Archive for May, 2009

This is only memory, no more

May 29, 2009

I missed Memorial Day.  I knew it was Monday, of course, and that my US friends were enjoying BBQs and long weekends and the beginning of summer.  That’s not what I mean.

I missed it because I missed the ritual – picking iris and peonies, piling family members into a car, and going to cemeteries.  Remembering our dead.   In my family, Memorial Day has never been so much about BBQs or a day off from work as it has been about remembering.  And because my family has lived in the same area for several generations now, there are a lot of cemeteries, and a lot to remember.  We go to a family cemetery, high on a Ringgold county hill.  The view is breathtaking, and all the stones bear a common last name.  We go to municipal cemeteries in all of the surrounding towns, laying flowers for great aunts and uncles and grandparents – mostly people who I never met, or don’t remember if I did.  And yet, it feels solemn and quiet and right.  It reminds me of a line from Adrienne Rich’s “Seven Skins”:

And this is only memory, no more/so this is how you remember

Last year was one of the first times I wasn’t home for Memorial Day.  (In most previous years, I have at least been passing through southwest Iowa at the end of May.)  Last year I was in DC, and though I thoroughly enjoyed my brunch in the park and long weekend, something was missing.  So I went to Arlington National Cemetery.  I took my camera, and I walked its paths, passing graves of many who died younger than I am now.  Even though it was Memorial Day weekend, things were surprisingly quiet; tourists go to see the Tomb of the Unknown Solider and the Kennedy graves, not the acres and acres of stones bearing the names of common men and women.

I’m not close to many people serving in the military, honestly – I have no close family members and only a few close friends in the service, most of whom are still safely on US soil.  I was surprised, then, to find how quiet and dignified and right to visit felt – to honor, if not my own dead, then my country’s.

Maira Kalman’s blog this month is about the military and Memorial Day, and it reminded me of what I’m thankful for and what I miss.  Though I’m not generally a fan of recent US military interventions, I do admire the brave people who have made and continue to make my own freedom possible, and the spouses who have one wall clock set to central time, and next to it,  a clock set to Iraq time.

And these lines of granite headstones and flags in the May afternoon still leave me a little unable to breathe.



What’s the capital of Africa?

May 28, 2009

When my friends here make fun of Americans, they refer to our geographical knowledge of “the country of Africa.”  It’s true that occasionally, when explaining to people that I was moving to Malawi, I had to explain that it is in Africa.  And I am also guilty of skipping the Malawi explanation altogether, and just saying I live in Africa – despite the continent’s great diversity of countries, climates, cultures, and cuisines.  But while I know that Sub-Saharan Africa is not Northern Africa, and I can identify most African countries on an unlabeled map, I still subconsciously believe a lot of it must be similar.  At least neighboring countries would be, right?  So I was surprised to discover HOW DIFFERENT Zambia is from Malawi.

To start, Zambia is a MUCH richer country than Malawi.  I was struck by this perception the first time I crossed the border into Chipata (literally a few kilometers from Malawi) last month, but I didn’t have time to fully develop my impressions until I spent a few days on a bus last week, criss-crossing the southern part of the country.  Despite a similar landscape to Malawi, there were notable differences:  Lusaka appeared to be a real city, complete with (a few) tall buildings, two Subways, a movie theatre (!), a official taxis.  On the outskirts of town, all sorts of industries flourished – concrete plants, Zambeef and sugar processing, etc.  Further down the road, even rural Zambia appeared more wealthy than rural Malawi does; more houses had tin roofs (rather than the thatch that is so prominent in Malawi) and maize fields seemed larger.  Rural towns were less dingy and more vibrant, and roads were (with some notable exceptions) in good repair.  It’s hard to describe, I guess, what makes a sub-Saharan African country appear “rich,” especially to my largely US-based audience, but it was an unexpectedly stark contrast.

Because Zambia has a couple million fewer people than Malawi in approximately seven times the land area, it is a much less densely populated country, and nowhere was this more obvious than on the road.  On Malawi’s main roads, you are almost never out of sight of bicyclists or pedestrians.  Even far off the “main” roads, people are everywhere.  In Zambia, we went miles without seeing anyone – on the highway.  There are actually trees in Zambia, too, and much (presumably arrable) land lies fallow.  In contrast, Malawi struggles with rampant deforestation, and most land than can be farmed is farmed.

