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.
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.
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
There are days during the pandemic when things feel almost normal. And then I wonder if it means I am getting used to the “new normal” or if things really are returning to a sense of normalcy? But I am unconvinced of the latter and still find myself struggling with restrictions and the mental strain of entering our eighth month of this (and I cannot even articulate well what “this” is). Having gone through SARS in Singapore in 2003, I had been confident the pandemic would end in July. When July came and went I felt a pretty solid sense of having been let down. Yet, I convinced myself that by mid-October, by C’s school break, that probably, maybe, things would have returned largely to normal. Wrong again.
On September 30, C’s grade returned to in-person classes, but C did not return to school as there are no longer buses to take her the 30 minutes to and from the campus. As a single working parent, I did not see how I could spend upwards of 15 hours a week (to account for traffic and waiting in the complicated pick-up line) chauffeuring C back and forth and keep up with everything else. I would trade the frustration of online learning with the frustration of hours in Lilongwe traffic.
Seven schooldays after the majority of children returned to the international school (I was not the only hold-out), Fall Break began. But I figured I have to call it “Fall Break” in quotes because it is never the cool autumn of the U.S. and, frankly, I could not really put my finger on what it was a break from. Yet, I knew, once again, that if I could take off some days and get out of Lilongwe, then I needed to do that. Still, as hard as I tried to consider taking the entire week to travel around Malawi, I could not stomach it. There are many lovely places in this country, but most of them are at least three hours away according to Google Maps, which when you factor in police road stops and getting stuck behind a slow moving truck on a two lane road (and they are all two lane roads) or a person driving 20 kilometers below the speed limit for no apparent reason, it is always more on the order of four hours.
I broke our holiday into two parts, each visiting a new location on my Malawi sightseeing bucket list: We would first head south for the three-day Indigenous Peoples Day weekend to spend time at the Makokola Retreat on the lower end of Lake Malawi. After a two day respite back in Lilongwe, we would then turn northward to spend a four day weekend at Luwawa Forest Lodge.
Our first mini getaway was to Makokola. At first the drive was pleasant enough, but 2/3 of the way in (i.e. about two hours) I had had about enough of the endless monotony of scrub brush alongside the potholed tarmac. I have driven that particular route one too many times and it does not get more interesting. But at last we arrived at the lush lakeside retreat. Due to renovations under much of the older part of the resort, children are, at this time, allowed to stay in the newly built lakeside suites. And they are lovely.
After the monotony of the Malawian roads, pulling into the lush, landscaped grounds of the Makokoka Retreat was a noticeable physical and mental relief. The grounds are beautiful, even with portions of them churned up for renovation. As we were walked over to the Lakeside suites, our home away from home for two nights, I was struck by how much it reminded me of a model American condo subdivision. There were sidewalks and water features. Water features! I think I have seen one other water feature in all of Malawi – a fountain at a roundabout in Lilongwe – but never once has there been water in it!
In pre-COVID times, I heard that the Makokola Retreat had a bunch of watersports like wakeboards and water skis and those floating banana things. However, although speedboats were on offer (only $200 to rent!) there didn’t seem to be anything attached to them in pandemic times. And that’s okay — I am not really the speed on the water kinda gal. C and I were keen on just lazing about. The American development feel gave a sense of really having gotten away. COVID-19 measures meant our meals would be delivered to our room. Walks along a beach (albeit a lakeside beach) or through the gardens, slow laps around the infinity pool, and leisurely meals in our room or on our patio while reading — that is exactly what C and I needed.
And then I had to drive home. Just like after our recent trips to Satemwa and Liwonde, the return trip winds back the relaxation clock. At least this time, we would have two days at home — still on leave and off school — before heading out again.
The drive north to the Luwawa Forest Lodge turnoff was not so bad. Not because the road quality or drivers were better, they were not, but it was a new-to-me route. I had only driven north on the M1 once, when we visited Ntchisi Forest Lodge, but an hour into our journey we had already passed the familiar behind.
There was nothing special about the first three hours, but after turning onto the red dirt road into the Brachystegia woodland and riverine forest of the Viphya Plateau’s highlands, it was as if we really been transported somewhere else.
