Saturday, July 9, 2011

Living in Limbo

    First, let me just apologize for my long lapse in posting.  Internet is quite spotty here in Malawi and power cuts in the evenings make it virtually impossible to keep this updated on a regular basis.  However, I am committed to this blog and to make it up to you, here are four posts that should update you on my experiences here in Malawi.

   Moving between the villages and my hotel in Blantyre has proven exhausting, not only because of the physical labor involved, but also because the psychological transitions required have started to tire my brain.  Arriving back in Blantyre after my week in Kachumbe once again allowed me to experience the sweet relief of returning to electricity and running water.  However, what’s missing are the smiling faces, the friendly greetings, and the rural ways of a typical Malawian lifestyle.  If you asked me which life I prefer, I don’t know if I could choose, because while rural living brings a sense of peace, my life in Blantyre brings a sense of home.  Unfortunately, my confusion has only been exacerbated over the past two weeks as I have been frequently travelling between the villages and Blantyre during the day to collect malnutrition data at some of Joshua’s feeding centers as part of a research project I have undertaken.  In the mornings, I have been collecting sample measurements of height, weight, and arm circumference for both orphans and vulnerable children at some of Joshua’s feeding centers with the goal of analyzing the success of Joshua’s efforts at combating malnutrition.  While this project has so far proven successful, my return to the villages brings the children running to greet me and with them comes a flood of comforting memories that reenter me into their world of simplicity.  In short, all these transitions have left me feeling like I’m living in limbo. 
          My weekend adventures to Mt. Mujane and Dedza have followed this trend of escaping into the countryside, however, unlike I had hoped, these short getaways were not entirely uneventful.  After my week in Kachumbe, I decided to climb Mt. Mulanje, the tallest rock formation in central-southeastern Africa.  Venturing out on my own for the first time, I once again experienced the painful slowness of the minibus system with the added pressure of getting to my camp at the top of the mountain before dark.  The climb was about five hours to my lodge and thankfully I was able to hire a porter who both guided me and carried my bags for the duration of the arduous climb. Unfortunately, the most unsettling part of the journey came that night when I found myself joined in bed by a multitude of furry little creatures running across my face, pillow, and sleeping bag.  This place was infested with mice!  While the scratching and scampering sounds of mice persisted long into the night, making sleep very hard to find, I was fortunately delighted in the morning by the sunrise over the Mulanje Massif which brought me back to a state of peace and serenity.  I guess for every dark cloud there is a silver lining. 
      Last weekend, my destination was Dedza, a small town about four hours north of Blantyre known for its  excellent pottery and crafts.  On Saturday, I was determined to get to a remote town called Mua which boasts possibly the finest ethnographic museum in Malawi as well as a wonderful art shop stocked full of wood carvings made at the local carving studio.  However, Mua’s remoteness forced me to search for other means of transportation and it was here that I learned why God blessed me with a hitchhiker’s thumb.  Rolling down the escarpment in the bed of a pickup truck packed with oil canisters and other hitchhiking locals is not an experience I can match with words, except that at this moment, more than at any other, I felt truly engaged with the Malawian lifestyle.  My trip to Dedza was capped off with a jarring ride into the outer reaches of the region to see ancient rock art painted by local tribes centuries ago.  While this excursion left my stomach feeling like I had just gotten off a rough week at sea, it was still fascinating to connect historical events to actual evidence left by many of the local tribes. 

      Since this past weekend, the weather has started to change and old man winter has arrived, washing away the clear blue skies and seventy degree temperatures that blessed me with the most stunning farmer’s tan.  Over the past few days, fifty degree temperatures and days of steady rain have sent Malawians running for their winter coats and have left me yearning for the warmer climate back home.  As the smell of trash fires fill the streets, I’ve once again witnessed a new aspect of a culture where resourceful locals, not blessed with heated homes, gather round street fires as a source of warmth.  Witnessing these different culture practices and now adjusting to a new climate really has emphasized my distance from home and the feeling of living in limbo, unsure of where my true identity as a volunteer lies in this developing nation.  As I sit here in my internet cafĂ© writing this post, the gentle sounds of Christmas music have started playing over the sound system, leaving me confused as ever as to exactly where I have ended up.  However, thankfully Christmas music is quite comforting, so at least for now, I can take comfort in my state of confusion.