After I came home, I did a little investigation – is Zambia richer than Malawi?  The answer is yes – by far.  Zambia’s GDP per capita is about $1500, while Malawi’s is $800.  Zambia’s economy has been humming along in recent years, due largely to its copper mining industry.  Malawi, on the other hand, has few mineral resources, and far fewer exports than Zambia.

And yet, despite the obvious visual cues that Zambia is a wealthier country, it faces many of the same struggles as Malawi.  Zambia barely outranks Malawi on the Human Development Index (and both are in the bottom 20).  Malawi actually has a lower infant mortality rate (89/1,000 live births) and AIDS rate (12%) than Zambia (101/1,000 and 15.2%, respectively).  Zambia has a higher literacy rate, but Malawi has a longer “school life expectancy.”  Both countries engage large proportions of their labor force in subsistence agriculture, which is highly vulnerable to natural distaster.  (All data in this paragraph came from the CIA World Factbook.)

Upon returning to Lilongwe, I sent my PCV friend in Zambia a message, saying things didn’t look so bad there.  She responded (via Facebook on her phone), “We still have a long way to go.”  And it seems – despite Subway sandwiches, shopping malls, and color-coded taxis – they do.

Victoria Falls (In the much-dreaded blow-by-blow format):

May 25, 2009

Since the last installment, our intrepid hero has:  flown Air Malawi (and survived), realized that Lusaka is a real city and that Zambia is significantly more wealthy than Malawi, seen one of the seven wonders of the world (from both land and sky), and eaten a Subway sandwich.  And, oh yeah, Malawi has a new president.

After spending a VERY quiet election night in Lilongwe on Tuesday (there was literally no one out and about), Jana and I headed to the airport at the crack of dawn on Wednesday.  Though I had been somewhat apprehensive about flying Air Malawi, it was actually a fairly pleasant experience.   The plane is a turbo prop from the 1970s, and to get to Lusaka, one must first land in Blantyre (Malawi’s other big city), but at least we got snacks!

In case it wasnt self explanatory

In case it wasn't self explanatory

We landed in Lusaka around 11 and got a taxi to the bus station.  I was amazed to discover that in Zambia, taxis are actually a standard color (sky blue) and registered with the government.  This is a significant departure from Malawi, where a taxi is a dude with a car, who may or may not be sober and working (not mutually exclusive) when you need for a ride.  With only a minor amount of heckling, we got tickets for a noon bus departing for Livingstone, the town nearest Victoria Falls on the Zambia side.  The seven hour bus ride was long, bumpy, and a little nauseating, but we made it.  We hopped in a taxi with another guy heading to the same hostel.  We later discovered that he was previously an Engineers Without Borders volunteer in Malawi, back from Canada on a visit, and that he was planning to come to a Saturday goodbye BBQ at my house for a mutual friend.  It’s a small world!

Thursday morning was another early wake-up, as we were scheduled to be picked up for our microlight flights over Victoria Falls at 7 AM.  Once at the landing site, we donned marshmallow man suits and waited for our turn.  Of course, photos followed:

Suited up

Suited up

The flight was only 15 minutes, and cameras weren’t allowed, but it was amazing.  Starting upriver from the falls, we were able to take in the national park and wildlife before getting a panoramic view of the falls.  Since the water level is still pretty high (the rainy season having just passed), it’s hard to see the falls from the ground – but from the air was perfect!  Jana and I both gave it our cheapskate seal of approval:  expensive, but totally worth it.  The weather was great, the pilots competent, and the view indescribable.

The microlight:  very little between you and imminent death

The microlight

After the flights, we headed back to Livingstone, had breakfast, and caught our hostel’s free shuttle to the national park that surrounds the falls.  The spray rises above the falls and is visible from quite a distance; it also obscures the view from the many lookout points surrounding the falls.


