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Wednesday, December 15, 2010

DCWD Travels: Malawi, Part 2

Click here to read Part 1.


Unsurprisingly, people either love or hate cameras. Especially children. Either they flee upon sight as if I’m about to shoot a death ray at them, or they crowd around, mugging for the camera. It’s really cute, the way they pose and cheer every time the flash goes off. This confirms for me that kids everywhere are basically the same amount of awesome.

It’s through kids that I learn my first word of Chichewa, the predominant native language in Malawi (though officially, it’s an Anglophone country as well): mzungu (pronounced something like mm-ZOON-goo). This despite the best intentions of my manager, who did Peace Corps there, and wrote down a few key phrases for me before departure. Among his parting words: everyone is going to think you’re Chinese.

As we drive through the countryside, I find that that’s only half true. Mzungu means “foreigner” or "person of Western descent" and as we flash by in the pickup down these backroads, scads of children will yell it out gleefully. People stare at me in wonder when we pull to a stop, or when I step out of the car; Asian people, I’m sure, don’t usually travel this deep into the countryside (side note: I wrote this sentence the day before we crossed paths in Nkhotakota with a group of Rotary Club members from Japan… weird).

In any event, it’s an odd feeling and sort of disquieting, but frankly, their curious stares and their smiles are so big that it kind of makes me feel better about it. Plus they wave at me. Which makes me smile. Like I said, I’m pretty easy.


We stop for lunch in Salima, one of two lakeside districts in which our project operates. It’s a small shop, called Café Something or Other (I didn’t catch the actual name), and serves a mix-and-match of meats and sides (descriptive, I know). As we’re on our way out the door almost as soon as we step in, I go with my gut reaction: order the thing on the menu about which you know the least. That’s how I ended up with a whole fried fish on a bed of rice (fried chambo).

Luckily, we ate things like this when I was a kid, and so I’m game to eat it as we drive on. It’s crunchy at points, and basically half bones, but it feels like a nice stew at the end of the day.


Malawi’s known as the Warm Heart of Africa for the friendliness of the people, but it’s also known as the Land of the Lake, for the beautiful eponymous lake that lines its eastern border with Tanzania and Mozambique. Everyone had told me that if I had a chance, that I should get out there to see it, so it was a pleasant surprise when our first hotel on the field excursion is indeed the Lakeview Hotel, where I’m able to see the dusk take over across the water. To preempt your next two questions, I didn’t jump in (I didn’t bring anything to swim in) and I didn’t watch the sun rise over the lake (it never crossed my mind till we checked out).

There are only two spare outlets in the room, which causes me to realize how dependent I am on electricity. My cell phone, my laptop, the batteries for the three cameras I’m carrying with me; they’re all competing for one pair of sockets (and thus, in a sense, all losing).

The TV is essentially five channels repeated over and over: Al-Jazeera news, three SABC outlets from South Africa, and what can best be described as MTV but if it actually played music videos, and they were exclusively a rotation of Middle Eastern and Bollywood pop, replete with ridiculous dance numbers and titles like “One Last Night in Mumbai.”

So I guess Things I Miss Occasionally About the West #3 and #4: sockets and cable.


The food at the Lakeview Hotel is fairly standard, but with a little Malawian influence. I end up having four meals there: two breakfasts of scrambled eggs, toast, sausage, beans, and what I thought were really dry plantains (but now I know were just real mushy disc-cut fries); a lunch of breaded chicken and chips (read: more of the mushy steak fries), and a small shared dinner of beef stew and nsima, a traditional maize meal mixture that’s very much like polenta, only with less taste. You eat it with your hands, dipping it into sauce to soak up flavor.

I like polenta, I like eating with my hands. The dinner was good by me.


The SABC lineup for tonight? Quantum Leap, the Restaurant Wars episode from Top Chef Season 1, and the short-lived NBC show Trauma. Is Malawi a time machine back to 2003 (or in the case of Quantum Leap, 1983)?


Back in the swamp of DC, I can’t avoid being bitten by mosquitoes. But here, where I am deathly afraid of coming down with malaria (25% for health reasons, 75% for funny story reasons), I haven’t yet been bitten once (this will change later). Either life is trying to prevent me from being a tragic case of irony, or I’ve run into the best streak of luck ever. I’ll take either.

At the lodge in Nkhotakota (which is apparently also the home of a golf course… weird), I have my first (and probably not my last) experience with a bednet. I struggle with it both physically and mentally (with the idea that I’m basically sleeping under a princess canopy). Contributing factors to this battle include: this full size bed is too small; I’m very well aware that one of the problems with bed nets is that people kick their feet out of them while they sleep; the sudden realization that my room is not sealed off from insects (represented by a sizable spider crawling underneath the chalet’s front door and across my floor); the muggy heat and the rattling air conditioner; how itchy the sheets are.

