Sunday Morning~ Blantyre

Sunday Morning~ Blantyre

February 26, 2017

Atambwali sametana~ Crooks don’t shave each other.     ~Malawian proverb

Hi Everyone,

This morning I am sitting in the living area of our new house, situated approximately 100 meters from our old house. We moved yesterday. We’ve known since we returned from our trip to South Africa that we had to move, a decision we were not happy about. We liked our old house. We were comfortable there and the avocados were just starting to come in. We didn’t want to move, but when you work for Peace Corps, you’ve only got so much say in any particular matter, safety and living situation included.

We did not feel unsafe in our old place but there were a couple of security incidents and the neighborhood was deemed unsafe for our occupancy. It’s no secret that cities have a higher crime rate than the villages and we live in a city. Most of the crime is petty theft, but breaking and entering exists. The buildings here have security bars on all the windows, that’s standard. In addition, most houses have walls around the yards and most people hire security guards. Malawians do this as well; it’s not just expats. Anyone well-off enough to have anything to steal has window bars and a guard. But the house we were living in had no wall.

Our old house was owned by the college of medicine and the guards were employees of the college. They weren’t paid well and weren’t super motivated. Our day guard, Catherine, was also our maid so her monthly salary was double what the other guards made, so that doubled her motivation, which wasn’t all that high. The day guard’s job is excruciatingly boring. It’s not like there is a ton of activity during the day or the gate to open and close every five minutes. We leave in the morning and come home in the evening and most of their day involves sitting around. Sometimes the day guards in the neighborhood (who were all women) would sit and talk in the road between the houses but mostly they just sat and looked sad. Even on the days Catherine was cleaning for us she was usually done by 10 am and would go back outside to sit. I sometimes thought of doing a sewing class or giving them some kind of craft to do. None of them spoke English, but it would have been great to teach them to read or write. They certainly had time to practice. Anyway, at four thirty in the afternoon, they’d hand over to the night guards, all men.

The night guards  all hung out together outside one of the driveways and would run to the house when they’d see us coming home to open the gate. The latest one we had would salute us as we entered. It was a little odd. They’d go to sleep after about eight or nine in a closet outside the kitchen. They would wake up, we noticed, when we’d come in late on the rare occasions we had evenings out, greet us as we passed them and then go back to sleep. I thought, “Well, at least they heard us and woke up. Presumably they’d do that for a burglar.”  In the mornings they’d be up around 4:30 and we could hear them showering out back or talking loudly with their friends. Sometimes we’d have all the neighborhood guards at our house having a shower and breakfasting on the guavas in our tree. It was a little annoying, but we never felt unsafe, just imposed upon.

Just before Christmas there was a lot of drinking going on and Simon, the gardener for the college, went on a bender for a few days. He was drunk on the job, rude to one of our volunteers, and got fired. Our yard has looked like crap ever since, and while I wasn’t pleased with him when he took my money for seeds and got drunk with it, he did a great job on the yard, and I missed him. Shortly after that, the same volunteer who was instrumental in Simon’s firing, had her car battery stolen. She was woken up in the middle of the night by her guards telling her there had been a robbery. The guards claimed they were held up at knife point and the thieves had their way with the car. She felt it was an inside job and the guards were in on it. So the decision was made that either the guard situation had to change or we had to move. The college of medicine was not going to pay for a different guard service, so despite our protests (we had nothing to steal!) we couldn’t stay there.

Moving is such a pain. We don’t have a car and loved that we lived so close to work–– a five minute walk. Our house was big and comfortable and we were both busy and moving seemed like a major hassle. We decided to be proactive and find a place we liked. Housing is scarce and the Peace Corps staff was happy to have us do a search. They’d just have to come down from Lilongwe to do a security check. We had met a guy named Ian from UK who lived around the corner from us and I knew he was going home in January, so we gave him a call to see if his house was available. The location was perfect, the same distance from work, but with a brick wall surrounding the property. We came to see the place and was a teensy disappointed in the house, which is half the size of the one we had. But the yard is gorgeous and it has a big vegetable garden growing beautifully, and the guard is also a full time gardener! That pretty much sold it for me. The kitchen is tiny, not much bigger than the pantry we had in the other house, but I’m focusing on the garden making up for that. The landlady was thinking of selling the place when Ian went back to UK, but when we came along unadvertised, she thought, “Why not?”  Because of the surrounding wall it passed the security check so we got the a-ok. So at least we didn’t have to give up the nice location. We refused to move until after Pat and Stacy left as we didn’t want to spend our weekends with them moving, so yesterday was the day. Our landlady took us to dinner Friday night so we could discuss the guard arrangement, and she has been absolutely lovely and accommodating. She had the whole place painted and new screens put on the windows. The furniture is a million times nicer than the stuff we had at the other place and though the rooms are much smaller, it’s laid out well and it’s cute. There are three small bedrooms and only one bathroom, (another downside) but it’s fine. The other place had three bathrooms so I have to get used to sharing again, but it isn’t the end of the world. The toilet is in it’s own little closet, which would be convenient if it had a little sink in there, which it does not. Poor design. The kitchen sink is really small and it feels a bit like being on a boat, though the oven is new and full sized. It takes up about half the room. It’ll be an adjustment, but again, compared to how most people live here, more than adequate.

