Saturday, April 25, 2009

Easter Break Adventures

In Malawi, the Easter holiday marks the end of first term and is punctuated by a battery of exams. For me, school exams were always a bit of a celebration. They marked the culmination of a lot of hard work that, most importantly, was coming to an end. Unfortunately for Malawian students, this “culmination” lasts seven hours a day for two weeks, until what should be a crescendo is more reminiscent of a diminuendo keeping beat to a funeral dirge. The whole situation is made more unpleasant by the fact that I am required to sit in the examination room, board to tears, until the Friday nearest the reunion of Christ’s resurrection.
After a long two weeks and tens of hours of grading, freedom was finally upon Jes and I and we set off on a backpacking trip to the highest peak in central Africa, Mount Mulanje. The word Mulanje is the original name for the peak and literally means, “mountain.” When the English arrived, they intelligently added the title “Mount,” I assume because they didn’t want the mountain to be mistaken for hill, heap, or mound. In the tradition of colonizers getting it not quite right, the mountain was hence forth known as “mountain mountain.” On the way we were lucky enough to hitch a ride to Blantyre with Felix, who was already going to retrieve Ayub’s four daughters from boarding school. Blantyre is Malawi’s largest city, and interestingly, is named after the village in Scotland where Dr. Livingston was born.
The ride from MCV to Blantyre was characterized by ever increasing wealth. Thatched roofs became metal, concrete replaced wood, and no longer was the palate of paints limited to white and the offensive purple color of Malawi’s major cell phone carrier (Zain). In Malawi, the color purple is Zain, and seems to be the color of choice for the plural majority of Malawi’s rural buildings. Perhaps people simply like the color, but this is unlikely because the color is hideous (okay, Jes likes it but she doesn’t count). I suspect Zain pays out for the color’s use, or at least pays for the paint. Regardless of how they have managed to inflict the eye soar on rural Malawi, it was refreshing to see more variety as we moved closer to Blantyre.
In the changing landscape, many of the indicators of wealth were too subtle for me to have detected several months earlier. The spectrum of wealth and poverty in the United States is so different from Malawi, that it takes time to calibrate ones eye to understand the gamut that is Malawian poverty. When I arrived in Malawi things mostly just felt different. The most accurate way to describe it was a feeling of traveling back in time. If pushed to think about Malawians as rich or poor, nearly all would have outwardly appeared poor, with little distinction between their varying economic realities. After living in Malawi for sometime, I began to notice small things like shoes, sunglasses, or whether a window frame had glass, as indicators of wealth. In the United States, even the shabbiest apartment has glass windows; just as most poor people have shoes and sunglasses. In the United States the presence of such things are not indicators of wealth, but in Malawi they are. I was not completely oblivious to the subtly of poverty upon my arrival in Malawi, but after I learned more about Malawian culture and priorities, I began to be able to differentiate between a range of wealth where before I could only see poverty. It was these subtleties, which I had missed on the drive to MCV three months prior, that were painfully obvious on the trip to Blantyre.
We caught a public bus from Blantyre which was scheduled to depart at two o’clock. The bus station master was helpful yet confusing. “The bus departs at two o’clock,” he said, “so made sure you are here by noon.” Be here at twelve? What on earth for? I wondered. Nevertheless, Jes and I have learned that people’s advice often seems a non-sequitur only because of some misunderstanding on our (ok, my) part, so we showed up promptly at noon. At 12:15pm the bus rumbled into the station. The station master rushed over with the urgency of a person who wants to help others who are rather hopeless if left to their own devices, and says, “Your bus is here, better get going.” It was very kind of him to alert us, since the line was already forming by the bus door before it had stopped. Even with the station masters assistance, we were bringing up the end of the queue. No problem, I thought, as we clambered on the bus, the thing was still mostly empty and we still had over an hour and half until the bus’ scheduled departure. As Jes was negotiating her bag down the aisle to join me, the bus gave a lurch, and smartly started off. I am perfectly comfortable with the idea of public transit being late, it is in fact the predominate state of most mass transit operations. What I don’t understand is why any bus would leave early, it just doesn’t make sense. Perhaps the government strives to attain a 100% on time statistic; perhaps such claims were common during dictatorship rule, and now that a more transparent government cannot outright lie, drastic measures must be taken to preserve the appearance of the “flawless government” people were used to seeing.
