06 April 2010

Malawi Part One

Hello--sorry it has been such a while, again. I won't bore you with an apology, rather just jump straight into my latest adventure, Malawi.

Malawi is a small sliver of a country in Southern Africa. Malawi has 118, 484 sq km, making it just slightly smaller than Pennsylvania (for reference, Utah has 219,899 sq km and the US is 9.8 million sq km).  Malawi borders Mozambique, Zambia, and Tanzania to the North.  It is an absolutely stunning country, though I only saw a small bit mainly the South and didn't really get to see any of the "tourist" destinations, including the major location Lake Nyasa.  But, I did get to see the third tallest mountain on the African continent, Mt Mulanje at  3,002 m (or Mulanje Massif).  Why you might be interested in Mt Mulanje, aside from its stunning beauty, is that Tolkien credits Mt Mulanje and its mysterious appearance and the folklore surrounding it as inspiring "The Hobbit."  For your reference, Utah's highest peak is Kings Peak at 4,126 m and Timp's highest peak is at 3,582 m.  

For me, Malawi was my first work in Southern Africa, and my first trek firmly in the Southern Hemisphere. Though I have hovered around the equator in Uganda and Kenya, this was my first trip south.  It was a wonderful experience and a STUNNING country.  Below you will find notes on all I saw and did--

