“These people don’t eat basil”

Mr. Geoffry, Oct. 28th
I am J. Bandali, retired agricultural extension officer based in Lilongwe up until 2007. We met one another last week at the Mphonda Maize Production Demonstration. I came to your residence assuming to meet you and hold some discussions on your agricultural programme. I think you are making several progresses on your side over in Nyenje. I have left this letter with your neighbor, Mr. Frank Kamutu. Maybe that it would be possible to meet this Friday at the house of Mr. Kwanjana in Mwansambo. I am keeping several seeds for an exotic HERB nursery. There are such seeds as: BASIL, THYME, CALIFLOWER, ALOVERA. I am needing to establish them in the nursery as an income generating activity (IGA). Please call this number to confirm 0998734525. The battery inside my phone is very weak and could possibly not be working.

Kind Regards,
J. Bandali
NB- for corrigenda, we can ask Buumbwe Research Centre to provide a seed.
J.B.

Mr. Bandali OCT. 30th

Yes sir, I am sorry to have missed you on Sunday, but thanks very much for your letter. It sounds like you have a very interesting idea, and I would like to hear more from you on such matters… Of course, I’ve tried calling your phone, but to no avail. I would say that your phone is not weak, sir, but is a DEAD DOG. And I have also heard that Kwanjana is off the campus until next Monday. Could I propose that we meet there at the forestry office in Mwansambo town? Maybe around 8:00 am on Friday, November 1st ?

Best regards,

Jeffrey

Mr. Geoffry, Nov. 1st

I came at Mwansambo Forestry Office, but I only saw a grouping of men playing the Bau[local board game] and they were not affiliated with your office either. Where were you? I do not know what we can do, as I do not have a bicycle and I live very far from Mwansambo. I shall come to the post office on Monday, we will meet there and I can find out how you have made your program.
Thanks-so-much,
J. Bandali
NB- My son will return very shortly with a phone battery in which I will be using my phone again. Sorry for this issue.

Mr. Bandali, Nov. 2rd
Yes, we have received our first rains of the season here in Nyenje and I thought that you were also experiencing heavy rains on your side yesterday morning. I was thinking that they were WIDE SPREAD SHOWERS! I’m sorry, but because of that reason I have failed. Although, I have heard from the internet that we should be expecting a nice rain season for 2013-14. I greatly doubt if this letter will reach you in time, but I’m expecting to be in Mwansambo tomorrow morning to put my phone on the charge[charge my phone]. I hope that it will be possible to meet with you then. In the meantime, I’ll continue calling your phone: ceaselessly.
“Perseverance renders the greatness of humanity.”
-anonymous

Thanks-a-lot,
Jeffrey

Mr. Geoffry Nov. 3
I should have to first explain myself so that you can know my ideas. I have held the position of agriculture officer in the area of Lilongwe since the first President Dr. Kamuzu Banda starting in 1973. That was a good history here in Malawi. What we had to do then, was introducing maize and farming practices to people in the villages. I worked in most all of the outposts of the central region. Many of my colleague and I were made into retirement [forced to retire] at the end of the rains in 2007. They wrote that we were too old and replaced us with those people from the Natural Resource College in Bunda. I received a letter that came from the ministry to appreciate my work, but those people were crooks back then. They ate [stole] all the money in the budget and in truth they could no longer afford our salaries. Even now, there are so many crooks in our government and that is our problem. I want to do a partnership with your organization to try and grow these medicinal crops and make this YOUR business. This is my idea. I want just to ask you to hire me as a part of your program so that maybe I should have something like a living allowance or a small salary. Maybe it is somehow true that in your country there is no corruption, white people are not stealing government monies. That is a problem for the blacks.
If we should be able to meet at Mwansambo this coming market day (Wednesday) I could understand you more fully.
Kind regards,
J. Bandali

[Letter not delivered]

One month later…

Mr. Kwanjana; agriculture ext. officer
[via text message]: “ FRIENDS FROM CBCDI COMING TOMORROW. LETS BE TOGETHER.”
Me: “tomorrow is Sunday?”
[No response]

I arrived at the agriculture office in Mwansambo on Sunday to a sizable crowd. That morning I had slept in, made a nice breakfast, and drank two cups of coffee. I arrived in town by 9:00 A.M. already damp with perspiration. I looked for Kwanjana.
Jonathan Kwanjana is the ringleader for nearly every circus that passes through the Traditional Authority of Mwansambo. He works as an agricultural extension officer in the area. He exhibits a type of leadership that is assertive and strong in this place of underdevelopment. Kwanjana operates like a bulldozer in a grassy field, which is mostly beneficial for those who follow behind. I had arrived to the agriculture office never fully understanding what was meant by CBCDI, although it sounded familiar. I had assumed it was the acronym for one of the revivalist ministry on the circuit, coming to rock the boat of local spirituality. A charismatic group of ministers from the capital city, who had come prepared before the masses to hone in on the Holy Spirit for those were catatonic in their religious imaginations and anemic in their physical bodies. As I was riding in on my bicycle, I had formed some expectations. I was prepared to be freed from my own bondage of protestant mediocrity, and to surrender; to let go again. But that’s not what this was.
I walked over to Mr. Kwanjana to settle my inquiry.
“Community Based Crop Diversification International… That’s CBCDI.”, Mr. Kwanjana answered unconvincingly, like he had possibly mixed up the words himself. This was some research-based NGO out of Zimbabwe out on the circuit, preaching their own gospel of soil fertility and human utility. On this day, like many others, Mr. Kwanjana was orchestrating a tour. He was standing out royally in his formal purple dress shirt (he wears purple for formal occasions and funerals), ready to receive his prestigious guests from the CBCDI, and to show off the fields of our area’s most productive disciples.
He held out a limp hand and I took it in my own, and then we held hands like men- like affluent men who were prone to discussing our business publicly.
“Your friends are coming back, those ones from last year.” Kwanjana said.
“Oh, that German-Zimbabwean guy? I don’t think he’s my friend.” I responded.
“He is your brother….He is coming together with a team.”
“I don’t even remember that guy’s name. What time are they coming?” I asked trying to conceal my own sudden excitement [in this corner of Africa white people travel in teams].
“Soon-soon”, Kwanjana said assuredly.
I spun around and surveyed the crowd, feeling 300 sets of eyes strike me from across the yard like a punch to the stomach. I started off, looking through the faces for a friend or an acquaintance to sit next to, to contemplate together this non-descript passing of time called ‘soon-soon’, or ‘African Time’.
I tottered in feelings of excitement and apprehension at the thought of last year’s ‘team’ of PHD agriculturists coming in from the Lake Shore Road in a cloud of dust/ blaze of glory. I had remembered them arriving in our ox-carts driven community in their modern fleet of off-road vehicles, dressed for a work-safari and decked out in adventure garb. My dominating memory from last year’s stopover was reduced to a tactless wild-goose chase, that involved collecting data from farmers who barely had pants left on their legs.
On this morning, I knew that once this team arrived in front of my Malawian neighbors that all of my efforts in community integration would be temporarily suspended. I would be given a chair and made to sit up front with the panel of my white-blooded relation. I didn’t even know who these team members were, and it wasn’t fair at all to resent them, but I did.
I almost left.
As I hovered over the handlebars of my bike and contemplated my decision in the tread pattern of my tire, I heard a human voice hissing from the crowd. The hissing continued until I looked up and out and locked eyes with the hisser. There sat the old man, J. Bandali. Mr. Bandali sat in a row of old men; he appeared weightless, wedged in at the very end of the bench. He was bent out over one knee with a casual gaze that lay out across the pedestrian traffic of the road. I approached the bench, and from left to right, greeted the over 200 years of farming experience in men whom had lived enough to grow everything but the hair on their heads. Mr. Bandali stood at the end before I could reach him, where I could sense that the conversation amongst his peers had interested him very little. Without a word, our bond was sanctified as we were two transplants ready to discuss the ways of the world.
“Oh.. Jeffrey, you are speaking very good Chichewa now!”
“yes, pong’ono’pong’ono’.” I responded appropriately, like an exotic parrot. And here I paused for a moment, to reflect on how much of my language skills had come so effortlessly through the practice of simple mimicry.
“Do you mind if I join you?” I asked, “some visitors are very close by.”
“Yes, you need to be seated. These are visitors coming for your programs from your organization.”, Mr. Bandali said assuredly.
“I thought this was supposed to be some kind of church service.” I responded sarcastically.
I leaned against a tree, and Mr. Bandali rotated his pose outwards from the bench. Facing one another, we conversed privately covering the gaps in time between our prior correspondence, and the gaps and misinformation that had passed through the last letter; the one that never reached my house. The English we spoke was indecipherable to the perked ears of those nearby, and we reveled and taunted those outside of our tongue by speaking descriptively and in full color about the general life that surrounded us. I was amused in the consistency of Mr. Bandali’s phrasing. It was all very fluent English; crisply, confidently pronounced words that were slightly jumbled throughout his sentences, but still forming highly intelligible thoughts. And his voice seemed to match the gravelly tone and directness of his earlier letters. Bandali spoke presumptuously of our future business dealings, and he asked for a paid position and the start-up capital to assist in buying an irrigation pump for his/our herb nursery. I quietly stared at him, resolved in my response and well-practiced in its delivery. The answer would have to be a flat no. Suddenly, my concentration was broken by the discovery of ants running, no holds bar up my right arm and shoulder. They had long taken for themselves the tree trunk that I was lounging on, and the entire underworld beneath it. As I rubbed myself free of ants, even down to my legs, I was consoled with a customary Malawian courtesy, “..sorry, sorry, sorry”, which was muttered from the sympathetic onlookers, who wordlessly understood my distress. I resettled; trying to distance myself from the ants, and trying also to redirect the perceptions of my own personal wealth from the business minded J. Bandali. In the Peace Corps we have a readily accessible tract that can be used in such instances. We have the training to deflect such solicitations by explaining our agency’s’ guiding principles, which include: 1.) host-country national volunteerism and 2.) community appropriate living allowances. But I was now entirely flustered by the lingering ants scattering across my mid-section, and I released a statement that would cover both principles, and would stop this solicitation outright.
“Mr. Bandali, even if we were in the hospital delivering live babies, it would have to be on a voluntary basis. Do you know what I’m saying? I just can’t hire you. I don’t have any source of income.” I said still agitated by ants.
“Yes I see.”
Mr. Bandali explained more aspects of his business venture, and I listened and tried to contribute where I could. There was something admirable in his resolve, but there was also something curious in his gross miscalculation of the average village consumer. Afterall, these people wouldn’t eat basil, or grow it, or even buy it; all of that sort of felt like common knowledge.
The team arrived just before lunch to a dwindling crowd of the agrarian disciples. The PHD agronomist had already toured the maize sites and had come to facilitate an open forum discussion with the farmers of Mwansambo. The dialogue went like this.

CBCDI: “Hello farmers! You are our friends, and we love coming to see you here in beautiful Mwansambo!”
Mwansambo farmers: “Thank you.”
CBCDI: “How can we get more community members in your community to adopt our practices? How can we encourage people to have greater maize yeilds? We know how much you Malawians love nsima!”
Mwansambo farmers: “You should give us fertilizer.”
CBCDI: “Welp, we can’t do that, and that’s also not our job.”
Mwansambo farmers: “What about herbicides?”
CBCDI: “I think you are missing the point.”
Mwansambo farmers: “What were we talking about again? Why did you plan this meeting on a Sunday?”
CBCDI: “Ok, thanks very much for this helpful discussion, keep up the good work!
The crowd dispersed as one of the NGO directors stood in the foreground wearing sandals, shorts, and a t-shirt; taking photographs of ‘local people’ on his iPad. It seemed so naive that this PHD team of experts had expected to persuade so many people to participate in conservation agriculture without a single genuine encounter of the local culture. Not a single Malawian in all TA Mwansambo was impressed by the clarity or depth by which some these Phd. guy wrote his Doctor’s Thesis. Every villager presented wanted to see if these guys were human enough to stay and eat nsima [Malawi’s staple food] for lunch. Although the time passed 2 PM and the team departed on an empty stomach, it seemed that they had come with the answer to higher yields without considering that there was a culture that existed behind the maize stalks. It seemed that their trip was mostly geared towards spending the rest of their weekend at a resort on Lake Malawi. This appeared to be an incidence of a ‘working holiday’, these guys were so productive that it was disgusting, and I became so self-righteous about everything that I became dizzy.
Equally frustrating however, was that this community of farmers did not have the imagination to ask even a single challenging questions in a discussion about their own livelihoods. This group of farmers had sat around together all morning talking, talking, talking about everything under the sun without except for relevant talking points on the topic conservation agriculture to bring before the panel. There was a team of agriculture experts from around the world and no one could think to ask how farming happens in Mexico, or Belgium, or Germany. We remained stuck in our world of mono-cultures and chemical inputs. Nobody dared to open the window to the outside, let alone acknowledge the existence of a greater world beyond it. This un-productivity was also disgusting, but from the opposite end of the spectrum.
There was nothing redemptive that would have come from this Sunday morning, until Mr. Bandali turned to me after the forum and revealed that he had brought with him a box full of basil plants.
“Wow, you are really serious about this herb business!” I said in amazement.
“Oh yes, I think you could manage to start your farm with these.” He said, staring down at a box of 20 seedlings.
“Well, I think maybe I could manage to buy a few, but you know… you just had a team of azungus[white people] here. You could have sold out, white people love basil.”
“Those people don’t have gardens, they live in town.” Said Bandali.
“They are agricultural experts, I think that they probably have amazing gardens.”
“I somehow doubt.”
“maybe you’re right. Hey! How do you expect to sell all these basil plants around here?”
I turned to one of the Malawian agriculture extension officers and broaching into his conversation, I tried to get his opinion on basil.
“Ahh..Mr. Man, how do you look at this plant? It’s called basil, can you smell it?” I asked, while shoving the black nursery tube towards his head.
“Oh, yes that is a very delicious smelly, mumati cha?” He asked.
“BASIL! Do you think that people here could manage to eat it?” I asked facetiously.
“Yes, yes no problem.” He responded blindly and then squinting his eys as if he’d just been splashed in the face by cold water. He had no idea what he was saying.
“ Malawians won’t eat basil!” I declared to myself out loud, ” You want to sell these plants for 500 Kwacha each? How will you manage?”
“These ones are for your farm, you should plant them all very soon.”
“I can only buy two.”
Five months later….

