Sunday Morning~Back to Blantyre

Sunday Morning~ Back to Blantyre

May 28, 2017

Hi Everyone!

If any of you are planning a visit (which we’d love, by the way), plan to stay longer than ten days. It’s just too short when traveling anywhere in Africa. That said, Jordan’s stay has been fabulous, just a teensy rushed. Heavily infused with luck, thank God, but too short. Of course it was me that packed the whole country into the visit, but I’m glad I did. There were just a few things we didn’t get to, but he wants to come back. Yay!

I’m writing this early but I know I won’t finish it until this evening after he’s on the plane back to Warsaw. It’s been a flash. We’ll be going to mass in a little while, then home for one last meal here together, then to the airport to drop him off and return the car to Godknows.

Let’s see, where did I leave off last week? We were leaving Liwonde for Mua Mission I recall after a boat trip down the Shire River. The boat trip was great, always count on the hippos for a good show. With the river level at end-of-rainy-season high, we could only see their heads, but still, they are a thrill to watch, especially up close. I asked the guide if they ever tip the boats over? He said he’d tell me when we got back to camp. It seems if we went over one while he was submerged and he decided to rise up…well, I guess it was better not to know. We got a good view of a couple of crocodiles, which was a treat since the grass is so high they can easily hide. The birds are always reliable, and though Jordan’s not a bird fanatic, he showed some enthusiasm. I told him I’d never appreciated birds until this year. George has definitely shown me their interesting side. And at the very end we found some elephants so close we made eye contact. I just love those beasts.

After dropping George in Liwonde town to get the minibus back to Blantyre, Jordan and I headed north to Mua Mission. I must say, having a car is nice. It shaves off half a day of waiting. It’s not possible to go very fast on these roads, but the countryside is gorgeous and meandering is fine. We talked for the hours it took to get anywhere and that, for me, is not time wasted.

I’ve got to say a word or two about traveling with my kid. I’ve written before about how we raised our kids to be travelers, and I find it’s a comfort to be on the road with someone so familiar. It’s like putting on a comfortable pair of old slippers. This past week was truly a blessing. And though Jordan was a little more leery of bugs than I am, there was nary an altercation.

Traveling in Africa is always an adventure, even when everything goes according to plan; it’s always so cumbersome to get anywhere. This country is not very big and ten days should have been plenty to cover the 450 miles north to south when you think in American terms. That’s like a morning drive! But finding petrol isn’t assured, definitely finding cash isn’t assured, and neither is finding your destination. No one takes credit cards and you can only take out a limited amount of cash each day. And the largest bills are the equivalent of $2.50, so it can be stressful. And petrol is expensive! When we did manage to find an ATM, half the time it wasn’t working or the machine was out of cash. That means no petrol and that means you’re not going anywhere because believe me, it wouldn’t be fun to run out of gas in some of these places. That would really throw the schedule off. I learned by Monday to get cash every time I saw a working ATM and never let the tank get below a half. By Monday I wasn’t so cavalier.

We’d been to Mua Mission while we were in training, the first Catholic Mission in Malawi started  in 1903 by the White Fathers, an order named for the color of their robes not their skin. Fr. Claude Bouche is a French Canadian father who arrived in Malawi in 1967, and himself an artist, dedicated himself to preserving the artistic culture of the three main tribes of the area.There is a great museum there with fabulous carved masks. There was an interesting write up about it in Jordan’s travel book and it was high on his list of places to see. When we were there last July the visit was rushed and we were a big group, so I was eager to return and spend as much time as we wanted. It was a three hour drive from Liwonde, a perfect distance for one day. We thought we might go the other twenty kilometers to Dedza to see the ancient rock art that’s been discovered there, but that twenty kilometers turned out to be as the crow flies, not as the road goes. The road was more like 70 kilometers. So by the time we had a tour of the museum and talked with Fr Bouche for a long time, it was starting to get dark and we hadn’t even walked around the grounds or seen the church yet. We decided to spend the night there at a hostel located about 100 meters from the museum. One hundred meters. Do you think we could find it? We had to ask at least ten people where it was, drive up and down terrible dirt roads in the gathering dusk, pass the same group of kids over and over, go back to the now closed museum to look at the diagram on the outside sign, and finally, two women carrying firewood on their heads, sent us in the right direction where a group of children pointed the way to the hostel. It was a little ridiculous. Good thing the rental car had unlimited mileage.

