Saturday, January 10, 2015

Searching for Hyenas

The romantic notion of Africa invokes visions of lions stalking prey amongst dried elephant grass and towering giraffes foraging from baobab trees.  The reality however, is that large mammals have been poached to endangerment largely during colonialism, and are now confined primarily to national parks and game reserves.  In our area, the only land predators remaining are spotted hyenas.  They come down from the mountains at night and roam the village as people sleep, often eliciting a telltale chorus of howls from the dogs.  These nocturnal visitors leave little trace besides the occasional slayed livestock.  Last month, one of our nearest neighbors awoke with the sunrise to find a hyena had slaughtered one of his goats.  This happened within 20 m of our bedroom, but we did not even stir.  Hyenas are feared because they are associated with dark magic and death in Chewa folklore, but they represent little threat to humans.  The exception being drunks, who after downing too much local cornmeal beer, find themselves at the Lilongwe nature sanctuary after dark.  A few drunks who slept off their stupor in this tranquil area of the nation’s capital have been picked off by hyenas in recent years.

I’ve wanted a glimpse of the elusive spotted hyenas, and have heard that they are plentiful in the woods surrounding the firing range where the soldiers from the nearby military base train.  The firing range is halfway down the 6 km dirt road stretching from the village to the paved M14 road to Salima.  Besides one small village, the entirety of the road is surrounded by miombo woodland, making it terrific habitat for wildlife.  A few times, our co-worker has asked us to drive and pick her up at the turn-off by the main road at night, since the bicycle taxis that are the main mode of transport down this stretch don’t operate past sunset.  Chris and I have turned these opportunities into what we call the “poor man’s game drive.”  Chris drives slowly down the dark road in first gear, and I point a bright flashlight out the window, scanning the trees for animals, specifically hyenas.  We’ve seen half a dozen civet cats, and a bouncing pair of glowing eyes from a tree that must have been a bush baby (the world’s most adorable nocturnal primate), but no hyenas.

Over Christmas, we decided to upgrade from the poor man’s game drive and traveled to Liwonde National Park in southern Malawi with two co-workers.  While living in Zambia we had the good fortune of being able to visit three national parks, but this was our first safari with our own vehicle.  

A fish eagle, Malawi's national bird
On Christmas day, after arriving at the lodge and setting up our tents, we took an afternoon boat ride on the Shire River.  On the 40 km stretch of the Shire River which runs through the park, there are over 2,000 hippos.  Much of the ride was spent traveling through schools of submerged hippos lazing in the river.  As the daylight faded, they began trudging onto land to graze.  We also passed crocodiles lurking near the shores, and in the far distance, a herd of elephants.  Liwonde, and Malawi as a whole, is a mecca for birdwatchers, and we also saw magnificent fish eagles soaring    through the skies, various hornbills, kingfishers, and other wading birds.

The next day, we awoke early to arrive at the park gates as they opened at 6am.  Unfortunately, we learned that the rains had washed away a bridge within, making much of the 50 km long park inaccessible.  The woman soldier at the gate, correctly appraising Chris as someone who liked to push the limits, warned him
repeatedly to turn around before the bridge to avoid getting stuck in the mud, since no one would come to our rescue.  That left us with an area with a 10 km radius to explore.  The backdrop of the park itself is gorgeous, with tall palm trees lining the river, expansive flood plains of burnt grasses fading into miombo forest, all bordered by blue mountains.  We saw all kinds of antelope:  large greater kudus with oversized ears, delicate tan impala with huge hooked antlers, and shaggy waterbucks.  We crept the car slowly towards them for pictures, but sudden movements made them flee.  We also saw warthogs, ancient-looking creatures which are built so awkwardly that they have to kneel with their front legs to graze.  At one point we passed a family, which startled and ran away with their bristly tails held straight in the air.  

