Africa’s Riches or Why do I want to live in Malawi?

As you probably know by now I loved being in Malawi last summer. During my last week in Mtogolo Village I plotted about 134 ways to just stay. Maybe this is an exaggeration, but I honestly thought about it a lot.

I have been wondering about my feelings ever since. What touched me so deeply? It couldn’t have been the poverty I could see every day, nor the lack of sanitation, electricity, running water, kitchens, washing machines, not the classrooms with 100 students and no supplies, not the lack of transportation etc. You get the point.

And I know I didn’t just want to stay because I thought I could help the people so much. I mean, how much can I really help? I wouldn’t even know where to start. And who am I to presume that Malawi particularly needs me or my expertise to be better off?

No, it was the other way around. Life in Malawi provided me with something I desperately needed. It was good for me. My travel companion mentioned more than one time that she had never seen me happier. I suddenly received something I didn’t even know I was missing. So, what was it?

After I returned home I was violently thrown back into my old, stressful, unhealthy life. I started reading books about Americans who lived in Africa for a while and came across “Nine Hills to Nambonkaha” by Sarah Erdman, a former Peace Corps volunteer. One single paragraph in the middle of her book explained everything:

“…. And in the end, that’s ok with me. I’m realizing that I am a development worker who’s not completely sold on development. Maybe I am just disillusioned with where all the newfangledness of Western life has gotten us. Maybe I see here what we lack: simplicity, community, a non-commercialized, revered culture. I can’t dismiss tradition. I can’t dismiss respect for elders. I can’t dismiss sorcery. I can’t accept the shriek of the corn mill replacing the tok tok of the pestle, because pounding is social, communal, reciprocal, and the mill just means waiting in line.

Community in Africa still works. The village is arguably the most stable and cohesive unit in West African society. Modern Africans might scoff at their village cousins, who produce a bumper crop of yams one year and give half of them away to relatives and friends instead of reaping the profits. But that’s the beauty of Africa, that’s the glue in the face of catastrophes like AIDS and ethnic unrest. In the village, no one falls through the cracks. Knowing how much I esteem their diligence, their adaptability, their strength, I will allow myself to be a bit presumptuous. I don’t want to watch rituals crumble. I don’t want to see children’s games replaced by insipid images on a TV screen. I want no hand in Westernizing this village.”

She goes on to describe a sudden emergency in the village where lots of funds were needed quickly to maintain the clinic. A sum so large that no villager could even imagine it…and that was where her expertise in fundraising and her connection to richer parts of the world proofed to be lifesaving.

And this is the essence for me. I think I have much to learn from village life in Malawi. I want to discover and be part of their source of happiness and hope that some of it will rub off on me. But I also want to, in return, share my Western knowledge, skills, and my connections in hopes that I can make a tiny and careful contribution to what might help in alleviating some of the hardships Malawians are faced with today.

Malawi Sketch Book 1  (my journey in sketching)

 

Mid- Service and Time to Reflect

Two weeks ago we finished our MST (Mid-Service Training) in Lilongwe. It was an excellent time to reflect where I was when I started compared to where I am right now. And with “where” I mean mentally, physically, emotionally, politically, culturally, and spiritually.

I wrote my last blog post on March 25th 2018, the day I turned 50. This is almost 7 months ago and I am wondering what made me stop writing, what made me stop sharing my deeper thoughts. I have to say “sharing my deeper thoughts”, because I still have been posting pictures and anecdotes on my fb page. My life here in Malawi is very full of stories, experiences, people, and village children. I have my work and my routine, and on some level, my life has become “normal” although differently than it was “normal” back in Utah. Living in the village has challenges, and joys, and the same is true for being part of the Peace Corps Malawi family. I personally have grown beyond words, and this might be exactly the reason why I stopped writing blog entries; there are too many changes in my life to count, there is so much depth, so much reflection, and there are so many “firsts” that I lost track.

