Friday, November 21, 2008

Bye Bye Notes

This blog is coming to a close. Here are some final notes that I thought I should share with all my lovely readership.

Thanks to all my family and friends for reading and supporting me during my time here in Malawi. Also thanks to all you other people whom I don't know but have taken the time to read my posts, and comment on them. Through your heartfelt contributions I have had a better idea of which of my inner musings are 'cool', 'offensive' or (quote): 'bull****'. Lord knows I love all you random folks out there taking the time out of your busy schedules to herd my errant thoughts into such perspicuous categories; I'm sure your intentions are pure and that I'm the better for it (thanks blogosphere!). Oh well, perhaps I did I ask for it just by being pretentious enough to billboard my thoughts in the information highway (next time I'll just do an email ring). I'm new to this whole blog thing. Anyway, I apologize sincerely to the sensible mob of bloggers protecting the integrity of all Malawi related bloggings. As I seem to have unwittingly joined their ranks I apologize sincerely for any 'generalizing', 'offensive' or 'uninformed' statements about the Malawian people whom I have come to love dearly and am always endeavoring to understand better. I don't think I've done them wrong on these pages (I still say thing I'm mostly guilty of is just a great deal of navel-gazing, but hey, what are philosophy majors for?), but if I have, please forgive me oh vanguards of Blogdom.

A note about generalizing: I know there is such a thing as difference between individuals. I just know it. It's a thing that I know. It's a fairly self-evident truth. I got told the same story that you did when you were four about how 'people are like snowflakes, no one is the same' and you know what? I still believe it. I know God didn't create us as androids (though being an android would be totally cool). But there's also something called 'culture' and it's kind of hard to ignore especially when you're trying to explain to someone for the hundredth time what a therapist is and why a perfectly successful and by all accounts 'normal' person would ever need one. I know there are depressed Malawians, neurotic Malawians, suicidal Malawians, etc. but after 6 months of meeting a lot of folks around here I really do believe that there just aren't as dang many of them (per capita) and that maybe, just maybe it ain't a coincidence. I'm not trying to dehumanize Malawians. I'm just trying to extract some spiritual medicine for all of us who sometimes catch ourselves feeling unfulfilled and lost in our American "cult of the individual". I know Malawians aren't God's chosen people that they have their own problems but I also think we can learn a thing or two about life from their culture so please, if you want to read and comment just try to roll with that big picture in mind. Thanks y'all.

(end rant)

Anyway I'll do another post from Lilongwe for sure. I've been so encouraged by all of you who have read and commented on my posts and even those of you who have taken the time to email me in response. I have felt as if you all have been here with me and I hope your interest in my experiences will translate into interest in Malawi and Africa as a whole. Malawi has been good to me, a home full of welcoming people whom I will miss most of all. I haven't said goodbye just yet, but it's just around the corner.

Thanks guys. I can't wait to see you all again.

Mua Mission

I traveled to Mua Mission this past weekend, a large Catholic Parish about 40 kilometers to the south of Salima. The KuNgoni Cultural Center at Mua is one of the coolest things I've seen in Malawi. It was established by Father Boucher (pronounced 'Boo-Shay') back in the late '60s as a project that would 'inculturate' the gospel. I actually got a chance to interview Father Boucher for a good two hours (!) about his work in Malawi and the process of incarnational ministry to the people groups of Malawi including most prominently the Ngoni (an offshoot of the well-known Zulu nation) and the Chewa. The mission is a grand encampment of nice buildings and attractive gardens all lushly decorated with art and carvings. The center is a school for Malawian artists to practice and develop their skills in the making of their own traditional art.

Boucher cleared up a lot of questions I had regarding traditional Chewa culture. Under the influence of more conservative missionaries from several of the more conservative denominations (the most prominent one starts with a 'P' and rhymes with 'Shmesbyterian') many Christians have turned from the traditional ways and are now following a more Western mode of worship. Mua mission is an interesting contrast. The cultural dances called 'gule wamkulu' are still upheld as valuable and Father Boucher, the main priest has actually been a member of their secret society for thirty-five years! Sometimes people have told me that the members of these ceremonies promote witchcraft and erroneous cultural beliefs that conflict with Biblical teaching.

Boucher, however, explained to me that the gule wamkulu is more like a drama with many different characters that, through acting, serve to outline the moral and social structure of the tribe and what it means to be a good Chewa. Naturally, the morality falls into the lines of "Honor father and mother", "Serve your community", "don't have sex before marriage" and all those good values. Boucher told me that many of the values fall in line with Biblical teachings and they certainly don't condone witchcraft (which is seen by the Chewa as a severance with the community). "Why should this ceremony be rejected?" He asked. He went on to say that the way they teach, say to not use bad language is to have a character who always uses bad language, so in a sense one commits the sin dramatically to show the consequences. It's comedic (dramaturgy anyone?). Father Boucher also told me that the gule wamkulu is not an inherently Christian thing. There is no Christ character (there is Mary, however) There are many Christians involved in it (like Boucher himself) but it is not in essence 'Christian'. With the prevalence of churches taking over the mainstream the members have been pressured to treat and organize the society more like a church (sometimes calling it the Church of Aaron since Aaron was the one who fashioned the Golden Calf, likewise the gule wamkulu use pictures to teach people. "But wasn't God displeased with that?" I asked. "Yes but they don't pay attention to little details like that"), but in effect it remains a ritual for moral instruction. Boucher, being a Catholic priest went on to say that a Christian member of the gule wamkulu would ideally grow up and begin to question some of the values that it teaches, cross-checking them against the teaching of Jesus, saying "well this one is in line, this one not so much" and adjust one's behavior accordingly, but to rid a culture of their entire moral grounding and start afresh is to impoverish them greatly. "Let them grow into a good Chewa and then they will grow into a good Christian". He used the example of that the gule wamkulu might teach someone to love their neighbor just like the Bible does but it does not teach loving one's enemy. That's something that only the call of Jesus can effect in someone's life. Just like we as kids had morality taught to us by TV shows like "Arthur", "Sesame Street" so does the gule wamkulu teach young Chewa. But it goes further than just an infantile level. The gule wamkulu is a complex series of characters and plays more artistic than simple didacticism (one might describe it as sacramental) and, here's the coolest part, it's always changing. Father Boucher told me how the dramas evolve and react to the historical events and cultural change that has happened in Malawi. They have plays that have reacted and commented on the three presidential regimes that Malawi has had, they've reacted to the presence of the whites, etc. all based around the goal of how to act in the world. As the world changes so does the gule wamkulu revolving around the central themes that make up Chewa values. I guess I thought of such rituals as static and set in stone and by contrast that the enlightened age of technology and science was the dynamic one. Boucher was quick to point out that their ritual is not 'fossilized' but always moving around a core set of values and principles.

It makes me think of the popularity of the American film scene. Maybe we look to films to inform our existence in the same way. It's relegated to the 'artistic' scene (which in our day and age means 'extra' or 'ignorable' when compared to the all-important priesthood of science) but its popularity bespeaks our desire for information through drama. Of course, the morals transmitted through this medium are hardly anything to structure a society around. I've often seen Malawians be openly disgusted when they see our impressive special effects that seem to have no purpose. "Lies" they call them. In the gule wamkulu people dress up like cows and other characters but it's for a purpose, to send a message through visuals. What would it be like if we could use our capabilities for special effects as visual/artistic tools in order to communicate messages through symbol instead of continuing in the recent trend of recreating reality or rendering unreality believable? We often confine 'theme' and 'message' to the realm of the writers but what if images could be used to communicate meaning? These days special effects maintain a more Protestant placement: to clothe and decorate the inferred abstract meaning found in the script (Think Blade Runner versus Children of Men). But what if directors could take a cue from the Catholic side and actually construct 'semiotic meaning' through visual cues? It's surprising to me that more popular films haven't employed this tactic. Yes, yes there are plenty of brilliant (yet nigh unwatchable) arthouse movies that do it but there aren't really any mainline films that have effectively channeled special effects technology out of the realm of 'making possible the impossible' and into the realm of meaning. I think The Fountain may be one exception. Another good example is the comic book Watchmen which is currently being made into a film. Wanna see what modern semiotic storytelling can be? Read Watchmen. The film version looks like it's interested in preserving much of the imagery of the comic which (if it's good) could begin to propel special effects out of 'realism' and into a more meaningful style of semiotic imagery (I always said comics would save the entertainment industry) BUT I DIGRESS (as usual).

