Archive for November, 2008

Newsy update

November 30, 2008

Since the last few posts have been food themed, I thought it was time for a general newsy update.  Feel free to skip if you’re not interested in the minutiae of Amy in Malawi.

First, the rainy season is here.  Last Monday morning I woke up and actually felt cool.  The sun was not glaring in my windows at 6:30 AM.  I hardly knew what to think; it has been pretty hot ever since I arrived, and the rainy season provides a welcome (if humid) respite from the 90 degree heat.  The term “rainy season” is used to differentiate it from the dry season, which lasts from about March until November.  So far, it seems to rain a few hours in the afternoon or evening.  Some days are more gray than others, but it is not oppressively cloudy (as, say, Ithaca is from December to April).  Despite the “rainy season” moniker, it has been pretty sunny all weekend.  Of course, it is by no means, cold or even cool to my midwestern blood – we’re still talking about highs in the upper 70s and lows in the 60s.

The upsides to the rainy season include slightly cooler weather and greener grass.  The downsides include more unreliable electricity and internet service, and more horrifically, the proliferation of the bug (and other creepy crawlies) population.  The mosquitoes, predictably, are out in full force.  Millipedes, big, fat ones, have also appeared out of nowhere.  Buzzing moths suddenly swarm the outside lights at dusk, only to drop into crunchy, gross piles a few hours after their appearance.  (The Dude likes to eat them.)  There are strange mud tunnels that have appeared in our yard, which a google search suggests might belong to cicadas.  Not ideal, I guess, but better than the snakes I was afraid MIGHT be living there.  Here is a photo in case there are any entomologists reading:

The scale is hard to judge in the photo, but the muddy patch is about 3 feet wide.

The scale is hard to judge in the photo, but the "muddy" patch is about 3 feet wide. It's at the base of a tree.

As if the bugs outside weren’t bad enough, it seems a huge ant population has moved inside, as well as the usual assortment of spiders and other gross things.  Let’s just say that I keep a shoe close at hand (at foot?) at all times.

Secondly, I have started playing soccer with a ladies’ expat league on Tuesdays and Thursdays.  Now I know what you’re saying:  “Why Amy, I had no IDEA you played soccer!”  Yeah, me either.  I played soccer for the first time ever, in my whole life, last Tuesday.  Fortunately, no one on this team is a professional player, and it was fun to run around with some other people.  I went Thursday and will probably go again.  We have to pay a couple bucks for the lights (which are then swarmed by the buzzing moths) each time, but it’s worth it.

In response to your many inquiries, The Dude is doing well.  He’s definitely growing and sometimes behaving.  His many and varied hobbies include biting, chewing, chasing, biting, growling, tossing, and biting.  We’re trying to work on the biting thing.  He has learned to sit – sometimes, if he’s not too distracted or wound up.  He has also learned that he is not supposed to come in the house, which doesn’t keep him from sneaking in if he thinks he can get away with it.  (He can’t.  Ever.)  He enjoys exploring our large garden and collecting piles of things to chew on.  Unfortunately, he was chewing on his brush and seems to have carried it off – who knows where or if we’ll find it.  One of his favorite activities is chewing on, tearing apart, tumbling over, tossing around, and otherwise destroying the cardboard box that he came home in.  He is definitely a puppy.

A typical puppy pose; that is, jaws at the ready!

My weekend has mostly involved errands and relaxation.  I purchased tickets for my South Africa trip in January with Elizabeth.  I got the part(s) I needed to fix my shower and actually managed to fix it, which is pretty exciting.  I caught up with some friends via Skype, and plan to do some more catching up once it becomes a reasonable calling hour in the US.  I’ve also been contemplating The Future, but that is a subject for another post.

On Saturday I went for an afternoon at the lake with my housemate and actually went swimming this time.  (I didn’t have my swimming suit for the last lake trip.)  The water was pretty clear but lukewarm; it would have been more refreshing if it felt a little less like bathwater.  On the way back to Lilongwe, we ate at The Red Zebra Cafe right outside the Sunbird Livingstonia and, frankly, it was the best food I’ve had since I got to Malawi.  Not that I’ve been packing in a lot of delicious dishes, but I had some excellent coconut chicken that, with some spice, would have tasted a lot like Thai.

I’ve also been working on Christmas (post)cards, despite the utterly un-Christmas-like season.  If I don’t have your address and you’d like one, just let me know!  I’ll end with a gratuitous puppy photo:

Unapologetically chewing on my flip-flop.

Unapologetically chewing on my flip-flop.

A food post for Thanksgiving

November 27, 2008

Since there are no Thanksgiving foods to be found in this country, I thought it appropriate to write today about Malawi’s culinary delights – and frights.

Malawian food is, for the most part, sort of bland.  For a place that has a similar climate to Mexico, it’s amazing that one place got tacos, burritos, and guacamole and the other got nsima, chicken, relish, and chili sauce on the side.  A traditional Malawian meal involves a huge pile of nsima and little pile of whatever is available to dip it in, usually a stew made of vegetables (rape leaves, tomatoes, onions), groundnut flour, and sometimes meat or fish.  Most Malawian restaurants serve variations on this theme, though most include meat (chicken or beef) as a larger portion of the plate and also have rice or chips (fried potatoes, not really french fries) as an alternative option to nsima.  Much like the midwest, common seasonings in Malawi include massive amounts of sugar, salt, and/or mayonaise, though sometimes chile sauce is thrown in for good measure.  Orders of chips usually come with tomato sauce, which is much sweeter than American ketchup.

