Thursday, July 28, 2011

Quiet now

I just thought I would pop on and let you all know that things have settled down here in Malawi, at least for now. After two days at home I got incredibly stir-crazy, and convinced my office to let me go out to the field on Friday, and it was as calm as you could ever imagine. All the supposed damage to the city center had never happened, and while everyone seemed a little more tense than usual, I never felt in any danger. So it seems that at least some of the news reports were overblown. Never again will I turn to twitter for news!

What is clear, though, is that 18 people lost their lives during the two days of unrest, and that is a horrible, shocking tragedy. Lots of fingers have been pointed, but no one has taken any responsibility. In the cities, at least, the protests seem to have had the effect that people are even more frustrated now.

In the meantime, things have gotten back to normal. Which means no fuel at the filling stations, regular black-outs, and high prices on everything from tomatoes to tires.

For us, we are just looking forward to the arrival of my dad tomorrow, who is coming for a two-week visit. And then beyond that, trying to figure out where we go now, as it looks like we have officially, finally, and somewhat reluctantly decided that I will leave my current job at the end of this year. We have been here five years, and given all the difficulties of life lately, and all the friends who have already left before us, it is finally starting to feel like enough.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Another day

Well, it’s the end of yet another tense day here in Lilongwe. Again, the city basically shut down, due to the ongoing protests, which have now seemingly collapsed into anarchy. All of my meetings were again canceled today, so it was basically a snow day for all of us. I didn’t get much done, as Jorge and I kept checking the updates on Twitter. We worried for some young friends who had been traveling around Malawi and Tanzania, and who were supposed to be on a bus back to the city. I wondered how we were going to get food for the week, with the market shut down, and the gorcery stores reportedly looted. I worried about the violence and chaos coming closer to home, closer to my babies.

To deal with the anxiety, I baked cookies. And then ate LOTS of them.

Then, sometime after my lunch of cookies, I had this strange sense of déjà vu. I have dealt with perilous situations before – my time in Darfur was basically one crisis after another. So at first I thought all this conflict was bringing back memories of difficult times I had experienced in Sudan.

But then I realized, it wasn’t a conflict I was remembering, it was a catastrophe of an entirely different sort: Hurricane Katrina.

In the days and weeks after I evacuated from New Orleans in 2005, it was so hard to tell the fact from rumor. Who can forget the melodramatic interviews on Oprah, the (eventually disproved) tales of babies being sexually assaulted in the Superdome? And every horrible misdeed that was reported was just taken as truth, because of course, that’s what people’s stereotypes of New Orleans residents allowed them to believe.

And here we are again, imagining violent Africans wielding machetes and wreaking havoc…after years of being shown Africa only in the light of famine or war, is it any wonder that we don’t even doubt that people are capable of such violence?

Once the dust clears, I wonder what I will find – the battleground of burned-out cars and smashed, looted buildings that the reports have been evoking; or the ghost-town, shell of a city where most people just want to keep their heads down and get back to their normal life – the vision that my friends who have been in town today tell me they’ve seen. I hope it’s the latter, but by now I just don’t know what to believe.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Day of Protest

I have lived in Malawi for 5 year now, and not once have I ever known the people to rise up in angry protest. Sure, there are editorials written, the occasional march held, but generally Malawians have always seemed a peaceful lot. They take pride in the fact that Malawi, a rarity in sub-Saharan Africa, has never experienced true violent conflict.

So when I was told by the organization that I work for that all transportation within the country would be suspended today, due to planned protests over the ongoing fuel crisis and other governance issues, I was a little skeptical.

It all seemed like a big over-reaction. A coworker stopped by my desk yesterday to make sure I knew to be careful getting to and from work. “It might be quieter where you are, because of the presidential house being there,” he speculated (I live across the street from a guest house where dignitaries are housed during official visits). “But then again, that might be where they launch the counter-attack.”

Excuse me?! Counter-attack? Those are words I never thought I would hear in Malawi.

Still, I wasn’t really concerned. After all, I was told to stay home on the day of the presidential election as well (I didn’t), and that ended up being the quietest, most peaceful day I have ever experienced in Africa.

But today feels different.

I happen to also live very close to a police station. When I got up this morning, I could hear them practicing - the occasional test message over a bullhorn, short blasts of sirens punctuating the usual morning calm. It was like they were just warming up for the mayhem to come.

I arrived at the office; still more quiet. But people seem on edge. There is a constant background chatter of radios quietly tuned to the news, and when I go in to the staff break room, people look up at me as if I have interrupted some important discussion. Everything is closed in town, and all the usual meetings and work trips postponed. Many of my co-workers just stayed home, and other organizations didn’t even bother opening.

Occasionally I ask for updates – a government office has been burned in Mzuzu, I’m told; the streets around the market are chaos, tear gas has been released. I made my first-ever foray to Twitter today, looking for news, and was surprised to hear numerous reports of looting and fires, although not violence, thank goodness. It’s hard to sort out the facts from the rumors. But what seems to be clear is that some important corner has been turned here in Malawi.

Most likely things will return to business as usual tomorrow, as the damage is assessed and people get back to their usual lives of just trying to survive in a country where there are few jobs, and wages are low, but costs are high. But the seed has been planted. People will wake up, remember that they took the chance to speak out, that they raised their voices against the problems they have seen, and realize that the world did not fall apart. And just maybe they’ll decide to do it again. We’ll see.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Coming up Short

The order of the day in Malawi is shortages. It seems just about everything is running low these days – fuel, electricity, forex, drugs…A friend recently saw a news story in the local paper bemoaning the “shortage of models,” which is apparently crippling Malawi’s fashion industry. Half the time, we don’t even have powdered milk for our tea in my office. Life is certainly more difficult these days.

Of course, there’s also my critical shortage of time. And the shortage of words to describe just how insanely busy I have been. Swamped. Overwhelmed. Engaged. Occupied. You see? I have run out already.

But today I’ll try to squeeze out a few words in between bits of my hastily eaten lunch, banking on the likelihood that my 2:00 meeting will be late.

Of course, of all the shortages in Malawi, the biggest news is probably the fuel shortages. For weeks now, there just has not been enough fuel in the gas stations. At any given time, only a handful of stations will have fuel. You can tell which ones these are by the lines of cars stretching in every direction trying to get in, or the rush of people jostling with their jerry cans. The other stations sit empty, traffic cones placed in front of the pumps to indicate that they are dry yet again.

Of course, the fuel shortage is not just annoying for commuters, it is dangerous to the economy. I heard that at one point, even the fuel tankers were running out of gas, unable to make it back to the port in Mozambique to resupply. Naturally, a booming black market trade has sprung up for those who don’t have the time or patience to spend 6 hours waiting in line. The last few times we had major fuel shortages, the government blamed Mozambique for having problems at their port (oddly enough, though, Mozambique itself seemed to have plenty of fuel. Hmmmm.) Now, apparently, the problem is that the government has created sooooo much prosperity through its canny economic choices, that the fuel suppliers can’t keep up with the demand created by all the newly rich Malawians buying new cars.

As for us, we’re no longer so concerned about running out of fuel – Jorge unexpectedly sold our car on my birthday this Monday. In the morning, I had a car. I come home from work, no car.

Huh. I guess that’s one way to deal with the problem of the worn-out clutch and the bald tires we needed to replace. Kind of genius, actually.