It also raises questions about our gospel. Why do Church people freak out when we see stuff like this? All this ceremony and the wild costumes tend to confuse us bookish Protestants, but for the Catholic, someone presumably used to a more visual and artistic view of the liturgy it is seen as an opportunity. What Boucher and his colleagues have done is 'inculturate' the Catholic liturgy into Chewa society using more tangible means, images and music. Just as the language is translated so are the images and the traditions of the people brought into continuity using art and music. No, it's not syncretism. It's like putting culture and the gospel into the same world, like Santa Claus showing up in "Narnia" (So is Chris Rice's "What if Cartoons got Saved?" song is more progressive than we think? Heavens forbid!).

As cool as Mua was, I gotta shout out to my homies: CCAP, I love you guys. I grew up in a conservative church too. Stick with it, really. You're doing great things for the Kingdom. But hey, maybe we could learn from stuff like this. Maybe taking this stuff could help us take a break from our abstracted minds and exercise our senses through more tangible ways of experiencing truth.


Mr. Nkhosi, a contracted employee in the World Relief Office died Friday-before-last of AIDS. He was a regular presence in the office and a friend. My first day on the job was also his and I've known him for as long as I've been here.

I was in Monkey Bay when I got the call that he had died. By the time it came through I was already missing the funeral for which I was really depressed. It's so typical that the white guy would miss a friend's funeral because he was swimming at Cape Maclear. I know there was nothing I could do at that point, but I still feel awful about it.

The whole episode has helped me to comprehend how incomprehensible the problem of AIDS is. It can kill quickly and slowly (due to whatever it is that is taking advantage of a lack of immunities) and doesn't leave you much time for anything, sometimes not even grief. Sometimes Malawi can feel like a warzone. There are multiple funerals every weekend and at least one is someone who is connected to your family in some way. Grief here is a controlled emotion. There's a time for it, and there's a time to get on with life and there's a hard line in-between. I've heard Malawians accuse Americans of being too sentimental and emotional. They're right, grief is different for us just like the rest of life. I can't really help it though.

Mr. Nkhosi was a good friend and a good man. He left behind a wife and three children. Since meeting and praying with her I can report that she's going through a lot of grief at the moment. We have supported her financially for the expenses of the funeral and then some but she has a hard life ahead of her. She needs prayer and financial support.
As for me, this was an all-too-personal contact with the AIDS crisis. Numbers don't do it justice. The pandemic is very personal for me now. Sometimes it's hard to understand why it exists at all but I know God knows because God knows Nkhosi and Nkhosi knew him. God is with every one of the victims and we should be too.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Latter Days

I'm back. It's been a while, I know...but, I'm back.

My parents and sister came for a visit a couple of weeks ago. It was great. We took a trip to the south see game and then moved up to Salima to visit my projects. I think they got a great cross-section of life here and it was a wonderful way to introduce them to the development world.

My internship is nearing its close. I've only got about 5 1/2 weeks left which feels like a really short amount of time. My project isn't going so well and I actually don't expect it to finish very well either. Maybe miracles still happen though. The youth I'm with aren't very motivated and the leadership of the church has gotten in the way of things more than they know. It's an interesting balance to strike, authority vs. domination. I believe in authority but when it stifles actual growth then it needs to be changed up a little. Basically, I'm not very hopeful about the project but I'm thankful to God for my time here. It's been a real blessing.

Gerald Phiri, the new youth coordinator is here! He's a really intelligent, thoughtful and pro active guy and I'm happy that he'll be my replacement. I'm now kind of like a temp who has overstayed his welcome. My presence is more of a novelty. Karissa Hernden is the office's new intern from America. She'll be working in 'permaculture' which sounds a bit like a special hair treatment shampoo but is actually a way of encouraging small farming to supply the basic nutritional needs that the populace can't get from maize. The new villages that World Relief is targeting has actually already started such projects, an encouraging sign, so Karissa and Gerald (who has also worked for a permaculture project) will be encouraging these developments. I hope things will turn out better for them than my own attempt at making life better here. Nowadays I feel like I'm just existing.

In other news, I've been reading heavy amounts of Walker Percy and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The first wrote uncompromising treatises on the fall of man, the second, uncompromising treatises on what to do about it. A dangerous combination. HNGR has brought me into contact with a great deal of suffering, but it has also exposed me to the naked drear of everyday life. There's just not a lot going on here in Salima and days pass with a sluggish uneventfulness I have never before experienced, or rather, have had the money to avoid for most of my life. Percy highlights the human desire to escape the humming dreariness of present time through science and art.

"Both art and science are ways of knowing and as such are the greatest pleasures of which man is capable (Aristotle, Aquinas). So great, in fact, that the ordinary pursuits of life are spoiled by contrast and so the artist must go to heroic lengths to render life intolerable outside his art. What Einstein said of science might be said of art: I went into science to escape the intolerable dreariness of everyday life."

If science and art are the ways in which we abstract ourselves and 'orbit' the earth, then what are the methods in which we numb the inevitable reentry? What goes up must come down and anyone who has ever felt the odd inexplicable depression of everyday existence in America knows this. Everyone's method is different. We escape the present hour through art, science, technology, work, sex, romance, drugs, travel, philosophy, theology, political action, political apathy, money, food and drink, music, film, television, the internet, exercise, playing sports, watching sports etc. (and the interesting thing about science is that the scientist has the option of staying orbital for longer periods of time since our society understands the world scientifically rather than artistically/mythically. Still, at some point the scientist, even the concrete, 'applied' social scientist must come home to his wife or mother who doesn't give a care about, 'cultural norms' or 'social stuctures' but just wants him to fix the @&#% sink). How many times do I turn on my iPod or open a book or watch a film to escape the present? Far too much. HNGR has confronted me with what it really is to live 'in the fullness of time'. Malawians do it, or at least have a better concept of it. They seem to content themselves with things that drive me up the wall; like having the same conversation 100 times a day. "Hi, how are you? Where are you going? How do you compare Malawi with America?" Same string of questions every time. It's so maddeningly ordinary. But what is it about this present life that drives me to feel that I must exit it? Why do I feel so good reading and writing papers about, say the semiotic nature of man's existence and so bad when I have to clean my room, do laundry or slog through more broken Chichewa with my host-family?

Percy nails me to the wall when he says: "The problem...How do you go about living in the world when you are not working at your art, yet still find yourself having to get through a Wednesday afternoon?" It's such a relevant question for HNGR. Living with the poor involves spending a lot of uneventful time. This is HNGR's greatest torture and, I think, it's greatest formative experience. One is left so alone with oneself, and as a result I found myself subject to all kinds of odd behavior, e.g. I developed the special ability to consume an entire season of LOST in roughly half a week, just keeping it constantly playing in the upper-right-hand corner of the screen as I 'worked' on assignments. I also did it by doing my assignments. I have had all of my readings completed since September. There are more and less productive kinds of 'reentry', more or less socially acceptable methods, but they all accomplish the same end: removing oneself from the clear and present reality of one's own trudging existence.

The poor, by contrast, have fewer options for achieving an abstract orbit and thus find little trouble in reentering the world (though TV is quickly gaining popularity here, people don't lose themselves in it so much even though it is constantly turned on. It is more like a background for ordinary existence and the programs on it are not constructed fantasy worlds, but rather raw footage of just talk shows. Even when watching films, they just fast-forward to the action scenes). But orbit is not just distraction, it's abstraction, something we rational westerners are never safe from no matter how concrete or practical we may be. Language learning, anthropology, sociology etc. even in the interest of practical application increase our orbits of rational exaltation and thus, increase the pain of reentry into the simplicity of humming present time which has no use for such intellectual god-men. The poor miss out on the fruits of a good life, (entertainment, education), and for the first time I really think they may be the better for it. I haven't met a single depressed Malawian. There is no suicide here. Why? Certainly life is more difficult and, thus one would think that people would have more incentive to exit it. What if the difference is that they know who they are so fully that they don't even have to ask the question? Perhaps this is why there has been such an explosion of Christianity here in Africa. Perhaps a person who doesn't feel the need to ask existential questions like "Who am I? What am I doing here? What is life? What does it mean to exist?" may be more receptive to the actual answer. I don't think you have to be poor to be able to live like this, but I think I know what Jesus meant when he mentioned how difficult it was for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God. Percy acknowledges one of the only writers that he believes to have accomplished full life before God: Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer's treatise on existence was in Newsletter 5 and it had a very profound effect on me. Being a disciple in our day and age involves the individual re-structuring his reality to make him nothing more than a creature before God, a reality that overrides even one's intellectual capabilities. Basically, we do not look for evidence Christ in the world, for that would be to start with the observable scientific/semiotic world as a more basic reality, but we are too look through Christ at the world. It's so painful to live like this, constantly under that self-destructing reality, but I feel that I must if I am to be a true Christian. It's not an easy call. I don't think it's a coincidence that Bonhoeffer lived this out and didn't get past 39 before he was killed by the powers and principalities of the world. I'm frightened by the prospect of being a disciple, but I know that it is the only meaningful road.

