Sunday Morning~East Boothbay

Sunday Morning~  East Boothbay

September 10, 2017

Hi Everyone,

Ok, this setting is hard to beat. I am sitting on the bank of the Damarascotta river in a sweet boathouse remade into a private space for Nell alone. I’m guessing they once stored boats in here, but now it is an open space with a desk, drafting table, loom, wood stove, double bed and dresser. There are big single paned windows on all sides. I see some life jackets hanging from a nail on the wooden walls, so it’s still used for some storage of boating activity, but mostly, it’s a woman’s dream space. It helps that the September sun is coming through the windows and makes this spot a warm place to write. I’m not sure I ever want to leave it. Nell is teaching a suturing workshop and offered it to me when I said I need a place to sit and write. Doesn’t get much better than this.

My timing has been laced with luck. This midwifery retreat weekend was situated directly on my path from Washington to Bar Harbor. I spent a few days this week in D.C. participating in the orientation for the new volunteers about to head off to five different countries. Their departure had been delayed, waiting for the funding to come through congress and a couple of months behind the schedule we had last year, they are eager to go. It was exciting to be part of it. I remember last year drinking up every word the returned volunteers shared in that anxious what-do-I-do? state of the newly initiated. It was fun to be the old pro and reassure the newcomers that, as hard as it can be sometime, we are living proof that it’s doable and I’m even going back for a second year! I felt so grateful and proud to be part of this organization. The orientation process which is in-depth, sensitive, and realistic, includes lectures on tropical medicine and education by experts in their fields.  That part alone is worth it. But to be in the midst of like-minded people with similar goals and the desire to give back, is a very good feeling. And it’s fun!

On Friday I presented, to a group at the Peace Corps headquarters, a comparison of the experiences of being a traditional Peace Corps volunteer, a team member of Doctor’s Without Borders, a woman’s advocate here in rural Maine, and the current role of GHSP volunteer. It was a lot to put into one hour, but it was heady to be the speaker for this audience. I believe in this organization so completely, believe it is the only foreign policy that actually works, and believe the next generation of health care providers is the only hope for improving women’s lives. I want to tell this story wherever I can.

Directly after my talk, I left to catch the metro to the airport and fly back to Portland Maine. My flight to D.C. on Tuesday had been cancelled which required taking a bus to Boston and a flight from there the next day. It took me a mere 24 hours to get there (I could have gotten to Malawi in that time) but the flight back was smooth and simple. From Portland I picked up my car and drove to Boothbay where the fall Maine midwifery retreat was being held at the summer place of one of the formidable women in our organization. Nell impresses all of us with her ability to understand legislation and regulation and decipher what it means for our practice. We have great discussions about how we’ll go about either enacting change or surviving in the current climate. For those of us who have been practicing midwifery for several decades, the constant fight to be allowed do what we are trained and legally allowed to do, gets exhausting. I, myself, run to the developing world to get perspective. But I love being in the midst of these women who don’t give up, who have developed creative and inspiring methods of enduring, and are fun and funny to boot. I soak all this in while being nurtured and fed from their own gardens as we sit on a deck overlooking the water, sleep under cozy comforters, then sip tea and gossip as the sun comes up. I’ll say it again, I love my life.

We, of course, spent time talking about the hurricane as we drank wine and ate lobster in the candlelight last night. We all knew someone in it’s wake. I can’t help thinking about the contrast between what seems to be an impending apocalypse and how happy I am about life. It doesn’t seem right. I admit to being a little blasé about the weather events. I get that there is loss of property and sometimes life, but it always gives me pause when I think of why this should be surprising? We humans try to bend the earth to our advantage and are shocked when it doesn’t cooperate. So if housing is situated on a flood plain, it floods. This is shocking? It seems callous and uncaring of me and I find that a little disturbing.  It’s a little like, “Oh, you burned your hand? I told you not to touch the hot stove.” People who voted in a manner that would eliminate services for those who did not build a house in a flood plain because they will never have a house, are now needing assistance? Hmm. I told you not to touch the stove.

Now I will try to post this on the newly renovated website (she even has wifi here!) then take my privileged legs on a walk in this beautiful setting before heading back to Bar Harbor. The next week is relatively unscheduled as my plan to canoe the Allagash River during this time is going to be postponed. I’m chicken to do it alone and couldn’t get anyone to go with me! This is a new feeling…no work and a free week. Hmm. It’ll be interesting to see how that gets filled.

Love to all,


Sunday Morning~Amelia and James's House

Sunday Morning~ Amelia and James’s House

September 3, 2017

Hi Everyone,

I often have pangs when I miss my mother terribly. Most of the time I feel her spirit with me but sometimes on a Tuesday evening I’ll have a deep sorrowful desire to talk with her. I used to call her every Tuesday around suppertime. She always answered on the first ring. Sometimes, when I have exciting news, my first impulse is to call her and then I remember I can’t. Yesterday was different though. I spent most of the day desperately wishing she could have known these two sweethearts, and desperately wishing I had bought her diamonds for taking care of my kids as often as she did. Holy shit.

While I was still in Malawi, Rachael had asked me if I could watch the kids for this four-day weekend. I responded to the request as if she’d offered a free trip to Italy. I told her I wanted to do something fun with them, something special they’d remember, of course, giving me full credit. They’d forget I wasn’t here for their formative year! I told her I might take them camping. I thought that might be fun. Maybe at the National Seashore on Cape Cod. Yes, I could picture that.  A nice campsite right on the beach, warm sand under our sleeping bags, a stress-free day of building sandcastles and collecting shells. Evening campfires where we’d toast marshmallows and then read stories in the tent before we all drifted off together for a restful night, never thinking an eighteen month old might get fussy or stumble headfirst into the fire. I now have one word for that fantasy. Delusional.

When George and I had the kids on Beach Island, the two of us worked well together and since they adore him and he is amazing with kids, the whole thing was pretty stress-free. There was no place for them to get lost, no cars to worry about, plenty of stones to throw in the water, and always one of us to watch them if we had to do something like pee. They were angels. There was one meltdown at dinner time when I made Amelia shut off Moana to come eat, but mostly bliss. Last weekend when we were doing the home-improvement project here, I bagged the camping idea and thought I’d just stay home with them and continue to work on the unfinished projects. I thought I’d finish the shingling and maybe start on the other wall. Ha ha ha. Very funny. I now have some new goals for the weekend. They include: keeping the kids alive until their parents get home, and brushing my teeth. I mean, by the time they went to bed last night I felt like I was getting back in the swing of this little-kid routine, but I honestly have no idea how I did this with five. Maybe I stopped caring after the third, I don’t know. I certainly don’t know how my mother did it when I dumped them all on her for romantic weekends away. Oh how I wish I could tell her how much I appreciate what she did for me. In my last year of graduate school I had to do an internship and left four kids under four years old, including six month old twins, with her for THREE MONTHS!! I was there at night but she was mostly solo. She saved my life with that heroic gift. Why didn’t I buy her a new house? Matt was in school so stayed in Cleveland with his dad, so it was ONLY four of them. The six year-old, who actually might have been a help, wasn’t there. God, no wonder her friends would come over at four o’clock for wine.

Ok, so it doesn’t help that I’m still licking my wounds from last weekend. When I got here Friday, Amelia said, “Meme, show my dad the boo boo on your butt.” I told her I didn’t want to do that and she asked, “Why? Why don’t you want to show him your butt?” And it’s always a little difficult when you are trying to find stuff in someone else’s kitchen. My mother used to hate my cast iron pans. She’d say, “Why do you have to have these monstrosities to cook on?” And then there’s the technology. I cannot turn on this television, which is fine, since I don’t want to watch it, but I did hear Amelia today with Rachael’s old cell phone asking Siri where her parents were. She started, “Siri, where’s my mom and dad?” and when Siri replied, “I’m sorry. I can’t understand you.” Amelia asked, “Siri, where are my parents?” I was in the kitchen trying to figure out the dishwasher and cracking up. Then a few hours later I got a text from Rachael asking if I was letting the kids use her cell phone as she was getting notices that purchases were made on Amazon that she hadn’t made. I’m putting that in the “they can deal with that when they get home” category.

