Malawi Signs

A woman and her baby stroll by beautifully painted advertisements in Area 3 Lilongwe

Signs. I have a thing for them. I don’t know why. Maybe everybody does? But in my travels abroad, I have found myself photographing quite a few signs. Street signs were my thing in Indonesia. There were so many child or person crossing signs — some with very skinny stick figures, some with chunky. In China, I think it was the signs of rules translated to English that got me the most. There were so many rules and so many that were amusingly lost in translation. I have taken pictures of so many different kinds of animal crossing signs from horses, cows, and ducks to kangaroo, penguin, and warthogs. In the U.S. we have so many, many signs that tell us what to do and what not to do (park here, don’t park there, go this fast or this slow) and what to buy. I find that signs reveal much about the environment, culture, and interests of a society.

Although there has been an increase in billboards and other physical advertisement signage in the three and a half years I have lived here, Malawi still has relatively few. There just is not that much money to advertise, and not that many persons with money to buy what is advertised. The signs one sees stand out because there are so few. When driving between cities and towns, you can go for 50 miles, maybe longer without seeing a single sign. That may not sound like much given distances one can drive say in Texas, but Malawi is densely populated — the 10th most densely populated country in Africa — and the sixth poorest in the world (by one index).

If you need some assistance, these guys are here to help

The first signs to catch my eye were those posted around the neighborhood advertising various services. Most are for house services such as electrical, plumbing, lawn mowing and such. It is hard for me to pick my favorite. I am a big fan of the handwritten signs nailed on to tree trunks. But then the toilet seat attached to a dead tree trunk advertising plumbing maintenance is kind of genius. Still, Doctor Mutaka and his miraculous cures and potions has got to be an all time favorite. I am not sure how much business he would get in my neighborhood of expats and wealthy Malawians, but he has put up signs all over, so he is at least hopeful. And I sort of respect that. I might feel less respect for those that seek out his services.

Staples on sale

The next signs I really started to notice were those for staple items. Most are hand painted on wood or cement billboards. I appreciate the time and patience someone took to paint them, and there is an artistry to them, but I am less clear why the advertisements are necessary. Soap, detergent, long-life milk, sugar, cooking oil, juices, maize seeds, TNM and Airtel (the two national telecommunications networks), cement (for housing), steel (basically corrugated steel for roofs), soda, and Carlsberg beer (fun fact: the first Carlsberg brewery outside of Denmark was set up in Malawi in 1968; its sort of Malawi’s unofficial beer), these are the basics. At the store there does not really seem to be so many brands or variety and my guess is most buyers in Malawi are going to get the cheapest they can find. But the advertisements are there nonetheless.

Society “Be Better” Signs

Another popular theme of Malawian signage is to present positive societal practices. Child labor, child marriage — especially for girls — and the exclusion of women in decision making are all issues in Malawi, and therefore there are signs to promote ways to combat these issues, generally paid for by international organizations or businesses. I think there is something to be said for aggressive societal campaigns to eradicate issues through education and indoctrination. When I visited and lived in Indonesia in the early 2000s, there were still vestiges of the very successful “dua anak cukup” (two children is enough) policy campaign from the 1970s. Mostly in the form of statues of the perfect family of two parents and two children, though some written materials and billboards still existed. The thing though is that the campaign was in the local national language – Bahasa Indonesian. Most of the signs encouraging certain behaviors in Malawi are in English and though it is the official language, I would not be surprised if many of the persons for whom the signage is aimed at, struggle with English. This begs the question of who then are these signs for? I appreciate them, but then, perhaps, I am part of the target audience?

You have been warned!

Another favorite of mine — though not generally so easy to find — are the hand painted warning signs. I have only see a handful, but when I do see them, I usually pull over to the side of the road to capture them on my SD card’s memory. I came across the dangerous bridge warning on the M5 maybe 30-60 minutes north of the town of Nkhotakota. I expect the nearby villagers had become tired of speeding motorists taking the turn and then the narrow bridge too quickly. I found the “Beware the Dog” sign while on a walk near the Luwawa Forest Lodge – and though I approached the sign with caution, I had a feeling I knew the subject, and though very large, the canine in question had spent the previous afternoon in a game of fetch the ball with my daughter.

