Tuesday, 8 May 2012

First Week of May 2012

Last weekend found me in town stocking up on peanut butter, milk powder, and American conversation. As a result I found myself rather weighed down as I boarded a bus home. Not only by the peanut butter, but also by the many important concepts that so frequently worm their way into volunteer conversation—what the heck are we doing here? What have we learned? How are we changing? Is it acceptable to learn more than we teach or does that make this just some selfish pursuit?
In addition to these endless questions I was troubled by the hail storm of negative attention I had drawn on my way to the depot. Usually it is acceptable for a woman to show her knees in town and I had depended on this lenience as most of my clothes were dirty. I had forgotten, however, that it was Sunday morning. There were no tourists about and though it could have been in my own mind, I felt I had been leered at all morning, so much so that I had decided to buy a new chitenje, having left mine at home. But even in this pursuit I felt attacked and singled-out. A man in a shop insistently tried to over charge me although I knew the rightful prices of vitenje and could say so in the vernacular. Exasperated, I had walked away to the man’s grumblings which tried my patience when he called me uzungu. Turning back, I had told him in Chitumbuka that uzungu was a rude word and then walked away, dismayed by the animosity. Seconds later however, I had heard the man’s shouts and turned to find him chasing me with my water bottle which I had left at his stand.
As I was mulling over my weekend and unsuccessfully trying to build myself up for another go at site, a well-dressed man climbed the stairs and smiled at me as he boarded the bus. He looked around, trying to find an empty seat but the conductor shook his head and pointed at the top step of the bus’ entrance. Without a word the man sat down on the dirty step. I tried to imagine an American businessman boarding a charter bus sitting contentedly on the floor when all the seats had filled. In my imagination the scene included a lot of shouting, some rude comments, a threat to call management. I looked at the man. His face bore no signs of anger or resentment. He could see as well as the next person that all the seats were full and he seemed happy to have a step to sit on.
With embarrassment I recalled the young man in the shop who was able to frustrate me simply by refusing to lower the price on his own wares. My embarrassment increased as I also remembered his willingness to forget the conflict only seconds later and inconvenience himself to bring me my water bottle. My mind wandered to the many times I had been accidentally rude to Malawians and the kind way they smiled or laughed; choosing to take my insolence as a mistake. I picked through more and more memories of American-Malawian interactions. How often we lost patience—telling staring children to leave us alone or snapping at passersby who advised us to wait in bus depots rather than attempt hitchhiking. But how many Malawians are able to hitch with success? We rely on our novelty status as muzungus yet refuse to accept any stereotypes that accompany the term. I was shocked by how many tedious disputes between volunteers and citizens came to my mind, and in each one I remembered it was the volunteer who grew defensive, angry, frustrated. In my experience it is beyond rare to rouse a Malawian to petty anger, most opt instead to laugh off small disagreements or misunderstandings.
As foreigners in a land with a culture so alien to our own, we volunteers are constantly attempting to unravel the differences. How are we different? Why are we different? Are our differences significant? Puzzling over these questions and the suddenly negative way I was viewing volunteer (including my own) behavior I felt compelled to extend some small courtesy in the manner I have so frequently seen Malawians employ.
“Excuse me?” I said to the man. He turned slowly and looked at me, raising his eyebrows.
“Would you like to sit on this?” I asked, holding out my folded chitenje.
He shook his head and said, “No thank you,” turning back toward the front. I felt immediately foolish. I probably looked like a stupid tourist, shocked a person would sit on the floor. A Malawian woman would have offered the chitenje saying, “Sit on this,” in the way that feels abrupt at first but actually eliminates the awkward tango of refusal and insistence we love so much in the States. I could not even be polite correctly. Just as I was about to dive back behind the cover of my book the man turned around again.
“You have really respected me,” he said looking me in the eye, “What is your name?”
I told him but before we had a chance to continue the conversation the doors opened to allow more passengers to board, forcing the man further back on the bus. Though I regretted the loss of the stranger’s conversation (a thing I would have seen little value in before I came here) it was just as well because my eyes had filled with tears. That, I thought, is the difference and what I have the opportunity to learn: true respect.
I have spoken before of the mistakes I made in my attitude when I moved to Tennessee. With time I learned the intentions behind the behaviors that frustrated me and learned to respect them. But what an idea—earning respect. From childhood we have this concept drummed into our skulls; you must earn respect and only grant respect when you have reason to do so. Here it is given freely. Respect is not some hoarded commodity to be purchased through acts or behavior. Had I lived by this mantra I never would have behaved poorly in Tennessee, I would never treat a stranger rudely, or speak harshly to a man in a shop. If I had only understood that respect does not lose value the more it is given, as we seem to believe in the States, I would have been an infinitely more pleasant person.
Usually, when I realize some error of my ways it is with a rush of shame and a desire to apologize, change, amend. But somehow this was different. I did not feel abashed, I was exhilarated. That man in the shop was not angry with me, nor, probably, were most of the people I had been rude to here. This culture, from what I have experienced, is not one of chastisement and grudges. Small mistakes are ignored or laughed at, big ones are handled delicately and with ceremony. There is a respect for each person’s right to make mistakes. Furthermore, politeness is not a practiced etiquette, but genuine attempts to show respect. This means actually making a concerted effort to improve another person’s situation because we all make the same mistakes and suffer the same tragedies—bringing food or money to an aggrieved family, coming to sit with a sick person, offering a chitenje to sit on, these acts tell a person you understand, you wish to ease their suffering. Malawians may not apologize when their elbow brushes your sleeve as we do in the U.S. but they seem more capable of recognizing and bestowing true respect.
Thinking again about the man who had been sitting on the step I tried to broaden the concept. For so long I have been bewildered by Malawians attitude toward calamity or discomfort. I couldn’t tell you the number of times I have climbed into a packed and sweaty mini-bus to find that although no one is able to sit completely upright or move their arm without a neighbor shifting over, most of the people are smiling and chatting. I have marveled at this behavior and tried to find the secret to such unfailing cheer. This one small instance with the man on the step seemed to make it so clear. What does it matter to sit on a step if those around you treat you with respect and kindness?
It took me a few months to figure out, but I have learned that Malawian culture is simply not a mean culture. My goodness, how often I was mean in America, and sadly still am—laughing at the expense of friends and strangers, relying so frequently on cruelly sarcastic jokes, judging people on their negative rather than positive attributes.  We have no patience for mistakes. We seem to view each others’ shortcomings as personal insults, feeling it as somehow our right to correct each other. Here, in this place where respect is expected of and for everyone there is more humility. Who am I to tell another their behavior is wrong? I am only learning myself, perhaps I am wrong. And if that is the case do I wish others to sneer at my misstep? It makes so much more sense to spend our energy alleviating each other’s suffering, to show compassion rather than contempt.
Of course these are generalizations and Malawi, like everywhere, is made of individuals who each behave differently. But culture is powerful and it is difficult to grasp how strongly it influences us. I don’t think it ever once occurred to me in the States how ridiculous even mild discouragement or mockery is.  Now I can’t understand why it wasn’t clear.
As is often the problem with this silly blog, I feel like I have written a sermon of sorts. A sermon full of obvious truths none the less. But I’m sure those of you reading will excuse my foolishness-- I, like everyone else, am simply learning here, you know, pochoko, pochoko and trying to share my discoveries, especially since some people (hem, Taylor) keep pestering me to post something and I’m not sure what else to write about. Anyway, sorry if it’s terribly obvious, I find most really important things are though. Another phenomenon I will have to puzzle over in my quickly dwindling time here in windy Luviri.


