Thursday, August 30, 2012

the Long Return

Today, as of 8:30am, I am no longer a current PCV but a Returned PCV who has no yet returned. It will be a long return, so to speak, as I embark on a three month trip jumping North through Africa with a small detour south, south east.

Said my goodbyes to Amayi Rashidi, Inez, and Patuma last week and rode the bike taxi to Ulongwe one last time. The night before I held Amayi Rashidis hand as she walked me home and she gave me rice to take to my Amayi in America. Its always weird to live, in real time, an occurrence you have spent a lot of time considering and contemplating. Almost like the ultimate reality, being able to consider the past and present all in the moment. So many times I thought about leaving for good, sometimes with nostalgia, sometimes with happiness, and sometimes taking pleasure in the mean thought that the villagers would really be sorry when I left.

A week and three poops in three cups later, I am off to spend one last week in a Malawian village with my American Seesta, Kala. Together, we will cross the northern Karonga district boarder to Tanzania, jump on the overnight train to Dar Es Salaam and I think we will see some giraffe herds on the way. In Dar Es Es Salaam, I will meet my dear friend Matt and together we will through Tanzania, Madagascar, Egypt, and Greece, returning home December 1st, exhausted and just in time for the holiday season.

I promise I will try my hardest to better maintain this blasted blog. Actions speak louder than words so I guess only time will tell if I keep my word.

Stay Tuned…..

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Under the Night Sky

Countless nights I have sat outside under the moon and stars at my amayi’s house. While village night life goes on around me, I quietly eat my nsima, listening to the rolling Yao language of my family and watching the sky. An hour can go by without speaking and many times my amayi has asked if I am sleeping. But no, I am alert; sometimes wandering through my thoughts but always staying in the present. I just watch and listen, not understanding the words but soaking in the mood, intonation, and night. Children sing loudly and play games, fires flare up and die down, the cat rubs up against me before he is shooed away by Amayi. My young brother sleeps on the mat beside me, steadily breathing and sometimes stirring. I look up, noticing a satellite or shooting star which I sometimes point out but often observe silently and make a wish that will seem silly by morning. All this done in the anonymous darkness of night; passersby don’t know I am here, Amayi’s visitors cant stare, I can pull my skirt up past my knees to better feel the coolness of the night. Peace.

Later, I will pull myself up from the mat, slip on my shoes and walk home in the warm night air. Wishing my amayi good night, sleep well, sweet dreams, I will promise to see her again tomorrow and slipping my hands into my pockets I walk 50 ft before she shouts at me to turn my torch on. I comply but only until she is out of sight. On the road, I dodge bikes and pass lone travelers, all of whom I would greet in the day. But at night, the rules change. I no longer feel obligated to greet others and I feel free as I l walk by the light of the moon to my house.

I walk past the borehole where a lone woman pumps her final bucket of water until the break of day tomorrow. Someone calls out to me in the dark, to which I respond the last greeting of the day. Walking past the big tree in the clearing before my house, I shine my light, as always, into the branches hoping to see the eyes of a cat illuminated by the light. After that, I walk quickly through the school grounds and arriving at my house, I turn on my torch, unlock the door and enter inside, hurrying to locate the candles and match to make light. Quietly, I brush my teeth, undress and get in bed, tucking the net tightly around me and open my book. The day is done.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Elephant Fear

Wow, I guess I should be a little embarrassed about my lack of blogging for the last four months. One month sans blog turned into two and then somehow I unconsciously let myself off the hook until just this week when I realized I need to get back into it. For good reason, too, since its safe to say the last months have flown by in a blur of visits to the beach, run ins with elephants, chilly nights, and slow progress on the borehole project.

The weather has cooled significantly and we are currently mid-winter. The colors are much more muted since the sun is farther away and a constant breeze shifts through the trees making me feel like it is late summer in the high mountains. It has also put me in a fall-like mind state, yearning for Friday night house parties after morning classes, delicious thick soups, clogs, and fall foliage. Instead, butterflies and bees flit and flutter around my blooming eucalyptus, drinking water stays cool all day long, laundry is not guaranteed to dry in one day (so annoying) and heating bath water has become a must. In keeping with Malawian fashion, I have been rocking a chitenge like a shawl which is a surprisingly fabulous (and warm) look. Life has definitely changed with the weather.

