Friday, June 20, 2008

Update from Malawi

To recap the previous post: After a very long, very tiring flight, I decided that I definitely don't want children and that I need a new research topic. A couple of restful days renewed my will to research, but a sleepless night on my own left me again questioning whether I really want to spend an entire year in fieldwork in Malawi.

The morning after my first sleepless night in Zomba, I packed my bags, determined to find a better situation, and found my way with minimal problems to the Center for Language Studies. Part of the University of Malawi's Chancellor College, CLS was originally mandated to standardize and promote the Chichewa language. Former President-for-Life Dr. Kamuzi Banda was a member of the Chewa tribe and wanted to promote the Chewa language and culture as the national language and culture. After Banda was removed from office, CLS began to study and teach other major Malawian languages, including Citumbuka and Ciyao. CLS staff, composed mostly of graduate students in linguistics, map language use, publish dictionaries and grammars, provide translation and interpretation services, and teach language courses, as well as conducting their own research projects. CLS will be my homebase for my first seven weeks in Malawi. I have six(ish) hours of instruction each day---a heavy load that usually leaves me exhausted at the end of each day. Unfortunately, I'm the only student in the class, so I have to stay alert and participate all day. No hiding in the back row! I'm making quick progress on learning the grammar, thanks to my Swahili classes at UW. The languages, both Bantu, share a common structure. I, however, am not catching on to the vocabulary as quickly. I have so many new words thrown at me every day that I can barely remember them from day to day, and I'm usually too tired in the evenings to do much review. But I'm finding that if I can even get out a few words in Chichewa, people appreciate my effort and try to help me along. I've had a few Malawian friends tell me that many foreigners stay in Malawi for years without bothering to learn even the basic greetings. Although I'm not sure whether they are saying this just to ingratiate themselves or whether it is true, I have frequently heard this criticism about the Chinese (who are not well-liked by the Malawians whom I've encountered).

But back to my story: When I arrived at CLS, I met with Jean C., who had arranged my lessons. Jean had previously offered to have me stay at her home, but knowing my history of not living well with others, I had opted for the motel. But the prospect of two months of lonely nights in a seedy motel made me rethink my choice. Fortunately, Jean's offer was still open and we arranged for me to move my things to her house that night. Although I often miss the quiet and independence of living by myself, I'm very glad that I'm staying with Jean.

A bit about Zomba: Say what you will about colonists, they knew what they were doing when they settled in Zomba as the administrative capitol for the colony (the capitol was later moved to Lilongwe by Banda, ostensibly to locate it in the center of the country, but also conveniently in a majority-Chewa region). In the southern region of Malawi, Zomba is surrounded by mountains and plateaus with lush vegetation. It tends to stay cooler than much of the rest of the country. Indeed, right now we are in the “cold” season, and the nights do get rather cold. For possibly the first time ever, I underpacked, and I've been wishing that I had brought a heavy sweater or two (and some more books---I'm going through them at a rapid clip). Zomba also tends to have a more reliable water supply from the mountain streams (although without irrigation systems, that water isn't much use to most of the villagers). And it's just beautiful here (although deforestation is a big problem; huge swatches on the mountainsides are almost entirely stripped of trees).

Jean's house is about 3 kilometers outside of the main town of Zomba, along the hill that leads to Zomba Plateau. Her neighborhood, called Mangasanja, is mostly former colonial homes that have been converted to university housing or hotels. Jean's house is one of those former colonial homes, a large, single-story white house with a wide porch and stepped landscaping. Besides the house, the original grounds included a brick garage at the foot of the driveway, a gardener's shed, and quarters for the house staff. Fifty years ago, I can imagine that the house made a very nice home for a British bureaucrat and his family. Today, it's fallen into serious disrepair. The paint is dingy and peeling; the plaster is cracked; panels are missing from the ceiling; mold grows on just above every surface and in every crevice. It's the sort of place that an optimistic realtor might call a “fixer-upper,” hoping for a romantic young couple gullible to think that a small investment and some elbow-grease could turn it into their dream home.

All that said, I'm lucky to be living there. We have electricity and running water. I even get to have a hot bath several times a week thanks to a water heater (but no showerheads so washing my hair requires a bit of contortion). The kitchen has a stove/oven and a refrigerator. Jean has a television with satellite (our channel selection is limited, though, and random---we can get the Botswana station but not the Malawi station) and a DVD player if we want to rent movies. I have my own room, furnished only with a full-size bed, and attached to a bathroom that I share with Jean's half-brother, Amos.

Amos does most of the cooking and cleaning. He's a student at a technical school, training to be an automechanic. I get the impression that Jean pays the bills and Amos earns his keep by taking care of the housework. Apparently they used to have a houseboy, but he received sponsorship to attend a technical school, and Jean wants to be cautious about hiring someone new. In any case, I'm definitely spoiled in this situation. I do cook about once a week, partly to contribute and partly to get some “American” food. I've made pasta, pizza, and---of course---cookies, adapting my recipes to the local ingredients and the kitchen supplies, which requires some experimentation and invention (using flat pot lids as cookie sheets and an empty soda bottle as a rolling pin!).