I was out and about on a mission, finding a chief by the name of Saweta. This was somewhat of an ironic adventure, I had roamed for over an hour outside of my territory through the foothills of Ntchisi Mountain, asking every old woman with a broom and a baby where I could find this chief they call Saweta. The irony comes from the translation of Saweta, which means, ‘untamed animal’ in the vernacular language. This chief was on the loose, true to his name, but it was necessary all the same that I find him because I was nearing my proximate death as a Peace Corps Volunteer; my remaining days were held in the tail end of a month. I had 5,000 Kwacha in my front pocket that belonged to him, he had done some brick work for a housing project in the area. My pursuit came to a close on the football (soccer) field of Chamalire Primary School. At the rise in the hill, traveling up the main road I began to sense that I was on the cusp of discovering an entire community all at once; all together in waiting. There was a political rally scheduled in the area, it was to be sometime after lunch. This meant that at any minute some parliamentarian hopeful would come bumping through the hills in a trashed out, late model Toyota pick-up, passing nearby the crumpling school blocks in his constituency. He would be bouncing around in the back seat with his people, trying to calculate how much money they could to pay traditional leaders to earn their democracy. I rode through the crowd upright in posture, with my handle bars recklessly abandoned, and my arms folded across my chest. I saw, reflected in the eyes of bystanders, myself as a tamed bear on a unicycle, I had worked myself right into the opening act of a political rally. I veered right, right onto the field and proceeded through a narrow opening in a human sea of people to the big tree in the corner of the field where a group of men sat, presumably the chiefs. As I slowly rolled through the crowd, I spotted a small figured man standing by himself in a weedy patch. Although he stared with all the others, I knew that he was not a stranger to me he, but that he was some sort of anomaly that existed in this homogenous society. I could tell from his poise and from his composure that this was a town man. That he was all at once completely alone in this place and in his thoughts. In a flash of sub-conscious thought, I had shared in his solitude, although my solitude inversely attracted small crowds and cohort of curious onlookers. This was, once more the anomaly whom I had become accustomed to spotting in crowds: J.Bandali. I raised my arm to waive and he waived back. I angled left and navigated through a flow of human viscosity until I was blended into some crowded calamity and forced off my bike. I led the crowd over towards Mr. Bandali until we arrived together as a ball of people facing a defeated old man centered in his naturally circular island of weeds.
“It looks like you came to support your parliamentarian. What’s his name again?” I asked.
“I don’t know. I’m forgetting.” Bandali responded indifferently.
“Wow, it looks like they’ll have the Big Dance later, this must be a Peoples Party town.”
“You know these guys…” Bandali trailed off.
By now we were fully engulfed by the crowd. At least two hundred children had negotiated themselves into the inner circle, where they all moved in sync like a school of tropical fish, codified in bright shirts with black skin and white eyeballs.
“I’ve got to tell you Mr. Bandali that those basil plants I got from you are really doing great.” How’s your herb business?” I asked.
“You know…”,Bandali signed. “These people don’t eat basil!”

If you give a chief a Coke®

If you give a moose a muffin, he’ll always want some milk. That is… an obscure statement, but I think we can all remember it best as the title of a truly classic children’s book. It’s so silly, but then in its strangeness it serves as an especially useful example of the cause and effect that teaches kids how to maneuver through the unconventional torrents of life; through all those gray areas.
I have found myself as a Peace Corps volunteer in Malawi, very much again, lost in a child-like wonder; as a rediscovered patron of children book ideologies. Like a child of 8, I am wide-eyed to the new situations that unfold around me and I try diligently, as much as I can, to make sense of what is happening within a greater cultural context. The things that first look especially strange or obscure are, in the end, very relevant to the people I live with. From this perspective, I’ve come to believe very strongly that rational people do their very best to do rational things. In this blog post, I wanted to take something so extremely obscure and try my best to turn it into a thought that you could go out on a limb for and maybe even laugh about. This also happens to be the third goal of the Peace Corps headquarters’ global manifesto.
I encountered a spontaneous thought the other day; the breath of inspiration that would inspire a musician to write lyrics on a napkin. As if by providence, the creative process was instantaneously abridged in the presence of a friendly old chief, shrouding himself in cigarette smoke. I thought of a title…for something…profound.
If you give a chief a Coke®, he’ll always ask you to marry his daughter.
From the outset, it’s a funny juxtaposition of something archaic in culture (chieftainships) with something modern and commercial. It would probably die an early death as the basis of a television commercial for its gross political incorrectness, or as the progression of the film, The Gods must be Crazy. I found a personal resonance in the idea that this situation really could happen; I was flooded by the real life memories and experiences from my past few years of my service. The potential was palpable as I sat and considered my current situation: If I bought this friendly old chief a Coke® and another cigarette, and we continued our conversation, the way we were, about the price of peanuts, that this guy could really pop my bubble of western conformability and ask me to marry his daughter! I reveled in the obscurity, and released a deep chortling laugh, while the chief turned his head to talk with someone else. I have since set out, in the candle light of my solitary evenings like a pioneer philosopher. Like a storm chaser on the Kansas prairie; to find the elements of this perfect storm. I am trying to bring something so obscure, to its full and unabashed relevancy. These are the elements:
Respect Your Chief
Firstly; respect your chief(s). When I pass a chief in ‘town’, I step off my bike and greet him with the reverence of a first borne son. In this rural environment, it is important to appreciate that the chief is the beginning, middle, and end to everything consequential that will happen. Showing respect to your chief is akin to submission and humility as a villager, and in that exists a hierarchy of respect.
Chiefs can be paid or unpaid depending on who you ask, or the severity of corruption that exists and has trickled down through the government. Either way, the most supreme, yet reasonable, way for me to respect a chief is to buy him a Coke® on some unsuspecting hot afternoon. I wouldn’t see it as an obligation, or as an attempt of gaining political prowess, but that I am really entranced in my child-like wonder sitting next to my real, bona-fide African chief. I am still very awestruck in his presence, and so in my case it comes very natural to me: I respect my chief(s).
Of course there exists a harmonious disjuncture in language and culture between the chief and I, he has no idea how much of a novelty his title really is to me. He receives the Coke® graciously, and takes note of my overzealous display of respect. I’ve tickled his ego. And in the warm, gooey feelings of this culturally ambiguous moment, he first considers the availability of his unmarried daughter.
The cost and relevance of a Coke®.
A Coke® is costing around 130 Malawian Kwacha, which is roughly equivalent to about 30 cents. As the fiscal realities of sustenance farming dictate, the cost of a soft drink is prohibitively high at most times of the year, and is saved for the most special occasions, and rarely ever to be given to children. Coke® is to a villager, pure narcotic nectar, as it is the only source of processed sugary junk food available. Please use your imagination to combine ice cream, ice cream cake, chocolate milk, Starbursts®, Starbursts® jellybeans, etc all into one bottle, and then consider that you may only be able to afford this treat once per month; that’s a soft drink here. Real day-to-day sugar consumption in Malawi looks like a boy with missing teeth, gnawing on a stalk of sugar cane that he has taken from his families’ garden.
When I, as a white man, buy this chief a Coke®, he feels like a true dignitary, that this has morphed into an international affair, that his position of leadership upwardly exceeds the cost of the drink (30 cents). That this must represent a special time in our lives to be celebrating… something. And then he considers the solitary state of his unwed daughter.
Love is the name you’ve given your son.
I should be careful here not to make any sweeping statements (but I will and I’m sorry). I proposed to my counterpart, Paul, that romantic love in the village is a fallacy, that love is a word that is thrown around belligerently, misunderstood, and popular as the name of a boy/girl ie: Chikondi or Lovenessi. Paul then made a very impassioned speech about how much he has always truly loved his wife, “the first lady”, he says. Touché Paul, but then I would argue that he is part of only a small minority of Malawian couples that ever get married because they are actively ‘in love’, which we can suppose is quiet different for American couples. For the majority of American couples, love is a prerequisite.
Secondly; there is a certain pressure that exists for young Malawians to get married. Until you put a ring on it, you are publicly identified as being ‘just a boy’, or ‘just a girl’ within the community. Marriage certifies that your adult life has begun in earnest. The last point; marriage is a practical convention in the beginning; at its very core. People truly fall in love with the passing of time, growing in love while growing in age. And we should all halfway believe this to be a universal principle. A chief would agree with the latter statement; although, he may also denounce love altogether, citing the ceaseless petulant wreckage that accumulates out of maintaining two or more simultaneous marriages (not all chiefs are polygamists, but it’s not so uncommon either). For that chief, Love is the name he’s given his son, and is not something he would factor into any part of his unwed daughter’s marital future.
It doesn’t hurt to ask.
This is the very practical assumption that we [the chief and I] are two people seeking our own needs, and that there exists the possibility that those needs are overlapping. At this point, this chief (our hypothetical chief) has been respected over zealously, intoxicated by processed sugars, and showered with my unfaltering attention. He has become 40% sure that I am interested in his daughter and this 40% constitutes a burden of proof, proof beyond a reasonable doubt. It won’t hurt to ask because in Malawi it also doesn’t hurt to say ‘no’. This is another noteworthy cultural difference worth highlighting. In American culture, saying, ‘no’ to someone can be a paralysis of the tongue, heart, and the will. Saying ‘no’ in Malawi to a common request, is merely a natural avenue of conversation. In this culture, you could ask for something flat-out outrageous, like a 0% interest loan for some crazy amount of money. As the question recipient, your response is a simple ‘no’, but then you laugh together about the silliness of the request. This constitutes only the third time you’ve ever met each other and you’ve forgotten his name. No hard feelings or animosity can arise on either side, as you reinforce your declining position. It turns out that this guy was practicing a method of communication called, ‘just chatting’.
Just chatting: refers to a conversation that is free of commitments and is light hearted in nature.
If this chief is of the ephemeral imaginings that you have entered into his life as a potential white chocolate son-in-law, that you have some inexhaustible source of financial means somewhere back in Europe, then it becomes very feasible and painless to simply ask. He looks at you as a sturdy boy with a bright future; that you will morph into a strong man, which is mostly his assumption and projection of your white privilege. He thinks that whatever you’re doing in the government forestry office is not so much that you couldn’t manage to take for yourself a second wife: an African one. This chief has no notions about the difficulties you’ve endured in kindling the flames of a long-distance relationship, that you’ve really set your whole self on being with that one, right girl from back home (Bethany Morris). For him, embedded in a polygamy neutral culture, the struggles you are facing are meaningless and the answer is simple: take another wife. This chief reasons to himself that, “Love is the name I’ve given my son, it won’t hurt to ask, and that ‘this one’ is a very clever European.”
Europeans are experts at everything.
I would even agree with that statement, but I can’t take credit for being either a European or an expert. Very commonly, I am introduced as a European, which is commonly a gross inaccuracy in basic geography that supposes that the United States is part of the European continent. I can never let this slide, however, and I use these moments to exercise Peace Corps goal two, which has been known to say…
“Hey you! ‘Merica ain’t got not part in Europe; ain’t never was, ain’t never will be neither: period.”
Another misconception that binds me to Europe is the idea that Americans have integrated so ethnically well, and that there are no longer any purely white Americans left in the United States. I find this to be especially interesting, but it’s also a very rational thought, considering that the average Malawian is only ever visually exposed to Americans like President Barack Obama and Beyonce. Many Peace Corps volunteers, including myself, are considered European by way of racial extinction. Chiefs, in particularly, are from the era of a post-British, protectorate government. They are fully blossomed in their years. They are stubborn old men; simple monomaniacs that look at my skin and won’t believe my indifference to the Queen. To their old, untrained eyes, I look more like Her Majesty than I look like President Obama. And again, this is not irrational thinking, but perceptions that have been left to run their course for decades, resultant from a sheer lack of exposure from virtually any other non-sub-Saharan ethnic groups.
I may be a highly appealing catch for this chief’s daughter, until the chief learns how to read the English off of my resume where he will find: I have a nearly inadequate bachelor’s degree from an unremarkable state college in the Mid-West. I have no real practical experience in agriculture or forestry (the lifeblood of my position); that I’m what the Peace Corps has targeted and termed a ‘generalist volunteer’. That is all fine and well by me, but these are definitely not the credentials that this chief has in mind, and so I am also not an expert. My forestry counterpart is un-fooled, however, he publicly refers to me in public as, “you, boy”, which I embrace fully and even solicit from others. I fight the title of ‘expert’, or ‘boss’ with every passing day.
Time is endless.
It has now been two years and some months, which means that very soon I will be leaving the Peace Corps and my home in Chinthankhwa village. That amount of time means a lot to me, but to a chief, it’s only a drop in the bucket of time. He has not been made privy to any details of my contract. He thinks that I have just arrived, and he still chuckles when I mutter basic sentences in Chichewa. This chief has watched me transition into the community, establish friendships, and grow corn like a local, but he is anxiously waiting for me to release the plans for my real project; my commercial sugarcane farm.
“He’s gonna do sugarcane..like one’ve them farms those Europeans (South Africans) got down there in Dwangwa”, the chiefs say agreeingly under their designated shade tree.
This chief is imagining his daughter married to the big boss from Europe. He is on his sugar high, thinking about his leisurely retirement, the luxury house that will be bought for him through the profits of mechanized farming, and his mini-fridge full of chilled Cokes®. He can not conceive of any reason why a European would live in a village for two years if they weren’t, themselves, hell bent on exploiting cheap lands and making buckoo bucks off of the unregulated cheap labor; that’s economics? But that is just what his most relevant experiences would suggest.
I could tell this chief the date of my departure, and he would acknowledge my statement gracefully, but without any real contextual cues for understanding when April 19th will occur. For all he knows, that could be tomorrow, or six months from now. For my departure to be effectual, I would really need to send a message that is both seasonal and poetic ie: “Afumu [chief], when the Southern wind is blowing throughout the night, and you are harvesting your maize in the daylight hours, I will be forever gone from your presence!”
That would bring finality; that would usher in my proximate, quasi-death. And in a last ditch effort to marry-off his daughter, this chief would inquire about the requirements for obtaining a green card from the American Embassy in Lilongwe, and he would hope with passive desperation that his daughter might still have the opportunity to be a second wife in America to a European man, to be the real African daughter of President Obama. He would finish his Coke® with a final gulp and ask the question…
“Ajepholy, can you marry my daughter?”