--With a week long cold I am running short on toilet paper. An item you cannot buy in most villages, I realize I simply cannot waste anymore blowing my nose. So, I resort to using newspaper as tissue, a somewhat uncomfortable alternative. Nevertheless, I am proud of my resourcefulness. That is until a visitor calls and stares at me oddly for several minutes before telling me my face has turned black. I have been here so long I don’t even rush inside to wash away the newsprint smudges, I just say it’s a good thing I’m about to bathe.
--I wave down a packed minibus. They stop but it is full (meaning the not only is every seat taken but people are also sitting on top of each other, on the ground, and attempting to stand, all in what is essentially a van. These minibuses are made to seat fourteen, or eighteen, if people sit four across. So far I have counted up to twenty four adults and two children. Then of course there are chickens, baskets of tomatoes, 50kg sacks of maize, and suitcases.) They slide open the back window and a small adolescent boy clambers out. 
“Madam,” they say as they escort me to the back. They gesture at the window five feet off the ground then look at me expectantly, ‘Climb in,’ their faces say. So I do. In a long skirt and slip. Without exposing my knees.
Matandala uli?” I say as I bounce into the seat. The bus erupts in smiles and laughter.

--I spend Sunday morning reading, writing, and drinking coffee. In the afternoon I wander over to the Magawa’s house. Mrs. Magawa and another teacher’s wife are shucking corn on the porch. I sit on the ground with them and join in their conversation. My Tumbuka is good enough now that I can hold a several minute chat with someone and almost follow conversation, but not quite yet. We chat and laugh until I get blisters on my thumbs. Then they give me fresh boiled maize to munch while they finish the chore.
When I amble home the girls follow me in a raucous parade and play on my porch until the sun gets low. I’ve had beans cooking all day so I spend sunset on my porch instead of in the kitchen. The sun dips below the hills leaving a blazing fuchsia horizon and a rosy sky. Just as I am about to retire into my little house I remember the moon is full.
I rush to the end of the porch and look in the opposite direction of the setting sun. The huge sepia moon is rising through the banana leaves.  For a few moments I can do nothing but gape before I duck into the house to wrap a chitenje around my shoulders against the slight chill then head into my backyard for a better view of the brilliant moon. It has now risen fully over the horizon and is loosing its amber tinge. Though remnants of pink and orange are still visible in the western sky, the night is falling darker by the minute and with it the moon’s shocking luster grows.
I hear a faint “odi” so hurry to the front of my house to find Mrs. Magawa, plates in hand—she has brought me dinner. She cooked goat tonight and the family often shares their meat with me when they have it. After thanking her, I walk back into the yard, sit down in the grass under the trees and watch the moon as I eat my nsima and goat with my hands. I’ll eat the beans tomorrow with another moonrise.  