*Theological post script which can be skipped without getting behind on any news of real value:

My thoughts have lately been on the meaning of discipleship and how hard it is. I feel like God has been showing me the seriousness of his call to discipleship. David Cotten's recent death has made me think more and more about suffering and death and how I always somehow count myself as exempt from those inevitable realities. That kid was a soldier to the end and I hope I can be like him on the day that my trials come. The problem is that I'm pretty bad at overcoming my trials here which inevitably come in small ways: not feeling irritated when someone calls to me from across the street to give them money, keeping my head when I'm engaged in yet another conversation that I don't understand, staying present when I miss home so very much. I doubt the strength of my faith at this juncture, to endure the things that the disciples endured and to keep my eyes completely on Jesus as Bonhoeffer did. In truth I feel rather feckless, always floating off into my own world and forgetting God. Hopelessness might be a good way of describing my feelings right now. I never expected to do anything of real value here, just that I might be a bit more capable of facing life. Now I feel less capable and unsure of where my heart is. Do I love Jesus? Or do I love some vague idea of 'Jesusness' having to do with cathedrals and candles and warm feelings? Do I love him enough to follow his commands and take comfort only in his coming? To be honest I feel like Lot's wife, constantly looking back to 'that city' which can be anything, whatever floats my existential boat at the moment: home, nostalgia, movies, music, even religious enthusiasm whatever causes me to float away from the present moment. I can't stay here, I can't stay in the present, I'm always looking away to the future, the past, or whatever unattainable horizon feels like it's worth longing for. Percy says that he's seen men live and die in this longing. I don't want to be like that (or more, I wouldn't mind being like that since it numbs the pain of the present moment, but I know that this is not what Jesus calls me to be). I just need Jesus more than ever to lead me along like a little kid because even in the midst of prayer and Bible reading, I feel so terribly prodigal. Percy continues to describe me better than I can myself:

Comes again the longing, the desire that has no name. Is it for Miss Prouty? For a drink? For both? For a party? For youth? For the good times? For dear good drinking and fighting comrades? For football game girls in the fall with faces like flowers? Comes again the longing and it has to do with being fifteen and fifty and the winter sun striking down into a brickyard and on clapboard walls rounded off at the edges by blistered paint...Desire has a smell. Of cold linoleum and gas heat and the sour piebald bark of crepe myrtle.

-from Love in the Ruins

Does God's mercy extend to the ghostly Western man, of dual mind and yearning heart whose home is everywhere and nowhere? Who dwells not in the embodied world (as Christ did!), but in the odd mist of consciousness who constantly ventures out on temporary escapades to find solace in food, alcohol, methamphetamines, airports, nostalgia for the past, hope for the future, Picasso cubism, therapy, Yoga, behavioral science, reality shows, indie music, classical music...etc. etc. Does Jesus enter into that strange liminal space in order to save us too? Is anything that I feel genuine, or just a sedative for the true horror, that I am a negative space, a self-sucking nought whose longings are only a-chasing after the wind, never to be fulfilled? Is this the barrier to true discipleship that I need to break down? Can a disciple live in longing? I've been reading a lot of theology that basically says 'no, Jesus came so that you'd get off your can and do something in the world instead of all this self-fulfillment garbage.' Lord knows I need that, but I don't think I can shake the longing so easily. Neither did Dietrich Bonhoeffer, apparently even in the physical immediacy of his cell in Tegel.

Am I then really that which other men tell of?
Or am I only what I myself know of myself?
Restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage,
struggling for breath, as though hands were compressing my throat,
yearning for colours, for flowers, for the voices of birds,
thirsting for words of kindness, for neighbourliness,
tossing in expectation of great events,
powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance,
weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making
faint, and ready to say farewell to it all.

Who am I?
This or the Other?
Am I one person to-day and to-morrow another?
Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others,
and before myself a contemptible woebegone weakling?
Or is something within me still like a beaten army
fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?

Who am I? They mock me these lonely questions of mine.
Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O God, I am thine!

Monday, September 29, 2008

Frannie's Pictures

My parents are here! Here are some pics Frannie wanted to send back to CJHS.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Chitipa pictures

Here are some pictures from my trip to Chitipa this past week. Enjoy bearded Alex while you can. He will be shaved soon.

Thursday, August 14, 2008


If that last entry sounded self-righteous (primarily around the first half), it may be because it was. I'm still sorting things out here and I'm in a pretty vulnerable, impressionistic state. I'm still a naive white. Two months in Africa with some readings on the shortcomings of western missions doesn't change that. As for missionaries: I'm still coming to grips with what has been a tainted history, but in the midst of it all I must never ever criticize those who have given their lives to do the Lord's work. Times change and with it comes new light shed on the missionary project, but can't we look at it as being perfected rather than torn down? Oh Lord, why do my own misgivings continue to manifest themselves as criticism of others? As if tearing down other people will make me feel better about me, soothe my own fears and hide my own faults. Forgive me.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Mission Trip

We just got through with a big missions week. A team came from Switzerland to help build a church building for an Anglican parish in the nearby village of Chipoka. I was able to participate for a few days, but missed out on most of it because I had to help facilitate a youth training. The team was a mish-mash of people, young and old from different parts of Switzerland and Germany. I quickly discovered that Swiss short-term missions are pretty much the same as American ones, just with a different language. There were the little devotional times, squeamish diets, a tight a schedule to keep and lots of bonding throughout. It was really interesting to see the disconnect between short-term missions and long-term development. When the bus left after the closing ceremonies, I’m sure it was a cathartic moment for the team, but for me it was just kind of like “well, back to the office.” What surprised me most was how good the time was for me and the staff. As a long-term intern I am quickly becoming callous to the more everyday evidences of poverty and suffering. It was good for me to see people exclaim at how beautiful the children are and express outward sorrow at their swollen bellies. It helped me refocus on the truth of things here. Just because suffering is commonplace here doesn’t lessen how horrible it is. This was able to shine through all of the fakeness and typically western structure. Though missions trips tend to insulate their participants, to the third-party (myself) I was actually able to see it all, the reality of their experience as well as the insulation and pick out the good bits and bad bits. For many of the participants this was their first vision of Africa. One girl was a high-schooler and it was her first time outside Europe. She was giddily in love with Africa. “First timer” I remember thinking. At first I wanted to tell her the truth of the matter, to play the righteous kill joy and tell her that if she only knew how fake her experience was as related to the real one, she wouldn’t want anything to do with Africa, but then I realized how similar I was when I first came to Africa, all starry eyed, looking through the rosy lenses provided by the sheltered missionary community. I believe that God gave me those rosy lenses at a time when I was immature and impressionistic, feeding me with soft food. Even after realizing that I hadn’t gotten the full picture, I was still helplessly drawn to Africa after such an overwhelming experience. I realized as I watched her that this mission trip reality is not false, just heavily filtered. I am pleased to report that the things that I remember enjoying when I first came, the warmth of the people, the simplicity of the lifestyle and the charismatic attitude do remain parts of my experience here. Now that I’m experiencing the realities that temper those experiences, (communication barriers, constant dirtiness, hunger, illness, want), I can now see that these are not the whole of the situation, but still they remain. Sometimes the bad stuff can overshadow the good, and that’s when it’s nice to hang out with some na├»ve, sheltered whites and remember what drew me here in the first place. Now, though it all comes with a pang of sorrow having seen both sides of the issue.

