The end

July 15, 2009
Brunch aftermath

Brunch aftermath

And in a whirlwind, I left Malawi.  My last week in Lilongwe was full of errands and goodbyes, culminating in a friend-filled brunch on Sunday afternoon.  Despite having had a very late night on Saturday, I managed to churn out final batches of bagels and cinnamon rolls.  For better or for worse, I think my legacy among the Lilongwe expat crowd is far more defined by my baking skills than my research agenda.

Brunch guests

Brunch guests

For those of you wondering, yes, I sold my car.  This is what $3,200 USD looks like in kwacha.  (Remember, Malawi’s largest bill is worth about $3.)  Since I sold my car on Friday afternoon, I had to hide a giant envelope of kwacha in my closet all weekend, until I could change it for dollars on Monday morning.  Fortunately, it went off without a hitch.  Unfortunately, I did not take a photo of me gleefully clutching the envelope stuffed full of cash.

This is what 450,000 kwacha looks like

This is what 450,000 kwacha looks like

By Monday at noon, it was all over but the shouting: my bags were packed, my hard drive was full of music, and my room (mostly) clean.  My dear friend Leigh drove me to the airport, where we sat at the open air restaurant for a while before my plane departed.  From Lilongwe, I went to Johannesburg, spent a few hours in the airport, then hopped on an 18 hour flight to Atlanta.  After going through customs and another layover in Atlanta, I arrived in Des Moines about 1 PM local time.  My mom, predictably, was crying.  My dad and brother, also predictably, were so busy talking about siding the house that they didn’t even notice when I came down the stairs into the waiting room.

We stopped for lunch and then ice cream in Des Moines, so by the time my feet landed on the farm, it was about a 36 hour trip, door to door.  Surprisingly, the trip was not as brutal as I had expected.  I was able to sleep on the plane, and despite being quite confused about the time, slept most of the Iowa night.

So, here I am in Iowa.  It is GREEN, saturated in such a way as to deserve all caps.  And Malawi, once again, is halfway around the world.

Though Amy is no longer in Malawi, do expect a few more wrap-up posts in the coming days, including some conclusions from my research project.  For now, though, know that I am basking in the small delights of home:  real milk, fresh vegetables (of the non-tomato, onion, and greens variety), clothes that I haven’t seen in months, and of course, family and friends.

Signing off with one more Mulanje photo, courtesy of my friend Nick:

An American moment:  Drinking a Coke on top of Mulanje

An American moment: Drinking a Coke on top of Mulanje. (Yes, this is posed.)

Mulanje: the longer version

July 8, 2009

I’ve seen most of the tourist attractions in Malawi, but one thing I wanted to do before I left was climb Mt. Mulanje.  Mulanje is the highest mountain in “Central Africa” according to guidebooks and the Mulanje Mountain Club, though several of my friends point out that this must mean Central Africa is pretty narrowly defined.  At any rate, the highest peak, Sapitwa, is 3002 meters (9,850 feet), and it is definitely the highest mountain in Malawi!

Though our plans and the crew kept changing until the last minute, we set off from Lilongwe on Friday evening with four people and a plan:  to climb to the plateau on Saturday, to the peak on Sunday, and come off the mountain on Monday.  We would stay in huts (really more like cabins) built especially for Mulanje hikers.  But first, we would spend the night in Blantyre, Malawi’s “commerical capital,” four hours south of Lilongwe and about an hour from Mulanje itself.

Bags are packed...

Bags are packed...

Our four hour drive turned into five as no one actually looked at a map before we left, and we took the road through Zomba – an unnecessary detour.  Once in Blantyre, we spent another hour or so trying to find the right road to get us to the floor where we were planning to spend the night.  Finally, we rolled into our destination around midnight, and after some chatting with our hosts, were off to bed by 1.

Saturday morning started later than we had planned, but we were on the road toward Mulanje by 8 AM.  The area around Mulanje is where all of Malawi’s tea is grown, and the drive was quite pretty even in the rather gray light.  As we approached the looming massif, I did begin to wonder what I had gotten myself into…

Approaching the mountain

Approaching the mountain

We wound our way around the mountain and semi-sketchily located our porters.  The Mulanje Forestry office keeps a list of porters and they are assigned in order, so everyone gets a fair chance at the work (which pays quite well).  I had arranged for porters to meet us at our starting point beforehand, but we weren’t sure who they were or if we ultimately picked up the right people.  (I think we did.)