The place was sweet, I thought. Jordan didn’t like the cockroach droppings at the back of his bed, but it was just droppings, not cockroaches. Cockroaches was my diagnosis; it was a bit small for mice scat, but could possibly have been gecko. My feeling was: we are off the road, have beds with clean sheets and mosquito nets, a sweet old man is making us a meal, there’s hot water for a shower, so I didn’t care if it was snake poop. The nets tucked in and that makes me feel safe. We never saw a cockroach, which, always makes me think they sprayed poison in the room, something that bothered me more than Jordan.

The next morning after a good breakfast we used up a good amount of our cash with paying for the room, meals, and a few wood carvings from the art gallery. We were heading for Nkhotakota, a fairly big town where there is a game reserve. We figured on a three hour drive for the 140 kilometers, about the same distance we’d done the day before. So after walking around the mission, down the trail to the waterfall, then to the church and hospital, we set off. We had plenty of gas to get to Nkhotakota and there were two lodges to choose from inside the reserve. We thought we’d get there in plenty of time to get cash, gas, and lodging. Well, the road was not good. Potholes made it impossible to go even 50 miles an hour and it took us four hours to get to the town. Still, not bad, but there was no bank! I could not believe they didn’t have a National Bank there! We needed gas! We needed cash! There was no way we could make it to Nkhata Bay, where we were heading the next night without more petrol. I pulled into a gas station and asked if they’d take a check? Nope! This wasn’t good. I had the equivalent of $12 and we needed to sleep somewhere. I pulled out of the station and started driving toward the other end of town and saw a small blue National Bank sign, but no bank. When I got closer I saw a paper taped to the sign that said, “Outpost Now Open”. Across a dirt field was a painted cement storefront with a few people sitting on the porch. I asked if there was a bank in there? They said, “Yes,” and pointed to a little desk with a three-sided plastic barrier perched on top. There was a little curved area cut out of the bottom of the plastic simulating a teller’s window. I could have pushed the whole thing over. There was no one behind the desk, which was apparently a little wild-west outpost of our bank. The people on the porch said they’d be back at 1:30. It was 12:45. A bit of a bummer, but I was glad there was a place to get cash, so we went off to kill 45 minutes looking for the old tree that David Livingstone camped under, written about in the guide book. We found a small faded sign pointing the way down a dirt road. We saw plenty of trees, but couldn’t find the one David camped under and after 45 minutes we wondered who would even care?  Back to the bank cubby we went to find that the “system was down” and there was no cash. Okay. Change of plans. I guess we aren’t going to the game reserve. I called one of the lodges to see if they’d take a credit card and they said, “No, the system is down.”

We’d passed a sign about 20 kilometers back that advertised a lodge on the lake saying, “Credit Cards Accepted, Wifi Available”. So, without a lot of options, we drove back there, then another eight kilometers down a dirt road to a lovely lodge on the beach that had camping for $5 a night, a nice little restaurant, showers, and though the “system was down” they’d take a check! We asked about the wifi and they said they didn’t have any. Jordan pointed out that it said on the sign there was wifi available and the guy told us that maybe up at the sign there was wifi, but not here. So we had a chuckle, then a  walk on the beach of this beautiful enormous lake, ate fresh fish for supper, slept well in the tent, and saw the most gorgeous sunrise before we had our tea and headed back to town praying the “system” was back up and we could get some cash.

Back to the outpost desk when they opened at eight to be told to come back at ten because the boss was at another bank trying to get some cash. I said I didn’t want to wait another two hours as we’d already spent a whole extra night there waiting for cash. I decided to go to the gas station and have them put the gas in and then give them a check. I wasn’t going to ask first. Then we’d bag the game reserve and just head north to Mzuzu where I knew there was a bank and fellow volunteers to stay with. I drove the quarter mile back to the gas station and was accosted by guys trying to sell us stuff (nice stuff for cheap), but I said we didn’t have any money, which always sounds like a lie since here we were driving a car on vacation, and they were blocking the gas station attendants who were pushing them aside to get to the car to ask how much gas we wanted, when they guy from the “bank” came running into the station waving to us, saying, “We’ve got some cash!” He opened the back door of our car, jumped in and said, “Let’s go!”  So I pulled back out of the station, back to the “bank” and went in to get enough money to get enough gas to get to Mzuzu, another three hour drive that took nearly five the road was such crap.

