Tuesday, October 7, 2008

The Mazungu Life Revised...

I feel like I need to clear up some thoughts. I am writing this as a response to my previous blog post, the Mazungu Life.

I stumbled across this just now. I had forgotten how I felt halfway through my placement with Engineers Without Borders. I felt so strongly that Malawians (I almost wrote "my fellow Malawians...then I forgot that, yep, I'm not one of them) saw my life as an ideal state of being, the thing to strive for. I said that Malawians were missing out on the fact that money and security didn't bring happiness and bliss.

Was I underestimating my Malawian friends and family? I think so now. They know rich Malawians who have it all, they know that their money brings them more trouble because now they have more people to take care of. Maybe they even know and care about environmental issues, and wouldn't drive a car if they had the choice anyways.

But maybe they did want the mazungu life just like I thought. However, they want it for other reasons than just material gains. Or maybe I'm interpreting what they say wrong. They don't really want a TV in order to aspire to my lifestyle, they want a TV so that they can watch soccer matches with their friends, end of story. After that, maybe they want some more cassava flour, or school fees, or who knows what.

Another question I might ask myself is: "what might they have gained from telling me this?". Perhaps I am just a victim of hearing what I want to hear. I was expecting people to conform to the order of the world as I saw it, and they did so in order to please me. My next question is then: "why might they have been trying to please me?". Another question: "what could I have done to have people tell me the truth, and not what they thought I wanted to hear?" "Why did I have these pre-set notions, and how did people pick up on them?"

I don't know the answers to any of my own questions. My learning while I was in Malawi was intense and invaluable, but it does not stop at what I have seen or written. Too often I have written these blog posts or emails to people and left out the "but this, and this, and this, and that, and oh shit those people over there, all bring new points to the table". Why? Because of ...time, space, trying to appeal to a wide audience? I don't know. I don't know what keeps myself, and other writers/bloggers/etc. out there from leaving you (the reader) in a fuse of ambiguous thought.

So this is what I am trying to do now, I want you to just accept the ambiguity. I heard some things about people in developing countries wanting to strive for the ideal western lifestyle. As a result, I went on a rant about how stupid our western lifestyle is because it's so unsustainable, and we don't deserve to live this life of luxury. I maybe even made people feel guilty. But there's more to it than what I said. And I had no right to rag on western lifestyles when I knew what I was going straight back to Canada to do. I had no right to come to conclusions before you had done that yourself.

I'm going to end this post with a quote. It really inspired me this past summer. Maybe it is completely unrelated to everything I have said above, but I feel like it all fits, so just go with it. Hopefully it'll give you something too.

"For the test is what people do. Social change flows from individual actions. By changing what they do, people move from societies in new directions and themselves change. Big simple solutions are tempting but full of risks. For most outsiders, most of the time, the soundest and best way forward is through innumerable small steps and tiny pushes, putting the last first not once but again and again and again. Many small reversals then support each other and together build up towards a greater movement." - Robert Chambers, "Rural Development: Putting the Last First".

just for kicks...


Friday, August 15, 2008

Goodbye Malawi!

This is my last blog post while I'm here! I've spent the last week frantically wrapping up everything with work and with the people I love here. Now that chapter of my life has come to a close, and I'm in transition to the next chapter of my life: return to Canada. For the next week, I will be a tourist. I'm going to climb Mount Mulanje, and go on a safari at Liwonde National Park. I fly out on August 21, arrive in Canada August 22, and finish post-dep training with EWB on August 25. Then I have two weeks before school starts! Eek!

I have a million pictures and videos that I want to share with everyone. When I get back, I will be posting them on google photos (which will be linked to from my blog) and on facebook. I've shared with you all parts of my life through writing, now I want to share my life and the beauty of Malawi visually!

I'm terrified to leave! I love Malawi too much! If it's in God's will though, I will be back.

That being said...I am excited to be back in Canada, and to see all those lovely faces that I have missed so much!

See you soon, Canada!

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

10 things that I'll really miss when I leave Malawi...

This may be my last post! My last day of work is August 15, then I'll travel for a little bit, and fly out on August 21!! So here are some of the little and big things that I'll really miss when I leave here...