The reason for the early departure still dumbfounds me, since on a back road not far from the bus depot the bus abruptly stopped for a 15 minute break. It was as if the bus crew was taking a well deserved siesta to reward themselves for the record departure time. The driver got out, walked around a bit, made small talk with several people walking by, and with no apparent motivation got back in the bus and started off again. Next we stop for fuel, then at a bus depot in a neighboring suburb. By this time the bus was completely full and people were cramming into the aisles. I looked over and saw a sign that said, “this bus is authorized to hold 65 seated occupants and 25 standing occupants. Well good, at least we weren’t loading the bus passed any sort of “official capacity.” Just then a live squawking chicken was smacked into my face as a woman nearby began jockeying for a better position. Finally, at 2:30pm the bus left the city and started heading for Mount Mulanje. We’re still okay I thought, only 50km away and plenty of time before dark.
Unfortunately the bus was what Jes endearingly refers to as, “the milk run,” meaning that it stops at every village, hut, or random spot along the road where someone desires “transport.” Of course whenever someone had to get off, they were inevitably in the back, meaning everyone before them in the aisle would have to get off then back on. The last half hour of our five hour (50km) ride was made even more interesting by the fact that Jes managed to antagonize a very loud and obnoxious drunk passenger. I have made it a goal in life never to draw the attention of loud drunk people. It is good for me that I have chosen a partner without such aspirations, since as soon as Jes murmured the, “shut up,” that everyone on the bus was probably thinking, the irritating man’s attention was focused entirely on her, and more importantly, entirely off me. We finally arrived at Mount Mulanje just as dark was blanketing the streets.
The next morning we started out on what was to be a spectacular trip. Mount Mulanje has an extensive hut system, each with a caretaker who will warm up bath water for you. At first I wondered whether the luxury of hot baths would cheapen the rustic experience of backpacking. The answer is a resounding No! It is customary to take a guide while hiking on the mountain and at first I was against such an idea. I had never needed a guide to go backpacking before, and getting lost was one of those cherished experiences no trip should be without. Jes was more receptive to the idea, maybe because she was a girl with no male ego to appease, or maybe just because she has better sense. I lost the battle to go it alone for two very good reasons. Number one, we didn’t have a map, and number two, we didn’t know where the trailhead was.
We stayed on the mountain five days and four nights during which time we hiked up steep escarpments, over rolling plateaus, and ascended the highest peak in central Africa (Sapitwa). Aside from a few cold nights it was a great trip and I encourage everyone to look at the pictures. Check out Jes’s blog for different pictures and a more complete description of the mountain.
We arrived home to the dream of every American schoolchild: Easter break had been extended by one week because of a conference that was happening at the school. Jes and I decided to take the Ilala ferry to Likoma Island, an island off the Mozambique boarder of Lake Malawi. We arrive in the port to find that the schedule had changed. Turns out the president was taking a campaigning to trip to the island and decided to commandeer the sole mode of transport. Still determined to fully utilize our extra week, we struck out to Senga Bay, a popular tourist destination with a multitude of lodges and resorts.
Hippo pools were supposed to be only a 10km walk from our resort. Several hotels offered tours, but being too cheap and foolhardy for such things we headed out on our own. After several minutes we came across a fishing village and acquired several guides with questionable senses of direction and no English ability. The price was right though, only 4% of what the resorts were charging. Jes and I’s Chichewa has improved in recent weeks (partly from lots of studying during exam week) and we are now able to communicate our needs and wants, as well as make general small talk. After a few minutes the path degenerated and I made, what was in retrospect, a very ironic comment of how it is a good thing we had gotten the guides. I suspect the guides had simply chosen the wrong path, since pretty soon we were up to our knees in stagnant and parasite ridden water. Oh well, the worse thing that had happened so far was that Jes had been stung by a wasp on her face, no skin off my back, the trip still had promise. We walked for one hour, and then two, and I began to expect our guides to jump us from behind and steal our money. But no, our guides were actually very friendly, just inept. Finally we gave up and hired a boat to take us back. At first the boat tried to charge Jes and I five times the going rate. When Jes and I started to get out of the boat, presumably to find our own way back, our guides began berating the boat owner, sensing that if we disembarked they would have to pay their own fares. Apparently the guides were able to make the boat owner see reason, since we were quickly ushered back into the boat and offered the normal rate. In the end we never saw any hippos, but we weren’t gored to death either, so I peg the expedition as a success.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Pictures from Mount Mulanje (the highest point in central Africa)

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Dry Sex and Malawian Hospitality

For the last week I have had the pleasure of getting to know, Florence, Phiri, and Catharine. These three women comprise the field team of MCV, and can often be seen barreling down the road in the back of a pickup truck dispensing knowledge and assistance to local villagers. Being a teacher, my work is centered at the main MCV campus, and as such, I am detached from the village based work which comprises a significant portion of MCV operations. When I asked if I could join them I was warmly ushered into the truck. After a journey down a road that looked like the set of a truck commercial whose purpose was to emphasize how tough a truck is, we arrived at a one room brick building with a metal roof which I was told was the chief’s house. A blue and white sitting mat was promptly produced and I was made aware of the fact that it was machine made (a mark of quality and affluence in Malawi). As the village woman began to arrive we were offered grilled chimanga (maize (corn)). The corn here is rather dry and starchy, much better suited for milling; however, it has a mouth feel that is strangely addicting.
