Uncertainty Reigns on the Rift’s Edge

Malawi lies at the southwest edge of Africa’s Great Rift Valley – and it’s this that led me to title this post this way. 

It has been an interesting year.  And I do not just mean what we have seen so far from the 2020 calendar year, I mean the last 365 days.  A year ago we here in Malawi were preparing for the country’s tripartite elections in May.  It was a busy time, but as the political officer at the Embassy (and a first-time political officer), it was also exciting.  Elections are a political officer’s bread and butter.  I was lapping it up.

The lead up to the elections was exciting, as was polling day itself, and the immediate days afterward.  I worked extra hours, dug into the politics, analyzed the results, and wrote reports.  After nearly two years in the country, I felt I really understood the situation, the players, and it was all culminating in this election.  The elections had shaped my tour since I arrived in August 2017, and I thought I would head off on my mid-tour home leave and return to a post-election environment with newly elected representatives and a new focus for my second consecutive Malawi tour.

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Tear gas wafts in front of the U.S. Embassy in June 2019 (photo from Nyasa Times)

But that was not to be.  The hotly contested election resulted in a court challenge of the presidential election results.  And demonstrations.  First by the opposition parties who alleged the misconduct by the electoral commission, and then by human rights activists.  During the summer, the police deployed tear gas multiple times in the vicinity of the U.S. Embassy (the main opposition party’s headquarters is next door).  At the end of his first week on the job, my summer intern and I were caught outside the Embassy while at a meeting during another tear gas display.  On another day  I could hear from my office the thwoop thwoop thwoop of the canisters being repeatedly deployed.  Estimates were some 90 canisters fired in an hour.  I never felt in danger, but things were definitely not normal.

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My own terrible iPhone zoom photo of a military escorted demo heading my way (and after taking the photo, I turned around)

By August the court case had begun.  But it dragged through the fall.  The end of every multi-week session announcing the next.  The human rights activists continued their demonstrations, though the military joined with them to provide security and there was less use of tear gas.  There were other demonstrations too, by truck drivers, by teachers, by civil servants.  Then on February 3, the Constitutional Court (a five-High Court judge panel convened especially to hear and decide on the presidential election nullification case) released its decision.  It was a day of suspense — with the lead justice reading out the 500-page decision on the radio over the course of ten hours.  And at the end he announced the landmark judgment for the opposition parties; only the second time on the African continent that a court had overturned an election.

It was exhilarating.  The country was electrified.  There were news articles around the world on this historic decision.  But it was short-lived.  Because now there are to be new elections and here we are back where we were a year ago.  Only the stakes seem higher. February felt like a really long month, approximately six weeks long.

Enter: Coronavirus.

CDC COVID-19 world map outbreak March 28 Malawi

The CDC map of countries with confirmed cases as of 12:00 March 30

As of today, March 31, 2020, there are no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Malawi.  As I have been thinking about writing this over the past week, I have experienced a sense of apprehension that as soon as I might write that down, it would cease to be true, a case would be confirmed.  But most of us in the diplomatic community and the government of Malawi are operating under the assumption that there are cases here, we just do not definitively know it.

The Africa Report Africa Risk for COVID-19It might seem odd that Malawi seems to stand alone, that with over 170 countries and territories affected, it sits there, a greyed out area in a sea of teal. But Malawi is not only at the edge of the Great Rift but also is sort of the end of the line.  Malawi is not a transit country (I mean sure, for economic migrants, yes, but for international travel, no); it is not a major tourist destination, not even really a minor one.  It is off the beaten track.  It is landlocked and even connections to its neighboring countries are relatively limited. I found this really neat graphic online that demonstrates Africa’s risk in terms of individual countries’ connectivity with China. But it might as well be connectivity to really anywhere in terms of Malawi.  There are only a handful of international flights a day, and connections only to South Africa, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Tanzania, Kenya, Mozambique, and Ethiopia.

