Friday, July 7, 2017

A poem for Independence day

At the pitch

The mountains are preparing
to greet the sea
as the sun slowly settles
into the cotton down
softly billowing at the head
of the pitch.

The golden globe
yields slowly
to the bed frame world
glowing in her
azure-domed kingdom.

Even so, as the day’s cog
turns, children run
back and forth
dragging the sun,
tethering it to their
evening’s entertainment.

If they could they’d
peg the sun in her halls
and bring eternity to their dreams.

Happy 53rd birthday, Malawi! Here's looking forward to the bright future you have ahead of you. I've been back just over a year now and I still miss it everyday. A special shout out to my Malawian family in Meru - there are too many to name, but you know who you are. 

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Part 3: When Hunger Season Comes Early

Hiya loyal blog followers! I hope this blog finds you all in good health and enjoying the start to your summer. The weather is cooling off here (much to my delight) and I’ve even started breaking out my scomba (jacket) or a flannel at night. Watching the stars as they crawl through the night on their way to you all now requires a cup of tea. Well, “requires” is a relative term. More often than not it requires the thought of tea. I typically don’t start a fire just for tea.

Basi. (Literally “enough” but used like “that’s plenty.”) On to where my thoughts have been these past few days.

As some of you may have heard, the southern region of Malawi experienced extremely devastating floods in January. At least several hundred thousand people were affected. The number may be higher – I don’t have reliable/steady access to news here, so I’m not sure where the figure stands. Natural disasters happen. It’s nothing new. But what is so different about one happening here versus the US or even a less developed country like the Philippines is the lack of infrastructure and ability to respond to a crisis of this magnitude.

Malawi is dependent on agriculture for the vast majority of its GDP. Not to mention the fact that most households are subsistence farmers or only sell a small portion of what they harvest. There are cash crops such as Soya, peanuts, or tobacco, but the money from selling these is either not very high (Soya and peanuts) or it is exposed to dramatic price fluctuations on the auction floors and requires expensive inputs to have a good harvest (tobacco). In the case of tobacco, farmers will often spend about $50 USD on one bag of fertilizer for only a portion of their tobacco crop. Meaning they might spend upwards of $400-500 USD on a bet that they will earn back this money and maybe an additional $50 USD . So even the country’s most profitable cash crop doesn’t even generate that much cash. I should mention that most farmers get coupons at the beginning of planting season which allows them to buy subsidized fertilizer for maybe $20 USD. This does not mean that they end up in a better position, because it only allows many people to put more fertilizer in their tobacco fields to the detriment of their maize fields (which then get shorted on fertilizer application). But I’m getting off topic.

With the floods this year, entire villages were washed away. And not like we think of a flood in the States – water surrounding houses, people leaning out of second story windows, placing banners on the roof, or cars driving through watery streets. The houses here are made from mud brick, so even a heavy rain will begin to wash away the walls and may even cause the foundation to fail (this happened to one of our volunteers). Even my house was damaged this year, and my area had very poor and sporadic rainfall. So you can imagine what floods mean: houses turn into massive mud piles, the thatch roofs simply disintegrate, and the roads become impassible ribbons of mud. The water/bathing buckets are washed away, and the few luxury items you have (be it a few chairs, a mattress, or a radio) are destroyed. But when this happens, there is nowhere for people to turn. They have no money to travel to unaffected areas, and community structures (schools, churches, etc.) are also made of mud. So they offer no refuge.

As if this is not enough of a disaster for a country trying to pick itself up (with a hefty amount of pulling on behalf of the EU, US, Norway, Japan, and countless NGOs), most families don’t have bank accounts. Their form of saving is to buy/keep livestock. And what happens in a severe flood? The livestock drown. They are washed away. They escape and are never seen again. One adult cow can be sold for about $400 US, so losing one is going to hurt a family. Now try losing 4. 5. 10. Paying school fees, buying fertilizer, buying food, and paying for funerals now becomes nearly impossible.

But it gets worse. Many farmers either take out a loan to pay for fertilizer (without which their harvest will be abysmal since the soil has been poorly treated for decades). And when the floods came, they washed away all the fertilizer and the newly sprouted/just planted crops. Since using local varieties of maize has been stigmatized (“Ah. The local maize? It is for the poor. It is weak. The hybrid? It is very strong.”), families could not afford to buy more hybrid seed. And the supply of local seed is too low to be of any real value. With the loss of the entirety of their crops, farmers face immense debt (and banks will commonly charge 30-70% interest) and have no prospect of harvesting any food for their own family. But with no money (it’s already been spent on the seeds/fertilizer that have been washed away, and their livestock have been drowned) they won’t even be able to afford food at the market.

And this is just in one region of the country. Though the central and northern region did not receive heavy rains, they experienced scarce and insufficient rains. Kasungu district (where I trained last year and the agricultural heart of Malawi) suffered immensely. Some maize never grew above waist level so there were no ears to harvest. The same is true in Chitipa. Nationally, maize harvest is expected to see a 40% DECREASE from last year. Not good in a nation where maize is the main ingredient in nearly every meal. Even in the bwanas’ fields (bwana = boss or wealthy person) the harvest is only 1/3 of the usual. And they can afford the extra money for adequate fertilizer and pest control.

