Sunday Morning ~ Singing in Blantyre

Sunday Morning ~ Singing in Blantyre

Gule ali yense akonda potsiriza. ~ Every dance is pleasing at the end.

~ Chewa proverb

May 19, 2024

Hi Everyone,

The Blantyre Music Society is a community group of amateur musicians, made up of both locals and expats, choir and orchestra. They perform concerts in December and May and last night I attended the May concert at a private primary school near me. I knew a few people in it and looked forward to an evening out. It was an earnest performance by people who like to make music. I took my seat in the school hall and read the program. It was short with an eclectic mix of classical, pop, and original music. I enjoy watching people perform, always a little envious of their talent and the fun they seem to be having. I saw the final number was Sing, an old Carpenters song that came out when I was a senior in high school, and I thought, hmmm…interesting choice.

In high school, I was part of a music group started by three young, artistic, energetic teachers who loved the performing arts, and Sing was our signature song. I was surprised at how emotional I became last night when the choir started singing it.  Hundreds of images paraded through my mind. Last night’s rendition was strained, to say the least, as they struggled to stay on key, but it still evoked images of myself in my little blue alto dress (sopranos wore red), dancing as we came on stage, singing Sing, feeling something close to joy. 

I wasn’t supposed to be in the group. I was a cheerleader and my father, tyrannically strict, told me I had a choice of being in this singing group or cheerleading. He would not allow me to do both. I loved being a cheerleader but desperately wanted to be in this singing group. All my friends were in it and I had a monstrous crush on the director. I didn’t spend long deciding what to do. I would do both and I’d sneak and lie to do so. It was just a matter of planning and plotting. I appealed to my mother, who was sorry for my plight, and she agreed not to turn me in. You may think it would have been more appropriate for her to confront my father and support me, but that’s because you didn’t know him. It was much easier to sneak. That way the whole family didn’t have to suffer. As I sat and listened to this song last night I thought of how hard I had to work for that experience. I thought of the times, returning from rehearsals, carefully opening the storm door, hold it until it clicked shut without a sound, tip toeing up the stairs skipping the second step because it squeaked. I felt not one iota of remorse for this at the time. Recalling it last evening I felt something like pride. It was an act of righteous rebellion, not for some greater good for the world, but for something that made me happy. Listening to the simple lyrics brought back a time in my life when I made choices about who I’d become and, still today, I think they were good choices. 

I wasn’t a performer. I was shy and insecure. But these three teachers exuded enthusiasm for the fun of it all and gave us a chance to experience it. They liked their job. They nurtured a confidence in us the bored band/ orchestra/ glee club director never could. Not that I was in the band or orchestra––I quit violin lessons in fifth grade when the class bully made fun of me––but glee club counted for a music credit and there were no tryouts. It was okay, but nothing like singing in the other group. That was pure, lighthearted, choreographed fun. Last night, listening to that simple song, watching the musicians struggle to stay on key, singing along to it, brought back moments of happiness in a confusing time of life. I felt successful. After our performance there was a photo in the newspaper and my disobedience was discovered, so I had to sit through a lecture about what a disappointment I was and was grounded. I can’t remember for how long, but I’m sure I snuck out. It wasn’t bad.

I’m grateful to those young teachers who bucked our crappy school system and made us feel like we meant something. It was so refreshing, especially since some of our male teachers made fun of girls in class then mocked us for crying. It was the 70’s. We knew what it was like to be considered less than the boys. We also learned what it felt like to have worth and which we preferred. We’re not going back.

Love to all,

Linda

Sunday Morning ~ Mwabvi Mothers’ Day

Sunday Morning ~ Mwabvi Mothers’ Day

Zengelezu adalinda kwaukwau ~ If we delay, the consequences will affect us.

~ Chewa proverb

May 13, 2024

Hi Everyone,

I’m late with writing this week. I was camping over the weekend, away from all forms of communication and realized how peaceful and calm I felt. I got home yesterday afternoon and thought about pulling out my laptop to write but decided to linger in the unplugged world a bit longer. I had a bizarrely sleepless night last night so am up early and will write about my week(end) and post it today. I hate to break the streak I’ve got going. 

The Wildlife and Environmental Society of Malawi was founded in 1947. It was originally dedicated to protecting animals but over the years it has broadened its scope to environmental activism as well. It belongs to international conservation organizations and has many educational programs in the schools and community. They present a topic one Tuesday evening a month at the Blantyre Sports Club and I usually attend. It’s interesting and nice to have a drink and mingle. They organize several weekend trips to sites I wouldn’t go to on my own, and this past weekend I took advantage of the camping trip to the very south of the country, the only part of Malawi I hadn’t visited. I was a little nervous about making the three hour drive alone as I had no idea where I was going and I always feel a little safer with a companion, but everyone I asked was busy with something else so I decided to go solo. I knew I’d be meeting up with fourteen others and figured, carpe diem. 

The destination was Mwabvi Reserve, where large animals have vacated or been poached, but birdlife is abundant and interesting rock formations are scattered about. I’m not a birding enthusiast per se, but got more interested when George was here. He loved it and I love being around those who love it. Their excitement spotting and identifying is contagious. 

The plan was to meet there on Friday afternoon/evening then gather for a Ranger-led hike to a gorge on Saturday morning. I packed up my very basic camping equipment which consisted of my single person tent, piece of foam, a sheet, and a change of clothes. It’s hot there so I wouldn’t need much. I borrowed a cooler from my landlord and packed up some food, water, tonic and gin, boxes of matches (I had no stove), and set out at noon on Friday. It was a three hour drive and just in case I had a flat tire or something I wanted to be sure I had plenty of time before dark.

The organizer had sent very detailed directions describing a detour since the main road to the park had a bridge washed out. He sent a photo of the school where we should turn onto a dirt road and proceed through a village, turn at a T junction, then follow painted rock signs to the gate. It was seven kilometers on a rough road with two bridges that were the exact width of the vehicle. I would have been terrified doing that at night; it was scary enough during the day. I made it to the entrance, heaved a sigh of relief, paid my fee, then set off on the next two kilometers to the campground. I think I was expecting some type of open jamboree where we’d all camp in one big space. There are no amenities there, it’s real bush camping. I’d brought some extra food to share thinking we’d all be together, but they were individual campsites, very private, and remote. We chipped in to pay the rangers to slash the high grass so we could find the road and indeed the campsites. I had no idea where I was supposed to go. I thought others would already be there but when signing in I saw only one other person had arrived; I had no idea how to find him. I pulled into the first campsite I came to and got out of the car. Looking a the newly slashed grass I immediately thought of snakes and got back in the car. I changed into long pants and boots, left everything in the car, and went to walk around. It was easy to follow the slashed grass paths and I explored the other campsites. Not knowing if there was some plan for who slept where I didn’t want to set up my tent. I followed the road around a loop and saw a vehicle through the tall grass and hoped it was someone who knew what they were doing.

I met Phil, an older gentleman who definitely knew what he was doing. He was in the process of setting up his camp and, wow, I could have lived there comfortably for months. His tent was bigger than my living room. He had a table, chairs, cushions, stove, lanterns, air mattress, welcome mat, and piles of blankets. “Are you just here for the weekend?” I asked. He told me yes, he had been coming on this trip for years and he wanted to get there early so he could have his favorite campsite. He said he couldn’t do the hike anymore but still wanted to come. His wife died two years ago and he seemed very lonely, a bit frail, and frustrated with his aging body. He said his mind and body weren’t working in sync anymore. I could not believe he set that tent up by himself. I also couldn’t believe he made that drive alone, though he had a monster vehicle. I could have lived in that. I sat and chatted for awhile thinking, hmmm, chairs…hmm…, nice, and considered the rock I’d be dining on. He gave me the whole history of this outing, how he used to be the first one to the gorge, how he loved the place. He’s British but has lived in Malawi for thirty years. I asked if his late wife was also British and he said, “No. She was from Yorkshire.” I laughed. He just about smiled. Very British. I asked him if there were rules about who got which site and he said, “You got here first! Take whichever you want!” It sounded like an order so I left and decided to stay where I had first parked. It was small and fine for just me. I set up my little tent, then thinking of Phil’s nice little welcome mat at the door of his tent I took the floor mats out of my car and made myself one. There. Home.

