Archive for January, 2009

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January 29, 2009

AmyinMalawi is, well, back in Malawi.  After a glorious South African holiday, I touched down in Lilongwe early this afternoon.  I asked my taxi driver if anything exciting had happened in my absence.  “Nothing at all,” he laughed.  It’s still rainy, still hot, still Malawi.

Though I intend to post a more thorough report of my travels over the weekend, I thought I would give you a few teasers now.  In the past two weeks, I have:  chilled with big game, visited a traditional Zulu village, dipped my feet in the Indian Ocean, took in my fair share of South African history, had a taste of the Cape’s wine country, and stood at the very tip of the African continent.  I watched Obama’s inauguration from an Irish pub in Cape Town, ate lots of good food, and thoroughly enjoyed the company of Elizabeth, a Cornell/DC friend and my travel companion.

I also enjoyed the little luxuries of the developed world that aren’t available in Malawi:  flush toilets everywhere, showers with water pressure and stable temperatures, multi-lane paved roads without crater-like potholes, cheap groceries, the cheese aisle, Thai food, and washers and dryers.  (I seriously miss doing my own laundry, mostly because I am picky.)  While Elizabeth was busy trying to find souvenirs that looked “African,” I was busy buying up Western things I want but can’t get in Malawi.  On my return, my suitcase was packed to the gills with a printer, several articles of new clothing, a few groceries (including blueberry jam and, yes, cheese), and art supplies.

Stories will follow, but for now I’ll leave you with some photos:

Zebras in the wild

How much fun IS a barrel of monkeys, anyway?

How much fun IS a barrel of monkeys, anyway?

Hello, Indian Ocean!

Hello, Indian Ocean!

Travel companion Elizabeth and me on Robben Island

Travel companion Elizabeth and me on Robben Island

African Penguins

African Penguins

At the tip of Africa

At the tip of Africa

A beautiful view of the Cape peninsula

A beautiful view of the Cape peninsula

The po-po

January 15, 2009

I have had more encounters with police in the four months I’ve been in Malawi than in my entire life in the United States.  Though vaguely aware of this trend, it didn’t really strike me until I spent the last two days driving around the country.  Within a three hour radius of Lilongwe, I went through no fewer than eight police barriers and was stopped at additional checkpoints no fewer than three times.  Now, Mom, before you get worried, none of these stops were because of or resulted in violations.

Perhaps because there are so few police cars in this country, a favorite police trick is the routine traffic stop.  The instruction manual must go something like this:  Gather five cops.  Outfit them in neon vests.  Dump them on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere without a car.  Have one cop stand in the middle of the road and wave ambiguously at oncoming traffic.  Question each car that interprets the wave as a signal to stop.  Check license, registration, lights, wipers, etc., at will.  Under no circumstance may more than one cop inhabit the roadway at one time.   Despite traffic buildup, the other four cops must remain on the side of the road.

There are semi-permanent police barriers at regular intervals along the M1, the main North-South highway in Malawi.  Made of weighted 55-gallon drums and hinged “arms” that go across the highway, these barriers are either open – in which case, one just slows down – or closed.  If closed, one must wait for the police to come out of their little tin shack to open the barrier (good luck if it’s raining), but these barriers rarely involve any sort of extended questioning, at least if one is in a sedan.  Minibuses and matolas piled high with people and belongings are prone to greater scrutiny.  In cases of random traffic stops, however, the tables are turned:  nicer cars are targeted far more frequently than the rickety hunks of metal, presumably because nicer cars are more able to pay for any violations incurred.  (Disclaimer:  this is based on anecdotal rather than statistical evidence.)  Speed traps often let minibuses roll on through, but heaven help you if you’re speeding in a shiny Toyota truck with an NGO logo on the side.

