Malawi: Two Mini Vacations

As much as I enjoy living in Lilongwe for the personal and professional life it affords my daughter and I, there are times when it wears me down.  Times when the grinding poverty weighs heavily, when the stories of those who are trying to claw their way out yet are foiled again and again, just gnaws at the heart.  When a simple drive to the supermarket exposes all my deepest seated frustrations – the begging boys who tried to block my car to get cash (nope!), the car that signaled a turn and then just stopped in the road not turning (get out of the way!), through the traffic lights that haven’t functioned for weeks (is it 4 weeks or 8?  It’s hard to recall how long we have all been inconvenienced, playing chicken at that intersection), the guys selling kittens and puppies along the side of the road (sad and illegal!), and a parking lot full of ridiculously poor attempts at driving and parking (%&#*&#!).  And the mosquitoes are making a comeback as the weather warms.  One might think each morning and evening I am applauding an encore performance for all the clap, clap, clapping I do trying to kill them in my room…

Whew.  OK.  It may be clear at this point that I just might be in a wee bit of a funk, hanging out at the low point on the culture shock graph.  It’s not that it’s Malawi, not really.  We all feel like this at times.  The fed-up-ness with the routine; the craving for something to break through whatever morass we find ourselves in.  The tremendous desire to just get away, to have a change of scenery.  That can happen anywhere.  Or at least I keep telling myself this…  No, its true, I know it.  I think back to the loooooooong, busy summer of 2016 when we lived in Shanghai, a city with many, many things to do.  I also needed to arrange a few mini vacays then to keep my sanity.  Knowing how busy this summer would be (though not really knowing how crazy it would be until in it), I planned for similar getaways to help preserve my mental equilibrium.

Kumbali

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View from the upper floor of the main lodge

Located just 13 kilometers from the center of Lilongwe, and about 9 kilometers from my home, sits the 650 hectare working farm with a beautifully appointed lodge at its center.  This is the place where Madonna stays when she comes to Malawi.  C and I had visited Kumbali before for lunch, but this time we would stay overnight.

I booked for the Friday before Labor Day.  C’s school is international, but not American, so she does not get the U.S. holidays off.  I did not want her to miss a day of school, nor did I want to miss out on my holiday.  With our half day Fridays, we could still have lunch at home and be at Kumbali in early afternoon.  And it did not take long for us to pack up the car and head out — a few quick turns to Presidential Way, following it nearly up to the gilded, guarded gates of State House, the residence of the President of Malawi, where a sharp turn to the left has us skirting the high State House walls on one side and a few fancy homes on the other, but which quickly give way to a modest village as the paved road gives out.  We bump along a slim dusty, dirt road another 10 minutes til we reach the Kumbali estate, and five minutes more the road peters out in front of the lodge.

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Our favorite cow is the one hiding in the back

We quickly settled in to our room, a simply appointed space with its quintessential white linens, with four posters draped with white mosquito nets, but with a soaring 25 foot high ceiling exposing the beautiful wooden and bamboo rafters. I took some minutes to drink it in before hurrying C so we could take part in an activity we had been looking forward to: milking cows.

Kumbali is a working dairy farm, and although their herd is small, they make enough milk to use in preparing their own milk, yogurts, and feta cheeses. I had only once milked a cow in my life, as a child visiting a community fair in the historic town of Leesburg, VA. I must have been 8 or 10 year since old when I sat on the metal pail, guided by a fair volunteer dressed in 18th century garb, in my attempt to free milk from what appeared a very full udder. But my ministrations were in vain and I have always remembered it as extremely difficult work. So of course I wanted to inflict this particular joy upon my daughter!

C was initially game to give it a try but as she watched the cows file into the milking area, she had a change of heart. Perhaps seeing the size of the cows in front of her, she had some serious second thoughts, so she pushed me forward exclaiming, “mom, you go first.” Remembering my own frustrating experience many, many moons ago, I wanted her to go first.  With a bit of wheedling she agreed.  And wouldn’t you know it but she managed it with ease!  I also gave it a go and made it happen with little effort.  Well, how about that.

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C and Bwenzi survey the Kumbali livestock

We also took a tour of the farm, joined by the Kumbali dog Bwenzi, which means “friend” in Chichewa.  A mix of Rhodesian ridgeback and local dogs, Bwenzi seemed the perfect companion, and happy to act as C’s temporary dog.  As C begs me every few months for a dog, this worked out well.