Spray on the left, falls on the right

Once inside the park, we took the path along the Eastern Cataract, which goes closest to the falls.  We scoffed a bit at the raincoat rental station (“how bad can it be?”) but forked over our Zambian kwacha to be outfitted with ponchos.  This turned out to be a good decision.  The spray was torrential, such that in most places, we couldn’t even see the falls.  This was one of the clearer lookout points, and captures the sheer amount of water pretty well:


(Photo courtesy of Jana)

We got moderately wet even under the ponchos, so took another trail to dry out.  Though further from the falls, we got some spectacular views – again, note the mist!


Water everywhere!

After this, we decided to trek down to the boiling pot – where all the water from the falls swirls as it makes its way down the Zambezi.  I am wary of paths that provide a number for both distance and elevation change, but it turned out to be a fun little hike.  Toward the bottom, we had to take off our shoes and wade through some water.  An informal (read: illegal) guide appeared to help us over the rocks.  We probably could have made it without him, but this gave me an opportunity to chat about nshima (the Zambian version of nsima) and dietary diversification in Zambia.  Once we made it to the boiling pot, Jana’s feet hurt too much to go further – so we sat on a rock for the photo op.


After a rocky hike down!

I did a little more exploring, but the water was moving far too fast for swimming!  I also chatted up a Zambia Peace Corps Volunteer who was visiting the falls with her father, and just happened to know Mary Fuller, a new Zambia PCV from my hometown.  Another small world moment!


Near the swirling water

After hiking back to the top of the canyon, we spent some time at the curios market and then headed back to town.  Since it was only mid-afternoon, we took the opportunity to check out Livingstone proper, buy bus tickets, and snacks for our return trip.  I was also surprised to discover how much cheaper food is in Zambia.  Shoprite, a South African chain of grocery stores that is also present in Malawi, sold many familiar items for about half the Malawi price.  How did I end up in the most impoverished AND most expensive sub-Saharan country?

Around 4:30, we headed back towards the falls for a sunset drink at the Royal Livingstone Hotel.  It was quite a posh place, and we felt a little underdressed as we enjoyed our American-priced drinks!  The sunset was gorgeous, and reflected on the river as it flowed towards the falls.


Sunset on the Zambezi

Friday was largely a travel day.  We hopped on a 9 AM bus away from Livingstone and arrived in Lusaka around 4 PM.  Shockingly, at least compared to Lilongwe, Lusaka is a real city, with retail stores and a SUBWAY!  (The sandwich shop, not the underground train.)  I drug Jana to spend a few hours at a strip mall, where I perused a bookstore and, yes, ate a 6-inch Veggie Delite.  Then we were off to the airport and back to Lilongwe.  Though we probably should have gone to bed, we went to a farewell party for a few friends of mine.  The theme was “masks,” and it also doubled as an inauguration party as we passed around a Bingu mask.  Despite the hype about a close election, Bingu, the incumbent, won by a landslide and was inaugurated on Friday.  (For once, government efficiency?)


Thumbs up for Bingu

Saturday was spent exploring Lilongwe and preparing for a braai (BBQ) at my house; I was hostess for my friend Anna’s farewell party.  It all went off without a hitch, but I didn’t take any photos.  On Sunday, Jana and I had spent a few hours walking around Old Town and listening to Malawian church services (from the street) before I took her to the airport.  She is currently still en route to the US, but I think should be arriving soon.  It was a whirlwind of a week, but a lot of fun!

One of many Vic Falls rainbows

One of many Vic Falls rainbows

Elephants and Elections

May 19, 2009

Today is Election Day in Malawi.  Though there is continuing speculation about the outcome, voting has been peaceful thus far.  There seemed to be a larger-than-usual number of people on the roads today, and lines at polling stations were long.  Malawi is expecting a record turnout, made only larger by the current President’s last-minute decision to make today a national holiday.  (Will this swing the vote?  Time will tell.)  Results aren’t expected for a few days, giving the expats plenty of time to continue to giggle at the Malawian pronunciation of “elections” and “election monitoring” – remember the tendency to switch Ls and Rs.  But while the country is waiting with bated breath, we will be…in Zambia.  Tomorrow we’re off to Victoria Falls.

