Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Chasing Volunteers and Other Wild Geese

A brief side note to my fellow field workers: The Kindle is the single best item I packed. Field work, at least in my case, has a lot of down time---and a limited number of ways to fill that time. Having plenty of reading material---without the accompanying weight of physical books---has been a saving grace. It can also be a bit of a crutch; if Malinowski had a Kindle, he might never have gotten down from the veranda (and many days, I wish he never had).

Now back to our regularly scheduled blogging . . . .

I returned to Zomba even more determined to find some short-term volunteers so that I wouldn’t have to spend the next year in a hot, dusty, mosquito-ridden, Internet-deprived lakeside town. I went with a time-honored research technique: accosting strangers in the street. Emulating the locals, I approached every azungu I saw to ask where they were from, why they were in Malawi, and how long they were staying. I went up to them in the streets, stalked them through the markets, and shouted at them across crowded restaurants (a Canadian engineer is still rather wary of me after I used this last technique with him). Taking a hint from safaris, I tracked my prey where they ate. I spent countless hours at restaurants and bars where azungu were rumored to hang out, enlisting the aid of bartenders and waiters and passersby to identify possible subjects.

I also started being much friendlier to the locals who approached me. I explained my project to everyone and anyone who so much as made eye contact with me. I think at least half the men in Zomba between the ages of 18 and 35 now have my phone number.

And then I followed up every possible lead, no matter how vague or tenuous. I called every phone number I was given. I stopped in every office I could think of or was referred to.

One afternoon, I walked out to the district health office. One of my Malawian acquaintances assured me that it was very close, just a kilometer from where we stood in the center of town. Almost an hour later, dusty and sweaty from the afternoon sun, I finally reached the office. The two staff members I met were remarkably eager to help, even if they weren’t actually very helpful. I got the phone number of a Peace Corps volunteer (PCV) who was working at a clinic. PCVs aren’t really in my subject group, but I thought he might know of other volunteers. Then someone mentioned a community meeting where another PCV was supposed to be. It was at a school about another kilometer down the road (this time, an actual kilometer). So I trudged down the road again. The PCV hadn’t yet arrived, so I found a seat in the shade and waited. And waited. And waited. After more than an hour, he hadn’t arrived, so I gave up and went back up the road. Next door to the DHO is the central hospital, so I stopped in to ask about volunteers there (although I’m mostly avoiding medical professionals because any research involving hospitals requires yet another review board clearance). The hospital director was very friendly as he explained that he wasn’t going to tell me boo until I produced a letter of affiliation (which I still don’t have---this time because they lost one of my letters of recommendation).

The next day I went on an even longer hike---made extra long by my inability to read a map---up a rather steep hill on the advice of a woman I met in a restaurant (I really am not kidding about accosting all sorts of strangers in all sorts of places). She suggested two places in the same neighborhood: a faith-based NGO and a house where a Belgian woman occasionally housed volunteers. At the NGO, I met with a Canadian “volunteer”---a guy in his early twenties---who is assigned for two-years (again, outside of my subject group, and he was hesitant to call himself a volunteer because he has a job description and receives a stipend). He didn’t know of any short-term volunteers in the area, but seemed at least willing to keep an eye out for me. Further up the mountain, I found the house where the Belgian woman lives, but she was in Belgium for holiday.

So back down the mountain with nothing to show for it except a couple of new numbers in my contact list and a blazing sunburn on my chest, neck, and scalp. I stopped in at a lodge that was reputed to be popular among volunteers, only to be told that the volunteers had all cleared out a few weeks ago.

All in all, a lot of wild goose chases around Zomba in search of an ever-more elusive prey. So this, kids, is field work: lots of long days of trudging along dusty roads in the hot sun with little result.

In the meantime, I was still stymied by the bureaucracy of getting my affiliation (as noted above), still waiting for my extended visa to be approved (as the expiration on my temporary visa rapidly approached), and still moping about my living situation (not improved by the fridge breaking down while I was out of town and causing a terrible stench).