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But what is the take-away from our MST? Some of the things we did were simply “bodily maintenance”. We all had dentist appointments and physical exams. And we had another language test. If you remember, learning Chichewa was difficult for me in the first place, but learning Chitonga as another local language seemed impossible at times. However, it is surprising how many things one can pick up in a language if forced to communicate with young children beleaguering one’s house

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or wanting to have a conversation with the very friendly agogos (grandmothers) in one’s village.

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MST was also a time to catch up with the other volunteers who live in far away parts of the country. I was surprised and sad to learn that at that point we had lost about 1/3 of our original cohort for various reasons that included but were not limited to medical concerns, adjustment problems, security issues, and also and unfortunately bad behavior. However, whoever remained was even more committed than ever despite the problems we all had faced. One year in a foreign land under difficult conditions and a common goal had leveled the playing field for us. If we had discrepancies in the beginning of our service due to our educational and cultural backgrounds, life experiences and age, during MST we all seemed to be closer, tied together by friendship, support, understanding, and respect. For that I am more grateful than I will ever be able to express, because with 50 one doesn’t often have the chance to work under these conditions.

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During our training sessions we also reflected on our completed projects, and our next goals for the remaining time before COS (close of service). 27 months of service have always seemed long, but in light of the work we do it seems nowhere to be enough time. Many of us are contemplating to extend our service for another year either at our current sites or at different positions around the country. MST was a reminder that time flies. We need to stay focused, but also start thinking about our time beyond. At the moment this is a very stressful thought. There is nothing more constant than change, but making the actual change is never easy. Some of us have a very clear plan. The PC experience will lead us into graduate school and/ or a career that will build upon our experience here in the developing world. For others, all of our plans have changed or ended, because we have changed, or life phases have ended.

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One thing is for sure, none of us gets out of here unaltered. People say that we don’t really change over time, but this is not true. We do change in fundamental ways. We have opportunities to reevaluate long-held believes and base knowledge, we change our ways to respond to different situations, we develop more tolerance when faced with different believes and world views, we adapt to different styles of prayer and worship, we lose our fear of spiders and snakes, and we develop a seventh sense called gratitude. As a foreigner in a strange land, with a recognizably different skin color, and inability to adequately express our thoughts intelligently or coherently due to our lack of language skill, we learn to be grateful for others to be friendly towards us. We learn to be grateful for people who not stare at us even so we stick out of a crowd like a sore thumb. We are grateful for people patiently translating for us or putting effort into speaking our language even so we are the ones clearly failing to speak the local tongue. We are grateful for people inviting us for dinner, teaching us how to cook with the ingredients locally grown and available, and escorting us home in the dark so we can feel safe from possibly unfriendly citizens. We begin to be grateful that our constant mishaps and accidentally impolite behavior is recognized as such and forgiven. We are grateful for children to be allowed by their parents to come to our homes and hold our hands or sit on our laps. And we are grateful that our physical weakness is not judged and we are helped with difficult household chores like carrying water and fire wood, digging trash pits, removing bats from our living spaces, transporting heavy items like tables, or bed frames etc.

I have 9 months left in this beautiful country. And I am curious about how much more I will change.

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“Madzi ndi Moyo” (Water is Life)

I don’t think there exists a place on earth anymore where people don’t talk about water. In Utah we have always watched the snow cover in the mountains as a predictor of how much water we would have the next year. In Flint, Michigan an entire town has been living with poisoned drinking water for the past 3 years. The biggest concern after a natural disaster is always how to get drinking water to the people. We hear how water gets polluted by oil spills from pipelines, off-shore drilling, vacation cruise lines, and plastic residue. Some of us have been implementing water saving measures in our homes such as putting bricks or bottles in our flush toilets as to not use too much water that way. We have changed our grassy front lawn to a rock design, we use drip systems, don’t wash our cars in the drive way, use showers instead of baths. We have been watching the progression of the melting of glaciers and ice caps. Some of us worry so much that we have to pretend things will be ok just to not go crazy. We think about water. I have been thinking about water. But until now I have never had the complete first-hand experience with what it means to not have enough water.

