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.