But I did have a few bright spots. On one of my azungu hunting trips, I worked up the nerve to go out to a local bar on a Friday night. Much to my surprise, several of the people I had met (read: accosted) during the week were there, including the “volunteer” from the mountain-side NGO and the Canadian engineer (as well as the girl who welched on the houseshare with me). Also there: a couple of Italian architects, a German development worker, a couple of American World Bank researchers, a (long-term) volunteer with Global Health Corps. Apparently the young ex-pat community converges on this bar on a regular basis (and regularly cleans it out of beer and cigarettes). They also have a weekly volleyball game on Sunday afternoons, where I finally met the PCV I had stalked earlier in the week, who finally gave me a substantive lead on short-term volunteers in the area. Unfortunately, by the time I got this lead, I had already made up my mind to go to Blantyre, where I hoped I’d have better luck (and did---more on this next time). But I’m tucking away the contact information for when I will (hopefully) return to Zomba.

I also had a very welcome visit from a fellow anthropology grad student who needed a place to crash for a few nights. I had been “friends” with A. on Facebook for nearly a year, but this was the first time we actually met in person. I was glad to have some company, if only for a short while; I even stayed up past nine o’clock!

And so, I gave Zomba the ol’ college try, but I was coming up with little more than tenuous suggestions that some more volunteers might show up in October. So I decided that I needed to look elsewhere.

To conclude with another brief aside: I’m writing this blog entry at a bookstore/café on the outskirts of Zomba center. The stated purpose of the establishment is to provide affordable Christian literature to Malawians. To this end, the owners have set up a café that caters to the azungu crowd---both in type of food and in price. The theory is that the food sales will underwrite the bookstore.

I’m a bit torn about patronizing the café. Because although it’s stated purpose is to serve the local community (through evangelism---I won’t get into the debate about how much that actually serves the community), in reality, it has become an azungu hang out. The food is outside the price range of even most middle-class Malawians, and I’ve never seen any Malawians eating here who weren’t in the company of azungu.

But . . . they serve really yummy azungu food (hot scones! with real butter!).

Am I staying too much on the veranda?

(Apologies for all the veranda references. Blame J. for bringing it up in an e-mail. Because J. actually sends me e-mails. *ahem, cough, cough*)

Next time: Greener Pastures

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Boys, Beaches, and Bus Depots (Not Necessarily in that Order)

I’m getting very behind on my updates. And I just know that all one-and-a-half of you reading this blog are desperately waiting for my next post.

So I arrived in Zomba to find that all the voluntourists had come and gone. But my first few days weren’t a total loss. My daily vigils at Tasty Bites paid off when I ran into a woman I had met two years ago during my preliminary research. A German who now splits her time between Malawi (8 months) and Australia (the rainy season), B. runs a charity with an informal volunteer program in a small town on the lake. The volunteers, mostly Germans and Aussies, come for anywhere from 2 weeks to 3 months, ostensibly to tutor children in an afterschool program, but really to do any work that can be found for them. The ones who were just here were redigging a trench around the property and working in the garden.

B. had three volunteers at the time, and she assented to my coming for a brief visit. I also hoped to catch up with another program in the same area that I also knew from my prior trip.

Getting to this particular town required yet another bus ride. A couple days before I planned to travel, I went to the bus depot to ask whether any of the more reliable coach buses went to my destination. The Axa bus did not; the National Bus supposedly did (and, indeed, does) but no one knew its schedule. A few people guessed that it left between 7 and 8 in the morning.

So on my travel day, I woke early to walk to the bus depot, getting there at about a quarter to seven---plenty of time to make sure I caught the bus and even get a seat.

As it turns out, the bus leaves BLANTYRE---a full two hours (by bus) south of Zomba---sometime between 7 and 8, which as we know, means about nine o’clock. Once again, I waited. And waited. And waited. A full three hours, until a coach bus---not the National Bus---arrived. I admit that I took full advantage of azungu privilege to push my way to the front of the line to get on, lest I have to wait several more hours. And even then, I had to stand for the first half hour or so, until a seat became free.