After a greasy brunch of chips and omelette at Thuchila Lodge, where we parked our car and our path up the mountain began, we set off.  The hike from the bottom to the plateau was, honestly, a little rough.  As the only woman among three rather tall men (and three male porters), I was definitely the slowest in the group, and the trail was steep.  Breakfast was (predictably) not sitting well in my stomach, and I felt bad because the boys kept stopping to wait for me.  Still, I managed to huff and puff my way to the top, and we arrived at Thuchila hut a little over three hours after we started from the bottom.  With no more hiking planned for the day, we had some soup and hung out in the cabin.  The clouds lifted towards sunset, and we spent a little time exploring the surrounding area – and taking photos.

Thankfully, Jan brought a tripod

Thankfully, Jan brought a tripod

We were sharing the hut with a group of about 15 students from Malawi’s Catholic University, who were on the plateau conducting an archaeological dig.  There were also two visiting South Africans, who were on a motorcycle trip from Namibia, through Zambia, Malawi, Mozambique, and back to Cape Town.  Combined with our group (one Dutchman, two Germans, and an American), we were quite the international crowd.

There was even a special visitors toilet

There was even a special visitors' toilet

After a dinner of mac and cheese, we had an early (and COLD) night.  Our anticipated 6 AM departure was missed by about 45 minutes, but Sunday was a clear and beautiful morning.

Thuchila hut

Thuchila hut, 6:30 AM

We set off across the plateau towards Chisepo hut, which is the closest to the Sapitwa peak.  The hike took about two hours, and though it involved some ups and downs, was not nearly as grueling as the hike up the plateau.  We arrived at Chisepo and refueled with some Coke (yes, someone carries beer and Coke – in glass bottles – up from the bottom to sell at the huts) and more soup, then set off for the peak.  After about 20 minutes, however, the clouds started rolling in and we ultimately decided to turn back.  Once the clouds settle around the peak, they rarely dissipate before nightfall.  Instead, we decided that we would try to peak on Monday morning.  Since it was still early (10 AM), we took a little hike to a nice view point, where we could see the entire valley below.


Chilling at the viewpoint

The rest of the day was spent puttering, sitting around the fire, eating marshmallows and peanut butter, and listening to music.  Unfortunately, no one remembered to bring playing cards.  We were joined at the hut by a group of Scottish high school students, who entertained/annoyed us for part of the evening, and we all went to bed pretty early…in anticipation of our 5:30 AM departure time!

On Monday morning, we were up before the sun and hiking as it rose.  The first part of the hike to Sapitwa is basically straight up, and for a while I was wondering if this peak attempt was really such a good idea.  After about an hour, though, the uphill path becomes a little more level and involves a good deal of bouldering and scrambling over rocks, which slowed the pace quite a bit.  I enjoy this sort of more technical hiking, and it was a lot of fun.  Of course, there were also a few scary moments, as some of the rocks were covered in black ice and slipping would have involved quite a fall.  We made without major incident, though, and arrived at the peak about 3 hours after we left the camp.   It was COLD at the top, but we spent some time to enjoy our peanut butter sandwiches and the view.

View from the peak

View from the peak

The clouds were already beginning to roll in as we made our descent.  Going down wasn’t much faster than going up, mostly because there was so much rock scrambling.  You can see in this photo how steep some of the jumps were!

Me, as seen from above!

Me, as seen from above!

We paused for an hour or so at the hut for lunch, and then made our way down down down the plateau and back to the car.  The hike back took longer than we expected, but we walked through some beautiful rain forest, then grasslands, and finally back to the car.  We arrived a little before 5 PM, almost 12 hours after our day had started.

One of many beautiful views

One of many breath-taking views

By the time we dropped the porters back at their village, found dinner, and started back towards Lilongwe, it was getting late!  Unfortunately, we drove through fog for quite a distance on the way home.  I took the late shift driving, and was, at one point, singing to myself to stay awake while the rest of the car slept.  (It’s funny how I can’t recall names or dates of important historical events, and yet I can still sing all the words to “The Fruit of God’s Spirit,” a Vacation Bible School song from preschool.)

We arrived safely in Lilongwe at 1 AM, and after a good scrub, I tumbled into bed.  Two days and a few good yoga sessions later, my legs are still angry about Monday’s hike – but it was definitely worth it!  Having spent a lot of my outdoor time in Malawi relaxing at the lake, it was nice to have a more active weekend – and look out from the highest peak in “Central Africa”!


