Sunday Morning ~ Neighbors~ Blantyre

Sunday Morning ~ Our Neighbors ~ Blantyre

Njala ya mnzako ndi yako yomwe. ~ The hunger of your neighbor is also yours.

~ Chewa proverb

February 25, 2024

Hi Everyone,

Last year a friend from Belgium was visiting me in Maine and I told her I wanted her to meet my neighbors. We walked to the end of my road, a mile long, and started down their driveway. She looked at me and asked, “You call this your neighbor?” I laughed. I told her I do. The definition of neighbor reads “a person living next door or very near” but it seems like a good time to broaden that concept.

The past week seemed a month long. Every day was a week. The heat had a lot to do with that; it is so disturbing. The hot months here are normally October and November. When the rains come in December the humidity breaks, the clouds are always present, and the evening rains keep the air cool. At least that’s how it has been for the past several centuries. When the rains stop in April or May the air gets very cool, even cold at night, until September when the air starts to build with humidity, breaking again with the first rain in December. Malawians build their lives around this weather cycle. Most people here are still subsistence farmers and they depend on the rain for their maize crop. It is their entire income and food source. When the rains are unpredictable the crop is a disaster. Maize is planted when rain is expected. If the rain comes, the seeds germinate and start to grow. If the rain then stops, those young plants die. Irrigation is not an option. And since the seasons of rainy and dry are so distinct, it’s not possible to replant and have enough time for the crop to mature before the dry six months without any precipitation. This year rain has been unpredictable. The rain was fairly steady during December and January and the crops looked good (I thought). But just as the maize was ripening, February turned very dry and hot. It feels like November. It’s very humid with scorching sun and few clouds. It’s tiring just to get through the day. I have to force myself to do anything and could fall asleep in broad daylight. If there is no crop there is widespread hunger and starvation. Crime goes up when people are desperate. The lot of the poor is good for no one. People everywhere here are talking of climate change. The priest at mass talks about it. The faculty talks about it. It’s so unfair that those who contribute the least to this crisis are the ones who suffer the most. But in the end we will all pay. “The hunger of your neighbor is also yours.” That wasn’t written yesterday.

The students are back on campus and classes started this week. I’ll be teaching two groups: first year students newly graduated from secondary school, and second year students in midwifery. The first years are nursing and midwifery combined. That class is frightening. Two hundred and fifty six students, new to university, and English isn’t their first language. It’s going to take me most of the class just to take attendance! Last Monday was the introduction class, there are four of us sharing the topics, and we all went to introduce ourselves and give an overview of the class. I was overwhelmed and all I had to do was introduce myself. I couldn’t even see the back of the room. There is no way those students in the back will be able to see the slides. I don’t know how this is going to go. We will have use of a microphone, so that’s good, though, I’m told it often doesn’t work. If it were an amphitheater it could work, but in the flat classroom, I don’t know. My first lecture is this Wednesday and if it is raining on that metal roof no one will hear anything. I’ll have to be creative so I’ve got some planning to do. The other class is only fifty students, still double what I had before, but seems a breeze comparatively. I’m looking forward to that one. The students are wide eyed, attentive, and seemed receptive. They clearly survived their first year with its mob of a class size so I guess teaching two hundred and fifty is possible. The resilience never ceases to amaze me. It’s humbling.

Yesterday I went back to Zomba to hike. It’s cooler up on the plateau but it was still hot. I went with the midwife who is working here with Seed, the organization I worked with before. While we were on the plateau we looked out at a huge bank of clouds coming toward us. We could see over to Mt. Mulanje engulfed in clouds and clearly raining. I even thought it looked like a tornado touching down in the distance. Aubrey, our guide, told us we should walk steadily down before the rain reached us as that would make the descent very slippery. I also didn’t want to drive down that escarpment, with it’s tight hairpin turns and steep drop off, in the rain. It’s interesting how the rain can be so welcome and so scary. We rushed the final half hour back to the car, bought some raspberries and blackberries from locals, and headed down the steep road reaching the town before the rain started. It didn’t take long to drive out of it and the trip back to Blantyre was easy. I could see the rain had passed through and the air was more clear. It’s such a relief. I arrived home to learn a cousin of mine has died of Covid. He was the best of men, devoted to his wife and family, and kindness personified. It’s hard to be far away at times like this, wanting to be together with family to grieve. And then I think of all of those separated in Gaza or Ukraine–– all our neighbors and all hungry and grieving. 

This morning I walked the three miles to church and on the way back the clouds started gathering again, so hopefully we are getting back into a normal pattern for this season. When I got home my landlord said he was worried about me since my car was there, knowing I usually go to church. I told him I’d walked. He shook his head and said, “I don’t know whether I should admire you or be afraid of you.” I laughed. 