Though I’ve sampled some of Lilongwe’s restaurants, for financial and gastrointestinal reasons, I do most of my own cooking at home.  Therefore, my most interesting food adventures usually involve grocery stores, not anything pre-prepared.  Here’s a brief-run down of some of the more interesting foods (and drinks) I’ve experienced here:

Coke Light – Apparently Africa’s version of Diet Coke, it actually tastes more like Coke than the American version.  Having found a sugar free soda, I have little room to complain.

Fanta Yellow –  Actually, it may be called Fanta Pineapple, I’m not sure.  (Its counterpart is referred to as Fanta Orange, but I’m never sure if orange refers to the color or the flavor.)  Fanta Yellow is about as appealing as one might imagine super sugary fake pineapple to taste.  I had one for novelty, but one was enough.  Oddly, the soda cans are much heavier here than in the US, falsely leading one to believe there is more of the syrupy mixture hiding in the bottom when that is, in fact, quite untrue.

Dairy products – USAID apparently has some sort of program here to improve the dairy industry, so I would hate to know what it was like before.  I’ve already had my cheese rant (though, since said rant, I have found cheese intermittently at my neighborhood grocery).  Dairy products here have, in general, done little but disappoint me.  The yogurt is strange (and very sweet), and Malawians have a penchant for adding milk to fruit juice, pouring in the sugar (you may be sensing a theme here), and selling it as “dairy juice”.  I’ve tried both supermarket and soft serve ice cream, but neither were creamy in the same way they are in the US.  The ingredients label on the supermarket ice cream says it contains milk and vegetable oil (apparently to make the texture more viscous) rather than cream.  Needless to say, I am unimpressed.  I had high hopes for the soft serve, actually, but found it to be similarly weird.  I finally tried the long-life milk I purchased a while ago, which doesn’t really taste like milk at all.  (It does taste vaguely like non-dairy creamer.)  If not consuming dairy products makes those lactase production go dormant, I may be lactose intolerant upon my return to the US.

Meat – Yes, I have been eating meat.  A little.  Sort of.  There are not many other protein options available, as I lack the patience to deal with dry beans and can only eat so may eggs.  Anyway, meat here ranges from quite tasty to quite dubious.  The market nearest my house sells “economy mince” (hamburger) for about $2 a pound.  I got some for The Dude and sampled a little; it seemed sort of rancid to me.  (He gobbled it up.)  Though there is far more beef available than pork, most of what I’ve experienced has not been an entirely pleasant experience.  I did have some tasty beef curry at a restaurant, but ordering “beef stew” results in a dicey pile of mostly bones.  Chicken is usually a pretty safe bet, and I’ve had decent chicken from both restaurants and grocery stores, though the restaurant at Bunda tended to butcher it into unrecognizable pieces (with embedded shards of bone).  The best meat I’ve had is from one of the expat grocery stores and comes frozen, which makes me suspect it is imported from some distance and probably industrially raised.  Feel free to comment on the irony that the exact type of meat I don’t wish to eat in the US is what I feel safest about eating here.

On the upside, the small grocery store near my house carries fresh, ready-made pesto, and a variety of tropical fruits are coming into season.  I got limes, lychees, and avocados at the market on Saturday.  (Then I made some guacamole, but apparently – for all the maize in this country – no one believes in corn chips.)  Mangoes and sapote (the green fruits I got on the way back from Dedza) are abundant.  There are still lots of tomatoes and green beans, carrots, and eggplants are easy to come by.  Winter squash are beginning to appear, too, though I’m holding out for the price to go down.  As it is, I often find myself with more vegetables than I can eat before they spoil:  one of the perils of cooking for one, I guess.  Though I occasionally had this problem last year, it is more acute here because most everything I buy is fresh, rather than canned or frozen.

Other grocery adventures have included:  learning that milo is not only grain sorghum, it’s also a type of chocolate drink mix; paying $1.75 for a Kit-Kat bar that would have cost somewhere around $.60 in the US; trying and failing to appreciate Malawian peanut butter (for the same reasons I do not appreciate “natural” peanut butter); and cringing every time I see something called “drinking yogurt.”

For those of you wondering about the results of the pie adventure, it turned out…okay.  The recipe definitely needs some tweaking; the crust got soggy really quickly, and the apples didn’t bake down much.  Still, most of it got eaten at the potluck and my housemate rather speedily cleaned up what was left over.  I consider indiscriminate love of baked goods an asset in a housemate.

And if you’re not already in a food coma, here’s some food for thought:  a response from some Salina, KS farmers to the Michael Pollan piece I wrote about last month.  Their criticisms are of a sharper and more practical nature than mine own, but interesting nonetheless.  By way of preview, I will merely mention that the President of the Kansas Farm Bureau compares the Pollan essay to the Communist Manifesto.  Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

Martha comes to Malawi

November 24, 2008

My next post was originally going to be about my new belief in pre-paid services, since the Water Board came to disconnect my water on Friday.  I wasn’t home at the time, so ended up having to go on a several hour adventure to the main Water Board office, where I learned that my landlord/the previous tenants hadn’t paid the bill since June.  Because it was 11 AM on a Friday, I had to fork over $170 in cash to have my water restored by the weekend, and I was none too pleased.  But, I’ve probably complained about that enough; my water was eventually turned back on (though it took several more phone calls), it sounds like either my landlord or my housemate’s company will reimburse me, and anyway, retelling my battle with Malawian bureaucracy is almost as traumatic as the experience itself.