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As you might remember from one of my earlier posts, when I first arrived in Malawi I stayed in a “training village” where I learned about everything necessary to survive in a Malawian village. One of the things was to draw water from a well, pump water from a borehole and transport the bucket of 5 gallons (which weighs about 40 pounds) on my head to our homestead.

My first site in the South had a water tap right outside my little hut and even though the pump sometimes went out, I still had water conveniently close. It was still an extra effort to wash laundry, carry everything in buckets, but it was very close. I never worried.

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Now, living in Nkhata Bay, I have a nice house, but no water or electricity. It is interesting that I always assumed that not having electricity or internet would be the most challenging part of my life. And don’t get me wrong, it IS challenging, but having a water source that is 1 km away from the house is the real hardship. I am not complaining, because in some parts of Malawi or Africa women have to walk even further to fetch water, but it is such an eye-opener to me that I would like to share my experiences.

So, how do I live without running water? First of all, and I am counting right now, I have two large plastic basins, three 5 liter buckets, two 10 liter buckets, one 15 liter bucket, five 20 liter buckets, one 4 liter bucket, and two 60 liter buckets with lids to fetch and store my water. I feel safe when all of the vessels are filled to the brim.

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How much water do I need per day (and remember, I am only one person, things multiply when you have a family!)? On a regular day, I need water for drinking, cooking and to take a sponge bath. This is approximately 6 gallons or 24 liters. Sometimes I have to do laundry and mop the house or wash my hair and my use goes up to about 4 buckets to 60 liters (or 20 gallons).

What does it take for me to be able to use 20 gallons? On laundry day I have to walk to the bore hole 4 times, 4 km with an empty bucket and 4km with 20 liters on my head. Or I can take my dirty laundry to the borehole and wash it there and carry that back on my head. But I still need drinking water. How much time does it take? As a general rule, people walk 1 km in about 10 min. If no one is at the borehole, it takes me about 30 min per bucket (walking and filling it), 2 hours altogether. But the borehole is a place for socializing. Many women and children gather there to chat while pumping water or doing laundry. That means that one usually has to wait in line to pump water. If I carry my water on laundry day, it can take me up to 4-5 hours.

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As an average I use 6-8 gallons a day. It would be a good guess that this is the average use per head in Malawi, maybe even across all countries that still have this kind of water access. The average use of water in the US is 80-100 gallon per person per day. To carry 100 gallons from the borehole to the house, I would have to carry 50 buckets a day, spending about 33.3 hours doing so, and that is more hours than one day has! And that is just for one person.

Needless to say, I am somewhat obsessed with water. I always know how much water I have. I take an empty bucket to work because this is where the borehole is. I plan my Sunday according to where I possibly could fill my water bottle with filtered drinking water that I don’t have to boil or filter (some lodges for tourists have filtered water).

It is safe to say that the village life for women and children centers around fetching water. Wherever you go you either see people carrying water on their heads, pumping water, sitting around a water source chatting, cleaning buckets etc. One of the nicest things my neighbors ever did for me was bringing a bucket of fresh water to my house late at night after I returned from a long trip. I had not asked for it. But village people know that water is the most important thing you need when returning to your house.

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In a traditional family, women and children carry the water. Men sometimes carry water for plants in watering cans or they will strap containers to their bikes. They usually do not carry water on their heads even though they know how, being raised carrying water as a child.

I sometimes I have students (girls) from my school bring water for me. Lately my small neighborhood children insist on fetching water. They carry smaller buckets, the very little ones (3yrs old) carry cooking pots with water. But nobody walks to or leaves the proximity of a borehole without carrying at least some.

 

During rainy season we “harvest” water from the roofs. You can find rows of buckets underneath metal roofs all over the village. I learned very quickly. I have been jumping out of bed at 2am running into a full blown rainstorm setting up all my empty buckets on numerous occasions…Now I even leave my basins in place when I leave town just in case it does rain.

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Village people are very protective of their water. They never leave buckets outside. They don’t consider it safe even if covered. And it makes sense. Water is so precious that they worry that ill-meaning folks could easily poison a bucket or animals could contaminate it. Many diseases or even death come from bad water. Water needs to be protected.

