Wednesday, March 30, 2011

It's Never Too Late

For everyone in their 40s or 50s or 60s (or 70s or 80s), I don't want to hear any crap about how you are too old or too set in your ways to do anything, ever. "I'm too old" is the worst excuse you can make.

What am I talking about? An 84-year-old man who joined the Peace Corps, for crying out loud!

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Peace Corps is a great time to read lots of books. I know very few volunteers who don't read at least a couple dozen, and many will read 50-100 during their service. The following list is mine. I've added a couple of short notes at the bottom. I figure reading 60 books in 21 months makes me a big enough nerd without giving my review of each one. But feel free to leave comments. I'd be happy to discuss any of them.

Books Read in Peace Corps (in chronological order)

Neither Here Nor There, Bill Bryson
*Dreams From My Father, Barack Obama
Mango Elephants in the Sun, Susana Herrera
Bleachers, John Grisham
The Ultimate Hitchhiker's Guide (Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy), Douglas Adams
My Other Life, Paul Theroux
Betrayals, Brian Freemantle
The Third Secret, Steve Berry
Pop Goes The Weasel, James Patterson
All Over But The Shoutin', Rick Bragg
*Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson
*The Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini
*End of the Spear, Steve Saint
*Blink, Malcolm Gladwell
+Bill Bryson's African Diary, Bill Bryson
*The Tender Bar, JR Moehringer
*Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, JK Rowling
Ishmael, Daniel Quinn
The Amber Room, Steve Berry
*A Million Little Pieces, James Frey
*Me Talk Pretty One Day, David Sedaris
*Fast Food Nation, Eric Schosser
*+Short History of Nearly Everything, Bill Bryson
*+Where The Red Fern Grows, Wilson Rawls
*One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Next, Ken Kesey
The Stupidest Angel, Christopher Moore
*Three Cubs of Tea, David Oliver Relin and Greg Mortensen
Rule of Four, Dustin Thomason and Ian ______
The Romanov Prophecy, Steve Berry
*The Audacity of Hope, Barack Obama
*Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, Bill Bryson
Jonathon Livingston Seagull, Richarc Bach
*Lamb, Christopher Moore
*+The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
Guns, Germs and Steel, Jared Diamond
Take Me With You, Brad Newsham
Long Way Round, Ewan MacGregor and Charley Boorman
The Alchemist, Paulo Coehlo
+Animal Farm, George Orwell
*+Lord of the Flies, William Golding
The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Stephen Chblosky
For One More Day, Mitch Albom
*The Road, Cormac McCarthy
*+A Walk in the Woods, Bill Bryson
The Tao of Pooh, Benjamin Hoff
*Into The Wild, Jon Krakauer
The Golden Compass, Phillip Pullman
Wild At Heart, John Eldgredge
The Phantom Tollbooth, Norman Juster
Amulet of Samarkand, The Bartimaeus Trilogy, Jonathon Stroud
*Into Thin Air, Jon Krakauer
The Golem's Eye, The Bartimaeus Trilogy, Jonathon Stroud
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, Mark Haddon
The Screwtape Letters, CS Lewis
*Under The Banner of Heaven, Jon Krakauer
A Boy Named Shel, Lisa Rogak
*Beautiful Boy, David Sheff
The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck
*The Monkey Wrench Gang, Edward Abbey
The Motorcycle Diaries, Che Guevara
Swine Not?, Jimmy Buffett

Also started but not finished: A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur's Court, The Celestine Prophecy, On The Road, Stranger Than Fiction (not the book of the Will Ferrell movie)

* – Recommended by Me. Some of the recommended are better than others, and just because I didn't recommend a book doesn't mean it's not good and/or entertaining. These are just the ones that have especially stuck out.

+ – Read at least partially before Peace Corps. Counting in country, I've now read A Walk In The Woods three times. I love that book! And I'll definitely read Thunderbolt Kid again. I love Bill Bryson!

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Back Again

In This Issue
- From the Editor
- Making Things Happen or An Update From Site or So, Matthew, What Did You Do In The Peace Corps?
- Lakeshore Hike or Is this Malawi?
- Newbies
- Trainings and Bday
- Revolution!

From The Editor
I have a tendency to forget where I last left on in the ongoing saga of My Zany Adventures in Africa. With no email – or electricity, for that matter – rereading my previous tale can be troublesome. Still I trust that my memory serves me well enough to fill in most gaps as well as recounting the more extraordinary (and just plain ordinary) tales on this continent. Also, I usually compose my stories all at once. This means some items on which I report actually happened a couple months ago. Details may be fuzzy, but I hope the story is better this way.

As I recall, the last mass email I sent was mid-march when I went to Dedza to teach soap-making to the new environment trainees. It is from that point we set off on a three-month literary journey…

Making Things Happen
Last time we chatted I mentioned how I’d been discouraged by the lack of action. The stretch from the end of January through the beginning of March was so slow I almost would have rather watched a century of a losing baseball team than put up with that much longer. When I returned to site after Easter I decided the only way I could get things accomplished would be to take initiative and create action. In order to understand this thought, let me offer some context.

Peace Corps Malawi assigns volunteers to a site. In the Environment Sector we are then assigned to work with our local district Forestry or Parks and Wildlife office. That entity, in turn, has identified an individual extension worker leaving in the field near where our home is. This person will become our “counterpart” – ideally the person in our community with whom we work closely in order to have our projects carried on after we COS. To make a long story short, I don’t work closely with my counterpart.

Most villages throughout the country have a Village Development Committee (VDC). This group is within the area governed by our Group Village Headman (GVH – in my case, this consists of nine individual villages). I should’ve have attended their meeting a long time ago. In April, I finally did. Before I went to the meeting I hand-wrote several copies of a letter/list of most of the programs, projects and trainings I can facilitate, coordinate or do myself. This was quite well received at the meeting. A couple days letter I left for three weeks. (More on that later.)

When I again returned to site after my birthday, I began to get marginally busy, which made me very happy. Now, don’t imagine I’m putting in 80-hour weeks like, say, a County Farm Bureau manager or anything. But compared to my previous year, it’s quite something.

First, I’d begun working, separately from my counterpart/middleman, with a local group of beekeepers. These few men and woman have been farming bees for several years but never received any formal training. Honey production is one of the best, most viable and fastest growing Income Generating Activities (IGAs) in the country. In fact, you look up the Web site for the Small Beekeeper’s Development and Research Association (SBDARA) based in Nkhata Bay. Also, in fact, Peace Corps’ southern Africa subregion has expressed interest in having a beekeeping seminar in Malawi for representatives from local countries. USAID worked with Malawi to create a training manual that includes seven DVDs which we are using to educate local beekeepers and improve their practices. My friend Elihu, who visited during Christmas, plans to come up sometime and work on some practical training also.

