Body in Motion

December 5, 2009, 6:39 pm
Filed under: africa, culture, home, kenya, Malawi, malawian culture

I am in a class that feels reminiscent of high school, except I am surrounded by colleagues instead of the kids I grew up with. The scene is the same though, half of us pay attention, a few participate; I think poorly of the instructor.

But suddenly I am awake and listening in Public Speaking 101.

A Malawian colleague asks what we say if someone asks a question after a presentation that we do not know the answer to.

“Just say you don’t know and you’ll have to check and get back to the person,” the instructor offers.

A look of horror fills faces.

“You can’t do that. You can’t say you don’t know. How can people believe you know what you’re talking about if you say you don’t know?”

“That’s true,” says another classmate. “You should just keep talking for awhile without answering the question.”

The Malawian heads in the room are nodding in agreement.

My mind tumbles back over the last two and a half years to all the the talking heads which seem to go on endlessly, to the times (I know of) that I have been lied to. It wasn’t a neo-colonialist attempt to fraud or please the mzungu, but rather a balking at admission of ignorance. How did I not know this? The three days I have spent listening to those around me discuss the merits of PowerPoint suddenly become worth it as I have one of those bizarre moments of cultural epiphany that makes sense of everything – at least for a moment.

These moments in my world of late are few and far between.

When I first came to Africa ten years ago, I spent the month of my arrival in a haze. There were herds of cows on the side of the urban highway, my housekeeper was always telling me I’d been lost when I came home late and people in the street called me mzungu. In the months following my emergence from the haze, things began to make sense.

That first stint, a new kind of logic came fast and furious. I learned how the line between urban and beyond is blurred. I discovered that in Swahili umepotea (you have been lost) is what you tell someone when you haven’t seen them in awhile. I accepted that I will always be mzungu. I became accustomed to jumping out the side of a matatu (minibus) on a Nairobi street corner, and ate -and liked!- Peptang instead of ketchup, and coveted the Sunday morning quiet when the rest of our houseful of people was in church. I made plans with friends ahead of time since the phone lines could never be trusted to work.

I fell in love over and over again: with savanna sunsets, with fish markets, with tiny pink bananas.

While my moments of confusion became farther between, there were always gaps. I never understood why, when I saw Bowfinger in a Nairobi cinema, everyone laughed at the scene where the Mexicans purposted corssing the border illegally are herded into the back of the film crew truck. Did the Kenyans know about Mexicans sneaking in the US? Was the scene intrinsically funny without the cultural context? Or were they laughing at some other connection I wasn’t aware of?

I learned more about cultural context in the time I lived with Kenyans in Nairobi than I have since then. Each country has its own idiosyncrasies but there are commonalities to be found in each region of Africa. Yet when I moved here from Congo, it was difficult to conceptualize how completely different a place Malawi is from where I had been.

Throughout m time in Africa, my sense of normalcy has remained in tact and the places I have lived have seemed for familiar to me than foreign, if only by virtue of being the places I have spent my time. Epiphanies about where I live don’t come so often: who marvels at the man selling bananas on the corner after passing him 4 times a days for months on end?

I have been in Malawi for nearly two and a half years now, longer than I have spent anywhere since I finished my education. There are things I understand from having lived and worked in the region before. Women don’t talk about their pregnancies, especially before they are showing. There are things I have learned since coming here. Malawians see the government as their parent. And there are things that I don’t even know I don’t understand.

In moments like the Public Speaking class, I am struck by how truly I am a stranger here.

To walk in another’s shoes
September 5, 2009, 8:00 am
Filed under: development, health, malaria, poverty

I recently found myself in a village on the doorstep of a community health worker with two colleagues, a Malawian and an expat.

We found a woman and her two children in the house, the younger of whom was of indeterminate age, a sure sign of malnutrition and growth stunting. These children have an eerie look about them: a larger head with an older face upon a tiny wiry body. This child was 2 1/2 but probably weighted what most one-year olds do. We were told the child had been in and out of the nutritional rehabilitation program multiple times. The child was the last in a line of 7 or so children and the father had died the previous year. No, we were assured, the mother tested negative.

The community health worker believed the child had malaria. The nearest health center with drugs to offer was 15km or a two-hour walk away. There is no motorized transport in this tiny village, only a 20-minute drive from the main road. A bicycle taxi would have cost 500 Malawi kwacha or $3.50.

Community health worker bike

Community health worker bike

The mother opted to sit in the dark cool of the community health worker’s house.

My colleagues and I drove away.