July 7, 2009

Here’s the quick and dirty version of my Mulanje weekend:  I made it to the top of the highest peak in Central Africa, and then I made it back down.  My photos won’t upload at the moment, but check back later for more!

View from Thuchila Hut, 6:30 AM

View from Thuchila Hut, 6:30 AM

The crew at Sapitwa peak

The crew at Sapitwa peak

More thoughts on leaving

July 3, 2009

As my time remaining here ticks down to a single-digit number of days, things are becoming increasingly hectic.  Last week I went to the lake one last time, and this weekend I am climbing Mulanje, the highest peak in Malawi (about 9000 feet).  I spent much of this work week running around to various government ministries, trying to collect some basic, semi-disaggregated statistics about land use.  In short, this was not as easy a task as I was anticipating.  Having lived in Malawi for almost 10 months now, you would think I should have learned by now, right?

This has also been a week of saying even more goodbyes, and thinking about how many more I will have to say very soon.  In a place where almost no one has immediate family, friends become a close substitute, and it will be hard to leave some of the people that I am closest to here.  Somehow, this feels more difficult than places I have left before, as I know there are people here I will never see again.  International job postings usually last a few years, at most, and after Malawi we will all scatter to different corners of the globe.  Unlike school friends, our common experience here will not give us reason to return and reunite.  (I am assured, however, that there is an Ottawa-to-Iowa road trip in the works, with my friends Leigh and Anna.)

People keep asking me if I’m looking forward to going home, and of course, I am.  I’m looking forward to seeing my family, being able to talk to my friends on the phone at reasonable hours, getting a real haircut, and eating broccoli, hummus, and dairy products of a non-UHT variety.  I’m looking forward to having a real job again, where people actually care what (if anything) I do on a daily basis.  I’m looking forward to driving on roads that are actually wide enough for two cars, and not crowded by bicycles, pedestrians, and goats.  I’m looking forward to a mail service that is at least moderately reliable, and trading in the same six shirts I’ve been wearing for the past 10 months.

But – despite everything I’m looking forward to at home, I can’t say I’m really looking forward to leaving here.  When I stood, crying, in the Kansas City airport in September, I didn’t imagine that I would be able to carve for myself such a rich and rewarding life in Malawi.  But while it didn’t happen easily or all at once, I have found and made a community here, and a place for me in it.  So when I think of leaving, I find myself longing, already, for all the things and people I’ve not yet lost.

NB:  My mom is someone who cries at Hallmark commercials.  Though the TV doesn’t usually bring me to tears, I think I inherited her sentimentality.  But I also think that it is legitimately hard to spend every year of your life cultivating new friendships, only to leave them and start over again in the end.

A million tiny pieces (of paper)

June 24, 2009

The day before my senior thesis was due, Chapter 5 – the analysis chapter – was lying in pieces on my floor.  Literally.  After months of researching, analyzing, and writing about language used in farm bill debates, my organizational capacities were completely gone.  Finally, I just wrote a brain dump chapter, saying everything I wanted to say.  Then I printed it out, got out my scissors, and dissected and then reassembled it on the floor of my room.

At some point during this process, my friend Steph walked in.  Her voice rose as she asked what I was doing, and I’m sure her concern was justified:  I was probably still wearing my pajamas at some point after noon, and was sitting on my floor, surrounded by a blizzard of little scraps of paper.  I was holding scissors, possibly at a dangerous angle.  Despite the fact that I appeared to be a crazy person, however, this method of organization actually worked pretty well.  Once sorted, I taped all the pieces of paper together in order, then reordered them on my computer.  There are some things that I just cannot reorganize on a screen.

I relate this story because I’m in a similar position with my current project.  As the page count on my Microsoft Word document climbs past the 30s (single-spaced), I can feel the organization coming apart at the seams.  However, since in Malawi I have neither free ink nor unlimited printing, I am resisting for the moment.  So, in an act of procrastination (or, optimistically, organization), I thought I would write a little about my project.

My research project basically asks the question, “How do NGOs and donor agencies promote crop diversification in light of the Malawian government policy that supports all maize, all the time?”  I’m also interested in crop diversification as a food security strategy; how can a smallholder farmer manage risk so s/he has something to eat all year?

To answer these questions, I gathered data on all the donor-funded projects in the agriculture sector, then focused on those that specifically addressed or included a crop diversification component.  For each crop diversification project, I interviewed staff members and gathered more information, mostly on program implementation and effectiveness.  I also took whatever written documentation they offered.  Everything is data.