Second, I coordinated a training with my friend Yulanda to teach natural medicine at the end of May. Anamed (Action for Natural Medicine) promotes using local plants to improve health and nutrition. For practical purposes, Anamed is an organization which individuals can join and attend trainings. But really, the people who volunteer for this group are trying to promote natural medicine as an area of knowledge that all villagers should be attuned to. I believe you can also look up this online, as Anamed is in several African countries. The national coordinator, Mr. Nelson Moyo, came to my village for three days and met with several groups. The primary, organized program was for all villagers but targeted at women and mothers. He spoke about nutrition, diarrhea and skin problems. (Don’t laugh; diarrhea is a big problem that is especially serious in infants. Hygiene and clean water aren’t as prevalent here as in your American homes.) The Standard 8 class at my primary school welcomed him one evening for an hour-long session. Liz, my PCV sitemate who teaches at the local secondary school brought about 20 Form 3 and 4 students another afternoon.

This program was probably my biggest success to date. I think those who attended learned a lot, and some expressed interest in having Nelson return to teach more. I also learned a lot and I hope to help my neighbors experiment and exploit local plants as much as possible.

Third, a couple days after I left in April, Tony from the U.S. Embassy came to visit my village to discuss our library proposal. Tony is the guy who is in charge of the Ambassador’s Special Self-Help Fund (the grant for which we applied). The update from my committee sounded like they had a very positive, productive meeting. We’re still waiting, but hopefully should know more by mid-July. At that point, we’ll have to find funding for and a carpenter to build all the furniture (bookshelves, tables, etc.) and we’ll start looking for BOOKS! I expect acquiring books will not be difficult, but I may still rely on some of my wonderful friends, family and acquaintances (that’s you!) to help. When we reach that point, I’ll send more info.

Fourth, I don’t have much planned for the next few weeks. The VDC chairman came to my house to discuss projects and programs that the villages are interested in pursuing (mushrooms, food security), so I may have some planning meetings first. Once rice harvest is finished, the beekeeping group should be able to watch the rest of the DVDs. This Saturday and again on the 28th I’ll be teaching soap-making to some woman courtesy of my friends and Chaminade Secondary School. At the end of July I’ll head south to Zomba for a couple days to work at Camp GLOW (Girls Leading Our World), a nationwide leadership camp designed by the Health Sector. I’m also working with a couple other volunteers on a smaller environment camp we hope to put on in November. (I’d like to call it Camp BLOW ME – Boys Leading Our World for Malawi’s Environment.) It sounds like a lot when I write it here, but I’ll still have plenty of time to read books. Trust me.

Lakeshore Hike
Five of my good friends (Elihu, Jim, Wiz, Dan, Jon) and I took about six days in mid-April to see some of the most remote areas of the country. A not-so-well-known (but not uncommon) getaway for volunteers is the Lakeshore Hike. Starting at Mlowe in northern Rhumpi district, we followed village footpaths along the lakeshore for four days. We carried rice and soya, camped on beaches, swam the lake and drank the water, marveled at the lake flies and then ate them when they came ashore. We watched an awesomely huge waterspout for probably 20 minutes the second morning. We hiked shirtless and were fed smoked catfish and cassava nsima for lunch one day and usipa for breakfast the next when we were woken up at 4 a.m. by the fishermen whose beach we were using.

The third day we reached Ruarwe, a small village only accessible by boat or foot and home to the Zulunkhuni Lodge – or the Where Are We? Lodge (look it up online). This was a beautifully remote area that made me forget I was in this same country I’d been living in for the past year. The beer wasn’t that cold. The food was good but not outstanding. But that atmosphere was incredible. They have great swimming and snorkeling and an (about) eight-meter-high platform of which to jump into the lake. We took a welcome 24-hour break before moving on.

The fourth day we reached Usisya, small village accessible by boat, foot or one vehicle a day and home to the Usisya Lodge. This village, built mostly on a small peninsula jutting into a cove is nice but more reminiscent of the rest of the country and didn’t seem like as much of a getaway. The beer wasn’t expensive and warm, the food portions were small. The swimming was still good and the atmosphere was not bad. Due to lack of transport on Sunday we were forced to stay two nights. The Ilala (the ferry that runs up and down the lakeshore) comes by heading south to Nkhata Bay on Monday morning. Or you can take the Death Matola, which leaves at about 6 a.m. and proceeds straight to Mzuzu. I chose the latter. It was, by far, the disturbing ride I’ve had in country. The driver was not drunk or reckless. The road was just windy, hilly, and not in good condition. Plus the truck was overloaded – 45 people plus luggage. It was tight.

But we made it safely all the way to Mzuzu. From there we went on the same day to Lilongwe to party with the soon-to-be new environment volunteers.

I’ve already given some thoughts on making the transition to second-year volunteer, so I’ll spare you that again. Except to say that I think I’ll enjoy this year more.

The new group swore-in April 23 at the home of the U.S. Ambassador. Much like last year, the ceremony was not particularly enthralling but the free soft drinks and finger food afterward were great. That evening, back at the Lilongwe PC House we held the annual, traditional Environment Sector Beer Olympics. This was another fun, crazy, drunken, rowdy night. You probably don’t want to know more than that.

As I’ve gotten to know the new group I like them more. The five northerners are all really great. What can I say? Environment gets the best volunteers.

Trainings and BDay
After the festivities ended, my group traveled to Dedza for our Mid-Service Conference. Not much to say about this. We didn’t have to cook our own food. The weather was gloriously cold. We watched movies on the wall in our dorm. And sat through some sessions, most of which we didn’t take very seriously. Our “required” trainings – Pre-Service, Mid-Service, COS – become less serious as we go. I mean, come on, what are they gonna do? Kick me out?

After MST, I headed to Mzuzu and then to Nkhata Bay for two nights to celebrate my birthday. Three friends – Elihu, Yulanda and Karen – joined me. I was hoping more people would show up, but a huge party (The Pants-Off Dance Off) in Blantyre kept some away. No biggie, though. Jim bought me dinner when I got back to Mzuzu and Sabrina baked me a cake.

For the past several days I’ve been south to Lilongwe (though I’m in Mzuzu now) to celebrate Fourth of July, which was on the Eighth of June this year. “Matthew, the Eighth of June is a silly time to schedule to Fourth of July. Why on earth would you do that?” you ask. OK, first, it wasn’t my decision, so back off! Actually every year, the American Independence Day celebration is early because most Americans, including Embassy staff, like to travel during the real holiday. The extra-earliness this year was due to the untimely departure of our dear United States Ambassador to Malawi, Mr. Alan Eastman. His term is coming to an end, so they tipped the calendar on end and pounded on the backside until the Fourth of July landed on the Eighth of June.

The party itself was just OK. The food was OK. The entertainment was OK. Fellow PCV Spencer and I won the water balloon toss, albeit amid mild controversy. But the sore second-place finisher made up for it by soaking us with the leftover balloons. That was the highlight.

