Wednesday, December 23, 2009


Sorry, I got so busy I didn't finish updating on the survey. Well, we finished data collection in 6 days, but the last day we finished early, so we were close to our 5-day target. We continued to have transport snafus - ended up having to buy fuel on the black market. But it all worked out in the end.

We drove back up from Nsanje on Saturday, with only one near-death experience, when the driver fell asleep and drove into the wrong lane, then nearly drove us over the side of the ride and into a ditch before my screaming woke him up. Then I irritated him the rest of the trip to make sure he didn't do it again. Seriously, it was scary. There could have been a car coming the other way, or people walking by the side of the road. We were very lucky.

Unfortunately, the government staff who came in to help us with data entry took veeerrryyy long lunches, and only got a little bit done, so I spent my weekend doing data entry. But it is now done, and I am moving on to cleaning and analyzing the data!! Yay!!!

I am the biggest geek. I get excited about data analysis. I really do.

Jorge has asked me not to *try* not to work this weekend, though, so I will do my best. There are a lot of things that need to get done around the house anyway, so I guess I can divert my busybody energy. I look at myself lately and wonder what happened to the lazy little slob I used to be. It's like Jorge and I switched bodies, and now I am the one who can't stand a messy house and who works all the time.

Ah well, I hear a little boy waking up who wants his breakfast, then it's off to work.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Day 5

I can't believe it, but I think everything is going to work out.

My husband would say "of course it will work out!" but he has a lot more faith in me than I do.

So it's been an extremely challenging week, but it looks like, act of God notwithstanding, we will finish data collection tomorrow and be on our way home Saturday.

It was a little touch and go yesterday, when I got a call from one of our teams, at 8 o'clock at night, saying they were stuck in the mountains, the four-wheel drive wasn't working, and could we send a car to tow them out.

Oh, and they were three hours away, on the Mozambique border.

Unfortunately for them, we have a pretty strict policy about taking cars out after dark, so we told them they would have to go to the nearest village and try to find a place to stay. I was super stressed, because sending a car to tow them out the next day was going to set us back a full day of data collection.

Fortunately for the team, they happened to find the chief when they went to the village, who showed them an alternate route through Mozambique. They got in to town around 11:30 last night, much to my relief. The teams went out again as planned (we let the team that got lost last night rest a bit first. I'm not heartless) and they pulled through and visited lots of villages today. Tomorrow we have 8 villages to go to, but they are all close to town, and we should finish up well before dark.

Man, will I be happy to get out of this heat! It was about 100 degrees today, and the A/C kept going out. I am melting. I can only imagine what it was like for the poor suckers, oops, I mean survey enumerators, who were out wakling around collecting data in it!

And with that said, the last set uf suckers is here, which means I can go home before 8PM for the first time all week.

Just one more day!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Welcome to the Hotel Madalitso

Let’s just step away from the survey for a bit, shall we? Instead, let me give you a little tour of my new home away from home: The Hotel Madalitso.

The linens don’t match, and they are worn thin, but each night I come home to a new Harry Potter-themed pillowcase, which is a nice touch. The towel is rough and scratchy, but it’s clean. There’s no soap, but at least the toilet has a seat, which is an improvement over my last room at the Madalitso (I must have gotten a free upgrade. Lucky me!)

There is only one power outlet, forcing me to choose between my computer and the fan. But there’s a fan! And it works! A ceiling fan would be better, but really, who am I to complain? The power has only gone out once since I’ve been here, and if it does, the Madalitso has thoughtfully provided a candle (but no matches).

Ah yes, the Madalitso. It’s not so bad. I’m kind of fond of the place. I even brought Jorge here once. They did, after all, invent the signature breakfast dish Deep-Fried Egg. It comes with a side of chips. They are both cooked in the same oil. The egg is like a little pirate’s island – you dig and dig through the crusty, brown mess, and eventually, you find the buried treasure – a little gold edible egg yolk!

I think you are beginning to understand why, when I go on vacation, I like to stay at hotels with “Palace” in the name…

Monday, December 14, 2009

Day 2

Transport has become a problem.

The logistics of this survey are a nightmare. We have to visit 95 communities from throughout the district. We have 5 teams, and we optimistically hoped that each team could visit about 4 villages a day, finishing up in 5 days.

