Monday, January 26, 2009

Set them free!

I have a bit of an embarrassing problem. I have become hooked on evangelistic radio.

We bought a new car in October. Unlike most cars in Malawi, the radio actually works. But like those other cars that do have working radios, it only picks up one channel. You see, for some reason, cars from Japan, where most of the imports here come from, have different radio bandwidths. The radios go from channel 70.0 to 90.0. The Malawi radio stations broadcast on the US channels, though - 88.0 to 108.0 or so. So there is very little overlap.

The African Bible College radio station just happens to fall into that narrow range. So it is always on in my car. I sing along to the praise music. I nod my head to messages of inspiration. I yell rude epithets at the conservative pastor who preaches against homosexuality.

But most of all, I get caught up in the sweeping dramas. The station sometimes airs these testimonials of people who turned their lives around thanks to Jesus (“Unshackled: dramatized true stories of sinners set free”) Today it was a meth addict. One day it was a biker chick with a drinking problem. There was Tilley, unemployed mom of three (who quite frankly sounded like a real loser) who found God through the Avon lady.

The stories are narrated by “actors”, whose voices invariably have Southern accents (or faked foreign accents for the immigrants. Jorge and I loved the story about the Russians being persecuted for their faith. The actors sounded like a bunch of “Van Helsing” rejects).

Here’s a typical line: “One night, I was so drunk that I ended up in a rescue mission. I asked them ‘Do you serve beer here?’ and they told me ‘No, here we serve the Lord Jesus Christ’”

Oh Lord, this is quality entertainment. Thank you for bringing it into my life. I find myself sitting in my car in the driveway, not wanting to get out until that climactic moment when the poor wretch is born again, saved. It always ends that way, of course. Then the acoustic guitar kicks in and we all sing along to the happy sounds of salvation.

Seriously, isn’t this so much better than listening to Usher singing about having sex in a nightclub?

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Obama Day!

Just a quick post in the 5 minutes I have spare before I head off to a meeting.

Yesterday after work I went off to a local bar, where they had a big screen broadcasting CNN coverage of the inauguration, or “Obama Day.”

I’m sure many other bloggers will write much more eloquently about how moving and inspiring Obama’s inauguration speech was, so I will just say that it feels good to believe in a politician. I think it may be the first time for me. And to have a president that actually seems to represent my views on diplomacy, foreign aid, health care, religion, taxes…astounding!

It was great to see how excited Malawians are about the new president. After the speech, a young Malawian man came up and spontaneously hugged me!

Here’s everyone cheering after Obama was sworn in. We loved him flubbing his lines – just like Jorge on our wedding day!

But perhaps the most moving part of the evening was when the national anthem was played. At first I sung along timidly, feeling a little goofy in this crowd of cynical, worldly foreign aid workers. But then I noticed I wasn’t the only one. By the end of the song, all the Americans were singing along proudly. If that’s not a moment of hope, I don’t know what is.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

News of the week

A couple weeks ago I came home to a big bouquet of roses. “What are these for?” I asked. So Jorge told me “I decided my New Year’s resolution is to be more romantic.” Do I have a great husband or what? I am working this to my advantage, knowing that he likes to set, and achieve, lofty goals. Every time Jorge starts getting irritated with me, which he does frequently, because I am often, as he tells me, “A pineapple in his armpit,” I say sweetly “But honey, you don’t want to break your New Year’s resolution – it’s not even February!”

So for my part, I decided my New Years’ resolution was to stop the downward slide in my grooming habits….That means no letting myself go just because I have a kid now. Jorge is all in favor of this plan. Saturday was a beauty day – I got my hair cut, then my legs waxed. I lightened my hair at home and did my nails as I waited. My hair is a little on the orange side, if you ask me, but it’s Africa – expats are used to bad hair.

