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.


At 6:45 AM , Blogger Charitie said...

Do you think the lack of voluntourists (sorry if I spelled that wrong) has to do with the season? Before you were there during the summer --- not that I am trying to discourage you. Or maybe there is a new place for them to hang out. I have no doubt that you will find informants. I don't think the first few weeks of fieldwork is ever supposed to go exactly as planned. Otherwise everyone would be an anthropologist. Besides maybe you just need a Geertz moment - try getting chased by the police and see what happens ;)

At 1:18 PM , Blogger Jessica Mason said...

Hmmm, maybe you should make some kind of trap for them of the box-propped-up-on-a-stick variety. What kind of bait would voluntourists go for? Or you could trail them when they leave the resort!
And while getting arrested might be a lovely experience to get down in your fieldnotes, maybe that should be a last resort!

At 8:56 AM , Blogger Charitie said...

I think they like beer and cigarettes as evidenced by later posts.
And you don't actually need to get arrested, just *almost* arrested.


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