Monday, December 18, 2006

Good nutrition makes you smarter!

Full disclosure now: I work in the field of Public Health, with a current concentration on nutrition. I actually think it's fun to talk about breastfeeding and Vitamin A.

Over the weekend, The New York Times ran an article called "In Raising the World’s I.Q., the Secret’s in the Salt". The article is about about salt iodization, which sounds dull, but is really an interesting topic.

The story reminded me of my first overseas position in Eritrea, where I worked under the mentorship of a brilliant, sensitive, and philosophical woman who taught me much of what I know about malnutrition. We had a problem there with the drivers - they seemed incapable of remembering anything for more than about 30 minutes. When they inevitably forgot to pick us up at the arranged time, Angela would turn to me and say, "I really think it's the iodine deficiency."

Since then, iodine deficiency has been my standard (jokingly, of course) excuse for memory lapses in my friends and colleagues. Don't blame them - blame the salt.

More seriously, though, in Darfur I saw the effects of iodine deficiency in a very stark and horrifying way. Many of the mothers of malnourished children came to the clinic with huge goiters, indicating widespread iodine deficiency. Even worse, I came across a number of children with cretinism, which is a rare form of severe physical and mental retardation caused by iodine deficiency. These children could not feed themselves from the household pot, as is common in Sudan. Mothers are often out of the home tending their fields all day, so the children slowly starved to death, as they had no one to feed or care for them.

Our Christmas vacation plans

I have a lot of news and tidbits to share today, but I will try to prioritize.

First, and most importantly, my sister arrives today! She has spent the last 3 days trying to get here for a short Christmas break. She was supposed to arrive yesterday, but a freak windstorm in Seattle shut down the airport last Friday, forcing her to delay all her flights by one day.

My husband and I have been frantically trying to get our car licensed and registered so that we can drive her around Malawi. Hopefully the registration and insurance will be finished today, and tomorrow we can hit the road. Our plans are:

To spend a day walking around the Zomba plateau. There's a local legend that JR Tolkein once spent time in Zomba, and that it served as a model for the Shire in the Lord of the Rings. It's said that the name comes from the Shire river (pronounced Sheer-ray) that flows through the length of the country. Could be total rubbish, though.

We'll drive next to Blantyre, the old colonial capital. Weather permitting, we will drive to Mt. Mulanje, the third-highest peak in Africa, for a short hike. Then on Friday we will return to Lilongwe via Dedza, home of Dedza Pottery. That evening we're off to the U.S. Embassy Christmas party.

Over Christmas we have booked a 3-day safari to South Luangwa Park in Zambia. We'll be staying in the gorgeous Kapani Lodge, so hopefully Christmas dinner will be a big affair.

On our return we will spend one night at Lake Malawi, relaxing, before my sister has to return home to throw her annual New Year's Eve party.

Today will be my last day in the office until Dec. 29th, but I may be able to post before then. In the meanwhile, I wish you all a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Office Christmas Party

Last night I went to my office's Christmas party. I'm a bit odd in that I think office Christmas parties are fabulous. I think it all goes back to the very first one I attended, when I was 19 and working in a bookstore in Washington, DC. The party was held in a big billiards hall, and I was immediately handed a wristband - the bouncer didn't even check my ID, as I was "with the gang."

I had two beers, which back in those lightweight days got me fairly tipsy, and then talked philosophy (or perhaps just talked nonsense - it seemed alright at the time) with my normally very uptight boss. It was the most unexpectedly fun evening ever. I felt so grown-up and cool.

Since then, no other party has quite lived up to that one, but I just keep hope alive.

For this year's party, I was expecting your typical early evening affair - beers, mingling, some deep-fried finger foods, but I found out in advance that there was actually an agenda for this party. That tells you a lot about where I work. So I got there on time, and of course beat almost everyone else.