The other news from this week was:

  • I broke Jorge’s French Press. This thing has been up mountains, across continents, and was thrown from a moving car. And I broke it putting it down on the counter. He is disconsolate and a little edgy without his coffee.
  • I broke the sugar pot too. Now we have an ant infestation
  • Saturday was date night. Our second date in 6 months! Woo hoo! We went out for Indian and a post-dinner beer, where we reminisced about all the New Orleans bars we used to hang out in.
  • Milo has been sleeping through the night for over a week now. Hallelujah!
  • Yesterday I was invited to a big-shot Ministry of Health meeting by the Secretary for Health. I was the only foreigner there. It is nice that I am so recognized for my work in nutrition here.

Oh, and here's that photo of Jorge's bruise I promised you. Don't worry, it healed fast:

Sunday, January 18, 2009

My week

So, not a lot of time to write. I'm on borrowed time in the office on a Sunday, while Milo naps.

Just a newsy post today. It was a full week. From Tuesday to Friday I was out in Mchinji, commuting as I mentioned I might do. It was a lot of time spent in a car, but I read two books in 4 days!

The district was starting a new malnutrition treatment program. Basically, they were setting up a special clinic day where they would screen children for malnutrition by weighing them, measuring their height, measuring their mid-upper arm circumference (a reliable measure of thinness) and checking for oedema, which is a common sign of malnutrition here. Then we identify the children who are very sick and need to be admitted as inpatients right away. The rest are given a therapeutic food that they take with them, to eat at home. The children come back once a week for a check-up and more therapeutic food.

Sounds simple. When you've got 100-200 children to weigh, a lot of tired mothers trying to jump the line, babies's a bit intense.

It's been a long time since I spent a significant amount of time out at the health centers. When I worked in Darfur I was in the field about 3-4 days a week, and really got to know the mothers and babies. I miss that sometimes. Now I do a lot more policy-level work.

I enjoy working with the the health staff the most, and it's very gratifying to identify a serious case and get them treated right away. You feel like, just maybe, you helped a kid that was going to die otherwise.

But the hard part is that you always lose some. I always look for the serious cases first, and follow them up to make sure they are getting good care. On Tuesday, there was a 1-month-old baby at the hospital. His head looked like a tiny skeleton with skin stretched over it. He went straight to see the doctor on the ward, but didn't live to the end of the day.

Wednesday there was another - this one 5 months old and stick thin. I worked with the health staff to make sure that they gave the right treatment, and helped the mother to continue breastfeeding.

On Thursday we found a child who had just been sent home from the pediatric ward, but was still so wasted and sick, that we decided to take him back to the hospital. He and his mother rode in the car with me, and I couldn't stop checking to make sure he was still alive. He was so weak that his cries were just plaintive mews. He was so tiny in comparison to Milo, even though they were about the same age.

On Friday, around the time I was making sure that another serious case would get ambulance transport back to the hospital, I learned that Thursday's baby had died in the night, of pneumonia complicated by malnutrition.

It's hard knowing that I do all this work, helping the government to train health staff and raise community awareness, and still babies die of such preventable causes. I came home on Friday just feeling sad and defeated, unable to shake the image of that terrified, exhausted little boy, his tiny little lips and two miniature teeth poking out...I can only hope that the other two babies are still alive, and that through some miracle that make it to their 5th birthday. It was just such a reminder of how different the lives of Malawian children are from my own little boy's.

Ah, this post took a turn I didn't really see at the beginning, and I don't think I will write about all the other things that happened this week. That's enough for now, I think.

Monday, January 12, 2009


You may have read previous posts where I rail on about the problems in children’s health in the world. As a technical advisor for nutrition, one of the areas I am most passionate about is breastfeeding. Did you know that about 1 million children could be saved each year (10% of all the deaths in children under five) if their mothers were supported to exclusively breastfeed their my life, I have seen too many babies close to death because their mothers had stopped breastfeeding.

A few years ago, in Darfur, I organized and led a training on breastfeeding for doctors, nurses, and community health workers. We taught them the benefits of breastfeeding, how it all works, and how to counsel mothers who are having a hard time. It was one of the most interesting and enjoyable weeks I have every spent working. But I felt a little disingenuous. After all, I had never breastfed a baby myself – what did I know about how hard it could be?