After driving around for a couple of hours, we returned to the lodge to cook breakfast: pancakes cooked over the fire and drizzled with precious Vermont maple syrup.  We returned for another game drive in the late afternoon.  This time, Chris wanted to drive closer to the river on the smaller trails, like he’d seen a guide in a safari 4x4 do earlier that day.  This area was covered in deep mud, unlike the main road.  Much of the ride was spent careening around in the mud and sliding, narrowly avoiding trees.  It was a lot of fun, but I’d have enjoyed it more if it wasn’t in the company vehicle that I was responsible for.  The highlight of this drive was turning a corner and seeing a solitary, younger elephant standing by the road, playing in a large mud puddle.
Hornbill (think Zazu from The Lion King)          

Lilac breasted rollers


A common waterbuck 

A herd of greater kudu and a baboon

 Another excursion this month was to Cape Maclear, which is situated almost on the far southern end of the 365 km long Lake Malawi.  One of the only accessible parts of the lake to face northwest, it offers protection from the winds and spectacular sunsets.  Cape Maclear is a quintessential Malawian fishing village melded with lodges catering to European backpackers, and it has a laid-back, spirited atmosphere.  Like many notable areas in this region, it was visited and named by the Scottish explorer and missionary David Livingstone, who named it after the Astronomer Royal at the Cape of Good Hope, Thomas Maclear.  Livingstone had 
     such an appreciation for its beauty that it was chosen as the original site of his mission.
Our organization has a partnership with a tour operator that had just opened a new lodge on the western end of Cape, so we were invited to a weekend of complimentary meals, lodging and water sports to celebrate its launch.  In addition to mingling with other expatriates working in Malawi and enjoying a new side of the lake, we also were able to go snorkeling and banana boating.  We went out in the speedboat to a small, rocky island and snorkeled among the vibrant, neon-colored cichlids that Lake Malawi is known for.  It was like floating in a giant tropical fish tank.  Later that day, we piled on an inflatable, banana-shaped raft pulled by the speedboat.  It was pretty unstable and we bounced high in the waves left in the boat’s wake, so we fell off often.  But riding on it at high speeds with the wind on our faces and spray from the lake kicking up, half expecting that every turbulent patch would cause us to tumble into the water, was exhilarating.  

Malawi is only the size of the state of Pennsylvania, and nearly one quarter of the country is freshwater lake, but there is tremendous geographical diversity.  An hour south of Liwonde National Park lies the breathtaking Zomba Plateau.  Zomba was Malawi’s colonial capital, and was claimed to be the most stunning, picturesque capital anywhere in the British Empire.  Rising to an elevation of 6,836 feet, the plate
au is covered in potato fields at its lower elevations and a pine tree plantation at its tips.  A steep, zigzagging road traversed by merchants selling fruit to tourists and women carrying bundles of wood on their heads to sell in town winds up to the Sunbird Kuchawe inn, Malawi’s government-owned luxury hotel chain, perched on the precipice.  From the top of the plateau, you can look upon the town of Zomba far below, looking like a child’s carelessly placed set of matchbox cars and other tin toys, and mountains in varying shades of blue stretching across the horizon.  The Shire River meanders through like a blue ribbon across the sandy ground, and from the opposite direction, you can view Lake Chilwa.

High on the plateau, options for accommodation are limited.  The Sunbird Kuchawe’s prices match its opulent atmosphere, so we settled for camping at a former trout farm that has seen better days.  Our travel companions until this part of the journey refused to camp with us, insinuating that the farm was sketchy and looked like the set of a bad slasher movie.  Their loss, since its location set amidst the forest was really rather peaceful.

