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.


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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Inside the Russian Doll
July 1, 2008, 9:47 pm
Filed under: home, travel

In the beginning, when I was new to Africa, I was filled with awe and discovery. Writing about my experience was easy because I needed an outlet, somewhere to set pieces out and turn them into the logic of a puzzle. I was challenged to get outside myself, out my comfort zone and reach into the world, discover how to be somewhere other than what I knew.

But that was nearly ten years ago. I no longer live with an African family, eat their food, watch their television in the evening. I no longer spend my Saturdays wandering through markets for the sheer enjoyment of the experience. I am in my comfort zone, sheltered in an expat community, eating pizza, choosing my own music, never learning more than a few words of Chichewa, with Malawi all around me. Like nested Russian dolls in the surrounding shell, I am completely enclosed within another culture. We expats carry pieces of home with us. Cheese-Its. Black nail polish. Organic coffee. We hoard them, share them with members of our tribe. We stretch to see how many pieces we can fit in our Russian doll. We return to the motherland to resupply.

A few years ago, I went to visit some Congolese friends who’d emigrated to South Africa. I ate pondu with them and listened to Koffi, making jokes in French, hanging out at the Congolese internet cafe. I shared in my friends’ pride in their non-South Africanness. It was the only time in my life that I have had the privilege of an outsider’s look at someone else’s expat community. What do you chose to bring with you? What do you leave behind? How long are you away before where you are is more ‘home’ than where you have come from?

My view of my own expat community will never achieve that same level of objectivity or even introspection. In daily life, we tend to ignore the opportunities to step back and examine our interaction with the world.

Last year, the Washington Post ran an article about the world-renown violinist Joshua Bell who played in a Metro station at rush hour in ordinary clothes and behaved as any street musician might. His performances were filmed to see how many people would pause to hear his playing. Of the 1,097 people who passed him, only 27 people paused or left money in the opened case on the ground. The rest continued on with their day unmoved.

I wonder how many of us are truly capable of examining the world in which we live on a daily basis. We each live in a Russian doll of our own, embedded somewhere within the bigger world around us. You may be an expat. You may simply be an urban dweller who doesn’t leave the neighborhood much. Maybe you live in a remote area with little access to what else is out there. Wherever you are, whoever you are, we all have the chance to lift our eyes and examine the wider world outside of our self-imposed Russian doll.

Trashcan Environmentalism
June 26, 2008, 1:40 pm
Filed under: air travel, appropriate technology, culture, environment, home

Living in a country other than one’s own, some cultural differences stand out more than others.

Lately, these differences have led to me to spend a lot of time thinking about trash. The streets of Lilongwe are fairly clean compared with Kinshasa or Nairobi – or even New York when I was growing up. But every time I’m on a field trip, driving though Malawi’s beautiful savanna countryside, someone in the vehicle rolls down the window to toss a piece of garbage out. Even my gardener leaves a pile of trash in the back corner of the garden despite the presence of a trash bin not 50 feet away.

I grew up in the coming of age of environmentalism in the US, when global warming still had to be proven and Tom Selleck did primetime specials on using fluorescent lightbulbs. My family had blue recycling bins for newspaper, cans and bottles. We insulated our windows in winter to conserve heat and re-used plastic containers. I cut up soda can ties so when the landfill got washed into the ocean, fish wouldn’t get caught in the plastic. I was green.

Now I live in a country where the principles of environmentalism follow different rules. There is no recycling center in a 500-miles radius but the useful life of any object far exceeds that which is expected in America. Shoes are repaired endlessly and anything that’s not already totally dilapidated is reused. In the case of dilapidation, the parts are consumed for integration into the reuse of other things.

And my carbon footprint? Even harder to say. While the average American’s food travels about 2500 miles from source to table, mine doesn’t come from much farther than a few hundred kilometers – but then I’m on enough long haul flights a year to get shunned by GreenPeace for all eternity.

So what now? I’m turning old wine bottles into glasses and vases. We have a lively vegetable garden. But when I go back to the US, I forget the milk carton doesn’t get lumped in with the rest of the trash. For the moment, I’m going to focus on stopping my teammates from rolling down the window of our gas-guzzling Land Cruiser and tossing their trash onto Malawi’s undeveloped grasslands.

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Mapping the war on poverty
June 5, 2008, 3:34 pm
Filed under: home, poverty

Having spent the majority of my adult life on African soil, trips back to the US are full of both nostalgia and contradiction. Visiting my mother’s workplace in the Bronx is one of the most dramatic of these contradictions.

The Bronx is the poorest urban county in the US, even including middle class neighborhoods like Riverdale. The public school where my mother works is just a few short blocks from what was at one point named the most dangerous block in New York. And yet as I drive to pick her up, I can’t help but notice solid brick apartment buildings (some with more charm than others) and clean streets with minimal graffiti. There are no garbage piles or street children begging by the side of the road. The kids walking past look well-dressed and well-fed.

