Road Tripping in Malawi

Road Sign 1Americans’ love affair with the car is no secret.  In reality, Western Europeans have more cars per person than Americans, but Americans drive their cars for just about anything – short trips, long trips, and everything in between.  And when Americans go on long trips, they might be just as likely to pack up the car as to get on a plane.  Americans (in general) love a good road trip.

Although I have spent a good portion of my adult life (between September 1995 and September 2011 I did not own a car), I still very much appreciate a good drive.  In my Foreign Service career, I have not done much driving at Post.  In Ciudad Juarez, we could only drive in a limited area around the city and into the United States, and I did not own a vehicle in Shanghai.  Malawi has been an “interesting” opportunity to get back on the road.

Most of my driving life in Malawi is within a small area, maybe five square miles, if that.  It’s a seven-minute drive from my home to the Embassy and most other trips are to and from friends’ homes and a few supermarkets and restaurants.  But every so often we get out of town, and with nearly two years under my belt in Malawi, I have taken a road trip or two or ten.  And driving here is unlike any other place I have driven.

A. Roads

Some Malawian roads I have driven

Malawi may be one of the most densely populated countries in Africa, but when on the road between cities and towns, it can feel as if you are in the middle of nowhere.  Its not just the lack of population — there can certainly be those times when it seems there is no one else around — but even when there are villages it is just those villages, a cluster of small homes, probably the majority just a single room.  They might be mud or brick with thatch or corrugated iron roofs, but except in the larger trading centers, the homes, maybe a school, is it.  You will not see road lights or electricity poles. There are few if any road signs. You will only rarely see billboards by the side of the road — only as you might approach a major center.  Playing “I spy” is a futile exercise.

There will be no fast-food restaurants if any restaurants at all.  Few stores.  Even petrol stations are in short supply.  On the 4+ hour drive on the M1, the country’s main artery, linking the capital Lilongwe with the business capital of Blantyre, there are perhaps only two or three places to stop for gas.  You should always fill up when you can, because there may not be another opportunity for some distance.  The same goes for restrooms.

CowsThe paved roads, even the main ones, are predominantly two lanes, one in each direction.  Maybe there will be a painted center line, maybe not.  Maybe there will be a shoulder, though usually not.  Most often the sides of the road are jagged, as though a large monster that eats asphalt has bitten huge chunks off the edges.  There are many potholes.  Near villages, there will be cyclists, and it seems almost a given that as your car approaches they will begin to weave haphazardly, adding an extra challenge to an already difficult drive.  There are also often goats or cattle alongside the road — the cattle are usually accompanied by children or young men, the goats are often unattended and maybe a wee bit suicidal, or at least not phased by traffic at all.  However, if you hit someone’s livestock, be prepared to pay up.

The speed limit is generally 80-90 kph (50-55 mph) on the roads outside urban/market areas and 50 kph (30 mph) within.  Yet, in my experience, you either get those who drive a maddening 20 kph below or a scaring 20-30 kph above.  It’s the excessive speeds which are particularly worrying —  according to the World Health Organization, sub-Saharan Africa has some of the highest rates of fatalities per 100,000 people in the world, and Malawi ranks as one of the higher among southern African countries.

A. Road Blocks

License and registration, please

To force people to at least occasionally slow down, the police set up roadblocks.  The Malawi police are basically a static force; they are hampered by their shoestring budget and a limited number of vehicles.  Thus they are not hiding around bends or behind trees in their police cars or motorcycles ready for the hot pursuit of lawbreakers.  Instead, they set up roadblocks, some quite rudimentary, to at least temporarily halt travel and conduct vehicle inspections.  My diplomatic-plated car is rarely stopped, and on the very few occasions it’s happened, I have been waved through quickly.  Not that I am doing anything wrong mind you.  I drive the speed limit, my tires are in good shape, I have a license and insurance, and I carry the required-by-law equipment.  I have a feeling I might be in the minority.

A. Safety First

Safety First!

On any given day you will likely encounter some creative interpretation of traffic regulations.  There are no official taxis and buses are few and far between (largely cross border routes); the primary means of travel for the commuter is on foot, bicycle (including bicycle taxis), or the ubiquitous mini-buses, which can be used for intracity or intercity transportation.  These small buses are notorious for being overcrowded with people and packages, in poor condition, often with inadequate tires or breaks, and often driven at excessive speeds.  Besides the mini-buses, Malawians come up with some resourceful methods to transport goods and people via the roads.  If I weren’t so concerned about how their ingenuity impacts my ability to safely get from Point A to Point B, I would be pretty impressed.  But I have also read enough articles about, and even come across, what happens when vehicles drive too fast on Malawian roads.

A. Accidents

Uh-oh!

I remember something a friend once said about driving here — how much it takes out of you because you cannot ever really relax.  This is not the place where you can put the car on cruise control and zone out.  One has to keep on one’s toes, as you never know what will be around the next bend.  Maybe there is a disabled vehicle, cordoned off not with the required-by-law warning triangles but leafy branches.  Or a police checkpoint.  Or perhaps there might be a bunch of uniform-clad school children lollygagging on the road’s edge.  Or a bunch of goats.  You might come across someone selling dried fish or gunny sacks of illegal charcoal.  Or perhaps someone selling roasted field mice on a stick — a popular delicacy during the dry cool season.  Or you might run across masked young men or boys dressed in makeshift costumes of torn clothes, strips of fabric, burlap sacks, and straw, heading to a performance.  These are the Gule Wamkulu, or ritual spiritual dancers of the Chewa tribe, the dance inscribed as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage.  Or maybe you come around a curve to face a stunning vista.  Driving in Malawi is not for the faint-hearted, but it sure does keep things interesting.