1. The chickens in my compound. They’re all over, and if you’re not careful, they’ll get your food, and shit on stuff. But most people know this and are already careful enough! One morning a chicken got into my room, and I was so surprised! Then I found later that it had laid an egg in my clothes! I also like eating the local chickens, they’re good! Sure they’re tougher, but you know they’re 100% good, because you watch them walk around you every day, until the day when you go and kill it. (I have yet to kill a chicken…though I almost did, I just couldn’t bring myself to do it! I did pluck it, clean it, and prepare it for cooking!)
2. The dancing. It’s such a regular part of everyone’s life that even I dance as I move along. When there’s some down time, or even while they are working, someone can start singing and everyone will just start dancing.
3. The handshakes. Clasp once, then clasp thumbs, then clasp hands again. I’m not sure if that description made sense, but it’s hard to explain in words! And you shake hands for everything: greetings, a good joke, just talking to a good friend, any time. And it’s quite common here to just hold hands with your good friends as you walk and talk. Men walking down the street will be holding hands, and yep, that’s life.
4. The curio boys. These are the ones who sell art to the tourists. I know, they’re leeches who rip tourists off like crazy, but they’re really quite fun. They see me as a good sale, so they come up to me and introduce themselves as an artist. Well I do want some things to bring home, so I’ve made deals with them. When I pay in cash, I get ripped off, but when I trade with them, it’s always good.
5. Everyone calling me beautiful. Hahaha! I always thought “oh they’re just saying that because they think white = rich = beautiful” but I think I may be wrong on that point. My friend pointed out that Malawians think as beauty as more than just physical, it’s also about how you present yourself. So I think I’m called beautiful because I’m open, respectful and friendly, and that I dress well (long skirts with a chitenge over top, the typical attire for a respectable woman). So I like that I’m called beautiful because I think people respect me, and not because they think I have a pretty face (which I don’t because right now I’m breaking out like crazy!)
6. Every child that passes by me wanting to talk to me. Really, they’re so cute! I don’t know what it is, but I just think that kids here are so much better than Canadian kids! I think it’s because they’re tougher, and they can take care of themselves more. Also, they’re so full of hope and happiness in a world of poverty, that it’s really just beautiful. I love them all.
7. Bopatoki. Whenever we boil water for tea, we do it in an old pot, just because it’s easiest to clean. An old pot is called “bopatoki”. One evening, while I was sitting around the fire with my family, someone was teaching me all the names of the different kinds of pots, and the only one that stuck with me was bopatoki, probably just because I think it sounds funny, and it took me quite a few repetitions to get it right. So the next time someone asked to get the old pot, I was like “Yes! Bopatoki!” and that was just really funny for everyone. Now every time someone says bopatoki, I smile a little, and everyone cracks up, saying “Waluwa cha, bopatoki!” meaning “She doesn’t forget bopatoki!”
8. Hissing and calling out “iwe!” Hissing is the way to get someone’s attention (but not in a respectful way – I’d never do this to my host parents, for example). Iwe means you! Also, not very respectful (I would so “imwe” to say ‘you’ to my host mother). So when I need something in the market or on the street, like a tangerine or a bike taxi, I can just hiss and/or call out “iwe!” and that person will know that they are wanted. Oh, and if little children are being bad, then I can pull out the “iwe!” Or if someone is making fun of me, I can pull out the “iwe” as well, just for fun. Oh, and if I’m on the toilet, and someone starts walking towards it, I can hiss to let them know it’s occupied. Hissing and iwe are just so universal and useful!
9. The smell of cassava, after it’s been peeled, soaked, cleaned, and dried. I don’t know what it is, but I just love that smell. Which is great, because there is always bags and bags of it in my house, or just outside of it. And typical activities for me when I get home from work is peeling cassava, putting it out to dry, or gathering the dried cassava into bags. The next step in the cassava process is turning it into flour, either by pounding (which I am totally not strong enough to do, that is HARD work) or bringing it to the mill. But before it’s turned into flour, aah it smells awesome.
10. Sitting around the fire at night. This is always nice. It’s cold at this time of year, so we always sit around the fire to keep warm at night. And we just chat. We don’t have electricity in my compound, so this is what we do. I much prefer this to the life of the people who do have electricity, since all they do is watch TV and not talk. And the TV shows consist of either lots of preaching or terrible Nigerian films. Those are fun to watch sometimes, but aaah I prefer to watch the stars, listen to the sounds of the night, and just chat about the day.


It means funeral in Chichewa. They happen a lot here. I haven’t even been able to keep track of how many funerals I’ve heard of taking place within close proximity to where I live and work. I’ve never attended a funeral before I came to Malawi, and I’ve attended two in the past 3 months. The first one I attended was interesting and unique for several different reasons. First, the man (my host father’s younger brother) died in South Africa, and my family did not have enough money to bring the body back up to Malawi, so there was a service in South Africa where the body was, and another service at my compound, as if the body were there. Second, the man was Bahai, and was the only man of that faith in all of Chintheche, maybe all of Nkhata Bay! It was the first time for many who had attended that funeral to hear the word of Bahai. The second funeral I attended was for my counterpart’s wife’s grandfather, who died at the age of 90. He was an important man, and so many people had come to pay their respects. He also had an open casket, and so that was the first time I’d seen a dead man!