Among us, the Malawian has what most of us would call a desk job, though make no mistake of how integral she is to all that we do. The expat is more of an old hand at what life and health looks like out in the bush. We sat in the car, rehashing the situation.

“If that were my child,” says the Malawian, “I wouldn’t care if it were a 2-hour walk. If my child needed care, I would go.”

“It’s not that simple,” says our bush-hand. “It looks as if that is a problem mother. Plus it’s not just the walk – she will have to carry the child there and back herself.” There are structural issues. What will it cost the mother to go, even if the medicine is free? Will she not be able to collect firewood for the evening? Will she have to bring her other children with her on the walk? Did the nurses yell at her for her stunted baby the last time she went?

“Besides,” I say, “I don’t think the child has malaria.” It’s dry season and we are high above the lakeshore. In fact, many studies have shown that only 1 of every 2 people treated for malaria in sub-Saharan Africa actually test positive for the parasite. Malaria is a catch-all for any unexplained fever.

“I would still take my child,” insists the Malawian. “In my village [where her family is from; she grew up in town], the community would organize men to go with her, to carry the baby.”

I listen to my colleague carefully.

There are two truths before me: 1. My colleague and I have a more common perspective than she shares with a villager, despite their nationality; and 2. Structural issues, lack of malaria and all, if it were my baby, I would walk too.

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Annual Leave
August 27, 2009, 11:19 pm
Filed under: roads

In this corner of the world, about a month of annual leave seems to be the norm. I just got back from mine to discover that apparently humans aren’t the only ones who need to take a rest to keep up their job function.

I recently discovered that the breathalyzers the police department uses in their Friday and Saturday night checkpoints have gone for recalibration – more or less all at the same time and for not less than a month.

For those of you familiar with the traffic patterns in Lilongwe, the Saturday morning cars in the ditches or run up on the middle of round-abouts aren’t surprising, they blend with the mid-morning sun, awaiting their now-babalas owners to retrieve what is left for the salvage yard.

Rumor has it that when the breathalyzers were donated by some unsuspecting donors, Members of Parliament removed them from the streets, finding the issue a bit too close to home – but this is mostly heresy. Mostly.

Now we are used to the post-last-call texts that go out, leading friends away from the checkpoints lurking in the dark.

Which brings me to my question: If life with breathalyzers in Lilongwe involved more than the occasional weekend bang-up, what will happen while the breathalyzers are on leave? Will their be a larger roadside rubble pile to start the weekend off right? Or were the checkpoint warning networks so effective that not much will change?

All I can say is that the last checkpoint I went through caught a nice snapshot of my sober friends pulled over for a minor traffic infringement by some very not-sober cops. Breathalyzer, anyone?

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Cry Freedom
June 2, 2009, 6:36 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized, wildlife

When the guide tells me there are more Bengal tigers in South African than South Asia*, I almost fall out of the safari truck.

I can’t quite explain why I was looking at a Bengal tiger in a cage in South Africa. I was staying at a game farm for a workshop and thought the Saturday morning “game drive” seemed like a reasonable way to kill a few hours. But I was wrong.

There wasn’t much that I found “reasonable” about the so-called game drive which consisted of a tour of predators’ cages and a few free-range antelope. The adolescent Bengal tigers cried against the chain-linked fence of their cage smaller than my living room. Apparently two Bengal tigers were introduced to the “wild” on another South African game farm but were re-caged after going on a kudu killing spree their first night out. No one else has release plans anytime soon.


Nursey-raised lion cub

The leopard wouldn’t come out of his sleeping hut. We’re told he had to be separated from the female because he kept killing the cubs. I couldn’t help thinking it was a mercy killing.

The lions were white Kalahari lions, bred as novelty animals. They sat in pairs in their cages and roared all night. They had forgotten what it is like to creep through the night in search of a kill. Or perhaps they have never known.

The contrast to the following Saturday couldn’t have been more vivid.

Sundown in Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park. An adolescent male climbs down from a weeping tree and crosses a meadow to join the pride of 5 females and adolescents. I saw him as a cub last July, creeping through the brush on his mama’s footsteps in the early evening. Today, he greets the pride silently as his compatriots loll sleepily in the grass, poking playfully at one another.


Born free

Day turns to dusk and then to night quickly in this part of the world, and it’s not long before the pride is up and streching, before they are loping silently through the darkness. We struggle to see them moving through the bush in front of us. The split up and fall into hunting formation. As the dark deepens, they become almost invisible except for the slightest slip of movement in the nighttime.