So, this relative isolation has contributed to how I have perceived the pandemic.  While so many of us around the globe have labeled this experience surreal, I have felt both affected and oddly detached.  I have watched the panic buying, the press conferences, the number tallies from a distance.  We have had meetings (many, many, many, meetings) at the Embassy, beginning in February and increasing in frequency in March.  Especially as the news around the globe worsened, as cases crept closer to home.  As the measures were slowly put in place.  My boss voluntarily self-quarantined for two weeks beginning in early March after returning from a European country that the government of Malawi had just designated as a country of concern.  From last week my daughter’s international school went entirely to distance learning — the decision made a week or two before the President announced on March 20 that all schools in the country would close – and the Embassy has gone to Team Office / Team Telework.  One week one team may be in the office (though they do not have to be) while the other solely teleworks, then the next week the teams switch, and to quote one of my favorite poets, Kipling, “never the twain shall meet.”  Well, except in Zoom meetings.

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We are still flush with TP — for now

Last week I was Team Office and still spent much of my time at the Embassy.  Not only as the political officer but also the Acting Consular Officer, because our primary consular officer opted to return to the U.S. for health and safety reasons while the option remained open.  I went home each day for lunch, an option I rarely take, so that I could also log my daughter on for her daily Google Meet session with her teacher and classmates.  The homeschooling was rough for sure, more akin to co-dependent torture than learning, but I felt useful and efficient at work.  This week I am on Team Telework and it is only day two but it is like everything has fallen apart.  Well, homeschooling is on the upswing and work is, um, on the opposite trajectory.

I do not quite know how to describe how I am feeling; I am sure I am not alone in this.  I am not worried about the virus for myself or my daughter.  And while I am working with my family to put into place measures to make my elderly parents safer, I am not all that worried about my friends or family.  I expect that some might find this callous.  Although I can be an emotional person, I feel I am approaching this situation more as a pragmatist.  I think it may be due to my experience in Singapore during SARS.  Singapore handled that pandemic well and is by all reports doing the same this time around.

I know COVID-19 is not SARS. I felt I needed to say that. But there are some similarities.

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Handwashing station – similar to what most places I frequent have set up

Not that I personally handled the time during SARS in Singapore all that well.  It was not an easy time.  While I sent back some thoughts to friends and family (summarized in my two blog posts on the time), I went back to look at my journals for the time period and found nothing at all written in them over a 2.5 month period.  That in and of itself is telling.  It is rare for me to go for more than a week without writing.  What I do remember is that at first the situation was novel, even exciting, but over time it really began to drag on myself and my friends.  I even sought out counseling.

There are concerns about the virus coming to Malawi.  As one of the poorest countries in the world, the health system is already incredibly limited, and would likely quickly be overwhelmed by a pandemic.  Also, social distancing is just not something that fits well with the culture and customs here.  Malawians are very social.  They enjoy group meetings, family gatherings, attending church or mosque.  In the few walks that I have taken around my neighborhood, I still see Malawians greeting one another touching hands, walking closely together.  And the reality of poverty is that people live, travel, and work together in very close quarters.

And yet I think I am doing better this time around for a number of reasons.  Perhaps it is because I am here in Malawi, with our relative isolation and delayed case confirmation, but also because I have my incredibly lush and calming yard full of birdsong.  Also, I have meaningful work that keeps me busy, I have been meditating almost daily for over two years, and I am here with my daughter, and everything is better with her.

These feelings are valid as of today.  Things will continue to be uncertain for the foreseeable future.  If COVID-19 follows a trajectory similar to SARS, then it is likely peaking, but will continue well into June.  July 2 is currently the date for the “fresh” (as all the papers here like to call it) presidential election.  My daughter and I are opting to shelter in place here in Malawi, our home, and though it will not be easy, I expect us to be fine.  Despite all of the uncertainty and challenges my friends and I faced in Singapore during SARS, it did pass, and those feelings faded.  So I know that this too shall pass.

 

 

 

That Weekend We Tried to be “Normal”

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We are not very good at being normal

Due to a Malawian Tuesday holiday, C’s school gave the kids a mini-break, a four-day weekend.  When we have gone out of town on long weekends here, we have tended to go to someplace on Lake Malawi.  We head out to Senga Bay or Monkey Bay.  We have also been to Mangochi and Nkhata Bay.  We have also been to the Zomba plateau, Ntchisi Forest, or to the tea plantation area of the south.  But getting to these places we have long, somewhat boring drives, on crappy Malawian roads, with little change to the scenery.  I have often enjoyed these drives and found beauty in them.  But I really wanted something different than Malawi.

