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.


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!

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.

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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Coffin Row
November 21, 2008, 6:29 pm
Filed under: development, HIV/AIDS, lilongwe, Malawi, poverty

There is a place in Lilongwe called Coffin Row. Headstones with plastic flowers encased inside are displayed on the side of the road outside shops. When life expectancy for Malawians is around 50, the coffin business is a thriving one. One in every eight children dies before his or her fifth birthday and about 14% of Malawians are HIV positive.

It’s easy to see how hope gets lost. A church sign along Coffin Row cries “Winners’ Chapel: Home of Breakthroughs!” and I wonder how many people stop there on their way to find a coffin. Does that stop increase the odds of extra years before they themselves become the object of a coffin search? Do they realize their alcohol abuse and promiscuity deliver them closer and closer to the door of “Heaven-bound Coffin Parlour”? Or are they simply reminded of the beneficence of the creator, who will be waiting with open arms on the other side of the light?

Winners' Chapel

As I pass the House of Respected Last Homes, it seems the plastic flowers protected from the elements, enclosed in a tombstone, have a longer chance at longevity than that those who are alive in this country. In a malnourished country where billboards promote “Energy Coffins – 24 hrs!” and margarine as an energy source, that which should sustain us seems a mockery of a healthy life.

Energy Coffins

Living in a place where mangoes rot on the ground while children suffer from Vitamin A deficiencies pokes even further at the bitter irony of looking life and death in the face at every turn. Perhaps I’m due a visit to the Winners’ Chapel.

Malawi’s answer to The Container Store
September 29, 2007, 9:40 am
Filed under: Malawi, shopping, superstore

When you live abroad, you find yourself noticing parallels between the world you’ve come from and the one you live in. The longer you are abroad, the more tenuous the parallels become. But there more far-fetched the parallel, the more glee is taken in the connection.

Case and point: the search for a plastic bucket yesterday brought me to what is affectionately know by the Peace Corps volunteers around here as the Malawi Container Store.

Malawi Container Store

(Three quarters of the shop is visible in this photo)

While the modest size of the shop occupies about the same size area as the hanger display of the last Container Store I was in, the selection of various colour- and sized-receptacles is certainly impressive. The space is actually so well arranged, it makes the closet-organising section of The Container Store obsolete.

Congo’s plagues revisit
September 16, 2007, 4:08 pm
Filed under: DDR, drc, ebola, electricity, health, Malawi, water

While it’s a beautiful clear Sunday in Lilongwe, things back in Congo aren’t quite as sunny. What was initially reported as an unidentified disease outbreak in my old home province of Kasai Occidental is now confirmed to be Ebola Hemorrhagic Fever. Friends in the province report 170 confirmed deaths and about twice as many infections. Realistically speaking from my former life in hemorrhagic fever health communications, Ebola is a self-limiting bug, striking in remote places and killing most of its victims before they have a chance to pass it on to too many others. That being said, it still leaves a morbid wake in its path.


On the political side, Fred reports that Laurent Nkunda in eastern Congo is still standing strong against integrating his private militia into the national army. The rebel leader’s latest move in the Kivus has been to destroy both the power supply and cell towers in the area, a new low even for Congolese trouble-makers. (Though their mobile service is probably still better than the mangy service Celtel provides around these parts).

In better news, UNICEF reports that child mortality in Malawi is on the decline; welcome news for a country that generally ranks somewhere near the bottom of the Human Development Index. The decline is attributed to a variety of child-targeted public health interventions including increased immunisation rates, better nutrition and clean water. It is the most basic changes that can have the most impact in this corner of the globe.