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.