I end up sleeping on top of the covers, alternating between lying diagonally across the bed with my feet entangled in the net’s corner, or curled up uncomfortably in the fetal position.

So it’s not exactly the best night’s sleep I’ve ever had.


We’ve stopped by a house where some of our staff are. I'm chatting with some kids (or at least trying to anyway), who are the first Malawians to pick out my arm tattoo. I’m pointing to the pickup’s wheels in an effort to translate, when I notice that Dennis has gotten out of the car and taken a seat in the agricultural fields. Some of the kids have given him a bowl of water in which he’s washing some mangoes. He offers me a seat, and I join him in eating them.

These mangoes have come straight from the tree in the center of the property, and are much smaller than the ones I’m used to; these are the size of kiwis and can almost fit in my fist. Following Dennis’s cue, I bite into it to peel off the skin, gnawing at its sweetness slowly but steadily. It’s a messy process, but it’s one of the best mangoes I’ve ever had.


Things you can’t escape, even in Malawi: Peyton Manning and Ben Roethlisberger jerseys. Tik Tok, and Young Forever. Jet lag.


Two more examples of why I love kids, especially the Malawian ones:

We’ve stopped by the roadside where we’ve noticed a minibus (think a Toyota minivan from the 80s) of our project staff pulled over. There’s a small shop with some kids sitting on the stoop, so I make a move to take a picture. They flash a knowing smile, and grin. At this point, Laston is talking to the staff, so I take a seat on the stoop next to them and decide to show them the pictures. This is perhaps the best thing I could have done. They laugh and cheer and point, and I decide to take more pictures, even getting Dennis to take a group shot.

Same thread, part two: We’re in a village where project activities have taken place a week earlier. My point-and-shoot and FlipCam in hand, we’re going to meet one of the adults in the village to interview him about the program and its development impact. As we walk, I take a few shots of the homes, but mostly the children, since those kinds of pictures usually hit the message home. They’re now following me like I’m the Pied Piper. We move to a mat where Laston and I are going to conduct the interview, and sensing a similar reaction as before, I turn to the kids, who’ve now all piled up and sat down behind me and scroll through the pictures I’ve taken. They’re beyond ecstatic. Each time I take a picture and show it to them, it’s like setting off a laughter bomb in the village; kids will scatter off in a million directions jumping up and down, giggling their heads off, then suck back in to have another. And once the interview begins, they stare at the monitor of my FlipCam and between that and the photos, there’s a fair buzz among them; I have to shush them to make sure the audio will be clear.

Most of the groups of kids I’ve taken pictures of these last few days have been all smiles when I pull out the camera, but somehow this group is the best. So I have Laston take a group shot, which they’re all obviously for. In fact, they’re so excited that as we walk back towards the van, they’ve taken to singing and chanting something, clapping their hands along with the beat. I’ve taken out the FlipCam and tried to surreptitiously film them for my own memories, knowing full well if they see it, they might stop singing and go right back to mugging for the camera. Laston turns to me and says, “It looks like you’ve been adopted by the Luwanda village.”

As we all march back to the Hilux, I have the widest smile I’ve had in a long, long time, and I think to myself, holy shit, I’m in Africa. For work. And this is happening. This is probably one of the most profoundly happy moments I’ve had in my life.

The moment comes up later in conversation, and so I take the opportunity to ask Laston, “What were they singing?”

“Hooray. We’ve been photographed.”



Thank God for digital photography. If I had to pay for all the rolls of film for the pictures I’m taking…


I guess my host here is feeling particularly maternal, as she whips up some pasta with meat sauce and sautéed spinach and onions for dinner, while I sit working in the living room. She sits down across from me, eating off the hand carved bed stand she’s just purchased in Salima and we chat. And it all starts to strangely feel very… homey.


I’ve put on one of staff’s overalls in order to join them in some project activities. On top of the jeans I’m wearing, plus the mask and the rubber gloves and the fact that it’s just plain hot, within twenty minutes I’m sweating like a turkey before Thanksgiving. It’s not a good look for me.


My cosmopolitan experience in Malawi continues when my Kenyan Chief of Party, decides to take me, our Ethiopian Finance Manager and his wife and two kids, and another staff member for Ethiopian food for dinner. It seems likely that I will not have an actual Malawian meal while in Lilongwe. The place we go is called Queen of Sheba, and it almost looks like they opened the restaurant just for us. We sit and they don’t really give us time to look at the menus, but instead just bring out a sampling of courses for us to eat.

The food is exactly how I remember it back in DC: a heaping tray of injera bread, with various bowls of beef, chicken, and lentil stews, potatoes and cabbage, sautéed steak, and homemade cottage cheese. After a couple rolls of injera, the trademark fullness starts to come and I slow down, causing everyone to wonder if I’m alright. I’m fine I insist.

I guess the food in and of itself wasn’t necessarily superlative, but just the action of eating Ethiopian food in Africa… even if it wasn’t Addis, it was still just a little bit better.


