Malawi: Settling In…At Last

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Home Sweet Home

We have been in Malawi for six months!  Long before coming here, I knew this first six months would be crucial and it would not be easy.  I knew reaching this milestone would be very important for both myself and my daughter — to finally put 2017, the year of two intercontinental moves, three countries on three continents, two jobs plus training, two schools, two nannies, one childcare center, and so much more behind us.  So often colleagues told me (warned me?) that it would take at least six months to be comfortable in the new job and country.  In my previous government assignments in Jakarta, Ciudad Juarez, and Shanghai, it did not take me so long to acclimate; I felt comfortable within three months.  That did not happen here.  Not even close.

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99 boxes of stuff in the hall, 99 boxes of stuff… (actually only 91 boxes)

In the Foreign Service we seem to have an uncanny ability to forget how incredibly difficult it is to move each and every time, how difficult it is to arrive at a new place and wait weeks, if not months, before making the new house a home.  It is a defense mechanism.  If we remembered, perhaps we could not keep doing it.  We arrived in mid-August.  Amazingly, just 12 days later our Unaccompanied Baggage (UAB) arrived.  Even more incredible is my Household Effects (HHE) arrived from Shanghai, via a storage facility in Europe, in mid-September.  It was not until November that my supplemental HHE from the U.S. arrived after its epic journey from my apartment in Arlington, VA to the port at Baltimore, MD, then by boat to Beira, Mozambique, where it was loaded onto a truck and driven to Lilongwe.  Every day that passed C and I became more comfortable with our lives in Malawi, with the school, with work, with the grocery stores, with the ways to get around town.  The first time I drove to C’s school she guided me based on what she had seen out the school bus window.  The first time I figured out the other way to the supermarket was like winning the lottery.

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First room completed – C’s jungle bathroom

It was slow going.  New job.  New position.  New country.  New continent.  New colleagues.  New car.  New house.

In the Foreign Service, at the vast majority of posts, where you will live is mostly out of your hands.  We do fill out a housing survey to help direct the Housing Board in making their decision — but this is my fourth move with the government and every survey I have completed was fairly basic: your name, position, rank, family size, and maybe an area for few requests (near the school? shorter commute? pool or no?).  The Housing Board will do its best to assign you but are limited by when you arrive and what houses are available at that time.   At some posts, like Malawi, the pool of houses is tight, so there may only be one or two available when you roll into town and you are probably not the only person showing up then either.  And the houses available in each place is only as good as the local construction allows — in many countries/cultures built in closets may be non-existent or hall closets a luxury.  A bathtub might be really hard to get.  Or medicine cabinets or outlets in the bathroom.  Storage space may be plentiful or nowhere to be found.

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C’s play room

Building codes or shoddy construction practices or local preference may present you with some fairly interesting housing designs.  In Jakarta I had a room in the middle of my house.  Yes, right in the middle.  Four walls, no windows.  In Juarez there was no insulation in my bedroom floor, which sat right above the garage.  In the winter the floors were like walking on ice.  I had a patio but the cemented part of the patio was reached via a rock garden where scorpions lay hidden.  In Shanghai there were no hall closets to hang coats and all our bedroom closet doors were made of leather.  Yes, leather doors.  My cats liked those.  I did not so much like paying the $200 for damages and the inventive plastic cover I had custom made to protect them.

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My red and white (and horrid cabinet) kitchen

Our home in Malawi certainly has its quirks.  There are no outlets in the bathrooms.  So I plug my hair dryer in an outlet next to my bed where if I stretch out the cord I can check myself from a distance in the bathroom mirror.  The kitchen cabinets appear not to have been updated since the house was built, probably in the 70s, the off-white paint with wooden trim makes me think of wood paneled station wagons of the time period.  I hate them.  And they either do not close or they close so well I have to use all my strength to yank them open.  There is no hall closet anywhere near the front door though there is a nice built in wooden cabinet where I can store shoes and other random items — though when you look inside it seems about half of the back of the cabinet has been eaten away.  Luckily, I expect no one will ever look inside but me.  There is an odd bench-thing that divides my living room from the dining room.  I puzzle over its purpose and how I feel about it.  For C’s birthday party I used it to place some food and drinks but with kids it just seemed like I was asking for an accident.  Usually C uses it as a play platform — it can be the savanna in the Lion Guard or the forest for princesses or a surface to launch off cars.  We have a non-functioning fire place in the living room as well.  And our corrugated roofs… during hard rain the sound is so deafening we cannot hear each other speak and when the large ubiquitous black and white pied crows scamper around on top they sound like pterodactyls.

