In which our intrepid hero sees the countryside and tries to be handy

This weekend was a busy one.  First, in response to the many people who have asked:  no, Malawi does not celebrate Halloween.  That does not mean, however, that the ex-pats in Malawi are also non-observers.  A Friday night outing revealed many American 20-somethings in full garb, ranging from the standard slutty-whatever (horns and pitchfork optional) to a guy dressed as a Catholic schoolgirl.  (To be honest, he looked more like a scandalous version of Laura Ingalls Wilder.  I told him he needed to roll his skirt.)  I wasn’t planning to go out, and thus was not costumed.

On Saturday, my housemate and I had an adventure:  we went to get furniture for our house.  Though the previous occupants left a few items, we have been living in relatively spartan conditions (exacerbated by the sudden removal of our couch by said previous occupant on Friday).  Now, plush furniture is very expensive here because most of it is imported.  Wicker furniture, on the other hand, is relatively cheap.  So, my housemate hired a truck for the afternoon.  It showed up 1 1/2 hours behind schedule, had only one functioning door and no functioning windows, and came not only with a driver but also with two other Malawian men along for the ride in the back.  We all piled in and went toward Salima, about an hour and half away.  Outside Salima, there are lots of wicker furniture dealers with wares ranging from full living room sets to miscellaneous bookshelves and tiny kid-sized chairs.  All are handmade and though they won’t last forever, both my housemate and I have a time horizon here, so we thought wicker to be a good option.  Suffice it to say that in a matter of two hours, we acquired living room furniture (two loveseats, two chairs, a coffee table, and two bookshelves), dining room furniture (a table and four chairs), and veranda furniture (two fainting couch-esque lounge chairs), all for about $200.  There was some bargaining involved, though prices (apparently) are not as inflated here as in some African countries.  We also found great amusement in watching the stack in the back of the truck grow higher and more complicated.

How many Malawians does it take to load a truck?

How many Malawians does it take to load a truck?

For better or for worse, child labor makes for cheap furniture

For better or for worse, child labor makes for cheap furniture



And the pile grew higher and higher...

And the pile grew higher and higher...

The ride was great, too, and I got some good photos of the countryside.  On the way back to Lilongwe, we stopped at an outdoor market and I purchased some tomatoes (7 cents each), a cabbage (35 cents), and some onions (70 cents).  I am currently looking for a decent cabbage slaw recipe – that is, one that doesn’t involve mayo – or other cabbage ideas.  The market was fairly large and contained a series of booths that were identical in every way except ownership.  I picked my vendors at random and tried to spread my purchases around a little.  I obviously didn’t spend a lot, but I guess every bit helps.  The produce looked pretty good, but I can’t imagine that they actually have a sales volume that allows them to sell everything before it spoils.  This supports my previous argument for small and mid-scale food processing.  Are you listening, donor agencies?

Maybe half of the stands at the outdoor market

Maybe half of the stands at the outdoor market

On Sunday, your intrepid hero tried to be handy and was 50 percent successful.  The housemate who bailed on us left behind his mosquito net, which I appropriated.  However, it’s a box net, not the more common (and portable) hoop style.  The intriguing thing is that it came with 4 hooks, 4 strings, and two long poles.  After failing to find any instructions for installing a box mosquito net online and some awkward attempts at getting the poles to balance against my bed, I decided to just put the hooks in the ceiling and hang the net from them.  I tried a variety of height-adding strategies before finally balancing a chair on my mattress and putting the whole thing up.  So far, so good.  Hopefully this will cut down on the nightly feast, which has left my feet looking quite leprous.

Feeling moderately empowered, I decided to take on my fan, which worked for one night before beginning to make a terrible and persistent grinding noise every time I turned it on.  Now, the fan came from our renting agent with a few other housewarming items, most of which are in some form of disrepair or don’t work at all.  I didn’t have high hopes in its value.  Still, in true Saltzman tradition, I got out my tools (okay, my Leatherman) and proceeded to dismantle the fan, managing to get completely dirty in the process.  Upon discovering that the fan’s internal copper coils were held together with bits of string and zip ties, I began to doubt my ability to fix the problem.  Indeed, though I identified the issue – the central shaft that turns the fan blades doesn’t turn – I couldn’t identify the cause.  I reassembled the pieces and told my housemate we could return it to the agent (that is, if she ever shows comes to, say, give us a contract).

Deciding I didn’t want to further damage my handiness record, I stopped there.  There are several things that need to be fixed (not the least of which is my shower, which produces barely a trickle of water), but I have a feeling I should let someone else do the fixing…if that someone ever shows up.

My afternoon was spent doing regular afternoon things:  I went to the grocery store, where I was delighted to find (and purchase) cheese.  Though all milk products are relatively expensive here, cheese is among the most pricey and difficult to find.  I got a small bit of gouda for over $3, but I’m not sure that is is gouda.  What does gouda taste like?  This seems very similar to Velveeta, which makes me suspicious.  Still, it will make my omelets much tastier, and my cheese snobbery is far surpassed by my desire for the combination of salty and creamy.

I also went to the ATM, which refused to give me any money.  I’m not sure if it was out of cash or if my card wasn’t working properly.  I suspect it was the former, as it read my card, asked for my PIN and the amount I wanted to withdraw, and then gave me an error message.  I had been warned that this may happen in Malawi, but this is the first time I experienced it.  Luckily, I still had some cash, so I will try again tomorrow.  As they say, TIA:  This is Africa.

In other news, I am delighted to report that my friend Elizabeth will be coming for a visit in January, so I won’t have to spend my birthday sad and alone.  (And so we can see lots of exciting things!)  I’m waiting for some of you other readers to decide it’s time for an Africa vacation, too!  But, if you can’t come to Africa, it’s possible that we can talk via Skype.  I have signed up for an unlimited plan at a fixed rate, which gives me a US number you can call (it’s a 202 number) or I can call you – email or comment for further details.  Finally, even I know Canada’s PM is Stephen Harper – and I can’t see the country from my window.  Ready for the election to be over?


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One Response to “In which our intrepid hero sees the countryside and tries to be handy”

  1. Rachel Says:

    YES I am so ready for the election to be over. If I have to hear one more Al Franken or Norm Coleman ad, I think I’m going to pull my hair out. Anyways, I so wish I could adventure to Africa. It is so odd that your trip coincides with my literary trip (through my selected literature for my class) to Africa. So…if it is any consolation…my thoughts are with you when I’m reading.

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