Wednesday, November 28, 2007

The Ladies Take a Field Trip

As I mentioned in my last blog, the call of adventure beckoned my friends to leave Mwazisi earlier than they had planned. They decided they wanted to do something nice for the community before leaving, which developed into the idea of renting a Matola and taking the women of Mwazisi to Vwaza Game Reserve to do a game drive, and have a day outside the village to be free of the monotony of their usual daily activities. We just invited women because we knew they were much less likely to have an opportunity like this, and we also knew that the dynamic would change if men also came along, the women wouldn’t feel so free and open to enjoy themselves.

We left late and our number of women was reduced because of a funeral at a near by village. But I was happy that the journey carried on anyways, and the 23 women who did come were abuzz with excitement as the truck pulled out of Mwazisi. All of the ladies were dressed in their best dresses, kept beaming smiles, and sang songs the entire way. One often repeated verse was “Tizamuwona zovu lero” (“We will see elephants today”). My name was also featured occasionally in the songs, which I always acknowledged with a grateful smile. We stopped in Kapenda to pick up Willard Nshanti, the Parks and Wildlife official I asked to escort us. He came out of his house wearing his parks uniform, a bright red sash across his body, and had an M16 rifle. He also came out with a huge grin on his face that gave the scene an element of comedy. I caught Leslie’s eyes and could see that she found it every bit as funny as I did.

We powered through the sandy patches in the road where Matolas tend to get stuck and reached the park close to 9:00 am. Unlike the last time I biked to Vwaza there were no elephants sitting at the gate waiting to greet us, but plenty of baboons instead. Before we started the game drive the park director addressed all of the ladies outside his office. He talked about the problems caused by people coming into the park to collect firewood, and the importance of starting our own tree nurseries, and planting trees near people’s homes to ensure that firewood is available inside the village, and people don’t need to be so dependent on the surrounding forests’ resources. I was happy to hear him say “Chonde mukupanda blue gum na milina chara” (“Please don’t plant eucalyptus and milina trees”). These are two very invasive trees that do more harm than good for the soil, but are the most common trees planted by Malawians because of how fast-growing they are.

After the talk we loaded back up on the Matola to go to Kazuni Lake, where animals can usually be seen at the water hole. Within just a few minutes of driving the women in the front of the Matola started calling out “Wona nkhumba,” pointing at two warthogs running through the woods, frantically being chased by three small piglets.

The next animal we saw was my favorite; a massive sabel. I was immediately reminded of my friend Tony’s animated description of what a sabel looks like, in the way that only Tony can describe something… He jumps from his chair to give himself room for the depiction. “Man you’ve never heard of a sable? It’s the most bad-ass animal in Malawi bro. It’s built like a freaking elk, man, but has a hump on its back like a bull-moose,” as he tucked his shoulders back and curled his neck to replicate the stout muscular neck of the beast. “And it’s big man, real big,” which he indicated by waving his hand high above his head. “And it has two long spiraling antlers” as he outlined the antlers over his head with his index fingers. “Most bad-ass animal in Malawi bro… So when one of the women pointed at one gracefully gliding through the woods I couldn’t help but smile, Tony’s description was dead-on, it was the most bad-ass animal I’ve seen in Malawi. We watched as it glided around each tree and over high shrubs with the fluidity of water running around stones in a streambed, despite having the muscle mass of a bull elk.

We saw scattered herds of bush-buck that could of just as easily have been white-tales grazing through fields of clover somewhere in eastern Wyoming. Then we pulled over by Kazuni Lake to get out and take a closer look at a herd of hippos under the supervision of Mr. Mshanti and his M16. He kept encouraging us to get closer and closer, which surprised me because I’ve always heard that hippos are the most dangerous animals in Africa. We were made bold by the guns under the park official’s arm, and inched within 30 feet of the huge and dangerous animals.

I especially enjoyed watching the women who I have only ever known in the context of Mwazisi. It was awesome being able to watch them having so much fun, and losing themselves in their wonder and amazement when one of the hippos opened its huge jaws to let out a yawn revealing its massive teeth for tearing and grinding the flesh of its unlucky prey. After the hippo closed its mouth and dipped under water to swim away the silence was broken by the women looking at each other still with wide excited eyes, chattering and laughing high on the adrenaline of the moment. As we walked over to a good place to take some group pictures, I continued to watch the women who were really feeling free and having a ball, carrying balls of dried elephant dung on their heads, and laughing the whole time. We spent a long time next to the lake just taking picture after picture, more of the ladies than of the hippos. I’m glad we caught all of those smiles when they were at their most magnificent.

The rest of the trip was botched up by Mshanti bringing us on a wild-goose chase that led us down a long bumpy road to the other side of the park to try and see a new animal sanctuary that it turned out we couldn’t even get clearance to enter. But it didn’t really matter the whole trip was worth the first couple hours of smiles.
We stopped off at a local market on the way back to hide from an oncoming storm, and eat lunch. The frustration of our misguided adventure to the sanctuary fell away as we shared fried corn on the cob, and bananas we bought from the market, and rice and eggs the women carried. As we sat in a storefront and talked about the days events those smiles came back. A mini-van full of teachers returning from a nearby school passed through the same village on its way back to Rumphi, which was our final destination after the field trip. The women told us we should take advantage of the free ride, and they would head back to Mwazisi after the rain had passed. So I loaded our bags while the ladies said their final goodbyes to Leslie, Annie, and Sarah knowing that they would most likely never see them again. My American friends insisted on hugs which surprised the ladies, who awkwardly embraced their new found friends. I could see they were sad to say goodbye to these foreigners who flashed into their lives and brought them to see a place just down the road from them but they had never had the chance to enjoy. They giggled as they gave into the hugs and I was happy to see the smiles flash again as we hopped in the van.

First Visitors

It never fails…when you’re late, everything goes wrong. I spent most of my morning looking for a lost ATM card so I could withdraw enough money to get to Koronga to meet my friends who had flown in to Dar Es Salaam and taken the train through Tanzania to the Northern border of Malawi. When I finally got on the mini-bus I sat for an hour and a half while the conductor waited for more passengers to board. Despite my persistent pleading, “Tiene, tiene chonde nachedwa” (Let’s go, Please I’m Late) he refused to start the journey until the bus was full to capacity. We finally started pulling out of Mzuzu when the side door suddenly fell off the overfilled minibus. All I could do was laugh as I looked at my watch to see that it was a half an hour until the time I agreed to meet my friends at the Chitimba roadblock, which was still one and a half hours drive away. While the driver and conductor put their Malawian ingenuity together to reattach the door I had visions of my friend’s good will towards me fading as they sat in the hot African sun on the side of the road surrounded by Malawian children with outstretched hands repeating the primary English phrase they learn from their friends in areas where tourists pass; “Azungu, give me my money”…A heck of a way to spend their first day in Malawi. I felt I was already failing as a host in Malawi.

The ride from Mzuzu to Chitimba is beautiful; it skates around the southeast corner of Nyika Park and affords spectacular views of dense green forests, with baboons wandering out to gawk at the cars as they wiz by. Then as you make your way down the escarpment Lake Malawi suddenly appears before you. Being the third biggest lake in Africa, its sheer enormity always gives a thrill when it comes into view. It was my first time taking this road but I couldn’t enjoy it fully with my waiting friends weighing heavy on my mind. Two and a half hours past the time I said I’d be there the driver told me we were approaching the Chitimba roadblock. I climbed out of the hot, packed minibus with my apologies all planned out, and found my friends sitting under a palm tree with smiles on their faces as they enjoyed a fruit picnic and chatted with one of the English speaking roadblock officers. They all greeted me with big hugs and warm salutations. Not a complaint was uttered and when I brought up my late arrival, they just shrugged their shoulders, and said “Eh we figured you would be here a little late so we only got here a half hour ago. We’re on African time now, just glad to be here.” I was relieved and excited; right away I knew this was the way things were going to go for the next month. There was no need for me to ever worry about having to entertain anybody, the ladies were always game to go with the flow and enjoy any experience that came their way. They were open to anything and everything and were never phased by the common frustrations that seem to come with life in Malawi.

Sarah, Leslie, and Annie had been on rugby tour with the Missoula Maggots for a few months, and were tired and ready to spend some time in my village. Mary’s only destination was Africa, but she was also content with spending time in Mwazisi where she could do what she loves and does best…teach. The plan was for them to stay with me for a month while they helped the form four students (high school seniors) prepare for their MSCE exams, the most important test most Malawians will ever take. A students entire scholastic carrier boils down to whether or not they do well on this month long series of exams. Unfortunately, by the time my friends arrived, the time for teaching and studying was pretty much over, but we were able to put together a few mass cramming sessions, that turned out to be very helpful, according to all the students who came. An opportunity to practice in the eleventh hour would make a difference. The secondary school teachers view the second half of the third term as the beginning of their vacation, so some of the teachers leave to go to Mzuzu or Zomba to work on advanced certificates while others spend the remainder of the school days sitting under a mango tree, and leave the form fours to study on their own. Form one and threes spend their time idling in teacherless school blocks.

From talking to a few Peace Corps Education volunteers I gathered that the essay portion of the exams was the most difficult section for most students. So in the weeks before my friends arrival I took over some of the other teacher’s open slots with the form fours and gave them the best tutorial I could come up with on essay writing. The day before I left to go to Chitimba I had the form fours write an essay that I took from an old test paper. When the ladies got to the village we looked them over to see what common mistakes we could shore up at the last minute.