Disclaimer
Again, this is my interpretation of a fictional situation, although all of the elements that I’ve discussed have been informed by my real life experiences here as a white chocolate Malawian. I wanted also to emphasis that chiefs are really human beings at the end of the day, and that they represent a complete spectrum of beliefs, character traits, and cultural competencies. Please don’t be mislead into putting all of the chiefs in your life in a box. If you give a chief a Coke®, he’ll always ask you to marry his daughter, is just a creative construct that I’ve written for effect. It is in no way my attempt at writing the formula for a logical argument. In my catchment area there are several female chiefs, happily married monogamous chiefs. I’ve met ultra-conservative Roman Catholic chiefs; the true believers in the virtue of love. There are also Ron Paul chiefs, ruling the forested hillsides, who severely doubt the actors of local government and myself, as a foreigner, and they absolutely should. I love these Libertarian chiefs the most, and I hope to write more about them in the future.
A concluding thought and a final impression.
If you give a moose a muffin; If you give a chief a Coke®. It’s all really the same can of worms. I hope that just in the same way as the author of a children’s book, I’ve given you the perspective and/or cultural competency to navigate through another one of life’s gray areas. Open your cans of worms with confidence!
If living in the middle of Africa has left me with one strong impression it is that, we live in a crazy world, but with time and perspective it will all still somehow make sense.

From the American People; From the Malawian Earth

My village and the entire traditional authority of Mwansambo have been implicitly named in a ‘targeted emergency response’ at the start of this year.  I found this out last week, not in the passing of high flood waters, or of an especially bad cholera outbreak, or even a volcanic eruption from the belly of Lake Malawi, but from a large professionally garnished sign hanging up across the side of our primary school, Nyenje primary.  I looked out over the school grounds at amassing crowds of community members, standing in small circles shifting their gaze back and forth to a flat bed truck that had been parked in the school’s front yard.  It was stacked high with white sacks, tied down with muddy ropes.  The students of Nyenje primary were gawking from the classroom windows, drawn from the repetition of their counting exercises, watching their parents wait for the relief maize. And then I was struck, this is the fabled hunger season.
Nyenje primary school is about 200 yards up the road from my house and encompasses the heart and soul of Chinthankhwa village. The school works just as much as a primary (elementary) school as it does a community meeting ground, an interdenominational praise and worship house and a landmark along the Mwansambo road. The school marks the point along the road where the electrical lines, perusing through the bush in route to Mwansambo, intersect the road giving the illusion that the Chinthankhwa ‘downtown’, very well, could light up in the night. This again is only a mirage; coca cola here at Mr. Josum’s shop will always be bought and sold at room temperature. It is here at Mr. Josum’s shop that I commonly gravitate towards. The shop sits across the road adjacent to Nyenje primary. I move under the cover of a tree hedge to avoid a group of cackling old women; as a personal rule I avoid most crowds over 4 people. I am the reigning local celebrity, my greatest affect is to pop up out of nowhere, the element of surprise is one of my favorite tools and also another tool in my belt of self preservation. I jump up on the porch, slap some hands, and find a seat in the corner next to Elvance (pronounced Elvis). Elvis Josum is the son of the shop’s proprietor, and unlike his father, Elvis speaks moderately fluent English. Elvis is my source of information for all the happenings in Chinthankhwa village. He is my informant, what those in the CIA might call an asset, but strictly in the Peace Corps way of things, he’s my friend. I could find myself in this corner on any given morning and this is where I was on Tuesday of last week.
“Targeted emergency response”, I repeated out loud as to demonstrate my proficiency in the English language. No one else, besides Elvis, on the porch or wandering about the school yard, had any notion as to what the big white sign was saying. In repeating the phrase, I allowed for the words to permeate through my mind. I observed that people were calm, composed, talking modestly and in an amiable fashion. Our senior chief, Blackface Galumba (pronounced Breakfasti) was moving up and down ‘mainstreet’ as fast as his walking cane would allow. He is, without question, the man in charge around here, take that as pretext.
“Where’s the fire?” I asked Elvis in my best West Texan accent.
“I’m not getting you.” Elvis responded flatly.
“Well, that’s just an expression we use sometimes in American English.”
“Oh, thank you very much. Where is…that fire.” Elvis repeated.
“Yeah well…. the sign there. It says that there’s an emergency, what’s up?” I say with piqued interest.
“Oh that sign … ahh, but I don’t know what it is saying.”
“Ok well it’s saying madzidzidzi (emergency in Chichewa) and I don’t know what you’d say for the rest.”
“Oh yes.” said Elvis
” Well so that’s why I asked, ‘where’s the fire?’ I mean what’s the emergency?”
“I think they are distributing maize. There is somehow hunger.” Elvis responded plainly.
“oh right, so everyone is here because they ran out of maize.” I muttered rhetorically.
I then sat and deliberated, as insensibly as I can muster to write, as to which of my neighbors and community members had fallen short from last years maize harvest and how that was even a possibility. I wondered how many opportunists had showed up to receive their bags of free food only to go and sell off down at Mwansambo market? On this morning, parked outside of the primary school, was more than 10 tons of Malawian/African grown relief maize under an exorbitant sign written in the Queen’s English. There wasn’t enough time or daylight even to contemplate the complexity of this situation. There wasn’t enough information anywhere to decide if this was a worthy cause, a life giving intervention, if this was the debilitating crutch called dependency, if this was a gift with strings attached. Maybe some people in my community were facing hunger, but some people in a place like Kansas City also face hunger, and someone is running around a place like Dubai stark naked and that’s just the way things go. I was stupefied. Where does the threshold of poverty lie in rural Africa? And this stupefaction brought on two strongly dissident emotions, which hit me in the same moment and gave me a sort of head buzz as I sat staring off from the porch.
The first began as a passing thought that formed into an irritable emotion and eventually morphed into an old fashioned ranting conspiracy theory to the extent of resounding senility, and at the risk of losing all credibility from my Grandma’s breakfast club (who actually read my blog). It was a completely baseless abandonment of objective fact-finding, more of an emotional escalation of hunches and assumptions. It was an emotional escape and it starts this way.
[This is now a dialogue of my thoughts] It seems to me, a reasonable idea, that a community of people experiencing a prior year of slightly above average rainfall would have an equally modest harvest capable of lasting through the entire year. You could assume the most cunning, or even rudimentary idea of how much maize would be needed to grow, how much of that a person could sell for liquidity, how much is to be given as a church tithe, and how much you and your family would subsist on throughout the year. For entire lifetimes, spanning multiple generations my neighbors have been in a continuous cycle of planting with the rains, growing, weeding, harvesting, selling maize and other commodity crops so much so that it should be perceived somewhere between an exact science and the simple necessity of drawing water from a well. It requires the same emotionlessness of waking up every morning to fix yourself the same breakfast, it takes less than a thought (which in some ways is the major overlying problem; complacency). If this year were, so they say, the fabled hunger season, then I could only wonder as to how anyone survived for decades on into the past. Last year was another year that passed like the others; a textbook year of agrarian living, free of calamities and locus. In my eyes it seems degrading and demeaning that after the sweat and toil of having grown your own food through the year for your own survival and sustenance, that some coalition of foreign governments and some group of agronomists should drive through your village and conclude so swiftly that your community is on the brink of starvation. And so my question is under what process of submission does the UN World Food Program accept, with so little foresight, a merited instance of food insecurity? How do they in fact target an emergency response? It definitely was not the local maize venders or business persons who would have raised a false alarm. They stand to see their entire business washed out by a tidal wave of free maize. Now with such a mass influx, who could ever really know the true price of maize again. The UN has benevolently smothered to death a natural business cycle that is essential to our local economy. It now seems reasonable to assert that money grows on trees and the UN is giving out maize (as hunger rations) in times of peace and in years of average rainfall. I can only perceive this as a gesture of pity and more deceivingly as a message of total ambiguity (ie. what makes a legitimate food emergency). It’s possible that my own vision has been enflamed with pride, but none the less we can never have the confidence of a sovereign people if we are tolerant of annual gestures of pity (verses opportunities for scholarship).
Through observation and inquiry, I have found that a ‘targeted emergency response’ is in fact a food distribution, wherein you can register your family with the World Food Program (under the UN) on the basis of your family size and your land availability you are eligible to receive food in 3 monthly installments; December, January, and February (through the hunger season).
This is roughly how it breaks down. The British government is one of the larger players in the World Food Program for Malawi. They’ve bought lots of maize at a premium price and put it into 55 kilogram sacks with a British flag and a little quip, ‘ From the British people’. The British taxpayers have bought this maize from Rab’s Processors Inc. Rab’s Inc. is a Malawian company (most definitely owned by the political elite) that buys maize from Malawian farmers throughout the year. Some of these farmers are overselling ( selling too much of) their maize earlier in the year for cash liquidity. Simply put, this is a revolving fund of maize. This is foreign money buying maize from Malawian farmers to distribute back out to those same farmers 6 months later free of charge, as part of some heroic rescue mission by the World Food Program. “From the British people”, but really from the Malawian farmer, dug by hand from the Malawian earth. In my example the British government is buying maize, but our U.S. government is contributing cooking oil as another stakeholder under the World Food Program umbrella. In saying that America is bring cooking oil to the table, I’m talking about a 4 liter metal canister of oil, garnished with an American flag on the side, which looks as silly as something you’d buy at Sam’s club, distributed to each Malawian family. My neighbor has never seen such a prodigious amount of cooking oil in her life, she doesn’t know what to do with it all so she sells 2 liters for cash liquidity. Hopefully now you now have a question to ask.
” Well it seems ill-advised for a Malawian farmer to oversell their corn in the year, isn’t that part of the problem?” And to that I would say yes, good question, but this is what I have noticed in the last hunger season/year. Last year we had no assistance from the World Food Program. Of course there were those that oversold their maize and ran out prematurely, but then there were just as many who had grown and/or acquired a surplus of maize. This provided for very organic business opportunities for borrowing and lending, where those with a surplus were able to lend maize to a borrower and receive maize from the next harvest with interest. In this scenario, the borrower then has the incentive to grow more crops in the coming rainy season as an alternative to having to borrow again and pay more in interest. The World Food Program has, in our case in this small corner of the world, overlooked the implications of how there false emergency could so detrimentally affect a local economy. They’ve flooded our local economy with a commodity that works essentially as a secondary form of currency. And that is my complaint, and that’s the wind behind the fire and the true heart of the matter.
Its clear to see that this is lackadaisical aid work! This appears to be where people from an office building in Lilongwe fire buckshot out into the bush at the first beastly sound they hear (the groans of hunger). They collect faulty data that doesn’t add up to, or is inherently unattainable and they cover there bases in the recitation of untranslatable agency indicators to our community leadership (the chiefs). I would assume that in the same office building the phrase emergency targeted response has been , for the past months, slung around the office like a seasonal sales drive. It was most certainly a directive from somewhere in the world like headquarters. Headquarters, no doubt, consults with a firm full of English majors, who would never have realized the irony that all the sharp wit of their sententious phrases is now printed on a sign and hung in a community of full of non-English speakers.
[internal dialogue continued...]
America, entertain this hypothetical analogy for just a minute. Imagine the Chinese government coming in 4 or 5 years ago to buy off all the foreclosed houses in your neighborhood and then without any noteworthy strand of information or understanding about your living circumstances, have made the assumptions that you, as a group, are partially homeless and therefore facing hunger. The Chinese government would come back to offer the entire neighborhood a monthly food stamp program to help supplement your livelihood (That is only an analogy, don’t be upset). We would surely balk at this suggestion. We would say, ” Well this sure has been one hell of a recession, but I still like to take my family to Applebee’s on the weekends and I don’t know how we could take charity from a foreign country; I’m sure they have their own problems.”
We would shout through the diplomatic cables of our nation’s capital and say, ” Hey China, what’s your angle; why you bein’ so nice to us?”
China would merely have to respond with the results of a Google search in order to expose the figures of American obesity, the percentage of marriages ending in divorce, the 10% population without medical insurance, the giant algae plume in the Gulf of Mexico linked to the overuse of NPK fertilizers. They would only have to say, “we want to help you help yourselves. Please accept this container of weight loss powder”, they’d say with a red flag and a yellow star on the can and with a little quip, “from the Peoples’ Republic of China”. And to further the analogy, this situation would be all very one sided. China could do a quick Google search and condemn America of its short comings while we would have a much harder time turning the mirror off of ourselves, in this case as China is a state run government that doesn’t divulge too much about itself.
And so this was the first emotion that I felt… But then the second emotion stirred off to the side in a pool of doubt that had circled out of the raging torrent of my own altruistic self-assuredness.(that’s a little much) This uncertainty gave way to a sort of genuine compassion for the people I live with. In their circumstances, in the bliss of simple living, and in the hardships that were unknown to me still. I saw myself removed of the situation as a foreigner involved in a culture, which still had the appeal of being exotic after these past couple years. I had sensed that I have gotten carried away in my way of thinking, as evidenced by the use of the pronoun our to argue something along the lines of sovereignty. In truth, I am not a Malawian. In reality, I am an American who is moving back to America in April who has missed the principal fixture of the conversation; poverty. Poverty is a relative word, but in the context of this writing would imply living under the dollar-a- day threshold, sleeping on a reed mat, and affording only to eat rice and meat on major holidays. With that lack of life experience, I felt a conviction that I was not the right person to cast a tract into the ethics of a hunger season. Poverty completely changes the collective psychology, it changes the voice from what we would say as Americans, “Hey China, what’s your angle?” to a message that is heard every evening on Malawian news broadcasts, which says, “Oh yes donor countries, we are facing many problems here in our country. We would very much like your assistance.”
Feeling more humble now, I can’t argue in the face of poverty. That would be a criticism against my friends and neighbors for being opportunistic. No matter the pretenses, when a benevolent organization comes in to distribute free food who would have the gull to be prideful and decline? Who could afford to defend their ideals of food sovereignty?
In the world at large, Malawi is known as the Warm Heart of Africa. That is the official national identity, and sure, it is a warm and welcoming title, but the motto also runs parallel to the notion that’ nice guys finish last’. So in years of average rainfall can Malawian farmers really have food sovereignty? Who owns the lifeblood of Malawian sustenance, the British people? Grown by the sweet and toil of the farmer, in red Malawian earth, bought by foreign governments, and redistributed under an ambiguous white sign, ‘emergency targeted response’. What does it mean, who does it help? I don’t yet understand.