Our new day guard and gardener is named Chimwemwe and I like him a lot. He speaks really good English, (a plus) and is devoted to the garden. He wanted to know what vegetables we liked so he could get busy planting them. We learned he is also a plumber. There is something comforting about having a plumber at your house all day. I realized I’m more afraid of plumbing problems than I am of thieves. Currently the garden has beets, carrots, lettuce, and lots of herbs to pick. He’s just started beans and onions and cabbage, and I have cherry tomatoes seeds to plant. I expect lots of those; it’s perfect tomato climate. There is a lime tree covered in limes, a guava tree, two mango trees, and an avocado tree with no avocados on it. There are beautiful roses and bougainvillea, cosmos, and geraniums and a sweet little front porch with a view of the sunset. It’s all good. We’re happy here. It’s much more private and for all our bellyaching about not wanting to move, this really is a much nicer place.

We have two night guards, one named Bernard and one named (I kid you not) Cabbage. They seem ok, though it’s hard to tell from one night. The difference is that we are their employer now instead of the college of medicine, and we will pay them a decent wage and make it more desirable to have this job. I don’t anticipate any peeping tomism. I’ll fire him on the spot if that happens here. It feels better to have a little more control over the situation. Now we have to find someone to do our laundry and maybe clean a couple days a week and we’ll be all set. That’s on the list of things to do for this week. Catherine was very upset about losing the housekeeping portion of her job. I felt badly about that, but we assured her we’d still pay for Joseph’s schooling. She said she considers us her mother and father and while it was a little touching to hear, I had a gut feeling of…please don’t say that; I have enough kids.

So, kind of a dull week. I got sick with what I think is rickettsia. I had some bites on my legs that turned into a horribly itchy rash and spread up my thighs. The next day while doing a skills lab on catheterization I started getting really bad stomach pains. I took some antacid and it got a little better, but during the night it got so bad I got up and started taking some Cipro (an antibiotic). I thought, “Oh God, this better not be my appendix because I am not having surgery at this hospital.” Within an hour of taking the one dose of Cipro I started feeling better, but I slept almost the whole day Tuesday and I’ve been washed out all week and have a nagging headache.  I switched to the right antibiotic for rickettsia (a disease spread by ticks) and am slowly improving but I just don’t feel like myself. I dragged myself to work the rest of the week but wasn’t very enthusiastic. The university graduation was on Wednesday in Zomba and I thought I might not make it through the ceremony feeling feverish in the robes sitting on that stage for a long time, but I made it through and only nodded off to sleep a couple of times. I do thank God for antibiotics. They are used way too much, but you know, when you need them, they really are very, very nice. Thank you moldy cheese.

Love to all,








Sunday Morning~Blantyre

February 19, 2017

Sunday Morning~ Blantyre

Mitimba Sifalala  ~  Hearts are different      Malawi Proverb

The past few weeks have been a bit of a blur of work activity, entertaining, eating too much, drinking too much, and feeling like I’m not doing enough to save the planet from destruction. I’m a bit overwhelmed.

It baffles me how often the student’s schedules get rearranged and how slap dash the method of informing them can be. They are often sitting waiting for class to begin, only to find out the lecturer for the day has been called away to a meeting and the class has to be rescheduled. But since there is no place to put the makeup class, it gets whittled off of the clinical rotations at the last minute. That means the ward staff, who are supposed to be mentoring the students have no idea when the students will be there. This drives me crazy. Everyone else just seems to roll with it.

My first year students, fresh out of secondary school, started their first clinical rotation last week after four months of theory classes. They are working on the gynecology ward. I was told the skills they would be expected to have mastered for the first days are very basic: vital signs, bed making, bed baths, and what they call “dump dusting”. I asked a fellow faculty member what “dump dusting” was? I’d never heard of it. Was I supposed to be teaching them how to do this? She told me they should already know how to do it. It’s basically taking a wet cloth and wiping the patient’s shelves and beds. Oh! DAMP dusting. Aha! Now I understand. I was confused when I saw a sign in the ward that read: “Don’t Dump Dust the Oxygen”.