 The lodges advocate hiring guides to lead tourists around the plateau, but we had a Bradt’s guide to Malawi with a crude map of the plateau, directions pirated off another traveler’s blog, and an optimistic outlook on our sense of direction, so the four of us set off on a hike to find Emperor’s and Queen’s view.  Amidst the rows of pine trees stretching off into the distance, the setting was not unlike the Adirondacks.  We enjoyed the tranquility of being completely alone except for each other.  At some point, we must have made a wrong turn, but upon reaching the top of the road, we had a spectacular view of other mountains in the distance. 
After a brief rest, we set off again, and that’s when we became utterly lost.  In an attempt to gain our bearings, we took roads heading in the vague direction of where we thought we should be, though much of the plateau’s landmarks look the same.  At this point, it was 3pm and storm clouds were moving in rapidly and ushering in a premature sunset, and we’d been walking since 11am.  With a new sense of urgency, we began following a road with fresh tire tracks, surmising that tire tracks meant civilization.  Just as we began to lose hope, a grey 4x4 appeared on the horizon.  After flagging down the vehicle, the driver stopped, and asked us for directions to the outlooks in an Afrikaans accent.  The two white South African brothers inside were also lost, but having a hell of a time doing it skidding through deep mud in their boss’s SUV, sipping gin from glasses, and chain smoking.  Hopping into the backseat, we continued on and found a sign for Queen’s View- named for Queen Elizabeth who visited in the 1950s.  After taking some pictures, we continued on to the dam, where the younger brother splashed around in the frigid water and we stood around like parents supervising a child’s first swim, instructing him to try different poses as his brother snapped photos on his iphone.  After thanking the brothers for sparing us a cold night on the plateau, we headed back to our campsite.

The next day, Chris and I were alone, and we decided to hike to Chingwe’s hole, on the opposite side of the plateau.  In a second moment of grossly overestimating our abilities, we projected the trip to be about 3 miles one way, or one hour there and one back.  This side of the plateau had a landscape more reminiscent of New Zealand, with green plains, moss-draped trees, and small rivers cascading over the earthen path.  This hike was also completely vertical, and brought us up through the pine plantations, past temporary grass
shelters covered with black plastic where families lived while they harvested pine which they would later carry down the mountain to sell in Zomba town.  The mountain rang with the sound of pit saws as pine was cut into planks.  We did not see any trace of a larger scale logging operation; instead it seemed to be contracted to small groups of people living in villages on the plateau.  We continued ascending, past the woodsmen, and finally came to a meadow.  Though the view was lovely, we’d been walking for over two hours on legs sore from the previous day’s adventures.  But a sign promised us that Chingwe’s hole was only one kilometer away.  It must have been the longest kilometer of my life, since it took us another hour from there to reach the place.  Meanwhile, dark clouds approached ominously, heralded by high winds and distant lightening flashing across the sky.  We were on the highest part of the plateau in an open meadow, so being sensible and safety-minded, we doggedly continued towards Chingwe’s Hole rather than seeking shelter.  Finally, we arrived at a rather inauspicious small circle of trees huddling together near the edge of a cliff. 

Fog was rolling in, making it impossible to see what the circle of trees concealed.  Since the storm was imminent and there was no shelter anywhere, we huddled on a wooden bench that faced what was probably a magnificent view any other time, but now was only the opaque white of endless fog.  The wind blew ferociously, and we expected to be drenched with rain anytime, but it never came.  With awe, we realized that we were above the storm clouds.  While we were safely enveloped in a blanket of fog, beneath us, the rain pelted in sheets.  All our   The
rain beneath us was fierce but quick, and the fog dissipated.  The view in front of us was still only white when we looked down at the map, but when we glanced back up, it was like someone had thrown open the curtain.  Within a minute, the fog had vanished completely, revealing a view of the southern region’s raw beauty.  Our tiredness melted away with that distant rain, and we were left with a feeling of invincibility and immortality there in the heavens.

The retreating fog also left us with an unobstructed view of  Chingwe’s hole, hidden in that little unassuming copse of trees.  Despite the tranquil setting, Chingwe’s hole has a mysterious, deadly past.  Locally, it is said to be a bottomless pit stretching into the Rift Valley.  While it undoubtedly has a bottom, that abyss is littered with layers of bones.  In the past, it was offered sacrifices in times of drought.  They also used to throw people afflicted with leprosy into the hole, which is how it earned its name.  One day they visited the hole and found the unfortunate soul tossed in the previous day to be still alive.  In a weak voice that echoed throughout the 8m wide hole, he asked for a rope, chingwe in ChiChewa, to be thrown down.  His request was ignored, and he eventually died of injuries or dehydration.  Later, local chiefs used the hole to forever dispose of their enemies.  It is rumored that former dictator Hastings Banda (1964-1994) also used the hole for this purpose.  Under his reign, over 250,000 Malawians were detained without trial and tortured, and his dissenters had a tendency to die under mysterious circumstances such as car crashes, explosive blasts, or as victims of crocodiles on the Shire River.