--Frustrated by the continued antics and blatant disrespect of irregularly disciplined seventeen-year olds, I decide to go to class as a bad student, assuming the disruptive behaviors that my students practice.
Twenty minutes late, wearing flip flops and a tee-shirt I slam my books down on a desk then sit down, facing the students. Without acknowledging them I begin writing in my notebook, pausing only to send text messages. After a time I look up and say, “Good morning class.” Usually several students will remain seated while the rest stand to greet me. Today, they all stand. I stay seated. “Good morning, madam.”
I tell them to sit then give no more instructions as my phone beeps signaling a received text message. “Ah!” they say as I take the time to text back.
I look at the books, “You want your books?” I ask. “Take your books.”
Students scurry forward and distribute the books amongst themselves. They stare at me. Some whisper to each other.
“Next?” the class monitor ventures.
“Excuse me?” I bark back.
“What next, madam?” he asks.
“What story are we reading?” I ask, “I have forgotten.”
Noorjehan,” all together.
“Oh yes. Ok. Open to Noorjehan. Someone should read.”
Flip-flip-flip the pages find the Noorjehan. The class struggles as they elect a reader. Inexplicably, they choose a boy with a severe speech impediment. He squeaks out the story to a temporarily silent room. I have brought one of the metal mathematics tins common to Malawian classrooms. I open it, rifle through, then close it and drop it on the concrete floor. “Ah!” the class exclaims at the eruption of noise. I smile at them serenely then receive another text. “Ah!” they exclaim.
Soon murmurs break out in the room. They cannot understand the reader. They discuss who should replace him as he continues reading. The noise level raises. Once a replacement is chosen they bellow at the current reader to stop. Apparently there were multiple factions—two readers stand to replace the first. They begin reading over each other. The class responds as they might react to a foul in soccer. Several minutes tick away as they quiet themselves.
When order resumes I look up and smile. An alarm goes off on my phone. I answer the pretend call.
“Yes? Hello. Oh how are you? I’m fine. No, I’m not doing anything. Yes, I’ll see you this weekend.” I make no excuse. Every student stares at me.
“Does anyone have a question about the story?” I ask.
Several voices shout out at once. I look at them, confused. They quiet down and the monitor says, “Are you not going to explain the story?”
“That is not a question about the story. Who has a question about the story?”
“What are the themes?” the monitor ask.
I look at the ceiling. I look at my desk. “Ah,” I say, “I have forgotten. Keep reading.”
Several minutes of displeased noises and arguing ensue. They begin reading again. Another teacher arrives at the door and knocks.
“I want Rebecca. I need to borrow a pen.”
“Hello!” I exclaim, “How are you? Do you want blue or black?” I walk to the door and step just outside the room. We chat loudly for a minute or two. I return, sit down, and smile. They continue reading and talking while I continue writing notes and texting. Finally, I take a piece of chalk, write a star instead of my name on the board where students are supposed to sign out, throw the chalk across the room, and exit.
When I return I give the student a harsh lecture which they commence with an admission of guilt and an apology speech.

--A sudden knock on my door startles me—the last light is just disappearing; it’s late for a visitor. I open the door to two of my deputy head’s daughters, barefoot and breathless. Together they blurt out a Chitumbuka phrase I have never heard. Confused, I ask them to repeat. They do, with the same rapidity as before.
Nhkumanya yayi,” I say. I don’t know.
They look at each other, “You are wanted,” they say.
“I am wanted?” they nod eagerly. “By who?”
Bamama. Bamamawane.” My mother.
Seconds later I am trailing behind them toward the deputy’s house. Just as we are approaching their home the girls veer to the right through rows of beans. My confusion lasts only a moment before I see Mrs. Chirwa on a large mound ahead of me surrounded by her daughters and a hodgepodge of extraneous children.
Rabeka!” she calls. And beckons me over. I scramble up the mound with the girls trying not to slip off into the ditches oneither side. On top of the large dirt mound is a dome made from grass, banana leaves, and sticks. A small boy with a pestle equal to him in height beats on the packed earth –boom-boom-boom.
Mrs. Chirwe reaches out to steady me then points down. At her feet is an opening in the grass dome where I can see that the dome is filled with translucent fluttering wings.
“Ah,” I say, “Mphalata.” Flying ants.
Enya, kweni makora makora.” Yes, but be careful. She points at the ground, “Chiheni,” Bad.
Unable to see what is bad I shift my feet nervously on the slick grass.
Makora!” Careful! Mrs. Chirwa says, grabbing my arm and pointing at the deep ditch just behind me.
I look into the break in the grass. The winged ants are swarming toward the exit but the Chirwes have buried a large clay pot in the earth. As the ants flit down the slope they fall into the trap, their long wings awkward and useless as they are quickly buried beneath each other.
Aash!” a girl exclaims. She snatches an insect off her foot. The other children laugh. Mrs. Chirwa again points at a spot on the grass and says, “Chiheni.” This time I stoop down to see better—termites. The flying ants as we call them in English are actually termites. They emerge from the ground winged during rainy season (in the evening on a dry day after a particularly heavy rain). They fly into trees to mate then drop their wings and burrow back into the ground. I have woken to a shimmering lawn covered in insect wings. Anyway, the termites are a delicacy here but are protected by wingless biting termites.
As the sun leaves off providing even lingering light one of the girls brings a battery operated desk lamp from the house. I shine the light above the pot to attract the insects. Now I can see that the ground is covered in biting termites beneath the wings.
Aash!” the same girl exclaims, pulling a particularly large termite off her foot.
Aash!” I think, snatching a termite off my own foot.
Makora!” Mrs. Chriwa warns again, pulling me closer. The girls produce two plastic bags. They secure one onto Mrs. Chirwa’s hand like a glove. The other we hold as she reaches into the pot to scoop out the mphalata. The bag fills quickly and the stream of insects slows.
Zamala. They are finished,” Mrs. Chirwa says. We form a line and make our way down the side of the mound toward the house. The children start running and jumping toward the kitchen.
A roaring fire awaits us in the small kitchen house. Mrs. Chirwa passes me a wooden footstool to sit on. We crouch around the fire as the children crowd in the doorway. Mrs. Chirwa shoos them away then pours the harvest into a large tin pot which she places on the fire.
Her movements are quick and precise. She takes a large wooden spoon and stirs the ants. She finds a winnowing basket and beats the remaining flour out of it. She tastes a termite, adjusts the pot on the fire, and continues stirring. She chats as she works. Her husband’s sister-in-law is visiting and they chat back and forth in Chitumbuka, smiling and laughing. The children inch back in the door and when they are sure their mother is distracted they tumble into the kitchen filling the spaces between myself and the two women. Selena, the littlest, rests a tiny arm on my leg and gazes back and forth from the fire to my face.
Mrs. Chirwa tastes another, appears satisfied, and pours them into a winnowing basket. She picks them up in handfuls and rubs them gently between her palms, breaking the wings off onto the ground. When she has broken all the wings she takes the winnowing basket and flips the termites up, shaking the basket, readjusting. She winnows the broken wings into a ring on the ground without spilling even a single insect from the basket.
The children recognize that the time has come for tasting and are positively jumping and squealing. Mrs. Chirwa passes a small cupful of termites to me first, and every eye enviously follows its progress into my hand. I drop several into Selena’s cupped hands then taste a few. Warm, crisp, and fatty--it is the closest thing to bacon I have had since I left the States.

