with nothing to report. I reread my entry from our trip to Zambia, and realized that I neglected to mention a few major things, including the fact that it POURED rain just about every day and night, which is not really fun if you’re trying to set up, sleep in, or maneuver around in a tent…closed flaps are not great for ventilation in the heat either. I returned from the trip with a massive sinus infection (from swallowing too much of the Zambezi while rafting no doubt), and I just discovered that I have malaria also. Africa finally got to me! Luckily I was taking prophylactic malarial pills, so it wasn’t too bad at all, kinda just like the flu, and I’m on the up and up now! Gave me an excuse to hide from the kids at school for awhile anyway…

Well, credit is due to teachers all around the world, especially the ones here! I spent two days this week teaching classes, and both days I came home and crawled straight into bed for the rest of the day. “My” classes are standards 7 and 8 (like 7th and 8th grade), but the difference is that there are about 70 of them in each classroom, about three to a desk, in a little hut that would barely pass for Jesus’ manger! The roof is made out of metal sheeting and the sides are open, so the rain provides both a shower and a deafening symphony at the same time. There are no lights, the kids can’t see a thing, they can’t hear me on account of the rain and all their raucus, and even if they could hear me they (1) couldn’t care less what I said, or (2) couldn’t understand anything that I said! The language barrier is a lot more of a problem than I expected…the kids have been studying English for 7 years and still some of them can’t manage a single sentence! I don’t really blame the kids too much for not knowing English, but I do blame them for their behavior…

As if a class of 70 weren’t enough to handle, it turns out that they only way the kids will behave is under threat of corporal punishment. The regular teachers carry whips (more like entire tree branches sometimes), and feel free to smack the kids if they are talking or not listening. Since I refuse to do that, the kids, as a result, are completely fearless and brazen and pretty much act as if I do not exist at all. They are awesome at playing the game of “I can’t hear you, I can’t hear you, I don’t care, you mean squat to me….” I tried being the nice teacher, the good teacher, the friend, the enforcer, the mean teacher, the silent treatment, screaming, yelling, games, jumping up and down, interaction…nothing worked. At one point I wanted the kids to form a circle so we could have a discussion (probably my first mistake, because kids only learn by rote here and are never asked for their opinion…their opinion means nothing, the name of the game is memorization). At first I thought they didn’t understand me, but when I drew on the board, mimed it out, and dragged a few kids, chair by chair, into a circle shape, the others still sat there, either refusing to be part of anything or daring me to see if I would actually drag every person into the circle. They learned not to challenge me that way anyway…it took about 20 minutes, but I made a circle without anyone moving a muscle, and now at least they’ll sometimes move a little bit if I ask for the 25th time. Even then, nothing I did could engage them, not even the prospect of prizes or games or anything else. It was the most wilful display of disrespect I have ever encountered, and I really felt like the biggest fool talking in front of 70 people carrying on as if I were invisible. Really good for the self-esteem, I’ll tell you! I’m not really sure where all this came from, since the kids that I have tutored, even in groups, up to this point have been very eager to learn. I guess now I have the rest of the kids, the 17 and 18 year olds who are in 8th grade for the 5th time or whatever. Five hours of this nonsense every day is enough to make anyone go crazy, that’s for sure!

So on Tuesday (Monday is a holiday), I get to face everyone again and I’ve been busy every second brainstorming ways to get them to listen. It’s like that movie, I think it was called “Dangerous Minds,” where this little white blond teacher tries to earn the respect of a bunch of thugs from the inner city. Not quite the inner city here — the kids leave their hoes and scythes at the door of the classroom, and almost never wear shoes — but turns out that teenagers in Malawi are the same as anywhere else. Multiply that attitude by 70, subtract a few girls (because they listen to me, but the boys are used to the male-dominated society and stubbornly refuse to defer to me), add some rain and thunderstorms, subtract all books (they only have five for each subject — for the WHOLE class), pencils, and notebooks (a lot of the kids fail because they can’t afford paper to write their homework on, so it just doesn’t get done), and throw up a HUGE language barrier and you might come close to understanding my job now! Check your farm equipment at the door, it’s gonna be a long day!!

(Feel sorry for me. I still live in tropical paradise and have the best tan of my life. I can pick and eat bananas practically without leaving my bed, and every bit of food is the freshest you will ever get it. Think milk (warm) straight from the cow, freshly dug veggies, bread baked that day, homemade peanut butter and jam, and fish that have traveled across the beach to reach us. I’m not trying to whine too much, but I am glad I have beautiful Lake Malawi to jump in after school!)

Wednesday 26 January 2005

Whew politics! I’ve spent the past two weeks sorting out the accounts sheets, planning for a few major events, paying the salaries (then listening to the workers’ complaints), telling about half the village that no, they cannot have money and cannot ride in our truck, sorting out fights among the night watchmen, trying to light fires under the workers’ behinds (since they seem to think that when Geoff and Liz are not here they can slack off), and supervising everything that goes on at Mwaya Beach Lodge. I’ve discovered that I do have a patient and diplomatic streak in me, but those qualities are tested pretty severely when people come knocking on my door at 6:30 AM asking for pay advances or when the watchmen are fighting and complaining and playing their radios at 3 in the morning. Nice Allie, calm down, be the nice manager…I’ve done much more managerial work than I have teaching in the past few weeks, not exactly why I wanted to come to Malawi.

The best addition to Mwaya is my new roommate, a 29 year old Californian named Marie. She is also teaching at the school and keeps me going through monsoons on the way to class (long skirts are not comfortable when soaking wet and glued to your legs for a few hours) and swarms of lakeflies (I’ll have to show you the pictures, we just about choked it was so thick), and loves to sit on the porch drinking red wine and playing gin. My kind of girl! I haven’t really drank the entire time that I’ve been here though, she’s a bad influence.