A. Road Side

Furry fried field mice anyone?  Or maybe hang with Gule Wamkulu spirits?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Zim & the Lake Part Two

The second half of our Fall Break trip which began in Zimbabwe and ended at Lake Malawi.

This part did not begin as expected.  I debated how to write about it or whether to write about it at all.  But I did not see how I could omit what occurred and still accurately portray our lives here and our, or at least my, state of mind as we headed out from Lilongwe to the upper-central area of Lake Malawi.  As much as we enjoy Malawi, there are, of course, times when life here is not easy; when cultural differences lead to misunderstandings and/or confusing circumstances.  To pretend otherwise gives false impressions.

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Kachere Kastle

The summer before I arrived in Malawi I spent approximately three months in Washington, D.C. in training to prepare for my position.  During one of the course sessions, the presenter turned out to have once served in the same job, sort of like my great-great-great-great-great incumbent.  I caught him after his presentation and we had a few minutes to talk.  Like me, he and his family had moved to Malawi from China and appreciated the cleaner air, the large yard, and the smaller population.  But, he warned me, the only part they disliked was dealing with the household staff.  It was not the work ethic, but the potential for bickering and competition between staff members.

Fast forward and C and I are arriving back from Zimbabwe.  Before leaving Malawi, I had arranged with our nanny to pick us up at the airport.  But when we walked out of arrivals there was no one there for us.  And 30 minutes later there was still no one.

I do not completely understand what happened but basically, my nanny attempted to leave the compound to pick us up, but one of the residential guards refused to let her leave.  There may have been threats, yelling, stones thrown, and others called in to resolve their spat.  It turned into a “he said, she said,” explanation, with lots of finger-pointing and claims that God as their witness knew he/she was the one telling the truth.  But the end result for C and I is we were left at the airport for 2 1/2 hours later than expected and a good bit of my positive vacation feels from Zimbabwe had dissipated.

I wish I could say I got over it quickly, but that would not be true.  I debated about canceling the rest of our trip, but I knew that would not improve my mood.  We had reservations on the lake and I hoped a good long drive might do me good.

We woke up early-ish and I finished packing up the car so we could get on the road by 8:30 AM.  The unexpected situation of the day before was still very much on my mind, yet it helped the first, familiar 90-minute drive east on the M14 from Lilongwe to Salima town fly by.  There we took our usual Salima break at the nice gas station, loaded up on snacks, and then cranked up the CD player in the car (yes, the CD player — this is what you are forced to do when you drive a 2006 vehicle with a broken radio).

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A room with a view – Malawi, yet it does not look like Malawi

All in all, it took five hours to arrive at our destination, Kachere Kastle, the unexpected hotel built in the style of a Moorish castle sitting on an expansive flat sandy beach in a quiet cove on the upper third of the incredible Lake Malawi.  I recall reading it took the owners about eight years to bring their dream to reality.

I had booked the upper tower room for C and I – a top floor room in the front turret.  I wanted the best room — a view toward the beach.  But the room also included a sitting room, a balcony, and a staircase to the roof, where we could have slept out under the stars had we so desired (it was quite windy and unexpectedly chilly, so we did not).  I made sure to book this special room some months in advance and thus was surprised to learn C and I would be the only guests for the night.

scenes from a beach walk

Scenes from a beach walk

Almost immediately we changed and parked ourselves by the pool.  I blew up our giant pool tortoise for C, ordered lunch, then relaxed into a reclining chair poolside and took out a book.  I could feel some of the tension of the previous 24 hours sliding away.  And then our lunch arrived — and it was some of the best food I have had in Malawi.

Like Zimbabwe, northern Malawi appeared to be on a limited electricity shared plan.  We were told that the electricity would be off for about eight hours in the morning.  Good thing we had just come from Zim; we took it in stride.  The hours passed.  We ate.  We played in the pool.  I am not particularly good at relaxing.  I generally feel a strong pull to be doing something, anything.  Reading, writing, planning, walking, something.  I find it very hard to slow down, but I needed to.  Therefore a long, slow stroll at sunset was in order.  There were a few boats on the beach; I am not sure if they were there for purposes of actual use or placed there for atmospheric reasons, but we stopped at each one for some photos.

The beach was largely deserted — again, just for us.  We could see a few locals in the distance, and a few children approached us, some giggling, others quiet and curious, but for the most part we were left alone, and I was grateful.  C collected smooth stones she found on the beach, first in her hands, and then when they became too numerous, into the gathered folds of her skirt.  She drew pictures in the sand for me to guess what they were.  I snapped her photo atop a large boulder on the beach; rather similar to the boulders we found strewn across the Zim countryside, but in Malawi are often found along the lake.  A few small, naked children, appeared near the rock.  They yelled at us–I think it was meant to be friendly, but came across as taunting, amusement at our expense–so we turned back.  A dugout canoe silently glided through the reeds on an inlet cut off from the Lake by only 25 meters or so.

Back at the hotel we ordered our dinner for room service.  Once again the kitchen surpassed my expectations.  I wished Kachere were closer to Lilongwe.

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Sunrise

The next morning I woke early to my alarm; I wanted to watch the sun rise over the Lake.  I went up to our private rooftop to watch the sky lighten on the water’s horizon.  The only sounds were the lapping of the waves, birdsong, and a breeze lightly caressing the leaves of a nearby large mango tree.  To my left, just past the hotel property, I could make out small fires on the beach and the stirrings of the village.  Fishermen were already out on the water.  After the sun had poked through the clouds on the water’s far edge, I went down to our balcony to close my eyes and meditate.  Then I crawled back into bed for another hour.

