November 27th, 2009
The biggest thing people have problems grasping with Peace Corps is the two year commitment. With that I will try and explain what I have experienced as I have today finished ¼ of that promise. Two years is a long time, and I don't believe I have completely grasped what I have gotten myself into yet. All the same, if I ever want to leave I am not held into a prison here. In fact some people choose to ET (early terminate) which is not impossible. However, I have a bit of a 'do not quit' way about me which would prohibit such an action. Also, in talking to current PCVs they claim that the time will continue to fly by thus making me think I should hold on to every second as it comes.
Two years here is a roller coaster of emotion which you never truly grasp until you leave home and everything you love for such a time. Even when I studied abroad my junior year I don't think I experienced as much emotionally as I have in the last 6 months here. It seems that your mind and body take such a toll from the travel and life changes that it's hard to maintain stability at all times. And, anyone who knows me is aware of the fact that I am one of the most emotionally closed people you will ever meet. Thus, having this time has really made me feel what I tried to ignore for so many years.
So, first we have the low days which seem to drag on at a 'groundhog day' sort of pace. Usually these days begin from the very beginning where you simply wake up on the wrong side of the bed. After being woken by some random animal outside it seems that everything is against you, even the gods of fire will not cooperate when all I want to do is boil water for coffee. Something is very wrong but you can't put your finger on why you just want to sleep the day away and pretend it never happened. Nothing specific has happened, but your mind is pulling your entire being into a black hole for no apparent reason. Family and friends are a galaxy away and unreachable so it seems that there is no one in the world who can consol you. In addition, on these days I feel that I am doing no good here and am merely wasting money and time just so I can have an African adventure. My mind won't stop thinking of the bad situation I am in and is planning an escape route back to where things are familiar and comfortable. I convince myself on these days that I will call the country director tomorrow and ask for a one way ticket back to the states.
On the flip side, the up days have everyone in the village as someone you want to talk to (and do so successfully in their language) and you wonder how you could have ever had a second thought to coming here. I love the up days as they make me appreciate the experience I am having and show me just how lucky I am to have this time in my life. Not many people get this individual life journey and along the way a small chance to help a few people. On these days I hail Peace Corps and the NGOs in country who are doing amazing things. I feel complete hope for the ability to change things and create development for my temporary neighbors. Mangos are in plenty, friends are just a door away, and my troubles don't look so bad compared to so many other people.
This is what it is like for me and will be for 1.5 years. So, just know that I have this cycle occurring continuously so please don't be alarmed if at times I sound like a charity case in a depression for two years. I am happy on the whole, and I go back to letters and photos from home (especially the amazing album Chrissy and Sarah pulled together for me) to remind myself just how many people are pulling for me. I fight through the bad days because the good ones are literally the time of my life. This is something I will never forget or be able to have at any other time. So, in summation I would not change a thing! And life is good!!
Corruption in the health world (December 12)
Recently certain aspects to Malawian government have come out which have put corruption on a whole new level in my mind. When one thinks of corruption they look at the president pocketing taxes or using exports as a personal business. In speaking with people, however, I have found that there is a world below the politicians which is functioning for its own personal gains. Surprisingly this in the health field which you expect people would enter only to help their fellow man. Not here in Malawi, here it is profitable to join the nursing and doctor careers if you know how to work the system.
For example, there is a short supply of about everything in hospitals here. Oxygen tanks are so difficult to keep in stock that the staff has worked out a pleasant little system to ensure that those who really want the life giving gas receive it, auction it off. Yes, the patient with the most money receives the best treatment because they only give what the sick can pay for. As a side note, health care here is supposed to be completely free to every citizen in country, there are some private hospitals around but they are where the 'well to do' go since government institutions are typically overrun with people. Anyways, back to the auctions… so the nurses will go around and see who has the best bribe for whatever it is they have, and give it to the one who puts the most money in their pockets.
With that there is another story of a nursing student who refused to give a woman a blood transfusion until her family paid him some pocket cash (4,000 kwacha I believe). This was noticed by a friend of mine who then reported the incident to the nursing board. Their response was that they could not do anything because that is how he was taught by other nurses and they feared being sued if any action was taken. He is still at the school and no repercussions have been issued. As I understand, there are so many cases of students and teachers suing the hospital that they are permitted to do just about anything. Teachers call in sick 2-3 days a week (while still getting paid), lessons happen only if the teacher feels like attending, classrooms are rented out to local organizations so the students have nowhere to learn, and in just about everything there is money switching hands benefiting only those who have the most of it. This is apparently a very common practice as money goes from the sick into the hands of those who are supposed to care for them, a sort of reversed Robin Hood story.
This has all come as a shock, but also expected in a sad way. Malawi is a communal society (or at least this is what they will tell you) but when push comes to shove it is survival of the fittest. I have seen mobs fighting over condoms at HIV outreach sessions, students wrestling for books in a classroom, and women shoving to get mosquito nets. It is disheartening but also put me into spells lost deep in thought. What would I do if I were them? Would I have the character to stand back and wait my turn, or would I to do anything I could to ensure my own sustainability? Think about it… when resources are limited…. How much character would you have???