--On my way into town today I catch a hitch in a flatbed semi. When we arrive at the roadblock the driver is stopped, as usual, by the police. After asking him to demonstrate his windshield wipers, emergency flashers, and reversing skills, they ask him to get out of the truck and start harrassing him for having an unauthorized passenger (me). They also point out that his fire extinguisher does not work and I hear them mention 5,000mk. As the minutes tick by I grom nervous that I have landed this kind man into trouble. Two of the officers come to the door and greet me in Chitumbuka, ask where I am from and where I am going. Just as I consider climbing down from the cab and attempting to help the driver somehow he climbs back into his seat. An officer walks to the side of the road, picks up a bag containing two Fantas and passes it to me. "One for you, ok?" he says, then tips his hat.

And now, for your viewing pleasure, my favorite student mistakes thus far (instructions are italicized):

Turn the statements into questions.
Please call me later.
I don’t want to call you okay?

We like to play God.

Write a sentence using two conjunctions.
Dog eat nsima while sleep since 2011. (The student labeled while and since adjectives)

Flutter is a thing that looks nice such as plastic paper.

(At the end of a term exam)
The end! Good Lucky! God Bless Me.

A coward is a baby that is doing things like an adult.

He has the love affairs.

Everyday I was go to the road but she does Lion in this way.

He said that his Tomas is a mud hut.

Curious is the word that spoken write now.

Malawi is a beautiful wooden old table.
Fill in the blank:
A ___________ is specific. A __________ is very broad, not specific.
(The answers are topic and subject. We had been studying them for some time.)
A man is specific. A woman is very broad, not specific.

I prosperate all studies in class.

He was tremendous girl.

Mr. Phiri felt stifle by his head teacher because he told him to eat drink beer although he was young.

Saturday, 28 January 2012

Third Week of January

               Dang guys, I’m way happy here. I mean cooking is still a pain in the ass and the loneliness occasionally overwhelming, but if that weren’t the case I think I would exceed my happiness capacity. I am laying on a blanket in the sun in my front yard. Small giggling girls surround me drawing with colored pencils. My head teacher’s wife is laying beside me in the grass chewing straw. Simon & Garfunkel, The Shins, Cat Stevens, The Flaming Lips are playing over my speakers. To the south are large grey clouds promising rain on my tin roof tonight. Overhead, and to the north the sky is wide and blue with rowns of fluffy clouds. As almost always, a steady breeze lends relief from the powerful Malawi sun.
                Today school was a rare delight. Though it has taken months, today in both Forms 1 and 3 my students made thinking-hard faces. Fellow PCVs might argue that there were just trying to figure out what I was saying but that wasn’t it. They were answering questions. They were asking questions. Several leaned forward, eyebrows scrunched together. For the first time I did not have to force them to put away other work. In Form 3 a smart boy with an attitude moved from his seat in the corner to the middle of the room and started listening. It was like a miracle.
                I went to the weekly kwabwandire. I chatted in Chitumbuka. Three girls, Flora, Dora, and Varena followed me around. People have known my name for a long time but they were strangers who are now familiar faces. I went to the small shop where I buy eggs. The grandmother there always chats with me. The shop was busy because of the market. Though still extremely limited, I could see that my conversational skills are improving. The agogo could see too—she smiled her toothy approval. A man complimented my Tumbuka, thanked me for teaching, and bought me a small orange cream biscuit.
                I took my favorite way home through the banana grove. The children shouted my name as I went by – Rebecca! Labecca! Labek! Rahbie! The ladies smiled, I smiled, we clasped our hands together and nodded our heads,  “Matandala,” we said.
                I keep meaning to write about the adventures I had over break. And I will. But for now I am just relaxing into this Luviri sun while Friday creeps through the grass, determined to scare a chicken.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

2nd and 3rd Week of November

            Last week a few of my friends met up here at Africa House on their way to Lilongwe. It was the 50th anniversary of Peace Corps and we were invited to the ambassador’s residence for a to-do. They stayed the night and then in the morning we embarked on our journey south. After only an hour of walking we secured rides in the back of a pick-up that was already carrying volunteers. Though it was not going the full distance it was fast, travelling maybe 100kph, the bed was fairly roomy, the wind, loud as it was, was a relief from the heat, and we had been assured the driver was not taking part in his friend’s gin flask.
            We stopped in a small town and each of us bought a cold Coke, a special treat as few of our villages have electricity. We set off again feeling something like a Peace Corps poster as we leaned our our giant packs and drank our Cokes from glass bottles with the sweeping plains of Africa as our backdrop. No sooner had we toasted our good fortune then we heard a loud pop and watched as the back tire ripped away from the rim.
They must have been telling the truth about the driver because he manages to keep the truck relatively straight despite the bucking created by the lost tire. We sailed to a stop just as the last piece of rubber jumped ship leaving the completely naked rim perched precariously yet undamaged on the tarmac.