Love to all,

Linda

Sunday Morning ~ The Way The Snake Moves

Sunday Morning ~ The Way The Snake Moves

Khote-khote wa njoka, utsata kumene kwaloza mutu. ~ Crooked is the way the snake moves, but you just follow where the head points.

~ Chewa proverb

February 18, 2024

Hi Everyone,

I’m in a bit of a fog this morning. After a lazy Saturday doing some painting and going for a walk with a friend, I followed up with a lazy evening. It was after nine when I felt like going to bed, a little late for me, and read until I was sleepy. I turned off the light and fell into a glorious deep sleep that lasted two hours before a buzzing around my ear woke me up. A mosquito had gotten into the net and I spent the next hour slapping myself in the head, half asleep, trying to kill it. The buzzing would stop and I’d think I’d succeeded, then just as I was fading into repose, again the buzzing would start. It was like something out of a Bugs Bunny cartoon. I was trying so hard  not to wake up entirely, knowing I’d have a hard time getting back to sleep, but I finally looked at the clock and at 12:35 a.m., defeated, turned on the light and got up. I stood on the bed chasing it around the net, slapping, missing, slapping, missing, until it landed on the wall side and I was able to squish it against the wall. Blood covered my hand. Dammit, I thought, if it had already sucked my blood why was it still buzzing me? Then I heard another one. I saw it and was not going to stop until I had eliminated that parasite-carrying pest as well. I chased it futilely and, now wide awake, decided to read with the light on until it landed on me again, which it did about ten minutes later. I waited until it was well situated on my thigh, got my left hand into a good position and nailed it. There, I thought. Peaceful sleep. But by then I was intrigued by my book and read for another hour, just to be sure I was alone under that net. Considering how many bites I had on my legs, I thought there had to be more mosquitos in there. But nothing. I turned off the light around three and started drifting off. I may have even achieved sleep when bzzzzzzz started again around my ears which led me to more slapping of my own head thinking the harder I slapped the more likely I was to be successful. I must have hit something because the buzzing stopped long enough for me to fall asleep only to be awoken by some kid of alarm nearby. I wasn’t worried that this property was being vandalized, it was a bit further off than that, but it went on and on and on. I eventually fell into a fitful sleep for a little while. When the sun came through my bedroom window I got up. This is all to say I’m tired today. 

We had no electricity all day yesterday, so the beef I defrosted did not get cooked. That is a priority today though it’s hot and I’m not very hungry. I have a list of things to get done but so far this draft is the sole achievement. This may be it until tomorrow after I have (please God) slept. 

The mosquito story, as annoying as it was, made me chuckle. Back in my Peace Corps days the head of the WHO in Malawi was a Korean doctor named Dr. Yun. During training he came to talk to those of us in health care and told funny story after funny story. When giving us some realistic advice about how much can be accomplished and how frustrating efforts can be, he described sleeping under a mosquito net. “Ah, the net is protecting you! You feel sure that little insect cannot get in. But does the mosquito give up? No! He keeps looking and looking over and over until he finds that one tiny hole to get in and bite you. We must be like the mosquito.” Then he laughed and laughed. It was impossible not to love him. I think of that every time I feel like giving up on something. The proverb reminded me of this, too. It’s a long and winding road, but if we keep the end in sight, we might eventually get there.

We had two “scouting” trips this week to Balaka and Chriadzulu. (This is for those of you who follow along on google maps.) This process would probably be accomplished with a phone call at home, but that is not culturally appropriate here. Scouting a clinical site involves meeting with administrators, the head nurses (matrons), and preceptors. We cannot arrive without snacks for the meeting, so to prevent another cancellation like last week, I offered to buy the snacks and get reimbursed later. A colleague and I went to the grocery store and filled two carts, one with drinks and one with packages of biscuits. I know it was my impatience that led me to offer this and I’m not sure how appropriate it was, but everyone was grateful we could continue on our business having secured the time, transport, and treats. The students start tomorrow and it would be very difficult to go after that. And clinical placements cannot proceed until this formality is accomplished. It’s a real cultural lesson. I was just a passive observer and didn’t need to be there, but I like being part of the team and I’d never been to Balaka. And while we were in the grocery store some guy fixed a dent in my front bumper for the equivalent of $1.50. Some aspects of life here are so easy. 