As our next destination was only 10 minutes down the road, we stayed at Kachere as long as we could, enjoying the novelty of a pool to ourselves.  We then packed up the car and head to Kande Horse, another property that had long been on my Malawi bucket list.  C loves horses but there are few stables where the casual guest can ride.  One is on the Zomba plateau and the other at Kande Horse.

We were quickly settled into our room, had some lunch, and then prepared for our included one hour afternoon ride to the lake shore.  I appreciated the incredible welcome afforded us by the Kande Horse management and staff, and the care taken in selecting our horses.  C and I are casual riders, who though we try to get a horse ride in on about every other holiday, still have little real horse experience.  C was pleased to have her own good sized pony, and no one to lead her.  As luck would have it, it turned out to be more than an hour’s ride.  Let’s not kid ourselves here, we sit on horseback and they walk, we are not trotting or cantering, but I guess its still riding, right?  Our route, through villages, forest and brush to the beach was both pleasant and calming, with just enough cheeky misbehaving by the horses, to make us laugh.

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C riding along the lake shore

However, once at the beach we had to wait for the other riders, who had taken a longer ride, to arrive and frolic in the waves.  The beach was crowded, mostly with children.  A community project was underway.  If I understood correctly, a donor had provided money for bricks to build a classroom at the school; the community needed only to provide the cement and the labor, and thus they were collecting sand from the beach.  However, they were nearly done for the day when two mzungu rode up on horses, dismounted, then sat waiting.  A perfect time to surround them and pepper them with questions.

After a rather uncomfortable 20 minutes, the other riders showed up and we headed back to Kande Horse.  Again, there was little to do but relax around the room, our balcony, or the grounds until it was time for dinner at 7 PM.  Again, no Wi-Fi, no electricity until evening, so we kept things low key.  I was a little worried about dinner as I had learned on arrival that all of the meals are solely vegetarian.  But honestly, it turned out to one of the best dinners I have had in Malawi.  The veggie burger and fries were really delicious (I wish I had the recipe), and the camaraderie around the table warm and easy.

Initially we had planned for a second night at Kande; however, C was ready to go home.  To be honest, I was too, but I would have stayed if C wanted to.  But after dinner she asked if we might go home early.  I was incredibly grateful for the management at Kande for their understanding.  Therefore after breakfast on Saturday we packed up the car and made the five hour drive back to Lilongwe.  It was a long drive, but somewhat comforting just being behind the wheel.  The days at the Lake had restored at least some of my equilibrium.

 

Zim & the Lake Part One

4Following our glorious four week Home Leave full of fun, American comfort food, and functioning traffic patterns, coming back to Malawi was a bit of a shock.   On top of missing our friends and family, lamenting the loss of string cheese purchases at the Super Target, and just an overall in-our-faces realization of the drastic differences between life in the U.S. versus that in Malawi, the summer transfer season was upon us.  Its always an “interesting” time at Embassies across the world as seasoned officers transfer out, new ones transfer in, gaps form and those left cover two or more other positions, and Washington realizes that it is getting close to the end of the fiscal year (ends Sept 30) and thus decide they want to use the money to travel to you — just when staffing is at its most precarious.  In Malawi, the political situation too had been less than stable since the election, and an umbrella group for governance civil society organizations and activists had been holding demonstrations on average once a week.  Some were canceled by the group itself, other times they were forced to postpone due to government court action, but every time we had to prepare nonetheless.  And even when not transferring, others are on vacation, and C missed her Malawi friends and struggled in the weeks leading up to school.  At last C  started upper primary school and there was the usual flurry of preparations for a new school year.  Whew.  Within a week or two of our return, I already found myself fantasizing about the next vacation.

About a year ago my good friend JK1 had moved to Zimbabwe to take up a position at the U.S. Embassy.  C and I had previously visited her and her family in Chiang Mai, and we were excited to have them relatively close to us again.  Soon after they arrived in southern Africa, I began to plot our visit.  I also wanted another chance to see Harare given my only other trip unexpectedly coincided with the overthrow of the long-time president Robert Mugabe, and thus I had been largely confined to the hotel.  Given our different work schedules, JBK and her husband JK2 were unable to take any days off, so we would have to make do with a three day weekend with them and Little JK.

Fall break arrived and our trip to Zim at last!  What a breath of fresh air to fly only one hour, direct, and just be at our destination.  JK2 picked us up at the airport and within 30 minutes we were at the beautiful JK homestead.  About an hour later we were at a Harry Potter-themed birthday party.  It was likely the birthday party of the year and Little JK was not about to miss it.  It was a wee bit awkward for C and myself as we did not know anyone other than who we came with (and I happened to know the hostess as well, but she was very busy hosting) but hey we are diplomats, so we made do.  That night the JKs took us out to dinner at the fabulous Queen of Hearts, which is on the order of an upscale food court, with Italian, American, and Japanese food on hand.

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C and the Tower at Great Zim – Nothing like this in Malawi

By now I was already busy comparing Zim with Malawi.  The two countries are geographically close, have similar climates, flora and fauna, a shared history (both British protectorates and part of the short-lived Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland), and similar culture.  Both countries struggle with governance and their economies.  But there is something very, very tricky about playing the comparison game, especially as a short-term tourist.  Though I noticed both countries had the purple-blossomed jacaranda trees in bloom and both were struggling with power cuts of some kind, the nagging deja vu feeling was less a mirror of Malawi as it is now, but as it might have been or could still be; a same-same, but different.   Malawi does not have the long lines at the petrol stations (except during the recent two-day trucker strike that blocked the delivery of oil and gas) and the power cuts seem more a function of mismanagement than a deliberate policy, and yet the existing structures of Zimbabwe – the airport, the roads, the Embassy housing, even the range of restaurants – all seemed more modern than in Malawi.  Zim seemed both better, and worse.