Jana’s whirlwind tour of Malawi continued with a trip to the lake and a visit to Liwonde National park.  She declared Lake Malawi “very pretty,” and we spent some time in the sun.  We also learned just how skilled she is at applying sunscreen evenly.  (Suffice it to say she is better with her right hand than her left, and a bit stripey as a result.)

From the lake, we ventured to Liwonde National Park, along the Shire River.  Though Malawi has not been as successful at wildlife management as some of its neighbors (ehem – Zambia), the park is beautiful.  We were lucky to see many elephants on the morning game drive, and have the photos to prove it!

Elephants graze the Shire River Valley

Elephants graze the Shire River Valley

A bit wary of the elections, we headed back to Lilongwe by mid-day, only to find the city virtually shut down.  I have never seen so few cars on the roads here.  Even the usually-bustling crafts market was dismantled for the day!  Jana was amused, however, to see the many billboards that prominently feature the President’s face – like this one:

His Excellency, Bingu wa Mutharika

His Excellency, Bingu wa Mutharika

Next time:  Victoria Falls – really one of the Seven Wonders of the World?

Girls’ Forest Weekend

May 17, 2009

There is another Iowan in Malawi:  Jana, my brother‘s girlfriend, arrived on Saturday morning via Kenya Airways after a looooong flight from Iowa.  (She left Des Moines on Thursday evening.)  She came bearing gifts, including a much-coveted Cadbury creme egg and two (TWO) different types of tea.  Despite the seven-hour time difference, Jana took a shower and declared herself ready to see Malawi!  Though our schedule had been up in the air until the last minute, we decided to put my car to the test and  go for a little Ntchisi Forest adventure.  (For those of you keeping track at home, my car did survive, and has now officially been further off-road than most American SUVs.)  We picked up my friend Anna and headed off.

The trip takes about two hours – perhaps less if the car is not a sedan – and was full of the sights of Malawi.  On the main highway, we encountered the Gule Wamkulu, the Chewa secret society, who were apparently out in a display of support for John Tembo, the opposition party’s presidential candidate, as well as a large group of his supporters.  (Yes, ON the road.  They moved into the other lane for the car to pass.)  Once on the dirt road, we saw the normal array of bikes, goats, cattle, and small children waving vigorously and shouting, “azunguuuu!  azunguuuu!”   Shockingly, we also saw a ROAD GRADER, the first I have seen in Malawi.  He was working on a patch of road that had recently had a bridge repaired, I think, and was actually working on both Saturday and Sunday when we passed.  On the return trip, we rolled down the window and waved, and got a huge grin and a thumbs up in return.  With only a few scrapes of my car’s underside on the rocky and rutted road, we arrived at Ntchisi Forest Lodge in the mid-afternoon.  We had time to set up our tent and chill out for a while before going to Sunset Rock to, well, watch the sunset.

Amy and Jana

Amy and Jana pose on sunset rock

something here

The lovely Anna and the sunset

After a half-hearted game of South African Trivial Pursuit (no one could get the sports questions), we had a delicious 3-course dinner.  Once again, the meal lived up to its reputation as “the best food in Malawi.”  We had tea by the fire, gazed at the stars, played two games of Scrabble, and retired to our tent by 10.

On Sunday morning, we headed out on a hike through the rain forest.  As we are now coming into the dry season, the forest seemed a little less lush than  the last time I was in Ntchisi.  We stopped at one point to look out over the hills of Malawi:


Malawi's rolling hills


Trekking through the grasslands

We finished the rain forest loop fairly quickly, and decided we had a little more time before we needed to return for lunch.  We tried another path – the yellow trail.  Unfortunately, the map did not display topography, and we found ourselves going up and down very steep ravines.  Though this photo does not accurately capture the grade of the trail, suffice it to say that Jana is actually sliding all the way down in the position pictured here.


Going DOWNhill

After significant confusion about the map and which unmarked trail led back to the lodge, we made it:  just in time for a delicious lunch!  After, we packed up and headed out.  The return trip was relatively uneventful, though we did see another great Malawian roadside vendor – the mice-on-a-stick man.  We couldn’t convince Jana to try this Malawian delicacy; the mice are somehow flattened and cooked, fur and all, before being speared with their other mousey friends and waved at passing cars.