The beginning of the cooler weather instigated daily games of what Amayi Kambale calls “net ball” but what is actually a fierce game of keep away; Amayis (including me) versus Achimales (sisters). The court is the dirt area in front of the Kambale’s house and though the object is to keep the ball in your teams possession for as long as possible, there are no rules or a scoring system. And these ladies are hardcore! Grabbing and pushing are apparently allowed, trash talking is enjoyed, and no shoes are allowed; a rule which caused the blackening of my toenail that has since fallen off.

In addition to my introduction to the world of Malawian womens sports, the cool weather has signified the return of the herds of elephants in Liwonde National Park. Silent nights are punctuated by beating drums and yelling intended to scare the elephants from homes and gardens and in the day you can see them roaming the shores of the Shire. Because the elephants move freely around the park, there is always a chance you will meet one (or many) between the fence to the boat dock, a route I take every time I go to Mvuu Camp. Malawians move up and down this road daily, choosing not to worry about encounters with elephants unless they actually encounter one. I, on the other hand, race through the 1.5K, my heart quickening with every falling tree branch, monkey movement, or screeching bird, calling out to all passing Malawians “njobvu alipo? (are the elephants around?)”

Malawians are quick to assure me not to worry, advice I used to gladly take until one day, after being resolutely assured the elephants were away, I came across one on the road. I was lucky, since I had just clarified with one of the guides about what to do if you run into an elephant on your bike; stop, slowly drop your bike, and hide. Which is exactly what I did, moving deliberately behind a nearby tree, waiting a couple minutes, and then proceeding back to the dock to wait for someone to escort me. it wasn’t until I began my retreat that the adrenaline rushed through my body, making my arms and legs feel like noodles, and since then I have been unable to relax as long as I am in transit between the two points, regardless if I have been told the elephants are not around.

The fear that I feel about this wild animal is uncharacteristic of me, a person who is generally sure that good luck and chance are on my side, which is why I can say I really like elephants. They are magnificent and intelligent creatures, surely one of the most ingeniously evolved animals to walk the earth and though I am pretty sure it is not my destiny to be killed by an animal I respect so much, life can be heartbreakingly random and I am not interested in tempting fate. And so, these not so irrational feelings I have about elephants have urged me to contemplate what is worthy of fear and what is not. Fear is a natural response to certain stimuli, a response one would often do well to listen to; so how do you know when something (or someone for that matter) is legitimately threatening or if your brain and your adrenal glands are getting the best of you? Also, how to explain the worry that thinking about it too much will make it happen?

I guess the only legitimate reply I have to that question is that I cant ever really know. Fear is a physical response to a threatening stimuli that can be real or imagined. Because of that, the trick is to control your fear through acknowledgement of the risk as well as the chance that you will still be alive or in good health tomorrow afternoon. It is a feat of balance to navigate the thin line between simply ensuring your health now and making sure you are well enough for tomorrow. Especially considering that simple fact is scary enough. And so, as I cycle through elephant infested bush, risk drinking untreated water in Africa, and sometimes hitch rides in private vehicles alone, I am always aware of the risk I am taking while remaining convinced that it is my lot in life to live to be an old woman. Seems I am not old enough to appreciate my own mortality yet.

Which kind of a crazy connection to a visitor I had to my house in June. While I was in Lilongwe for a weekend, I received a phone call from Mr. Kambale who told me a Chilos Souzande from Dedza had come to visit me. Of course I hurried home, amazed that my homestay father I stayed with a year ago in the village of Chipazi decided this was the week to visit. Upon my return, I found he had been sleeping in the spare room of my house and eating with the Kambale’s. During the day I was traveling back, he swept and burned all the leaves around my house and rode bikes with mr Kambale to check out the fence of the national park. Mr Sauzande (I have only recently began to wonder if his is name isnt actually the Chewa version of “thousand”) was so nice and happy to see me, smiling all the time and being so helpful; definitely the best guest who has come to see me, by far! The night we ate together, he told me he heard from the Chipatzi rumor mill I had died and there was a funeral for me. So, he uncovered the crude map I once drew him for directions to my house, and he set off to make sure the rumor was untrue.