At Luwawa I had booked a self-catering cottage. I was not sure what to expect, but I found the slightly musty two-story cabin, with its small fridge and retro-style mini gas oven, under the wooden stairs lounge area, and large loft-like upstairs, homey. It reminded me of my grandmother’s house. We unpacked, made and ate sandwiches for lunch, then took a look around the property. We met Bob, the Lodge’s massive, yet playful, Saint Bernard; C played on the playground, and I wandered the garden. Then, with the assistance of the Lodge, trudged up the narrow steps of another cottage, and in another musty room designed for studies when the schools use the dormitories for their “Week Without Walls” programs, with chairs haphazardly stacked along the walls, we played the worst, yet hilarious, game of ping pong.
Luwawa Forest Lodge has an impressive range of activities from canoeing and kayaking on the reservoir, trail walking, abseiling, bird watching, fishing, archery, and a few guided tours. I had plans for us to do several of these over the course of our three days, but our first morning we had a one hour horseback ride lined up.
C loves horses. Unfortunately there are no public horse riding stables in Lilongwe — nor were there any in Shanghai that would not have taken us less than two hours to get to — so I have always looked for horse riding opportunities when we head on vacation.
What a treat that there are stables just a 15 minute walk from the Luwawa Forest Lodge and they are run by the wonderfully patient and kind Maggie, who worked as a medical practitioner at the US Embassy for 30 years. She took us on a lovely ramble along trails and through the woods surrounding her property. Along the way, she told me about being born and raised in Kenya, studied in South Africa, and then after her degree she relocated to Malawi where her grandfather had purchased land in the early part of the 20th century. We passed ripening multi-colored berries, caught vistas of misty covered rolling hills, and breathed in the fresh air. C was in her element.
Immediately after our ride, C asked if she could have another ride that afternoon. Maggie said she had some siblings, one of which was a precocious 7-year old she thought C would hit it off with, scheduled at 1:30 that afternoon.
Boy did they hit it off! H and C became fast friends. After the ride — reportedly full of giggles — C wanted to spend more time with H. They hopped on an ATV with Gift, one of the stable hands, and headed up to the stables to muck them out and prepare for the evening feeding. Yes, my daughter volunteered and happily mucked out horse stables!
The following day C signed up for two additional rides with her vacation best friend. As C rode the trails around Luwawa, I walked them. I used to be a great walker. I love to walk, but there are not many places to do so in Lilongwe; there are few sidewalks and no trails that I know of. In Luwawa I had hours to myself to walk and meditate in nature. I have not had such time to do so at any other time in Malawi. We didn’t do much in Luwawa; C rode horses and I walked, and we relaxed in our little cottage. But it was just what we both needed.
Once again, a few trips out of Lilongwe restored myself and C just a wee bit. It was not the fall break I had initially planned on pre-COVID or even as I kept hoping the pandemic would end sometime in the summer months. But while it wasn’t perfect, it was unexpected and unexpectedly good.
Earlier in the year we had a great plan for August with our friends from the U.S. Of course, the best laid travel plans have a habit of being disrupted in a pandemic and these were no different. Like many travel and tourist related companies caught in the pandemic spiral with cancellations right and left, I was issued a credit, not a refund, on our deposit.
As Embassy domestic COVID-19 restrictions eased and we could again travel outside the capital, stay overnight in lodges, and dine in limited exposure situations, I began to plan a trip. After days and weeks morphing into months (six of them) doing nearly everything — working, schooling, cleaning, reading, writing, eating, sleeping, child care — in my home, I was incredibly motivated to not spend my birthday weekend in yet another COVID staycation, if I had options to do otherwise. So, I contacted the travel company and booked two nights at the Mvuu Lodge in Liwonde National Park using our credit to cover half the costs.
Liwonde is an approximately 4.5 hour drive from our part of Lilongwe, despite what my map app said. First, its always surprising to me that it takes about half an hour winding through the warren of narrow, overused roads of the capital til finally breaking free at the round-about on the M1 south from the city. I had just barely emerged from the capital’s chaos when I had to take a pre-arranged call. It is early in the official bidding season, when those of us transferring the following year are taking interviews with potential future posts. The hiring manage had one day and one time available, so I had to make it work. It was hardly ideal having an interview while on speakerphone in the car, but the pandemic has turned everything upside-down, so I gave it my best. But the interview helped the first half of the drive go by quickly and once it was over, we cranked up the tunes and sung our way south for another hour.