I am pleased to report that I’ve only been stopped once for actually doing something wrong, and it was because I wasn’t wearing my seatbelt.   Honestly, I do almost always wear it, but I had just pulled out of a parking lot in a hurry to get away from some very persistent fruit sellers.  Anyway, 100 meters later, bam – I was waved down.  Another of Malawi’s legal oddities is that while one may pay speeding tickets on the spot (another incentive for stopping the cars that can pay – these are police in the middle of nowhere, remember?), paying a seatbelt ticket  requires a trip to the police station.  Since I didn’t know where the police station was, and since Malawians are reluctant to give adequate instructions to ensure the completion of a task, the policewoman let me go after I asked about 15 questions about what I had to do next.  Maybe being an ignorant expat does have some advantages, after all.

I imagine that the ratio of police : citizens must be a requirement of some of the “good governance” money that Malawi gets, given the sheer number of them on the road.  And perhaps building a large police force – even if they are completely ineffective against things like actual crimes – is a sound method for job creation.  But the combination of not many paved roads and relatively low traffic volume + lots of bored police = frequent stops, even for (relatively) innocent drivers like me.

Merry Christmas to me!

January 15, 2009

Christmas has come to Malawi, albeit somewhat late. I received two packages in the mail today, both full of beautifully wrapped presents.

No worse for the trans-Atlantic trip

No worse for the trans-Atlantic trip

The first package was from my mom and I was quite impressed with the sheer quantity of items she managed to pack into the flat rate priority mail box.  My package contained:  a travel Scrabble game, an array of granola bars, Earl Grey tea, four candy canes, two puzzle books, a toothbrush (just like in my stocking), a Mad Libs game and stuffed snowman (from my aunt), several different herbs and spices (including rosemary, garlic powder, cumin, and chives), a pack of cards, lots of dried apples, and a 2009 planner.  There was also a hefty block of fudge, which did not survive two months of darkness without a little mold growth, but I salvaged most of it.

Glee!

Glee!

The second package, from my friend Marc (of Seraphemera Books) was full of…books.  All individually wrapped in shiny red paper, the 14 books are an eclectic assortment ranging from serious (Toni Morrison, Cormac McCarthy) to classic (Charlotte’s Web, Far Side) to downright silly.  My friend Nate is currently performing dramatic readings from a book entitled Very Bad Poetry.

Books!

Books!

The best Mad Libs sentence so far came from a meeting of “The Christmas Pageant” and current events:  We decorate Washington DC with snow-Obamas and red and green Bidens. Indeed.  All in all, a lovely – if somewhat belated – Christmas.

Aftermath

Aftermath

The hungry season

January 11, 2009

I saw something amazing today:  a fast walking Malawian.  In my experience, Malawians have two speeds of pedestrian transportation, a slow walk and a quick jog.  There is, however, no fast-paced walking.  When exploring my neighborhood by foot, I frequently overtake and pass several Malawians.  Let it be stated for the record that I am 5’2” and have disproportionately short legs.  But I don’t believe in moseying along, especially when the hot sun is beating down and/or the clouds have opened to release a swift and torrential downpour.  Malawians, on the other hand, aren’t particularly bothered by either of these conditions.  As one of my interviewees told me this week, there is no such thing as “hurry” in Africa.

Imagine my surprise, then, when on my way home from the grocery store this morning, a woman walking ahead of me was actually walking as fast as I was!  I didn’t have to gauge the best place to pass her (the path ranges from very wide to a single lane), I didn’t have to determine if some sort of greeting was appropriate, and I didn’t have to feel like the awkward, fast-moving Westerner.  I don’t know who she was or where she was going, I don’t know if something was wrong or if she, too, is just a fast walker.  It reminded me, again, that though the patterns of life here are now familiar, Malawi still doesn’t feel like home.

