Sunday Morning ~ Blantyre
January 28, 2018
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,