The trip itself only took about five hours, and someone was at the bus depot when I arrived to greet me and help me get my pack to the backpackers lodge where I would be staying. And by “backpackers lodge,” I mean “campsite.” The term “backpackers lodge” is applied to a whole range of accommodations in Malawi; some of the lodges have very nice private rooms with en suite baths, hot water included (in addition to the dorms and camp grounds), while others---like this one---are a bit more . . . rustic. My room was two twin beds with thin mattresses, thinner pillows, and a dingy blanket and torn mosquito net apiece in about an 8x10-foot space. No lock on the door or curtain on the window (which was just a torn mesh screen). No electricity anywhere on the property, and the bath was shared: two working toilets and one shower, about a 50-foot walk from the rooms. The water for the bathrooms came from several large barrels on top of the building, which were filled with lake water via bucket brigade; hot water was via a small fire lit under one of the barrels. If you wanted a shower, you had to give 30-minutes notice so someone could fill the barrels.

But . . . it was right on the lake, with a small private beach and plenty of quiet. If I had been prepared for camping, it would actually have been quite nice. Although, silly me forgot her bathing suit back in the States. (As an aside: I do not understand how some girls can manage to maintain impeccable personal grooming while backpacking for months on end. I can barely keep up the basics under the most optimum conditions.)

In any case, I got to spend a couple of days with the volunteers, and I re-established my contact with the other program (although I wasn’t able to meet with any of its volunteers because they were heading out of town for a weekend trip).

In some ways, the town would make a good project site for my research. It has a steady stream of voluntourists. And it has some controversy brewing with the voluntourism programs: Some former voluntourists, dissatisfied with their voluntourism experience, decided that they could do more good on their own. They partnered with the local volunteer coordinator to channel money into a particular project. They are now alleging that the coordinator embezzled the money. I also heard rumors that some other voluntourists have complained about their program and the local coordinators, but my informant was a bit cagey about divulging the stories (he was concerned that the people involved would kill him through witchcraft). The site also has the potential to reveal the stark cultural differences between Malawi and the West, and the influence of Western culture. Rastafarian culture is big among both the local young men and the Westerners who travel there; I was often the only one at the backpackers who was NOT high on ganga banana bread. And many of the voluntourists act like they are at the beach: wearing shorts and bathing suits, smoking and drinking, flirting with the locals.

But . . . it is hot. It is dusty. It is rather isolated; transport is difficult to other areas of Malawi. And it has no Internet. No where. None. Not for miles and miles. It’s also a bit of an extreme case. My impression from my previous research is that the voluntourists in other parts of Malawi do a little bit better job of blending into local norms (although they still tend to drink and smoke with abandon).

So, research-wise: promising. Living conditions: less so.

It’s definitely a site that I want to return to several times throughout the year---stay for a week or two---but not my ideal location for my primary site.

When I wasn’t scoping out the research possibilities, I was fending off the advances of one of the staff members at the backpackers: a Rastafarian who drinks and eats meat and who spent much of the time telling me how much he liked me. I didn’t want to offend him because, quite frankly, he’s a useful informant. In addition to greeting the arrivals at the bus depot, he mans a storefront from which he sells sodas, and therefore attracts various locals throughout the day. A lot of the information I got about the aforementioned controversy, as well as some local opinion on the German charity, came from hanging out on the front porch of the store. But I did try to make myself very clear that I was only interested in friendship.

I’m fairly certain that he moved on to the next lonely female traveler as soon as I departed, although he has tried calling me a few times.

Returning to Zomba involved another fun adventure at the bus depot. This time, I was told that the bus would depart at 3:00 am. I arranged with my Rasta boy to have him accompany me to the depot because (1) hadn’t brought a torch with me and (2) even with a torch, I didn’t love the idea of walking the rather isolated road from the backpackers to town. He, of course, didn’t show up at our arranged meeting time, so I had to rouse half the lodge to find him. We finally get to the depot a little after 3:00---and find out that the bus doesn’t depart until 4:00. In fact, the driver wasn’t even there and the bus wasn’t yet open to passengers. So I got to spend another half hour on the porch of the storefront, listening to a very drunk and high Rasta boy tell me how much he liked me.

The bus actually left on time, even though it was only about half full. But it then stopped about every quarter of a mile to pick up passengers along the road. Every one of whom seemed to be carrying the entirety of their worldly goods with them, requiring a good ten to fifteen minutes at each stop to load luggage. I was lucky to keep my seat to myself for about the first hour, until a woman with a very fussy---and very stinky---baby plopped herself, her baby, and her live chicken into the seat next to me---and into about half of my seat. I spent the remaining four hours alternating between cat-naps and passive-aggressive battle for space.