They lie in formation, in wait for some time, each with his or her eyes and nose pointed uniformly in one direction. There is hardly a sound until the warning cry of another antelope who has spotted the group through the darkness.

The hunt is off; the lions lope off together in unspoken unison, waiting for safari trucks and antelopes to sleep so they can hunt in peace.

*I can’t verify if this is true.

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Election time
May 19, 2009, 12:57 pm
Filed under: elections, Malawi

After watching Congo’s elections three years ago, I can’t say I was too excited when Malawi’s election day rolled around (except getting to stay home from work, of course). But Malawi’s history of peace seems to be prevailing just as Congo’s history of violence lived up to its reputation.

That being said, lines at the polling stations are 4+ hours long and I give much credit to those willing to wait through such lines to have their voices heard – my beloved at the top of that list.

The Malawi Electoral Commission plans to post the polling station tallies as they come in so watch this space. Unlike when I voted in last year’s US presidential elections, Malawians can actually check the MEC website to ensure their voter registration details are correct and that their ballot was forwarded on for official counting!

And if you’re looking for a visual, check out fellow blogger Gwyneth’s polling station snaps and stay tuned for election results as the end of the week!

Heartbreak and Hardship
May 16, 2009, 11:46 am
Filed under: africa, development

I was in South Africa recently, preparing for a site visit to a school for disadvantaged children. We were warned ahead of time that the school was heart-breaking. The group going to the site was from across Africa with a few Asians thrown in for good measure.

When we arrived at the site, we were stunned. We found ourselves at a rural school, K through 9, occupying an old house. There were a few containers for overflow classes, and literate but unqualified teachers. The children were fed lunch each day and sat for their national exams at the end of the school year.

Heart-break? We looked at one another. The children before us all wore shoes, there were no distended bellies or hair singed orange from lack of nutrients.

We shrugged. This school looked no worse than what we saw in the places we had come from – even those from outside of the continent.

As I looked at the school children who walked a dusty hour to school in the cold South African winter and probably had little at home to keep them warm, I wondered if our collection definition of heartbreak had become so inured to hardship. We were a group of development workers who considered hardship and marginalization to be the norm.

Two days later, we drove through Mamelodi, Pretoria – a township for poor blacks in the apartheid era, now a mixture of up-and-coming neighborhoods mixed in with shantytowns that stood blatantly in the face of economic development.

On the left, the road was lined with small sturdy middle class homes, clothes lines hung heavy in the morning sun. Garages and staff quarters behind, paved driveways leading behind their modest brick compound walls.

On the right, clothes dried against the tin walls of shacks that looked as though they would survive a serious wind gust but for the shack next door propping each one up like a line of dominoes. Only there weren’t lines, there were muddles of shacks built illegally on the dry South African dust.

The Gini Index ranks South Africa as one of the most disparate countries in the world and it isn’t hard to see the contrast for yourself. The South African malls peddle designer clothes, shiny housewares and bold cinemas just 20 minutes from landfills where shantytown residents comb their neighbors’ trash, looking for anything that might be worth a few rand.

It is still difficult for me to call that rural school heartbreaking. There are reasons that school had children from Malawi and Zim and other countries throughout the region: South Africa has an economy which trundles along fairly well in comparison to its neighbors; and that is why people come to SA. To find opportunity which eludes them in their homelands. Despite South Africa’s race riots last year, the influx continues.

What I find heartbreaking is that native South Africans live in dust and squalor across the road from their compatriots with a house, a car and a holiday once a year.

Perhaps us development workers aren’t as jaded as we think – but it’s not so much an absolute that rattles us – rather it’s the contrast of desperation in a middle income country where the tax-collecting government promises so much more than it delivers.

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Malawi Annals
March 30, 2009, 6:32 pm
Filed under: culture, development, elections, Malawi, malawian culture, politics

The Afrobarometer has just released some new data on how Malawians see themselves, their government, the state of the country and their political system and it’s pretty telling.

A quick peek at the new survey data shows that Malawians overwhelmingly see government as their parent – not their employee, that over 70% of those surveyed believe the government has the right to close a newspaper, that 74% claim to have voted in the last presidential election and that food supply is the biggest problem Malawians think is facing the country. And if you want a sneak preview of May’s elections, most say that if the elections were tomorrow, they’d support the incumbent, Bingu wa Mutharika. They’ve even given him an 83% approval rating.

Having lived here for some time, I am not too surprised by these survey results but they do seem to highlight the influence of the early direction a young democracy takes in its development.