On other vacations, we tend to go to far-flung locales like northern Finland or Zanzibar and I fill our days with sightseeing and/or activities.  That isn’t what I wanted either.  What I wanted was a change of scenery, but also low-key.  I wanted us to be able to do things we cannot do in Malawi, the things that I imagine the average middle-class family in America or Europe or likewise does in a given week.  I wanted convenience.

I opted for a quick trip to Johannesburg.  Just staying in a hotel near a mall with a movie theater.  That seemed so “normal.”  And yet, not at all normal with our every day in Malawi.  The normal, but not normal, which, in my opinion, just about sums C and I up.

And wouldn’t you know it, by the time the weekend rolled around, things seemed all the less normal.  There is the political uncertainty in Malawi, with the country’s High Court deciding to nullify the results of last year’s presidential elections and ordering a new poll.  I am the political officer and this is my bread and butter, but we were all entering an unprecedented political situation, not only in Malawi but on the African continent.  And then there is coronavirus pandemic, which has led to another global health emergency, widespread panic, but also necessary Embassy planning sessions.  With all this going on I was mentally exhausted.  I craved normalcy all the more.

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There are only 2 statues in Malawi and neither are this big

The flight to Johannesburg was normal enough.  Three and a half hours with a short stop in Malawi’s southern city of Blantyre.  Long, ridiculous lines at immigration greeted us in Johannesburg.  I sure hope that is not how they normally do business, but I suppose it is normal enough.  Yes, there were individuals with high-tech thermometers, that looked more like a radar gun used by police to check speed, scanning everyone’s forehead but few travelers wearing medical face masks (the first confirmed coronavirus case in South Africa was the day we flew back).  Once through all the arrival rigamarole we grabbed some snacks and a taxi and headed to our hotel in Sandton City, our home away from home for the long weekend.

Our first stop then was the Sandton City mall, right off of Nelson Mandela Square, the site of a gigantic statue of the hero himself.  There are no shopping malls in Malawi.  Well, there is the covered shopping center on the outskirts of Lilongwe (“the biggest mall in Malawi!”).  It’s made up of perhaps a dozen stores – anchored by two supermarket chains, which are a shadow of their South African cousins, a few restaurants, a salon, a pharmacy, a dentist office, a bank, the Malawian version of a dollar store, a shoe store, a South African children’s clothing chain, a barber’s, and one or two other stores I have never actually seen anyone in.  It might be named “Gateway Mall” but using the word doesn’t make it so.  On the other hand Sandton City Mall has around 300 stores!

We ate a late lunch in a South African family sit-down restaurant.  The only similar restaurant I know of in Malawi is Wimpy — and there are only two of those in the whole country.  Then we did something really quite ordinary for many families in a lot of countries – we saw a movie at the theater.  C and I really enjoy going to the movies and we did so regularly in Shanghai.  But in Malawi there are no movie theaters.

This was no ordinary theater though — the movie (Sonic the Hedgehog) was shown in a kids theater complete with colorful bean bag chairs and a slide.  The popcorn though was not all that normal, at least not compared to U.S. cinemas, instead of melted butter you could top off with there was powdered butter.  And not a napkin to be found.

On our second day we woke to a rainy Sunday.  C looked out our hotel room window at the uninspiring view of half of the neighboring building and a nondescript six lane road.  But what she saw was instead was wondrous.  “Mom,” she exclaimed, “look at that! I wish we lived here and every day we could look out on that road. There is no road like that in Malawi.”  And she is right.  There are only a handful of roads in Malawi’s three main cities (Lilongwe, Blantyre, and Mzuzu) that are four lane, and those only span a few kilometers at best.