A Half Winter with Beth

My girlfriend Beth came to Malawi for a month and two weeks at the end of June. She left a few weeks ago in mid-August and now I think that it’s safe to say that things are back to normal. I say back to normal as in living off of unclean dishes for days at a time in the loyalty of my dog, through the hot winds of summer in my underwear, while writing at my desk through another indistinguishable afternoon. For me things are back to normal. Beth’s visit here was an acceptation, an almost unnatural, but very happy, intrusion into the law of village living and to my Peace Corps service. I would be a liar to with close that the following week after Beth’s departure back to Saginaw was the loneliest week of my life. This was maybe somehow unexpected and exasperated by a sudden change in season; the winter is gone now and it’s pretty dern hot here. But I guess this change in season is what has to happen next, and this change makes the season you cherished most that much greater in the coming year. This is written for Beth, hopefully not over-dramatically, but just as a recap of an incredible and life changing time in both of our lives.
Lilongwe has a funny airport with security guards that are liable to solicit the gullible for a free soft drink ( it’s harmless in asking) and you can make your way up to an observation deck, where for the equivalent of 30 cents you can watch your visitors arrive and depart. This is undoubtedly a very reverent Chewa cultural practice. It’s strange to think how some of these tribal customs find their way into international airports. My friend from the Peace Corps, Amber, came with me as she was expecting her parents to come in on the same flight as Beth. She had thought of every including balloons and party whistles; we also made signs. As the planes were landing on the tarmac my bouquet of cheap balloons were sporadically popping at my feet like shotgun blast. I found that Lilongwe airport is no exception to a public that is disinclined and startled to the sporadic ‘balloon fire’ of the overzealous.
After a year and some months, I was waiting for Beth to arrive in some sort of half reality and there I sat halfway in reality in a tropical country with a bouquet of pathetically cheap balloons. I don’t think that there was any sort of doubt as to who I was waiting for. Much of my attraction to Beth is in her sense of authenticity and genuineness as a person. But what about me? Am I as true to character as when we separated 14 months ago? My grandmother says that I write well, but did I write honestly enough? Could I have purposefully, or not, outlined my circumstances and attitudes, my reality in any way that could let Beth really know what she had gotten herself into by coming to Malawi? Sometimes, out of self-preservation, I’m a jerk now. Would that be highly unappealing?
In all these months of devoted letter writing we never really made a plan for this airport scene. I thought,
“I should kiss her, definitely! why not? Take her hand,.. wait no take her bags first. Walk over to the side out of the way, then hold her hand.” In mid-thought I watched her come through the last gate, my half reality was over; this was real life. Seeing each other through the crowd was such a shock that I have no real recollection as to any of the genial things people should say after an extended absence, but Beth was forward thinking enough to have a picture taken of that moment.
“ This is Beth, my real life girlfriend, she is real, she is here.” I told myself coming to my senses. From the first hour we had too much to talk about, which for both of us was a huge relief. There was the looming threat for a potentially crippling silence, which we had both envisioned as one of the major catastrophes that occurs with couples in long distance relationships. Yet that was effortlessly diverted, we had too much to share and to my own relief Beth was still the same girl that I said goodbye to in March of 2012.
We caught a free ride down to the lake and thus began a 6 week time together that we could only figure so much as to term ‘hyper-dating’.* I knew that Beth would have been more than willing to take the long dirt road down to my house to sleep off the jet lag, but that’s an awful thing to do to a person and she would have resented me for it later; my house keeps out the wind and rain but is no bed and breakfast. Although there really are no graceful transitions into third world poverty, we took several days along Lake Malawi to relax and make up for lost time.
My home was ready. I had cleaned thoroughly the week prior and I had a guest bedroom that was classically adorned with Star Wars bed sheets and further furnished with a mosquito net, a softwood bed frame and a horse calendar. I think now how pathetic it is for a host to not furnish a bedroom with a proper night stand or even a coffee table, but that’s discrediting my true genuine intent for being hospitable. Upon arriving to my house, I really did have some anxieties about this sort of domestic frontier life we had both ventured into. Beth found out in a week what I had no business trying to explain in writing ( ie: this is my village, these are my neighbors, the language they speak, this is what women do and how they do it, this is what men do. Jesus is king here, but so too is corn in a more temporal sense; that’s our sustenance. These are our village chiefs, the men under the tree wearing second hand blazers and weathered dress shoes. Those are the neighbor boys skinning a goat in the back yard. That’s a synthesized Presbyterian ‘pop’ hymn. That’s a cassette deck, this is a youth disco, that dog is as good as dead and there’s nothing we can do about it.) And I sensed that Beth was ok with these oddities this culmination of 1980’s pop culture and African bush living. She had come with selfless ambition to see Malawi and her open heart to it all settled my anxieties before I could give them a second though. She was a champion among the young women and little girls of Chinthankhwa village. They were awestruck by her every move, by all her best qualities. They studied her carefully and trusted what they could to her ever-present curiosity. I’m afraid that Beth did more for my dozen neighbor kids, in terms of attentiveness, then I’ll ever accomplish here and its true that we all miss her sorely.
In the afternoons, Beth spent time with Elmira, Paul’s wife. As I sit now and write, I feel like this particular relationship was one that I cherished deeply. It is true that Paul is my brother, but Elmira if I’ve never explained, is a saint among women and mothers. I really always have felt a pathetic chasm of indebtedness to her for all that she has done for me, but I’m confident that Beth’s presence was my own sort of authentic gratitude to give to her. Elmira was elated to teach Beth ‘zinthu zamayi’, or ‘all things women’. Even through a language barrier, they gave each other something that was beyond the depths of language, and I know that Beth cherishes that too. What I’m really getting at is that Elmira didn’t just settle for being a proper hostess, but she was a patient teacher to Beth.
Together we took on a building project in Chinthankhwa, which is no less than a trial by fire situation for a newly dating couple, but as of today a quarter of the brick work is finished, and more amazingly the house has been fully paid for! It’s still unbelievable to me how committed Beth was to this project from the very beginning. Beth had bought her plane ticket in December and from there God had really spoken to her heart about doing something to serve the Chinthankhwa community. She defied conventional odds of human strength and determination by raising over 7,000 USD, while at the same time finishing her senior year in nursing school. That’s an outright miracle! Beth had prayed for this opportunity while at the same time, roughly, I was met with a serious and semi-urgent problem at our under-5 medical clinic in Chinthankhwa. My friend Shadreck Komponge, our health surveillance assistant came to me one day and explained that he , his wife and their three sons were living in the medical clinic. They had been living out of the clinic for the past two years, obviously living there out of necessity rather than comfort, as they had been assigned to a health center without housing. ‘Zimachitika kunoku’, as they say, or ‘it happens here’. Beth heard me talk about this situation and we decided to do what we could to build a house. Early on we found some wisdom in Psalm 137:1 (Unless the Lord builds the house, its labors’ labor in vein.), which we made a point to be our focus; we didn’t just want to walk in and be seen as donors with deep pockets. The community was on board with a 25% in-kind contribution as well as a local Malawian run ministry, Timothy Harvest Ministries. God provided the funds through unusual means and Beth was there to connect the dots. She made t-shirts, held a pop-can drive, a garage sale, and raised money through a dental clinic. I think that was really the body of Christ in true spirit, at a grass roots level. But this has not been the Extreme Home Make-Over show that you’re imagining. For us it has been so much more meaningful in that without the bricks and timbers contributed by the community, without the diligent oversight and consultation from Timothy Harvest, without the pop-can drive in Saginaw, Michigan, none of this plan would have come to fruition. While Beth was here, we were able to purchase all of the building materials and see the foundation completed. Beth was the spark in this project and in this ‘town’, for that matter, and we still miss her.
After six weeks had passed of our full reality together, it seemed confusing to leave each other again, and somehow be contented to return to weekly letters. Letters certainly are endearing, but now we had too much to share and waiting has become an obnoxious discipline to adhere to. To those around us, it seemed reasonable for Beth and I to be married… on the spot, at the primary school in my village. I think about that now and how unreasonable that would have been for our parents and friends and family and our culture, “that’s a reckless decision, maybe even a miss calculation!” they might say. But for us in this time together in the full reality that was our village existence, marriage seemed to be more than reasonable. ie there’s wood that need splittin’ and water a plenty to draw. I guess this won’t be a very complete thought ( now I’m in a internet cafe and its 100 degrees), but I want to try in making the point of how modern conveniences such as a microwave can truly hide the need we have for others. A women’s toughness in carrying water for a half mile in the African sun, makes you a pretty dependent man and so on… I’m still working on that, don’t read too much into it; that took a strange turn.
Beth left me with the greatest memory of laying around my house one winter morning. Of course Beth brought a book on dating and it was now in front of us asking that the two of us should look at each other and ask some serious questions. That was a great exercise, and I know that the author genuinely wanted the best for the blossoming relationships of his readership, but by the end of our time together, it felt silly to ask things so rigidly and from a manuscript. We had seen each other in full light and in dark in the best and the worst of moments. We can’t hide anything any longer, we are both terrible liars. We just say what we have on our minds, and that’s why we’re both very awkward people, but that’s also why I love this girl so much. I’ve tried to explain Beth to many of my friends and those that ask. I like to explain that this relationship would not have worked out with a million other girls that I could have known, and in that way this girl is one in a million and I’m overly blessed to have her in my life.

* Hyper-dating; It is what dog years are to human years. It is all the elements of standard dating (time together, stress, happy and sad circumstances) accelerated to a speed that is just below a civil marriage. Dating hours are held to the equivalent ratio of dog to human years 6:1. (that’s science.)