I was a nervous wreck about them starting clinical. I didn’t work on the gynecology ward when I did my orientation and I didn’t know the staff, where anything was, or how the ward functioned. If I was supposed to be orienting the students, I was in trouble. I was afraid there would be very sick surgical patients and my poor green students would be charged with skills they didn’t know how to do. We had tested them on vital signs and I was pretty sure they could be trusted with that, but reminded them that major medical decisions will be made based on the readings they’d get and if they record an incorrect blood pressure it could mean that patient gets the wrong medication! This is serious!  There were lots of giggles when I said that. I wasn’t amused. I snapped at them, “What’s so funny about hurting a patient?”  They hung their heads in shame. They were nervous, too. They were just expressing it differently. I asked them to talk about what anxieties and questions they had. They told me they were worried they would do something wrong or being asked to do something they didn’t know how to do. I was so relieved by this. I wanted reassurance that they were serious and was glad to have them be honest about how they felt. I told them their feelings were completely justified, that I do not expect them, or want them to do anything they are not comfortable with. I have seen nursing staff completely dump work on unqualified students so their fears were warranted, but I reassured them I would be there and if anyone was asked to do anything they weren’t comfortable with, they were to find me and I’d do it with them. I later learned I was an idiot to tell them this. I have had to eat so many of my words these past two weeks it isn’t even funny.

I am one of four faculty members assigned to supervise these twenty-one students for these four weeks. On the first Monday morning we all showed up in uniform at 7:30 sharp. We were to have the first morning be in skills lab where they would practice making beds and doing bed baths before doing them on actual people. At 7:35 we learned we couldn’t use the skills lab that day because the second year students were using it for testing and would need it for the following three days.  I was like, “You are kidding me, right? We had that set up.”  Oh! Sorry. They forgot to tell us about the second year students. So there we were all dressed up with no place to go. I suggested we at least go over to the gynecology ward to get a little oriented, and then Tuesday we could just begin there doing vital signs. Everyone agreed, good idea, and that way our first day wouldn’t be wasted. So we went enmass and did a walk through the ward where we met the staff, and informed them the students would be there the next day. Then we all traipsed to the head matron’s office (the equivalent of our nursing director) and introduced the students. There were formal greetings and words of welcome, and then we sat them down to discuss what we’d seen. The class leader raised his hand and said, “We aren’t allowed to start clinical until we get our hepatitis shots. We haven’t gotten them yet.” I looked at Ursula (our dean) confused. What? We are sitting here in uniform all ready to start and they haven’t had their shots yet? It was news to her too. Apparently, they’ve been waiting since school started in October for the clinic to get the vaccine for them, and they waited until we were ON THE WARD, in uniform, to drop this little tidbit. I asked, “Did it cross anyone’s mind to let us know this on Friday? Or maybe even a week ago?” No one answered. We let the students go to lunch and Ursula and I went over to the clinic to see about getting the vaccine. I thought it would be great. We would get the vaccine and then have them give each other the shots. They needed practice on something more realistic than the tomatoes we’d been using, and it would give us something to do for the afternoon. Ha ha. Silly me. We were told they didn’t have any vaccine and didn’t know when it would be arriving from Lilongwe. It hadn’t even been purchased yet. I was flipping out. I couldn’t understand why Ursula wasn’t more upset. I asked her, “What are we going to do with the students? When do you think this will come? Can’t we just go buy some?”  She shook her head. She said quietly, “This is very frustrating.” in the way you would say, “This is very sad.” She said she would use the afternoon to give them a lecture she’d had to cancel because of a meeting she’d had to attend and I spent the afternoon in my office writing exam questions for the final exam. They were due to be submitted to the head of the department by the end of the week. That was another bit of news I received that day: a mere hundred questions had to be submitted in four days. The four days I was supposed to be with these students.

Tuesday morning, at 7:30 I showed up thinking we would have to find some skills to practice for the day, to discover that they had all received their hepatitis shots on Monday night. I asked Ursula where they had gotten the vaccine? She said she didn’t know and wasn’t going to ask. I was thrilled to know we could get going with the clinical rotation, but a little bummed we couldn’t have them give each other the shots. Medication administration was a skill they were expected to have, and in my opinion, were no where near qualified. Just ask those tomatoes.

