Saturday, February 21, 2009


On Sunday Jes and I attended the sports tournament between Gracious Secondary School (our school), and Mangochi Private School. Jes is our school’s sports patron. Although the title sounds like she should be a saint or muse of some sort, it means that she is the girls coach. I find this particularly funny because I don’t think Jes has played organized sports, ever. We arrived at 2:00pm, the scheduled start time of the games. An hour later the coach of the competing team showed up and asks where our players were. Jes could have just as fairly asked where his players were, since after what should have been an hour of playtime, no one from either team had arrived. Turns out the students had had a hard time finding transportation to the venue, a dirt field that is just far enough away from both schools to preclude the possibility of walking. The school had tried to arrange transportation, but had tried to charge students for the privilege, with little success. At about 3:30pm students started to trickle in. At 3:45pm enough students had arrived to start a healthy game, in my opinion. At 4:00pm I ask why Jes and the other sports patrons weren’t whipping up some frenzied competition. I was told that the girl selected to bring the girls’ uniforms was also selected not to play, so had decided that bringing the skirts was no longer in her best interests. As the girl struck off to get the uniforms, the remaining girls started playing in their shirts and underwear, knee length skirts that, as far as I could tell, look just about the same as their uniforms. At our school the boys play soccer and the girls play netball. Netball is like basketball except it is played outside, on a dirt court, and there is no running with or dribbling the ball allowed. Imagine a cross between Ultimate Frisbee and basketball. The result is thoroughly entertaining, and I soon found myself standing enthusiastically on the sidelines. The heat was blistering, and while I was drowning in my own sweat, the players seemed barely to be breaking one. A good effort was brought by both sides, but I am happy to report that the Gracious Girls (as I like to call them) trounced the ladies from Mangochi Private. The boys’ game was also entertaining, but anyone familiar with soccer (or football as everyone here calls it) would have a pretty good idea of what transpired. I am not sure who won the boys soccer game because Jes and left early due to mild heat exhaustion. When I enquired the next day at school as to who had been the victor, nobody seemed quite sure. It seems that in the absence of a scoreboard, the actual results of the game had been lost in the excitement. However, I am unsure if I had asked the boys from Mangochi Private whether they would have been stricken by the same, enthusiasm enduced, amnesia.

Ruth and Tom came over the other day for pizza and introduced Jes and I to neighbors we didn’t know existed. A two minutes walk past corn fields and chicken coops leads you to the house of Ayub and Hote, two afghan refugees that settled here just two years ago. As we approached the house we announced our presence with the traditional saying “Odi odi.” At the door we were met by the type of people who are so hospitable is makes you almost feel guilty…almost. In seconds we were seated in their living room and brought beers and Afghan snacks. I had just eaten dinner, but was happy to avail myself with food that was not beans and rice. Ayub is involved with the NGO, Solice International, which has done work in Malawi, and specifically, with MCV. Ayub and Hote were concerned about raising their five daughters around the Taliban, and, after the violence of the US occupation, decided it was time to leave. This weekend we all got together at Ruth and Tom’s house. Ayub’s Afghan friend, Dr. Ayub, also came because he was in the area doing cholera clinics with MSF (Doctors without Boarders). The irony of Jesse introducing Jes to Ayub, and Ayub introducing Aub to Jes, was lost on no one. Dr. Ayub has been with MSF for 15 years and was fascinating to talk to, having worked in over 10 countries all over Africa. His wife and children also came and many a joke was made about it being the largest peaceful Afghan-American gathering for thousands of miles.

Speaking of neighbors, Jes and I took one in as a roommate last week. Her name is Pus, and she is a black cat we stole from the storage building across the street with the hopes that she might enjoy the company of rats. Since I arrived in Malawi I have been waging a silent war against the colony of rats that lives in our roof. Well, my efforts have been silent, theirs have not. I am regularly kept up at night listening to the army of rats knock dishes off the counter, engages in noisy territorial disputes, and, perhaps worst of all, gnaw an ever growing hole into our food cupboard. After an extensive survey of the rat poop left on all cooking and eating surfaces, I can accurately conclude that the population must stand near 700 healthy individuals. The rats show no trepidation; the other night I was awoken to the sounds of one pulling my cash/passport fanny pack back to his nest (seriously, he got it all the way up the bookshelf and was beginning up the wall with it before he was discovered). Last week I bought a trap, but after a rather unpleasant episode, decided an alternative was needed. Enter Pus; the moment we kidnapped her she perked up her ears and ran around the house sniffing everything. She obviously had never seen a house supporting this much prey. Moments after the lights went out I heard the familiar scurry of rat feet, followed by a squeak and the sounds of Pus exercising her hunting prowess. Ah, bless the circle of life; I am blasting the Lion King theme song as I write this.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