Women from the village began to appear and everyone came by and graciously welcomed me to the village. After greeting the woman, my work was done. Most of the meeting would be conducted in local dialects and everyone understood, myself included, that the only thing I would bring to the gathering is novelty. The turnout to the meeting was good, and for a moment I allow myself to think that the cause was my novelty. Then I noticed clothes being handed out in exchange for attendance and I accepted that I was completely superfluous. I have come to realize that outside the small domain of school, my usefulness in Malawian affairs is effectively nil. I think it is important to be honest about my position as a volunteer; namely that I will likely receive far more than I can give.
As the meeting progressed I was treated to three very entertaining health presentations. Austin, our driver, is a friend of mine and graciously offered to translate. This is commendable, since I am not an easy person to translate for. I continuously get excited when I understand small snippets of the language. These periods of linguistic “understanding” inevitably lead to lengthy grammar lessons from Austin where he explains to me how I really don’t understand. With Austin translating I am able to follow along with the presentations. In an area where many superstitions still exist about disease, education really is the most effective treatment. A good portion of the meeting is devoted to HIV/AIDS. Southern Malawi is particularly vulnerable to HIV or several reasons. The single largest factor is poverty. Without the education and sanitation which accompany a more affluent society, the very foundations of healthcare are absent. Combine this with sexual promiscuity and men’s preference for dry sex (sex where the vagina is dried with a rag or absorbent before sex), and you get HIV/AIDS infection rates which are among the highest in the world. To their credit, Florence, Phiri, and Catharine leave no stone unturned. The woman are extremely frank about sex, describing in detail how the abrasive nature of dry sex causes cuts that promote viral exchange, and how allowing a husband to sleep around puts the wife at risk.
At this point in the presentation I notice a peculiarity. A quick survey of the audience reveals 40 or so attentive woman accompanied by three men. This count includes Austin and I, and although we are displaying rapt attention, we are highly educated men in monogamous relationship and thus not the presentation’s “target” audience. I ask Austin whether the men receive the same presentation. He replies that they do, but I have my doubts. To my knowledge the three ladies giving the presentation are MCV’s only field team, and I doubt whether a presentation of this nature could be delivered by three women to a male audience in rural Malawi.
As the presentation was finishing up, Austin invited Jes and I to his house. I was told to never decline an invite from a Malawian and quickly accepted. I told Austin I would talk to Jes to see if the weekend was free. On Friday night, after a week in which I had not seen or talked to Austin, a man appeared on our door step and said, “Austin will be by for you at 11am tomorrow.” The man then quickly walked away as I stood there dumbfounded. Why was Austin coming by? The previous week’s conversation long forgotten, I racked my brain trying to think if I had inadvertently made plans. Jes gave me a look that said, “You did it again!?”
In America, all arrangements are soft until a confirmation cell phone call 5 minutes prior to said arrangement. Not so in Malawi. A comment as noncommittal as, “Hey, we should hang out some time,” is interpreted as, “lets meet in the very near future, don’t worry about the time, just show up.” This had already happened to me several times. After playing Frisbee with some of the boarding students I had mentioned that I thought we should play again sometime. The next evening during dinner a throng of students materialized outside our window wondering why we are not “playing again.” Ironically, the inability of Americans, especially the 15 to 25 demographic, to make concrete plans is something that has always bothered me. In Malawi I am the one who is aloof.