Now, no one explained to me what my responsibilities would be once the new students started clinical. I assumed I would be with them teaching the basics of nursing and figured I could handle it. I was mostly worried they would do something without supervision or I’d be stretched too thin trying to be with twenty of them at once. I was relieved to know they’d be four faculty. I was looking forward to some peer support and thought it would be great to have someone there to answer my questions as well as the students’. Again, silly me. I haven’t seen another faculty member on the ward since the first day.  But, then again, I haven’t been there much either. On day two, just after I told the students we’d meet at 3 pm to discuss any problems they were having, I learned I had a faculty meeting that afternoon. Ok, I had to apologize and tell the students I couldn’t do the support session I’d just told them about as I had a required meeting to attend. (They hear that line a lot but this was the first time it came from me.) I reassured them I would be with them the following week, all day, every day, and we would do a debriefing each afternoon so they didn’t feel they were being abandoned…and off I went to the faculty meeting….to discover that the entire following week (which was this past week) would be taken up with vetting the final exams. I had no idea what that meant. I looked at the schedule and saw that from Tuesday at 8am until Friday at 5 pm we would be sitting and “vetting” five one-hundred point exams. Okaay. That gave me from 7:30 until 8 each day with the students, which didn’t seem like a whole lot of time to spend with brand new students doing their first clinical experience. But, it was more time than they got from anyone else. I don’t expect them to believe anything I say from now on. I must start rephrasing things.

Now for the vetting. Let me just say that this is my first experience with writing exams. I’ve taught a few courses as an adjunct faculty at home, but I never gave exams, only assignments and papers, and no one vetted those. This is a whole new world for me. I dutifully submitted my hundred questions for the course I was responsible for, and dutifully showed up at the vetting meeting, being the first on the schedule. It was Valentine’s Day and will now go on record as one of the worst days of my life. The way this works is the seven Blantyre faculty and two more from Lilongwe sit around a table and critique every single question on every single exam. I felt like I was defending a thesis for a course I never took. It was torture. Did I know that “none of the above” is not acceptable? No, I did not. I seem to remember a bunch of those on tests I took thirty years ago! Ok, so things have changed. Who told me?

The day went like this:

Questioners: “Why did you put in this question about anatomy of the respiratory track? The students take a separate anatomy course.”

Me: “Because the respiratory track was part of the module I was asked to teach.”

Questioners: “But they will get these questions in the other class.”

Me: “Oh.”

Questioners: “You’ll have to write questions to replace these”

Me: “Oh.”

Questioners: “Where are your answers for the short answer section?”

Me: “In my head. Was I supposed to put the answers on the test? Aren’t we supposed to know the answers to these?”

Questioners: “We need an answer sheet.”

Me: “Oh.”

Questioners:  “Is this question supposed to be testing the application or synthesis?”

Me:  “Uh, application? Is that the correct answer?”

This went on for eight hours. I thought it would never end.

After it was over, feeling like a pile of crap, I walked to meet George at our Chichewa class. I thought we’d have a chance to talk on the way home, then have a nice dinner and celebrate Valentine’s Day, which, is always a set up for disappointment. I should have known better. Without the bombardment of advertising, Valentine’s Day was not even close to George’s radar screen and I was too depressed to even tell him when he asked how my day was. Then, to make myself feel worse, I looked at Facebook to see all the postings of bouquets of flowers and messages of love from adoring partners, and went to bed.

Wednesday it was someone else’s turn to be interrogated and I didn’t feel so bad. I even joined in the questioning and started to see the point of it. If I hadn’t been first and had seen that everyone has to go through the same process, my day in court would have been emotionally easier. By Friday I was thinking it was a great exercise and the exams are really much better for it. And by the end of the week the students told me they were drawing blood, starting IVs, changing wound dressings and all kinds of shit I didn’t do until graduate school.

I’m telling you, every time I think the universe is imploding I see people do stuff I never thought possible and have hope. When Jameson gave us our proverb for the week I thought, right, hearts are different.

Love to all,


Sunday Morning~ Cape Maclear

February 12, 2017

Cape Maclear

Malonda koma kuitanira: Sell, but advertise first

~ Malawian Proverb

Hi Everyone,

This Sunday morning has me sitting at a corner desk in my thatched room looking out at Lake Malawi. Sunrise is behind me and the light is soft. There are big dark billowing clouds forming to the north and I can see them coming toward us. This experience is so different from Shamwana, where I only got out of the village every six to ten weeks. Here, our weekends are free and since the country is not at war, we can move about as we are able or inclined. Pat and Stacy are leaving tomorrow and I felt like they couldn’t come all this way and not see the lake. It was a haul to get here, but nevertheless, we persisted. We must get back to Blantyre today, however, and those clouds are making me nervous.