Like the nocturnal hyenas that skulk around the village, much of our trip was shrouded in mystery.  Safari is always a gamble, since there are no guarantees you’ll see animals, and it’s harder in the rainy season when the herds move further.  Zomba Plateau is beautiful, but holds many secrets and no clear paths back home.  We left the village without a clear plan or itinerary, intent on uncovering more about Malawi.  While we did so, we’ve really only scratched the surface.  This is a diverse, beautiful country, and like searching for the elusive hyenas by flashlight, I can’t wait to have more adventures in the quest for knowledge.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Being Different

With our limping internet connection speed reminiscent of the early days of dial-up, and the inaccessibility of English language radio, we are sadly behind in our knowledge of global affairs. But even in rural Malawi, the maelstrom of the Ferguson protests have reached us. The core of this issue, as I understand it, is racism. As a white American in relatively homogenous upstate New York, I’d never really seen racism because it didn’t affect me. But after living in southern Africa, I know what it’s like to be different, and to be judged for how you look. I’ve been called racial slurs (the word, in case you’re wondering, is booga), charged a higher price for products, been unable to find hair or beauty products for my ethnicity, and been followed and harassed. (To be fair, on the other end, I’ve also been treated with more respect, friendliness and regard because of my skin color.) But I have chosen this life, and can just as easily escape it and move back to anonymity. So I don’t pretend to understand and experience racism as a black person in the U.S. does. This issue, the age-old “us vs. them” mentality which drives racism, is also present here in Malawi. Although there is relative religious tolerance overall, harmful thoughts and opinions remain. Another similar issue is the stigmatization of people living with HIV. And this, dear reader, is how I link the news stories you are bombarded with through facebook, the newspaper, and newscasts to my own experiences here. Malawi has a Muslim minority, consisting of 20% of the population (Dehnert, 2007). Our village’s location on the lakeshore and proximity to Salima means that it is more diverse, with a more even distribution between Muslims and Christians, or the Yao tribe (predominantly Muslim) and Chewa tribe.
The Catholic Church
As I write this, the joyous voices of the choir singing in ChiChewa and a keyboard melodize from the simple Catholic Church next door. Several times a day, the imam’s call to prayer resonates in Arabic from the loudspeaker at the mosque. Covertly, people in the village still gossip about witchcraft and rely on traditional medicine when Western medicine fails. These three belief systems, Christianity, Islam and to a lesser extent, animism, converge in this village of 4,000 people, but not without conflict. A couple of months ago, we were invited to an Apostolic church gathering held on the beach. The day included a sermon, a Bible trivia game, a feast of a lunch, swimming and volleyball, and was attended by Apostolic church members from Salima and the village. The following weekend, the Catholic church had members visiting from Lilongwe, and sang hymns late into the night. Both of these events passed without ill-will or gossip.
The Mosque
But when the Muslims of the village converged for an all-night rally, the Christians voiced their disapproval. As we were walking home the evening of the rally, we passed an acquaintance sitting at the grinding mill, staring at the crowd of Muslims sitting under a tent at the market. We asked about the event with curiosity, which released a diatribe from the man. He complained that the religious leaders were speaking in Arabic, so that others could not understand what was being said. Therefore, they must be saying hateful things about the Christians, such as calling them dogs or other insults. We heard this remark repeated by other Christians in the village as well. However, the loudspeaker used at the event carried to our house, and from 5pm until we fell asleep at 9pm, the majority was in ChiChewa with only prayers recited in Arabic. This man then proclaimed that he didn’t like Muslims. I reacted with surprise to this remark, as this man is on the board of a community organization that is comprised mostly of Muslims. However, this man was far from the only dissenter. Others complained that the imam put on a recording then fell asleep, and in the morning announced that he had divulged the will