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Math, science, and physical activity is so fun at Sci-Bono

Off we headed to the Sci-Bono Discovery Center, an interactive children’s STEM museum located in a former power station.  Wow, this place is cool.  When we headed first to a water exhibit on loan from the U.S.’ Smithsonian Museum and there was no one there but us, I worried the museum might not capture C’s attention.  Thankfully, I was wrong.  We ended up spending four hours there – taking in the planetarium show, filling a small hot air balloon and watching it soar up the four stories to the ceiling, using various displays to learn about circuits and voltage to create electric charges, learning interesting animal facts, trying out PlayStation interactive golf and tennis games, and of course sprinting up the climbing wall.  I have taken C to children’s museums across the U.S. and in many places around the world, but there are none in Malawi.  In fact, there is only a handful of museums in the whole country – we have been to three and only one was worth a visit.

We spent the afternoon back at the Sandton City Mall having another late lunch (Hard Rock Cafe) and then C picked out her LEGO characters, which I bet would be hers *if* she made it to the top of the rock climbing wall.  Despite her fear, she made short work of that wall to get those toys, so I had to deliver.  We then had a quite evening just hanging out in the room.

Montecasino

For our last day the plan was to head to the Montecasino bird gardens, but we woke to more rain and a weather prediction that it would last all day.  However, Montecasino also had a indoor shopping area and best of all — an arcade.  There are few things C likes more than playing a bunch of ticket-producing games and trading in those tickets for cheap toys.  I might have to admit I rather enjoy it all myself.  So, I went all out.  I bought hundreds of tokens and we played for HOURS.  Claw games, skee ball, video games, wheel spins, games where we tossed basketballs, bean bags, or ping pong balls to see how many we could get into a receptacle or knock over some pins in a period of time.  All in the name of maniacal, obsessive fun so we could get enough tickets to get the prized stuffed lion that had C’s name on it from the moment we walked in.  It might not seem like much, and may even seem a waste of time and money on vacation, but we had so much fun.  And there is nothing like it in Malawi.  (Thank goodness, or I would be broke, our hands would be calloused, and we would have even more stuffed animals than we already have).

Then we wandered the covered mall of Montecasino, which, with its faux cobblestone lanes and ceiling painted and lit like the sky, reminded me much of the Grand Canal Shoppes at the Venetian in Las Vegas.  We had our choice of 30 restaurants and 10 fast food joints for lunch.  I am not sure there are 40 restaurants in all of Lilongwe.  C and I frequent about eight.  We had (yet another late) lunch at a Mexican (Mexican!!) restaurant and then called it a day.

Heading back the next day was hard for me; I could have used another night or two in Johannesburg.  We hadn’t visited a department store or gone to an amusement park or even a decent playground.  But once home I thought our weekend away had, at least temporarily, restored me.  It might not be that normal to fly to another country to try to do “normal” things.  And honestly, these normal activities we did felt extraordinary because we do not do them all the time.  Many people in developed countries take it for granted that they will have wide pothole-free roads to drive on, nice sidewalks to walk on, well-stocked supermarkets to shop in, and entertainment and shopping complexes to go to, and it just isn’t that way for many in the developing world.  Don’t get me wrong — I know we have it good.  With our privilege, C and I straddle these worlds, living (very well) in one, and with the means and opportunity to travel to another.  The “normal” things we (I) miss are not normal at all for the vast majority of Malawians.  They are not even that normal for my daughter who has spent most of her eight years overseas.

It’s really something to think about — and as I begin to contemplate where we might head next after Malawi I wonder how well we would do somewhere with all these amenities and conveniences that we often do without?  How would we handle being more normal?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Uruguay via Buenos Aires 2005 Part 3

The final part of my week-long mini sojourn to Uruguay and Buenos Aires. 

It took almost as long to get into Buenos Aires from Tigre on the bus as it took to leisurely motor along the delta from Carmelo, Uruguay.  The traffic was awful and it was growing dark.  I also felt a little sick because all I had had for lunch were nine small saltine crackers, two marshmallow chocolates, a mini candy bar I had left from United’s lounge in Chicago, and some water.