I think most people expect African parties to be this big raucous affair, with poundingdrums, dust flying in the air from vigorous, booty-shaking dancing, and loud, boisterous singing. Alas, this is not the case. Every African party I have attended instead consists of very sober-faced men and women sitting, either at tables or in rows of chairs, drinking beers and sodas, and talking quietly. I am not kidding. I even took a picture to prove it. In some parties, people eventually get up to dance once they've had enough beers, but in Eritrea and Sudan they never moved.

So I joined right in: grabbed a buffet-plate full of food, and then sat for two hours. Occasionally someone walked by to shake my hand. Then came the ubiquitous speeches. But after the speeches, a wondrous thing happened - someone had arranged party games! All at once, everyone was out of their chairs and cheering and laughing. My boss came second in the most lively game of musical chairs I've ever seen. Rather than just walking around the chairs, all the Malawians boogied. They worked it.

I was enlisted to play the next game. Along with three of my coworkers, I was set in front of a row of bottles, blindfolded, and then told to step over the bottles without knocking any over. I did so very deliberately and carefully, but I figured that everyone else must have made a mess of it, given the rowdy laughter from the crowd. After lifting my blindfold, I saw that they had removed the bottles, and everyone was laughing at our earnest efforts!

I left early, as I had a birthday party to get to, but I was sad to have to leave just when the party was finally getting good.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Our new car

We arrived in Lilongwe on September 18th, knowing full well that we would have to purchase a car. Lilongwe is a fairly spread out city, and public transport is in rickety, crammed (and often B.O. stinky) matolas. Minibusses, to you and me. The alternative is to take a taxi, which gets expensive.

We had a time limit of four months - when my duty-free status would run out.

So why has it taken so long for us to finally purchase a car? Don't ask. I will get a migraine. It's whole other post and I'm not going there.

Anyway, after months of tears and recriminations, my husband finally found a car. If I sound like I'm abdicating responsibility here it's only because:

1) I work very hard every day, in a high-pressure environment

2) He takes naps and reads books all day

So it was his job.

I haven't taken a picture of the car, but it looks a bit like this:

Now, the problem is that it is taking forever to clear customs. Once that is done, we still have to do a police clearance, get insurance, and register the vehicle. And we want all this to be done by Tuesday next week so that we can drive off around the country with my sister, who will be visiting from the U.S. So keep your fingers crossed that things will go well today, and that I can start sleeping at night again!

Friday, December 8, 2006

World AIDS Day

I'm a bit late, but in honor of World AIDS Day (which was December 1st), I wanted to write a bit about AIDS in Malawi.

An estimated 14% of Malawian adults are infected with HIV - the majority don't know their status. A recent study showed that while 70% of youth knew about AIDS and where to get tested, only 3% of them had actually done so.

As a result of the HIV epidemic, the life expectancy has dropped to 37 years. At the age when many of us in the U.S. are only just starting families and building a life, the women in Malawi are ending theirs. Still, there are many reasons for the short life expectancy - malaria, malnutrition, high maternal death. Despite this, whenever someone young (in the 30s or 40s) dies, many expats seem to assume that it was due to HIV. As one of my colleagues once told me, "we're not dropping like flies, you know."

There is incredible stigma attached to the illness here - villages are small communities, and everyone knows everyone else's business. As a result, many adults simply don't want to know. When we began referring mothers for voluntary HIV testing during nutritional services, some mothers simply stopped coming. Even the mention of HIV was enough to scare them off.

There are of course many reasons for the fast spread of HIV in Sub-Saharan Africa, but as a married woman, what always strikes me most are the views toward infidelity here. There seems to be a high level of acceptance, and most women are powerless to do anything about an unfaithful husband. There's an attitude in the country that if a man is away from his wife for long stretches (or if she doesn't put out, to put it bluntly), the man can't help himself.

In honor of World AIDS Day, we had a number of activities at our office, including dancers, drummers, and - of course - a bouncy castle. But very moving were the testimonials of people living with HIV - I was impressed with their courage and desire to help.

Monday, December 4, 2006

Support the Saints!

The New Orleans Saints have been nominated for the "Biggest Comeback" on VH1's "Big in '06" awards.

Vote for them at You can vote as many time as you want.