What have I learned from living with no running water? I will never take (clean) water for granted any longer. I plan my water use. If I do laundry, I use the grey water for mopping my house. I also use bath water to water my plants. I know exactly which bucket has the latest, freshest water. I spend many hours boiling and filtering drinking water, because it is easy to get dehydrated if you have to work for every drop (sometimes one has to choose between dehydration or diarrhea).

Last week I noticed women in my immediate neighborhood carrying up to 6 bricks on their heads contributing to the construction of a new borehole. I was very excited to find out that there are plans to drill one very close to my house, only 150 meters away. I take part in the women’s excitement and joyful expectation. 150m compared to 1000m. This will be an improvement of life and living conditions for many, including myself.

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There is a saying in Malawi: “Madzi ndi moyo” or “Water is life”. Poisoning water is an offense that gets punished severely. We cannot drink water with oil residue or radioactive water. It is a crime against humanity to pollute any water source no matter where because water doesn’t know borders. If Mozambique dumps trash into lake Malawi, Malawians and Tanzanians are effected as well.

Thank you for reading.

 

Peace Corps Training, Learning, and the Question “ Does age matter?”

I am sitting at my brand new table, hand-made by the local carpenter in front of my living room window overlooking a sea of jungle green that grows between my front porch and the tarmac. It is 9 am here in Nkhata Bay, Lakeshore, and sweat is running down my back and my forehead. Behind me, my cat Tonga is hunting futuristically large insects, proving that she is not dependent on me feeding her plain rice. My signature red reading glasses perch on the tip of my nose and I am typing with the four finger system un-mistakenly giving away my age. Yes, I grew up without computers, and yes, my reading glasses get stronger and stronger.

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Last year around this time my life seemed un-changeable in its course. Today, nothing is predictable from one day to the next.

During our first week of Pre-Service Training (PST) the country director asked me why I chose to join the Peace Corps during this stage of my life, mid-career they call it. And I answered that I wanted, that I  needed change.

As an organization, Peace Corps is geared towards young college graduates, but as few years ago  started actively recruiting mature adults. The medium age of PC volunteers is 28 with an actual percentage of adults over 50 right around 7%. While one does not have to join the PC to change one’s life, this was my chosen path. And it is with, within, and under the framework of PC that I strain against old patterns and struggle to find a new path in my life.

Working with my fellow PC volunteers (who mostly could be my children, and wonderful children at that) I am constantly reminded of that time in my life when I was so passionate, so full of energy and drive, and hope, and hunger for a promising, fulfilling life. I am also reminded that at their age I considered people like me “old”, just biding their time to retirement. They seemed boring, hesitant, judgmental, and frankly, a mere appendix to the “happening” society.

So, where do I fit in? Am I young because I do what young people do, or am I old, because the demands of an older body and mind set me apart?

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I still cannot answer this question, but I can reflect on my experience with an openness to change and learning.

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Has my life changed? Absolutely. I am living on another continent. I live like Malawian villagers; with no water, electricity, internet, or comfort except a decent mattress on my concrete floor. I know how to sweep the dirt, I am learning a completely foreign language, I live alone for the very first time in my life, and I teach children that don’t speak my language in subjects I have never taught before. I am starting over. My previous life has not prepared me for this.in this, I am just like my 24 year old fellow volunteers. Does change come easy? Absolutely not. I am probably slightly uncomfortable 80% of my time. Meeting new people is hard, communicating is hard, living a simple life with fetching water and cooking on charcoal is hard, not having access to fresh vegetables without a 10km bike ride is hard, being alone is hard, and not being able to share my darkest moments with anybody is hard. My friends could be my children, and one does not break down in front of one’s children. There is a code. The older ones give advice; the younger ones seek council. And here is my biggest surprise, being older does not change anything about how one feels about or perceives the world. I still feel frightened, I feel inadequate in the face of challenges, I feel lonely, I cry, I sometimes want to give up, I feel heartbroken. And yet I feel excited, and I am proud, I am  in love, and feel giddy, over-the-top hopeful, and I feel so happy to live a meaningful life.