A New Kind of Volunteering

            Kachumbe village is a place where goats and chickens are a plenty, where Malawian hospitality is defined, and where the culture is dictated by living off the land.  Two weeks ago, I once again ventured forth into the rural Malawian countryside to Kachumbe village and lived the life that every DukeEngage student hopes to experience; this was the stuff dreams are made of.  I arrived on a Monday morning, already slightly familiar with my surroundings, to a barren white house in which the only furniture to be found was a single bed frame.  However, within minutes neighbors had hoisted over a table, chairs, and an assortment of other ornaments, so that by the time my transport had departed, the bespeckled white walls of my abode were already gaining a life of their own.  This served as my informal welcome to Kachumbe; welcome home Chris.  Thankfully, John, my trusty companion from Pensulo, was once again at my side to act as my translator and house mate for the week, which made settling into my new surroundings a very easy transition.
            My first task in Kachumbe was to learn how to thatch a roof.  While many families have roofs made from metal, others resort to grass thatched roofs that often need maintenance because of leaking.  While I must admit my first thatching lesson left me feeling woefully inadequate, my second thatching project on Thursday was a different story; I think I might have picked up a new trade.  Throughout the week, I also tried my hand at a number of other local activities, such as brick making, a very muddy task where my difference in skin tone seemed to draw the most attention.  While I tried to focus diligently on making the perfect brick, my attention was continually disrupted by the locals gathering in the street to watch the white man work.  Apparently, my presence brought good luck and many blessings to the brick makers of Kachumbe, or so the locals claimed.
            In the mornings, when I was not spending my time atop local roofs or molding bricks, my hours were devoted to the children of Kachumbe.  In 2008, Joshua constructed a feeding center in Kachumbe that now serves as a pre-school to help local orphans and vulnerable children.  Every morning, children gather here to attend school and receive nutritious porridge which supplements any food they might or might not be receiving at home. My job was to assist the caretakers at the feeding center by helping to teach the children and keep them entertained.  Every morning, we would play simon says to learn parts of the body and then indulge in many rounds of duck, duck, goose until attention spans wained.  At one point, I also tried to teach capture the flag, but I think this might have been too advanced.     Fortunately, regardless of the activity I chose, my mere presence always captivated the children's attention and they would constantly clammer to touch me and be at my side, as if keeping a close proximity would bless them with many magical powers.  However, what I realized by the week's end was that the children of Kachumbe were already blessed to live in a community where everyone regarded their neighbor as their family.  No gift I could have bestowed upon these people would have ever rivaled the gift of their glowing spirit or their palpable sense of community.   
            In contrast to my many wonderful experiences, I struggled with the idea that all my work in Kachumbe made very little difference since every activity in which I engaged would have likely been completed regardless of my presence.  How could this be classified as meaningful volunteer work? My own inquisitiveness caused me to explore the nature of my work to a deeper extent and what I discovered proved remarkably enlightening.  In today's world, volunteering implies a definitive act of civic engagement that has both a beginning and an end.  However, our concept of what it means to help our fellow man has evolved over the centuries and was not always so abbreviated.  Fortunately, in Kachumbe there exists a long history of volunteerism through community self help and people here still consider it part of their everyday life to help their neighbor.  Therefore, in many respects, my time in Kachumbe took me into the past and allowed me to experience a pre-colonial sense of volunteerism through which I came to appreciate my work in a different light. Instead of seeing myself as a solitary volunteer, I learned how to gain satisfaction from being part of a community of volunteers where my individual effort did little to initiate total transformation.
            The end of my time in Kachumbe came quickly and I was lucky to experience a proper Malawian send-off complete with all the local women singing and dancing as they wished me a safe journey back to Blantyre.  However, my stay in Kachumbe was almost unintentionally extended since Joshua was unsure if they had enough fuel to come and pick me up.  I tell you this so you can get a sense of how an indefinite fuel shortage can cripple a country and send all plans into disarray.  Since I arrived in Malawi, both diesel and petrol have been scarce, making it very hard for Joshua to carry out its day to day operations. However, with adversity comes opportunity and I have thus taken much of my time here to embrace how resourceful Malawians are as a citizenry.  As I continue to post, I hope you can continue to get a glimpse of this resourcefulness that, as Americans, we must learn to possess. 

Building a Resource Center

The two weeks in between my journeys to the rural Malawian countryside were spent in Blantyre working on establishing a resource library at a local feeding center.  This is a project that Joshua has been envisioning for some time and it was now up to me to bring these plans to fruition.  I approached this task with a very rough understanding of what was expected and unsure of how much progress had already been made on turning this library into a reality.  As it turned out, no detailed plans had been drafted, no books had been gathered, and no budget had ever been formalized.  Needless to say, this project was sure to test my patience and perseverance. 
            My first week back in Blantyre was spent perusing the city for books with Stevie, one of Joshua's field officers.  The main place we targeted was the National Library Service, from whom we received over 200 titles through their book donation program.  Stevie and I also took time this week to hit up local bookshops and did some price comparing to ensure we always received the best bargain.  The following week was more of the same and also involved me shadowing a few of Joshua's field officers to gain a greater insight into how Joshua runs their organization.  To give you an idea of ambition versus practicality, my desire was to have completed this resource center by the end of these two weeks.  However, it is now four weeks later and still no finished product, but I promise the end is near! 
            As Stevie and I wandered the crowded streets of Blantyre, I was also afforded another very educational opportunity.  I learned how to navigate the mini-bus system!  To gain an appreciation for Malawian public transportation, you must first understand that the majority of Malawians live on less than $1 a day and therefore must rely on public transport as their means of transportation.  Malawian public transport is also very different from public transportation in the United States in that there are no time schedules or pre-determined stops along a particular route.  Rather, minibus drivers often take the most circuitous routes possible in order to pick up the most passengers and thus make more money.  Unfortunately, this leads to very frequent stops and long journeys that seem to last forever because drivers love to over pack their minibuses, leaving you essentially squashed into a sardine can.  Also, let's not forget that people bring anything and everything on these minibuses, so you might be stuck sitting next to a woman with her chickens or a man eating his rat kabobs for a four hour journey.  What fun!  Finally, most of these minibuses would never pass inspection in the States.  Trunks are tied shut with twine, lights don't work, doors come off their hinges mid-ride, and often the only way to get your minibus to start is to give it a good push down a hill.  Yikes, brakes! 
            After my first week of navigating the minibus system, I received a welcome reprieve with a trip to Liwonde National Park.  Liwonde is about 2.5 hours north of Blantyre and is considered Malawi's premier game reserve.  Fortunately, I was able to catch a ride with a few expats I had befriended and enjoyed a relaxing weekend of spotting elephants, hippos, and impalas out in the bush.  The following weekend, I was not so fortunate and it was back to minibus transport for my trip to the Zomba Plateau.  Zomba is about one hour north of Blantyre as the crow flies and after ascending the plateau, visitors are ensconced in a world of lush pine trees and tropical foliage sharing little resemblance to the typical African climate.  As I walked amongst the towering pines, I found myself reminiscing about Yellowstone National Park and would not have been surprised to have encountered a meandering bear.  While I am happy to report that nothing of the sort ever did occur, our walks did provide some of the most spectacular views of the surrounding countryside and the cool night air opened up to a bright starry sky.  This truly was a Malawian treat!