Cape Maclear is a small cape that juts into the lake at the southernmost tip in Monkey Bay. It’s difficult to get to, as it requires going up and over the mountains that form the semicircle protecting it. The landscape is incredibly unique and beautiful and one of the islands visible from here is National Park. There are lots of places to stay along the enormous lake, but I love this one with it’s fishing village and local activity using the lake for all their housekeeping and hygiene needs. Not being a swimmer, I’d rather watch the scene than swim and having had some nervous inquiries about schistosomiasis, I figured Pat and Stacy would too. There isn’t a risk of being eaten by crocodiles here, but with all the local bathing that goes on, the risk of getting schisto is real. So I thought weaving a cultural thread into the lake visit would be loved by one and all. (The jury is still out on that one.)

I was here nearly ten years ago when I was on holiday from working in Shamwana. I spent two weeks traveling in Malawi, and made my way by mini bus to Monkey Bay, then matolo to Cape Maclear. There is no public transportation to the cape, but there are flatbed trucks (matolo) that transport goods and people over the rough road, up and down the mountain to this little paradise. Being buried under a crowd of people, trying not to get crushed by bags of maize, I didn’t see much of the scenery on the way in last time. So Friday, I was hoping to enjoy the scenery and get here early enough to be over that road well before dark, sitting with a drink watching the sunset. George is in the midst of end-of-term crunch and was stressing about being away two weekends in a row, so he stayed home to get his work done. I was soloing as tour guide. Valuing our friendship, I knew better than to make Pat and Stacy ride on a matolo, so rented a car for the weekend. They’ve been very good sports so far and I didn’t want to push it any further than the minibus ride last weekend. Plus, it would have taken the whole weekend to get here by bus, so a car was the only way to do it. It’s only 135 miles from Blantyre, but with the roads as they are, that’s a five hour journey. I knew it would be a push, since we couldn’t leave until around one on Friday afternoon, but nevertheless, we persisted.

Some of the local organizations rent their cars on weekends to help pay for them, and a friend had had good luck with a car she got from the Malaria Project, so I gave them a call. I told them where we were going, wanting to be sure the car would make it over the dirt road to the cape. I was assured the car had done the trip many times and it would be no problem. I picked it up on Friday as soon as the students finished on the wards (more on that later). I was a little disappointed at the condition (I was hoping for a RAV 4 or something with a little clearance) but was told they had just gotten new tires and had it tuned up. This thing looked almost as low to the ground as my mini and I was a little skeptical about getting over the rainy-season roads. I was shown in great detail where the spare and jack were, handed the keys, and told to have a good trip. I could pay when I brought the car back. Never even ask to see my license. I was going to ask if there was a registration or anything, but he was already walking away, so I figured I guess I don’t need it. I got in, found the windshield wipers, and drove home.

We weren’t taking much, so loading the car was simple (even though the back door wouldn’t open) and we were on our way. Navigating the traffic near the hospital was second on my worry list after muddy roads, and I was anxious to get that over with. We got through the roundabout traffic unscathed, onto the Zomba road, and were merrily on our way, calculating the sunset to coincide with our arrival to this gorgeous spot. The roads here have roadblocks every so often–––gates across the road, blocking traffic, staffed by police who are checking I-haven’t-figured-out-what. Some cars are waved right through, some have to pull over. When we are on minibuses, it’s the same story. Some go right through and some get stopped. The stops don’t last long and I’ve seen money exchanged, but can’t claim to know what is being paid for. I just hoped they didn’t ask for a registration.

First road block, waved right through, second road block, waved through, then “Wait! Stop!” Hmm, I thought maybe he could see the inspection sticker was expired or something as I drove by, so I pulled to the side and rolled down the window (this clunker had air con). The policeman walked up to us and asked, “Did you see your front tire?” Well, I’d seen it when I picked up the car, but we got out and looked and the left front tire was flat as a pancake. I have no idea how long I was driving on it like that, but it felt fine to me. I’d even passed a big lorry not too far back and marveled at how well the car handled. Could it really have gone flat just as we got to the roadblock? Well, at least I knew where the spare was and had an experienced tire changer as a passenger. (I hate car trouble. I would have waited until someone came along to do it for me, which in Malawi, takes all of 20 seconds.) With an onlooking crowd of children, Pat got the car jacked up, tire off, spare on, and we were on our way in about a half hour. Not too bad. But we couldn’t make the rest of the journey without a spare, so hoped we could find a place in Zomba to fix it. About 300 meters down the road was a filling station with an air gauge. We pulled up to it and I asked the female attendant who pumps the petrol if we could get a tire fixed there. She pointed to the thin barefooted man standing behind her in the ragged blue grease monkey suit, who gave us a toothless grin, grabbed the flat tire and ran, rolling it, to the tree nearby, where his companions sat next to a pile of tires. Apparently they watch the air pump looking for customers. He submerged the tire in a big basin of water and quickly diagnosed that the valve was leaking. He told us he could run and get a new one for 1000 kwacha. (That’s about $1.20). So Pat sat on a bench under a tree watching the repair, while Stacy and I found a bank for some cash. By the time we got back, the tire was good as new, we popped it in the trunk, paid him 2000 kwacha for the labor, and were back on the road. We were an hour behind by then, but still thought we’d make it before the daylight was completely gone. We laughed at how quickly and efficiently some things get taken care of around here. At home, I’d still be waiting for AAA to arrive and would probably have to wait a week for that particular tire to be ordered and delivered. We’d have been spending the night in Zomba. But for a mere four dollars, we had but the slightest delay.