School has been much better since those first crazy crazy days. I think the kids were testing me to see how much I would let them get away with, but now I actually think they might like me! I am by far a much better teacher than any of the lazy bums they have here (and I’m not being boastful, just honest), so I think the kids are relieved that they have someone who actually cares about them and their education and knows how to explain long division and fractions without having to consult the book. The teachers need to go back to school…they constantly write the wrong answers on the board and are pretty perplexed when I intervene and explain why it is wrong. No wonder the kids are so far behind…the teachers don’t know what they are talking about either! I wouldn’t ever classify these kids as eager, compliant, or well-behaved, but at least about 1/10 of them seem to be learning something. The other 9/10 still don’t have notebooks or pens (and also don’t pay attention), so they’re not getting anywhere. I have split the kids into teams though, and they seem to enjoy the competition (or at least the prospect of a prize at the end of the term)…hard to encourage group and class participation with 70 kids though, there are always some that are overlooked. Very frustrating and very sad…frustrating because I explain the same things day after day without progress, and sad because I don’t think that things will change much in the foreseeable future.

Some highlights from the past few weeks:

On the way to Kande Beach, a topless old wrinkly woman grabbed her pendulous, enormous boobies and shook them at us. Not quite sure of the message, maybe we were supposed to go topless ourselves?

On the way back from Kande we accidentally ran into a HUGE swarm of army ants crossing the road. These things are enormous and do not let anything get in their way. We tried to jump over them, but a few clung on to my long skirt, and a minute later I was stripping in the street, dancing around because the ants were biting me all over my legs!! Those suckers hurt!

More disrobing in public, this time to wring out our skirts. On the way to school last week we got caught in a monsoon (which of course started right after we left and ended right after we got to school). The women in the village stared at us from their front porches, shaking their heads like, “what kind of crazy nuts are they, going out in this weather?” One lady even offered us an umbrella, but I don’t think it would have helped too much! It was pretty fun to jump around in puddles and play in the mud though…we had 4 rivers to cross which had formed across the road in about 5 minutes.

Very good health club meetings. There were only about 5 members who did not go to secondary school, so I had to recruit and retrain all new kids, but they seem to be really excited about the project and love coloring and crafting and making up songs and dramas. We have talked about HIV and nutrition so far, lots of other topics to finish before I leave! There are so many new kids interested that I have taken the club meetings to the beach…kinda nice to sprawl out on the sand under the tree, listening to the waves lapping the shore, and gaze at my eager students. These are the kids I like to work with!

I ate lunch at one of the kids’ house, and I became the circus attraction. No less than 8 women and about 20 kids stood around and stared at me for a good hour, unable to say anything because none of them could speak English but obviously very intrigued by a white girl sitting in a chair doing absolutely nothing! The kids come to our chalet sometimes and do the same thing…kinda creepy just being stared at for awhile.

I have had to abandon the girl’s soccer team, mostly because the girls are very busy right now with the planting season, but also because my schedule has been insane lately. Instead, we now have all the balls available at our chalet for “rental.” Marie also brought a ball, so we have about 40 kids a day shouting “MADAM! FOOTBALL! MADAM! CAN YOU HELP ME FOOTBALL?” Not really the best idea, we’ve started a verifiable craze. It’s fun to watch them play on the beach (and fun to jump in the action and tackle the little kids in the sand), but once again, it tests your patience when they come and shout at you at 5 AM (and refuse to leave, thinking that if they shout for at least 20 minutes you will wake up and give in). People here are on a different timetable than at home, that’s for sure! The sunrises are GORGEOUS, and I get up as often as I can to watch them, but I go right back to sleep afterward!

We bought a GIGANTIC catfish (called kampanga) from one of the fishermen at school, and guess who got to carry it back to the beach?? You guessed it. The thing was still bleeding and squirming slightly, and I held it with my fingers through the gills and out the mouth so that its whiskers tickled my wrist the whole way home. I’m not too squeamish, especially after spending a few months here, but that wasn’t the most pleasant feeling!

Marie and I boozed it up last Friday night at Kande Beach. So refreshing to have other young people (boys!) to talk to and play with, and a good escape from the “visitors” I have all day at Mwaya. It felt like we were at a high-priced Caribbean resort, complete with cabana bar, hammocks, gazebo on the lake, blue green crystal clear water, sailboats, beach front chalets…the only difference is that we paid $7 dollars each to stay there and didn’t see a single other tourist for about 4 or 5 hours. Pay $7, buy your own private tropical retreat! Not too shabby!

Lakeflies are BACK! I had to laugh when they came and the other volunteers freaked out…I’m the only one who had seen them before. They come in enormous swarms that roll in across the lake, and it felt like we were preparing for a tornado or hurricane that we knew was coming but couldn’t stop. We closed all the windows, drew all the curtains tight, put down our mosquito nets (even though they go through, it reduces the number of flies on your sheets from the thousands to the hundreds), covered all our possessions and sat waiting for the tempest to begin. They were all up and down the lake for the past 4 days, and we got two big swarms dead on…one was really incredible, we had to run inside and cover our mouths so we wouldn’t choke on lakeflies! The locals loved it though…they were running around with baskets and nets, catching all the flies from the air and shaking them out of the trees, and everywhere you looked there were tiny little girls with mouths black, full of flies. Yuck. One of our watchmen even brought us a sample of lakefly pie, but I passed on that one…it looked about as appetizing as a cow pie! Took a few days to clean up from that mess!

We had a surprise visit from the MP (Member of Parliament) from the area, Aleke Banda. When he showed up, we were lounging around in our bikinis…our carpenter came running over, breathless, to tell us that he had arrived and we went scrambling inside to put some clothes on! I was tying my skirt and Marie pulling her shirt over her head when he came up the steps…not exactly well-composed, especially in front of such an important person (the equivalent of a Congressman in the States). He turned out to be a very gracious, friendly, and complimentary guy though…he hadn’t known that the Lodge had been transformed into a charity, and he praised our “missionary spirit” and “dedication to the less fortunate people of Malawi.” We laughed — we’re not exactly missionaries — but it was a nice compliment anyway! We gave him a little tour and chatted about the charity, and he invited us to his house for dinner sometime…maybe a chance to dine on something other than nsima or fish at a Malawian’s house!