Different things about Malawi
  • Lilongwe, the capital of Malawi is a relatively new capitol, being designated in 1974 (moved from Zomba).  Lilongwe is a gorgeous fake city.  I call it fake, b/c when you leave the airport to go there, I challenge anyone (whose never been) to be able to tell when you have arrived.  You just keep waiting for the "city" to appear, and it never does.  The city is laid out in "areas."  And though, many people find them annoying b/c they are numbered as part of your address and most certainly NOT numbered in order, as 10 and 32 can be next to each other, this lay out creates what I consider one of the most stunning capitals I have ever seen. Between each area is a LARGE green area.  Some of these areas are large groomed gardens of local fauna, sometimes over a kilometer long, others are just wild trees and orchards of various fruits.  It is absolutely beautiful.
  • The unofficial official hierarchy of people, which can in general be found everywhere, but in Malawi is somehow stronger in certain environments. For example I went to a meeting that had people from around the country representing Ministry of Health, USAID, UNICEF, many different NGOs, and district health officers.  The meeting was a presentation of a mid-term evaluation of the project I am working on.  The tables were set up in a huge circle with the presenters on one end, and the top three from USAID and MoH at the other end.   Extra chairs were placed against three surrounding walls.  In most places I have been, all the other chairs not taken by the “important” people would be up for grabs and it would be a mad dash.  People generally want to sit there, possibly trying to seem more important than the wall flowers or perhaps for the convenience of a table to write on.  But here, no one was sitting.  NO ONE. I asked why, and was told no one wanted to insult others by sitting at the table but being deemed by others as not worthy or high up enough to be at a table, so they were sitting against the walls with the chairs at the tables empty.  It was very very strange.  It took quite a while for those chairs to be taken, and needed prodding from others for people to take them.
  • One of the most annoying things in my work is when I am in a meeting with high up people from the government and/or an international organization and someone wastes countless minutes of everyone's time by talking just to hear themselves or be heard, not necessarily add to the discussion.  I know ,this is not unique to my field--but it still REALLY bothers me.  People tend to give verbose speeches rather get straight to the point.  Often in high level meetings, in the US and abroad, when people ask questions or make comments they end up being long winded trying to show off their smarts or make sure everyone knows who they are and what they do. Or, even more annoying and READILY done in the US,  they talk in circles to avoid answering a question they don’t want to admit they don’t know (or worst case scenario, both, ick). It’s the most annoying thing in the world.  These meetings go long enough anyway—talking in circles just to hear your self talk is nauseating.  In my meetings here in Malawi, however, I have yet to hear that.  Each meeting, people have been direct and all business, it was a breath of fresh air. Granted—I have friends here that say that they have heard plenty of self-important people talking to hear themselves talk, so perhaps I was just lucky to get the MoH people who aren’t that way. 
  • One very VERY fascinating fact about Malawi that is more rare then people would like, is that in modern history, they have had no wars.  None.  I am sure if you go back far enough you'll find something, but their independence from the British and the splitting of Rhodesia all happened for them without bloodshed.  An amazing feat.
  • I wish I could say they had no major political issues, but as in many places--with power comes money and corruption, and the current leaders of Malawi are no exception.  The current president--gave 700 Toyota Corollas to specific village heads to assure votes and recently just bought a private jet.  Never mind he has people who are living on less than a dollar a day in his charge--no no, it's hard to see that living in a palace.  "Let them eat cake," attitude rings throughout many of these countries.
I will be returning to Malawi later in the year and will let you know of more adventures.  I learned a long time you can laugh or cry, I prefer to find humor and laugh though my husband generally thinks I am nuts. Below is a list of joys I find in traveling in general and some are specific to developing countries.  Some could make you cry, but again--you just choose to laugh:
  • You must learn that just b/c something is in a fridge does not mean it is cold.  This will come in handy on very hot and humid days when you pull into a little cafe or restaurant. You'll see Coke, Fanta, water in a cooler and practically drool at the thought of a cold liquid in your hand--but beware, plugging in those coolers can be expensive and is not always done. 
  • One of my favorite things that I had completely for gotten about, but that always makes me smile are buckets of sand.  You'll find these randomly placed throughout offices.  Why, you ask? Ash trays? nope--there is no smoking.  Planters? nope, there are no plants in them--these my dear friends are for fires.  :)  I don't know why it entertains me so much, but each time I see one I smile.
  • One thing that you will find fascinating and disturbing is the reach of Coke.  Coke can get to the most remote mountain villages--its everywhere.  Though you would never catch me drinking Coke in the states (I don't believe in liquids with calories with the exception of milk), often it is the only "safe" drink.  Its Coke or river water.  Yum.  another is finding local soft drinks--in Malawi they had the following flavors: Cocopina (coconut and pineapple), Granadilla (passion fruit), and CherryPlum. 
  • Something else I find outside of my home are people (usually men) who have the audacity of jumping in line b/c they feel for some crazy reason they are more important or superior and don't need to wait to order their food or check in or whatever.  Then, what is even worse is watching women let them do it.  In the Kenya airport at a small cafe, i was third in line--a man was ordering when I walked up, followed by a business woman from Kenya, then myself.  Just as the man was finishing, along came some loser guy who felt he didn't' need to wait. I waited to see what the woman would do.  Nothing.  NOTHING.  I caught her eye and gave her the, "um, aren't you going to say something" look and she gave me back the, "what are you going to do" look.  Well--let me just show you what I am going to do!!!  Literally, as soon as that man finished the woman started to order, had just one syllable out of her mouth and another man came and started ordering. I'm done being patient, so I jumped in--"Excuse me, there is a line. We are all waiting our turn."  I try not to have a huge smile on my face as I say these things, as they give me great joy putting people in their place.  The man was stunned, the woman even more so and the guy behind the counter seemed to have seen it before.  I pointed to the end of the line (there were two men behind me patiently waiting), then gestured to the woman to order.  She smiled and did so. The guy just stood there looking at me.  The woman ordered, then I did, and not to surprisingly, the guy just jumped in after me. No one behind me said anything.  What are you going to do?