We missed one turnoff so that set us back another twenty minutes, and by the time we got to the turnoff to Cape Maclear it was dusk. Ok, just another 18 kilometers on a dirt road that was partially washed away in a car with low clearance. Anxiety was starting to build. A flat tire on this road in the dark would not be ok. Very slowly, trying to appreciate the beautiful lighting on the mountains, we made our way, as I tried to keep the car on the parts of the road that were still there. We got to a paved portion (Must be new! I don’t remember that from before!) and were golden for a good while, then back onto dirt, now completely dark, about one kilometer from the lodge. Only a half mile!! Then the road was gone. Gone. I thought maybe I’d veered off somehow and the road was behind me. Pat got out to take a look. When he opened the door a monsoon blew in, like Wizard of Oz-type wind. This was not good. He came back to the car and confirmed that there was no way a car could cross. Some people were walking by and we asked where the lodge was. They pointed in the direction where the road should have been. And just as I was thinking, “Well, we’re close enough to walk.” Stacy said, “There is no way I am walking.” so saved me the hassle of suggesting it. The man who pointed was telling us there was another way around, so carefully, so as not to slide off the part of the road that remained, I backed up to a spot where we could turn around. Another twenty minutes or so and we were going through the tiny village with pond-sized puddles beneath the Baobabs leaving us about ten inches to get by. It was hard to see but, nevertheless, we persisted and were at the lodge, parking the car behind the bamboo fence that shields the village from the view of the lake. This bothered me.

Some time ago, I’m not sure when, but more than ten years, some foreigners put up lakeside lodges along the waterfront in this village. It’s a perfect spot, I concur, and they are very simple structures and not high, but they all have a tall bamboo or cement face on the roadside of the lodge. The road is dirt, more a path than a road, and is the main street through the village. You can’t see the lake at all from the road and the lake is no more than 20 yards away. On the opposite side of the village from the lake are maize fields, and behind them a ring of mountains. It’s incredibly picturesque, except for these fences that block the view of the lake. Really, you could spend a week in the village and not know there is an enormous lake 20 yards away. This is the size of one of the great lakes. It’s huge. There are narrow walkways between the lodges and the villagers all use them to access the lake. They wash all their dishes there, wash their clothes, bathe, brush their teeth, everything that needs to be done with water is done on the beach. The lodge owners had water piped into the village and there are places with faucets to fill buckets so the women don’t have carry them so far, but apparently they don’t get used much. This is an obvious attempt to keep the lakeshore clean, but clearly didn’t work. The villagers continued with their traditional lifestyle, just without seeing the lake from their home now. It seemed to me this would be a problem for them.

I will not lie, after dropping our bags in our simple little thatched roofed rooms, I couldn’t get to the bar fast enough. It was a funky place with chairs in the sand and tables built around the trees and the lake within spitting distance. The menu was simple but the fish straight out of the lake and fabulous. No wifi, but a local band with homemade instruments singing American covers with an African flair. It was worth the hassle of getting here. It was windy, but warm and pretty much a perfect tropical scene.

Yesterday morning, we walked a few steps from our room to the lawn chairs and sat for four hours drinking tea, eating breakfast, and catching up on fifteen years of news. It’d been a long time since we’d sat and filled in the blanks and the conversation never lagged. Finally, around nine we decided to take a walk in the village, where we made the mistake of buying some locally made earrings (with lucky seeds!) from one of the hundreds of hawkers. Who knows who makes all these wood carvings and bracelets, but so many men are trying to get every tourist here to buy their wares and it gets really obnoxious. Since they saw us buy the earrings they would not leave us alone and one guy, Michael, fell into step and became our uninvited tour guide. I actually didn’t mind too much, because I was curious about how they felt about the lodges and he was very forthcoming. He said they lease the land from the village owners of it, and the lease gets renewed every year. He told us it benefits the village a lot because they have a steady income now and the kids can go to school and there is a health clinic there now. Plus it provides jobs. And if they are not happy with how they are treated, they won’t renew the lease. He said everyone was happy with the arrangement. I asked about the fences blocking the view of the lake. He told us no one minds that, they can walk to the lake between the lodges any time they want. The fishing hasn’t changed, they just have more customers now. It was an interesting perspective and one I hadn’t imagined. I was thinking in the western mindset that of course they would want to see the lake! It’s beautiful! But they don’t really think of scenery in the same way we do. They continue to laugh at us every time we take a photo of the sunset, or a pretty tree.