Campaign billboards

As a political officer, I cannot help but notice politically inspired signs. With national elections occurring here twice during my four year tour (May 2019 and June 2020), I have had a chance to see my fair share of political signage. Mostly it was just the parties’ political flags flying from a tree or electricity pole. Larger signs varied from those that encouraged voting eligible citizens to get out to the polls (usually sponsored by international donors), while others (though fewer), extol the virtues of a particular candidate, paid for by the campaigns or sponsors. I had to hand it to the re-election team for the former President Peter Mutharika for its optimistic billboard with the inspired hashtag #OperationLandslide. Depending on the politics, the billboards may be built to last or suffer the political tides. The Mutharika billboard on the left was ripped down by vandals even before the 2019 election. The Atupele Muluzi campaign billboard for the 2014 election was still there — at least in part — even in early 2018. And just a month ago I came across a perfectly intact 2019 campaign billboard for a third party candidate who did not run in 2020. I have seen other well worn signs — beaten by weather and age — still standing silently alongside the road months or years after the event it advertised has passed.

Nothing to see here

By far the greatest number of “signs” I see in the capital are signposts lacking in signage. There are so many of these sad skeletal frames missing their purpose in advertising scattered across the city. For at least a year, my favorite billboard had to be the forlorn Welcome to Lilongwe sign on the M12 as one would come into the city from Zambia. Cracked, peeling, greyed with age, and absolutely empty, it seemed to say, “just keep driving, nothing to see here.” Do not get me wrong, I very much like living in Lilongwe and Malawi, but there is just not a lot of externally provided activities. This is very much a make-your-own-fun kind of place. But maybe, I could look at it another way — Lilongwe is a blank space, where its up to you to decide what to make of it?

As I begin my countdown to leaving Malawi (eight months to go), I find myself thinking a lot on what this place has meant to me and what I will miss. For the most part, my life in Lilongwe is pretty small, confined to an area of approximately five square miles. Those streets have become so familiar to me, and the landmarks on those streets as well. These signs I have seen have marked the territory of our lives for the four years we have made Malawi our home. I cannot say that they have necessarily passed the message to me that was intended, but I have noticed them and thought about them and stopped on my journey to take a picture to remember them.

Something Like Normal

Normal. It seems hard to know what that is anymore. We have been told to adjust to a “new normal.” A normal where face masks are a required fashion accessory and obsessive hand cleansing and avoiding other people with our newfangled edict on “social distancing” is how we get through the day. At first it was novel. Difficult, but doable. I might even say I was not only productive, but jazzed by the new situation, even more so than usual. But as time wore on, the reduction in social interaction, the rise of teleworking and distance learning, and the inability to travel began to take its toll. I think back to nearly nine months ago when we took our last trip beyond Malawi’s borders, a long weekend in Johannesburg aimed at doing activities that many Americans and others in developed countries take for granted. In other words, doing what I thought was “normal.” Instead it turned into the trip just before the end of all the pre-COVID normalcy. I didn’t know what normal was until it was gone.

But slowly, gradually, over the past few weeks, there has been a lightening, a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel. It really began with the lifting of restrictions on travel outside of Malawi’s capital Lilongwe. A city where, in normal times, even with a lack of amenities, is enjoyable when one keeps busy at the office, doing work activities and meetings, and spending time with friends and family at simple events like meals out or small gatherings. But in COVID times, with limited interactions outside the home, became suffocatingly dull. I was glad to be able to get out and about more, but still weighed down by pandemic fatigue, the vacation glow dissipated quickly.

A week after my daughter’s school’s “Fall Break,” I broke. I felt caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place. On one hand I could keep my daughter at home, limit her exposure, but to do so we would have to continue the distance learning program, which was declining in quality, damaging our relationship, and affecting my work. On the other hand I could send her back, but as the Embassy-provided school bus was no more, I would have to make the dreaded 30-minute drive to the other side of town twice a day. Desperate for a path back to normalcy, I chose option number two.

I coordinated with another Embassy family with kids the same age to alternate morning drop-offs and afternoon pick-ups. Sure, the first day or so seemed odd — seeing the face-masked kids shuffling into school in socially distanced lines and being greeted by thermometer wielding staff in personal protective equipment — but the return to school has changed our lives for the better. There is a lot less yelling about schoolwork because I am no longer in charge of it. And, unexpectedly, I feel more engaged as a mom driving my daughter and her friends to or from school. Additionally, as the Embassy has moved to “Phase 2” of a three phase system, I can spend time in the office, which is so much more conducive to my getting work done than the well-worn groove on my sofa.