Yesterday we held a huge event, a tree planting ceremony. The MP was invited, as well at the District Forest Officer, the District Commissioner, District Environmental Officer, the Traditional Authority, the Group Village Headman, the Village Headmen, etc. Lots of important people. Two TV stations were supposed to come as well, but they might have gotten lost in the sand maze that is Mwaya Village. Everyone gave a speech and talked about the importance of preserving the forests and soil of Malawi…120 million trees are cut down every year, leading to extensive deforestation, soil erosion, failed crops, air pollution from all the burning, loss of shade (important in this heat!), and many other problems. We sat in the back, as representatives of RIPPLE Africa, the sponsor of the event and the numerous environmental projects around the area, and watched all these VIPs sit in their red velour stuffed chairs (“fit for a king!”) and lecture to a crowd of restless school kids. There were also traditional dance and song performances, which were awesome, and more praise for our volunteer work here. Blah blah blah. Then we went to the tree planting site, to plant the ceremonial first trees. I even got to plant one, as the manager and rep of RIPPLE! It was kinda funny to see all these men in suits gingerly patting the soil, especially when we were surrounded by filthy little boys, barefoot, with just enough tattered clothing to cover the important bits. I wasn’t aware of the large divide between rich and poor here, but turns out that while 99% of the people are dirt poor, there are some very well off men, mostly politicians and businessmen who have probably siphoned off some government and foreign aid money for their own purposes. They talk about “their people,” but it doesn’t resonate when they show up in suits and SUVs with bodyguards and someone to wipe their sweat off. The MP was very nice, but sometimes I think these people couldn’t care less about “their people” and seem content simply to accumulate their own riches. We even had to get up at 5 AM and pick wildflowers, buy drinks, slash all the grass, and clean the entire beach for our visitors. I was in charge of sweeping, but not in the ordinary sense…I’ve never felt more Malawian as I did yesterday, bent over sweeping the dirt ground with a bunch of tree branches for my broom! I even had my long skirt on…I’m sure the men think I’m ready to become a proper Malawian wife now!

Hopefully things will calm down a little bit now that our tree planting ceremony is over, and hopefully the staff will refrain from fighting and keep the villagers off my doorstep for a few days (Marie is pretty good at that also, she’s my gatekeeper). I need some sleep! I also really want to spend more time with the kids and tutoring, and also make sure that things are near completion with the health club before I leave. I love the kids, dirt, snot, tattered clothes, big bellies, and all — the manager stuff can wait.

Wednesday 16 February 2005

Hello everyone! I can’t believe that I only have a few more weeks in Malawi…Marie left this morning and it really hit me that I’ll be doing the same in a short while. I need to soak up the sun, eat all the pineapples, and enjoy the last few weeks in paradise, because soon it’ll be back to DC and the library…fun! I don’t have any comprehensive story to tell, but rather a bunch of funny or interesting anecdotes from the past few weeks, so here goes…

School has been going much better! I now take attendance every day (which takes awhile with 60 kids and is always amusing because the kids LAUGH at my pronunciation of their names…I’m trying!). I was having a HUGE problem with kids not doing any of their work. They don’t do homework here (the kids need to do chores, take care of siblings, and do not have lights at night anyway), but about 3/4 of the kids at one point would do absolutely nothing when I gave a few practice problems in class, or even when I gave a test! For the first 30 minutes of the math test, I literally had to walk around the room and tell each kid individually that they had to do it, get out your notebooks and pens, get going! There were only 10 problems on the test and they had an hour and a half, but about 1/2 of them didn’t finish the test, either because they sat there defiantly for the first hour, thinking they could do nothing and I wouldn’t make them (wrong!), or because they don’t know how to multiply or add and will sit there counting on their fingers for ten minutes to get the answer to one problem! It’s kinda funny when you see them all doing it, or when you see their notebooks and all the slash marks (3 x 7= 1,2,3, 1,2,3, 1,2,3, 1,2,3….), but it’s really discouraging. We’re trying to work on fractions and mixed numbers now, but if they can’t even add or multiply it’s a pretty futile exercise! I would have to go back about 3 years to catch them up, but unfortunately that can’t be done. I’ve taken to selecting certain students to help…some have no clue and never will, some simply don’t care and cheat all the time, and a very lucky few actually understand. There are simply too many kids and not enough time for all of them, so I try to concentrate on the kids who do not fall in one of the above categories and actually come to the afternoon tutoring sessions on the beach. At least they have all started doing their work now…I split them into teams and give points (and prizes at the end of the week) to the team who participates the most. The hour long lecture from the headmaster (“learning is not just listening, but doing, practicing, etc.”) didn’t hurt either! Class average on the test: 2.1 out of 10. Stellar. Some examples of their superior math skills:

Multiply the sum of 15 and 25 by 7 = 1525 x 7

1567 + 89 = 151416 (if you line it up vertically you see the humor)

The kids never fail to entertain though…last week we had a spelling bee (each team attempted to write the word on the board), which turned into absolute chaos! The classroom is no bigger than a classroom at home, yet there are 60 kids crammed in, 3 to a desk, so trying to organize that crowd was impossible. I also underestimated how competitive the kids can get, so I had kids grabbing my arm, yelling, and screaming, trying to make sure that I had indeed seen what their team member had written on the board. The words were pretty much unrecognizable and the noise deafening, and I was just about to lose my cool when I turned around and saw one of the littler kids in the front row…he had kept his piece of chalk and drew a beard and moustache and sideburns on his face (which shows up quite well on their dark skin!), and was sitting calmly, waiting for me to see him. I choked on my sentence and tried to stifle my laughter, but it was so damn cute and funny that I had to chuckle. I had to send him out of the classroom for awhile, but I secretly thanked him for the comic relief! I also had to laugh when we were doing order of operations math problems, and I inadvertently made one up that resulted in a negative number. I went through the whole problem (“What’s 5 x 7? Plus 3?”) and got to the end: “What’s 10 minus 12?”. In deafening synchrony, the kids screamed out, “IMPOSSIBLE!!!” Ok, so I guess they haven’t gotten to negative numbers yet….