We ended up having enough time to go to the game reserve where I paid the entrance fee with a check and since they didn’t mind the check added the ten bucks for a guide. A short distance up the road the armed guide got in our car and told us to park and we’d walk to a waterfall where they usually can see some animals across the river. So we left the car and followed him down the trail. Along the way he stopped short, took his gun off his shoulder, squatted down, and said, “Get back! Get back!” I looked up and could see the elephant tusks pointing toward us about 20 yards away. They were coming our way. Jordan had his camera around his neck and took a picture (which I could not believe, I sure didn’t) and we scrambled back up the path and stood behind a tree. The guide said there were many of them and we couldn’t go that way. I only saw one, but I didn’t look too hard before I turned tail and ran. He said there was another way to get to the waterfall but it was a longer walk. We didn’t mind. Well, about a half mile into that trail, it was a similar scenario with the guard grabbing his gun and whisper-yelling at us to get back! There was another big herd of elephants coming at us. I was like, I’ve had enough of this, can’t we just drive? But the trail wasn’t drivable, and we were blocked both ways, so we went back to the car. He told us we could try one road to drive down and see what we could find, but it was getting hot and the animals were probably going toward the shade so our chances were slim. What we did find on that drive, however, were swarms of Tse Tse flies. The ones that cause African Sleeping Sickness. We were driving along, enjoying the bad road, when the guide told us to roll the windows up quick, but by the time we did the car was already full of the flies. When we rolled the windows down to try to get them out, more came in. So I drove while Jordan and the guide tried to kill all the flies. So that was exciting. I didn’t think I’d live to see an actual Tse Tse fly! I hear their bite hurts so I don’t think we got bitten but it took some skill to drive while getting them out of my hair.

…It’s getting late…it’s now Sunday evening and we’ve gone to a really nice mass in a village, had a lunch with Mark, one of my drivers at the college, and dropped Jordan at the airport. Then we went to the orphanage to return the car and had a tour there. I don’t think I can write anymore tonight. At least not coherently. I think I’ll leave the story here and continue it next week. I just hit the wall.

Love to all,


Sunday Morning~Liwonde

Sunday Morning~ Liwonde Safari Camp

May 21, 2017

Hi Everyone,

We just got back from an early morning walk with Charles, our guide. The cooks are making our breakfast over the open fire while we sip our tea and wait for Charles to burn the fruit of the Sausage Tree. He’s making a salve, supposedly good for healing skin rashes, from the ash of the burned bark.  As we passed under one of these trees, Charles picked up a fruit that had fallen and told us they weigh up to ten kilos when ripe and warned us never to camp under these trees. When falling from a big height, one fruit can kill a person. He showed us the inside of the fruit and told us how the baboons eat them for the water they hold. Then he described how beneficial the ash from the hard shell is when burned and mixed with oil. Jordan asked if he could buy some to bring back to Poland for a friend. Charles is mixing up a fresh batch for him now and George is speculating about a new line of cosmetics. We’ll see how the Polish clinical trial goes.

In a few minutes we’ll leave on a boat trip down the Shire River to see what the hippos are up to on this cool and sunny Sunday morning. We arrived at the Safari Camp yesterday in time for an afternoon game drive, wanting Jordan to have his first glimpse of animal-viewing the way it should be. Because it’s end of the rainy season and there is still plenty of water around, the animals are deeper in the woods and not forced to be drinking and munching down by the river. But we managed to find impala, water buck, wart hogs, loads of birds, and finally, a large herd of elephants that Charles spotted from, I swear, two miles away. We ended up taking an extra hour for the drive just to find the elephants. Charles said he couldn’t have Jordan go without seeing  elephants on his first game drive in Africa. I love this customer service. We drank a beer while watching a magnificent sunset over the river and got back to camp well after dark. I feel like I could ride forever in that open land rover. I love the wide landscape, the cool breeze, the jostling around holding on to the seat as we drive over dirt tracks. I love not wearing a seatbelt.