Final Thought
Go Cubbies!!!

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

I'm Still Here...

In This Issue:
1. Christmas In The Village
2. New Year’s At Wiz’s
3. Zambia and, technically, Zimbabwe OR Peace Corp: The Toughest Vacation You’ll Ever Love
4. Back In The Warm Heart Of Africa
5. Second Years This Way
6. Loose Ends

“Where have you been?” you ask. “Why have we heard nothing for so long?” The best reply I can offer is that I’m doing my job. Kuchezga waka. Kwangara waka. That is, I’ve been at my site with no email (electricity, water, temperature control, microwave, cable TV, etc.) since we came back from Zambia at the end of January. This stretch of about six weeks is a new at-site record for me. And I feel pretty good that this month-and-a-half passed quicker than the five weeks run back in July-August. That said, sit back, relax. We have some catching up to do.

1. Christmas In The Village: A Malawian Christmas Carol
Twas the night before Christmas and all through my village
The people were finally showing some hint that they knew a holiday of some kind was approaching
People don’t snuggle up warm in their beds
The air is hot, using a blanket we dread
And Elihu in the guest room and I under my net
Went to bed earlier than you did, I bet
When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter
I knew what is was so there was really no matter
People here start the festivities at night
And go until morning? Well who knows, they just might
Not even talk of St. Nicolas is heard
Red suit and reindeer, well that’s just absurd
Forget about snow, and a sleigh full of toys
People think only of Jesus, even the small girls and boys
Carolers come to you door in the wee hours of morn
Singing, asking for money, not corn
I didn’t hear them, as shut was my eye
The group, Elihu said, included one drunken guy
Even Christmas Day left much to be desired
But we ate lots of rice, and made our bellies tired
Staying in the village for Christmas was smart
But next time I think I’ll have a change of heart
While sharing experiences is good for Peace Corps
I think I missed Christmas, in the village was bored
I heard local exclaim “Merry Christmas” at all
So in 2008, you’ll find me standing tall
How far across the ocean can one person see?
‘Cause on the east coast of Africa is where I plan to be!

2. New Years On The Beach
I know I told some of you a bit about our New Year celebration, but I don’t recall if it was only family and friends. So here’s a quick recap.
Elihu and I took off from my site December 26. Over the course of two days we worked our way down to Mzuzu, meeting up with a few other PCVs on the way. With four or five days in Mzuzu and nothing to do, I did just that – ate chipati, watched some movies, drank some beer and hung out. A group of maybe 15 of us rented a minibus December 31 for the three-hour ride to Tukumbo in souther Nkhata Bay District, where Wiz lives. (If you look at your notes, you may be reminded of another beach party in September at Wiz’s.) There was camping on the beach, good food, a little booze, a broken ankle and lots of lake time. We even had fireworks at midnight. Not much excitement, but a really good, chill, time.