Not all of school is amusing though. I saw the headmaster walk around the classroom yesterday during science, and for every wrong answer he smacked the pupil on the side of the head with a ruler. Corporal punishment is a daily occurrence, but I have no power to stop it. The teachers often even make the offender go into the woods and collect a stick for his own whipping…so cruel. One day when I was taking attendance, the kids were yelling out “Here! Absent! Absent! Absent! Married!” Huh? Another pregnant Malawian girl is forced to marry the father and drop out of school. One particular incident, however, really saddened me. On Friday after school I ran into my star pupil, Reliness, at the market. When I asked her why she hadn’t been in class that morning, she looked down and quietly replied, “I had to go sell tomatoes in Kande.” I thought about that comment the entire day. She has the most promise of any other girl in the class, but her family’s priorities are money and food, not education. She was blessed with the brains, but not the economic status. That could have happened to any one of us…it’s only chance that we were born into privilege. I have a lot of trouble accepting this.

(Before you get too upset, a little relief…one of my kids, who generally has NO CLUE what he’s doing but tries every problem, came up to me that same Friday. He started out, “Madam, give me…(Allie bristles here, tired of hearing requests for pens, notebooks, or money) …homework!” I just about hugged the poor little guy, and happily wrote out a few problems for him. Even occasional encouragement like this keeps me going strong.)

OK, enough about school for the moment…here are all the other random interesting events of the past few weeks…

“You leave that medicine alone Dusty kitty…us big people need it so we don’t end up like Shelly: knocked up, homeless, and without a man in sight.” Marie, as the cat attacks her pills. One of our cats, really a kitten still herself, became pregnant and delivered her 4 kittens 2 weeks ago. Our night watchmen, Nundahs’, comment: “Yes, she is impregnated, but I have never seen her husband.” (Delivered in the most serious of tones). Unfortunately our Shelly belly was not ready to be a mom, and 6 hours after the kittens were born, she devoured all of them, head to toe, in about 10 minutes. We were all worried about the kittens from the start, since they were pretty lethargic and Shelly made only small attempts to clean them and none to feed them, but I was HORRIFIED to see her eat them up like a hunk of meat! I was holding one at the time when she started in on the first, and I didn’t want to put him down (when I tried, Shelly grabbed his leg and tried to eat him), but there was no way they were going to survive anyway. The kittens went back into her belly faster than they came out!

Umbrellas, parasols, whatever you want to call them, to shield the sun are NOT a stupid old-fashioned idea! I used to laugh at all the women carrying around their huge umbrellas, until I stood under one…no sunburn and about 20 degrees cooler!

“Look madam, no more ventilation!!” Our carpenter, Geoff, showing off his shirt, previously ripped open across the entire back, which he had sewed himself the night before.

Marie and I took a trip to Kande Beach for the night…once again nice to have cold beers and some company. We layed in the hammock all day reading our books, listened to a bunch of the locals JAMMING on their drums around a bonfire on the beach at night, attempted to go night swimming until we were dissuaded by reports of flatdogs (crocs) cruising the area, and slept well. We were both too tired to walk home, so we rented a boat for an hour and convinced one of the boys to take us home to Mwaya. Nice ride! We also had the pleasure of meeting all the curio (craft) boys…William Shakespeare, Mel Gibson, Pink Floyd, Winston Churchill, Dr. Love, and Mr. Loverman. Entertaining folk for sure!

Me: “Do you have a toilet? A latrine? A bathroom? A washroom?”…(Squatting)…Old lady: “Ah yes, out back! Why didn’t you speak English?”

“I feel like a pack mule in the desert.” Walking is not very fun in the blazing sun, especially when lugging groceries for several miles.

I learned to play bao, a local game which EVERYONE plays. Not too good at it, my friends laugh at me.

If you’ve never seen a cucumber that’s the size of a watermelon, come to Malawi. If you’ve ever wanted banana chips, which are deliciously just like french fries, fresh milk, termites (which I tried — still alive — two days ago), or wanted to carry 40 pounds of half dead catfish….you know where I am. We are now starting to get passion fruit and guavas, I can’t wait to try them!

“SSSHHH, hippos mating.” — sign near Dwangwa, about 70 km south.

One morning with Harry babbling at me in Chitonga: “But Harry, I don’t speak Tonga.” “Yes you do, madam! I heard you! You are Tonga! You listen to me!”

We found out about the “Transition to adulthood” in Malawi. Beware, those faint of heart, stop reading now.

The Tonga people where I am originally came from Zaire and have different customs and traditions from many of the other tribes in Malawi who came from Mozambique, Zambia, and other places. When a girl here first gets her period, she must stay in the house for one week, during which she is only allowed to see or talk to female relatives, who instruct her on becoming a woman, being a good wife, and the reality that she may soon be pregnant and have children. The boys here have no such equivalent, but when we asked a few of them how they know when they are men, they thought for a minute, then answered, “As you know, the boys swim naked here. When the older men see that a boy is starting to get hair, they know he is becoming a man. A boy knows for himself when he is a man by the dreams….” to which Marie responds, “The wet dreams!!” Subtle. Ok fair enough. That’s the Tonga people…the majority of Malawians do coming of age a little differently…

The dominant tribe in Malawi is known as the Chewa, and Chichewa is one of the national languages. Other major tribes include the Ngoni, Yao, and Mangochi, located mostly in the more southern regions, and they determine the transition to adulthood in a similar way. They, however, have an extra special addition: circumcision. For the boys it’s pretty self-explanatory, although the prospect of a teenage boy having his penis flayed without anesthetic or sterile conditions makes my skin crawl. The girls…awful. I couldn’t quite figure out what they were cutting, even when I brought out my drawings in the “Female Reproductive System” book and asked them to point it out. The boys weren’t entirely sure, but guessed that they sliced off the clitoris and left everything else…actually a less dramatic form of female circumcision. I didn’t think too hard about what they said for fear of losing my lunch, but I am a little curious as to how it all works…I can’t quite imagine what the end result would look like.

The same day, with the same boys, we watched the cooking club women make maize pancakes, while they watched me cut vegetables for dinner and drink beer(!) After our first question we were a little more intrigued about the subject of sex, and when we questioned a little further we discovered that they do, as we suspected, rendezvous outside in the bushes! Marie and I had seen a few condom wrappers around town, and really, when you think about it, it would be VERY romantic to get down when your entire extended family is in the same house, if not within the same room!