Ok, and get this. Did the rest of the world realize that kids’ wagons now actually have cup holders? I am not making that up. They have cup holders and seatbelts! Wagons have seatbelts! I kid you not. We went to the playground which was akin to something at Disney world. I know I sound like the old fogey, “When I was a kid we walked thirteen miles to school”, but seriously, this playground is mind boggling. When I was growing up I think there was one swing set in our neighborhood and we used to try to pump so hard on the swings the frame would come up out of the ground. I thought about how dangerous that probably was. Could the whole thing have flipped over? I don’t remember an adult being anywhere within shouting distance. Yesterday every single kid at the playground had a parent holding a water bottle within four feet. So that must be why there are cup holders in wagons. Everyone is in danger of dehydration during their hour at the playground. People! This is New England! Not Death Valley! And why would you ever bring snacks to a playground? Then the kids will never want to leave. Though, on our second trip there I did bring James’s water bottle just to put it in the cup holder, because, really, it is kinda cool. And it was cute to see him like a  little emperor, buckled in and sipping on his water as I pulled them home.

I’m excited about how much I’ve gotten written and they aren’t up yet! I don’t want to push my luck here, but I feel like I’m getting my mojo back! I can sit without wincing and slept all night. It’s a rainy day and I’m not even scared!

The first stirrings are audible, so I’m putting this away. With gratitude for being able to do this and awareness of how…I’ll finish that thought later…

Love to all,


Sunday Morning~ My Daughter's House

Sunday Morning~  My Daughter’s House

August 27, 2017

Hi Everyone,

I had five kids by the time I was twenty-nine. When I think of that now, it seems ridiculous. I felt much older than twenty-nine then, and now at sixty, I sort of, don’t. Until I start in the daily routine of taking care of little ones and simultaneously get home improvement projects done. Then I feel every bit of sixty and my back is screaming, “What the hell?” Ready to pitch in with a little renovation for a play room, I was all gung ho yesterday, and started clearing away the construction debris to start shingling the new wall. A minute into that I dropped a piece of plywood, perfectly scraping the skin off my right shin. No problem! I covered it all with bandaids and as Amelia examined the blood dripping from underneath, she said in a horrified tone, “ I can’t believe that!” A slight setback, I got back to work and, with James throwing sticks into the pile, we got the space cleared and ready to shingle. Opps, wrong nails. A trip to the hardware store, distractions, snacks and finally got the first few rows on. By that time, Kyle was home and took over. The scene was so cute, Amelia handing her dad nails as he put the shingles up, I thought I needed to document this lovely moment of family working together so sweetly. One photo, then stepped back to get a better angle and fell over a big aloe plant in a heavy planter that hit my ankle as it toppled, and I landed on the wing of a cast epoxy garden fairy I bought Rachael for her birthday years ago. Well. Aside from the fact that I broke the thing in half (I thought those were indestructible) I am nearly crippled from the bruise on my right butt. It’s hard to sit and write. With two little kids demanding attention, I have no idea how I worked and raised five kids. None. I do remember that naps were not optional in our house. Just like seat belts, they were required without question. I could write a paper for grad school in those two hours, knowing after nap time I was a dead woman. Last night, I was in bed before the kids, grateful their parents were here. Next weekend I’ll be on my own with them as Rachael and Kyle head to a four day wedding extravaganza, so I anticipate a short blog next Sunday.

George returned to Malawi Monday morning at dawn. Early morning flights always seem like a good idea until the night before when you get about two hours of sleep before leaving for the airport at three am. No traffic though, there’s that, and he arrived there to abandoned guards needing salary advances and dry dusty days. I got a few early messages asking where things are but he seems to be settling in for two months of bachelorhood. It’ll go fast. I can’t believe it’s already been a month since I left there.

This being homeless thing is giving me time to think about personal space and sense of stability. I am staying in comfort and relative prosperity, drifting around from friend to family and enjoying it, though I am conscious of not wearing out my welcome. It’s hard to have someone else in your space for long periods, I get that. I try to leave a small footprint, but it’s different from when I’m just visiting someone for a few days. I’m trying to write a grant proposal, arrange speaking engagements, pay bills, and scan a zillion old slides onto a hard drive. I feel like I’m carting around a lot of STUFF.

When flying, my personal rule is not to bring anything I can’t carry for five miles and even that is usually too much. I find myself wearing the same thing every day anyway and I don’t wear makeup or use hair products. A suitcase with wheels always seemed unnecessary. I only use one when traveling with books to sell or bringing home wood carvings and fabric from Africa. Roaming around with my car the past week, it’s easy to toss in lots of STUFF, just in case. I have way more than I need and moving it around makes that glaringly evident.

During my orientation for MSF we did an exercise where we were split into groups of five and had to decide how we would transport things by foot to the destination we were assigned. We were given two wooden chairs, two big gerry cans filled with water, six cans of tomatoes, and ten books to carry.  At first it was fun, choosing a leader, distributing the weight among us, and showing off that we were capable. The destination was a mile away. When we arrived, tired but proud, we were told to continue on to another place, another mile away, then another, then another. Each time we thought it was the end of the exercise, thinking they can’t make us do this all night, we’d be given another mile to walk. We’d started at six pm, and by midnight with blistered feet and soaked with rain, on our fifth destination, arguing about how we’d continue, competitive enough to not give up, we were walking in sand on a beach in northern Holland, with a few of us in tears. It felt like torture. We reached our final destination at 2 am. We discovered that one group had dumped out their water miles before. We hadn’t thought of that. It was an exercise created to help us understand what it is like to be a displaced person, not knowing where you’ll find shelter, carrying all you salvaged with you. The next day we examined what the experience did over the evening to our relationships. We started out working well together, but as the night wore on, we disagreed more and more about how to continue. If we were capable of carrying our own stuff without help, the whole thing would have been different.

OK, I’m starting to see why writers go to isolated cabins away from civilization. This isn’t going anywhere further with the beehive-like activity around here, so, I’ll think of where I was going with this and write the post-script next week…

Love to all,


Sunday Morning~ On The Road

Sunday Morning~ On the Road

August 20, 2017

Hi Everyone,

Really, I’m embarrassed. After posting last week’s blog I learned about the events in Charlottesville. I wrote from my lovely little perch on an island where the sunrises and sunsets frame a day pretty much filled with peace and natural beauty. My head was filled with the beautiful scene in front of me against the turmoil that goes along with a familiar sadness of a family splitting apart. I wrote while looking at the ocean a few steps away. I thought about my relationship with the ocean and how it evolved. I was trying to get my head around what forms our sense of place and what makes us feel peaceful and happy.

Eventually, I connected to the internet and got it posted. I thought I’d quickly go to Facebook, knowing I’d spent way too much time already, and didn’t want to leave George alone with the kids any longer, but wanted a quick look while the internet was connected. I saw some posts about Charlottesville. The whole story just didn’t fit with my setting. Again, I am blindsided by how far this has gone. Every time I say it can’t get worse. Every time I want to believe in humanity and good over evil, something worse happens. I felt guilty about my comfort and privilege. I didn’t know what to do. Everything I’d just written seemed so trivial. I shut everything off and went to join George and the kids. We walked down to the rocky beach where James worked on his task of throwing every single stone into the ocean. George and Amelia looked for periwinkles. They were making a necklace of the shells. Each day, she chose one and George drilled a little hole in it and they strung and knotted it. It was all so simple.