Jordan arrived Thursday afternoon and was standing outside the terminal waiting for me when I pulled up in the rented RAV4. I had wanted to get to the airport when his plane landed, thinking  I’d wait for him to get his visa and get through customs, but his plane landed early and the lines short, and the whole arrival much more efficient than I anticipated. Some things work very well here. I had gotten to the Peoples Grocery Store at the designated time to meet Godknows (his actual name) who was delivering the rental car, but he was a bit late. Godknows was a street kid and through some benevolent spirit was given a second chance at life. He was able to attend school and later started a home (he doesn’t like to call it an orphanage) for street kids that has a nursery school, primary school, and vocational training. They have a couple cars they rent out for money to put toward the school. Talk about giving back! There was no paperwork; he just handed me the keys and said he’d see me on the 28th, and asked me to send him a picture of my license when I had a chance.

So I didn’t even have to find a parking space, Jordan just hopped in and we pulled out onto the one road that leads to the airport. Back to the city, I managed the Blantyre traffic fairly well and we were home hours earlier than I thought we’d be. We even had time to walk down to the Kamba Market for a little local tour, pick carrots, lettuce, sweet potatoes, and peppers from the garden, then sip a gin and tonic while grilling a filet of Malawian beef. Dinner was fresh.

Friday, I had to check on my students in the nursery, so Jordan had a tour of the hospital on the way there and looked in the nursery windows while I went in to have a chat with them. They wanted to meet my son, so came out to greet him, giggling. Photos were taken, well wishes given, recommendations offered that I take him to their home districts (everyone is so proud of the beauty of their home), then we collected George and set off for a glimpse of Mt Mulanje and a tour of the tea plantations. One of the plantations does a simple but nice tea tasting and we learned a lot! We stopped in a little shop in Thyolo where artists make and decorate homemade paper with feathers and bark and we got back to Blantyre later than we’d planned. We had to go straight to the Blantyre Sports Club for trivia night, a fundraiser for the Malawi Wildlife Association. It was mostly ex-pats, but a good cause and good fun and, having Jordan on our team, we finished respectably.

Yesterday morning Catherine came over with her son to meet my son and that visit threw off our departure to Liwonde so we didn’t have much time to explore the Zomba plateau on the way here. There’s just so much to see! It’s hard to pick and choose!

After our boat ride this morning we’ll drop George off in the town of Liwonde and he’ll take a minibus back to Blantyre. Jordan and I will head north and spend tonight at Mua Mission, the first Catholic mission in Malawi, established in 1902 by the White Fathers. There is a museum there started by Fr. Claude Bouche, a French Canadian priest who is himself an artist and wanted to preserve the tribal artistic culture in a meaningful way. They have a guest house there, so we’ll tour the place and spend the night, then try to find the 10,000 year old rock art hidden somewhere in Dedza district. I think we just wander around looking for rocks with white figures on them, but we’ll figure that out once we get to the mission. Preserving ancient artifacts is a new concept here. Hopefully tourism will grow and more of it will be protected. Not sure how this is going to go, but we’ll take one day at a time.

I doubt there’ll be internet where we’ll be tonight and there certainly isn’t any here, so this may not get posted until Monday or Tuesday.  Off to the river now!

Love to all,


Sunday Morning ~ Lilongwe

Sunday Morning~ Lilongwe

May 14

Mlandu suola ~ A court case doesn’t rot

~ Malawian proverb

Hi Everyone,

It’s Kamuzu Day today so tomorrow is another public holiday. We didn’t plan out these public holidays in a manner that allows us to add them to our vacation and extend our time off. Very poor planning on our part. For instance, if I were taking this week off instead of next, I’d only have to use four vacation days. But I didn’t learn about the holiday until last week, so only myself to blame for not reading the travel book through to the end of the “General Information” section. They’ve added many public holidays since I was here last. Oh well.

It’s a little before dawn and I am sitting in the empty restaurant at the Korean Garden Lodge hoping to get a cup of tea soon. We are heading back to Blantyre in an hour after spending a few days at the lakeshore where we had our close of service retreat. We got to Lilongwe yesterday, too late to get the bus back to Blantyre. Our one-year contract ends in June but some of the volunteers were leaving early in order to start fellowships, so I guess that’s why they had the closing retreat in May. Anyway, it was held in a nice(ish) hotel, right on the beach, the same hotel my eleven cohorts of 38 years ago used to bike to on Sundays when we were in Peace Corps training in nearby Salima. The hotel has gone corporate and quadrupled in size and the waiters don’t serve you drinks in the water like they used to. That may be because no one goes in the water anymore, not a lapse in customer service. It’s also a much longer walk to the water. When we were here in the late 70’s the level of the lake was much higher and the beach non existent. But this time we had reliable wifi (Hah! Didn’t even exist back then!) and a television in every room, and for the first time in my life I couldn’t stop watching CNN, an activity previously reserved for airports. Holy shit! Every time I think things can’t get any crazier! Even the Malawians have stopped complaining about their own corrupt government. We were looking at our national staff and saying, “Uh, I think we’ve got you beat.”  But, mlandu suola, a court case doesn’t rot, and there is a belief that justice comes sooner or later. I’m hoping for sooner.