Of course, this manifests itself in more obvious ways as well.  We’re into the “hungry season” here in Malawi, when farmers have planted their fields but don’t yet have a crop and when the maize and cash from last season have likely run out.  This is exacerbated by  faulty government crop estimates and/or maize distribution issues, and there are entire villages and towns here that are currently without any maize stocks.  When I was in Balaka on New Year’s Day, an American woman told us, “There is no food here.  The ADMARC depot is empty, and everyone is hungry.”  While I’m not sure if this particular situation has been resolved, it is a familiar story throughout the country.

I’m not a regular nsima consumer, so a shortage of maize meal doesn’t affect me directly.  I have noticed, however, an increase in the number of people who ask me for jobs, for handouts, and for “just 1000 kwacha, ma’am.”  Most of them start out polite, but become increasingly aggressive as I refuse to give them money.  (And, despite my fairly well-developed sense of white person guilt, I almost always refuse to give them money.)  It also becomes harder to gauge everyday interactions with strangers:  an American friend of mine recently thought he had made a new Malawian friend, only to be asked for money at the end of an hour-long interaction.  He did give the man a 1000 kwacha, only to be told that was not enough.  While I know all about the state of the economy here, I often can’t help but think if these otherwise able-bodied Malawians put half as much time and energy into perfecting another skill as they do into begging, they might be a lot better off.  It will be interesting to observe changing behavioral patterns as the season progresses.

On a technical note, my friend Elizabeth arrives from DC (via Joburg) later this afternoon, and we leave for South Africa on Thursday.  I’ll update as I can, but depending on internet access, blog activity may be sparse for the rest of January.  Stay tuned!

Cake fail

January 10, 2009

AmyinMalawi again apologizes for the lack of updates this week.

Chalk it up the fact that I actually spent most of the week running around to various offices, administering surveys, and interviewing information sources.  Though my week was fairly busy, it wasn’t terribly interesting for you, the reader, so let’s talk about another culinary adventure.

Today is my birthday.  Since my mom is too far away to bake a cake for me, I decided to make one myself.  I enlisted the assistance of Nate, a friend visiting Malawi for a week, in this endeavor.  Armed with only metric measuring instruments and recipes in need of modification, we produced a cake that, well, will probably taste okay.  But if it were in a beauty pageant, it would probably win the best personality award.

The problem, really, was not the cake.  (That is chocolate, reasonably moist, and if morsels prove accurate, pretty tasty.)  It wasn’t even the fact that we had to perform minor surgery to transfer the cake to the plate (oops),  or that we made up the filling as we went along (caramel, coconut, and pecans – it’s like an inside out German chocolate cake).  The problem was the frosting.  I was unable to obtain confectioners’ sugar, and really couldn’t make fluffy frosting without a mixer to cream the butter.  Enter cooked frosting, which is basically like fudge but boiled for less time.  Note to the enterprising reader:  cooked frosting doesn’t really spread well on a layer cake.  The cake ended with a thick layer of fudge on the top – but only some artistic drips down the sides.  We shall call it: modern art.

Here I am, looking like a 4-H kid about to get a red ribbon:

Red ribbon cake!

Red ribbon cake!

Road trip to Zomba!

January 4, 2009

Amy in Malawi has returned from a trip to Zomba, in the southern region of Malawi.  I’ve been somewhat ill, so this post will be heavy on photos and light on text.

Shruthi, a fellow Fulbrighter in Zambia, arrived in Lilongwe early last week.  After a quick trip to the lake, we spent New Year’s Eve together and then headed south for Zomba on Thursday.  We were joined, at the last minute, by one of my housemates, who decided this would be an excellent opportunity to test out his 4-wheel drive car.  Though we ended up doing more driving and less hiking than we would have done with my sedan, it was quite an adventure!

Shruthi is very excited!

We had originally planned to leave fairly early Thursday morning, but due to the number of guests staying at our house (adopted from the hosts of the New Year’s party), didn’t leave until about 1 PM.  The trip was fairly uneventful for the first hour or so.  We were entertained by several prolific examples of Malawian transport stacking skills and enjoyed the mountainous countryside.

!

!