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C’s Moana inspired bedroom

Our bedrooms are small-ish and boxy.  And there is little wall space to hang pictures or artwork.  One side is all closet and a built in desk with mirror, one side is all window, and one side has to fit the bed with large frame to hang the mosquito net.  It is the same configuration in all three bedrooms.  I lose the fourth wall in the master bedroom to the dresser, the built in mirror, the door to the bathroom, and the door to the room.  There is only one small space to hang anything.  I know, why should I complain?  I have a built in desk and mirror.  I have LOADS of closet space.  And I have three bedrooms for two people.  I am honestly not complaining — just giving the facts, ma’am.

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The dining room.  Same old, same old furniture.  Zambia wall hanging, chair covers (because the cats like the chair backs too much) and my knickknacks in the China cabinet make it mine

As is usual for Foreign Service homes we have bars on all our windows.  We have bug netting attached to all our windows, which I assume is par the course for mosquito prone countries.   And like most homes in the Foreign Service we have the same old tried and true, and much maligned Drexel Heritage furniture.  Although I did not have this furniture in Shanghai (as we had furniture provided by the apartment complex), I have had this same furniture in Jakarta, Juarez, and now Malawi.  In one way it is comforting to know exactly what the dressers, dining room tables, side tables, china cabinets, sideboards, desks, chairs, sofas and more will look like.  Although I have little to no idea how my house might really look until I arrive, the furniture is not a mystery.  I plan decor around the furniture.

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Exhibit A

However, it can be really hard for friends and family to understand this lifestyle.  I have never picked out my own home.  Although some people paint, I have never done so and just use my wall art to change things up (you have to paint it back white before you leave).  With the exception of a few accent pieces, I do not bring or choose my furniture.   Sometimes we might be able to give some pieces back or exchange, but at some posts you cannot.  See exhibit A: the “between room.”  Another quirk of this house is this random room.  It is located between the living room and the room I have designated as C’s play room.  It has only two walls; it has no doors.  It has two cute, but strangely located windows.  It had the same boring but functional beige curtains found all over our house, in every single government provided housing I have had (again with that Shanghai exception).  It has an odd cut out in one wall and a built in shelf in the stucco of one of the walls.  It has plastic wiring covers snaking across the walls and a few oddly placed spot lights.  It’s weird.  I know.  But it is the house I have to live in for a few years and I must make the most of it.  But the picture I posted on my Facebook drew the ire of friends and family.  It is ugly!  Get rid of ALL that furniture!  Get a rug!  Throw away the curtains! The lamps and spotlights are dumb — get rid of those too!  People did not understand that A. I had changed out that sofa.  Initially it had been brown.  The same exact not-so-fetching brown as the sofas in the living room.  I thought this mustard an improvement.  In fact, knowing what was available in the warehouse, I had requested it!  and B. the photo represented my completed attempt at decoration and not a plea for help and design tips.

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Our living room with its unusual divider

But, here we are at last.  Six months, one quarter of the way, into my two year tour in Malawi.  Just now we are beginning to feel settled — in no small part because we have finally made our quirky, randomly assigned house into our home.  There is much to love about it.  From the wonderful enclosed but open air porch or konde where in the morning I sit quietly meditating and hear the sweet chirps and tweets and caws of no less than ten types of bird song and where I have had many a satisfying afternoon nap in my hammock.  To our high ceilings, pitched in the living room.  My daughter loves her Moana-inspired bedroom and does not care about the curtains or the carpet or the lack of wall space.  She and her friends love the play room (and let’s be honest the living room too — do not let that photo fool you, normally it is covered with toys).  No one else has to love it, just C and I.  And we know we are lucky to call this house and Malawi our home.