It is unbelievable to me that someone would have said I died, which is why I think Mr Sauzande could be pulling my leg. However, since this seemingly grim claim has been made about my health, I have heard from a few different people it is actually a sign that I will live a long life. Meaning, I suppose, the mortality I am facing at this moment is that of longevity, not sudden death by elephants. Which sounds like a pretty positive way to wrap up this bloviation on fear.

It seems, that there comes a certain point when even though you are aware of the chance you are taking doing such and such thing at any given time, ultimately you must give up the chance and your fear to the unseen power of the world. You must trust that you will land on your feet, that your energy combined with all of the other living energies around you are at least compatible enough to protect you in some way against harm. Only in that way can you continue to move through this life as naturally as possible, allowing the world to present some dangers, opportunities, and adventures while taking the advantage of first refusal. Freak accidents are still applicable to this logic; life shows us we don’t always have a choice in the matter, but we must allow ourselves to face this fact while refusing to alter your course until more immediate facts convince us otherwise.

And speaking of immediate facts convincing enough of a change in course; let me update you on the latest news on the Masalema Borehole Committee.

After four long months of “fundraising,” Masalema has only come up with 14,000Kwacha; a clear sign that the original aim of a 98,000K cash contribution is not going to happen. Even with the 98,000K cash, it was going to be stretch to make the 25% community contribution and so there is no way it can happen with a mere 40,000k, let alone 14,000K. Way back in November, the Afumu and committee members assured me the community was ready to give but when it came down to it, the people in the village believed the borehole would come without their help. Ultimately, it comes down to the simple fact that access to water in Masalema isn’t a big enough problem to warrant a new borehole. Which is actually awesome! In a country where clean, reliable, and nearby water isnt a right, the people in this community should feel grateful they are not facing that problem.

In the meantime, another village, about 7K away from Masalema, has approached Mr Juma and myself, claiming they have 300,000K in cash and are suffering greatly from using an open well that is far away from their village. I am eager to meet with the new village to learn more details but we must wait until we have backed out of Masalema in an appropriate way. I was worried that the ending of the project in Masalema would make Mr Juma look bad but he was the one who told me no one would be talking badly of him because it is the failure of the village, not ours. Phew, because I was a little worried. I am beating myself up a little wondering if I could have communicated better, been more motivating, or better at setting smaller goals within the larger one so I do sort of feel like I is my failure, certainly not Mr Juma’s though. But, its true the project was of a large scope for a village with only a smaller need for water so I am trying to give myself a break on this one.

In an attempt at conclusion, I would like to say, despite the roller coaster of daily, weekly, and monthly ups and downs, how content I am with my African life. Despite the borehole saga, my fear of elephants, and the temporary possibility I was dead, my life feels pretty regular for the most part. Or maybe not as much regular as pleasantly predictable.

The other day I was sitting with Mr juma at his house as he carved a hoe handle out of a tree branch with his machete. He paused to roll a cigarette from notebook paper(!) and tobacco grown in the surrounding fields and I grabbed a burning stick from the fire to assist him with his vice. Two days prior, there had been a funeral for his young granddaughter and Inez had been pretty sick, sleeping and resting all day for two days on the mat. We sat in silence for a while as Juma smoked and carved. Feeling free, I attempted conversation but then realized quiet was better. I wondered if he was sad about his granddaughter, contemplating his life.

The next day, I again sat with Mr Juma. Inez was feeling better, the hoe handle was looking extremely beautiful, and we wondered about the new project. As we ate, mr juma told me he used to spend the night at Inez’s house when they were teenagers. He also told me there are some kinds of medicine you can get from the witchdoctor to attract men to you and also to prevent your man from going to another woman. I asked Inez if she was using that on Juma and she said quote “there is only one god (pointing up) and that is not medicine. Medicine is to help your body.” Which is very true. Juma then informed he was not going to any other woman so its not like she really needs to use it anyway. Juma continued on, telling me he is becoming very fat living with Inez. She was his first girlfriend and the one he wanted to marry when he was young so he is content now that is finally with her. Wow. As the risk of sounding too gushy, my heart truly feels bigger when he tells me these things.