So, let’s talk about something else.  It’s almost Thanksgiving, my favorite holiday.  Though I enjoy the food and the football, what I love most is the togetherness of the whole holiday; ironically, I haven’t been home for turkey day since I was in high school.  Still, I’ve had some pretty great Thanksgivings in recent years with friends and their families, and even a fantastic Telluride Thanksgiving where the living room was turned into a Great Hall.  So even though this isn’t my first Thanksgiving away from home, it’s my first Thanksgiving away from…Thanksgiving.  The holiday isn’t really celebrated in Malawi, but that hasn’t stopped me from getting sentimental about the occasion.  So, I’ve tried to bring a little of Thanksgiving to Malawi, though I’ve yet to see any sort of turkey or cranberries here.

Pie, on the other hand, seemed like an attainable goal.  Now, let’s be clear:  I actually make a pretty decent pie.  Last year, I successfully hosted a party with four pies and there was nothing left over.  My apple crumb pie was a hit at Addie’s family’s Thanksgiving last year, when they graciously adopted me yet again.  Still, despite a positive track record, pie baking in Malawi is an exercise in substitution.

First, my secret weapon for a good crust, Crisco, is nowhere to be found.  Generic vegetable shortening?  Nada.  Butter is absurdly expensive, and I wasn’t really prepared to make this a pie of GOLD, which left me with margarine.  Margarine here is fairly reasonably priced, and comes in a wide range of varieties and/or colors of packaging.  I even got something called “margarine for baking,” though a comparison of its ingredient list with that of regular margarine revealed no noticeable differences.  I was hoping that baking margarine might have a lower moisture content, but as far as I could tell, that was not the case.

My mom, always helpful in the Suzy Homemaker department, sent me a recipe for a pie crust that uses margarine.  Unfortunately, it called for cornstarch, which I’ve not been able to find here.  (Not that Malawi’s primary crop is corn or anything.)  Never one to be deterred by, you know, a recipe, I whipped together my pie crust anyway.  Since I didn’t have a rolling pin on hand, I rolled my dough into a circle using my vanilla extract bottle and a good deal of smooshing by hand.  The result was a little sticky and entirely too yellow; no word yet on the taste or texture.

Before conquering the crust question, I looked far and wide for something, anything, resembling a pie plate in this city.  The closest thing I found was a 9X9 fake pyrex dish, which cost $10 (see previous comment re: pie of GOLD) and didn’t really resemble a pie plate at all.  So, I decided to use my housemate’s round crock from Dedza pottery, which doesn’t really resemble a pie plate either, but it is round and (bonus) already in my house.

On Sunday night, I assembled the crust in my pie…crock and put it in the refrigerator overnight.  Today, I was ready to work on the filling.  I had scored some Granny Smith apples at the grocery store last week, mainly because I have been planning this pie for a while and none of the other apple varieties were immediately recognizable to me.  The filling assembly didn’t go so badly, actually.  Lacking proper measuring cups, the strudel involved some guesstimation.  The cinnamon definitely was not powdered as finely as what I’m used to, and the bag said “cinemon,” so I hope it was the right stuff.  I may have been a little too enthusiastic in my apple peeling, as the apples nearly eclipsed the crust.  Oh well.  After pie assemblage came another fun part:  converting my farenheit recipe to work with my celcius oven.  Fortunately, google prevented me from having to think too hard, and the pie went into and later came out of the oven without incident.

Since I’m planning to take the pie to a potluck this evening, a taste test has not yet been performed.  (I did break a tiny piece off the crust, and was pleased to learn that even in Africa, fat and flour can’t go wrong.)  Based on appearances, it seems like I might have done okay.  As okay as Thanksgiving in Malawi can be, anyway.

img_04441
Proof that you can take the girl away from Martha Stewart, you can’t take Martha Stewart away from the girl (or something like that).

Small steps

November 20, 2008

In Malawi, everything is prepaid.  If there is such thing as “bill me later,” I don’t know about it.  This is probably because “loans” in Malawi are basically gifts.  (Imagine my surprise/envy when a friend explained that student loans are never paid back!)  So, for companies, the choice is to demand prepayment, or not get paid at all.  Obviously, most choose prepaid plans.

Upon arriving in Malawi, I got a SIM card for my cell phone and a few “free” minutes.  Now, I have to “top up” every week or so by buying “units,” the proxy for which are tiny cards with scratch-off numbers that closely resemble lottery tickets.  (Bonus: you always win.)  The units come in increments that are based on dollars, the largest (I think) being 1000 units (or $10).  The result – besides having adopted a marketing language created by Zain, my service provider – is that I’m much more conscious of the amount I spend on my cell phone.  Though I’m actually probably spending about half of what I spent in the US on a monthly basis, I’m only using the phone for a fraction of the time.  (Talk time is something like 30 cents a minute.)