So consciously grateful for this man, these grandchildren, the experiences, I sat and watched. I concentrated on James’s pitch, complete with follow through and splash, then his chubby little arms struggling to pick up a stone too slippery and heavy for him. Each time one slipped out of his hands he’d concentrate on regaining a grip. He’d employ the other hand then launch, nearly toppling over in the process. He’d watch, disappointed, as it didn’t land where he wanted. Undeterred, he’d pick up the next stone and throw. He’s 18 months old and refused to give up.

I watched Amelia scampering around searching for signs of life in the rocks. I thought of her mother at the same age being equally fascinated by the tide pools. It doesn’t seem that long ago.  I loved watching her show George every little treasure. She called them treasures. She’d yell, “Hey George! Look! I found another treasure!” Then she’d hand them to him (her personal servant) to carry.

Something made me refrain from talking about the news. I didn’t mention it to George. I knew he hadn’t heard about it. I just watched this pleasant summer scene. Every time it crept into my consciousness, I piled rocks on it. A nazi rally? A KKK rally? How could this be happening? Nope. Not in my world. This is not to be the future for my grandchildren. We were supposed to be reveling in the light of our first female president. This was all a bad dream. I thought of the Neil Young song, Four Dead In Ohio. What we should do? Then George said, “ Hey! I have an idea! Let’s collect some periwinkles and cook them and eat them with butter and garlic!” Without looking up, and with the utmost aplomb, Amelia said, “No. They have families.”  and that idea was immediately abandoned. I laughed. They give me hope for the future. I want to love and nurture these souls. When I feel like I’m spitting into the ocean to change the tide, these kids give me some perspective.

Today we are heading back to Boston. I’m writing from a Travelodge on the way to Boston. George leaves tomorrow to go back to Malawi. We will stop in Portland for the ACLU Rally Against White Supremacy, the first rally we have been able to participate in. Pangono pangono, little by little, as they say in Chichewa. Pangono pangono.  Hitting the road.

Love to all,



Sunday Morning~ Beach Island

Sunday Morning~ Beach Island

August 13, 2017

Hi Everyone,

I was married to someone who loved the ocean and loved to sail. I loved the mountains and lakes but wanted to love the ocean for his sake. Joe (my ex) had a dream of sailing around the world. I had a dream of living in Africa. When we were planning our life together we breathlessly agreed to do both. Not in any position to own a boat, we started with Africa. We were young and Peace Corps offered everything we wanted. And they paid our way!  We had eternity to sail around the world when we grew up. Our first son was born in Malawi and was ten months old when we left. We spent two months traveling through Sudan, Egypt, Greece, Rome, England, Scotland, and Ireland, arriving home for his first birthday. (This is the child who doesn’t like to travel ironically.) We saw incredible sights, but aside from the forbidding cliffs in Ireland, there was no ocean involved.

Joe’s parents loved the beach. When he was growing up he’d go to Cape Cod for summer vacation. They didn’t “summer” at the cape––– they weren’t in that class, but they’d get a cottage for a week or two and go to the beach every day. His mother’s dream was to have her grandchildren there and for several summers she’d take our kids while we either traveled or worked. I wanted to love it for their sake. I wanted to have that sense of ecstasy when landing on the sandy shore. But my memories of the beach were of sand in my eyes, gritty peaches, hot car rides home, carrying in wet towels, and later, cranky kids. I could not figure out why anyone liked this. I never experienced living in that carefree summer place where either the help or some other responsible adult swept the sand out of the kitchen and did the laundry.  The utopia–– where rainy days were spent playing board games (something else I dislike) with healthy, well educated, tanned cousins–– eluded me.

I really wanted to love the ocean, because well, everyone did. In 1990, in pursuit of that quest, Joe and I moved the five kids to Samoa to work for two years. There we thought we’d get involved in the yachting community and get a sense of this sail-around-the-world thing. It was a place where people who did that spent hurricane season. We got an education, for sure, but it did nothing to convince me that it would be a fun experience. Still, I was committed to doing it for Joe’s sake and started reading yachting magazines to psyche myself up. There were great stories of family cruises that sounded romantic. I thought I could get into it. I could home school the kids. I told myself this. Then we’d meet people actually doing it and I found very few who seemed to be enjoying it. To me it looked like all they ever did was fix their boat. And worry about their boat. And wait for parts for their boat. Those were the ones with really nice boats. The ones with just plain old we-can-afford-this boats were in the bar looking like they’d been washed up on shore. So living in Samoa did not make me love boats, but it did give me a healthy respect for the power and beauty of the ocean and the people who consider it a continuation of their land (I learned this little fun fact from watching Moana a few times this week with the grands).

I am staying in the house of someone with a long history of summering on an idyllic island. Summering makes all the difference in the magic. Growing up year round on an island in Maine, there is another sense of the land. It’s a working place where winters are hard and dark and summer is spent making enough money to get through it. I feel like an outsider in a lifestyle to which I don’t belong; a bit like an intruder. I’m not an imposter; I’m not trying to pretend, and I am invited, but it’s someone else’s sphere and that is painfully obvious. I don’t know the drill. I never played pounce. I have no need of seven cheese graters and don’t even like boats. Having to rely on them makes me uncomfortable and a little nervous. But I want to love it for his sake. The house is inhabited by many ghosts and I imagine they’ll continue to haunt George for awhile. At first I found them merely annoying but after a week here I find them sad. There’s so much attachment to Stuff. Capital S. I’m more comfortable outside picking raspberries with the kids or at the beach throwing stones. Amelia and James make it a happy place for me and I hope their little spirits linger after they leave tomorrow. I love watching Amelia run down the path with her hair flying behind her. I love watching how she relates to George and feels safe with him. I love that she wants to visit his brother. I love watching James throw stones in the water. I love when they excitedly point to a boat going by or the moon coming up. I love that they sleep so soundly here. I’m grateful to have the chance to experience this knowing it’s transient and I am a visitor.

We went off the island overnight so I could give a talk in Bar Harbor. We got back yesterday afternoon and Amelia told me she likes this house and was happy to be back. I asked her why? She said, “It’s not scary here.”

Love to all,



Sunday Morning~Bar Harbor

Sunday Morning~ Bar Harbor

August 6, 2017

Hi Everyone!

Tuesday morning I started the trek back to Bar Harbor and I swear, it’s harder to travel by public transportation in Maine than it is in Malawi. Rachael and I settled into the seat on the commuter rail to North Station where I was getting the train to Portland. She said, “Uh, Mum. You can move over a little.” Crushing her against the window, I automatically expected an additional two people to fit onto the seat. I realize one year in Malawi has reset some of my default settings. The concept of personal space is one of them. The day before I wondered why a car would pull out of the intersection and drive on the wrong side of the road, before horrifyingly realizing that I had been driving on the left. I’ve looked for a three pronged adapter to plug in my phone charger, then think, “Oh! I can just plug this into the wall as it is!” I’m always pleasantly surprised to go into a public rest room and find toilet paper. In Malawi, we never go anywhere without toilet paper. It’s a routine check: got my wallet, got drinking water, got toilet paper. I am continually remarking about how clean everything is. The streets and sidewalks are cleaner than our kitchen floor in Blantyre. In fact, I walked all the way up our road last night barefoot. I had blisters from dancing at the wedding we’d been at and I realized the road was pretty darn smooth! It was much more comfortable to walk barefoot. It was about a mile to our car and my feet aren’t even dirty! Everything looks sparkling!