The essays showed that we had a lot to teach in only a few days. Most of the students, even after my previous crash course, had no concept of how to structure an essay. They wrote in bullet points and rarely made a complete sentence. The best way for us to help was to set up a workshop, where we reviewed the structure of a good essay: thesis, support, support, support, and a conclusion, with an emphasis on the importance of answering the who, what, when, where, and why in any question. We then gave them three practice questions to choose from and allowed them 50 minutes to write the exam, to simulate the actual tests, which have a strict time limit. After they finished we went over some basic vocabulary and grammar in small groups. Mary was swarmed by students looking for help in math, which she handled with the grace and professionalism that inspired the phrase that the rest of us probably repeated a thousand times over the next month, “Mary’s so fricken amazing!”

We spent the rest of the afternoon marking papers, and giving extra help to students with more in depth questions. My friends fully embraced the task; I was amazed at the thoughtful detail with which they marked the papers, and the encouraging comments they gave. Especially Leslie who works with the Boys and Girls Club of Denver, I was impressed to see how quickly connected with my students, and how comfortable they became with her.

One example that sticks out came near the end of their visit, Leslie came to work on English with the form three class to organize a pen pals exchange with the students she works with in Denver. It was the first time she had met the form threes and I didn’t have time to help in that class because I had two periods of physical science to teach with the form one class next door. I brought Leslie into the class for a quick introduction, and explanation about what she would have them do, then I hurried over to my class and taught for the next 2 hours straight (cramming in as much review as possible to try to get them ready for final exams the following week.) When I left my class I found that she was still teaching…well, sort of. When I walked in all of the students were gathered around Leslie looking at her camera, roaring with laughter. Apparently she just recorded some of them doing their best Malipenga dance, and they were watching the replay. After she helped all of them write their letters, she just hung out with the students and chatted for a long time. The whole house had a glow when I peeked in; the students all had grins from ear to ear. They were obviously not used to a teacher staying after a lesson for casual conversation, and certainly not for singing and dancing. When I entered the classroom Leslie was finalizing plans for the whole group to reconvene at one of the girl’s house for a dance party. I asked “hey why haven’t I ever been invited to a dance party.” I have to say I was a bit jealous.

In addition to teaching, the ladies also had a chance to be students. They came with me to my regular Chitumbuka lessons with Nya Bowe (Mrs. Kayera). She was ecstatic to have a full class, and not just working one on one with me. I could tell she spent some time organizing a lesson plan and presented the lessons from my Peace Corps language manual as well as any of my Peace Corps trainers. Sarah was the most serious about learning Chitumbuka, and was Nya Bowe’s star student. She took detailed notes in class, and spent any down time studying through her little notebook, or bouncing her pronunciation off me to make sure it was correct. When she greeted people out on the street they stopped surprised and said “Ehh, Wamanyeko.” Everybody was very impressed and appreciative that Sarah was putting forth so much effort to learn a language she wouldn’t be able to use anywhere outside of the Northern region of Malawi. The older people around the village would say, “That Sarah, she works very hard, and is so cheerful. The others, Ahh Watondeka.” Which means failing, but really they were probably doing much better than I did in my first couple weeks, but paled in comparison to Sarah.

All of my friends immediately fell in love with Nya Bowey, with her infectious smile, and outgoing nature that is so uncommon among Malawian women around foreigners. They decided that we needed to have Nya Bowey bring her whole family over to my house so we could cook dinner for them. The girls were excited to cook ever since they discovered my friend Mr. Mwasa’s garden where he has been growing a variety of vegetables from the seeds my friends and family have been sending from back in the states. They were like kids in a candy store running around the plot picking fresh basil, green onions, romaine lettuce, beet greens, Swiss chard and bush beans. “Why didn’t you show us this earlier,” they asked me bitterly, “we should have been eating this the whole time.”

After there first experience with cooking in the village over a three stone fire my friends quickly understood why I pay my neighbor Nya Funi to cook a little extra of what ever she is making for her own family. Between carrying water from the borehole, improvising utensils, and suffocating in a smoky kitchen, cooking in the village becomes quite an undertaking. We also cooked a big meal for Nya Funi’s family on a different night, which we started preparing around 11:00 am by making corn tortillas from scratch, then made a roasted corn salsa, a pot of beans that took half the day itself to cook on the fire, and a vegetable fry-up that gave my Malawian friends an opportunity to sample foods that they had never seen before.

It was a time consuming undertaking, but we had a blast seeing what we could put together in a group effort. We all worked well together, once we found our rhythm, with Leslie and Annie generally the brains behind the operation, and the rest of us carrying out their orders. Annie really held the whole thing together with her level head and her ability to make the most out of everything that was available to us. We joked that it was practice for our future self-sustaining community back in Colorado or Montana, when we get tired of our wandering ways and finally set roots. The idea of communal living back in America was a common topic of discussion throughout the girls visit, it seemed to start out as a joke, but lead to more serious discussions about the ideal place, and whether it was possible to be self-sufficient in a big city like Denver, and by the time Sarah was leaving we had some of my Peace Corps friends getting into the idea and asking if we had started thinking about a year when it could start coming together.

Both meals were a big success. Many of my other friends ended up dropping by and tasting our creation. It was certainly like nothing they had ever tasted before. Some of it was a little to alien for the Malawian tongue, which is used to only the blandest of foods. But sometimes as soon as Nya Funi put the spoon to her mouth, her eyes would show that she was experiencing an epiphany of flavor. She looked almost shocked as she pointed her spoon at the bowl of vegetables declaring “kunowa chomene” (very delicious). When the Kayira family came over we lingered behind my house under the stars long after our bellies were full to capacity, chatting and laughing. With encouragement Sarah broke out the guitar and we started singing American folk and country songs, to repay all the singing and dancing Nya Bowe’s daughters had done for us. Leslie encouraged me to get up and dance, so that we could lure out some big laughs from the Malawians, so she could sneak a picture or two. The resulting snaps will surely transport anyone of us who were present back to that night of contented companionship.

There are too many great cultural exchanges to relate from the girls visit without writing a book. Even though they didn’t stay in my village as long as we originally planned, their impact on the community far exceeded my expectations, and will certainly have a lasting effect. One day they came with me to Football training. I think its fairly safe to assume this was the first time anybody in Mwazisi had ever seen a women in shorts let alone playing football. When the ladies first showed up ready to play, the guys roared with laughter and bounced around slapping high fives with excitement, probably mostly from seeing my friends in shorts. But when we started playing pass and defend their jaws dropped as Annie, who played soccer at the University of Montana ran circles around some of the best players. Apparently word of the ladies training with the team spread through the village, because before I knew it a crowd had assembled around the pitch, as big as the crowd for most games. What made me most happy was seeing all of the young girls who were also watching as the village heroes of Gan United running their absolute hardest and calling out a women’s name to pass them the ball, and then joking around with them the same way they would with any other teammate during a lull in the action. This is very significant in a village where men and women seem to live in separate worlds, in most cases barely speaking to each other beyond the expected formal greetings (although there are certainly exceptions.)

Eventually the itch to strap on a backpack and continue the adventure of exploring the world became too strong for my friends to keep wading around in the calm pool of village life in Mwazisi. An itch I can relate to, and I’m glad they acted on it because it brought them to one of the great wonders of Africa, and rafting on the big waters of the Zambezi river; separate adventures that you will all have to get from them if you ever get the chance to buy one of them a beer. I just count my blessings for having the friends that I have. Not many people would be willing to embark on a trip like theirs and experience life in Africa the way they did. They are four remarkable women and I’m glad we had the opportunity to share the experiences that we did, and now when I write to them about Mwazisi, they can put it into context in a way that nobody else can, that is until you come to Malawi and see the Mwazisi valley for yourselves.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

A Couple Friends Looking For Help With Fees

In my last blog I mentioned two teachers looking for assistance in furthering their education, this blog is to provide more information about them. But first I would like to reiterate my concerns with this situation. I agreed to help these two teachers look for financial assistance after their persistent inquiries, but I don’t want this to open the flood gates inviting everybody with the inclination to come to me asking for sponsors. In Malawi just like in America if somebody shows their academic prowess there is tremendous opportunity to receive government assistance or private sponsored scholarships. Though neither of these two men were strong enough in school to earn scholarships they are both already teachers, and it is my hope that by helping them to advance their education than it will raise the level of education in Mwazisi’s struggleing school. One of my primary fears is that once they achieve their desired degrees they will move on to a more prestigious school, and the brain drain in Mwazisi just continues. All I can do is just keep on encouraging people to take ownership of their home village and invest themselves into its sustained development.

Again I don’t want people to see me (their azungu) as a mere source of money. I know there will be more significant and far-reaching things for my friends back home to put their money towards as my projects develop, and the Peace Corps has organized better and tax deductible avenues for friends and family to provide project assistance. So please don’t anybody feel inclined to cover my friends entire tuition. I am encouraging them to continue seeking alternative means to fund their own schooling, because as I said before I think people take their education far more serious when they are financially invested in it. In both cases my friend’s tuition is over 150,000 Malawian Kwatcha, which is over $1,000. This is why I’m reaching out to a larger audience, asking people to chip in bit by bit, instead of asking just a few friends to pay it all in one lump some. Neither of these men will be starting school until next year at the earliest. So if people are interested than they can help by raising a little money here and there at their local church groups, or rotary clubs. Then when the time rolls around to pay tuition if a lot of people chip in just a little bit it should add up to take a big chunk out of the tuition they have to pay. As with many things I’m doing I don’t know if this is the best way to go about this, but I have found that is generally best to just dive in head first, themn shore up the problems as they pop up. Why not go out on a limb? Isn’t that where all the fruit is? That being said, here are my friends.