How comforting it is to think that someone like Mr Juma, a poor 50 something Malawian man living in a thatched roof house on less than $250 a year, can be truly content with his life. How many people in America, living on more than $50,000 a year can say they are as happy as he is? I think Juma is a very fortunate man, a combination of his own making and compassionate nature. I also think hanging with him makes me fortunate by extension since he respects me, teaches me, and treats me as an equal. How lucky I am that part of my life journey involves Mr Juma.

Which I guess sums up the state of my life at the moment; contentedness. I have been here a year, enough time to adjust to my village life but not enough to be stressed about an impending departure. The future seems a comfortable (sometimes) way off and though it is constant practice to stay present, I feel there has been no easier time in my life to do so. Though I am certainly not claiming to be some ‘living in the present master’ as I do spend some part of every day and night dreaming about frosted baked goods, chilled white wine with dinner, wall to wall carpeting, and guaranteed hot showers. In the meantime, where I am is the perfect place to be, though I do know I will desire to return to the land of plenty someday sooner than later.

Sending my love to America, a rather belated Independence Day greeting but no less sincere, and also to all those people who love both America and me.

Friday, April 1, 2011

cold cokes and kwacha

Even in Malawi, March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb. Which would explain why I am feeling more peaceable as the month ends than when it originally started. In with unease and jaded self-examination, out with acceptance and calm. Maybe it’s the thought of the two beach trips in my near future or the fact that I feel like I am getting my stride (finally! after 10 months!).

My relationship with Mr. Juma continues to be a source of happiness and learning in my life and I am continually amazed by this unexpected friendship and partnership. His outlook, experience, and intrinsic sense of right and wrong has truly influenced my constantly expanding insight and knowledge of Malawi. Last week Juma and I made an appointment to meet with the local Member of Parliament, MP Mpawen,i at his home/hotel, a 10k bike ride and 30 minute minibus ride away. It was so easy to make the appointment; all I did was call the MP, who was extremely happy to hear from me, so I really had no idea what to expect. That day I ate nsima made by Ines, Juma’s extremely petite wife, and we traveled to the meeting.

When we showed up to the hotel, we had to wait a little while for the MP, since he had been attending a funeral in another district. We were served cold! cokes and when he showed up, he escorted us to sit on the veranda. He was quite pleasant, actually, charming and interested in the borehole we are working on. He even recognized Mr. Juma since, as I have said, Juma is a man about town. In the end, he told us the government only allocated funds for three boreholes in our area (what is essentially a county) but that he knows water is a problem, wants development on this level, and is happy to help us move forward. Which means he will give us 40,000K (260USD) initially to site the borehole with the high possibility of more for the mandatory fundraising, sanitation, and pump maintenance trainings that are not included in the cost of the actual digging. Horay!

The entire time we were talking, though, people kept showing up to ask him for money. A woman came needing money for transport to the hospital, two men asking for money to buy cement to finish building a mosque, another woman and a small child needing money for a funeral. Every time a person would kneel in front of him (and Juma and I by extension, since we were the guests of the MP), he would pull out of a huge wad of cash and peel back the bills). It took me a minute to realize this was completely normal but I didn’t make a connection with these people and myself and Mr. Juma until the end of our meeting.

MP Mpaweni wrapped us up with another chilled soda, saying he was going to Lilongwe for the following week to get the money together, but would plan to come to the village to give the money to committee in a little ceremony. AWESOME!!! Then he completely surprised me by giving Juma and I each 500K (plus 4,00K to Juma for a pit he dug at the health center) and telling us his driver would drive us back to the village. First though, the driver would stop at the market so that we could spend our kwacha. I couldn’t believe it but Mr. Juma played the whole thing totally cool. I bought cabbage and eggs, Juma; sugar, laundry soap, and a couple of manufactured cigs (since he normally rolls his own).

When we ate together that night (goat because Juma was feeling flush with Kwach), Mr Juma laughed at me for being so completely blown away by the afternoon. I asked him if he knew he would be getting some pocket money when we left for the meeting that afternoon (which he did) and why didn’t he prepare me?? Then he told me that 500k isnt really even that much; the MP before Mpaweni would have given us 1000k. oh geeze.