National Geographic (Dec 20)
So remember all those times National Geographic would throw pictures of the most absurd animals at you. Looking at it you knew that there is no way such a thing could possibly exist, so you write it off as a prehistoric, computer generated creation. Wrong, those things live in my house… Each day I see something new, wonder how in the world it came to evolve into such a species, and what harm it could possibly due to me. With the rains set in, it seems that all of the insects are in full swing and have claimed my house as the place of refuge.
I have scorpions hiding anywhere that I have stacked things on the ground. Without much furniture I have decided to begin hanging everything rather than create dark crevices to hide in. I've killed about 15 in the last week as I stand far away and take mad swings with a stick which I've collected for such a purpose. Usually it ends quickly and I am able to move on with my evening knowing that one less creepy crawly is about. Then there are cockroaches (and as Sarah well knows) I am prone to jump on chairs when I see one scurrying about. They never seem to die, and due to too many movies I can sometimes imagine them talking like old men in a bar: scratchy voiced and menacing. Shoes are thrown and eventually they flee or die. Then there are the creatures with many, many legs. Millipedes, something out of the Mesozoic Era and threatening just to look at as I can do nothing but assume that many legs means more speed. I am not sure how to kill such creatures, are they like snakes and need to lose their head, or can I just smash it like a fly? More recently I found one about 10 inches long and called into action my scorpion killing stick to chase it outside and hopefully never to be seen again. There are beetles eating my plants, lake flies coming in just to die, mosquitoes spreading malaria, young termites taken to flying, moths attacking my candles, locust striped in yellow and black, bees moving into my rafters, and ants… There are the orderly ants who march straight to bullet proof contained food, always finding the back door entrance somehow. There are red ants with short legs that bite fierce, and ones with long legs that just appear dangerous. There are ants with large heads looking like their wearing helmets and are ready for battle. There are teeny ants that you would barely notice, and big black ones that are an evolutionary oddity.
Of course there are also lizards and geckos and I swear I saw Nessie swimming in the lake last month. I write off the reptiles as being on my side in the battle against the insects and have only seen two snakes leading me to believe that there's a truce holding true. To live in the tropics is to exist with nature, and sometimes that has me up at 2 am running through my house like a psycho killing anything that moves. You all would get a kick out of my late night rampages, but if you were here you would be doing the same.
The Holidays… (Dec 26th)
As usual I got myself all psyched up for Christmas only to find that the Holidays continue to not go as planned, even in Africa. It's a bit of a long story, but fairly entertaining, so I will sum it up while keeping the good parts.
On Tuesday I was phoned to go to the school for an emergency situation. It turned out; however that it was merely a minor issue and no life or death situation. Mail takes a long time to reach the village, especially with our delivery system (the steam boat) out of commission, so we had only one week to take 100 students photos and get them developed for their examination IDs. I being the only one who can work a computer in a 60 k radius took on the task and was sent to Mzuzu for developing. I should have known the trip would turn sour the moment it took 5 ½ hours just to make it to the city (my driver was in no hurry and stopped more than necessary for snacks and chatting). To add to it I had a prophet sitting next to me and was determined to convert me before the end of the journey.
In Mzuzu I had to go to 6 shops, two to buy the photo paper, one to print (but they didn't have color ink), another to print but their machine was down, and a final one hidden behind a restaurant in a half finished building. It was a scavenger hunt in the middle of rainy season in a country years behind America in technology.
Then when it was time to return, one vehicle I couldn't get through to because of network problems, one never left, and my third truck blew a fuse and was grounded. So as 5pm rolled around it looked like I would be spending Christmas Eve alone in Mzuzu... sweet! Luckily I phoned Chad, a volunteer in the city, and he welcomed me in with peppermint cocoa and some movie watching. By this point I was pretty depressed, flustered, wet, and ready for the whole holiday to end. One uplift from the night was a phone call from Chrissy who must have gotten some vibe that I needed a little love. It was great to chat with someone from home, and honestly I think it stopped me from having a bit of a holiday break down.
On Christmas I boarded the local transport (a diesel flat bed truck) at 10am… departed at 1pm…. Got stuck in mud twice… and arrived in Usisya at 5pm. Along the way I hid in my rain jacket and had a minor moment of holiday depression… but pulled myself together for the rest of the journey. By this time everyone in the village had already feasted, danced, and the men were sufficiently drunk. It seems that this is a drinking holiday in the village which was frustrating as I became the conversation target for everyone I passed. Being that I live here I tried to keep my cool and just get away from the crowds as quickly as possible. Finally I found Gift and Jumbo (two guys who work at Temwa) and latched onto them for protection and someone to talk to. So we had a few beers at the "Third World" bar just down from my place and watched all the drunken kids running around. A few were students who I told if I saw them drink anymore (they couldn't even walk straight at this point) I would tell the headmaster and they would be suspended (students are not permitted to drink). They quickly ran off, and I only hope made good decisions with the rest of their night.