So what does this mean for the coming year? The answer can be summed up in one word: Hunger. Talk to any Malawian about the year and they will surely mention the “hunger season.” This is a time where families begin to run out of food from the previous year’s harvest. As this year’s crops are still maturing, they are not yet providing food. This is typically from Dec-Feb, and many families cannot afford to buy food at the market. They may go house to house, asking for food or simply not eat for days at a time. But this year is different. With such a bad harvest, the hunger season has never ended. And things are only going to get worse in the coming months.

The last time it was this bad was 2002 and if you ask when the last time was that someone knew of a person who died of starvation, they will invariably say 2002. There is already talk of Government buying maize from other countries (in addition to trying to set price controls on various commodities). During that time it wasn’t just a lack of food that caused problems. Nearly every village in Malawi depends on ground water for all their water needs (drinking, bathing, washing) and in low rainfall years boreholes can dry up. Many even dry up during average rainfall years. So couple drought with low food production and you have a serious crisis on your hands. As we do here. It got so bad in 2002 that Peace Corps had to pull volunteers from their sites to stay in Lilongwe (the capital) because the conditions at their site were too stressful. Imagine having to walk at maybe 6+ miles to get 20L of water, and witnessing your friends and community members starve and struggle to feed their families. All while knowing that you have enough food for yourself but not for others.

I’m hopeful that the floods have garnered enough international attention and aid that this coming year there will be more efforts to provide access to food. At the end of the day, it is not a question of money or food production. It is a question of access to adequate nutritious foods, and I think Malawi may be better equipped to ensure access than we were 13 years ago. In the meantime, if I needed any more drive to continue my work here, I’ve certainly found it. I’m planning to increase my efforts to educate people on various food preservation methods, nutrition, promote better farming practices, and teach people how to create a household budget so that they can afford food year round. Simple solutions, but ones that often fall through the cracks as far as international development is concerned.

On the whole, I am hopeful that this year will be much more successful work-wise than last year. Yes, it will be extremely tough, but I believe having a current crisis to point to when I hold meetings to promote new techniques and ideas will decrease the resistance to change. Certainly this is going to be a tough year and could be depressing, but I refuse to look at it that way. It is a wonderful opportunity to bring about some lasting change in my community. And don’t worry – though yields are down in my area, we harvested enough to see us through the year. Food prices at the market will be higher, but we’ll get by without too much struggling. Looking forward to the coming months, I see challenges, not obstacles. Opportunity, not disaster. Things are looking up.

Until next time,


Sunday, May 24, 2015

How to Get Around (or why to never take a private car for granted)

So it’s that time again. Another brand new, shiny, and fresh blog post from me to you. At least, that’s the plan. I am more familiar with used things from the market, so bear with me if this post has that “lived in feel” of a garage sale or St. Vincent’s.

Seeing as how so much of my time and energy here is spent figuring out, riding in, waiting for, and hoping for transport from A to B, I thought I should give you a feel for what transport is like in Malawi. Hopefully by the end you will understand why I will cry with tears of joy when I think of the time it took me 5 hours to move 30 miles on I-5. Those were the good ol’ days.

The main mode of transport in Malawi is by minibus. This may sound exciting in some vague “I don’t really know what that is, but I want to try it” way, and while that may be true at first, you quickly realize it is exciting more in a vivid “I can’t move my limbs and I’m sandwiched between a crying baby, a chicken, and a 50L bucket of usipa (similar to sardines) and a total stranger is sitting on my lap” type of way. Minibuses are vans that are a bit smaller than a 15 passenger van that we used to see in the States. Except they can carry up to 26 adults, all their katundu (luggage), and the odd baby or livestock.

Let me walk you through a day of transport. I wake up at 5:30am to the free alarm clock service provided by the plethora of roosters, goats, and cattle in my village, and roll out from under my mosquito net. I grab my 65L backpacking backpack and my bike, and I’m out the door. Tying my gate behind me in an attempt to protect the remnants of my garden, I walk over to Andrew’s to say goodbye. We have a brief exchange in Lambya when I tell him where I’m going, when I’ll be back, and to greet his family for me. If his son Justice is around, he can be found clinging to my leg or giving me repeated high fives while Andrew and I talk. It’s then over to William’s house for more goodbyes and exchanging of the daily greetings/pleasantries:

“Mwoghona William! Muli akiza? Imbombo? Mwoghona ku nyumba? Nyia pa butali, pa training pa Lilongwe apo. Inti mbuke pachinayi pamo pachisanyu. Usuala akiza nu mmulamuke ku nyumba.”
 “Good morning William! How are you? How’s work? How’s your house? I’m going far, to a training there in Lilongwe. I should return Thursday or Friday. Stay well and greet your house for me.”

Then it’s on to the 30 minute bike ride over bumpy dirt roads, sand patches, bridges I wouldn’t trust a chicken to cross safely, and the (hopefully) dried mini-lakes that form in the road after even a light rain. Threading my way through the sand traps, broken branches, puddles, and women carrying large bundles of firewood on their heads, I ride towards my trading center. The ride takes me through a few patches of forest, past fields of maize, millet, tobacco, and sunflowers, through wetlands and meadows full of chirping crickets, croaking frogs, trilling birds, and herds of lowing cattle.

