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".