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.


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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January 21, 2009, 11:21 am
Filed under: africa, elections, governance, home, Malawi, politics

Yesterday marked the inauguration of Barak Obama, the first president since Woodrow Wilson a century ago to have a parent born outside of the United States. We tend to refer to Obama as an African American (more literal to the phrase than is the norm), which reminds me of how segregationists one defined a negro as anyone with even ‘a drop of blood’ that wasn’t white.

But from where I sat watching the inauguration, at an out-of-town lodge surrounded by Malawian colleagues at the end of a long day of policy discussion, the view was different. Obama is a man who knows something, however much, about where we sat in the middle of the rainy season on the shores of one of Africa’s Great Lakes. Obama knows something about the largest Muslim nation in the world, where he lived early in his life.

Ironically, four years ago when John Kerry ran as the democratic candidate, there was not much discussion of his wife, Theresa Heinz’s extensive foreign experience. Theresa Heinz grew up just across the lake from us in Mozambique, where her father was a doctor. She went to university in South Africa, where she protested against apartheid at a time when the West paid it little mind. In fact, Heinz was not particularly popular, seen as a hardened woman who -gasp- hadn’t taken her husband’s name.

But here we stand today, amid identity politics as the first person of color enters the White House as a resident. And there I was, listening to the rain outside, watching George W. Bush shake hands with Obama on the Capitol steps.

Here in Malawi, presidential elections are less than 6 months off. Malawi has a history of peace, although the first 30 or so years were under the heavy-handed leadership of Hastings Banda, self-proclaimed president for life. But recent elections have been more democratic and an attempt by the previous president to change the constitution to allow him to remain in office past his two terms was thwarted.

Some say the outcome of May’s elections is a foregone conclusion, that the incumbent, Bingu wa Mutharika, will retain his seat – not because of poll-rigging but because people have generally been happy with his first term. Others say there is still support for Muluzi, the former president intent on a come-back.

I couldn’t tell you myself, since I don’t have much contact with the majority of Malawians, 85% of whom live in rural areas and speak primarily Chichewa.

What I can tell you is that Obama’s inauguration is on the front page of Malawi’s Nation today for a reason, that Malawian blogger Steve Shara noted well some months back that Obama’s election would certainly be significant for Africa.

But more than that, the vision of an inauguration where the former president shakes hand with the incoming president cordially and the only weapons present are the age-old canons, which fire at the conclusion of ceremonies, is something to watch.

Having been through elections in DRC in 2006, I have experienced the excitement of elections that decays into the promise of violence. Malawi is most certainly a different country but I’ll tell you that nothing is a foregone conclusion. Here’s hoping that Malawi’s elections will be both peaceful and democratic.

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The Face of a Dollar a Day
April 6, 2008, 4:27 pm
Filed under: africa, bednet, children, cholera, development, driving, health, malaria, poverty, roads, water

Since I was little, Sally Struthers has been asking us to sponsor a child somewhere in the world who is living on less than a dollar a day. I’ve been working in Africa for the better part of the last ten years and have become accustomed to what I see in the village -where most African still live- that once made me stop and think. Six year olds taking care of two-year olds. Kids running around with swollen bellies full of parasites and orange-tinged hair – a sure sign of malnutrition.

In the countryside after the rains, the fields are full of green green crops and overripe mangoes lie rotting on the ground, and I can’t help but wonder how people here can be so poor. The soil is volcanic and fertile. But it’s malaria season, flooding has brought cholera to the surface, and bridges to health centers have washed away only to be rebuilt after an interminable period of time.

Here in Malawi, 133 of every 1000 children born dies before they turn 5. Amazingly, this figure is down from 189 deaths in 2000. Forty-six percent of children are stunted from malnutrition, and only 64% make it through enough school to considered be literate. Over half of Malawians live on less than a dollar a day.

I was in the bush last weekend, face to face with a young man speaking decent English with a good head on his shoulders. He has 2 small children, his wife has passed away. His salary comes out to a bit over a dollar a day, making him just slightly better off than many others in the village. But averaged across his small family of 3, he and his little boy and girl are each living on about 35 cents a day. Even if his kids don’t go to bed hungry, any extra cost -a minibus ride to the health center, a few secondhand clothes- will seriously set them back.

Progress is made slowly, but today out of each thousand born, 56 more children than at the beginning of the decade make it to their 5th birthday. Each step, however small a stride in keeping those most vulnerable alive, is bringing us closer to a world in which a child can grow up to earn more than a dollar a day.

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10 Things You Should Know Before Coming to Africa
March 18, 2008, 5:28 pm
Filed under: africa, culture, driving, electricity, roads, travel

I recently discovered that a friend of mine who’s never been to Africa before will be moving to Malawi with the Peace Corps in a couple of months. In honor of his impending arrival, I give you The Basics: 10 Things You Should Know Before Coming to Africa.

10. There are children everywhere: in the village playing, in the city begging, in the river washing (a few of them are in school, too).

9. There are people everywhere. People live life  outside from cooking and washing to socializing and working. And if you’re over 18 and still alone in the world, they want to know why you’re not married/reproducing yet.

8. Not matter how far in the bush you are, you can always find a cold beer. And 5 guys waiting for you to buy them one too.

7. The following items are considered legitimate supplies for vehicle repair: twigs, cardboard, tree sap.

6. Toilet paper in public restrooms is about as scarce as Democrats in the current administration.

5. The phrase ‘time is money‘ has no meaning. Be prepared to spend most of your time waiting for a bus/your lunch/your bill/a meeting/change. Note: change will never come. If you overpay for something, that’s your problem. The overage will be consumed by the business.

4. Never assume anything. This includes but is not limited to ‘yes’ meaning ‘yes’, ‘no’ meaning ‘no’, ‘I understand’ meaning ‘I have processed what you said and will act upon it’, a right indicator meaning a right turn, a business being open during regular hours, or a confirmed reservation meaning your hotel room/restaurant table/plane seat will still be there when you arrive.

3. Traffic laws are optional. (What’s the difference between a drunk driver and a sober one? Only the drunk driver goes straight, the sober one goes around the potholes.)

2. Electricity is optional. It generally goes out when you’re about to cook dinner. It will take between 10 minutes and 3 days to come back on and will blow out your speakers with a power surge when it does. (What did Africans do for light before candles? They had electricity!)


1. Just when you think you finally have her figured out, Africa turns around and bites you in the ass. But hell, I still wouldn’t live anywhere else — for now.