Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Secret About Milo

Milo is a pretty popular kid here. We don't have many friends with children in Malawi, even though there's a very big "family" community. We've just clung to our old single and childless friends, and they put up with us.

It helps that Milo is an easy kid, though. I'm betting most of our young, hip friends would have dropped us a long time ago if he wasn't such an extroverted little flirt. My friends all say what a happy baby Milo is, how they never hear him cry, how he's smiling all the time.

Well, his secret is out now. I have photographic evidence. Sure, when he knows you're looking, Milo is all smiles. Look at him, so coy, flashing his dimples:

But when you turn around, and he thinks you can't see him, he becomes....



Sunday, March 22, 2009

Coolest pet ever

I'm not big on pets - I like cats, and I understand why people own dogs (although I hate the creatures, myself), but I don't really get why people would own any other sort of pet. Birds shouldn't be in cages. Snakes and spiders are creepy. Rabbits never seem to stop being petrified of their owners. Fish don't do much, and small rodents are, well, kinda stupid.

But I am relenting on lizards. Lizards are cool. Especially if they live in your front yard and you don't have to find insects to feed them or anything.

Meet our new pet chameleon, Senor Camacho:

Jorge found this little guy in the road during one of his runs. Chameleons are incredibly slow walkers, and they disguise themselves to match the tarmac...you can guess what usually happens next. Jorge rescued Senor Camacho and brought him home to our house. He now lives in the tree in our front yard.

Milo's a big fan!

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

It’s been a busy week. Last week we went to three going-away parties, a birthday party, and a wine-and-cheese reception. I also went back to yoga for the first time in months, and went to meditation practice. Jorge and I went to the weekly softball game and hung out with the kids playing duck-duck-goose. It was a nice week.

Yesterday we went back to the Hash after a long absence, the running group we’ve been going to since we first arrived. Milo weighs 22 pounds now, so he’s a bit heavy for me to lug around in a sling or front-carrier. A friend (who recently had triplets!) loaned us a baby backpack, and Milo loooooved it. He giggled and cooed through the whole walk, charming everyone.

So many of our friends are leaving, and it’s very sad. On Saturday I spent the morning at my friend Christine’s house, on her last day. Today I am going to lunch with my friend Ann at the Sanctuary, a new, beautiful restaurant in Lilongwe. Tomorrow Ann flies to Uganda for a new position. (She is the one who has been teaching me to meditate, by the way. Very important skill for a new mother.)

One of the nicest things about living overseas is how quickly you develop meaningful friendships. I lived in New Orleans for almost 6 years, and had very few friends to show for it (it didn’t help that I met Jorge just two months after I arrived, and was quickly co-opted into his life, rather than establishing myself on my own.)

It seems so difficult to make friends in America – everyone already seems to have their social circle, and they don’t tend to have vacancies. Whereas in Africa, there’s a new lonely expat arriving all the time, just waiting to be befriended. And even better – they tend to have the same interests as me. People who can discuss Khadafi, cholera, and community development…and then turn around and talk books or travel or movies. Just the idea of ever moving back to the U.S. makes me lonely.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

For Miriam, part 2

I wrote my second letter to President Obama today. And I was MAD.

His education plan is going ahead with his proposal to link teacher pay to "student achievement" (read: standardized test scores). Instead of rolling back the disastrous No Child Left Behind act, this would strengthen it. Great, less than 2 months in office and he's already caving to the right-wing. It's Clinton all over again.

When are people going to put blame for poor student performance where it belongs? On parents. I'm sorry if you disagree with me, but do the research and you'll find that parental education and involvement are the single-most important predictors of student achievement. Sure, exceptions abound, but what it comes down to this: teachers can only do so much with what they are given.

Linking teacher pay with test scores will have the effect of punishing teachers in poor areas, where children tend to have so many more challenges at home. It will drive the good teachers out to the suburbs, leaving the underqualified teachers in the low-performing schools, further driving down test scores.

And here I thought our president was an intelligent man...

Anyway, here's my latest missive to the Big Chief:

Dear Mr. President,

I read in the New York TImes today of your plans to overhaul the education system in the United States. While I still hold the traditional belief that education policy should come from the states, not the federal government, I do agree that change is needed. However, I do not believe that your plans, which strike me as "Republican-Lite" are the answer. In particular, I am horrified at your suggestion of linking teacher pay with student achievement.

As a college student, I worked in the US Department of Education compiling pertinent education research for Congress. Over and over, I watched as important studies showing parental involvement as the greatest predictor of student achievement were passed over in favor of studies supporting "standards and accountability" - because that's what policy makers wanted, not what the research supported. The scramble to adopt accountability policies, despite very mixed research, was group-think at its most obscene, and I left the USED in disgust.