It’s pretty disrespectful to not attend a funeral of someone who is close to your family, unless you have a damn good reason. Relatives arrive from all over, even as far as Tanzania, to stay with the family of the deceased to pay their respects. They will come with flour or relish to contribute to while they stay there. The time of mourning starts almost as soon as they have heard about the death. Everyone who is there will gather and cry. The wailing of many many women is probably the eeriest sound I have heard in my life. Crying happens all the time during the time leading up the funeral, and even during the funeral. Choirs come from all around to sing for the people in mourning. Every day before the funeral happens, more and more people arrive to stay. The men all sit together on chairs and plan the logistics, while the women sit or lay on mats, usually in silence, and I’m not sure what they discuss. On the day of the funeral, there is a service in the morning, where the men and women sit separately. Important men say things about the deceased, and a preacher will preach. Then the body is taken to the graveyard. All throughout this, various people eat at various times, there is always a fire going with nsima cooking on top. Not everyone goes for the burial of the body, it depends on how close you are to the family. There is ‘adzukulu’, which is a group of young men who dig the grave all morning, and put the soil over the body while the choirs sing. They are paid in nsima and meat. After people return from the funeral, they will eat, or take their leave with the family of the deceased.

There always seem to be family dynamics and gossip running rampant throughout these ceremonies. My counterpart refused to eat there, saying he would eat in town, and explaining to me that there are needier people here who should be fed first. While this seems right to me (why should the poor be feeding the rich?), to others it was a sign of great disrespect. The fact that his wife was not crying at the funeral was noticed by everyone, and her family was quite upset with her. She complained to me ‘Why should I be crying for an old man that I was not close to?’ That makes sense to me, but it also seems like she is turning her back on her village’s cultural traditions for a more modern view of things. There always seems to be this tension between the educated and wealthy and the uneducated village poor.

But they always come together at the funerals…and life continues.

Though people are crying every day, there is always room for laughter. Work in the fields is continued. Lunch is cooked, dishes are cleaned, and children are playing. One day, they were making such a gigantic pot of nsima that they called me over, and laughed along with me at the incredulous amount of nsima that they were all working together to cook. (Actually I made a video of this…I’ll post it when I’m back in Canada).

Have funerals always had people laughing? Or have people adjusted their behaviors to match the extreme amount of deaths they see?

Well, anyhow, life continues. And this is how I know that these are some of the strongest people I have ever met.

Monday, July 21, 2008

The Words of Development

In the beginning, there was a proposal. Someone came along and said “Aah! I know exactly what you need to develop!” Someone else came along and said “Hey that sounds good, it fits with my values and ideals, and will make me look good, here’s some money!”

After the proposal, there was sensitization. Those people, who came along with the perfect ideas on how to make the poor people develop, now have to go to the poor people and tell them about it. Sensitize them to the project.

After sensitization, implementation begins. But aah, we’ve learned from past projects, for example, all the boreholes that were drilled years ago and are no longer maintained. We’re not going to just go in and do all the implementation ourselves, because then the project won’t be sustainable. We’re smarter than that! In order for development to happen, there must be community ownership. In order to create this ownership, people must be empowered. So let’s make the poor people organize themselves to pay for part of what we’re implementing. Hey, we see it as a really good idea for their development, so should they. And if they can’t organize themselves well enough to prove to us that they think it’s a good idea, we’ll move along to the next group of needy poor people and sensitize them. Once a good group of needy poor people has been selected, they can be empowered by organizing themselves, and through this organization, community ownership will be created, and then this project will be sustainable. Also, we need to build capacity so that the poor people have skills to make this development sustainable. This can be done through technical or organizational skills training.

Ooh, another good way to make this sustainable! Let’s work hand-in-hand with government partners, so that when our project phases out, someone will be able to carry on our good work. So at the same time as working with all these poor people, we’ll work at building capacity within the government as well.

And I almost forgot: we need to make this participatory. We’ll use some participatory rural appraisal techniques like wealth ranking, focus group discussions, cards and ladders. What do those mean? Not sure, but if we mention them in our report, our project will be participatory.

Phase Out. Funding has dried up. Let’s write reports now. Also complete a full handover to the government. What was our impact? Who knows…but I’m sure we can find some numbers somewhere. Maybe if we write the word ‘impact’ enough no one will notice how little we actually did.


I’ve bolded a few key development words above. These are the words I hear every day of my life in the NGO sector. They sound so good. But in reality, how much of those words are actually happening? How much meaning do they bear now? Anyone can talk the talk, but who is actually out there, on the ground, facing challenges from every angle (from resources, to people, to weather, to luck, to everything), walking that hard long walk?