Buenos Aires 4Once let down in the center of Buenos Aires, I determined I should take the subway to the neighborhood of San Telmo to find the hostel.  I found a subway entrance and simply followed the crowd.  I grew a little nervous when I realized I had reached the platform and was without a ticket; I had seen no ticket counter, no turnstiles.  It was 80 degrees above ground in Buenos Aires that day, in early winter, yet the air conditioning (if there ever is any) in the underground was turned off, and with the crowds, the temperature was even warmer.  The platform was already full when myself and my large backpack pushed our way into a small corner near the entrance and a shop, but people just kept coming and coming and coming.  Soon it was like a sauna, and no trains arrived.  In broken Spanish I asked the woman next to me where the ticket counters were and she pointed upstairs, but you could not even see upstairs anymore with the still-arriving mobs.  She asked how I managed to get downstairs without a ticket, but I honestly had no clue.  I saw no place to buy one and simply followed the crowd.  She said it would not be a problem.  I felt trapped because I saw no easy way to force my way up through that crowd.  And still no trains arrived.  I asked the woman how much a taxi might cost to my destination and she told me four or five pesos (about $1.50-$2.00).  What?  How much is the subway?  Seventy centavos.  Well if the taxi was only a few dollars I would much prefer to take it than suffer the rising heat of the train-less underground.  But you can walk, she says, it is only 15 blocks!  How wonderful to hear that someone would think that walking 15 blocks was very doable and easy!  In many places the common response to a destination 15 blocks away would be that it was far too distant to walk.  Another young man offered to go upstairs as well and show me where I could catch a bus; he said the subway workers were on strike.  And so we shoved our way up the stalled escalator, past all the people still unknowingly descending into the tunnel.

Upstairs the air felt refreshingly cool so I decided to walk.  I made it to the hostel to check in just in time for the storm to break.  It was about 8 PM and I was starving, but when I tried to go outside I was soaked within five minutes even though I carried an umbrella.  I went back inside the hostel and took a shower.  By the time I was finished the torrential rain was over.  I walked the ten blocks to the Plaza Dorengo where I found a small, dark, smoky cafe with windows open onto the plaza and a guitarist singing traditional songs.  Though I had been reluctant at first to eat where there might be loud music, prefering to be somewhere quiet, I stayed almost two hours savoring my salad with Roquefort cheese and empañada along with the sounds of lonely, romantic ballads.  I thought, now, my holiday is turning around.

Buenos Aires 3Except the weather was not up to cooperating.  It was overcast as I stepped out the next day to head to the posh side of Buenos Aires. to visit the Cemeterio de la Recoleta – where the crème de la crème are buried in grand, ornate tombs.  It was lightly raining when I reached the gates of the cemetery but it seemed appropriate weather for the location.  The Recoleta Cemetery is like a small city for the weathly, powerful, and connected deceased.  A small park and a posh shopping center with very upscale furniture stores and chic eateries, including the Hard Rock Cafe Buenos Aires abut the high walls.  Inside there is a grand entrance with statues and wide streets leading off from a sort of central square.  Friendly cats – no wonder they have the reputation of being associated with death – leisurely stroll around the lanes, lie on the steps to the mausoleums, leap from the tomb rooftops, dart into open, un-cared for tombs, and give guided tours.  Well, for at least 20 minutes I was tailed by one particular cat until we caught sight of a rival furry tour guide, and then she took off.  I am here in a large part to see the tomb of Eva Peron.  I followed an English tour I heard was heading for her tomb, though had I wandered around by myself it would probably not have proved difficult to find as there was a large crowd standing in front of it.  Her tomb, regardless of the controversy surrounding her life and still her legacy in death, is a pilgrimage site.  I paced nearby until the crowd left and then as the rain fell steadily harder, was able to get a close up look.  I tried to peer into the tomb, but to be honest I had a small feeling that if even the slightest movement might happen anywhere near me I would probably scream.  As Evita was embalmed, a uncommon practice in Argentina, I thought perhaps the body might be more on display.  I know that sounds rather morbid, but the entire cemetery appeared to revel in grotesque, over-the-top demonstrations.