Maxwell, our manager: “Can you find me an American girlfriend? I want a white girlfriend, because I’m against apartheid!!!” Great, so one wants to marry me because he wants to move to America, one wants to be rich, Isaac wants to marry me because I don’t have a labelo (bride price), and Maxwell wants to marry me (or another white girl) to encourage racial harmony!

Yona, one of our night watchmen, recently asked me for a 4000 kwacha “loan,” which is more than his monthly salary (3000 kwacha, about $30). The reason? He wants to buy his “girlfriend” so she can become his wife. Apparently her family caught them shacking up, so they demanded that he marry her to preserve her integrity, blah blah blah. Did I mention that he already has a wife and 6 kids who run around starving and in rags because he’s irresponsible with his money and a horrible father??? “But it’s a very, very big problem, my boss…” I’m sure it is, but I can’t justify paying for a second wife so he can have another mouth to feed, another house to build, and more children to take care of in the future!

“Hello, how are you?” The old woman must not have liked that greeting, she spit at me through her teeth and turned away.

Drunk man in the middle of the day, sitting on the guardrail, legs drawn up against his chest and both his arms and legs inside his shirt = VERY funny. I don’t think he had anything under that shirt…

Our good old reliable ’86 Isuzu pickup, Rusty…first she wouldn’t start and we had to push it down a hill and pop the clutch about 6 times before it roared to life. On the way to Mzuzu, the poor thing “LOST” 3rd and 4th gear, so we limped the whole way to Mzuzu in 2nd, coasting down the huge hills in neutral — “Hands up! It’s a rollercoaster! Come on, you can make it up the next hill!!”

“Hello!!” “I’m fine!” One of the things I’ll miss most back in the States. The Tonga equivalent of hello is kinda like hello and how are you rolled into one, so whenever you say hi to someone, they respond (quite enthusiastically) “I’m fine Madam, how are you??” Very amusing, and a good pick me up after a long day in the African heat.

“You want money? How about a 15 minute foot massage, 100 kwacha per foot?”

“We only got one bottle of milk today…the calf was extra hungry this morning I guess!”

Marie had a little going away party on Friday. All the clan was there, and we sat outside in a circle drinking Chibuku (well, they drank Chibuku…it’s a maize beer and super chunky and revolting) and listening to old school tapes. Marie and I were extra classy, decanting our wine from a box into our plastic Nalgene bottles and drinking it directly from the bottle. The girls, who normally do not drink at all, slipped a few sachets (little packets) of liquor into their juice, and soon were dancing and having a blast. Maxwell professed his love for Marie (who they all call Mary), asking me, “Please, can you tell her how beautiful she is??” I am alternately called “Arlie” or “Harry.” Did I mention that R’s and L’s are interchangeable in Malawi??

“Let’s arrange a marriage.” One of our night watchmen, after seeing me playing cards with one of the local boys. That was a quick courtship!

Poor Marie gets hounded for money and gifts before she leaves. At the party, the boys try to steal her wine and cigarettes (even though she bought all the alcohol for the party already), the kids remind her “Not to forget them at home…send money, because you know that Malawi is a poor country,” and the teacher who she worked with pulled her aside on the last day. She thought that he would thank her for her help or at least say goodbye…”Can I have your headphones?” At the restaurant, when reading a book, the waiter asked her for her book: “But I’m not done with it yet!” “Can I have it?” “NO!” Somehow the second she stepped into Malawi she was branded with a sign that says, ask me for stuff!

Last week I found two tiny kittens, mewing their heads off, in the back of my classroom. I had seen the mother a few days earlier, not knowing about the kittens, but unfortunately the kids had scared the shit out of her and she took off. I watched the kitties for a few days, but when they got weaker and started smelling (momma wasn’t cleaning them), I decided to take them home. They were also super loud for such tiny things, they disrupted my whole class every day! They are probably only a few weeks old, and although their eyes are open, I don’t know if they will live. Any suggestions on how to care for kittens? We’ve been feeding them cow’s milk every few hours, and they are getting used to it I think. I should have taken a picture of our first feeding contraption….a pen canister, inside a washed out condom with a hold poked in the bottom, tied with a hairband. We were attempting to make some semblance of a nipple (or something small enough to fit in their mouths), but thank goodness one of the other volunteers had a syringe in her chalet! We definitely won’t win any awards for our invention, it was horrible! Now it’s like having a newborn baby in the house though…they start mewing every few hours at night, and Marie and I would groggily debate whose turn it was to get up and feed them. No babies in the near future for me, too much work!

I had a Valentine! Unfortunately one of the local boys is in love with me, but I was psyched to get a card and a little drawing with my name and his in a little heart!

We have a new volunteer, Kerry Slade, who not only is from Doylestown, PA, but also went to Richmond for a year and a half before transferring to Brown! Small world!

“Madam look, there’s a green mamba in my office!” Geoff our carpenter, working in the new kitchen (his “office”), upon spotting one of the deadliest snakes in the world. It then slithered under my chalet. Made sleeping that night really comfortable.

Marie tears up this morning when she left and the kids sang to her: “Dear teacher, our teacher, we will never forget you….” I’m going to bawl when they sing that to me! The kids are finally used to me in class and I am loving being their teacher, and it’s almost time to come home! I’m having mixed feelings right now…I am homesick and can’t wait to see friends and family again, but I also don’t want to leave the surroundings, the culture, the friends I have made, the lifestyle. I will definitely miss Malawi at home also, and I think it will be a little bit of a shock to come home. Last night Marie and I stayed in a guesthouse with electricity, and when I got up to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night, I was BLINDED by the light in the bathroom! I’m used to the glow of flashlights at night, definitely not a halogen bulb!

I’m getting a little misty eyed even now, thinking that this could be my last update from Malawi (I’ll be sure to write the conclusion at home). The time has flown by, but also when I think of things that I did in October it seems like another lifetime. Watch out, I think I’m coming home a different (and tanner and thinner) person!