The words of development are those most often misunderstood, misinterpreted, and not acted upon.

Sorry for the hopeless sounding message…if you need a source of hope in the development sector, I suggest looking somewhere else on this blog or maybe in writings from other overseas volunteers. It’s out there somewhere, just not here!

Independence Day

July 6th, 2008: Malawi turned 44 years old! The president had the major celebrations in Mzuzu, the main city of the Northern Region, to symbolize his efforts to develop the North. Since Mzuzu is close to me, I decided to attempt attending the ceremonies, with a couple of other EWB JFs as well. Here is the story of that day, with some personal commentary at the end.

We took a mini bus into the city in the morning, despite having heard from people that Mzuzu was closed because too many people were already there! We arrived at the Mzuzu stadium at about 9AM, thinking that no one had been let inside, since there were so many people lined up outside. We were wrong, and when we had a glimpse inside the stadium, we saw that it was so full!! We knew that being white, we could easily get in to where the important people were sitting. But in the name of breaking western stereotypes, we decided to just try to mingle with the crowd, and get in that way. We made friends with a group of civil servant women, all clad in Bingu wa Mutharika (the president of Malawi) chitenges. They said we could come in with them. Through some confusion though, we ended up entering with another crowd of people, and yes, I think that white privilege did help us get in, even though we did not intend it to!

When we entered the stadium, there were probably 20,000+ people staring at us. We had entered through the main gates, where performers were entering. Whoops! So we tried to get behind the gates where the audience was sitting on raised stands. Eventually, after much walking, being stared at and yelled at, we found a spot where we could sit and watch. There was no cover on the stadium, it was a hot day, and there were so many people pressed in around us, it was definitely exhausting just sitting there. (Side note – my skin is now so used to the sun that I only put sun screen on once that day, and I didn’t burn – I tanned!!)

The celebration began with traditional dances from each of the districts of Malawi. At about 10AM, Bingu’s parade entered the stadium. Security was huge, and we weren’t allowed to use our cameras (though I did secretly make some videos – to be posted later). The parade included police, guards, and random people holding up pictures of Bingu, and finally, Bingu standing at the top of a truck, waving at people. We all stood up and waved back. When he was seated, the national anthem was played.

More traditional dances followed until about noon, which is when the real excitement began: police and army presentations! Police were shooting criminals in reenactments of how to call emergency numbers, and for the army, stuff just started exploding. A helicopter landed in the stadium, people jumped out of a plane, with the colors of the Malawian flag on their parachutes. Some of them made it into the stadium…others did not (though I think they were all safe). It was crazy, and the audience loved it!

After these presentations, Bingu began to speak. He spoke first in Chichewa, and then in English. We could understand his whole English speech, but likely, most of the audience could not. He was clearly using this for his own personal agenda, bringing up items that are going on in parliament now, talking about how his government is so great, and putting down his opponents. Not a lot of talk about Independence Day…

To end the day, there was a friendly soccer match between Kenya and Malawi. Now those were some fit boys! (Another side note – at this time we had been forced to use privilege and now we were in the VIP area, and we got to chat briefly with a couple of members of Team Kenya, some super cute guys, I’m tellin ya!) But by the time the game was starting, it was almost 3PM, and we hadn’t eaten more than snacks that whole day, so we left and went into town for a proper meal. When we came back, the game was over. I went to some DPP supporters (DPP is Bingu’s party) who were wearing a shirt with Bingu’s face on it, and bought a shirt off of them for a souvenir! It was starting to get dark, so we needed to figure out transportation out of there. We learned that Bingu’s government had hired a whole bunch of gigantic trucks with open beds to transport people for free, so we got into one of those. It was an 18-wheeler, with probably over 200 people loaded into the back. I thought I would have to stand the whole way, but well, I just couldn’t do it, and so I ended up sitting down, and hoping that those that were standing were strong enough to not fall on me. For the most part, they were. It was good; we had some fun conversations with people!

Phew, that was one crazy day. And I was full of lots of questions and criticisms…here are just a few:

What do people think of all the shenanigans that this guy pulls?
So much money must have been spent on the police and army presentations, and people loved it and weren’t being like “you could have paid for a borehole for a few thousand people with that money”… so what kind of civic education are they getting in school?
Why do none of the media criticize this kind of stuff?
What do the poor people, whom he uses so abominably by shoving into big trucks, think of this Independence Day?
How is this independence?
What level of development does a country need to be at before democracy is effective?
Just some fodder for your brain’s fire. Enjoy.