Mike Kayera
The first of my friends who is looking for help with paying his school fees is the Head Master at Mwazisi Community Day Secondary School, which is the school I am currently teaching at. His name is Mike Aaron Kayira and despite being the head teacher at our school, he only has a teaching certificate with no advanced education. To improve his teaching abilities Mr. Kayira is hoping to continue his education and obtain a diploma in Theology through the Theological Education by Extension in Malawi (TEEM) program. Bible Knowledge is a required course in Malawian schools and is the subject Mr. Kayira primarily teaches. I think most of you know that I am a strong believer in America’s division between church and state, but I think some of my more religious family members might find this compelling.

All secondary students have to take the Malawi School Certificate of Education Exam (MSCE) in order to get their secondary school certificate. At least a score of fifty is required to pass (the lower the score the better, making an eight an exemplary score). Mr. Kayira scored a thirty-five on his exam which is average, and is barely high enough to sit for the Malawi University Entrance exams, and is certainly not high enough to receive any sort of scholarships. Though his MSCE scores are mediocre he passed the Entrance exams and has been accepted into the TEEM program.

When I asked Mr. Kayira what his future plans were for after achieving a higher degree he replied “It is my great desire to eventually be a lecturer at one of the universities in Malawi. I also want to do pastoral work in Malawi to address perennial problems such as HIV/AIDS and counseling for victim’s families.”

Next I asked him how will the continuation of your personal education benefit the local community and Malawi as a whole? Mr. Kayira replied, “It will enable counseling and guiding on Biblical issues to help families through the problems they encounter in everyday life, and preach the gospel of salvation. The impact for the nation will be to impart knowledge to students, and to promote theological studies.”

I know Mr. Kayira very well, his wife is my Chitumbuka teacher and I consider his entire family to be my friends. While teaching in Mwazisi he and Mrs. Kayira are supporting a very large family with four girls and two boys. The oldest girl graduated from Pwezi Girls Secondary School (one of the top private schools in the country) while his two boys are both currently going to very good private schools, and his standard 6 daughter, Mauka just tested at the top of her class and will most likely be going to a top notch secondary school. I can say that Mr. Kayera is ambitious almost to a fault, and will certainly focus his full efforts on achieving his desired degree.

P.F. Nyasulu
The second of my friends asking for help in finding funding for school is Mr. Penjani Fredrick Nyasulu and he is also a teacher at the CDSS. He would like to pursue a degree in Food and Nutrition at the University of Malawi in Zomba Chancellor College. When I asked him about his future plans, he said he planned to continue teaching at the secondary level and hopes to inform students more on how they can address perennial problems such as poverty, malnutrition, food and taboos.

When I asked him what the benefit of his degree to the local community and Malawi as a whole would be, he replied as a qualified teacher of food and nutrition I can provide students with the knowledge to establish nutritional related services in the rural areas to save the nutritionally handicapped people. I will be able to equip them with the knowledge of appropriate technology for preparing and processing food for supporting a more healthy lifestyle. With greater knowledge of food and nutrition I can inform the People of Mwazisi about which locally found foods are most nutritious and need to be supplemented into the daily meals regularly to prevent diseases of malnutrition.

Mr. Nyasulu is 35 years old and is the father of four children. Aside from being a teacher, he also keeps a grocery in the local trading center. He has been very friendly to me since my arrival, and invites me to have a Fanta with him nearly every time I walk past his store. He is a strong teacher and I think he would make the most out of furthering his education

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Project: Making Connections

Since the beginning of my service in Malawi one of the main questions my friends and family from home have been asking is what things do you need, or what can we send? Lots of people even ask me if they can send money… Never thought that would be something I’d be uncomfortable with. I really appreciate the generosity and eagerness to help in what I’m doing, but I have come to strongly agree with the Peace Corps policy of keeping the volunteer living standards on par with the village they are working for. In my experience it is because of this policy that Peace Corps volunteers establish much closer relationships with the villagers than the typical aid or development worker. If people in Mwazisi saw me receiving frequent packages, and living with all sorts of fancy gadgets, and luxuries, it would set me even further apart from the rest of the village, and make me even more alien than I already am. Really I don’t need anything for myself. But letters, pictures, interesting articles and the occasional chocolate bar from home are always welcome and appreciated. And of course we could always use vegetable, herb, and spice seeds (at the moment we could use carrots, rosemary, sage, cilantro, oregano, chamomile, mint, thyme, lavender, parsley, or cinnamon for a volunteer herb garden.

Another thing that people can do if they are interested is make connections here with people in my village. One of the main questions I get around the village is “can you help me to have a pen friend in America.” At first I was very cautious to set up pen pals because I was worried that people were looking at it more as an opportunity to ask people in America for money, which is a very unsustainable way for well intentioned Americans to try to help people here, and in my opinion it does more harm than good. People here in Malawi have gotten very used to receiving money from Northerners (mostly Americans, Europeans, and Japanese) without any expectations on how that money should be used. I have seen this cause some Malawians to become dependent and even expectant on this type of money, disabling their own initiative. That being said I have also seen that most people are genuinely interested in learning about America, and having a friend on the other side of the world. So now when people ask me, I am very candid with them and explain that I will organize a pen friend only on the condition that they do not ask for money and that if they do ask, my friends in America will stop writing them and will tell me about it.

So if anybody is interested in having pen pals let me know and I will also start posting names and addresses of people who are asking me for pen pals (unfortunately I left my address book at my house so I can’t post any names this trip, but will very soon). I will continually update this blog with the names and addresses of people and groups looking for Pen Pals. Also, I am still looking for pen pals for my classes at the Primary and Secondary schools. I teach Form 1 Physical Science (equivalent of freshman year), and standard 6 agriculture (equivalent of sixth grade). I am also leading a wildlife club with the entire secondary school. If anybody thinks they have a good link for these groups or would like to pen off a letter relevant to any of these subjects feel free to address it to me at:

Dan Carr PCV
Mwazisi Post Office
Mwazisi, Rumphi District
Malawi, Central Africa

Or you can write the school directly at:

Mwazisi CDSS
Private Bag 1
Mwazisi, Rumphi District
Malawi, Central Africa

These are just the classes that I am teaching but I can make connections with people from every subject going from kindergarten to form 4 (Senior year), or I also can help connect people to appropriate church groups if that is what they are looking for.

Another thing that people have approached me about is helping them find sponsors to finish there education. I am very leery about this because it is asking for money directly (even if the continuation of education is a very worthwhile cause) and it would put me in charge of the money exchange and ensuring that it goes to the right place). So far I have only been asked by two people, both of whom are teachers, who want to get a higher degree in subjects that they already teach. To ensure that only serious students are asking, and to give the potential sponsors a better idea of who exactly they would be helping out, I have asked anybody who is looking for school sponsors to write a short introduction explaining; who they are, the degree they are pursuing, the tuition needed (which I will verify with the University), their personal goals and plans for the future, and an explanation of the benefit for Mwazisi, and Malawi in general if they continue their personal education.

I will type up these introductions, and post them on this blog as well. I would encourage people to keep their contributions small, as I am also encouraging the students to continue seeking other sources of funding for their own education. People always take their own education more serious if they have a personal financial stake in it. If people do want to start sponsoring specific students than they should inform me first via email, then they can get the money to my Mom in Colorado, where she will deposit it into my account in America, where it will remain until it is time to pay that persons tuition. I will withdraw all of the money meant for that person at once, and pay the tuition myself instead of handing them cash, which is unaccountable. Again I am very uneasy with this scenario, but at the same time I don’t want to ignore people at both ends who are asking for legitimate help here, and people with the means in America who are asking what they can do.

I feel much more comfortable with the pen pals scenario. When you look at the mission statement of Peace Corps you see that two thirds of our mission here is giving people around the world a better understanding of Americans, and giving Americans a better understanding of people from all around the world, so I think setting up pen pals is a great way to approach that mission. So I will try to get names and addresses posted very soon.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Ramblings: Still A Meat-Head Football Player

In a previous blog I mentioned my connection to Gallinanda United the local football club, now I want to talk about how playing football(soccer to us Americans, and bola to Northern Malawians, but I’ll stick to football since I already used it in the title) is actually very important to my peace corps service. It sounds ridiculous, I know, playing football as an important aspect of development in a community where the problems range from food insecurity to the effects of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, but hear me out. Being a part of Gallinanda United has helped my community integration enormously. With Gan United I have found a strong sense of belonging, and thus a sense of confidence in the community, making me far more effective in everything I do. Gan United is idolized in this small African village, which can be useful in making a positive impact in all aspects of life in Mwazisi. By encouraging the players to take being a role model serious, there is a tremendous opportunity to steer Mwazisi’s youth in a positive direction. I am a firm believer in the power of sports, and its ability to bring a community together. So for me Gan United is not only an opportunity to have another group of close friends to run and compete with, but it’s an opportunity to influence and work with a group of young men that are icons for a whole village’s youth.

I first encountered Gan United while I was on my site visit during training. I crossed through their practice field on my way to meet my new landlord. I chatted with some of the guys about football, explaining that I had never actually played back in the states. It’s shocking to a Malawian, that a boy could have a childhood without bola. I joked that it would be their duty when I returned to teach me how to play. I was surprised when after only a week of living in the village they started coming up to me asking why I hadn’t been coming to soccer training. “I don’t want to get in the way” I would reply, “I really don’t know how to play bola.” But they were persistent, “No no, your physique shows that you will be a striker. We’ll teach you.” But, when I first did show up to practice I lived up to my promise; whiffing completely on many balls, and when I did connect, the ball never went in the planned direction. It was a very humbling experience to say the least, with roars of laughter coming from the ewes on the sideline every time I tried to make a play on the ball. But the guys from the team kept encouraging me, always smiling with me, and saying “Ah, you see? You’re coming up now.” I wasn’t coming up anywhere, but at least I was sharing laughs with the villagers for the first time.