Sure, you’re saying, but the US has prepaid phones, too.  That’s not really so different.  So here’s a more baffling example:  electricity is also prepaid.  I had been warned about this, as many an ex-pat has ran out of credit and sat in the dark, waiting for the electricity to come on and wondering why the neighbors have power.  My housemate, having been one of these expats in the dark, promised to take care of the electricity.  He’s out of town for the week, however, and on Tuesday my housekeeper informed me that we only had 70 units left.  He even showed me the meter box, complete with a digital countdown and flashing red light.  So on Wednesday, after getting as complete a set of instructions as possible (read: not very complete at all) from my housekeeper, I set off to buy some power credit.  (Makes it sound as if I were trapped in a video game.)

First, as instructed by the housekeeper, I went to the BP station in Area 18.  Apparently at some point you COULD buy credit there, but their machine is broken and has been for three months.  The person who assisted me spoke only limited English, so while I understood that I needed find an ESCOM office, I didn’t really understand where that might be.  I ventured on to the grocery store and bookstore, and found, to my delight, an ESCOM office in one of the strip malls in Old Town.  After I got to the front of the line, however, I was informed that I needed the meter number in order to buy credit.  I suppose if I had thought about it, I might have foreseen this, but since I get scratch-off cards for my cell phone with providing any personal information, I assumed the electricity worked the same way.  (The first rule for African living, by the way, is NEVER ASSUME ANYTHING.)

I went home, defeated.  I copied down the meter number, and then waited for an hour and half because by this time it was lunch, and Malawians take their lunch breaks very seriously.  After calling to identify the location of an ESCOM office closer to my house, I ventured out again.  This time, everything went much more smoothly.  A very nice young man working the prepaid desk helped me figure out how much credit I would need for a month (about $35 worth), took my money, and gave me a receipt with two different numbers on it.  He didn’t even get angry when I asked him to explain, in detail, what to do with the receipt.  (I had to enter the numbers into my meter to recharge my credit, though why two 16-digit numbers were necessary to accomplish this, I don’t know.)

All of this is to say, I successfully purchased power, and it only took me half a day and visits to three different ESCOM locations.  On the upside, it cost significantly less than my electricity bill in DC (which topped out at $265, after which we turned off the heat and spent the rest of the winter in multiple layers of clothing), and at least I wasn’t an expat sitting in the dark!  Small steps?

Missing: you

November 18, 2008

Many people have asked me what I miss from the United States, wondering if they could put it in a box and ship it to me across the Atlantic.

Un/fortunately, most of the things I miss you can’t put in a box.  I miss good vegetarian meals, tempeh and Thai food, and diet soda.  I miss well-stocked grocery stores and whole grains.  I miss having bookstores and libraries and the print version of The Economist and an abundance of reading material nearby.  I miss being able to walk everywhere I need to go.  I (and my jeans) miss the dryer.

Oddly, I find myself missing things that I didn’t even really like in the United States.  I miss movie theatres, though I went to the movies perhaps five times in the past year.  I miss late-night McDonald’s runs with Andrew, though I am loathe to eat anything McDonald’s calls meat.   I miss big chain stores and knowing where I can go to get the things I need.  I miss football Sundays and Jay-Z mornings.  I miss trashy girl magazines (which, for the record, I only read at the gym).

Mostly, though, I miss people.  Skype and email are a life raft, but not a substitute for face to face contact, endless phone calls on free nights and weekends, and knowing I could be anywhere in less than a day if I was needed.  I miss the stimulation of conversing with my friends and the abundance of cultural activities DC had to offer.  I miss beating Andrew at Jeopardy.  I miss being able to call my mom when I need to know what I can substitute for baking powder.  Even though it’s silly, I miss things I missed even in the US:  Cornell, being in school, Telluride, midnight picnics at the Plantations, and sitting on my blue couch with Calvin and Linda and laughing until we couldn’t breathe.

Finally, though mostly as an unconscious longing, I miss intangibles:  being comfortable in most situations, understanding cultural cues, and only occasionally getting myself in trouble.  In short, I miss being in a place that feels like home.  I like Malawi, and I’m glad I came – but it sometimes feels unspeakably far away from the lives I’ve led.

So that’s what I miss.  If you can’t tell, I’m feeling nostalgic today; chalk it up to a few phone calls yesterday combined with some ill-advised digging through old photos.  In terms of what I need, I actually did a fairly good job of packing, and didn’t seem to forget anything absolutely necessary for survival.  But, for you package-makers, here are some ideas of things I would like:

Irish breakfast and/or Earl Grey tea
Cumin (apparently not available in this country?), other spices
Books
Playing cards
Herb seeds (for planting)
Games (I would LOVE a travel Scrabble)
Granola bars
Yarn (for knitting – I have needles)
DVDs/Music
Insect repellent
Multivitamins

And I always love to get mail.  I know that sending packages is a pricey venture, but you can send me a letter with only one US postage stamp!  If you don’t know how, email me for instructions.

The beast

November 17, 2008

Last week, I acquired another beast.  This one wasn’t mournfully staring at me from the side of the road and doesn’t chew on my toes.  It’s significantly larger than The Dude, though no less headache-inducing.  It’s not even very cute.  But, after almost two months here, the time had come:  I got a car.