After surveying the cattle, goats, and sheep, we headed back to the room for a rest.  Work had been busy for weeks and I had had allergies and a cough for about the same time; I was exhausted.  I just needed to stay awake through dinner.  C happily drew in her sketchbook and I read on our patio.  We arranged an early dinner at 6:30 and we just barely made it.  The food was delicious -a custom made menu to suit us made with fresh incredients from their farm.  Right after dinner we went to bed.  Its a good thing that the African Bat Conservancy, with offices on the farm, was unavailable to give us a bat tour that night; we could not have stayed up.

IMG_3197The following morning after breakfast we took part in a one hour farm tour, just our guide, C, and I in a dilapitated, push start, bare bones truck used just for tooling around the farm.  There is a picture of Madonna with four of her children posing in this vehicle, published in People magazine.  We didn’t tap our inner Madonnas though, C and I are plenty adventurous ourselves.  Still, it was kinda cool to be in the same vehicle.

We were taken from the lodge, past the animal pens and staff quarters, to the banana plantation.  Bwenzi the dog ran behind and alongside the truck.  We passed row upon row of banana plants, from those heavy with fruit to the small shoots just getting going.  We headed down to the edge of the property, which borders the Lilongwe River.  In two years in the capital, I had seen little of the river that gave the city its name.  Those parts we had passed over seemed mere trickles of what surely had been at least a somewhat substantial waterway.  But here at the edge of Kumbali the water was full, it flowed, it glistened in the sun.  It was beautiful.  We walked along the bank for awhile as our guide pointed out areas where locals forged the the stream or used well placed rocks to cross.

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C and Bwenzi survey the far bank of the Lilongwe River

C convinced me to move from the front seat of the truck to the bed — this certainly upped the adventure factor as we bounced back along the dirt lanes of Kumbali, back past the banana plants, to the permaculture center, where sustainable farming methods are taught to Malawian farmers.   Then we jumped back into the truck, headed past the horse pens, and arrived back at the lodge.  Our short, less than 24 hour getaway, had come to an end, but it was worth it for a different look at Lilongwe.

Ntchisi Forest Lodge

Soon after getting C’s school schedule, I noticed a random Friday off in September.  With our half day Fridays, I could take 5 hours off and have the whole day, so I booked a night at the Ntchisi Forest Lodge, located about two hours north of Lilongwe.  We also invited friends to join us on this adventure.

Ntchisi 2The lodge is a refurbished historic colonial building, once cool, higher altitude leisure residence of a British district commissioner, then a resthouse of the Forestry Department.  Dating from 1914, its actually one of the oldest buildings in Malawi.   It is located within the Ntchisi Forest Reserve, one of the few remaining indigenous rainforests.  Its been on my Malawi bucket list and sounded like a great one night getaway.

On Friday morning, C and I packed up our car and headed over to collect our friends AS and her two daughters, one of whom is one of C’s bestest friends, then we hit the road.

From the outset my GPS would not pick up the route.  But we had a handwritten map and figured we could figure it out.  It was easy enough to begin the drive north on the M1, the main artery through Malawi from Tanzania in the north to Mozambique in the south.  We found the turn to the right easily enough after 55 kilometers as it was the only main road heading east since the road to Salima.  Then we had to make a right after a hospital.  OK, got it.  Then a right at a t-junction.  Good to go.  We then had to make a slight left after a radio transmitter and we almost mucked that up, but we made a quick corse correction.  Then things got interesting.

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Where are we?

We were to drive past a yellow house on the left and then veer to the right.  A yellow house among mostly brick ones should stand out, but the color was not as bright as expected and sort of blended into the scenery.  Still, there it was and we made the turn.  We were close.  The next step was to pass a school on the left and then make a sharp right hand turn then follow that for 4.2 kilometers more to the lodge.  Except, we missed it.  I saw a school, but there was no road to the right, and we drove on.  We were talking, and talking.  I just kept driving without paying attention to the time.  We drove over a cement bridge over a small river.  AS noted that something like a river would be on the map and it wasn’t….and we kept driving.  Finally, at one point I wondered aloud how long we had been driving past that school and we turned around.  I paid attention then and discovered we had driven 30 minutes past that school, and it was not even the right school.