Dennis is cruising down the M5 when a pair of vervet monkeys cross the road in front of us and scamper off into the wild. Maybe CC was right after all.


Laston and I are walking to dinner when I look up at the night sky. For the first time in a long while, stars. A whole sky of them. Sometimes you get spoiled by modern amenities. But sometimes you get spoiled by old ones too.

For dinner, I order a Chicken Portuguese, a half chicken slathered in tomato concasse, and served with a fried egg, vegetables, and chips. It’s nothing if not sizable, and once again I’m in awe of the price considering the sheer size of the portion; 760 kwacha, or around $5. It’s maybe not the best meal ever, but just based on quantity, it’s good.


We’re sitting in a gas station and my door is open to cool off a bit. I’m refusing the kids who come up to me asking if I want to buy the food they’re hawking. I’m doing a good job, but we’re also spending an inordinate amount of time here, and so I cave (this situation also happens basically every time I shop for souvenirs: I’m really susceptible to suggestion). Finally, only one of them is by my door. I use Dennis as a translator.

“How much for a samosa?”
“Ten kwacha.”

I’m pretty sure that ten kwacha is a coin, and I’m absolutely sure I have nothing approaching that small of an amount in one bill so I ask for two samosas, and give her fifty, the smallest bill I have. She reaches for her plastic bag of change, to which I wave her off; I’m not about to fight an eight year old over what amounts to literally twenty cents. She looks at me strangely, and I can’t tell whether something is lost in translation, or she’s actually confused by the gesture. Dennis translates my intentions, and she walks away.

The samosas are good, filled with diced Irish potatoes and onions. Most important of all, they’re crispy and they’re food, which at this hour of the day is a blessing. At the end of the first one is a little bit of grit, probably from some sand or dirt, but I guess that comes with the territory. I’m only halfway through my second when another kid shows up with the first girl, offering a rice samosa. I give a smile, ask for one, and again give him a fifty and leave him with the change. At this point, four or five kids have gathered around, all offering me some form of samosa. I don’t have the stomach to eat all of them, so I tell them I’m full.

“What a bastard,” I’m pretty sure I hear one of them say.

You can’t win them all I guess.


For lunch on Monday, I’m back in the office in Lilongwe, and so I go to the closest place, a pizza café called Al Fresco. Again, I eschew the pizza for something a little more off the beaten path, a fillet of kingklip (a fish), with some chips and a salad.

The restaurant is playing Michael Buble and Five for Fighting while I’m waiting for my pickup, and it’s causing me to have a sort of out-of-body experience. As for the food, the fries are as mushy as always, but at least they’re hot. The fish on the other hand is crispy and meaty, but ultimately sort of flavorless. Maybe it should have been obvious, but the best food I’ve had out here is outside the capital.


Watching Valentine’s Day on this flight was a terrible choice for like a hundred reasons.


Sunday is proving to be the day that discounts almost all of my previous statements . It’s the first time I’ve forgotten to take my Malarone, it marks the first appearance of one, now two mosquito bites on my arms; a giant thunderstorm is erupting outside, and despite the good times I’m having out here, it looks like there’s more drama unfolding on the home front. And yet, somehow, I don’t really care.

It’s funny actually; on some level, the reason I have this job stems partially from the fact I applied for another one based purely on a feeling of wanting to get away from it all immediately. And yet, the moments immediately preceding this trip were probably some of the best of my life. It’s strange how life fluctuates like that, piling on happiness when you’re already content while lumping on disappointment when you think you’ve hit your nadir.

So here I am, enjoying the escapism that is just being here in Africa, away from reliable internet, the Eastern Standard Time Zone, and some of the paralysis that results from technological modernity, getting a refreshing perspective on how my life, despite its imperfections, is actually pretty fucking cool. A year ago, I had hit the bottom of just a really ridiculous three-month period of my life. CC and I promised to each other that we’d make 2010 the Year of the Comeback. And in many ways, through the kindness and generosity of others, or through finally doing things for myself (this blog being one of them), it has been.

As I lie here typing this out, I clap my hands and finally get the mosquito that’s been plaguing me the last 24 hours. Sometimes it’s just that easy.


The meal my mom makes the first night we’re all home is simple by her standards, but ridiculous by everyone else’s: seared halibut and a Vietnamese rice chowder (called chao) with duck in it, topped with dried shallots and cilantro. It’s wonderful, the fish melting in my mouth with all the simple unctuousness I love about halibut, while the chao is the perfect cure for the cold I feel oncoming. And because it’s my mom, she knows how much I love duck and shallots; it’s almost like she plans these things.

Like all things about every mom’s cooking to her son, the meal is perfect. It makes me remember, for all the small but amazing things I’ve gotten to experience over the last few weeks in Africa, and my life in DC, there are just as many small but amazing things waiting for me whenever I make my biannual trip back to New Jersey.

And they make it all feel like home.

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