Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Ramblings: A Sunrise to Remember

Tuesday November 4th 2008, was a night to remember for all Americans, it marked a decisive change in our countries history, the night we elected an African American to be our President. If I were in America that night I'm sure I would have been in a bar with friends or fellow campaign volunteers eating pizza and drinking beer while we watched the Electoral College maps turn blue state by state on the major news networks. Being here in Malawi my Obama election experience was a little different than that, but I'd say certainly was no less memorable.

Wiz who was my roommate at the wildlife camp set his alarm for 2:00 am which was when we figured the election results from the East coast would start rolling in. We didn't want to disturb the students so we went around quietly waking up the other Peace Corps volunteers and took a wireless radio down to the football pitch where we could comfortably react to whatever results we were going to hear. Instead of beer and Pizza I carried a couple nalgenes of water and a bunch of bananas. Matt Fornoff was kind enough to share with all of us a bit of beef jerkey he had just gotten in a package, which I savored as the first results rolled in.

Since we didn't have Fox News' or CNN's fancy infografic electoral college map, we made our own on some extra flipchart paper that we colored in with blue and red crayons as the BBC world servieconfirmed which states had been called for either McCain or Obama. Between the results we layed on the pitch staring up a beautiful starry night sky. We used my star map to identify constellations and chart our way to different nebulae and star clusters. There must have been a meteor shower that night because we must have seen around 20 shooting stars.

Around the time the first glimmerings of the sunrise began to emerge Pennsylvania, was called for Obama, and I started to feel assured that it was going to go our way. With the roosters first crow, Virginia and Ohio also went for Obama, and we knew we had it. After some very heartfelt cheers and hugs, I settled back into my sleeping bag to watch a beautiful African sunrise over the Vipyha Mountains. I was overcome by a warm feeling of comfort and satisfaction, a new sensation that my country is moving in the right direction, and everything is going to be alright. I felt like I was seeing the entire world around me in a whole new way. My whole body was tingling and I felt like my skin was breathing the cool morning air, as I watched the soft vanilla clouds float over head. For the first time since I started traveling outside of America I felt a pure and absolute pride in my country, which warmed my heart and plastered a contented smile on my face.

We listened to John McCains concession speech as we showered up to get ready for the day. We were having tea and buns as we prepared to load up on the Matola for our field trip, when we heard that Obama came out of his house for the first time to address a massive Chicago audience for the first time as President elect. I called over the students, and explained that this was going to be talked about in their children's history books. We listened to his speech in silence. I don't remember which words exactly brought tears to my eyes, bought as I looked up at my friends who were also teary eyed I realized that we were all feeling the same overwhelming sense of pride, and we acknowledged that mutual feeling as we went around giving each other quiet celebratory hugs.

After the speech my brother called and described the surreal scene. I could hear the car horns honking and people cheering in the streets. My brother said "I've never seen anything like this, it's 2 in the morning and everybody is still partying like we won the superbowl." But the same party was happening in every major city across America. My Dad said it best, "If there is a democratic man who doesn't get laid tonight, he just ain't trying." I think one image that my brother described will always stick with me. He lives on 15th street which points straight to the Washington monument, and he was sitting on his front porch talking to me as he watched an African American man walk right down the middle of the street through traffic with an American flag draped over his shoulders. With the monument in his background, he had his arms raised up as he yelled out "We did it! We did it! That image broght the Huhes poem I wrote about in a previous blog back into my mind; his prayer for America:

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.

This is one very big step, now that we have the right leader it's time to really get to work and start making real change. We are facing some daunting challenges: a decimated economy, global warming and a depleted national environment, not to mention two wars and a myriad of forighn policy challenges thanks to Mr. Bushes destructive legacyWe still have a hell of a long way to go as a country, but for the first time in my life I feel like were heading in the right direction, and I know that we are all going to work together to solve these problems and make America into the dream that will be!

I couldn't contain my excitement and so as we careened through the villages that line the Phoka valley. I stood at the front of the truckbed with the other boys that like having the wind in their face. And started chanting OH-BA-MA....OH-BA-MA. When the boys figured out what I was saying they smiled and joined in, and soon the whole Matola was in on it, and I was hanging on for dear life with one hand, while I pumped my other fist into the air yelling at the top of my lungs OH-BA-MA!!! OH-BA-MA!!! OH-BA-MA!!!

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Project: Nyika Chronicles vol III: Wildlife Camp success

Well, last week we held the first ever Nyika Wildlife and Environment Extravaganza! Actually it wasn't quite as impressive as the title makes it sound, but I'd say for the 32 young people who attended, it was an amazing success, especially when you consider that the total cost of the week boils down to less then $45 per student. For many of them it was the farthest they had ever been away from their home village, also for most of them it was there first time to see Livingstonia or the Nyika Plateau, and everybody learned something new that they knew nothing about previously. We definitely got our moneys worth!

I started planning this camp last year with Pace Phillips a Peace Corps teacher who is best described as a high tech red neck from North Carolina, and a fellow environment volunteer Matt Fornoff, a farm boy from Illinois. We saw it as a way to encourage a greater appreciation of Nyika national park for the young people living around the park, and also to provide them with some of the skills needed to earn money while preserving their local environment. All three of us have been busy with other projects in our own villages, so we did all the planning, budgeting, and logistical organizing in bits and pieces individually, or together on the rare occasion when our schedules meshed and we could meet in town. We employed the help of our Peace Corps friends to teach the various Income Generating Activities (IGA's), and kept the whole thing as bare bones as possible. So I must say I was pretty impressed with how well the whole thing went off.

The students arrived Monday afternoon to be greeted by our nominated ambassador of "happy fun time" Matt Wiznewski (for those of you who know Wiz, you know that this is all too fitting role for him) who is also an environment volunteer from San Fransisco. He was pretty incredible the entire week, always keeping the kids entertained during down time between sessions. He split them up into three teams and had them each come up with a team name, moto, and draw a poster. So we ended up with the Elephants, Terrible Tigers, and Team Nyika.

After Dinner we took all of the students out on the football pitch for night sky observing, which the kids were found interesting, but I definitely failed to convey the huge distances between stars, and the vastness of the universe the way Carl Sagan did....."billions and billions!

Day 1 was jam packed with IGAs; first Jim Kasper a volunteer from Ohio explained the basics for mushroom growing, and then gave them the chance to get practical experience in inoculating the growing bags with mushroom spores. Jim did a great job of explaining all of the necessary steps but still kept it reasonably simple enough that everybody could understand. The students were really impressed with Jim's ability to explain such a technical subject in Chitumbuka. The rest of the morning was facilitated by a local woman named Mrs. Zgambo who taught the students how to make soap from palm oil. The students were amazed how easy the process was and because Mrs. Zgambo was teaching the students saw that it was something they could definitely feasibly do in their own village.

After lunch it was all beekeeping. Elihu Isele a volunteer from Missouri who is working with a small beekeeping company in Nkahata Bay gave them a talk explaining the benefits of Beekeeping. Then I demonstrated a cheap method of making standard top bar beehives using bamboo tied and tacked to a hive frame, then we filled any holes paper-mache piñata style using soaked waste paper with cassava flour as glue. Each group got to make their own hives, which went back with some of the students to be hung by their schools wildlife club. After that the students got some real hands on experience as they put on bee-suits and opened up a bee hive with Elihu and saw for themselves the different stages of comb development, how the bees behave, and more importantly how they should behave around the bees. Some of the students looked pretty petrified, but Elihu was great about talking them through the whole process, and they were all smiles as we tasted some of the honey we harvested.

It was a good thing that day 2 was a field trip and none of the volunteers had to teach, because we were all zombies because we were up all night listening to the election. We were still in a state of euphoria from the reality that Barack Obama is going to be our next President (all of which is the subject of my next blog.) We loaded all the students up in the back of a two ton truck and took them to the Historical Mission of Livingstonia that sits halfway up the escartment and overlooks the whole Northern lakeshore. We only spent about an hour at the mission because the real purpose of the field trip was to visit Leeza Dupree's Permaculture farm that sits just beneath Livingstonia.