My little Pokemon enjoys a socially distanced Halloween

Halloween arrived soon after C returned to school. At the beginning of October, it was not clear we would have any celebration of the holiday at all, but two weeks before, a team of Embassy volunteers and our Marine Security Guards began began planning an awesome socially distanced, pandemic-approved Halloween. Unmanned decorated tables were set up around the expansive lawn at the Ambassador’s residence and the Marines turned the gazebo into a haunted hallway.

It was not the usual U.S. Halloween by any stretch of the imagination, but then overseas the holiday has rarely looked like the American-style trick or treating. In Juarez, trick-or-treating was room to room in the Consulate. In Shanghai, we zig-zagged up and down floors to designated apartments whose residents had agreed to hand out candy, though the sweets were much different than one might typically receive in America. And in Malawi we have had three years in a row of trunk or treating. This was just another creative Foreign Service holiday. Though it did feel a bit odd to don face masks and just to two of us walk around to collect candy from unmanned tables. Well, that is how it started. But the kids gravitated toward one another and soon C was with several friends. And at the end several families gathered at the Jurassic Park stop, where a few of our colleagues were dressed in dinosaur costumes. For the first time in a very long time we were around more than one other family. It felt decadent, like we were getting away with something.

The following week – the first of November – gave me an almost daily dose of feeling I was on at least the normalcy. On the Monday, I received my handshake for my next assignment in Conakry, Guinea. I took Tuesday off to sit at home and watching the nail-biting results of the U.S. election. On Wednesday, my daughter’s tutor let me know she could begin immediately as my full time nanny – and for the first time in seven months I again had consistent help around the house. On Thursday, my request for time off to take our long-overdue Rest and Relaxation trip was approved. I could begin planning our first significant trip outside the country for nearly a year since our last big trip to Finland and Paris. We rounded out the week with a COVID-approved birthday party: an outdoor gathering of no more than 20 people only among Embassy personnel whose kids had returned to school. Another first such gathering in more than six months.

It was as if a dam had broken. The year has been so hard. I know I am not alone but sometimes the circumstances of the extended isolation has made it feel so.

I know things are not back to normal. The pandemic is still here; our lives remain altered. There has been a resurgence of COVID-19 in many places and previously lifted restrictions are being put back into place. When I found myself in a busy open-air shopping district surrounded by persons not wearing masks, I felt uncomfortable. When I am approached by others, I instinctively shift a good meter away so as to let them pass. Yet, even with these oddities presently entrenched in our daily lives, I have taken these recent signs of pre-COVID times to heart. We may still have a ways to go until we emerge from this pandemic, but at least for now it feels we have turned a corner.

Here I Go Again — Bidding in the Time of COVID

Has it already been four years? I don’t mean those four years, like for the presidential election, but four years since I last bid for a new assignment in the Foreign Service. The answer is it has been though I tried to put it off for as long as possible with my two consecutive tours in Malawi. Yet, here I am again playing another game of Where Do I Go Next?

The last time, in 2016, was my first time to be introduced to the highs and lows and general confusion of mid-level bidding for the U.S. diplomat. The first two tours of a U.S. diplomat’s life are directed by Career Development Officers. We get a list of available Posts and we order them high, medium, or low, and can write in comments as to why one place might be high (I speak the language) or low (they do not allow pets in housing and I have two cats), and then we are assigned. That might seem impersonal to some, but believe you me, after going through how we do the mid-level bidding, many of us are nostalgic for those good ole straightforward directed assignment days.

Previously, I compared mid-level bidding to the mayhem of a small high school dating pool trying to suss out who does and does not get a date to Homecoming and with whom. But I am a bit older now and, forgive the pun, but I have already done this dance.

A colleague of mine says he compares our diplomatic job search process to buying a house. I have actually never bought a home, but I have watched a few of those house search shows here and there, and its an apt description.

So, you are looking to become a homeowner. You have some ideas in mind – maybe you want ranch or colonial? You want a certain number of bedrooms and baths. You want to be off the main street, maybe on a cul-de-sac? You want to be able to walk to grocery stores and restaurants.

And this is how it begins with bidding. You have certain criteria in mind. For myself, I wanted some place with a good school for C. I’m no Tiger Mom, so it doesn’t have to be Harvard, Jr, but a decent place where my daughter can get some much needed individual attention and a good education fits the bill. I also preferred a place where she would not have a long commute to school as in Lilongwe she is on the bus (when we had a bus) for 30 minutes at least each way. She says she doesn’t mind as she likes to chat with her friends, but I thought a shorter commute was in order.

