Wednesday, February 11, 2009

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. 


  1. Great pictures, I finally found Je's blog too. Nice to get hr perspective. Mom

  2. Hey, Jesse. I love your blog so far and thought I would recommend a book for you based off this post. "Smile When You're Lying" by Chuck Thompson. He's a travel writer who put the best stories he's never been able to publish into a book and he talkes about the rule your trip to the cape is an exception to. Anyway, I've been meaning to send a letter so I'll try to get on that soon. All the best, and say hi to Jes for me too.
    Miss you guys.