A thing of great beauty, it is not.  It’s supposed to be white, but the paint isn’t in great condition and seems to have faded to more of a mellow cream.  The mechanic assures me that the engine is good, but that it needs about $500 worth of work, anyway.  (And labor here is cheap.)  Every little roar, whir, and rumble makes me paranoid: is everything okay?

I’ve never owned a car.  I haven’t even driven that much since graduating from high school and my parents’ 1986 Chevy Cavalier (voted, for the record, worst car in the Senior Class), so I’m a little apprehensive about this whole my-own-vehicle thing.  I read the owner’s manual and checked all the fluids.  All systems are a go, except one of the radiator hoses seems to be held together with electrical tape.  I think I’ve identified the source of my coolant leak.

I purchased the car from a departing American after talking him down to nearly 50% of the asking price.  (To be fair, the asking price was above the market rate here.)  Fortunately, because the seller was working for USAID here, I got the added bonus of assistance from an AID staff person to help transfer the title and insurance to my name.  Now, if we were in the US, I could have probably figured it out myself, but in Malawi, public information about how to make things happen is more of an oral tradition…if policies exist at all.

Knowing this, I double-checked with the assisting staff person before I met him to go to the DMV (which is actually the ROTC, but I don’t know the constituent words of the acronym).  I told him what documents I had, and asked:  is that everything I’ll need?  Having received an affirmative response, I arrived at USAID to meet him on Friday at 9 AM.  After locating him, the first question was “do you have your passport?”  Um, no.  So I went back to my house to get my passport, back to AID, and then we drove to the DMV.  At the DMV, we went upstairs, budged in line (one of the perks of being a muzungu), and promptly discovered that I didn’t have the original title.  Now, I knew going in that I didn’t have the title – I had picked up the car but not all the paperwork, which was at the AID office.  I had wrongly assumed that the staffer would bring it, as the owner has promised to give it to him.  No such luck.  So we went back to the AID office, where the paperwork could not be located.  Let’s try again Monday, he said.

This morning, I arrived bright and early.  This time, all the paperwork was in order.  The line at the DMV wasn’t even very long.  I was, however, very grateful to have someone there to guide me through the process, because I would have had no idea what to do.  The whole thing involved carrying forms and printouts from person to person (some more than once), checking the “fitness” of my vehicle, which mostly seeing if all my signals were working, and eventually forking over some cash.  In exchange for my two hours of trotting up and down the stairs at the DMV (it was on two levels), I got several papers, including my license and certificate of fitness.  These are printed on official paper, but both have circles that you cut out and affix to the windshield.  The same goes for insurance.  I do have to say, if I ever get stopped, checking these things on the windshield will be easier than digging around in the glove box.  After a trip to the insurance company to switch the third-party insurance to my name (a process that’s allowed here), I was all set, and I was back at home four hours after leaving.

I’m planning to take it to get this coolant issue fixed (tomorrow, hopefully) and a tune-up (Saturday).  Now, if only gas weren’t so absurdly expensive here (America, you have no idea), I would be completely free to travel where I wish.  At the moment, I’ll settle for mostly mobile.

Dedza pottery

November 13, 2008

First, for those of you concerned about the fate of The Dude upon my July departure: fear not.  My housemate is staying in Malawi for three years, at which point he will either move The Dude with him or find another fine family for him.  The Dude will not be abandoned.

In my previous post, I neglected to mention another of the past weekend’s activities:  a trip to Dedza.  (Yes, I realize this is Thursday and we’re almost to another weekend, but I’ve been having internet issues.)  Dedza is about an hour and a half south of Lilongwe on the M1 and is famous for its pottery studio, cheesecake, and lovely surroundings.  My housemate and I made the drive Sunday morning, arriving in Dedza before lunch.  It’s at a higher altitude than Lilongwe and the breeze actually felt cool.  (Shocking.)  The pottery studio, started in the 1960s by a British couple, sits on well-groomed grounds and is open 7 days a week.  (You know something is a tourist attraction in Malawi when it’s open on Sundays, as most of the country shuts down.)

The crowd was almost exclusively non-Malawian, and the wares not really African, but what a Westerner might imagine African pottery to look like.  I wasn’t terribly thrilled with the selection.  After checking out the showrooms, we had lunch at the restaurant.  The food was decent but overpriced by Malawian standards.  (Since the only Malawians present were servers, though, I guess Malawian prices don’t matter much.)  The patio where we were seated was also occupied by a group of Peace Corps volunteers.  I’m sure the PCVs are lovely people and doing good work in their villages, but I only seem to run into them in (loud, characteristically American) groups and can’t help but be annoyed.  Who needs to consume three glasses of wine at lunch on Sunday?  Apparently, American PCVs.