Michael had told us he had a woodcarving shop near our lodge and we promised when we were done with the walk we’d go and look at his stuff. The “shops” are just an open bamboo structure and the wares are on the ground and we went and bought a few things from him. I have no problem haggling over price, but it makes Stacy very uncomfortable, so I told her just give me what she wants and I’ll do the negotiating. Now, you have to be willing to walk away, and I knew they were gouging us, so starting in on the bartering, but when I said “Forget it. We don’t need this. “ and started putting it back, Pat butted in and we ended up paying more than we should have. I let it go. Michael did give us the tour after all and we figured that was worth something. We went back to the lodge for lunch and sat talking for another couple of hours. As we were thinking of getting up to walk to the National Park, Michael, now shit faced drunk, staggered from the beach to our table and collapsed into a chair across from us. One of the gardeners tried to get him up to leave us alone and he argued that WE WERE HIS FRIENDS! It was pathetic. Makes me so sad. The gardener talked him down and calmly got him to leave without a huge scene. He was shamed and muttered “Sorry” as he stumbled down to the beach again. The villagers down there all ignored him. I hope someone took some of his money away.

Yikes, These clouds are getting serious. I’m getting more nervous about the ride out of here. Wind is picking up too. I think we are about to get slammed. There is a distinct line of rain hitting the lake and coming toward us and it’s blowing a gale. Now I am too distracted to write and trying not to envision our rental car sliding off into a ditch. This is making me think the villagers are probably incredibly grateful for those fences. They surely protect their houses from this wind! Amazing how perspectives can change when the wind changes.

I’ve got a ton to tell you about work stuff, but I’m going to save that for next week. I’ll put on my lucky seed earrings, eat breakfast, and hope this is a passing storm or we are going to be in this village for an extended stay…

Nevertheless we will persist.

Love to all,

Sunday Morning ~ Mvuu Camp

Sunday Morning~ Mvuu Camp

February 5, 2017

Ng’oma yolira sikhala kusweka ~ The drum that makes the loudest noise breaks most easily

Malawian Proverb

Hi Everyone,

I’m sitting at the table on the porch of our thatched tent facing the Shire River, watching a pod of hippos snort and yawn. The birds and frogs are singing and it sounds like the soundtrack to a Tarzan movie. I can’t see any crocs at the moment, but we saw a parade of them last evening heading for the herd of waterbuck coming to the river to drink at sunset. The hippos are quite loud. They snort like bulls and there are hundreds of them. Well, maybe dozens of them right in front of me, but in Liwonde Park, where we came for the weekend, a mere 5,000 of these beasts live here in the river. Pat and Stacy got to watch some hippo porn in front of their tent yesterday, but we missed that show.

….Whew! A small dark bird just flew between me and this laptop. Swooping from around the side of the porch at about 70 mph and scaring the crap out of me…..phew…gotta wait a minute till my heart rate returns to normal….

It’s 5:30 and daylight is about full. I’m facing west (I think) so haven’t seen the sun come up, but I’m assuming it’s behind me somewhere. The air is still and there are just wispy clouds. It’s a change from yesterday morning when we woke to a steady rain, the remnants of the monsoon that started the night before. We got four inches (10 cm) of rain in ten hours.

We arrived here Friday afternoon by boat. We considered renting a car and driving into camp through the park, but we learned the roads are impassable at this stage of the rainy season. The boat service transporting us the 26 kilometers down the river was well worth the fare.

We’ve been to Liwonde before, but stayed at a different camp at the other end of the park. That was the dry season when the ground was brown and there were few leaves on the trees. It was hot and dusty then and the game drives took us easily over hard dirt roads. Those roads now are either rivers or muddy swamps and the vegetation is thick and green. It’s harder to see game now, so we decided to take our friends to this Camp situated right on the river and we can practically watch game from our beds. We’d been wanting to see this place, having heard about it from a few others we’ve met. The word was that it was unique and beautiful but very expensive. When I checked out the prices I thought we’d have to bag the idea. It was way out of our budget even for a splurge. But last Saturday when I was walking Pat and Stacy around Blantyre, we stopped in at a travel agent and inquired about the place. Well! Lucky Day! There was a “Green Season Special” this week and the price was a quarter of the usual. We booked it on the spot and figured out the logistics of getting here later in the week. We ended up taking a taxi the two hours to Liwonde as Pat’s lecture schedule didn’t allow us the time to take the crowded (but cheap) minibus. We’re not letting them miss that experience, however, and we’ll take one of those home later today.

