Winding Down

I am down to my last few days in Malawi, a time that invites reflection. I was chatting with an American friend (a nurse who’s been here for a year now) about trying to keep up with writing a blog while I’ve been here, and she said, “I did that too, for my first few months or so, and then realized that I had shifted…from observer to resident. Once that shift happened, I didn’t feel compelled to report or write anymore.” I think the same can be said for my sporadic reporting and for my reluctance to take too many photos – not wanting to feel like a gawking tourist, or objectifying the people/scenes around me. But I have been jotting things down, so I have images of the things that I didn’t record digitally: the amazing loads that I’ve seen transported on bikes – double beds (frame and mattress), enormous stacks of charcoal and wood, goats (yes, more than one at a time, dead and alive), dozens of chickens (who looked quite unhappy… maybe because they intuited their impending demise or didn’t like riding around upside down… or both), and people. And all types of staggering loads in old trucks, vans, and cars. I will never feel crowded in the back seat of a car again (unless there are more than half a dozen people in it).

I’ve also been keeping a list of some of the interesting t-shirts worn in the marketplace, the lithesome teenage boy sporting: “Crazy Cat Lady”, and his friend with “Trust me, I’m a doctor,” and his younger sister with “Bad Motherfucker.” And a list of interesting names of people I’ve met: Wisdom, Pride, Joy, Glory, Jealous, Charity, Proud, Soft, Justice, Preacher, Budget, Loveness, Hope, Seven (the seventh child, born on July 7), Gracious, Happy, Righteous, Gift, Winner, Innocence, Blessing, Trouble, and the guards at one of the hotels where I stayed: Major, Shame and Comfort.

As with most goodbyes and chapters that close, there is a bitter sweetness surrounding my departure. I’ll miss the liveliness here, and a place where joy bubbles up, without filters. Though I can leave now knowing that seeds have been sown, and they will be tended well by the folks whom I can now call friends, no matter their names.



A generous spirit

Now that our book processing is well under way, I delivered some of the new children’s books (from Brian Sturm’s very welcome shipping efforts) to the second grade class at Mzuzu Academy a few weeks ago. Along with the books were cards from students at the Estes Hills Elementary School in Chapel Hill, NC, expressing their best wishes to their counterparts in Mzuzu. The Academy students were ecstatic. After looking through the new books, they made their own cards to send back to the students in the States. As I was leaving the classroom, one of the boys said, “Excuse me Miss, should we send them some books back with our cards?” Seems to me that international diplomacy starts early, with a generous spirit.


“No sense of urgency”


When we had our orientation at the Embassy shortly after arrival, a number of the seasoned folks commented that the greatest challenge of working here, and trying to get things done, is that there is “no sense of urgency.” Now that I’ve had the experiences of repeatedly arriving for meetings a bit early or exactly on-time, to be the only person in the room (or to find out the meeting won’t take place after all) and unexpected road closures, etc. I understand on a visceral level the challenge my American colleagues described.


I think there are many, varied reasons for this laid-back approach to work and life (like dependence on agriculture, after all, you can’t hurry crops along) – far too many to examine here. Perhaps the extreme lack of predictability has the most influence. This ranges from an unstable infrastructure, such as not knowing if the electricity, water, or internet will be functioning at any given time (for those lucky few of us here who have access to all these things when they do work) to travel delays because of unsafe roads. The most extreme example of unforeseen circumstances I’ve experienced yet was when I visited the Vwaza Wildlife Preserve. The elephants were on the move, and the gentleman who comes to provide meals for visitors couldn’t go home at the end of his work day. It’s not wise to be on foot, as sometimes the elephants decide to charge. He had resolved to spend the night at the cook shack, until we offered him a ride. It seems the elephants don’t bother cars too much, especially those that are large, like my friend’s SUV. No sense of urgency when the elephants are on the move, that’s for sure.




Universal Access

When my husband (Les) and I first started dating, he was doing his dissertation research in Lima, Peru, so I went for a visit. This was during the first Gulf War, and at that time the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) were very active. They were also very anti-American. My dad took me to the airport, and on the way we were listening to the morning news. One of the Middle East-based reporters talked about the dangers of flying into Lima. He said something like, “I would fly in to Tel Aviv or Baghdad, but I wouldn’t risk flying to Lima at this time.” My dad looked over at me and said, “I guess you really like this guy?” When we arrived at the airport, there was a sign in the entryway saying that the FAA had determined it was unsafe to fly to Lima, Peru, and that travelers were advised not to go there. All of this to point out there were few Americans traveling to Peru as tourists at that time.

When I arrived back in the States, and they saw my Peruvian stamps, I was shuttled to a separate line and a duo of customs officers began asking a lot of questions about my travel – why was I in Peru, what had I done while I was there, what had I purchased? They started unpacking my bags while they continued questioning me. They then asked, “Where do you live?” I answered, “Baltimore.” They said, “What do you do in Baltimore?” I said, “I am a librarian.” They immediately started re-packing my bags, handed me my passport and said, “OK, you can go. Welcome home.” When I related the story to Les he thought I must be exaggerating, for the sake of a good story.

A few months later, he came back to the States, and we traveled to Canada for a wedding. We had also been camping, so the car was a bit discombobulated (as were we, in need of showers, a good hair brushing, shave…), with our tent, camp equipment, clothes, etc. strewn about. As we were entering back into the U.S., the customs agent took our passports and started asking questions. He asked Les what he did and where he lived, “I’m a graduate student, and live in Baltimore.” The agent asked for details of our trip, where we had been, what we had done while visiting Canada. He then repeated his questions to Les, “Where do you live, and what do you do there?” So Les repeated his answers. The agent then leaned in to the car and said to me, “Where do you live, and what do you do there?” I replied, “I live in Baltimore, and I’m a librarian.” He promptly handed back our passports and said, “OK, you can go. Welcome home.” The experience served to greatly diminish Les’s skepticism of my earlier report.