Jana and I have spent a quiet evening catching up on stuff here before our early morning departure for Liwonde National Park.  Expect hippos and elephants, as well as a report on the Malawian presidential elections, in the next post!


Bonus photo from the trail: Fun purple flower with bright green bugs

To my mom

May 11, 2009

Mother’s Day in Malawi is in October, but as I was putting together my cinnamon rolls for yesterday’s brunch, I was thinking of the best cooks I know:  my mom and grandmas.  My plans to post this later on Sunday went awry, so, somewhat belatedly:  Happy Mother’s Day to the leading ladies in my life, who taught me the value of family, food, and going fearlessly forward.  (They may wish they had toned down that last bit.)

Faithful blog reader

My mom: faithful email correspondent, purveyor of recipes and domestic skills, (always) indulgent of my love for reading, and responsible for my compulsion to separate lights and darks in the laundry (as well as many other peculiarities, I'm sure).

This Grandma

My Grandma: baker of the best angel food cake EVER, embroiderer extraordinaire, a ready and willing sharer of accumulated wisdom.

This one

My Grandma: has memorized more recipes than I will ever try, has a more active social life than I will ever have, and is always learning to do new things (like read my blog!).

They may not understand WHY I would want to do things like move to Malawi, but their support – despite distance and communication problems and my stubbornness – means the world to me.

(Okay, /sappy post.)

On the couch

My mom also taught me important life skills, like how to fall asleep in front of the TV.

Thursday tidbits

May 7, 2009

First, here is a photo of the lake flies, which refused to upload for yesterday’s post.

Smoke on the water

Smoke on the water

Second, and unrelated to Malawi, I have been reading the book Gilead.  Now, book selection here in Malawi is random at best.  Gilead is not a book on my “dying to read” list, but I found it at the used bookstore and decided that its Pulitzer Prize at least guaranteed that it wouldn’t be BAD.  Little did I know that it is set in Iowa, or that 1950s Iowa is, in some ways, quite similar to the present day.  Gilead, Iowa, is not a place that I have heard of – though if Google Maps is to be believed, it is, in fact, about 16 miles north (and one mile east) of my house.  Tabor occasionally makes an appearance, though, so  the fictional Gilead may be further southwest.  Funny to find a book about my home 8000 miles from it!

Gilead is a book of stories and anecdotes that an old man – a dying preacher – is leaving for his young son.  Though full of sage advice, my favorite parts discuss, succinctly, and with clarity, the function of church food.  See if these passages don’t ring true:

On a Ladies’ Home Journal article about God, which the Reverend reads long after it was published:

“We agreed it must have been fairly widely read in both our congregations, because on one page there’s a recipe for that molded salad of orange gelatin with stuffed green olives and shredded cabbage and anchovies that has dogged my ministerial life these last years, and which appears at his house whenever he so much as catches cold.  There should be a law to prevent recipes for molded salad from appearing within twenty pages of any article having to do with religion.”

On a meal, received after being ill:

“Since supper was three kinds of casserole with two kinds of fruit salad, with cake and pie for dessert, I gathered that my flock, who lambaste life’s problems with food items of just this kind, had heard an alarm.  There was even a bean salad, which to me looked distinctly Presbyterian, so anxiety had overspilled its denominational vessel.  You’d have thought I’d died.  We saved it for lunch.”

The book strikes me as one that my mother would enjoy more – or at least find more meaningful – than I, but I find it oddly comforting, quietly spiritual in the way that so many Midwesterners are.   Have any of you, dear readers, read it?  And we’ll end with a photo, mostly unrelated, except that I find it quiet and self-possessed in the same way as the book:


From the wedding - village children wait patiently

Weddings and road trips

May 6, 2009

This weekend, I attended my first Malawian wedding reception.  My housemate’s colleague was getting married in Nkhata Bay, about 6 hours north of Lilongwe, and invited him to bring a few guests to the event.  Since I haven’t yet had the opportunity to attend a wedding, I was eager to check it out.