By the time we found the right turn, with the help of a friendly local who luckily spoke English, I had begun to feel the strain of the adventure.  Our two hour drive had become four.  I was hungry.  The kids were tearing through the snacks and beginning to grow restless.  I had previously thought, if my aunt comes back to visit, maybe I would take her here, but now I said, aloud, I never wanted to drive here again.  Then we found the lodge, turned into the parking lot, and I ate my words.

Ntchisi 32It is set on a lovely open piece of land surrounded by the forest, on an escarpment with views across the East African rift valley.  The scenery is immediately relaxing.  We got ourselves settled into our respective rooms, C and I in the lodge, and AS and her family in the forest cabin.  Then C and I had fresh sandwiches for lunch.  As C quickly finished and ran off her friends (well her friend, she tolerates her friend’s sister), AS and I sat talking, looking out the window, breathing in the beauty.  There are plenty of hikes the lodge can arrange, but I wanted to do little but be away from Lilongwe.  The gardens of the lodge, full of flowers as well as herbs and vegetables used in their meals, were also full of butterflies.  I am a huge fan of nature photography and enjoyed just wandering the grounds in search of lovely things.

In the late afternoon, we headed out to Sunset Rock, a large granite promontory with views across the tree tops, oddly enough with Malawi headed into Spring the leaves turning autumnal colors.  DS, AS’s husband arrived, he had driven up after work, apparently without navigational issues, just in time to watch the sun sink into the clouds over the distant hills.  Perhaps one of the best sunsets I have had to pleasure to be present for in Malawi.

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We all enjoyed a homecooked meal prepared for by the lodge’s excellent staff, and chatted and laughed.  I am by far a lone traveler, or now just C and I, so it was novel to be spending this getaway with lovely new people we have met here.  C dumped me in favor of spending the night with her bestie, so I retired to a bedroom with three beds that would sleep four, alone.  Exhausted by the drive, the darkness, and even comfortable happiness, I fell asleep early, sleeping more than I had in weeks.

We woke the next morning just before a half seven breakfast.  I strolled the gardens some more with my camera, DS went for a run, the kids chased each other on the lawn, and AS had quiet meditation time in the forest cabin, before we all regrouped to take a very short hike to a very small waterfall.  Then we packed up the cars and prepared for the drive back.  Just before leaving, the wonderful managers and hosts of the lodge pointed out their resident chameleon, clinging photogenically on a red flower.  All of us took an extra 30 minutes to check him out and thank the staff for their hospitality before heading back to the capital.

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Leon the Chameleon

These little getaways have not been quite enough to compeletly chase away the strong emotions of nostalgia and displacement I have found sneaking up on me at unexpected times the past few weeks, but they did keep that at bay for a little bit.  These mini vacations may not have provided all I needed, but they gave me some.

 

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Malawi: Two Year Anniversary

Two years in one place.  Its something to celebrate.  Not that I haven’t spent two years in other places; I have.  Japan. Jakarta.  Juarez.  Shanghai.  But this is the first time, in a long time, in which I am staying on past the two years or am not in the midst of those final months of packing up and preparing to leave to the next location.  We have two more years ahead of us in Malawi.

It seems a little hard to believe that a little over two years ago I was sitting at the table – the same exact table I had had in Jakarta, in Juarez, – in an unfurnished, characterless dining room around three in the morning, jet lagged, wondering what in the world had possessed me to bid on a job in Malawi.

Here I was in a new country, on a new continent, in a new position I had not yet done before.  In all the other places I had lived — with the exception of the small town of Kogushi in Western Japan – I was in a large city.  From my home I could get around on my own from day one, on foot or by taxi or other public transport.  The first few weeks in Malawi I felt very isolated.

Yet here we are two years later and it is very much our home.  Those early lonely days feel so long ago.  C loves her school.  When we arrived she was just starting kindergarten.  Two years later and she has graduated lower primary and begun upper primary.  This is not a distinction we have in the U.S. school system; it seems particular to the International Baccalaureate program taught in many international schools around the world.  This year as an older primary student she has a longer school day and eats lunch at school.  While C really doesn’t know any different, I know how incredibly lucky she is to attend a school like Bishop Mackenzie.  She has five classes a day Monday through Thursday and three classes plus assembly on Fridays.  Physical Education class is offered twice a week; once the weather warms, one of those will be swimming.  She also has French, drama, library, art, and music once a week, just built into the curriculum.  I not only am glad that C will have the opportunity to spend two more years at a school, but that it is this school.