Arriving in my trading center around 6am I wind my way to Mark’s house, past the line of women at to bore hole who laugh when I ride out of the bush, huge bag strapped to my back, and greet them in Lambya, past the children who either stare at me blankly, cry, or chase after me shouting “Azungu! Azungu!” (White! White!). I announce my arrival at Mark’s house with a few low calls of “Odie” (a sort of announcement of your presence, akin to knocking on a door). There is another exchange of greetings with him and his wife, and then I walk to the stage, just a pullout on the side of the tarmac.
Then the waiting game begins. And the game of luck. It is still too early for the swearing game to begin (though this game is usually a rarity. Luckily I’m a patient guy). If I’m lucky, a minibus roles by within 20 minutes of my arrival, and I somehow squeeze into it before we’re off on our way to Karonga boma, the district capital just east of Chitipa. On a good day there are 15-20 people on the minibus. On a bad day there are 25-26. Potentially more. The conductors are not afraid to sit outside the minibus, with just their legs inside, the rest of them sticking out the window. Nor are they afraid to remove the last bit of space from a bus. If you can move a limb, there is certainly room for one more person. You know those competitions they have where they pile as many people as they can into a car and whoever stays in there the longest wins the car? Imagine that, but you don’t win the car. You don’t win anything. In fact, you’re paying for it.

But lucky for me the scenery is absolutely stunning and I can easily spend the 2 hour drive lost in the wonder and beauty of the countryside. Mountains surround us left and right, with only a ribbon of tarmac winding through the green mists of Chitipa and Karonga. To the north I can see the mountains of Tanzania and I get lost in thought of what lies there – the Serengeti, Mt. Kilimanjaro, the remote, unpopulated plains and mountains that lie just north of my home. To the south I can see the beginnings of the Nyika Plateau, Malawi’s largest national park and home to rolling grasslands, large tracts of forest, herds of zebra, impala, duikers, ibex, and waterbucks, the lone panthers, packs of hyena, and troops of elephants. Bring on the cramped quarters. With views like this, I can meditate my way to peace and comfort.

We reach Karonga boma, I pay the driver the fare (about $2.50 US) and walk intently through the depot to Modest’s, a nice little restaurant right at the depot’s entrance. It’s about half 8 or 9 in the morning and I order chips mayai (a delicious, albeit oily, potato and egg dish from Tanzania). Soon after I am back in the depot, waving off the minibus drivers and conductors looking for an unwitting tourist to take slight advantage of.

“My friend! My friend! Where to?” “Hey man! Where to? The border?” “Brother! Mzuzu? Mzuzu? Lilongwe? Where to?”

I just shake my head, and move my finger in circles (like I’m stirring a drink with my index finger). 

“Ahway. Tulipo. Nafika. Tulipo. Yewo.” “No. I’m just around. I’ve arrived. I’m just around. Thanks.”

All the while I’m walking through the depot, slyly eyeing the minibuses to see where they are going (they have painted signs inside on the dash) and how full they are.  Showing too much interest only results in drawing more unwanted attention from other drivers. If there is one with about 15 people in it headed to Mzuzu, I hop in. Usually to the sighs of the other drivers and conductors who have been courting my business.

“Pepani. Ichi abuka now now.” “Sorry. This one is leaving now now.”

“Now now” means it is leaving within 10 minutes, as compared to simply “now”, which could be anywhere between 10 to 90 minutes.

Hopping in a full minibus, I cross my fingers in hopes that we hit the road soon. Karonga is blisteringly hot, even in cold season, and sweat is running down my back after just 10 minutes in the depot. And it’s only worse in a van with 15 other people and not even a hint of a breeze. Soon sweat will literally drip down behind my knees and off my nose. This place is the definition of HOT.

By 10 o’clock I’m on the road, heading south to Mzuzu, the regional capital with all the associated perks – showers (hopefully hot, usually not), all sorts of good food (Indian, Korean, Italian, bread, cheese, peppers, carrots, delicious fruit), and somewhat reliable internet. Not a day goes by that I’m not thankful I live in the northern region, but seldom am I as glad as on transport days. Malawi is roughly the size Indiana (if you exclude Lake Malawi) and has a population of about 16 million. The northern region, 1/3 of the country, only has 11% of the population. Which means that not only do I get to gaze on large stretches of forest (something you cannot see in the south due to deforestation) and I can get lost in the beauty of the land in order to keep my mind off the conditions in the minibus (crying babies, huge buckets of dried fish and their predictable smell, sacks of maize, and people who haven’t showered in quite some time), but the minibus will regularly travel for 30 minutes to an hour without stopping to let someone on or off. In the south, you are lucky if you make it 15 minutes.
If I have done a good job of choosing a minibus, I’ll arrive in Mzuzu by about 2pm or so, smelly, covered in dirt and sweat, and possibly with some spots of baby spit/throw up, some random person’s sweat, and more than likely some fishy smelling water. In short, I arrive ready for a shower. I pay the driver about $6 USD and begin the delicate dance with the depot workers, racing to grab my bag and carry it to a taxi, with the taxi drivers and bike taxis looking to take me to my destination, or other minibuses looking to take me to Nkhata Bay, Tanzania, Lilongwe, or any other place a tourist can commonly be found.