Around Dedza, it began to get cloudy.  As we drove through the mountains, Shruthi and I snapped photos of the approaching storm as it brewed over traditional Malawian villages.

Storms over Dedza

Storms over Dedza

A few hours later, we made a stop in Balaka, where we had heard that textiles (sold for absurd muzungu prices in Lilongwe) were made by the Chifungu Artisans Network.  After some wandering on dirt roads (none of which had signs), we made the fortunate mistake of asking for directions at a large, well-walled house – which turned out to be the house of the project’s director, Tamara.  Although the artists were off until the 5th, she happily agreed to show us the studio and open the shop.  She explained that the textiles are made using sadza painting, which uses a flour paste to produce a batik-style product.  The flour paste is applied first, then the paint, then the textiles are baked and the flour paste washed off (leaving nice white lines between the colors).  We all bought a few items and made it worth her time to open the shop for us!

We were still about an hour from Zomba and evening was fast approaching, so we said our goodbyes and headed further south.  We made it through Zomba town and up Zomba mountain just as it was getting dark.  Upon Tamara’s recommendation, we decided to stay at the Trout Farm, about 3/4 of the way up the mountain.  The accommodation they had left when we arrived was a cabin that slept 4 people, for 5000 kwacha (~$35 USD).  It was a bit rustic – no electricity, only cold water, a dead 6-inch trout stuck to the “kitchen” faucet, and a semi-functional toilet.  I got the impression that it used to be much nicer; we had a paraffin stove, for example, but no paraffin to make it work.  So, note to travelers in Malawi:  it’s cheap, and the view is spectacular, but be prepared to roll with the punches!  (I suppose if you’re in Malawi, you should be, anyway!)  Rusticness aside, we had a lovely balcony overlooking the trout farm and mountain vista, and we spent most of the daylight hours we were at the camp sitting outside.

Trout farm cabin

Trout farm cabin

For dinner, we made our way to the Kuchawe Inn.  Though one of the nicest hotels in Malawi by reputation, the food there was highly disappointing – my vegetable lasagna was little more than eggplant and carrots in pasta and cream.  Lots of cream.  I’m okay with a disappointing meal, but this was an EXPENSIVE disappointing meal, and I was again reminded of my mother’s edict:  “You wouldn’t ask to sleep in a kitchen, so why would you eat in a hotel?”  Alas, this was really the only food option on Zomba Mountain, so we went with it for the night.

We spent Friday exploring the Zomba Plateau by foot and by Pajero.  We began the morning with a hike around the Mulunguzi dam, which didn’t lead nearly as close to the waterfall as we had hoped.  There were, however, lots of monkeys!

Monkey!

Monkey!

The Zomba Plateau is a fairly well-developed tourist area for Malawi, which basically means that there are occasional signs telling you which way to turn for the waterfalls.  Though the trail network is robust, it is not well-maintained, and we definitely had some tense moments of giant puddles and impossibly steep and rocky slopes.  The fog came and went, but we were fortunate to see some excellent views – and then see them swallowed by the fog.  After getting lost and finding our way again, we made it down the mountain and into Zomba town.

A lovely vista about to be obscured by the fog

A lovely vista about to be obscured by the fog

Amy by Williams Falls

Amy by Williams Falls

Finding vegetarian food in Malawi is always an adventure, and this day was no different.  Shruthi is a strict vegetarian, but found something on the menu at Uncle Dan’s Cafe (a hole in the wall if ever there were one) that seemed edible:  a vegetable burger.  Perhaps we should have taken the hint from something on the menu called an “egg burger,” but it turned out that burger was here defined merely as something on a bun.  Sadly, the vegetable burger was a mayonnaise-based vegetable salad on a bun, with more of the same salad and chips on the side.  My vegetable rice dish (its proper name on the menu) was somewhat better, but one got the impression that the kitchen had to finish one dish before it could start on another:  I ordered last and my companions were finished eating long before my food even arrived.  But this is Malawi; I fail to be surprised.