Leeza moved to Malawi 11 years ago and when the chief gave her the land it was an over worked cassava field that was washing away because it is on such a steep slope. She started reviving the garden by planting lots of trees to anchor the soil, and brouht up the water table by digging swales and catchment ponds, now a decade later her farm is a veritable garden of eden. Leeza had to be away teaching about Permaculture but her husband Auck, and her two Malawian assistants were there to show us around. The students learned about plants and crops that improve soil fertility, act as pesticides, and bring up the water table. Some of the things Leeza and Auck are doing were a bit beyond most of the students comprehension; like keeping a compost toilet or zoning the garden into different plant guilds. But the garden really speaks for itself, and it definately planted the permaculture seed in all of students brains.

From Leeza's farm we walked up to the overlook over Manchewe Falls, to eat our packed lunch. Watching a 900 foot waterfall cascade through cliffs and dense rainforest is a good way to enjoy rice and beans.

On our way back we visited another impressive farm, this one was owned by a Malawian women named Nya Bwendi. Her farm was great for the students to see because she does a lot of the same things Leeza does like intercropping trees, fish ponds, mulching and composting on a massive scale, but it somehow seems more accessable to them when they see a Malawian doing it. Nya Bwendi is a wonderful women, a true example of Malawians inherent kindness and generosity. She happily walked us through her whole 70 acre plus plot of land, gladly letting the students climb the trees in her orchards to taste its peaches, citrus, and apples, she also let them take loads of pineapple puffs so they could start growing pineapples at home As it started to get dark she refused to let us leave before sitting down to eat the fruits of her labor. Serving a full meal to 33 students and 10 Peace Corps volunteers goes beyond generous.

Day 3 was "farm day," a good follow up to our field trip. In the morning the Nchena Nchena agriculture extension worker Mr. Milongo taught the students how to make contour lines in their garden to stop erosion, and how to make different types of compost. I tied Mr. Milongo's talk together with Agroforestry and how to make a three year crop plan. I especially talked about intercropping trees like Tephrosia Vogelli, and Gliricidia Sepium to increase crop yields, then I took the students outside to show them the basics of starting a tree nursery, and gave them each tubes and seeds so they could start their own nurseries at home.

We also talked about fruit drying, which we demonstrated throughout the week with our makeshift solar dryers made out of a shoe box and a winnowing basket, which we used in drying bananas, pineapples and peaches. Rob Norris an environment volunteer from Maryland taught the students how to make fruit jam, and they made big batches of both mango and peach jam which made for a great addition to our porridge the next morning. He also added a useful business element to his session, where he had the students do a input/profit margin and figure out what price they would need to sell the jam to make a significant profit.

The last session of the day was fish farming which was led by Bernard Chizute, the head of the Rumphi department of fisheries. We took the students down to the department of agriculture's fish ponds where Mr. Chizute netted some fish so he could teach us about identifying different species and sexing. We also learned about digging and shaping a pond, and making the inlet and outlet. Afterwards we watched a series of videos in Chichewa about different people's success with fish farming in the central and southern region.

After dinner "happy fun time consisted of a talent show that was a mix between a Malawian Idol contest, and stupid human tricks. The talents included rapping, break dancing, church songs, card tricks, flipping their eye lids up and finally Rob blowing spit bubbles.

The last official day of the camp was the hike up to Nyika Plateau. It was about a 6 hour hike on a beautiful day to see the Nchena Nchena falls. The hike was led by Dan Zgambo a Wildlife extension worker for Nyika who talked to the students about stewardship of the land throughout the day. Once on top of the Plateau he pointed out the various water drainages, and explained to them the importance of Nyika as all of their home villages water source. We also had a good conversation during one rest stop about the difference in the number of animals in the park from just 10 years ago due to poaching. The only animals we saw were a few common Duiker which is a small type of antelope, but most of the students were happy just to see Nyika. They were looking through my binoculars the whole day, and took turns helping me carry the pack with everybody's lunches. It turned into an all American day since we carried peanut-butter and mango jam sandwiches for lunch and made a camp fire after we got back to practice another great American tradition, making smores. We capped off happy-fun time with a plastic sack piñata, which once broken open turned into a pretty hilarious dash and mosh pit for sweeties.

Before the students left they gave Pace, Matt, and myself cards thanking us for organizing the camp. Most of the students said that this camp was their first opportunity to do anything like this which I see as a huge success in and of itself. So finally I would like to Thank my Brother Mike and his wife Meta, who generously donated the money needed for this camp. Your donation made for an experience these kids won't soon forget.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Ramblings: Let America Be America

O, let America be America again-
The land that never has been yet-
And yet must be- the land where every man is free.
The land that's mine- the poor man's, Indian's Negro's, ME-
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose-
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those that live like leeches on the people's lives,
We must take back our land again,

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath-
America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain-
All, all the stretch of these great green states-
And make America again!

This is just an extract from a poem written by Langston Hughes called "Let America be America Again." I encourage everybody to find the whole poem and read it for yourself. Every time I read it aloud to somebody I get chills down my spine and tears in my eyes, because it so perfectly captures the great opportunity that we have sitting in front of us right now. The opportunity to shift away from the misguided path our country is heading down, and to make a massive step on the road to living up to the common dream of America. The dream we all are so used to identifying with; as Hughes puts it a country where "opportunity is real and life is free, equality is in the air we breath." We all identify with this superior image of our country, but we have never lived up to it. And sadly in the past eight years we have gotten farther away from that dream than any other time in our history.

The past century has seen America fluctuate back and forth occasionally advancing towards and then diverging away from the dream that Hughes describes. When Hughes wrote this poem during the Great Depression America was at its lowest...broken down, disillusioned, and divided, but then came a leader in FDR who had the power to inspire Americans to not only pull themselves out of their economic despair, but to make sacrifice in their own lives to come together to fight and win a war to ensure freedom for people all around the world. But we certainly hadn't reached the dream yet with internment of our own Japanese American citizens, the continuance of a terribly flawed and demeaning policy for the first Americans with the Indian Reorganization Act, and still so incredibly far away from equality for women and Black Americans. In the 1960's America reacted to another low point in our history as racism in America began to boil over. We were led towards the dream of truly free and equal America again with a new generation of great leaders, like Martin Luther King, and the Kennedys. We made giant steps forward in terms of gender and racial equality, and it was a time where the people of the working class had more power and influence than any other time in our history. Then by the end of 1968 the dream had faded as our inspiring leaders were killed off, and we became embroiled in the Vietnam War.

Today we remain in one of those dark periods, caught up in two more wars and a foreign policy that has made us resented around the world. At home we've entered a modern gilded age, where the rich and powerful toss around the fates of the rest of country without a second thought. The people who suffer from this careless leadership and corporate greed are by and large the hard working people trying to carve out a piece of the American dream for their own families. But now in Barack Obama I think we have the kind of once in a generation leader that has the ability to pilot our country toward that dream again, and take us closer than ever before.

Obama embodies the very essence of the "American Dream," with an immigrant father who came to America as a student full of hope, and raised by a mother and grandparents from a Kansas farming family that did everything they could to make sure that he had the opportunity to become the man he is today. Obama has showed his ability to inspire Americans right from the beginning when he first emerged onto the political scene with his famous "Audacity of Hope" speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. I have seen for myself here in Africa the effect his election would have on America's reputation around the world. I could see it in the gleam in my friend Mepese Gondwe's eye after we finished listening to Obama's speech on BBC at this years Democratic Convention, as Mepese exclaimed, "It will change the world, if he gets elected!" More than anything I think great leaders can be judged on what they bring out of other people. I know that Barack Obama is going to bring out the very best in America, and can only imagine what effect it will have on the development of all of human civilization. What a spectacular opportunity to change the course of history!

I've actively participated in campaigns in every election since I turned 18. I love the excitement and enthusiasm that comes out during election season. I love the debate that occurs as we all start to talk about how we want our country to be, and how we can get there, and who can lead us there. This debate that occurs every couple years is such an important part of a healthy democracy (although we have a lot to learn about debating the issues instead of just devolving into an exchange of personal attacks and negativity) but the open discussion and picking apart of different ideas is what drives the evolution of our government and the world as a whole. And so now we've come to this, the most important election of my life, with the most inspiring candidate I've ever seen, and I'm off in the African bush. Don't get me wrong, I wouldn't trade what I'm doing here for anything in the world, but I feel a bit guilty knowing that America is on the brink of an ideological revolution and I'm not there to have a hand in it. I have already cast my votes for Obama, and Mark Udall in the Senate by mail in ballot, and I guess this blog is my last desperate attempt to do a bit of campaigning through the magic of the internet.

