Sunday Morning ~ Blantyre

Sunday Morning ~ Blantyre

January 28, 2018

Hi Everyone,

Phew! Made it through the week!  It was yesterday when I  recovered from Monday.

Monday, I was up at five and had four hours to get through my list of things to set up for the dinner and the women’s class. I was nervous about the class. I started fretting the minute I woke up. What if no one shows up? What if everyone shows up and there are too many people? What if the women come but the artists don’t show up? What if it rains? Wait, what are they going to sit on? I don’t have chairs enough and don’t really want to take the ones in the house outside. What if this whole thing is a flop after I told everyone about this great idea and there were so many amazing responses from people wanting to get involved? I texted Eneless, the artist, to ask her if she’d come a little early to discuss how she’d like things set up. I also wanted to hear back from her that she was indeed coming. She responded right away that she’d be here by eight, which was an hour before the class started. By 8:30 when she still wasn’t here I was near panic. I had moved the table out back since it appeared the chance of rain was slim, so that was a relief. I didn’t know where to set everything up, or what I even needed to set up, but we needed to be in the shade, but that moves around a lot in the morning, so I needed her to guide me. Four of the women arrived well before Eneless, and I was relieved that we at least had four students, so the worry about NO ONE coming was expelled. I just had to worry about the other things on the list of things to worry about. At least this gave me a break from worrying about the dinner and my lecture which was to be observed by our high profile visitors. Finally Eneless showed up with five more women, so there were nine. And an artist. Ok, getting better. Still no sign of Catherine and her friends, so that wasn’t good, but we had nine. Eneless suggested  woven mats for the women to sit on. She said there was no need for chairs. So I gave Chimemwe some money and had him run down to the market to buy two mats (it is ever so nice to have an employee) and he ran off to do that.  While I was in getting the money, the second artist, Peter, arrived and they were moving the whole set-up out front under the mango tree. He correctly surmised the shade would stay there throughout the class. Good call. Ok, we had a location. Chimemwe came back with the mats and it was after nine, so we agreed to start the class with just nine women. I was to do a welcome address which Eneless would translate. So I welcomed them and told them I’d had an idea to help women support themselves by teaching them a skill and when I met Eneless she liked the idea as well, and we came up with the plan for a class to learn to make jewelry and other crafts. I told them we would like to figure out some way for them to sell what they make and if they have ideas they should share them with us. I told them we wanted them to learn some business skills as well. They were all smiling and nodding. Then, realizing with a sinking feeling that the others were probably not coming, I told them my hope was that they would share what they learn with other women who weren’t able to come to a class like this; that my hope was to make a wider and wider circle of women helping each other. I said that was all I was going to ask of them, that they teach someone else what they learn here. They clapped. It was all very formal. That’s the way they do things. In fact, I probably should have started with a prayer.

After the welcome and introduction, Peter and Eneless laid out a schedule for the classes. It was supposed to be three mornings a week, but most of the women go to church on Wednesdays, so it came down to Mondays and Fridays for class. That was fine with me, but then I was thinking the artists were getting a good deal since I was paying them, so made note to deal with that later. Then Eneless took a survey about how much schooling they’d had. This was supposed to be for women who had no schooling at all and had limited opportunity for work. It turns out, all nine women who came had a few years of primary school, and two had gone to two years of secondary school, so they decided to skip the basic math and English and would spend a week on entrepreneurial skills. I was a little disappointed that it wasn’t the group of women I’d imagined, but then just went with the ear-bug going around my brain, if you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with. That was already my motto since I was doing this in Malawi not Congo. Oh well.

I got a text from my dean looking for the LCD projector. She needed it for a class she was teaching and it was locked in my office. So I had to run over to campus and unlock my office, give her the projector, then run back here. I felt like I needed to be here for the first week at least. We were still figuring it out, and I needed to clean up everything and move the table back in the house to set for dinner. My lecture was from one to five and the dinner was supposed to be here at six. At 10 a.m. the 6 p.m. dinner time started seeming more and more impossible, so I texted one of the organizers and asked if we could move that to seven. George doesn’t even get home from his child study group until six! That wasn’t going to work. I knew the schedule for the visitors was incredibly tight and they were going to run late anyway. Bridget texted back that seven was better for them, too. So that gave me a little breathing room.

The women’s class was fairly successful. The women, within a few minutes, learned to make earrings with the beads I’d brought back. I photographed them all wearing their creations, then Peter collected them all, wanting to make a board to display them on. He thought we should have a little graduation at the end of the eight weeks and display everything. I thought that was brilliant! Then we could invite people and see if they want to buy any of the finished products. We haven’t quite worked out all those details yet, this is really by the seat of my pants here, but we’ve got seven weeks to figure that part out. I asked Peter and Eneless to start talking with the women about how they would like the money to be used. One possibility is pooling everything we make from the graduation event, buy supplies for them to continue making this stuff on their own, and split it among them, then see if they can teach a class themselves. I may be getting ahead of myself there, but we’ll see how it unfolds. The earrings are sweet but let’s just say, not export quality. We need to do some refining, but it was just the first week. We’ll see how it goes. I’ll keep you posted.  I’m not allowed to fundraise while in Peace Corps, so a gofundme, isn’t an option. There are Peace Corps grants I can apply for, but I really want to make this self-sustaining. The supplies aren’t expensive. The biggest expense is paying the artists. Peter brought seeds to use as beads to the class on Friday and explained where to collect them. These are free and he’s going to teach them to dye them different colors. They made necklaces with those on Friday. I was thrilled. They mixed them with the beads I had and made some great stuff! I’m trying to keep my expectations realistic. Thousands of these little projects get started all over the place and lots of them die an early death. Some do flourish and transform people’s lives, but right now I’ll be happy if these nine women learn something new and feel good about themselves. If they teach some other women in their villages and something gets going, great, but I’m taking one step at a time. It’s a disappointment that Catherine and her friends didn’t come, but George is much more disappointed than I am. She had agreed to come, but it might have been because she knew that’s what I wanted to hear. This was my idea not hers. Her friends probably don’t have bus fare to get here, I don’t know. We can only communicate very basically. When she came in the evening for her guard job I asked why she didn’t come to the class?  She went on and on in Chichewa and I was frantically getting the dinner going and didn’t understand a word of it, so just let it go. Eneless had explained it all to her in Chichewa so she was aware of the plan. She was not under any obligation to come, but I figured she would. George kept saying, “But you did all this for her!” But that’s the problem with a lot of development goals. They don’t originate from the people they are meant to help and are very often unsuccessful. Honestly, for me, it was enough to see those nine women wearing the earrings they’d made with a big smile.

So after they left I got the table set for dinner and left to go to campus to finish planning my lecture. I already had it prepared, but doing a four hour lecture and not knowing exactly when six visitors would be showing up to observe was stressful. And they were coming toward the end of class when everyone is struggling to stay awake. Plus, other faculty were going to be in the class and that made me nervous too. I didn’t know if I should save some content and pull it out just when the visitors came or what. Right before class I quickly wrote up some scenarios I could present and have the students discuss what they’d do in that situation. That way I’d have something to fall back on if I finished all my content before the visitors even showed up––something else I was fretting about. Ugh.

The nursing faculty was dressed to the nines––gorgeous suits, dresses, and stilettos. They crack me up. I looked like Plain Jane in my cotton chithenje dress, but we were ready! I had explained to the students that people were coming to observe: important people. People who’s decisions would mean I had a job here or not, and whether there was a future for this program, a program I firmly believe in. It turned out I had gotten though all the content before the big arrival at 4:15 when it was announced they were on their way. I was just finishing up some questions about the difference between sterile gloves and non-sterile gloves when the entourage entered. Alice, the head of my department, was accompanying them. She came in and announced “Our visitors are here!” and in they filed to the already-crowded room whose temps were hovering around 95 degrees. As soon as the first person entered the room, as if on cue, the students all stood up. I hadn’t seen them do that before, but clearly they’d been trained in school to stand when someone important (I’m not sure who) entered the room. The visitors all found a seat tucked on the side or back of the room and Alice began her welcome speech. It was not subtle. She emphasized how happy we all were with the volunteer program; acknowledged that they (the visitors) were very important people to make the program continue; that we hoped they would be impressed with what they saw; and that they were most welcomed. This last part is a mainstay of Malawian hospitality: “You are most welcome.” Then she handed it over to me. So this was not exactly an observation of my class, it was more of a show and the students outdid themselves. I was ecstatic. I explained to the visitors, dry mouthed (I couldn’t believe how nervous I was!), that we’d been discussing infection prevention and safe environment, just to give them a little background before starting the performance. Then I put up a scenario on the screen (thank God the power was on). It said, “You walk on to the postnatal ward and see a mother asleep in a bed with her newborn baby very close to the edge of the bed. What are the risks? What would you do about it?  How would you evaluate whether your actions were effective?”  I read this, then turned to the class, holding my breath, hoping someone would say something. Oh my God, it was as if it had all been rehearsed for a TV show. One by one they raised their hands and when called on, gave thoughtful responses and asked follow-up questions. Like, when Kain asked, “What if you move the baby and you check again and it’s still close to the edge of the bed? Should you move them both to the floor?” Everyone laughed, but it was a great point! Many of the women who come to the hospital to deliver have never slept in a bed before and don’t have a clue about falling off. They all sleep on the ground at home. Anyway, it was a great discussion and the journalist was taking pictures (actually, they all were) and the other faculty joined in here and there, especially when the next scenario described seeing a needle and syringe on the floor and a student asked where they dispose of the sharps containers and I really didn’t know. Alice and Gaily joined right in and we looked like a good team, just the effect we were striving for. Our observers stayed a half hour, fifteen minutes longer than scheduled (I knew dinner wouldn’t be on time) and then, thanking the class, filed out to their next appointment. As soon as they were out the door I turned to the class and gave them two thumbs up and said, “You made me look so good!”  They all burst out laughing and clapping and one of them asked, “Madam, will you bring us sweets next week?” I said, “Yes. Yes I will!” And they all clapped again. Later that evening at dinner, Steve (the chair of the board for the donor foundation) asked, “What was the big cheer as soon as we left the room?” Like I said, there was nothing subtle about any of it.