The retreat was good. We spent the first day taking turns (ten minutes each) talking about our year and describing “successes”. I found myself getting a little depressed during that part as it sounded like everyone else accomplished way more than I did. Or if not accomplished, at least figured out a way to be more helpful. There was a nice slide show put to music, a fair amount of re-entry advice, lots of logistics about getting home, safety, paperwork and handover stuff. Administrative necessities that could have been boring, but I actually thought it was all a little interesting. I was enjoying being passive and not having to make any decisions except for…hmm, gin and tonic or wine? I ran on the beach in the evenings, watched the sunrise in the mornings, and appreciated the other volunteers’ humor and insights during the day.  I think my favorite part was that we had to draw names and describe (in a positive way) the person whose name we picked. It was surprisingly moving and even those who’s personalities didn’t jive with our own were seen in a new light. There were lots of unexpected tears, maybe because with all the frustrations and uncertainties about whether we’ve been doing any good, the relationships we’ve developed have been valuable. I have a new appreciation for the challenges that kindergarteners have being thrown into one room and forced to get along.

It was fun to hear people’s travel plans. Some are taking a month or more to get home, some going straightaway, some just a few days in various cities en route. Those of us extending for a year get a ticket to our home of record for leave and don’t get the travel option. When we end our contract we can either take a ticket or the cash equivalent and make our own plans. That’s what we’ll do next June. This year, since we’ve decided to commit to another year, we get a three week home leave with some travel per diem. It’s a good deal. George will leave here the end of June and come back mid August when the medical students start again. I will stay through the end of July to finish the rotation with my fourth year students and then stay home for three months. I told them I already had commitments for those months and the only way I could extend was to be home during that time. They said, “Okay” so I’ll come back here in November and stay until next June. Hopefully that will give enough time to really get this model ward started.

Jordan arrives this week on Thursday. I’ll take next week off to travel around the country with him and show him some of our favorite spots and some I’ve been wanting to get to. I’m renting a car so we don’t have to spend most of the time on minibuses. He’s worried about snakes. That seems to be a common theme with would-be visitors. We’ve yet to see a live one here, though. There was a dead baby mamba on our back doorstep a few weeks ago. I opened the back door and startled the mongoose we have living in our yard and he dropped the snake and took off. The mongoose is a gorgeous animal, very sleek, and they apparently eat snakes!  Anyway, mambas can hear people walking like 50 feet away and stay clear. They don’t want to bite you!

The rains should be finished by now, but we’re still getting some showers and lots of clouds. It’s late in the season for this. No one seems too worried, though. It’s not flooding and there is definitely no drought this year. Hopefully that means enough food. The markets certainly are overflowing with tomatoes and pumpkins and on the bus on the way here we passed a truck that had to have ten thousand cabbages on it. Seriously.

Well, off to get a taxi to the bus and then the haul back to Blantyre. I’m not sure where I’ll be next Sunday. Someplace pretty with my baby.

Happy mother’s day to all the moms, and love to all,


Sunday Morning~Blantyre

Sunday Morning~ Blantyre

May 7, 2017

A ndi itana pakalowa njoka; pakalowa mbewa akumba okha~ They call me when a snake has entered; when a mouse has entered, they dig alone. ~ Malawian Proverb

Hi Everyone,

I am back from Lilongwe having had a full few days of research presentations and midwifery energy. The meeting was good. It was a scientific meeting, not an education meeting so the format was different from what I am accustomed to. I was stressed waiting to hear what I was supposed to do, partly because I hate looking like an idiot on a stage and partly because I want this model ward to happen so badly. Not knowing anything about who would be there, what would come of it, the role it might play in the development of this idea, I fantasized that this was our big break. It was stressful.