It's great to hear how my family is there throwing everything they have into this campaign. My Mom is the ward captain for the Broomfield county democrats and spent most of her free time these last few months going door to door, and making phone calls for Obama. My father is the stalwart debater. You'd be hard pressed to find a more well-informed person as he reads the New York Times cover to cover each day, and has mastered the art of Tivo so he can compare the three major news networks stories with the PBS, Democracy Now, and Daily show's take on each days news. He's a man never to back down from a false fact regurgitated by one of his coworkers from Fox News, or an ill-informed argument made by an acquaintance on the golf course. If he thinks your wrong, he won't shy away from telling you about it, and he has the information to back it up. Even my Aunt Kathy doesn't let an advanced case of Multiple Sclerosis slow her down. She could be found every day of the Democratic National Convention rolling around the streets of Denver in her wheelchair volunteering. Then there is my brother one of the heroes of the good fight. He wrote the Energy Bill for the Senate that many people say was the best in years, worked tirelessly on the economic stimulus bill that we all heard so much about, and still doesn't put himself above going door to door, and making phone calls to get people out to vote.

I'm very proud of the roles my family finds for themselves to do their part in actively participating in our democracy. And this blog is my way to try to take part in the process myself; to encourage anybody who is still undecided about this election to help us take advantage of this great opportunity and vote for Barack Obama. Those people who are already planning on voting for Obama, PLEASE make sure you get to the polls and vote, you imagine explaining to your children that you missed out on the biggest vote in American history because you were just too busy on election day. I encourage everybody in these last few days to actively engage in the debate, talk politics damn it, that's democracy in action. I'm not talking about being nasty or spiteful, I just ask you to mull over for yourself whether or not you agree that Hughes' words still ring true today, that America hasn't achieved it's dream yet. Then ask yourself who you think is the President who can lead America to be America.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Nyika Chronicles vol II: A Push Bike Adventure

My friends Elihu, Wiz, Pace and Laura and I had been planning on riding bikes to Nyika National Park, but I wasn’t sure when everybody else was planning to go, and since I don’t have phone service anywhere near my house I was even more out of the loop. Then one day while I was teaching children came running to the school to inform me “Walendo afika,” “The visitors are here.” So I hurried back threw my stuff together and we set off that same afternoon. That day we rode 30 km from my house to Thazima gate through backwoods villages and over some exhausting hills. We took a short cut where most tourists never pass, so most of the people we passed were shocked to see all the azungus on shiny bikes in their village, and even more shocked when we greeted them in Chitumbuka. Pace put it best, “We were azungus on parade.” We got to the gate just after dark, and talked the night watchman into letting us set up our tents just inside the gate, which was a bit bizarre since we were right next to a small trading center, with a small bar and everything, so we had carlsburg around the fire our first night camping.

The next day was a full day of cycling up long rocky roads as we climbed up the escarpment. My absurd concept of distance and time became a running joke throughout the trip, while looking at a map I was sure we could make it to the juniper forest by branching from the main road, have enough time to ride to the Juniper forest, which is more than 70km from the gate and have enough time to start heading North to Chilinda camp. In reality the side road was over several hills and valleys and most of it was so densely vegetated that we had to get off and push our bikes much of the way. But I was still glad we split from the main road though, because the downhills were a blast and we dropped off into some really beautiful and dense Acacia filled valleys that were brimming with life. We called that road elephant road because of all the droppings, knocked over trees, and massive patches of flattened grass where the elephants had been bedding down. We didn’t even come close to reaching the Juniper forest, but found a pretty spectacular camping spot next to the Runyina river where we all had night mares of getting trampled by elephants in our sleep.

The next morning we pushed up the escarpment, and found ourselves on the rolling grass covered hills of the plateau. This is the iconic picture of Nyika, the green open hills that remind me of the highlands of Scotland. The sad part is that in the past these hills were covered with wildlife, it was like something out of animal planet, with all sorts of animals grazing on this massive natural pastur, but in the past 15-20 years the people who were removed from the park in the 60’s and 70’s are returning as poachers, and have wiped out the herds. Now its sad scatterings of zebra, bushbuck, and roan antelope, that pale in comparison to descriptions of Nyika’s past.

The reduced numbers didn’t take away from the thrill of seeing the animals when we did come across them. We first came across a small pack of zebra grazing near the road. The patterns on their faces almost look artificial, because they are so symmetrical and distinct almost like they are painted on. Aside from the stripes, the zebras seemed identical to the wild horses I’ve seen in the Bighorn Mountains, all power and muscle, with an air of freedom and wildness that is lost in the domestic horse. They watched us tensely ready to scatter. When ever we advanced to close, they took off running, until they felt safe, where they stopped to watch us again. One of the coolest monments of the trip came when they allowed Elihu and Pace close enough that when they started running again it almost looked like they were riding along-side the zebras in a pack.

The other major animal we saw that day were Roan Antelope. They seemed like a cross between cattle and a moose. They lumber around and graze with the same kind of ambivalence to the people watching them as what I’ve always seen as a Moose’s stupidity, or brute confidence, as if to say “Yeah I know your there, but if you mess with me, I’m gonna charge the hell out of you.”

That day we rode all the way to Chilinda camp which is where most of the park staff lives. I have gotten to know the director of the anti-poaching program for Nyika and Vwaza who stays at Chilinda. He’s a really generous South African guy who was nice enough to have me in his home to spend Christmas with his family this past year. He put us up for the night and hosted us graciously feeding us his good vodka that fueled a very philosophical conversation about everything from the psychology and sociology of Malawians to global politics and the elections in America.

The next morning Mike took us on an incredible drive to see his favorite part of the park; Domwe peak which overlooks the whole northern part of the park. The views from there were spectacular even though it was a bit hazy that day. The peak is surrounded on three sides by over 500 foot sheer drop-off cliffs, with patches of granite rock outcroppings and rigid mountains off in the distance that reminded me a bit of Glacier National Park. It was the first time since I came to Malawi that I’ve seen such a huge piece of landscape unaffected by human habitation.

As soon as we got back we grabbed some biscuits and set off for the long ride home. We were lucky coming across a truck driving down from Chitipa. The driver agreed to give us a ride saving us about six hours of riding. We threw our bikes in the back and got a ride all the way to within five km of my village. Ending one of the best adventures I’ve had since coming to Malawi.

Project: Wildlife Camp, Nyika Chronicles vol I

I was first introduced to Nyika national Park by a retired lawyer turned Peace Corps volunteer named Greg Dorr about a month into my Peace Corps service. Since then I have had many chances to continue exploring its Brachystegia covered lower slopes, towering escarpment, ancient forests and vast plateau. There’s plenty of room to explore this park, Nyika is Malawi’s biggest national Park stretching across 1210 square miles. Despite being Malawi’s oldest designated national park few people visit Nyika compared to other parks like Liwonde or Majete. I see it as sort of a forgotten park neglected by the government which leaves it open to poaching and destruction from the people living around the plateau stripping its escarpment for firewood. Nyika is a very important ecological niche to the whole Northern region, it is the primary watershed for both Rumphi and Karonga. Aside from being a very important place nyika. Aside from being very important it is also a spectacularly beautiful place, but few people living around it realize it, because they have seen so little of it. For this reason Me and two other volunteers living near Nyika Pace Phillips and Matt Fornoff have organized a wildlife and environment mini-camp for young people living in Rumphi and Karonga.

The camp is called "The Rumphi and Karonga Wildlife and Environment Extravaganza" (I came up with that catchy title all by myself!), and it is intended to provide students with a broader understanding of the value of Nyika, and skills to benefit from Nyika's resources without destroying five days long at the Nchena chena research station which lies at the base of the escarpment. We are inviting student leaders from secondary school wildlife clubs from all around Nyika. We will be teaching sessions on bee-keeping (how to build and manage a hive), soap making, mushroom growing, Jam making, fish farming and plenty of other useful skills, but the highlight of the camp will be a hike up onto Nyika Plateau to see Nchena chena falls and the Juniper forest.