I immediately saw how important the football team is to the village. Long before I could understand much of any Chitumbuka, I would recognize the names of the star players mixed into the excited conversations of young ewes, “Shanti na Gifti this and that” or “Monday na Junior something-or-other.” The first home game I saw really brought the communities support for Gan United to light for me. The rest of the village must have been empty, because practically everybody I know was at the pitch and fully engaged in the match. The team even has its own football hooligans who come dressed in flamboyant scarves and hats to march around the pitch belting out cheers and songs at the top of their lungs all the while doing some serious booty dancing. When Gan scored their first goal I was surprised to see that it wasn’t just the players running around hugging each other, but it was like the whole crowd lost their minds. Everybody charged the field, over two hundred hands must have touched the goal scorer’s back before he reached mid field, old men could be seen high stepping across the field with canes raised in the air, I saw ewes doing something between Kung Fu and break dancing, and this was just about five minutes into the game. After seeing all of this I knew this was something I wanted to be a part of, despite being probably the worst bola player in Malawi.

Ironically, the morning of my first road trip with the team turned out to be the same day one of my best friends and high school football teammate’s was getting married back in Colorado. So I woke up well before dawn to climb the mountain where I get cell phone network, so that I could talk to my old football teammates before I went on a road trip with my new football teammates (Sunday morning here is Saturday night there, so I caught them in the middle of the reception). It was surreal sitting on a mountaintop in the Malawian bush talking to my buddies who were busy celebrating the first marriage of the bunch. I must say it was tough knowing that I was missing it, but they made me feel better by picking up right where we left off, giving me my usual fair share of abuse, telling me that they had already shared some of my stupider stories. But they all also made sure to let me know that I was missed at the wedding. I pictured them all with drinks in their hands around my Mom’s cell phone, beating on each other and laughing the way we always have. I definitely had a smile on my face as I rushed down the mountain to catch the team’s transport to Laveli for Gan United’s match against the heavily funded and well-equipped Eva Demaya Squad.

It turned out to be a great trip. The B team won their match 2-1 and the A team managed to pull out a tie 2-2, despite at least half our guys playing barefoot. This is a big feat because the Eva Demaya squad is sponsored by a Dutch health center in the area, so they have brand new boots and top-notch equipment, which draws in ringers from all the surrounding villages. Tying a team with so many advantages is worthy of celebration so the matola ride back was the best part of the trip. The team was dancing and singing pilled in the back of the big truck not having an inch to spare with all of the traveling supporters. Everybody was huddled together drunk on the excitement from the game, and maybe the packets of sugar cane alcohol some of the guys stashed in their boot bags. Guys were falling all over each other as we flew over bumps, but everybody was singing at the top of their lungs and laughing the whole way. At one point I heard my name mentioned in one of the songs, but didn’t catch the context since the Chitumbuka was drowned out by the whirling wind as we flew down a hill, but I could tell it was good from the whistles, smiles, and thumbs up I got from everybody around me.

We got back late, but I couldn’t sleep. I found myself thinking of all the different teams I have been a part of over the years, and the good friends made along the way. A month before I came here to Malawi I was dancing and singing at the Boulder Rugby Season end formal. I arrived to this fine gathering wearing a 70’s tux and my date fellow former rugger Leslie Pickard sported a lion costume. The whole thing culminated in the entire team doing the can-can to Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York” with our pants around our ankles. Before that I was stomping around the world with the Montana Jesters rugby club. I was lucky enough to play with this rare breed of gentlemen everywhere from Scotland to Humboldt California. My time with them was short, but the memories are abundant, and the Jesters will always have a big place in my heart wherever they all happen to be scattered around the world.

Before taking up rugby I was a Montana Grizzly, where I saw how sports can bring a community together in a very special way. One of my most memorable experiences in sports was our National Championship run my senior year. The buzz and excitement around Missoula was infectious, as we advanced through the playoffs to the championship. I will never forget the parade through Missoula as we were bussed to the airport to depart for the Championship game in Chattanooga Tennessee. The streets were lined with people waving anything silver and maroon they could get their hands on. Lawyers hanging out the windows of office buildings had signs saying “We Believe!” The local transients were in the street pumping their fist at the bus as they demanded “Go get ’em Griz.” I remember Fathers with their sons on their shoulders squinting through the tinted windows of our bus trying to catch a glimpse of Craig Ochs or Johnny Verona. As we passed the lumber yards and rail depot on East Broadway you could see the hope for victory on the faces of our most devoted fans, the common working men and women of Missoula. Some of the workers even ran a train engine alongside our bus as they danced on its platforms to our fight song which was blaring over speakers attached to the sides of the train. I felt so proud to be a part of what all these people were coming together to support, and I will never forget that feeling.

But before Montana, I was playing with the same guys giving me hell on the phone earlier that same morning before I went with Gan United to the Eva Demaya match. The guys I used to play football with in my hometown Broomfield Colorado. We used to dance and sing cheesy songs on our way back from winning a cross-town game against Brighton or Skyview. The same way Gan United was singing old Timbuka songs on the way back from Eva Demaya. It’s funny that I’m halfway around the world in the heart of Africa, where sometimes I feel like I have been born into a completely different reality, but I still find moments that mirror so closely my other life back in America. I may be a bleeding heart liberal volunteering in one of the world’s poorest countries, but it seems no matter where in the world I go, I fall in with the same kind of meat-head jock crowd I always have.

Aside from finding a good group of friends, I see Gan United as an opportunity to make my impact in Mwazisi more effective. As I said before, I am a strong believer in the power of sports to mobilize a community, I would love to see the same type of excitement I saw in Montana about the Griz develop here in Mwazisi about Gan United. Mwazisi already idolizes this team, but by helping Gan United keep improving we can give Mwazisi something to really get excited about, and encourage a sense of community pride. Most people in Mwazisi talk about someday leaving it to live somewhere like Blantyre or Mzuzu. If people don’t see themselves or their children living in Mwazisi ten years from now then they can’t be serious about doing any work to improve the area’s future. People need to have pride in their home village, if they are going to think about its future and development. Football is just another way to encourage the people of Mwazisi to come together and have that sort of pride in their homeland, which would encourage them to look after all aspects of its future.

Given my bola aptitude playing and coaching won’t be my role of strengthening the team (although I do play on the B-squad every now and again, mostly for everybody else’s entertainment, and I had my Mom send a copy of “A Complete Idiot’s Guide to Playing Soccer,” so I’m still not counting myself out of coaching) but the team has adopted me as an unofficial manager. Managing Gan United is an opportunity to help them start income generating activities, like a team vegetable garden or tree nursery to raise money for equipment or transport to matches. I can also make efforts to help them find connections with teams in the U.K. or America able to donate old boots or uniforms. I can help them to organize more matches and find tournaments, the more games they play, the more opportunity there is for the buzz I’m looking for to develop.

I also have my selfish reasons for managing Gan United. It is very useful to have the village idols at your disposal and I plan to use them to encourage fundamental changes in the communities mind set. For example tree planting is a very big part of what I’m trying to do in Mwazisi as an environmental extension volunteer. I already have tree nurseries established, and spend a great deal of my breath preaching the value of planting good agro-forestry trees to develop soil fertility, prevent soil erosion, and bring up the water table. Most of my efforts are answered with encouraging words from most everybody in the community; they assure me that they understand the importance of planting trees. But this seems to be all lip service, because as trees are cut down by literally everybody for firewood, building, or farming, I have only seen a hand full of individuals who are making substantial efforts to replace them.

Around Gan United’s pitch there are few trees, disappearing vegetation, and signs of erosion. This is also a central and high traffic location in the community where everybody could see the benefits of planting the right trees. My Mom (being the saint that she is) has already sent two beautiful brand new balls for the team, which were badly needed since the old one was patched, tattered and certainly on its last leg. But instead of just passing the balls to the team, I promised to pass them only in exchange for the teams help in planting agro forestry trees around the border of the field. If the work the team does ends up improving the land around the field then it can serve as a great example, that lends merit to my preaching. Even more importantly if a young boy sees his hero football player planting and taking care of trees, then he is far more likely to do the same in the future.

Another idea has to do with volunteer AIDS testing in Mwazisi. As I am sure many of you know AIDS is a problem of epidemic proportions here in Malawi. Out of a population of about 12.3 million about one million people are currently living with HIV or AIDS. This number is growing all the time because most of the people who live with AIDS don’t realize that they have it. For that reason free volunteer testing and counseling clinics are set up all over the country. One such clinic exists in Mwazisi, but after meeting with the nurses that run the center I realized how seldom it actually gets used; this is due to the cultural taboos attached to sex and AIDS in Malawi. Nobody goes for volunteer testing because it is equated to admitting to taking part in risky behavior, which might mean pre-marital sex, sleeping with prostitutes, or being unfaithful to one’s partner, any of which would obviously bring disgrace to a villager. This all applies to my connection with Gan United because the team is constantly telling me how badly they are in need of new jerseys. If I am able to find a new set of Jerseys for the team, or help them to raise the money they need to buy their own, I would do it only on the condition that we organize a day when we all go publicly for volunteer testing while wearing the team’s new jerseys. It’s something small, but at least it’s chipping away a bit at the social stigma.

My association with Gan United can be useful for countless reasons. It helps me to become integrated with the community and feel more comfortable in the work I do here. This team could also be something the whole community can rally around, and working with them gives me access to individuals who are much more influential in the village than I could ever be. Most of all, it’s just nice to be a part of a team, and have the same type of friendships here with my teammates that I have had at every other stage of my life in every other place that I have lived.