3. Zambia
Wiz, Jim and I took off from Nkhata Bay after New Years for our first excursion outside of Malawi since we arrive in this small country 10 months earlier. We took the lakeshore road to Lilongwe, then stayed in Mchinji – about 12km from the border – before crossing on the next day. In Chipata, we enjoyed a night at the PC Zambia house where they have huge beds with thick mattresses, a television and great movie collection and big walk-in shower and calzones for dinner (at least that night). The next day we departed for South Luangwa National Park and Flagdogs Camp, whose owners were kind enough to offer us visa waivers (which saved us each US$100). After waiting three hours, we finally caught a hitch on the back of a large lorry hauling two long, wooden electric wire poles and some other Zambians. The road from Chipata to South Luangwa (one of the countries biggest tourist destinations) was pretty sketchy in some places and we were happy to be traveling on a large truck. We would find worse roads as our journey continued.
South Luangwa – named for the river bordering one side – is generally regarded as one of the best game parks in Africa, and it’s not quite as touristy as some of the parks in east Africa. We pitched our tent on a platform in a tree for three nights, had baboons and vervet monkeys stealing our food and toiletries. I fell off a ladder when the step broke. This park is supposed to have one of the highest concentrations of leopards in Africa (1-2 per square kilometer) but we saw none. Dry season is better, they say. No rhinos live in the park. But we saw lions, elephants, one buffalo, zebra, Thornicroft’s giraffe which is found only in this park, impala and several other types of deer and antelope, hippos, lots of birds, some warthogs. In all it was good trip, though I’d still like to see a wild rhino and some more wild cats before I leave the continent.
Our few days in South Luangwa defined the rest of our trip. One afternoon, Jim had the bright idea of blindly pointing to a random spot on our map of Zambia, which would then become our next destination. With almost two weeks and nothing else planned except Victoria Falls we figured it would add some adventure to the trip. (Traveling in the deep jungle heart of Africa seeing wild animals and hitching rides through the bush on the back of lorry, of course we needed more adventure!) Jim’s finger landed somewhere northest of Kafue National Park. We went to Lusaka where camped at a hostel and ate Subway for dinner and met up with a local PCV we accompanied as north from the capitol city, through the Copperbelt, to Solwezi and another PC house. Then we really hit bush. During the course of about three days, we hitched to a small town in the boonies, then realized the road to our destined destination was too flooded and washed out to travel on, then hitched back to the main road on farther west, where the population becomes much less dense, and fewer people travel, which means waits can be longer between rides. The wind was carrying us west and the logical target was Mongu, capitol of the Western Province.
Usually NGOs (non-governmental organizations or non-profits in English) won’t pick up hitch-hikers because the company has rules against it. We were stranded in the rinky-dinkiest little trading center that I’ve seen with one expensive ride that could take us 100km. After two hours we’d seen no other vehicles was a 4WD pick-up flew by, stopped and offered to take us because they figured we be stuck if they didn’t. A ways up the road we had to cross a river on a man-powered ferry, then slip and slide through some of the best four-wheeling roads I’ve been on in a long time. Thank God for four-wheel-drive. Had we taken the small matola waiting back at the trading center I’m sure we’d have been covered head-to-toe in mud from pushing many times. Our friends zig-zagged us through the west to Mongu – a long ride on mostly crappy roads – for free, which was awesome.
In Mongu we tried to visit the Litunga – king of the Lozi tribe. Another big tourist event is the Ku’omboka ceremony each year in March or April when the Lozi people move the litunga from his dry season home in the floodplains of the Zambezi River to higher ground. We were too early for this, but thought, after reading Lonely Planet, we’d be able to have an audience with His Majesty. Alas, it was not to be and they wouldn’t even delivery the Cokes we brought as gifts for him. A shame, to be sure, but it was fun to try and see his palace and a little area of Zambia that many travelers skip.
Our plan, with stars in our eyes, and adventure in our souls, was to attempt to find a boat heading down the Zambezi River all the way (or at least as close as possible) to Livingstone and Victoria Falls. However we also were beginning to realize the need for some time management if we wanted to fit everything in. At Mongu, we took a taxi to the harbor, which is still a ways out from the river, but found no one going very far downriver. Had we more time, and a pocketful of kwacha, I’m sure we could have found something, but we are just poor travelers unwilling to part unnecessarily with funds, especially at the risk of being administratively separated from Peace Corps for being out of our country for too long if we ended up stuck in the middle of nowhere, which is almost where we were anyway. Instead we decided to take an overnight bus back to Lusaka, and have the entire next day to reach Livingstone.
Satan’s Christmas is what Wiz later dubbed our day of trying to reach Livingstone. The road heading south of Lusaka goes directly to Harare, the capitol of Zimbabwe. To reach Victoria Falls, a traveler has to turn off about 50km south of Lusaka. We were at that turnoff by about 9 a.m. We stayed at that turnoff for about seven more hours. Hitching is primarily how we travel here. Waiting for an hour, sometime two is not unusual. Being passed up a few times is acceptable. But when you see buses, mzungu families, nuns and EVERYONE driving by without hardly looking at you it can become a bit discouraging. Having taken the overnight bus and not slept well certainly didn’t help the situation. Long story short, we took two days to get to Livingstone instead of the hoped-for one.
This town is really cool and great for backpackers or families. We stayed at Jollyboys Backpackers, which is probably the coolest hostel I’ve stayed at anywhere – clean, nice bar, good areas to relax and $8 for a comfy bed in the dorm. Several fancy resorts have built up in the 11 or so kilometers between town and the Falls. There’s good pizza and, we heard, good seafood. Our first day we spent around the Falls. The experience of Victoria Falls – Mosi-oa-tunya or “Smoke that thunders” in the vernacular – is possible to describe but hard to do justice to. Telling the difference between rain and mist at time was difficult. You can wear a heavy poncho and carry an umbrella and you’ll still get soaked, so why spend the US$5? But we did. Some people say the view from Zimbabwe is better (not that Zambia is anything to sneeze at), but by the time we were at that entrance the time was past 3 p.m. and we didn’t want to pay the US$20 to enter the Zimbabwe side of the park. (We’d already paid US$10 in Zambia. Of course, there’s always that little voice saying, “When am I going to be in Zimbabwe again?”) We walked around the park, illegally jumped in the Zambezi maybe 30 yards upstream of the Falls, then took off to cross the border.
The walk through to border posts and across the bridge connecting the two countries took less than an hour and cost US$45 for a single-entry visa. Victoria Falls Town wasn’t as impressive as Livingstone, but I’ve since heard that just a few years ago it was the place to visit and Livingstone wasn’t much. We walked around a bit. I bought a carved rhinoceros for 20 Malawi kwacha (about US$0.15) from a curio boy who didn’t know what he was doing. Boy was he upset when he came back. Sorry, buddy, maybe you’ll learn a lesson. Jim and Wiz tried to change money on the black market, where the exchange rate is unbelievably better than at banks. Wiz, who has a seen a lot of the world, said it was one of the shadiest experiences he’s ever had. We at lunch at a pizza place. Three pizzas and four cokes cost us almost $50,000,000. No joke. You may know Zimbabwe has the highest inflation rate in the world. I’ve heard 7,000-8,000% recently. Thus, the Zim dollar is worth nothing. In fact, I’ve also heard their $10,000,000 bill is the highest denomination of any currency in the world. This all translates into $50M pizza.
The second day Jim and I went rafting while Wiz visited the Livingstone Museum. He said the museum was pretty good. We thought the rafting was pretty good. The raft never flipped, but we spent a fair amount of time in the water, anyway.
I’d definitely recommend South Luangwa and Livingstone to anyone visiting Zambia. The roads to each place are pretty crappy, but when you arrive you’ll have a great time. The country also has Mosi, a great African beer, though it’s a more expensive that the Carlsberg we drink in Malawi or the Tanzanian beers I’ve had. The population is mostly crammed into the Lusaka and the Copperbelt which leaves a lot of open bush to drive through. We received a 14-day visa waiver through Flatdogs Camp at South Luangwa. Other camps were willing to arrange the same, but I’ve recently heard that for Americans the visa was just raised to US$130 with no visa waivers accepted. If that is so, we went at just the right time

4. The Warm Heart of Africa
Back at site the past few weeks, things have been almost discouragingly slow. Not being able to speak the local language past the greetings and few other words doesn’t help the work progress, either. But this is Africa, right? I just worry sometime that I’ll get caught in a dangerous cycle not doing any work, wondering why I’m here and only staying so I can stay. But then I have a good day and think, “Man, I love living here and doing this!” No plans to leave early yet, but emotions certainly pull me in more directions than is easy to deal with.
Before I actually returned to site, some other PCVs and I were invited to spend an evening celebrating Burns’ Day with a British couple we know. The day honors 18th-century Scottish poet Robert Burns, who wrote Auld Lang Syne. Apparently the year after his death, some friends gathered in remembrance and the day has grown from there into a national holiday. The highlight of the celebrations is a meal, at which guests eat Haggis, boiled sheep’s stomach stuffed with ground heart, liver, mince and some spices. If you can get past the idea of what you are eating it’s OK. The flavor is intense, but bad. Jim liked it more than I did. Our friends also serviced a huge dish of beef lasagna which was most welcome. In fact that became part of our breakfast the next morning.
I also experienced American football for the first time since watching the Bears lose the Super Bowl in 2007. Some Americans are working at a Catholic secondary school near Karonga boma and invited several of us to watch this year’s Super Bowl with them. The game started at about 1:00 a.m. our time and we didn’t get to see any of the commercials because the game was broadcast on some international ESPN station. But a few of us made it through the whole game and were able to see the exciting ending. I hope to be able to talk them into letting us (at least me) come over this fall when the Cubbies are in the Series.
“But Matthew, what you actually been doing?” you ask. Football and Scottish holidays? We thought you lived in Africa! Well, yes, it’s true. As I mentioned site has been slow. The library project is on wait-and-see mode right now, while the U.S. Embassy sorts through all the applications. I expect them to visit our area sometime in April or May for a look-see and I’ll hopefully have more news after that. The student soap-making group is in need of a push, as they’ve also been on hold for some time. The teacher who is working with me on the project recently suggested we diversify into pig-rearing, which I’ll be looking into while I’m around Lilongwe this week. Speaking of soap, another group in my village is interested in making soap, so I’ll soon be training them, thought I’m a bit concerned with competition between the two groups. Speaking of soap Part 2, I also trained a group for a fellow PCV just last weekend. If making soap is the legacy I leave in Malawi that’ll be great for the people here, but I’m not sure how exactly I’ll use those skills back in America. And in my increasingly tight schedule and do manage to find a wee bit of spare time to do work around the house (in between books that I absolutely must read). I’ve finished a shade structure between my house and kitchen. Back in December I planted some passion fruit that will group up and fill in the gaps between the reeds to create a denser shade. I’ve also started working to make some ridges next to my house so that I can plant sweet potatoes. We’ll see if that actually happens. Finally, my cat ran off while I was Zambia so I’ve since acquired two new kittens. One is almost completely black; the other is mostly white with a black tail and spots. I’ve named them The Ghost and The Darkness.

