Thursday, January 31, 2008

Old Man River

We have had really heavy rains so far this year in Malawi. Already, a number of districts have flooded. I have been out in rural areas a few times recently and seen fields of maize, withered and destroyed by overflowing riverbanks. It makes me concerned about the harvest this year, and I expect there will be more vulnerable people needing support when I return this year in the fall.

One of the exciting things about the rain, though, is that the Lilongwe River, our little muddy trickle of a sewer, is a full-fledged river now, with whitecaps and rushing currents. I drive over the river every day to get to my office, and I get to see the excitement that the flood has created, some of it happy, some of it sad.

Yesterday morning on the way to work we saw crowds of people peering over the sides of the bridge to the bank below. Jorge and I speculated that perhaps someone had drowned and had washed up near the market, or perhaps, even more surprising in Malawi, was even murdered. Today I learned the sad news though – someone picking through the washed up refuse of the river had found a bag with a newborn baby, premature and probably stillborn, that had been thrown over the edge of the bridge.

That wasn’t the only big event at the river yesterday. When Jorge came to pick me up at work, he told me, astonished, “Today I saw a man in a woman’s swimsuit.” While this is fairly amusing in itself, it wasn’t really that unusual. You actually get used to some very strange fashions when you live in Africa, and gender-confused clothing is pretty common. However, when we drove back home, the bridge was lined with cheering crowds staring down at the water, and we realized that the man was going to swim across the river. We didn’t stick around to see if he made it, though.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Cape Town

Here's part two of "What I did on my Christmas Vacation." But first, updates.

Jorge managed to make it back to Malawi unscathed on Saturday. Somewhat miraculously, he did not lose his passport or any money on this trip. Just the plane ticket (he lost mine, too). But we managed to get it sorted out. He brought lots of gifts, so I have decided to forgive him for abandoning me. Not before giving him a hard time for a few hours, of course.

I have just FOUR WEEKS of work left! So I am all a-dither trying to finish things off. There is just so much to do, both here in Malawi, and back in the U.S.

So Cape Town was nice. I thought it was a nice city, with a beautiful setting. Sort of like Baltimore, or Philadelphia, with good topography (before anyone takes that as an insult, let me just say that I really like Baltimore, OK?) The city itself is not much to write home about, although it has some interesting museums and some nice neighborhoods. But I loved being so close to hills and ocean again.

We had a terrific place to stay, right in the center of the business district, close to a lot of great restaurants. This was view from our little apartment, with the clouds covering Table Mountain:

Before going to Cape Town, everyone will tell you that you must go up Table Mountain. Then you will get to the ticket office, see the two-hour line for tickets, and ask yourself whether it's really worth it. It is. On the mountain, we were given a free guided walk by a volunteer, which was so interesting - she pointed out all the indigenous plants and took us to see the best views.

The waterfront area has been revitalized over the last few years, and is now sort of a big sprawling shopping complex. Malls sort of freak me out now, since the biggest shopping area in Malawi is about the size of your average supermarket back home. All those people! Just spending money like it's going out of style! In Malawi, you go shopping because you need something. And then it still takes you about 3 trips to different stores because they're all out of at least one item on your shopping list. The concept of shopping as entertainment is sort of lost on people here. But the best thing about the waterfront was getting out on a boat for a cruise.

And that's where the best views of the city are.

On our last day in Cape Town we drove down south along the coast. The highlight for me, as expected, was seeing the penguins. Dang cute, those birds. And very used to visitors, so you can get very close and just watch them. I especially loved watching them walking (and hopping).

Finally, Jorge and I took a walk out to the Cape of Good Hope. The wind was a bit scary, and a few times I thought I might just get blown off the cliff! But it was nice to just have a good walk.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Remembering Hadja

Today is two years since my colleague Hadja Ahmed died while evacuating from the fighting in Darfur. Hadja was a mother, a dedicated worker, and a good friend to many. Her death was a huge blow to everyone who worked with her. My thoughts are with her family today, and I ask you to remember the good work that Hadja and many other brave Sudanese are doing to help ease the suffering in Darfur.

When I read the news reports from Sudan, I feel both angry that the situation has been allowed to deteriorate so much, and frustrated with the simplistic black-and-white nature of the reporting. The conflict in Darfur is so much more complicated that the media would have you believe, and since I left it has gotten even more chaotic.

