Thursday, December 16, 2010

As time passes . . .

As time passes here in Malawi everything seems to be getting easier. It is as if my life here in Malawi started out ill-shaped and spiny but time has ground out lots of rough edges. Things that used to bother me aren't really that grating anymore. Transport, my work situation, dietary concerns and everything else are just not so bothersome. The reasons for this change are many. In part, I just don't care as much as I did; after a certain amount of frustration I don't get bent out of shape about these things. Perhaps my attitude has been Africanized, haha. I'll just sit around and wait, just expecting that "it" will get done someday. It isn't a good thing really, but it certainly is a survival tactic.

News flash! I just got the papers I was waiting for to write a grant and I am now going to do that. Perhaps I should write that I want to have a business camp and that we'll include HIV/AIDS education. Stopping HIV/AIDS and helping Malawians jump start their stagnant economy with private entrepreneurship skills. Yeah boy! Anyway, I'll let ya'll know about the progress on that.

Oh, and as a side note, I've got a girlfriend who is another Peace Corps Volunteer in the South of Malawi. Her name is Megan Wilkerson and she is a nurse from Indiana who went to school at Purdue. I think she is an outstanding human being who is fun to be around. I enjoy her companionship, we'll see where things between us go. In the meantime, it is great to have her support. We are also going to Victoria Falls together next week with some other volunteers. It's gonna be good times.

Ok, time for work. See you all!

Saturday, November 20, 2010

The rain is here!

My life has settled into a nice routine of gardening, reading, visiting with friends, and working on projects. I wake up every day at 5am and work on my garden. I'm making a gravel path around my house, swales to reroute water, terraces for soil conservation, and planting trees aplenty. I'm reading all kinds of stuff, mainly nonfiction. I am just a non-fiction kinda guy; I have been reading a lot about permaculture and books on development of impovershed nations. I guess due to my lack of enthusiasm for Malawian culture and lack of affinity for Malawians themselves I've been feeling very free about travelling around. I've been visiting my friends a lot on the weekends. I want to the southern province of Thyolo for Halloween, last week I spent playing around the lake, and this weekend I'm chilling with my homey Ben Nebo in Lilongwe. This Peace Corps gig is not all about helping others. Today we made quiche, it was bad ass! And then there are my projects . . .

Well my greatest love lies in my agricultural pursuits. Inside of my fence I am working hard to create the most awesome permaculture garden that Peace Corps has ever seen and outside of my fence I'm working on a more educational demonstration plot. Perhaps demonstration is the best way to teach these people here. At least I could lead a horse to water . . . Otherwise my oil pressing group is moving along. I am making them do yard work for me to help pay for the oil press, but I'm not able to find the hybrid peanut seeds I want. But perhaps the most interesting project I'm working on is forging a relationship between my village and a company that sells baobab fruit powder. This would entail my villagers providing labor to collect and do minor processing to the fruit. The company will provide bags, rent money for storage in the village, and a vehicle for transportation of goods. It would be a great deal if people would only get their asses in gear and work hard! We'll see . . . I'm gonna have a meeting on wednesday with people who are interested in doing the actual collection. We'll see who shows up. . . . I don't know. I've had several meetings and informal informational sessions, we'll see who is really enthusiastic. All I need to do to derail and project with these people is put them in a possition of responsibility. When someone wants to do a mud stove training, all I have to do is say, " OK, you collect the materials and I'll come do the training. Tell me when you've got them and I'll come." Most of the time that is all that is necessary. So you'd think that asking them to show up wasn't much . . . but it is really quite impressive when they are that responsible. Can you tell that I don't particularly care to work with Malawians? hate to say it, but it's true.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Just a little something while I happened to be near a computer

Hello Internet! I’m here in Lilongwe on sort of a random Sunday and there is no one here so I get all the bandwidth at the IRC to myself! MWahahah! I didn’t finish my last post on my trip to Liwonde, but let’s just say that I saw lots of animals and it was totally sweet! I would also like to note that there was a certain part where we went to a lodge to use the pool. When we arrived there was a huge crowd of devout Muslims wearing head to toe clothing in the pool, women in burkhas sitting at tables, and any man that could was sporting a beard. This isn’t a problem, nor does it bother me. However, my friends and I were pouring liquor into our cokes and we were only wearing our sort shorts, which made us feel we might be a little offensive. Certainly an awkward turtle situation if there ever was one. But it was also hilarious!