We’ve got five cars to do this: 3 decent, but not great, 4WD cars we hired in Lilongwe, 1 Land Cruiser that belongs to my organization, and the shoddy little pickup truck from the government I told you about yesterday. And we need every little set of wheels we’ve got.

Last night, I got a call at 9 PM from the office manager, saying he needed one of the cars to go to a meeting an hour away. I tried to explain that there really are no cars to spare, and he got very angry with me. We ended up giving him a lift to the meeting this morning, setting us back a couple hours.

Yesterday, one of the cars blew out a tire going up a hilly, rocky mountain road. It’s beyond repair, so that car is now out in the bush without a spare.

This morning, the government driver called in sick. It took 5 hours to find a replacement.

Our IT guy is here from the head office, and he needs to go to Blantyre (3 hours away) this week to buy computer supplies.

We are seriously one flat tire or busted shock away from this being a total disaster.

Only a few more days to go…only a few more days to go…only a few more days to go…

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Day 1

Today I got to the office at 6:30 AM (on a Sunday, yes). I checked all the questionnaires, made sure the bags were packed up right, and made my breakfast. One of the teams got out straight at 6:30, I was so proud of them. The others had to wait for cars to be fuelled, team members to show up, etc. Most everyone had left by 7:30 though, not too bad.

I went in to grab the backpack for my team, only to find someone else UNPACKING it! They had decided to switch their team's bag with mine. Argh! So there was a last-minute panic as I got things from their backpack that belonged to my team, etc. Then we hit the road at 8. And the driver THEN tells me he has no fuel. Then one of the team members wants to stop for water. Then we have to go to the hospital to pick up a height board because we were one short. So finally we were on the road at 8:30.

The Ministry of Health loaned us a pickup truck for data collection. It has to be pushed in order to start, and it's a single-cab, meaning that one of my data collectors had to ride in the bed. And there are no seatbelts.

Fortunately, there are no shocks either, so the driver can't go too fast. Anyway, it was an interesting drive.

We went to three communities today. The first stop is always the chief's house, where we get permission to do the survey, and have them help us map out the community so that we can sample the first house. Then it's time to walk. We go house to house, until we've found all the kids we need. This usually take about an hour and a half in each community, and a LOT of walking. And man, was it hot today. Like Dante's Inferno hot. I think I lost about three pounds in water weight. I drank 2 liters of water, but didn't pee for 10 hours. Yikes.

I do like getting out in the field, but I feel so nasty now - dirty, sweaty, hair all napped up from the wind. I am back in the office at 7, waiting for the other teams (who I think probably just went home without coming to the office first!) but what I am dreaming about is the nice, long, cooooold shower I am going to take tonight.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

My first big survey

Tomorrow I am starting my first big survey. I say my first "big" survey, because I did a Master's research project years ago where I carried out a small survey in health facilities in Eritrea. But this survey is big. We are going to 95 communities throughout the district of Nsanje. I have created 8 separate questionnaires for collecting data. We have hired and trained 10 survey enumerators and 5 supervisors, rounded up the cars, printed, numbered, translated, tested, revised, ordered, packed....I have been living and breathing this survey for the last two weeks, and spent a ton of time on it in the months prior as well.

It's like planning a wedding - I have spent all this time, obsessed, nit-picked, changed my mind...and tomorrow I'm just walking down that aisle, no looking back. If anything goes wrong at this point (and I'm totally paranoid it well), we'll just have to deal with it.

Tomorrow I will go out in the field with one of the teams to make sure they know what they are doing, then good god, I hope I can spend the rest of the week here in the office just doing data entry. That would be so great and mindless. Anyway, I thought I'd try to post about it a bit, because my dad is always asking about my work and what exactly I am doing. And of course, I never really have much to say on that point. So this week, I will try to do better, dad.

Right now, however, I am sitting in the office at 7 at night, being attacked by mosquitoes, while I wait for the car to come back. We had to send it in search of my colleague, who left without leaving the office keys. I hope they find the guy - I really want to get back and take a cold shower (the only kind available at the Madalitso Lodge, I'm afraid).

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

My status

It took me a looong time before I *got* Facebook. I even meant to write a blog post about how inscrutable I found the whole phenomenon. Maybe I did write a blog post, it's hard to keep track after three years (!) of blogging from Malawi now.