I went over to my house and picked up a year’s worth of mail. In the pile was a notice that my electricity was being shut off for failure to pay the $579 bill. I had been upset about how high the bill was, not understanding how it could be five times higher than a year ago. I’d set up automatic payments before I left and had no idea why that particular bill hadn’t been paid. I called customer service to be told that I had not, in fact, signed up for automatic payments. The service rep said, “You signed up for electronic invoices only.”  So, I actually didn’t have a six hundred dollar electric bill for one month; that was for the whole year! No wonder it had been going up every month. So that little mystery was solved. Thank God I picked up the mail when I did.

Also in that pile of mail was notice I’d been handed to a collection agency for overdue payment at the building supply store. No bill, just a notice from the collection agency. When I went to the store to investigate, certain I had paid all my bills before I left, I discovered the charge was for purchases made in September when I wasn’t here. They had mistakenly been put on the wrong account. That took about two minutes to resolve. It would have been days in Blantyre. The contrasts always leave me a little disoriented. Some of them are pleasant surprises like the toilet paper, others more disturbing. Excess is the hardest thing for me to absorb on return. On Monday morning I went into Market Basket near Rachael’s to get milk as soon as the store opened. As I was crossing the parking lot, I wondered if they would have the goat milk the kids drink. When I walked in the store and saw the milk section I just started laughing! The wall of milk was bigger than our house. The grocery store choices just seem obscene. Who needs seven hundred kinds of cereal?

There is some discussion about re-entry shock among volunteers. It’s the counterpart to culture shock but we don’t get as much guidance with how to deal with it. I’ve been through it before, but only when I was home to stay. It’s a little different knowing we will be going back there in a short time. It’s like I don’t want to adjust too much to life here fearing the readjustment going back will be harder. When I see familiar friendly faces and smiles of recognition, when I get warm “Welcome home!”’s and embraces, I worry I won’t want to leave. I don’t take for granted how beautiful this island is, how diverse the activities and viewpoints, and how much it has given me since moving here in 1992. But that worry is very un-zen. I want to relish the present.

I’m back from church where I felt like I put on an old comfortable slipper. Familiarity is such a balm. Today we will head out to Beach Island with the grandkids for a week.  I can’t wait for concentrated time with them in one of the most idyllic settings in the world. I’m living in the fantasy of One Morning in Maine, especially since we depart from Buck’s Harbor where that story took place. Now that I know my tenants won’t be out of power and I won’t be hauled off to debtors prison, I can be on vacation until I take George back to Boston in two weeks for his return to Malawi. Well, except for the talk I need to prepare for Friday evening at the library. We’ll have a little excursion for that, but it’s all good.

Off to catch the boat!

Love to all,


Sunday Morning~ Boston

Sunday Morning~ Boston

July 30, 2017

Hi Everyone,

I slept until actual morning! When I woke at 1 a.m. I didn’t think I’d get back to sleep, but later realized I’d had a few dreams, so the champagne must have worked. It’s 4:30 and still dark, though it’s summer on the east coast and I thought the sun would be up by now! What happened to the early sunrise? Is that just in Maine? And the steamy Boston summer nights? They’re gone too? I had to sleep under a quilt last night! Jeepers, you leave for a year and come back to a whole new country.

Last weekend in Mzuzu I was talking with a Malawian about my native climate. This inevitably follows the sentence: “I want you to take me to America”. I told him it is very cold where I live and he might not like it. He said, “I am used to living where it is cold.” thinking Mzuzu (and Blantyre), being at a high elevation, are “cold”. I told him, “Your cold season is the temperature of my hot season. It gets cold like inside the deep freeze where you keep cold packs.” People always look astonished when I say that and say, “No! Outside? You mean it is like that outside?!”  I tell them, “Yes. And for many months it’s difficult to stay warm.”  Usually the conversation goes from there to discussion of the rainy season. They don’t understand how it can just rain whenever it wants to without a special season. They’ll say, “You mean just any day it can rain? The whole year? You don’t know which days? How do you know when to plant your crops?” They find this absolutely incomprehensible. The two distinct seasons they live with never vary. In the rainy season it rains every day, in the dry season it never rains. Simple as that. I tell them we work more around a warm season and a cold season, and even though I describe how cold, they still think it’s just a matter of a sweater and an extra chitenje.

I managed to leave Blantyre feeling like I’d gotten goals accomplished. The grades  submitted, students wished well, fridge emptied, and souvenirs packed. It took me five stops to find a bottle of Malawi Gin to bring home for our Peace Corps reunion, but I persevered. We often can’t find tonic; that runs out regularly, but gin is always available. Always. I started to panic and was sorry I’d left that until the last minute. On Thursday I had to make three attempts at the ATM to withdraw enough cash to pay the guards and Catherine. This involved more than an hour of walking to different locations finding one that had cash in it. I walked another fifteen minutes to a grocery store known for it’s reliable gin availability, that was “closed for stocking”.  Another one I tried doesn’t carry any alcohol. Ugh. I went home and decided to walk down to the Kamba market where Aunt Dot’s Bottle Store was a safe bet. That’s a mere ten minute walk from our house and I pass Kenny, the tailor, where I had to collect a skirt he was making. It all seemed efficient. I got the skirt and kept on, down the dirt path to Aunt Dot’s. I don’t know if the one-eyed proprietor is actually Aunt Dot; I’ve never asked her name. She isn’t very effusive and often seems sullen. I wonder if her demeanor has anything to do with the bulging cataract that perpetually points left? The chicken wire screen that divides the merchandise from the customers makes it necessary to ask her to get the desired items off the shelf and hand them through the small opening at the bottom of the mesh. I saw there was only one bottle of gin on the shelf so after the usual greetings, I asked her for it. She took it down and showed me it was half full. She asked, “Did you want a full bottle?” I said, “Yes! Of course I want a full bottle!” She put it back on the shelf and said, “Sorry. Out of stock.” Ok, we say that a lot at the hospital when patients come for life-saving medications, but I have never heard anyone say that about Malawi Gin. I went to the bar next door and asked if I could buy a bottle of gin. The bartender took a half full bottle off the shelf, showed it to me and asked, “You want a full bottle? This is all I have.” This felt like the twilight zone! I left there and walked another ten minutes to a row of bars I would never ordinarily patronize, but I was getting desperate. I asked if they had a full bottle of gin I could buy. The bar tender rummaged around under the counter and finally pulled out a dusty bottle, but it was full and unopened and I didn’t care what it cost. I bought it, stuck it in my bag, raced home, wrapped it in a chithenje and put it in the suitcase. Jeepers!

I found myself a little nervous about going home. It probably had to do with anxiety about my bags being overweight and making all the connections and being too tired once I got home to be  functional. But I think it also had to do with how I’d bridge the two worlds. The two completely different mindsets don’t switch on and off easily. As a traditional Peace Corps volunteer, going home mid-service was considered a sign of weakness. It doesn’t seem that way now, but I wondered if it would be hard to return in three months. When I was saying goodbye to the faculty, I was asked more than once, “You are coming back aren’t you? You promise?”  I promised and accepted their prayers for a safe journey. I love the women I work with and don’t feel finished with my job there. I hope I still feel that way November first.

Our friend Peter spared me the taxi ride and collected me for the half hour drive to the Blantyre airport which is about the size of the one in Bar Harbor. The major difference is the airport in Bar Harbor accommodates planes that match it’s size. In Blantyre there are afternoon flights going to both Nairobi and Addis Ababa an hour apart. Big planes. Hundreds of people. All trying to get through security and immigration with their wits intact. There is no place to queue so everyone stands in a mob vying for the customs official’s attention. Then I had to be that annoying person whose bag was two kilos overweight. But you know what’s really nice? Traveling with a Peace Corps passport. I’m going to hate to give this up. All smiles and thank yous and breeze right through security with some pleasantries thrown in. Even when my suitcase was overweight they acted like it was a minor inconvenience. I don’t think the passengers behind me felt that way, mind you, but the Kenyan Airways staff couldn’t have been more patient while I whipped out a woodcarving and stuffed it into the other bag, which fortunately, was two kilos underweight.  In Nairobi, the same thing. My time at the desk was a fraction of the others. There must be some pre-clearance that goes along with the official passport; definitely worth all the rigamarole of applying.