Thankfully, Christmas is over (or at least the day the date of Christmas is attached to) and next year I'll just remember to skip to whole fiasco all together. Now back to my quite life of gardening and painting. I love my little house and the peace it brings. I just hope New Years goes smoothly.
New Years in Nkhata Bay
So in honor of the new decade we had a PC gathering at Big Blue in Nkhata Bay boma. There were about 30 or so volunteers spread out between a couple of lodges in the area and we frequently hoped between the two. For it being a party holiday we remained fairly chill for a majority of the time. Days began slowly with people coming out of chalets and tents up till mid day (depending on the night they had prior). Once hunger hit we would walk into the market for chips and eggs at various outdoor places (costing about 1 USD). During the day we'd swim along the lakeshore and jump onto abandoned boats to catch some sun and chat. Then when the sun got too much, we would go watch some tv (I think there was about 4 hours of music videos we critiqued and two bowl games from the states… Daniel you will be happy to know that I actually enjoyed watching football… funny). Then around dinner time we'd go to our designated lodges for dinner and meet up in the evenings for shenanigans.
The biggest night was of course the 31st when we all went to a little place called Kaya Papaya. We danced till about 4am with locals, Europeans, and the good old American crew. It was great cutting lose and getting to be young and play. Except for a couple of kids from my village being there who I tried to avoid to keep from stories getting back, but then again they are Rastas so there's not much they can say I suppose. At the end of the night we collected the people who needed to be put to bed and headed in for a mosquito filled sleep.
In all, it was fun and somehow relaxing. It was good to just be able to chill around and do your own thing in the market when there was a need to get away. I find myself needing more and more alone time when I am in social situations. I can only handle so much before I just need my own corner and a good book. Prepare for this when I return as I know that this seems to be an increasingly permanent habit I have picked up. We have learned this quality amongst each other here, and when someone needs alone time it is accepted and understood completely. It is difficult to go from complete solitude to the PC gatherings and therefore it takes moments of private release to survive. Peace Corps changes you, and I am trying to pick up on these alterations as they come so I don't get confused. J
With that, another point that we learn is about those we left behind. I was talking with some volunteers recently about the amount of contact they have had with friends and family in the states, and I seems that those we thought we'd talk to are MIA. There are two sides to this debate, one group says that this is how you 'cut the fat' and learn who your real friends are… while the other half says that when they go back they know everything will pick right up where it was left. Are there friends of convenience? Or true confidants?
Initiation of the new Chief (Jan 5th 2010)
About three months ago our head chief (TA bwana = Traditional authority Boss) passed away. According to the local Medical Assistant, he had been sick for some time, so this came as no surprise, but still hit the community hard. The last few months have been filled with debates and even a few unexplained missing persons/ or burned huts. It seems everyone wanted the newly opened up position. The Head Chief is just under the Tembala la Tembala (king of kings) who lives in Rhumpi and resides over all the Tumbukas. So, it's a pretty serious position as he would be over all of Usisya which holds about 18,000 people. Eventually an older man was chose (Francis Nyrienda) who is currently living in Mzuzu as a lecturer at the University. This is a good sign, I am happy to see someone coming in who has more than a primary school education. He was chosen by a group of other chiefs who found him the most educated and thus best person for the job.
So, yesterday all the dignitaries came in their four wheel drive vehicles (as nothing else would make it here) and sat under Acia trees and UNICEF tents to see the grand event. Francis was escorted in by a group of traditional dancers covered in costumes a child might make out of their fathers' clothes and some tree branches. You could tell they were having fun with the whole thing, and later were very eager to have their picture taken (unlike the Gule in the South who prefer to be more mysterious). After being seated with a Chitenje on his head (the idea is that the ceremony is an unveiling) there were several speeches from members of the community giving advice for his new role (local Member of Parliament Mgande Chiume, the deputy minister of rural development, the Tembala La Tembala, and the master of ceremonies). Then he was robed (in something a professor would wear at graduation) and welcomed in with gifts and Kwacha from the crowd.
The day ended with more traditional dancing, shorter than previous ceremonies as I think the dignitaries were eager to eat, and then a soccer match which was to determine an all-star league to compete in the name of Usisya. It all went quickly as days tend to do now, and I was even able to keep from growing restless during the speeches (spoken in Tumbuka and I was actually able to understand most of it). I can now sit for hours and just watch people, getting lost in my mind and in the day. It's funny, as I said before, how we adapt and change through our life experiences. Well, I hope the new chief does well and he is seen around the village often. I met him once before this time and didn't realize till after who he was, I treated him like an average person… I guess sometimes people need humblingJ.