Project: Jatropha Curcas and Locally Made Bio-Diesel

Jatropha Curcus may well be the miracle tree that Mwazisi’s farmers need to reverse the decades of environmental degredation largely caused by tobacco farming. Jatropha will diversify Mwazisi’s tobacco dominated farming, prevent the massive soil erosion caused by deforestation and unsustainable agriculture, and best of all be a tremendous income generator. Jatropha (Kamsatsi in Chichewa, and Physic Nut in English) grows in the poorest soil, and the driest climates. It is resistant to pests, and its leaves are poisonous so farm animals won’t eat it. The tree takes only eighteen months to seed and grows for fifty years. Seeds can be pressed into a clean burning bio-fuel. A local buyer is already in Malawi; Bio-Energy Resources Limited (BERL). They will buy the seeds from the farmers now at a good price to encourage the trees expansion countrywide, so the first step for us in Mwazisi is to grow the trees. It’s never a bad thing to plant more trees, so we may as well start planting and see where this tree can take Mwazisi.

Jatropha could be an alternative cash crop for Mwazisi’s tobacco farmers, so it is useful to start off with some background information about tobacco farming issues pertaining to cash crop farming. Most local farmers wouldn’t say there’s a problem, in fact there’s a gleam in their eye as they tell you how many bails they hope to sell next year. The local forestry extension worker and he will tell you it’s an environmental nightmare, yet he still plants most of his fields with tobacco. Ask him why, he responds, “What other options do I have?” For the past 25 years Tobacco has been the only cash crop grown in Mwazisi. During the Kamuzu Banda Era tobacco was licensed to a limited few plantations, but then the World Bank stepped in and demanded a free market where all farmers were permitted to grow tobacco. Small-holder farms rushed to convert their fields from maize to the more profitable tobacco, and have married themselves to this very destructive crop over a short period of time. Now that tobacco has become Mwazisi’s only cash crop, it is difficult to tell a local farmer to stop making money for his family in the name of preserving the environment. But, in Jatropha there is a viable alternative; one that can improve the health of the local environment by regenerating forest cover and top-soil.

So why is Tobacco so bad? In the Mwazisi Valley it is the biggest contributor to deforestation. Anybody who has lived in Mwazisi for more than ten years will tell you the local landscape has dramatically changed; forestland has turned to tobacco fields, and the old fields have now turned to dust. All land is considered public here, so if a farmer wants to grow more tobacco he receives permission from the village headmen and opens a new field in the bush, chopping down any trees in the way then burning off the remaining vegetation, to prepare to plant in the upcoming rainy season. He is then able to grow tobacco for the next three to five years, which eats up all the nutrients in the growing season then allows the topsoil to wash away in the rainy season with no trees to prevent erosion. More trees are cut down to build “gafas”, the long sheds used to hang and dry the tobacco leaves before grading. This whole process has been a disaster for the regions topsoil, according to a 1992 World Bank Study loss of topsoil in Malawi averaged over 20 tons per hectare per annum, with rates over 50 tons in areas with heavy tobacco production.

All of this deforestation and erosion has caused a severe water availability problem as well. The Mwazisi River was once a perennial river providing irrigation of maize fields in the dambo (the wetland area surrounding the river) throughout the dry season, now the Mwazisi rips and roars through the valley in the rainy season washing away everything including bridges and surrounding roads. With no trees or vegetation to hold up the water table in the dry season the river dries up, the ground turns rock hard, and the Garden of Eden turns into a brown wasteland until the rains come again in November. After the tobacco and topsoil erosion has depleted the soil it’s time to just move deeper into the bush and clear a new plot, and the deforestation continues. In Malawi it’s the rapid expansion of tobacco farming, coupled with firewood collection, and man made bushfires that have destroyed the forestland and local environment. But this type of desertification is found all over Sub-Saharan Africa culminating in a 21rst century African dust bowl.

Not only is tobacco causing deforestation, topsoil erosion, and water scarcity, it is also an economically unsustainable crop for the hard working farmers that have become dependent on it as their only cash crop. According to a 2003 FAO study report entitled Issues in the Global Tobacco Economy, Tobacco generated about K 12 billion of export revenue in 1999 and accounted for more than one third of total revenue from agriculture and about 15 percent of GDP in the same year. The health risks associated with smoking tobacco have led to global efforts to reduce smoking. Rising cigarette taxes, education, anti-smoking ad-campaigns, and smoking restrictions, will only continue to kill this already dying market. The massive Jump in tobacco production in Malawi over the past decade has quickly outpaced the declining market causing a sharp drop in prices and thus a drop in the farmer’s income. The price has also declined as inexperienced and unequipped farmers have started taking up tobacco farming, decreasing the overall quality of tobacco produced in Malawi. According to the same report, “the total output of burley tobacco in 2000 was 20 percent higher than in 1996, but the total revenue was 24 percent lower than in 1996.” More farmers are cutting down tress to open new fields, but every year getting paid less and less.

Three exporting companies now control 90 percent of total tobacco exports coming out of Malawi, so the small number of buyers paired with Malawian farmer’s desperate need for money has given the buyers control over the market. These companies make maximum profits, and the farmers get a mere fraction. The prices saw a small spike this year due to the emergence of a new Chinese market, which will encourage the Mwazisi farmers to up their production even more for next year. What they don’t realize is that it is still a dying market, and when it finally dries up they will be left empty-handed and see that their once fertile soil has washed away to a desert wasteland.

But for now every April the tobacco farmers race to bale their harvested tobacco and get it to the auction floors in Mzuzu and Lilongwe. Auction season is a party. After selling their bales many of the farmers stay in the bomas where they celebrate away their new found money on drinking binges and shopping sprees. When the money runs out and the family suffers through the hunger of another dry season they resolve to plant even more tobacco before the next rains, hoping to earn enough at the following years auction to better provide for the family. This obsession with tobacco is especially strong in Rumphi district (the district Mwazisi is in) one of the areas that tobacco grows best.

Many people in Malawi recognize the need for crop diversification. In Chitipa and Mzuzu, coffee has presented an alternative, although slow to produce profit since the initial growing period is about seven years. This is irrelevant in Mwazisi though, where the villagers tell me the climate is not right for coffee growing, although I’m not convinced and would like to experiment with that possibility. A former tobacco plantation owner in Bolero is also trying, with moderate success, to give farmers in Rumphi district the alternative of growing Paprika. Along with other herbs and spices Paprika may provide another option for diversification, but they also have their drawbacks. Paprika is in the same family as tobacco, and planting it in fields that were once tobacco can easily spread disease. Paprika is also prone to pests and needs lots of attention and pesticides. Jatropha on the other hand is virtually pest resistant, and being a tree needs little care once it is established, just let it grow, and harvest the seeds, a major change from Tobacco which needs a tremendous amount of time and labor.

I’m by no means the first person to see the potential of Jatropha for Malawi. In fact there’s already an existing market for Jatropha started and run completely in Malawi. A group of interested individuals from a variety of backgrounds have formed an organization called BERL (Bio Energy Resources Limited). BERL is encouraging farmers all over Malawi to grow Jatropha and hopes to soon start pressing the seeds and processing bio-fuel. Already BERL will buy the seeds produced by farmers at 15 Malawian Kwatcha per KG, about the equivalent of maize. At present BERL buys the seeds for the purpose of redistributing them to farmers, and increasing the amount of Jatropha grown nationwide. Currently a farm family’s cash income averages $290 per annum. Growing a hectare of Jatropha could add another $200 to this. Once Jatropha has been established on a wide-scale then they will start setting up permanent collection points and processing plants with the hope of eventually having two processing plants (twenty four in total) for every suitable district in Malawi, allowing mass production with minimal transport. BERL is very concerned with not only giving Malawian farmers a fair price but also with producing quality jobs in the production process. They are also very focused on environmental sustainability. After pressing they will compost the nitrogen and phosphorus rich seed cake to produce a natural fertilizer.

BERL has all of the makings of a company that can boost for Malawi’s farmers, economically and ecologically. BERL can provide a sustainable alternative for the tobacco farmers in Mwazisi. I look forward to seeing BERL develop into a tremendous opportunity for Malawian farmers. Anybody interested in supporting the development of Bio-fuels world-wide, or sustainable economic development in one of the world’s least developed countries has a chance to help both of these causes by supporting the development of this up and coming company. I want to see BERL develop from the start as a business that Maximizes Malawi’s natural capital, meaning it generates the maximum profit from Malawi’s natural resources for its farmers without damaging the local environment that provides those resources. In fact Jatropha trees would help to regenerate that local environment.

My role in all of this is to get the farmers in Mwazisi to start planting, and we already have a head start. During swearing-in I bought 5,000 polyethylene tubes for the purpose of starting a reforestation tree nursery with the local Natural Resource Committee. We are planting a variety of trees that have various practical, medicinal, and agricultural uses. When I read an article in Newsweek about Jatropha’s high potential for making bio-diesel, and recalled it as a tree that we learned about during training to be very useful for soap and candle making, I decided to go to the Land Resource Center in Lilongwe and buy 1 kg of seeds to include in our nursery. So we already have a good stock of Jatropha seeds to plant at the beginning of the rainy season. Living fences are a great way to grow Jatropha because it grows thick, is pest and animal resistant, and residue that falls from its branches helps soil fertility. The biggest advantage of encouraging farmers to plant Jatropha as a fence is that we are not asking anybody to replace food crops that are grown in the field, or their beloved tobacco for that matter, Alleviating any worries people have of taking a risk on a new and unknown tree.

One thing that I have learned from BERL is that direct sowing of Jatropha seeds at the beginning of the rainy season (November/December) is more effective and clearly cheaper and less labor intensive then planting the seeds in Poly tubes. So we will save the seeds I bought and plant different trees in the nursery and direct-sow in October. We have started digging the holes for planting and filling them up with compost so that we can easily just start sowing the seeds when the rains come. Two of BERL’s founders Timothy Mahoney and Laurie Webb have even offered to come to Mwazisi with more seeds so we can have a local training session on direct-sowing and care for the trees.

