Sunday, October 19, 2014

Life and Death

On Wednesday, 15 October, Malawi celebrated Mother’s Day.  Schools and businesses, in deference to the national holiday, were closed.  Many middle class people residing in Lilongwe chose to go to Senga Bay for the day, the closest beach to the capital city.  They piled into mini buses and coach buses, stopping en route at the local craft market to buy wide-brimmed woven straw hats that are iconic of tourists in Salima district.  On the front grill of each bus, the driver carefully tacked a length of local chitenje fabric proclaiming “Happy Mother’s Day” over a picture of a smiling mother and baby.  The buses sped by on the dusty roads, the people inside wearing identical straw hats and singing, passing around beer bottles of Carlsberg and packets of spirits.  Many stopped at a local lodge that had hired a deejay and had a bar overlooking the beach.  This too, was our final destination after visiting a nearby crocodile farm.

We arrived at around 12pm, and the beach party was pretty tame at this point.  A group of rastas with dreadlocks sat at a nearby table drinking Fanta, two small girls in clean dresses ate crisps on chairs overlooking the beach, and a group of men sat around the bar chatting amicably.  The deejay had a tent halfway between the veranda and the beach, and down on the beach people were wading in the water.  At one point, I requested that the deejay play something by Mampi, a female Zambian artist that is also popular in Malawi.  One of the little girls immediately began singing along quietly to the song, clearly sharing my taste in music.  We were enjoying sitting by the beach, drinking beers, and talking about something besides work, when the mood of the party began to shift.  A bare chested man refused the car park, and drove straight onto the beach in his two wheel drive sedan.  The deep sand trapped the wheels, spinning uselessly.  Some small boys futilely tried to dig around the wheels with their hands.  The driver wobbled around his car, directing the crowd to help push as he chugged alcohol.  More busloads of people from the city pulled up into the small lakeside village, and people were wearing less and less clothing and increasingly inebriated.  The men stumbled along the surf with bottles in hand, many failing to stay vertical.  Bodies crowded in the lake taking refuge from the hot sun, many of whom were unsteady even on dry land.  There were no lifeguards on duty and little regard to water safety, despite the fact that many of the people in the lake could not swim.  Women wore only their bras and shorts or mini skirts.  With their scanty clothing and dancing, they emulated the music videos of African pop musicians, who in turn are influenced by Western musicians.  The scene on the beach was anachronistic; elsewhere in the village women dressed modestly, wearing traditional chitenje cloth skimming their lower calves.  But there, playing out on the beach that day, was a clash between traditional and Western.  

The hard partying during the week was for Mother’s Day, but the true meaning was lost.  Two women drowned on Senga Bay that day, which would not have happened without the help of alcohol.  These women were daughters, sisters, wives, mothers.  In a day celebrating the givers of life, lives were taken needlessly.  Last Mother’s Day, three people drowned on the bay.  

Last week, there was a funeral for a young man living near the football pitch.  I drove by in mid morning, carefully avoiding the tree branches the mourners had placed in the road to slow the passing traffic, amazed by the number of people in attendance.  The mourners stood in throngs by the house of the deceased, singing religious songs.  Inside the house, the body was laid out, attended by wailing older women.  This procedure would go on for hours, until the homemade casket was carried to either the Muslim or Christian cemetery for burial.  

In the communal society of rural Malawi, you are expected to attend every funeral in your village, even if you never knew the deceased in life.  By attending funerals, you ensure that there will be mourners when your own life ends.  In this most recent funeral, the brothers of the deceased were too busy cultivating their farms to attend funerals.  So when it came time to bury the brother, the villagers sought payback.  They attended the funeral, but when it came time to bury the body, no one would help with the arduous task of digging the hole by hand.  The brothers were forced to labor alone to bury their own brother.

The highlight from the crocodile farm is that it is possible to buy crocodile meat for $3.50/kg there.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Malawi's dusty menagerie of animals

      Life in rural Malawi always involves the presence of animals.  If all the world’s a stage, then livestock roam in the background, providing the occasional sound effect and comic relief.  The set consists of sand blistering in the midday sun, a grand baobab tree swaying gently in the breeze, and the sky-blue waters of the lake of stars twinkling invitingly.  A rooster caws in the distance.  Suddenly, a brown cow staggers onto the scene, bleating frantically.  It rushes off the path and toward the lake, where its lost herd grazes contentedly on sun burnt elephant grass.  A white goat with a belly bulging from a feast of Winterthorn seed pods clambers onto a narrow three meter tall termite mound, looking over the land triumphantly.  A flock of fuzzy chicks line behind their clucking mother hen as she raids a forgotten bucket of cornmeal.  A woman appears and shoos the chickens away, igniting an angry cluck of protest from mother hen.  These are the cast of characters I write about.  