“Hello Mama”

“ Hello Mama!”, My dad yells from a safe distance.
“Ehhhhh!”, responds a passing Malawian women on a dirt road.
“ Ok dad, you can still say that, but you should really try, ‘ Muli bwanji amayi [ how are you woman]”
I’ve decided that it’s time to teach my father some introductory Chichewa
“ Alright, so its just… murri bringi? [untranslatable]” My dad spurts off.
“Ok yeah, whichever, you should just feel free!”, I say through a laugh.

My old man came to the dark continent two weeks ago to, first and foremost, visit his first born son and as that first born son I should start off this blog post in sincere gratitude for his coming. I would guess that many parents of Peace Corps Volunteers feel some kind of parental duty to track down their sons or daughters into their geographic obscurity and in some way share in a visceral village experience. That’s what we did, my dad and I.

He arrived on the 12 noon flight into Lilongwe dressed like an over-50 model for Colombia Sportswear and on the verge of kidney failure. I knew that my dad’s first instincts in a wearisome travel situation would be to find a cold coke and a carpeted room at the Best Western. We unwound upstairs at the airport lounge with a couple of cold cokes and some plates of chicken and rice. As I finished my chicken, I saw a sort of sad look come across my dad’s face. He was watching me eat. And then I realized that my dad has probably never seen someone gnaw off the cartilage of a chicken bone and suck out the marrow. Within thirty minutes of our reunion, I had unintelligibly revealed aspects of my village existence as a person who is protein deprived and opportunistic. Immediately sensing his shock and thinking fervently of Peace Corps goal 3, I grabbed his unfinished chicken and repeated the carnage, maybe even drooling this time for effect, trying to hold eye contact. This was my perfect opportunity to set a precedent for our 9 days together, after all being together in a new hemisphere would offer up a bounty unavoidably strange things.

“ Hey!, so I just don’t want to be stuck in some village tonight.”
“Ok dad, but if we got stuck here over night that wouldn’t be the end of the world”
“I’m sure they’re all very nice, but we have no idea where we are.”
“ We’re headed in the right direction, don’t worry all roads lead to Ntchisi Boma [town]”

In our visit we covered nearly 1,200 kilometers from Lilongwe to Liwonde, Salima up to my home in Chinthankhwa village. Up north through Mzuzu, and on the lake shore of Nkhata Bay. We conquered Ntchisi Mountain in a 4 wheel drive diesel truck only to be overtaken and made small by an immense rain forest encircling the summit (we walked in the rain forest). We were assigned a wildlife guard named Danger, who took us on a boat safari up the Shire River. He had a keen eye for interesting predatory birds and lived up to his name by sitting on his life jacket the entire way. While visiting a game park in Salima district, we had a temporary battery failure in our rental truck. Of course this happened at around dusk with the window down in a field of zebras. For my dad and I this was in bitter contradiction to all of the hope we had placed in name brand recognition. AVIS car rental is not only alphabetically high in the yellow pages, but they want to be payed well too. I kept with a saying that I had picked up as a Forest Service employee, “you get what you pay for”, yet this pragmatic expression served no remedy, we payed for the best and we were still stuck in a field of zebras. This was the perfect segway into the premise that things breakdown in awkward places all over this country and we should count ourselves blessed that there were no natural predators in the park or overly pregnant women in our party. We spent the evening in perfect safety, zebras are really just sort of adorable, clumsy animals. We cooked soup over a fire, found a few cold beers at the park office, and caught up on all of the small technicalities we’d been missing in each others lives for a year and some months. And we could catch our breaths and get back to center from the previous nights activities at Mvu Camp. That previous night we had been both pampered and driven into perilous situations with elephants , that was sort of their package deal at Mvu. Our Malawian guides were almost hyper-punctual, which from my end seemed deeply ironic and perplexing; this was vacation? But my dad saw a lot of amazing game animals, which turns out was to be our second objective of the trip. At the end of one safari drive we emerged into a clearing of tiki torches, a roaring bonfire, and fifteen servers and cooks on the ready to accommodate our culinary needs and dietary preferences. This…was our ‘bush dinner’. I am not of the right perspective to gloat on, this was a vacation and not a bush dinner and I had to try especially hard to avoid the literal-ism. I found myself in a few Chichewa conversations with the staff, they all lived in a nearby village, and that’s where I had to stop. I felt a wave of guilt overtake me, I felt like I was a fake and trying to prove something to these Malawian nationals, so I sat back down at a table of wine, drinking up the sophistication volunteered by diplomats and psychiatrists from Scotland.(and of course my father). I ate the most delicious food I’ve ever tasted in my young adult life, there were multiple tea breaks and soft music in wooded places. Although the place was literally surrounded by wild animals, my did and I still felt safe enough to take our own photo shoot with the matching bathrobes that were discovered in our private chalet. This was essentially the ultimate ‘Reward Challenge’ that my dad and I had dreamed about through all those years of watching Survivor (CBS) back in Ohio. We finally won! Or that’s how I felt anyway, I know he had to pay for everything. Mvu Camp was a pretty wild excursion, but I felt deeply that this trip would be a waste if my dad and I only wanted to float around to renowned luxury destinations. More than anything from this trip I wanted to show him the 90% of Malawi that was so far unseen. The good, the bad, the existence of the village, the existence of mine.

“People eat this stuff [nsima] all the time then?”
“Yeah dad, that’s what they grow. That’s sort of a central pillar to their culture.”

We traveled north to Central Lake Shore Malawi. We parked the AVIS truck and set off by bicycle at a modest pace into favorable winds; it was a Tuesday. We angled out for eighteen kilometers off the paved M-5 road going straight west towards Nyenje Hill. We arrived in Chinthankhwa village in time for lunch, which unbeknownst to my dad meant nsima at my counterpart Paul’s house. There was to be no other option, Paul and I had been playing out this scenario for at least a month. This was our…’bush lunch’. Magari, Paul’s wife had swept and cleaned and wrangled up the kids into their new clothes just for this occasion. For Magari, and most Malawian woman, cooking nsima for a visitor is a high stakes ordeal, which comes with great satisfaction, duty and a certain anxiety of which I have no business trying to explain. She’s a wonderful wife. She and Paul have 3 amazing kids, and of course my dad already knows all of this through our correspondence over the past year. We all convene at Mwangodonna village, everyone is nervous and probably thinking the same thing, “Is this guy gonna eat nsima?”.
As we pass through ‘town’, groups and crowds of onlookers; old men perched up in their stoops, agogos [old women] nearly falling off the dusty path as we pass by in customary respect. Young kids poking out of shrubs and trees, students in matching school uniforms starring blankly at this strange passing figure. Everyone is murmuring the same thing, “ awh awhhhh… bwanji, kodi awo akudya nsima?”. [is this guy gonna eat nsima]

“Amen!”, Paul declares, as he takes the cover off a bowl of fresh steaming nsima. This is his signature short-cut prayer and prompting for his guests to start eating. My dad appears to be speechless, I know that this is taking all of his best energy to be here and I’m so glad that he can share in this experience, so I take the liberty of grabbing him a nsima patty and putting it on his plate. Meanwhile, Paul gives an explanation of the side dishes. Sweet potato leaves cooked in peanut flour and a bowl of beans. And from there we just sat together on the reed mat and ate lunch and chatted. Merriam, Paul’s youngest daughter, provided the entertainment for us, dancing off balance in the corner of the room the way most toddlers do when their head still overshadows the rest of them. Various members of Paul’s extended family emerged in the door frame to greet this mythical person claiming to be my father. My dad was so caught in the moment I could tell that he was still speechless, but comfortable in this situation. He was overwhelmed with the hospitality and in that way everything was the way I had hoped for, it was simple, memorable, close to perfect. I watched my dad take a swig of borehole water from the communal cup. He was transfixed in the moment, too thirsty to worry about the chlorine deficit in the drinking water. This was my fathers first move of integration. I hope he’s still not sick from. The remainder of our visit to the village involved making a celebrity out of my father, visiting with chiefs, friends, and neighbors, briefly attending a funeral, and a quick tour of Mwansambo town ( not historic).
I guess that it would be a little presumptuous to conclude with anything further into my fathers experience in Malawi on his behalf. He can do that pretty well, I think he took over 600 pictures. We did have a brief trip and the scenery did move by fast, but however brief we can boast that this was a once in a lifetime opportunity for both of us. While visiting my home we were off the grid, out of the tour books, standing in a village of friends and neighbors. We did make a vacation of this trip, we were pampered here and there, but we also spent some time planted firmly outside of what we would call ‘comfortable’. The saying is true, ‘you get what you pay for’, the truck turned out to be dependable, lodge accommodations where stunning, and the quiche was exquisite, but you may just remember and cherish most what’s given freely and with the warmest hospitality; a lunch of nsima and beans with the Mvula family. This is the Warm Heart of Africa Dad, I’m glad you came.

Ants on a wall

There are maybe 200 ants moving by candle light on my wall. They are moving at a typical ant speed, stopping for a split second, shifting directions and then carrying on at full speed again. I would imagine that if I could zoom in and dial into a single 6 legged ant that it wound be running and screaming simultaneously, that’s how they carry themselves anyway. They are, all of them, two feet away from my face and 5 senses, but I can only see them as they rush in and our of my mud plaster wall. They are destroying this house.
They have a work ethic and a dedication towards teamwork that suggests that they will win and that no enemy could outpace a community of their likeness. They could very well linger on and on, their vision has been consistently the same through the history of the world. 200 ants on a wall is only the tip of the iceberg for what could be revealed by a swing of a pick axe into the base of this crumbling mud wall. My can of DOOM (R) Chemicals have finished up. I feel defeated. I watch them access my table through a paper bridge that I’ve constructed for them through my own clutter and against my own best interests. I am now defeated, but out of respect I strain my eyes to watch and see what these ants are all about.
Even if by tomorrow evening I changed the fungshue of the room they will have situated themselves into a new strategy. I will continue to spill honey and smash bugs with my fist on this wooden table in embarrassing regularity. Maybe one ant won’t have that information, but as a society they know…. they know where to eat.
I’ve ben prompted by events from today to think more deeply about all that is involved in the creation around us, maybe I’ve been made appreciative.
I may have done some things to save my dog’s life this afternoon. That sounds dramatic and cocky, maybe, but I suspect that if I had not taken action that he would have died in the same way as his brother (Achimadyo) last October. For the past several days my puppy, Chilombo (Predator), has been communally eating a goat carcass with the village dogs.
“Good for him!”, I told myself “just doing his semi-predator K-9 thing. out there finding more protein than me. I’m proud of this dog.”
But I suspect that after the 3rd day of his goat flesh feast is when he developed a hearty case of intestinal worms. From one look at Chilombo this morning and from the sounds coming from his belly I knew that this was ‘one sick puppy’. I thought back right away to the memory of Achimadyo in his last days. I estimated that Chilombo couldn’t out live the two days it took his brother to die from the worms in his gut. So I cooked breakfast, drank my coffee, and thought about my options. If you love dogs this may sound awful or unreasonable, but he’s just a dog.
By the nature of living in a village, veterinarian services are limited to production animals. People don’t eat dogs here, which is good, but that also means that no one has a real incentive to keep a dog in otherwise good health. I’m not out of money per se, but I know that a trip to Lilongwe to see a veterinarian and acquire medications would exhaust my Peace Corps living stipend to a regrettable low. I do have some emergency money in the Peace Corps office, but I can’t quite justify spending that on a dog. Additionally, the idea of taking a dog to the capital city because of an illness is a whimsical and silly preposition in light of the financial and medical prohibitions for people here in Chinthankwa village. I probably could make the trip through my own financial means, but kids die here for the exact same reasons (intestinal worms) and I can’t quite abide in that sort of ethical divergence.
I love this dog almost as much as the first one, but at the same time I’ve made peace, to a minimum extent with that old testament voice where God reminds Job that He can ‘giveth and taketh away’.. And so in that vein and as a Christian believer with a pretty C+ prayer life, I was completely unashamed to pray for my dog. I asked God to keep this one from dying with the contingency that I would still find amazing joy in my circumstances here in Chinthankwa village with or without a dog.
The only other person I would have called in for a sick dog scenario was literally on an airplane flying home. Mary Emanuel PCV [Retired] was our resident veterinarian, animal advocate, bird enthusiast. She had given me a ziplock bag of de-worming powder nearly a year prior, and this seemed to be my first realistic option to help Chilombo. I found the bag in a dusty and forgotten corner of my house. The bag was partially opened when I found it, as an almost bitter reminder of my melodramatic effort to cure my last dog of worms. With rekindled hope, I gave Chilombo an abundant dosage of stale de-worming powder mixed with salt and sugar. I then proceeded to force feed my limp and lifeless puppy, while he vomited all over my cement floor. (that’s a good low-maintenance floor btw) I then took a break to cook lunch and come up with a plan B.
Last month my friend Shadreck and went to a week-long training on natural medicine, ANAMED (action for natural medicine), where we were introduced to the idea of treating common illnesses and conditions with medicinal plants growing all over Malawi. So while eating lunch, I poured into my ANAMED reference book and found a tea recipe that claimed to kill intestinal worms. One handful of asthma weed, which I easily found along my neighbor’s fence, and one handful of papaya leaves that I found just as easily in my backyard. I boiled up a tea and carried on the arduous tak of force feeding my dog through an old vinegar squeeze bottle.
“Whats next?” I thought. I no later returned to my ANAMED book to discover that this tea would only temporarily paralyze intestinal worms and that a patient would subsequently need a laxative to finish the work. At this point in the year a ripe mango is a half a year away and I struggled for a safe alternative, but I managed; Tim Hortons coffee. Yep, that’s what I did! I could not take this puppy into the care of a veterinarian, but I thought that this surely would be a gesture of the love I had for this animal, the Tim Horton’s coffee that my mom sent from America/ Canada. When the coffee cooled, I poured it in the squeeze bottle and gathered up my sick puppy from a patch of dried grass, this was to be the final intervention, there were no alternatives afterwards . He fought every last ounce of energy that he had at the taste of black coffee in his mouth and I myself, started to shake a little from all the unknowns that come with giving a puppy a cup of coffee under duress. I don’t know maybe he could have died. I decided that if his heart did anything strange, I could feel it with my hand and I would know to let off a little. And it was at about this time that my counterpart Paul walked around the corner. He found me holding Chilombo locked in a bear hug, with puppy vomit all over my forearms. We exchanged greetings, but I had no chance of explaining myself after that. Paul and I have a friendship as such that culturally ,at times, we have no clue what each other are doing, but we always try to help where we can. So Paul pinned down Chilombo’s legs and attentively tried to understand what was happening.
“Paul, I made some of this medicinal tea, try it out. It’s for killing worms.” Paul misunderstood that it was medicinal tea and took a big swig. He pretended to like it , but I could tell by the look on his face that he thought he was drinking regular black tea.
“Oh..! what is it?”, he asked.
“It’s a tea for worms,… Chilombo got some worms, probably from Mr. Jossems’s goat. This tea might help.”
“You think so? It’s possible? (zotheka?)”
“maybe!”
“Ok do it!”
“Thanks Paul”
this is the small, yet quintessential dialogue for our approach to development work here in Chinthankwa village.
I made the coffee extra black and gritty with the intention of using it as a laxative and I forcefully gave Chilombo 3/4 of a cup and then sat back to watch the show. Having not yet appreciated the substance (caffeine) in his blood stream, Chilombo went over to his patch of grass to lay down and sleep. Of course he did not sleep, but he laid still for the proceeding 20 minutes with his eyes open. I stared at him with the deepest concern a pet owner can know, but also with the slightly consuming curiosity of an unethical scientist. After a while his ears perked up along with other various body parts and he sat upright and stared back at me. The neighbor dog Gangira came through the fence and BAM! That’s when the caffeine took hold and entered the heart, took over the brain, etc. Within a half hour my dog went from a lifeless worm infested pile of puppy to a full-blown moron. He chased the neighbor dog well past the precepts of playfulness, tackled this fat pudgy dog and started gnawing on its ears. I then watched Chilombo eat a quarter of a boiled pumpkin followed by spasms of flopping and rolling through the grass. He has since leveled out and the worms in his stomach have passed, but I think this is truly noteworthy praise of an incredible God who permits life and death and all those miracles in between and all for His greater glory. Th God of creation who has made asthma weed, coffee, dogs, pumpkins,and good friends. This isn’t so much about my puppy living or dying although I’m supremely glad he’s fine, but just a meditation to shut up every once in a while to stand in awe of God.