Early on our second day, we loaded up the JK’s larger vehicle, with suitcases, snacks and several jerry cans of extra fuel, and we made the 4 1/2 hour drive south to Masvingo, and the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Great Zimbabwe.  I could not help but find the long drive similar to ones we have encountered in Malawi – distances between villages with little else in-between but scrub brush, static police roadblocks, and seemingly random road works.  We were all grateful to pile out of the car at the far end, in a gravel lot in front of the canopied tourist entrance to start a tour of the ruined edifices of a former ancient Shona kingdom.

Great Zimbabwe is actually the largest of approximately 200 similar sites across a part of southern Africa, especially in Zimbabwe and Mozambique (Zimbabwe means “stone houses” in the Shona language).  The earliest known mention of the once-great gold trading city was in 1531, by a Portuguese garrison captain based in what is modern-day Mozambique.  At a certain time in history, colonialists and white settlers ascribed to the view that the ruins were of Semitic or Arab origin, i.e. could not have been built by Africans.  It is perhaps of little wonder that nationalists selected the name Zimbabwe for their independent nation.

Lodge at the Ancient City bungalow

Our fabulous rondavel at the Lodge at the Ancient City – outside and in

With our knowledgeable guide we enjoyed our several hour-tour of the ruins through the Great Enclosure, with its five-meter high walls of interlocking stones, fashioned without mortar, the mysterious conical tower, and naturally air-conditioned passageway designed for the king to secretly visit his highest of queens, and then into the Valley Complex, where the lesser of the elites, king’s concubines, and such would have lived.  These structures were in a far more ruined state, piles of grey stones in places, in others palm trees growing through the middle of walls, with baboons, monkeys, and the occasional cattle frolicking among them.  Then we headed to the museum.  And finally, we herded our bedraggled, and yet oddly energized selves (there was something really special about Great Zimbabwe and our tour), back to the car and continued on to our lodging for the evening.

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Inside the Lodge’s main building

Although we all found the food options to be somewhat lacking, the ambiance of the Lodge was fantastic.  They had designed the main building in the style of Grand Zimbabwe, perhaps at its grandest or at least an imagined magnificence.  The simplicity of the outside of our rondavel, a traditional round African-style dwelling, belied the roomy and attractive inside.  C and Little JK parked themselves in our room for a bit to play, but with our long drive and then the two-hour walking tour at the site had us all yawning early on.

JK1 and I woke up at the crack of dawn – literally – and made our way back to the Great Zimbabwe site for its 6 AM opening sans JK2 and the kids, with plans to employ another guide to lead us up the Hill Complex.   The sky was already light, blue and clear; the sun bright but the air crisp.  It was a good time to do a little bit of climbing.  Unfortunately, although the stated hours indicated a 6 AM opening and the gate was open, there were no guides yet on site.  And thus we waited.  Monkeys snuck past the ticket building and scampered across the field toward the Hill Complex as small groups of children began to stream out on their way to school.  And grey clouds began to roll in over the Great Zimbabwe complex, the wind began to pick up, and JK1 and I began to regret not having a light jacket.  Although October is the warmest month for both Zimbabwe and Malawi, we were not feeling the heat.

Close to 7 AM the guide arrived and we set off.  It turned out one does not really need a guide to climb up to the Hill Complex, as the trail is well marked; however, once at the top, we would have had no idea of what we were looking at without our guide Loveness.  According to our guide, the Hill Complex was the abode of the king from which he could look over the Great Enclosure, where his number one queen resided, all of his approximate 18,000 subjects, and the entirety of the Mutirikwi valley.

Hill Complex

The view from the Seat of Power; JK1 and I on top

As we wound our way up increasingly narrow steps framed with stone walls, which then suddenly terminated at the citadel, I was reminded of the rock fortress at Sirignya in Sri Lanka.  Standing below the hill nothing can prepare you for the size and intricacy of the fortress atop.  In Zimbabwe, there are large igneous boulders strewn across the landscape, some balancing precariously on top of others.  At Great Zimbabwe, such boulders are stacked atop the Hill Complex and were cleverly integrated into the compound.  Although I had hoped for blue skies at the summit, the swift-moving grey clouds evoked a sense of history and atmosphere that clearer skies would not have.  And at a very few intervals, the clouds granted us cobalt blue.

Our tour at the top took approximately an hour; our guide knowledgeable and thorough.  We literally left no stone unturned, historically speaking that is.  JK1 and I even had the guts to climb to the top of a balancing rock above a natural auditorium, where supposedly the ruler would sit looking down upon his court, rather a la Lion King and Pride Rock.  Getting to what I guess could be termed the Seat of Power was deceptively easy, but once on top, neither JK1 or I wanted to get too close to the edge.  The spot afforded incredible views across the valley but the stronger winds and, frankly, the edge and space beyond left my knees a wee bit shaky.  (I am not afraid of heights, only afraid of falling from them!)  We returned to the parking area via the easier pathway and then headed back to rouse the troops, pack up, and begin our long drive back to Harare.

Once back in Harare, JK1 needed to do some work, so their wonderful nanny took C and Little JK for a playdate next door, while JK2 took me for a short spin around the neighborhood.  That night we headed out to a Thai restaurant for dinner.  Let me repeat that, a Thai restaurant.  And it was authentic and delicious.  It was so good I almost wanted to cry; we definitely do not have any Thai food in Malawi.

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A little piece of heaven – Imire Lodge

On Tuesday morning we said farewell to the JKs.  I had arranged for a driver to pick us up in Harare and take us the 90 minutes southeast to the Imire Rhino and Wildlife Conservation Lodge.  C and I have been on a few safaris but C had not yet had the chance to see rhino; I wanted to change that.