Although only three of us are currently “residing” at the house, a constant stream of visitors keeps the place full. Jean's door is always open to friends and family, and we've rarely had a night when just three of us were staying at the house. This week, her boarding school roommate, a professor at the nursing school in Mzuzu, has been staying with us while she is supervising students doing their practical work in the mental health hospital and community outreach. Last week, her college roommate, a state's attorney, was visiting from Lilongwe.

We've also had some less welcome visitors: invasions of soldier ants. Last week, I was heading to bed when I noticed ants on my bedspread. As I started to brush them off, I realized that they covered nearly a quarter of the bed, as well as the floor, the wall, and the windowsill. Even worse, I realized too late that they bit! And that they were running up inside my clothes! I called for Jean, and she woke Amos, who had gone to sleep without realizing that his room was also being overrun by the ants. We spent nearly two hours shaking ants off my bedding and moving me into Jean's room for the night (she sleeps on the opposite side of the house from Amos and me and was spared the invasion). The ants have mostly stayed out of my room since then, but this week they took over the kitchen and the walkway to the house.

Fortunately, the cold weather has kept the mosquitoes away. I haven't even put up my mosquito net yet. But I'm still taking my anti-malaria medicine just in case!

That's probably more than enough for this installment. Stay tuned!

Friday, June 13, 2008

Update from Malawi

Two weeks down. Eight to go. And I'm really starting to think that I might need a different dissertation topic. And maybe a different academic discipline altogether.

One thing that I do know for certain: I will never have children. As if spending 16 hours crammed into an economy seat with a broken video set wasn't bad enough, I spent those 16 hours sitting in front of a fidgety, cranky toddler who spent the entire flight shouting, crying, and kicking the back of my seat. I kept thinking that he would eventually wear himself out to sleep. And he did. For about an hour. Unfortunately that hour was when we were refueling in Senegal and had to get out of our seats for safety inspectors to come through.

My overnight in Johannesburg turned out, then, to be a bit of a blessing in disguise: I had a chance to sleep, clean up, and get some (sort of) decent food before I arrived in Malawi.

My arrival in Malawi was much less stressful this time. I had more of an idea what to expect. And I was very grateful that one of the sisters with whom I had worked at the school in Balaka came to the airport to greet me, gave me a place to stay for a couple of nights in Lilongwe, and helped me get settled with changing money, setting up a cell phone, and finding the bus to Zomba.

Thanks to Sr. Evelyn, my first few days in Malawi were relaxed while my body adjusted to the new time and new environment. The villagers in Kanengo Parish, about a 10-minute drive outside the city of Lilongwe, were also helpful in reacquainting me with the language and culture. The women of the parish were having a three-day retreat, and they invited me to participate in some of their activities, including dancing and a discussion of marital relations. Some of the women took turns interpreting for me so that I wouldn't feel excluded or lost. I also had a chance to interview the head of the community volunteers, a group of local women who provide home-based care for those with HIV or AIDS. She had some great insights into conditions in Malawi. But she also asked me a tough question---one that I've been asked since by several others: Why is the AIDS rate in America so low but it is so high in Malawi and other African countries? I've ventured a few guesses: public education on condom use, more rights for women, better health overall. But I'm not sure any of those, even together, are really an adequate explanation.

After my two days of rest, I had a long but uneventful bus ride to Zomba. (A geographic note: Lilongwe, the political capital of Malawi, is in the central region; Zomba is about four hours to the southeast.) I should make note though of my own embarrassing “azungu” (white person) mistake. As noted, Zomba is about four hours from Lilongwe. But the actual bus trip takes much longer because the bus stops in almost every market town, where the bus is surrounded by hawkers trying to sell snacks, drinks, produce, cell phone cards, and other goods. At one stop, I bought a small bag of masowa (similar to very small crabapples). A few stops later, a beggar came up to me to say that he was hungry. When I told him that I didn't have any money, he gestured toward the bag of masowa, so I gave him a couple of handfuls. Which he promptly threw on the ground, much to the amusement of the others on the bus, while I fumed---more at myself than at him. A rookie mistake to give food to a roadside beggar.

My first night in Zomba was a bit rough. Based on the recommendation of my contact at the language center where I'm studying for seven weeks, I had arranged to stay at a motel in town. The first room that I was shown was like something out of a horror movie: dirty, stained linens on a tiny, sagging bed; cracked walls; a dark, dank concrete shower; thin curtains that offered no real privacy. But I wasn't sure where else to go, so I took the room and went to find a late lunch. At lunch, someone told me that the motel had “executive suites” that were a bit nicer and more private than the single rooms. The “suites” were only a few dollars more per night and were indeed nicer---although still very basic---so I moved into one. And stayed there for the whole night, not even leaving to get dinner, because I discovered---to my dismay---that the motel restaurant turned into a noisy bar at night. Between the noise from the bar, which quieted only at the Muslim call to prayer, and my own sense of vulnerability at being in a motel room in Malawi by myself with a rather flimsy door with a single lock as my only protection, I got almost no sleep that night.

My situation took a turn for the better the next day.

To be continued . . . .