While you're at it, check out two good articles on New Orleans from the New York Times:
Back to New Orleans, Gently
Sounds of Vitality For a Stricken City

Many of you who visited me there will know all about Rebirth on Tuesdays, and the band in the picture (The New Orleans Jazz Vipers) is another of our favorites. We first saw them at the Spotted Cat the weekend before Mardi Gras in 2002. Te last time I was home, I was still waiting for the comeback of Linnzi Zaorski and Delta Royale, who played at our wedding.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Why Tanzanians don't like to have their photos taken

On the way back from the cultural tour last Saturday, a colleague tried to take a picture of a school yard full of children from the car. Chaos ensued. Children screamed, ran, ducked and covered, and the teacher clanged the school bell to try to restore calm.

We asked the driver why people don't like to have their picture taken. Here is his explanation:

"There are many Muslims in Tanzania, and sometimes they bomb the schools. The children are told to watch out for strangers because they are afraid of Al Qaeda since September 11."

Now, if you ask me, it is highly unlikely that Al Qaeda is going to think that some tiny primary school in the backwaters of Tanzania is a threat that must be eliminated. And people didn't like having their photos taken back when I was there in June 2001 either. But make of it what you will.

It reminded me a bit of when I was in Egypt earlier this year. Every time a tomb had been defaced in some way, the tour guides marked it down to Christian vandals. But just as likely it could have been Muslim fundamentalists many years ago, who believed people should not be represented in images. There are scapegoats and iconoclasts in all societies, I guess.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Cultural tourism. Bah.

I spent last week in a conference in Arusha, Tanzania, which explains my absence.

On Saturday I had a free day, and I decided I ought to get out and explore a bit. After all, Arusha is the heart of Africa's tourism country, and is the launching point for safaris to the Serengeti, the Ngorongoro Crater, and Mt. Kilimanjaro. Every morning I watched with envy as excited tourists from around the world headed off on what could be the trip of a lifetime.

And I know from experience just how great this place is - I spent two weeks travelling in Tanzania in 2001, and it was an unforgettable trip. If you can only ever go to one place in Africa, make it here.

I didn't want to spend a lot of money or time though, so I thought a walk around the lush hillsides of Mt. Meru would be perfect. The travel agent seemed completely confused by my wish to just walk around, and not actually visit anything (like the snake farm...) So the alternative given to me was a "Cultural tour" of the village on Mt. Meru, with some walking involved.

We set off at 8:30 and drove sloooowly towards Mt. Meru (even the chicken buses passed us). Stopped at a school, a church, heard about the plants. Then, after lurching up steep, pitted roads that were probably the worst I have ever been on (and that is really saying something) we ended up at the Momala Cultural Tourism Center. There, we were asked for another $20 for the privelege of taking a walk on the hillside. We balked at the high price, so instead paid $10 each for the normal tour.

The tour consisted of seeing their cows in the backyard, watching coffee being shelled and roasted, and seeing where they made the cheese. All this for the low price of $50, once you factor in transport. Grrr.

I realized then that I should never again let myself get suckered into these things. I already know a great deal about what village life in Africa is like, and these sanitized visits add nothing to my understanding. I was also a bit annoyed at the woman who ran the place, because she behaved like a caricature of an African woman. When we arrived, she hugged us all as if we were old friends - a handshake is more the norm here - and then when we left she pranced around the yard singing. It looked a bit like a money dance, really.

(That's not me in the picture, by the way. But she's roasting coffee)

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Happy Thanksgiving!

There will be no turkey for me today, but I just wanted to wish everyone a very happy Thanksgiving Day from Arusha, Tanzania.

I am thanksful to be healthy, happy, and finally achieving some small measure of success in my career! I hope that everyone who reads this also has many things to be happy for.

Some pictures from our Thanksgiving celebration on Nov. 18th:

We had turkey, sweet potatoes, stuffing, mashed potatoes, continental vegetables (my family will understand), carrots, green bean casserole, cranberry sauce, brownies, key lime pie, and apple crisp. Yum!