The scouting visit begins with the head matron’s office where she takes us on a tour. Then we go into a room where seats are arranged in a circle. Staff filters in. When all the seats are occupied, someone is asked to say a prayer. Then one of our faculty leads the discussion. She asks if they have had any problems with our students in the past? This goes on for awhile with what seemed like minor complaints. It’s good feedback. They talked about how hard it is for the students to find housing, and how they want us to come more often to supervise them. Very valid. The use of “gadgets” (meaning their phones) was a big issue. Both sites had a policy of confiscation if a student uses his or her phone during a clinical rotation. The phone is kept in the head matron’s office until the end of the rotation. (I thought this was a bit harsh). She described sobbing students pleading stories of family problems and urgent communication. But the staff has seen students post photos of patients on social media and they don’t budge on this rule. Then our administrator brought up student complaints. He explained how important it was for the staff to model good care. “Students learn from the nurses and midwives”, he said, “and if they are not dressed properly or give disrespectful care, what what, this is not acceptable.” I held my breath expecting an argument or defensiveness. None. Several of the staff admitted they could do a better job and they would take note. I exhaled. He ended his remarks by saying “Remember, these are the nurses and midwives who will be caring for us as we get older. We want them to have a good education.” Everyone nodded. It was remarkable. When the topic of liability came up he described a scenario to get everyone thinking: “Supposed a student repairs an episiotomy and closes the woman up entirely. If I am her husband and I cannot find the hole, who am I to blame? The student or the one who was not supervising them?” I was the only one who’s head snapped up in absolute shock, but the discussion continued as it he were talking about an ingrown toenail. Honestly, it’s amazingly productive. Then we went through the MOU line by line while someone passed out the drinks and biscuits. The discussion doesn’t move on until everyone is satisfied and agreement has been reached. This is a society where everyone has a say and others listen respectfully. 

I looked out the windows at the huge mountain behind the hospital, grateful for these lessons. 

Love to all,

Linda

Sunday Morning ~ Blantyre~ Elders

Sunday Morning ~ Blantyre ~ Elders  

Akulu-akulu ndi m’dambo mozimira moto. ~ Elders are like moisture in the marsh where the fire goes out.

~ Chewa proverb

February 11, 2024

Hi Everyone,

It’s refreshing to live in a place where elders are respected and revered. During my Peace Corps experience here in my early twenties I was drawn to their wisdom. I lived in Malawi when the fruits of colonialism were rotting and the median age was sixteen. There were few elders. When I was here in the late 70’s and early 80’s I was working as a public health nurse and spent lots of time in villages. Before doing anything for health care (immunizations, sanitation), the village chief, an elder, had to be consulted. I listened to the discussion, a fellow nurse translating what I didn’t understand. The village chiefs, the medical officers, the matrons, midwives, and priests all spoke with care and concern for their communities. I loved to sit and listen. I loved hearing their perspectives on life, their experiences, their views on what the future would hold. So many of their stories were of inconceivable hardships, told with a fascinating serenity. I prayed I could be like them someday. To grow old without bitterness seemed the most valuable blessing. Forty-five years later their example resonates even more. They were and are respected members of their communities. Is it possible to have such serenity without that respect? 

I am rereading The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver’s book about a missionary family in the Belgian Congo. An eloquent passage about sickness, disease, and death of Congolese children was so apt and realistic I wondered if Kingsolver had lived there herself. One line in particular stood out: “If everyone lived to be old, then old age would not be such a treasure.”  Given this moment in my own country’s history, I read that and thought, Is our problem that too many people live to be old? Is that why Americans have so little respect for the elderly? Why do we spend so much of our health care dollars in the last year of life prolonging suffering and delaying the inevitable. Is aged usefulness measured in dollars spent in institutions? 

I’m disgusted with the media for the most recent episode of The Fear of Aging. It seems there is no bottom.

In other disturbing news, it hasn’t rained for several days. It’s making me a little nervous and I’m not the one depending on a maize crop for survival. We got a couple of cloudbursts last week, but they didn’t last long. It’s been hot in Blantyre, the kind of hot reserved for October and November before the rains come. Things are lush and green, so there has been some rain but it’s intermittent. I see clouds forming now so maybe we’ll see some today. I’m sitting on my veranda with my tea and wondering about walking to church. It’s about three miles and if it does rain, my umbrella will be useless. But I can duck in somewhere and call a taxi if I’m desperate, so I may go for it. I need to move.