Full after lunch and eager to get to our tour, we skipped out on the cheesecake.  Perhaps this was a mistake, but since Malawian dairy products have done nothing but disappoint since my arrival, I wasn’t too eager to part with my 500 kwacha for a slice.  The tour was definitely the highlight of the visit (and a better use of my 500 kwacha).  Since we paid for the tour, I felt completely justified in asking 7000 questions, and I did.  I learned that all the clay and minerals used in the pottery come from Dedza district, and saw the sheds where they are dried, stored, and eventually mixed to make clay.  Most of the pottery at Dedza is molded, though apparently some of it is thrown.  One artist demonstrated throwing a pitcher for us, though what he was working on when we arrived looked more like resistors for electrical lines.  The most creative work definitely occurs in the figurine department, where artists are allowed (and sometimes comissioned) to make original designs.  There were only two artists working on Sunday, but both were very talented.  (Both were also wearing NY Yankees hats, but when I teased them about it, didn’t really get the joke.)

Most real Malawian trucks have more people in the back - but Im glad the artist is making an attempt at realism!

Most real Malawian trucks have more people in the back - but I'm glad the artist is making an attempt at realism!

Bisque-fired pottery, which our tour guide referred to as biscuit fired

Bisque-fired pottery, which our tour guide referred to as "biscuit fired"

The pottery making process was explained from beginning to end; we also saw the glazing department and finally the kilns.  Since I had a Ceramics class in high school, I was familiar with the process, but still found the tour really interesting.  (And oddly familiar, as it mirrored most of the high school process – down to the aged and potentially malfunctioning kilns.)  I did my tourist duty and ended up buying a mug as a souvenir, as well as some cool batik cards.

If you are a random person contemplating a trip to Dedza (as opposed to one of my loyal blog readers), here’s my assessment:  the pottery is overpriced and kitschy, but the process is really interesting.  I highly recommend the tour.  (It costs $5 per group plus $1 per person.)  Others would highly recommend the cheesecake – I wouldn’t know.  Though Dedza Pottery made for a nice afternoon, if you’re looking for “real” African art, you might want to look elsewhere.

There are also supposedly rock paintings in the Dedza area, but they are difficult to find without a guide and we were a little anxious about how The Dude was doing at home (since it was only his second day at our house).  Before departing, we did stop at another art shop that specializes in paper recycling.  I got a few Christmas cards and was able to get a price reduction without much haggling.  We also drove through Dedza town, which was larger than I expected but looked much like other Malawian towns.  There are many fruit and vegetable stands along the M1, so we stopped on our way back to buy some masuku (a tree fruit with brown skin and sort of bitter fruit) and a similar green fruit (not sure what it’s called) that tastes better.  We were back in Lilongwe before dark and happily discovered The Dude still chilling on the patio.  All in all, not bad for a sleepy Malawi Sunday.

The Dedza Pottery showroom

The Dedza Pottery showroom

Puppy post

November 10, 2008

In a further imitation of my favorite president-elect, my housemate and I got a puppy this weekend. It wasn’t really in the plan; we had idly discussed getting a guard dog and were hoping that a friend’s dogs might have puppies soon. On the way back from the market on Saturday, however, everything changed.

On the way to the market, we had seen some puppies for sale by the side of the road. A collective, high-pitched awh arose from the car, but we continued onward. On our return trip, one puppy (and a few kittens) remained. A brief conference was held: Should we stop? Well, we’re here, so we might as well. But we’re not buying a puppy, just looking.  Just looking!  (That was my housemate. I had no such expectations.)

The sellers assured us it was a good dog and showed us its ears and teeth. We inquired into their days of business, vaguely remembering that we weren’t planning to come home with a dog, and the price dropped as we began to hesitate. Then the dog curled up at my housemate’s feet and he was sold. Money exchanged hands, and the puppy was quickly packed into a box and shuffled into the car.

Though he spent the car ride trying to climb out of the box, once at the house, the puppy settled into a long sleep – so long, in fact, we were afraid something was wrong with him. We gave him a bath, and he went to sleep again. Only after we brought out the food could The Dude (as he had been named) be bothered to wake. Subsequent playtime suggested that our worries were somewhat unfounded. The Dude bounded across the yard.

Since we’ve only had The Dude for two days (and were gone much of yesterday), it’s a little difficult to judge his adjustment. He’s young; the sellers told us 3 months, but I’d guess he’s closer to 5 or 6 weeks. He’s a bit of a whiner when he’s tired, and has a penchant for chewing on toes, pant legs, and shoes. (These habits will have to be eradicated sooner rather than later.) He only barks in his sleep, and he likes to be snuggle up to people if he’s not busy sniffing other things.

My housemate has never had a dog, and anyone who knows Libby (my parents’ dog at home) knows how well my previous training efforts have worked out, so if you know anything about doggie discipline, contact me now.  Or, for now, just revel in The Dude’s cuteness:

Proud to be an American

November 6, 2008

Yesterday I promised not to write about the election anymore.  I lied.

In the last 36 hours I have witnessed from abroad something truly astounding: genuine feelings of pride and patriotism among my American peers. Perhaps because I’m not in the US and because the NYT online didn’t really ooze palpable excitement building up to election day, the outpouring of joy and hope among Obama supporters came as a bit of a surprise to me. Of course I knew Obama had a big following among voters my age and of course I knew this election was historic – but I didn’t realize the magnitude of either of these until after the election was called in Obama’s favor.

The aftermath included wild parties in the streets of DC (so I hear), normally subdued friends sobbing, and a wealth of facebook status messages (for better or worse, a way to gauge friends’ attitudes from halfway across the globe) that included thoughts like: yes we can!; I am awed by witnessing the most significant historical moment of my lifetime; I am proud to be an American; I am excited that someday my kids will grow up believing that a black president is just another natural manifestation of the American Dream. These are not sentiments I have heard any of my friends previously profess, at least not publicly.