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Our chickens enjoy some freedom in the garden

Our yard continues to be a wonderful sanctuary.  We continue to grow fruits (bananas, avocados, lemons) and vegetables (onions, carrots, cabbage, lettuce, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, cauliflower, and, new this year, edamame).

One of my favorite things to do is to get up on a lazy Saturday morning and head into the yard for the chores.  I first open the chicken hutch to let them out into the pen.  Then I collect the fresh eggs and bring them into the kitchen, where I will grab the key for the garage off the key hook.  Once in the garage I scoop out the chicken feed for the day.  It’s really cute to see how our chickens – Carmen, Can, Lou, and Leash – rush to me as I bring in their food, sometimes arching their backs for a pet.  Some Saturdays or Sundays I give them free reign in the whole yard – if we haven’t recently planted any new crops.  The gardner, a really cheerful and good natured guy named Stephen, does not take kindly to the chickens rooting up the newly planted shoots.  After squaring away the chickens I head over to the rabbit pen where our bunny Sarah, spends most of her time.  (The pen was built by our former Regional Security Officer from blueprints I found online and with wood from the crates that had shipped my Household Effects and Consumables.  Recycling and Embassy goodwill)  I check Sarah’s water and make sure she has enough food.  If she is not pissed at me I will give her a few nice scratches on her forehead and cheeks.  If she is mad, she retreats to the far end of the lower level, under the run, where it is near impossible to get her out.

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Uh-oh.  Sarah the bunny may make a great escape.

Back inside I get my morning Coke Light (I don’t drink coffee) and sit on our konde (screened in porch) to enjoy some bird song and meditation.  Night or day there is birdsong in the yard.  I do not recall any place I have lived where I could hear so many birds.  The musical cacophany is truly magical.

To celebrate two years in Malawi I decided to upgrade our background playground.  When we were first to arrive, I had arranged for the previous occupants of our assigned house to leave behind their custom made playground.  Things did not work out quite as expected as just days before our arrival our housing assignment was changed due to necessary security upgrades, so I had to pay someone to dig up, take apart, move, and reassemble the playground at our house.  But when we first arrived C was 5 1/2 years old.  Now she is 7 1/2 and the small slide, mini wall climb, sandbox, regular swing and tire swing were not quite age appropriate, so I hired the carpenter who had moved the playground two years before to execute a custom designed upgrade.

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The Playground: Before and After

We now have three swings – a regular swing, a disk swing, and a trapeze and rings bar, a much taller rock climbing wall, a rope climb, a tire tower, long-leveled balance beam, a fort, and a curved metal climbing ladder.   The sandbox is now gone, replaced with a wooden floor and walls, and together with the inside of the climbing wall, creates a fort.  It’s a pretty awesome upgrade if I do say so myself, and C had better use it (or else!).

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The backside of our (awesome) upgraded playground

As part of my playground upgrade I found myself in communication with a guy, by the name of Cobra, who welds metal playground equipment.  C and stopped one day at a dirt field, where several different pieces of playground equipment lay strewn about.  There we met Cobra, apparently his real name (perhaps not so unusual here – I have met/heard of Malawians named Gift, Blessings, Lonely, Voice, Loveness, Poverty, and James Bond), and I got his WhatsApp number.  After I worked out what I wanted I sent him a photo and instructions.  Within days he had completed it.  I could have bought it on Amazon and had it shipped to Malawi, but for the same price I engaged a local to make essentially the same thing.  I honestly am not sure what is more extraordinary, that I was WhatsApp’ing with a so-named person or that I was WhatsApp’ing at all.  If you want to be in the loop, know or share information in Malawi, one has got to be on WhatsApp.  This might be one of my single greatest accomplishments here thus far — from a WhatsApp newbie to a someone who can WhatsApp with the best of them.