            The last couple weeks I have been loving life, loving Africa, loving Peace Corps. I realized with surprise and delight that despite the many challenges I face here I am the happiest I have ever been. Teaching, which I had been so dreading is lowly getting better. Though the Form Ones talk incessantly and the Form Threes recently stopped me in my lesson to say, “We don’t get you. The way you teach, we don’t get it. Just give us notes like in Chichewa Literature, the words are too hard,” I am plodding along pochoko, pochoko. The Form Threes are now learning to find the subject and verb in difficult and wordy sentences. The Form Ones are beginning to understand the I mean business, and meaning business, does not, as the Form Threes guessed, mean prostitution. My debate club is really taking off. They have improved wildly since our first preposterous attempt. Although that one was proclaimed “much better then the last try!” Over the last few weeks the chair members themselves have suggested nearly every improvement I had in mind. They want logic to prevail and have asked me to help make that happen. They want more relevant topics, preferably, “from the books to encourage students to read and study.” They want enforced participation from each student. I have never been so impressed and proud—I hardly even had to hint at these improvements. My spinach, carrots, and cantaloupe are all growing splendidly and have exceeded all of my expectations, most importantly of all not boring me to death after a week as I feared they would. My house is clean and quaint; nestled on the edge of my plateau village which affords me some semblance of privacy as well as a view that stretches for miles across the rolling plains and just so happens to hold the sunset in dead center. My language is improving slowly, my charcoal skills are sharp.
            I spent a week or two basking in the approval of my community, the affection of my Peace Corps friends, the love of my family and friends back home. “Ah,” I thought, “this is just what I wanted.” But then Mother Malawi, as the national anthem calls her, got wind of my unchecked self-satisfaction and decided to show me what’s up Africa style.
            One of my neighbors stole 23 of my 30 cantaloupe plants, transplanting them to het side of the garden. A man I have been looking forward to working with to find work for the disabled attempted to corner me into helping with an extravagant church building project, and then spoke to me for an hour about how they should get foreign aid even if they are able to do the work themselves. No mention was made of the disabled who are sorely in need of help. One of my best friends in the village fell horribly ill, in danger of death, and no one told me until he was well.  I returned from Lilongwe to find the Form Threes laughing, shouting, and running around the classroom. Half of them walked out when they saw me. The remaining few admitted they had done none of the work I left and they had all failed to bring their notebooks to school that day. Friday, in true Malawian fashion, abandoned me for a family that cooks nsima. I broke my computer charger. Half my spinach died. Finally, last night as I was reduced to tears over my charcoal which refuses to light now that the rains have come I admitted defeat, “Ok Mother Malawi, I get it. I don’t know anything.”
            When the tire blew on the truck we all hopped out immediately, trying to keep weight off the rim. I pulled out my pack and started strapping it back on wondering how far we would have to walk before another vehicle stopped.
            “What are you doing?” one of my friends asked.
            “Yea, where are you going?” another seconded.
            “Don’t we need to try hitching again?” I asked blankly.
            “Girl! You don’t travel in Africa without a spare tire!” an older volunteer exclaimed.
            I looked around. No one else had even touched their bag. The not-drunk driver was pulling out tools and began lowering a tire that was suspended beneath the bed of the truck.

            Africa has a certain charming way of knocking you on your ass when things seem to be going great—that delicious meal you spent four hours preparing keeps you up vomiting all night, your good luck in finding a ride right away turns out to be bad lack as you realize the driver is drunk as are the other passengers who are all insisting you need an African boyfriend, the student you think is doing well labels an adjective a verb and writes “no idea” on the test section that instructs her to write a sentence using a vocabulary word. Moments like these are frustrating indeed but you take a moment to assess the situation and do what you can—whether that is telling a drunk driver to let you out, helping a seventeen-year old write a sentence, or just curling up on your bed until your body stops hating you.
            Here in the land of fire the problems are numerous and the struggle constant but most of us volunteers are fairly happy. I’m not a hundred percent sure why that is but in these moments of distress we remind ourselves why we came, think of how we have improved or just trust that we will be back on the road again soon.


            --My head teacher asking me what my village in America is. When I explain I come from a big city called Seattle he asks if we have a chief.
            --One night as I am preparing my dinner I hear a knock on my door. I open it to find my deputy head’s wife with a bowl of flour on her head, “I came to learn pancakes,” she said.
            --Coming home from school the next day I find the frying pan, spatula, fork, and baking powder I loaned her on my dish rack. They are accompanied by cornbreadesque pancakes.
            --Feeling brave, I don trousers in my village where women do not wear trousers. Along with many shocked expressions, head shakes, and giggles, the trousers also bring Form One girls to my house to stare at them. “You look very nice and very beautiful,” one girls says, “I smired because of trousers.”

