Friday, July 14, 2006

A Trip Down South

Last time I posted, I had just come back from Zambia, and had, unfortunately, come down with a cold. This week, I headed down to the southern region for work. It was my bad luck that by that time my cold had turned into a full blown case of the flu.

My plans were to head down to Zomba, a picturesque town nestled in the valley of Zomba mountain and home to the University of Malawi. Incidentally, it is also near the site of Mwandama, the much touted Millennium Village. The drive south from Lilongwe was absolutely breathtaking – at one point the road is actually the boundary between Malawi and Mozambique. My driver, Evance, also served as my surfeit national tourguide for the entire three days (This is the old road, Madam; the new one is across town. This tree is a baobob, Madam. Madam, this is a market. This is where Andrew lives.” My exclamations of “oh really” rapidly turned into grunts of acknowledgement, and then into nods of silence.).

At any rate, Evance was good for several reasons: he took good pictures of me prancing around on the Mozambique side of the road (although, there is no stamp in my passport and no sign to prove it – except for these pictures which you will have to take my word on. So many African borders are like that, it seems), he knew all the cheap spots to eat (our per diem allotments for this trip meant that two of his four kids could go to school for another three months), he knew exactly where to go when I said “It’s just behind the stadium, near the World Bottle Shop” and, most importantly, we visited his in-laws while in Zomba (he had to pick up his four bags of maize). I was greeted so warmly by them and handed a baby (FYI: “aribe kabuduila” means “she’s not wearing a diaper” in Chichewa).

The Millennium Village WAS impressive, but I suspect only because they got quite a lot of money to make it so. They had a great idea to make it sustainable: each farmer was required to give two bags of grain to the chief, who stored it for the school feeding project. Next year, each farmer will give three bags, with two going to the school and one extra to sell so that the community can use it to buy fertilizer and other inputs the next year. They hope to be sustainable (well, they have to be because the funding runs out) in five years.

However, as I was leaving, I got sucked into a committee meeting. It appears that a few farmers had decided not to “donate” two bags. I suspect that this will be an ongoing problem, especially with the increase to three bags next year. And also, one bag’s worth of profits only buys a third of a bag of fertilizer, so they’ll have to up the number of maize bags even more to get everyone a 50 kg bag of fertilizer. It’s simple math. (But I digress. I’m putting cynical Mtanga back in her box and continuing on with the story…)

While that was invigorating, the extension worker who took me around the project had plum wore me out. Because I hadn’t been able to locate any tissues before I left Lilongwe, I was forced to use the handkerchief I’d stolen from my father years ago for it’s actual intention. So that day I wandered around, ankle deep in mud (irrigation project), delirious, with a big red handkerchief dangling from my nose.

That night wasn’t much better. We stayed in an embassy owned cottage on the top of Zomba mountain (oh did my sinuses like that!). What would’ve otherwise been a nice place to stay for a holiday, was murder for someone exhausted just looking for a comfy bed. First of all, it was about thirty-five degrees on the top of that mountain and there was no hot water. I was thankful for a bedroom with a heater, but that didn’t help much when the electricity went out about four am. I was so looking forward to a good nights sleep, but unfortunately, I had eaten some bad stir-fry as well and was up all night with a stomachache and the heretofore mentioned African runs. I didn’t shower (well, I get bonus points for washing the mud off my feet, but there was no towel…) and I had forgotten tea bags, so it was hot water for breakfast and some biscuits Evance purchased at the grocery the night before. Needless to say, I was not at my best the next morning.

There is a great verb in Japanese, Gamberu, meaning: to persevere. For some reason, gambattemasu, “I will keep going” or gambatte “keep going!”have slowly become my own personal mantra, both in Malawi and yes, I’ll admit it, in my life in general. It sounds so damned inarguable when used in the command form (Gambatte! Gambatte! Like the rat-tat-tat of a machine gun) that it spurs me forward in all things.

So anyway, I “gambattemasu’ed” my way through the rest of the day, meeting with a smallholder group in Thondwe and an even larger group near the town of Mulange. It was will say something to a few of you if I mention that between the two meetings, I actually FELL ASLEEP IN THE CAR. Poor Evance didn’t know what to do, he didn’t understand that I don’t take naps. He couldn’t appreciate the precedence that was taking place. Understandably, he couldn’t see why I wasn’t hungry and wouldn’t let go of that by now slimy handkerchief.

So when we rolled into Mulanje for lunch, I told him he could choose the place, as it would be him who was eating. He took me to the “best” restaurant in Mulanje, which I think in this case resulted in the “cheapest.” It was a dark, but clean, hole in the wall that served nsima with chicken, beef or liver for 150 kwacha (one US dollar). I decided on a coke and a samosa, which must have confused them, because it took about thirty minutes for them to prepare it. In the meantime, Evance silently shoved in his nsima whilst I lay my head on the table.

But I am only telling the miserable parts of the story. Surely, there were several highlights. There is nothing – NOTHING – like pulling into a village center to be greeted by women singing and ululating (that’s my new favorite verb – it means “make a noise like a turkey” – my own father does this very well). At any rate, about thirty women singing, dancing, and yes – ululating – is so invigorating and warm that it melts away all frustration in an instant.

Also, holding babies, trying to carry a 50 kg bag of maize on my head (FYI for the metrically impaired, that’s about 120 pounds), cheap narchi (that’s mikans for all you Japanese, clementines for the rest of us wazungu) and finding my African grandfather. (***sidebar: taking a note from my Sikh friends, I find it is just easier to shorten my name so people understand it, rather than slowly spell it out each time I meet someone (in this case, about forty people per day). So I have begun introducing myself as Mary, because it is a simple and popular name here. So popular, that the chief of one village claims he is now my ‘African grandfather’ as I supposedly carry the same name as his granddaughter. See? That doesn’t happen with a name like Mtanga...)

On top of meeting with excellent people – talking not only specifically about fertilizer but also broader topics of development in general (great stuff for my thesis) – I was given new perspective on my studies by a woman in Mwandama village. She had earned her BSc in Ghana and was searching for more scholarships to continue her schooling. She asked me if I had scholarships to go to school, I replied, “No, only loans. Lots and lots of loans.” She smiled and said “But that is very lucky!” “How so?” I wanted to know. “Well,” she said, “You have access to those loans.”

Right. How strange to be lucky to be in debt. Yet, in a country where interest rates for fertilizer are upwards of 30% or more, being in debt was just like breathing. At least my loans were (ostensibly) getting me somewhere, rather than further into debt.

The rest of the trip wrapped up quite nicely. Let me just say that I love working for a government where the hotel rate is $95/night. This means that after the awful evening in Zomba mountain, I stayed in pretty much heaven on earth. I was able to eat some soup, take a hot shower and drift off to sleep in a double bed whilst watching ‘Ray’ on satellite tv. Divine. After a quick tour of a local fertilizer plant the next day (please tell me it’s safe to breathe in ammonium nitrate), Evance and I headed back to Lilongwe (only after stopping along the way at individual roadstands to buy onions, potatoes, clementines, okra, garlic, groundnuts and barbeque’d field mice. Yes, you read that right).

So now I am back, with a little over four weeks to go. From this trip I’m pretty much left with the feeling that Africa could kick my ass easily if it wanted to. I will readily admit, I am a big wuss. I like hot water. I like a warm bed. One night in a cold cottage and I was reduced to Mtanga paté. However, I am consoling myself by saying at least I was putting myself out there, even if I did get kicked in the sinuses. And I indeed “gambatemasu’d”.

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