After that it seemed like a breeze. Dinner was going to be a cinch. I was home by 5:30, the table was set, I assembled the salad, all that was left to do was cook the gnocchi. In my opinion the gnocchi was the weak link in the meal. They were a little grainy––still ok, but not as good as everything else. (I don’t suggest making them with millet flour.) On the way home I decided I would wait until everyone arrived to have a glass of wine, then walked in the door and poured myself one. “I’ll drink it slow.” I thought. Then I thought, “No I won’t.” so I mixed it with some ginger soda and made it last longer. It was a high risk situation having not eaten all day and I really wanted the evening to be a success so didn’t want to be compromised, but I needed a drink. I was a little worried about how tired the guests would be. They’d just flown into Blantyre from Johannesburg and went directly to the college and I was afraid they’d be falling asleep in the pudding. That turned out to be a waste of anxious energy. Anyway, I’d prepared well, was happy with the menu, the taste tests had gone well the day before, so it was basically a matter of finishing touches. George was home by six and received the following instructions: Do exactly as I tell you. Do not try anything fancy. I have this meal planned with military precision, and you are to follow orders precisely (though, I promised to deliver them with a smile). I had reserved a few chores like candles and wine opening for him. It’s best to keep him busy in these situations. I’ve learned.  I had everything cooked except the gnocchi. I didn’t want another Thanksgiving power fiasco, so planned the menu to accommodate that. We have a gas burner so I could easily boil the water for the gnocchi on that if I needed to, but the power company was kind to us and we were lit all evening. The other volunteers arrived at seven on the dot and I decided to finish cooking the gnocchi and have everything ready to serve. Then we all sat and had a glass of wine. When 7:30 came and went we started wondering if they’d gone back to the hotel and fallen asleep. At 7:45 Polly was starting to fall asleep on the couch. I said, “Don’t you dare! Wake up!” and ran to check my phone to see if there was a message. There was one that said they were running behind and would be there by 7:30. Ok, that was fifteen minutes ago, but at least they were still coming. It was starting to feel like the movie Big Night. It was after eight when they arrived, but they swooped in with the most wonderful energy. It certainly woke everyone up. They brought really good wine, apologies for being late and having imposed food restrictions, and were in fact, the perfect guests.

Vanessa Kerry is one of the most genuine, caring, powerful women I have ever met. I am grateful to know her. She’s an incredible role model, doesn’t lose hope, looks for ways to overcome obstacles, and has an optimistic but pragmatic outlook. She really is a remarkable person. This whole organization is her brainchild and she has the wherewithal to make it happen. The whole group of them had similar energy and people skills. Gracious and funny, interesting and interested. It could not have been better. Well, the gnocchi cold have been a little better. We ate soon after they arrived because it was so late. Vanessa did a beautiful toast, everyone loved the food, the conversation never faltered; it was definitely one of the the best dinner parties I’ve ever been to. While I was getting dessert ready to serve, people moved around the table to have different conversational partners, and I was just enjoying listening to it all. There were three choices for dessert: the cheese cakes with passionfruit, the ginger tart with berry topping, and the chocolate tart with pineapple topping. I put them all out and everyone chose one, then people started reaching across to take a bite from their neighbors plates after a few exclamations of “OMG this is delicious!”. I’d moved to the opposite end of the table where George was sitting next to Steve, the foundation guy, and he said to George, “If you ever get tired of her, I’m next in line.” It was a good night. Everyone left just before midnight. George had a 6 a.m. interview for his Fulbright application but we were bopping as we cleaned up and congratulating ourselves on what a smash it was. In the morning, I was not bopping. In fact, I could barely get out of bed. I stumbled to the living room and immediately laid down on the couch, severely regretting the last glass of wine. I pretty much slept walked through Tuesday, grateful I had nothing pressing to accomplish. Wednesday, I had to go to our other campus to help with skills checkoffs, where we test students before they go to the clinical sites. It’s a long day, but not hard. At lunch my colleagues all wanted to know how the dinner went. (It was a big topic of conversation around here.) I told them it was a smashing success, but I was exhausted as the guests didn’t leave until most midnight and it was 12:30 before George and I finished cleaning up. Dead silence. Looks of astonishment. And then, “Your husband helped clean up? Leely??” (They pronounce R like L) Then to each other, “Can you  imagine? Uh! Oh my God!” Then Alice, who’s met George, stirred her tea and said, almost sadly, “Yes, I’ve met him. He’s leely, leely, nice.”

I got home from that and immediately went to sleep on the couch.

Friday night was Robert Burns night, a strictly expat affair presumably started by the Scots who live here. I’m actually not sure who started it, but it’s good fun. It’s at the nice hotel, a lovely dinner with plenty of scotch, and they toast the haggis, then toast the lassies, then the laddies,  then there is dancing until the wee hours. Some of the jokes were a bit in poor taste I thought, but all in all it was good fun.


Cruise control this week!

Love to all,


Sunday Morning ~ Blantyre

Sunday Morning~ Blantyre

January 21, 2018

Hi Everyone,

I have no idea what a government shut down means for the state department, of which we are a part. We’ll keep plodding along until other notice. I’m distracted by a meal at the moment. It’s so peaceful here in denial.

When I was writing the book and struggling with the question of why I thought it was important to write, I was under no illusion it would be on the New York Times Bestseller list or up for a Pulitzer, but did feel I wanted to tell the story of the people I had come to know and love and raise awareness about our part in their suffering. I knew I wouldn’t get rich off it but thought that if anything financial did come of it, I wanted it to go back to them somehow. I feel like every resource the Congolese people have has been stolen from them, so if something came of their stories, I wanted them to benefit from it. I had thought of a simple school for women to learn a skill or craft. Anything to make their lives worth something other than a baby producer or weapon of war. It’s a total pipe dream, I know. Since there is no infrastructure there it would take a lot of money to start something like that, even if it was kept simple. People have asked, why not a health center for women? And my answer is: it wouldn’t be sustainable. I wanted a realistic goal, something small. So, obviously, that never happened (or hasn’t so far–––I haven’t given up on Oprah). But I am trying the idea out here.

When we had to move last year, the female guards at the houses we occupied lost their jobs. These are older women, 30’s and 40’s with no formal education, not even primary school. They don’t have any real skills, even to work as a maid. They speak no English and have had a hard time finding another job. We’ve employed Catherine here as a night guard, but before we did, she was absolutely desperate, a widow with four children and no income. She did not want to have to beg. Even though we were putting her son Joseph through school she couldn’t support the other kids. So I started thinking about starting a little school here for women in her situation. They are older than 25 years, the cutoff for going back to primary school, so really they have hardly any options.

I met a Malawian artist named Eneless Pemba and I was telling her I’d love to have some type of class for women in this situation and wanted to know if she’d be interested in teaching it. It has to be someone who can speak in Chichewa, I couldn’t do this myself. I thought about getting a grant to do it and I still may do that, but we decided to do a trial and see how it goes. If it’s successful, I might apply for something.

Eneless recruited another artist named Peter and we met and made a plan. They will teach some jewelry making and paper making as well as teach them some English and some basic math skills. I want them to be able to sell what they make. I brought back lots of beads and threads when I came back from home leave, all donated by generous artists and friends and I’m cautiously excited about this. Well, now I am. Yesterday I was panicked. The supplies I had to buy involved a scavenger hunt through Blantyre and Limbe and the January 22nd start date got a little more crowded.