Malawian Kwatcha
of Allah, and that those in attendance should donate money to him and his mosque. The village is comprised mostly of subsistence farmers and fishermen, so any donation is difficult. However, the pastor at the Apostolic event also announced that church members should donate 10% of their income to the church, which is little different. Elsewhere in Malawi, religious strife has manifested after religious organization Gideon’s International distributed Bibles in Islamic schools in southern Malawi in 2010. Arising just one month after a Florida pastor threatened to burn the Koran, fanatics in southern Malawi torched the free Bibles that were circulated (Reuters Africa, 5 October 2010). Religious difference is also exacerbated by tribalism. Nationwide, 20% of Malawians are estimated to be Muslim, and are often from the Yao tribe, while Christians are mostly Chewa people. The Yao traded ivory, grains and slaves in exchange for clothing and guns by Arab traders, who first arrived in the late 1700s. The Yao captured slaves from neighboring tribes, and this partnership with the Arabs ensured their prosperity. The Arab traders also proselytized Islam, adopted by the Yao people. The Yao later resisted colonialism the strongest, rejecting the Christianity brought by European missionaries (Dehnert, 2007). Another stigmatized minority in Malawi is people living with HIV/AIDS. 1 December marked World AIDS Day, so I collaborated with the clinic’s drama group to put on an event including dramas, song and dance, a debate, and games to educate the village about HIV prevention, misconceptions about transmission, and stigma.
In one drama acted out by the group, a scene reminiscent of the Ryan White saga of the 80s, the young actors sit together in a make-believe classroom. The teacher is disturbed from his lesson by the students moving around, putting distance between themselves and one boy. This boy is HIV-positive, and the other students fear contact with him. The teacher educates the students about HIV transmission, and forces them to shake his hand to illustrate that simple contact cannot spread the virus. One girl grudgingly shakes his hand, then frantically wipes her hand off on her skirt. Another classmate tries to shake the boy’s hand through the protection of his tee shirt. The audience laughs, but they are educated about transmission, thus reducing stigma towards those living with HIV/AIDS in the community. In Malawi, over 10% of adults are HIV-positive, and 48,000 people died from the complication of AIDS last year (UNAIDS, 2013). The local clinic has a catchment area of 18,000 people living in 8 surrounding villages. In this catchment area, around 10 new people start the HIV treatment of antiretroviral therapy each month. Antiretroviral therapy requires near-perfect adherence, and a lack of food, the sickness it invokes, depression, and stigma are all obstacles
A drama character is devastated to learn his positive HIV status
to adherence. Last week, three people died in the village over a course of three consecutive days: an old woman in her 80s, an old man, and a middle-aged woman. Two of these people were Muslim, and were buried in the Muslim cemetery which we pass by often on our way to and from the guesthouse and office. There were burials here one day after another, leaving two new graves side by side, demarcated by fresh, white sand and two small tree cuttings placed at the head and foot to mark graves in the absence of expensive cement. People don’t talk about the cause of death; this is a Western phenomenon where medicine is able to answer these questions for us. But a few days ago, I met an AIDS activist who wanted to arrange a meeting for people living with HIV in the catchment area, to explain the importance of adhering to antiretroviral therapy. His motivation was the recent rash of deaths, two of which were to individuals with AIDS who did not follow their treatment. HIV, as we know, is a virus that does not discriminate based on religion, race or any other arbitrary characteristic.

So to quote Old Crow Medicine Show, “Surely all people are made for each other / Join in together when the days turn to dust / So let the prison walls crumble, let the borders all tumble / there is place for us all here and ain’t it enough?”

Dehnert, K. (2007). Christian-Muslim relations in Malawi, Africa 1860s-2007. Retrieved from Banda, M. (2010, 5 October).