  • A fun part of my field is that it is a small world. For me, i don't' understand why not everyone joins us in our work as it is so fascinating, rewarding, and fun, but in the end its a small world.  So, when you travel you generally get to run into people.  This trip I was in the country at the same time as two  of my friends from my days at Tufts.  Sarah and Laura.  We had another great friend (well many, but specifically one) in neighboring Zambia we tried to meet up with, but it didn't work out.  The way of the world--the last time I saw Laura (who lives in Boston) was when i was living in Ethiopia and she came through for work.  That was over 2 years ago!!  Awesome.  Sarah, who embarrassingly enough lives in DC, i haven't seen for over a year.  I also had the opportunity to meet up with some new friends--a former student of my good friend and professor Jim Levinson who now lives there Hope Thornton, and an RD (Registered Dietitian) who is famous in the RD world and has lived and worked in Malawi for 13 years, Stacia Nordon.  They are both working in perma-culture and Stacia also works in School Feeding and Nutrition programs.  It's a small small world.
  • Another great part about traveling to "exotic" places is breakfast.  Breakfast is my favorite meal of the day, and I am VERY picky.  The hardest time I ever had was in Ireland.  I was staying at a B&B in Dublin and the proprietor proudly brought out a traditional Irish breakfast and I almost fell off my chair. FYI--this Irish breakfast consisted of Fried eggs, fried potatoes, bacon, sausage, and I am not joking, black pudding. Shudder~~~. When I told her I was vegetarian, she almost fainted at the thought of such a travesty.  In horror she asked what in the world she should feed me.  But, when I go to places like Malawi, though they often have all kinds of meat available and you can pick out the Brit's and Irish by who chooses sausage with toast and beans for their breakfast, they always have a fresh fruit bar. This particular trip for breakfast each morning I had fresh pineapple and guava, rice pudding made with ground nuts, and Guava juice.  YUMMY.  I could live on fresh guava. 
  • Within country travel takes you to VERY small little airports.  These airports have very entertaining attempts at security.  Often equipment doesn't work at all, e.g. X-ray machines and metal detectors.  Once (not this trip) i put my backpack on the belt at the entrance of the airport.  Once it had entered the machine I realized I hadn't taken my lap top out, and quickly told the technician I was aware of my mistake and would run it through again with the laptop out. He looked at me, shrugged, and said "It's okay, the X-ray isn't working anyway."  So why then--are we sending them through? I am not sure. Often they just ask if you have anything bad. You say no, and move on.  I was flying back from Blantyre to Lilongwe when my flight was “Delayed due to programmatic issues.” Delays are par for the course, and can last hours to days.  But this time, it was only 1 1/2 hours.  They announced the delay when we were already an hour late, then 30 minutes later "the programmatic issues" became clear when the pilot showed up.  Yes--that is a "program" issue.  Whatever.  Then, when we arrived at the "domestic" terminal at the Lilongwe International Airport (domestic being key, as the international arrival terminal meets international standards) I had the most entertaining experience with a baggage claim ever.  Often, the system is some guy who drags a cart out to the plane, unloads the luggage onto the cart, then drags it back toward the building and you grab what's yours.  By the time we were walking into the building, our bags were already there--sitting on a cart by the entrance. I went to grab mine when I was rebuked and told that I needed to get it from the actual luggage belt.  Okay.  I looked ahead to see a hole in the wall where a belt started and went straight ahead about 20 feet then ended and promptly dumped bags on the floor.  It was awesome. I walked through the doors to wait for my bag.  The loud buzzer sounds and the belt jerks into motion.  The man begins to load the bags onto the belt and the 15 or so of us waiting for our bags just stare out the hole watching for our bags.  The first suitcase reached the end, plopped to the floor (not sure where the owner was) and the belt promptly stopped.  The luggage man (guy who was loading them) climbed up onto the belt and through the hole and tweaked some wires in a box, then pounded on a large red button.  The belt wasn't budging.  So,  he climbed back through the hole, grabbed a bag, climbed through the hole again, walking on the now defunct belt, and placed the bag on the belt near the end. He then returned and carried out the process all over.  He did this until all of our bags were out.  Awesome.   
  • And lastly—usually they are long flights so I get to catch up on all the latest movies. I never go to the movies in the states--Henok and I have seen one movie since we moved here.  So, from living abroad and never going out, I'm always behind.  This trip I have seen:
  1. the second Twilight movie (I didn't read the books, and am not too impressed--but really wanted to see this one for the cool man to wolf scenes),
  2. the cartoon Up--very good.  I hadn't really been interested, but my sis said it was good so i gave it a shot. 
  3. Frog Prince--loved it
  4. Up in the Air--again something I hadn't really wanted to see and I wouldn't have bothered except when George Clooney does something it must be decent and it did get nominated for many things.  I really liked it, and was very caught off guard by the ending
  5. The Ugly Truth--funny.
  6. Whip-It--good. 
  7. G-Force-I know, I was ruthlessly jet lagged at this point--excuse the choices
  8. The Time Travelers Wife--very good.  VERY good.
  9. Funny People--much better then I excepted
  10. And lastly the one I cried through, yes sitting on the plane in my chair next to some random stranger crying, --This is It (Michael Jackson's).  It just about killed me.  The poor man had one of the worst life's ever.  Thankfully his mother seems to be a good person--at least one parent was good to him. I never got to see him--though i consider him to be in the top three dancers ever.  Amazing.
  11. On top of that, they often have TV shows to watch. Old and new--I watched several including How I met your Mother, The Mentalist, MASH, and my favorite of the trip, an episode of Magnum PI!!!  It was awesome!!

It's not all fun and games, and below are some of the not so joyful things;
  • For those of you who are not new to the list, you know I generally get ill.  Diarrhea and vomiting are generally par for the course in my field.  But, I am happy to report not on this trip!! Yea. A nice change--granted you have to wait a good 2 weeks after you get back to see if you brought anything home, but so far so good. :)
  • Layovers.  When you are traveling long and far layovers get longer and longer.  I am used to having layovers in Amsterdam. Its a nice airport to be in, they are well set up for this fact.  I once had a 16 hour layover there.  I know, i can just go in--but that trip i was with Henok and he has to get a VERY expensive visa ahead of time if he wants to leave the airport. So we stayed.  This trip the worst was a 10 hour layover in Kenya.  The Nairobi airport, though decent, is not meant for this long of layovers.  So painful.  SO SO painful.  Nothing to do. They have added a nice little restaurant at one end--huge improvement from the first times i went through there.  But, still--not a good time 

For now that is all-- I have more but will post that in a few days to give you a break.  Below are some photos---GORGEOUS country.

This is what you would ride in to the health center when you are in labor.  Except its broken, so you have to deliver at home or ride a bike.  The next photo is of some women in Phalombe distract, and lastly a very large Tea Plantation in the South.

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