When we planned this, the date was wide open. We have twenty eager women and told them the date and time. They are spread out in different villages and don’t all have phones so we want to be consistent and firm with date and time. We planned two hours, three times a week for two months and then we’ll see what happens. If it’s successful, maybe we’ll keep it going and I’ll apply for a grant for that. Unless Reece Witherspoon calls and wants to make a movie out of the book. Then it’s all on me.

Then  few weeks ago we got word that visitors were coming from the states, our CEO Vanessa Kerry and the chairman of the board of a donor foundation. They want to come to Malawi and see the volunteers in action. The dates and schedule were a little fuzzy, but I threw it out there that if we were having a volunteer dinner (which we usually do when visitors come) we’d be happy to host it. The volunteers find it nicer to have these evenings at a house rather than a restaurant. When it’s in a restaurant you only get to talk to the person sitting next to you and everyone doesn’t necessarily get a chance to talk to the guest. So it’s nice to mingle and have it be a little informal. Plus I love to entertain, so tossed it out there. The organizers said they’d planned dinner at a hotel downtown but they’d let me know, then I never heard back, so I figured it wasn’t happening here. Fine. Then we heard that Blantyre was first on the list of places they’d visit, so they would be here Monday (tomorrow) and Tuesday.  I have a class from one to five tomorrow, and the first day of this women’s class at our house in the morning, so it was fine that dinner wasn’t going to be here.  Well, we were away last weekend and I didn’t look at any emails. On Tuesday I looked a the schedule and see I am down to be observed teaching from 4 p.m. until 4:30 p.m.  Ok, that’s fine. It’ll be a little hard toward the end of a long class like that because I never know how the time will work out and I usually have them do group work toward the end of class. I’ll have to make sure they are not all broken into groups at four since that won’t be fun to observe, but what if the visitors are late? Their schedule is tight and that is a real possibility. This is hard to plan for! But I closed the email and went about my day. Later that evening I mused about where we’d be meeting for dinner and George said, “It’s here! It was on the schedule. Six p.m.”  I said, “What?? I never saw that!”  It was in another attachment I hadn’t opened. Okay, I thought. I can do this. Dinner for twelve at six p.m., lecture with observers (including a journalist), until five, oh, and a new endeavor with twenty women at my house in the morning. Okaaay. I like a challenge. I can pull this off. And started thinking of simple (but elegant) menus that can be prepared ahead. Then I got an email thanking me for offering to do the dinner and listing dietary restrictions. No gluten and no dairy, plus two of the volunteers are vegetarian.  Ha ha ha. That only eliminates everything I make. This has made for very entertaining conversations among friends here, several of whom have offered to work in the kitchen for me. Sweet people, many of whom have sympathy panic and have been researching recipes and scouting for ingredients.  We had a couple over Friday night and they arrived with a basket full of gorgeous berries, flowers for the table, and several ideas and suggestions. It’s so funny to see people’s faces when I say “no gluten”; a look of horror films over and takes a few moments to subside.

So, I’ve had a creative week in the kitchen (after my initial panic) and after a few trials and a few failures, I have come up with the following menu:

Gluten free gnocchi (I found millet flour and it worked well) with two sauces: garlic mushroom sauce (using coconut cream) or roasted marinara. I was only going to do the mushroom sauce, but someone pointed out there are many people who don’t like mushrooms. And marinara is easy.

Roasted eggplant, onions and carrots in balsamic.

Chicken in garlic, lemon, parsley, cashew sauce.

Grilled filet (George’s specialty and his job).

Garden salad with green mangoes, fenugreek sprouts, radishes, and avocado (from our tree)

Focaccia (Because I can’t do a whole meal without gluten. Just can’t)

For dessert (the most stressful) I made tarts with cashew crust. Some are cheese cake (the no dairy people will be informed and led away), some are a ginger/cashew cream, and some flourless chocolate. They will be topped with passionfruit, pineapple, or blackberry glaze (all local and plentiful).

To drink we’re just having beer, wine, or iced tea. I can’t deal with any fancy drinks. Though they were a hit at Thanksgiving, the gluten and dairy thing just pushed those off the edge.

Ok, back to the kitchen. This has been a nice little break.

Love to all,


Sunday Morning ~ Domwe Island

Sunday Morning ~ Domwe Island

January 14, 2018

Hi Everyone,

This is a long holiday weekend for Malawi; John Chilembwe shares this day with Martin Luther King. It’s is the anniversary of the initial uprising against British colonial rule led by Reverend Chilembwe, the American-educated, Malawian Baptist missionary. He led a failed attempt at overthrowing the British and was killed for his efforts. When we lived here before, this holiday didn’t exist, probably because the then president (for life), His Excellency, Dr. H Kamuzu Banda, acted like he was the sole leader of the march for independence. Turns out, Chilmbwe died for that cause long before Banda cut his chops. So now it is a national holiday and Chilembwe has his picture on the 2,000 kwacha note. And it’s a three day weekend.

Last year we did not plan ahead and take advantage of all the long weekends. Part of our new burnout treatment plan is to get away as often as we can. It’s much easier with a car. So even though we just got back from a two week vacation, we were determined to find someplace to go this weekend. A couple of resorts have been recommended to us within reasonable driving distance, but one of them was closed for renovations and one was fully booked, so Thursday afternoon George left it in my hands and I finally got word back from another place on our list of places to visit, Domwe Island. They had availability and we grabbed it. It meant driving all the way back to Cape Maclear, a place we’d just been to a few weeks ago, but only to drop the car and get a boat out to this exotic, uninhabited island where there is an eco-friendly camp. It’s so cool. It is impossible to see any structures from the water. In fact, you can hardly see the structures when you are standing right in front of them, that’s how beautifully they are set into the landscape. They are all built of natural local materials and wedged in between the rocks. There are four thatched wooden platforms, two with large canvas tents on them. These are furnished with grass mats, beds with crisp white cotton sheets and duvets, wooden bedside tables and two rattan chairs. The other two are bare and people can bring their own tent to place there. They each have views that peek out between the trees to the lake. Ours has a view of Thumbe Island and the sand beach below. There is a hammock hung just outside the tent door where I am sitting now, writing this. I charged the laptop before leaving home, so the blog will end when the battery dies. There are two small solar panels down on the beach where the staff of Richard, Dennis, and Ash charge the little mason jar lights that they place at our tent at nightfall. There is a dining room–––a wooden platform with thatched roof set on huge boulders barely visible until you are practically in it. It has a long painted wooden table with canvas chairs surrounding it. The “bar” is a big metal cooler, 1960’s era, filled with soft drinks, beer, and bottles of water. It’s the honor system. If you take a drink, you record it on the ledger and pay for it all at the end. There are woven mats hung from the beams to roll down if it rains. There’s a Bao board (a game played with small stones or seeds) and a checkerboard with bottle caps for checker pieces: Cokes and Greens.

You have to bring your own food when you stay here, but there is a “fully equipped kitchen” as it says in the guidebook. This kitchen is not what I envisioned from that short description, though it is technically correct. “Fully equipped” conjures up some Williams and Sonoma image, which, could not be further from this reality. First of all, it is situated way up the hill via a root laden, steep, narrow path. Really cool, mind you, but a little inconvenient for carrying ingredients for a meal. It’s also a thatched structure on a wooden platform, but has a gas cooker in it, a wooden table with a sundry of old kitchen tools (the home made knives are sharp!), some tin plates, and a cement sink with a hose. Like I said, it’s technically all there, but definitely campy. And a long walk. Hike, is actually more accurate. The dining area is accessed from there via a different steep descent. You can also get to the dining area from the beach, a shorter, less steep trek, but over some boulders. George burned his hands this morning carrying tea back to our tent over these trails.

There is a hiking trail which takes you to the top of the hill or mountain, depending on if you want to call it big or small. It’s a huge hill or a small mountain. It was a two hour hike to get to the top yesterday, so let’s say mountain. The views from the top are spectacular. A tropical paradise vista: aqua water dotted with dugout canoes between small islands covered with indigenous forests.  Since these lake islands are uninhabited, they still have their trees. They are also protected by the National Park, so that helps.

Water is solar pumped up from the lake to a holding tank, so in the toilet structure there is a sink for hand washing. There is a sweet shower that is a metal bucket suspended from a rope with a shower head coming out the bottom. Richard told us during our orientation that if we wanted warm showers they would boil some water for us and put it in the bucket. The walls surrounding the shower and the composting toilet are all bamboo. The toilet has a thatched roof but the shower is open to the branches above. None of these structures are visible from each other. In fact, I have to keep following the paths to find them, saying, “Wait, was that boulder on the way to the shower or kitchen?” The whole place has a Gilligan’s Island feel to it.