It begins to rain quite hard and I discover that the batteries on my camera have died and the spare pair I thought I had are actually dead too.  So, I decide to go and have lunch and see about buying some new batteries.  It stops raining after some time and about 1 1/2 hours later I return to the cemetery, but it starts raining again! My umbrella makes it still bearable, so I did not mind too much.  I was impressed with the excellent drainage system the cemetery seems to have – probably better than many of the neighborhoods for the living.

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Overcast Buenos Aires

As I walk back towards the Subway I realize it is 3:30 PM and there are supposed to be tours in English at Casa Rosada (the Pink House), the Presidential Palace, only at 5 PM on Fridays.  I feel lucky that I just happened to think of this and head off.  I arrive at the palace around 4:20 PM.  There is a fence around the front perimeter; people are going inside but they must pass muster with the guard there.  I go up and explain I am there for the tour.  He tells me to come back Monday.  I explain that I am there for the ENGLISH tour on Fridays.  He tells me they have been suspended and waves me away.  Once again foiled.  What is it about this trip??  I walk around the Palace and it suddenly begins to rain very hard.  I pull out my umbrella and dash across the street to a government building with a large roofed entrance way.  I make my way to Avenida Florida, the shopping street, which is so much livelier than on my first day only five days before.  I find a tourist information office and go in to ask about Tango shows.  I also ask them why the English tours of the Casa Rosada have been canceled.  They look at me puzzled and say they have not been cancelled – they are every Friday at 4 PM.  I briefly imagine myself running back through the rain just to give that guard a piece of my mind – typical developing country guard/police bullshit to just tell people things are closed, cancelled, or never existed.  But I’m am no longer really that upset by these things, it just happens when you travel.  Had I more time, I would just return another day.  Its just I had only this one opportunity.

Buenos Aires 1But I lucked out at last; I found a Tango show in San Telmo.  They offered a five course meal and a 1 hour and 45 minute Tango show for US$55.  At this point during this ever-frustrating holiday, I expected the food to be overcooked, the service to be bad, and the show a disappointment.  But, it was all wonderful.  I had the next to best seat in the house, the food was delicious, and the show of Tango music, song, and dance was incredible.  It was the perfect final evening of my holiday.  The next day my flight left at 7:40 pm and so I needed to leave the hostel for the airport at 5.  I slept in, showered, and headed off once again to Avenida Florida for some shopping.  I bought two CDs of Tango music, some Patagonian chocolate, and a winter coat – just $40 for a coat that would cost at least three times that in the U.S.  I had a final meal of Argentine beef – a fast food place in the Galleria food court that did burgers, steak, sausages, and chicken to order on the grill right in front of the customer.  Not your usual fast food place!

Buenos Aires 2Just as I start heading back to the subway (to go to the hostel to catch the taxi to the airport) I notice a large crowd down one of the streets.  I notice this because as I am crossing a three lane road I notice a few people standing in the middle of the road staring.  I think at first these two guys must have a death wish or something, and then I turn and see down the Avenida toward the obelisk (which resembles the Washington Monument) a large crowd of people.  Ooooh, a protest I think!  I immediately think of my Aunt C who tells me when in a foreign country and you see a large crowd of people like that one should go AWAY from it.  So, of course, I walk towards it, and I am glad I did.  It turned out not to be a protest but a gaucho, or cowboy, festival.  The roads were roped off and sand was placed down on one of the lanes.  There were men and boys in traditional gaucho gear – ponchos, pañuelos (scarfs), flat topped, wide-brimmed felt hats, white dress shirts, bombacha trousers with matching jackets, and boots – astride their equally-decorative horses.  Stereotypically perhaps, many of them smoking.  Riders were galloping down the sand covered lane.  I had to get going, but I took 10 minutes out to watch and take some pictures before heading toward the metro.  Again, I felt lucky to have come upon this.  Although I was disappointed that I was unable to stay longer, it was enough to have seen it at all.

I then arrived at the closest metro and found it closed!  Would these unfortunate events never end?  But now used to this, I quickly pulled out my Buenos Aires map and found the next subway stop.  It was open and all was well.  I made my flight with no problem and it was with a smile that I said goodbye to South America for now.