Hmm, I am just waiting for my good friend Prashantha to show up at the IRC so we can have a meeting of the minds and discuss the possibility of a business camp. He is an interesting guy; an Indian immigrant who worked in Boston’s financial sector for a couple years before coming to Peace Corps. Most of his work so far seems to be about different business related things; Selling peanut oil, using the waste product to make peanut candies, and more marketing things that I’m really not sure of the details. Here in Malawi, and as I’m lead to believe all over East Africa, most of the major businesses are run by Indians or Pakastanis. The Chinese are sort of late comers to the game, but they certainly have their claim in the game now. But why is that? Why aren’t there more successful black Malawian business men? Lack of training I suppose, they don’t have the technical knowledge.

In other news, when I got back to my village, I was greeted by a broken borehole. What bad timing I tell you! Right when things really started to heat up, my source of water crapped out on me! Oy, vey! The villagers tried to fix it by replacing an O-ring, but that didn’t fix the problem and now they are depending on me. It’s not that I mind helping them fix it, I am here to help, but the dependence unnerves me. A former volunteer got funding for the construction of the borehole and now they are depending on another volunteer to fix it when the quick, easy solution was to no avail. What will happen in the future when there isn’t a volunteer around?

When David Livingston arrived in this part of Africa, he and his compatriots considered the local inhabitants primitive. They wore very little clothing, lacked complex nations, and lagged behind the Eurpoeans in technological advancement. But they were progressing, just at a different speed. The Chewa had mastered archery and learned metallurgy which they used to create weapons. They had independently (at least of Europeans) attained this knowledge and had the proceeding foundation to build upon.

But it feels like now there is a serious disconnect between the imported technology available and Malawi’s ability to comprehend those goods. It’s different from in America where the average person watches TV but couldn’t build a TV, or even knows the fundamental principles behind it. All of the expertise necessary to construct, maintain, and understand the machines exists. Furthermore, there is a strong supply chain that can be tapped to access what has been out sourced. Malawi is devoid of all of these things due to its lack of education, expertise, and internal structure.

People love to use all kinds of technology here, but don’t know what to do or even prepare for them to break down. My borehole is a good example; the villagers were anxious to use the borehole, but not learn how to fix it or where to go for help when it breaks down. They told me that they man who came to teach about maintenance didn’t do a very good job. Which made me silently ask, “Well, if you knew that your education on the pump was inadequate, why didn’t you seek out more? Or ask me previously to do so on your behalf?” This is a modern convenience that they want to benefit from but cannot maintain do to their lack of competence. They are dependent on foreign goods and foreigners. And the way I move to take care of it all for them makes me feel like I am enabling them to remain this way. In addition to fixing this borehole, I must help to strengthen the community’s sense of ownership of the borehole and further their education on how to fix it. Capacity building is important, they must learn to do things for themselves.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Liwonde National Park

I just spent the last four days at the Liwonde National Park taking part in the annual game count. It consisted of other volunteers, rangers with M16s, and myself doing transect walks through the park and stationary counts. We saw herds of elephants, several hippos, hundreds of impala, hundreds of water buck, sable, kudu, vervet monkeys, yellow baboons, banded mongoose, warthogs, duiker, and probably a few other animals that I am not remembering. Put simply, I had a great time!

The first day we arrived about mid afternoon and just wandered around the youth hostel camp where we stayed. Immediately we encountered a handful of animals while walking around the mopane woodlands that constitute most of the park. It was a welcome shock to see animals; most people have few living around them except for livestock. It fulfilled part of our inaccurate expectations about this continent and were reminded us that we aren't in Kansas anymore. The couple animals we saw impressed us a lot, but the following several days eclipsed the sightings of the first day.