I walked down a trail toward the river but it was getting toward dusk, which lasts only a moment, so didn’t go too far (snakes). One other family arrived and set up camp next to me. I went over to meet them and could tell it wasn’t their first rodeo either. Man, these people camp in comfort. I don’t have that much cooking stuff in my kitchen! It was getting dark and I didn’t want to walk through that grass at night (snakes) so said goodnight and went back to my site. We were supposed to meet at 6:30 am for the hike. I was tired. I ate my pasta salad, and decided not to have much to drink so I wouldn’t have to get up during the night to pee (snakes). I got in my tent to read. It was bliss. I didn’t need the rain fly and being open to the star-filled sky was magnificent. The night noises are a lullaby. I read for awhile and could hear other cars arriving and setting up camp in the pitch dark. Man, they are brave. When I could tell human activity had ceased, I dozed off and slept like a baby. 

It was just getting light when I woke. I sat up and could see the sunrise from my tent. I got up to light a fire for tea and laughed that I had brought two boxes of matches. It took one match. Everything is dry and the water was boiling within three minutes. I drank my tea, ate my hard boiled eggs, avocado, and bread, and set off to find the group. It was all beautifully organized. We piled into three 4 x 4’s, collected the ranger, and drove about a half hour to the trailhead. We got a few instructions then fell into line and followed the ranger who carried a large rifle. The rock formations were spectacular! Sandstone that is carved by I don’t know what. Wind? Water? But incredible shapes and textures. I’ll put some photos on facebook. We plodded along stopping for photos along the way, then came out to a gorge that took my breath away. I had no idea it would be that grand or unique. Sensuous curves along the walls with shallow water flowing through. Almost everyone stripped to their bathing suits (I didn’t get that memo) and got in the water. The Malawian family, the ranger, and I were the only ones who didn’t go swimming. I went in up to my knees just to see down the gorge, but wow. It was worth the hike. There is no other way to get there. We stayed there for about an hour, had snacks, chatted, then packed up to hike back to camp. Even though we had tree cover for most of it, that part was really hot. 

Later in the afternoon everyone met up on what they call “Sunset Rock”, a huge outcropping of sandstone with a view of miles and miles. Everyone brought their sundowner drinks. I made my gin and tonic in a water bottle and it carried very nicely. It was lovely sitting, chatting, sipping, snacking. We stayed until very dark and I was worried about Phil making it back to camp. A few of us surrounded him with headlamps and it was sad how he complained about needing help. I thought it was amazing he made it there at all. Back at camp Marc, the organizer, made a campfire and chairs and coolers were placed around for seats. We paid him for the ranger fees and people were settling in for the evening but I was ready to be horizontal so didn’t stay very long. Plus, it was bloody hot and the campfire was not as inviting as it might have been. Phil called it bush television. By then I was less worried about snakes, walked back to my campsite, had a nightcap, and tucked in. 

Yesterday (Sunday) I went back out to sunset rock to watch the sunrise, then back to make breakfast and pack up. I took a long walk down to the river bed but when it started getting really hot I walked back and got ready to leave. The ride home was easy, I was less worried about the road, and I had plenty of daylight to unpack, clean up, and get ready for work today…which I need to get to. So I’ll wrap this up. 

Today is an office day, so just working on the grant writing and my speech. I’ve been asked to speak at the Day of the Midwife celebration in Lilongwe in June, so I’ll need to prepare. Someone read my blog post last week and asked if I’d speak on midwives’ role in climate change. I asked a colleague if she knew of any Chewa proverbs that would relate to climate change. I thought I’d include it in the speech. She gave me the one above, and it’s perfect. I’ll practice saying it in Chichewa. I thought a lot this weekend about how little we need really. I used hardly any water all weekend to cook, wash, and drink. It’s one of the things I love about camping, being close to the earth and using only what you need. It took only a few sticks and dry grass to boil water, I could brush my teeth with a cupful or less, and it only took maybe a liter to wash off. The shower did feel good when I got home, though. 

Ah! I managed to avoid Facebook for Mother’s Day. So, I wish mothers everywhere all the love and respect you deserve. It’s hard work having your heart outside your body all the time. 

Love to all,

Linda

Sunday Morning ~ International Day of the Midwife

Sunday Morning ~ International Day of the Midwife

Mimba si kupha namwino. ~ The pregnancy does not kill the midwife.

~ Chewa proverb

May 5, 2024

Hi Everyone,

In 1922 the International Confederation of Midwives declared May 5th as International Day of the Midwife. It was an effort to raise awareness of the role midwives play in caring for woman around the world. I’m not sure that goal has been met, but there is a celebration in many countries and Malawi is one of them. This year the parade has been postponed for a few weeks but it will happen in Lilongwe, the capitol city, where bands, parade, dances, and speeches make up the celebration. I love it. In many countries, the entire health care system is dependent on midwives. 

There are many fewer midwives where I come from and we make up a fraction of the health care system. For my twenty-three years at the hospital in Bar Harbor I was the only midwife. I always felt valued and appreciated and did not need, nor expect, a parade.  However, recognition of the profession at the national level would go a long way toward improving women’s lives, especially with the human rights abuses happening now. So often in the states, midwives are seen as a fringe alternative instead of the experts in physiological birth and women’s health care that we are. It’s exhausting to be continually fighting the constant attacks on women’s rights. Unless we make profits for the medical system (which healthy bodies don’t do) we’re nearly invisible. 

I went online to see what was being said about today. I found a write up on the United Nations Population Fund website and started paraphrasing, but I liked all of it so just decided to include the whole thing. Here it is: 

Midwives are the heroes of millions of stories.

As providers of culturally sensitive health care, leaders in their communities and emergency responders in times of crisis, they are courageous and indispensable.

When disasters such as climate events or conflict strike, midwives are most often the first responders for women, representing the single-most effective way to avoid preventable maternal deaths.

The climate crisis in particular carries specific threats for women and girls: Research shows that hotter temperatures can lead to pregnancy complications and can cause or worsen maternal-health issues including premature births and miscarriages.

But midwives are not only first responders in the climate crisis. As providers of safe and environmentally sustainable services, they also represent a vital climate solution for the future. For instance, they can contribute to decreasing climate emissions by supporting breastfeeding rather than formula, which must be packaged and shipped.

With that in mind, the theme of the International Day of the Midwife this year is “Midwives: a vital climate solution.”

Many of the countries most at risk of climate change are also where women and girls are the most vulnerable to preventable maternal deaths, child marriage and gender-based violence. Climate disasters can disrupt access to family planning, safe births and other vital services. Midwives are instrumental in ensuring that health services are more mobile and can urgently reach women.

Yet a global shortage of nearly one million midwives and a lack of international commitment to invest in their training, development and support limits their reach – and endangers the women and girls who rely on them for care.

Midwives deserve our recognition and respect. Instead, they are forced to confront challenging work conditions, low pay and a lack of career opportunities – all factors driving the global shortage. Too often, this majority-female workforce also faces gender discrimination and sexual harassment while on the job.

The world must urgently invest in creating an environment that enables midwives to do their important work, by establishing pathways to quality education, providing necessary resources and empowering them to act as full partners across health systems everywhere.

In more than 125 countries, UNFPA advances midwifery by strengthening quality education, regulations and workforce policies, and building strong national associations of midwives. To date, UNFPA has supported the education and training of close to half a million midwives worldwide, trained more than 100,000 midwifery faculty members and invested in more than 1,600 midwifery schools.

In collaboration with the International Confederation of Midwives, UNICEF, the World Health Organization and a host of global partners and donors, UNFPA is developing a Global Midwifery Acceleration Roadmap, which will be launched at the World Health Summit in October 2024.

“In a world where every two minutes a woman or girl dies during pregnancy, childbirth or its aftermath – as our latest data attest – the midwife is always the hero of the story,” UNFPA Executive Director Dr. Natalia Kanem has said. “Think of a midwife: what comes to mind? Excellent teamwork, competence, good judgment and caring. Hallmarks of the profession – traits that underpin the best of humanity, that will surely help create the peace we seek.”

That’s what I wanted to say. 

Love to all, 

Linda

Sunday Morning ~ Nankoma Island

Sunday Morning ~ Nankoma Island

Chibale ndifupa sichiwola. ~ Brotherhood is a bone that never rots.

~ Chewa proverb

April 28, 2024

Hi Everyone,

My first impulse is to say I feel guilty about the life of luxury I’m living at the moment, but in reality, I feel I’ve earned it. I’m loving sitting on this veranda, the lake lapping at the pilings, the branches of the Baobab tree shading us, belly full of delicious breakfast, thinking about what to do with the rest of the day. It has taken me a long time to outgrow the feeling of not deserving good things but I’m getting there. We’ve had such a great week! It’s so much fun traveling with a friend who appreciates the beauty of this place. 