Friday, November 17, 2006

Thanksgiving preparations

This year I will be in a workshop in Tanzania on Thanksgiving, so we are having our turkey dinner tomorrow, on Saturday.

You may be surprised to hear that we can find turkey here in Malawi. And it’s frozen, imported, plastic-wrapped turkey. We will even be having gelatinous cranberry sauce from a can. It doesn’t get more authentically American.

A friend offered to bring me a live turkey from the town he lives in, where they roam around free. I can imagine the poor turkey sitting in the backseat of a Landrover, terrified, on its way to its execution. In my experience (of which I have plenty now) freshly-killed poultry is a bit too tough. And they make your whole house smell of burned hair, because the feathers sticking to the bird after plucking need to be burned off. Needless to say, I declined the offer.

One of the nice things about Malawi is that you can get just about everything you need. It can be quite expensive (our 10-pound turkey cost us almost $25) but you rarely feel deprived of anything major. I’d love a good fresh chevre, and a carnitas burrito (maybe not together) but overall, I can’t complain.

By the way, in preparation for our first official to-do, we are having the living and dining-room painted today. The paint cost $65 dollars, whereas the labor is only about $15. That’s typical here, where labor is so undervalued. Still, I guess I’m not complaining about that either.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

The dark side of the rains

It rained again yesterday afternoon, and it was lovely.

Until I got home.

Apparently, the side effect of the first rain is that all the termites come out like a swarm of locusts. When I got home my front doorstep was covered in dead termites, and once I got inside they were crawling all over the window screens, like zombies trying to get in.

My husband, who actually took a class on insects once (he even has a certificate on basic entomology or something) told me that the termites live in the ground during the dry season, then they all come out once the ground is saturated with water. Their wings are temporary, and the termites grow them just for this one special moment, when they get out of the ground to find a new place to live. Then they drop their big wings and settle down to find some wood to chew, presumably. So all the wings that I thought were attached to dead termites, were actually just evolutionary litter, and the very-much-alive termites are probably eating my house now.

But you have to take everything my husband says with a grain of salt. He once told me that Maple trees explode if their syrup isn't tapped. He heard it on NPR so he knew it was true.

We looked it up and he was right - it was on NPR. On April 1st.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

First rain of the season, and first blog as well

Shortly after waking up this morning, I heard a rumbling sound, as if the neighbors next door were gunning their truck engine again. But as it grew, and didn't stop, I realized that the very first rain of the season had finally arrived.

The radio said that this rain was actually a rain that should have come last October, but was late. They said that the October rains are normally lighter, and help the farmers to prepare the soils for the real rainy season, which begins in November or December. How they can tell that this particular rain is different from the "normal" rains, I have no idea. It all looks like water falling from the sky to me.

It is my 4th month in Malawi, and my 4th job in Africa. But this is my first blog. I figured it was finally time to start one, as even the head of UNHCR in Sudan has a blog. When a man twice my age, who could get in a lot more trouble for airing the details of his work, gets a MySpace account, then I know I'm behind the times.

Plus, I finally have a decent internet connection. Well, it's slow, and unpredictable, but at least it's not dial-up.

So now I am in my office. In a few moments I will be interviewing a potential new employee at the NGO (Non-Governmental Organization in foreign aid lingo) that I work at. But for now I am just enjoying the coolness of the air now that the rain has washed out the months of accumulated heat and dust. The red soil here soaks up the water like a sponge, and leaves the air filled with a metallic smell of iron.

I find it interesting that so many women in this country are anaemic due to a lack of iron in their diet, when the soil is so rich that it is red from the iron ore. There is a phenomenon known as geophagia, which commonly occurs during pregnancy, where women feel a compelling need to eat dirt. There is a theory that this occurs because the body knows it needs iron for the baby, so it drives women to pull big chunks of soil out of the ground and eat them, mostly in private, as this isn't really dinner-party sort of behavior, even in an African village. The irony is that the women then pick up intestinal worms from the soil they have eaten, and the worms then make them even more anaemic.

So there you have a clue as to my own work and interests here in the "Warm Heart of Africa".