After data collection comes analysis.  Sounds simple, right?  Except that I am working with about 10 different donor-funded projects on a wide range of topics.  Though I administered the same questionnaire for each interview, the responses (and tangents) I got covered even more issues that I originally thought to query.  While I won’t include everything, of course, there are some really interesting topics – like the association of maize with modernity – that are simply too relevant to leave out.  And so now, 40 pages in, I feel that I have a million tiny pieces of paper instead of a coherent report.

It will eventually come together – it always does.  But if only I had some scissors and a roll of scotch tape…

On a hilarious note…

June 22, 2009

WordPress has a feature where I can see the search terms that bring people to my blog.  In addition to things I actually address on the blog (Malawi and tourism questions), I’ve always gotten hits relating to aliens and outer space.   My favorite:  “weddings in outer space + no air.”  To that searcher, I can merely say, good luck with that.

But ever since the “What’s the Capital of Africa” post, I get a few hits a day from people googling this very question – up to six yesterday.  Maybe this poking fun at Americans and their geography skills is completely justified, after all.

Calendar confusion

June 21, 2009

While everyone in the northern hemisphere has been celebrating summer solstice, we’ve just celebrated the shortest day of the year!  Because Malawi is chilly and winterish, I sometimes have to stop and think: what month is this?  Oh yeah, June.

Which means, of course, that it is also Father’s Day.  In my calendar confusion, I actually called my dad last week to wish him a happy Father’s Day…but I’ll do it again today.


On the prairie

This is me and my dad in 1986.  In a stunning bit of family photo oversight, I can’t seem to find a recent photo of us on my computer, at least not with Dad wearing his characteristic outfit.  (I have since ditched the bonnet.)   Since I’m sure he’d rather not have those stuffy jacket-and-tie photos from my graduation posted in a public place, I thought this was a good substitute.

My mom says, of this photo, “You’ve changed a lot since then, but so has Dad!”  Perhaps, but his fashion sense remains the same – and he may still have that very pair of overalls!  Happy Father’s Day, Dad!

Dude update

June 19, 2009

As promised, here’s the update on the Dude.  He is growing (obviously) and is becoming marginally better behaved, which is to say, he listens once in a while instead of never.  He’s about the size of my parents’ dog, Libby, now; I’m not sure how much bigger he will get.

He has actually turned out to be a pretty good watchdog, and usually alerts my sleeping guard when there’s a car at the gate at night.  He is mostly nocturnal – sleeps all day, barks all night.  In fact, I had to wake him up for this photoshoot – he was sleeping in the ornamental grass around the garden.


Looking dignified

The Dude’s tricks remain largely the same:  he sits, he shakes, he jumps and jumps and jumps.  My housemate bought a ratty stuffed animal at the market, so the Dude now entertains himself by flinging it to and fro, running in circles, and pouncing on it from a far.  He’s quite energetic – except in this photo, where he looks a little harassed.



What I do all day

June 18, 2009

In a continuance of the semi-boring posts of late, I thought I’d address one question I get fairly frequently:  what do I do all day?

When I was in Johannesburg, one of the things I discussed with the other Fulbrighters was self-regulation.  While two of them are taking classes, one is doing independent research, like me.  We talked about the difficulties of getting motivated when no one is watching, and the siren song of the New York Times website.

Last night, I met with some friends after work.  They all got snacks, but I wasn’t hungry because, I explained, I had lunch at about 3 PM.  Why?  I was actually making progress on my Fulbright article.  “Oh, you’re so dedicated,” one friend said, “I could never do what you’re doing.  I’d sleep in late and not do any work.”  I explained that it’s not so much my dedication as that I KNEW, if I stopped working at lunchtime, I wouldn’t be able to sit down and finish what I was working on.  So, in the interest of self-monitoring, I kept working until I was done with that particular section.

While I suspect my friends overestimate my diligence, I do have several strategies for keeping myself on track.  First, I try to maintain a regular “working” schedule, from 8:30 or so until 5 each day.  Second, I keep multiple to-do lists – a master to-do list, a Fulbright to-do list, and a daily to-do list.  Finally, I try not to feel too guilty if things don’t go according to plan – that’s why I have 10 months to do a project that, in the States, would have taken far less time.