The meeting was May 3rd to 5th.

Here is the timeline:

April 20th: Abstracts due and submitted.

April 28th (11:29 pm): Email received that abstract will be presented on May 4th with the message: “Format will be sent by May 2nd”.

April 29-30: Prepare presentation that could be either ten minutes or one hour. Waste a lot of time fretting.

May 1st: Try to figure out transportation to Lilongwe on the 2nd or 3rd. Find out we have a lunch meeting with the deputy ambassador on the 2nd in Blantyre. Hope desperately they are driving back to Lilongwe and can catch a ride with them.

May 2nd: (noon): Lunch with embassy people who are not going back to Lilongwe that day. Plan to take the early bus on the 3rd and miss the first two hours of the meeting (reassure myself that it will probably start late and I’ll only miss one hour). Worry I still haven’t received “format”. Learn an architect professor at the Polytechnic may be interested in partnering with us to design the physical space. Feel like God wants this to happen.

May 2nd (2:30 p.m.): Receive phone call while in a taxi in Blantyre saying I will be the first to present from 9:15-9:30, May 3rd, which is tomorrow.

May 2nd (2:36 p.m.): Freak out.

May 2nd (2:48 p.m.): Flail around the office trying to call and email people to get it changed to the 4th as we were originally told as it is impossible to get to Lilongwe by 9:15 the next day. The earliest would be 11:30 and that’s only if the bus doesn’t break down. Am reassured that they will somehow get us on the schedule on the 4th.
May 2nd (2:55 p.m.): Get scolded by fellow volunteer for being “Way too stressed about this.”

May 2nd (2:56 p.m.): Storm out of the office and walk back to Old Town (where I’d just been at lunch; a long walk) to buy two bus tickets for the morning (one for me and one for the volunteer who scolded me), ask for seats not together. Receive a text that I was supposed to supervise students in the nursery that day (first I’d heard of that). Congratulate myself for not screaming.

May 2nd (4:25p.m.) Arrive, sweating, at the nursery to find the students getting ready to leave for the day. The nursery nurse says, “You are late.” I respond, “I know. But only by nine hours. I only just learned I was supposed to be here.” (She doesn’t give a shit. She just had to do my work all day.) Have a quick meeting with the students and tell them I’ll see them there on the 8th. They are all smiles, thanking me. I leave and feel like crap.

May 2nd (5:00 p.m.): Return to the office to give the scolder her bus ticket. Am told she has decided not to go. Tell her she owes me $15 bucks for the ticket. Kick myself that I asked for separate seats as now I would have had two to myself.

May 2nd (5:01 p.m.): Walk home deciding I’m well enough past my hangover to make a gin and tonic to drink while I pack.

May 3rd: Arrive in Lilongwe by express bus at exactly 11:15 a.m. Marvel at this efficiency. Get a cab to the hotel as I have no idea where it is. Discover it is less than 100 meters away and pay the laughing cab driver the 1,500 Kwacha I agreed to. Run into the meeting to hear a presentation on model wards! Realize I have to redo my presentation as the format is nothing like I expected.

May 4th: Get up at 3:45 a.m. to remake my powerpoint.

May 5th: Arrive at the designated meeting place at 7:20 a.m. aware that we are ten minutes early for the march for International Day of the Midwife. Turns out to be three hours early. Enjoy talking with Malawian midwives who are complaining way more than me about how late it is starting.

The meeting turned out to be great. In fact, all of it was great once I got there. It was the Association’s first attempt at a scientific meeting and I thought they did a good job even though it was a bit last minute. The passion and energy was there for sure. It’s hard to keep presentations to ten or fifteen minutes and of course, they all went over. Somehow it worked though (that’s how I feel about most things here). We still got tea breaks and lunch break and everyone got to present. There were three consecutive presentations and then a question and answer period for those three. When I finished my presentation I felt like there wasn’t much of a response. Everyone seemed a little flat, but during the Q&A it was clear there was a lot of interest. The talk the day before on model wards was a study funded by I-forget-which donor and after the grant ended, so did the ward. I emphasized that we are designing this to be sustainable.