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Most of the time I am excited about the changes I have made. I like the simple life.  I like to have time to sit and reflect. I like that my life experience is valued here, and I like that I am respected as a teacher. I like to teach in a place where the naughtiest students sleep in class or wear their hair too long. I like the weather and how my life is lived 80% outdoors. I love how you can/must be creative without having to be perfect. And I actually like the hole in the ground that is called a toilet, because, really, it is more suited to what you are physiologically supposed to do there. I like that having a mattress on the floor and a table with two chairs is considered being wealthy. I like that people remain in their natural bodies with no veneer, no fake boobs, no teeth corrections, no lipo-suction, no permanent make-up or the need to starve or exercise themselves to death.

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But what about the learning part? Life-long learning is almost a buzz word. As a teacher I promote learning through life. Modern Western society promotes life-long learning. How well and how fast do I learn all the necessary things? Peace Corps requires a fast pace of learning. Teaching and reporting styles are geared towards the capacities of young people. I have always been proud of my brain functions, my ability to connect the dots fast, to grasp the relationships of concepts. Learning with 23 year olds is different. The speed in which they comprehend completely new concepts is beyond my understanding. How can I be so slow? How can I forget so many details? How are 30 min of study time enough to retain 9 hours worth of lecture? I am at an age where I am the teacher, where I am the professor. I give the assignments. When did I become so slow? During our PC training I felt as old as I had never felt before in my life. I gained a new understanding of the frustrations a slow learner faces every day in school. If you have learning challenges you don’t just miss out on learning. You also miss out on all the fun. Instead of going to play ball and have fun after studies you go to remedial classes. Instead of taking part in leadership opportunities you go to remedial classes. Instead of playing cards, going hiking, going to the tea shop….you go to remedial classes. You don’t have time to form strong friendships or alliances. And all this immense effort culminates in is a barely passing grade. In class we learned about how adults learn in general, I read research on how adults learn a new language, during teacher training we learned about the importance of differentiation, the existence of different learning styles. Yet, we are not taught like this.

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Volunteers in the 50+ range are a minority, the instructors are either young or never had our experience. They have not been on the other side, learning,  just like, me until now.…It is frustrating to compete with the speed, energy, and brain elasticity of 23 year old students. Many times did I ask myself: what do I have to offer that the youngsters could not do faster and better? I still don’t know.

I am getting a new appreciation of the young generation. They are go-getters, compassionate, innovative, self-confident, and compassionate. They are everything we taught them to be. It is a joy to watch them. They will go far to places we never even dreamed off.

But where does this leave me? Am I worth the investment of a large organization? Where is my place? What can I contribute that 23 year olds cannot?

In Malawian culture the elders are revered. Many times did I witness a rude business man on the bus turn soft, wait patiently until an elderly person boards the bus, finds her seat, helps her store all her bulky belongings? How many times have I witnessed a high official kneel in front of an old person waiting for his advice?

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Western society revers youth. In my service can I be the best in following all the rules and guidelines that are made for people half my age? Or can I contribute in a completely new way discovered by my individual life path, education and life experience? Is a chance missed by over-regulating, over-stimulating, front-loading?

In my experience, age matters. I would say there is a (slight) bias against age, against the changes that come with age. We have a slower processing speed, our bodies and minds can perform as high as young people’s , but we need a longer time to rest and recuperate. We are slower in learning entirely new concepts, but we can easily and efficiently integrate new information that is somehow connected to previous knowledge. We can attach new knowledge to old and use it in completely new ways. We have more patience, greater wisdom, more experience, and an ability to differentiate when assessing and responding to life problem.

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Would I set out on the path of changing my life again? Absolutely. Would I wish for more differentiation in instruction? Absolutely. Am I absolutely sure of my advantages compared to 23 year olds? No, I still do not. Do I wish for more emotional support? Yes. Will I continue on the path of changing my life and others? Absolutely. Will I bear witness to the difficulties? You bet.

Change and learning are not in the sole domain of young people. Change and learning are in all of our hands. Are we all equally supported? No. But should this stop us? No again.