The final phase that I would like to be involved in before leaving Mwazisi would be to actually make bio-fuel in Mwazisi for use in the local maize mills, and if refined well enough the Matola (local transport). Actually pressing and making bio-diesel in Mwazisi is obviously useful for the community as a source of cheap, self-made fuel. It is even more useful for demonstrating to the local farmers that this fuel will run in a diesel engine, and therefore give them an idea of Jatropha’s future value and encourage them to plant more. In order to do this we would need to either build a local press or else raise money to buy a more advanced one. The process of producing the oil is very simple, it’s just a matter of mixing the oil with a catalyst and letting the reaction take place. The preferred catalyst is potassium hydroxide but calcium hydroxide will work and is a locally available constituent of fertilizer. Etnahol also produced in Malawi can be used as the alcohol. The only equipment needed is a press (can be made locally), a water heater (maybe a solar water heater), and two tanks one of which needs to have a drain on its bottom.

Another exciting use is illumination. Jatropha oil burns smokeless, and so is ideal for Paraffin lanterns. Malawians already know Jatropha’s power as an illuminant, I have been told that its seeds were traditionally shelled and put on the end of a stick to act as a candle Paraffin is extremely hard to find in Mwazisi, and is far to expensive for most villagers. With a large stock of Jatropha we could press a portion of the seeds to be put directly into the lamps. What an exciting prospect, to be able to say that we brought light to Mwazisi with this simple tree.

It is uses like this that will encourage the farmers to plant more Jatropha, and eventually provide the seed base that BERL needs to start real significant production. Who knows where it could go from there? A huge growing market for Bio-Fuels is developing world-wide. Maybe someday Malawi will be the Saudi Arabia of Bio-Fuels. At the very least it’s something to spark hope and interest in Malawi’s farmers. Jatropha has really taken over my thoughts lately, and I’m sure my friends are tired of hearing about it. When I travel with the local soccer team on the weekends I encourage people I’m chatting with to plant it. When I’m in Lilongwe or Mzuzu lots of my time is dominated by looking for and processing information about Jatropha, and bio-diesel. I can’t wait to see where this thing goes, and how BERL develops. If any of you have suggestions, criticisms, or ideas make a comment or e-mail me at I want to try to make this as effective, environmentally sustainable, and profitable as possible, so I’m looking for help.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

How I'm Passing Time In Malawi

Go in search of your people.
Love them;
Learn from them;
Begin with what they have:
Build on what they know.

But of the best leaders
When their task is accomplished,
Their work is done,
The people all remark:
“We have done it ourselves.”
(Old Chinese verse)

I realized after my last post that my blogs make Peace Corps service seem more like a travel adventure than actual work. So I decided it would be good to post a blog describing the work that I have been doing in Mwazisi up until now now, and also the ideas I have for the future. I also want to make this into an opportunity for me to share my ideas with all of you, so that you can critique, give suggest new ideas, or for you to just flat out tell me “Dan, that’s stupid don’t do it.” The advantage of wondering around the world these last few years is that my experiences have brought me in contact with a wide variety of people, all of whose brains I can pick through the wonderful world of the internet. Now I can say I have friends who are experts in soil science, ecobuilding, international law, energy production, permaculture, water management, education, literature, music, art, business, food aid, and on and on. This can be an invaluable resource for Mwazisi that I would like to start tapping with this blog.

My idea with this blog is to gather ideas, critiques, and knowledge from all of you masters of your own fields out there. I can then take your input and find the best ways to facilitate it into tangible projects in Mwazisi. Each of you have the unique experience and expertise that can work miracles here in Mwazisi, it’s just a matter of finding how that knowledge might be able to address a need in Africa. This can only be accomplished through the continuous exchange of information. From my Uncle Pat Conway, the ultimate handy man, to Father Hogan Missoula’s beloved Peace Maker, I would like to hear what you all would do if you were in my position. How would you approach the problems that the villagers identify for themselves and what different things would you try to do in two years here.

I really appreciated all of the feedback and comments I received from people after my first blog entry. It was awesome to see that people were really interested in the things I am seeing here in Malawi. Some of your comments and emails were really beautiful and encouraging (Leslie…Wow! You never cease to amaze me.) But I would also appreciate criticism; especially as I start describing the different projects we are hoping to do. Feel free to rip my ideas to shreds and tell me what you think we should be doing. I will start with this blog by telling you about what I have been doing in these first few months; how I have been integrating with the community, my initial projects, and generally how I’ve been spending my time so far.

I also want to explain the local environmental problems identified by the villagers, which I will do in a later blog. For this purpose I’m in the process of organizing community-based surveys of problems and needs in the Mwazisi valley. There will be three different local groups that I will conduct the surveys with; the natural resource committee, a women’s group, and the wildlife club that I teach at the secondary school. I hope to compile the information from the three different surveys, and summarize them in a blog that I will try to post the next time I’m in Lilongwe (the end of August). I believe it’s useful for me to post how the people of Mwazisi describe their problems and needs, allowing all of you to also think about solutions for Mwazisi.

Following Einstein’s dictum that problems can’t be solved within the mind-set that created them, I think it is advantageous to present these problems to a large group of outside observers (namely, you), and ask what your take on it is. As I become more and more imbedded here in Mwazisi, I am taking on the same perspective as the people living in Mwazisi, which is a tremendous advantage in the work I’m trying to do. I think the Peace Corps approach of becoming a part of the community in order to assess problems and then build capacity for sustainable solutions is the best possible method of development. I don’t think a person or aid agency can fully help a community of people unless they really know how the people of that community live, and really that can only be done by becoming a part of the community oneself. But it is also useful to have fresh ideas coming in from the outside to help present alternative options.

I will continue to post blogs that describe challenges we identify as we encounter them, and I will always indicate them in the title with the header “Challenge.” I also want to present the projects that we are doing in Mwazisi or hope to do. It’s good to keep you all updated on the things we are working on around Mwazisi, because when it does apply to your area of expertise then it is an opportunity for anybody and everybody to chime in with advice. So those project blogs will be titled “Project”…. complicated system hugh? I know I missed my calling as a library cataloguer. So there are really only two other types of blogs that I write. One being the stories I tell of my experiences in Malawi with witty anecdotes, and overly elaborate observations. While the other consists of my esoteric ramblings that seem to come out when I’m thinking a lot about any one particular thing that tickles my pensive bone. So I guess I can also start labeling those blogs “Stories” and “Ramblings” respectively, which would give people the opportunity to skip over any category of blog they might find particularly painful.

So what am I actually doing in Malawi? Well as environmental volunteers our job is defined as community based natural resource management… which is kind of vague. I see our role as raising awareness about the effects that environmental degradation will have, and then build capacity to address local problems in an environmentally sustainable way. The community environmental assessment is a key element to raising awareness, because the villagers know better than anybody else what environmental problems they face, but just like us in America they don’t often think about these problems or how they will be affected by them in the future. For example they all would say that deforestation is a problem, but they don’t worry about it enough to change their wood consumption habits. The same way all Americans realize that carbon dioxide emissions are causing global warming but we don’t think about it enough to change our driving habits. The assessment gets everybody talking and thinking about these issues. I think my role is largely just getting people thinking about these issues. I can also point out the affects that are less foreseeable, again with the example of deforestation I can chime in; “By clearing this forest, you are also ruining your farmland by causing erosion and washing away all of your arable topsoil, so in a sense you’re starving future generations.”

I’m also careful when I say we build capacity to address local problems instead of just local environmental problems, because I think it’s impossible to be taken seriously in the village unless I’m also working to address the problems associated with poverty. This is why most of my “environmental” projects consist of income generating activities. The capacity building aspect of our job is showing the villagers how they can make money in harmony with there local environment instead of by simply exploiting its resources. Examples of income generating activities that I have already started working on with various villagers are the construction of top-bar hives for bee keeping and the sale of honey, and tree nurseries to sell a variety of useful agroforestry trees to local farmers. These are both great potential moneymakers but they both encourage the preservation of the environment as well.

As I’ve said before the focus of my first two months has been community integration and trying like hell to master Chitumbuka. One thing that I consider community integration is teaching Physical Science at the secondary school. I only agreed to start teaching because when I first arrived to Mwazisi nearly everybody in the village asked me if I would be teaching, and told me how badly the school needed help, but it has turned out to be one of my most fulfilling roles in the community, and I know the community appreciates it. Now most people identify me as “Mr. Galimoto” (Mr. Car), or “sambizi” (teacher). I also started a wildlife club with the secondary school, so I can pass on my environmental training and knowledge to the young people who most need to hear it. This gives me an opportunity to teach them to make tree nurseries, energy saving mud-stoves, fire-briquettes from peanut shells and cassava waste, and other resource saving tidbits.

I also started teaching Agriculture at the Primary school, which makes use of my environmental background as well. As a bonus teaching standard 6 students has really helped my Chitumbuka, since the students don’t really speak enough English to understand me yet. I teach that class for two hours one day a week, so I develop my lesson plan two days ahead of time and take it to my Chitumbuka tutor Mrs. Kayera… aka my Malawian mother. Mrs. Kayera helps me translate the lesson plan, and practice the more important phrases, so when I go to class I can teach in mostly Chitumbuka, with only minimal help from their regular teacher. We do one hour of theory in the classroom, before I take them outside for a chance to get practical experience in the demonstration garden we have started together. The students enjoy the time outside, and it gives me a chance to teach organic gardening and how to make compost, which the villagers currently don’t use. I’m encouraging all of the students to replicate what they learn in class at home with their parents. This could really do a lot of good for nutrition in the village, because at present time the only vegetables found locally are rape, pumpkin leaves, mustard, and tomatoes. These are all nutritious, but not having any variety must be causing them to be deficient in certain vitamins. Not to mention all of the greens are covered with white spots because they apply the same heavy fertilizers they get from government subsidies for tobacco to their vegetables.