True, my friends are probably more liberal and more politically active than a representative sampling of Americans 18-30, but I have never witnessed such an open display of pride-in-country. Perhaps this is because we haven’t had a lot to be proud of in the past eight years – the years in which many of us were coming of (political) age – or perhaps this is because so many young people were integral to this campaign – but to see the result is really awe-inspiring. And I realize, upon further reflection, that I’m proud to be an American, too. Though I was not initially a huge Obama supporter, I’m proud to be from a place where this sort of rags-to Harvard-to-riches story can come true.

Whatever one’s political leanings, I hope we can all be proud that in 2008, in America, an African-American can be elected to the highest office in the land. It’s amazing that in a generation, African Americans have gone from being bombed in Birmingham, beaten on the bridge in Selma, and hanged as strange fruit in Southern trees to garnering the votes and trust of millions of Americans – even in former Confederate states. (This is not to say that I think equality or a post-racist society has been achieved, but that progress marches on – and maybe we are marching a little faster.)

Conservatives, fear not: the country is not about to become a socialist regime of liberal hippies. While Obama’s election could be perceived as a national ideological move to the left, the outcomes of various ballot initiatives reveal ideologies moving, well, all over the place. Ballot measures prohibiting gay marriage passed in California (true blue California!), Arizona, and Florida. A ban on gay adoption passed in Arkansas. Nebraska banned affirmative action, and Colorado may have done the same (the results have not yet been released). On the other hand, two proposals (in Colorado and South Dakota) that would have severely limited (read: practically eliminated) a woman’s right to an abortion failed, and Massachusetts rejected a measure to eliminate the state income tax. And so, what direction is the country moving? Hopefully, forward.

If Obama can turn hope into action, if he really can get Americans on both sides of the aisle to cooperate and work together (because let’s face it – we have a lot of work to do), I will be highly impressed. And the feeling that maybe, just maybe, he’s serious about doing that makes me believe that we have picked the right man for the job…even for a job as difficult as uniting the nation in this time of uncertainty.

Though I wish I could have been on U Street at 11 PM Tuesday night, it has been really interesting witnessing this historic election from Africa.  Since I arrived, people have been asking me if I voted, who I voted for, and if I thought Obama could win.  (My answer to the last question was always, “I hope so, but who knows what might happen.”)  It seems like most people were following the outcome of the election, but not really the drama of the campaign season itself.

Since Obama’s victory 36 hours ago, however, popular support for him here has exploded.  Everyone is talking about the election, and it’s all over the newspapers and radio as well.  (And it’s not just Malawi – a friend of mine chronicled election night in South Africa and told a story similar to the one I’ve witnessed here.) Reactions range from full-out jubilation to qualified optimism, and target both what Obama as President and Obama as symbol mean for Africa.  Nationally, campaigning has already begun for Malawian elections in May, prompting comparisons between election possibilities and processes.

There’s a real sense that Obama’s ascension in the US indicates similar ascensions are possible in Africa. One article reads:

“Gone are the days when young people of Africa will emulate the oppressive styles of educated leaders like Robert Mugabe and Ngwazi Kamuzu Banda. Gone are the days when shameless professors are admired for practising naked opportunism in order to feed themselves from the misfortunes of the oppressed masses in Africa.”

There’s no real factual support for this argument; Mugabe is still clinging to power, Malawian presidents post-Banda have been less oppressive, but not particularly democratic, and I might argue that the development machine still feeds itself on Africa’s misfortunes – but it draws on Obama as a symbol of a new political era, one that Malawians hope to capitalize upon.  Another news story in today’s paper suggests that a Malawian presidential hopeful may be able to “pull an Obama,” and overcome his minority status (as a Northerner – Malawi has never had a president from the North) to win a national election. (Funny that to pull an Obama in Malawi has nothing to do with race at all, given that they identify with him due to his African heritage.) Another article covers the US Ambassador’s reaction to the election, and encourages Malawians to emulate the US in terms of political participation and voting rates. It also suggests that civil society must play a greater role here in ensuring free and democratic elections; from what I understand, voter harassment regulations are not particularly well-enforced. (Fun discrepancies in Malawian journalism: this story basically covers the same topics but the quotes make the US Ambassador sound much more bumbling.)

Malawians are also optimistic about what American democracy headed by Obama may mean for foreign policy in Africa.  A Malawian grad student friend emailed me, “It seems like Obamania is all over.  Friends keep on emailing about him.  Local radio stations are talking about Him.  I think there are high expectations about him…many people expect that it means more aid to Africa, end to wars, and all that…”  [Ed. note:  yes, the second “him” was capitalized, as if Obama were Jesus.]  My friend then went to explain that he is more cautiously optimistic about the situation; Obama is just one man.  But this caution is not particularly widespread.