The proceeding days we woke up early in the morning to view the animals before the heat became unbearable. The second day I went on a "walking hide" where I wandered around a flood plain next to the Shire River. Right off the bat I saw endless amounts of water buck and impala with warthogs here and there. Everywhere I looked were these huge animals with horns casually grazing. They looked at us with caution, but never seemed to get unerved. If we came to close they'd saunter off, but never "ran for the hills". When my guide heard the hippos make there low Jabba-the-hut-bellow we looked at them in the river and that was super cool. And just as we were on our way back to the camp we were called back and saw 27 elephants in a giant herd. I was a bit far away from them, but judging from the gigantic foot prints left in the dried mud they must have been huge. It was awesome.

The next two days weren't as good for game viewing cause we were walking through the forest and that makes noise which scares off the animals.

time to go! Love ya! the boss says leave!

Monday, October 4, 2010

Mulanje Massif

Mulanje Massif! What a place to be,
From the top you can catch a view of the salty sea.
Trudging up the path with bags aplenty,
We’d often sit down and eat sandwiches a’ many.
The porter and guide helped us carry our load.
We needed it to climb that steep road.
Up and down the mountain went,
All part of this peculiar Peace Corps experiment.

That is my ode to the tallest mountain in Malawi, Mount Mulanje. It stands alone in clear contrast to the plains of Southern Malawi. At its base, the monolith is 13x16 miles in dimension and is mainly covered on top by an alpine ecosystem. The highest peak, which we surmounted, is about 10,000 feet tall. I climbed the mountain with my friends Jackie, Bri, Amy, Colin, and Tomas. This is our story.

Colin, Tomas, and I set off early on the morning Camp Sky ended. We were fortunate to be able to chaperone campers in a pre-arranged mini bus to Lilongwe, or so we thought. The kids with us had to go very far and suddenly our driver decided that his payment wasn’t enough. He slowed down grumbling about his fee and then pulled over. All these kids needed to get a good strong jump on the day to make it home by sundown and this jerk started threatening not to go another inch unless we cough up some more shekels. The three of us “counselors” started to get very agitated and began considering all the possible scenarios: take the kids down to Lilongwe in groups on public transport, lie that we’d pay more, and of course the most logical choice was to kill the sleazy driver and hijack the bus (my favorite solution). Luckily, before we acted, we had the forethought to call our Camp Commander. She bitched the driver out something vicious and he pouted all the way to our destination.

From Lilongwe, the three of us had a pleasant ride with a wealthy Malawian all the way to Blantyre. Blantyre is the commercial capital of Malawi and it is much more city-like than Lilongwe. There are sidewalks, high-rise buildings, and even a movie theater! There we met up with Jackie, Amy, and Bri at our classy hotel. (To give you an idea of how stylish the hotel was, the room could be rented by the hour). It was elating to see some of the far-flung Southern volunteers; we chatted about our mutual frustrations, individual accomplishments, and told lewd jokes. After a delicious pizza and ice cream with caramel dinner, we went out and hit the club.

There are two Chez Ntembas in Malawi, one in Lilongwe and the other in Blantyre. They are both covered in floor to ceiling mirrors with young, self-absorbed Malawians checking themselves out. The Malawian’s Narcisism is a spectacle in itself but the publicly acceptable homoerotic behavior in a decidedly homophobic nation put it over the top. I saw one Malawian man bent over grinding on another and nobody batted an eye. But that particular evening there was an added curiosity, a gigantic Indian from South Africa who took a liking to me.

At first I was thinking, “Who is this guy? He is huge!” He seemed to be there alone and when he looked at me, I decided smiling cordially was the best course of action. He took this as an invitation to start talking my ear off. We had a chat; he told me that he was an interior decorator and worked for the National Bank as a floor manager at a huge building, which we could see just outside the club. I thought this was an outlandish story, but didn’t perceive him to be a threat.

He ended up sort of dancing in our circle of friends. My PCV friends were initially leery of him, but they ended up chatting together. The real kicker was when I was dancing with my back to him and when I turned back he was swinging his t-shirt one handed over his head. Our circle instantly moved a good two meters away and he was asked to put his shirt back on. Which, thankfully, he cooperatively did. Good times out on the town in Blantyre, Malawi.