And one last funny story from this morning at the market…at Shoprite, you have to check your bags before you go in the store. I handed to guy three glasses for our paraffin lamps, and he responded, “Whoa! These are breakable, very fragile madam. What if I break them? I don’t have money to pay for them.” After I assure him that they will be fine, he breaks in, “Well, you could always take me home for payment!”

Have a great Wednesday, with love from Malawi!!!!

Tuesday 22 March 2005

HOME! Sometimes it felt like I would never get back home, but now that I’m here I sorely miss the beautiful surroundings, my kids, the lifestyle, and all the friends that I made there. I got home last Saturday (the 12th) after two loooong days of sitting on a plane, but have been in bed with the ‘flu ever since! That’s what I get for coming back to civilization and back into contact with people again I guess!

Every day is a little bit more normal than the previous one, but I’m still in a state of shock. Culture shock when you come back to your own culture? Absolutely, when you suddenly realize how superfluous all the things we have are, how lucky and yet so ungrateful most people are for their lifestyle, and when a cup of Starbucks can cost as much as a week’s salary in Malawi. I think of it as the wakeup call that was desperately needed and long in coming…I’ll no longer attach the same importance to Coach bags or Seven Jeans or anything else that fills the closet of a well-dressed Washington woman! I’m definitely not planning to become a bag lady anytime soon, and as a student I don’t have the financial resources to become a great philanthropist or volunteer all my time, but I’m much more aware of just what exactly a dollar can mean and how little a new iPod can at the same time. Not all of my new attitudes are based on money, but it’s certainly the most noticeable difference between here and Malawi and the one that crosses cultural barriers most easily.

It’s a shame that my most rewarding and fun weeks in Malawi came at the very end…my time there ended just as I was starting to feel completely comfortable in that lifestyle! A few stories from the last weeks that I spent at Mwaya Beach…enjoy!

After dropping Marie off in Mzuzu, I snuck into Viphya to see my favorite secondary school boys. They escorted me to the bus depot in the afternoon, and even kicked some guy out of the front seat so I could sit there! I felt a little bad about that, but it was a sweet gesture. They sat with me for about 20 minutes while the rest of the bus filled up, and even fended off aggressive vendors and stood protectively by the window “so no one could reach in and steal my bags!” The trip home was not so smooth. We got to Chintheche, about ½ hour from home, and the bus driver decided he wasn’t going any further since there weren’t enough passengers to make it worth his while! I found out later that this is a pretty common occurrence, but it was about 8 at night and NOTHING comes for hours at a stretch that late and I wasn’t about to be stranded! I sat in the bus and refused to get out, and even offered him a little more money to taxi me home…no go, the greedy SOB wanted about 20 dollars to take me the 15 km that I had already paid him the regular fare for already! I sat, not moving, for about an hour in the bus, the guy at the bar and hanging out with his friends in town…I guess he thought I would eventually crack and pay him the money, but I was pretty pissed and not ready to hand over money simply because I’m white and he wanted to be a jerk, even though I had about 50 pounds of groceries and about $1,800 in salary money in my bag! Eventually a night bus came along, and he said he would pay for my ticket if I took that to Matete…fine. I got on the bus, but when the woman asked for my money, I turned around and the guy was gone! I ran off the bus, the passengers on board screaming at me to get back on, that they would pay for me, whatever, it must have been a pretty funny sight. It was only about a dollar but it was the principle that pissed me off so much. I chased him down (back at the bar, laughing with his friends), and SCREAMED at him. Now, I am NEVER a confrontational person, and I have NEVER yelled at anyone like that before, but I was tired of feeling like people were taking advantage of me. I told him to give me the money (which was actually more than it would have cost him to take me there since it was a luxury coach, plus he had to refund my money for the fare I gave him initially), and when he refused, saying that it wasn’t his fault that there were no more passengers on the bus…I kinda freaked out. I don’t remember exactly what I said, but pretty soon his friends were telling him to give me the money just to make me go away! He walked back to the bus with me, but they didn’t have change for the fare. By this point the bus driver was really annoyed at the delay and started to close the door on the guy, but he held on in the doorway, trying to get his change. Eventually the bus picked up speed and he had to let go, screaming and cursing the whole way. I didn’t feel the slightest bit bad taking his money…he was a major jerk. Even the people on the bus looked at me in amusement…I guess they also thought I would rather whip out my wallet than confront the guy. Ordinarily I probably would have, but it was awesome to stand up for myself. I don’t intend to do this regularly (if I wasn’t already so tired and pissed off from other things I would have never said anything), but it was a pretty cool feeling. I was further annoyed when I got back to the roadblock and the police officer wanted $10 to walk me back to the beach (it was pitch black and I still had heavy bags, and there were three officers there making sure that the one car an HOUR that passed was legal), but I just stalked off and marched home, faster than I ever have from all the adrenaline pumping inside me. Not the best of days, but at least I got to see my Viphya boys!

The most fun lesson in Malawi — “doing” words. I wrote all these verbs on the board, in categories as to whether you had to double the last letter, drop an e, whatever, and made the kids turn them into –ing words. The fun part was that any word that they got — we went around the classroom and everyone had a different one — they had to act out, saying “I am jumping!” “I am smiling!” “I am singing!” whatever. It was hilarious and tons of fun!

I spent a day convinced that white people are the ugliest creatures ever. I walked along the beach to Kande, watching all the locals bathe, wash clothes, and play and swim in the lake, their dark skin and taut muscles gleaming in the water. I get to Kande, what do I see? A crowd of fleshy, overweight, dirty tourists in every shade of red, pink, and white downing beers and being a noisy embarrassment to themselves. Definitely one of the ugliest sights I have EVER seen, especially since they were so carefree and obnoxious right next to the beautiful locals who work their asses off just to have something to eat every day. It was like eating Thanksgiving dinner in front of a homeless person and laughing and lording it over them, totally tasteless and just plain UGLY.