5. Becoming ‘Second Years’
Does that not sound like I’m inserting myself into the new novel Harry Potter and the Volunteer of Karonga (or something like that)? For those of you who might be confused by what exactly I’m talking about, March 1 marked the one year anniversary of the day I arrived in Malawi. While my family remembers February 25 as the last day they saw me and Peace Corps doesn’t consider our group second-year volunteers until the end of April, we celebrated March 1 as the Big Day. This also means that the new group of trainees is in country. They arrived in Lilongwe and proceeded to Dedza for training February 25. And they are my reason for having a chance to send this email to you all, as I am heading to Dedza tomorrow with a couple other volunteers from my group to work with the newbies for a few days. I’m incredibly excited to meet them and I’m actually looking forward to hanging out in the homestay village for a while, too. (Mostly because the weather around Dedza is so cold and I’ll be able to eat Malawian cooked meals.)
The transition from first-year volunteer to second-year volunteers is interesting. We hear that you spend your first year learning how to live in Africa and your second year trying to figure out what to when you’re finished. That’s partly true. In between you try to do a few small things to make a difference with the people who have become your friends and neighbors. I’m also beginning to realize if I want to make that difference I either need to 1) Get busy, 2) Extend for a third year, or 3) Not worry about it, expect somehow everything will fall into place and enjoy my time in Africa. Right now I’m leaning toward No. 3, with heavy emphasis on No. 1 and I haven’t completely ruled out No. 2. (Hey, if I extend Peace Corps pays for me to come home for a month – not a bad deal.) Liz, my new site mate, described the transition as a change in mentality. As I mentioned I’m thinking more about projects. The newbies will be looking up to us, which doesn’t mean we have to act more mature, necessarily, just give them good advice. (Like being a senior in college.) And what else do I want to do in Africa while I’m still here on the U.S. government’s dime? And, yes, what do I want to do when I get home?
But I have at least 12 months to ponder those questions. More than enough time, right?

6. Loose Ends
As always, if you think I’ve missed something or if you have questions about what I’m doing, how things are here or whatever, please ask. I try to cover all the bases, but after living here a year some of the novelty has worn off and living the village is normal (more so, anyway).

Until next time, thanks for the support and keep in touch.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Africa Questions

TO ALL READERS: A few days ago in Karonga I picked up an awesome package. Whether it was the awesomest I’ve received is debatable, as there have been some mighty fine parcels. This particular one was from the high school geography class of Mrs. Terri Heinhorst at my alma mater, Midwest Central High School. Not only was the box loaded with tasty goodies (Oreos! Little Debbies! Tuna!), but there were card games and children’s literary materials to share with my Malawian friends. And, to top off the crate, each of the students included a hand-made card with greetings from America and questions about Africa.

I thought my answers to the questions would be of some interest to others, so I’ve sent this response to the entire list. Happy reading!

After reading your questions I came to one general conclusion. I suppose I knew this before, but many Americans have large, general ideas about Africa that are often incorrect. I expect most of this comes from mass media, in particular movies – Blood Diamond, Hotel Rwanda. Remember, Africa is a big continent and what you see in the movies or on the news happens in relatively small areas. Yes, most of the continent suffers from poverty and almost every country is considered to be undeveloped. But that doesn’t mean everyone in every country is shooting and killing. You won’t often hear about places like Malawi because very little newsworthy happens here. It is a small, peaceful country with minimal tourism compared to neighbors like Tanzania, Zambia and Mozambique.

But many Malawians have large, comprehensive misconceptions about America, too. They think you are all rich and white. They ask if there are poor people in America. Well, of course there are, right? But what is poor? How long can a person live on US$100? Can it be stretched to a month? Longer? US$100 is equal to 14,000 Malawi kwacha. That’s two months salary for a primary school teacher. Let’s assume that teacher has a wife and at least three children. But then they will also farm either for food or for additional income. The difficulty with this discussion is that the United States and Malawi have such different economies and the currencies are valued so differently. It’s beyond me to explain it to them, and, I’m sure, to you.

They also don’t understand about food diversity, because to them the “food” is the starch (nsima/ugali, rice, potatoes) and the rest is “relish” (meat, vegetables, etc.). People ask me what is the staple food in America. I can’t answer because we don’t really have a staple food. Most Malawians don’t understand sandwiches, cheeseburgers and pizza. Try explaining your normal diet under those circumstances.

I think I’ve included answers to all your questions here (in no particular order – sorry). Some were incredibly general, but I’ve done my best. Some were similar, so I’ve grouped them together. With all the questions, this will be a bit long, so I miss anything or my answers aren’t clear or raise further questions, please ask more!

Names of local tribes – We don’t have traditional pastoral (livestock herding) tribes like the Massai or Tuareg in Tanzania or Kenya. (Those are the ones you see in National Geographic with the colorful red or purple clothing and all the jewelry.) But there are many different tribes: Chewa, Tumbuka, Ngonde, Yao, Ndali, Lambiya, Sukwa, Ngoni and many more. Each tribe has its own language (Chichewa, Chitumbuka, Chiyao, etc.), though the national language is Chichewa mainly because the Chewa tribe is by far the largest in country. Chitipa District, the northernmost in country, has nearly two dozens tribes who all speak a slightly different language.

Each tribe has a system of traditional government starting at Village Headman, Group Village Headman, Traditional Authority and up to a Paramount Chief. Sometimes more divisions exist depending on the size of the area and tribe. There is a democratic government with police and members of parliament and a president, but if an issue arises and can be settled through the traditional system, as long as everyone is satisfied, it’s OK. I live among the Ngonde people, so nguyoba (I speak) Chingonde panandi (a little).
Also, ndikulankula Chichewa pang’ono.
Also, nkuyowoya Chitumbuka pachoko.
And, ninataka kujua Kiswahili.
(Bonus points for those translations.)

Wildlife – Where I am I don’t see large African wildlife. Malawi is one of the most densely populated countries in Africa and most of the animals are now confined to the national parks. Lions are very rare. As far as I know you won’t find giraffes or rhinoceroses. But Malawi has plenty of elephants, hippos, water buffalo, kudu, eland, zebras.

We do have snakes. The two they warn us about in training are black mambas and puff adders – both extremely poisonous. I have found snakes I my house. Black ones. But I’m not expert and don’t know for sure whether they are mambas. Still I get them out of my house in a hurry. Every time I travel from Karonga to Mzuzu I see baboons along side the road where they congregate waiting for travelers to throw food out their windows. Also, I can walk about 500 meters from my house to a small area of maybe two acres and see wild monkeys. I don’t know what kind they are and even my friend Stephanie, who knows more about African wildlife than anyone I know, couldn’t identify them. But they are fun to watch. After New Year’s I’m planning to travel to Zambia, which is known more for their wildlife. I’m excited.

