Sunday~ Lilongwe

Hi Everyone,

It’s mid-afternoon and there is no power in the city. It went out shortly after we ordered our lunch, which, didn’t seem to affect the service or the food. I left the hotel and walked up to another smaller hotel on a quieter side street where there is an enclosed garden and bar. I think our hotel is owned by Hindus and is alcohol-free. So here I sit, with a full tummy and a beer, pool-side, at the Korea Garden, writing between conversations with stoppers-by. I clearly was not the only one with this idea. Three more days in this city before we go to our site, and I’m just starting to get to know my way around. This laptop is about half charged and I guess I won’t be able to juice it up, so let’s see how far I get. Then we’ll see if I can connect to internet anytime today. Doesn’t appear hopeful at the moment. Funny it’s more unreliable here than it was in Shamwana.

It’s a very pleasant temperature; I suppose it would be considered warm for a summer’s day in Maine, but we walked for miles this morning in the sun and it wasn’t unpleasant. It’s winter here. Come October, that won’t be possible without dying of heat stroke.

Yesterday was our last day of language instruction. We had the assignment of performing skits that depicted what we consider strange Malawian behavior, since they did that for us at the beginning of our training. Since we aren’t as animated or good at acting, it didn’t come easy. Fortunately we are a group of self-starters, so just bit the bullet and got it over with. I wasn’t looking forward to it, but it turned out kinda fun. I thought it would have been better for an evening activity after a few beers, but it was an 8 a.m. assignment. Harsh. We came up with four skits and had a few minutes to run through them before our audience of trainers came in to view the final exam.

The first skit involved a sick person lying miserably on a make-shift bed, which, was two chairs put together. As she was lying, trying to rest, we all filed in greeting her over and over and over and she had to rouse herself to be polite. We kept coming asking her if she needed anything and fawning over her. That was it. Our MC explained at the end of it that we, as Americans, find it strange that Malawians don’t leave someone alone to rest when they don’t feel good. The ill have to endure a steady stream of guests. We find this strange. There was hilarity all around, and though I don’t find the subject very funny, we did a good job of hamming it up.

The next skit had to do with public display of affection. We lined up in groups outside the conference room door and walked in as if we were strolling down the street. George and I were holding hands. Carlos sees us and recoils in shock and breaks us apart and takes George over to Darren and puts their hands together, and George and Darren walk off together. We were laughing more than our instructors, I think. Christine explained that in America we often see men and women holding hands and that is very much acceptable but we don’t often see men holding hands. In Malawi, it is very common for heterosexual male friends to walk along holding hands. (We could have gotten into the fact that this is changing and becoming more acceptable, but we needed a skit and just wanted to get it done. And let’s face it, the majority of Americans don’t live in San Francisco.) Good enough.

The third skit had a group of us having a meal with a Malawian family and they ask to see photos of our family. Carlos shows them a photo and they look and exclaim with happiness and pride, “Oh, they are so fat!” That was the end. They consider calling your family fat a compliment. Calling anyone fat is a compliment. We explained that Americans wouldn’t consider that polite. It would be an insult, not a compliment.

And the last one had to do with our difficulty differentiating some Malawian words that are very similar, but have very different meanings. “Chambo” means fish, “Chambe” is tea, and “Chamba” is marijuana. George has mixed up these words in sentences over the past two weeks, which sends the language instructors into convulsive fits of laughter. So the skit had George as a language instructor teaching these three words which really didn’t have a lot to do with what we consider strange customs, but it filled up some time and seemed to amuse them, and then we were done.

Theirs were better than ours, but we are medical professionals, and a little stiff, so we thought we did exceedingly well, considering.

There are now five people sitting at this table with me. It’s getting a little difficult to concentrate.

We’re all getting a little tired of sitting still during the week. We try to get out for the last hour of daylight and walk, but it hasn’t been much exercise. We have had another week of lectures, which are all very interesting, but they are long days of sitting in one chair in a dark room. We’ve had a couple of field trips, however, and it was good to see how the health facilities have evolved since 1980. We spent an afternoon at Kamuzu Central Hospital, the hospital where Matt was born. It’s quadrupled in size since then, had a fresh coat of paint, and some major bat-elimination. I did not detect even the faintest hint of bat shit smell this week, and that was my predominant memory of the place. I was bracing myself for it, but not a whiff. The facility was impressive, really. The wards were clean and there was good air circulation. The major problem is staffing. The patient/nurse ratio is approximately 60:1. That would be 60 patients to one nurse. It was a little scary. I’ve heard it’s worse in Blantyre. There are seven midwives to cover labor and delivery, where they average eight deliveries a day. The midwives do everything there: all the nursing care as well as deliveries and they have to cover twenty four hours, seven days a week, so seven midwives is not very many. I don’t know how they do it. Guess I’ll find out. I was amazed at how resilient they were as they showed us around. They were honest about the problems but have a lot of pride in the fact that they carry on despite the difficulties.

We’ve had this weekend free; the first free days we’ve had since arriving. Well, that was after we finished the skits yesterday, so let’s say a free day and a half. We spent most of it walking. Lilongwe has a great melange of people on the streets and after two weeks here we are getting accustomed to the frenzy. It’s dusty and dirty and trash is everywhere, and that makes me sad. In the old days we never saw a scrap of paper or string on the ground. If a scrap ever landed there, some child would scoop it up to make a ball out of it. Plastic bags didn’t exist here back then. We shopped with a woven basket. Now they are everywhere. But the humanity! The attire in the city ranges from sequenced evening gowns with stiletto heels, to rags. The cars, from brand new SUVs to ancient scrap heaps held together with chicken wire. And there are thousands of them. Thousands and thousands and thousands of cars. At church this morning they had two policemen directing traffic and two more to assist with parking. There were close to a thousand people at church today (literally) and probably four hundred cars. Yesterday, the pedestrians we passed included: tuxedoed wedding parties, women in business pant-suits and heels, a barefoot man carrying ten live chickens in each hand (got a photo of that), and a one-legged woman with hand-made crutches walking with a bundle of wood on her head. I stopped and watched as she maneuvered the curb and avoided cars at an intersection while walking with crude crutches with a bundle of wood balanced on her head (no photo out of respect for her, but wanted one). No athlete at the current olympic games could impress me more than she did. And there was everyone you could imagine in between these extremes. In the few moments we’re not avoiding being struck by an oncoming car, the people-watching is superb. Yesterday, as we walked along the very busy main road to the wildlife preserve, a pick-up truck sped by with a photographer standing in the bed, facing backward. I couldn’t believe he could stand like that without falling. The truck had to be traveling at least 40 mph. Following, was a honking car with an open sun-roof, where the upper torso of a bride and groom were exposed waving to the camera in the pick-up, veil blowing in the wind. It’s non-stop entertainment on the streets around here!

I’m ready to get to our site, get into our own house and have a little privacy. Tomorrow and Tuesday we have more lectures and wrap up, then Wednesday is swearing in at the ambassador’s house in the morning, then we head to Blantyre in the afternoon. We’ll have four days to settle in to our place before I start four weeks of orientation in the wards to get my Malawian nursing license. I need to get my uniforms made (navy blue with white piping, I’ve learned) and get our house set up and equipped. Then we’ll find a language tutor and we are going to hire help in the house as well. We figured why not support the local economy?

The power is back on and it looks like I’ve got a tiny window with internet, so I’m going to post this while I’ve got a chance. I’ll leave it unedited. Hopefully we’ll have something reliable set up by next week and I can organize my thoughts better!

Love to all,