Driving in Lilongwe, while still challenging (I certainly got my money’s worth out of the department’s required evasive driving class known affectionately as “crash & bang), has become less imtimidating than it was when I arrived.  Yet, I have also have gone from a mild-mannered motorist to a very determined driver.  From using the horn once in a blue moon, to laying on it liberally.  (I have also come to use swear words rather liberally when driving here) I had no choice if I wanted to survive on the roads.  I will fully admit that Malawi traffic is probably in comparison still “Africa-lite” yet in my two years, with a boom in building construction, and a proliferation in vehicle registrations, there has been little comparative upgrade in roads.  Nor an improvement in driving skills.

My little Japanese RAV4 has received its fair share of bumps and scratches.  Before I came to Malawi, I had a pretty good record with vehicles.  I had a puntured tire in Juarez.  I backed into a cement column in a particularly tightly designed parking garage.  A professor sideswiped my sweet red Fiero in college.   And one week after I got my license at age 16, a 17 year old blew through a light, swerved, and pulled off my left front bumper.  A lifetime of driving (though not as much as some Americans given my time overseas) and few accidents.  But here I was sideswiped in a gravel lot at the fabric market.  A bicycle taxi, whizzing downhill with likely non-existent brakes, plowed right into the back of the car, denting the wheel cover.  A parking guard helpfully assisted me in backing into another car.  I backed into a tree (I swear it jumped out at me!)  And once when I made a wrong turn, thought I could Dukes of Hazard it over a dirt bank onto the road I wanted, but ended up getting pretty stuck.  I am grateful to the random Malawian passerbys who came to my aid (and only a little sorry for the scrapes on the lower part of my bumper — it was for the most part kinda fun).

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The rescuee

But I am comfortable enough on the road that when I recently drove home soon after 5 PM — Lilongwe rush hour I suppose — and saw a pygmy hedgehog curled up on a busy road, scared but hoping all the ruckus would just go away, I made a quick u-turn, parked half on, half off the road, and ran out into traffic, stopping it with my palm out.  I then yanked off my cardigan, swooped the little guy up, and bounded back to my car, much to the bemusement of all spectators.  Banana, as C named him, is now living his best life in our car-free hedgehog heaven of a yard.

Basically C and I have come a long way in our two years in Malawi.  That is not to say that all is sweetness and light, rainbows and puppies; its still not an easy place to live.  Poverty here, in one of the world’s poorest countries, is crushing.  The distance between the haves and the have nots, gaping.  My secure and coveted seat among the priviledged, often acutely uncomfortable.   The politics and corruption of this country, the coverage of which is the bread and butter of a political officer, continue to frustrate.  Days in which my impotence to effect change feel especially acute, draining.  I have had a bad cold or allergies for the past five weeks — a reaction to the changing season, the dust kicked up at the tail end of the dry season, the regular fires set to brush and yard waste, and who knows what else across the capital.

But the days in which C demonstrates how much she loves being here, is thriving in the school, or when just hearing the birdsong in my yard or I find myself chasing our chickens or rabbit around, can be a salve for the wounds of boredom, isolation, or frustration.  And sometimes, just sometimes, when I talk to a particularly passionate Malawian making a difference in the lives of vulnerable people, when I have the opportunity to meet with those who fight for justice and human rights, or even on the rarer times I personally seem to have said or done something that had a direct impact for positive change, those times feel especially rewarding.

IMG_1734Take these two boys.  I have seen them, part of a group of some 5 to 7 boys aged around 8 to 14, begging at a traffic light near the Parliament building the whole two years I have lived here.  They hail from Kauma, a predominantely poor community in Lilongwe, basically a slum, not far from my own home.  I do not give the boys money, but I have from time to time given them boiled eggs, bananas, apples, crackers, bottled water, and the like.  From a few months ago, the gang seems to have split up — perhaps finding the corner of an oft-busted traffic light, on a road sometimes closed due to protests, not the plum place it once was.  These two boys seem to have migrated to my very own neighborhood where they pound up rocks and bricks to fill potholes the local and city government fail to ever fix.  They do the work and then sit back waiting for residents to pass by and reward them for the favor.  I have started giving them a little money — they are after all providing a real service now.  Imagine recently as I pass them, they stand, and one unfurls, of all things an American flag, that he had held tightly in his fist.  They jump up and down happily chanting “America.”

For all these reasons and more, the good and the bad, C and I are ready for two more years in Malawi.  Happy anniversary to us!