A bit of background: Stacy and I are friends by marriage. Our husbands grew up together, then as young newlyweds, we all grew up together. I went to graduate school where Stacy’s husband, Patrick, was studying medicine. We lived a block from each other. We graduated on the same day. We had combined parties. When I went into labor with the twins, Stacy came over in the middle of the night to stay with the other kids. They are godparents to Rachael, we are godparents to their kids. It’s a deep bond. It was awkward and sad when Joe left me, then sad again when Patrick died during the pandemic. We’ve done a lot of celebrating and grieving together, now here we are single, comfortable, and open to adventure. I like this stage of life. 

Stacy’s visit coincided with mid-term break, a fortunate unplanned coincidence. She’d sent me a list of some sights she might want to visit and I planned a road trip. After getting acclimated in my tiny house for a night, we set off for the Shire Valley and two nights at Majete Game Reserve. There are two ways to experience that place, basic and lux. We went lux. We were greeted with cool towels, ushered to our tent, then perched on the veranda to watch animals drink and mingle…it’s rather nice. It’s hot there but our physical activity was little to none. We were taken on game drives at sunrise and sunset and served three luscious meals a day. Aside from brushing our teeth, we barely lifted a finger. It was lovely. We saw four out of the big five: elephant, rhinoceros, water buffalo, and seven lions lounging around with full bellies. We didn’t see a leopard, but we did see two hyenas which are particularly elusive in my experience. I’ll call that a win. A female elephant chased us away when she thought we were too close to the babies. That was impressive. I kept glancing at the driver to see if he was still smiling; it looked like those tusks could have flipped our vehicle. Well after dark and safe at the lodge we were greeted with warm towels and warm smiles. Great life.

Thursday we drove out of the valley, back through Blantyre to the Zomba Plateau where the KuChawe Hotel sits overlooking the town and mountains. I’ve always wanted to stay there but never splurged on a room just for me when Blantyre was only an hour away. So this was a treat. We arrived early afternoon and had time for a hike to the waterfalls through indigenous forest before dinner. Baboons have taken charge of the balconies and we were told not to leave our bedroom windows open. Baboons come in and take the packets of sugar on the tea trays––– a consequence of their  destroyed habitat. The area is preserved now and reforestation is happening after most of the trees were taken for firewood. Not such a great life for baboons.

After a luxurious (well, nice) stay there we made the four hour drive to Dedza to see the rock art. We checked in to the Pottery Lodge and asked the receptionist to book a guide while we got settled and had a cup of tea. Then off we went for a three hour tour that would get us back just at dusk. We thought we’d timed it perfectly. But the guide (who was adorable and great) was long winded, we hiked to sites I hadn’t seen before (which were amazing but far), and the sun was already on its way down before we left the area and started down the long rutted dirt road. It was dark by the time we reached the tarmac and we had twelve kilometers to the lodge. I have a rule of not driving at night here but there was no choice. The dark road offers extremes of blinding oncoming headlights and absent head or brake lights. It is harrowing. Hundreds of people walk the edge while bicycles with wide loads take up half your lane. It’s impossible to see them even with good headlights. I drove so slowly I’m sure those behind were cursing me, but Stacy had to lean forward to identify any pedestrians and warn me. It was stressful. I was so relieved when we turned onto the dirt road back to the lodge, which was also a nightmare, but less of one than the main road. We made it intact without a motorcycle collision for which a huge relief sigh was emitted. We dropped our bags in the room and could not get to the bar fast enough to order drinks, which we consumed expediently. When the waitress asked if we wanted another we both said, “Yes!” emphatically and simultaneously. She laughed. We didn’t.

Saturday morning we rose early, packed, had breakfast, and headed for the lake and the paradise we now inhabit. Dedza is high and the lake is low. We descended hairpin turns on a good paved road I’d never been on through gorgeous rolling hills, clearly denuded of trees but green with vegetation–––a stunning landscape with hardly another motorist. It was lovely, the temperature rising with the descent. We made our way to the lake and the site where we’d get the boat to Blue Zebra, the lodge on the National Park Island of Nankoma. The fifteen minute motor boat ride was exhilarating–––very different from getting to Likoma. There is nothing on this island but the lodge and hiking trails, 300 bird species, migrating butterflies, and indigenous forest scattered with Boabab. I stayed here in 2018 but it looks very different now. The structures are the same but the beach is totally gone and the pool is almost in the lake. Two chalets and the spa are in the water, unusable. If our chalet was at ground level it would be in the lake, too, but because the front is on pilings, the lake laps underneath. This is the highest the lake has been in forty years. 

Tomorrow the boat will zip us to the car at Senga Bay and we’ll drive back to Blantyre. This has been a sweet little break without news so we’re bracing ourselves for updates on the state of the world, then a day of grant writing before Stacy leaves. I’ve said many times this week, I love my life. My prayer for the world is everyone can say that.

Love to all,

Linda

Sunday Morning ~ Sorting Visits

Sunday Morning ~  Sorting Visits

Phiri siliyedera mkhwere. ~ The hill doesn’t not pay a visit to the monkey.

~ Chewa proverb

April 21, 2024

Hi Everyone,

There is a mountain in Mozambique near the southern tip of Malawi called Mt. Chiperone. Occasionally a cloud pattern forms there which forces a weather pattern in the highlands of Malawi called the Chiperoni. It is a period of grey drizzly weather with a strong south east wind. It can last for a few days or a few weeks. People have died on Mt. Mulanje when caught in the Chiperoni. Over the past two weeks we spent ten days locked in cloud cover with periods of steady rain, different from rainy season rain which is heavier and shorter lived, so it seemed the Chiperoni had arrived. I pulled out my long sleeves and saw many in fur-trimmed jackets. The low clouds made me feel tired, like I want to curl up with a book or movie in the middle of the day. I don’t know if it was the Chiperoni, the eclipse, or mercury in retrograde that caused the emotional slump I’ve been in, but the clouds have cleared (physically and metaphorically), and it’s sunny again with a slight coolness to the breeze reminding me that winter is coming. It’s just gorgeous. The poinsettias have all burst as well. I’m perking up.

I went to church this morning thinking I was a few minutes late. Turns out I was forty minutes early. Apparently, the visiting priest who did the early mass was expected to stay and say the later masses but he didn’t know that so there was a scramble to find another priest. The choir entertained us, which was lovely, but I started wondering how long I would wait. My four cups of morning tea were going to be a problem. I looked around and no one seemed impatient. I marvel at the tolerance I see on a daily basis. On Wednesday morning, I did the 7:30-9:30 lecture for our first year students, then went to my office to work on the exam questions. The students have a half-hour tea break before another lecture starts. At 11:30 I realized I needed more data for my phone and walked out to buy some at the table on the road. A student approached me and asked, “Madam, are you coming back to class?”  I said, “No! I was only supposed to teach the first lecture. Didn’t another lecturer come at ten?” She told me no one had come, so the 256 students had been sitting there waiting for an hour and a half. I felt awful. She said, “Ok, I will go cook lunch.” without seeming upset about a wasted morning. 

On Thursday these same students had a midterm exam. I was asked to invigilate (“proctor” in American) the exam with another faculty member. (I swear my nursing boards were not this crowded when every new grad in the state sat for them at once.) Exams are taken very seriously here. Students are to be silently seated, the lined paper and answer sheets are distributed individually, followed by the exams. Now, for this many students gathered in one huge hall, you’d think it would more efficient to have them pick up their papers on the way in. No. Not ok. They are not trusted with that task. They all take a seat under orders to be silent and then the invigilators walk around handing out four sheets of lined paper to each of them. After that we handed out one answer sheet. When it was confirmed they all had those items, we then passed out the exam questions. This literally took forty-five minutes. I think I walked two miles just handing out papers. When the exam started they were not allowed to get up from their seat. They must raise their hand and an invigilator walks to them, hears their whispered request, then deals with it. There were surprisingly few requests and they were simple. One girl dropped her pen and was afraid to pick it up. Maybe seven asked to use the toilet. A few asked for another sheet of paper because they’d made a mistake. It seemed so stressful. When the allotted two hours were up, they had to raise their hand to be allowed to come and hand in their tests. We had to staple the papers together and have them sign a sheet. This took another two hours. A two hour test took five hours. I ran out of staples twice. 