We arrived before the 9:30 AM game drive, just in time to partake in a mid-morning tea before departure.  We were divided into two jeeps for the day-trippers and the overnighters and headed out into the conservation area.

The upside of a place like this over going to a National Park is the guarantee to see certain animals.  At Imire we would see four of the Big Five–elephants, buffalo, rhino, and one lonely, old male lion.  The animals were somewhat conditioned to associate the safari vehicle with snack time, giving us up and close personal time with all but the lion (he killed his partner about a decade before and he resides by himself in a large enclosure).

We drove for about 2 1/2 hours and then had a lunch set up in the bush near a reservoir, with benches and tables carved out of rock facing the water.  Then another 45 minutes after lunch before heading back to the lodge for afternoon tea and relaxing in the beautiful surroundings.  A cheeky monkey grabbed cookies from the spread and headed up as high as he could go into the tallest nearby tree.  While normally we might have both got on our devices, the lodge had no power during the day, with the management only switching on the generator at 5 PM.   So we had to find non-electricity related activities.  There was a pool but the winds were cool and picking up, so we just enjoyed some relaxing time.  I sat outside the rondavel, reading and writing in my journal.  C made friends with one of the resident dogs (she really would like me to get her a dog) and ran around the lawn and climbed trees.   Then in the late afternoon, we went out again for a sunset game drive and sundowner.

Imire animal montage

We were served a delicious four-course meal in the dining tent that evening.  The wind had picked up more, whipping through the tent flaps.  I had a hard time believing it was October and wished we had packed sweatshirts or light jackets.  With our drive out to the lodge that morning and two bumpy safari drives (in Malawi we call these bouncing around on bad roads the “Malawi massage”), so we had no problem turning in early.

The next day, after a lovely breakfast, a driver transported us from Imire to the airport for our return flight to Malawi.  And the second part of our Fall Break.

Faces of Malawi: LGBTI Refugees

Here in Malawi, I have at times tried to highlight everyday people in this country, one of the world’s poorest and arguably least known, to demonstrate both the diversity and the commonalities.  This year I have had the opportunity to meet a group of LGBTI refugees who, when faced with harassment and/or assault at the Dzaleka refugee camp, were placed in a safehouse, and sought the chance to speak to an American regarding their experiences.  Over the past half year, I have been able to meet with all of them, to get to know them a little and listen to the stories that brought them here.  

I thought meeting them again, interviewing them and taking their photos, would result in a fairly straightforward blogpost, but it has turned out much harder than I expected. Their stories, told in the dispassionate manner of people who have been through a lot — the fear of being caught, of something happening to them or their partner; of being turned in by family members, run out of town or followed by police or arrested, and having to flee their country, of having to use sexual favors as payment for rides to get from one place to another–were a lot to take in.  I have struggled with the line between my compassion and desire to shed a light on people and issues versus my self-interest and privilege. 

All I could think about as I began this post was one of those web-based privilege tests:  I was born in America.  I am white.  I am heterosexual.  I have never had to lie about my sexuality.  I never doubted my parents’ acceptance of my sexuality.  I feel comfortable in the gender I was born in.  I graduated high school.  I graduated college.  I work in a salaried job.  I have never been homeless.  I have never been a refugee…. I cannot begin to know what it is to be a LGBTI sub-Saharan African, ostracized by family, and living as a refugee far from home, in a country where I cannot work, where my movements are limited. 

They fled poor circumstances for an even poorer country, a country where the status of LGBTI persons is no better.  In 2016, Afrobarometer, a non-partisan, pan-African research institution that conducts public attitude surveys, released a report that found Malawians are among the most tolerant people in Africa.  Malawians are very tolerant of different religions, different ethnic backgrounds, immigrants and foreign workers, and even have little issue with those living with HIV and AIDS.  Malawi is also a host country for refugees, and is making gradual shifts to switch from an encampment policy to one of settlement and integration.  However, when it comes to LGBTI persons, Malawians, in general, are not at all accepting, rating lower that most other African countries.  And it is in this context these LGBTI refugees arrived — not only outsiders as refugees, but outsiders among the outsiders.

(Note: each refugee provided me with an alias; the youngest of the refugees, “Bandina” and “Happy” had the most fun choosing their aliases and were overall the most optimistic of the group; also note: my first meeting with two of these individuals was as a function of my work, but my continued association has been for personal reasons)

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“Dan”

Dan, 30, is from Kampala, Uganda.  Several years ago he was in his fourth year studying science and information technology at university, with plans to work on designing protection networks for businesses, when his sister’s boyfriend told his mother about his relationship with his partner; his mother turned him into police.  Forced to flee he left Uganda, he headed to Kakuma Refugee Camp in the northwest corner of Kenya, where he spent two years before he was again forced to leave.  He remembers having a happy childhood, a time when his mother loved him.  Should he be able to settle in Malawi or resettle elsewhere, he would like to finish school.  He would like to write a biography, help other LGBTI refugees, and start or be part of a campaign to change the narrative on LGBTI persons in Africa.

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“Marvin”

Marvin, 31, is also from Kampala.  He finished high school and started at a technical institute studying computer science, but had to drop out due to financial issues paying the tuition.  In 2016, he went to Dubai to work as a computer technician, where he spent two years.  Upon his return to Uganda, he felt targeted.  He is not sure who might have put the police on to him, but his work abroad seemed to be part of it.  He was taken in for interrogation, accused of bringing LGBTI ideas into the country.  He spent three days in a police “safehouse” with only water.  During his time in custody, his car was burned and his home vandalized; his family disowned him.  He was assigned a human rights laywer to defend him in court, but that lawyer gave him the stark reality of LGBTI cases in court.  Marvin decided it was time to leave, as he said “being LGBTI in Uganda is like having a curse.”  He traveled freely to Tanzania, and then through to Malawi.  Should he have the opportunity he wants to be an entrepreneur; nothing in particular, he just wants to get a job and be happy.