The Brundys'; they’re just human beings

This is a mostly true story , although some aspects have been dramatized for just the same effect as a Cheerio on a Cheerios box is enlarged to show texture and strawberries.

In the traditional Authority of Mwansambo, nestled in the foothills of Ntchisi Mountain, in a forgotten and overpopulated corner of Nkhotakota District, in the central region of Malawi in the Warm Heart of Africa, there is a group of Non-Malawian nationals called the Brundys’ .

This is their story.

       After months of speculation I did , just yesterday, meet a Brundy.  It was a woman, I don’t remeber her name and for her privacy I won’t try to recall, but she was a Brundy.  I was in Mwansambo Trading Center, about a 30 minute bike ride from my village and had been in “town” earlier in the morning for a meeting with a group of brick makers.  But on this morning I was not thinking about bricks, I was thinking about Brundys’.  In the market (imagine a low-end, open air, unregulated Whole Foods) it seemed that there would be a Brundy close by.  After all, from everything I’d gathered Brundys’ are business owners.  Running into a loose acquaintance we chatted until we had obliged each other in small talk  and then as seriously as my voice would permit I asked, “oh hey Moses, do you know of any Brundys’ that are living in town.?”  Moses pointed to a tuck shop across the road.  I thanked him and wasted no more time.

           In the blaring heat of the mid-day sun and under the ceaseless stares of a thousand old men gnawing on raw vegetables, I stepped up to the cardboard and chicken wire store front with three things to inquire.  What is a Brundy? Where do Brundys’ come from?  What is this Brundy eating for lunch?

      This all started months ago in a conversation under a banana tree.   I was helping a friend to cut down an unrippend bunch of bananas and simultaneously scheming about the unrealized potential in growing more banana trees along the local river.

“You know, we really could plant a lot more banana trees here Thomas.” I suggested, looking at all the wild and uncontrolled suckers shooting out the base of the tree.

“Oh, you mean like the Brundys'”, Thomas replied

“Like the Brundys’!”, I parroted, “what’s a Brundy?” and then I almost lost my balance in excitement.

“Brundys’ are a certain group that is living somewhere there by Mwansambo.”
“So they eat a lot of bananas?”
“Yes, and they are not taking (eating) nsima, just staying (eating) with bananas and meat. Is that good?” [Malawian-English]
“No, I don’t think so Thomas”, I replied in a stoic kind of sarcasm.

It was apparent in Thomas’ question that he had already formed a deep mistrust of these Brundys’ because of their indifference to Malawi’s staple food, nisma.  My imagination immediately tried to conjure up what an ethnic group of people called the Brundys’ might be doing in an unsuspecting rural community like Mwansambo.  They couldn’t be nomadic if they relied partially on bananas.  They couldn’t be war mongers if they lived in Malawi.  Maybe they were black, maybe they were yellow, maybe they were white.  I drifted in though and quickly envisioned a straw hat beard and bonnet wearing community of Amish.  Something as radical as living in America without electricity  is certainly comparable to a group of people in rural Malawi abstaining from nsima.  Brundy, what a powerful, imagination invoking word, and I really hope you think so too otherwise this whole story will sound dumb.  I started to get a sense that I had encountered this people group  from childhood somewhere, maybe in a children’s book.  The Brundys’, some gang of pillaging antagonists, probably trolls, terrorizing the countryside; a child’s first exposure to the realities of chaos and instability, and taxation.  I should be fair and say that Brundys’ could also be altruistic, noble creatures, but I think they would still be trolls.

But is Brundy really a country?  In a land without internet, facts are found within the village elders, so back home I began to ask around Chinthankwa Village.  I found that people in my village had varying views as to where the Brundys’ had come from.  Some had thought they were business owners that had drifted up from South Africa.  Some people though they were refugees from Mozambique or Rwanda, or the DRC.  I also found that the village elders were not especially knowledgeable in the field of geography, and mostly dismissed my inquiry in exchange with requests for antibiotic cream.  The response I got from my friends in village led me to several inferences; 1. Brundy is definitely a country in Africa; 2. It’s a small country; 3. Their language was sort of French; 4.  And these Mwansambo Brundys’ drive through the village at high rates of speed in their bouncy compact SUVs and they are the primary reason why we maintain our two earthen speed bumps outside the Chief’s house.

Peace Corps Goal #2
Back in Mwansambo Market, I’ve asked this women, “hey you,… are you a Brundy? What are you doing here? Where do you come from? (still having no proof that Brundy is a country) Do you take nsima?

As this woman methodically answered these questions the mysteriousness of the Brundys’ collapsed as she tried in earnest  to answer my question and quell fits of sporadic laughter.  The answers she gave caused the other worldliness of the word Brundy  to be deflated to the state of a barely street worthy bike tire.

She responded,” Yes, I am Burundian, This is the shop of my husband….Burundi, it is a country, we speak Burundi and French”, and finally she added the piece that truly made her an adoptive daughter of Malawi, “and yes I do take nsima.”

             In the unremarkable nature of this discovery I was able to reflect and appreciate my own experience as a foreigner in Malawi.  These 4 questions that I had asked this Burundian woman are roughly the exact same 4 questions that I’ve been answering throughout my first year of  being  in the Peace Corps.  For me personally it’s been flattering , annoying, tiresome, and hilarious, graceful and embarrassing to answer these questions for every perfect stranger that has passed by.  This encounter with this Burundian was really sourced from my own unrestricted and genuine curiosity of this new people group.  I have done what Malawi has taught me best.  The take away message maybe is … sometimes… if you’re curious you should just be straight forward and ask. (even if you have Google on your Blueberry)

   It was a sudden and unavoidable curiosity that almost caused me to fall over under that banana tree, but it was also a powerful and genuine curiosity that brought most of us as PCV’s to different posts around the world, and it’s the same curiosity that causes one hundred Malawians to approach you in a crowded market with relentless inquisitiveness.  And so that is my VSV commentary for any fellow PCV’s that happen to stumble upon this message.  You know that you are the object of intense curiosity in your village and you can either find a way to reciprocate that curiosity or be continually annoyed by it.  This method of confrontation may sound awkward, but maybe awkwardness is a state of mind.  Maybe awkwardness is just the same as he gaseous state of the ozone layer and you just have to find a big enough and fast enough meteor to burn through and get down to earth.  At this point after meeting with a Burundian, I would be even more arrogant than I have already been to deny Burundi its nationhood.  But what I do know now, by the candle light of my home office, in the middle of Chinthankwa village is this.  There is an ethnic group living 10km away in Mwansambo.  They have immigrated from a place called Burundi, they eat  bananas and meat, maybe nsima, but probably rice.  And as my counterpart Paul so often times says, “They’re just human beings.”

The Mission Statements of 2013

     My counterpart Paul and I have both loosely come up with our own mission statements for 2013, not as any sort of January 1st resolution or official mandate, but more as a causal reminder of what we’re doing and a reflection of our overall mission . This, on my part, is a new step in leadership that I’m trying to grapple with, and for Paul it’s a “welcome development”. The year started off with a real need for re-direction on my part as a Peace Corps Volunteer. What issues can we address realistically what strengths do we have, what community interest exist?  Coming up with some mission statements has been a natural first step.  Paul’s statement is pragmatic yet highly complimentary toward the human potential to affect weather. 

“Communities will have a very good environment, which will divert the weather ie; good rains”. 

My statement, which is something I  sort of spurted ou at a business training, is cautiously optimistic (not cynical), sort of a spin off of an Americorps motto, and spiritual.

” We’re gonna work hard and get some stuff done; if God allows.”

  I think both mottos keep us motivated in our own ways and that’s the goal. 

       I took a week for the Christmas holiday to spend time with some friends in Nkhata Bay on Lake Malawi and then spent time visiting with other friends in Nkhotatkota for New Years.  Unfortunately, on New Year’s Day my bicycle was stolen and my foot was progressively swelling with an infection, so for the first 2 weeks in January I literally started off on a bad foot.  I know that’s a pun, but that’s really what I’m intending to say.  I started off on a bad foot.  Because of the circumstances of the bike theft and because I was using a bike lock, the Peace Corps was very accommodating and helpful to provide another bike and I was placed on medical hold for a few days to heal my foot. 

     I think that it was important to acknowledge and confront some of the remanent failures from 2012.  It really was a big year of transitions and so this introspection wasn’t at all an overly negative thing, but  mostly it was realistic .  Paul and I have  become invested in 3 different Village Savings and Loan groups(VSL’s) to varying degrees.  Each group has different dynamics and are at different progressions in the overall VSL process.  VSL’s in short are simply a group of 15-30 people that come together on a regular basis to save and loan money amongst group membership. Two of the groups are all women and in some ways Paul and my presence is a necessary evil, and so we try to tread lightly. We are trying as best as possible to be less and less needed, as these groups begin t take hold of VSL principles. The groups seem to be interested, but I has become apparent that you cannot assume everyone in the group knows what an interest rate is, or even how to keep a budget; you can’t assume treasurer’s secure place for holding the groups savings is anything more than a piece of cloth. So we have started from a basic level and are working from there. This is the time of year where no one has money, so we can train members how to plan for and best utilize their anticipated incomes in the coming harvest season. So I’d suppose that’s somewhat like financial planning.
   

         And as I mentioned in the last post, we have started Grass Roots Soccer with a mob of secondary school kids. The focus of the program is on HIV awareness and prevention for youth and by default has turned into a sex ed. class. The overall curriculum includes 11 practices , so far we have done 3 and it has been overwhelmingly great. Very luckily, Paul and I have pulled in an energetic primary school teacher, Chimwewe Katola, who compensates perfectly for my immaturity and Paul’s apprehensiveness to openly give “sex talks”. We call ourselves “couches”, which is a great excuse to wear polo shirts and yell things. So far gender has been equally represented and in light of that we have had many great conversations in a graceful mix of Chichewa and English. My only real concern is that we maybe slowly eroding away some of the cultural norms between boys and girls. At last weeks practice I noticed my tall lanky neighbor Travis holding hands with a girl and we almost started a riot when a boy and girl preformed a provocative dance in a group skit. Both of these instances are culturally unheard of in rural Malawi. You should know that these kids have not grown up with MTV. We all want this activity to help kids make healthy life choices, but at the same time I don’t want to be partially responsible for sparking a sexual revolution in my catchment area.
     