One more week until students come for classes. This week we will discuss clinical sites and who will supervise where. This exercise of supervising students out in the far flung districts was the initial spark lighting the fuse for the Midwifery Ward project at the teaching hospital. Midwifery students get sent out as far as three hours away to smaller hospitals to get experience. When they arrive there, there is an added burden to the existing staff to mentor them. Often the students are treated like employees and have little supervision. The faculty is supposed to visit them once a week and spend a day teaching, but this never happens. There is often no transportation or no fuel. Meetings and other responsibilities take priority and sometimes students spend their entire five week rotation with only one visit. It’s not great. I met with the Chargé d’affaires from the U.S. embassy last Monday when she was in Blantyre and described our original project for addressing this problem and how it was derailed by the pandemic. She told me about a self-help grant through the embassy I could apply for which might resuscitate the project. She was great. She told me not to give up on it. Money always helps. I’ve put it out to my colleagues here and we are planning a time to meet and talk about how we should proceed. There is still a little flame. 

My car is now my car. The title was switched into my name on Wednesday and the process was shockingly smooth. It helped greatly that the man selling me the car had experience and knew which impossible-to-find room to deliver the forms. I followed him hoping I’ll remember how to find it when I’ll need to resell this baby in December. Now that I own the car and have my own insurance, I’m more comfortable taking it farther afield. So yesterday I drove to Zomba with some new friends where we hiked along the plateau. This never gets old for me. The deforestation is tragic, yes, and there were many landslides during the cyclone last March, but there is a lot of reforestation work being done and I felt hopeful. We hired a guide as it’s nice to hear local stories and history and I like supporting them. He was active in the reforestation and took us to the nursery were they are propagating indigenous plants. There is plenty of pine and eucalyptus up there, not native, that has been stripped for lumber and firewood. He could identify the bird calls and vegetation, and knew exactly which trail would take four hours. We went to lunch and descended the escarpment a little later than we should have in order to get home  before dark. Then we stopped several times to buy passion fruit, gooseberries, avocados, and the new potatoes that grow in the valley between two mountains. Women walk up one mountain and down another on a path they have named the Potato Path. When they cross under a waterfall on the plateau they stop to wash the potatoes, then continue several miles down into Zomba and the big market there. A few women stay along the road between hairpin turns and sell to those in the cars that pass, like us. Fruit and vegetables fresh off the trees and the earth and we don’t even need to get out of our car.   

Love to all,

Linda 

Sunday Morning ~ Blantyre, White Privilege

Sunday Morning ~ Blantyre ~ White Privilege

“Lero lomwe” anadetsa nthengu. ~ Today, today made the little bird black.

~ Chewa proverb

February 4, 2024

Hi Everyone,

Schedules are fluid here and this week I ended up with two suddenly open days. I decided to bite the bullet and register, insure, and pay for my car. You’d think within two full days I could accomplish this. You’d be wrong. This has been way more complicated than I anticipated. The largest bank note here is 5,000 Kwacha, worth less than three American dollars. Paying for a car in three dollar bills would require several hours at the ATM. I thought I could just transfer money from my bank account at home, but OH, not so simple. I brought some cash with me and got a very nice exchange rate for it, so paid for almost half the car that way. I’m still working on the second half. PayPal has a few bugs. And fees. I may have a date with every ATM in town. The sellers are being very patient.

I learned I can’t switch over the car registration until I registered myself as a driver at the Road and Traffic Safety Office. I dreaded this. When our trip to Mangochi to supervise students got canceled because there was no fuel, I braced myself and ventured to the equivalent of a registry of motor vehicles. I walked through the gate into the parking lot/waiting area. My heart sank. Hundreds of people were sitting on benches in front of four unlabeled service windows. I knew not what they were waiting for, if each window provided a different service, or where the line started or ended. I stared. Should I get in line? If so, where? I walked up closer to the windows to see if I could get a sense of what to do. I looked around for someone official looking and didn’t see anyone in a uniform. I stuck my head into an alleyway and saw two men in blue shirts looking at phones. I approached one of them and greeted him: “Muli Bwanji, I must register as a driver to buy a car. Where do I go?” Barely looking up, he answered, “Second window.” There were four windows. Second window from which side? “Second window” was different depending on which side you counted from. I looked for a number on the windows and saw none, though there were so many papers taped to them it may have been hidden. I wedged my way through the crowd in front of all the windows to see if there was a number. Couldn’t see any. I went back to the man in the blue shirt. “Which is the second window?” He reluctantly accompanied me and pointed. Ok, this was progress. I now knew the right window. I waited in the line in front of that window, which was short. Only two people were standing as opposed to the fifty who were seated in front of the window. No idea what they were waiting for but it seemed the standing ones were the line. When my turn came I told the man behind the window I needed to register to buy a car and he handed me a form to fill out. I joined the fifty seated people and thought this might not be too bad! Only one page! Unfortunately it required my passport not my license, and I didn’t have that with me. I folded up the paper, tucked it in my bag and left, dreading the thought of coming back but relieved to leave, thinking I’d be better prepared mentally upon return. Note to self: bring a snack. And a book. 