more pictures

jes with kayak
from our tent
me snorkling

our house


me grading papers
teachers playing computer games

my class
Jes with the dog
sorry no video as promised, it was too big

Sickness and Health

Hello Everyone,

Life in Malawi has been interesting as always. I got sick last week with a high fever but thankfully the Malaria test was negative. The director of the NGO is a Health Officer (the Malawian equivalent of an MD) and his wife is a nurse so I was well cared for. The clinic is just across the street and I while I was hobbling towards the clinic, Hope (the nurse) stuck her head out the door told me to go back home and rest. I obeyed, and within an hour I was paid a house call by the director and his wife; talk about good care. Sibale (the director) is quite gregarious, and after the Malaria test came back negative, started walking around the house in good spirits slapping me on the back and saying, “Ahhh, don’t worry, you will be fine; you’ll be back on your feet any day!” I missed several days of school, and since there is such a shortage of teachers, my students went without class. Sickness here is common and students are used to cancelled classes. There is usually at least one teacher out sick, and although there is a gamut of diseases, often Malaria is the culprit. The other day a teacher friend of mine looked a little weary and I enquired as to his condition, he responded, “I am doing well, I just have a little bout of Malaria.” I had always pictured Malaria as a horrible and exotic disease, the type that leaves you gasping for breath on your deathbed. However, for a healthy individual with access to medication (malaria meds are easily accessible in this region of Malawi), Malaria is far less severe but far more disruptive than I had previously imagined. Picture the entire US population with a chronic disease that incapacitates individuals for weeks out of the year and you will have an idea of Malaria’s impact. And this is the impact on the healthy portion of the population. If you combine Malaria with rampant malnutrition and a 30% HIV infection rate the problem is compounded.

Tom and Ruth (the people from whom we learned about MCV) arrived last week along with several medical students from the States. We all had dinner at Ruth and Tom’s house last Friday and had a great time (it was the largest gathering of white people I have seen in some time). Their house is right on the lake and the waves were so big you could almost body surf. After hearing numerous stories about burnt out and jaded medical students it was refreshing to meet a group that were so excited about the medical profession, and for all the right reasonJ The group has been running clinics at the nursery and I have been joining them after my classes. The experience has been both uplifting and sobering. The nursery conveys a good feeling the moment you enter the door. The caretakers are fantastic and the children are well loved and cared for. That said, an afternoon working with sick children receiving inadequate care can be taxing. Several of the children are HIV positive, but don’t yet qualify for antiretroviral drugs because they aren’t sick enough. Malawi got access to AIDS drugs several years ago through the World Health Organization yet the stigma of AIDS here is so strong that many people don’t go to the ARV Clinic for treatment. As the product of the US HIV/AIDS education system, the amount of disinformation here came as quite a shock. Many people still aren’t clear on what AIDS is or exactly how it is spread. I have not heard a single person mention AIDS since I got here (aside from in the clinics), and as such the epidemic is nearly invisible. As an outsider, if you avoided clinics and hospitals, I am fairly confident you would have no idea AIDS was an issue in the area. People who are sick stay home, and since an individual’s HIV status is private, the only indicator of the epidemic is an unusually large number of coffin makers. Disease aside though, the babies in the nursery are still babies; they still burp and smile when you hold them, and most are quite cute. Jes has now become jealous and is demanding I take her along so she can play with the babies too.

            This weekend Jes and I escaped from school (we normally have school on Saturdays for a half day) and visited a gorgeous area called Cape Maclear. Other teachers have been telling us for weeks that we need to pay this little gem a visit. It is only 60km away, but any distance of travel in Malawi is interesting. We were planning on taking matolas (see previous post) the whole way but we ended up getting picked up by a Malawian music producer who was driving from Blantyre (biggest city) to his home village. I am not sure why he picked us up; Jes and I must have looked pathetic on the side of the road. He could only take us part of the way because he was almost home; nevertheless, it was an interesting leg of the journey. His company recorded local Malawian bands, several of which we got to sample on his car stereo. We asked if he wanted any money for gas, but he responded, “life has been good to me, please give your money to the poor”. The second person to pick us up was an Italian contractor who had lived in Malawi for nearly a year. His company was doing the construction on the road we have been witnessing for the past month. His wife was with him for the first six months but then had to go back to Italy. He said that he missed Italy, but really enjoyed living in Malawi. He left us at the junction to Cape Maclear. Figuring that our luck with free rides had run out, we sat down next to the road and waited dutifully for a matola. To our surprise a SUV rounded the corner with stickers proclaiming it to be associated with the “Icelandic Group,” whatever that is. Inside, was a very nice Icelandic man who gave us a ride the rest of the way. He was working for an Icelandic NGO that was doing work with sanitation and education. He was quite well traveled and prided himself on having been to 25 states.

            Finally in Cape Maclear (actually the trip only took an hour and a half), we quickly went about locating a resort which had tents, also known as a resort which is cheap. The guests were either young like us, or old with “hippie hair;” two groups which I can only presume prefer what the Lonely Planet likes to call, “budget accommodations.”

