Archive for June, 2009

A million tiny pieces (of paper)

June 24, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


On a hilarious note…

June 22, 2009

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

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

Calendar confusion

June 21, 2009

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

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


On the prairie

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

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

Dude update

June 19, 2009

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

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


Looking dignified

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



What I do all day

June 18, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday night musings

June 14, 2009

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

Expectation adjustment

June 8, 2009

A few days ago, I interviewed for a job in Kenya. The position would likely involve at least occasional supervision of local field staff, and one of the questions my interviewer (an American expat) asked was, “What would you do if your field team was turning in sub-par work, past the deadlines set?” I suspect that this was not a hypothetical scenario.

I explained that I would try to work with my team and make sure they understood my expectations for work quality. I would emphasize that adhering to deadlines is important for the work of all the team, and I would also privately address the matter with the guilty individuals. Whlie I think this is a solid answer, it’s an answer to an All-American question that assumes our values can be transplanted – and will function – in the developing world.

One of my continual difficulties here has been trying to adjust my American expectations about time and efficiency and keeping one’s word to Malawian expectations of these same concepts. It’s not that Malawians are lazy or ignorant of time passing, it’s just that they don’t give it the same priority that we do. By way of example, last week I accompanied a team of researchers (some from a US university, some Malawian) to a field site a few hours from Lilongwe. We drove in two cars; the car of Malawians made frequent stops: to drop something off with a passenger’s sister, to drop something else off with someone else several kilometers later, to pick up the health officer from his house, to buy sweet potatoes by the side of the road, etc. The expat car (where I was riding) waited at each of these stops, but the passengers commented more than once on how they wanted to get to the field site so they could get back to their work in Lilongwe.

From the American point of view, stopping was a nuisance, impeding us from completing what we’d set out to do – visit the village, collect some information, and return to Lilongwe. While I won’t presume to make a Malawian interpretation of these stops, I will merely say that they make sense from a different point of view. In a country where very few people have cars and even minibus fares can be prohibitively expensive, why NOT stop to deliver your sister some things from town or pick up some sweet potatoes? It’s on the way! It is more efficient to make a small stop for a personal errand – even on a work trip – than it is to retrace one’s steps at another time. And the only people staring at their watches are the Americans.

Don’t get me wrong – I enjoy efficiency, order, and being on time. But in Malawi, efficiency, order, and “on time” are all relative terms that do not necessarily conform to my American sensibilities. Similarly, I suspect that if my team was turning in subpar work, past the deadline, a conversation would be order – not just to adjust their expectations, but to adjust my own.

Luwawa Forest

June 3, 2009

This weekend, I went to another forest.  I know what you’re thinking:  for a country that struggles so much with deforestation, Malawi has a lot of forest-related retreats.  It’s true.

This forest (Luwawa) is particularly strange, however, in that it is entirely artificial.  British colonialists decided a pine forest might be nice, so they built a dam to provide water for the trees and planted acres of the Viphya plateau with seedlings.  Today, it looks oddly Canadian:  the rustic lodge sits among forested hills and overlooks a little lake.  The altitude (1650 M) is such that, at least in the cold season, it FEELS Canadian, too – chilly!

Canada, or Malawi?

Canada, or Malawi?

Though I wouldn’t call Luwawa a Malawi must-see, I did have a lovely weekend with a group of friends as we celebrated one birthday and one going-away.  One of the highlights was a sunset trek to a fire tower, which afforded fantastic views.



We made it to the top of the ridge in time to eat chocolate cake (made by yours truly) and enjoy the sunset as fog rolled across the valley.




...and chocolate cake. Is there a better combination?

After a nice forest weekend, however, I came home with the flu/food poisoning, as did two other people who were on the trip.  (It wasn’t the cake, I promise!)  I’m feeling better now, but the first few days of this week were a complete wash.  I haven’t spent that much of the day in bed since the great mono fiasco of 2006…at least this time I don’t have finals!