       The next big undertaking on the horizon, if the grant passes through the Peace Corps office, is a 5 day low-input beekeeping workshop. The primary goal of this workshop is to make beekeeping more affordable by constructing beehives, bee suits and bee smokers using locally available resources. The workshop will host 30 participants from the entire Tradition Authority of Mwansambo and the participants will be sent forth to be productive beekeepers, teachers/trainers and to create a network from which to find local and regional markets for bee products. And from the completion of the workshop at the end of April until December 31st we will be collecting data from these participants. I”ll just be humble and say I”m not really too sure what I’m doing when it comes to beekeeping, but I do know that if you keep the bees happy, they’ll do most of the work. We have a good crew of trainers facilitators and so that will hopefully allow me to put the right people in the right place . By far, the greatest variable for this project is in finding the right workshop participants.
 

          I have taken another dog from the renowned puppy farm of Mary Emanuel in Mbewa village. The dog’s name is Chilombo, which means predator in Chichewa. I truly want him to develop a firm, unfaltering hatred for goats, but I can tell that he’ll never hate anything in his life. Villagers always ask me if he bites, and I say no way, but he farts if you rub his belly, which never translates well. Dogs bite frequently when they constantly have rocks thrown at them. I think that if Chilombo starts to act aggressively towards goats he’s gonna get rocked, and then he’ll bite. So with that said, I think I’ll just mend my fence for the coming free range goat season and pray for God to increase my capacity to love all creation ie; goats.
The quarter acre field behind my house has been a rewarding first exposure to farming. It’s a small enough piece of land that I can take care of and also do some new things on. Initially, I planted sorghum in December, but the seeds had expired and nothing germinated, so I alternatively grew cassava. Cassava is a tuber crop somewhere between a sweet potato and an edible woody shrub. Between cassava plants, I’ve inter-cropped cowpeas and also an agroforestry shrub called tephrosia. This planting season the goal has been to grow somethings to eat, but to also build up soil fertility, and practice some of the principles in conservation agriculture . Interspersed throughout, there is also pumpkins, cantaloupes, tomatoes and lettuce, but the crown jewel of my garden is a transplanted banana tree. It has survived to shoot out giant healthy green leaves, which are rival only the American flag in beauty. I think that if this banana tree dies, I’m going to ET or quit.
         

         Pulling weeds early in the morning and digging in the dirt, watching the rain move in from the Congo,or just the rainy season in general has been a worshipful experience. It’s all very simple, hard work. From that I have grown in gratitude for the everyday mercies we receive from God on a daily basis, Just in seeing the effect of life-giving rains falling in the fields of sustenance farmers. There is no water faucet or irrigation system, or any other water source besides the rain that falls from the sky.  In that way a rain shower is a blessing in every sense.  I think that 1 Kings 17:14 says it better.
     

         A few weeks ago my friend Jonathan, an agriculture extension worker, asked me to join a group of three agronomists who had come to Mwansambo to inspect some conservation agriculture plots. I went to meet this group and soon discovered that I wasn’t invited for my technical input, but rather as a human buffer to receive and understand these three white visitors. It was an interesting experience to have a farmer and an agronomist standing in the same field looking at peanuts together. One guy travels the world going to conferences, and spends his time pouring over data for hybrid corn varieties.  The other man grows peanuts and corn every year and is wearing just enough material to call pants. This is where the ideals of science and research and the benevolence of the world collide with poverty in a very direct way. As I listened to all the things the agronomist was prescribing to this farmer, I marveled in the obscurity of this conversation and carried the feeling of not being connected to either party. In a sense, I was floating. The analytics behind improved seed varieties and the scientific method approach to soil structure sounded overzealous and was in no way translated coherently into the local language. The agronomist and the farmer, it’s a novel idea, but the agronomist doesn’t know poverty and the farmer doesn’t know that the agronomist is just a human being.

        Expected and noteworthy visitors coming to the Mwansambo area. Her Excellency President Joyce Banda in March. The US Ambassador to Malawi in April. My dad in May, and Beth Morris in June.(best for last!)
I think of all of you frequently back home in the dissipating grip of winter, gambling on college basketball, and staying busy with life. I apologize that I’ve made this blog so long. I maybe right on the fringe of narcissistic for taking up so much of your time by talking about myself, but please write! I’ll write you back. Nyenje CDSS P/B 7 Mwansambo, Nkhotakota, Malawi, Africa.

Learn How to Fall

I originally wrote this post on Thanksgiving Day and I included lots of congenial things about thankfulness and jokes about the Detroit Lions taking another afternoon to loose in front of a national audience, but by now its December, which is a whole new month; the stuffing is now staler than it started. So a Merry Christmas in advance. I hope that you have the best Christmas yet and go on a cruise or something! I have been making an effort to write more letters, but my address book is lacking. Please feel free to somehow send me your address or write a letter and let me know the latest and greatest in your life. There are times where I feel out of the loop, like my sister has recently become a licensed driver, I thought they lowered the driving age, but I guess she really is 16.

I had a quiet Thanksgiving here in Chinthankwa village. Thanks mom for the paper turkey decoration. At this point I’m still cooking to eat, but not yet having any feasts. My neighbors are not familiar with the Thanksgiving tradition, but hopefully by next year I’ll have a greater capacity for cooking and I could be a better pilgrim/ American. My most recent days have been full of digging, I’m cultivating a quarter acre field behind my house.
Technically, I am an organic farmer, not because I’m a bleeding heart liberal, but mostly out of sheer practicality. I’ve been cued in by my neighbors, who are out each morning in the pre-dawn hours digging. This morning we woke up to thunder from a storm that had blown over, and all without a single drop of rain. Although, it was dumping rain and lightning and furry down towards the lake at my site mates village, I heard part of her roof blew off. It’s only a matter of days before we receive our
season-starting rains. But in the meantime new leaves have shot out of
most trees, which is a little startling considering we haven’t had a single rain shower in 9 months.

This has been a tough hot-dry season for newcomers. The other day on a bike ride I heard a Paul Simon song that seemed to speak perfectly to the past 3 months of my life. The words go, “you’ve got to learn how to fall, before you learn to fly. you’ve got to drift in the breeze, before you set your
sails”. I said that’s it! And that’s the title.

I won’t say much about my garden because despite all my best efforts, everything withered and died. Hot season is the time of year where chocolate stays in a continuous liquid state and where in one afternoon all the stamps in your wallet become self adhesive and then disintegrate. And that’s all I can complain about, my brain didn’t melt so all things considered I’m very thankful.

Paul’s dog, Tiger-Princess, died yesterday and my dog died at the end of October. Paul wrote Achimadyo a eulogy and I think later today I’ll return the sentiment. I almost had a tear fall out of my eye when my neighbor came over and suggested that the clay-dirt I was digging a grave in was too hard and that I should just turn the dead dog over in my compost pit. I think I told her to go away. Bless her heart, it’s really not her fault, but the word ‘pet’ literally does not exist in the Chichewa language. I think that’s ok too, in retrospect it is a little silly to get overly attached to animals, but it happens. Achimadyo was the first dog I’ve ever had. I was really blessed to have such an awesome and loyal companion. Enough about pets already.

And so the passing of Achimadyo was an opportune time to start in on a huge time and labor intensive project at my house. I’ve named the project the Tin Roof Lake Watershed (50% jokingly). The principal idea is to harvest rain water from a 32² meter section of my tin roof. I took the plans from a Swedish NGO and if my sisters advanced algebra holds up, the underground tank should have a holding capacity of 6,500 liters.

The prodigious amount of work was a good outlet for grief, but please know that this was a pre-existing and very logical plan; this isn’t as crazy as it sounds. Lots of people have come over and mistakenly called it a swimming pool, and while that’s not a terrible idea, that’s not why I joined the Peace Corps. In total, the project will cost roughly the price of a bag of unsubsidized fertilizer (44 USD), and I’ve calculated that I’ll earn back the cost of the project in 2 years just by extending the time of which I can grow my own food. (But also if you count time as money, I’ll save in the daily chore of drawing water from the borehole, although that has been a nice way to meet local women).

Additionally, I’ll enhance my rainy season crops by supplying more water (instead of fertilizer) in-between rains. It’s an irrigation scheme! I would be cocky and say that I may even have such a supply of water in place that I’ll be able to flood a section of my field to grow rice, but probably right now as you’re reading this blog, there’s a hair-line fracture forming somewhere in the water-proof plastering. God is keeping me humble and honest with an abundance of cracks. As of today the project is 85% finished and could in theory hold water. The gutters are in place, but in all honesty I feel like I’m on the cusp of one of my most elaborate failures. It may hold water, but to retain water for up to 3 months into the dry season is doubtful. My landlord is my biggest supporter. He comes over regularly to check on the progress. He laughs in such a way that is supportive and inspiring for me to carry on, never mind that I’ve dug a sizeable hole a meter and a half away from the foundation of his property. We don’t communicate very effectively in Chichewa, but he assumes that I’m an expert, and I assume that he has some form of home insurance (both are very false assumptions). In the 3 weeks that I’ve been regularly working on this project, I’ve been completely consumed. I have had to stop several times to get a grip and eat food; really truly I want life to be normal again. I may need to reintegrate back into my community. To many of my neighbors I’ve just become a grumpy, mud-crusted shell of a man (overly dramatic). But I guess the tie-in to my Peace Corps work is for this concept of rainwater harvesting to be a feasible and realistic contribution to our areas greatest need; water. I think that we will be able to apply a smaller scale prototype in some of the more remote areas, and to their benefit, we’ll have more of the kinks worked out.

My counterpart Paul and I have, since September, been working in four project areas “hand-in-hand like ants”. I know that ants don’t have hands, but we have been busy and that’s the point. Most immediately, we are working in tree nursery management with a few area villages. We are working with a women’s group that are interested in starting a VSL (Village Savings and Loan). Just think of a small scale, group run bank with a primary focus of saving money through a period of several months. That’s it.

Paul and I also had the opportunity to attend a week long coach’s workshop with a program called Grass Roots Soccer, of which we have implemented back home with some of the secondary school students. It’s a really neat program that exclusively relates to HIV prevention and awareness. It’s somewhere between an organized youth gang and a middle school sex-ed class. I believe that the original founder and funder was one of the former winners from Survivor (CBS). We have brought on an additional coach, a teacher at the primary school named Chimwewe, who has been really invaluable. Chimwewe is teaching volleyball, while I am focusing on ultimate frisbee. And then lastly Paul and a few of my forestry counterparts will be applying for a SPA grant in January for a low-input beekeeping workshop. More details to come, but in the interest of keeping this blog manageably readable, I’ll quickly explain our tree nursery management program.

Tree nursery management has involved helping village tree nurseries to make comprehensive plans in tree planting from the actual seeds to seedlings to the end product of a healthy out-planted tree. Villages have traditionally waited for a local NGO to provide exotic, fast-growing agro-forestry species, but this has resulted in nurseries only producing 2-3 tree species in bulk. Paul and I are asking people, to additionally, look around their surroundings and plant the fruit pits they eat or the species they are cutting for timber, or trees harvested for medicinal bark, or that control erosion along river banks. There are a great abundance of useful indigenous trees in our area that are currently under utilized. Our goal is to empower people to find their own seeds and start and manage their own tree nurseries not because some expert NGO will give them free stuff, but because they understand the potential future gains that they could realize in years to come. “Mitengo ndi ndalama”, or ” trees are money”. That’s our message.

A large component, and maybe even a total cover-up for this project, has been all about fire prevention and awareness. As much as I’ve made a fool of myself in trying to be passionately angry with all my arsonist villagers and spreading the Smokey Bear gospel, it’s simply not a realistic issue to address directly here in rural Malawi. I do have a background in wild- land fire with the US Forest Service, but I can still say objectively that from an environmental standpoint the annual burning of forested areas is the most damaging human caused practice in Malawi. And in the same breath you can also say that solving this issue is the cheapest and easiest to achieve.
The key underlying issue is that currently no one takes ownership of uncultivated lands and so there is nothing invested or of perceived value in these areas. As a result, people are very indifferent to bush fires and the loss of biodiversity and healthy soil. I’ve found that to directly tell a Malawian farmer not to burn the bush is as realistic as asking a teenager in the States not to watch MTV because it’s bad for your eye sight and is a waste of time.