Needless to say, we were feeling pretty pleased with ourselves. Until we had a meeting with the Water Committee and were faced with figuring out who we are going to trust the money with between the time the MP gives it to us and the guys come to site the borehole. I don’t want to keep the money since I don’t think that is my role and neither Mr. Juma’s, but that makes the most logical person the elected treasurer of the committee. Except that I don’t trust this woman for a couple different reasons; her daughter stole some candy and a couple of bars of soap from me (minor things, I know, but I also know she knew since everyone in the family is using the same bafa and the same soap, not just the daughter) and she was weird about it when I said something, immediately turning it around and asking me for money to buy rice. And also, she was entrusted by another committee she belongs to store vegetables and she ate them all instead of selling them. That second thing I learned from Ines

At the meeting, though, even though I stressed how important it is that the person in charge of the 40,000 Kwacha cash is trustworthy and that the MP will not be pleased if the money is used for something else, they still insisted she is the right person (she wasn’t at that meeting). They even said, at the end of the meeting, “Don’t worry about the money, Chloe.” I AM WORRYING ABOUT IT, THOUGH!!! I don’t trust this woman! However, I have repeatedly expressed my concerns with Mr. Juma and he continues to assure me. Essentially, his logic is that because the people of the community will all know she has the money, she won’t steal it. However, what about other family members of hers that are desperate and even less trustworthy? How easy would it be to reveal where the money was being kept and then look the other way? or to take some of the money for her own use? She certainly doesn’t have money to pay it back, and neither does the community. Obviously I am still thinking about this, worry about it. However, I am beginning to think this is going to be a lesson in trust in the larger scheme of things. A lesson in giving it up to a higher power while thinking positive.

I guess it is sort of weird that in the midst of all this I am still able feel calm and collected. I think its because of how much I am enjoying gardening and working around my house. I obsess about my flowers, and spend at least 30 minutes a day thinking about them, which I think gives you an idea about the state of my romantic commitments at this time. All my clothes are finally in drawers after my three month wait for a dresser to be built and my books are cute on the shelf. The furniture is plain wood, the curtains are flowery linen, and my village-made wicker chairs complete a sort of French Countryside in Africa feel. A look completed by high waisted, flowy skirts, oversized lace tops, flower and check prints, and bright colors. Nice aesthetics are key.

I continue to feel happy about my current geographic location and content with my lifestyle, though every day I miss the beauty of Western America and dream of luxuries like walking anonymously down the street, going to a movie theater, and eating frosted baked goods. I cant imagine how it will be when I finally return.

Sending my love, all the time.

Cheers! Chloe

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Mr. Juma

Oh man, I cant believe February is over! My life is flying by which is good but sometimes I worry I am going to wake up one day when I am 30 and think oh god, where has my life gone. I am someone who likes action, though, and wouldn’t have it any other way.

For the past two months I have been focused on boreholes. Reading about them, talking about them, and looking at them in hopes that later this year, the small village of Masalema will have one drilled. At this point, a census of three villages has been conducted, borehole usage monitored, a water committee of ten community members formed, prices and options for this water source have been gathered and the committee has made some important decisions regarding finances and community contribution. All of this could not have been done without the help, influence, and direction of Mr. Juma Chilembwe, a respected member of the community who is genuinely committed to serving others.

When I first came to site I was introduced to Mr. Juma and would see him out and about occasionally but it wasn’t until January that he revealed himself as an significant relationship. He sits on a lot of committees in the area, is a member of the Malawi Cotton Growers Association, knows many people, is friends with many of the chiefs and even the Traditional Authority (sort of like the district government) has expressed her desire to see him head the Village Development Committee which is responsible for development on a county level (for lack of better comparison). His involvement on so many levels shows his commitment to service and understanding of the power structures and protocol. We have been spending a lot of time together, traveling to Balaka to meet with the waterboard, attending meetings and talking about our plans. He is volunteering his time, just as I am, and I am energized by his dedication. I think we make a good team and he even told me he is feeling “alive” working with me, which I took as a compliment. Not only is he smart and well respected, but he is helpful, respectful, and takes me seriously.

2010 was a hard year for Mr. Juma because both of his wives died within months and he was out of the village a lot, caring for each of them at the hospital. When they died pretty much back to back he was left him with who knows how many children and, since in the Yao culture, the man moves into the home of the woman when they are married, no home of his own. So now, Mr. Juma needs a house and someone to cook him nsima, wash his clothes, and carry his water. He has a piece of land in the neighboring village where he will build a house, but in the meantime he needs to move out of his deceased wife’s family’s house. I was honored when he shared his thoughts about women in the village in need of a husband and it was so enlightening to hear such a different way of thinking about marriage; one that doesn’t involve love.