In between lectures and exams I’ve been looking for ways to get our midwifery-ward project funded. I’m finding it rather exciting–––very unusual for me who hates asking for money, but this is different from approaching rich people and asking for a donation for a building that should be paid for with public funds. I’d prefer wealthy people pay what they owe in taxes so there would be money enough for libraries and health centers, but that’s just me. I find grant funding easier. Turns out there are lots of organizations who allocate funds for projects like ours. I have no problem selling the project to someone whose job it is to fund projects. This I enjoy, though I realize other people in those organizations call rich people to ask for that money. What a system.  

This week I met a woman with experience. 

Ruthie is from UK who lost her only child, a doctor, and decided to create a non-profit in his memory. The organization funds many different community projects but she heavily focuses on health. She funded a maternity center in one of the Blantyre districts and is currently working on getting another one funded. She’s not a medical person so is interested in what I can offer–– like fostering a liaison with the University for mentoring staff. This relationship has potential. 

We met for lunch and she showed me the floor plan for the proposed unit and I about fell off my seat. We would die for that unit at the teaching hospital. “This is exactly what we dream of!” I said and asked how she got funding for something on this scale. She listed several organizations who fund these types of projects and gave me lots of suggestions. She showed me the grant she is currently working on. It was a bit intimidating. I realize this isn’t something I can whip up in an afternoon. I’m going to need a floor plan, an estimate of building costs, equipment list, and some proof the hospital is on board with it all. It’s all doable, it’s just a matter of doing it. I’ve got to budget office time to write and collect information. I see why people make a living writing grants. Each organization has different requirements so that alone will take some figuring out. One suggestion she had, which I had never thought about was Rotary International. There is actually an active Rotary Club here (who knew?). She said she’d get us on the agenda to make a presentation to them in July. The hill isn’t coming to the monkey, but I am encouraged.

Students finished exams on Friday and this week is mid-term break. The timing is perfect since my friend Stacy arrives tomorrow and I’ve got a little road trip planned. We’ll start off at Majete and hopefully see the big five, then Zomba, Dedza, and a little luxury at the Blue Zebra lodge on the lake. I can’t wait to share places and people I love so much.

Love to all,

Linda

Sunday Morning ~ Finding the Way

Sunday Morning ~ Finding the Way. 

Kufunsa ndi kudziwa njira. ~ To ask is to know the way.

~ Chewa proverb

April 7, 2024

Hi Everyone,

I love my life here but I am having serious FOMO with things happening back home. A solar eclipse going right through my home! I’m bummed about missing that as well as my fiftieth (yikes) class reunion. Of course, the election I’ll miss is giving me anxiety attacks. I need to make sure my absentee ballot is in as soon as possible. I’ll have to find a support group here. I’ve got PTSD from 2016. 

The days on Likoma were so lovely I believe the trip was worth it, though I’m not planning to repeat that journey. I loved the coastal walks and quiet roads and would love to go back on the bigger boat with a more civilized boarding system and a first class ticket. But it feels good to have ticked another bucket list item. 

On Easter Sunday we walked a mile to services at the cathedral. The dog living at our lodge followed us and we couldn’t keep him out of the church. Many Malawians are afraid of dogs for good reason. They are often feral and very aggressive. They are great guard dogs but I’ve heard horror stories of packs tearing people apart. The dog that followed us was sweet, but the congregation didn’t know that and kids were screaming with fright. We didn’t want people to think we brought the dog on purpose and we kept trying to make it go away. But it would not leave our side so we took turns staying outside with him. Ady sat with him first then a half hour later I went out. I tried sitting by the door so I could listen to the music, but I couldn’t bear seeing the kids frightened so moved over to the cloister, sat, and contemplated. After an hour Ady came out but I didn’t feel like going back in. The service was five hours long. We decided to walk into the village, mill around there for awhile, then go back to the lodge. 

In the afternoon I took a long walk along the cliffs then had a swim before dinner. The lake is so inviting on Likoma: no crocodiles, no hippos, no snails, so (hopefully) no bilharzia. I watched the sunset while bobbing in the waves. It was idyllic as was the fresh Chambo (lake fish) we had for dinner every night. On Monday we hired Pablo to guide us around the island for the day. We started at the northernmost point to see “bell rock”, a curved rock amongst the pile of boulders that made a metallic clanging sound when struck. That was pretty cool as was the Baobab forest we walked through to get there. We walked into the village where we saw a hollowed out tree (also pretty cool) and a museum, which was nothing more than some framed photos of the past presidents, clay pots, and a few spears. After that visit, three of our foursome were tired and took a motorbike taxi back to the lodge, but I was in the mood to keep walking. There is a women’s cooperative I wanted to see so told Pablo I was good for a few more miles. He seemed a little disappointed but I guess figured he’d get a decent tip so we walked and chatted and it wasn’t long before he asked if I had a husband, a question I get asked a lot. I usually say I do but left him at home, It’s just simpler. But Pablo had just told me how his wife had run off with another man so I told the truth, “Yeah, my husband did that to me, too.” That’s when the offers started and I realized my mistake. I should have known better but he was just a kid! I wish I could say it was flattering but it wasn’t. I said, “Pablo, be serious, you are younger than my children!” He assured me that was not an issue in his culture. I said, “Well, it’s a big problem in mine. Plus, I’m not interested in casual sex even if you were my age.” For the next six miles he exhibited remarkable persistence. He told me he felt very close to me and could confide in me, to which I burst out laughing, “You don’t even know me!” Then asked if there were some international book that men have with similar lines? Then he pivoted, “Ok, if you don’t want a relationship, then maybe we could be friends with feelings.” I think he meant “friends with benefits” which also made me laugh. He assured me he was circumcised, which was tmi but since HIV affects more than half the population, I guess he thought that might be what I was worried about. Writing this makes it sound more creepy than it was; I never felt unsafe or even uncomfortable. It’s the same way I get asked for money, but in this case it was sex. It’s easy enough to just say, no. I was thinking of last week’s proverb: If you don’t ask for honey you will only eat wax. That plays out a lot here.  

We arrived at the cooperative, a workshop for single mothers and widows. They take non-recyclable glass bottles from the lodges, break them into small pieces and sand down the edges in long PVC pipes filled with sand. A small motor rotates the pipes for two days using a bicycle wheel. It all comes out looking like sea glass, then they make chandeliers, shower curtains, and art with it. I don’t know who started it, but I loved it. 

From there we walked along a coastal path for another couple of miles back to the lodge, and I was glad Pablo was with me. I would have had a hard time following the trail with the long grass and villages to maneuver. At one point we passed an old woman, hunched over and leaning on a walking stick. I said, “See her? She is probably younger than me.” To which he replied emphatically, “Yes, and her husband is twenty-seven! He drives a motorcycle taxi!” I laughed. He said, “It’s true. Age doesn’t matter here.” and walked on.

The next morning the Chilembwe arrived at 7 a.m. on it’s southward journey. We were on the dock and ready to board along with a few hundred others. We could walk on from the dock, but the pushing and shoving was scary. I thought we’d all be trampled. Soldiers were trying to keep everyone orderly but even they were having a hard time. I was relieved to get aboard, climb to the upper deck which was already full, find a little spot, and tuck myself in for the ride. No way was I going back inside. I had covering to shield from the sun, some water and food and I wasn’t budging. Next to me was a huge basket of dried fish which didn’t smell too bad and I could lean against it. Soon, the smell of marijuana overpowered the fish. It was a twelve hour journey back to Senga Bay so it was dark by the time we had to lower ourselves into that fishing boat, but going down was much easier than climbing up and the lake was calm. A guy held onto my ankles as I hung down from the deck and it wasn’t too scary. This boat had an engine that worked so that was nice. We hovered until everyone had paid before heading into shore and then it was back on someone’s shoulders to the beach. There we found a young guy to carry Ady’s suitcase and guide us back to the lodge. It was too late to try to drive back to Blantyre so we glamped for the night and hit the road before sunup. 

Excellent adventure. Ady and I bonded.

So, back to business and teaching when I got back. The week before Easter we finally met and made some decisions about this midwifery ward project. In their formal and respectful manner we had a discussion about whether this vision was still viable. Everyone present agreed we should pursue it but the original location wasn’t going to work anymore. The hospital is government run so all health care there is free to the public but they want to offer a paid service where it is less crowded (and supposedly better care) to bring in some revenue. We decided it wouldn’t work to share the space with a paying ward and it’s not big enough for both. I asked if it were possible, if funding could be found, to build our own space? It had been exciting to be given an existing space six years ago, but if what if we could design something that really worked? Wouldn’t that be better? I fully expected this to be denied because it seemed too good to be possible, but easy as pie, the head of the obstetrics department said, “Yes, there is other space you could use.” She described two areas in the maternity unit she thought was wasted space and we quickly got up to do a tour.  

