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.


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?


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.


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.


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.


Three Hours at the Hospital

My tailor says: “Muli bwanji”, How are you? And I answer accordingly “Ndili bwino kaya inu?, I am well, how about you? We do our business and then he says: “You want an Xray, but no medication?” I am floored. He cannot possibly refer to my consultation with the hospital doctor that I barely left? Or can he?


But let’s back up a little. A week ago I started to get sick, but was trying to ignore it since I had too many things to do. However, as these things go one usually does not have a choice in the matter. And so I became sicker and sicker. On Tuesday I was sent home by my principal so I could rest. At that point my voice was gone and I coughed all the time. Laryngitis and bronchitis are actually quite common in teachers and I had my fair share of them over the years. So I greeted the situation as an old, familiar friend. But now I am in Africa. Even familiar things don’t have to work out in familiar ways. Our Peace Corps (PC) medical team had given us an extensive medical kit for our field work knowing that not all of us can reach medical treatment once we are sick. The idea is that we call the Peace Corp doctor in the capital, he tells us what to take out of our box and keeps monitoring the situation in order to possibly change treatment or adjust the situation. And this is how it worked at this time as well. Except I couldn’t find any cough medicine. And the writing on some of the packages was so small that, even with my strongest glasses, I could not read what is in it.

Anyway, my cough (besides the general very sick feeling) became so bad that when I tried to return to work later this week I was sent home again. Without cough medicine there was no sleep. I begged he doctor to tell me what kind of medicine I could possibly hunt for in my village. He did. And I went to the local hospital, a privately run, Anglican hospital which I had visited before to introduce myself in case of an emergency.


I knew exactly where to go, found the pharmacy and was instantly recognized by the two staff working the counter. They sent me to the reception. I handed over my note with the name of the possible drugs and the technician was on his way to find them.

He came back after a long time telling me that the hospital was out of this particular medication, but I could see a doctor so he could prescribe me something suitable. I texted my PC doctor and he says “yes, sounds good, just don’t let them give you antibiotics”. So I waited until I was called to enter the small consultation room with a doctor and an assistant. Of course, the doctor doesn’t know I just want cough medicine. He wants to do his own diagnostics. When I told him about the PC physician he also got a bit offended. I should have known. However, obviously in Africa doctors screen for a series of diseases that we are not normally come in contact with like Tb or HIV/AIDS. “Do you experience night sweats?” “Yes, of course, but this is most likely related to the currently very high temperatures. And have I ever been HIV tested before? Me: “Yes, of course.” The doctor: “And, what was the result?” In hindsight these are all very logical questions, but highly unusual for my ears. But in a country that still has a high percentage of it’s population infected with HIV, this is not unusual at all. I realize, he even gave me the VIP treatment since he just took my word for it. No Tb, no HIV. Simple. Now I only have to purchase a patient book where all consultations and treatments are registered.


The doctor insisted on at least listening to my lungs as any good doctor would and in the end found some noise in the left lobe of my lung. Bingo. Here comes the prescription for antibiotics. I text my PC doctor telling him that now there is a suspicion of pneumonia, which he has to take seriously by law once the suspicion is voiced by an on-the-ground doctor. This changes everything. My PC doctor asks for me to get a chest X-ray to confirm the diagnosis. The hospital doctor is still annoyed and says that here they treat first and do the X-ray later in case the first treatment does not work…PC doctor: “What do you mean?” I am ready to just pay for everything and only take the cough syrup since nobody is supervising me on what I take and what I don’t. However, now it’s a legal issue and I have to take the antibiotics until I get the chest X-ray, and not just any antibiotics, but the ones issued by PC.


The doctor wants me to take a taxi to the capital Lilongwe where I could get an X-ray at the PC office. We are talking about a 12-hour round trip. Then I remember that I have a phone number from a Dutch doctor working at the hospital. I text him and ask if he could work a miracle and arrange for me to get an X-ray. “Yes, of course. No problem”. However, the power had been out for 12 hours already and the generator is broken…

I promise to take my antibiotics and try the X-ray the next day. But if the power is not back on by 9am on Saturday I still will have to go to Lilongwe…

That is when I leave the hospital and stop at my tailor’s booth at the market.

My tailor says: “Muli bwanji”, How are you? And I answer accordingly “Ndili bwino kaya inu?, I am well, how about you? We do our business and then he says: “You want an X-ray, but no medication?” I am floored. He cannot possibly refer to my consultation with the hospital doctor that I barely left? Or can he?

News in the village travels fast.