I wanted a place where I could import pets relatively easy. It’s never easy to move overseas with pets, and this is why some people will not have them in this lifestyle. But for some, like me, having a pet makes life better. Still, I can make things somewhat easier on myself and our furry family members by not bidding on a place that has a long list of import requirements and/or a multi-month quarantine.

I wanted a language-designated position. I love living overseas. I love experiencing culture and history and all the in-between of a place from the vantage of residency vice tourism. (Though I love me some tourism too!) But language training also gives me and C some much needed time back in the U.S. C has not spent much time in her homeland, and the longest (six months) was from birth until our move to Mexico. I am desperate for Tex-Mex, salads, a good gym, and sidewalks.

And I wanted a place where I was not the sole political officer. Malawi has been a life-changing tour and the opportunity to head up a section both challenging and rewarding, but I wanted the chance to learn from someone else as the chief, with occasional stand in roles.

There were also a whole host of other little criteria — commute times, housing types, climate, the number of flights to and from the country (and where), post differential (how much additional money one receives for hardship), number of R&Rs, and so on. And I took these criteria and reviewed the projected vacancies list and then built a spreadsheet of the places I intended to bid. As one might put together a list of criteria for a house you want to buy. And as soon as bidding began, it was all upended.

OK. Hold up. Actually, my intended bid list was upended before the official bid season went live on September 21. COVID-19 struck again. Due to the pandemic, hundreds of Foreign Service families overseas opted to accept the Department’s generous offer of Global Authorized Departure (G/AD). This allowed those with preexisting conditions or with family members that had conditions that might make them more susceptible (including family in the States) or were in locations with poor medical care, or all the above, to return to the United States. After months of being on G/AD, some officers saw the writing on the wall; they were not going to be able to return to their Post anytime soon and thus they took advantage of a no-fault curtailment. With that, their jobs, that were on the bid list for a summer 2022 arrival after language, became NOW jobs — those that need immediate filling. I watched as two positions at the top of my list were suddenly no longer available.

Its like I had my eye on some nice properties — I saw the for sale sign out front and imagined those were the homes for me and I figure they will be on the market for a little bit when suddenly there is a quick sale and that’s it, my dream home is gone. And then you have to go back to the listings and find something else.

You might find yourself outbid. Maybe you go for one of those seriously heavily bid places like Paris, with some 50 people gunning for the same job? Or maybe you just find that a place you did not expect to be popular is? I found myself in this position this year, interviewing for two jobs that hit the 20 bidders mark. On one I felt I had a shot; on the other I quickly realized I did not.

On others, I just wasn’t the person the Post was looking for. I know I “looked good on paper,” had very strong academic and/or work experience specific to the country or the issues, and yet, I found myself waived away very early, encouraged to bid elsewhere. Try a few roads down, in another part of town. Discouraging? Absolutely. Angry? A wee bit. But that doesn’t get me another assignment. It’s back to the classifieds.

I found myself making all kinds of adjustments to my criteria. I did not want to be somewhere with a long commute — but hey, this position looks good, the country new and exciting, I get the world language training, C gets a good school, so I can maybe live with a 45 minute drive to and from work? I did not want a position where I was the sole political officer — but this other position, its somewhere I have regional expertise in, the commute is short for myself and my daughter, its warm year round, so maybe I could be the sole officer again though its also really complicated and costly to import pets? My daughter has said repeatedly she doesn’t want to go to college, so why not use that saved tuition for pet importation?

On House Hunters, persons in the market for a new home prepare a set of criteria and then an agent finds three candidate homes that mostly meet their requirements. Almost every single home has something they did not ask for, something that does not fit the criteria. The dream home of your imagination, is very often not the dream home of your reality. You make the best of what you end up with, you compromise and embrace.

Over the course of the four official weeks of bid season, the list I started with on Bid Season Eve was almost unrecognizable from the list I submitted on the final day. My top five spots were an eclectic mix; my top two completely a surprise.

Lo and behold, I was the number one for two places. I receive the coveted Bureau Leading Candidate email (Pro-tip: bid places with few other bidders!); and then I had to make a difficult choice. I wanted to go to both my top two. Heck, I wanted to go to every place in my top five. I had sold myself on the adventure to be found in each place. But in the immortal words from The Highlander: in the end, there can be only one — but perhaps one of the others next time? After all, we will move again.

Next assignment: Conakry, Guinea, summer 2022 via French training