Eventually, I connect the nice man at the door to the conversation with Austin the previous week. It is lucky I remembered, since at 11am sharp the next morning I hear a sharp knock at the door. Austin is on his bike, but we take a matola (see earlier post) to the nearby town. The matola was particularly hot and sweaty. Matolas usually are, but matolas are scarce on the weekends and are thus packed so full nearly everyone is standing. The shear number of people translated into an inordinate number of stops. As we arrive in Namias we are met by Austin, who has managed to arrive at the same time despite the fact that we were in an automobile and he was on a bike.
After a journey through meandering cornfields we come upon a tidy house with a metal roof. Inside there is a table, several chairs, a wicker couch, and a boom box. I am perplexed by the boom box since Austin told me that he does not have electricity. Then my attention is drawn to a large car battery which supplies Austin’s house with power. He takes it on the back of his bike into town, where, for a small fee, he can charge it at a charging station. He says that between the radio (which is currently blaring music) and a light bulb he usually get two weeks of power before it dies. Alas, the car battery provides Austin with more consistent power than the Malawi Power Company is able to provide us.
Soon we move into the back yard to meet Austin’s family. His wife is busy in the kitchen, a small shack removed from the main house. The kitchen has room for two stooping individuals and resembles a dark cavern, one permeated by the aromas of wood smoke and cooking oil. Since most Malawians still cook with wood fires, the kitchen is usually a drafty room outside. To the left of a smoldering fire is a pile of feathers and naked looking chicken which I soon learn is about to become lunch. My back is starting to hurt and the smoke is making my eyes water so we soon retire to the backyard. The packed dirt yard is lined on all sides by corn fields, which to Austin’s credit, are some of the healthiest I have seen. Also in the yard is a mango tree, which to Jes and I’s immense disappointment is as barren as every other mango tree in Malawi. Mangos are now out of season, and since the fruit import business is nonexistent in Malawia, I have had to transition to sugarcane. I never got a good look at Austin’s youngest child, who for the duration of our visit could be found hiding endearingly behind the legs of his father. When children in Malawi see Jes or myself one of two things happen, either they scream with glee while toddling quickly towards us clapping their hands, or they toddle quickly away and take refuge behind mom. Austin’s older son was bolder, and upon meeting us, quickly produced a Bow board. Bow is a game resembling moncola, except that there are twice as many spaces and the rules are far more confusing. Bow is the game of choice in Malawi and it is hard to walk 20 paces and not see someone playing. I have no doubt that given time to practice I would no longer be an embarrassment when playing Bow. However, given than my total playtime to this point equaled 20 minutes, and the boy’s total play time equaled playing most of every day for his entire life, I was quickly beaten. It doesn’t help that every time I play Bow the rules seem to change. Either there are thousands of variations or I am being taken; I haven’t decided which possibility is more likely. To my reassurance, defeat is handed to Jes and quickly as it was bestowed upon me. Since in Bow the winner continues playing and the loser does not, Jes and I mostly watch for the next hour as neighbor children materialize to insure I never get another chance.
When the chicken is ready, Austin, Jes, and I return to the table inside. I keep expecting Austin’s wife and children to join us but am told that they will be eating outside. This seems strange to me but is apparently is the way entertaining is done in rural Malawi. At the table we are presented with a heaping platter of rice and a succulent chicken. I am worried at first that none will be saved for the rest of the family, but I am later relieved to see that the wife and kids did indeed get some, although not the quality cuts Jes and I had received. On the chicken patter was the heart, which I am told is traditionally offered to guests. Austin said that “if someone cooks you a chicken but does not offer you the heart, the chicken is not really for you.” The heart is chewy, but satisfying. I can’t be sure, but the heart may be important because it signifies that the chicken was slaughtered particularly for your arrival, since store bought chickens often come without the heart. I am later told by a teacher that the slaughtering of a chicken is the highest welcome you can receive in Malawi; Austin really pulled out all the stops.
I am continually impressed by the hospitality of Malawians. The next week we were invited to a fellow teacher’s house. We were greeted by the teacher’s mother (people often live with their entire families in Malawi) who ran up to us and promptly gave us both big hugs. I at times feel guilty that so much effort is taken on my behalf, however I also get the impression that it would be inappropriate to decline. Thus I have adopted a new strategy: pass it on. Last week we invited our neighbor over for dinner, we all had a great time.
On another note, Jes and I have an Easter Break coming up and we will be backpacking on Mount Mulanje. There are forest service huts that you can rent for a small fee and it is supposed to be spectacular. I also hear they sell Bow boards so my play may soon improve. I will write more when we return.