Another method of community integration has been my involvement with the local bola team (soccer to us Americans, football to the rest of the world). I am quite possibly the worst soccer player to ever step onto the pitch but I love the opportunity to get out and run with the guys, and there is definitely no rugby in Mwazisi (sorry Skip). Pachoko pachoko (bit by bit) I’m coming along, I can now kick the ball without having it go in the complete opposite direction then I planned on kicking it. The Bola team in Mwazisi (Gan United… Gan standing for the chiefs name Gallinanda) is a tremendous source of pride for the community, and generally the third most popular topic of conversation behind God and Tobacco. Everybody turns up for the home games, and a large number of supporters pay extra to pack onto the matola and travel with the team for away games. I just practice with the team and occasionally play with the B team, but they have kind of adopted me as the unofficial team manager, which means I help organize matches with other teams around the north, and I’m hoping to organize a few IGAs to help them raise money for boots, jerseys and transportation costs. My association with the team has certainly improved my status with the community even more, and brought me into contact with most of my closest friends in the community. It’s really a special part of my life in Mwazisi and deserves a blog entry of its own, which I’ll get around to one of these days.

I believe the things I do at my house, is another important aspect of my community entry. I try to keep my house as open and inviting as possible. Anytime I am home I keep my front door open, and use a box of crayons to attract the kids to hang out on my front porch and draw on the back of the many handouts I received during training and deemed a waste of paper. I spend lots of my free time doing various home improvement and permaculture projects in my yard. I invite friends to help me with all of these, which attracts lots of observers full of curiosity and questions. I’m currently building a water catchment system with my friend Benidicto Gondwe, and there are always a slew of onlookers hanging out watching us and asking us a million questions about what we’re doing. We’re both more than happy to explain and encourage them to build one of their own. Children are often attracted by my projects, which is great for me because there interest generally turns into a source of free labor. I had curious ewes (kids) help with the construction of a drain from my bafa to my banana and papaya trees, a fence for my garden, and two compost pits.

An example of one such project is when I had my friend Davey Nyasulu help me plaster and white wash the inside of my house to make it brighter and to keep out mosquitoes and other critters. This turned out to be a massive project that lasted almost three weeks, and needed the help of another friend Charles Singini. I learned a lot from working so closely with Davey, who is a far better builder than I am. The best part though was the conversations the three of us had as we worked together. Davey told us all about his passion for music and dream to someday start a local band, while we mixed batch after batch of cement. Charles kept us smiling with his always upbeat attitude, and his ridiculous antics… i.e. making god awful sounds with my harmonica, and numerous attempts to show he could lift as much as me, despite being about half my size. Some of the best conversations took place while we shared lunch. Sometimes we had deep philosophical conversations about religion, god, and human beings place in the world, while other times they entertained themselves by firing off question after question to me about what life is like in America. By the end of it the three of us had learned an incalculable wealth of new information from our three-week exchange, and now Charles and Davey are two of my best friends and certainly will remain so throughout the duration of my time here.

All right, I’ve rambled enough. So now you have a bit of an idea of what I’m doing at site and the things I hope to do in the future. I am looking forward to posting descriptions about our projects, and hearing from all of you. I want to make these projects as effective and sustainable as possible, and your knowledge will be one of my best resources in achieving this.

Monday, July 9, 2007

My Sermon in an African Church

Last week I was invited to attend a gathering of four African Church congregations in the village of chitongwa. They gather once a month to combine their choirs and to worship together for the weekend. I saw it as a great opportunity to meet more people, practice Chitumbuka, and have more people get to know me and what I'm doing here. I guess its also an opportunity to learn about the stories of the bible and Christianity, but I get plenty of that already here in Malawi. Most Malawians are profoundly religious people, and generally the main topics of conversation are God, Christianity, and the bible. So sometimes it seems like my Peace Corps service has become more of a lesson in theology. So I am learning a lot about Christian philosophy, being the Godless Azungu that I am, but mostly I go to church to listen to the music.
So after a very early morning run, bafa, and breakfast, I set off on the 7km journey through the hills surrounding Mwazisi escorted by NRC chairman Erflone Gondwe who invited me. Along the way we encountered a man clearing a forest near the village. I was becoming very angry as we approached and I watched him hack away at a very large and healthy Musangu Sangu (Winter thorn) tree. This is a terrible tree to destroy, because it is very slow growing, but when it has matured it becomes a wonder tree for the soil. It's deep roots help prevent soil erosion, and its leaves are nitrogen fixing, so when they fall off in the cold season they act as fertilizer for the surrounding soil.
I was shocked and disheartened when we approached the man and found that it was Principal chief Chilengua. This is the same man who posted a a sign outside of his house saying "The destruction of local wildlife in Mwazisi is strictly prohibited by the local traditional authority." I was shocked because I know that he is an educated man who knows the value of Masangu sangu trees. I was disheartened because I also know what a tremendous influence he has over the surrounding villages, and how important his example is.
I didn't try to hide my anger, while Mr. Gondwe greeted him with the typical Timbuka greeting of chiefs, “Tilli Pascono," meaning "We are beneath you," I got straight to the point asking, "Chafukwa Mukotola Makhuni yawisi" - "Why are you taking green trees." I could see that he was embarrassed; his face showed that he felt naked and exposed before me. "Yayi," he explained "Nikukhumba kulima hona kuno" - "I want to grow tobacco here." This bothered me even more, I could understand a bit if he was growing corn, or sweet potatoes... something that adds to the village food stock, but I don't see the justification in one of the wealthiest men in Mwazisi clearing a mountainside to grow Tobacco, purely a cash crop, which he will need to cut more trees down for in order to make a gafa (a temporary shed used for hanging and drying tobacco after harvest.) I remained diplomatic in the encounter, keeping a casual smile throughout my cross-examination, but I conveyed in no uncertain terms that I expected to see him "Namuleni-lenji!” (First thing in the morning) on Monday morning at my tree nursery. Which was when I would be teaching the Natural Resource Committee how to plant tree seeds in Polyethylene tubes. He assured me he would be there... but come Monday was nowhere to be found.
I still had the whole encounter on my mind when we arrived at the church. But my mood was changed by all of the smiling faces that greeted me outside the church. I was later told that I was the first azungu to ever attend services at that specific church. This also explained why some of the very small children started crying and ran away when they saw me. I asked Mr. Gondwe what I did to scare them. He just smiled and said “chakwamba azungu wakusanga” (the first white person they have met.) I don’t like anybody fearing me, but I thought that was pretty damn cool. I felt a bit like an ambassador; their perception of Americans would largely be based on the first impression I left them with.
As a guest they had me sit on the side of the pulpit with the chiefs that had assembled from the different participating villages. I was happy there because it was the best vantage point of the choirs, which is the main reason I even go to church, to listen to the township jive type of harmonizing that all African church choirs seem to do so well.
Three choirs took turns singing between each sermon. The first choir was the women’s guild choir, made up from women ranging in age from 18 to 60 something. When their turn comes they all slowly rise with a dutiful look on their faces, half with babies tied to their backs with chitenjes. They start slow keeping a unified beat by sliding their bare feet across the dirt floor, and making a motion with their hands like they are swinging a jembe (fitting since women pretty much do all the work here anyway). They all have their eyes closed, and the only sound at this point is the woosh….woosh….woosh of their feet. Then they are cued by the choir leader who sings out the first word in each line to be repeated with the power of the rest of the choir’s unified voice. Their songs were slow steady and solemn, but beautiful.
The second choir was made up of just six teenage boys who kept a much more upbeat tone using all sorts of rhythm instruments, and a guitar. Their leader has a great high pitch voice that resembles the voice of the front man for Ladysmith Black Mambanzo, giving the choir the stereotypical African sound that we might expect from African movies.
The third choir was the children’s choir, which was my favorite, not so much for the music but more for the spastic dancing. While the teenagers keep their cool, simply swaying with the rhythm, the children make an aerobic full body activity out of it, swinging their arms with every step and gyrating their hips violently with the beat. The massive smiles on their faces show that the children know something we older ones have lost, how to dance like you don’t have a care in the world.
My Chitumbuka has now improved to the point where I can understand about two thirds of the sermons. I generally get the message, even if many of the words get lost in the speakers fast-talking and my limited vocabulary. There was a whole pack of preachers sitting in the front instead of just one priest presiding over the whole service. One man did wear a priest’s garb, white collar and all, but the church head people did most of the talking. The headmen wore white jackets that look like high school science lab-coats, and the women wore bleach white bonnets and blouses, and a black skirt…very pilgrim looking.
Each sermon was accompanied by a bible passage read by somebody else. The companion would read a verse than the preacher would give their commentary on it. Then the companion would read the next passage, and the preacher would take his or her turn again each time building in both volume and authority. When somebody in the congregation hears something they particularly relate to they cheer by making a sound that I think sounds like a turkey call; a hoot broken up by flipping your tongue against your upper lip. These “turkey calls really add to the dramatic effect of the sermons, and seem to boost the energy of the preacher. By the end of the sermon I may not have understood what they were saying but I’m convinced I better make some major life changes and repent my sinful ways.
Towards the end of the service, the priest acknowledged me as a distinguished guest and asked that I be introduced to the congregation. So Erflone spoke for me at first, giving my name and explaining that I have come from the state of Colorado in the U.S.A. as a Peace Corps worker. Then he introduced all of the church headmen and women as they came up to shake my hand.
Then came my turn to address the congregation. I knew this was coming because I had to do it at all the other congregations. I Usually just limit myself to a few basic sentences in Chitumbuka, explaining how happy I am to be here in Mwazisi, that I will be here for at least two years working as an environmental extension worker, and that I look forward to working with everybody.
But on this occasion I was feeling inspired by my preceding preachers, and still a bit fired up from my encounter with the chief that morning. So I started into one of my blatherings, which any of you who know me well have suffered through many times before. I spoke about one third of it in Chitumbuka, then elaborated my points in English, hoping that the few people who could understand would relay my message, and clarify for the others.
“Ntchito wane, ntchito ya chiuta,” I nervously started, meaning, “My work is the work of God.” I know that’s a hell of bold statement, but relating the environment to God seems to be the best way to convey my message to the community. I explained that;
“God has endowed us with boundless gifts in nature, we have been given all of the beautiful surroundings we enjoy here in Malawi, perennial rivers that provide water into the dry season, and most important the ability to sustain ourselves with fertile soil for farming. But we are destroying these gifts, slashing and burning forest for tobacco farming, over irrigating the Mwazisi river drying it up by August every year, and overusing the soil with bad farming techniques that turn the fertile soil into desert dust.
Jesus Christ taught us that we must love and care for one another, but how can we look after our children (bana bachoko) and also destroy the environment that will sustain their future. By not caring for the environment today we are starving the future."