My sister is a teacher. My aunt, grandmother, great-grandmother, and great-great grandmother were all committed, caring teachers. My sister works about 60 hours each week teaching, grading papers, directing the school play, and repersenting her district in the teachers' union. She is an excellent, devoted teacher, and any student would be lucky to be in her class.

However, students are only in school 900 hours each year, compared to the 7,800 hours children spend at home with their families. Where do you think the real blame for low performance lies? My sister gets several children in her class every year who just arrived in the US and do not speak English. Some of her students have parents who are completely uninvolved, or incarcerated. Your plan to link teacher pay with student achievement will punish her for teaching the students who need her the most, and will reward those teachers who have fled to the richer, better supported suburbs.

What our teachers need is not more punishment, but more support. They need to be allowed to do what they have been taught to do: TEACH, not run reading and math drills all day long in some perverse standardized-testing boot camp.

I am extremely disappointed in you, and honestly believed you had more support for our country's teachers, who I believe are the hardest-working, least appreciated employees in civil service. I hope you will go back to the drawing board and find a way to overhaul (or scrap) the NCLB act in a way that will actually promote good teaching, not hinder it.

With regards,

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Politics as usual

It seems remiss of me that I haven't written about Malawi's upcoming elections yet. After all, in most African countries, democracy is a fledgling baby, and elections are so much more exciting and dramatic than the buttoned-down, gossipy, rather prudish campaign seasons we have in the U.S.

Partly, the problem is mine. I don't read the paper that often, and when I do, I tend to get sidetracked by stories of witchcraft and dismemberment. But I decided to do a bit of research after my husband dropped this little bomb a few weeks ago:

"Hey, can you believe that I only just today realized that the Vice President is still under house arrest?"

My friends and I looked at each other with dawning recognition...Ah, yes, we remembered! The VP being arrested all the way back in 2006, for treason, no less! Was he really still sitting around in his house, and still acting as the second in command? Could life really be that bizarre and surreal?

Well, yes, and yes.

You see, Malawian politics are full of backstabbing and treachery, the stuff of thrillers, and it's presented in the news (if it makes it into the press at all) as if nothing were out of the norm. Here's a quick cliff's notes version for you folks out there across the sea:

There are two main contenders for the presidency, which will be decided by a national vote on May 16th. The first is the incumbent president, Bingi wa Mutharika. The second is the previous president (from 1994 to 2004), Bakili Muluzi, who had chosen Bingu as his successor. Upon ascending to office, President Mutharika promptly formed a new political party, "crossed the floor," and broke ties with Muluzi. So Muluzi has made it his personal mission to take his old job back.

And that's not all. Last year, the constitutionality of Muluzi's bid for presidency was questioned (after all, he's already met his two-term limit). Somehow, he seems to have been allowed to run. Then a few weeks ago Muluzi was arrested for corruption. The current administration claims that the sudden arrest, despite the fact that Muluzi could have been arrested any time in the last few years, is not politically motivated. But the timing, just months before the election, is suspect. Ah, the intrigue!

Things are starting to heat up in anticipation of the vote in May. The embassy are reportedly a little tetchy and worried, but no one has any plans to close down or go anywhere. We're all hoping for an honest, peaceful election. I guess I'll just have to keep you posted!

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Today is a holiday in Malawi - Martyr's Day. Jorge and I ditched Milo with the babysitter and are at my office making use of the internet.

Milo was pretty sick last week, with a fever and bad cough. I had to go out of town for a night for work, so I felt very guilty about leaving him, but his papa is pretty capable. He's doing much better now. Look, he's even happy about being stuck in a laundry basket while we do chores!

Oh, which brings me to something that annoyed me recently. I have this silly book about babies, written by Dr. Sears, who is the famous physician and advocate for "attachment parenting." Anyway, Jorge and I both flipped through the book and were stunned by the sexism. I mean, I know it's not common for the father to be the primary caregiver, but it does happen. The entire book seemed to be based on the assumption that the mother would be the one who really "knows" the child, and that the father would be at work all day, and just popping in every now and again to toss a ball around with the kid. Have we really not come farther than that?

In Milo news, he got his 7th tooth yesterday. That kid is just dying to eat some ribs, I can tell! Jorge claimed that he also took his first steps yesterday, but I am doubtful. After all, it's Jorge's word alone, you know what I mean?

And last week we had our 3rd annual Mardi Gras party. Our parties keep getting smaller, because we're not making friends fast enough to replace the ones that are leaving for new jobs. But here are a few pictures from a very fun night:

Finally, the rest of the news is:

My contract is being extended to the end of May. So we have an end date in sight, and are having to get used to the idea of leaving Malawi.
We've got tickets to Cape town for Easter! Jorge is running the Two Oceans race with a group of friends. It should be a terrific week.