Reuters Africa. Malawi Muslims burn Bibles in protest. Retrieved from

UNAIDS (2013). HIV and AIDS estimates (2013). Retrieved from

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Finding a Happy Place

It has been an emotionally taxing week with Chris’s father’s coronary bypass surgery and Chris’s remorse over being a continent away.  But we have learned something from living in South Eastern Africa for two and a half years, and that is that a positive attitude can help overcome life’s greatest struggles.  We have lived amongst subsistence farmers who struggle to pay for medical care and their children’s education, but whom always maintain a cheery composure.  Therefore, I present some happy moments from the past few weeks:

Tiger and Wilo playing with our food.
    Chris also took a turn at tormenting the goat.
  • This week I worked with the teachers and the community-based organization that runs the pre-school to plan an opening celebration for the pre-school classroom which was recently constructed and the third full-time teacher that was hired.  The pre-school is supported heavily by the organization I manage, and the teachers are employed by us.  During our meeting, we were planning the menu.  I suggested nsima, the staple food of stiff corn meal, together with Chinese cabbage, a goat, and several chickens that would be killed for the event.  Chris and I are addicted to nsima and other local foods.  The teachers and community-based organization protested the idea of nsima, insisting that such an event required rice, a luxury food.  I reluctantly agreed.  On the day of the event, as the teachers were preparing the feast, the head pre-school teacher started heating a small pot of water over the fire, sprinkling in a bit of corn meal.  She smiled at me and said, “I’m preparing nsima for my abwana.”  Abwana is a Swahili word meaning boss, which the pre-school teachers often call me affectionately.  It was nice that amidst the bustle of preparing lunch for 50 people, she made sure that I received an individual-sized portion of my favorite food.
    The feast; an after shot of the goat above
Early this week, the well supplying piped water to the guesthouse ran nearly dry, exacerbated by the hot, dry season’s low water table and the collapsing, sandy soil.  Out of necessity, I put on my bathing suit and waded into Lake Malawi to wash up, like many of our neighbors do.  While taking respite from the heat by sitting in the shallow waters, I was soon surrounded by four small children.  With big smiles, they all sat on my outstretched legs and started chattering.  After a little while, the girls started splashing water onto my arms and hair and scrubbing, urging “Sambani,” or “Please, bathe.”  Obviously, they thought I was not getting properly clean by just sitting in the water.  We were all giggling, me from the absurdity of being washed by children no older than six.

Chris has recently been hired as the guesthouse manager and marketing assistant at the organization I work for as field manager.  This position allows Chris to get a salary for taking photographs and the freedom to work on his other interest of agriculture by creating a garden at the guesthouse.  Chris worked with three of the groundskeepers / security guards at the guesthouse to make compost out of kitchen scraps, dried grasses, rice husks, swamp muck and cow excrement, in preparation for the permaculture garden they will create in the rainy season.  Making compost using this method is novel, and the guards were excited to learn this new agricultural technique from Chris.  He saw some of them reading the agriculture book he had lent them to learn more.  One of them collected cow excrement in sacks from his animals’ pen, and another drove with Chris to the flood plain to gather material (He later used their conversations during this time to create a lesson plan entitled “Adventure in the Marsh” during our ChiChewa language lesson).  As the compost decomposes, it becomes very hot to the touch.  Chris had told them to expect this during the demonstration.  Several days after its creation, all of the guards that worked with him approached him individually and commented on the temperature enthusiastically.  They were surprised at just how hot it had grown, and were even more motivated to learn further lessons from Chris.

On the national holiday of Mother’s Day, we visited a crocodile farm that produces meat and leather.  The volunteers had never tasted crocodile before, so I used the money allotted for purchasing meat each week to buy 2.5 kg of crocodile meat, which was half the price of the beef we usually buy in town.  We proudly presented it to the guesthouse’s cook, who takes our weird mzungu, Western ideas in stride.  However, she didn’t know how to prepare it, as she has never tasted crocodile meat.  I put Chris in charge of helping her cook lunch for the five staff and twelve European volunteers.  He referenced a recipe for crocodile curry online, and together they hacked through the tough spine to debone the meat and simmered it with potatoes, tomatoes and spices.  Chris liked working with her, combining her expertise and his vision to create a hearty curry stew.  All twelve of the volunteers, who are somewhat picky as to what they eat and complain about eating local food, devoured the curry with gusto.