Age matters in all of this. We are pioneers. Our experiences count. And I am happy to experience the different ways that different cultures approach age. Outside of the training situation, I don’t feel the pressure and age-inappropriate treatment anymore. I am myself. I forge my own path for better or worse.

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Change is happening. Learning is happening. Comparisons are toxic. Individual skill sets are everything. Kindness matters more than intellect, and the ability to press on after setbacks will determine our success. Human connections are the key to a worthwhile life in the US, in Malawi, in Germany, or anywhere else on this beautiful earth.

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Age matters, but fortunately it is not everything. So go on and keep fighting, keep changing, keep learning, keep teaching at whatever pace you feel comfortable. The most important things are not quantifiable.

Peace of mind to all. Thanks for reading.

 

 

 

Peace Corps Service in Africa is all about the Unexpected

I have spent the last six weeks removed from my village and school. I am not happy about it. There was denial, anger, a grieving period and boredom in the city, a place where none of us ever wanted to be. The situation was unprecedented and fluid. We received briefings on new developments every day. We all stayed in hotels and finally Peace Corps had to make a decision on how to proceed.

And they decided to remove all volunteers from the entire Southern Region of Malawi for the duration of this year due to ongoing suspicious as well as isolated violent behaviors in villages and counter reactions based on rumors and folk tales.

I remember the day when we finally were told that there is absolutely no hope anymore to go back to our lives as we knew them. It was an emotional day because we were also given the choice to take “Interrupted Service”, an honorable discharge from service due to unforeseen circumstances. Two weeks before we had all hastily packed our bags with valuables and personal things for about two weeks, leaving our homes and belongings thinking our absence would be short lived. Our pets were cared for by neighbors, and some of us still wrote lesson plans so students could be taught during that time. And now we learned we would never go back, not even to say good bye.

While everybody tried to figure out what to do and how their decision would impact their lives we now were also concerned about all our belongings we left in our homes, our pets, our students, fellow teachers, schools, neighbors. We never had a chance to explain, tell them what they meant to us, and our Malawian friends and counterparts were grieving, too. They had lost as much as we had.

For all of us who decided to stay in Malawi it meant we would have to move to new locations. Will we have to start all over again with the process of integrating into a new village, finding new friends, creating trust? Absolutely. Will we need to learn new languages? For most of us, yes.

After the decision to not return to our sites and to move forward the process started for our trainers and supervisors to find new sites for us. We also started to learn new languages since Malawi has many tribal dialects. PC also collected all of our household belongings from our home all across the South and consolidated them in the parking lot of Head Quarters. And in between we still had long stretches of unstructured time in a large, hot, and dusty city. Some of us helped out in the embassy, some visited sites like Habitat for Humanity, a refugee camp, an animal rescue operation, helped with collecting data, organizing our living space, organizing little parties and get-togethers and more. But no matter how you looked at it, it was still a stressful time filled with waiting and the hope that our new sites would be ready for us and that we will be able to depart soon.

Six weeks, for some of us seven, is a very long time to stay put. But it also was necessary for us to go through the lengthy emotional processes that will enable us to let go of the old and fully embrace the new.

What have I learned during this time? I have learned to take life day by day. In the face of uncertainty, we must discipline our thoughts and emotions to focus on the very thing in front of our eyes. We must be flexible to follow and react to new developments as they present themselves. I have learned that emotional support by humans or animals is a big deal. Small gestures of understanding or empathy go a long way. I have learned that people grieve in their own way and time and how to respect that time for myself and others. And last but not least I have learned how the members of a large organization like Peace Corps can be efficient AND human. Huge logistical problems and complex situations, as well as high stress levels can be navigated without any signs of anger or hot temper. Maybe it is a sad account that I have never experienced this before, but I am so grateful that I got the chance to see this done, experience the calm strength that comes with confidence, respect, care, responsibility, and purpose. What a privilege. And I will pledge to take this experience forward into my life to the best of my ability.