In the antenatal wing there are two big rooms currently being used for storage of crap; rusted beds, torn mattresses, broken shelves. It wasn’t really enough space for what we needed but any port in a storm, I thought. We walked over to postnatal ward. There are two rooms there, clean, empty, and adjacent to a bathroom (plumbing!), that looked very attractive. It could be a perfect spot IF we could add on to it. There is a nice open space on the outside of the wall I could envision an addition for everything we needed. We returned to the meeting room to discuss a plan. As we walked by the labor and delivery unit, the Ob pointed to the hallway lined with women laboring on the floor and said, “See?”  I said, “Oh yes, I’ve been in there. That’s why I feel so strongly about this project. It could improve everything. Absolutely everything.” 

So, we all agree it’s a good project. The hospital will give permission. We just need money. So, Melinda Gates, if you are reading this, could you get in touch? I’m looking into grants. We’re excited and hopeful, again.

Love to all,

Linda

Sunday Morning ~ Likoma Island for Easter

Sunday Morning ~ Likoma Island for Easter

Safunsa adadya phula. ~If you don’t ask for honey, you will only eat wax.

~Chewa proverb

March 31, 2024

Hi Everyone,

It’s early Easter morning and I’m sitting on the veranda of my little chalet watching the fishermen paddle out in their dugout canoes. The scene is framed by two huge baobabs. I face west so am not watching the Easter sunrise, but the pinks and blues over the lake are beautiful. I slept soundly last night and woke full of gratitude for the gifts life has given me. The only thing missing is a pot of tea, otherwise, complete bliss.

I mentioned last week how I’d always wanted to go out to Likoma Island and explore. I’ve read and heard about the big cathedral commissioned by Anglican missionaries and built from 1903 to 1911 and I wanted to see it. It’s the largest church in Malawi, the third largest in central Africa, and the size of Winchester Cathedral in UK. The sheer remoteness makes this place alluring, but to build this kind of church here is fascinatingly bizarre to me. I know a few people who have ventured out and their stories made the desire to get here even stronger. But most people say they’ve always wanted to visit but haven’t taken on the challenge. And getting here is a challenge. When my colleague Ursula asked me what I was doing over the Easter holiday I told her I was planning to go to Likoma Island and see the cathedral, she responded with what I hear from most people––– I’ve always wanted to go there. “You should come!” I said. Her response was, “No, I will never get on that boat.” I laughed, haha!, and told her I don’t like boats that much either but I really want to go. Little did I know. 

When we left Karonga on the very northern shore of this lake in 1981, we had a ten month old baby and a choice of small plane or the Ilala, the lake steamer, for transport. There was no road that went all the way south at the time and the Ilala made a journey up and down the lake once a week. We chose the boat, knowing it stopped at Likoma Island but we decided it would be too much to get off and stay there for the week with a baby and all our luggage. We saw the island from the deck of the Ilala and thought that was the closest we would ever get. But since I returned to Malawi in 2016, it’s been nagging at me. To spend three nights here it requires four days of travel. When I saw the four day Easter break this month it looked like I could tack a few days on each end and make it work. Which I did. Though I’m not home yet, so guess I should qualify “work”. 

The Ilala begins it’s journey at the southernmost tip of the lake at Monkey Bay. From Blantyre that’s a four and a half hour drive. It’s also possible to get the boat when it stops at Senga Bay heading north, also a four and a half hour drive from Blantyre. Since I’ll be going to Monkey Bay in May, I decided to go to Senga Bay. I booked a lodge for Thursday night planning to get the boat mid-day Friday, arriving on Likoma Island Saturday morning. The Ilala has a few cabins but they book quickly and friends have slept out on the deck and said it was lovely. That was my plan. Ady, a young American woman I’ve met, heard of my plans and asked if she could come along. I was happy to go alone but having company is nice too, so sure. She made her own reservations at the same lodges and Thursday afternoon we set off for Senga Bay. We arrived at a sweet little lodge called Cool Running, situated right on the lake (soon to be in the lake), a short walk down the beach to the boatyard where we’d catch the Ilala. 

The Ilala had been out for service for the prior month but was scheduled to make its first journey north on Friday. I woke feeling lucky. I’d slept well, had a gorgeous breakfast, and joined Ady to enjoy the onshore breeze and wait for our adventure to begin. We were so excited. 

The man who runs the lodge on Likoma sent us a message saying there were three others coming to Likoma on the Ilala and they were boarding in Monkey Bay. He’d heard from them that they were still doing the final inspection following the repairs and departure was delayed. He connected us so we’d hear from them when it left so we could gauge when it would be arriving at Senga Bay. There is no dock at Senga Bay. It was our understanding that they send a small boat to shore with debarking passengers, load up with goods and people and then return to the boat for departure north. So our 1 p.m. departure would be three or so. No problem, I thought. Beautiful day and gorgeous setting, and the boat trip was part of the adventure. So we waited…and waited,…and waited. As it got later and later we started doing the math and got a little anxious. Will we still board by nightfall? How much is this going to cut into our time on Likoma? We got occasional updates from the people waiting in Monkey Bay saying only they were still waiting. A little after three, when we should have already been on the boat for two hours, we heard the Ilala did not pass inspection and they were getting the Chilembwe, a smaller boat, ready to sail. They were planning to be off by five. The staff at Cool Running assured us the Chilembwe was fast! Very fast! It would be here by seven, or even six. We should be ready to board by six because it does not wait, just a quick drop of goods and people then off again. 

We ordered sandwiches because the Chilembwe has no restaurant, packed up our stuff and headed down the beach at 5:30. I thought it would be fun to sit there and watch it arrive and be ready to hop aboard. Ady was planning to camp at the lodge so she had quite a bit of luggage. She hired Tiger, a guy selling curios on the beach, to carry her stuff. His brother accompanied him and insisted on carrying mine. We followed them along the shore, through the village where fishermen were preparing their nets. The village was buzzing against a panorama of apricot sky. The sunset was showing off spectacularly. We arrived at the “boatyard” which was nothing more than part of the fishing village, where scores of people with baggage were sitting and waiting. It looked like there was going to be quite a competition to get on the smaller boat. Knowing this was “first come first serve” I wondered if they had a limit to the number of passengers allowed on? (This was before learning there are exactly zero safety regulations) It was almost six and we still hadn’t heard that the boat had left Monkey Bay. Ok, I thought, it might be between seven and eight we board so we’ll just eat our sandwich on the beach here. No problem. But Ady was getting nervous. She asked, “What will it be like to board this boat in the dark?” Yeah, I was a little worried about that myself. We saw a wooden fishing boat completely laden with bags of goods, baskets and luggage. We wondered where that was going? A man sat down next to us and asked if we wanted him to take our luggage, but we didn’t understand what he meant. To the Chilembwe? “Yes”, he said, “we take it to the boat for you.” But we thought why pay him when we will just get on the boat they send to shore? So we told him no thanks. But more and more people were putting stuff in that wooden boat. It definitely looked like they knew something we didn’t. It got dark. We finally got a message that the boat left Monkey Bay along with “No seats. The boat is full.” and I figured, ok, two hours at the most, but would they let us on? Eight o’clock came and went. Ady asked me when I thought we should call the whole thing off? It’s not like that hadn’t crossed my mind, but the boat was on its way! We at least knew that. But from the looks of all the stuff on the fishing boat, I couldn’t imagine everything fitting. But we had nothing to lose by waiting as the alternative was going back to sleep in the car. And Tiger was long gone. I texted the owner of the lodge on Likoma and asked him if there was a limit to the number of passengers allowed on the Chilembwe? I never got a response. 