“Nafika. Yewo. Nafika. Nafika. Tulipo.” “I’ve arrived. Thanks. I’ve arrived. I’ve arrived. I’m just around.”

I walk to Joy’s Place, a lovely little hostel that I consider my home away from home away from home. On the off chance you’re ever in Malawi, I strongly recommend it. It feels like a hostel that belongs in Europe. Which you can imagine, after a few weeks in the village, feels like paradise. Electricity, amazing Korean food, toilets, running water, and wonderful, eclectic company.
The next morning, fresh from a cold shower (I now prefer cold water to hot), I make my way to the highway, drop my bag, and stand on the side of the road waving my hand (like I’m patting a dog) in an effort to get a hitch to Lilongwe. On a good day I’ll get one within 30 minutes, and by noon I’ll be in Lilongwe. Ideally it’s a free ride, but I usually end up paying about $6 USD. Never am I more conscious of my whiteness then when I am hitching. It is so much easier for me to get a hitch then for Malawians or for our African American volunteers. If I’m trying to hitch from a roadblock, I just chat with the police and they will find a ride for me. Again, this is much easier for me as a white man, as many drivers are much more likely to pick me up than a Malawian. And the police are more likely to help me find a ride, especially when they learn that I’ve been in Malawi over a year, speak Chilambya (“Ah. But that is a hard language. To my side I don’t know it. But I do know 4 other languages.”), and am an American. If there was any doubt in my mind of the privileges I have simply because I am a white, American male, they are clearly removed during days of transport.
Keep in mind that the above is a portrait of a WONDERFUL two days of travel where everything seems to fall into place. We speak of transport not in terms of distance, but in terms of time. On a good day, it takes me 8 hours to travel about 500km. On a bad day, it can take 12 hours. On a good day, I get off a minibus with all my limbs awake and not too sore. On a bad day I have multiple bruises, aches for a few days, and at least one leg is dead asleep for a good 15 minutes after I get off. On a good day, I get a hitch inside a car or in the back of a fairly empty truck. On a bad day I get a hitch in the back of a half-bed pickup with 6 other volunteers, 6 backpacking backpacks, a wheelbarrow, a few crates of sodas/beer, and a few 75L sacks of maize. On a really bad day I am in the back of a truck when it starts to downpour and I am literally soaked to the bone in a matter of minutes, rain dripping off my hair, onto my legs, and then into a puddle under my bottom/bag. I can feel the truck hydroplaning over puddles that are at least 6 inches deep, the truck shakes with each thunderclap, and we are still going 100km/hr (about 62 mph). I’m worried with how nonchalant I am with transport now. I usually just shrug my shoulders and hop on a ride that I would not touch with a 10 foot pole in the States. Nor do I flinch when the driver decides to pass a semi on a blind corner. All in a day’s work.

Until next time, usyala akiza! (Stay well!)


PS – be sure to drink a good cup of coffee, tea, hot chocolate, and/or a decent beer for me. I miss all of those like you wouldn't imagine. 

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Part 1: The funeral

It’s hard to believe that I’m sitting here now, just over halfway finished with my service. The time has just flown by. It seems like just yesterday I was getting on the plane in Seattle, excitement far outweighing the nerves. This was, I felt, a sure sign of good things headed my way and I am happy to report that this was indeed the case. I have loved (almost) every minute of my time here and even those minutes I didn’t love I at least get a kick out of now. Like the time I almost stepped on a cobra. Or the time I ran into an ox cart on my bike (reason number 235 to always use a light at night). Or the time I counted 15 adults (including me), 3 children, 4 babies, 3 chickens, 4 100L maize sacks, 3 crates of beer, a bicycle, and 5 backpacking backpacks in the back of a half-bed pickup. And found it surprisingly comfortable. Or one of the countless, unfortunate stories that involve me and scat of various animals. I seem to have bad luck in that department…
Anyway. I have decided to begin a series of blog posts, quick vignettes of what my daily life centers around. I’ve realized I haven’t actually written much in that department (or any department, really) but I’m hoping to get better in this next year. Promise.

Part 1: Funerals

Easter Monday I got up with the sun, drank coffee, read some in A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold, and worked on a 1000 piece puzzle of Van Gough’s “Starry Night.” After a quick breakfast of fruit, I wandered into my yard to begin trying to salvage what was left of my garden. It was recently the victim of a well-intentioned neighbor who tried to cut back the grass/weeds that had built up in my absence. But that’s a different story. 
As I stepped outside I greeted my neighbor and was informed that there was to be a funeral “somewhere just there, at Namasukwa’s place.” I have yet to figure out how to tell where “somewhere just there” is since it is only ever accompanied by a vague wave of the hand in one direction or other. So I asked him to collect me on his way to the funeral so that I could accompany him. This way I would not only be sure of finding the right house among the maze of footpaths but I would also be ensured of some friendly company.
 Soon enough he came over and we walked through the maize fields, discussing the merits of maize vs. sorghum and the various methods of planting millet. We soon reached Namasukwa’s, which was indeed “just there.” The women were in the courtyard, chatting, laughing, and starting to prepare the food which we would all eat after the service. The men were sitting under a mango tree in the field adjacent, and were also chatting and laughing. Walking over, I stooped low, slowly clapping my hands in greeting and shaking the hands of the old men who were nearby. Pulling pumpkin leaves off the vine as a seat, I sat down in the shade on a ridge of sweet potatoes.
Manuel began asking me questions about funerals in America. He was surprised that we will mourn together, men and women, and that the funerals are typically a few days after the death, not the next day. Our chat was interrupted by the approaching church choir, dressed in their finest white shirts, head-scarves, and chitenjes (2m bolts of fabric that are worn like a dress). The men were wearing green silk shirts and black pants. Though the song was in Timbuka so I couldn’t understand much, it was very moving. Mournful, yet still upbeat and full of hope for a better day. The song, about meeting Jesus and saying goodbye only for a short time, seemed born of the sandy soils and mottled sunshine of the Chitipa plain. The singing and dancing continued for some time, the sound of drums, dragging feet, and clapping adding something bitter-sweet to death’s soundtrack.
It had now been about two hours since I arrived, and the sun had chased the shade away. We moved into the maize field, below a Blue Gum tree, where I began fielding questions concerning all manner of modern/American things:

No, those moving stars are not witchcraft. They are satellites so that we can talk on cell phones. This is how satellites work…
Yes, we grow very much maize in America. No, we don’t eat nsima. Yes, we are still strong and do physical work. Yes, I will teach my family and friends how to cook nsima. I agree. They must know so that they can eat real food.
No, we don’t eat so much goat. We use goats mostly for milk. Momumo! (It’s true!) It makes you so strong. Even more than milk from a cow. Yes! I would be glad to teach you. (but first I must learn…)
The planes we see flying over every day (indeed, we are blessed to see them) are carrying maybe 200 people. Each person has a TV, they get tea/coffee, hot meals, and there are bathrooms. No, the bathrooms are not a hole into the sky. Don’t worry. Yes, you can walk around on them. They can fly from New York to Johannesburg without stopping and it takes 14 hours. Inditu! (Indeed!)
 No, Americans do not focus on one subject from primary school until they finish university. We have so many subjects: the biologies, the chemistries, the maths, the English, the geographies, the histories. We even learn the Spanish, French, or maybe the German. Inditu, university is very expensive. To my side I am not happy with the cost. I myself owe the government nearly 60 million kwatcha. Inditu. I must pray for God’s blessings. No, I am not worried about finding a wife with that much debt. But yes, you can come over to my house and we can pray about it together.
No, we do not learn bible studies in school. We don’t believe government should be involved with religion. That is very important to us as Americans. To our side we are still Christian, but we don’t pass laws because the bible says so. Chifukwa! (Because!) We have so many people in America. The Muslims (no, not all are bad. Some are, but so are some Christians), the Hindus, the Athiests (no, they do not hate God. That’s different…), the Buddists, etc.
Yes, the Rick Rosses, the Jay Zs, the Lil’ Waynes, the Beyonces are very much moneyed. Inditu, they mainly live in the Californias. Some maybe live in the New Yorks. No, they are not Satanists. Yes, they wear baggy clothes (or maybe skimpy clothes) but no, they are not showing they love the Devil. Yes, the bible says this is not ok. But no, we don’t throw them in jail. They have the right to choose what they wear. No, you can’t walk around in public naked in America. To my side I don’t know Chuck Norris or the Eminems.
No, we do not have roadblocks. The police cannot stop you to ask for a mineral (soda), or simply to ask you where you are going.
These questions continued for about another two hours until the drums began to beat, calling us to the grave to begin the burial. Upon reaching the grave we sat under another tree (palm this time) while the women walked by, supporting the women relatives of the deceased as they wailed and stumbled, crying and collapsing in their grief. “My brother! Oh, my brother is dead! God help him.” “Oh my god! My in-law! You are gone!” “You are with Jesus. Greet my brother and mother, my father and my sister. Greet your daughter and your wife. Great them and tell them we will meet.”
Soon the wailing stops and the service begins. There is the pastor, in his black robes and beat-up bible, yelling his sermon to be heard above the bleating of the goats, lowing of the cattle, and rustling of the wind. There is the sullen slumping sound of soil dropping onto the casket, there is the laughter as the pastor makes some joke I can’t understand. There are the women walking around taking the collection for the family. Apa 100 kwatcha. Pepani nintamyo. (Here is 100 kwatcha [equivalent of 25¢]. Sorry for your troubles.) I watch as the clouds blow over the clear blue sky, detaching themselves from the Misiku hills to be washed away, diluted, in the milky blue expanse of the plain’s roof. The wind blows, rustling the prematurely dried maize, the palm fronds, the tinder-box grass. There are the Mafinga hills, 40km away, that lit my night-time bike rides with fire like a full moon only a few short months ago. They are green now, covered with a celebratory splash of green amongst the exposed domes of rock. Funny to think how time turns, dragging the world in circles.
The men are rising now, chatting, laughing, smiling, and greeting one another. I see Green across the way, sheltered in another copse of trees, and we smile, bringing our hands together in a silent sign of respect and in greeting:
“Inditu. Nyia pa kusoba, lole nghanite pafika.” “Indeed. I have been missing, but I’m glad to have returned.”
We walk with the other men to yet another cluster of trees, mango again, where I collect one bowl of nsima and one of inyani (relish – beans and pumpkin leaves). I wander through the crowds, searching for a gathering of men which does not yet have food.
“Mwana wane! Muvyara! Ubaba wacko. Apo.” “My child! My brother! Your father. Over there” directing me to a group of old men squatting under the shade of the mango tree my story began under. Everything is circular if you have the right perspective.
I return for more food and find yet another cluster of men who have not yet received their meal of sorrow. I join them, grabbing bits of nsima from the same bowl, rolling it into a ball and flattening it slightly with my thumb. We dip it into the same bowl of inyani, pinching it between our thumbs and the flattened ball of nsima. I never feel as connected to my community as eating from a communal bowl with my hands. There is something so personal and intimate about it that cannot be matched in any other way. For this moment, I am a member of the community. Not a guest, not a visitor, not a Peace Corpsi. But a true African. A true Malawian. A true Lambyan. A true friend.