Kamuzu Banda, Malawi’s first post-independence leader, did his best to set the stage for many of these beliefs. A 1964 Time article on the fledgling leader, just 9 weeks into his thirty-odd year term as President for Life and Ngwazi (Great Lion), alludes to a ban of public meetings (remember when I mentioned this as the reason that Lilongwe is so spread out?), Banda’s invention of himself as a father-figure to the country, and his autocratic leadership style. Let us not forget: this is the man who banned television.

After an entire generation and then some grew up with these beliefs, it is any wonder that 73% of Malawians believe that the government shouldn’t allow contrary views to its own?

With the elections scheduled less than two months off, it’s worth taking a breath to ask how democracy shapes itself. The root of support for the current president isn’t much of a secret. Malawians list food shortages as their biggest concern; Mutharika started a fertilizer subsidy program that has kept Malawi stocked in maize, the main staple, with enough to left over to keep the export market going and a healthy stream of forex coming. Most people believe the elections will be reasonably free and fair which leads one to believe that Malawians will get the president the majority of them elect.

While support for a politician across regional and tribal lines may be something relatively new around here, it doesn’t mean that a maturing African democracy will look much like what we see in the Northern Hemisphere. Fifteen years into a multi-party democracy doesn’t provide a lot of history to stand on and many Malawians are still displeased by the way primaries were set up for parliamentary and local elections. This year’s presidential race aside, over 70% of Malawian believe it’s difficult to have their voices heard outside of an election year (though I would guess most Americans would say the same).

What’s telling is that 30% of Malawians believe that the country should try another form of government. Banda may have fought hard to keep China out of Malawi, but today’s government has welcomed the Chinese with open arms and coffers. In the post-Cold War era, the lines drawn in the sand between friend and foe look are a different shade entirely.

Chances are, Malawi will continue down the road with some form of democracy -hopefully guided by Malawians themselves- though this Westerner struggles to understand how a democracy with a populace that doesn’t believe in freedom of thought will achieve what its citizens strives for: food security, a water supply, an end to poverty and economic development.

Joining the Cult
March 6, 2009, 3:25 pm
Filed under: wildlife

There are things I didn’t think I’d do in my life that didn’t entirely surprise me when they happened: eating dried mopane worms, hanging out with soldiers, and a few things I don’t care to mention publicly.

But I never, never thought I would become a birder. For starters, I’m a self-identified intellectual snob when it comes to animal companions. I have deep respect for elephants and dolphins and there’s no question that chez moi, the cat reigns over the house. At the other end of the spectrum, there’s no doubt in my mind where the term “birdbrain” came from. Let’s face it: when it comes to beauty versus brains, we know where the bird falls on that spectrum.

Now I can hear some of you saying “But wait! Crows are smart – they can play tricks on other animals. And no one ever doubts an eagle’s intelligence.”

Intelligence isn’t the only reason birds have historically ranked low on my own personal species list. On most occasion, I don’t even refer to them by name, but rather just as vectors.

Vectors?! You ask. Why yes, says the public health professional. Birds can and do spread ailments from the yucky to the dangerous: cryptosporidium, avian flu, West Nile virus. And if you heard that immigrants were bringing cholera into your country, would you stand for it? So why stand for migratory birds from East Africa starting cholera outbreaks in Russia?

So why have I become a birder, despite evidence that birds are well, for the birds?

Faced with a public holiday and not much else going on, I decided to spend last weekend at one of Malawi’s lovely national parks. This weekend last year, I went to Kasungu National Park and spent 2 days examining tsetse flies plastered to the outside of my vehicle. So this year, I figured Liwonde National Park, gracefully lining the Shine River, might be a better bet.

For those of you who aren’t familiar, this isn’t the best time of year to go in search of big game. In fact, it’s generally agreed to be the worst time of year. The rains have been plentiful so there’s food available throughout the park and in the surrounding areas. This means animals like elephants, zebras and antelopes have a wider range of land to feed off of and more brush to hide in. Translation: there really isn’t a hell of a lot to see on safari in March, besides birds.

The rainy season’s a great time for bird-spotting. Birds from the northern hemisphere (yeah, the ones carrying cholera to Eastern Europe) are wintering in warmer climes and take great joy at all the flowers and fruits in season.

So I spent three days looking at birds. The weather was gorgeous and it wasn’t too hot but I must admit, I have a long way to go when it comes to spotting tiny critters in the tops of trees. Trust me: an elephant is much harder to miss.