It’s possible to kayak out from Cape Maclear but we arrived there late on Friday afternoon so paid to have them motor us out. Plus with all the food, etc, it would have been a difficult packing job for kayaks. With the motor boat it took us a half hour to go the two miles to get here, but it was worth it. At reception on the mainland they made sure we had enough food for three days. There are no supplies out here, not even a mango tree. I suppose we could kill a monkey of we were desperate, but I’d have to be pretty desperate for that. (One of my students wrote about her family dying when they ate bad monkey meat when the village was starving from drought.)  I, of course, had brought plenty of food and drink, no worries there. So once we got oriented (which meant hiking about a mile through these wooded trails) we made gin and tonics and sat outside our tent overlooking the lake to watch the sunset. Although that was romantic and relaxing, it was also a bit dangerous since we then had to stumble in the dark up these steep trails carrying pasta, wild mushrooms, chard, and a few other ingredients, with headlamps, to the kitchen and figure out how to put a meal together with the staff watching us. I found that a little awkward. We looked foolish and incompetent, in my opinion, as they sat on rocks observing our activity. At one point they took our scraps of garbage and fed it to some wild pigs standing just up the hill from them. It’s optional to pay for a chef to come out and cook for you and I was starting to think that might have been a good idea, just because cooking with an audience is…awkward. It would be like showing up and cooking your meal in someone else’s kitchen while they watched. And when you can’t find a knife, or a colander you have to ask and they immediately hand it to you. We put together a mediocre meal and stumbled in the dark down the path, got lost, decided to just keep going down since we could find the place from the beach and finally saw the solar light hanging over the table. It was so dark we couldn’t even see the lake just below us. Then the night fishermen started lighting their lanterns and the stars came out on the lake. It’s just magical. I would’ve liked to have a glass of wine with supper, but really, I thought it was way too risky to have another drink, then have to hike back up that trail to bring the dishes back. It was way more dangerous than driving. The staff does, very conveniently, do all the washing up. You only need to survive getting back to your tent in one piece.  I thought once we were back at the tent safely we could have a glass of wine, but then realized we had no glasses and hiking back up to the kitchen was just out of the question. We brushed our teeth with our water bottles and crawled under the sheets to read. But then the lights from the kindle, while convenient when there is no power, attracted too many bugs, so those were put away. There is no mosquito net over the bed and the tent looks like the remnant from some M*A*S*H episode. It’s old and mended and there are a few openings for bugs. Yesterday morning as we were having tea on the balcony, a bird flew into the tent as well. We had the flaps unzipped and pulled up to the sides so it made a beautiful big entryway overlooking the lake and a malachite kingfisher swooped in, flew around and flew out. When we were leaving for the hike George asked if we should leave the flaps open. I said, “Sure, why not?”  He said, “Baboons?”  I said, “Right. Let’s zip it up.” (I can tell my urban friend Ruth just can’t wait to stay here.)

After our hike yesterday we had lunch and a coke from the “bar” and read and relaxed before going out to snorkel. This whole weekend seems incredibly exotic to me. I am not a water person, as I’ve said before, and haven’t snorkeled since we lived in Samoa almost thirty years ago. And there I would only do it if I could stand up. In fact, I used to just walk through the water with my face in it. I don’t think I ever floated or swam. I have many friends who scuba dive and love to snorkel, but I’m uneasy, afraid I will meet something that will bite or sting me or I’ll get something squishy against my foot. It’s so funny because I don’t see myself as a coward most of the time, except when it comes to the water. I just feel so out of my element there. I always feel like something is lurking, if not to eat me, then just to frighten me, then laugh about it.  Then I started thinking, ewww, who had this mask and snorkel before me? Was their nose running into this little compartment where my nose is going? And whose mouth was this thing in? Do they soak these in alcohol or whatever the dentist uses for their instruments between rentals? I hoped so, but I covered mine in hand sanitizer before walking down the path to the water, just to be sure. George didn’t seem to care a whit about that. Just popped his in his mouth like no one else had ever used it before. Ewww. Mine had teeth marks in the mouth piece! Didn’t stop him for a second. We had life jackets on even though the lake is calm and I wasn’t even going over my head, but I’ve got to say, it was quite pleasant floating with the life jacket. The flippers (which I have never worn before) made it sorta fun too. I definitely wasn’t a mermaid in my former life. Nothing has ever seemed more unnatural, but I followed George’s flippers in front of me and got a little more relaxed as we went along. I freaked when the strap from my life vest brushed my arm and then when a lock of my hair floated in front of my mask, but recovered fairly well. Then I couldn’t stop laughing when I recalled the Far Side comic of sharks watching a slide show of human feet dangling in the water and the caption read, “Harry, was this Hawaii or Bermuda?” We floated through schools of  cichlids that didn’t seem to mind us at all. I had this realization that aquariums are trying to simulate this! Wow, they do a good job! ( Fun fact: Lake Malawi is the biggest exporter of fresh water aquarium fish in the world.) There was very little trash, only one Chibuku bottle, so I was very pleased about that. The big boulders under there look incredibly different than they do above the water, almost alive. I get scared that I’ll get caught in between them and when the water around them drops to great depths it’s more than I can bear. I have to raise my head out of the water as if I’ll be pulled down if I don’t. After an hour or so we got a little chilled as the wind came up so swam back to the camp and I took a kayak out for a little spin. I just went up and down our side of the island, maybe a mile total, but saw a fish eagle and some pied kingfishers as the sun got lower. I felt quite content.

Richard lit a fire for us on the beach last evening as we watched a fabulous sunset behind bee eaters flitting in the trees. Neither of us had our cameras with us but knew we’d never capture that sunset anyway, and would always be saying, “This doesn’t do it justice.” and I thought of Richard sitting behind us on a rock and wondered if he was moved by how beautiful it was. He sees this every night and I always chuckle at how Malawians are so amused by our fascination with the sunset. Then we cooked our filet and eggplant on the fire and walked the short path to the dining area to eat.

Later, the night was full of jungle noises. I could not identify the screeches, but they were close enough to the tent that my pulse took a while to return to normal. Those Tarzan movies were spot on. I asked George if he heard the screeching. “Yes” he said nonchalantly, “probably a civet cat killing a dassie.”

Today we will snorkel again. I’ll paint and read and be glad we can’t get news so I don’t feel more embarrassed about our shameful, ignorant president. Disgraceful. I will thank our kind, welcoming, and generous hosts, grateful to share a little of their beautiful country.

Love to all,


Sunday Morning~ Home

Sunday Morning ~ Home

January 7, 2018

Gona ndi mwini mudzi ~ Please stay and sleep, this is the owner of the village

~ Malawian proverb

Happy New Year Everyone!

So, you’d think if you’d paid six hundred kwacha for an hour of internet, you’d get some internet, but, no. So much for the internet cafe in Mzuzu. It was Christmas Eve. We’d just spent two nights camping on the Viphya Plateau. We’d negotiated how we’d split the driving so we’d each feel a modicum of safety on the fairly dangerous roads. We’d found the house of our colleagues who’d offered us a bed for two nights in Mzuzu. We were having a great time with them and found we had a lot in common. We’d been to mass together and gone for a long walk. We sat and told stories of our lives. We laughed a lot. Then I wanted to find a place with internet so I could write my blog and send it off before it got too late. They told us there was a great little restaurant where we could get a good lunch and use the internet. That sounded like a plan, so the four of us jumped into our car and off we went. We found the dirt road to the restaurant and negotiated the pedestrians, arriving to find it closed for Christmas Eve. Oh, right. It was Christmas Eve. Some people might want that day off. We tried another place known to have internet, but it was also closed. By then we were rather hungry so went to a reliably open Indian restaurant with reliably good food and planned to go to the coffee shop afterward, where the internet was said to be reliable. Then we ordered beers to go with the spicy food, then got a little relaxed, and by the time we made it over to the coffee shop, which was packed with every other Mzuzu resident looking for internet, it was a bit late. I felt rushed and pressured and had a hard time thinking of what to write. It was annoying me that George could sit down next to me, open his laptop, and start clacking away so intently. It was distracting that he seemed to have no trouble thinking of what to write. It seriously gave me writers block. Never a pause, he just hammered away, happily recounting the events of our trip up until then while I was still struggling with whether to include a proverb or not. I didn’t have my list of proverbs with me and that bugged me, too. Then I got upset with myself for wasting so much time thinking about that while he happily clacked away. Every time he hit “return” I thought, “He’s already on a new paragraph? What the hell?”  I forced myself to pretend I was writing and came up with what I thought was a crappy blog for Christmas and decided to post it anyway just so it would be done and I wouldn’t have wasted the 600k. But there were so many people in the place using the internet that it was unbearably slow, to the point where my time ran out before my website even loaded. George, now satisfied with his 2,000 words, saw that I couldn’t post my blog, so didn’t even bother logging on and returned his ticket for a refund of his 600 kwacha. So that didn’t put me in the Christmas spirit, but since I didn’t think what I had written was very good, I cared less than I would have ordinarily. I hated to break my streak, though. It’s been a few years since I’d missed a week. But given what’s going on in the world, I thought, who cares what I have to say?