            *smired = smiled

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

First Week of October

Well friends, Luviri Community Day Secondary School put me in charge of the Debate Club and today we had our first debate. We met on Tuesday briefly to discuss formalities. We elected a chairman and treasurer, etc. I thought it best to leave strategy and general how-to’s until after we had our first debate, so I could see what they already knew about building an argument. For our first topic I wanted to stay light and easy so I told them to start brainstorming for a debate over whether boys or girls were better. As what I thought was a creative twist I told them boys would have to defend girls and vice versa. We were scheduled to meet after classes but today three of our seven teachers could not make it to school so in an attempt to alleviate the short-staffing issue I suggested we reserve the end of the day for a school-wide debate. The other teachers were enthusiastic so for the last two periods we called together the whole school. To discuss which gender was better.
            “In respect to teachers and fellow students,” the first volunteer, a male, began, “it is better to be a girl because girls can move about freely and keep company with boys.” I laughed with everyone else but looked to the other English teacher who was there hoping he would assist me in explaining the need for logic and facts in a debate. He laughed and clapped his hands, “Very good!” he called, “Girls? Who will crush the point?” Aha.
Next a boy argued that it is better to be a girl because they have the option to wear either trousers or skirts and boys could only wear trousers. I was happy to hear this point not only because I thought it would be easy for the girls to counter, but also because I have been trying to build up the nerve to wear trousers in my village. A girl quickly raised her hand, “I crush the point because women that wear trousers are prostitutes.” Oh.
            Soon we had the inevitable boy suggesting that it is better to be a girl because they look nice with breasts and boys do not. I looked to the other teacher to see if he would step in at this somewhat inappropriate comment. But instead of telling the students to remain professional he was laughing as hard as they. I laughed as well and attempted to curb the lewdness of the comment by repeating his argument as girls being more attractive; I suppose that’s at least relevant.
When shortly thereafter another boy suggested that it was better to be a girl because they had wide hips which they could swing and then began to demonstrate I marched over to the other teacher to discuss with him how to keep the dialogue modest but he thought I needed a translation and so before I could say a word he repeated the point and then imitated the demonstration to a lesser degree. I didn’t know how to address the students’ level of appropriateness after that so I merely suggested that the point of attraction had already been covered. He agreed and we moved on to the next point. I had high hopes now that attractiveness was off the table-- now we could have more comments about inheritance, employment, dowry, expectations, gender roles.
            But my hopes were crushed more sufficiently than the points when a boy stood up and said it is better to be a girl because they have monthly periods. The other teacher who was trying to keep his interference to a minimum stood up. ‘Finally,’ I thought, ‘at least there are some boundaries.’ This is, after all, a culture that does not even allude to bathrooms (in training the bathroom was marked as Room 27—Malawians value discretion). “And what,” he said, “is one benefit of that?” Ok, yea, let’s ask for more details. I waited for the boys to defend their argument but a girl had already stood, prepared to fight. ‘Good,’ I thought, ‘she will certainly put him in his place!’
“I crush the point,” she started, “because boys have wet dreams.”
“Point crushed!” exclaimed the other teacher, “Well done.”
Huh, well I don’t really know where you go from there, except to the debate’s riotous conclusion which ended in a tie when a student made the last minute point that it was better to be a girl because, “girls wear blas.” And no one could dispute that.
            I know I often try to make some sort of connection about what I am learning or whatever, and I could say something about how I’ll get the debate club to argue efficiently, “pochoko, pochoko,” but really, some things, like this debate, don’t need a point.


--A man in a tee-shirt reading “Party Like a Porn Star” in sparkly letters
--A man in business slacks, collared shirt, and tie, wearing a white lab coat as his jacket    
--A male youth, late teens or early twenties, wearing a pink plush princess hat. Not a crown but that tall kind similar to a witch’s hat with a long streaming ribbon coming from the top
--Friday, wanting more milk, somehow finding her way to the school and trotting into the staffroom
--My first African thunderstorm—it combined the attributes of the first good post-summer rain in Washington where the air takes on the tinny smell of dirt, with the Southern summer storm where you can see the clouds roll in, the thunder is deafening, and the rain is a fantastic downpour
--I constantly struggle to understand my students’ accents. This week I asked for an example sentence using a proper noun. I asked the volunteer to repeat himself twice and finally repeated back to him, “Columbians are here?” Everyone laughed; he was saying his own name, “Tobias is here.”
--The biggest spider I have ever seen that did not live in a cage crept under the roof onto my bedroom wall this week. It literally took half a can of bug spray to kill.

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Fourth Week of September

The thing about Luviri is that although it can frustrate me to no end, it can also always cheer me up. Like someone that knows how to push your buttons but is impossible to stay mad at. Some days I’ll get myself all worked up because while breaking up reeds to start my morning fire I break into a nest of earwigs. Then maybe I’ll go to school and find myself unable to explain prepositions to the Form Ones; whether because of the language barrier or my ineptitude or both is impossible to say. I’ll be on my way to teach Literature to Form Three and realize there are only two books remaining of the original seven because students have “picked them” so I’ll have to teach over thirty students with two books. Coming home I might be exasperated, wanting nothing more than to hide in my room and read a book, just me and Friday. Then out of nowhere a swarm of children will descend upon my house, “Rebak! Raba! Labek! Odi? Odi!” When I go to the door they will shout for my bao board, or a ball, or paper, or Friday, or sweeties. If I give them Friday or bao they will start out nicely but will shortly be yelling, fighting over bao, or running screaming from Friday only to come back to do it again. The children who are not occupied with bao or the cat will stand in my doorway and at the window peering in, pointing at things, watching me read or write, asking for paper and sweets. Just then perhaps a student will arrive carrying a phone that someone has sent them to have me charge with my battery. At this point it would not be uncommon for a three or four inch spider to dart out from behind the door.
            But then maybe my friend Edward will come over and ask me to go to the garden. There my spinach has sprouted and Edward has spread manure over my small plot. I’ll spend an hour or two barefoot in the dirt helping Edward carry water, first to my plants, and then to his cabbages. As we walk back I might see a fellow teacher who will greet me and say I must be becoming an expert at gardening. If the children see me walking home they will return to my porch, noisier even than before. But another teacher will see them, and break from teaching open school (an afternoon school for adults that never finished high school) to come to my house and lecture them for ten minutes on being respectful to “the madam.” The penitent children will then quietly gather around me as I read them a story, occasionally supplying the words in Chitumbuka and correcting my pronunciation. Then they might invite me to play ball with them. Possibly I need water and as I am walking home with it hear a student laughingly call my name so she can take the bucket from my head and carry it the rest of the way for me.
            Sometimes I get frustrated or annoyed with the circumstances. But more often than not I am just in a state of increasing frazzlement. Though my nerves may be frayed there is rarely a reason to be truly angry or upset with anyone. The kids are annoying, but I think it’s a rule that children have to be irritating. Everything else is just a cultural difference and being as I came to experience another culture it seems a little counter-productive to get mad at my neighbors for coming to visit me, even if I am napping.