I don’t think the Swiss could see it, but I could sense a peculiar aura surrounding the big travel bus that World Relief had rented for them. The metal juggernaut would sit parked at the building site all day, and whenever one of the team members felt overwhelmed or tired they could retreat to the bus and relax in relative glass-filtered quiet. I first sensed the strangeness of it when I was walking to the bus to get a water bottle and Raja, a retarded youth who had all but glued himself to me for the entire week followed me as he usually did talking pleasant nonsense. I continued as I always did, smiling and nodding, shaking his hand when he offered it every other minute until we reached the bus. I walked up the steps and then turned back and noticed that Raja had stopped just outside the door, staring up at me blankly. I could see that even his hazy mind had a sense that this was a different space from the rest of the site. He stood there working out whether or not to board behind me. He eventually caught the cold stare of one of the World Relief employees and made the right call. It didn’t stop him from standing outside, staring through at the window glass, trying to talk to me. Up until that point bus was comfortable for me, a space away from the chaos of the building site where, even if the people weren’t from my country, they understood my position here and wouldn’t ask me for money or to take me back to America with them. Raja turned it all around for me, though. After that point I couldn’t stay on the bus for more than a few minutes without going back outside to sit down and chat with the workers and smile and nod with Raja. It even affected Maria, the German high-schooler, and she started spending more of her free time off the bus and even learned a few words of Chichewa. When we would board the bus to drive back to Salima, I could feel the eyes of the people staring at us as we rolled away and I couldn’t help but think, “why can’t they come?” By now, I’ve been approached by a few pastors asking if we need any mission work in the U.S. “Absolutely” I always say, adamantly. Then, in typically direct Malawian fashion, they ask me how and when they can come. “ can’t” I never say, but know that it is the truth of the matter. I see now that what too often makes a missionary is not faith, but money. Many Malawians can’t afford to take a trip to their own capitol city, much less go on a mission trip, but they have the same desire to. Do we honestly think that all Africans want is to be ministered to all the time? They sure appreciate it, probably more than we do, but they also desire to go out into the world, see strange places and talk to strange people coming back and saying things like “The people were so welcoming…so thankful y’know? We really learned a lot.” Maybe heaven will just be one big mission trip with a really huge bus that everyone can come on. A place where we can all be together without any economic divisions or empty stomachs to distract us from enjoying one another. More importantly, Jesus, the Mediator will be there, and I have a feeling he’ll pull that cool trick he did on Pentecost with the fire and the different languages, bringing us together using our God-given diversity. Can’t wait.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Don't wear white to a wedding

Last weekend I attended a wedding for Gift Manase, our day watchman at World Relief. He was married at Katerera, a village about 4K away from Salima Boma. Transport was again an issue as our fuel was down to our last few ounces (pictured above), so a couple of people from the village came with bicycles to taxi myself and Mr. Nyamulani all the way there. Unfortunately my driver was a bit old and a tad more frail than Nyamulani’s and as I hopped on the back of the bike with my heavy backpack he told me very frankly “I don’t think I’ll manage”.
“Um. Okay.” I said, then offered to cycle instead. So began another unbelievably interesting spectacle for everyone we passed to gawk at: White man on bicycle. For about 4 Kilometers I pumped us to Katerera. It was a tough workout having someone on the back, and I have newfound respect for the ‘Dampa’ bicycle taxi drivers here in Salima that do this every day. It was a bit of a chore to keep the balance, too with the added weight coupled with the fact that the bikes here have those curved handlebars that amplify every little jerk of the arms. As I tried to maintain balance my passenger let out little controlled utterances of fear. “Oh, oh my.” I could hear softly behind me as I tried to maintain control of the swerving bike. You know how when you’re working out with friends in a gym or something, they will spur you on, like: “Push it, man. Yeah, dude work it. Don’t stop.” Well, here it’s the opposite, at least for mzungus. Every few minutes the guy on the back would say “I think you are tired now, yes?” and every few minutes the bicycle behind us would pull up alongside us and just kind of watch me, laughing and saying “I think you are tired now, yes?” About 2K into the ride, sweating and tired I decided to ask, “How far is it?” “Another 5 Kilometers” they lied. “Good, ‘cause I won’t get tired for another 10” I lied back. Many of the jokes leveled at me involve location or distance. For instance, when walking to the grocery store they will tell me it’s farther than it really is then laugh when it’s not in the place they originally said. “Full of tricks” as Louis would say.

Anyway, after walking a few of the hills we finally arrived and I was given some water and gallons of Tobwa, a very popular traditional drink made from the excess cornmeal left over from making nsima. If you want to know what it tastes like, the next time you make cornbread, just pour some water in the excess cornmeal and let it sit for a day. Then drink it. A lot of it. Then force the white kid to drink it every five minutes. Although I professed to like Tobwa (which is half true, you get used to the grit after a few cups), I’m pretty sure no one believes me, precisely because I’m offered it to me so much. It’s kind of like “Oh yeah, white guy? Prove it.” Maybe they can sense that half of my enjoyment of Tobwa comes from the fact that I really really want to like something that is known to be unpalatable for whites. I had this idea that If I can stomach it I’m ‘in’. Instead I just get more Tobwa. This is a trend around the entire food spectrum. Every time I serve myself a fairly large portion of food by my standards I am stared down very pointedly and asked “Why have you taken only this?” It’s a tough question, since I usually don’t link the amount of food I give myself to any causal chain of stimuli. It’s just intuition, based I suppose on how hungry I am tempered. At first I would just say “Um…what?” and then give into their insistence that I take more. I’ve since learned that seconds are a requirement, often served to me against my will, so I have fallen into a pattern of resisting to take a lot on the first go-round so I can finish the seconds when they inevitably come. This is done usually by saying that my stomach feels bad, or just flatly saying “I cannot” which never works. It has been explained to me that Malawians tend to eat a lot in their meals because they don’t eat anything in between, and sometimes three meals a day are not promised. It makes sense. Take up now because the future is uncertain. I have also explained that my American stomach is not accustomed to eating so much in one sitting. “Oh, okay thank you very much” they say as they shovel nsima onto my plate. Meals are a funny game akin to bartering for prices. The cleverer the excuses I can make, the more likely they are to laugh and give in.

The wedding went similarly to the engagement ceremony I attended last month. After eating and talking for hours a huge throng of women and children follow the bride and groom as they and the other members of the wedding procession dance to a central place in the village where they sit stoically while people dance and give money. The money is counted. Then it’s over. It’s a good time all around. Needless to say I stuck out like a sore thumb (my mistake wearing white to a wedding, I’m white enough already). I danced a bit, talked, helped count the money and just enjoyed the atmosphere. I’ve included some pictures, but you just kinda’ have to be there.

Friday, June 27, 2008

How I learned to love Celine Dion

I should begin by telling you that Chifundo is really cool. Seriously, he struts when he walks, speaks three languages in a lazy drawl and just generally radiates a casual ease that makes you think “man I wish I was as cool as that guy.” If you ever meet him you’d instantly like him no matter who you are. He could come to America and fit into whatever crowd he wanted to: the athlete community with his build, the artsy community with his accent or the business community with his experience. I have a total friend-crush on him. So when I was eating at his house the other day and he turned on his favorite DVD of Celine Dion music videos, I was taken slightly aback. I didn’t want to lose my cool though, so I just said, “Oh yeah, Celine. Celiiiiine. Sweet. Y’know she’s Canadian right?” So we watched the video for “A New Dawn” I think it’s called. Then we watched the making of the video. Then we listened to the song again set to a slideshow of Celine pics. The music video itself just swims with feel-good New Ageiness. A blue-screened Celine swoons and sings in front of a sun-soaked cloudscape. This base is intercut with shots of attractive couples of various ethnicities grasping each other in intimate positions as they begin the process of kissing (though the slow motion never allows them to get around to it) in front of studio representations of their home countries. According to the video, hot young adults around the world are all after the same thing . . . well, yes that . . . but more importantly, world peace inspired by the airy vocals of a singer that will never quite be as exotic as Enya. Second to Enya; that's a tough place to be. As we watched the slideshow, Chifundo made a profound observation: "She must be an old woman but somehow they make it seem as if she is very young and single." So sadly true.

The weirdest thing is, I enjoyed watching Celine Dion music videos.

Maybe this is because I’m starved for American familiarity (admittedly, Celine is Canadian, but that’s close enough). It’s more likely that I’m just starved for a music video with the slightest shred of production value, no matter who the singer is.