Last week I was traveling to Lilongwe, and we had to pass through an immigration checkpoint. This was my fourth southbound trip, but the first time I’ve been stopped. The officer asked for my passport, and started with the usual questions – “how long have you been here, where are you staying, where are you coming from, where are you going?” He then asked, “What is your profession?” I answered with that seemingly magic phrase “I’m a librarian.” He said, “OK, you can go. Have a nice stay in Malawi.”


Lou Loo

We needed to renew the registration for the car we’ve been using a few days ago. So the gentleman who’s been negotiating all the car and driver details sent me to his garage to ask one of his colleagues for assistance with the process. He said, “When you get there, just ask for Luano.” I repeated the name, and said, “Ok, I can remember that.” He replied, “Actually, you can just say Lou if that’s easier.” When I arrived at the garage, I went into the office area, greeted the folks there and said, “I’m looking for Lou.” There were a few young men hanging about, one of them pointed to a door, and said, “It’s there.” I had visited the garage before, so I knew he was pointing to the restroom. He thought I was looking for the loo. When I explained I was looking for Luano, we all engaged in our universal language – a hearty laugh.

Making it Official

By now, thousands of dollars’ worth of new books have been donated and are ready to be processed and added to the Mzuzu Academy library. We’ve been waiting on the online catalog software to be loaded by the IT department, and on library supplies. The internet has been problematic, so the catalog has been a bit delayed (hopefully this coming week?). The supplies have now arrived though; they came in a visitor’s suitcase, given the high cost and unreliability of shipping things here. When I delivered them to the library, the library assistant gleefully ripped through the boxes. When she came upon the date due stamp and ink pads (yes, we’re going old school, given electricity challenges), she jumped up and down, squealed with delight, and then ran over and gave me a big hug, exclaiming, “THANK YOU!” All the largesse and a $7 stamp has been the item that garnered the most excitement, by far. In a country where bureaucracy is entrenched and intractable, this library artifact symbolizes recognition, authority, legitimacy. In the words of the assistant, “Now we’re on the way to being a real library!”


A couple weeks ago, we stopped at the grocery market on the way home, and I asked the driver, Mike, if he needed anything that I could pick up for him while I was shopping. He replied, “I don’t know, maybe squash?” I thought his request was a bit curious, but as soon as I entered the market, I saw a big pile of butternut squash, and thought, oh, I guess that’s why he requested squash. I picked up a nice one for him, and didn’t think any more of it.

This past week, we had a 4-5 hour ride to Lilongwe, and we passed many markets, and folks selling veggies on the roadside. When we went by someone selling butternut squash, Mike pointed at it, and said, “Do you call this squash?” I answered, “Yes, butternut squash.” He said, “We call this pumpkin. When I asked for squash that time, I wanted a drink, it’s like orange soda.” After we finished laughing, I said, “You must have thought I was crazy, bringing a pumpkin when you wanted a drink!” He smiled and said, “Well… it was very good! I have never cooked this before, and it was so nice, I invited my neighbor to join me for dinner.”

More books have arrived!

One of my colleagues from SILS (Cliff Missen) arrived last week, bearing more books for the library projects at Kwithu CBO and Mzuzu Academy. The books were graciously gathered, packed and shipped by another generous SILS colleague, Brian Sturm. The contrast between these books and the other donations we’ve weeded from the collections is stunning. It’s such a joy to receive and then pass along current books in great condition, worthy of the effort it takes to get things here.


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Cliff also brought a dozen laptops and the eGranary digital library, which he installed at Mzuzu University. He conducted training sessions through the week for the library staff. It was wonderful to catch-up on news of UNC, and as Cliff puts it, “to speak quickly, American-style.”


More (or less) Sounds

Years ago a friend of ours said she quit listening to NPR because she objected to the use of a rooster crowing in every story from a “developing country.” I’ve been thinking about her indignation as I ponder the daily background noise in my little guesthouse. There is a constant stream of sound – dogs barking and scrapping, roosters crowing throughout the day (not just to signify daybreak), gardeners singing as they work outside, women singing as they hang laundry, kids squealing, laughing (so much laughter!), as they walk home from school or from working in the fields. Yesterday, for the first time in my two months here, I heard a plane fly overhead. I rushed outside to get a glimpse of it, the way my father-in-law described he did as a kid in Montreal in the 1930s. And the other day when I was on the phone with my husband (he was calling from NYC), I could hear an ambulance go by – the sound of the siren was jolting, as it’s another sound I haven’t heard in months. The lizards, though, don’t make much of a ruckus. In just two months, it feels like my sense of sound has been re-calibrated, another part of the acculturation process, I suppose.



“We are lucky we are strong”

One evening I was out walking at about the same time many folks were walking home from work. The “commuters” I saw were mostly coming from town. It’s a 2-3 km hike, and all uphill. Just like evening commutes in many places, they were picking up items they needed on their way home. I fell in step with a lovely young woman, who worked at an office in town, and we started chatting. She was fetching firewood, so that she could cook her family’s dinner. I commented that it must be a heavy load, and she laughed, and replied, “Oh no, it’s really pretty light.” I said, “Then you must be very strong!” And she chuckled again, and said, “We are lucky we are strong here in Malawi,” and then she added, “We can carry all we need.”