Third Week of September

It is almost mean how big the spiders are here. How big and how numerous. I am living in one of the most notoriously spider-infested homes of Peace Corps Malawi. Though Haakon’s sister and I convinced him to kill some of the more obvious spiders. And when I moved in I swept the many exoskeletons off the walls, and removed almost every item in the living room and kitchen to clean behind and under everything, they just keep showing up. Just when I think I’ve seen the biggest of them an even bigger one runs across the wall. Or pokes its legs out of my favorite box of tea. Like just now as I was sitting in my bed propped up on some pillows I glimpsed a tell-tale scurry out of the corner of my eye. A spider considerably larger than my palm had crept out from BEHIND MY PILLOWS. Though I was able to get in a few good sprays of Doom the poisoned scoundrel escaped under the shelves next to my bed and I have resigned myself to yet another night of spider plagued dreams. Three months of living in Malawi telling myself it is ridiculous to be scared of spiders and I still stop breathing every time I see one, sometimes frightened even to the point of nausea or dizziness. 
            My arachnophobia is so great it ranked with ‘missing family and friends’ in reasons not to join the Peace Corps. I once slept on a couch for a week to avoid a spider in my room. In Kindergarten a spider crawled out of my tennis shoe onto my hand, so I checked my shoes every single day until high school and still do sometimes. One of my earliest memories is a nightmare where I was Goldilocks and had to choose between staying in the Three Bears’ house with a spider and going outside where the forest was on fire. Occasionally some shoddy arachnophobe attempts to compete with me, swapping anecdotes as evidence of our fear. These challenges inevitable end in the other party suggesting a change of subject because I have obviously started to sweat and red blotches are cropping up on my neck. What I’m saying here is, I’m pretty scared of spiders.
            Yet here I am, just living away in this African spider den. And though writing the above paragraphs has given me cottonmouth, I can now sleep peacefully in a house I know is filled with spiders (Well as peacefully as you can sleep with leaves and fruits falling on your tin roof and birds nesting above your head). I know there is one
living behind the map in my sitting room, one is behind the picture next to my table. I know they come in the windows at night and under the roof during the day. I still believe arachnids are the physical manifestation of evil on earth, but I also believe in balance. Some spiders are good of course—they do at least eat other bugs. And killing every spider in Africa is a slowly failing strategy so it stands to reason that I will somehow have to learn to adopt the fiends into my perception of reality instead of trying to make reality fit my perception. Living in harmony with spiders I don’t think I could have ever achieved. I think mainly because absolute necessity is the only force strong enough to face this fear. It turns out that absolute necessity can make you do almost anything you don’t want to do. So, pochoko, pochoko, pochoko, pochoko, pochoko. You know what they say—Grant me the serenity to accept the spiders I cannot kill, the courage to kill the ones I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