Took Williams on a walk to Kande Beach to get some lunch and to call Geoff and Liz…and they didn’t want to let him in! He had hung back a little to chat with the curio boys, and when he tried to catch up with me at the beach they wouldn’t let him in until I went back! I guess they are trying to keep the artisans from pestering the tourists, but I was a little annoyed that even when I explained that he was with me, they still looked at him askance. While we were there we played some silly bar games, one with tongue twisters (hilarious, especially the words with R’s and L’s, since the Malawians switch them all the time!), Scrabble, and also some get to know you game. It had questions like “If I was a car, what would I be?” or “If I were ice cream, what flavor would I be?” The game didn’t start out so well…when I asked him what color I am, he said white, and I had to explain about the significance of colors and the purpose of the game. They also don’t have different breeds of dogs there (every dog is an ugly, skin and bones mutt), so when I asked him what kind of dog I would be, he responded, “Well, there’s male and female….” Kinda funny. But then I asked Williams what kind of animal I would be, and he immediately proclaimed, “Guineafowl!” I just about choked on my ice and started cracking up, and he was too embarrassed to explain why he picked that, so I still have no clue why I’m a guineafowl! People at the bar thought we were nuts, especially when I had to explain what a thong is by gesturing on the ample behind of an African statue on the bar!

Went to a football game that mysteriously ended as soon as it began. They had only been playing for about ten minutes when a huge truck pulled up with a ton of people on the back. The people on the back started fighting, and everyone watching the game took off running to join in! People even sprinted right across the field (through the game!) to get to the truck, and within a few minutes everyone was gone! I sat there with my mouth open, and still have no idea what it was all about!

The doctor at Kachere, Mathias, told me not to give up medicine: “Never, never, NEVER give up medicine. It’s the most noble profession. When we meet again, I hope that we will be speaking the same language — the language of medicine.”

I woke up to the sound of Kerry SHRIEKING in the middle of the night, freaking out and jumping around. I was only half awake, but when I came to I saw this HUGE sticky, spiny, crawly thing that looked like a millipede but amped up with horns and colors and all kinds of crazy things! It was disgusting but I started giggling uncontrollably…it wasn’t in my bed! It took quite an effort to get it out of the chalet (it was sticking to everything and was really quick), but I redeemed myself by getting it in a cup and throwing it out the window. Only in Africa!

I took Williams on his first horseback ride…he was a natural! He definitely wasn’t too keen on the bareback in the lake part (he’s not the best swimmer), but he forgot his fear when my horse reared back and dumped me in the water…then he was just busy laughing at me, saying he was the “more experienced driver!” The horse had a gash on his back that I didn’t notice when the saddle was on, but I must have sat on it and he definitely didn’t like it at all!

Best day during my stay: Mwaya vs. Kachere school football and netball games. Practice for the big match up went on all week long, and on the big day we first had a teacher’s lunch (Kerry’s first taste of nsima and Malawian’s LOVE of speeches and formalities!), then watched the games all afternoon. There were three football games and two netball games, and it seemed like the entire village had turned out either to sell things, talk with neighbors, cheer on the teams, or just see what all the fuss was about. Kerry and I were surrounded constantly by huge throngs of kids, and I felt like a fish in a fishbowl the whole day…none of the kids from Kachere were used to seeing us white volunteers! The kids were all running around playing games and singing and dancing, and it was a perfect event to see everyone and to say goodbye. It was a beautiful sunny Saturday afternoon…that day could have continued forever and I would have been happy! I especially loved whenever they scored a goal…every spectator would go mad and rush the field and embrace the players, then run back and continue cheering from the sideline! Edson and Williams came over later for drinks, and Kerry and I learned a lot about Malawian youth and their hopes and struggles to get out of the villages…pretty sad really.

I went to church! I got there at 9 and was a little worried when no one was there! Around 9:30 I was getting antsy, so I walked to a neighboring house and asked when church started: “Oh, it starts at 9.” Oh OK, right. Church didn’t start until 10:15, but it was really pretty cool when it did. They started with a Bible study before the service, but everything was punctuated with songs and dance and beating drums…it was really lively and everyone was really into the worship. The people in general are very religious, but it adds an extra dimension when you add African beats to an already enthusiastic congregation! I got a little attack of intestinal distress and had to leave early though. Funny (but gross) true story: On the way home from church it got to the point where I couldn’t hold it anymore. I pretty much ran away from some of the kids who wanted to chat (“Sorry, can’t chat, gotta goooooooo….”) and ducked into the woods as soon as I could. I was relieving myself when all of a sudden I heard all these noises and rustling leaves and branches behind me. I jumped up and spun around, terrified that a bunch of kids were running around behind me and had watched the whole ungraceful affair, but to my surprise it was a troop of monkeys!! I couldn’t see them, but I could hear their shrieks and see all the branches swaying at the top of the trees…it sounded like they were right next to me, and it didn’t sound like they were too pleased! Makes you feel pretty vulnerable when your butt is exposed and a bunch of monkeys are running around, unseen, behind you…at least they won’t tell anyone that the mzungu was going number 2 in the woods!

Leaving all the kids at school was much more difficult than I anticipated it would be. When I went in on my last day, they all turned and whispered “Allie!” and then launched into a song… “Dear teacher, our teacher, we shall never forget you…dear Allie, our Allie, we shall never forget you…” It was pretty heartbreaking, and I wished that I had taught the entire 5 months that I was there. I saw the faces of Isaac, Atimiya, Clara, Evone, Paulosi, Adamson and wished that I could stay and help them forever. The schools are such a disgrace there, and I feel horrible for the few kids who are really bright and really want to learn. I remember how frustrating it was sometimes to be in classes that didn’t challenge me or where I was ahead of the other students…there’s no honors classes or college or anything for these kids, only frustration and a lifetime as a farmer. It’s so difficult sometimes because we tutor these kids, spend time with them, encourage them to go to secondary school and take their studies seriously, but in the end, even if they do finish secondary school, they still come back to the village and end up farming. There are no jobs, no one can afford college, and it’s almost impossible to escape the poverty that they grew up with, no matter how hard they work or how intelligent they may be. I have a really hard time accepting this, especially after I have seen and gotten to know the people behind all the kids’ dirty black faces. Even with all the help they have received from the charity, things won’t change until socioeconomic conditions change drastically so my star pupil can come to class instead of selling tomatoes in Kande or taking care of her baby brother. Awful.