After lunch, we wandered around Zomba town a bit, visited the grocery store and the market, drove by (and walked a bit in) the botanical gardens, and took in the architecture of the city.  Zomba was the capital of Malawi until the 1970s, and has a much grander (probably colonial) style than Lilongwe.  Built in a valley and the surrounding foothills, it is a very pretty city, far more pleasing than Lilongwe.

We returned to the Trout Farm in time for dinner; spaghetti, which we had ordered in the morning.  (It turned out the Trout Farm does have a cook and a limited menu, if one orders ahead of time.)  Again, a culinary adventure: yes, there was pasta; no, this did not resemble any spaghetti I’ve eaten before.  (Fortunately my Italian housemate was not with us.)  Salt and hot sauce helped the dish – oily pasta, eggplant, carrots, and green beans, with a side of gritty spinach – go down, but I was glad we had had a late lunch.  We watched moths and giant mosquitoes throw themselves into the candlelight over dinner – I’m not sure I’ve ever observed so vividly “moths to a flame” before – and then played a game of Koehandel, an excellent Dutch card game that translates to “cow trading.”

Exploring at the Trout Farm

Exploring at the Trout Farm

Saturday morning brought more exploring as we headed for a lookout point, Chingwe’s Hole, and the highest mountain (made obvious by the proliferation of cell phone towers at its peak).  The lookout point was obscured by the fog approximately 10 seconds after we arrived, and though we waited for almost an hour, it never lifted.  Chingwe’s Hole, nearby, was equally unimpressive.  As the name suggests, it is a hole – more of a crevice in the ground, really – that, according to local lore, was the graveyard for people infected with leprosy in “ancient times.”  (One of the crystal entrepreneurs at the site said “at least 100 years ago,” so I’m not sure what sort of timeframe the legend encompasses.)  The hole is said to be bottomless (though recent explorations have suggested a depth more like 20 meters) and connected through a cave to the Shire River, so during the rainy season the bodies would wash out from the hole and down the river.  Interesting story, but the hole is rather overgrown and not terribly exciting to see.  And no, I didn’t want to buy any crystals.

Chingwes Hole

Chingwe's Hole

The vista from the highest peak was similarly obscured by fog, so we made our way back down the mountain and stopped for coffee at a promising little place called Annie’s Fast Food Garden.  Our hopes were obviously set too high, however, and what the waitress assured us was real coffee was actually packets of instant Koffiehuis.  We decided to hold out for lunch until Liwonde, about an hour into the journey toward Lilongwe.

Of coffee and skepticism

Of coffee and skepticism

We stopped at Hippo View for lunch, and enjoyed the surroundings – it’s a nice hotel on the banks of the Shire River – but didn’t see any hippos.  This meal also may or may not have been a signficant contributing factor in my current gastrointestinal malaise.  After Liwonde, it was about 3 hours back to Lilongwe, and we again drove through rainstorms and muddy waterfalls flowing across the roads.  I can only imagine how much topsoil is lost with rainstorms like these, even in relatively flat farmlands.  Most of the nitrogen fertilizer here is top-dressed only, and there was an obvious difference between corn that was well-fertilized and corn that wasn’t, particularly in southern-most region where the growing season begins earlier.  Unfortunately, I didn’t get any good photos of this, but will leave you with this amusing clash of cultures:

Text speak meets the outhouse

Text speak meets the outhouse

Happy New Year!

January 1, 2009

Just a quick post to wish everyone a happy 2009! I spent my New Year’s Eve at a BBQ at the house of a lovely Dutch couple, and learned that the Dutch enjoy pyrotechnics at midnight. We had fireworks, sparklers, and a bonfire in grill.

Nothing says New Year's like flaming paper!

A fellow Fulbrighter from Zambia has arrived, and we’re off to do some hiking in southern Malawi. Expect a longer post on Sunday.