Thursday, 15 September 2011

September 14th

Today is Wednesday, market day. The market travels up and down the road stopping in a different village each day of the week. Farmers and other vendors know the schedule and they bring their wares to those markets that are closest or otherwise convenient for them. They whole village comes out for the weekly kabwandire. The women who are not there selling their tomatoes and onions come to stock up on rice, beans or soap, the young girls browse the chitenjes and piles of clothes in what Peace Corps has coined the “Bend-Over Boutiques” (well I assume it was Peace Corps, maybe not), and everyone else just comes for the excitement and maybe some hot chips. Not every village has a kabwandire, there is generally one for a certain distance so people from other villages walk to the nearest one, so it is also a reunion of sorts. You spend as much time greeting neighbors as you do shopping. I like market day because of the bustle of people when I visit in the morning and then the quiet afternoons away from the crowd.
But today just as I was preparing to enjoy my calm hours I heard a voice outside my house. It was not the usual “Odi?” of a student or neighbor stopping by to greet me, but a mumble. I went outside and found a man wearing dirty and ragged clothes leaning against the short walls that enclose my porch. He had a piece of rope he was twisting in his hands and stared at the ground. I greeted him in Chitumbuka and he responded and then was silent. We stood for a moment in silence until he said something else in Chitumbuka. I didn’t recognize any of the words so I explained to him that I knew very little Tumbuka. He smiled and laughed slightly then didn’t say anything else. It is common that someone will want to talk to me but we lack the words.  I usually just wait for them to give up and leave. However as the minutes dragged on with neither of us saying anything except for him occasionally muttering something I could not understand I began to feel awkward. I started to make the small noises you make when you are uncomfortable and have nothing to say—a small “um,” a quiet “eh.” I noticed that he copied these sounds which I found strange and was relieved when he said “tiwonenenge” (see you later). I said the same and went inside.
I had barely walked to the end of the room before I realized that he had followed me in and was now standing against the wall just inside the door. I was alarmed. Malawians do not enter houses without an invitation, especially a man in a woman’s home. In Tumbuka I said “I’m sorry, but please leave now.” He smiled but did not answer. I said it again and this time he laughed and repeated the words back to me “I’m sorry but please leave now.” Now I was a little frightened and said more firmly, “Leave. Now.” He started to look around the room. I continued to tell him to leave, now raising my voice slightly, pointing at the door, and glaring at him. He ignored me completely. He saw a glass of water on the table, picked it up, and drank it. I kept telling him to leave while he looked around the room, occasionally making eye contact with me and then laughing. I was trying to decide if I should leave him in the house and go to the neighbor for help, if I should threaten him with something, or just wait to see what he would do next. I picked up my phone to call my deputy head teacher, who was at school, only fifty yards from me. The man picked up Friday’s water bowl and drank the water filled with ants and dirt. I reached a recording telling me the phone I was trying to reach was out of service. I called the math teacher—out of service. The man looked at a picture of my younger sister and me and laughed. He was still twisting the rope in his hands.
Finally, just as I was deciding I should risk leaving him in the house and go to the neighbor’s, he turned and walked out. I grabbed my keys, locked the house and went to the school. I told the first teacher I saw what had happened and he got up from his desk immediately. We went outside and found my deputy head among some students. The first teacher told him what had happened and he started to walk toward my house without hesitation. Even the students were staring and moving toward my house. Before we had walked even five yards my deputy head pointed at a man sitting on my neighbor’s porch and said “Is that the man?” He looked relieved. It was the man and they explained to me without delay that “He is not ok, in his mind.”
            They explained that everyone knew him. He is insane and lives with his family in a nearby village. They probably came for the market and he wandered. They told me a story of how he once ambled into my head teacher’s house and laid down on the bed. When they asked him what he was doing he answered that is was his house.
Now he was just sitting on my head teacher and neighbor’s front bench. The teacher forced him up and onto the path. Male students came from the school with large sticks. “They are trying to scare him,” the teacher said as the stick-brandishing students chased him away. “They are saying they will whip him. But they will not whip him, do not worry.”
I was never in danger. The teachers assured me that he is never violent, just gets away and into trouble sometimes. If anything, I should feel reassured of my safety because of the lightening fast response and the evidence of how close the community is—able to identify even the unhinged wanderers from other villages. Yet despite this encouraging end to a somewhat frightening encounter, I felt unsettled. In the minutes facing the man I did not know his intentions, his strength, or his past. Though he never approached me or threatened me, and I was actually taller than he, during the minutes in my house I felt I faced a very distinct possibility of a dramatic life change. Such a sensation, I’m sure is common enough; a moment when we realize that we have no control over events that are already in motion. Like you have auditioned for a play and are waiting for the results—which role will I play.
It was the same in the moments before my big car accident. I remember as I was hydroplaning and after several seconds I lost all control of the car and was hurtling toward the oncoming traffic, I thought ‘You are going to be in a bad accident,’ and then I just closed my eyes and waited. The same once in high school when I still lived in Washington. I used to walk to school and my sophomore year I took chemistry as a ‘0’ period, meaning a class before school, so in the mornings when I walked it was still dark. There had been reportings of a man kidnapping or attempting to kidnap high school girls on the news so every morning I walked with a fear of coming across this man. One morning a man jogging came up behind me and I did not see him until he was beside me, running. I was so frightened I stopped completely in my tracks and when I saw Taylor at school she could not understand why I was almost crying at a jogger coming up behind me. But in each of these instances there was a moment when I thought something terrible was about to happen.
Logically, in these times, when I realize I am safe, the event should end. You are not cast in the role you desire and keep wondering, “what if?” But I think it is not the possibility of sinister events that keeps a jogger from eight years ago sharp in my mind. It is the reminder that our lives as they are can change drastically at any given time—vulnerability we are all aware of but forget, like the sensory whatsit that allows to stop feeling the socks on our feet.
Lately I have been thinking about the way we constantly change and grow as people. There are, occasionally, milestones that change us dramatically and almost instantly, but even in the absence of such happenings we are constantly moving away from one identity and growing into another. It is easy to leave an identity behind and assume another without even noticing. From time to time I like to sit down I recall where I was, what I was doing, and how I perceived myself a year before. Then a year before that. And a year before that, etc. I’m always so surprised at how differently I see myself now, in what a different place I am than I had anticipated, and at the means through which I have changed. Moments like the strange man following me into my house remind me to evaluate myself, not only to take stock of what I appreciate in my life and what I should change, but also because I don’t want to miss anything. When I was in early high school I started taking note of times when I was very happy. Usually it was something simple—all of my friends gathered together on a Friday night at Christine’s house, some of us gossiping about who was interested in whom while others played pool, the girls over for a slumber party, the boys going home to rest up before the Saturday afternoon football game. After I moved to Tennessee I was so grateful that I had thought to appreciate and archive such times that I made it a habit, collecting distinct memories of each apartment I have lived in, snow days, mornings spent with coffee and piles of books.
It is cliché, I know, to say that we should appreciate each day or tell the people we love that we love them because you might get hit by a bus. And that, like most clichés, is fairly true, but what I mean is something more constant. Don’t appreciate your days because they might end, but savor them because they will, and are, changing already. Even if it is just “pochoko, pochoko.”

            --While still in homestay: my Host Mother, who I suspect was an insomniac, would occasionally listen to ringtones on her phone late into the night. Sharing a wall, I had to turn off my headphones as they were drowned out by the constant repetition of various melodical beepings.
            --Pets in Malawi are not friends, they are lower class citizens allowed in our presence. As such, the children have very little interaction with them except to shoo them away. Inspired by my friendliness toward Friday the children view her with curiosity. When the kitten approaches the children they run away, screaming.
            --One evening, cutting vegetables in my kitchen, I am surprised by loud noises coming from the next room. I walk into the living room to find two three year-old girls, the daughters of my head and deputy head teacher, on their hands and knees in my doorway growling, roaring, and barking at Friday. I laugh so hard the children are frightened and go home.
            --Hitching to town this morning I get a ride in a very old, battered car. I have to pull on some metal wires to open the door, beer bottles roll around at my feet. Police stop the car two kilometers from my destination. The driver gets out, they open my door for me to get out. Before I even have time to panic the officers greet and then pile into the vehicle--they were hitching too.