This camp is being completely funded by the Peace Corps Partners Program, which means anybody can donate to it, which is why I am looking back through my journal entries from all of my adventures in Nyika, and typing up blogs for every trip I have taken to Nyika. I'm calling these next few blogs The Nyika Chronicles, I hope these adventures in Nyika might give you all a better idea of what a special place Nyika is, and if any of you want to donate to our camp you can find it on the Peace Corps website


Garden Sanctuary

I think one of the biggest legacies that will come from my service in Mwazisi is the little seed packets that my family and friends send in their letters and packages. Having new and different vegetables available in Mwazisi will have a significant effect on the overall nutrition of the people living in Mwazisi. Being organic seeds they also provide the gardeners of Mwazisi with a reliable reproducing seed base as opposed to the hybrid seeds that are spread all across Africa, by seed corporations like Monsanto. Most of all having these seeds has given me the opportunity to demonstrate simple sustainable gardening techniques like mulching and composting which, slowly by slowly, seem to be utilized by an increasing number of my fellow gardeners in the dambo (river valley). The world is headed into a global food crisis, but it will be particularly hard hitting in Malawi where an erratic rainy season last year devastated the south and central regions harvest and a focus on tobacco farming in the north. So I'd say one of the best things I can do for people in Mwazisi is hand them a pack of seeds.

I have already seen the diversification of Mwazisi's diet improve tremendously in the past year. When I first arrived the only vegetables growing in anybodies garden were rape, mustard greens, cabbage, tomatoes and onions. Not only does it seem they just plant these few vegetables, but these are also the only vegetables aside from wild amaranth and pumpkin greens that people know how to prepare. But since I started giving out different seeds I see scatterings of carrots, spinach, and romaine lettuce mixed into the gardens, and I'd like to imagine that's getting eaten.

At first most of the people that I gave seeds to weren't planting them. I think people asked for the seeds simply for the novelty of taking something new and different from the azungu. Maybe they were intimidated to actually plant them feeling like they wouldn't know what to do with the strange plants if they actually germinated. So I stopped just handing them out and started using them in demonstration gardens at both the secondary and primary schools. These gardens had a whole slew of problems, From the bore-hole drying up to goats breaking through our weak fence , and going to town on anything green, to the students just plain forgetting to water the garden for a week or more while I was away at trainings or trips to Lilongwe. But these first gardens were useful because they were the villages first introduction to the strange new vegetables. The students got to see them raised from seed to harvest, and they saw little things like a pepper plant is grown the same way you grow a tomato plant, or that you don't transplant carrots.

The students also were the first to taste the vegetables as well. As the carrots started to pop up I pulled and skinned them there and gave everybody a taste of raw carrots. They must have thought I was trying to kill them, as they slowly chewed the strange food with nervous smiles on their face looking to their friends for reassurance, only to have their friends watching them intently to see if at any moment they keel over and die. After getting their nod of approval I pulled up enough carrots for everybody and told them to slice up the carrots and mix them with any greens that they might be cooking. Soon students were coming up to me asking for carrot seed instead of the usual tomato and onion request. The vegetable sampling had a domino effect, as students carried home bundles of swiss chard, beet greens, and spinach, I had more and more people coming up to me to ask about what they had tasted and how they could get some more.

Another benefit of those first gardens was that it was a great opportunity for seed multiplication. I was amazed that despite the common complaint about the high price of seeds nobody seemed to be collecting their seeds after the vegetables were finished. So when our garden started to shoot flowers, we let them all go to seed, and I used it as an opportunity to teach my wildlife club about seed saving, as a result we collected a fair amount of spinach, and arugula seed, and bags of romaine lettuce seed. The students were excited to see how much seed could be collected from just a few plants, and I hope that they will continue saving their seeds so that the packets I hand out during my service will be supplying the gardens of Mwazisi for years to come.

This year I've done all of my gardening down in the dambo instead of dealing with the goats and lack of water in the village. It's a short walk from my house, and being a bit outside of village has made it into my quiet sanctuary at the end of the day. The brush surrounding the river is always alive with the sounds of birds and crickets as the sun begins to slide behind the mountains in Vwaza, and the nights first stars begin to appear overhead. These last few months things have become more hectic for me; I feel like I'm running back and forth between teaching, my tree nurseries, and the EPA project. So I think the couple of hours of quiet work in the garden every afternoon have maintained my sanity.

Another benefit of keeping the garden in the dambo is that my plot is together with the most serious gardeners in Mwazisi, so we are always learning from each other, and I know that any seeds I share with them will be put to good use. For example Mr. Mkandawire is a man in his sixties who keeps about a quarter of an acre next to my plot where he spends over three hours a day moving from plant to plant with two broken watering cans. He greets me with a warm smile every afternoon and we always share what we harvest that day. I also shared a lot of seeds with him early on, so now mixed in with his many cabbage and tomato plants, there is a whole section of butter crunch lettuce beds, the occasional bush bean plant, and even a few broccoli flowers. He showed me how to dig out a well when the water level of the river dropped, and I showed him that beet roots and cabbages make great companion plants. I was especially happy when I saw him mimicking the heavy mulching I put on my beds, the day after I explained that I do that so that I don't have to water my garden so often. I have introduced him to many vegetables that he has never tasted before, as I always send him home with instructions of how his wife should prepare the veggie of the day. He comes back with plans for next year to grow whatever vegetable I give him, and judging from what I've seen him do in his garden so far, I would never doubt that he could live up to his most ambitious plans.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Ramblings: A Ginger, peanuts, soil blocks, and a crazed elephant

I’m sorry if I’ve fallen out of touch with everybody the last couple months, but it has been the busiest I’ve been since coming to Mwazisi, and I also had Corie (see the Ginger Blog) staying with me for the past month. She was an incredible springboard for all of my projects, and thanks to her help I don’t feel like everything is about to fall apart, which is usually the case. But of course much of my attention was spoken for while she was here, so I’m sorry if I’ve slipped out of touch.

The Agriculture EPA office project is in full swing now, even though the money hasn’t come in just yet, at least I know that it has been approved and is going to get funded. So in the mean time while we wait for the funding all four committees have started doing what they can. The building committee has started meeting in the mornings and digging soil for stabilized soil blocks, with the help of the Gam United football club (see Meathead football player blog) which I have been bribing with 36 pairs of football boots that were generously donated by my wonderful friend Catherine Yirisari who used to work for the US Men’s Soccer team. The guys are so excited for the boots, since most of them usually play bare foot, and their enthusiasm has carried the work much faster than I thought. We have already dug over 1000 wheel barrows of soil from a termite hill near the site of the office. The machine for pressing the blocks, is actually still in Mzuzu, Where I’m working with an extraordinary Malawian engineer named Louis Chinula who is modifying the top and bottom plates in the machine so that the blocks will be interlocking and won’t need cement for mortor.

The tree nurseries committee is led by three strong tree nurseries in Chitanga where they built fences, shades, air pruning benches. We filled hundreds of tubes at each nursery, so we already started sowing fruit seeds like orange, papaya, and Masow, as well as good agro forestry trees like Faidabiera Albedia, and Sienna Spectabilus. I have also been working with a bigger tree nursery in Kwasamesenga that has a lot more people technically working on the project, but I think because of the number of people working on the nursery nobody is really stepping up to invest themselves in the nursery the way the leaders in Chitanga have. In Kwasamesenga lots of people show up chat a bunch and start complaining that it’s tea time as soon as we start working, but we have also managed to get a big jump on the work there, and its going to be a big tree nursery, close to 10,000 trees.

The income generating activities committee is getting started with a groundnut (peanut) sheller that I made at Mid-service training in Dedza. The executive committee chairman Cuthbert Kachali built a strong stand for the machine so that it can be easily used by everybody. As I put all of my weight on the stand to test out its strength he stood over me with a proud smile on his face and simply said “joinery” as an explanation for the good work that he had done. Two weeks ago we set up the concrete machine in a small room next to Nya Bota’s grocery. It’s a simple concrete machine with a rotor that hangs between the rough cement walls of the machine and leaves a small space where the groundnuts fall and get crushed as someone turns the machine. We have only started using the machine, testing it with the groundnuts that I was given by my neighbors. Once we get the process down with very little breakage of the nuts we are planning to start charging the farmers 100 Malawian Kwatcha (less than 1 dollar) to shell a 100 kg bag of nuts. Everybody in my area grows groundnuts, so this could be a good business for the project to generate money for future ventures like an oil press or a juicer. The idea behind this income generation committee is to add value to crops that are already commonly grown in the area by using simple and fast processors. The groundnut sheller is a great example; an unshelled groundnut is essentially worthless, while shelled nuts can be sold for over 100 kwatcha per kg. But shelling groundnuts is a long and cumbersome job, a 100 kg bag would take a family of five a few days of cracking. But with the machine two people can do a 100 kg bag in less than 1 hour.

