Body in Motion

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.

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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January 13, 2009, 6:04 pm
Filed under: expats, travel

Susan Cheever’s column “Drunkenfreude” opens with an intricate portrait of the drunken party-goer everyone remembers: can’t quite stand up, slurred speech. It all sounds so familiar until Cheever admits the party was nearly 10 years ago and comments that people “all still drink, but no one gets drunk anymore. Neither do they smoke.”

I know Cheever has a few years on me but I can’t help notice that she got it both totally right and totally wrong. My friends in the US hardly smoke and binge drinking isn’t quite what is was in college. But when I look around me here, I can’t help but think I know that drunken party-goer. The one who stays out all night, has a glassy haze in her eyes from about 9pm onward and seeing her sans liquor or hangover is a rare occurrence. She bums fags and lights and laughs at everything.

Welcome to expat country where open bottle laws are worth a giggle and a snort and smoking is only banned in hospitals (if you’re standing near the oxygen machine). Cheever doesn’t mention it but the fact that you can no longer smoke anywhere in New York, where cigarettes run at least $6 a pack and winters are unpleasant, is a big deterrent. But here in the tropics where smokes are cheap, terraces are plentiful and the rain never lasts, smoking is easy.

Are we such weak creatures that an enabling environment brings bad behavior?

I can only hazard a guess. It’s a little bit of enablement and a little bit that most of us won’t be staying so our legacy can only last so long. But then, one could say the same of the liver.

Those of us here chose this life, whether it’s because we believe in development, hate the winter, want cheap household help or just like to see the world. So do we chose ourselves? Should job announcements ask alcoholics to step forward? Or do we make ourselves, once here in foreign land?

Surely, it’s not all of us but I do wonder how it’s so many of us. Do we magically revert to healthy lifestyles when we leave or is the transformation permanent?

But it’s not just us expats. The US military also has a high numbers of smokers, but then they also have ready access to cheap smokes overseas. Nurses too have been tagged as smokers, despite their professional training, probably due to stress.

Stress isn’t something most of us think about in a place with blue skies and little traffic, but it does sneak up on you. Perhaps there’s more to the drunken laughter emanating from the expat bars than we think.

Thanksgiving Observance
November 27, 2008, 10:14 am
Filed under: drc, homeless, human rights, war crimes

While the feasts of plenty are prepared today, the war rages on in eastern Congo. This report of refugees fleeing to Uganda could have been published anytime in the last ten years. There are ebbs and flows in the fighting as ceasefire agreements come and go like daily soup specials.

Below is a short film produced by Médecins sans Frontières, an NGO that has worked tirelessly to provide services to the Congolese people while their suffering continues. The film is heartbreaking and disturbing. Whether or not you chose to watch it, I urge you to donate any amount of money this holiday season to an organization working to make people lives better in Eastern Congo.

While I left left Congo, I couldn’t leave her behind me. As long as the war goes on, Congo will always be in the background of my thoughts, making me all the more thankful for the blessings I’ve been given, and making me wonder how long it will be before the rest of the world decides the Congolese should have those same blessings.

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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.