Let me share with you the formula for the Malawian music video. 1. Create pop-like song from synthesized beats and Casio organ sounds. 2. Purchase cheap digital video camera (I think this is actually the first problem with the formula). 3. Invite all your friends and some other random people you meet that day and film them along on the side of the road performing unpracticed dance moves to the beat of your song. 4. Give the footage to your 5-year old kid to edit. And that’s it. The worst perpetrator of this practice is Lawrence Mbenjere, the Malawian Jack Johnson. His songs sound like Wee Sing kids’ songs and somehow they’re wildly popular. He also thinks he’s the coolest thing since Lucius Banda (who is another story entirely), but the guy looks like anyone else you’d see on the street here. He dresses in normal clothes and cheap suits. I would have thought he was just another one of the goofy dancers except that he was singing. The lyrics of one of his songs, (a song that sounds like a loop on my Casio keyboard I got when I was 6), are actually putting down the other artists that imitate “his sound”. It’s literally one of those “Will the real Slim Shady please stand up” kind of song, y’know, where you’re the original guy, and then a bunch of wannabes come in and steal your sound and make money off of your artistry. What I don’t understand is who would take the trouble to imitate this stuff? Apparently it's a lot. The Mbenjere formula is copied everywhere as if it's just gold and maybe it is. At the very least it's darned catchy, I can't get it out of my head most of the day.

The result of all this exposure: I heard the song "All Star" by Smashmouth the other day and I actually enjoyed it. The songs I regularly hated during their height of popularity in the states are now so familiar I actually like them. God help me. I'm just starved for any music with production value beyond a 4-track and a Casio synthesizer can produce.

The biggest Reggae band here though, Black Missionaries is actually pretty good. They’re dying one by one (the most recent one last Monday) from smoking Chamba and crossing the government, but they were actually pretty good if you like Reggae and don’t mind the synthesized trumpet sounds. They couldn’t get a trumpet, most likely. They paint an intricate tapestry of political philosophy in their song, “Babylon system fallin’ down” or religious exploration when they sing “Did he come to be a king? Oh no! He said no, don’t fight. Rasta have got the answer, I want to know why Jesus was born”. It’s so true, y’know? (Also their album Shark Sandwich got a two word-review…)

I’ve actually started to enjoy the Malawian music scene. It’s entirely home-grown. There’s no line that I can see between celebrity and normal guy. It’s literally about just grabbing a camera and going out to shoot some friends. It’s the same story with the shows on TV, the Soaps and such. Malawi TV is a lot of home movies and while it may be unbearably bad, it’s hard not to develop some fondness for the homemade feeling it gives you. The media here does not construct an unrealistic fantasy world, it’s entertainment that is true to the country itself, rough, homemade, low-budget and ultimately personal. You know when musicians talk about they 'good old days' when they didn't have much money, just dreams and before the music scene became so corporate? Those days are happening right now in Malawi. My friend Louis told me that producers use synthesizers a lot because there is not much access to real instruments which are unreasonably expensive anywhere you are. I'm actually starting to like the feel of the music. It's endearing and fun. Just not every night.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

What Happens When You Do the Right Thing

The last week here has impressed upon me that Malawi has serious problems. It's kind of easy to forget when you're white and have just had a good meal of nsima and beef, but the country is definitely in trouble. Not only is food scarce, but education is in shambles here in Malawi, so people often have never been told very basic things about sanitation, getting the right nutrition, etc. It's a cycle, the government doesn't have money from any major industries, since the industries can't get skilled workers since the education system is terrible because the government doesn't have the money to fund it. Capitalism is great and all, but only if you have something to offer the world market or people actually care about you. Usually the latter is a result of the former, and truth be told, Malawi doesn't have many resources to offer.

One of the primary problems that World Relief is addressing here is that a lot of people don't know how to make money. Even base level business principles don't register here. We went to a village called Napita the other day to see one of the church's chicken farming projects. We walked back into the church, past the pastor's office and opened the door across the hall. About two dozen chickens greeted us with frantic clucks. The office was a chicken pen! After speaking to the leader of the ministry team he told us he was selling the eggs they lay for about the same price as it costs to feed them. The price of chicken feed had gone up recently and he hadn't adjusted the prices accordingly. It's this kind of thing that World Relief is helping to correct. It seems fairly obvious but it takes work to get people into a business mindset instead of a subsistence labor. The situation is strange. All the explanation I've gotten as to why people don't know how to raise their own individual economies let alone the national one is as follows: "Education is bad and Malawians are lazy." This talk was obviously flippant, but it contributes to an overall stereotype that I have sensed hovering around the Malawian people. It reflects questions that need to be answered. Why is education in bad shape here? Why aren't Malawians doing more business?

I really felt like there was more to it than just 'laziness' so I started talking to people about Malawian history. When the British set up their colonies, each one had a characteristic goal in contributing to the British Empire. Rhodesia was for farming and South Africa for mining. It turns out that Nyasaland (as Malawi was called back then) was basically a source of cheap labor for the farms and mines set up in present day Zambia, Zimbabwe and South Africa. The people were actually taken from their villages to work for subsistence wages on the tobacco and tea plantations throughout the colonial expanse. It was basically indentured servitude, slavery by another name.

It is important to note that the surrounding countries of Zambia, South Africa and Zimbabwe (until recently) have been the envy of Malawians as far as development goes. These other countries have more educational emphasis and it's easier for their citizens to attend schools and universities, or so I've been told. Though no one has said this to me outright, it can't be a coincidence that Malawi is known for its lack of education while having this history. The first rule of maintaining a cheap labor force is not to educate that labor force, to prevent them from seeing just how screwed they really are. When the British left, all the workers on the tobacco plantations in Malawi just wanted to go back to their homes like any other freed slave would. However, it actually would have been better for the economy to keep the farms running at British standards, instead the workers were allowed to go home. There it is: The British colonized and formed the land they settled on into a governmental system that did serious injustice to the people and actually required that injustice to continue to support itself. If Malawi could've kept the farms running they could've started generating money for education and get Malawians trained in how to deal with this new world they'd been dumped into. But it all hinged on keeping the laborers in place.

Sound like anyplace we know? Yep, the good old USA. Remember all those years where slavery was kept in place to support the economy? We're doing okay now because we didn't quit unjust labor practices right away. It took a hundred years and a war to do that. Malawi is what happens when you listen to your heart and set the prisoners free. You're left with a system that requires continued exploitation to produce goods in a world that requires that you produce to be taken seriously. I personally think the Malawians have less to answer for than the British, but I'll go with the program for now. I'm still hanging on to my theory.

When I mentioned this to one of my World Relief colleagues, she kind of said "huh" as if it hadn't occurred to her. Maybe I'm wrong. For the Malawians, their country is their problem, not anyone else's, which is actually a good thing since they are taking it upon themselves to solve the problem through agencies like World Relief. As of now, however, I believe Malawi is a country that has been dealt a great deal of unseen injustice, forced into systems that value profit and payment instead of love, mercy and humanity. Malawi is far from lazy. Farming is tougher work than I have ever done (see my post 'Wild Wild East' for further extrapolation). Furthermore, It actually has a rich history of humanitarian work, contributing to its status as the "Warm Heart of Africa". Refugees from other war-torn countries have been allowed to settle in Malawi and have not been turned away. Malawi knows how to give; it's the taking that is more of a problem. I believe that God will remember the deeds of his Malawian children, and that they are among the richest citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Wild Wild East

My first week of work with World Relief in Salima has been maybe one of the coolest weeks in my life. Since my host dad and supervisor here in Salima, Mr. Nyamulani has been gone from Monday the 9th until today, the 13th, I have been tagging along with Chifundo Banda as I stated in my last post. Here I’ll try to elaborate on what it’s been like. “Try” is a key term here, since it’s been a pretty multi-sensory thing (perhaps a Multisensory Aesthetic Experience, anyone?).

Maybe I should take this time to explain my picture policy here since I’ve been getting some complaints and requests for more photos. It’s true that I have been taking pictures conservatively, but know that I will have a great deal of pics for everyone when I get back. The truth is that I have actually been refraining from posting too many pictures and the ones I am posting have been carefully selected. Nothing I post will really exactly describe what Malawi is like, so instead of going for photo-realism, I’m pursuing a “thick description” approach (Geertz would be so proud) in which I’ve been trying to extrapolate on feelings and thoughts as well as sense data in order to give you the space to create your own rendition of life here. Think of it like impressionism in painting. It’s not realistic, but it does delineate a likeness that puts one’s own mental “lenses” into play. You also might have noted that there’s often lack of people in the pictures. One of the most interesting things about Malawi is how deceptively desolate it appears, hiding how densely populated the country really is, a sentiment I hope to communicate in my pictures. I hope to write about people in such a way as to populate the pictures with the people who live and work in the photographed environs without having to digitally abstract their likenesses. Wasn’t there some tribe somewhere that thought pictures would steal your soul? Well, I might sort of believe that, and I’m trying to take it seriously.

