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.

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