Many people I’ve met in Malawi have said that they were either taught by a Peace Corps volunteer had their school fees paid by one. They say it changed their lives. That always feels good to hear and makes me believe in this organization even more. We recently got a message from the director in DC saying there has been a recommendation to congress to cut sixteen million dollars from the Peace Corps budget to pay for “the wall”. I slapped my head, yet again. I wanted to believe Peace Corps was sacred. It’s the least expensive segment of the state department. Where is this going to end?

After a three hour stay in Nairobi I had an easy overnight flight to Amsterdam where my friend Chris happened to be for business. My five-hour layover was taken up with an impromptu coffee and breakfast with my dear friend. Then the seven hour flight to Boston was on time and hugs and smiles from Ruth, who’d taken the train up from New York, were waiting at the terminal. Just outside was Rachael with my little loves and I wedged in between their car seats to hear Amelia using words like “creature” and “possibility” in perfectly constructed sentences. I think she is brilliant and I am not biased in any way. Homecoming was a blitz of show and tell before they dashed off to a family commitment of Kyle’s in New Hampshire and Ruth and I polished off a bottle of champagne before I crawled under the quilt and slept. I love my life.

Now the sun is up and I’m wide awake waiting for the kids to stir and give me some of that early morning cuddle time I’ve been craving. I’m glad to be home.

Love to all,


ps. Wow. I had actually forgotten how fast the internet is here.

Sunday Morning~ Nkhata Bay

Sunday Morning~ Nkhata Bay

July 23, 2017

HI Everyone,

Everything in it’s own time. That’s what Fr. Richard said to me Friday when he asked about my kids. He told me he’d written to Matt and hadn’t heard back. I told him I wasn’t surprised, and was actually relieved Matt hadn’t responded with some vulgar message like the one I got. Richard said he considers Matt his baby since he baptized him and was with him so much his first year.  He said he’s sorry Matt struggles so much and prays for him every day. I told him I have been doing that for years. “Everything in it’s own time,” he said.

I had walked an hour to the Father’s house, on a hill outside of town in Mzuzu, a quick visit on Friday, knowing Saturday he’d be so busy we wouldn’t get to talk. Friday was frenetic too, and we only had a few minutes for tea before he drove me back to town. There were at least a hundred people constructing an outside altar for the ordination of the new priest. Richard said he expected between two and three thousand people to come. He was worried about his young coffee plants being trampled. There were little bamboo fences around each one with a sign on a piece of styrofoam saying, “Please Be Careful. COFFEE!” written in red and green. It looked like a Christmas card.

We sat in a little thatched sun shelter behind the guest house drinking our tea. Every few minutes someone came to ask him a question about logistics and supplies. I’d stayed in that guest house many times years ago when I was a new mother and we ventured from our remote site in Karonga to the big city of Mzuzu. Richard wasn’t there then, he was still in Karonga where we’d met. Other White Fathers lived there back then and most have passed on now. The place is familiar to me. I was glad the timing worked out for me to make it to the celebration. I’d been asked to consult on a course being taught on women’s health to sisters in training. Unfortunately I’ll be on home leave when the course is taught, but was happy to give some input to the content. I timed it to be there for the ordination, and Wednesday took the twelve hour bus ride from Blantyre to Mzuzu. I’m staying with Kat, one of our volunteers teaching pediatric nursing at St. John of God College. The affiliated hospital is a fantastic facility with a focus on mental health, a service desperately needed here. There is also an amazing vocational school where they teach landscaping, cooking, sewing, bricklaying, and carpentry. Kat’s house in on the campus there and it’s comfortable and convenient. It is, however, a good long walk to Fr. Richard’s place.

Yesterday, the mass was supposed to start at 9 a.m. I left the house at 7:30 and arrived at 8:45. Like I said, it’s a long walk. I figured the mass would take three hours so added two hours to that and told Kat I would meet her around 2 pm. Hah! When I arrived they were still decorating the altar. Only about two hundred people were seated and I took a spot near the front to wait. I made myself comfortable, sorry I hadn’t brought a sweater. It was breezy and cool and after sweating from my long walk, I was chilly. I saw the Bishop arrive, then priest after priest after priest. The area filled with hoards of people who obviously knew the mass had no intention of starting at nine. I was actually amazed at how ready they were by 9:30 considering what the place looked like at 8:45. Only a half hour late, the drums started and the whooping followed, then an incredible procession, lasting a full fifteen minutes, came down the center aisle led by the altar boys carrying the cross and candles. After them came Ngoni dancers dressed in animal pelts with spears and shields. Fabulous. Following them were eight little girls in First Communion dresses wearing neon-yellow one-size-fits-all polyester gloves, and plastic woven pastel Easter hats. They were dancing their hearts out. It was adorable. Behind them were eight little boys in dark pants and matching shirts made from the official chithenje of the day. They looked a little bored (or maybe scared) but their dance was cute. In between each set of steps they tapped each others ankles then started the next set. Cute. Then there were dozens of dancing women wearing the official chitenje, then dozens more altar servers, then the seminarians (about twenty of them), then about fifty priests from all over the world wearing beautiful stoles and vestments, and finally the Bishop with his side kick, also a priest (I think). It was great. The music and dancing went on forever. It was almost two hours just to get through the gospel. After that, Peter Nyirenda, the seminarian to be ordained, was escorted down the aisle with his parents on each arm with the Ngoni and family dancing around him. I was in tears. It was beautiful. The actual ordination took another hour, then each priest blessed him, two of them dressed him in vestments, each of the fifty priests filed by him and gave him a hug and a head bump and then the mass continued. I was impressed with how they orchestrated three thousand people getting communion! Not a hitch! Before the closing prayer, newly ordained Fr. Nyirenda sat in front of the altar with a woman next to him holding a huge basket. Then hundreds of people filed down the aisle with gifts. And I mean gifts. Mattresses, blankets, chickens, cases of drinking water, cabbages, money, oh it went on and on. The music was fabulous and they all danced down the aisle to the basket. I couldn’t see where they were putting all the stuff. There must have been someone up there putting it all away somewhere; they were going to need a lorry to transport it to wherever he was going. The finale was when Fr. Richard and his parish council came dancing down the aisle with a live goat, tied and carried by the hooves with a big ribbon around his belly. That was a classic.

