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 . . . .