I was trying to enjoy the deep orange moonrise. I was marveling at the scene and being part of it, as well as wishing we knew what was going on. Groups of people surrounded us eating, talking, smoking. Small kids were playing, some were crying. Nine o’clock came and went. The wind picked up and whitecaps were starting to form. Then, all at once, everyone got up and ran to board that fishing boat. They literally charged for it; kids were being tossed up, people were climbing the sides, older people were being carried on others’ shoulders, and this already overloaded boat now had about a hundred more people on it! There was no way I was getting on that boat!  We couldn’t see the Chilembwe coming but someone obviously got a message we didn’t. Then a guy named George came down to the beach and saw us, two mzungus (white people) standing there looking lost, and asked what we were doing? We told him we were waiting for the Chilembwe and he told us to get our stuff on that fishing boat, which, by now was completely overloaded. I told him we were planning to take the small boat sent by the Chilembwe. He said, “No no no, they won’t send that boat here with these waves. You need to pay him to go in that boat.” I really didn’t want to believe this. In my ear Ady said, “I don’t know about this. It looks so sketchy.” Couldn’t argue with that, but I hated to give up. I also didn’t want to be stupid and get us both drowned. I never heard any drowning stories associated with getting to Likoma aside from the Bishop who built the cathedral and was so anxious to get there he set out in a storm and drowned. That story went though my mind. I finally called the owner of Cool Running and asked if this was what we were supposed to do? You’d have thought someone would have told us! She said, “Yes, the wind is picking up and fisherman are coming in. You’ll need to get on that local boat.” Oh my God. My heart sank. A guy came up and asked for money to carry our bags out there. I said, okay, looked at Ady, and said, “She said we go with them”. In less than a minute he had our bags on the back of the boat just in front of the two outboard motors. I started to wade through the water, not sure how I’d climb aboard when he said, “No! I carry you!” I started to say that wouldn’t be necessary when he bent down behind me, stuck his head between my legs and stood up. I was on his shoulders trying not to scream when he just dumped me onto the boat. I thought, oh my God, those poor refugees trying to escape this way. Holy hell. Then turned around to see Ady being carried out. I thought, “If I don’t die by drowning she is going to kill me.” So with the last holdouts aboard, they untied the rope attaching us to the boat on shore and we were adrift, maybe a hundred people on a boat the size of a Boston Whaler. Then a guy whose legs were at my face level, tried to start one of the motors. He pulled the cord, oh I don’t know fifty, sixty times? Black smoke pouring out and nothing purring. We were just floating away! I looked around for oars, never mind life jackets. None. Not that I could see under all the stuff in the pitch dark with bodies everywhere. They uncovered the second motor and took off the cap. The cord on this one apparently was missing, so one of the guys took a piece of plastic twine (the kind that wraps a bale of hay) and wrapped it around the thing looking like a tire wheel. No idea what that part of the motor is called but it was metal with a big groove. He then pulled the twine to spin it and miraculously after three tries it worked! That motor sputtered to life and they then tried to steer us while they tried to get the other motor going. I kept looking at shore wondering if I could swim that far. Wouldn’t you think they’d check the motors before untying us?! The whole time people are yelling back and forth to each other, but no one seemed panicked. Which I was taking as a good sign. After another twenty or thirty tries on the first motor it actually started, which I took full responsibility for since I was praying to God to make that motor start. That motor, despite the billowing black smoke emanating from it seemed stronger than the other one and the boat actually started moving in the desired direction. The captain said in Chichewa that the reason the motors wouldn’t start was because of the mzungus on board and they should buy them a new motor. People laughed. I worried about being thrown overboard. 

Then howls went up as another overloaded boat, smaller than ours, passed us heading for the Chilembwe which was now approaching. Where did that boat even come from?! We headed straight for them as if we would bisect them but then turned somehow, I couldn’t see what was happening. My head was bowed and I was praying. It was a race to be first to board. I considered just staying on the boat and going back to shore, it all seemed too dangerous, but wasn’t going to leave Ady. But I was sure she was as freaked out as me. Maybe more.

I looked up to see us heading straight for the side of the Chilembwe towering over us, and a guy threw a rope up to someone on the deck who caught it as we slammed into the side. Before we even had even stopped people were scrambling up the side of the ship! I thought, please God don’t tell me we have to do that, when I heard Ady yell, “Linda, there is no ladder!” I yelled back, “I know!” at this point thinking I really can’t do this, when a guy appeared in front of me and said, “You pay me to help you.” I thought this was the same guy who carried us out to the boat and I said, “I already paid you!” But he had my bag and said, “Follow me. Get to the front.” Hah! There was a sea of humanity climbing up the side trying to get on an already full deck. I was shoved to an opening in the rail where it was easier to grab onto something and when I saw my bag go flying up I thought, Ok, I’m going. It was one of those situations when you think, failure is not an option. I don’t even know what I took hold of but grabbed on and got my legs up while others were fighting to do the same. I yelled, “I can’t leave my friend!” and he yelled back, “I’m getting her. Just go!” So I went. I got onto the deck, reached for my bag being trampled, when a guy with a recipt book yelled, “Where are you going?” I yelled, “Likoma” and he told me to pay eight thousand kwacha, which was way less than I expected to pay but couldn’t get into my backpack for my wallet in this crowd pushing me forward into the cabin. I was already stepping on people. I just moved forward with the wave and once inside I almost fainted. It was really hot and the rows of seats, like airport seats, were overflowing. A body was on every surface. I stepped between legs and around baggage carrying my bag to the front where I saw three empty seats. I looked behind and saw Ady had made it on, so I kept going. I saw the empty seats were wet. Something above them, maybe an air-conditioning unit, was leaking water onto the middle seat and splashing onto the others. The woman behind said that’s why no one was sitting there. I was like, fuck this, I’m sitting here. It was a hundred degrees in there so this was not a functioning air conditioner. I had an umbrella in my bag so got that out and wedged it into the middle seat so the water ran down the sides of it and stopped splashing on the outer seats. then I made a little tent with a chithenje that made sitting there not dry but tolerable. I was just so relieved to be on board and not in the dark waters of the lake, I didn’t care if I got wet; it was only going to be fifteen hours on this thing. At that point I just didn’t want to ruin my son’s wedding by dying before August. I sat close to the window and Ady got in the aisle seat. We just looked at each other with a “can you believe that?” look. Holy shit. God only knows what was going on behind us on deck but a while later it felt like we were moving. It was after midnight. The guy with the receipt book found me and asked for his 8,000 kwacha, which, I happily handed him then turned to Ady and said, “Bargain!” She sorta smiled.  

Despite the blaring music, the crying babies, the stifling heat, and the drunk soldiers, I actually fell asleep. Maybe from sheer relief, but all the noise was less bothersome than a mosquito buzzing in my ear. I opened my eyes to see a hint of dawn out the window and gave thanks for making it through the night. I could only see water so had no idea where we were. I took a drink of some ginger beer from my bag and realized I had to pee. Knowing there were many more hours to go I had to find a toilet, expecting it to be indescribably filthy. But it wasn’t too far away so I only had to step on or around about fifty people lying in the aisle, over an outboard motor lying among them, and into a free loo that even had toilet paper!! I couldn’t believe it! I gave another in the series of prayers of thanks, and made my way back to my wet seat. My shirt was soaked but it kinda kept me cool. Not too bad. Ady woke up and seemed to be not speaking to me. I thought she either hates me for this or is not a morning person. I reminded myself she did ask to come. It wasn’t like I talked her into this. 

I could see Likoma Island way before I thought we should be there. I expected to arrive around 2 p.m. and it was only 8 in the morning! I was sure I was hallucinating. But there we were, and you’d think I’d been adrift at sea for months instead of on a lake for eight hours, I was so happy to see land. I checked my phone to see a message from the owner of the lodge saying he sent someone to help us get off the boat (thank you Jesus) and drive us to the lodge. His name, no lie, was K1. I won’t go into details of getting off that boat, but it made your worst airplane departure look like you were carried off on a palanquin. It was absolute bedlam, but K1 shouted to us from an opening to pass our bags to him. They went overhead person to person until they reached him and then disappeared. I didn’t even care if he was stealing them. A long time later we were outside being crushed in the crowd, but (thank you Jesus) we were on a cement dock and only had to walk a short plank. Words cannot express my relief at this tidbit. We looked back at the Chilembwe swarming with people getting on and Ady said, “Did you see the one lifeboat says maximum ten people!!!!” Yes, I had seen that. I’m also willing to bet there weren’t enough life jackets for 500 people. Oh well, we were here. They loaded us onto a Mitsubishi minicab and K1 drove us through the town to Ulisa Lodge on the opposite side of the island. Ady said she’s already dreading the ride back but I’m thinking I may never leave.

It really is paradise. And the cathedral is astonishing. We are going there for Easter service.

This has gotten very long so maybe I’ll save the story of Tuesday’s meeting until next week. It’s a good one and I am happy. I do love my life. I’m grateful.  

Happy Easter everyone.