7

“Sasha”

Sasha, 28, is from Kenya.  She does not know her parents; she grew up in a home for girls in Mombasa.  There were about 100 girls there.  She finished her BA in education and started her MA in gender development, but although she sat for her exams, she was unable to receive diploma.  She moved to Nairobi and taught geography and Kiswahili in a high school, before her LGBTI status was discovered, and she was chased out.  She tried to return to Mombasa where she also found she was no longer welcome.  Although Sasha shared some of her journey to Malawi with me, I suspect more happened to her in Kenya than she would let on; she told me she can never return there.  She used to enjoy swimming, both in pools and in the sea, and was captain of her softball team at University, and wishes she had equipment here to play.  She is passionate about working to help other LGBTI in Africa, but she also would just like to open her own shop, selling clothing, perfume, and take away beer.

3

“Patrick”

Patrick, 29, is also from Kampala.  He finished high school and used to work as a carpenter, specializing in furniture renovation.  About two years ago he attended his boyfriend’s birthday party, on New Year’s Eve.  His boyfriend’s “auntie” caught them kissing and turned him into police.  Two days later, after his family disowned him, he left Uganda.  He first went to Kenya, where he met Dan, and the two of them worked in the Kakuma Refugee Camp, until again being forced to move on.  Should he be resettled in another country, he would like to join his new nation’s military.  He would like to prove to his parents and his community that he could be someone and help others.

5

“James”

James, 35, is also from Kampala.  He finished high school and worked first as a bookkeeper at a supermarket and then opened his own unisex boutique clothing store.  He comes from a large family; he has 12 siblings.  He had an American partner, but when they were arrested his partner could flee back to the States, but James could not.  After suffering persecution (he did not elaborate), and most of his family had turned their backs on him (one brother stays in touch off and on) he fled Uganda, coming straight to Malawi.  When in high school he thought he might like to continue his studies to become a lawyer, but he could not afford the tuition.  If given the chance, he would like to go to law school to become a human rights lawyer.

6

“Bandina”

Bandina, 21, is from the Kivu province of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where there has been an ongoing conflict since 2004.  Her English is not strong, so the other refugees translated her Kiswahili to me.  One told me although many refer to Bandina as transgender, she told me she is intersex, but still seeking to find out just who she is.  Bandina is effervescent; she is lively, full of energy.  Even the time I took her to the clinic when she had malaria, she exuded positive energy.  She finished only primary school as money issues always held her back.  She left the DRC in 2017, traveling by truck for twelve days through Burundi and Tanzania, to reach Malawi.  She wants to help other LGBTI, but really her dream is the same as it was when she was a child–she wants to run a restaurant or a fashion salon as she says her two favorite things are fashion and eating.

4

“Happy”

Happy, 23, is from a small town in west-central Uganda.  His mother left the family when he was two years old, so he grew up with just his father and elder brother.  He attended a boarding high school, but it was here, at 17, he was caught by the headmaster with his boyfriend.  They were taken to the office, beaten, and expelled.  His boyfriend’s father had senior police connections; the police went to his father’s home, destroyed the house, and forced his father to sell the land.  Happy did not go home and to this day he does not know what happened to his family.  He fled Uganda, traveling first to Nairobi, but after four months there and suffering additional harassment and physical attacks, he headed to Malawi.  Happy just would like to continue his studies and become a plumber.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Ntchisi 15

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 completly 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.

 

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.

playground before and after

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!

 

Home Leave: An American Education Part Two

The second half of my home leave return trip between my two tours in Malawi.

Part Two 1

C and her travel buddy Little C

After leaving Williamsburg we headed south to New Bern, North Carolina, where my long-time friend CZ and her son Little C live.  CZ and I go way back.  In fact, back to the College of William and Mary, when like Seinfeld and Kramer, we lived across from one another in our senior dorm.  We are also both single moms.  Back during our first Home Leave after two years in Mexico, we spent a week in New Bern when Little C was just a month old.   CZ and Little C visited us in Shanghai, and we met up with them in Paris.  Here we are returning to see them for a few days; Little C is now five.

New Bern is a bit like Williamsburg — lots of history but also plenty of natural activities.  We visited some places we had been before – such as my taking C and Little C to lunch at the Cow Cafe and then over to the Birthplace of Pepsi Cola (I may be a die-hard Diet Coke fan, but Diet Coke shortages in Malawi have led me to embrace Pepsi Light) – but other places like Tyron Palace did not fit this trip.  We did picnic near Atlantic Beach and then head out on pirate boat for some fun out of Beaufort.  We also took a National Park ferry service to Shackelford Banks for some beach time and wild horses.  Mostly, though the kids just were happy to see one another again, as were CZ and I.  It was bittersweet leaving CZ and Little C — the kids did not want to part (C had told another child we met along the way “Little C is like my brother, he just has a different mom”).  But CZ and I knew it would not be too long before we meet up again.

Part Two 3

C at the beach in Nags Head

In the car again, we headed to our next destination: the Outer Banks.  A good destination for those with younger kids is almost always the beach, but I was still determined to shove some American history into C.  Wait, I mean, expose her to the wonders of America’s rich history.  And though C may not know a whole lot on that subject, she does know the story of the Wright Brothers and their first flight on the sand dunes of Kill Devil Hills.