Now, in Malawi, there is no such thing as wedding crashers.  All are welcome – particularly if you bring stacks of kwacha!  (But we’ll get to that in a minute.)  We didn’t attend the wedding ceremony, at the suggestion of another Malawian colleague who traveled with us, but got to the reception right as things were getting started (a few hours later than scheduled).  I found it a strange mix of Western and Malawian traditions.

Wedding guests await the arrival of the bride and groom

Wedding guests await the arrival of the bride and groom

The wedding LOOKED a lot like weddings with which I am familiar.  It took place outside at a (loosely defined) conference center along the beach, with lots of metal folding chairs and tents to shield guests from the sun.  There was seating space for “invited guests” and many more people – presumably the “uninvited guests” – gathered as the reception wore on, including about a billion kids from the nearby villages.

The bride and groom arrived in the back of a pickup, after several drives through the nearby town and neighborhood, horn blaring.  It was reminiscent of a parade, but with a “just married” poster instead of a “Adams County Pork Queen” one.

The happy couple arrives

The happy couple arrives

The radiant bride looked like any bride in the US, with a fancy and fabulous white dress and shellacked hairdo.  Though I don’t know anything about this dress in particular, there are several “wedding dress rental” businesses in Lilongwe, so I suspect the dress may have been a one-day rental rather than a permanent investment.  Sounds better than paying $2000 for a dress to me!  The bridesmaids had dresses of the same color, but vastly different styles – one looked like Belle in Beauty and the Beast and the other was a little cocktail number.  This wasn’t traditional Malawian dress, though:  this was thoroughly Western!

The cakes looked surprisingly like US wedding cakes, decorated with white fondant and piped icing.  The guests didn’t eat the decorated cakes, but rather bid on tiny triangles of cake wrapped in tin foil.  The triangles were some sort of spice cake; I’m not sure about the decorated cakes.  I was reassured, however, that these cakes WERE cake, not just decorated styrofoam.

Wedding cake (apologies for photo quality)

Wedding cake (apologies for photo quality)

Despite looking like an American wedding, the reception activities were quite different.  Though the reception program listed a number of activities (ranging from “flower time” to “organizing committee presents its gift”), the main event was “perekani perekani,” during which guests are urged by the MC to dance to the middle of the reception “floor” and shower the newlyweds with gifts – in this case, stacks of kwacha.  This went on for several hours, as friends of the bride, friends of the groom, family, etc. were called up, sometimes in turn and sometimes simultaneously, to toss money for the bride and groom.  There were designated money collectors who trailed the money-tossing guests, picking up the bills and putting them into a big wash tub.  The whole thing was a little surreal, and made the kwacha seem even more like monopoly money to me!

The brides colleagues shower her with cash

The bride's colleagues shower her with cash

My housemate and I agreed that it was a strange custom to us, particularly the performance of wealth (or an illusion of wealth).  Sure, we give gifts at American weddings, but your best wishes for the couple are not directly correlated with an amount of money spent, and the guests largely don’t know how they compare with each other.  Still, though it was a display that made me vaguely uncomfortable, the Malawians present seemed to be enjoying it very much.  I am curious, though, what a tradition wedding reception is, if there is such a thing.  In an economy that is still not entirely monetized, cash (of any denomination) is a status symbol, but how else do people demonstrate their affection?

In addition to the wedding, we spent some time exploring the village and beaches of Nkhata Bay.  I experienced the gross-but-interesting phenomenon of lake flies; they rise out of the lake to mate and appear over the water in swarms that look like smoke or funnel clouds.  They eventually come ashore to die, and though they don’t bite, a fine film of lake flies covers everything (including morning coffee – ugh).   Malawians reportedly make them into cakes and fry them, though I did not witness this.  Despite the grossness factor, the swarms are a sight to behold.

We started back to Lilongwe a little  after noon on Sunday, and had a somewhat eventful trip back.  Shortly after we encountered the tobacco truck that had lost its tobacco bales (below), we had a flat tire.  Actually, a “flat tire” is not really an accurate description –  the belt and tread separated from the tire, but it remained inflated.  Fortunately, we had a spare and were able to change the tire with relative speed (and an entire village of Malawian children looking on).   You know, just another weekend in Malawi!