Music – All African. I hear no American music here. I’m not good at classifying music, but it’s mostly similar to reggae.

Markets – At some point I’ll send a couple photos of my local market. Every Monday I buy tomatoes, onions, beans, bananas and meat at an open-air market. It’s quite similar to a farmer’s market or flea market. Individuals grow the food and sell it. At the same market people can buy dishes, clothes, soap, bicycle parts, clay pots (for cooking or water storage), locally brewed moonshine and so much more.

I can get a warm Coke nearby, but to find electricity and a cold drink I have to travel at least 10 km to the main road. To get real electricity, where I can plug something into the wall, I have to ride my bicycle about 25km to town.

Weather – Look at a map or globe and compare central Illinois to northern Malawi in their relationship to the equator. We are in a tropical climate here. Right now is the hot, dry season. The rainy season is just around the corner and some places in country have been getting rain for a couple weeks now. Generally the pattern goes: warm and rainy from December-April; cool and dry from May through August; hot and dry from September through November. The main growing season for corn is from December through April, during the rains. So, remember our seasons are opposite because we in separate hemispheres, plus our weather patterns vary because the temperature and atmosphere are different closer to the equator.

Friends – Yes, I have many friends. Both Malawian and American. I love my fellow Peace Corps Volunteers. They are great people and I expect to be lifelong friends with many of them. My Malawian friends I hope to stay in touch with, though through time and distance it will become more difficult, I’m sure. Time will tell.

When do I eat dinner – About 6 p.m. each day. When do you eat dinner?
Spicy foods – Only if I add hot sauce or pepper. I’m surprised there weren’t more questions about the food. When at site my diet consists mostly of rice and beans or rice and soya for lunch and dinner. Soya is meat-like product made from soy. It sounds funny, but it’s not too bad. Once a week at the market I’ll buy enough pork or fish for a couple meals. Sometimes I cook sweet potatoes or regular potatoes, though not often. For breakfast I either eat a porridge made from corn flour (it’s kind of like oatmeal or Cream of Wheat) or I eat fruit.

In my area people grow a lot of rice, and many Malawians will prepare that with a meal. Still, the dominant carbohydrate is nsima, which is a staple food across most of Africa, though the name changes. Nsima in Malawi. Ugali in Tanzania. Other names in other places. It’s a doughy patty made from fine, processed corn flour mixed with water. You eat it with your hands – roll into a ball with your fist, push a little dip in with your thumb then scoop up your beans. I know it doesn’t sound great, but it’s really not too bad and many volunteers end up enjoying it. I, personally, prefer kondowole, which is nsima made from cassava.

The zucchini and cucumbers from my garden didn’t turn out very well, but I am getting a few tomatoes, and I had some sunflowers pop up. I’m planning to plant green beans and perhaps sweet corn when I return to site.

Guns, gangs, etc. – No. The only people I’ve seen carrying guns are police and military personnel. I’ve never seen them use them or point them. No gangs, no kids with guns. It happens at times in other parts of Africa. Actually, because of the relatively peaceful nature of its people, Malawi is known as “The Warm Heart of Africa.” And I have it called “Africa for beginners.” I’ve never felt in any serious danger at all, and I don’t expect I will, but you never know. The most risk I assume is that something might be stolen from my house by a greedy Malawian.

Sports/Games – Football rules! Actually soccer rules, but you never hear that word here. As it is in most countries outside of the United States, soccer is called football and football as we know it in America doesn’t exist.

The most popular non-sport game is called bau or bao, I’m not sure. It rhymes with cow. Have you played mancala? It’s almost the same. You move pieces around a board with the goal being to take your opponents pieces. Difficult to explain in text, look it up!

Travel – Around the village I walk or use my Peace Corps-issued bicycle. If I’m going to Mzuzu or farther, I ride my bike the 25km to Karonga boma, then hitchhike. Believe it or not, it’s actually considered by many people to be the safest way to travel. I would never do it in America, but Africa is different. It’s especially nice if I can get a ride with an American or at least another mzungu. And, no, no vehicle I’ve ridden has ever been shot at.

Cool cars – I noticed you had the photograph of the old Mustang on your board. I was amazed to see that in Malawi. The vast majority of vehicles are Toyotas, mostly pickups, and SUV-type vehicle. I wouldn’t really say I’ve seen anything particularly cool. Most tend to be old, beat-up and blowing black smoke.

Where do I sleep – In my bed. Yes, I have a bed and a mattress. It’s a foam mattress about four inches thick with no box springs underneath, but it’s better than a cement floor. Or grass. I also use a mosquito net. As volunteers we are required to take drugs to avoid getting malaria and the mosquito keeps the nasty little bugs away so we can sleep.

Jobs/Living – The vast majority of people are subsistence farmers. That means they grow their own food either for eating or for sale. Teachers and government workers do earn a salary, but most of them farm some also. In the village we don’t really need stores because most things people can buy at the weekly market. But in town I can go to restaurants, a small grocery (much smaller than Oney’s in Manito); we even have a small cultural museum. Mzuzu is a bit larger with bigger stores and Lilongwe and Blantyre each have a Shoprite, which is like a Kroger’s or Dominic’s.

Free time – Read books. Chat with people.

Favorite thing – Tough question. Probably the opportunity to travel and see new, amazing places and experience different cultures.

Helped any kids – I’m living at a primary school and interact with kids every day. You’ve heard about my soap-making project. I hope I’m helping at least a few kids.

Is it worth – A question I ask myself often. Is it worth sacrificing comfort and familiarity? Is it worth leaving your family and friends and everything you know? Is it worth missing the holidays? Of course I miss America and my home dearly. I think about family and friends all the time. But I also think about what I would be doing at home.

The opportunity to live in Africa and be paid for it by our government, the chance to travel around this continent, the chance to help people who truly need to be helped – yes, that’s worth it. None of that makes me miss America any less, though. A fellow volunteer recently observed that an experience like this instills a greater appreciation for America while at the same time inspiring a sense of wanderlust.

For all of you – any opportunity you have to travel outside of the United States of America, take it. I backpacked around Europe after I finished college and loved it. Once you travel like that, you are a different person. Get outside of the shell of the U.S.A. Don’t let your only exposure to the outside world be what you see in the movies and on TV.