It is refreshing to work with Mr. Juma after dealing with so many annoying Malawian men wherever I go. Malawi is a country full of young people but as a man in his mid 50’s, he represents a different generation of Malawian men whom I have not had much contact with prior to this. A group of men I can only describe at this point as soft spoken and very stylish. Mr. Juma wears baggy pants, flip flops, and loose oxford shirts in colors like coral, sunflower, and peacock purple; looking sort of professional and sort of gangster.

It is so mind boggling to think that my path has crossed with Mr. Juma and what I would have thought last year if I knew what I would be experiencing this year. Every day I am filled with wonderment about how lucky I am to be here and how amazing and crazy all the people I am meeting here are.

Sending my love, as usual, and hoping all is well in America.

Love, C

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Year of the Self

Sitting at the Peace Corps office delaying the inevitable dark hole of research into available peace corps money and grant writing making this the perfect time to write what I am sure has been a long awaited blog post. I have been enjoying the cooler, rainy weather of Lilongwe, the wonderful warm showers of Mustafas, and the company of a random group of some silly peace corps volunteers.

The month of January has dragged on, flown by, and proven to be a significant transition month into the next period of my service. I have started two pretty intimidating projects; drilling a borehole and starting a medicinal garden at the health center. The acquisition of a new borehole in the community is a huge undertaking that will take a legitimate commitment from the villagers and the medicinal garden has the potential to bring an entirely new set of health resources for many groups in the area. However, people believe (at least I think they do) that I will be their leader to obtain a goal I am not quite clear about yet. I have never done anything remotely similar to this but the committees in my village are looking to me for information, guidance, and obviously resources. I am incredibly intimidated by the depth and scope of these two projects; worried I don’t possess the ability to empower others to help themselves, to lead through service, to communicate through action and authenticity, not words.

Of late, I have been reading and reflecting on a book about leadership I received for Christmas from my dear old mother, Sally. The slant of the book is about leading from the inside out (please note the facetious tone I am using) through the examination of yourself. The book has been very helpful, though I am struggling to apply the concepts effective in corporate America in a cross cultural setting, mostly because I am not receiving the kind of feedback I can easily interpret within the comfortable setting of straightforward american-ness. As a result, one part of me is yearning for feedback from those people who have known me for a longtime, people who have analyzed situations and pumped me up when I was feeling uncertain. Yet, there is the other part of me that acknowledges this as living up to my personal theme of 2011 which will be the year of the self; self-reflection, self-motivation, independence, self- support. January embodied this theme perfectly and I have every reason to believe February will follow in its footsteps.

As the leadership reflections have urged me through the winding path of this crazy thing we call my life, the I can tell the luster of Malawi is wearing off and the realities of my challenges are appearing. I can feel my level of positivity, which has been unnaturally high this past year, returning to a more regular level. I still feel strong at this point in my journey and am in good spirits, just feeling the burn as I move up the mountain.

Thank you for the plentiful birthday wishes and happy energy I know you all have been sending me. I feel so much more mature and legit now that I am 24 and in the last year of my early 20s. I am definitely taking myself more seriously now (also note the facetiousness). Ha

Love! Chloe

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Holiday Greetings

Because of I have been living in the present for the last five and a half months, I didn’t send out any Christmas cards; a fact I am a little ashamed by, considering how much fun I had last year. So, instead, I will have to wish you all a very merry Christmas via my blog; a little unconventional, I know, though no less sincere. And so, here is goes;

Mele Kalikimaka is the thing to say on a bright Malawian Christmas Day. That’s the island greeting that we send to you from the land where palm trees sway. Here we know that Christmas will be green and bright, the sun to shine by day and all the stars at night. Mele kalikimaka is the wise way to say Merry Christmas to you.

Also, Peace on Earth is a probably a good holiday greeting, since I am promoting peace and friendship in Africa.

All in all, wishing you a lovely, warm, and fun holiday season and a Happy New Year filled with new beginnings and adventure.

Love, Chloe

P.S. Don’t forget to drink some egg nog for me