Livestock represent an investment in rural Africa where access to modern banking is reserved for the urban elite.  Need money for a new thatched roof?  Sell a rooster.  Need to pay a bride price?  A trade of a few cows will do.  Animals also provide protein in the form of eggs or meat.  Almost every week, a goat is slaughtered and its meat sold by the kg in the village market.  In individual households however, the slaughter of a goat or chicken is rare and reserved for big events, such as weddings or the arrival of an honored guest.  The other purpose of livestock is for transport.  In the Northern Province of Zambia, cows were rare because the Bemba people were not historically pastoralists and disease ravaged herds.  However in Zambia’s Eastern province, the Nyanja people relied on cows.  In Malawi too, the Chewa people (descended from the Nyanjas of Zambia) revere cows.  During the day, a young boy is responsible for leading the herd to water and to graze.  At night, the cows are rounded up to rest in a small wooden kraal near the owner’s house.  A couple oxen can be hitched to a cart and used as a form of transport, often to move construction materials such as fired bricks or sand.  


Aside from that, they’re a horrible nuisance.  From the turn off to Salima town, the paved road is poorly maintained, with eroding shoulders and the occasional crater.  Driving means straddling the center line until oncoming traffic forces you back to your own lane at the very last second.  Brazen bicyclists and bicycle taxis also share the roadway, vying for the smoothest route and having utmost faith that the drivers will avoid them.  Further complicating this is the fact that I can’t really drive stick shift.  Shifting gears means studying the gear box intently and often ending up in 5th gear when I was really aiming for second.  If there’s too many bicyclists and oncoming traffic, I won’t shift gears and will just adjust my speed accordingly.  I can also never find neutral and sometimes just stop the car by stalling it.  As if these weren’t enough problems, there’s also the livestock to contend with.  Chickens run across the road clucking angrily, there’s always an ox cart just ahead of you moving leisurely to its destination, and a young boy with a whip chooses that moment to lead his herd of cows across the road, leaving a cloud of suffocating dust in their wake.  But worst of all are the goats, especially the young ones.  They graze peacefully by the side of the road, then spy an oncoming vehicle and decide to dart across the road at the last possible moment.  It is up to the driver to avoid these hairy kamikazes, as striking and killing one accidentally would result in an owner materializing and demanding payment.
          If you need further evidence that Malawian livestock aren’t a cast of characters from “Charlotte’s Web”, then I’ll relate another scene I experienced today.  My co-worker at the office, who works as our cook, is also a close neighbor.  I sat in the shade of her cooking shelter with her on a grass mat telling her my plans for Monday as she sifted cornmeal flour.  Suddenly she started yelling at a small child in ChiChewa, the only word of which I picked up was imbuzi, or goat.  The girl didn’t move, so Annette leapt to her feet and started screaming “Tiye!  Tiye!  Tiye!” as she ran to her house.  Seconds later, a brown and white goat came rocketing out.  No doubt raiding the stacks of cornmeal flour kept in storage, or pooping on the cement floor that she carefully cleans with Cobra floor wax.
           My mixture of disdain and reluctant amusement over Malawian livestock does not extend to companion animals.  While living in Zambia, two dogs belonging to our closest neighbors adopted us.  We often had these two dogs, plus Wilo, lounging at our house or following us around the village.  After Wilo gave birth to a litter of puppies sired by one of these dogs, our little pack temporarily grew to nine dogs.  So it didn’t surprise us that two dogs belonging to our neighbors here in Mudzi also decided to adopt us. 
Tiger: just as goofy in real life
Tiger is a medium size tan dog belonging to our landlord’s daughter.  Unusually friendly and playful for an African dog, he approached us first and decided we were friends for life when we accepted his advances with reciprocated kindness.  He often follows me all the way to work in the morning, and will sometimes sleep outside our house gate.  Bruce is his more timid friend.  Bruce is a tan Basenji type dog with big ears that’s often found slumbering in the shade of an ox cart.  The two dogs are often together, so Bruce usually follows Tiger, who follows us.

      Lastly, there are Peace and Calvin.  These are the two-year-old brothers who are guard dogs at the office and guesthouse.  As guard dogs they are quite effective, because the locals make a point to stay clear of our property fences.  However, before my arrival, they began biting volunteers who stay at the guesthouse.  They are territorial of different locations on the property, and often nip when someone encroaches.  Armed with a bag full of dried fish, I slowly entered these areas, sprinkling fish onto the ground for them to reward good behavior.  