So when I was pregnant, I couldn’t wait to get started nursing my baby. Seriously, I was so much more excited about this than about buying baby clothes, picking names, or decorating a nursery (don’t have one), or all the other things pregnant women seem to get hyped about. Unlike many other women I know, I wasn’t the slightest bit worried that I would have trouble.

Fortunately for me, it has been smooth sailing almost from day one. It took a few days to figure out how to hold Milo’s body in one hand, my boob in another, and his head with my third…hand… Wait, come again?

But being a working, nursing mom has been a real challenge. I bought this fancy breastpump before I left the US and toted it all the way to Africa – then blew out the transformer the first time I plugged it in. Woops! So ever since September, I have been using a small, manual, hand-held pump to express milk for Milo’s bottles. Squish, squish, squish. I have one hell of a strong handshake now.

It would be easier if I spent a lot of time in the office, but in fact I often have to travel for work or go off to meetings and workshops. I have pumped in unoccupied hotel rooms, bathrooms of all states of maintenance, spare offices, even the back seat of the company car, as I held a meeting with one of my colleagues on the road.

I am thinking of all this today, because I have been asked to support a district that is starting a new nutrition program this week. Before Milo, I used to travel at least one week a month. Since he was born, I haven’t spent a single night away from him. Thankfully my office is very understanding, but I haven’t quite worked out how I will manage this time. Yes, I have some milk frozen, but not enough for 4 days. And refrigeration in the field is dicey, so I might not be able to store any milk while I am away.

Most likely, I will choose to commute, driving 1 ½ hours each way. I’ll have to sneak away sometime during the day while I’m out at the health centers, finding some dingy corner where I can sit and drape myself with a chitenje to hide my little workhorse of a hand pump. Squish, squish, squish. Talk about practicing what you preach!

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Pictures from Jorge's accident

Here are some photos I'm sure you're all interested in seeing - I finally remembered to bring them in. I've also got one of the MONSTER bruise that Jorge had on his arm, but forgot it, so will add that as soon as I can.

Just after the accident. You can see how their things are strewn across the road. People started looting as soon as the car came to a stop. Oddly, though, they returned all of Jorge's books. Go figure.

The locals pushing the car to the side of the. You can see here how the tires blew out, causing the rims to dig in and the car to flip several times.

At the hospital. Apparently there was no runningwater, so the beds and examination rooms were covered with blood (and worse). Jorge said the nurses and doctors looked like butchers in their bloody aprons. The Portuguese man who picked them up brought a bed sheet from his home to cover the table.

The next day, trying to recover their stolen items. When the car flipped, the main impact was on the rear, not over the passengers, which was very fortunate.

Here you can see a close-up of the damage the back end of the vehicle. The man there is a local pastor, negotiating for the return of stolen items, including a very nice camera. It was returned in exchange for a $100 reward.

Coming soon - pictures from England!

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

And the award goes to...

I thought I should mention the things that were good and nice about Christmas this year. So the shining stars of Christmas are:
  • My cousin Simon, who invited us over on Christmas Eve even though he was getting married three days later.
  • Joan's niece Suzanne, who had us over the night of Christmas for a light dinner
  • Joan's sister Mary, and her husband Steve, who had us over for a wonderful dinner on Boxing Day, and who gave Milo three books that he just loves
  • My cousing Robert and his wife Jo, who gave Milo his only toy of Christmas
  • My Auntie Diana, who invited the family over for lunch the day after Simon's wedding, and who gave Milo a book for Christmas
  • Our family friends Peter and Judy, who invited us to stay at their home in Wales for a night, even though Judy just had her hip replaced, and who shared their good Scotch with Jorge
  • Our friend Sarah and her husband Matt, who put us up for 6 days in Huddersfield - it's not easy having two Americans, a Colombian, and a baby as houseguests, and they were very generous, kind hosts
  • My sister Miriam, who can make anything fun. The best thing about Christmas this year, by far, was getting to spend it with her.