I return home with William and Andrew, having eaten and chatted, smiled and laughed, cried and mourned. It is now a good six hours after Andrew collected me at my house, and the funeral meal is still in full swing. As I leave, I can’t help but think this is living. And I draw circles in my mind.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

"Give me my snaps!"

A little Thanksgiving treat for you! Enjoy these few pictures from training and first arriving at site up in Chitipa (in the far NW corner of the country, in case you've forgotten. I certainly would have if I wasn't reminded how far out it is every time I want to leave my district...). Oh, and "snaps" are what Malawians call photos :)

Climbing mountains near my site

Getting ready to leave for our swearing in ceremony. (Amy, Ian, Kelsey, Kelly)

Off to the Ambassador's house to become official PCVs! 

My homestay family. My amayi (mom) Daina, asisi (sister) Jackie (look at that face!) and abambo (dad) James

One of my fellow Washingtonians. 

Your newly minted Malawi PCVs

Moving to site. If you look, you'll see my two other Chitipa vols in the back. Buried beneath our survival gear

Killing time during training
Lake Malawi!!!

My bedroom (pre bed-frame) 

Living room

"Kitchen," basically a glorified pantry

My back yard. My real kitchen is on the left

You won't see this on Google street view...

I had to throw in a selfie for good measure

Nyumba wane nymba wako (My house is your house). The door is always open.

Monday, November 17, 2014

There is a Beauty in This

Hey all!

I'm not sure who even checks this thing any more since I haven't found the time, energy, and ability to upload a blog entry in a few months. Finding all three at the same time often proves as elusive as Sasquatch, which, being a Washingtonian, I am well acquainted with. So sorry for the long delay. In order to show you how truly sorry I am, here is a brand new blog post from me to you. Enjoy!

Looking over my last blog post, it seems I have a TON of catching up to do. So I'll cover some of the day-to-day things that my life dances around, as well as the few outings I make into the more pell-mell world of cities, trainings, parties, and modernity.

A few months ago I had a two week training in Lilongwe, which was the first time our cohort had been together since we were sworn in as PCVs back in May. There are now 34 of us remaining in Malawi, having lost three PCVs in the intervening months (you guys will be missed!). It was great to see everybody and share our experiences, advice, and laugh at all our silly shenanigans we've gotten into since moving to site. There were countless conversations concerning the most embarrassing thing that has happened to us in village, as well as numerous stories involving chims (outhouses), goats, iwes (literally "you," but the term we use to refer to kids), food, and transport. Some of the more unfortunate stories included at least two of the above topics. The more unfortunate the story, the more excited we were to share it with one another and the more laughter and tears it unleashed. Because the majority of these stories are either not exactly in keeping with what I'd like my blog to represent, I won't repeat them here. But suffice it to say that we all have had our fair share of babies urinating on us or our luggage during transport, animals in the house (goats, monkeys, rats, etc.), or unfortunate chim accidents (see my previous blog entry for one such example). And then there was the infamous story of a scorpion in someone's underwear. Most definitely one of those stories that is ONLY funny in retrospect.

But back to the training. We learned a lot about conservation agriculture, permaculture, and intercropping. All three topics are interrelated, but given to the tendency for villages to be slow to embrace new techniques/ideas, we tackle these three subjects as independent projects. Ideally, by the time we COS (finish service) these projects will have merged, but we've got to start small while thinking big. One of the most beneficial sessions we had was with an American couple who have been working in Malawi since they finished their stint as PCVs here 17 years ago. They promote permaculture and food security/diversity which is a HUGE challenge in an agricultural climate centered around maize. Many of the traditional crops such as sorghum, millet, and local fruits and vegetables have become stigmatized in the past century. Sorghum and millet, once the main crops cultivated in Malawi, are now thought of as a poor man's food even though they require much fewer artificial inputs and are more drought resistant. I am working with my counterpart, a wonderful woman named Tuse, on starting a demonstration garden near my village which we'll use in permaculture trainings. In a nutshell, permaculture is a method of farming/gardening which requires no artificial inputs, little weeding, minimum tilling, crop rotation, and planting complementary crops together. I'll keep you posted on our progress. We are currently awaiting the rainy season which should start in a few weeks.