February 26, 2009, 9:22 pm
Filed under: roads, travel, Zambia

Before we even left Lusaka for Vic Falls, we’d heard the road had a bad patch. It was really more like 2 bad patches: one ‘diversion’ from the under-construction original road which consisted of a lot of rocks surrounded by a little dust, followed by a return to the original but not-yet-repaired road which was about 50-50 potholes to tarmac.


It was all a little too reminiscent of my first trip to Zambia…

On Monday morning, we left Vic Falls to head back to Namibia.  We didn’t want to go back the way we came through Zim because the election results were due to be announced any time, and because the visas are ridiculously expensive. Since the Kazungula (Zambia-Botswana) Ferry was still down, we decided to head to Sesheke, where there’s a ferry directly back to Namibia.  We’d heard the road was bad but we had a 4×4 so we decided to give it a shot.  It took us about 5 hours to go 200km (or about 25mph the whole way).  We finally made it to Sesheke, only to discover that this “more reliable” ferry was also not running.

The locals insisted: It’s not broken! Just that someone forgot to tie it up and now it’s stuck on the other bank, run aground.

Sure enough, we could the ferry beached on the other side of the river in Namibia. No one seemed too fussed since dug-outs canoes continued back and forth. No one but us -3 American girls- and an 18-year old Afrikaans trucker driver.

We stayed the night at a restcamp run by a man I can only describe as the reincarnation of David Livingstone.  An aging British doctor married to a young Zambian, he lived out his days catering to those trapped by the ferry in a place that couldn’t have seemed farther from everything.

The next day we stopped by the police station to see if they knew wo we could speak to about the ferry.

“Ah, yes. There used to be a ferry manager who was very good. The ferry was always running” Nodding from the others. “But he died.

“And then the next manager. He was also very good.” More nodding. “But he also died.”

“Do you know who’s running the ferry now?”

“Oh, he just walked past!”

“Do you know where he went?”

“Ah, not sure. But you know today’s a public holiday…”

Right. Public holiday so of course, no one works.  As one of my companion’s pointed out on more than one occasion, it was like the beginning to a bad movie.  Fade out, fade in and there we were sitting in Shseke 10 years later…

We slowly headed back to the riverbank and back to our Afrikaans trucker driver friend. As it turned out, he had the number for the Kazungula Ferry which was suddenly up and working.  A little sorry we had to leave our new Sesheke friends and wouldn’t be around to see who would finally get the ferry off the Namibian rocks, we made a mad dash (as mad as it can be at 25mph) back to the other ferry before it closed for the day.

I’ve heard the Sesheke road was done up a few years ago and they’re working on the Vic Falls-Lusaka road now, though it’s unclear when it will be done. But at the end of a long and bumpy road, Victoria Falls is certainly worth seeing.


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Ode to Rubber
January 28, 2009, 9:22 pm
Filed under: foreign aid, governance, health, HIV/AIDS, politics

When I was younger (and I won’t say how young), condoms were not so easy to come buy. First of all, they had to be bought. I didn’t have a car and was more or less stuck with the local pharmacy where I was well-known. I remember a friend’s father noting that in his youth, condoms were behind the pharmacist’s counter because they were stolen so often, more out of embarrassment than anything else. But that was the option and when condoms were needed, at least we could get them.

Not so many years later, I found myself swimming in condoms and I still am to this day.

So what happened? I started working in international health. While the US federal government has done what it can to keep condoms out of the reach of ‘kids’ -going so far as to prohibit federal funding for school sex-ed programs that were not abstinence-only- the US government remains one of the LARGEST purchasers and distribution-funders of condoms globally. Go figure.

In my world, condoms are everywhere. In the bathroom at work, handed out at the health center and at concerts, on display in people’s offices. The irony, of course, is that I’m not longer so interested in them on a personal level.

I wish I could explain the bizarre anomaly that is the difference between US government foreign and domestic policy when it comes to these slippery little buggers. Whether you chalk it up to Americans’ puritanical nature when it comes to their own backyard, an altruistic desire to halt the spread of HIV/AIDS or a more nuanced drive to limit world population growth, the paradox remains.

Whatever the logic, it would be nice to see the new Administration* change the domestic climate so condoms truly are available readily and freely to those who want them.

It’s the demystification I’m looking for, outside of the small circle for global healthers with condoms taped to their office doors. The sense that condoms are normal and wouldn’t horrify someone if accidentally left on the dining room table.

But whether you get your condoms from the local pharmacy, a freebie at work or the Happy Banana condom shop in Lomé, Togo, don’t forget to put it on before you get it on!

*Obama’s Administration’s first move to put family planning changes forward has already been shot down.