Lastly, to give you a small taste of what the experience is like, try this: No electricity and no running water for as long as you can. Flashlights and battery-operated electronics are OK. I have an iPod and cell phone I charge with a small solar charger. But no computer, no TV, no microwave, no lights. Take water not from your sink or shower, but from a tap or pump straight out of the ground. Bathe from a bucket. Wash dishes and laundry by hand. Don’t use a flush toilet, find a pit latrine. Cook over firewood, but not hotdogs. Rice and beans. Or if you have a kerosene stove, that’s OK. After two weeks you can go to town for a cold drink and a meal at a restaurant. After a month you can use electricity for two days. But still no microwave.

Try that. See how far you get. All that stuff is the easy part of my job.

Bonus Points for the translation:
Tili tose pa ulendo.
(Hint: Chitumbuka)

Big Update

OK, it’s been a while since I’ve posted anything with any real substance to it. This one might go on for a while. I hope I don’t leave anything out. So sit back, relax and prepare for your latest vicarious African experience!

In This Issue:
Mulanje Massif
Mzungu Connection
Old PCVs
Dead African Wildlife
New PCVs
Project Update

Mulanje Massif
After In-Service Training in August I joined Scott, Dan, Jim and Wiz on an outing to traverse Mt. Mulanje, the highest peak in Malawi. The highest point is Sapitwa peak, which reaches 3,002 meters. We didn’t summit.

This was my first trip to the southern region and to Blantyre, the biggest city in Malawi. No McDonald’s or Pizza Hut, but it is as close to a “western” city as I’ve seen since Johannesburg almost nine months ago. It made me glad to be in the Northern Region and have Mzuzu as a hub. Once we got south of Blantyre, the scenery was beautiful – rolling hills and loads of tea farms, which were incredibly green given the time of year.

We started up the mountain about 10 a.m. the first day, after making a stop at the local market to stock up on supplies. Our hike that day was about six hours – normally a good day of hiking. But this one kicked my butt. It was steep, sunny and the higher up we climbed the less shade we had. And water was inconveniently absent. We learned that one liter per person was barely (in my case, not) enough. You don’t appreciate the wetness of fresh water on your tongue until you lay on the side of a barren mountain, baking in the sun, thinking you will die alone in southern Africa. In other words, when I finally got water, it was good.

Several cabins dot Mt. Mulanje, which is actually like a plateau or mini-mountain range in itself. The first we came to was around 100 years old. Luckily, Scott works with the Mulanje Conservation Trust and was able to procure the means to access cooking materials, mattresses and blankets, so we did have to carry all those items. The huts are managed by locals who live in a separate house next door and keep the firewood and water filled when hikers are coming through. This first hut was very rustic. The most interesting part was the Creepy Room – a large, empty room that had a door to the outside and only locked from the outside. So if you went in, you stayed in. Fortunately, there was plenty of floor space for the five us without having to use the Creepy Room.

The second day we hiked across the plateau. We saw men cutting Mulanje cedar, which is made into boxes and curios, and is a very big business in the Southern Region. Unfortunately, the business is so good that in a few years there may no longer be cedar on the mountain. Most of the hike was rolling hills, up and down. Nothing too brutal. Our cabin this day was much newer – the newest on the mountain, in fact – and was equipped with solar panels, so we had electric light for a while. It took some of the novelty of hiking in Africa out, but was still nice.

The third day was downhill. Way down. And steep again. Thank God for little tufts of grass. We were amazed how well they held our weight. Otherwise the seats of our pants would have been ruined from sliding down on our rear ends. While the entire experience was fun and rewarding, perhaps the highlight was our victory meal. The day we came down, we arrived in Mulanje boma (the seat of Mulanje District). From there we walked 2km to Chitakale, where we ate brick-oven pizza – reportedly the best pizza in-country.

We stayed in Blantyre that night. The next day Jim, Wiz and I embarked on an epic hitchhiking trek from Blantry to Mzuzu, visiting all three Peace Corps houses in one day – a rare feat to say the least. The entire trip lasted 14 hours and included five modes of transport across almost 700 km.

Whether we’ll return is undecided as of now, though I hear Mulanje is amazingly beautiful after the rains. We’ll see.

Mzungu Connection
After nearly nine months in country and seven at site, I’m finally making some connections with other mzungus. (Mzungu - n., foreigner, especially one with white skin). Not far from my house a South African company has begun mining coal. I’ve been getting to know to white Zimbabwean men who are working there. In fact, they’ve invited my sitemate Kyle and me into their house in town a couple times to watch Rugby.

Down the road from the coal miners lives an Australian couple who’ve been in country about six weeks now. They are also working at a mine. I only met them briefly, but I expect I’ll bump into them again.

Then, get this, I met some Americans. From the Midwest. From Illinois, nonetheless. Kyle and I had heard about some British volunteers at a Roman Catholic school in town and decided look into it. Turns out they are Americans. I’ve only had the opportunity to talk extensively with one, who is from the north side of Chicago (Go Cubbies!). At least one is from St. Louis and another is from Belleville. I’m really looking forward to meeting them.

Old PCVs
About a month ago I received a text message from one of the volunteers in our group. She decided to take early termination (ET). Now, even when I’m not particularly close to a PCV, I still like to know who, why, when, etc. But Jamie was in our group, in the northern region and probably the one we would have voted Least Likely To ET. She was (is) one of my closer friends among Malawi PCVs, so it was quite a shock.

But it’s all good. She has a good reason. She decided that she had been traveling and volunteering for nearly seven years now and she was ready to stop moving. Plus she knows she wants to go back to school. There are several reasons for which you couldn’t blame a volunteer for leaving early. But among all the positive reasons, I thought this was a good as any – she new she didn’t want to be here and she new what she wanted to do.

I’ll miss Jamie, and I’m sure others will leave, but I wish them all the best and I hope they are happy with their decisions. I have 18 months to go. We’ll see.

Dead African Wildlife
Jamie came through Mzuzu on her way to Lilongwe about three weeks ago. Several of us came to meet up with her a final time. During the stay, she and I were walking to the post office where she had a package, and then she accompanied me to the Parks and Wildlife Office. When we arrived we noticed a pickup truck with a topper and several people gathered around. As I was trying to decide which building was the office, Jamie jokingly asked, “You want to go stand by the truck?” Moments later a Malawian man said, “Oh, you’ve come to see the lion?” What? Lion? Heck yeah, we’re here to see the lion!

We edged our way up to the truck and there, as you can guess, was a lion. A dead lion. Apparently it had killed two people somewhere in Chitipa District. Or it killed a cow and some chickens. Or a combination. Oh, and there’s another one out there somewhere. Maybe. We didn’t really get a straight story. But it was awesome. And it smelled like a dead, rotting lion, if you can imagine that. (This was especially interested because lions are quite rare in Malawi.)

After wishing Jamie farewell, several of us traveled to Chitipa boma for the annual Halloween party. Chitipa is one of the most remote districts in country. The 100km trip from Karonga took us five hours. The weather was cool, we wrestled and slaughtered a pig, drank some beer, dressed up and generally had a good time. ‘Nuff said.