I'm slowly getting a few other programs started, though most of these are still in the organizing stage of development. Women in my village and the surrounding area are interested in starting a bakery group and there are at least a few folks in my trading center interested in starting a mushroom IGA (Income Generating Activity) so they can sell mushrooms when they are out of season. Mango season is also starting to take off and with the sheer number of mango trees we have, there is no way they will all get eaten. Which means there is a huge potential for food preservation trainings to teach Malawians how to sun dry mangoes as well as other fruits such as bananas, oranges, and tomatoes to name a few. I'm excited to see where these projects go!

I would bet that you're wondering what it is I've been doing these past eight months if I'm still talking about projects that I'm hoping to get off the ground. I have struggled with this myself the past few months. The first four months at site (from May until the training in September) was designated as time to get to know our communities, surroundings, making personal connections, and integrating. I held a few meetings during these months and attended a few others, but I mainly spend my time forming connections and relationships with the people in my village and catchment area.

Though not often, I have certainly found myself wondering why the heck I'm here and what impact I could possibly have in helping develop a country such as Malawi. Opening this mental can of worms used to send me into a bit of an existential crisis as I would wrestle with the very realistic fears that any programs I got started (such as a bakery or mushroom IGA) will likely collapse as soon as I COS in 2016. Any trainings or meetings I hold usually start in a thick fog of folks asking for money, supplies, or, at the very least, some sodas and snacks. There's not much more demoralizing than trying to work with people when their only motivation for showing up in the first place was to get some money or food. But if there is one think you learn in Peace Corps, it's how to take this huge challenge and work with it, shaping your desires to it and shaping it to your desires. There is a beauty in this that cannot be described, like the beauty in a poem or a painting or the turning of a phrase. Finding this beauty is what makes continuing service worthwhile. Otherwise the days become tedious with the daily chores of sweeping, drawing water, chasing goats out of the garden, and starting fires.

 I struggle with the desire to start huge, sweeping programs that will benefit the whole communities and the knowledge that the most successful programs will be the ones for which I am sought out in my community. Unless the people I'm working with are motivated and ready to implement these ideas into their daily lives and farming techniques, my projects will have an extremely limited impact. So I wait, searching for the few individuals in my catchment that are ready and willing to take the leap. The day I came to terms with this, the day I scaled my ambitions to my environment, was the day I knew without a doubt that I could finish my service as a PCV and be content in what I had accomplished. There is a reason PC is still promoting the same projects and interventions that we were 50 years ago. Change is slow. It happens one person at a time, and we tend to lose sight of that in America where change can happen in one breaking news story, one discovery, one idea. If I leave Malawi having impacted just one person, I will be extremely happy. Make an impact on just one person, and when others in the community are ready, they will have the knowledge at hand.

I'm sorry for the rambling, scatter-brained couple of paragraphs. I'm still struggling with how to put these thoughts and feelings into words that translate beyond the PCV community. There are knowing looks, black-humor jokes, and frustrations which encompass these struggles, but it hard to put these in a blog post.

I'm gonna sign off for now, but I'll hopefully get another post uploaded soon. I'm going to try a new strategy where I write the posts offline, and then upload them later. We'll see how that goes.

In the mean time, happy Thanksgiving! I'll be sending you all warm thoughts on T-day from Dedza, just south of Lilongwe where I'll be living it up in a hostel and, wait for it, using charcoal! A huge improvement from smokey 3-stone  fire. There is also some ancient rock art in the area, so I'll be on the hunt for that.

Miss you all.


Monday, June 16, 2014

Ah ha ha ha Stayin' Alive!

Hey all!

I know you had probably given up hope of ever hearing from me, or had written me off for dead, or thought I was lost in the wilds of Africa. Some of you may even have felt no small relief at the thought. But worry not! I'm safe and sound in Malawi, enjoying the "cool" season (though the days are still getting up to the mid 80s) and my village is great! Although I certainly miss everyone back home, I'm having a great time here and have made some FANTASTIC friends, both Malawian (shout out to William and Tuse) and American (that's you, Ian, Kelsey, Anna, and Amy!).

A lot has happened in the past three months, so I'll try to just cover some of the highlights.

My staging in Philly was great and I felt at home right away with my cohort. I was just reading over my last post, where I mentioned I was more nervous to meet my cohort than to fly to Malawi. I couldn't have been more spot on! Once I met everyone, I was overcome with a feeling of "I can do this!" There are 37 of us, 16 health volunteers and 21 environment volunteers. We all got really close during PST (Pre-Service Training) and not one of us has returned stateside yet! From what I've gathered, that doesn't happen all that frequently.

The flights to Malawi went smoothly (apart from a power outage at Johannesburg Int'l Airport), though they are all a blur. Getting on a plane has never been easier (thanks to the folks I was getting on with) or harder (thanks to the folks I was leaving behind for the next two years). After a few days in the capital, Lilongwe, it was north to Kasungu District for our two month homestay and training.

My homestay family was great, and I was lucky in that they spoke a few words in English. Between that, my few words in Chichewa, and olypmic-level charades, we were able to get by. My abambo (dad) was 24, my amayi (mom) was 21, and my asisi (sister) was 11 months. There was a 9 year old girl (my cousin? I was never clear on who she was) also lived with us and helped out around the house. Though she was nine, she was only in standard one, the equivalent of first grade. I lived in a little annex (I was later informed by my abambo that it was to be called the "boys quarters") which was maybe 6' x 6' and just big enough for my bed, duffel, water filter, and a little room for standing. I had a thatch roof, mud floor, and white-washed walls so the fact that my house now has cement floors and a tin room means I'm living in STYLE!