I doubt if anybody understood fully what I was saying, but the turkey calls were abundant, and the smiles on everybody’s faces showed me that people appreciated what they did understand of my Chitumbuka mixed with chizungu. For me, it just felt good to get that rant off of my chest. Now I just need to refine my language so I can rattle on like that in all the churches. I definitely know a huge sector of American church congregations that could use someone with a keener mind and nimbler tongue to convey the same type of message. Because just like in Malawi, many of the fundamentalist Christians that I know don’t seem to draw the connection between God and the health of the world they believe he provided us with.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

First Impressions

So I’ve been in Malawi now for over two and a half months and this is my first blog entry…so it will be a long one. Turns out that finding time to get on the Internet is even more difficult than I thought, but now that I’m settled into my site and have my bearings a bit I think I can make more regular entries. Despite not typing a blog, I have been writing a ton in my journal, and have plenty of stories and experiences to share. So now whenever I make it to Mzuzu I will try to type up and enter at least one story.
I arrived in Malawi on March 1st 2007 in a whirlwind with 22 other environment volunteers. When we landed there was a handful of volunteers, and staff there to greet us with cheers and waving Malawian flags. We had time for quick introductions, before being rushed to the office for paper work and processing, then we were packed into a bus like sardines to go an hour and a half south to the Dedza College of Forestry and Wildlife, the headquarters for our training over the next two months. That first bus ride in Malawi was surreal. Driving through the crowded streets of Lilongwe, the capital city, it was like we were the circus coming to town. Everybody stopped and stared at us with wide eyes, their faces seemed to say “Whoa look at all those friggin ‘Azungus’(common word for white people all over Africa).” I can’t say that I was entirely comfortable with all of that attention at first, but it’s something you quickly have to get used to as a Peace Corps volunteer. Now when I go to a new area I’m used to everybody staring at me as if I were a three-headed alien.
When we first arrived we were staring at the Malawians just as hard as they were staring at us. In my case, at least, that bus ride was my first glimpse at real third world poverty. I remember dead silence for a long while on the bus as the sites and smells of the Lilongwe marketplace flashed past, then the piles of garbage all over the place, then the masses of people at the river; some bathing, some washing clothes on the rocks and some just drawing water to take home. We were all very quiet most of the way through Lilongwe. When we neared the city limits the silence was finally broken by Bryon, one of my fellow trainees, who said, “Well, welcome to our new home.”
That was when I first realized what a totally different reality we were stepping into. It was a daunting feeling, but at the same time very exciting. We were only infants in Malawi, having no idea what the hell to expect, and at that moment we were in the process of having the whole world, as we knew it thrown up into the air like a deck of cards. Training would be the time to try and put the cards back into order. I was talking about that first day with my friends Elihu and Jake a few weeks ago. Elihu, who was a trainee with me, made a comment I could relate with, “I felt like I was tripping, but hadn’t done any drugs.” Jake who is now nearing the end of his three year service, and has accomplished some major projects replied, “I feel like I’ve been tripping for the past three years.” So I guess the novelty never wears off…I’m looking forward to the journey.
The next two months of training in Dedza were intense. A lot of information was packed into a short period of time. We received crash courses in local plant and tree identification, tree nursery preparation, and out planting, budding and grafting, mud-stove construction, beekeeping, bio-intensive gardening, and perma-culture. About a third of our training was focused on language. Which was where I focused most of my energy and free time. I am now very glad that I did, my community entry has been made so much easier by the little Chitumbuka that I can speak, it sets me apart from any other Azungus the people from my village encounter.
One of the most important aspects of our training was home-stay. This was when we moved in with a Malawian family in a rural village in Dedza near the college. This was an opportunity to really learn how to live in Malawi. Day to day activities are a total different ball game when you’re drawing all of your water from a bore-hole, cooking over a three stone fire, and living without all the basic creature comforts, like a table or chairs. During home-stay, training went from “intense”, to “holy crap what did I get myself into?” Lucky for me I was put in a really great group, my fellow trainees were awesome. We all kept our senses of humor throughout training, and kept the atmosphere light. I was also very lucky to be placed with a family that I bonded well with; the Butowe family. We had a huge language barrier because I’m learning Chitumbuka, and they all speak Chichewa. But you don’t always need words to appreciate one another, and you can easily get by with pantomimes and hand gestures mixed with an encouraging smile. I really hit it off with the Butowes and want to spend an entry devoted to talking about my Malawian family.
After six weeks, home-stay finished with a huge village farewell ceremony/party. It was a very regimented gathering to begin with. Having formal speeches from village headmen, and our officials, including a speech in Chichewa by Jonathon another Trainee. But all of the pomp and circumstance quickly gave way to the dancing. It started with the village women doing traditional dances for us to a chorus of drums from the young boys. Then they started pulling us up to join in the dancing, and I should tell you that African dancing is more like the dancing you see in rap videos than anything else. You have never seen booty shakin’ like this, and it’s done by everybody. Really I didn’t know my hips could twitch like that, I was kind of impressed with myself. So in return we led the whole village in a round of limbo, which was awesome. People were cheering and laughing their heads off. Also I’m not afraid to mention that I turned out to be the star of this portion of the ceremony being by far the tallest person involved paired with my superior limbo abilities. The whole gathering was a blast, but quickly followed by sad goodbyes.
So now home-stay was over, and soon after the big night arrived…Site Announcements! It felt like Christmas, everybody was all giddy and excited. We had a party at the head trainer’s house, and after a couple beers we were all anxious as hell to find out where we were going. The APCD Brian Connors started out by giving descriptions of each site and then lifting pieces of paper on a map to reveal our faces on our new sites. When Brian was describing my site, the first thing he mentioned was the remoteness. He said it was tucked way up in the mountains by the Zambian border between Vwaza Game Reserve and Nyika National Park. But he also mentioned the beauty of the area, a narrow green valley surrounded by the rugged mountains distinctive of the Great Rift Valley. He also mentioned that I would be the first Peace Corps volunteer ever placed in Mwazisi and that the possibilities were endless. The villagers wouldn’t really know what to expect, but there would be potential to start some very exciting things.
The next day I left for my site visit, to see this mysterious place for myself. Which gave me a chance to see how hard transportation is in this small country. The transport from Dedza to Mzuzu took one full day, and then I took a mini bus from Mzuzu to Rumphi, where I caught a Matola.
The Matola itself is worth noting, it’s a big flat bed truck or lory that sits at the end of town waiting to be filled up with passengers and cargo to be dropped at the villages all along the dirt road climbing up into the Lusuntha hills. When it’s absolutely loaded to the brim we start the journey. On this trip I had to sit on the sidewall because I didn’t know any better, and didn’t realize this meant taking my life into my own hands. The sidewall is very loosely attached, and teeters to the point of nearly spilling everybody out when we pull around a corner. Eventually I saw an opportunity to move down to a 5 kg bag of sugar below and jumped on it. This was great because it provided padding for the bigger bumps and dips in the road. For most of the way I had a women with a baby strapped to her back sitting on my feet. The woman smiled at me politely while the baby stared with utter fear, “what is this strange white creature” he must have been thinking. I held a basin for washing and a box on my right knee and some sort of porridge (I hope) was oozing out of it. A tiny old woman practically sat on my left knee, every time we hit a big bump she bounced into my lap, and smiled apologetically, I answered it with a laugh to say “no problem.” Bumps were a big source of entertainment. Every time we hit a big one, everything bounced in a different direction. Women with babies firmly attached to their breast flew up and came crashing down with painful grimace, which turned to a shared smile when they caught each other’s eyes. The men in the back scrambled around grabbing the loose supplies and quickly rescuing it so they could repeat the same dance when the next bump came.
The sun was beaming down on the back of my neck most of the ride. But I was too taken by the surroundings to really care much. Brian was right about the beauty of the place, it is incredible. He was also right about the excitement of the villagers, and the limitless possibilities. In my first few weeks I have stayed very busy teaching at the secondary school, getting to know the community, and starting my first tree nursery project. It's a busy and exciting time, I can see all sorts of oppurtunities to make a positive impact. Now we have two years to see what can be made of those possibilities.

Tiwononenge (see ya)