The goodbye at school finished, I packed up all my stuff (actually not too tough because I gave away all my clothes and almost everything else that I brought with me), and the next day we set off for Mzuzu. I was supposed to stay in Mzuzu overnight, and a friend had offered to fly me down to Lilongwe the next morning to catch my flight (he’s a private pilot who flies a Cessna in and out of Nyika National Park and Likoma Island), but we got to Mzuzu and found out that he wouldn’t be able to take me down! Yikes…I spent the next few hours trying to figure out how to get to Lilongwe, and finally decided to go back to Mwaya that night and get up the next morning and drive to Lilongwe using the charity’s truck. The pilot, however, offered Williams and I a scenic flight back to Chintheche that afternoon so we could see some of the landscape and also avoid the drive back to Mwaya, an offer that I wasn’t considering too seriously until Williams mentioned that he had never been in a plane before. Sold.

No waiting or check in at this airport — there are only 14 registered planes in Malawi, including Air Malawi! We paid our departure tax of $2 each, and took off, Williams’ eyes the size of saucers. Once we were in the air, however, no problem…he read a magazine for awhile, you would have thought he was a bored businessman taking his umpteenth flight! I, however, couldn’t take my eyes off the beautiful landscape, especially as we approached Nkhata Bay and the lake came into view. It was a gorgeous sunny afternoon and the water was clear aqua and sparkling…so beautiful. We flew about 20 feet above the water along the shoreline, waving to all the kids jumping up and down on the beach and scaring the crap out of all the fishermen out in the water. We flew by Kande Beach and waved to everyone on the beach, then headed towards Mwaya so we could see it from the air. It was a stunning view, and we circled back over Mwaya twice (nice pictures!) before turning around, buzzing Kande again, and heading to Chintheche. When we got to Chintheche we found that the airstrip was being used for a football game, there were TONS of people out on the field! We flew by once then swung around again for landing, and as soon as we landed we were MOBBED by kids and curious onlookers, wondering most of all why Williams was flying with two white people! I said bye to Chris and waved as he took off for Mzuzu again, and Williams and I wandered over to watch the now-resumed football game. After watching for awhile we hopped on a matola and headed back to Mwaya…everyone was pretty surprised to see me again!

We left Mwaya again at 4 in the morning and headed south towards Lilongwe. We had made it about an hour when Rusty, our POS ’86 Isuzu pickup, started shaking and lurching around. Great. We got out and looked at it, but couldn’t find anything obvious…I think it was the whole frame of the car falling apart. We drove back to Dwangwa, the nearest town, and I was planning to hop on a bus before I realized that it wouldn’t get me there in time because it stops so many times. We drove to Ngala Lodge to try to score a ride from Craig or Deanna, but neither was there, and Tony was also out of the country, great. We went back to Dwangwa and decided to try to hire a taxi to take me there…not the best option considering we were 4 hours from Lilongwe! The first guy wanted $400 to take me there, but then we found someone who agreed to about $130…still not cheap, but I really had no choice at that point, and it was getting really late and I didn’t have time to negotiate or find someone else. Williams and I threw my luggage in the minibus and off we went, forgetting even to say goodbye to Force. I slept for a good chunk of the ride, but it was really scenic. We drove right through Nkhotakota Game Reserve, and although the only animals we saw were baboons, it was still beautiful and looked like something out of National Geographic. Very remote and unspoiled. Unfortunately the roads hadn’t been maintained in years, and the going for awhile was slow and stomach-lurching. I started getting really nervous when it got to be an hour before my flight and we weren’t even close, and even more so when we got stopped and written a ticket and the driver decided to have a little discussion with the officer. I was pretty irritable and started yelling out the window that I was going to miss my plane, but the driver simply told me to relax. I was further annoyed when my “taxi” stopped at 2 towns to pick up other passengers…luckily only 1 person got on, otherwise I would have freaked out. I didn’t pay $130 to ride on the bus with other people AND miss my plane! In the end I got to the airport 20 minutes before my flight was supposed to leave…and even when we got to the airport the security guards held us up for another 5 minutes or so because the minibus had some violation or another. I was beyond frantic, but good thing Williams was there to translate for me and also to hold me and calm me down. None of the people in the car had ever flown though, so they didn’t seem to care that we were so late, and seemed perplexed by my behavior. When we finally got there, I practically jumped out of the moving car and ran inside, trying to check in and pay my departure tax and go to the ATM before my plane left without me…they were closing the gate when I got there, and I still hadn’t checked my bags or checked in! Good thing it was such a small airport, so I could literally run through check in and customs and through the airport in a few minutes, but I didn’t get to say bye to Williams. I gave him a quick kiss and started crying, and the check in lady goes, “Is he your husband? You better hurry back to Malawi so he doesn’t miss you!” I wish I had the luxury of hurrying back!

So anyway, I’m now home safe and sound and NOT looking forward to school next week! I still haven’t quite decided whether medicine is right for me, but I have decided that volunteering and international travel will be a permanent part of my life from now on. I plan on keeping in touch with a bunch of my kids, and if they do well on their exams next year I definitely want to sponsor them to go to secondary school…it’s only $11 a term, yet none of the families in the village can afford even that modest sum. I also have a place (and people) to send old clothes or gently used items to…it’s so much more personal when I can send things to Masiya or Yewo or Jacob, and I’m more confident that my donations will reach the intended person without administrative or bureaucratic skimmings off the top!

Thank you again to all my donors…without you the charity would not function. Even small sums of money are enormously helpful there, and I personally oversaw the use of all the money and can assure you that everything went right into projects in the village and sponsorship of the brightest kids to go to school. The charity focuses on three main areas: healthcare at Kachere Health Center, community education (based at Mwaya FP school), and environmental preservation. The charity is in constant need of money, and I have several projects in mind that could use a little boost. If you are interested in donating money to the charity as a whole or possible sponsoring one of the bright kids in Mwaya, please contact me. I know many worthy children who are dying for the chance to go to secondary school!

I hope you enjoyed reading my weblog…I had an incredible time over there, and would go back in a heartbeat! I definitely recommend Africa for your next vacation…it’s a place that’s as beautiful as anywhere in the world, and the people are guaranteed to touch your heart and change your life.

Love to all,

Allie

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