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.
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.
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.
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!).
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).
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.
Take 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!