 

 

Visiting Mzimba- Learning about work in the Environmental Sector

Peace Corps service allows for occasional cross-site visits with other volunteers if there is an educational or professional benefit. I recently was lucky enough to be granted such a visit which took me into the North of Malawi to the site of environmental volunteer Scott Tilton. Scott and I went through training together in Kasungu and share a few common interests. As we were talking I became interested in his environmental projects with community groups and students of a local secondary school.

Mzimba is about 4-5 hours north of the capital Lilongwe and it might as well be a foreign country because people here speak a different local language to the one I studied during training (Chichewa) called Chitimbuka. I was surprised how different the language is expecting only slight differences. However, to my relief people in the North seem to all know some Chichewa and most speak English rather fluently.

Thanks to Scott who introduced me to many people, including his counterpart, I had no problems feeling welcomed right away. An environmental volunteer’s work and schedule looks rather different to the one of an education volunteer. Projects are scheduled according to the local pace of the community and some of time is spent organizing, coordinating and conducting meetings with different entities.

During my visit I was lucky enough to meet with different community groups and 300 students of the local secondary school. I learned about permagardening, fence building, bee hive construction and placement, cook stove building, cooking demos to local food workers, and how to operate a tree nursery. I observed first-hand how local farmers organized to teach students their local skills in fence building and how materials and workers were transported from one location to the next.

Permagardening is a form of gardening that takes into consideration the large amounts of water that pour down during rainy season, traps them in the soil and makes them usable during the long dry spells in the months of hot season.

Fences in Malawi are often built out of sticks and corn stalks that have been left after harvest.

Tree nurseries have been a new-found interest by some Malawians and community groups since deforestation is a major reason for soil erosion, water shortages, and general changes in the ecosystem like loss of animal species. Malawians use mainly wood or charcoal to cook and illegal wood cutting is rampant. Planting trees is one way to mitigate the effects of deforestation and creating a renewable source of fire wood.

“Changa-changa-moto” cook stoves are build out of the local bricks and mud and are more fuel efficient than the traditional three stone fire places.

My favorite things to do here are riding a bicycle through the villages, helping to facilitate hands-on projects with the students, meeting community members, walking through my closest village late afternoon, having time to draw, hiking (and getting lost) in the nearby forest reserve, and eating Scott’s ever-so-delicious home cooked meals fresh from his fire place.

My Favorite Project and its Sudden End

After Peace Corps Training (PST) we were all assigned a site where we would stay for the remainder of our service. As an education volunteer I did move to a site where my main focus would be teaching English. Describing my work at Likwenu CDSS will be the subject of a different post, but I want to write about one of my secondary projects, which in my case would be become my favorite work.

As Peace Corps volunteers we have been trained in many aspects of development work such as Malaria and HIV/AIDS prevention, matters of food security, nutrition, youth development, permagardens, and more. I was lucky enough to be able to use connections I had made the previous year to get in touch with two existing youth groups in neighboring villages, Ndecha and Mtogolo.

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One Sunday I introduced myself to the group who was prepared to meet me with plays and dances. The youth were so eager to learn that they asked me to come back and teach three more lessons. This was the start to a wonderful collaboration. Every weekend I would make the journey to their villages and teach about a subject of their choice.

Three times rolled into larger projects, lessons in resume and proposal writing, collaborations with an NGO, festivities and very personal connections. Interested members of the youth group signed up for a community development/ leadership group, and were ready to tackle important issues of their community themselves with me as a facilitator. The excitement was high and I never regretted these weekends working because they became nourishment for me as well. Who can resist the youthful and strong desire to learn and improve skills?

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Unfortunately, due to unforeseeable circumstances my time with the youth groups was prematurely cut short. I will stay in touch with them and hope they can complete the leadership training in community development themselves with me mentoring from afar and occasional visits. They have the passion and the drive to follow through. They are disappointed, of course, for me not being there anymore. Maybe they feel abandoned by yet another white person promising the stars. It breaks my heart that I have to be the one.

