Saturday, March 28, 2009


Children in the neighboring village

A toddler investigating the camera

A nice hut. Its door and good roof are what make it a step above average.

Another house across the street. Most people build their own houses out of mud bricks. If you have money you can buy metal for the roof, otherwise it is thatch.

A very large bug we found on our frying pan handle while we were cooking dinner

Friday, March 20, 2009

Funny Stories

I usually write blogs in a piecemeal fashion and have several going at once. There is always some small segment that really doesn't belong with the rest of the post so gets stored for future use. I don’t know if some of the things I write will ever see the light of day, but I do know that some are just too funny to let die. Here is a collection of short stories from the past several months.

The Undead Lizard
I awoke to a rather comical situation today. I was lying in bed, enjoying the last few minutes of the snooze setting before it would be replaced with offensive ringing noises, when I hear a concerned voice from the bathroom. “There is a dead lizard in the tub.” This is not what I wanted to hear at six o’clock in the morning. It wasn’t the lizard that bothered me; it was more the tone Jes used to convey the information. From the short sentence I gathered three things. Number one; there was a dead lizard in the tub. Number, two, Jes was not happy about the lizard in the tub. And number three; Jes had no intention of dealing with it, except that is to wakeup her boyfriend and make him fix the, “situation.” Before I could begin carrying out my manly duty, I heard an exclamation from the bathroom, “IT’S NOT DEAD! IT’S NOT DEAD!” I never saw the lizard, but it could have ranged in size from one centimeter to half a meter. There is one, particularly large lizard, which has taken to sunning himself on the dirt patch in front of our door. The lizards are everywhere, and one cannot walk more than a few paces without seeing them scurry for cover. The lizards are quite prone to loosing their tails, so it is not uncommon to see one awkwardly running away, thrashing its butt excessively, in attempts to compensate for its missing latter half.

A Bicycle for Two
Austin (a friend of ours) was kind enough to lend Jes and I a bike during our time here. It was in slight disrepair, but after a short visit to the very capable bike mechanic down the road we were zooming around, gleefully covering distances unheard of on foot. We had a back carrier made (a robust seat over the back wheel) for the bike so that Jes and I could both ride. By this I mean that I pedal and Jes sits on the back. This is quite common in Malawi, and one frequently sees bike taxies shuttling people down the road. Most Azungus (white people) in Malawi own cars and are not often seen on bike taxis, and certainly not in the petal position. As such, Jes and I provide a good bit of comic relief to people as we pedal down the road. I have taken to saying, “you transport now, good price, good price,” as Jes approaches the bike.” I also frequently demand money upon arrival. Occasionally, Jes will play along and hand me 50 Kwacha (33 cents). This always evokes big laughs from people nearby.

Annoying Flies
Today in class I was giving a lecture on gas laws and noticed several male students staring at me intently while sitting spread eagled stroking their crotch. I thought this was a bit odd. It wasn’t until one student caught my eye and then quickly looked down that I glanced down to find my zipper hanging wide open. I laughed a little and quickly zipped up, at which point the crotch stroking boys let out loud sighs, as if to say, mission accomplished, while everyone else broken into tumultuous applause.

Probably the Best Story Ever
Jes and I frequent a rather dilapidated resort just down the road from MCV. Mulangeni, as it is called, was once a respected upscale establishment, but is now so rundown that Jes and I are commonly the only guests. Paint is peeling everywhere and crumbling cement buildings scatter the compound, looking more like forgotten bomb shelters than luxury accommodations. Still, the food is cheap, and a quiet respite is just what is needed after a busy week of teaching. The slogan for the resort is, “Simply the best of lake Malawi.” One can see the slogan plastered, in peeling paint, everywhere. Jes and I always found the presumptuous slogan a bit funny given the state of the resort; the management it seems, agreed. On our most recent escapade we found that the old slogan had been replace by a new one, “Probably the best of Lake Malawi.” I kid you not. Jes and I could not stop laughing.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Entertainment Economics