I was a little burned out…on a lot of things. I felt like I hadn’t done a good job with the students the week before. Testing them was exhausting and (I thought) unproductive. I questioned what good I’m even doing here in the first place. I feel like we’ll never get this model ward up and running. I was questioning my relationship with George, for a lot of reasons, not just that he was writing faster and better than me. Matt’s comments that my writing is “pandering and pathetic”  kept haunting me. I was sort of feeling he was right.

But I was happy being in Africa for Christmas.

First of all, there isn’t the yuletide sensual assault around every corner. It’s such a relief. I celebrate this holiday, and love the spirit of it, but it has been charred beyond recognition at home and I appreciate a couple of years away from it. Second, the season of Advent is supposed to be a season of reflection and sacrifice, similar to lent. He isn’t even born yet people! Here, there is much more celebrating after Christmas than before–––the way it should be in my humble opinion. Anyway, I was glad to be here. George was in his own world, so I’m not sure he noticed where I was, though we’d had some superficial conversations about how we were feeling. Nothing really deep. We’d had a good couple of days camping and were trying to regain some of the intensity of our relationship. We tried to figure out what we were missing and trying to do it without a big fight. We both had job stress and that’s always hard. It’s much nicer when one of you is having a good time when the other isn’t. So there was that. There was the season itself, and George being estranged from his kids is hard for him, especially around this time. It’s easier for me if he talks about it and doesn’t withdraw, but I don’t have control over that. There’s the uncertainty of what we’ll be doing next year. He’s applied for a Fulbright  to teach somewhere in Asia and I’m not feeling like being away for another year. Not sure what I’d do there anyway, though I’m sure I’d find something. So it’s a bit unsettled and that causes some discomfort. We did manage to pack and leave the house without a single cross word, something I considered big progress, but something hasn’t been right.

Renee and Steven are volunteers in our program, having arrived in Malawi this past September.  There seems to be two age groups for volunteers in this program––early thirties and over sixty. There are many more in the early thirties group, and though we love them all, it’s nice to hang around with people your own age sometimes and Renee and Steven were in our group. So nice. I’d met Renee in Washington D.C. when I went to their orientation and hit it off with her immediately. She’d been a traditional Peace Corps volunteer in Congo before the war there, so we had lots to talk about. She is a mental health nurse practitioner teaching at St John of God in Mzuzu, so she and George also had a lot to talk about. They’ve lived in Hawaii for decades and Steven has done a lot of work in the South Pacific. He knows many of the people I knew from Samoa! And they are Catholic to boot. Lots in common.

So we left the cafe, Renee and Steven waiting for us patiently, to go back to their house and decide about the evening mass schedule. They usually go to mass close to where they live but I wanted to go where Fr Richard was, the same place we’d all gone together that morning (it’s such a crunch when Christmas Eve is on a Sunday). They weren’t even sure they were up for two masses in one day and the beer at the late lunch was influencing our motivation level. I was committed to going back to St Thomas at 7 pm. There was no way I was going to disappoint Fr Richard, my old friend from Karonga. He was saying the evening mass and when we’d met with him on the 23rd, was insistent we be there. (None of the Christmas Eve masses are at midnight around here. People are usually too drunk by then, and since the masses are three hours long, very impractical.) Renee and Steven decided if they were going to go to a second mass it would be one closer to them, so George and I changed into church clothes and drove to the other side of the city and slipped into our hard wooden bench near the front, on the men’s side of the church. It was just after seven when we arrived and they were no where near starting the mass. Richard came from the back of the church when he saw us to ask, “You are not in a rush are you?”  I was surprised at how empty the church was, maybe only 200 people there. It looked a little anemic. The altar was still draped in purple, which I thought was a bit odd. I expected a big transformation from when we were there that morning. There were the banners strung from the tin ceiling across the church, little triangles of cloth with a cross on each one. Bunting with a christian flair. I estimated about 2,000 of them strung up there, but that was about it. The rest was quite simple. The choir had quadrupled in size from the morning mass and there were five drummers seated shoulder to shoulder three rows in front of us. They were drumming away and the choir was singing, the choirmaster, white gloved, animatedly conducting songs sung in the local language, Chitumbuka. The mass would be said in that language as well. It was festive. As we waited for mass to start, the place started filling up. It’s as if 7 p.m. mass meant that’s when they show the previews. No one acted as if they were late. People of every age poured in until there had to have been a thousand in the church. Packed. Mass began and I saw that it was indeed different from the morning. There were dozens of altar boys, white robes with purple collars draped over their shoulders. Young girls in white dresses danced down the aisle in procession before the boys, some dropping flower petals as they passed. Incense, song, candles, all joyously moved down the center aisle with the seminarian we’d met from Ghana, and finally Richard still donning purple vestments (strange), pulling up the rear. Song after song after song, none recognizable but all joyous, was sung with clapping and swaying, between every single spoken word of the mass. I hoped George wasn’t going to be sworn off this forever, it was going to be a long mass. At great length, the gospel was finally read by Richard, then the lights went out, all the altar boys left the altar for the back of the church, a huge group of nuns swarmed the altar as Richard moved to the back, blocked by a frenzy of activity we couldn’t decipher. Then the lights came up, the drumming started, the choir burst out in song, and Richard came forward with white vestments on as the altar boys danced back up the aisle, now wearing white collars. The nuns had changed all the purple altar cloths to white and there were white candles lit everywhere. Strung in front of the white drapes on the altar were strands of white lights. The podium had the same, except those were blinking, that part was a bit tacky, I thought, but overall, the effect was stunning. I am telling you, there is nothing on Broadway as good as that mass was. Richard went to the podium and said something in Chitumbuka and there was a muted response from the congregation. He repeated it as if he were saying “I can’t hear you!” and everyone shouted out whatever it was he wanted them to say, which I think was “Merry Christmas” or something similar, and then he and all the seminarians and all the altar boys came through the church shaking hands as the choir went crazy with song and everyone was dancing and shaking each others’ hands, and it was fabulous. On and on it went, but none of it was boring. I could have watched the choirmaster forever, dancing as he conducted, and the drummers! Just watching their bodies move with their instrument was mesmerizing. Three hours of joy exuding from every person there. Before communion, a couple came down the aisle with a baby swaddled in a huge microfiber blanket. Not biblical at all. The baby’s name was Jesus (really) and he was being baptized. I was in tears at this point, as the couple really looked like I imagined Mary and Joseph to look. Ok, not the fashion, but the facial expressions and the soiled, hard worn clothes. They just looked holy. The baby wasn’t a newborn, though it was hard to see him he was so bundled up. I didn’t do a Ballard score on him or anything, but I estimate he was a few weeks old at least. Anyway, he was baptized Jesus, then the couple sat on the altar for the remainder of the mass. Before the mass ended, everyone in the church danced by the couple and put an offering in a box at their feet for the baby. The father was thanking everyone, and the mother was making an effort, but I could see her trying to protect this sleeping child. It was incredibly moving.

When the mass ended at 10:30 p.m. George and I went over the the dining room where they had music going and food laid out for the priests, seminarians, and nuns. We stayed for a while chatting with people we had met that morning, but left after a half hour, pretty well tuckered out. Richard seemed exhausted. During the mass I felt his old energy and passion, but afterward I could see how much he’s aged. I had a moment of feeling like I did when my mother started failing. I was a little upset with her for not being the vibrant mother she’d always been. It’s like these figures from my past must stay they way they’d always been. Just for me. When we were saying goodbye to him I told him I wanted to take George to Karonga to show him where we lived when we first met 38 years ago. I wanted to take him to the Misuku Hills, where Richard had taken me and Joe and our month-old baby, to an incredible mission in the rainforest. Richard seemed surprised that I even remembered that trip, or maybe he was struggling to remember it. He chuckled that I was on such a memory tour. “Why do you want to go to all the same places? Me, I don’t go too far from here now.” And I could see he is feeling the years. He has given so much. He’s so loving and generous. I need to see him at least once more before I leave Malawi this time. I have a sinking feeling it may be the last.

Hmm, I don’t seem to have any trouble writing today. I wanted to write about a two week trip and am just getting through one mass. I’ll have to ramp it up a notch. But it’s hot and I’ve got nothing else that needs to be done today, so I’m just going to roll with it.