So the mass ended around 2:45. A mere five hours. There was a reception following, to which I had been invited, but I knew it would be hours before that got started. There was a photo shoot  happening and I was already late meeting Kat so didn’t plan to stay. I mingled around chatting with the few people I knew and was introduced to a few more. Brother Michael, an Irish St. John of God Brother, is also a nurse and is the one I was working with on the course. He said, “Five hours! At home if you’re a half hour late you’ve missed mass!” He introduced me to an American Jesuit who is a surgeon teaching at the medical school. I asked him if one of the other mzungu priests there was a Fr. Fiacre, another Irish priest I knew from my Peace Corps days. When they processed in thought it might be him but since it’s been 38 years since I’d seen him, I wasn’t too sure. I knew he wouldn’t recognize me either, if he remembered me at all. I’d tried to find him when I was here in 2008, but he was on home leave then. Anyway, he pointed and said, “Yes, that’s him over there.” I went over and introduced myself. I said, “Hi, Fr. Fiacre, you probably don’t remember me, but I’m Linda Robinson, I knew you from Karonga when I was in Peace Corps there. He said, “Yes! I remember you are the one with the nice legs!”  I cracked up! I knew exactly what he was referring to. That was back in the days of Kamuzu, the president for life, who forbade women to show their legs or wear trousers. One time, I was at home wearing shorts in the house and Fiacre stopped over for a visit. I greeted him and he was shocked at the sight of my legs. He covered his eyes, saying, “Oh my! I am not used to seeing this!” (Nothing racier than that.) So anyway, we had a laugh and shared some quick updates on our lives. He said he’d heard I had come looking for him nine years ago. That was when I was traveling here from Congo and stopped at his parish. He wasn’t there but I spent some time with his colleague  who told him I’d come. It was fun to be remembered. He wasn’t staying for the reception and I asked if I could grab a ride into town with him. We could have talked for hours and I was a little disappointed to arrive at St John of God. I told him I’m leaving next week for three months, but will be sure to visit in December when we take another trip to the north. He said he’d be there and we’d stay in touch. That unexpected meeting made me very happy.

I’m writing this while sitting on the side of a cliff in Nkhata Bay. The sun is just coming up. Kat is still sleeping. Her birthday was yesterday and she wanted to celebrate at the lake so we hopped in a shared taxi and came down from Mzuzu late yesterday afternoon. She’s leaving next week for adventure travel before heading home to figure life out. We arrived at this funky backpackers lodge and enjoyed happy hour and a fish barbecue for her birthday.  Last year her birthday was the day we arrived in Malawi and she spent a good part of it in the crummy airport at Addis Ababa. This place is unique, I’ll say that. It’s a hodgepodge of simple chalets built right into the cliff overhanging the lake. Last night I worried about an earthquake. All this cement, stone, and brick would go sliding right into the lake. But here I am intact this morning, so that was wasted energy. Getting to and from the composting toilet is a challenge. It’s a steep hike up rocky steps. I was breathless when I got there. I can see why the clientele is young; you have to be in good shape to brush your teeth. The place has a reputation for being a backpacker’s party site. I’m shocked there haven’t been fatalities here. Drinking heavily in this place is dangerous but watching the sunrise while the fisherman make their way out in their dugout canoes is pretty darn nice right now.

So today we will hike around in the hills of Nkhata Bay and go back to Mzuzu late this afternoon. I might try to go up and see Richard again when we get back. I didn’t get to say goodbye to him yesterday. Tomorrow I take the 6 a.m. bus to Lilongwe to collect my passport and work permit. Then Tuesday back to Blantyre to tie up loose ends before I leave for home on Friday!

Next Sunday’s blog will be on daylight savings time!

Love to all,


PS. As I was walking to catch the bus to Mzuzu on Wednesday morning a man fell into step beside me. He asked why I was walking and not driving my car. I told him I don’t have a car. Surprised, he said he thought all mzungus had a car. I said, “Nope. I don’t. I walk like you do.” He said, “We have a proverb about that.” I thought, “Oh good! I need a proverb for this week’s blog. Perfect.” I asked him to tell me the proverb and he said, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” And then explained that since I am in Malawi I am walking like Malawians walk. I said, “Yes. I’ve heard that one before. We use it, too.”

Sunday Morning~ Blantyre

Sunday Morning~ Blantyre

Tsamba likagwa manyazi amagwira mtengo ~   When a leaf falls to the ground, the tree is to blame.

~ Malawian Proverb

July 16, 2017

Hi Everyone,

Pop culture has never been my strong suit. I’ve always relied on friends to keep me minimally informed, even in high school. When the 80’s hit, I stopped trying altogether. I was either pregnant, supporting the family on minimum wage, or in graduate school. Some of that simultaneously. We didn’t have a TV and only listened to NPR and cassette tapes of John Denver and James Taylor. If it wasn’t referenced on Prairie Home Companion, I didn’t hear about it. What I knew of Madonna consisted of: 1. she posed nude somewhere or other, 2. she played Evita in the movie, and 3. she adopted some kids from Malawi (but wasn’t sure if it was Madonna or Angelina Jolie who did that.) I did know she is a singer but wouldn’t recognize a song of hers if she were singing it to me personally. But now I want to learn more about her.

The Mercy James Hospital For Pediatric Surgery opened this week. If you saw none of the surroundings outside a twenty foot radius of the place, you’d think it was uptown Manhattan. Ok, maybe Miami, given the palm trees. This is a hospital whose conception was a mere three years ago, when Eric Borgstein, the pediatric surgeon here, was looking for a space to create a pediatric ICU. Eric is Dutch, but has lived in Malawi since he was a child. His father was a surgeon here and his 92 year old mother is a pediatrician. She started the pediatric department at QECH. She retired only a few years ago and lives next to Eric and his wife Sophie, in a spectacular spot near the presidential palace. It was their house that we rode our bikes to in February, thinking we would die before arriving. Anyway, Eric met Madonna when she was here making a documentary film called I Am Because We Are, about the orphan crisis in Malawi following the AIDS epidemic. When they couldn’t find a suitable space or resources to form an intensive care unit for kids, Madonna was approached about funding one. What resulted was this state-of-the-art medical center and the opening ceremony was this past Tuesday.

Sophie Borgstein had come over to our house two weeks ago to learn how to make gnocchi. She brought a load of fresh turmeric and ginger from her garden and some fresh milk from her cows. They have an incredible forty-acre farm. We were chatting, and she mentioned the opening ceremony and I asked her if Madonna would be there. She said, “Oh yes. She’s coming. The president is, too.” Then I asked if anyone could attend this thing? (I do love ceremonies) But she said, no, they were keeping it small and it was invitation only. Madonna wanted to keep it to 100 people only and there would be lots of people from the ministry of health, etc. So I figured, ok, I guess I can go another few years without laying eyes on this generous superstar. Then Tuesday, Ursula, my dean, asked if I was planning to go to the opening of the hospital? I told her no, I thought it was invitation only. She said she heard that there was a section reserved for nursing faculty and was planning to go. So, I said, “Sure, I’ll go along.”  I’m happy to sit and listen to speeches as long as they are live and there are celebrities involved. I had to do some errands first, but we were supposed to meet at two to go over together.  When I got back to the office at 1:30 the group had already gone. Miriam, an older woman on the medical surgical faculty, was the one with the official invitation and someone told me she had just walked by. She’s quite elderly and walks slow, so I figured I could catch her.  I ran along the corridors to the outside walkway leading to the new hospital and didn’t see her. What I did see was a huge crowd singing and dancing in anticipation of the president’s arrival. I looked over their heads and saw Miriam across the street, just entering the gate to the ceremonial tent. I wormed my way through the crowd on one side of the street, crossed between policemen to another crowd on the opposite side, got through them, and ran up to the gate where they were turning people away. I heard one guard say, “No more entering here!”  and a bunch of people turned to leave which left me in front of the gate. I said, “Excuse me, I’m with my colleagues and they just went in.”  I could see Miriam not far inside. And they opened the gate and let me in! I thought, “Hmm, that was easy.”  I ran up to Miriam and asked where the others were? She told me, “They weren’t allowed in. They didn’t have an invitation.”  Uh oh. I said, “Neither do I. They just let me in.” Then I looked around and everyone there had a little plastic bracelet on their wrist. Their ticket. I covered my wrist so no one could see I didn’t have one, and Miriam said, “Just stay close to me.” So that’s how I got into this invitation-only event. I guess it helps to be wearing a uniform and have white skin. (Though another one of our volunteers just as white as me wasn’t allowed in.)