Contrary to what the media would have you believe, there was no systematic ethnic cleansing going on at the time I lived there. Yes, there are tribal tensions, notably between nomadic traders and agricultural pastoralists. There have long been conflicts between these two groups, especially in years where rainfall is poor, and the nomads encroach on the farmers' lands. The government has indeed manipulated these tensions by providing arms to the nomads. But for the most part, you get killed in Darfur because of which faction controls your town, not because you ride a donkey instead of a camel. And increasingly, the violence is occurring within factions, not between them. The people killing each other have much more in common than they have different.

I usually avoid politics in this blog, and I know many people, even some of my former colleagues in Darfur, would disagree with my views. But I think it does no justice to the people of Darfur, and it leads us no closer to the resolution of the conflict, to paint the situation in terms of good guys against bad guys. And I worry that shouting "genocide" every time a civil war includes a component of ethnic violence, is a bit like crying wolf. If we're already desensitized to Darfur, what will be our reaction if another Rwanda rolls around?

I feel like I have written this all wrong, and yet I don't really know what else to say. What I really want people to know about Darfur is that the people I met there were the kindest, most generous, most honest people I have ever had the good fortune to come into contact with. That is they story I would like to write, but I don't even know how to begin.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Valid reasons to be annoyed with my husband

For some time now, Jorge has said that he wants to do a guest post on my blog, entitled “Stupid reasons my wife has gotten mad at me.”

Yes, I admit it, I have a temper. I frequently get annoyed with my spouse. But if you ask me, there is always a perfectly logical, justifiable reason for my aggravation.

Well, today I’m jumping the gun and offering a little bit of an advance rebuttal. Consider the evidence that my husband can be a big poo:
  • He has spent the last 12 days traipsing around Mozambique – diving, eating fresh seafood, no doubt drinking fruity cocktails out of coconut shells – while I have spent that time working. (And let’s not even get into the trips to Colombia, Tanzania, New Orleans, South Africa…)
  • He got himself “stuck” in Swaziland (oh yeah, visa delays…haven’t I heard that one before?) and now wants to postpone his flight home for a few more days.
  • Despite the fact that we are both in agreement that Facebook is pretty stupid and we don’t really get it, he has enough savvy to understand that he can irritate me by not accepting me as a friend. Me, his best friend in the world. He says, in his impish little way, “Why do you want to cramp my style?”

So what do you think? Butthead, or no?

But it is OK. I will soon be vindicated. Because I have realized something that my husband hasn’t: Very soon, what little “style” he still has after more than three years of marriage to me is about to evaporate completely. As he is walking around the Lilongwe market, shopping for produce with our child strapped to his chest in a sling or something equally foolish, I will be delighting in the derision of the African male. Oh, the sweet mockery of a chauvinist society toward a stay-at-home dad. Vengeance at last.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

The apple, the tree

A couple years ago, over tea in Darfur, the conversationwith my colleagues turned to the travels of our parents. It was interesting to me that the parents of most of my Irish and English friends had never left their own countries until very recently. And when they did leave, it was to go somewhere close and fairly easy, like France.

In contrast, I have to say I always had pretty adventurous parents. My father (who is English) spent months hitchhiking around the U.S. when he was 21. (I just found out that during those travels, he was taken to see an as-yet nearly unknown Bob Dylan perform in a small mid-Western bar. I always find it a little disorienting to think of my dad doing something cool like that.) My mom, for her part, took a year off before college to save up money to travel around Europe. Both of them went to Kenya in 1972, when mom was pregnant with my oldest sister, a very long and expensive trip at the time.

Even my older relatives were travelers – my grandmother took a year’s sabbatical in the 70s for round-the-world trip, even going to such remote places as Afghanistan and Cambodia. My great-aunt Sally performed around the world as part of an all-girl jazz band, and was living in the Philippines at the time of World War II (she spent several years in a Japanese concentration camp as a result).

So it's no surprise that my sisters and I all love to travel as well. Unfortunately for my parents, the 70s and 80s were not as prosperous as the times we live in now, so most of our vacations were spent in cars and tents, driving around the National parks of the American West (which I am not knocking!). As it was, we only took one big trip when I was a kid, when we spent a month in Europe, and a month visiting my family in England. I was 9 years old, and I was smitten. The castles, the old medieval back-alleys, the stories of crusades and royal intrigue...I knew then I wanted to see as much of the world as possible.

When they finally got all three of us girls off to college, my parents' plan was to travel as much as they could. Unfortunately, because my mom fell sick, that didn't happen for her. But I'm very proud of my dad, who has been so many exciting places in the last 10 years, making up for lost time. He claims to be envious of all the traveling I get to do, but he's easily been as many places as I have.

