And counting down.
I’m so relieved to be past the halfway mark now. I’m beginning to feel a bit of the sense of urgency of only having a few months left to finish my research---the feeling of Oh crap, I still haven’t done X, Y, or Z. But more, I feel the relief of being able to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
I’ve moved to my new project site, Nkhata Bay, a small town on the lakeshore in the Northern Region. The new site has its benefits: I’m staying in a lodge right on the lake; I go swimming nearly every day; things are a bit less expensive than they were in Blantyre.
But it has its drawbacks as well. I had gotten a bit used to living in an urban environment, with reliable, relatively quick Internet, hot showers, decent restaurants and grocery stores filed with Western goods and an enormous market with just about any type of produce you could want. Now I’m a 20-minute walk from the nearest paved road; the grocery stores stock just the basics and the produce market is limited to tomatoes, onions, and one or two types of greens (although it does have loads of fish). Internet is slow and unreliable. Hot water is nonexistent; even cold water is iffy since the water goes out every time the power does, which is several times a week. Those daily swims often have to double as baths (and sometimes laundry). And the weather is wicked hot, with almost no rain for even temporary relief. I’m getting bitten to bits by mosquitoes, and spend the better part of my day trying to ward off the ants and flies that get onto and into everything (me, my clothes, my food, my computer, my bed, . . . ). I try not to think about how many ants I’ve eaten these past two weeks.
I finally almost feel like I’m a real anthropologist!
The downsides are outweighed by one big upside: I found two places that have short-term volunteers and are willing to let me hang around for a few months to do my research. One of the places is the lodge where I’m staying (temporarily, I hope). The owners, two British women, bought the lodge with the intention to turn it into a hub for community development. They’ve opened a nursery school, an information center, and a youth club, along with supporting groups for widows, HIV-positive adults, and special-needs children. They have a demonstration garden and offer seeds and support for people who want to plant alternative crops. The lodge then is primarily intended to house volunteers, although it also gets its fair share of backpackers, some of whom do a few days of volunteering to take advantage of the half-price volunteer rate. The lodge also seems to be a social hub for what I’ll call “independent” Western development workers and volunteers. This category is largely composed of Westerners, many of whom originally came to Malawi as volunteers with an established organization, who are launching their own small-scale charity projects, mostly building single schools.
So I’ve gotten a lot done just by hanging about the lodge. I’m also volunteering with the youth club---and discovering that I’m absolute rot with kids. I wasn’t very good at being a kid when I was one, let alone when I’m in my mid-thirties. I spent most of my childhood with my nose in a book. Or at Girl Scout meetings and dance classes and piano lessons. Nothing that’s really very useful in this context.
The other place is a community-based organization in town. The organization was actually started by one of the women who own the lodge and a British man, and for a long time was part of a larger UK-based organization. It has since broken off from its roots---although it seems the British man is still involved, albeit from afar because he was kicked out of the country (details of the circumstances vary)---and is, at least nominally, attempting to become a self-sustaining CBO. It also has a nursery school , a library, and a widows’ group (the same group of widows served by the lodge . . . ahem), as well as supporting a school for the blind, offering an adult education program, and running a “shelter” school---an afternoon program, held in a shelter (hence the name), to provide supplementary education for young children. Also like the lodge, the organization’s director wants to promote alternative crops that can be used for health and healing (e.g., ginger, garlic).
I’m still working out my role with the CBO. They want me to help them with publicity and marketing. Which I know how to do. I did get my undergraduate degree in public relations and worked in PR/Marketing. But I’m a bit torn about helping promote both an organization and an activity about which I have some conflicting feelings. In the meantime, I am trying to insert myself into their efforts to develop some kind of cooperative with the other libraries and information centers in town. With any luck, I may be able to get two research projects for the price of one!
Interestingly---to me, anyway---both organizations are very keen for me to volunteer with their schools, even though I've made it clear that I have no experience or particular skill for teaching young children. Just the very fact of me being white and Western seems to imbue me with the aura of having some superior knowledge to their own, local teachers.
Another upside to my new field site: I’m only a few hours from the Tanzanian border. Admittedly, Malawi is small enough that you are never more than a few hours from the border of something. But I’ve already been to Zambia, and I’ve heard that Mozambique is a bit difficult to get around. So . . . Tanzania. I’m heading up there for a week of “vacation” at the beginning of February. The plan is to take the train from Mbeya to Dar es Salaam, then a ferry to Zanzibar.
Plans in Africa never seem to go as such. And I haven’t quite worked out how I’m getting back to Malawi. One would think it would be a simple matter of reversing how I got there. But again . . . This is Africa. Nothing is simple.
Regardless, I’m looking forward to seeing someplace that isn’t Malawi and maybe talking about something other than my research for a week.