Paul and I and lots of experts that publish field manuals, think that the best way to approach such an issue is to simply add value to these uncultivated areas. If a village nursery can produce enough out-planted trees for a fruit orchard, or a timber lot, or a fodder bank for livestock, then communities would be less likely to use fire is such a lethal and destructive fashion. Paul and I have introduced a hypothetical tree nursery (Njovu Village Nursery), where we have set up a complete management structure that groups are free to adopt or modify to their specific needs.
One of the key figures in this structure is a position that we call the ‘fire manager’, who will be a trained and empowered to educate his or her community on all things fire, AKA keeping all the out-planted trees from being nuked by fire. Out of 30+ villages in my catchment area (Senior Chinthankwa), we have had 3 ½ village nurseries materialize and from those 3 ½ nurseries we’ve produced one elected fire manager; Mr. Luke Jackson. A major Peace Corps axiom is that to be an effective volunteer you have to find that one right guy. Is Luke Jackson that guy? I’m not too sure, but I’ve personally decided to celebrate Luke Jackson to the point that he become a positive agent of change, or until he becomes overly uncomfortable and quits.

I apologize if this blog post has become unreasonably too long, but I know that most of my audience is my grandparents and their peer groups. I’ll try to upload some pictures. Rereading, I think this post sounds a touch gloomy.
And I can’t sugar coat anything about the challenges of the past few months.
I would say very easily that the honey moon has come and gone, but I’ve never had a job that’s been more fulfilling and in that premise I’m a very happy guy. There has been a verse in James that has been increasingly valuable to my joy in God over the past few months. I’m tasked, like all Christians, to constantly analysis my motivations and in that light I’ve had to confront a brutally honest fact. To be very honest, the wisdom of the world doesn’t do well in a third world country, God’s take on poverty and the worlds differ vary greatly. This has been a challenge in my faith to fully realize, but at the same time a relief. James 3: 17-18 has been popping in strange places as a reminder of that.

The reality of being a Peace Corps Volunteer has been the text book parade
of glorified failures, everything my recruiter promised. On a day to day
level you need a plan followed by a plan b, c, and d and when all these things fails you make a swimming pool in your back yard. Before you learn to fly, learn how to fall.

Mourning for Achimadyo:

How to mourn for Achimadyo
with your fair and blackish hair
how could we mourn for Achimadyo
Your good behavior, how could we mourn for you You were our dog to chase silly goats jumping and running, what amiss; Achimadyo We remember you at the mountain Our cheeks are full of tears How to mourn you, My family, and Tiger-Princess have missed you How to mourn for you

- Paul Mvula

A Funeral Day

 

 

Greetings from the Warm Heart of Africa.  I hope this finds you well at home or where ever you may be.  I’m doing fine, it’s super hot this time of year in Nkhotakota District, but I’m drinking lots of water and trying to wear as much sunscreen as the medical office will hand out.  And also don’t worry this is more of a short story than an update, but there is a point so don’t worry.  Feel free to check out my friend Brook’s blog. It’s set up more as a discussion forum on issues here in Malawi and looks fairly amazing. http://www.tbrookscamp.com/ShootinTheShit/.

 

A Funeral Day

I wake up, fetch my days water, cook breakfast, drink some coffee, and then put on my best dress shirt and walk over to the funeral feeling halfway guilty.  The funeral is in Mangodana Village about a 20 minute walk from my house.  I take the long way back through the peanut fields to by-pass the “downtown” traffic; the express route maybe.  It’s nice to collect your thoughts so early in the morning and save all your best small talk.  Funerals in Malawi inhibit movement and productivity for hours if not days.  The back route leads me right past the grave yard where I had left the men the previous night. By 9 A.M. they are still digging and the grave is about 2 and a half meters in depth.  The man digging is shirtless, wearing a tattered pair of shorts with his head dusted red from all the layers of dried clay falling from overhead.  My dog runs over to Paul thinking that there’s a good chance he’ll get fed, but this morning Paul looks up at me and says,

“I think you should put Achimadyo on the chain”.  Paul has been up all night along with about 20 other village men all helping with the grave yard digging and related ceremonies.  They look relieved when I walk up.  Now after all the early morning hours of sparse conversation they can talk about the Azungu (white person).  We all still greet one another with the same words, but on this occasion it’s all very intentionally hushed and somber.  They whisper, “ndadzuka bwino” out of habit, but I know that no one here has gotten a wink of sleep.

Paul is my best friend and the death is his 7- 8 year old nephew, and so I feel that this is an especially good time to make your friendship count.  And this is the part where I start to feel guilty for not toughing it out and staying all night at the grave yard; I made too many excuses.  I quickly tie up my dog, hang my dress shirt on a tree branch and grab a digging tool to help finish off the work.  The hours pass and small groups of men start to gather from all directions and villages.  I float in and out of conversation with all the novice English speakers I can find.  The cemetery is located in a small woodlot, which is less of a woodlot and more exclusively used as a cemetery.  All of the space under the canopy is occupied by tombstones or mounds of dirt so we extend the burial out of the shade and into someone’s peanut field.  Zimachitika, it happens.

The conversation flutters with sporadic bursts of laughter, but overall it is respectfully subdued.  I look over to see that Paul has fallen asleep in between a row of weeds.  Paul is my main translator and so after 4 months he is very much the left part of my brain.  In his absence I typically get frustrated with speaking Chichewa and start yelling obscure things in English at all of the inquisitive and persistent Malawians that I seem to attract in conversation.

More hours pass. I have a hard time imagining what the conversations within each group consist of.  Nearly all of the men sitting here are peanut farmers and we have a female president to contemplate.  It becomes a good time for me to get a pulse on all the area beekeeping clubs, most of them are dissolved and broken. Zimachitika, it happens.

Soon Paul’s cousin stands up to make an impromptu speech.  The group, by now, is comprised of about 60 bored men (2 digging and 58 lounging) and he easily strikes a chord.  Soon the moroseness of a funeral turns into the passive agitation of a town hall meeting.  The sun has caught up with us now and is dispensing heat overhead.  Of course I’m melting in my white skin; black people however, are indifferent to the power of the sun.  It just so happens that my cell phone has recently died for good along with my wrist watch several months prior, so I’m forced to integrate with the rest of my community through guestamation of time and the weather.  You can be effective as a timekeeper and local weatherman just by finding the sun in the sky.  In this case the sun has found me, it’s 12 noon.

The commotion picks up as the chief of Mangodana Village approaches the group.  He speaks in such a way that causes a few in the crowd to yell and some people stand and walk away. Even the man digging the grave suddenly pops out of the hole in protest.  And so it’s at this time that the funeral goes on strike.  I look over to see my puppy still tied to the tree very much content with licking his wiener, perfect timing Achimadyo!  Paul has disappeared from his spot in the weeds, but I quickly locate him 100 yards away talking with the chiefs.  Slowly, I piece together in fragmented Chichewa sentences that the grave digging operation has been halted until all of the members of Chilewa Village vacate the grave yard. In previous weeks hard feelings have boiled over into group solidarity, we have drawn a line in the sand and the men of Chilewa need to go.  Some shouting soon erupts among the Chilewans who have gathered together in peripheral range, far enough to avoid confrontation, yet close enough to be defensive.  It’s back and forth for several minutes, I’m amiss as to what was really said.  Then, like a huge herd of cattle, we wander out of the cemetery and move towards the shade tree where the chiefs have assembled and are having a pawow on the newly surfaced issue. Much of what was said is up for interpretation, but I got a strong sense that like most any argument that exceeds 10 minutes, that this one was going in circles.   The agitators are vocal enough to suggest that the chief of Chilewa should pay a fine in either goats or money to amend such a careless blunder of culture.  Afumu Breakfasti Gumu, our area senior chief will make the final say, and so we wait, something we had all previously been doing, but now with a touch of suspense.  I look over at my friend Kenneth with what must look like a giant question mark tattooed to my forehead.  He simply says,”Zimachitika, it happens.”  My dog keeps himself busy and a small army of women are cooking nsima in the foreground for the hundreds of people who have now gathered for the funeral, both are oblivious to the escalating situation under the shade tree.

Very luckily, Amos stands up.  He’s the only punctual Malawian in a 100 km radius of my site.  He stands at a meter and a half tall with a prominent nose and a wiry mustache the hangs underneath.  He rolls his own cigarettes and is the chairman of our village CBCC (Community Based Child Care).  Amos…is… someone you would call a mover and a shaker.  I have absolute confidence that Amos can and will, in this moment, redeem such a pitiful situation.  As I watch him speak, I think of the similarities of this Amos and the Old Testament prophet, a poor, outspoken farmer that speaks so commonsensically as to publicly shame a riled up crowd. Amos speaks his wisdom; this is a funeral after all.

At this point I need to come out of the story and say that there is no real thrilling climax here.  It’s best just to imagine the rest of this blog post as the type of dream where scenes shift without good reason and you end up following a groups of people talking in foreign languages.

So now all of the people at the funeral have gathered around the dead boy’s home where the body is laid in the casket.  Several community members stand to say a few words, and we are all informed that this child has passed away from Malaria.  The contributions for the funeral are then publically announced by village and then by individual just like in a public radio pledge drive.  I had intended to give my 500 Kwacha anonymously, but as I stare down at the ground my contribution is announced and highlighted for being 1/6th of the total contributions collected. I have a hard time looking up.  This becomes the part of the dream where you stare at a group of people and they stare back at you like you’re not wearing any pants.  This is where you envision a mob of people coming over and whacking you with a whiffle ball bat like you’re a piñata all the while you are sitting indian style on the ground trying to be polite.  Just for context 500 Kwacha is less than $2.

A Presbyterian preacher, who has traveled all the way from Nkhotakota Boma stands.  He is barrel chested and immediately lets on to the crowd that he has been blessed with a dynamic speaking voice.  He is also clutching a bible.  The women stop weeping in anticipation of a sermon.  He has the type of frame, maybe even a presence, that is unmistakably built for preaching the Gospel, and that’s just what he does for the next half hour.  And like any charismatic speaker he connects with his audience through humor.  I sit and patiently ponder whether humor is a good tact for such an occasion; this is a funeral after all.  Hymns are sung and then the women and brothers of the dead boy begin to weep as the casket is lifted and slowly progresses towards the cemetery.  All the silliness of the graveyard boycott has cooled in the past hours and the hard feelings dissolve into silence.  This is a funeral for a young boy and this is where the full weight of its sadness hits everyone.  The casket is lowered into the grave.  The funeral director politely asks the family of the deceased to stop weeping, while at the same time the Presbyterian preacher is rising to his feet for a few more remarks.  He starts with a prayer and then feels led to give another twenty minute sermon.  I am trying my best to display my super disgusted face as he cracks more jokes, but I look around the crowd to see that everyone is laughing.  I just stare blankly, too emotionally confused and tired to think any further. I’m not certain, but maybe… could the Holy Spirit be using humor in such a sad situation? Through this large man with a booming voice?  I guess you shouldn’t put the Holy Spirit in a box.

The crowd is soon released.  I look around and can nearly read the minds of every single Malawian. Nsima. It’s nsima time just the same way we think about Applebee’s on a Friday night.

The Senior Chief calls all of the men together, where he aims to resolve the days earlier issue (the boycott).

A rough translation of his speech.

“Ahhh. Zikomo kwambiri, Thank you very much.  That stunt you pulled earlier today was tremendously embarrassing.  I don’t want this to ever happen again. I want to speak with the agitators privately… this is a funeral after all Zikomo Kwambiri.”

I look over at Paul and with no restraint I yell-speak, “Man, what a great chief!”

Soon after I am led by the hand of my own chief, Chief Ezera, where we sit with a group of men for a communal meal of nsima, beans, chicken , and goat innards.  These men seem most interested in talking about my $2 contribution from earlier, and then when they forget my name, I become the “500 Kwacha” guy.  I am strangely embarrassed for having so much disposable income and slightly annoyed, but when my own nsima cooking (credibility) comes into question, I briefly lose my cool.  Purely out of anger, I yell-invite these doubting strangers to come to my house anytime for a cooking demonstration.  And then for some reason I say,” the proof is in the pudding”, as confidently as I can without sounding mad and without making any sort of sense.  And I assume like most other crazy things I say in English, nobody has a clue as to what I’m saying.

To close.

 After really processing the entirety of this day, I’ve seen a few things that I can passionately and enthusiastically address as a Peace Corps Volunteer.  There are too many cultural hurdles for me to grasp at this point, but that’s why the Peace Corps program is 2 years long.  The phrase “zimachitika, it happens”, comes up as a daily part of speech for most Malawians.  I think that in time I’m better suited to respond to such statements with a question. “Does it have to happen?”

During the funeral boycott, as I was trying to clarify what was happening Kenneth’s response was, “zimachitika”, said as if he had sat through more than one funeral boycott in the past.  But does staging a boycott in the middle of a funneral really have to happen?

Just 2 weeks before this funeral I attended the funeral of my landlords 4 year old daughter.  I was instructed to approach the grieving father and mutter, ” Pepani kwambiri, zimachitika” or “very sorry, it happens”.  This little girl also died from Malaria. Malaria happens that’s true, but do two kids have to die from a preventable and curable disease?  Walking home I see the packaging for a mosquito net lying in a ditch along the road, and I wonder how far two mosquito nets could have gone.

The developing world receives and distributes millions of mosquito nets from donor countries; supply is not always the problem.  But in my experience so far in the village, I’ve begun to see that a person who is living in poverty can find 100 other direct uses for a mosquito net than for its intended purpose.  Our country must give millions of condoms to Malawi each year, how many of those condoms are used by kids to make local soccer balls may never be fully realized.  Zimachitika, it happens…I want to find out whether it really does.

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