Love to all,

Linda

Sunday Morning ~ Blantyre, Palm Sunday

Sunday Morning ~ Blantyre, Palm Sunday

Madzi atupa ndi a m’njira. ~ The waters become plentiful because of all the side rivers.

~ Chewa proverb

March 24. 2024

Hi Everyone,

It’s Palm Sunday and since I wasn’t at mass last week I didn’t get the memo about today’s extravaganza. I showed up a little early as I wanted a good parking spot. I’d been invited to lunch afterward and didn’t want to get stuck in the exodus. I thought it was odd that there were so few cars, usually the parking lot is packed. I asked the parking attendant if I missed mass? Maybe they had it earlier today? He looked at me blankly, clearly did not speak English. I simplified, “Mass? Eight o’clock?” He smiled and nodded. Ok, strange as I was only fifteen minutes early. Usually the choir is singing, people are saying the rosary, beautifully dressed children are streaming in. There was none of that. I went in and found maybe five people in the whole church. I walked to the front and took a seat and figured I’d spend some introspective time and wait for an hour. If no one else came, I’d leave, though that would make me very early for lunch. The keyboard player started setting up so I knew something was going to happen. A few traditionally dressed women came in holding huge palm branches that looked like they had just cut them off their own trees. From a distance I heard a crowd chanting and singing and I figured there was a procession starting at least a mile away from the sounds of it. The gathering clearly began at some other designated location, which, I’m sure was announced last week, and they were processing to the church. As it got closer I could tell there were many more people than usually attend the English mass. I watched through the open door as at least a thousand, maybe more, danced and sang down the main road waving palm branches. The choir came in first dancing and singing and hoards followed doing the same. It was beautiful. It was well after nine when the mass finally started. It was after ten by the time we got through the passion. It was almost eleven before all the gifts were presented, among them a live chicken. Then I started worrying about being late for lunch. Since they had combined the English and Chichewa mass everything was repeated in both languages. I knew communion was going to be forever and then announcements take at least a half hour. I never do this, but I left after communion. I still had to drive on the worst road in southern Malawi to get to the house for lunch and was nervous about going there alone. I felt sorta guilty for leaving but not guilty enough to stay. When I walked out of the church I saw at least a hundred people standing at the entrance attending mass from there. Either they gave out palms at the beginning of the parade or it was bring your own. At any rate, I left without. 

Friends had invited me to their mountaintop farm outside of Blantyre for lunch and getting there is an adventure. Halfway there I remembered I’d told myself I’d never go there again. It’s beautiful once you arrive, but it is up and down steep rutted dirt roads, across rickety bridges, and through dry riverbeds. They are expats but have lived in Malawi most of their lives. They built this amazing home and farm before the president’s palace was built nearby. There is a lovely road going through the palace grounds but only the owners of this farm are allowed to use it. Visitors must scale the rutted mountain road. I decided if it started raining I was just going to stay there. The first time I went there in 2016 with George we were on bicycle and I thought we’d never be heard from again. In some ways on bicycle is easier, but walking the five miles is the way to go. You’d just have to plan on the entire day. Anyway, I made it and once there it really is lovely. They’d prepared a gorgeous meal from their gardens and gave me a basketful of fresh ginger, turmeric, chili peppers, chard, lemons, and guava. I also took two liters of their fresh milk and peanut oil they’d pressed. Almost worth the drive. Fortunately the wine served at lunch dulled my dread of returning on that “road”. I made it home without a problem. I love my car so much. 

Speaking of my car, I finished paying for it this week when I got some dollars from my friend in Mangochi. Transferring enough money for a car has been a huge challenge. PayPal was taking fees on both ends and I could only pay in small amounts. It ended up easier to exchange dollars for a much better rate and pay in cash. So Friday I needed to get to the foreign exchange office before it closed. It is downtown, the traffic is hellish between four and six and I was worried about being seen leaving that office. I didn’t want to have to walk a long way to the car as I know two people who’ve been mugged here recently. I’d planned to go earlier in the day but learned that morning I was supposed to be in the skills lab all day. So I dashed out with a half hour to spare, drove to town, parked in a gas station two blocks from the office, then got nervous as a guy was following me asking for money. He didn’t come into the office but I told them when I entered I was uncomfortable. Immediately, one of the women in there got up and closed the door. I told them I didn’t know how I’d walk back to my car. She stuck her head out the door and a second later a very well-built man came in and sat down. She turned to me and said, “He’ll escort you.” Well, well. Some things work very well here. He was dressed more like a bouncer than a guard and I felt totally safe with him. He walked with me to the car, I got in, locked the doors, wedged my way into traffic, made it home to hand off the money, and the car is paid for. Whew! 

So the big midwifery ward meeting for Tuesday was postponed when one of the major players had a conflict. I was very disappointed. Since plans are already being discussed for use of the ward I put it out there we really need to meet soon even if everyone can’t make it. This could be delayed indefinitely otherwise and I can’t apply for any grants until we have an actual plan. It’s rescheduled for this Tuesday. Fingers crossed. 

My classes were also a bit frustrating this week as I could see many of the students using their phones during the lecture. I asked several times that they put them away but the class is so huge I can’t really tell. When I broke them into groups to do case studies (a madhouse) I saw lots of them again on phones as I walked from group to group. On Friday I asked the other faculty what they do when they see kids on phones. I was told to take the phone away, put the student’s name on it, and they will get it back at the end of the course. I thought surely I misunderstood. “The end of the course or the end of the class?” I asked. “The end of the course. Fourteen weeks.”, was the answer. Wow. I guess that would be a deterrent. 

Next week is Easter and we have both Friday and Monday off. I am taking a little excursion to Likoma Island, an island in the northern part of the lake on the Mozambique side. There is a boat that transports people and goods up and down the lake making a stop at Likoma. It takes some logistics to get there but I have always wanted to visit that place and I decided to just do it. It’s a four and a half hour drive to the lake where I’ll spend the night on Thursday. Then I’ll get the boat Friday and be overnight to Likoma. It gets there at four Saturday morning and I’ll have the weekend there before boarding it again late Monday night on its way south. 

Love to all,

Linda

Sunday Morning ~ Mangochi

Sunday Morning ~ Mangochi

Mbewa ya manyazi idafera ku dzenje. ~ The fearful mouse died in its hole.

~ Chewa proverb

March 17, 2024

Hi Everyone,

I have a gorgeous perch to write at this morning. It’s just getting light. The lake is before me with the mountains of Mozambique framing the opposite shore about fifteen miles away. The lake is high. They tell me they haven’t had excessive rains here but the northern part of the country has and the water is rising everywhere. The grounds and gardens at this lodge are almost completely submerged. The walkways are still above the waterline, but many of the small buildings have a moat. When I checked-in Friday I was told other lodges on the lake had to close because of the flooding. They said they were very lucky here at the Kingfisher. I wonder for how long. No one seems too upset, though.

I left my little thatched rondavel while it was still dark as there was not much to do in there once I woke at 4:30. I hadn’t packed a flashlight or candles and the power went out sometime during the night. This became evident when the fan stopped and the air got thick and heavy. I laid there for awhile but got restless and decided to walk out and watch the sun come up. There’s no human life stirring yet though the birds are quite vocal. I was hoping for a cup of tea but I haven’t seen a soul aside from a razor thin guard who was sleeping in the bar when I walked down here. It’s breezy and the waves on the lake are just about to mingle with the pool. I wonder if chlorine kills bilharzia? There are all kinds of birdlife enjoying the new watery landscape. I’ve seen at least a dozen different kinds in the time I’ve been sitting here. I’m not great at identifying them, but I do know there is a fish eagle sitting in the tree above me.

I came to the Mangochi to visit Anna, a former Seed volunteer who was in my cohort in 2016. She is a family doctor and has returned to Mangochi every year for the past nine years. She spends four months here teaching medical students and residents as part of an exchange program with her hospital in Washington state. This year she is back with her partner and baby. They feel like family. It’s comfortable and easy. 

I left Blantyre Friday around noon and headed out of the city. The ride is not too difficult; the road is paved, but narrow with loads of potholes. Once descended from the Zomba mountains the terrain flattens out and the last hour is delightful––open savannah, baobab and acacia trees, few cars, and smooth pavement. I love the Mangochi road. As long as it’s daylight, avoiding goats and bicyclists is manageable. 