Voice of America has African assessments of the US election from several countries, including Malawi. Unsurprisingly, the expectation vocalized most frequently is that Obama will increase the aid packages offered to African countries.  This is true of the expectations included from other countries, also – Africans want American assistance for African problems.  (This, I think, is the key problem in the development machine – but that is a post for another time.) An article from South Africa further details what Obama may mean to the continent in terms of inspiration and foreign aid, but more interesting than the article are the comments that follow, which illustrate a wide range of African opinions on the responsibility of the US to deliver aid and assistance to this continent.

Despite these expectations of increased aid under Obama, Bush’s foreign policy in Africa has been surprisingly decent (in comparison to his other foibles, at least, though some of the funding was tied to impractical stipulations and ineffective strategies).  Thoughts on Darfur aside, his presidency devoted increased resources to AIDS prevention/relief and developed the Millennium Challenge Corp, which provides funding for countries adhering to certain democratic and economic principles.  In my opinion, Obama’s policies on Africa are not likely to change significantly from Bush’s, both because current strategies are the result of a bipartisan consensus developed under Clinton and expanded by Bush, and because the financial crisis and crumbling American infrastructure indicate that budgetary belt-tightening will be needed. I’ve tried to warn my African friends that foreign aid is likely one of the first things cut in times of budgetary crisis. In fact, a project previously funded by USAID at my housemate’s workplace was not renewed for next year, resulting in job loss for about half the organization’s staff. I’m guessing that this is not the first nor the last foreign aid casualty of the global economic crisis.

As an American living in Africa, I feel pulled in both directions. A significant loss of foreign aid will cripple the Malawian government. Rising global commodity prices are magnified here, where most everything must be produced internally or imported overland, using tremendous quantities of fossil fuels in the process. The rise in food prices has far outpaced production and income increases, and most farmers here are net consumers of maize (the staple crop). I wouldn’t say that a food crisis is pending, but the possibility certainly looms…made all the more likely by Malawi’s heavy dependence on rain-fed agriculture and maize-centered production. I feel sympathy for the plight of impoverished Malawians, but at the same time, as a tax-paying American, I want my tax dollars to be used to benefit…me. I want decent, affordable health care and bridges on I-35 that don’t collapse. I want good schools, universal pre-K, affordable student loans, and funding for scientific research that will secure America’s future as a technological leader. I want the economy to be strong enough that I can get a job when I return to the US. I want Medicare someday. In short, I agree that if belts need to be tightened, the US government should be, first and foremost, accountable to the American people. (This also means stopping wasteful spending in Iraq – and withdrawing when we can – and not subsidizing the poor business decisions of investment banks.)

Perhaps I would feel differently if I had some concrete evidence that pumping more aid into Africa in general, or Malawi in particular, would have any sort of appreciable long-term impact. But, as I responded to my Malawian friend’s email on Obamania:

Is more aid to Africa really the pathway to better lives here? Do you think Africa makes good use of the aid it gets now? Why hasn’t development aid led to “development”?

These questions and more, next time on Amy in Malawi.

GObama, and less exciting news from Lilongwe

November 5, 2008

And to all those who have wondered if America’s beacon still burns as bright: Tonight we proved once more that the true strength of our nation comes not from the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth, but from the enduring power of our ideals: democracy, liberty, opportunity and unyielding hope.
-Obama Victory Speech, 11-4-08

I woke up shortly after 6 AM, checked CNN and the NYT, and found that the election had just been called for Barack Obama. There was actually an all-night ex-pat party at a bar in Lilongwe, but I (obviously) did not go. I didn’t anticipate that the result would be called until a little later, but was awake to witness the end of the McCain concession speech and some of Obama’s victory address (both in 3-second spurts). My internet is speedy for Africa, but marginal in terms of being able to stream videos – so I read the transcripts later.

In other news (and then we won’t have to talk about politics any more, I promise), I am now from a blue county in a blue state, which is pretty exciting. Unfortunately, I’m from a very red Congressional district that reelected a racist bigot for a fourth term. Go, IA-5. Steve King, I hope you can continue to be newsworthy only by spewing hateful epithets and embarrassing your constituents.

It’s thundering outside in Lilongwe, a sure sign that the rainy season is on its way.  Updates may become more intermittent as the rainy season makes electricity outages much more frequent.  Otherwise, life is pretty quiet around here.  This morning I went with my (potential) car to the mechanic, where he declared it a “good car,” and then went on to detail its potentially expensive flaws.  He’s going to write up an estimate for me and get it to me tomorrow, at which point I shall begin negotiating the asking price significantly downward.

On the “but aren’t you supposed to be doing research?” front, I’ve made some good contacts this week and scheduled more meetings with NGOs; suddenly, on Monday, Malawians started to respond to my emails.  A friend suggested that this might be because  they have paid their internet bills, as this is the beginning of the month.  At any rate, I am slowly but surely making progress.

As I’ve determined that it will take time to make all the appropriate contacts for my work on crop diversification, I’ve started a few other projects to occupy my time.  I’m working on an article on Malawi’s fertilizer subsidies and struggling to find accurate figures about the portion of the national budget devoted to this particular program.  I’m also reviewing the literature on farmer decision-making in Malawi, and mentally working up a tome on the ways in which the mathematical models generally used fail to account for social phenomena that are the base of agricultural viability here.

Finally, I’m still seeking cabbage recipes:  I made some coleslaw (which didn’t turn out half bad, actually), but still have 2/3 of a cabbage remaining.  Any fantastic ideas?