Usually, when I get on Facebook, I can't think of anything to say in my status update. Everything I'm doing or thinking always seems too banal, attention-seeking, or private. And yes, I am aware of the irony of blogging about having nothing to say.

But today, I have so many status updates I could write! So instead of flooding your facebook home page with them, you can read them here:

  • Can't wait for the two loves of her life to get home tomorrow!
  • Is feeling really guilty and sad that, as one-third of the entire soprano section, she will not be able to sing in her choir's first performance Saturday.
  • Really does not want to write a proposal right now. Or even worse, draft the accompanying budget.
  • Will be spending most of the holiday season fighting off mosquitoes in Nsanje.
  • Is relieved that, slowly but surely, everything is getting worked out for the first big district-wide survey she is going to manage. Almost everything is ready now!
  • Still wants to throw her annual Christmas Dessert Buffet (Now With Cheese!!) party, but just can't think how it is even logistically possible at this point. And who would show up anyway, with their gas tanks all empty of Christmas cheer?
  • Wishes she could see Milo's reaction when he sees our Christmas tree tomorrow...:-)

Friday, December 4, 2009

Portugal photos

Blogger is being obnxious and ate my post. Which was generally about how I'm swamped and overwhelmed and the world is going to hell in a handbasket. So be grateful it's gone. Because, instead, you get pictures (which are not in order, because again, Blogger=Annoying):

This is in the gardens of the Palace Hotel of Bucaco, where we spent our last night.

Here's the entryway to the hotel. They don't call themselves the Palace Hotel out of vanity - the place was really built as a royal palace in 1885.

In Guimaraes, we were walking to the castle when we heard drums everywhere. It seems to be a Christmas tradition, with everyone, young and old, donning elf hats, and marching with their drums to the church, where the local shrine is taken out and paraded down the streets. It was a great little moment of sneaking in with the local people.

This is just a pretty little street in Obidos, which was my favorite place. It's an old, walled medieval city that just feels so removed from the real world. We liked it so much we stayed two nights.

Milo really likes lions. He's got a great roar. This was taken in the Monastery of St. Jerome in Lisbon. We tried to attend mass, but sorry, those lions were just too tempting.
This is the tower of Belem, which used to be on an island right in the middle of the river, but then the river moved (darn trickster!). Can you imagine how beautiful it must have been then, though? I found it to be unbelievably beautiful as it is. Those balconies were just screaming for a Juliet to stand on them.

A view of the old Moorish castle in Sintra, built in the 8th century. It made me think of the crusades. And Robin Hood. Let's just say I liked it, OK?
Ah, but the one problem with Portugal? No safety railings. I was this close to a heart attack the entire time. But Jorge and Milo didn't seem to be too worried.

Jorge still has the little camera, which has a lot of the more touristy shots of the places we went. So when he gets home, more pictures! Yay!

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

It's like Thunderdome out there

I seem to have arrived back to a post-apocalyptic Malawi. It looked peaceful enough when I was driving down the bucolic country roads from the airport. Same old women working their fields, the same men sitting under their trees.

Then I hit the city. It's madness here. There has been a fuel shortage ever since we left, and every gas station is surrounded by seemingly abandoned cars along the side of the road, while the pumps are swarmed by throngs of people holding jerry cans, trying to get a bit of fuel before it all runs out. At the station near my office, the police had been called out to maintain order, and others stood around the fringes watching to see if fighting would break out. It's tense. No cage-fighting, though. Not yet, at least.

And the worst thing? I saw it coming. There was a diesel shortage just before we left, and I told my dear husband, you know, that man who always listens to everything I say, "Petrol is going to be next. Make sure you fill up the tank before you leave for the airport. You should probably fill a jerry can, too."

Do you think he did? Would I even write about it had he done as I asked? Good husbands make bad copy, you should know that by now. No, of course, he ignored me. I could be the one smug SOB driving around Lilongwe with a full tank of gas right now, but instead I have to ration out my little half-tank like everyone else, forgoing the A/C, combining shopping trips...

Of course, on top of the fuel shortage there is also a critical lack of foreign exchange, grinding the economy to a halt. And today I went to the ATM and they weren't working. More crowds of people hanging around waiting.

I tell you, the bread riots are coming, you just wait. And then, oh yes, then...the cage-fighting. Excellent.