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)