Our next move out to Mulanje District was an hour and a half mini-bus away. Mulanje is really a pleasant place; the mountain is awe-inspiring and weather conducive to emerald tea plantations. Amy played host and treated us to turkey, the only catch was we had to butcher it. The process, which Tomas and I handled, wasn’t tidy. However the end product was cooked well and tasty.

We rose early to meet our guide and porter, Gift and Jackson, for the epic ascent. They were very strong and consumed little food or water. While our group was out of shape, sweated profusely, and breathed heavily the whole way. Though this physical hardship didn’t diminish our enjoyment of the surrounding environment. We started out amongst verdant tealeaves, bunches of bananas, and prickly pineapples below the clouds. Slowly we passed through the mist to reach the dry grass of the alpine plateau. It reminded me of how much I enjoy the tenacious flora of high altitude habitats and of early backpacking adventures in the Olympic National Forest, Washington.

In total we spent four days hiking around and three nights sleeping on top of the mountain. All of the cabins we slept in were nice and cozy: The first had an intoxicating Mulanje Cedar scent, the second had a great view of the flat land below, and the third had weak solar powered lights. However, none of the buildings did a particularly good job of keeping us warm so we had lots of snuggle parties. Unfortunately, I became seriously congested and snored a lot. My most sincere apologies to those of you who were there. But we had a good time climbing to the highest peak, which was very cold, and making jokes.

We came up with all sorts of silly jokes. There was a running joke about Colin starting a goat etiquette school to teach an imaginary goat named Scarlet to be a debutante and drink tea. Absurd stories about all the members of our PC Environment 2010 group were made up to confuse the next intake of volunteers. Three of us also ripped our pants on the mountain. I ended up with a rip that went from my hip to my knee and walked all the way down the mountain with my underwear exposed. And everyone was very flatulent which provided lots of disgusting yet humorous moments. Being caught in a narrow space between rocks when someone farts is horrible for you, but funny for others.
Upon descending the mountain, we made a dash to pick up stuff from Amy’s house and get back to Blantyre. This was extremely fun because all six of us took bike taxis. The spectacle of six white people with huge backpacks strapped on riding through a rural Malawian village was quite hilarious. I’d already discussed the possibility of a bike taxi race at Camp Sky. But at the time no one wanted to participate because they felt it was degrading to treat Malawian bike taxi drivers like racehorses. In the end, we had a race anyway!

To round out the trip south we went to the only movie theater in the entire country and watched Youth In Revolt. Of course, we’d timed our trip to coincide with the half off Wednesday tickets and the rest of our behavior was a classic demonstration of PC poverty. Before the movie, we went to the grocery store next door, bought food, and then hid it in our pants and bags. Inside the atrium, we gawked as local expatriates gathered and bought popcorn from the confectionery while we cringed at the prices. Peace Corps volunteers are very different from expatriates; from our lifestyle to the nature of our work in country, we are just two dissimilar animals. Point in case was when all the other members of the audience got in their cars to go home and we started waving our hands to hitch a ride. All part of the Peace Corps odyssey, I suppose.

Overall, my first trip to the south was very enjoyable. Good friends, good food, and just good times for all. I’m safe, healthy, and optimistic about the future. Love to all my family and friends abroad, stay safe.

Friday, September 3, 2010

My Peace Corps Family

I’ve spent the last two weeks out of site and I’m completely ready to go back to site now and try some more. I’ve really enjoyed the time I’ve spent away and it has given me the opportunity to realize at least one thing; Peace Corps Malawi really has become like a family to me. I climbed Mt. Mulanje with some friends from my Environment group and it really showed me how I truly relate to them like family.
The way they would tease me and I knew it was out of love; the way I would snore causing them to lose sleep and they would still let me join the cuddle party; And how they would do things that I found annoying but I let it pass cause I know that they have other great qualities. Maybe due to my increase patience I treat them better than I treated my own brother and sister who’ve annoyed me in the past.
One great example is a certain little “joke” that some of my fellow environment volunteers are “playing” on me. When I was at camp Sky I spent the night in the room of another volunteer and from that came a short quip that I am gay. Now it is one thing to just to say. “ Sam is gay, ha ha ha!” But it is another when you go all out and perpetuate this rumor to the point of where people are asking me after several degrees of separation if I am gay! Even more so when I know these guys are doing it on a continual basis. But I suppose that I don’t get pissed because I just shake my head, call the creator of this rumor a Stupid Asshole and know that he isn’t truly being malicious and just wants laughs. It is like one of those obnoxious family jokes that you are the butt of and everybody likes except you, but you kind of smirk every once in a while and you don’t fight too much cause your family loves you anyway.
They are like my family in another way, I don’t get to pick them, I am stuck with them, and I don’t have to like them but I do have to love them. Oh Peace Corps, what a funny institution you are.
I'll blog about Mt. Mulanje later. Love you guys!