Christmas morning we said goodbye to Renee and Steven who were leaving for Lilongwe to collect their daughters flying in from the states. We headed, under low clouds and light rain, to the Nyika Plateau, a place notoriously hard to get to, especially in the rainy season. There was a bit of tension mixed with excitement in the car. The evening mass had been good for us. Or maybe it was just me feeling less critical and more loving, but things were better between us. Or maybe it was survival. We needed to drive ninety kilometers on tarmac to Rumphi, then get over 100 kilometers of dirt road, some of it flooded, some of it steep, to get to the camp on Nyika before dark. We’d heard horror stories. The road was said to be in worse condition than it was in the 80’s. I’d been there in 1979 and again in 1980, and I didn’t remember the road being bad, but then again, I wasn’t the one driving, so maybe didn’t care. The “bad road” back then was the one from the lakeshore up to Rumphi. Actually, “bad road” doesn’t come close to describing that ascent on the back of a flatbed lorry at five months pregnant. Let’s just say the motorcycle strapped to the lorry bed next to us was in pieces when we got to the top. Scariest ride I’ve ever been on. So I thought this couldn’t be as bad as that. And we have four wheel drive. But we’re old now. We know we are not invincible. We were a bit anxious. The low areas, I thought were the worst. Rumphi was flooded and there were big rivers running down the sides of the clay road, which was washed out in many places. Our little Nissan X-trail plowed right through though, and though we had to be alert, there were only a few times I thought we might get stuck. I was driving and tolerating George’s advice quite well. We’d agreed we both needed to feel safe so we’d need to tolerate the passenger making comments if he/she needed to. Agreed. Shake. I was holding up my end of the bargain. The distance of 110 miles took us seven hours. We did stop for gas and a picnic lunch once we got to the plateau, but it’s a haul to get there. Once reaching the entrance to the National Park, it’s still a two hour drive to get to the camp, but oh, what a beautiful drive at that point. Actually, it’s all beautiful, it’s just hard to enjoy the first five hours of it.

The Nyika Plateau is such a unique landscape in Africa. It’s high, over 6,000 feet elevation, 3,134 square kilometers of layer upon layer of soft rolling green hills. Herds of zebra and antelope dot the hills, and it is just magical. As soon as we got to the gate I heaved a sigh of relief that it was just as beautiful as I remembered it. In that huge area there is only one place to stay, smack in the middle of it, called Chelinda camp. Back in the old days, there were six rooms with a common house with a kitchen (and cook) for meals, and one cabin that had three bedrooms and it’s own kitchen. These overlooked a trout pond with an evergreen forest behind it. The camp has now expanded, though the six rooms are exactly the same, the common building is now a restaurant and bar, and there are three additional self-catering cabins. They have cut down a good chunk of the forest behind the cabins which stung, but it all still looks over the pond. There is a playground incongruously situated in front of the restaurant. I wonder how much use that gets? It’s all rustic and in keeping with the landscape and original design though. It’s not like they built Disney world.  Two kilometers from this camp is a new lodge, gorgeously designed to fit into the landscape with individual chalets and a common dining room and bar. It’s beautiful, not a scar, but at $350/ night, we didn’t stay there. We stayed at the camping area, another new feature since the old days, two kilometers in the other direction from the lodge. I originally thought it was to keep the riffraff away from the folks who could afford that lodge, but really, it’s just nestled in to another perfect spot in a grove of trees, with a spectacular view over the hills. There were three covered slabs with picnic tables and fire pits but those had all been reserved, so we pitched our tent on a grassy field with a great view. We had hoped to take our meals in the restaurant, but we didn’t want to walk the two kilometers at night and we brought food with us, and there was a wood cook stove we could use in a simple shelter where the caretaker slept. He lit a fire for us before he went to sing songs at the lodge for the big paying guests, and we cooked a Christmas dinner of sausages, onions, and pasta and drank a bottle of wine. It was heaven. We were getting along better and better!

We decided to spend our days there walking, and since there is no big game there and the leopards and hyena only come out at night, it was safe…until it started with the electrical storms. We got caught both days, miles from the camp with lightening all round us, soaked to the skin for a good part of the walk back. It was only mildly terrifying. Before the rain, we saw plenty of zebra, roan, bushbuck, springbok, eland, and orchids! There are 200 different species of orchids on Nyika! After it started raining it was hard to look up to see anything except the rivulets around our feet. We walked about thirteen miles each day (according to my iPhone) and were enjoying the close up view of the place. We met a couple from Italy who’d found porcini mushrooms, sure of it, and showed us how to identify them. On our drive to Nyika, when we stopped to buy food for our stay there, I’d said I hoped we could find some wild mushrooms for sale along the road, but didn’t see any. And then we find someone who shows us how to find these gorgeous porcini mushrooms, huge ones, all over the place! It was fabulous! The second night there we had pasta with mushroom sauce and didn’t have one single bad dream or stomach ache so we figured the guy knew what he was talking about. His fatter was a naturalist and taught him at an early age to identify mushrooms. And we had the good fortune to be camping next to him! We did watch that they ate them first, not to be paranoid or anything.

Late in the afternoon the rain had stopped and we’d dried off at the bar in front of the fire. We walked back to our camp passing herds of zebra to find the caretaker had built us a campfire near our tent. He brought two logs for us to sit on and we had wine and cooked our pasta and mushrooms and felt like life just doesn’t get better than that. We were actually starting to fall in love again.

Our plan was to leave there, reluctantly, on the 28th and drive to Livingstonia, a village perched on a different plateau overlooking the lake. Even though I’d lived not far from Livingstonia for two years, I’d never been there as it is so hard to get to. We thought we’d take the back road from Rhumphi, but we met a Dutch couple who’d just come from there and they said that road was impassable. They were also camping at the campground (they got one of the covered spots) and we had a meal with them the last night. We offered to share our mushrooms but they refused saying they never eat any wild mushrooms. Ok, I get it. But we’d eaten them the night before and were fine. The cigarettes they were smoking didn’t seem to bother them, but whatever. Anyway, they said we had to go up from the lakeshore and the road was horrendous. It’s ten kilometers of twenty hairpin turns so tight you can’t make it in one move. He said he had to back up to get around the corners and it’s just rocks on the road. She said she’d never been so scared on a road, but it was worth it to stay there. i wasn’t sure I wanted to drive the bad road off of Nyika, drive down to the lakeshore, then up another bad road all on the same day, though it was possible. We decided to play it by ear and see how we felt when we got down to the lake. It was pouring rain the morning we broke camp. I hate taking down a tent in the rain, but at least we weren’t backpacking. Car camping is so much easier, especially when the campsite has a caretaker lighting your fire and doing your laundry! While I was in the shelter making breakfast, George took down the tent and packed up most of the stuff. We thought we’d wait until the rain let up, but it wasn’t showing signs of that, so we said goodbye to our Italian and Dutch friends as they pulled out ahead of us and decided to just take it slow. We made it back to Rhumphi, but by then the thought of another hair-raising ride on steep wet stones was out of the question. Plus, it was so socked in we wouldn’t even have a view, so we just went to Karonga and got a place to stay on the lake. It was hot and sticky and the place had no power, but the generator kicked on  so the restaurant could make dinner and a cold shower felt just fine. We rearranged the itinerary and spent the next day in Karonga, walking down memory lane, showing George my old house and office, touring the museum, and telling him what it was like back in the day. It was the same tour I’d taken Jordan on in May, but it was important to me to share it with George, too. The north of this country is so different from the south. It’s far less populated for one thing, but it is a different tribe, the tumbuka, and the landscape is so much more dramatic. It’s more lush and every tree hasn’t been cut down (yet) for firewood or charcoal.