But yes, I’ll have a bunch of normal pictures when I get back. Don’t worry Mom…


My work uniform has changed from a collared shirt and slacks to ripped jeans, a t-shirt under my zip hoodie and a backpack and an old open-faced cycler’s helmet. I now resemble a slovenly sidecar gunner or perhaps a homeless skydiver, one of the two. I’m once again cultivating on my chin-scruff. Man, I love this job. Hopping on the back of Chifundo’s motor bike and zipping down the roads passing Baobab trees, fields of yellow grass and mud huts with the big green phiris (mountains) looming in the distance gave me a thrill that I had not felt since driving through Hwange Nat’l Park many years ago. Africa by motor vehicle is an elating experience, particularly on a motorcycle or from the back of a land-cruiser since it’s open-air. Somehow every acre of the bush is so full of its own wonders (strangely beautiful trees, deep red earth, dappled shrubbery) that blowing through it at 70 kph is like a drug; (or perhaps a ‘tonic’ as they would say in Zim). I personally am very susceptible to the orbital quality of high-speed travel and it makes me feel so oddly comfortable, as if my only true home is that weird space in-between boundaries and states, over land and under sky.

Our first journey was about 23 K to Chipoka, a little town in the south Salima district, to visit St. Matthew’s Anglican Church (pictured here and in the previous post), a little parish that is going to get a new building soon. In late July, a mission team will come from Switzerland to build a new sanctuary just a few feet away from the former one so we were surveying the grounds and introducing the parishioners to Mr. Nkhosi, a former WR employee who will be organizing the operation. Tear Fund is a Swiss organization that funds World Relief Malawi as well as sending missions teams to do construction every year for different churches that are connected with World Relief.

Tear Fund does not operate through any specific church, but instead connects different churches in the interest of supporting WR’s operations in Malawi. As a result, the missions team that is coming will not be from any one church, but from a number of them. I’m not sure what it will be like, but the whole church connection thing sounds cool since it could mean that this team may not be a bunch of giggling pals from some youth group, but an actual team serious about building a church in seven days. Their endeavors in the past certainly seem to have worked out. I visited a couple of sanctuaries they have built and they definitely stand out. The teams are well known around Salima, and most people are aware of the work they do with World Relief. On many occasions when I have met someone for the first time I will be asked if I am from Switzerland. The first few times it happened (before I’d heard about Tear Fund) I was like, “uh…no I’m not actually. You know there’s actually a few other countries with white people in them.” Okay so I didn’t actually say that, but then when I discovered how frequently the missions team comes I understood just how important the Swiss are to Salima’s development. Just last year two Swiss volunteers, Rachel and Dianna, who are spoken of quite frequently, came to work with World Relief for six weeks.

St. Matthew’s is a tiny parish in the south just about one klick from the lake. Like most of the churches outside Salima town, it’s just an oblong brick building that one might pass by without noticing yet it is the communal center of a group of over a hundred people. This is how most of Malawi lives, away from cities and often even far from any main roads. Entire lives are spent on one arbitrary plot constrained by invisible boundaries delineating specific ownership rights. Although the countryside appears free and wild, it is actually finely divided. This is part of the reason that subsistence farmers continue producing the same meager quantities of food instead of expanding into commercial enterprise. It’s tough to produce a surplus when all you own is a little plot of land, but they are doing their best.

The other half of the equation is farming materials and strategies. This is the area that World Relief is helping with. They loan materials like irrigation pumps and send people like Chifundo, an educated agriculturalist, to teach simple farming strategies like making compost and planting strategically. On the eleventh we took a trip to Chikumba in the west. I watched Chifundo teach the farmers how to make compost and took pictures (which I actually deleted on accident and I don’t want to hear it ‘cause I’m still mad about it ooookay?). It was great to watch Chifundo work. I couldn’t understand…well…any of the Chichewa but the rhythm of his speechmaking itself is impressive. He jokes, answers questions and persuades with a casual ease that inspires confidence. The farmers themselves look like all the pictures you’ve seen. Tattered T-shirts and secondhand pants all caked with soil, the women carry the babies on their backs and the children play around the wells with frightening carelessness, but it’s their speech, their motion that I wish I could show you. It’s really not as foreign as the photos make it seem.

These are the ‘folks’ of Malawi, the families that lie at the roots of most every family tree. Even the educated came from the villages and I have heard most everyone in the Lilongwe office talk about life back in “my village”. This is a context in which the family unit is of paramount important. Watching them work together gave me a distinct sense that they were all in this together. The women farm alongside the men and children that couldn’t be more than four carry sacks of maize on their heads. It certainly isn’t an easy life, but they seemed to represent a very basic component to human togetherness. They also work hard and know it. One lady had me pick up a hoe and start tilling, laughing at my overzealous strokes and sensing my desire not to be shown up. She chattered at me in Chichewa, I looked at Chifundo for help. “She’s telling you that you should learn to work the land” he. “You’re right, I should” I said, and meant it. All I had to do was take a few swings and there was still an acre to till. The lady gave another jolly laugh and got back to her whacking. I felt like a mayor taking one of those ceremonial shovelfuls of earth to christen a building site, pausing for pictures, while all of the construction workers stand around rolling their eyes. No contempt from these folks, though. No sour faces, just smiles and laughter. How funny I must seem! All pale and fragile, hands without calluses, such a stranger to the land under my feet even after living in the country with ample opportunity to acquaint myself with it. Later, after putting away my camera, I jumped in to help with the compost mixing. It was an unexpected move and everyone chuckled, “so the azungu is getting his hands dirty, eh?” The compost, a mixture of manure, ash, charcoal, yeast and grass was black and cool, staining my hands. Afterwards, one of the women offered a bucket to wash my hands off with. This is a customary thing in Malawi, so I accepted it willingly. The server holds a basin under the recipient’s hands with one hand and pours a pitcher of water over them with the other. “Zikomo wambiri” I said (thanks very much) and dried off my hands, again white and clean.

The families take care of themselves with the resources they are given. Like the so-called ‘hillbillies’ of the Appalachians and the ‘hicks’ of the American south, there is little connection to the world beyond their plot, but who is it that has severed this link? It is certainly not some kind of cultural snobbery nor a distrust of outsiders. The farmers among the easiest people to engage, even with a language barrier, evoking a social ease that is even richer and less stilted than the people of Salima town (if that’s possible). Perhaps these people are simply not allowed to connect due to land barriers, or the centers of commerce and connection have not found it profitable or worthwhile enough to enter the worlds of these ‘virtual landless’. World Relief is working to bridge that divide and bring those forced into the fringes into interaction with markets. There is considerable risk involved since financial success and even the production of food for themselves relies so much on the rains and other various weather conditions. They are the poor, a noble poor, a fighting poor and most prominently, a faithful poor whom I suspect could tell us a thing or two about peace behind the monotony of daily chores, calm in the midst of difficult labor, freedom in spite of the silliness of claustrophobic land rights and the Jesus that smiles behind their welcoming grins.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Welcome to Salima where the players play...

...and we eat nsima like every day. Well okay that last part's not true, we've had rice the past couple of meals, but I feel like that may only be because I'm here. Nsima is the main Malawian staple food. It's a dense cornmeal dish like grits. It's pretty bland, but it's a filling base on which you can put sauces and meat and vegetables. I think people automatically assume that I don't like nsima because I'm white. They're not exactly wrong, but I don't dislike it, it's just a little hard to manage with my fingers.

I've been here in Salima three full days now staying with Richard Nyamulani and his family in a little brick house just off the main road. Salima is a sea change from Lilongwe. Calling the place "semi-rural" as the World Relief handbook described downplays Salima's distinct "ruralness"..."rurality"..."condition of being rural", whatever, it's rural. Salima town is basically a tiny cluster in the middle of the many hectares of low-lying grasslands that make up the Salima district. The population of the entire district is about 250,000 while the town is around 40,000. Salima is the photo-negative of Celeste, TX. It's weird, but I get such a familiar vibe from the whole place. I'm starting to see the same people every day, and the vacant stares that come with being an "azungu" in a town of blacks are beginning to turn into hellos (or "Muli Bwanji?" as people are realizing that I'm trying to speak Chichewa). A railroad track even runs through a part of the town. Once when Chifondo and I were driving alongside it and came to a crossing it looked so much like a particular part of Celeste that I had to blink a few times. There are a few major differences though, one of them being that despite it's size the place bustles with energy. People don't stay put here. They are active, always moving, always doing something, but at an easier pace than Americans. Here the American extremes of "working" and "resting" are blended into a steady hum. The days here are relaxing and productive at the same time.

