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


At 11:31 AM , Blogger Jessica Mason said...

Scones sound delicious! Is sunscreen of some kind available? Or at least a wide-brimmed hat, so you can take care of yourself in the sun?

At 8:52 AM , Blogger Charitie said...

Excuse me I am sure that other people *ahem also send you emails *ahem especially when that person has gossip that someone might want to know about. :P

Agreeing w/Jessica above that you should wear more sunscreen.


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