The fourth committee is the fishponds committee which has only started clearing the area where we are planning to make community fishponds, and now we are stuck waiting for the Rumphi director of fishponds to come and approve of the area, which may never happen.

The rest of my time is occupied at the secondary school getting the Form 2 students ready for this falls Junior Certificate Exams. Actually, these last few months the secondary school wildlife club has been the biggest cause of my headaches, since my fellow patron teacher keeps making unrealistic promises of trips to the students without first organizing transport or any of the necessary details, so I end up running around begging greedy drivers for a decent price and riding my bike to cell phone network to organize.

So finally last week my headaches paid off and the entire club went to Vwaza Game Reserve for an adventurous day trip that included lots of elephants, hippos, baboons, warthogs, impala, and one crocodile. The highlight of the day came when a massive bull elephant charged the truck we were all riding in and the driver had to floor it to escape from the elephant clearing all 40 students out of the truck with his massive tusks. That could have been something great to explain on my Peace Corps description of service.

So that’s what I’ve been up to the last couple months, there’s about a million little adventures, struggles, triumphs , and defeats mixed in there, that I don’t have time to explain in better detail, and I’m sure you all don’t have time to read, but just know that everyday is a rollercoaster ride, with all sorts of huge ups and downs. Every now and then I encounter something that completely throws me through a loop, but by the end of the day when I’m writing in my journal by a candle, no matter how many things went wrong or how many different people I felt like strangling, I’m still glad that I got on the ride to begin with, it’s always worth it.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Mike and Duch's Chitipa adventure

Here's a story I stole from my buddy Mike Hardesty a Finished Peace Corps volunteer who is still in Malawi working on the Clinton Hunter project. I thought it was a classic Peace Corps story, and deserved a bit of public access. Believe it or not this came from Mike's Description of Service Report. I'm planing on heading to Chitipa to see if I can find the fabeled Ronoldi.

This year, I, alone with Duch Routt, were able to successfully deliver and out-plant roughly 1,300 bananas in the month of December around the 22nd. It however did not happen without incident. As part of the original budget for the Banana Orchard Establishment Project, the Chitipa ADD had agreed to provide transport for the banana seedlings which were raised in local nurseries around the district. One month before the tentatively scheduled out-planting date, it was discovered that the ADD was not going to be able to keep their word. Duch and I were forced to negotiate a privately hired vehicle that would be supervised by ourselves. Logistically the task was very challenging. Only having enough money for a one day hire, Duch and I were forced to be innovative in how to pick up 6 improved banana varieties totaling 1,300 bananas from 3 separate nurseries and redistribute them proportionally over 6 orchard sites in a vehicle that could only hold around 750 seedlings at one time. After a morning of collecting and delivering with many temporary drop points in between, we headed for our third, and arguably are most difficult, orchard to access in the hills of Misuku Traditional Authority. At about three quarters of our way in to the hills we had an accident because the driver failed to shift properly on a steep incline and lost control of the vehicle. The driver responded quickly, and before we could gain enough speed to go completely out of control, he cut the wheel at the right angle so as not to flip, but so that we would slam into the side of the hill and stop ourselves about 20 ft after we started drifting backwards. Fortunately no one was hurt, although we were all shookin’ up and some of us were weeping, namely Duch. The vehicle on the other hand, was completely jacked up on the hill and was not able to move, in part because the wheels were off the ground, but mostly because the batteries for the vehicle were dead and the 7 toner could only be started by pushing. This last discovery was deflating to say the least, and frustrating for others (Duch) who claimed to despise the consistent deception that prohibits effective development in the area. “Why would we ever hire a vehicle with dead batteries?” he said with a sigh to no one, kicking a stone in the dirt.

Our initial idea was to phone the boma and get the brother of the driver—and the one we had hired the vehicle from—to come on his motor bike with two new batteries so that we could simply start the motor and drive away. Due to reasons that we still don’t completely understand, the promises of new batteries “imminently” coming were never fulfilled that day and we stayed that night in the bush. For about 4 hours leading up to darkness we dug around the vehicle, which was all rock of course, and entertained other ideas of escape. Then the rains came with the wrath of the almighty and we were forced to retire for the evening. Duch and I stayed with the orchard manager to whom we were delivering bananas, Mr Chilali, and enjoyed a relaxing evening nibbling on dried fish around the warmth of campfire recounting the day’s trying events.

In the morning we rose early to the inviting smell of boiling maize flower. After dining and, with full bellies, we went back to the site of the accident to wake the driver and his lackey so that we could begin again waiting for the batteries not to arrive. To this day, and regardless of what you might think after what I tell you next, I do not claim to be a soothsayer. But sitting their in Bukanaga Village contemplating my contempt for incompetence, I confessed to Duch my sneaking suspicion that the batteries just might not come. And they never did.

In the wake of this epiphany and Duch’s uncontrollable sobbing, came a miracle. A miracle by the name of Ronoladi. A true Mundali tribesman of the Misuku hills, Ronaldi heard of our troubles and came—probably from far away--to help purely out of the kindness of his heart (or because he heard we were white men and wanted money). Regardless, he arrived in good time and in good humor with a radiant smile that rivaled daffodils in its ability to warm the heart. Standing at 3-4 ft taller than everyone else, Ronoldi was a behemoth of a man. With only his bare hands and a small, well-used hoe, he immediately set about liberating our vehicle from the granite teeth which had captured it the night before. Watching Ronoldi, our world slowed in to a humbling awe. It was an awe that one might only experience witnessing a miracle or watching ice skating. And as he worked in seemingly effortless motions, the earth moved. Other locals, inspired by Ronoldi’s seemingly unceasing power and jubilance, attempted to keep pace with the Mammoth from Misuku, but soon collapsed in failure and lay exhausted at his feet, only offering moans of encouragement mixed with that of fear
for the unknown.

Hours passed like minutes and Ronaldi continued to work. Clouds drifted over head and Ronaldi continued to work. Small insect-like creatures danced around my bosom and Ronoldi continued to work. By mid day, a new light of possibility shown down upon our cloudy hearts. Then Duch, removing the crusted residual mucus from around his nose and mouth--a pathetic result from hours of weeping--looked at me and said, “We might just make it out this thing yet.”

And indeed we did. A full 24 hrs after the accident, Ronaldi had broken enough stone, displaced enough matter, and shifted enough soil so that we--but mostly Ronaldi--could lift the 7 toner inch by inch away from the hill so that it could drift freely backwards—with the breaks this time—and be push-started on a flat surface some 200 yards down the hill.

By 6 o’clock that night we had finished to deliver the bananas to the third orchard man, Mr. Chilali of Misuku and were quickly on our way to the remaining beneficiaries. By 7 o’clock the full moon had shown its cratered, albeit predictable, face. And as we sat there and marveled at its luminescence, we also sat there and wondered why the driver had not turned on the lights to the vehicle. The simple, and potentially devastating answer, “The headlights don’t work. We will have to stop for the night,” deterred me not. “Did Ronaldi ‘stop for the night?’ I replied. (Duch had started weeping again). “Did Ronaldi waver in the face of impossibilities?’ We’ve got the light of the moon my reluctant friend. Fear not, and let us push forward. Those families will have their seedlings before Christmas, this I swear!”

The driver yawned, but did not stop. He did not stop after the 4th orchard drop off. “Better late then never we yelled with Christmas cheer to the white smiles as we departed.” And he did not stop after the 5th orchard drop off. He did not stop the rest of the journey, until the drive shaft to the 7 ton piece of sh*t fell to the ground traveling at 30 km/hr somewhere in Northern Chitipa around mid-night.