Now he can add to his list Malawi and South Africa, after visiting me over the holidays. Since you have heard a lot about Malawi over the last year, I won't go into much detail on that part of the trip. But here are some photos:

Dad and me on Christmas Day at the Kapani Lodge. What I love about this place is just how much they spoil you over the holiday!

Sundown at the Luangwa River. With us are our two friends, Cassandra and Todd.

Me on safari

And of course, must always boast about the lion sightings. This is one of the two we saw last year with Miriam. The other was unfortunately shot by a hunter (it's legal if they wander out of the park grounds) earlier this year. Such a shameful waste.

The rains have been heavy this year, and the road was very bad in stretches.

We went to Liwonde National Park in Malawi, where you can do a canoe safari with the hippos. Although you can't see it, the Shire River is behind me about 250 feet.

Zomba Forest Lodge, which is just a lovely place to relax.

This is Solomon, the rightly-proud chef at the Zomba Forest Lodge, showing off our New Year's Eve feast.

Happy New Year!

Friday, January 18, 2008


So I could write all sorts of interesting things today. But all I want to do is lie down on the couch with a cup of hot chocolate and a Martha Stewart magazine (neither of which I have).

But I have promised posts, so posts I shall deliver.

My first week back at work after holiday was a bit of a nightmare, even with a holiday thrown in on Tuesday. That, incidentally, is an interesting bit of Malawi trivia - since there's pretty much no glorious independence movement here to speak of, the Malawi politicians needed to stretch to find themself a martyr. Enter John Chilembwe. I can't remember the details of the story, but apparently some time in the 20s he went off and killed himself a couple of white settlers, in resistance to colonialism. While this achieved nothing in terms of greater rights and autonomy for the Malawian people, it did result in a reprisal killing of a whole lotta Africans. For this, we get a holiday. And good old Johnny got his face on the Malawian currency.

I spent most of my work week either out in the field, or sitting in the IT office trying to get my computer to work properly. The good news is that I can now open my computer, access my work e-mail and print. The bad news is that the IT department succeeded in wiping out all my work from the last two months. The whole freaking lot of it. I'm so ready for that maternity leave now.

Jorge is still in Mozambique, and I am trying to fill my time by socializing with all my childless friends before they shun me once I become a milk-leaking, sleep-deprived, frumpy looking mom.

Oy veh, I need to go home, and save the next post for when my brain can think in whole paragraphs again.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Okeedoke, I'm home. You can come back now.

Well, I expect I've gone and alienated the few people who actually read this blog by my long absence, but if you happen to drop by, come back and stay! I promise to be better from now on!

And since I only have 6 weeks left in Malawi before I go on maternity leave, I will have to share lots of the little details of life here before we go back to the land of strip malls, soccer moms, and pre-packaged foodstuffs. Seriously, Jorge and I were trying to think of reasons why it will be nice to be back in the U.S., and we were coming up with pretty much squat, apart from being able to go to the movies. And I suppose it will be cool to hear music that isn't three years old and already played a gazillion times on my i-pod.

So...our vacation...well, we spent 10 days in Malawi doing the usual - safari in Zambia, Lake Malawi, and Zomba mountain. The highlight for me was staying at the Zomba Forest Lodge, a cozy little mountain retreat with possibly the best chef in Malawi.

Then we spent 10 days in South Africa. First we went to Cape Town, which is lovely, but not really "the most beautiful city in the world," as we had been told. We drove down the Cape and saw penguins, which are the cutest birds ever - no wonder there are so many movies about them - then we went to Franschhoek, in the winelands region. Yes, I did taste the wine. It was delicious. When my child turns out to be unruly and hyperactive, you can blame my poor antenatal self-care (although I will know that it's really just genetics and karma biting me in the ass. I mean, a joint product of Jorge and me? We're doomed already).

Finally, we went to Kruger National Park in the north for a few days. More animals. Ho-hum. I have been in Africa much too long. (Actually, I had a very nice time).

I haven't had time yet to sort through my photos yet, as my dear friend and former roommate from Eritrea, Leila, is visiting until tomorrow. But as a freebie, here are a couple sneak peeks until I can get some more up:

It's hard to believe that in this picture I am packing about 20 extra pounds. Where is it all hiding?

Then I see this picture and think, "Oh. Yeah."

And here's me with my terrific dad, who is doing his approximation of smiling. It's actually very close to the real thing this time.