Chichewa has become my primary challenge. I still don't understand about 98% of the language and it's about 98% of what people speak here. No one is letting me get away with any English either. People in Salima are Chichewa evangelists, insisting that I be fluent by the time I leave. It's a lot of fun at times, but also taxing (generally later in the day when my brain is tired). It saps mental energy like exercise does for the body. I'm getting better though, and it is beginning to feel less like an insurmountable obstacle.

Mr. Nyamulani has told me that I would be most helpful in the Youth for Life and Child Development areas since there isn't a full time employee in those areas. I'll be going around meeting youth groups and talking to them about health and success in school. Scary! Exciting! I'm supposed to be a role model!

Work here at World Relief Salima is also very different from Lilongwe (and a good deal more fun). Office work is kept to a minimum while most of the day is spent driving around on motor bikes to different field sites to check up on the operations there. The three regular employees here are Chifondo, Steve and Mr. Nyamulani whom I live with. I've been hanging out with Chifondo who works in agriculture this week since Mr. Nyamulani is gone to Lilongwe all week for a training and Steve isn't here for some reason. Chifondo is totally cool. He's 26 maybe and really chill, but he's been working here for a few years and he's really good at his job. He's the young guy here, but he's probably the most experienced. He's really fun to hang out with.

We've been visiting the chicken pens that WR has set up in different churches around the district. These churches are anywhere from a few blocks down the street to kilometers away in the different parts of the district. Here's how the ag-shop works here. World Relief will loan agricultural materials, mostly chickens, to churches that wish to participate in the program and are willing to keep the project going. The money they get from selling the chickens and eggs are used to pay back the loan (with a 10% interest) and buy more chickens or other materials to sell. The idea is to start creating wealth instead of depending upon benefactors and subsistence agriculture for survival. "Malawians are not very good at business" Mr. Mziska once told me. Indeed, a lot of the bigger shops and supermarkets tend to be run by Indians and Arabs instead of local Malawians. These people are farmers being schooled in small business practices. Unfortunately, the global market has advanced to a stage that has no place for subsistence farming and the rampant AIDS pandemic is creating a high demand for Anti-Retroviral medications. Simply put, survival is getting more expensive, and people need to be taught how to create wealth.

It's kind of sad really, being forced to start down that path, living in a world where if you don't get your economy ahead then others will come in and overtake it. I know it's lightyears away from the capitalistic decadence of America, but it's the philosophy of the thing. One of the things that I have enjoyed so much about Malawi has been its subsistence philosophy. People here know what they need to do to survive and aren't in the habit of taking extra. It's not like people don't dream of a better life, but they also don't have such voracious appetites for entertainment and comfort that Americans do. In a way I feel as if the education that Mr. Nyamulani wants me to bring to the youth is laced with the slightest poison. I want to be careful what I say because in a sense, some things are better here than in America. Contentment can be found in a filling meal and entertainment in conversation. There is value in togetherness as opposed to individual pursuits.

Internet costs money here since the office doesn't have any so I'll only be able to get on a few times a week instead of the once-a-day luxury.

Friday, June 6, 2008

The Council of Elders

Yesterday I had another fun conversation with the lunchtime group. There's actually a name for it: the "Council of Elders". They discuss politics, culture, faith, anything that comes up. I mentioned in my last post how much I look forward to it every day, and I'll miss it a great deal I'm sure once I go to Salima. I recorded it yesterday so I uploaded some clips from the conversations. The participants recorded here are Zik, Gibson, Aubry and myself. Atisunge was there too, but not very talkative. Stella had already come and gone. Here are two bits:

Politics in Malawi - Zik takes the helm of discussing the strangeness of political process in Malawi and vents a bit about how odd it is that Europe seems to know all of the data about the country, but the politicians and leaders do not.

Rastas - Bob Marley was not allowed into Malawi. Frank opinions about the vain, Godless, youth corrupting, vegetarian, "chamba"-smoking Rastas.

See you all later! I promise I'll have more pictures up soon.

Editor's note

I'm leaving for Salima tomorrow afternoon so this will likely won't be able to post again for a few days. The internet there is dial-up so expect a drop in the post frequency. I'll still be writing every day, I just don't know how often I'll be able to post.

Here's a fun little audio bite from Jo'burg. I was playing catch with a little kid outside the BIMS missions house and decided to put the Marantz in my outer pocket and turn it on. The boy's name is Isaac. Just click on "download file" and it will take you to a more generic looking page. On the right you'll see a nondescript button that also says "download file". Click there and type in the code to listen.

Thursday, June 5, 2008


Politics is always the discussion topic during lunch. Most everyone here has a favorable opinion about Obama, but it's not at all blind admiration simply because he is African. Malawians take politics very seriously (far more seriously than myself) and they want a competent, knowledgeable president in the White House just as much as we do. However, there are a few things that I think Africans notice more easily than Americans regarding the ethos of politics. Last night I was talking with Mr. Mziska about it and he expressed his admiration for Obama after his acceptance speech. He had printed it out for us and we read over it for some time. Mr. Mziska said that he was impressed by Sen. Obama's remarks about his opponents, particularly Hillary Clinton. "He is very gracious and a very eloquent speaker. Clinton, not so much." This was a very refreshing thing for me to hear, because in America we seem to pass off things like the communication style and ethos of a candidate as red herrings obstructing the more important points such as his (or her!) policy and qualifications, as if rhetoric and people skills have nothing to do with it.

In Malawi, the importance of propriety and graciousness in one's speech is very much alive and important to social life. I can't help but agree adamantly with this perspective. Seeing politics as just a machine, and politicians as mechanisms to enact policy, while partly true, leaves out the simple fact that governments are run by human beings at the end of the day. People react to speeches. Words have power, and a president needs to know how to use them to unify people. Sure policy is important, but we shouldn't act like words aren't. Take Bush's foreign policy for example. Remember the whole "Axis of Evil" stuff and the "we are fighting against evil and you're with us or against us" speeches? That sent waves throughout the world. I remember having conversations on planes with foreigners who were affected and deeply suspicious of our country's motives.

To think that words and real events are not linked together is a foolish idea indeed and to think that people who pay too much attention to the surface level stuff, the speeches, the personalities of the candidates, the publicity, do not really understand politics is all kinds of arrogant. That stuff actually matters. I can get so tired of people treating politics as if it is some kind of deep knowledge, completely inaccessible to the common man (or woman!). Everyone's gotta be an expert. It's like we have to be political scientists nowadays to vote responsibly, employing deeply critical thought to every policy and decision the candidate proposes to make, predicting the outcomes of each candidate's policies as if it is some sort of algebraic equation. Then those who say they voted for a candidate because he (or she!) "felt trustworthy" or "is well spoken" are treated if they're some kind of plebeian dunce. Social interaction matters. Words can rally people or divide them, and a someone's personality does not just go away just because that person has taken public office. It's kind of cool that Malawi is such a small country, because everyone talks about their politicians with some sense of familiarity whether they have met them or not. In many cases, they literally live right down the street and hail from common area districts. People know people here and value character very highly.

Honestly, all of these discussions have made me more interested in politics than ever before. Perhaps it is more than just a structure that I am forced to live under. Maybe humanity does have some power to shine through the cracks of the altogether inaccessible legal system. Yesterday I was asked (for the thousandth time) who I would support in the coming election, after I had given a little cheer after discovering that Obama had all but won the candidacy. I told them that I wasn't exactly an Obama supporter, but that I didn't really support anyone else either. "Aaahh, he is a philosophy major!" They all laughed. Then Zik spoke up.

Zik is probably the funniest guy in the office and an arresting speaker. He is handsome and looks a bit like a young Don Cheadle. He always injects passionately religious zeal into his discussions about...really anything, and it's always really funny to listen to. It's kind of a running joke with him to bombastically relate whatever topic is being discussed with a Bible passage as if it has complete allegorical relevance to the subject at hand. There is a knowing glint in his eye every time he does it. He's a skilled jokester. He will assume an authoritative posture and speak as if from a pulpit, gapping his words appropriately for maximum profundity. After expressing how indecisive I was regarding politics, he half-closed his eyes, raised his finger and said,

"Ah, but you must choose! When you are on Mount Carmel..." At that point we all cracked up.
"So who is Baal?" I retorted.
"Ah, it is you who must decide!"

