Sunday Morning~Blantyre

Sunday Morning~ Blantyre

June 4, 2017

Hi Everyone,

I just saw an article that rates the ten poorest countries in the world according to GDP, and Malawi is number one. Meaning, it’s the poorest country in the world. It is peaceful and the people warm and friendly and loving. But I wonder if things do get worse economically, will that change? Suffering and poverty can do that.

There are few natural resources here, aside from the lake and the beauty of the landscape. It’s overpopulated but peaceful, so tourism could and should be a major source of income, but there’s a bit of work to be done along those lines. I live here and find it hard to get around. It’s difficult to take advantage of what the country has to offer, which, is a lot. But I maintain, tourism is the only thing that will turn this economic status around. If more people made a living out of tourism there would be incentive to keep the environment clean and keep the government stable. People don’t like to travel to countries at war.

A week ago Jordan and I were in Dedza to see the UNESCO World Heritage site of ancient rock art. There are paintings by the Chewa people that are 2,000 years old, and some by Pygmies that are 10,000 years old! I would think people would come to Malawi just to see those! Well, we had good directions, a car, a grasp of the local language (enough to ask directions), and it took us hours to find it. The guide book said to “take the first dirt road after the third crossing of the Linthipe River, approximately 500 meters on the left”. We passed about ten dirt roads, took the one we estimated to be about 500 meters, which turned into more of a walking trail than a road, so I asked a nice old man where the village of Mphunzi was? He explained in rapid Chichewa (I guess thinking I spoke it better than I do) that we had to go back near the bridge after the minibus stop and turn there. It took me a bit to get that straight. That was not 500 meters from the bridge; it was more like 50 meters. Jordan and I had a little discussion about whether it was a typo in the book or if we were on the wrong road again. But as it turns out, the old man was more accurate than the guide book, and we were on the correct “road” only navigable because our car had decent clearance. We found the mission church, left the car there, and walked, surrounded by goats, another 500 meters toward where we thought the site was. It said in the book these paintings were the easiest to find of all of them. We thought there might be a sign. Where the road ended, lay a rock where a guy named Lenton sat. He jumped up and asked if we wanted to see the rock art? We said, “Yes!” thrilled to find someone there had heard of it. We followed him up to a little brick room where he unlocked the door and told us to wait outside. He emerged with the sign describing the site and leaned it against the wall for us to read, then asked if we wanted him to take us to see the eight sites. We affirmed we did and he told us it was customary to give him a tip of ten thousand kwacha, a third of our guards’ monthly salary. I asked if he got paid to guard the site, and he confirmed he did get a monthly salary, but still, he thought a tip would be appropriate. And, if I didn’t want to pay ten thousand, I could give him eight. I told him we paid two thousand to see the archeological site in Karonga. He said, “But that’s only one site! There are eight here!” Which, I admit, was true. I was most impressed that he knew that fact. I said, “Let’s go. We’ll talk about the tip later.”  I was a little annoyed that he was milking us, but the further we got into the hike, the bigger his tip was getting. We would NEVER have found it without him. We could have wandered around that mountain for months before we found any of it. He earned his tip. He knew his shit. I was impressed. There are several caves on that small mountain and protected from rain and sun these primitive paintings were astounding to behold. I can’t believe more people aren’t coming to see them! There certainly wasn’t a line to get in. Lenton said he had some visitors the day before but he only gets a few a week. I told him I’d be back. I want to explore some of the other sites hidden away in the Chongoni Forest. I asked him to promise he wouldn’t spend the tip money on Chibuku (a local millet beer), but would use it for his family. He laughed and told me about all the things he would buy, but fell short of an actual promise. I would have rather given the money to his wife (studies show families here do better if women manage the money) but hoped for the best for him. I’m happy to support the local economy and pay someone to guide us, as long as they aren’t drinking the tips. It took us so long to find “the easiest site to access” that it was late and we headed back to Blantyre, a four hour drive. I’ll have to explore another time.

We get a monthly volunteer salary, which is about what I’d make in a day at home. For George, it’d be about two hours pay. We live very comfortably on that. I can have Kenny, the local tailor, make me a new dress whenever I want, we eat plenty of good food, have a nice house and can travel when we want (though we do that frugally). There is a local salon where I can get my haircut for $6, an amazing pedicure for $6, or a manicure for $4. I feel spoiled and privileged. I buy some local crafts because I’d rather they sell me something than beg for money. They prefer that as well. No one here wants to beg, but there are few jobs. Half the graduate nurses are volunteering in the hospitals because the government won’t hire them even though there is a huge shortage of health care workers. They say at least they are keeping their skills up and getting experience while they are waiting for a job.

Friday morning I went for an early run at the medical school sports complex near us. When I got home, Catherine (our former guard) was sitting on the porch waiting for me. She was distraught and handed me a note, (that I’m sure her son wrote):

Hie Mum

How are you this time I hope you are fine to gather with Dad.