Funnily enough, the last time I was in the Outer Banks was 1994, where I headed with my sorority sister CZ, just after graduation from the College of William and Mary.  The one other time before that, I was 16 years old, as the long-time babysitter for family friends.  (I remain friends still with this family — in fact just as I wrote this sentence a message box popped up from one of them).  Another American and personal history trip.

Part Two 2

The incredible stage at the performance of the Lost Colony

On our first day, we checked into the hotel, and then immediately we headed out to grab some quintessential American beachside food.  Ahhhh, ordering at a small window of a short order takeout place, then sitting at picnic tables, in the summer beachy heat under the shade of an umbrella.  There is nothing like it in Malawi.  Maybe nothing quite like it outside of the U.S.A.

That evening we headed over to Fort Raleigh National Historic Site on Roanoke Island to see the production of The Lost Colony, the nation’s longest running outdoor symphonic drama (that’s a mouthful, right?).  In its 82nd season, the play depicts the history, drama, and mystery surrounding the ill-fated first settlement in the “New World.”  The stage is set at the actual location of the settlement and has run every summer since 1937, only stopping briefly during WWII with the threat of German U-boats off the coast being able to see the lights from the theater.  Having already visited Jamestown and Williamsburg, I thought C would really enjoy the play.  Nothing could quite have prepared me for the emotional roller coaster that was to come.  C loved the antics of Tom, the drunkard turned heroic settler, and the pageantry of the scenes with Queen Elizabeth.  But the scenes of fighting between Native Americans and the settlers had her on her feet, full on sobbing, “Nooooooo!  Stop it!  Stop it!  Mom, why did you bring me here????”  I felt like a bit of a jerk making her sit through the entire performance and yet at the end she asked if she could have her photo with the actress who played Queen Elizabeth and she patiently waited in line to chat her up (Sir Walter Raleigh was there too, but she could have cared less), and on the car ride home she asked me lots of questions about it.  (“Mom, so why were the settlers always talking about God?”  “Mom, why are they lost if they carved where they were going on the tree?”  “Mom, why didn’t the guy from England just go to Croatan to find them?”)  So, despite wanting to sink into my seat at the theater as those near us observed my daughter’s very raw, and rather noisy, emotion, C seems to have gotten out of it what I had hoped.

Part Two 4When we returned the following day to visit the rest of Fort Raleigh, she had even more questions about the missing settlers.  Then we headed over to the North Carolina Aquarium because we are simply incapable of passing up on an aquarium. We followed up with a visit to Dare Devil’s Pizza so I could introduce C to the massive stromboli I remembered from my visit 30 years before and then we had some time to stroll and play on the beach.

Our activity for the following day involved driving an hour south to visit Hatteras Island and its famous lighthouse.  Nothing is more fun to do in the middle of long drives between destinations is to take another drive.  No, really, I love driving.  And while overseas I always miss American roads.  The state of Malawian roads especially has me hankering for the smooth, largely pot-hole free, clearly lined arteries that criss cross America.  I also love to hear C repeatedly asking from the back “How much longer?”

We didn’t just visit the historic site, but we climbed the 257 steps to the top.  My heart pounding, not so much from hauling my increasing out of shape self, but from the genuine fear that seized my heart walking up the curved staircase, holding (no, gripping) its low, surely not regulation height, handrail, trying not to look down at the increasing distance between my location and the ground floor.  Nah, just kidding, it was loads of fun, especially once back on terra firma.

Part Two 7Once back in Nags Head we stopped at Kitty Hawk Kites because its an Outer Banks institution and I remembered visiting when I was 16.  It is also the place to go to book adventure tours and activities.  By the time we left about an hour later, C had convinced me to buy her a fox kite (word to the wise: know the dimensions of your extra suitcase so you do not buy a kite that is 4 inches too long to fit) and for me to sign us up for mother-daughter hanggliding classes on the dunes for the following day.

Ever since I had visited Jockey’s Ridge State Park at the age of 16, and watched the hanggliders on the dunes, I have wanted to go back and try it myself.  It took a bit of fast talk to convince C to give it a go.  She wanted to go to mermaid swimming school, but that was not on offer at the time.  But with a promise to give her a SpongeBob SquarePants ice cream after we successfully completed the course, she reluctantly agreed.

Together with the rest of our class, we marched up the dunes.  At the top we were re-instructed on the basics covered in the classroom and then we divided into three groups, with the children under 16 in their own group.  We all had five flights — two flights, then a rotation through the group, two more flights, another rotation, and then a final flight — I was able to watch all of C’s flights.  C seemed nervous at first, but in an all kids group she relaxed, soon in her element.  At one point she was surrounded by the other kids, all older, as they asked her about life in Africa.  When C went to do her flight, one of the other kids told me that “she is pretty great.”  I beamed.

It was an incredible day on the dunes.  I found it somewhat frightening and exhilirating.  We never really flew on our own.  The adults had a single instructor who ran with us the length of our flight, tethered to the contraption so we could only get so much lift and distance; the children had two instructors.  We only flew short distances, but I felt absurdly happy as my stomach dropped as the wind lifted me up.  I laughed.  A lot.  A storm moved across the Roanoke Sound.  The skies darkened, the wind picked up.  The instructors had to double up even for the adult fliers.  C finished up first so she could watch my final flight, then the two of us made our own way back to the training facility as the skies opened up.

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Bright light and storm clouds as C prepares to take off

Later that afternoon we drove about 45 minutes north to meet my sister, husband, and kids, and their friends at a popular seafood restaurant.  We had found out at the very beginning of our Home Leave that my sister and her friend’s annual beach week in Duck, North Carolina, the northern Outer Banks, would coincide during our week in the area.  It was fun to catch up in an unexpected way.