Our next destination was the Misuku Hills, a remote place Richard had taken me to and one I was dying to see again. I knew we couldn’t stay at the mission there without him, but the guidebook said there was a guesthouse at the coffee cooperative and gave it a flattering description. George had texted them to see if they had a room, it was a long way to go without reliable accommodation secured, and he had received a reply saying, “you are welcome”, which to us meant, perfect. We’re in. The guidebook gave great directions and we had their phone number, not thinking there would be no cell service there, which there wasn’t. The guidebook describes the thirty kilometers of dirt road to Misuku (off the lovely, newly-paved by the Chinese, tarmac road to Chitipa) as “a patchy dirt road branching north at the village of Kapoka. The road isn’t in great condition, but it’s a lovely roller-coaster ride over undulating hills covered in indigenous Brachystegia woodland and protea shrubs…..” We thought that after the road to Nyika, this would be easily maneuverable. After all, there is a coffee cooperative there! They need to move their product! But when the book said “roller-coaster” they meant the part of the roller-coaster ride when you climb the hill and can’t see the other side like you are going to drop off the face of the earth. That’s what they meant. Not that its curvy and windy. That it is so steep the car engine is saying to you, “What the hell?” And you (as the driver) are saying, “Holy shit! What if there is another car coming at us?” It was hairy. But yes, beautiful, though I wasn’t looking at the protea shrubs. And, it was getting toward dusk and we were so glad we had texted ahead so they knew we were coming. We imagined arriving to a welcoming smile and greetings all round. When we got to the trading center where the guidebook instructed us to take a left then a right we found no lefts to take. We went to the end of the village, which we’d been elated to arrive at, thinking there are only two more kilometers to go…but we couldn’t find the road. We stopped to ask a group of men who’s English wasn’t exactly conversational and I don’t even know what dialect they speak there, but tried a little of chichewa with a chitumbuka greeting. They pointed to a road going the opposite way the guidebook said, but they must know what the coffee cooperative is and where it is, so we went. Holy moly. The road started out fairly good, red clay but pretty flat and then took a plunge the likes of which made me think the car would topple head over heels. Thank God it wasn’t raining. As it was, there was a huge ravine in the middle and I had to place the tires on each ridge and hope they didn’t slide off. Then at the bottom, was a ten foot level section, then a hill just as steep going up the other side, all red slippery clay. I was gunning it, which made George nervous, but I was treating it like an icy hill. We made it up and George said, “Let’s stay here two nights.” I said, “I am so happy you said that. I do not want to do that road again tomorrow.” And it was spectacularly beautiful, now that we were over that section and the road seemed downright highway like, just because the grade was less than 20%. We found the sign for the coffee cooperative office and pulled in to the gate, to find the entire place deserted. We saw a sign with an arrow that said “t house” and saw that it was broken off, so assumed the first letters for the sign had been “gues”. Ah, relieved, we walked over there to find it, deserted. Locked. Not a soul in sight. We were sure it was the right place though, because as the guidebook said, there were four rooms facing an incredible view of the hills. Yup. There they were. Four locked rooms facing gorgeous hills with a sun setting behind them.

We walked out to the road to see if we could find someone to ask. There were a group of boys surrounding a motorcycle (I could not imagine doing that road on a motorcycle) and we said we were looking for someone from the coffee cooperative. One of the guys, named Hope, said to follow him, he’d ask his mother who works for them. Oh phew. We followed him down another hill (they don’t call this the Misuku Hills for nothing) to a simple house, up another hill, where his mother (actually his aunt) sat on a porch two inches from a charcoal fire with a tea pot boiling away. Two inches in the other direction were small children playing without a care in the world. Hope introduced us to Mwewe, his aunt, who is all of four foot eight, who greeted us with a huge smile and invited us in to her home. She sent Hope to get someone with a key to the guesthouse. Oh, phew. Thank God. While we waited for Hope to return, we chatted with Mwewe, who is a clinical officer at the health center for the cooperative. She was a remarkable woman who’d been a nurse, then a clinical officer, then went for a PhD in International Public Health at Liverpool University. She was delightful and we had a great chat. I explained that I’d been there so many years ago and was anxious to see the place again, it had made such an impression on me. We talked about the health services, they are so remote! She wants to be able to do surgery since it’s so hard to transfer women to the hospital from there. No shit. We could barely make it with our car! In the meantime, Hope came back and said something to her in Chitumbuka and her face fell. She said, “Ok, then. Come with me. I will drive to his house, I know where he lives.” So apparently, the guy was not close by. Parked outside this humble abode was a broken down van, that I actually thought was junked. I would never have believed it could run. She instructed us to get in as she grabbed her purse and put some plastic shoes on her bare feet and walked around to the driver’s side. I’m like, “We’re going in that?” George said, “Let’s just sleep in the tent.” Mwewe, said, “No, you can’t sleep in the tent. It’s very rainy here.” We were in a rainforest after all, and I did want to sleep in this nice guesthouse the guidebook raved about, so I was all for finding the guy with the key. I obviously thought we’d be going in the opposite direction from where we came, because this bag of bolts could not possibly make it down and up that road. But, oh, I was so wrong. George went to get in the back, but the doors did not open in the back. There was plastic over the broken windows. She said, “No, you both can sit in front.” and then we saw it was a bench seat in the front for two people. Broken seat belts. Mwewe got into the drivers seat and had to pull the seat forward at least three feet to reach the pedals. I thought, “She is not the one who drives this car.” George and I held hands. She had a hard time starting it, but miraculously, it revved up and she pulled off this cliff (there’s just no other way to describe it) and onto the road and I saw, horrified, that we were heading back to the trading center! I said, “You have to go back there?!”  George said, “We’ll sleep in the tent!” and she stopped and said, “I can go alone, you can wait here.” And then of course, we felt stupid having this woman with the body of a child, go off to risk her life to get a stupid key so we pansies could sleep inside. We held our breath and she started descending, chatting the whole time, “I used to be afraid to drive here, but I go slow,” as the car sounds like it is literally falling to pieces, clanging and banging. George said he though the car dropped the transmission on this little excursion. I thought we were leaving pieces of it on the road. It could have been just shit in the back bouncing around, but she was waving to people and calling out the window. I held my breath the whole way, but when she gunned it to make it up the hill, I was like, “Alright! Woo Hoo!” and then gave George a little look like, “See?” since he was telling me I shouldn’t do that. Not sure what my point was there, but I just figured if she could do it in this heap, I was not going to be worried about our car with 4wD! We made it into the trading center, to the guy’s house to have this wife tell us he wasn’t there. Ugh. It was dark by then. I said, “I am so sorry you had to leave your home like this for us!” sure by this point those little kids had fatal burns. George said, “you probably needed to make dinner for your family.” She laughed and waved all this off, carefree as ever, “Oh no, the boys are on holiday from school. They cook for me. Hahaha! ” That freed her up after a day of saving lives in the wilderness to drive two mzungus around looking for access to their accommodation. I was dying.

We turned around, (no easy feat in this monster) and had to go BACK down and up again sliding in the mud, clanging, banging, picked up a few passengers  SHE TURNED HER HEAD TO CHAT WITH AS SHE DROVE, apologizing to us for going so slow, and made it back to the guesthouse, something I considered a Christmas miracle. I felt like an idiot to see our nice car parked there. And next to it was a little compact car with a guy also looking for accommodation. I’m like, “THAT car made it up that road?” We are total wimps. Somehow word had spread, and the caretaker of the guesthouse was there, opened up, lights on, fire burning in the fireplace to heat hot water, smile as big as Kansas welcoming us. It was incredible. We tried to give Mwewe money for gas or just to give her money, but she refused it. She said, “No. I won’t take money. Just do something for someone else.” We told her to please look us up if she comes to Blantyre, and thanked her a million times, and off she went in that hulk of a vehicle, the tiny face looking out over the steering wheel. As she drove off I thought, I cannot believe the lights on that car work.

I can’t imagine anyone even reading this it’s getting so long, but I can’t stop!

The guest house cost $9/night for two people and was simple but sublime. We cooked up some pasta and tomatoes and onions and were quite content. We’d bought two beers for George and I had a bottle of sparkling wine we’d bought in Karonga. We’d only planned to spend one night there, but after navigating that road, we were definitely staying two. We’d sacrifice one night in Livingstonia. We didn’t think about the food situation until the next day, so grateful we were to be inside and safe. There isn’t a store anywhere without going back over that road, something out of the question until we left. I’d eat leaves first. In the simple living room was the other guest, not eating because he’d had a late lunch. He was from Mzuzu but building a house in the hills which, he hoped to turn into a guesthouse. He was also fascinating, also had a PhD, was a community organizer and worked to teach young people in Malawi how to utilize their time and skills when it seemed there were no jobs to be had. We offered him some of our food, but he refused and we talked for a long time about the future of this country. He was only staying one night, just checking on the construction of his house. He was gone the next morning before we got up.