My activities during “work” vary by the day; today, I’ve spent most of my day in front of the computer working on an acticle.  Tomorrow, I have a few meetings at different government ministries in the morning, will run some errands, and then will likely be back in front of the computer for the afternoon.  My computer work involves an array of activities: reading articles, online research, data set manipulation, email correspondence, and actually writing articles or reports.  And, while working on the Fulbright project, I usually let myself explore other ideas as well, sometimes to a fault:  I spent a few hours yesterday reading articles on French sociological theory.  Similarly, since the goal of the Fulbright is supposed to be cultural exchange, “work” does not entail solely working on my project – I also volunteer and visit other projects during “working hours,” like my visit to Mchingi with the UCLA project a few weeks ago.

Of course, despite my efforts to keep a schedule, I do work other hours, and my 8:30 to 5 is regularly thwarted by power outages, internet outages,  errands that must be conducted during business hours (like going to the mechanic), and loud Zambian pop parties next door (today’s started at 3 PM).  I am often distracted from the work at hand; I started this blog post while waiting for a 3.42 MB annual report to download.  (And, twenty minutes later, it’s still downloading.)  I devote an hour or so each day to the job search – sometimes during “working hours,” sometimes outside of them.  And, as you g-chatters know, I’m usually willing to be distracted by talk from home.  I usually feel a little guilty about this, like I’m not doing “real” work, but then, I regularly visited my email and at my last “real” job, too.  So that, in a nutshell, is what I do all day.

I was planning to answer another FAQ in today’s post:  how is The Dude?  My photos, however, won’t upload, so check back tomorrow for photos of the growing puppy!

Sunday night musings

June 14, 2009

I will be home in a month.  Though I’m moving my ticket back about a week from my original return date, by the evening of July 14, I’ll be at my parents’ house.  The view, I imagine, will be remarkably similar to the view I left.



As my time here winds down and I complete my final report for the Fulbright program (a report that is separate from the products of my research), I’ve been thinking a lot about the value of my time here.  I will be the first to admit that my days have not always been productive, that I haven’t been as involved in the local community as I could have been, and that my research probably won’t make a big difference to anyone, in the long run.  I have been lonely, and even the cushy expat life in Malawi is sometimes hard.  But I’m glad I came.

When I was younger, I had a poster that said “do not pray for an easy life, pray to be a strong person,” and the phrase has come back to me many times in Malawi.  Packing up and moving for ten months to a developing country, halfway around the world from my family and friends, was – hands down – the hardest thing I’ve ever done.  But it has also been, in a strange and thrilling way, really good; I am a stronger person because of it.

My everyday life here seems normal in a way that I would never have thought possible when I arrived in September, so much that I am a little apprehensive about returning to my fast-paced, commercialized US life.  I spent a few days this past week in Johannesburg, which is a modern, industrialized city (with an extraordinarily high crime rate, but then, I did live in the murder capital of the US).  Though I didn’t see a lot of Joburg, I took the opportunity to delight in the pleasures of the developed world:  Thai food, macchiatos, good service, beer on tap, movie theatres, and metered taxis were all part of my three-day jaunt.  Instead of rejecting consumerism based on my relatively austere lifestyle here (compared to my US lifestyle, not the average Malawian’s), though, I kind of wanted to buy everything:  clothes!  boots!  goat cheese!  It’s a good thing I’ll be in rural Iowa for the first part of my return – perhaps Wal-Mart as the singular shopping destination will help quell my desires.

I went to Joburg to take the LSAT – the Law School Admissions Test.  The test was held on a university campus, and I was a little taken aback by how similar the University of Witwatersrand looked to a US university.  Though I realize South Africa and Malawi are worlds apart in terms of development, I was still expecting something similar to the colleges here – small, underfunded, and dumpy.  Instead, at Wits, the buildings were large, multi-story, and distinguished rather than run down; the central campus featured a large central green with an outdoor, heated, Olympic-size swimming pool, and lots of groomed flower gardens replete with Birds of Paradise.  But it was really the bustle of the students – in the buildings, in the library, on the green, with books and coffee cups in hand, looking slightly frazzled – that made me miss college life in the US.  Here in Malawi, colleges are much smaller, and even the mass movement of students between classes can’t compare with the constant low-level buzz of the university setting.  It’s a good thing I’m considering going back to school!

While in Joburg, I was hosted by some other Fulbrighters who are affiliated with Wits.  They were excellent hosts (and hostess), and certainly went above and beyond the call of duty to shuttle me to my LSAT and show me around town.  We also had some time to hang out, and it was nice to realize that the challenges of getting my research off the ground aren’t unique to me or Malawi.

To conclude a particularly rambling post, with the LSAT and my final pre-departure trip out of the way, I’m on to my final month of Fulbright wrap-up!