 

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Single Parent Dilemma: The Business Trip

woman with suitcaseIt may come as a surprise to some that I spent more than six years working in the State Department as a Foreign Service Officer without going on an overnight business trip.  I managed  due to a combination of my positions and locations (serving as a Consular Officer in two large high volume visa posts — i.e. my job was identical to that of 30-40 other officers) and personal choice.  There were certainly opportunities for travel.  While serving in Ciudad Juarez colleagues regularly took part in the Mission Mexico “swap” program in which Consular Officers at different posts would change places for a month.  So for instance an officer in Juarez would go to Guadalajara to adjudicate visas and a counterpart there would come to Juarez.  In swaps you also swapped homes, even cars.  There were also the occasional TDY (temporary duty = business trip) opportunities to places like Las Vegas for a trade show or Baja in support of G-20 (occurred a few months before my arrival), and even trips to Cairo and other far-flung locals.   Shanghai too had opportunities, many similar: Mission China swaps, TDYs to India and Haiti, and travel to Hangzhou in support of the G-20.

I could have volunteered.  A few well meaning, though generally childless, colleagues would offer various scenarios.  It would not have been impossible, just quite difficult.  In Juarez with an infant, and later in Shanghai with a preschooler, a nanny, and pets, swapping presented a more logistical and financial challenge for me than for my single or married colleagues.  I also rationalized that given the majority of the opportunities presented were basically doing visas in another place, I could simply continue to do work hard on visas and other tasks where I was assigned.  These choices I made may have cost me tenure the first time around and later promotion; it is hard to tell.  But, they were the best choices for myself and my daughter at the time.

Fast forward to Malawi.  Here I am in a different position.  I am no longer one of dozens of Consular Officers; I am the sole Political Officer.  Though I bid this position high due to the family-friendly atmosphere and the reported work-life balance, I knew it would be inevitable that travel would come up.  It may be a small nation, and this presents opportunities to really learn the issues and see a good part of the country, yet there is so much happening here and as the Political Officer I must get out and about on occasion.  What I had not expected were three TDYs in three months; to what essentially worked out to be three trips in seven weeks.

Trip One

mother and daughterFor my first trip it would be just three days and two nights within Malawi.  In late October I joined my locally-employed colleague on a familiarization trip to the southern Malawi cities of Blantyre and Zomba.  Lilongwe may be Malawi’s capital since 1975 but Zomba, the original colonial capital, and Blantyre, the business and judiciary center, together make a triumvirate of modern Malawi’s social, cultural, and political scene.    We would depart Lilongwe early on a Tuesday for the four hour drive to Blantyre and take meetings all day beginning with a lunch meeting and ending with a dinner meeting.  The following day would be spent 2/3 in Blantyre and then we would travel to Zomba to stay at the Embassy cottage that evening.  Original plans for a dinner meeting in town were scrapped due to the ongoing bloodsucker situation.  The final day would be a half day of meetings in Zomba before the nearly 4 1/2 hour drive back to Lilongwe.  Easy peasy, right?

Well, first when traveling as a single parent in the Foreign Service, you need to fill out a few items of paperwork when away from home but leaving family members, especially children, behind.  There is the usual out-of-town locator all employees must complete when traveling.  For all those folks who do not work for the government overseas, think about having to complete a form every single time you take a personal or professional trip.  In the event of an emergency, Post must be able to account for all personnel.  If heaven forbid an airplane or train crashes or a boat capsizes or there is a vehicle crash, Post needs to know if personnel traveling in the area may have been on board or on that road.  Security and facility personnel need to know who is or is not at your residence.  Even payroll needs to know in case pay needs to be adjusted.  It is one of the less-than-glorious aspects of Foreign Service life.  On top of the usual away-from-home forms a single parent needs to complete a Power of Attorney and a Medical form for the staying-behind-child or children.  I also left behind a contact list of friends and family…just in case.  Along with my daughter’s passport in an accessible spot.

I had asked a colleague if she would mind serving as Power of Attorney and the Medical back-up and she said no problem and then even suggested my daughter stay at her house.  She has a daughter just a year older and with whom my daughter likes to play with.  A sleepover!  This would be very exciting for C.  Her only other sleepovers have been one night at her aunt’s in NY, one night at her grandparent’s in NY, several times at her father’s in KY, and one week at my sister’s in VA last summer.  This would be the first time not with family.  She could. not. wait.  This did involve me having to pack her suitcase — full of school clothes (including uniforms and P.E. clothing) and play clothes.  I also had to contact the school bus to give instructions to pick up at my house on Tuesday morning, deliver her to the other house on Tuesday afternoon, all day Wednesday at the other house, Thursday morning at the other house, and Thursday afternoon drop back at our home.  The bus went off without a hitch, but I cannot say I wasn’t worried.