Wow…..huge dark storm clouds are traveling toward me an an incredible rate…I may have to move this operation inside the tent…the wind has gone from zero to forty….whew…I’m starting to get wet….In I go! …..there… propped up on pillows, tucked under the comforter, and the only difference in the view is the screen between me and the river. I love this place. It is wildly raining and blowing right now. This makes me happy for the country. The rains have been good. The maize is high. People are glad.

And, I haven’t looked at what’s happening at home since Friday morning when I sent my daily email to my legislators. It’s been a good mental and emotional break. I realize it’s only been forty-eight hours, but it seems like longer, and my anxiety level has come down several degrees. It is healthy to take a break and go where the wild things are.

Let me tell you a little about the friends who are here with us. I met Pat Quinn when I was in college through a mutual friend who later became my husband. That was pre-Stacy. Pat met Stacy at Dartmouth where they were both in school during my Malawi Peace Corps days in 1979. We got real letters back then that arrived three weeks after they’d been written and we eagerly read reports of Pat having found a really nice girlfriend. This was corroborated via multiple sources. We didn’t meet her until were were home in 1981, a few weeks before their wedding. She was at the airport with him to meet us, and we had to agree; she was really nice. Thirty-eight years later, here we are, together again in Malawi; they are still married, I am not. Pat’s now a gastroenterologist, and he’s here for three weeks teaching at the college of medicine. We’re having fun showing them our favorite spots. I worried it would be a bit awkward with George, and worried he’d have to listen to us reminisce; after all, we have a very long history together: medical and gradual schools living a block apart, residency and more graduate school living a few miles apart, raising children together, traveling together, it’s a lot of history. But it’s good. Way more comfortable than I thought it might be, and though George is doing a lot of listening, he tells me he likes hearing the stories. So, that’s one less thing to be anxious about. We’re having fun and they haven’t even gotten diarrhea. Such troopers.

It’s also been nice for me to have a reality check. I’m both comforted and alarmed that Stacy and I are feeling the same anxiety about what’s happening at home. And Pat and George have similar reactions. It’s funny, I’m reassured that it’s not only me that feels this; I’m not making this up or overreacting as has been suggested, but I see a gender difference in the response. Jordan snapped at me in a text telling me to stop relating everything he says to politics. This was in response to something I wrote about next year’s plans adding that we’ll see what happens with a fascist dictator now. It had nothing to do with what he had asked, but I added it anyway. I find myself doing this a lot. But Jordan’s response made me think. I will never accept what is happening and think if I don’t keep bringing it up it will somehow become accepted. I also don’t want people to think I’m going along with this, agree with the madness, or normalize it. But is bringing it up all the time the right thing to do? Jordan said he thinks it’s unproductive. He said we all are upset, but should move forward rationally and not sound like the loonies that called Obama a fascist communist Stalin. He has a point. So I will try to be more thoughtful. I do want to move forward rationally. I want to spend less time justifying my feelings to people who aren’t listening. It’s a waste of energy. I need to strategize. Plan for the long haul.

I went to the bank on Friday before we left to cash a check and handed the teller my Peace Corps passport for identification. He said, “Ah, you are from the land of the free and the home of the brave. We always learned that if we made it to America, we had really succeeded.” This was said without the supplementary question of whether I was happy about what was happening there now––– a standard follow-up question since November whenever anyone asks where we are from. I heard his comment and braced myself, but the question didn’t come. He just smiled and counted out my money and handed it to me eagerly as if some of the luck of being an American would rub off on him.

I wonder in ten years if they’ll still believe that.

We saw a python yesterday on our boat ride down the Shire to watch the sunset. It was our first snake sighting. The little reptile was sitting on a tree branch looking over at a birds nest full of eggs. He looked just like the branch. Duncan, our guide for the weekend, amazed us with his acuity and telescopic vision. He picked out rare birds from 100 meters away, spotted this snake while driving the boat, and pointed out lizards completely hidden in trees overhanging the river bank. For me that is as interesting as seeing the animals themselves. To see someone completely in sync with his environment, comfortable with navigating our little boat between hippos and crocodiles, identify plants and explain their medicinal value, and with equal skill, mix gin and tonics for our sun set beverages. If he’s not content with his life, he never let on. He was nothing but manners, skill, and wisdom. Like Jordan, he’s another role model for me.

We have so much to learn from one another. I remind myself to keep listening and keep watching. I will be silent sometimes. I’m thinking. I don’t want to be the drum that breaks most easily. I want to be able to spot the snake in the tree and learn it’s wisdom.