Utopia;A good place that is no place

Dear Friends and Family,I have just been afflicted by one of the regular, yet temporary, electrical power failures in Malawi. Of course, I had to feel secure in my place in the universe and I neglected to save my thoughtful blog post. The following will be some semblance of what I had written before. I am at the Kasungu Teacher’s Training College to attend a Peace Corps sponsored event called Camp Sky. Camp Sky allows Peace Corps Volunteers to select a student or two from their local secondary school to participate in a variety of educational and extracurricular courses to be a part of a unique intellectual environment. They take classes in a diverse array of subjects such as, solar engineering, theater, dichotomous plants, health, and mud stove construction (my group) amongst others. Most these youths have never done much travelling but now they have earned the opportunity to go to another part of the country for two weeks and even a field trip to the capital. They are going to see the parliament building and the World Bank offices, but I assume like last year their favorite stop will be the airport to eat lunch. Along with the privilege of travel, they are getting to socialize with their peers from around the country. Different tribes, different locals, and (much to their pubescent enjoyment) a mixed gender crowd has all come together for them to learn from. The level of intellectual activity I’ve seen amongst these Malawians is refreshing and inspiring. I live in an area where I am one of the few literate people; I can write and read A-Z. This is an accomplishment that I never thought much of until I moved to a community where few people have that skill. This atmosphere fools me into believing that I am the only person who has ever been to school. These kids shocked me back to reality with their articulate answers to our questions about the environmental benefits of mud stoves. They used a foreign language to eloquently explain to four disorganized Peace Corps Volunteers all about the ills of deforestation. I felt so thankful to know that there are people, Malawians, who are thinking, learning, and want to make changes to their own country. The youth truly are the future and I’m more determined than ever to go back to my village and work with them. This enthusiasm my quickly fade when I return to the reality of my own village where the kids are illiterate, rambunctious, primary student, but I’ll try to roll with it right now. On a different subject, I went to see Lake Malawi for my first time. It was a nice relaxing break from life at site. I went to the house of these Filipino VSO volunteers who treated me very nicely and got to walk their dog. I was feeling very fed up with things and very frustrated, wondering if I could really carry on with life out there in the village and then I visited a slice of the comfortable, decadent, secure world that America epitomizes. There is a luxurious hotel chain in Malawi called Sun Bird. I went to their Livingstonia Beach branch at Senga Bay to get a beer. As I sat at the bar and thought, “Ah, this seems nice and civilized,” I glanced over at the television –void of all sanity in the known universe- and questioned myself. There was a “news” program on called “The Political Man”. The title leads me to believe that there is some form of hominid more evolved than Homo Sapiens like myself, Homo Politicus? But the program was the very antithesis of humanity as I know it. Humanity is rational, tries to be objective, praises cognitive effort, but what I viewed lacked all of these characteristics. Sensational sheep herding is more what I observed. Blinding graphics combined with a man that would have been perfect calling out every choreographed move of a professional wrestling match attempting to sound serious about the “big” events of world. The horror of remembering what America and much of the world is being spoon fed on a daily basis . . . I was hit by a sudden sense of shock, like cold water being tossed in your face when dozing bringing you to a terrified state of wide eyed alertness and panic. I turned to my fellow comrade in arms and said that I’ll never go back. There are so many strange sicknesses of the mind that are indulged in the USA and they make my skin crawl. But there are also many sicknesses of both the intellect and body that plague people here. I suppose nowhere is perfect.