I feel very guilty about the next part of this story. The all-day planning meeting scheduled for Wednesday got cancelled when the faculty from the Lilongwe campus “failed to arrive”. So I had another free day. I took a deep breath, passport in hand, and knowing what to expect, went back to Road and Traffic Safety Office. It was even more crowded. Where should I drop the form? Second window again? There was a very long line. I saw people, lots of them, waiting in a different line and saw they had the same form as me. I asked one if this was the line to register? One person said yes, the one next to her said no, and pointed to the longer line a few feet away. I got in that line, but still wasn’t sure if I was in the right line. A blue shirted person with badges on the sleeves walked by and I said, “Excuse me, is this the line to register as a driver?” and showed him my form. He said, “Yes, come with me.” I followed him along the line into a room with two stations. He pointed to a chair in front of a desk with a window barrier. When the person in that chair got up, the blue shirted man told me to go next. I said, “Oh no! I don’t want to go before these people waiting!” (This was both true and false. I desperately wanted to go before those people waiting. I also didn’t want to look like I was going before those  people waiting.) He said, “Yes. Go. You are over sixty aren’t you?” I was simultaneously insulted and relieved. I’m always surprised to be reminded of how old I am because I don’t feel that old and I guess wanted him to think I was much younger, but I was relieved that it might be my age and not my skin color allowing me to jump the line. It may have been both but it was privilege nonetheless. I turned to the fifty or so young people in line and said, “I’m so sorry.” and turned away from their looks of disappointment. Or was it disgust? I told myself, “They do revere old people here.”  I handed over my form, my passport, my license, and noted that the expression of the guy behind the window was not reverence. I said, “I’m sorry”meaning I never would have asked to go first. I just wanted to be sure I was in the right line, I swear,  but don’t think he was in the mood to make me feel better about my white privilege guilt. His expression did not change. I got fingerprinted, photographed (which took several tries because my white shirt, white hair, white skin, and white background made me invisible on the photo. He had to take several shots and he wasn’t happy. He stamped my form and gave me instructions which I could not understand but I did not want to take up any more time after cutting the line, so ran out to find another blue shirted person to ask for the next step.

I was told to go back to the window that gave me the form in the first place. I slipped my form through the opening and took a seat. A while later a young girl in front of me said “They are calling you.” Seriously? How did she hear that? I was listening for it and heard nothing. I went up to the window, where the blue shirted woman asked for my passport. I handed it over and refused to leave while she had it. This I did not feel bad about. I stood there until she did whatever she was doing with it, and I got fingerprinted again. She handed back my stuff with more instructions I couldn’t understand. “Did you say go to the bank?” She pointed to the left, done with me, and went on to her next task. I looked for another guy in a blue shirt to ask what I was to do next. I’d lost all shame for needing assistance. There was no way I could have figured this out. Around the corner there was an actual bank and I was instructed to go there. I went into the bank, paid some money, took the receipt, and got more instructions I couldn’t understand. The bank was less crowded so I felt comfortable asking her to repeat the instructions until I understood I was to go next door with the receipt and do something. That part was fuzzy but at least I knew where to go. I went into the adjacent building and waited in line. No special old lady treatment there. No hairy eyeballs either, thank God. It was only about a fifteen minute wait, the line moving pretty fast. I got up to the window, handed all the papers and receipts over. She handed them back and said, “We have no cards. Just use the receipt.” Which, I guess was why the line was moving fast. Seems like that could have been noted at the door. I don’t know what I was supposed to “use” the receipt for, but I asked if this was the last step, she said yes, I found the nearest exit, walked a mile to a cafe, and ordered a beer. It was one o’clock. This was all just so I can buy the car and register it. I have no idea what’s next in this series of bureaucracies but in the meantime, I’m still driving their car.  

I thought the students were starting classes tomorrow but now it is not until the 19th. Friday we chose which courses to teach. I’ll have time to prepare and recover from the shock of learning the class will not be twenty students like in 2016, 17, 18, and 19 but a mere 260 students since midwifery and nursing will be combined. It will be in a bigger room they assure me. A year suddenly feels very small. A month is already gone. I always think I’m doing well managing expectations but then let my imagination run wild with what we COULD do and get frustrated and disappointed with what actually comes of it. I need to reel it in. Two hundred and sixty students. Yikes.

There is a Fulbright student in Blantyre and we met for breakfast this morning. On a blackboard at the entrance of the cafe was written: Slow progress is better than no progress. Stay positive and never give up. The proverb is about this. It doesn’t have to be today. Rushing spoils things.  Reminding me again of my privilege. 

Love to all,

Linda