The story ends with me getting an X-ray at the local hospital the next morning and a passing PC vehicle dropping off the precious cough medicine at my house since Malawi does not have cough suppressants, period. After looking at every possible angle I even understand why the doctor didn’t want to give me an X-ray. It is indeed very difficult to get one in a country where the power is only on for about 30% of the time.


Funerals, a part of life


Today I was sick. Nothing special, just a cold that I knew was coming. But it made me think about what would happen if I would get really sick here in Africa, what if I would die?

Somehow it was a comforting thought because funerals here in the villages of Malawi are a beautiful affair. Two weeks ago I attended one in a nearby village. I briefly new the woman who died because my counterpart took me to visit the sick and old from her parish a while back. She was a woman in her forties I think. She had five children, among them a set of twins around 12 and an older daughter who already was pregnant. When we visited her she was unable to get up from her mattress on the floor in the adobe brick house. She was so thin that her muscles would not carry her anymore. Her mother told us she had stopped taking her medicine about a year ago. Nobody had to explain what kind of medicine she was talking about, because the way it was said indicated antivirals used to suppress AIDS.

And two weeks later she had died.

Chimwemwe picked me up from my house around ten in the morning. We were in village attire, colored blouses and a colorful wrap as a skirt, called chintenje. We walked alongside the hot and dusty road for about 3km until we turned into the village path that climbed towards the mountains. We walked with many people in festive clothes, all going to the same place. When we arrived there were many people already there. We could hear singing. Chimwemwe ushered me inside taking her shoes off and said to do as she did. We entered a room with the closed coffin displayed and decorated in the middle. The grandmother was sitting close supported by other women. More women lined the sides of the room singing. We knelt down and held the grandmothers hand repeating: “pepani, pepani, pepani…” (Sorry, sorry, sorry…) The grandmother cried and fell back to be cradled by one of her support women. We joined the women singing on the sidelines for a while, then got up and walked through the backdoor. Outside were more women sitting on the ground by the side of the house. Others were busy cooking food for everybody coming to mourn. Large buckets were on the three stone fires that were stirred with two large wooden spoons by two women. Nsima for everyone. Other pots held beans, cabbage and goat meat. We sat down, trying to find some shade and a woman set down plates in front of us but not before asking if I would eat nsima as well. The atmosphere was calmly busy and I only noticed once in a while that the women were wondering what the white person was doing there. But after I shared the traditional local food with the women, knowing how to eat it properly and also offered to help with the dishes I was simply included in the rest of the day.


During the funeral festivities the women share separate areas around the house than the men. The men were sitting in front and to the right, all women were either involved in the cooking and cleaning, child care or they were quietly sitting in large groups behind the house and to the left. The whole neighborhood grounds were used for sitting and gathering. I sat with the women by the house trying to find some shade, dozing off which was completely acceptable during this long wake. Some of the people had been there all night leading up to that day, taking turns singing and mourning.

Suddenly the crowd stirred and everybody moved around the house, sitting in the dry maize field surrounding the compound. A Roman Catholic priest was reading mass behind a makeshift altar, the choir sang, woman in white blouses and purple skirts and head dresses, men in black shirts and trousers. Most attendees were of different faith. There were Presbyterians, Muslims, members of the Living Waters church and Jehovah Witnesses, but everyone celebrated the Catholic mass because that is how people here show respect.


After a long time, the crowd started moving again. We walked in rows of colorful dots among and between the dry maize stalks, we crossed creeks, fields, and dusty earth, and finally arrived at the local cemetery where the actual burial was performed. The singing never stopped. It was the men’s job to dig the grave, lower the coffin into the ground, and move the earth back onto its rightful place. Then they left in a long row. The rest of us remained, sitting on the ground, singing, comforting the bereft.


When we quietly walked back to our own villages 7 hours had passed. We were tired and hot, but we were calm. I thought to myself: what a beautiful way to leave this earth, supported by many, surrounded by life, food, and music.

Here in the villages, people drop everything to partake in a funeral. Nothing is more important, not even work. And if you couldn’t attend for whatever reason, you would go to the village chief to explain yourself. And that was exactly what happened to me upon my return to my own village. A neighbor had died during the afternoon and the funeral was set to be held the next day. Tiered or not, I went to the chief, explained my situation, and the chief said to at least sit and sing with the women that evening and help prepare the food for the next day. There is nothing unusual about two or three funerals close together. Everybody is shown the same respect.

And I was tired and hot, and for a second I thought that this seems unreasonable, to spend all day at one funeral, just to come home to another one. And then I thought that, if it was me who would have died, or me who would mourn a loved one, I would feel comforted, supported, even happy if people simply came, no matter what. Because presence counts. Singing counts. Preparing food counts.