A Week in Pensulo

Pensulo village is a rural community8 km west of Blantyre that skirts along either side of a rocky dirt road with a picturesque view of Mt. Michiru in the background.  With no electricity or indoor plumbing, rural life is the standard and locals rely on public water pumps to provide water for cooking and turn to firewood for heat.  Every morning, women with babies strapped to their backs gather in front of the Joshua volunteer house to fill their buckets in preparation for a full day of work.  As mothers cue for the water pump, their children caravan off to school everyday at 7:30 AM, climbing the steep and rugged hill that leads to the local primary and secondary schools.  The sounds of energetic youth return to the village in the afternoon after school is dismissed and cries of laughter set with the sun as children play futbol in the streets.  These are the scenes of daily life in a rural Malawian village, where people rely not on set schedules to dictate their day, but instead blindly follow habitual routines.
            My work in Pensulo consisted of teaching algebra and English literature at Joshua's secondary school (high school) in the morning and painting at Joshua's feeding center in the afternoon.  For the first two mornings, I was assigned the task of teaching one hundred 11th graders how to graph quadratic equations.  It should come as no surprise that standing at the front of a class of fifty rural African students, many of whom may have been older than myself, made me second guess my presupposed self-confidence.  However, from my first class to my last, I found my students to be incredibly respectful of me as a teacher and engaged in learning new material.  This schedule also turned out to be quite advantageous for my students since their regular math teacher proved too preoccupied to show up for work during these two days.  I quickly learned that absent teachers are not a rare occurrence in rural Malawian communities. 
            After my shift in the math department, I was asked to step in for English literature on Wednesday to teach Romeo and Juliet.  After taking time to review the plot myself (thankfully Sparknotes works in Malawi), I presented a thematic summary and analysis to my students, which, judging by the smiles on their faces, they thoroughly enjoyed.  By the end of the week, I had begun to adjust to my role as “teacher” and realized how powerful a teacher can be in the life of a child.  Watching these 11th graders grasp and apply new concepts allowed me to witness their burgeoning intelligence and true potential.  No longer did I view these students as strangers in a foreign land, but rather viewed them as students just like myself, both excited by knowledge and eager to learn.
            Outside of the classroom, my time was mostly spent with John, an 18 year old boy from Pensulo who also serves as a Joshua field officer and reports to Joshua on the status of local communities.  John lived in the volunteer house with me for the week, made sure I didn't burn the place down, and acted as my translator on many occasions.  In the afternoons, we would go with John's friend Sam to paint at the feeding center and in the evenings I taught them American card games like UNO and rummy.  Occasionally, John and I would venture outside of the Pensulo boundaries so that I could have the opportunity to see neighboring areas.  These adventures brought with them many unexpected occurrences, such as watching a man hunt for field mice (a standard in Malawian cuisine) and a lesson in how to hide from a mass of swarming bees (both of which were slightly unsettling at the time).  However, it was these spur of the moment experiences that I came to appreciate the most because through these impromptu happenings, I was able to gain an appreciation for how rural Malawians live their lives. 
            My week in Pensulo was capped off with an ambitious trip to Mt. Michiru with John and Sam; we were determined to reach the peak.  Thankfully, our efforts paid off and we were rewarded with a dazzling view of the surrounding countryside.  This was my first chance to see the geography of Malawi from such a height and to take in all the areas surrounding Blantyre.  As I stood in this spot, I hoped I would have the opportunity to explore some of these surroundings and to escape the cluttered boundaries of the city in the coming weeks.  Looking back on this now, I can say that wish has come true and my weekend journeys have provided me with some of my most memorable experiences.  Be sure to read on to hear about my harrowing minibus adventures...