            Cape Maclear is an odd fusion of tourism and village life. When most spots are, “discovered,” tourism pushes out the locals until the only traditional life which remains exists solely for exhibition and profit. For the most part, this is not the case with Cape Maclear. A corner of the village is scattered with a handful of resorts, leaving most of the town an actual fishing village. If you travel more than 100 meters from the resorts, western products become unavailable and English becomes rare. Sure, some cultural exhibition existed; several men approached Jes and I trying to sell us a “traditional” Malawian meal for 1500 kwatcha (10 dollars). He said that if we visited Malawi we should eat Malawi style. I said that we normally paid 50 cents for our traditional Malawian meals and that if he came down to that price we might consider it. He seemed to think this was funny, but after realizing that we really weren’t going to pay that much, left us alone. I was personally glad that he hadn’t been willing to match our price, since Jes and I had been eating traditionally for the last month and were really in the mood for something that wasn’t beans with corn mush. All heckling aside, I got the impression that the village would go on existing in about the same manor if all the tourism decided to pack up and leave. 

            Cape Maclear was beautiful; Jes and I rented a Kayak and paddled around exploring the many islands in the bay. Check out the pictures and the video.

            For everyone who keeps asking me to send pictures, I finally started taking some. I am posting pictures from school and Cape Maclear. The hut is a picture of our house, and the class pictures are my form 1 and form 2 students. The dog is a recent acquisition that started hanging around after we put some chicken scraps in the garbage. After a little chicken skin the dog was completely devoted to us. The picture of the water and the island is from the resort we stayed in. The pictures of the fishing canoes are fisherman we ran into while paddling around. 

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Adjusting to Africa

Happy inauguration day! Okay, so this will likely be sent out some time after the inauguration, but everyone was quite excited about the event in Malawi. Several teachers and I caught a ride to a local resort to watch the inauguration on CNN. I always wonder how organizers decide when to hold large events. I know that most of the popular sports at the Olympics were held at obscure hours in Beijing so that they could be broadcast live for prime time in America. If America was considered the target audience for the Olympics, then Africa must have been the target audience for the inauguration; in Malawi we enjoyed live coverage at 6pm. With good reason, I suspect that Barack Obama is far more popular here than he is in America. All you hear is Obama this and Obama that. When people hear that I voted for Obama they get really excited. I get the distinct feeling that most people think that American politics impacts their lives about as much as Malawian politics, and alas they get only one vote. Oddly enough, I may get two votes. The election is around the corner in Malawi and people keep asking me if I am going to vote. I figured that voting would be out of the question since I am not a citizen; however, when I raise this point to Malawians, they shrug it off as if to say, “more questionable things have happened.”

            Jes and I stick out around here like a sore thumb, so people are quickly realizing and adjusting to our presence. Many people now know our names and we see many friends on the road now. Many students live within a mile or two of the school and upon the frequent roadside meeting I feel at an inherent disadvantage. If I am lucky they will say, “Sir, Sir,” at least informing me that they are a student. If they are in my classes I also have a chance, but most of time my standard greeting is met with, “I go to Gracious (the school), I am in Form X, we met during the X event, do you remember?” Most of the time, in an effort to be polite I say, “oh, I remember now,” but in reality if the student is not in one of my classes the odds of me remembering a face out of hundreds is on par with me passing on an opportunity to buy mangos.

We usually go into town on weekends to buy supplies we can’t get from local farmers. We travel the 10km trek in a matola, a form of public transport which involves as many people as possible cramming into the back of a compact pickup truck. I counted 23 in the back this weekend and I imagine there were several more in the front. We got stopped at a police checkpoint because the drivers hadn’t paid to update their permit. Apparently all you need to carry a dangerous number of people in your dilapidated pickup is a permit. The police could have cared less that the truck was packed to the breaking point, since I am pretty sure I saw one or two people approach the truck, haggle a fare, and board, all while the drivers were arguing with the police. After a lot of shouting between the police and the drivers, and a lot of laughing by everyone in the truck (the riders seemed to think it was pretty funny), we were allowed to go on our way. On the return trip someone was trying to rip us off, but thankfully a friend from MCV happened to be on the truck and yelled at the person that we were volunteering at MCV and to leave us alone.

            Jes and I attended the local church today. One of the men who works security at MCV is the chairman and invited us to visit. The sermon was in the native language, but all in all it was pretty fun because the singing was so phenomenal. Malawians sure know how to sing, I don’t think I have met anyone yet who can’t keep a tune and sing harmony. The congregation was as good as any church choir in the United States, at times singing in several parts, all in perfect harmony. It is interesting how Christianity has been intermixed with local culture. Most prayers and speaking parts are sung in a call and response manor; quite a fun way of doing things. Jes and I have a church invite for next week too, but the church is some distance away and I am skeptical whether we can make it.

            The religious situation here seems peculiar from an outsider’s perspective, but the locals manage it just fine. Malawi was and is the land of missionaries and there is so much religious variety here it seems almost crowded. After classes the other day students were meeting in their religious clubs and I saw a frazzled teacher running down the halls grabbing students and asking, “what religion are you?” At the school’s opening ceremony this Saturday each religion was given a chance to sing and it took three hours. I must admit it was quite fun, whether it be Islam or Christianity, everyone is given a voice and each voice is given a Malawian twist.

            I apologize for the lack of pictures this week. I keep trying to bring a camera with me but I always forget. If my resolution improves, hopefully next post will have pictures from Monkey Bay. It is a resort destination about an hour away where Jes and I have been trying to visit to try the famous freshwater snorkeling.