Zik always pretends to have monopolized the final word in an argument by bringing the Bible into the discussion, obviously the highest authority against which no one dare argue. The funny thing is that although Zik maintains a humorous air, he is very perceptive, and there are times when his biblical allegories can lend much insight to the conversation which tends to keep everyone a bit off balance. Is he joking or not? Gibson usually takes it upon himself to establish whether or not Zik's kidding. "That is joking, that is joking" he will say to no one in particular while Zik carries on. Just talking here is really fun. It's like a little event. I can't wait for lunch.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

African proverb: Wanna Fanta?

Yes. Yes I do want one. The real question is when don't I wanna Fanta? The answer so far is never. I can’t think of a time when I wouldn’t want a crusty glass bottle of warm, lightly carbonated Nazi soda. It just might be my calling in life. I’ve given up on pretending to like manly drinks. I knew I was screwed when I discovered to my own dismay that my favorite beer was Blue Moon. You know, the kind that you squirt the orange slice into and sip lightly as you dive into the weekend gossip? I only saw one other guy have one and he had frosted hair and a white patterned shirt with the top two buttons undone, skin-tight pants (is that treated leather?) and ordering something vegan. It was in this bar in the Inner Harbor in Baltimore a few weeks ago and I was like totally chillin’ w/ my ladyfriends :) Ashley and Sarah lol...uh…I MEAN THESE TWO CHICKS THAT I WAS PIMPIN’ ON Y’KNOW!?!?! WE WERE SOOO WASTED DUDE!!!! YEAH BRO!!!! [high fives, high fives] *sigh* Anyway, there’s just something about fruity orangeness that I just can’t get enough of. Which is why I’m so darn full of Fanta right now.

Let me tell you about African soda for those unfortunate enough never to have had the opportunity of tasting it. Take your normal American Coke, remove all carcinogens, high fructose syrups, 1/3 of the carbonation and pretty much just use ingredients that are grown in like, fields, instead of pharmaceutical laboratories and you’ve got a half-liter of heaven. Seriously, American Coke is like the bizzarro version of African Coke. The sugar is like that amniotic fluid stuff they keep the humans in in The Matrix. You know the way it gums your saliva after you drink one so that when you spit and the saliva retains its covalent bonding so you can’t ever actually get rid of the crap, but you end up sucking it back into your mouth? EWW! And we’re actually swallowing that stuff? Aren’t we just turning all our fluids into glue? Instead of experimenting with different synthetic syrups to achieve a roughly sugar-like flavor, Africans decided to use REAL SUGAR. GENIUS!!! It’s pretty much just growing all over the place so why not, right? I just walked into my back yard yesterday with my current host-mom and just picked some cane and ate it. It was so awesome. I just straight up ate sugar and it tasted great. In my entire life in the States I don’t think I ever even understood where sugar came from let alone ate sugarcane. It’s a testament to how much cooler things are in Africa. For me the first stop in my journey of transformation was discovering that foods don’t in fact grow in cans and jars, but are originally a part of organic matter before being carted off to the processing plant.

So since we’ve got the sugar thing down, now we can move on addressing the other problems with the American soda formula. Now that the soda actually tastes good, there’s no need to keep all that heartburn-inducing carbonation to mask the flavor. Let’s just take remove about a third of it, make those bubbles a bit smaller, and you actually have a “soft drink” instead of a “bubbles-explode-in-your-throat-giving-you-a-stroke drink”. Again, some sensible Africans just decided that it was unnecessary to make soda taste like Pop Rocks.

Two down, last thing. Why chill it so much? In America you have to freeze your throat lining just to make the stuff taste good. Gotta have something to take your mind off that awful corn syrup and those exploding gaseous burp-bubbles right? Well in Africa you can actually have your drink higher than 33 degrees Fahrenheit and still taste good. It’s unbelievable. It’s much less stressful than searching for the absolute frostiest bottle you can find in the store then rushing to check out and guzzle the thing so it doesn’t have the chance to raise one degree of temperature and betray the fact that it actually TASTES BAD.

Anyway, non-potable drinking water doesn’t bother me in the least as long as I’ve gotta Fanta. It also takes care of the whole “cultural sensitivity vs. Covenant” thing for me. In Malawi nothing’s more culturally appropriate than a nice, smooth Fanta orange. Conflicted about breaking the Covenant during your internship? (Sarah Bagge, I know you are) take my advice and just knock back a Fanta and let your troubles trickle away.

Monday, June 2, 2008

First weekend in Lilongwe

The World Relief office is a pretty burrow in Lilongwe's Area 10 residential district. The whole of Lilongwe is remarkably green. It is a very different city from a place like Harare in which construction seemed to have started out from a single nucleus and expanded outward like cellular reproduction. Though the infrastructure is underdeveloped Lilongwe is a well-planned city that is spread out over a large area, leaving room for trees, foliage and other greenery. The city could be taken as a rural area when viewed from afar, but looks are deceiving and the city is actually very active on the ground. Tomaida, my supervisor's wife told me that Lilongwe is unique in that it is decidedly African with very few foreign business interests. It's a good picture of Malawi itself: a poor country, but a stable one that manages its own affairs without selling out its land or resources to foreigners. Malawi keeps it real.

I've only been here a few days, but I've made some good friends that will be sad to leave when I go to my permanent situation in Salima. I am staying with my supervisor's family, Sandress and Tomaida Mziska. Sandress is a very thoughtful man who has studied philosophy and anthropology, so we have had several enlightening conversations. He is very wise, softspoken and respectable; he kind of reminds me of Mr. J.O.B Matekone in the "No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency Novels" except way more fatherly. He told me the other day that "Anthropology is essential to the study of theology, since in theology we don't only study God, but also people." A lot of the rhetoric around the church in Malawi is focused on strengthening relationships with each other through seeking deeper closeness with God. Theology and anthropology go hand in hand here, which is, I think probably the best way to go about the latter.

Lewis is a 22-year old employee who is in Lilongwe right now for training before he goes north to the Nkhota kota office. I met him briefly on Friday just after arriving, and we hung out a lot on Saturday during an employee retreat. He acts like we've been friends for years. All I needed was to give him my name and we were best friends within minutes (I love Africa). He has taken it upon himself to guide me through a lot of the cultural hurdles that I need to jump while I'm in Malawi. He deals out information quite freely and whether he knows it or not, he has become my most valuable informant. We have promised to visit each other since Salima and Nkhota kota are not too far away.

Sandress and Tomaida attend Capital City Baptist church headed by an African-American pastor. There were a good deal of occidentals there in various professions from missions to development and business. I felt like I was back in the Forts' mission church in Harare. The building was one of those sunken triangle things with a descending ceiling and vertical windows. The sanctuary seated a couple hundred and flags hung from the ceiling. It is a nice complex with soccer fields, school buildings and a big fountain outside. It's quite a missionary oasis. We all had lunch on Sunday at the pastor's parsonage.

It felt odd to hang out with whites again. I know it's only been a few days, but living with Malawians is such a cultural immersion that the transition was acutely felt. It felt bittersweet. Suddenly I found myself back in the familiar missionary/expatriate community that I had fallen in love with back in Zimbabwe. It was my first vision of Africa, a community that I still may very well be a part of in the future. For now though, I believe Jesus wants me experience an African country through different lenses, from the perspective of its own people. It is difficult (language, dialect, customs, etc.) to adjust. It hasn't been frustrating to me yet, but mainly, uncomfortable. Feeling the difference between Malawian culture and my own breeds a certain discomfort that is not exactly painful or distressing but irksome, like nails on a chalkboard, a multitude of little worries that overwhelm a tired mind during the late hours. I will sometimes lie awake (from jet lag) and feel as if there is something wrong, but I know that nothing is. I am perfectly safe, I enjoy Malawi very much, I have already made friends, I am learning the language, doing my homework, safe and secure. Yet somehow those creeping tinges of cultural unfamiliarity can still leave me wishing for a western safety net. This desire, however is not Jesus' plan for me right now. The Malawian people have so much to teach me. I will have to be dedicated to ridding my mind of my own subconscious stubbornness in order to receive those lessons. I have grown older, more adherent to my own ways. I'm praying that Jesus will bring out the kid in me again, wide-eyed and curious. I'm not as wise as I once was.

I met a wonderful woman named Molly on the airplane who I ended up sitting by at CC Baptist. She knew the Forts, my cousins, from a long time ago. Her husband teaches at the Theology school in Lilongwe and she had just returned from her studies in America. She is so wonderful, I'm so pleased God put her in my path. Actually there were about ten to twenty people at that church that were on my plane, so it was kind of weird and cool. I at least had a conversation starter: "Hey so how 'bout that flight eh? Did you get the beef? Yeah, I should've".