Friday, June 09, 2006

Capital Escape

Meeting under the fig tree

The shallow well project

Yesterday was my first day out of the capital. And while I like Lilongwe, in a country where 85% of the population lives in the rural areas, it's not an accurate representation of the country to stay here all the time. So I was excited to go.

As part of a self-help fund, the Embassy provides small grants (up to $25,000) to various sustainable projects each year. The long term goal is to hand over the project to the village after a year or two (or three, in this case) so that villagers will have a handle on their own destiny, instead of constantly being directed by one agency or another. Yesterday we went out to the village to hand over a shallow well project that had been three years in the making.

We went to the small village of Nkhotakota, on the shores of Lake Malawi. I am continually impressed by the only variable pot-holey-ness of the national road system here, as it only took us two hours to get there with minimal delay (mostly caused by goats). Once we got off the beaten path however, we finally hit the choppy, dusty, bumpy, dirty roads I associate with Africa. It was awesome!

The village itself was quite nice - lots of brick homes spread along the road with thatched rooftops. After a brief inspection of the shallow wells (ten in all were built, only after shoddy equipment, fraud and other delays) and waiting in the sitting room of the chief, we were all escorted outside to the hand over ceremony under the large, central fig tree. Our regional security officer, acting as the Ambassadorial Representative (we affectionately nicknamed her the "Faux Ambo"), was directed to sit on a large recliner they had brought out of the chief's house for her. Alissa and I, plus the contractor, village chief, regional chief and others sat on a bench while everyone else sat around us on the ground (men and women separated of course).

It was fairly awkward, as most of the ceremony was done in Chichewa, the other national language here besides English. However, experience in other languages (ahem, Japanese maybe?) has taught me just to nod and smile. After a brief prayer, the village chief and then his regional chief got up said how much they liked the wells, appreciated the hard work, thanked everyone involved and asked for more money for other projects.

Most of these speeches were very simple, or in Chichewa and then translated very simply, so I feel we didn't get everything, but we got the gist of what was being said. Thank you, now give us more. I wasn't very surprised at this (if the tables were turned I would certainly ask for more money even if I didn't need it!) but I've spoken with several other development professionals who find this kind of reception at the very worst, ungrateful, and at the very least, tactless. I do understand where they're coming from, and it all weaves into an ongoing discussion I've been having with my colleagues here what can only be described as "Development As Help vs Development as Dependency".

Anyway, that's a whole nother post.

After the "handing over" there was supposed to be dancing, and in truth, one dancer did appear. He had a blue conical woven mask with no face (no space to even breathe - it was just like a bag or a dunce's cap over his head) with little tiny bells dangling from it. He had grass anklets on either leg, a grass skirt (oh the cliche, but it's true!) a blue tunic. It all seemed kind of half-hearted - the dancer kept stopping and starting, like Ashley Simpson on SNL. The drummers drummed but weren't in sync. The kids sang a bit in a call and response type, but it never got more than kindling to get going. After about ten minutes of this, the dancer retired and we went to get lunch. I am told that ritual dancing here is quite beautiful (as opposed to when it's not??) but I guess it wasn't our fate this time to see it.

Finally, on to lunch. We drove about 30 km to the shoreline of Lake Malawi to a pottery/restaurant/lake resort called (aptly) Nkhotakota Pottery, where I bought some beautiful pieces (I won't say what or for who, but I've got myself a lovely mug for my morning cup o' joe that has that cute Hippo in the picture on it). I also ate the locally fished chambo, which tasted a bit like walleye, and came highly recommended by the head of my ID program at AU, who lived in Malawi for four years.

Lake Malawi is beautiful - and huge. If you look at a map, it looks like a long, skinny leech. But don't let maps fool you, I was told that it was comparable to the size of Lake Eerie. At some points you cannot see to the other side. Of course, it is a huge tourist destination here - lovely white sandy beaches, cheap scuba diving, kayaking and of course, fishing :) However, the jury is still out for me on whether or not I will swim in it, mostly because it's a) cold and b) full of bilharzia.

Have a lovely weekend.

Cheers from Malawi;

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