I am Cathy Mum I write this letter to Inform you that at my work there was a crisis almost twelve girls has been suspended at work including me. Rite now am at home nothing to do.

And I write this letter to tell you that if it is possible please invite me to start working in your house because I have nothing to do now.

Lastly I will be glad of my will meet your favorable consideration please help me.

yours Daughter


She worked for the College of Medicine six days a week guarding one of the dorms. She earned $30/ month. When we left our old house (owned by the college) she transferred to guarding a dorm but apparently there are cutbacks, and twelve of the women guards got laid off. She is 35 years old, the sole support of her four kids, and was barely holding it together on her salary, which has just ended. At our old house we paid her an additional $20/ month to clean and do laundry, but when we moved she had to give that up. I felt really bad for her.

We have been cleaning our own house and doing our own laundry, and it’s not that big of a deal, but I felt like I needed to give her some work. George was in the house waiting for me to get back from my run, a bit annoyed that she’d just walked in the house when he was eating his breakfast. (She does have a few boundary issues.) We both like Catherine a lot, but we’ve been enjoying the privacy. I told her we could hire her two days a week to clean and do the laundry and looked at George to make sure he was ok with that. He nodded. She asked for three days but I told her two was all we needed. I’ll pay her what she would have gotten for three days. I had to have Chimwemwe translate all this. Her English is worse than my Chichewa and I wanted to make sure she understood. I also told her we’d ask around to see if anyone else needed a maid or a guard. In the meantime, I’m annoyed that our night guards often don’t show up for a couple of nights after payday. They make twice what she does and I feel like firing them. George thinks we should give them another chance with the threat of being fired if they no-show again, which they did last night. I’d rather give her the night job and their pay, but women don’t do night guard duty. I wonder if we should break that barrier? She’s tough and I can’t imagine anyone messing with her.

We pay for her son to attend secondary school and he is doing well. She came over with him to meet Jordan when he was here and we had an awkward little visit, very formal, just before we were leaving on our road trip. The car I had rented was sitting next to our porch and I had the thought they may never ride in a car their whole lives. Joseph wants to be a doctor. We want to support him through that process as long as he continues to do well. Maybe he’ll be able to help support his mother someday. I’m thinking of starting a women’s class here where Catherine and her friends can learn English and maybe a skill like making jewelry from local materials. I’m thinking about how to go about that. She’s never been to school and though many students in secondary school are much older, in their 20’s and 30’s, I can’t imagine someone 35 years old going to primary school. I want to see if we can do something here. She was so relieved to have some work she ran in the house to grab our laundry. Later that day, I met some friends for coffee and as I paid, realized the price of that coffee is what she earns in a day cleaning for me. It’s all so unfair.

Last Sunday, after dropping Jordan at the airport, we took the car back to the orphanage we rented it from. Godknows gave us a tour of the place and it both broke and warmed my heart. Godknows was a street kid who managed to get an education and he and his wife have devoted themselves to giving back. They house 64 children, all either abandoned or orphaned. The  youngest, a baby of one year, was heard crying in a pit latrine where her mother had thrown her. They dismantled the latrine, rescued the baby and brought her to Godknows. He’s very proud that she lived and looked like the picture of health. The second youngest, a two year old, was found abandoned on a riverbank at age three months and brought to him by the police. The older kids care for the younger. They raise chickens for food and eggs. All of the kids get an eduction. They have a nursery school for the children of domestic workers who live in the neighborhood. He started that when he found those kids were alone all day while their parents worked for those better off. He told me the money I gave him for the car was going to pay school fees for the older kids. He does all the mechanical work to keep the cars running. It was really inspiring. I asked if the kids learn a vocation there and he said he discourages it because as soon as they do, they drop out of school to earn money. He wants them to stay in school. As we were leaving, a volunteer was arriving to give keyboard lessons. He values the arts. Inspiring.

Peace Corps has a permagarden program and have kits available for volunteers to get gardens started in their communities. I asked if I could get one and go over to the orphanage to help them start a garden. I figured with all that chicken manure they could have a pretty good little vegetable plot. Godknows was thrilled about that, so I’ll try to get some volunteers together to help the kids learn to grow vegetables.

I needed to do something about the environment this week. Just one thing. I refuse to believe we can’t turn this madness around. I’ll keep you posted on that.

In our garden we now have lettuce run amok. The cucumbers and tomatoes are being a little fussy, and it seems the birds are getting a lot of those. That’s a bit of a bummer. The basil, which Jordan has described in the past as a “whiny little bitch” has surpassed all expectations and is now just showing off. I made a fabulous pesto last night with basil, avocado, and macadamia nuts and it was a winner. We didn’t grow the nuts, but they are local and very good. We’re certainly not starving here.  I’ve got pork roasting now as our friends from England arrive on Tuesday! Can’t wait! Love sharing this place!

Love to all,