There was a lot of discussion about what is happening to the relationship between doctors and midwives here. In the past, the midwives ran the maternity wards and only called for medical help if they needed it. Now with the medical school here, the medical students and residents do rounds twice a day and leave “orders” for the midwives to carry out. They do not stay with the women or even ask the midwives what’s going on. There is an incredible power struggle and the midwives are all frustrated with their lack of autonomy and are less and less invested in asserting themselves. They are poorly paid, have very little time off, and aren’t respected. The midwives at this meeting, most of whom had advanced degrees, were very vocal about that. The proverb speaks to their feelings. The essence of it is resentment for being used in bad times without being thanked in the good times. Snakes are feared here, but mice are a delicacy. Midwives feel they are asked to do all the hard work, but when there is a reward, they are left out.

SEED Global Health, the organization I work with, was a sponsor for the meeting and Bridget, our Country Representative, attended all three days. Bridget is a Malawian physician and went through medical school here. After one discussion where midwives were saying we need to assert ourselves and look for ways to teach the students to do the same, Bridget stood and spoke. She said she had learned so much from sitting through the meeting. She’d had no idea what our education struggles were or how we were undermined by the medical team. She said, “When I was a medical student, I was told to go do rounds and write orders, and that’s what I did. I did not have any exposure to what the midwives were experiencing. I have a whole new level of understanding. It feels to me similar to racial tensions. When there is a power imbalance it is one thing to tell the oppressed to assert themselves, and quite another to have them do it. It’s not easy to bridge that gap.” She said she was excited about this model ward as it is a way to model assertive behavior while providing quality care, and she wants to see it succeed. She said she hopes that eventually medical students can rotate through the ward to learn a different way to practice. She is eloquent and passionate and had everyone rapt. I wanted to kiss her feet.

So, we’re off! Lots of steps and work to do, but so far so good. Meeting with this architecture professor was exciting. He said this is exactly the kind of project the school is looking for. He’s coming over to the hospital tomorrow and I will show him around to give him an idea of what there is to work with. The more partners we have with this the better off our chances.

Speaking of exciting, the first lady of Malawi was invited to close our meeting. After the morning session on Thursday we were asked to leave the room to get it ready for her. This involved bringing in boatloads of greenery and flowers, a velvet draped podium to match the red velvet chair, and microphones and cameras of a much higher quality than the ones we used for the meeting. Red carpets were unrolled along the hallways and swept clean by hotel staff. This took hours. We all could have had an extra fifteen minutes to do our presentations with the amount of time it took just to remake the room. But I was enjoying it. It gave us all time to mill around and chat and do some networking. Security people were all over the place, identifiable by the automatic weapons they had slung over their shoulders. They also had those little earpieces with the coiled wire going down to something on their backs but those were a little harder to see. When she was about to arrive, we were all herded back into the auditorium which looked like a whole new room. About a hundred very scruffy looking people came in and sat up the aisles and in every empty seat. And I mean scruffy, like homeless kind of scruffy. As soon as the royal entourage appeared, all the riffraff stood and started drumming and singing and dancing. I leaned to the person next to me and asked, “Does she travel with these people? Are they hired to do this?” If so, you’d at least think they get some decent clothes and a bar of soap for their troubles. (I was thinking of trump hiring his audiences.) She shook her head, “No, they wait outside anyplace she is supposed to be and come to hear her speak.” I was shocked they let them in, but also thought it was pretty cool.

The first lady of Malawi is president of the organization OOAFLA, The Organization of African First Ladies. She is the picture of grace and charm. She is tall and slender and was wearing an outfit reminiscent of Jackie Onassis, a winter white sheath dress with matching coat, a little retro looking, 60’s style. It was stunning. She wore a gold hat, a huge gold hat with stiff flowers and ribbon. It looked like the whole thing had been spray painted gold. It hid most of her face. She sat in her red throne surrounded by dignitaries from the ministry of health. I couldn’t stop staring at her. There were lots of welcomes and speeches and howling and singing of National Anthems and other songs I didn’t know. When it seemed like everyone but her had spoken, the podium was undraped of it’s red velvet and carried and placed right in front of her so she didn’t have to take a step. She simply stood and was in the right spot. She gave the most thoughtful, and appropriate speech I could ever imagine. She has a lovely voice, soothing and melodic. Really hypnotizing. I wanted her to read me a bedtime story. I’d love a transcript of the speech because I can’t remember all of it or how she worded everything, but the first sentence was “You can’t talk about life without talking about midwives.” I liked that. Another line that struck me was, “No amount of money can compensate you for what you do.” Now, of course those lines would strike me, but it was more than the words. It may be wishful thinking, but I really thought she meant what she was saying. I felt like she was an ally. She said her organization would be a partner, which, is just talk but it was significant and symbolic and I appreciated it. Just the fact that she came was impressive. This was not a huge group. The last census by the White Ribbon Alliance for Safe Motherhood shows that there are just over three thousand practicing midwives in Malawi and to meet the WHO standard ratio for midwife to childbearing women we need 23,000. That’s only 20,000 short. There were probably eighty of us at this meeting trying to figure out how to educate more midwives. We have 2,000 of us at our meeting at home and we’ve never had the first lady come! Anyway, I liked it. The rag tag extras were escorted out and we were told where to gather to pose for a group photo with her. We had to leave our bags in one big heap with two armed soldiers guarding them. We weren’t allowed to take any pictures with our cameras or phones, so I’m hoping I can get a copy of the official one. After the photo op we all lined up along the red carpet and she gracefully exited shaking our hands and greeting us as she left.