I sat closer to the stage than I do to the altar at church.  I recognized Madonna when she and her kids went up to rehearse the program. Not like I wasn’t expecting that to be her, but I did recognize her, whereas Miriam did not. I felt rather hip having seen the trailer for Evita. They made an announcement early on that there were to be no photographs taken if you were not a member of the press. I probably could have sneaked one, but I didn’t want to do anything to call attention to myself. I sat demurely with one hand over my wrist, except for when I put it over my heart for the national anthem.

It was pretty cool. Eric Borgstein spoke first, very beautiful speech. Then Madonna spoke, also a great speech, which included her story about growing up without a mother, and how she fell in love with the first two Malawian babies she adopted. The first is a boy named David and that adoption went fairly smoothly. The second, Mercy James, for whom the hospital is named, not so much. She had been recently divorced and the Malawian courts wouldn’t allow a single mother to adopt a child. Apparently this didn’t go over well with Madonna and, also apparently, she isn’t used to being told “No.” She hired a team of lawyers and it took three and a half years, but she finally adopted this girl, who is now a beautiful young woman. The main point of her speech was persist and do not give up. I am all on-board with that and liked the spirit, enthusiasm, and success story. I’m sure it helped to be a bazillionaire, but her heart is in the right place. Mercy then went up on stage and did a short speech of her own. I leaned over to Miriam and said, “Can you imagine going from a local orphanage to Madonna’s house? Talk about two different worlds.”  Madonna recently adopted young twin girls but she didn’t talk about them. Her son David has done a bunch of the art work in the new hospital and he performed with a dance group from one of the orphanages, a really impressive dance. And I’m not sure, but the music they danced to might have been Madonna singing. I didn’t recognize the recording, but it was a female singer and I thought it might be her. Don’t quote me on that one though. She did not personally sing at this event. After that the minister of health spoke and that was a little anti-climactic. Then the president spoke and that was even more anti-climactic and hard to listen to. He mumbled a lot and I couldn’t understand anything he said. Thankfully it was short. Then a Malawian band played traditional music and Madonna got up and danced with the first lady. Everyone loved that. Since all eyes were on her and it was nearing the end of the ceremony I almost dared take a photo, but thought better not. I’ll check, I think they might be on the Raising Malawi webpage. With the size of all the lenses on the cameras there, I figured I could find a photo that would be a lot better than anything I could take.

And then it was over. I didn’t get an invitation for dinner with her or anything so I didn’t get to ask  if she’d throw a few bucks toward the model ward in maternity. To my knowledge, there was no fraternizing with her afterward. She travels with an entourage bigger than the president’s. She must have had seventy-five people surrounding her, body guards and I don’t know who else. They all had little earpieces like secret service, though. I did get close enough to see those. So that was my big news of the week. When I got back to the office Ursula asked, “How did you get it without a wrist band?! We saw you inside!” I said, “I told them I was with you and they let me in and then I found out they didn’t let you in!”  We had a good laugh, and then she told me the Malawian take on Madonna’s adoption stories. She said there was a lot of controversy since Mercy’s father was still alive and he didn’t understand what he was signing away.  But people thought that girl would have so many more opportunities than if she stayed in the orphanage since her father couldn’t care for her, and now with this big beautiful facility I guess the ruffled feathers have been smoothed. And they all come back to Malawi frequently so the kids will know their homeland. Amazing what you can do if you’re white and have tons of money.

The proverb this week has to do with the Malawians’ belief that everything a child does reflects on their parents. So you must behave well in order not to shame your parents. This line of thinking never went very far with my own kids, but it’s well-adhered to here. I put that in today because I was just thinking about mothers and kids. No big connection to anything else.

In two weeks I’ll be home! I’ve gotten through about half the grading I have to do and am tying up some loose ends. While home I’ll be applying for a grant to get this model ward off the ground, so got some preliminary stuff done for that. I’m going up to Mzuzu this week to consult on a women’s health course that will be given in August, and have to stop in Lilongwe to get my passport and work permit. Then it’ll be less than one week till I hug my own babies! Can’t wait.

Love to all,


Sunday Morning~ Blantyre

Sunday Morning~ Blantyre

July 9, 2017

“Ukakwera pa msana wa njobvu usati pansi palibe mame” ~ When you are on an elephant’s back, do not say there is no dew on the grass.

~ Malawian proverb

Hi Everyone,

If ever there was a proverb that described the insane lack of compassion in our country’s leadership right now, this is it. If the grass had any motivation, it wouldn’t have anything to complain about. I love the way Malawians pull these out appropriately and seamlessly insert them into casual conversation. It’s a skill I aspire to.  Since I’m traveling so much these days for Community Health, I have a bit of time for political discussions with the drivers when we hear snippets of world news on the radio. This proverb came up when we were talking about the U.S. health care situation and I tried to explain the political ramifications of our current plight. I tell you, if you ever want to find our predicament more ludicrous than it is, try describing it to someone in a developing country.

I was asked to say the closing prayer at our meeting on Friday, and I choked. To be fair, I had been up sick most of the night and was not at the top of my game. Bertha, had done the opening prayer and it went on for several minutes with nary a pause for breath. Flowed out of her like she were reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. These prayers are all ad lib. It’s not like we say the “Our Father”. I could have done that (and probably should have). The one leading the meeting usually calls on one of the attendees to say the prayer and the chosen never falters. There is always an opening and closing prayer. I’ve only been asked once before, and I somehow pulled it off reasonably but couldn’t manage to be that quick on Friday. Usually the prayers sound as if we were asking administration for better working conditions. The requests are quite literal. The students before an exam will ask God “for the correct answers.” But there are often lots of thanks thrown in there for a good balance. I had been sitting for the previous hour wanting to go home and back to bed. I had a chithenje wrapped around my shoulders with my feet in front of the small space heater fortuitously located at my end of the table. I couldn’t get warm. That was Friday, and by far the coldest day we’ve had here. It was in the 50’s during the day and cooler at night. Anyway, we had gotten through the exam vetting and were finished with the model ward proposal and other agenda items, and I was congratulating myself for making it through the entire thing without falling asleep. I planned to work at home for the rest of the afternoon and get the proposal edited and sent. Well, that’s what I planned to do. What I knew I would do was go home, lie down on the couch and go to sleep. Anyway, when the meeting was finally done, Elizabeth said, “Linda, would you do the closing prayer?” I think I audibly groaned. Then, knowing I couldn’t refuse, sat up and said some lame stuff about being grateful to be able to work with these women and help improve things, or something like that. Then I realized I hadn’t said “God” yet, so threw that in somehow and I think I ended by saying, “That’s it. Amen.” It was short. It didn’t flow with the divine spirit that Bertha showed. I went home and felt bad about it before I fell asleep.

Whatever illness had come over me the evening before was short lived, thank goodness. It hit me like a ton of bricks about 8 pm and I felt feverish and nauseated. I thought it might be the onset of malaria, though that’s unlikely since I’m under the net so early I hardly ever even get a mosquito bite. Plus I’m bundled up in long pants and fleece under a blanket as soon as it’s dark, so I didn’t think that was it. I couldn’t get warm, couldn’t throw up, though I wanted to, and just rolled around in the bed moaning. Finally after a few antacids, the stomach pain let up enough for me to fall asleep for a little while, and I felt better in the morning, but still have no appetite. Not sure what it was, but it’s going away. I didn’t eat anything weird. At least I don’t have to worry about George catching it. Our water was off for awhile this week and when it came back on it might have had some bacteria in it. I’m thinking that might be the problem (especially after our tour of the water board). We filter our drinking water, but I wash vegetables from the tap, so who knows. Anyway. I had made a bunch of good food and it’s sitting there uneaten. I’ll give it to the guards if it doesn’t appeal to me today.