If you venture into a larger village or town in Malawi there are a number of things you will inevitably see. There will be a market, usually a bustling dusty road lined with a smattering of small stands selling anything from maize to cell phones. What exactly people choose to sell in their shops is sometimes comical. The other day I saw a shop specializing in fabric and bicycle parts right next to a payphone which had a sign that read, “Praise the almighty GOD phone booth.” A section of the marked usually focuses on food, but as should be apparent from the previous examples, there is no hard-fast rule dictating where food should be sold. There is also usually a hardware section of the market which has a remarkable variety of merchandise if you are prepared to search for it.
The standard size shop is around 10ft2, filled from floor to ceiling with shelving on which a prodigious amount of “stuff” is stored. The amount of products stored in just one of these shops could easily fill a large convenience store. The efficiency of not stocking 20 iterations of the same product is huge. Not only can you usually find what you need after visiting two adjacent shops (people always refer you to their neighbor if they do not have what you are looking for), but the simplicity of the supply chain allows for considerable reuse.
For example, in Malawi there are four main bottled drinks: Fanta, Carlsburge Beer, Sprite, and Coca-Cola. Each has a distinct bottle, which after use, can be returned to be washed and refilled. Because the bottles are reused instead of recycled, a generous deposit of 25 cents is possible, and insures that all bottles are returned. Some bottled are so old that they are partly ghosted and resemble beach glass.
At first glance most shops appear to be selling locally grown/produced products, and have hand tied baggies of oil, or mounds of salt and flour heaped high on woven mats. Closer inspection, however, reveals a curious economy. Most people in Malawi are so poor that a bottle of oil, or a box of salt, the kinds of which Americans regularly buy on a visit to the grocery store, are prohibitively expensive. As such, small shops buy these commodities, break open the container, and sell the contents in smaller proportions after a modest markup. Some products the shop owners are able to get at bulk rates and thus sell at good prices. One must be weary though, since often times the shops are just reselling something they bought from the nearest brick and mortar grocery store at hiked up prices. I recently saw a shop owner opening a can of powered milk (the exact brand Jes and I just bought) and adding it to a large heap. The price was nearly double. Many poor Malawians are either to poor to buy the proportions at the grocery store, or as is often the case, live too far away. Since larger stores are located in larger towns, rural Malawians get hosed.
On a quick jaunt through a local market you will also find a plethora of video theaters. At first I was very surprised that movie theaters could be found in such abundance. However, after venturing into one such, “theater,” my confusion was resolved. I was met with a dark room, at the end of which was a wooden crate with an old 29inch television on top. For 40 kwatcha (25 cents), you can sit on the floor and watch a South African soap or a football game. The fee pays for the electricity, the satellite dish (very limited broadcast offerings in Malawai), and the darkened venue. Very few Malawians own televisions, so just as businesses exist to share cars, businesses exist to share televisions. Seeing these movie theaters gave me an idea. I had noticed several weeks ago that MCV has an old inFocus projector they use in the computer lab. I brought several movies on my computer, and after a little searching, easily procured a speaker setup.
I announced the showing of the movie during a school assembly on vandalism. Students seemed confused, and I was swamped with questions after students had been told, using several comical stories, why writing bad things on the wall of the toilet was wrong. The biggest concern of students was that they lived too far away. Many students walk several miles to and from school, so a return trip at 6:30 for a movie requires considerable conviction. I made it clear I didn’t want students traveling after dark, and that the movie was for students who lived, “close by.” At 5:30 while I was preparing dinner, Jes returned to the school to lock up. She came across a class room full of students studying hard. She asked why the students had not returned home for dinner. The response was a jumble of murmurs explaining how they weren’t really hungry and seeing as how they, for some reason, weren’t hungry today it seemed sensible to stick around and study until, oh, 6:30 there abouts.
After spending an hour walking around the MCV campus rounding up spare power converters and extension chords, I had successfully geri rigged a passable theater. The only concern at this point was electricity. Power usually fails around six o’clock because of “technical faults” at the power-station. Once I expressed disbelief that the irregularity of electricity could be caused by just one power station, to which a Malawian friend of mine conceded, “they do have lots of technical faults.” Seeing as how it had been raining most of the day (nearly a guarantee for a power outage), Jes pegged the chances of us making it through the movie as a little above her class passing their genetics test.
At six o’clock the power is still on but there was a group of students conspicuously loitering around our house. The spokesman for the group approached me and said, “Sir, if we are doing a movie tonight can we help you set up, sir?” One thing I love about Malawian students is that they are always quick to help with anything. I barely carry my own books anymore. I started Jurassic Park at 6:30 sharp, to cheers from an audience of about 15 students. By 6:45, the group and burgeoned to about 50 students who were spilling out the door and jockeying for the limited seating in the studio. Every few minutes a student would try to sit on the chair blocking the projector and would get a thorough telling off by the audience. Eventually, the doors and windows were packed with peering pupils. The students got really into the movie and would cheer and clap during exciting moments. The clapping seemed to coincide with narrow escapes and with disembowelments by dinosaurs, so it was hard to tell whose side the students were on.
Halfway through the movie, a sophomore turned to me and asked, “Is this a true story?” I replyed that it wasn’t, but that dinosaurs really did exist millions of years ago. This response was met by a mixture of awe and disbelief, as though the student thought dinosaurs were undeniable cool, but was skeptical as to their existence during any epoch.
About a half hour in the speakers cut out. I had been warned of this by Jonathan, one of the computer specialists at MCV. The amp’s fan was broken and as such could easily overheat. Seeing as how the temperature was likely well above a hundred degrees in the cramped and sweaty studio, I was personally surprised the amp lasted as long as it did. After a short hiatus, during which time the amp was moved outside and cooled by swinging it through the air, we were back in action. By assigning students to fan the amp by hand we made it through the movie without any further hiccups.
On my way back to our hut many students approached me and said, “again tomorrow sir?” One student even made a logical argument about how it made sense to show a movie the next night because it was a holiday. Seeing as I have only 7 movies on my computer, the showings may have to be more spread out. Next I think I will show Star Wars.

Sunday, March 1, 2009