Though initially nervous about leaving my daughter, once on the road I did feel a wee bit of a sense of freedom wash over me.  Then I came back down to Earth.  It was a work trip after all.  But it was not too long.  It would all be okay.  However, unexpectedly that evening I received a call from my colleague.  My normally very independent daughter, who has been left with babysitters in many a city as I ran half marathons (always fingerprinted, bonded, licensed sitters), was on her third nanny, and also previously spent time at two child care centers, a preschool, and just started Kindergarten, who had NEVER had separation anxiety before, was crying because she missed her mom.  She told my colleague she could not sleep because normally she snuggles with her mom before bed.  My heart broke.  I called the following night and talked with C again.  My colleague told me C had said she could not sleep because she had left all her dreams in a dresser drawer at home.  I smiled at her creativity, but felt guilty too.  Soon enough though I was back in Lilongwe and apparently forgiven.

Trip Two

mother daughter goodbyeIn November I flew to Harare, Zimbabwe for five days and four nights to participate in some professional training.  This time I made the decision for my daughter to remain at our home with the nanny.  (Yes, I have a nanny.  And she lives on property.)  While my daughter had mostly enjoyed her two nights sleepover at her friend’s house, working out the bus schedule and packing her bag did add an extra layer of work for me.  Besides just feeling too tired and lazy to go the extra mile, it was also a big ask for my (extremely kind) colleague.   By staying at our home C also had access to all her clothes, toys, usual foods, and familiarity.  Well, all the familiarity a child could establish in a home she had lived in for all of three months, with our household goods from the US not yet arrived in country.   Additionally, the nanny was eager to demonstrate she could do the job and I wanted to give her the opportunity.

This time, instead of departing after my daughter headed off to school, I left on a Sunday morning.  I had to say goodbye to my daughter at the front door and her sad little face looking up at me tugged at my heart strings.  Though once I arrived at the beautiful bed and breakfast in Harare, I did feel a wee bit better.  On both Sunday and Monday evening I called the nanny using What’s App.  This time C did not want to talk to me.  She reluctantly came to the phone,  then giggled, and ran off.  When I made the nanny get her back on the phone, C sniffled and told me how much she missed me.  After I let her go I asked the nanny if she was faking.  She was.  It seemed her staying at home had been the right choice.  She was more comfortable.

Tuesday evening tanks rolled into Harare.  Well how about that?  In all the single parent travel scenarios I had envisioned I had not thought through what to do in the event of a coup d’état.   At least, I supposed, the government takeover was in Zimbabwe and not Malawi.  It directly affected me and not my daughter.  Although the outcome was unknown for awhile — we were confined to our B&B on Wednesday and escorted to the airport in armored vehicles through the military checkpoint on Thursday — the coup ultimately turned out to be one the most peaceful ever.  Still I was glad to get out when I did.  Landing back in Lilongwe and returning to the house and C was the first time I felt Malawi was home.

Trip Three

mother daughter welcome homeIn December I had to fly back to Virginia for three days of training.  It is a loooooong trip from Lilongwe to Virginia and I had no intention on leaving behind a not-yet-6-year-old.  So, for the third of three business trips C would come with me.  There would then be no need to fill out the medical and power of attorney forms.  No need to arrange to leave her behind.  But, I would need buy her plane ticket out-of-pocket and arrange child care while I was in training.  Child care is not particularly easy to find in the Washington DC area in the best of circumstances, and becomes a little trickier in less than ideal situations.  Though I would be taking my course at the Foreign Service Institute in Arlington, Virginia, I opted to again stay out in Herndon, close to my parents, my sister, and the school/daycare my daughter had attended three years before.  As a State Department employee I would also have access to up to five days of emergency back-up child care.  I would have options.  Just as I was planning to begin my babysitter search my parents let me know they would be available.  Thank goodness!  For three full days she had time with her grandparents and then her cousins when they came home from school.  It turned out to be a crazy quick trip but I was glad to have C along with me on the adventure.

Three months, three different business trips, and three different single parent solutions.  We both survived them.  After a wee bit of no travel time we may be ready for another.