My first year students finished up their community health rotation this week. Our two field trips included a rural and urban village, and the assignment was to talk to villagers about living situations and health care choices and write up a report about it. Monday we went to Mpemba, the rural village. The students were required to wear their white uniforms and caps, which seemed impractical to me, but it’s expected, so they all brought a chithenje to wrap around themselves to keep the white white. A Health Surveillance Assistant (HSA), a villager trained in basic health and sanitation, showed us to the chief’s house. The views were spectacular. It’s a  village situated about fifteen kilometers from Blantyre, on a hillside overlooking the escarpment to the Shire Valley. Stunning setting. Gorgeous views. I wanted to live there. I instantly noticed the difference in the student’s demeanor compared to when they are working in the wards. Their interactions with the villagers were so much more fluid and natural, despite the fact that we were in uniforms and they were in rags. The ease of the students’ questions, the follow-ups to the responses, the HSA’s comfort and posture all struck me as so much healthier than the behavior I see at the health centers. The women were thoughtful and eager to share. Some of us sat on rocks, others spread zithenje and sat on the ground. At one house a woman brought out a bamboo mat for us to sit on and placed it on a steep hillside. I kept sliding down the hill and had to struggle to stay on the mat while staying decent in my uniform skirt. The older women sat in front, most wearing headscarfs and old blazers. There were some younger women with short sleeves and bare arms and I shivered looking at them. I had on a sweater and was still chilly. The younger women didn’t say much; the elders did the talking. Some had babies bundled up in several layers of zitenje and blankets. When they breastfed it was a chore to get the kid close enough to the breast to get it into their mouths. The students asked about pit latrines and refuse pits, about water supply and proximity, how far they had to walk to the nearest clinic, how they fed their families. I was struck by how polite and respectful the students were in this setting. At the clinics many students take on an air of superiority and don’t speak to the women with such reverence. I’m not surprised that women don’t want to go to the health centers. After we talked with several groups, we walked around the market area to see what vegetables and grains cost and compare it with what the villagers earned in a month which, for some, was zero. On the bus back to campus I asked if the students felt they were learning anything from the experience?  All twenty replied in singsong unison, “Yes Madam”.  “Like what?” I asked. They said they hadn’t realized that five families shared one pit latrine, there were no refuse pits, the trash and garbage just got tossed in the bushes. Most families don’t make enough to buy food at the market. I started a follow up to that but they were squealing and laughing and eating the sugar cane they got at a bargain, and I didn’t know what points I wanted to make, so chatted with Lily for the ride home.

Tuesday I was with fourth year students in Bvumbwe, attending another home visit and dreading handing them back their case studies. I always hate being there when they see their grades and then I have to deal with their response. I know it’s part of the job, and I do it, but I don’t like it. I find it exhausting. I’m lenient with grading and I still get complaints! Well, they really shouldn’t be considered complaints, though that’s how the faculty sees it. It’s really just being forced to rationalize why they didn’t get credit for something. Most of the time my response is, “Because it was absent. You didn’t include that. As I wrote in the comment section.” and then they begrudgingly accept the deduction. I feel bad though, because they aren’t taught strong writing skills and having to express themselves in writing is a challenge for them. They sometimes think they’ve included something that is totally different from what was asked for. They didn’t understand because it’s in English not Chichewa and they get penalized. Next year I want to work more on this with the first years. I won’t be seeing the fourth years again after I go on home leave and I’m going to miss them. Well, some of them. When we are done with the group discussion at the end of the day, and I ask if anyone else has something they want to say, the class leader always says, “I’d like to thank you for coming. We have learned a lot today.”  I’m not sure if this is sincere or not but it never fails to humble me.  Of course, there are a few others who are looking at their phones and acting bored, but when the day is through, I see the ones still looking at me and it makes me want to go back. This week is their last week there and Thursday afternoon their assignment is to meet with the health center staff, report on their experience, and give recommendations for improving care there. That should be interesting. I didn’t make up these assignments, so I’m hoping the staff takes it well. I told the students they should be respectful. I’m sure they will be but I’ve seen the staff get defensive and since I’ll be there on my own without another faculty member, I just hope it’s not confrontational.

Wednesday, with the first years (the term freshman is never used here. they say ‘first years, second years’, etc.) was an outing to an urban village, one I’d passed many times on the way to Zomba and didn’t know existed. It’s like a cliff dwelling behind a busy market on the main road. Fascinating. Had no idea it was there. It was very different from Mpemba with the sweeping lush views. This was cheek to jowl, filthy, collapsing dwellings, with narrow paths between. One latrine for eight to ten families, though they do have water taps in a central squares dotted throughout.  It is steep though, and carrying the water on their heads, even though they don’t have to walk as far, looked superhuman. They do their laundry at the base of the steep hill in a disgusting polluted river. Awful. We stood while the students talked to villagers; there is no place I would have sat in this place. Most of the families worked at the market, so had more money to buy food, but the living conditions were way worse. Pigs were raised right alongside the children. There were crude pig pens five feet away from kitchens, which I suppose, made it convenient to toss them some scraps. In the center was a nursery school for orphans. There were two hundred kids, ages three to five. Adorable and amazingly healthy looking. A group of women volunteers run it, with some funding from an NGO. A “kitchen” where they cook nsima and beans every day is located just outside the door, and that is all the kids get to eat. Lily asked if they ever get a vegetable? Nope, never. I looked around at the rock-hard clay and wondered if we could do a permagarden there? The more I read about permagardens, the more I want to start them in challenging areas. The classroom was one big bunker with the alphabet written on the dark cement walls in colored chalk. There was not a stick of furniture or toy or anything else. Just a big empty cement room with two hundred kids along the perimeter. Benito, our class leader, was a teacher before he started university and jumped right in and led the kids in song. It was beautiful. He is a sight to behold. Everyone loves Benito. When there was a pause in the activity, Lily asked if I wanted to address the kids? Ugh! I hate that! I am not as quick on my feet as they are! I said, “I don’t know what to say!” She said, “It doesn’t matter. Just say something.”  Apparently, a mzungu is a rare sighting in this village. When we were walking through some narrow passageway, I heard some kids saying something and Benito, behind me, started laughing. I asked what they said, and he told me, ”One child said, ‘I saw an mzungu! And the other replied, ‘Yes! I know! I saw it too!’” Anyway, it was another time this week I felt like I did a crappy job of public speaking. I said, “I want to tell you I’m happy to be here and see how healthy and smart you all are.” It was stupid and trite but they all clapped when Benito translated it. Like she said, it didn’t matter, but I wish she’d given me a heads up.  I’ve got to get a few prayers and stump speeches prepared. This feels too awkward.

George is in Maine and sounds so happy. As I sit here on my porch, listening to the birds and local sounds it seems strange to go home in the middle of a stint like this. I find it hard to bridge the two worlds. I’m looking forward to my trip and seeing my family and friends but it is so different from this existence and requires a mental adjustment. George said, “I can’t believe how easy everything is here!” I remember that feeling. Need something? Just go buy it. When was the last time a grocery store ran out of tonic water? It happens regularly here. Which is why we buy it whenever we see it. But you adjust your activity and mindset and get along just fine. Getting somewhere seems so simple at home. Gas stations don’t run out of petrol. Banks usually have money. If a restaurant has something on the menu, it’s usually something they can serve you. You can even go to church and have some time left of your Sunday to do something else! My house is rented, so I’ll have time to wander around once George comes back here in August. I’m actually looking forward to being homeless and not having to go to work!  I’ve got a tent and friends and family and I am so fortunate. I could never have imagined the turn my life has taken since that foggy morning in Berkeley waiting for the train. I’m sitting on an elephant’s back and I don’t take it for granted.

Love to all,