So there we were, tired, smelly, exhausted and stinky. But we had no choice. We had no choice but to fix this rotten, over used 7 toner from hell, because we had only 100 bananas left to deliver to the final beneficiary. With Duch demoralized and weeping himself to sleep in the front of the cab, I, along with the driver and his lackey tied the drive shaft back to the vehicle with bark from local trees and some small pieces of nylon rope. It was temporary; I can’t dispute you on that. It could have failed; I am not hiding that. It was desperate; I know desperation. But we finished our delivery, without incident, without tribulation, and puttered back into town at 2:00 Christmas Eve morning, the drive shaft hanging by a thread.

That night in Chitipa Boma, lying next to Duch in a single room in a run down guest house with unwashed sheets from yester year, I realized we had accomplished something. We had succeeded. Despite all odds and Duch’s incessant weeping, we had rallied and triumphed. I realized that in a mean world where incompetent men wield undeserved power……..

And then a deep darkness washed over me and I drifted into an undisturbed slumber, remembering only Ronaldi’s unrelenting smile…..and Duch, with snot all over his face.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Ramblings: Homage to My Greatest Coach

In January I started teaching again with the beginning of a new Malawian school year. A year into teaching I am much more comfortable in my role as a teacher, and see it as the greatest impact I am making in Mwazisi. Teaching provides a connection to the younger members of the community, and is a great opportunity to begin encouraging environmental stewardship for the future leaders. A lot of my students are orphans, so in addition to encouraging environmental values I also try to serve as a role model to encourage some of the qualities I think are valuable in a person like honesty, respect, and focused effort. In pushing these traits I realize that I am echoing the words I used to hear from my Dad growing up, and modeling my teaching style and classroom management in Mwazisi after so many years of observing my Dad coaching basketball.

When I arrived in Mwazisi last year I offered to help out at the secondary school during my spare time. The headmaster took that to mean I would be a full time teacher, and told me that I’d be taking over the Form one physical science class the following week. I began teaching by taking over for a class halfway through the school year in a subject that I haven’t even thought about since I was 16 years old. The additional combination of a language barrier with my Form ones, and the hormonal insanity of any 13 to 15 year old, made my first couple weeks of teaching feel like the third circle of hell.

I decided to stick with it when I realized what an incredible need for teachers there was at Mwazisi Community Day Secondary School (CDSS). Most of the other teachers only show up to teach about half of the time, and when they do show up they just sit under a mango tree while the class prefect copies the notes straight out of the teachers edition onto the crumbling chalkboard. A few of the teachers put a legitimate effort into their teaching, but most of them are burnt out and uninspired. I can’t say that I really blame them; teaching in Malawi is a daunting job, with over-crowded classes (58 students in my Form one class), and a complete lack of resources (my class doesn’t even have desks or chairs, but instead sit on planks and scrap wood from the half finished school block next door).

Over the remainder of the school year the students got more used to my teaching and my American English. As I saw that they understood the concepts I was teaching faster I was able to pick up the pace of my teaching and cover more material. They began to participate more and I became more creative in my teaching, improvising class experiments and demonstrations with whatever materials I could scrap together. In one instance I used the students themselves to represent atoms in different states of matter. One third of them acted as solid matter, squeezed together, just shifting their weight back and forth to represent the vibration of the molecules. Another third of the class represented liquids, and moved freely around the room weaving around the solids and passing each other. The last third were the gases, running from one side of the class to the other, colliding (while laughing) into anything in their way including each other. I’m sure the rest of the school was wondering what the crazy Azungu was up to in his class, but the students clearly enjoyed my break from conventional teaching and showed better and better efforts as the year went on. I was extremely proud to see the tremendous improvements the class as a whole showed on my final exam, and was really touched when I heard that at the end of the year the class had gone to the headmaster and asked if I could also teach their Form two Physical Science class.

While I looked forward to teaching my original class, I was not looking forward to starting from scratch with a whole new class of Form one students. I knew that the first few months would be a struggle so I decided to set the tone for the year early on, laying out my expectations for the class at the beginning hoping to start off on the right foot. I thought back to the teachers who had most impressed me and how they controlled our classes, while also inspiring us to give our best effort. But the more I thought about my past experiences, the more I realized that the best example I could imitate didn’t come from my classroom teachers. I realized that my greatest example for teaching is my Father as a basketball coach.

I recently received an article that my Mom had clipped out of our hometown paper The Broomfield Enterprise about my Dad. He received well deserved recognition during halftime of the Broomfield boys basketball game for his efforts in coaching boys basketball at the Broomfield Recreation Center for the past 25 years. My Dad began coaching with my older brother’s first team, coached me through the program, and has kept on all the way up to the present. It was fitting for him to receive the award at a high school game since he has helped to provide so many fundamentally sound, dives for the ball kind of players for the program. Although I had already realized my Dad’s teaching gift, I was incredibly happy and very proud to see that so many other people recognize his efforts as a coach as well. When I started back to teaching this year I really wanted to try and emulate the characteristics that I think make him such a great coach; the way he includes each and every one of his players, not just the star athletes, truly making them feel like they are as much an important part of the team, and drawing out the best efforts and positive attitudes.

Every year at the beginning of the first practice he sits the whole team down at center court and lays out the three rules he expects everyone to follow when they play on his team. After years of hearing the speech as one of his players, as well helping at his practices when I was available in high school and college, I can recite his speech pretty much word for word.

Rule # 1 Do what’s right.

At eleven to fourteen years old his boys are at an age where using good judgment becomes a crucial life skill. He explains to his players that somebody getting into trouble all of the time can’t be a useful part of the team, so making sound decisions on and off the court is an important part of playing basketball.

Rule # 2 Do your best.

He always promises his players that he will never get angry with any of them as long as they give their best effort. A promise he always lives up to, favoring whoever gives his best effort, and not necessarily the best athletes on his team or the players with the most experience.

Rule # 3 Treat everybody how you want to be treated

He demands that his players apply this rule to everybody they encounter including their teammates, coaches, the referees, and their opponents. Respect is very important to my father, and he leads by example, always showing respect to his players, encouraging them to reciprocate his example and carry it into every interaction.

In addition to his three core rules my Dad always asks that the players remember to have fun. His emphasis on enjoying the game is something I have always found refreshing coming back to his practices, particularly after experience as a college athlete. In all my years around athletics I have encountered too many coaches and players who take themselves way too seriously and tend to think of the game as some sort of glorified battle, when in reality its still just a game, and games are meant to be fun.

My Dad reinforces his rules throughout the year in every practice and game. If someone is loafing up and down the floor he yells, “come on you’re not doing your best,” or when he sees someone teasing one of their teammates then he asks, “is that how you want to be treated?” My Dad is always quick to remind his players that they should apply these rules to all aspects of their life; school, family, friends, or just every day life. As he says, “if you strive to practice these rules each and every day than you are bound to be a much happier person.”

I have always believed that my Dad is a natural teacher, and am happy he gets to fulfill this calling by coaching. He motivates and encourages each and every one of his players to achieve, always ready on the sidelines with a smile and a high-five. As I teach my classes here in Africa I like to think that by following my Father’s example and emphasizing the same values he taught on the Basketball court I might have the same kind of long lasting effect in Mwazisi that he has made in Broomfield.

So when I walked into class last January and faced a new class of 60 form one students for the first time, I drew on the experience and wisdom of my Dad, and recited his three rules speech almost word for word. I figure that even if my students never understand more than half of what I teach in class, at least they will still remember my father’s moral code, via his three rules. I know this because these are the classroom rules I write on the board at the beginning of each week, and. When I see a boy looking at his neighbor’s workbook while writing a quiz, I ask him to recite the first rule, and tell me if he is doing what is right. When I see a girl nodding off while I’m lecturing in physical science, I question her about doing her best. Or when I hear a group of students laughing at a classmate’s English mistake I ask, “is that how you want to be treated when you make a mistake?”