Training was pretty uneventful, though the days were packed (up at 5:30, in class till 5pm with hardly a break). We learned about compost, conservation agriculture, agroforestry, improved cookstoves, tree nurseries, and bee keeping, among other things. As an environment PCV my job is to promote these and other activities as a low/no-cost intervention to reduce poverty and promote conservation in my village and the surrounding area. We all swore in as official PCVs in early May at the US Ambassador's house in Lilongwe. And so began the next 24 months as a PCV in Malawi. What a rush!

My site is in NW Malawi in Chitipa District. I am located just east of Chitipa (the district capital) and about 10-15km from the one (and only) paved road in the entire district. My house is pretty big and surprisingly nice - all the walls are plastered, I have a porch, and and tin roof. Boo ya! Chitipa is sandwiched between Zambia to the west and south and Tanzania to the north. I can see Tanzania from my house and am pretty close to Zambia too (maybe just 20 miles?).

These first three months at site (June-August) I am not starting any projects but will just be focusing on integration and learning Chilambya, the language spoken in my village. My language is improving "panandi panandi" (lambya for "little by little") and though I still can't speak much, I can notice my comprehension improving on a daily basis. This has the downside that I can now understand what the villagers are saying about me (while I'm in the room, mind you) but I am unable to correct any of their (many) misconceptions. Ah well. I guess it's ok if they think I'm related to Bill Gates for just a while longer. But the idea that Justin Bieber is my brother needs to be corrected ASAP.

My village is pretty small, consisting of just a handful of houses, a bar, and a primary school (K-8). The surrounding area is full of farms though, so there are a number of folks in and out of the village every day. Meru is too small for a market, so I make the 10-15km trek once a week to buy my fruits and veggies for the week. Right now passion fruit, avocados, bananas, and grapefruits are in season and papayas are just about ready!

Which brings me to the food. The staple crop in Malawi is corn and the main dish (ie 2x per day) is nsima (water and corn flour) which is eaten by hand with a side of greens, eggs, beans, or meat. The sides are all drenched in oil (during homestay we were going through 20 fl oz of oil every week!) and super salty. Though at first I wasn't a fan, it has begun to grow on me. I'm still wondering at how that can be, as the meal is devoid of nearly all flavor except for salt, which is sometimes so much that I can hardly hold down a salt-induced cough. Good stuff. I'm sure you're all super excited to come visit me now! On the upside, I've gotten pretty good at cooking over an open fire, so I can treat you to a good, low oil/low sodium/high flavor meal!

And now for a few fun stories! I know that's what you've all been wanting, and I aim not to disappoint.

Story #1: Adventures in the Chim

"Chim," or bathroom, disguises the horror of these nasty little pit latrines. First, they are home to all sorts of nasty/unwanted critters. Like cockroaches (no surprise, but still). I once made the mistake of shining my headlamp into the hole and saw a nasty squirming mess of worms. Gross! That really made me appreciate flush toilets, that's for sure. But now for the best one of all! There are bats which sometimes fly into the pit (or live there? I'm unsure) and feed on the various flying insects that can be found there. My first night at my house I was suffering from an upset stomach (among other things) and as I was squatting over the pit I heard a fluttering sound followed by something furry brushing my, er, bottom. That is as close as I ever want to get to a bat (or any other animal). Actually, that was much closer than I ever had a desire to be, and I hope never to repeat it. Again, thank goodness for flush toilet! [Note: There is more to that story, but it's as far as I'll take it without risking an over-share!]

Story #2: Injokas - No laughing matter

A few weeks ago I walked into my bafa (shower, which means 3 walls, and a cement disk for me to stand on as I bucket bathe) I turned the corner and saw a long gray thing slithering on the ground. "Oh! It's a snake!" was my fist thought, followed quickly by "I'd better leave. There are lots of dangerous snakes in these parts." No sooner had I thought that and begun to back up than the snake raised up a good 3' off the ground and flared its hood. "Oh %*#@! A cobra!" was all I could think as I hightailed it back to my house. I then proceeded to sit in my house for about an hour, trying to determine if it really happened or if I was beginning to have daytime hallucinations (courtesy of my anti-malarial meds). I saw one again a few days later as I was chatting with my village friends, and was informed that it was a black mamba. Definitely not a snake to mess with! Oh yeah, "injoka" is chichewa for "snake." The title probably makes a bit more sense now :)

I think that's about it for now, but I'll hopefully be able to write more soon! One fun final image to leave you with: Picture 26 people plus two babies cramming into a 15 passenger van and then beginning a 5 hour road trip. That's Malawian travel in a nutshell (quite literally!). But if you are planning on visiting, rest assured knowing that there are actual buses to take.

PS - Thanks to all of you who have written me letters! They have been (and continue to be) a great escape back to America and my friends and family. They've certainly helped me through some tough days. Keep 'em coming! And Dave and Diane, I just got your letter today (though I haven't read it yet). Our letters must have crossed paths in the mail! Keep your eyes posted these next few weeks.

PPS - I have a NEW mailing address!

          Dylan Cottrell, PCV
          Box 51
    (It's also been updated on my "Talk to me!!" page)