 

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History and Photography Fun

On our final day, we finally headed to the Wright Brothers National Memorial.  At last, C would learn more about the history of aviation in America right at the source.  It was a hot July day so we started off first in the wonderfully informative (and air conditioned!) museum.  Then we walked the flight path and up Kill Devil Hill, where the brothers conducted many of their glider tests and where now stands the 60 foot tall granite monument to their achievements.  We then returned to the car and drove around to the First Flight Centennial Memorial, where Orrville, Wilbur, the plane, and other observers of that first day are memorialized in bronze.  C and other kids (and many adults) loved that visitors can actually climb all over the sculptures, a sort of interactive historical playground.  I then took C to Dairy Queen to enjoy her first ever Blizzard, a wonderful, fattening, concoction of thick soft serve ice creams and yummy goodies.  Ah, America.

Next stop: Chincoteague, Virginia.  Finally, a place I had never been, but which has long been on my bucket list from way back when to I was a little girl.  Chincoteague and its sister island Assateague are two Virginian barrier islands (the northern two-thirds of the long and narrow Assateague falls into Maryland’s jurisdiction) are both part of the national park system – the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge and the Assateague Island National Seashore – but they were made famous by a children’s novel (Misty of Chincoteague) written in 1947 about the wild horses of Assateague and the annual pony swim to Chincoteague.  The book, still in print, still fires the imagination of young readers, especially those who love horses.  I read the book to C just before we began our trip.

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One of the famous Assateague ponies

Chincoteague has small town American charm (population about 2,800), but with its protected spaces and history of wild ponies woven into popular literature, it just has more.  Soon after checking in to our hotel (hours later than anticipated thanks to an accident on the ONE northern bridge off the Outer Banks), we headed out to dinner, walking up to a family-style italian restaurant to appease C’s hankering for some simple pasta.  Afterwards we played mini golf.

Monday, it rained.  We had a lazy morning, carry out lunch in the room, then in the afternoon headed over to Assateague to visit the two Visitor Centers.  Although they are not too big, C enjoyed finding out about the flora and the fauna, especially because one really fantastic young park ranger encouraged C to work on a park booklet to become a junior ranger.  As the afternoon waned, the sun came out just in time for a beautiful drive along a nature loop road.  On our last full day we went out on an early morning boat tour.  The weather was perfect and we not only had the opportunity to see the famous ponies, but also some other wildlife, including a bald eagle.  Then back over to the Visitor Centers on Assateague, including a climb up the Assateague Lighthouse.

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Some of the beauty of Assateague

Before we departed Chincoteague, I rented a bicycle with a trailor, so C could sit in cool comfort (even with her tablet) while I did all the work.  I love cycling and I have been waiting for when C is able to ride with me.  Our overseas life has not exactly been conducive to her learning to ride though.  In Shanghai, there was a rooftop linking the eighth floors of the two apartment buildings and the Ritz-Carlton Hotel.  It was not an empty area; there were tennis courts, an area for a bouncy castle, a trampoline, the swimming pool, and covered area with tables and bar-b-que areas.  A small child could cycle a little on a small bike, but scooters were all the rage in Shanghai.  And then here in Malawi, the roads are not all that safe.  There are no sidewalks or shoulders.  The bicycle carriage was the perfect compromise.  It felt AMAZING to out and about — the hour riding the trails and roads on Assateague was perfect.

Part Two 8We then drove on to Winchester, Virginia to spend a few days at my Aunt C’s, including a night at her cabin in West Virginia, and then a few days in Sterling, Virginia, my original home town.  We caught up with friends and family.  And then it was time to say goodbye to the U.S. How did four weeks pass by so quickly?  But we squeezed a lot in.  C had time in NY with her father, her paternal grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins.  I had time in Jacksonville with my Aunt C and doing more in my home-away-from-the-Foreign-Service.  We caught up with CZ and Little C in New Bern.  We visited my college town and soaked in some early American history, and had another walk down my memory lane and more American history in the Outer Banks.  And we both made new memories enjoying time in the beautiful barrier islands of Virginia.  We visited a total of five places in the U.S. National Park system.   Not bad at all for four fabulous weeks.

Then we needed to begin the journey home.  And it was going to be a loooooooooooooooooooong trip back, even longer than when we flew to the States.  Due to the amount of money authorized for our Home Leave travel by Washington, and the limited time between that authorization (early May) and our departure (mid-June), being in the northern Hemisphere summer time, we had to fly a different routing.  So we would fly from Washington Dulles on the eight hour red-eye flight to Frankfurt, Germany, arriving at noon.  Then spend 10 hours on a layover in Frankfurt before our ten-hour red-eye flight to Johannesburg, South Africa.  Then five hours in Jo’burg before our two-hour flight to Lilongwe.  But I was determined to make the most of our time in Germany.

Long, long ago, also when I was 16 years old, my sisters and I spent a month in Frankfurt with my Aunt C and Uncle D.  So the plan was to give C just a wee bit of a taste of Germany and a touch more of a walk down mommy-memory-lane.  We freshened up in an airport shower, went through immigration, stored our luggage, and then caught a train from the airport to the Frankfurt Main Train Station.  Then we headed to the Old Town to do a little sightseeing.  In three hours we had lunch and hit many a place from my store of old family photos.

Then and Now Frankfurt

At the David and Goliath sculpture at the Hauptwache Station, Frankfurt – My sisters and I in July 1989 (left) – the acid washed jeans a dead giveaway – and C in July 2019 (right)

Then it truly was the end of our mid-tour Home Leave and time to return home – to Malawi.