Two nights in the boma, then some of us proceeded to Misuku, which has been called the Scotland of Malawi because of its amazing hills and perpetual greenery. When much of the rest of the country turns brown, this patch stays green. In fact, Kyle, Jim and I took a hike one day through a forest reserve that is at least partially primary growth rainforest. I also carried water on my head for the first time - up an uber-steep hill. The next day my next was sore, understandably. A couple days late I noticed a large bump on the back of my neck. (“It’s not a tumor.”) It was a bit uncomfortable but a couple days of antibiotic chased it away and all is well again.

Kyle, Jim and I also decided to walk back from Misuku to Ngerenge (my home area). A decent road connects the two areas, if you don’t mind hills and bends. We fought through the hills and took a few short cuts to avoid the windiness. After walking for about eight hours we saw the first automobile of the day and decided we could ride last 10-15 km. But if anyone asks, we walked the whole way.

New PCVs
My sitemate Kyle, an education volunteer since 2005, as now finished his Peace Corps program and will be leaving the country shortly after Thanksgiving. For a couple weeks, at least, I’ll be the northernmost volunteer in Karonga (as I’ve been). The new education group is now in training, however, and will be sworn-in in mid-December. Kyle will be replaced and a new PCV will be placed at Kaporo Community Day Secondary School. I hope to meet both of them on Thursday at our Thanksgiving celebration.

Project Update
I can now leave Africa saying I actually accomplished something, however small. With the help of the Associate Peace Corps Director (APCD) for Environment Brian Connors – my boss – I secured enough funding to repair a borehole in one village. (A borehole is a hand-pump for water. Pipe is driven into the ground and pumped out. It’s what I use at my site for water.) In the grand scheme of African development work, one borehole is like a grain of sand. But in this particular area water is a bit scarce. Women – because they are the ones who draw water – had been walking 2-3 km to the next nearest borehole. That means they were probably living on 20 liters of water a day (or 40 liters if they make two trips). For many of them that water probably served multiple people.

A recent Newsweek had a series of articles about water. It showed a statistic that Americans, on average, use 573 liters of water a day. People in Mozambique, the article said, use 10 liters a day. I bathe once a day, wash at least a few dishes at least two times a day and use some for drinking. If I stretched my supply I could get by on 20 liters. That doesn’t count washing clothes or watering my garden and other plants. I try to use my dishwater and laundry water on my garden and plants when I can.

The other project I’ve actually made tangible headway with is soap-making with some primary school students. I don’t recall if I’ve mentioned this, so I’ll give a quick recap. Primary school is free, secondary school is expensive. Even at less than 5,000 kwacha a year – less than US$50 – many families can’t afford it. I’m living at a primary school and wanted a project the students could run to raise money for school fees. With the help of a teacher we’ve started making soap. Once we cover our overhead costs, I think this will be at least mildly profitable. And hopefully the students will learn a bit about money management. But at least we’re up and rolling now.

Three other projects are in the planning stages. We’re still ironing out some details with the library, and I hope to submit the grant application after I return to site. Of course I’ll keep you all updated on that one. I’m also working with a local village to build a dam on a small stream, which will require a different grant. This will be in the same village as the borehole repair, an area where water tends to be scarce. Currently this stream dries up shortly after the rains, in June or July. We hope if the dam is built well and we can plant some trees and grasses to stabilize the stream banks, the stream will hold water year-round within two or three years. Third, the coalminers I mentioned earlier are interested in planting trees on the mined land after they finish. I think this is outstanding, and I’m waiting for some cue from the local forestry department before I begin organizing tree nurseries in the area. This could be a good, long-term collaboration between the coal company and the villages in the area.

I know it sounds like I’m really busy. And at times I am. As more projects come up, keeping all the information organized and meetings straights is a bit of work. But most of my energy goes into actually motivating and prompting groups and individuals to get up and do something. I’m learning that a big part of my job as a Peace Corps Volunteer is to provide that first push to get things going. For example, the teachers and students and the school could have organized the soap-making project on their own. I did very little that they could not have done themselves. But the fact that I was there and got it going is the whole reason is actually happening.

What I’m getting at is this: I am working, but still have a lot of free time. And I have a big pile of good books that I’m reading. I’m keeping a list of all the books I’ve read on my blog I read quite a bit before I came, but Peace Corps moves you to a different level. And I’ve learned of loads of great books I wasn’t aware of before.

Finally, I’m in Lilongwe now for Thanksgiving. Our week lasts about five days and is highlighted by a big shindig at the U.S. Ambassador’s house on Thursday.

Happy Thanksgiving to everyone!

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Hello there

Just a quick update because I know you are all missing me terribly and dying to know what is happening. Now you will be able to sleep again. I didn't have a chance to write this up before time, so I'm kind of going by the seat of my pants right now.

Again, Mt. Mulanje was awesome. Three hard days of hiking, great company, amazing scenery. I returned to site for about 10 days before tramping off again to Mzuzu for a permaculture training. Permaculture is a "design methodology" for taking advantage of space, locally available resoures... basically it's about growing lots of stuff in a small space. It was a good training and I hope to take some of the information and practices back north with me. After the training, nearly a quarter of the volunteers in country went to the south of Nkhata Bay district to camp on the beach, swim in Lake Malawi, play games, drink a little beer and eat some good food. Two awesome days. Now I'm back in Mzuzu for two nights relaxing and getting a strong dose of electricity before heading back to site again for quite a while.

My upcoming schedule look something like this: Tomorrow, back to site. Halloween party in Chitipa district. Thanksgiving in Lilongwe. Christmas and New Year's somewhere (possibly back at the Lake). Then to Zambia for some hardcore travelling. Not sure when I'll get to email again. Thanks to everyone who's sent updates, letters, packages, etc.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

The Guide to Mulanje Massif

We didn't say much in the back of the matola we caught a hitch in from Chitakale. After what we'd done, what can you say that others aren't already thinking? The tallest mountain in the country. Malawi's "Island in the Sky." Sure, it's no Kilimanjaro, no everest. But it's still a long way up. Three days of hiking, then the best pizza in-country, then a 700km trip from Blantyre to Mzuzu in one day. And I'm spent. I want to look at the horizon with eyes of chipped granite and say, "Yeah, I've shit in the woods." (Thanks, Mr. Bryson.)

I wasn't really prepared for this email session. I have good photos, but none prepared to email or post online. I should be back around technology in a couple weeks, so maybe then I can send some. Our IST was sub-par, but getting together with everyone was loads of fun. Now I've been away from site for more than three weeks. In another couple weeks I'll be back in Mzuzu for a permaculture workshop. Then Halloween in Chitipa. Then Thanksgiving in Lilongwe. Then Christmas and New Years (leaning toward Zambia). The new Environment '08 group will arrive the end of February. Mid-Service Training will be the end of April. Then it's a breeze. Wow, 6 months already.