... and Calvin
 It took a couple of weeks, but I’ve earned their trust, and now they are different dogs, seeking out my company and begging for scratches.  They also haven’t bitten anyone in nearly a month.  After this shift in our relationship, I introduced them separately to Wilo on neutral territory.  Then Wilo came inside the parameters.  I have been bringing Wilo to work with me regularly, any time that I know I will be around the office and not out at project sites in the village.  She really enjoys having space to run and chase birds, and gets along well with Peace and Calvin.   
My office and its three guardians

Some other critters

Weird prehistoric-looking gecko

An inch long frog that lives inside the drain of the sink in the bathroom at my office                                    
A bird and its nest on the guesthouse veranda

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Better Homes and Gardens: Malawi Edition

Better Homes and Gardens: Malawi Edition

The boundaries of our village are lineated by the shore of Lake Malawi to the South, and the unpaved road (prowling with baboons) stretching to the provincial capital to the Northwest.  Our house is located close to the market, at the base of a hill that leads to the health clinic.  The market, the bustling heart of the village, teems with women relaxing in the shade and selling their husbands’ catches of fish, male tailors sewing outfits out of beautiful chitenje fabric on hand powered sewing machines, and people selling eggs and soap out of closet-sized shops.  During the school term break, children often work in the family business. The other day, while buying Chinese cabbage, we observed a boy, aged approximately seven, buy a single cigarette out of a pack from a female vendor aged around ten, presumably for his father or uncle.  

If you walk for approximately 200 metres in the opposite direction of the market, you’ll reach the borehole.  One of half a dozen in the village, it draws clean water through a hand pump.  Small girls methodically pump the handle to fill several buckets full of water without pause, while my arms ache after one bucket full.  No matter, because the girls often insist on pumping water for us themselves.  

Another landmark in the village is the cemetery.  It is a swath of land covered with scrubby trees and dotted with wooden crosses.  Located to the side of a path we use to traverse between our house and the guesthouse/office, we’re overly cautious about stumbling upon it in the night time.  To do so may impart rumors of witchcraft among village inhabitants.  Witchcraft is the solution to all that is unexplained.  Recently, one of our local staff members explained to Chris that on several occasions he found small sums of money missing from his house.  Rather than question his family members or search for it in his house, he immediately suspected witchcraft.

As I mentioned in the last post, two mountains tower over the village on either end.  One is uninhabited and is habitat for baboons and hyenas that occasionally skulk around the village at night, resulting in a cacophony of angry dog howls at 2am.  The other mountain contains some houses, as we can occasionally glimpse tendrils of smoke from cooking fires rising from the trees.  On Tuesday, inhabitants of the mountains attempted some controlled burning of the bush.  This is usually done at the start of the dry season, to prevent wildfires from careening out of control as the months pass and the land becomes parched and highly flammable.  Rarely, however, have I seen truly controlled burning.  Often times there is collateral damage as winds change.  As night fell, the burning bush stretched down the sides of the mountain, molten twinkling.  By moonlight it looked like a volcano erupting.  

Our closest neighbors, whose yard borders our back wall, is a family of four.  Matthews and his wife Janice are in their late 20s, and they have a five-year-old son named Moses and a 7-month-old named Davies.  They invited us to dinner this week, and we feasted on the staple food of nsima (known as nshima in Zambia), beef with a rich soup, and cooked Chinese cabbage.  We also watched a Bollywood movie poorly dubbed over in ChiChewa.  There was a lot of violence, and a glaring lack of musical numbers.  

Many of the houses in the village have some sort of wall, often constructed of thin reeds and tall grasses, to separate the dwellings of one family to the next.  Our house is a square white building surrounded by a sandy courtyard and a brick wall.  Housing is provided by my employer, which pays K 20,000, or $50 a month, to rent the four room building.  

 In the front of the house, there’s a large living room with four comfortable, brown couches and a coffee table.  A small hallway leads to the rest of the house.  On the left there is our bedroom, equipped with a double bed shrouded by a green mosquito net, a shelf, and a pole for hanging clothes.  Next to that room is a guest bedroom, (which lies empty in anticipation of Todd and Maureen’s Christmas time visit!), which we use mostly for storage.  The right side of the house is composed of a pantry/kitchen area.   
The living room
The hallway behind the living room

The bedroom

The rememberance wall in the bedroom

The guest bedroom

The pantry/indoor kitchen

Our "sink"
Water storage
The pack porch, used as our outdoor kitchen
Our actual cooking are is on our back porch, as we are currently using a charcoal burning brazier.  To cook on one of these, you add a small pile of charcoal, some parafin or a candle stub to get the charcoal lit, then fan it vigorously until all the charcoal ignites.  It takes about 20 minutes to get it hot enough to actually cook on, so no meal here is ever instant.  However, during the week we eat breakfast and lunch prepared by our excellent cook at the guesthouse, and often take home leftovers for dinner, so we only have to cook for ourselves a few times during the week.                
...which is a re-purposed USAID container of cooking oil.
Our "stove," a charcoal brazier...

Lastly, our "chimbudzi," or latrine.  There is an inside wall dividing the structure into two small rooms.  Our bathing area is on the left, and the latrine is on the right.

Electricity has been a new development.  Some of our neighbors have reported waiting years for the ESCOM electricity company (based in Salima)  to come install electricity, but our wait was only about three weeks.  Our landlord has been very persistently asking them to come, which probably helped.  Our house was already wired for electricity, so they only had to connect the line and install a meter.   We will have to   
purchase prepaid units of electricity in Salima, then enter a code at our meter at the house to use that power.

Our steadfast security guard, hard at work protecting the compound from errant chickens and curious children.