But poverty in America isn’t about bellies bloated with stage 2 malnutrition. It’s about kids who grow up with at least one parent or close relative in prison, kids who are not hungry but survive undernourished on processed foods with no vegetables in sight. They go to a school where the janitor sleeps overnight for fear of being on the streets after dark. Just as children in the Malawian bush can’t imagine the development in Lilongwe, these kids have never seen a cow and don’t know that the bread they eat comes from wheat growing in the rich Midwestern earth. There are check cashing (at high interest) outlets on each corner and Popeye’s fast food where a supermarket might have been.

American poverty is buried under bright new sneakers and digital cable, hidden behind access to credit and fancy cellphones, when in reality, it’s the lack of the cultural capitol needed (like knowing someone who’s attended and completed college) and strong social supports that hinders people from finding a path to the American dream.

While many of the residents of this neighborhood are African, this isn’t Africa. It’s not one of the poorest countries ranked at the bottom of the human development index. Poverty alleviation doesn’t have to be about those living thousands of miles away any more than those living thousands of miles away are all poor. Each corner of the planet is filled with contradiction. Finding a way of out poverty is just as complicated.

February 4, 2008, 7:30 pm
Filed under: elections, home

I don’t write much about my homeland, the US, but it’s always there in the background, shaping how I have entered and how I see the world. Instead, I tend to write about where I sit and what I see around me. I spent much of last year writing about Congo’s drawn out and tumultuous elections process, hoping to draw to eyes to what was one of the most dramatic political events in Africa in the last decade.

The US elections certainly don’t need any more publicity. And I’m not going to plug any candidates here, because the truth is that I’m an undecided voter. But I do believe strongly in personal responsibility to take part in the political process.

Which is why it has been so frustrating to me that I have found myself a disenfranchised voter in the last 3 major US elections. My applications for absentee ballots have been completely botched, from receiving ballots for the wrong congressional districts to responding to my application for an absentee ballot with another absentee ballot application. A courteous letter to the state Board of Elections explaining my predicament yielded no response.

Excusing my kvetching, but I sit here, I can’t help but feeling just a wee bit disgruntled. After all, I am an eligible voter who will have to live -whether domestically or abroad- with the outcome of the next election. And since my job is funded by a federal government program, I have a decent-sized stake in the outcome of both the Presidential and Congressional elections.

I have written to my Congressional representative, whom I like very much and would certainly vote for had I the chance, in the hopes of some help in jumping on the voting bandwagon.

I’m not sure if I find it distressing or comforting that poor countries are not the only ones who have trouble running fair and transparent elections. Either way, if you happen to be in the neighborhood, don’t bother to give the NYS Board of Elections my regards.

Miracle on 34th Street
December 12, 2007, 6:06 pm
Filed under: home, homeless, new york

I still remember the first man to give me a rose.

I was 14 and standing in a back entrance to the subway at Penn Station on 34th Street. A homeless man who had been selling roses stopped and gave one each to myself and my two friends. God bless you.

It was my first trip out with the Midnight Run, an organization dedicated to bringing the gap between the homeless and those with homes in New York. Several times a week since 1984, community groups of all sorts have gathered food, clothing and blankets to distribute to New York’s homeless population. The Midnight Run is headed by a man who himself spent several years living on the street and once told me the story of how his shoes were stolen off his feet while he was sleeping in the park.

On a given Saturday night, we loaded up the vans and head out around 9pm, passing by a caterer in the Bronx where we picked up leftover hot food: roasted pig, pans of paella, fresh bread, and rolled into Manhattan somewhere around 11pm. Our regular route took us down the West Side, stopping at the Boat Basin as we headed toward midtown. I still occasionally walk past the Citibank ATM where a group of us sat eating birthday cake one cold winter night. In the early days before the city moved the homeless out of Central Park, it was our best stop with bonfires in the winter and roller-blading parties.

This is what the Midnight Run is about: connecting with people whose lives are totally different from yours even though you live mere feet from one another. Each stop was anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour as we caught up with friends and chatted about our lives with whoever showed up that evening in search of a sandwich, a spare pair of socks, a razor. A conversation. The Midnight Run is not about a solution, it’s about being human.

Over the course of my high school career, I got to know a few people very well: Tracy, the transexual addicted to her walkman and dancing; Murray, a tall thin HIV+ man who lived under a staircase in Harlem; a round-ish couple who had met and married on the street; the gay couple that lived in a dumpster adjacent to Central Park. People would disappear for months and reappear (I went to Florida for the winter!). You never knew when to worry, when to give up, when to give in.

Everyone has a story: a divorce gone bad, an addiction. Mostly mental illness. Jupiter’s Wife a documentary that details a schizophrenic young actress’s decline to life as a street person with a pack of dogs in Central Park touches best on how life on the street happens, the struggle to get into housing and the fall back out of it.

Here in Africa where people believe Americans are born with a silver spoon in the mouth, grow into car keys at the age of 16 and have welfare to fall back on, I can honestly say it isn’t all roses.

I think his name was Ernie. I’ve mixed his story with other people’s in the years that has passed since. But this is what I remember: he gave us each a rose and said God bless you and that was the beginning.