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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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.

 

 

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.

 

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

Mary wants to be a Doctor

It has almost been two weeks since I moved to Malosa. I am still trying to find my way around this new life of mine and explore a little bit of my new environment every day. I go to the market, walk through the village, and greet all the new strangers that suddenly populate my life. Sometimes it gets overwhelming and I hide in my new little place where it is easy to hide, because it is very beautiful and serene. But every time I walk outside my door and give myself a push to be brave something unexpected and wonderful happens. Sometimes it is just a gorgeous hike up the mountain with unexpected views, sometimes it is a conversation and connection between two people that happens despite the language barrier, and sometimes it is a magical journey into the belly of rural Malawi.

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But let me back up a little. One of my future fellow teachers has made it her job to introduce me to much of my new life around here. Her name is Chimwemwe and she teaches Math. A few days ago she took me to a village to meet some people from her church group who cannot attend anymore either because of sickness or age. One of her students accompanied us on the long walk and we got to know each other a little bit. Her name is Mary, she will be in 12th grade starting September 18th, and she is determined to become a doctor. Of course I am thinking: “Poor girl, the odds are stacked against you.”, because it is still hard for girls to go on after Secondary School, and because she attends a CDSS (Community Day Secondary School), the very lowest ranking kind of schools in Malawi with the least resources and the least chances for students to move up. But little did I know about her determination, her life, her attitude. And of course, this is how it always is. We make snap judgments based on our own experiences without knowing more about a person.

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And so it goes, the education of an ignorant azungu (white person), who comes from a rich land and knows nothing about life….well, I know a little, just enough to know that I don’t know much…

I had told Chimwemwe about my Peace Corps assignment to conduct some sort of community mapping, meaning I should find out about y area and document the findings on a map. I had asked her to help me get acquainted with my new home and she took it to heart. Yesterday she had set Mary and myself up to walk together so Mary could show me a different area. I was asked to bring water, since I have to treat my drinking water as not to get sick. It was indicated that it might be a long walk, but in my experience Malawians walk very slowly and I assumed that “far” meant far only because we would walk a while…. So we set out, me wearing a village appropriate chintenje and Chaco sandals and Mary her Sunday Best, a professional dress with black jacket and flats.

We started walking up the tarmac a bit, then turned right onto a dirt road. Dutifully, she pointed out landmarks like big trees, a small river and where it will connect to another, larger river, a community/ conference building, the names of villages (yes villages, as in several) we passed. We walked through a large estate with remnants of old, colonial glory, passed a Primary School and Roman Catholic church, the chief’s house whom we were supposed to meet, but who was not home. Later I found out that the chief was her uncle. All along we documented our journey by sketching a small map in my little book. Everywhere we went people greeted us and yes, also stared. I think Mary received an education as well of what it means to walk through native villages as a white person and how much (unwanted) attention one draws. She now took on the role of my protector from all the little children that follow and surround me everywhere I go.

After a long time the dirt road led into just foot paths through dry maize fields and I could tell we were nearing an area that Mary was known in. Friends of hers greeted us and families called out her name. We stopped at every house to say our greetings and introduce me as the new teacher at Mary’s school. Up to now I had no idea we were actually going to visit her family in the mountains. But as soon as it dawned on me we already passed groups of people eating nsima (the national food), laughing, and pointing. As soon as we turned around the next corner we heard laughter, happiness, exuberance, and many hands stretched out to greet me. I knew we had arrived wherever we were going. This was her family, her mom, her siblings, cousins, uncles, aunts, grandma, grandpa, and father. The family lives in buildings that were organized in some sort of rectangle forming an open courtyard with a covered area on one side that reminded me of a stage of some sorts. A bamboo mat was laid out for us to sit on, and family members trickled in and out introducing themselves, greeting me. All the while household chores continued. Unceremoniously I was included in the shelling of peanuts, cutting of masamba (green leaves eaten with the nsima), boiling water. The grandmother took me by the hand and led me down another path to show me her own house, crops, animals and her husband who proudly chatted with me in a very polite British English.

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The family made it their business to teach me how to cook nsima and how to serve and eat the food. As a sign of respect Mary and I had our food laid out in a small separate room with a table, beautiful plates, and perhaps the only chair in the entire village.

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We chatted some more while dishes were done, and everybody wanted to see the pictures on my phone that I took of them, then my pets in America, my children and videos from Gule Wamkulu dancers back in Kasungu.

Then it was time to go and we received gifts in form of peanuts and cassava roots which were freshly dug up. I was also shown how to eat them.

We said our good buys and started walking back. It is customary in Malawi to escort a guest for some of the way, so various people walked with us for different lengths of the way. The grandfather had changed for this purpose in freshly washed cloths and shoes. He walked with us until we reached his son’s house, the house of the village chief. In Malawi strangers are always greeted by the chief, because it is the chief’s business to know about everything that goes on in his or her village.

The chief asked me about my purpose of living in Malawi, and not understanding the mission of Peace Corps, told me that his village needs a maize mill and a borehole. Malawians always assume when they meet a white person, that we come with lots of money and build much needed infrastructure. However, this is for another blog post.

Reaching the tarmac close to my home I had to shake the feeling that we just stepped in and out of a time loop. The life in the rural villages in Malawi seems like life from many thousand years ago. The contrast is stark even within the country.

We were gone for almost nine hours, the one-way walk being almost two hours. This is the way Mary has been walking to and from school every day for the past 3 years. This year will be her final year and she is looking for a place to live closer to school since his is her important examination year. Everything about her future will be decided with the results of this year. And she is anxious, because she has big dreams. Her family is proud of her, because she is the first one in her family to even finish secondary school and they want her to succeed. Her family’s love and laughter, and care surrounds her and gives her strength. Yes, the odds are stacked against her, but I learned something about her determination and about the difficulties she has already overcome to be where she is right now. She has been walking 4 hours each day for the past 3 years just to get to her school, a school that has no resources. Some of the classrooms don’t even have chairs or desks. There is no blackboard, so the wall has been painted with blackboard paint.

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The library is not usable in the sense we use one, there is no laboratory for science instruction, but the exam requirements don’t make any allowances for the severe lack of resources. Exam requirements and standards in Malawi are high. Mary studies throughout the summer to stay ahead and has been voted in as the Head girl in her grade level. She studies in the dark with a candle or flashlight after all the chores are done. She wants to be a doctor and she has great expectations for me to help her in English, in science, to provide opportunities for her that, in her opinion, only white people can provide. She and her uncle, the chief, asked me if I can build a laboratory for the school, a library, create a scholarship fund…..and I feel like I will fail them, because I cannot provide any of these things. At this point I don’t even know if I can manage to teach a class of 60 freshmen in a room that does not have chairs or desks or a blackboard, in a school that only provides one copy of a book per classroom. As Peace Corps volunteers we don’t come with money, we come to integrate, we come with knowledge to share, maybe with some opportunities in form of scholarships.

But today I wish I had money. I wish I could make the dreams of this girl, who is so determined against all the odds, come true.

Instead, I will be a teacher to many, I will be a mentor, an “encourager”. I will pass on any opportunity that will come across my desk and hope that Mary will make it, that she will become a doctor and connect the worlds of her ancient village and the modern day Malawi. She is determined, she has dreams, she works hard, she already has come far. The odds are against her, but the odds are just odds…..