I think I was extremely lucky to have such an influential teacher, not to mention to have that teacher as a Father. Happy Father’s Day Dad, thanks for everything.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Prouder Than Ever To Represent America

It's fitting that I'm in Lilongwe right now to go to the American ambassador's Independence day celebration (he has it a month early because he'll be in America for the real day),it just so happens that tonight we have an even better reason to celebrate our home country...The Nomination of Barack Obama to be the democratic candidate for president. I have never seen a political candidate in my lifetime with as much potential to change the world, and I'm so happy to see that so many people in America see the same thing in Mr. Obama. I have also never seen a candidate that has such an effect on the American public, it seems like he has mobilized and energized my generation in a way that I would have thought was imposable three years ago. He's bringing out people that never even thought about voting, and making passionate believers of them.

The only thing that might be comparable to the excitement in America is the excitement here in Africa! To give you an example the other day I rode my bicycle from my site to Mzuzu to do some repairs. While I was riding through Ekwendeni about 80 kms away from my village,(where nobody knows me or that I'm an American) a women raised her fist and said in slow Malawian broken English, "OH-BAA-MA." You can only imagine the size of the smile that grew across my face as she hid her embarrassed laugh in her her friends chitenge.

Six months ago everybody around my village just laughed at me when I held up my copy of "Dreams From My Father" to show them the picture of the man who I think will be my next president. Everybody, except for Vincent Mpese Gondwe a retired Member of Parliment that lives in Bolero who has become a very close friend of mine. This incredible man has seen the darkest days of Malawian politics, which he still bears in the form of scars on his head from when an attempt was made on his life for making a bold vote in Parliament. He also saw the darkest days in American politics as a student at Harvard in the early 1960's.

When Obama first won the primary in Iowa I rode my bike to Vincent's house to share the good news. He had already heard on BBC and was working on framing a picture of Mr. Obama that he had cut out of a Newsweek magazine, with his added caption "A Symbol of Change." Mr. Gondwe was chuckling as he said, "Daniel I tell you, if that man is sworn in as the American president then all of Africa will change the way it looks at your country."

Now everybody in my village is believing in the possibility of a black man leading America, and changing the world. When they walk into my house and see his picture hanging on my wall under a huge American flag I inherited from another volunteer, they say his name with the same delibrit hopefullness in their voice that that woman had the other day....OH-BA-MA. I'm proud to be a representative of America, and am all too happy to sit down with anybody who will listen and start ranting about this man who I believe has the life-experience to understand the world in a way no previous American president has, and the eloquence to relate that understanding to all American public as a whole, and the integrity to use all that influence to help us find a better way in the world.

I'm so proud to see the excitment of a growing movement in America. A mass awakening from the past eight years of our appathetic slumber, and a new demand for change. I'm also proud to see that his nomination was ensured with the final few delegates from my adoptive state of Montana, and will be confirmed with his official nomination in my home state of Colorado. But I would be most proud to say that I served as a Peace Corps volunteer under President Barack Obama's administration. Let's make that happen now!

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Ramblings: A Bad Morning Turned into a Beautiful Day

I was put in a bad mood first thing this morning when I walked out of my house and found that my biggest and healthiest Chamwamba tree was destroyed by one of the kids who live next door. Since I started out planting trees around my house when the rains started I’ve lost count of how many trees the kids have destroyed. “What’s the point” I muttered to myself as I tried to splint the broken trunk, “She’ll just destroy it again in a week.”

As I walked over to talk to her parents I was told that Nya Nfuni (the women who cooks for me when I teach at the secondary school, and one of my closest friends in the village) was sick and went to the clinic in the middle of the night. I went straight to the clinic from there, and found her looking weak and scared, quite a contrast from the bright eyed super women that I call my Malawian Mama. She explained matimba chimbira yichoko, yichoko (My heart is running slow.)

The frightened look on her face really had me worried, and was heavy on my mind as I walked to Mr. Semi the Agriculture extension worker’s house to fulfill our agreement to plant some of his Vetiver grass around our newly dug future fishpond to try and prevent soil erosion and silting. When I got there he complained that it was too late to start work, “the sun’s too high to go to the field now.” His lame excuss to put off the job really annoyed me because it wasn’t even 7:30 am yet and still nice and cool out, but since I asked him to show me the best way to plant vetiver and it was going to come from his garden I was at his mercy.

I was really annoyed as I walked back home because my whole morning was planned around my agreement to meet Mr. Semi. It was then that I noticed a women that I recognized but didn’t really know looking at me and laughing. When I asked her what she was laughing at she said “Mukunyamula Jembe”- “You’re carrying a hoe.” My mood went from bad to furious… The common Malawian belief that all Americans and Europeans are completely incapable of doing any manual labor absolutely infuriates me. I gave a sarcastic response that I’m sure she didn’t understand but could read the meaning behind my tone. I decided I better get out of Mwazisi before I snap on somebody.

I decided to take a bike ride, I had a good excuse to escape since I was already planning to go to Berludgi where I had heard about a man who had extra pvc pipes sitting around that I was interested in using for a rainwater harvesting tank. So I decided to take the long bike ride and visit some friends along the way mostly just to get out of Mwazisi for a day and have a little adventure.

I was already feeling better as I rode out of town; I just needed the excitement of a change of scene to change my mood. I stopped to talk to a man carrying a baby in a bundle on his back the way women do. I told him I’d never seen a man carrying his children, and that it was good to see a man taking care of the children for a change. He laughed and turned around to show off the smiling bundle on his back. I made a quick stop to remind the women from our beekeeping group about an upcoming meeting. I turned off the main road to go over the pass that leads to Pangara; a small village between Mankhali Hill and the mountains on the border of Vwaza Game Reserve. At the foot of the pass you go through a set of boulders that people call the elephants feet, they seem like a gate to the more untouched wilderness behind the mountains where the effect of people living on the land hasn’t taken it’s destructive toll yet. I love going down this road because I always feel like I’m really heading into the bush. There are much more trees on the surrounding mountains and I always seem to have the rocky neglected road to myself, so all I can hear is the breeze in the trees, and the array of Malawian bird songs.

My friend Bwana Nfuni is one of the reasons that Pangara’s surrounding wilderness is better preserved. He is my favorite village headman, because while many of the other village headman are drunks and over inflated egomaniacs, he is a true naturalist. His house is surrounded by trees of all sorts; fruit, palm, and nitrogen rich deciduous trees to improve the soil. Not only does he plant a lot of trees at his home, and chase people from cutting trees on the hills, but his more than thirty bee-hives hanging from the branches of trees is an assured protection of the trees it hangs between. He’s the best bee-keeper anywhere near Mwazisi and has been an indispensable asset for our beekeeping group sharing his knowledge of honey and wax production, and offering advice on how to go about harvesting the hives. I’m really glad to have a village headman like him so close to Mwazisi, he is the rare positive social deviant needed to set an example for everybody else to follow.

I stopped by his house for a visit but found that he was away teaching at the Primary school which he continues to do despite long having been retired. So I headed on to my destination of Beraludgi, and found my man with the PVC pipes. His name was Mr. Boti, and I found him sitting under a shade weaving a basket. He turned out to be about the handiest person I have encountered in Malawi. Aside from being a basketweaver, he is also a carpenter, metalworker, and welder. The man actually converted old bike parts into a grinder, and welding equipment. I was amazed to say the least, and I was equally impressed by his modesty. As I Marveled at his makeshift workshop he just smiled and remained under his shade continuing his work, never saying more than a couple words.

When I asked about the pipes he sent his sons behind the house and they emerged with three 20 centimeters in diameter pipes, which was exactly what I was looking for. He offered them to me free of charge when I know the same pipes would sell for more than 500 kwatcha a piece in Mzuzu. I insisted on paying him a little for them, and also promised to come back sometime with a whole bunch of Vegetable seeds. A promise he seemed to appreciate.

As I left his place my fortune turned from good to downright miraculous, way out there in the bush where Mr. Boti lives I saw a truck I recognized passing on the narrow path. I waved it down and was happy to see that it turned out to be one of my neighbors brother who is running for MP in 2009 who is driving out to every back road outpost trying to garner up early support for his campaign. He recognized me from his brother’s swearing in as a chief, and agreed to carry the pipes back to my house on his way back to Mwazisi. When I left this morning I didn’t even know if I would find any pipes. Not only did I find exactly what I was looking for but got them for next to nothing and got free transport from way out in Berludgi. The gods must have decided to make up for my crap morning.