But what do I lose? I lose the company of passionate humans who accepted me as a mentor. I miss to be included in their fun and their games. I miss being greeted with song and dance. I miss just to be able to show up at a house and be offered beans and rice. I miss walking through a village in a happy group, being part of this group. I miss to be asked to help. I miss to be walked to the bus stop. I miss to be introduced to their families. I miss their trust that now is broken. I miss the easy laughter bridging cultural divides. And I miss them.

I was told that this is exactly the situation that all development workers eventually face. Human connections and integration into a group are necessary to help in creating change. But it is also the source of heart break on both ends. And while I almost fully understand the circumstances that led to the end of our relationship, the youth might never understand why I suddenly had to leave.

 

P.S. I had to leave because some sites were closed due to conclusions of our continuous security assessments.

 

Living with critters in Malawi

When I moved into my first village home in Njombwa village for my Peace Corps training I was glad that we were required to hang our mosquito net from the ceiling and neatly tug it under the mattress. That way I was safe from all kinds of strange critters populating my room at all times, particularly at night. I often could hear the termites eating away at my wall or floor right under my mattress. It was an eerie feeling to have to share my space with animals that are usually banned from living in civilized homes in the Western hemisphere. We use poison to keep our living space sterile. Other volunteers advised us to buy a large can of “doom” as one of our first and most important purchases. “Doom”, as the name already suggests, is a very strong insecticide and kills on impact. All of us used it gratefully feeling somewhat empowered by its strength so we could bravely face the night and our insect phobias.

The mosquito net itself is soaked in a long acting pesticide not only preventing insects from entering our “safe zone” but also killing them while trying.

After moving to my “permanent” site for the next two years in Malosa, Malawi, I, at first was happy to see that my little side building/storage unit I call home, had concrete floors and window screens. I felt so comfortable at first that I didn’t even saw the need to hang my protective net. But then there came the strange noises sounding like somebody clicking his tongue to the palette. I found out soon enough that these noises are made by lizards. Who knew that lizards talk to each other loudly? Then I saw them, coming out from cracks between the ceiling and un-insulated metal roof. One, two, three, four…..emerging from one hole and disappearing into another. As if this wasn’t enough revelation for one night I also heard really loud rustling noises from the other room. The racket was created by one single large frog who had come through an opening under my door and now happily explored every plastic bag I had hastily left on the floor.

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I couldn’t do anything about the lizard family but I sure enough could trap the frog in an empty peanut butter jar and release him onto the moist grass.

I had the landlady fill the holes in the ceiling and thought that this would take care of the problem.

Well, I am slowly finding out that, in Africa, living spaces are shared. People share very small huts with each other, sometimes with their animals if necessary. And other critters are just part of the deal: lizards, frogs, termites, spiders, mosquitos, flies, and aunts. There is just no way of keeping things like these out. Women usually have the job of re-mudding the floors to fill any cracks to make it harder for insects to come in. This chore has to be done every month or so. Cracks, gaps, and holes are just everywhere.

I knew I started to adjust when I pointed one of the lizards out to the guard who watches the large house. Without much ado he took one of his shoe and just flattened the lizard leaving a trail of blood and gore on the yellow wall. Unexpectedly I felt very sad that his lizard whose family I had watched night after night crossing my bedroom ceiling, now was gone. Would the three others wonder what happened to him or her? Do lizards miss each other if they cannot talk to each other anymore?

Something similar happened with a frog who liked to sit in the little water puddle left in my bathing tub. Each night I would indignantly dump out the frog into the grass. Every next night he was back until one evening he was not. I started looking for the frog and felt really guilty that I might have dropped him from too much of a height the evening before, maybe even injuring him. Had I killed him? I kept looking for him for several more nights.

Over the past few months I have been learning about how all living things have a place and can easily share space. At first I thought it very strange and unhygienic that one of chickens around the school would choose a cardboard box next to my desk filled with old and dusty exam papers as her place to roost and produce 9 beautiful chicks which now follow their mother around all over the school.

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I also enjoy the goats that roam free and can be watched walking up the road, crossing the street or resting near the market.

I realize that I long for this kind of coexistence. It makes sense. It allows me to connect with other species. It makes us all equal parts of this world. It makes us care for each other.