Ah. Done with all I had to worry about, I had a relaxing evening and slept well. The 3:30 a.m. rooster serenade didn’t even wake me. I was being collected at 6:30 to meet the group for the march for midwifery solidarity. I love how they organize these marches. People march all the time for one cause or another. It’s so different from when I was here before when organizing a march would get you a lifetime prison sentence. We were supposed to be at the area 25 filling station at 7:30 to begin marching at 8. We would march for a distance of about two kilometers where we would have more speeches and dances before the event ended. Well, we got there at 7:20, beating most of the traffic, and waited an hour before anyone else showed up. Then as midwives trickled in, all wearing the official chithenje of the Association for Malawian Midwives the complaining began about how long it was taking to start. Nine o’clock came and went, ten o’clock came and went, and there was no sign of anyone taking charge. Finally around 10:30, the huge flatbed lorry was heard coming toward us with the “HealthCare Band” playing lively tunes that the women sing at the clinics. There was a big banner on the side recognizing May 5, 2017 as International Day of the Midwife. Then it didn’t take long to get everyone marching in front of the truck lead by a police officer and get on the road. Signs were handed out which read, “Recognize, Reward, Motivate. Midwives.” and “Malawi Needs Midwives Than Midwives Need Her” (I think there was a “more” missing from that one), “Midwives Are The Change And The Future. Malawi Dreams.” , “Midwives Untapped Resource in National Development” (either a colon or an “Are An” missing from that one). Also one that read “Employ More Midwives” and one “Give Us Resources To Work With”. The midwives carried these with pride and danced along to the music playing behind us and raised the signs to every car passing by. It was fabulous. I was honored to be a part of it. It took about forty minutes to go the mile or so to the field where two tents were set up for the speeches. I really don’t know why they chose this particular field at a Teachers College near a primary and secondary school. We were pretty noisy and hundreds of kids poured out of the primary school to mill around and dance and try to get into one of the handbags left on the chairs. One midwife or another was always swatting a hoard of them away. I kept mine over my shoulder so could let down my guard a bit, but there was a lot of swatting going on. There was apparently good reason for this as I watched kids circle the chairs where handbags were, waiting for it’s owner to turn her head. This went on through the speeches until some older kids with tree branches in their hands circled the tent and started swatting the kids until they scattered. Then it looked a little like sheep being herded. The older kids with switches making a wide circle swiping the younger ones as they ran back toward the school. It was actually quite efficient.

After the speeches and songs and poems honoring what we do, we gathered in front of the truck for one last song and we all danced as the band played and everyone (except me, not knowing the words) sang, “You have a baby in your belly, a baby on your hip, a baby on your back, a pot on your head, do you think this is fair?” A little tune promoting family planning by the health care band. I loved it.

Then it was a boxed lunch and a long drive back to Blantyre. I got a ride back in a car returning to the college, which was a treat. I was delivered, exhausted to my door where I could then throw out all the dead rotting flowers on the coffee table that didn’t seem to catch the eye of my housemate.

This week it will be the nursery tomorrow with the students I neglected last week, then an architectural tour. Tuesday we leave again for Lilongwe and a three day meeting for Peace Corps for the end of our year’s service. They are doing it a little early for some reason. Maybe because some people are leaving before the end of June, not sure.

Love to all,