It was dead calm when I arrived at the Kingfisher Inn, and very hot and humid. I couldn’t wait to drop my stuff and get in the pool. I’m usually happy to just sit and look at the water, but after four hours sweating in the car, the pool looked inviting. Though the lodge is situated right on the lake it’s not possible to swim in it. Hippos and crocodiles inhabit these parts and even villagers aren’t in the lake unless in their boats. The pool is built into a cement deck and I’m told there used to be a beach separating it from the lake. Now the lake laps at the edge of the pool. I’m wondering how long it will be before this whole place is underwater. There is a thatched bar originally built on the shore but now sort of in the lake. It’s still functioning with a 2×6 piece of wood stretched out over the surrounding water to access it. A more permanent bridge with a handrail would look as if it were an exotic design. The volleyball net is in the middle of a pond now and I doubt anything could make that look planned. Despite the heat and rising water, it’s peaceful and beautiful and I’m loving being here for the weekend. There are not many people staying here and the bar was empty last evening when I crossed the plank to get a gin and tonic. While waiting for my drink I saw a Bao board and asked the bartender if he’d give me a refresher on how to play. “You want to play Bao?” he asked surprised. I told him I have played it many years ago but have forgotten. He was eager to give me a lesson and it started coming back to me as he moved the stones around the board. Malawians are incredible at this game, counting the stones at lightening speed and knowing where they will land. He let me win the first two games and when we started on the third the cook called from the empty dining area that my supper was ready. I got up to go, thinking I’d come back to finish the game after eating, but Vincent put the whole thing away and said, “We can finish tomorrow.” I think he was bored. It was like teaching a child. I was very slow. 

The past week of classes went well. I’m getting more comfortable with the huge class and am continuously grateful for the students’ resiliency. It’s college effort multiplied by ten. For a side hustle I had a meeting with a few of the midwives involved with the initiation of the midwifery ward back in 2016. We are evaluating the feasibility of resurrecting our vision. On my way to the meeting I walked by the original site, reallocated as the pandemic swelled to accommodate Covid patients–––the only ward with oxygen. I sighed. We were so close. The ward is now empty and there are rumblings about a plan for its use. A seat at that table had better be for midwives. One of the matrons (the equivalent of our nursing supervisor) was on our South African trip to see the model midwifery ward in 2018 and has been promoted to a prominent position, on level with the head of the obstetrics department. I asked her if she believes it’s possible to initiate the midwifery ward as we’d originally planned or should we put the effort somewhere else? She said it was indeed possible and it is a legacy she’d love to leave. I was thrilled with that answer and asked what next? Who do we involve in a first meeting? We brainstormed for a while and came up with a plan. So, Tuesday at 2 pm we will have a meeting with the heads of departments of the hospital and College of Medicine. We will lay out our vision (again). The pandemic is controlled. The ward is empty. We have the same problem we had eight years ago with clinical teaching for students. Can we pick up where we left off? Can  this midwifery ward get established in the teaching hospital? Please!!

My job was to draft the invitation. Ursula’s job was to edit and send it, Christina’s was to secure the room. I offered to provide the refreshments. Within an hour we had a plan. Invitation was written and sent and we were smiling. It felt good to be doing something aside from bemoaning the fact we had been so close and not made it to the finish line. It feels like beginning again but from a new starting line. We have to figure out a budget and get funding but I’m working on that. Grant writing is not my idea of fun but I’ll do it. There are many out there, we just need to mold them into a fit for our project or vice versa. I so hope this works. As my college leadership professor said, “Enthusiasm is contagious. So is fear. Choose wisely.” I’m excited about this, fearful of falling short again, but glad to be in motion.

Love to all,

Linda

Sunday Morning ~ Martyr’s Day~ Dedza

Sunday Morning ~ Martyr’s Day, Dedza

Kukula mphuno sikudziwa kumina. ~ Having a big nose does not mean you know how to blow it clean.

~ Chewa proverb

March 3, 2024

Hi Everyone,

When we applied for Peace Corps shortly after getting married in 1978 my husband and I were offered positions in Malawi, a country we’d never heard of. We walked to my hometown library in Maynard, Massachusetts, and pulled an encyclopedia off the shelf. Under M, we found a paragraph describing the country as a former British colony led by President for Life, Dr. H. Kamuzu Banda. It described the government as a one party democracy having gained independence from the British in 1964. It gave the location and the square mileage saying it was roughly the size of Pennsylvania. It described Lake Malawi as its defining feature. It may have said something about the great rift valley through which the country runs and its mountainous topography. It had one sentence declaring it the Switzerland of Africa, but that was about it. We looked in other encyclopedias as there were several sets to chose from. They said almost exactly the same thing. We didn’t learn more about this country until we arrived a few months later in Blantyre and moved with our eleven co-volunteers to Salima for three months of training. I went on Wikipedia this morning to see what was there and there is quite a lot. I laugh to think of how hard it was to find information in my youth. This morning, I barely needed to get out of bed.

March third is Martyr’s Day here, a national holiday commemorating the death of peaceful protesters demanding independence from the British. In 1959 the colonial governor declared a state of emergency because of growing resentment and organizing over colonial rule. African Congress leaders in the movement were arrested, including Banda. On the third of March there were peaceful protests by Malawian (then Nyasaland) citizens and over fifty were killed by British troops. This event was a link in the chain leading to independence five years later. Today is the day Malawi mourns for those who died. It is a solemn day not a celebratory one. It is believed there can only be a celebration for those souls after the bodies are recovered and families receive compensation––or an apology at the very least––for their deaths. They were unarmed civilians shot by armed militia and they never received a proper burial. In the days of Kamuzu Banda, the day was so solemn no one was allowed outside. It was for quiet mourning and the streets were silent. Things have loosened up since those dictatorial days and people may spend the day as they wish but there are no public events.  

I’m spending it in Dedza, 140 miles north of Blantyre, about a four hour drive. The road is narrow, littered with pot holes and large trucks, and the going is slow. That didn’t stop me from getting a speeding ticket, however, on a straight unmarked stretch of road where I was going 70km/hour. That’s not very fast. The police officer told me it was a 50km/hour zone. I asked him where it said that? He told me the sign was before the bridge we crossed a kilometer ago and asked for 20,000 kwacha. I didn’t even argue, just gave him the money, he gave me a receipt, and we went on our way. It’s the equivalent of about twelve dollars and I’m just chalking it up to the price of travel here. 

Dedza is beautiful. It’s situated at about 5,000 feet elevation with taller mountains surrounding the town. It’s cool here even in the hot months. It’s the location of rock art dating back 10,000 years for the Pygmy art, and 2,000 years for the Bantu. It is now a UNESCO world heritage site.  Hiking to see the rock art is spectacular, though, I’m happy just to walk along the dirt paths at the base of these mountains. The friend I came with has an injured ankle so we couldn’t do a vigorous hike, but it has been fun nonetheless and we did get to some sites on easier trails. We’ll head back to Blantyre tomorrow and get psyched up for the next week of classes. 

I survived my first week with the class of 256 students. I wasn’t worried about the content of the lectures but I was nervous about logistics. On Wednesday morning I was there bright and early to be on time for my 7:30 a.m. start. The students had rearranged the room slightly moving desks closer together so the people in the back could move forward. There were not enough chairs for everyone so they pushed two seats together and three people sat there. At the back of the room students sat on desks, which, is uncomfortable for hours at a time but at least they were elevated and could see the slide screen. The projector worked. The microphone worked. The students were attentive and responsive and were polite and respectful to each other. They asked appropriate questions. I really enjoyed it actually. The class is four and a half hours long, ridiculous really, especially when the room was as crowded and hot as it was. My blouse was soaked with sweat. They had a half hour tea break at 9:30 and we picked up again and went until noon. Just before wrapping up I told them I was glad to be there, I understood how uncomfortable it was to be so crowded, and I appreciated how attentive they were. I told them I’d be doing the next day’s lecture as well, and would see them tomorrow. And they cheered! It was so sweet. I left exhausted but smiling.

The next day wasn’t as great. The class was from ten until noon, and since they start at 7:30, they were already tired when I got there. The microphone did not work and I had to yell for two hours. They were more fidgety and I had to keep stopping to ask them to be quiet especially when one of the students was speaking. It’s impossible with a class that big to do creative activities like role playing, which, Malawians love. Their acting skills are beyond belief and I’ve seen students cry real tears when acting out a role. I still ended the class by thanking them for being there and staying engaged as best they could. I left exhausted and not smiling. 

My head is spinning from all the political news at home. I found today’s proverb quite apropos.

Love to all,

Linda