The power went out shortly after we had supper, so we read by headlamp and slept well in the cool air. In the morning there was a racket of flapping wings and more than a hundred hornbill something or other birds were flapping around the tree outside our window. It was a bit Hitchcock-esque I must say, but interesting to watch from inside our room with bars on the windows closely spaced enough to disallow these things to come and attack us. That tree was alive with them. Crazy. For some reason, at one point they all flew off, apparently there was a meeting going on somewhere else. After breakfast we asked Dixon, the caretaker where the mission was and he insisted on taking us there, and good thing because we’d still be wandering around the hills looking for it. Up and down these small paths between terraced gardens and banana plantations. Gorgeous. He took us to the coffee plantation, thousands of coffee plants, which, yes, is a good livelihood for the farmers, and the cooperative makes it fair for them but I was heartbroken to see how much of the rainforest has been cut down. A part of it is preserved, but a lot of it is gone. We walked through some of the old forest I’d walked through 38 years ago, but it was raining and wet and Dixon kept asking if we wanted to turn around so we walked back (several miles) to the guesthouse where we read and relaxed for the afternoon. We didn’t have much food left since we hadn’t planned a second night, but Dixon had some mushrooms sitting out on the stone wall and I asked if he found them close by? He gave me the ones that were there, an refused money for them. He said, “This is my home! I can find food!” These were not the porcini we’d been taught by our Italian friend to identify, but I figured Dixon knew what he was picking. I fried them up and tasted a little piece of one to see if I started hallucinating, and when nothing happened, I figured they were fine. We had a quarter of a bag of penne, a packet of South African biltong (dried beef jerky) George had gotten in his Christmas stocking a year ago, some powdered milk, and of course, beer and wine. I threw the biltong in with the mushrooms and mixed up some powdered milk and made a little sauce for the penne, and it was delicious! I couldn’t stop raving about it! Fortunately, George agreed or that could have gotten obnoxious, but it was another great evening. Rainforest sounds of nightlife together with a wonderful traveling companion and all around good guy and we feel like we are pretty good together again.

Next day, New Years Eve. (This is really getting long. Hopefully being snowed in to the deep freeze makes people want to read this.) The ride out of the Misuku Hills seemed like cake. I was not going to complain about that road after seeing Mwewe do it in that heap she drove. Cruised right out of there.  It helped that it was sunny and the road dry. It’s amazing how fast that clay turns rock hard when it stops raining. We cruised along, ready to take on the road up to Livingstonia, and we did it, though it would have been easier had I taken a tranquilizer before the ascent. We had agreed George would drive up and I would drive down, but it was so scary to be on the outside edge of that road I thought, no, poor George will not be able to tolerate me driving down. i’m going to have to let him drive. See what a good vacation this was? It made me ever so nice and thoughtful. I told him when we finally made it up (one and a half hours to go six miles) that I would let him drive down. I didn’t want him to be anxious. He smiled, knowing what a sweet gesture that was on my part. We were just so in love. The place we stayed was fantastic! Lukwe Lodge with chalets designed like tree houses, all eco friendly: composing toilets, solar hot water, permagarden where all their organic produce comes from, all on a cliff overlooking the hills and lake. We settled in, had a lovely lunch at the restaurant, a thatched balcony with the same view, then took a walk to the waterfall and then to the village where the first mission in Malawi was situated. Not easily accessible for a mission, but they weren’t all dying from malaria at this elevation, and the view! Can’t beat the view! We traipsed down through hills and fields back to the lodge by sunset, took a warm solar shower, and watched the full moon rise as we sipped gin and tonics from a chair swing while we waited for our dinner on the balcony. Sweet, sweet, New Years Eve. We didn’t even come close to seeing the new year come in.

The next day after our scrumptious veggie omelet and homemade bread, we got back on the road as we needed to get to Nkhotakhota in order to make it back to Blantyre on the second. We packed up, vowed to return, and started on the descent, George at the wheel as I so generously suggested the day before. I swear to God, twenty meters into the descent I said, “Pull over! I am driving!” My nerves just couldn’t take it again, and though he balked (just a little) he said, “Ok, but you have to agree to go slow and stop and negotiate if it looks impassable.” “Yes, yes, yes. Of course I’m going to go slow.” Then he said, “If I can’t take it I’ll get out and walk.” “Fine.” I said,( nicely).  One and a half hours to go six miles down. That poor car. It’s like driving on a hiking trail. In fact we decided, if we do go back there, we are walking. It’ll take almost the same amount of time!

After that, the drive on tarmac to the Safari Lodge where Jordan and I camped on the beach in May was luxury, until the road gets very narrow and there is no shoulder and you have to practically stop when a car is coming the other way. But we made it well before dark to find hundreds of people there partying on the beach for New Year. We decided to wait until the crowd thinned out to set up our tent, and we found the Dutch couple we’d met on Nyika were staying there too! They’d gotten a room, and weren’t camping, but we arranged to have dinner with them. By the time it was dark, all of the partiers had left and there were only four of us at the resort. We ordered dinner and sat at a table on the beach where they served us our meal, our feet in the sand, the full moon shining on us, sharing stories of our adventures since Nyika and getting ideas for travel through Namibia and Botswana. As the evening wore on we got into failed marriage stories, of which we could all contribute. We stayed out there until well after the restaurant was closed.

It was a surprisingly easy five hour ride from there back to Blantyre on Tuesday where we discovered the power had gone out the day after we left. Cleaning that fridge was a putrid chore which we happily did together chatting about how it was now cleaner that it had ever been. What a good vacation! George spent hours on the phone with the electric company and they assured us they would send someone out to repair whatever loose wire was hanging onto our roof damaged during an electrical storm. Why they couldn’t do that while we were gone is a mystery, but I had very low expectations they would come at all. We had been looking forward to finally getting some internet and see what the world was up to and post our blogs, but part of me was afraid to look. It was nice being in the dark, literally and figuratively. I went to the market to get some food and while I was gone, ESCOM came and restored power! The second Christmas miracle! As soon as I checked my emails I found out I had to leave the next day for a faculty meeting in Lilongwe, so I unpacked, repacked and got up the next morning to get the bus north again. It’s hard to get back in the swing of things. We both feel like we just want to be on vacation. Maybe once we start with the students again we’ll liven up, but I’m feeling like I want to make mango jam, paint pictures, and read for the rest of my life. Oh, and plan vacations.

Ok, so my intention of tying in the proverb is fast losing it’s importance. I’ve been writing this for so long I can’t even remember what it was. By the time I scroll back to the top of this it’ll be bedtime. It’s been fun, though, to do nothing but write all day…

Wishing everyone who made it this far love and happiness in the new year. Despite all the heartache and tragedy 2017 has brought, I’m inspired when a rattletrap junker can make it up a slippery hill because it’s driver believed it could. I just feel 2018 has good things in store.

Love to all,


Sunday Morning~ Christmas Eve in Mzuzu

Sunday Morning ~ Mzuzu

December 24, 2017

Hi Everyone,

It’s hot. I have to keep reminding myself that it’s Christmas Eve. At early mass this morning the fourth advent candle was lit, simple white candles on a purple cloth. The drummers played and the choir sang and none of the music gave any indication that the season was any different from others in the liturgical year.

It feels good to be on vacation. Even though we got away last weekend, I had two stressful twelve hour days of testing students this week and I couldn’t wait to leave. I hate the way we evaluate students. It’s exhausting and anxiety producing. My nine clinical students in postnatal had to identify a willing mother and do a complete postnatal exam on her and a neonatal exam on the baby while two of us watch and grade a hundred aspects of the exam. The students are all so nervous they tremble, and each one takes two hours. We did five on Tuesday and four on Wednesday and barely fit it all in. It’s exhausting for me and I have to struggle to pay attention, especially when they are doing all the health teaching. I don’t mind working long hours, but when I don’t feel like what I am doing is useful, I get home feeling terrible. I’m lenient with the grading and I don’t know if that’s okay. My colleagues are so hard on the students and I think I’m feeling PTSD from my nursing school experience and want to cut them some slack. But I don’t know if it’s right to do that. I hate that the mothers have to sit around and wait for so long to get examined. One fell asleep during the health teaching and the student turned to me and asked, “What should I do now, madam? She is asleep.” The poor student was afraid I’d take points off since she hadn’t gotten through all the required topics. The poor mother had been awake for two days. It was crazy. The only upside to that experience was that for two hours, nine mothers and nine babies got picture perfect care. I told the students that if all women were treated that well, this country would be a much different place for them to live.

At the postnatal clinic the health education included a song on family planning. The lyrics were, and I swear this is true, “Men run away from responsibility. If you have many children, men will run away from them, So you should get family planning.” The students were dancing and clapping and singing their hearts out and I thought the song was about the joy of motherhood or something. I’d never seen them be so animated. When I asked them to translate the lyrics for me, I thought they were joking. But no, they were serious. I tell you, it was a bright spot in my week. I took a video and asked everyone’s permission to post it to Facebook. I tried to do that before I left, but it wouldn’t post for some reason. I’ll try and see if this coffee shop has fast enough wifi and give it another try. I’ve only got an hour of internet and it’s running out so I’m not going to write much more.

We’re heading to the Nyika Plateau tomorrow to camp for a few nights where it’s cool.  It was where we spent Christmas the two years I was here as a Peace Corps volunteer. I’m anxious to see if it’s still as magical as it was back then. I wonder what thirty eight years has done both to the landscape and my perception.

Fr Richard, the White Father missionary priest I knew from those days was the one saying mass this morning. This is his 50th anniversary of priesthood. His sermon was about how a seed has to give up it’s existence to create something more beautiful. It was a lovely thought to hold on to in these times.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to everyone. Wishing you peace.

Love to all,