From Berludgi Mr. Boti pointed me in the direction of a back road to Kapenda, where the nearest Peace Corps volunteer to me is placed. So I decided to drop in and visit him. Unfortunately when I got there I found that he was away as well in Mzuzu, but it was a sunny day and worth the ride just to see another road. When I got to Kapenda a Thunderhead rolled in, the sun was blocked out and the downpour started. I took shelter and chatted with some entertaining guys drunk on homemade wine from tea leaves. They enjoyed helping me to improve my Chitumbuka, and we shared a lot of laughs. The cloudburst ended as suddenly as it had blown in. I took advantage of the clearing, and started heading for home.

I made one more stop at an ant-hill where I was told I could get a bit of cell-phone network. From there I sent my Mom a birthday greeting via text message, and got her to call me back so we could talk longer. When I heard her groggy voice I remembered that it was 5: 00am in Colorado. I sang happy birthday, which brought a sleepy laugh. We had a long and good conversation. I’m always happy to be transported back to Colorado by my mother’s voice every now and then.

I got back to Mwazisi just after dark and went straight to the hospital to see Nya Nfuni. She still looked weak, but was clearly much better. I sat with her and chatted for a while, and told her in terrible Chitumbuka that “I was worried about my Malawian mother all day.” The smile that spread on her face warmed my heart, and made me feel like I am exactly where I’m supposed to be right now, a huge change from this morning when I was feeling so out of place.

As I walked back to my house I heard drums starting up in the trading center. I went to see what was going on and found the village women starting a dance circle. Across the road, I could see some drunken men half dancing, half stumbling in the candlelight in BBC’s bar, which seemed very cave like and sad compared to the beauty of the deliberate and fluid movements of the women under a clear beaming African starry night. I sat on the front steps of Chipesa’s shop with my neighbor’s children and watched the women’s hips gyrate and smiles glow in the dim lantern light. I’ve said it many times before and I’ll say it again, “African women sure are beautiful!”

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Kuzizima article: A Great Example

This is an article I wrote for the Kuzizima magazine last month (a newsletter distributed to all of the Peace Corps volunteers in Malawi). Most of you probably didn’t know that I have experienced a bit of Peace Corps romance since I’ve been here. I quickly hit it off with a second year Environmental volunteer named Corie, but unfortunately last month she was medically separated due to a rare illness that is effecting her pituitary gland and has caused her to develop diabetes isopodous. We were really just getting to know each other but I really gained a lot from our relationship, and that’s what this article is all about; the lessons that other Peace Corps volunteers and myself can draw from Corie. Enjoy!

As most of you know by now Corie Eastridge from the second year environment group was medically separated last month after being diagnosed with lymphocytic hypophysitis a rare disease caused by an autoimmune disease and has been sent back home to Chicago. I know I was not the only person in Malawi to fall for this extraordinary red head, her charm and ever-positive attitude made her one of the most mutually loved people in Peace Corps Malawi. So the news of her sudden departure created an emotional typhoon for all who know her. It’s hard to imagine a Peace Corps gathering in Lilongwe without Corie’s wild dance moves, twisted sense of humor, and constant giggles unbashfully bubbling up in any situation no matter how inappropriate. I had precious little time to get to know Corie, but in that short time I was fortunate to learn a lot from her attitude, her approach to Peace Corps, as well as the circumstances that led to her premature end of service.

In regards to what I learned from her circumstances it has given me a renewed appreciation for my own service. Her experience has taught me that being here is an opportunity not to be taken for granted; it can be over in a flash as she was sent home without having the chance to go back to her village and pack or say goodbye. Corie’s experience encourages me to view everyday here as a gift. Sometimes volunteers start to look at their service in Malawi as an endurance contest, which is no way to stay happy, and in my opinion is counterproductive to Peace Corps goal of providing Malawians with a positive image of Americans through its volunteers. Seeing our service as a gift reminds us that this is a chance to experience a world that, at least in my case, I never could have imagined a year ago. It’s also the opportunity to at least try to make a small difference in one of the worlds most under-developed countries. There is also the opportunity everyday to have a positive impact on some individual’s life, which can be something as small and simple as a smile and kind words to the shy unconfident woman you might pass on the street, or something as significant as helping your neighbor start the small business that changes his or her whole life.

Corie’s attitude while working here in Malawi is one of the lessons that I could most benefit from striving to imitate. Being able to put your frustrations aside and always remain positive the way Corie has done can make any volunteers service more effective. The positive influence Corie had on the people of Maliera was inspiring. When I first visited her site I saw that she approached every interaction with a smile on her face, and always left the other person infected with a smile on their face too. I was amazed at how well integrated she was at her site, and the way people in Maliera truly loved her, clearly a product of her cheery attitude and good-nature towards everybody in the village. She is the definitive example of a Peace Corps volunteers’ role as a diplomat for the American people. Ten years from now when the children of Maliera have grown up, when they think about America they will associate it with the smiling ginger from Chicago they loved as a child. That’s an everlasting impact that can’t be expressed on any description of service.

Corie wasn’t just here as a diplomat though, she also took her approach to being a capacity builder very serious which we can also draw lessons from. She worked with the community to start a peanut butter making project, which is not only an income generator, but also provides a source of much needed protein and fats locally for the areas many malnourished children. She pressed on with this project despite many stumbling blocks, one of which I was there to witness. The group she was working with had become frustrated with making stabilized soil blocks (SSBs) and were ready to abandon the method all together and cut down trees to burn bricks, a method they were much more familiar with. I probably would have gotten frustrated with them being so quick to abandon SSBs. She had worked hard on writing a funding proposal, budgeting, and working out all of the tedious details. Corie did not get angry though. She calmly explained the benefits of doing SSBs and left the decision up to them, and ultimately they were willing to give the soil blocks another try. As their experience with the machine grew, they quickly got a system down, and by the next time I visited her again the building was finished and the group was looking to extend the project to a youth community center. This was the first major project they had ever done as a group, and her patience and persistence helped them see what they were capable of doing together. The new enthusiasm of the group shows that this project is sure to continue and grow even though she has left. The lesson that I think we as Peace Corps volunteers can draw from this is to strike the balance of remaining persistent and confident in our ideas without ever being forceful or patronizing.

People in Corie’s village won’t be remembering her simply because of the projects she did, but mostly they will remember how she was smiling and laughing all along the way; this is the most important lesson that I see in Corie’s example. Even though her service ended early and unexpectedly, she can feel comforted that she made the most of her experience every day that she was here, just simply by being so happy. While she was in Malawi she fostered nothing but positive relationships with people who certainly won’t be forgetting her anytime soon. . Corie came to visit my village for just two very short visits, but people still ask me about her all the time, they say, “Oh Corie, that one is sooo cheerful.” This is probably the most important lesson I have learned form Corie, the importance of just having fun and enjoying each day as it comes to you. Just because somebody works hard and takes their assignment seriously, doesn’t mean that they have to take themselves seriously; at least Corie illustrated this with every giggle, at regular rate of about five per minute.

That propensity to always be laughing was the most important thing I learned from Corie, and also happens to be the first thing that drew me to her. At my groups swearing in one of the Malawian speakers from the department of forestry said “We understand that Lady Bill Clinton may be the next President of America.” Every American present at least shared a quiet chuckle with the person next to them, but one giant laugh carried over the whispers without reservation, and I turned around to see Corie’s ear to ear grin. I knew then that she was somebody who knew how to enjoy life, but as I spent more time with her I became more and more impressed with her ability to laugh and appreciate the world around her regardless of the circumstances. These last few months she has really demonstrated this ability. Even when she was in tears telling me about her frustrations with not being allowed to go and say goodbye to anybody in her village she joked about her sickness as a punishment for all the evil jokes she has told over the years. Her ability to laugh and remain positive despite having her entire world turned upside down by this very serious illness is nothing short of remarkable.

I really have no frame of reference to understand what she is going through as she deals with this rare illness that will affect her for the rest of her life. I can only hope that I would have half the strength and dignity that she has demonstrated so far. Corie said it best the last time I spoke to her about how little the doctors knew about what is happening to her, “Eh, We’ll see what happens….everything always works out.” That sort of optimism and ability to see the futility in worrying about what is to come in ones life is something rare and beautiful, and I am ever-thankful to Corie for providing such a spectacular example to try to live up to.