I got back to Zomba; slept for half a day; took a long, hot shower to scrub off the sand and grit; and steeled myself for another week of volunteer hunting.

Next Up: Wild Goose Chases and Other Adventures

Monday, September 06, 2010

A Day in the Life

To recap a bit: I arrived in Malawi, spent two days being orientated in Lilongwe, went to a friend’s wedding in Mzuzu, and was depressed in Zomba.

And I’m still in Zomba, but only occasionally depressed. Things were a bit frustrating when I first arrived. My housemate bailed on me. Malawian utilities were---and still are---failing me. And the institution with which I want to affiliate was strangling me in red tape. I had written ahead to find out what I needed to apply for affiliation---a proposal, a CV, and a letter of recommendation---and I promptly sent all the items so that the process would at least be started when I arrived. Except that when I arrived, I was told that my application was still incomplete: I needed proof of funding and two more letters of recommendation. After specifically asking if it was okay to have the letters sent by e-mail, I arranged for everything to be submitted. My committee members very dutifully sent the letters straight away. But when I went back again to check on the progress, I was told that the letters had to be on letterhead and signed; an e-mail was not indeed sufficient. Oh, and the affiliation fee has quintupled.

So I’m still waiting for affiliation.

I had anticipated that getting the affiliation would take some nagging after I got here, so I planned to spend the time locating a field site and doing research in the archives. Thus far, I’ve failed at both.

My plan for locating a field site was to hang around at the popular “azungu” (White/visitor) spots to find voluntourists, talk to them, and identify where they were working. This approach worked remarkably well during my preliminary research.

Not so much this time.

Malawi has hundreds---if not thousands---of foreign volunteers. I’ve found three so far---all at a resort town at the lake, where I most definitely do not want to spend the next eight months (more on this later).

As for the archives, I’m mostly striking out, but I haven’t given up. I did find one useful book---a history of the British Voluntary Services Overseas---and I keep digging through subject indexes in the hopes that somewhere I’ll find a buried treasure. At the very least, it keeps me occupied while I hunt the elusive voluntourist and await my affiliation.

I do manage to keep myself mostly busy during the day---up until about 4.00 each afternoon. I'm up around 6.00 each morning. I go to the archives for a few hours, then have lunch at Tasty Bites, a restaurant geared toward azungu and middle-class Malawians. The food is decent---I can get a healthy portion of chicken or fish, chips, and salad, with a soda, for the equivalent of about $5---and it’s a hotspot for a couple of wireless services, so I can check e-mail. After lunch, I run errands around town---getting food at the market, having a skirt fixed at the tailor, buying more wireless minutes. I dodge the vendors who ask me every single day if I want to buy strawberries or postcards or cell phone minutes, even though I wave them off every single day. I read the local paper; big stories lately include a proposed policy to limit families to two children (no wonder people here think the Chinese have taken over) and projected food shortages (reports on which have led the president to threaten to shut down media for portraying the government in a bad light; I’m starting to think the Chinese have taken over). I write my notes from the day, although at this point they hardly qualify as field notes. I do some Chichewa review. My language skills are coming back quickly---I’ve managed conversations up to 3 minutes long---although for the life of me, I cannot understand a word that my housekeeper says.*

And then . . . I attempt to fill the very long hours from the late afternoon to a decent bedtime (around 9.00). I’m reading a lot; the Kindle has become an indispensable field tool. I listen to the same songs on endless repeat (but I finally got my billing figured out on iTunes, so send suggestions for new music). I cook dinner on a small gas cooker---generally some combination of potatoes, beans, and greens with tomatoes and onions. I write overly long, depressing blog posts and count the weeks until I can come home.

Field work is oh-so glamorous.

Next up: Boys, Beaches, and Bus Depots

* The owner of the house employs a caretaker who lives on the property with his wife and baby daughter. With all the dirt and dust and creepy critters in Malawi, daily house cleaning is essential. I’m way too lazy for that. And I’m complete rot at washing my clothes by hand. So I hired the wife as a part-time housekeeper, justifying it as contributing to the local economy.