At Balaka, where we turned off the M1 and headed east on the M8, we moved into unfamiliar territory. So often driving in Malawi requires just going along the same roads again and again and again, but as we headed down a new-to-us road — even one as pockmarked with potholes and with sides eroded significantly that in some places the two lanes became one as this one — and drew closer to the park, I could feel the stress of the past several days (weeks? months?) ebbing. We spent some 20 minutes on a new, nicely paved road named after the President who lost the landmark court-mandated new election in June, and then meandered through dusty dirt roads through small villages until we reached the end of the village of Ulongwe and the back gate to Liwonde National Park.
Liwonde National Park is neither Malawi’s oldest or largest park (both of those honors go to Nyika National Park), but it is Malawi’s most accessible, and thus most popular. Just five years ago, Liwonde was a park in extreme decline; decades of poaching had left more wildlife snares in the park than wildlife. That year, 2015, Africa Parks, a South African non-profit conservation organization (and whose President is Prince Harry), took over the management of Liwonde. Africa Parks has turned Liwonde around, cleaning up snares, developing a top ranger force, and providing key community awareness to mitigate human and wildlife conflicts. In 2016, Liwonde was the source of one of the world’s largest elephant translocations when Africa Parks moved over 300 elephants from the park to another of its Malawi parks, Nkhotakota. And in 2017, predators were re-introduced, first with lions and later cheetahs, as Africa Parks works to restore the park and animal populations. C and I had visited Nkhotakota and Majete and had saved Liwonde for the last of Malawi’s Africa Parks’ run national parks.
To reach the park from the Ulongwe side we registered at the park ranger lodge and notified the manager of Mvuu Lodge of our arrival. We drove a short distance further to the banks of the great Shire (pronounced “sheer-eh,” not like the homeplace of the Hobbits) River, which is the only outlet of the massive Lake Malawi and flows to the Zambezi. There Chifundo, our guide, met us with a small boat to pilot us ten minutes across the river to our accommodation. The exchange from car to boat had to be made quickly, as almost as soon as we parked, we saw antelope, monkeys, and most ominous, a troupe of baboons emerged from the brush to circle the clearing. Chifundo would take my car keys and after dropping us off at Mvuu Lodge, return to drive our vehicle back to the ranger station (you do not want to know what baboons might do to your unattended vehicle).
Immediately, we could spot wildlife from the boat. Hippos lurking near the river’s edge. Elephants on the shore or in a bath party in the river. Antelope grazing on the river banks. And birds swooping alongside the boat or perched on branches – from slim reeds to massive boughs — nearby. A crocodile lazily swished through the water.
We disembarked after a 20 minute ride, including a short detour to see elephants, then climbed aboard a jeep for a short drive to the lodge. We were served lunch in the main building, built above a beautiful spot with views over savanna, marsh, forest, and the river, where in a lazy woman’s safari we could already make out seven types animals without any effort — warthog, bushbuck, baboon, hippo, waterbuck, striped mongoose, and a crocodile.
After a lazy lunch and an even lazier layabout in the room for an hour, it was already time to head out on our sundowner game drive. It was just C and I, our guide Chifundo, and a park ranger. It took literally seconds to spot more wildlife. Impala, bushbuck, warthogs, and baboon were the most plentiful, but the occasional rarity such as a southern ground hornbill or a tree squirrel, would make an appearance. It is October now, the tail end of the dry season, and the daytime heat is intense. But driving in late afternoon to evening in an open safari vehicle, feeling a delicious breeze as the African sun dips and the air is suffused with a rich, golden light, is magnificent. It was hard to believe that morning I had been in the capital. We felt a world away.
The next morning – my birthday – we were up at 5 AM. C and I have not seen that time of day in a long, long time. We are natural night owls, and the COVID experience has accentuated and cultivated our late evening tendencies. Amazingly, both of us, refreshed by an undisturbed sleep beneath a large white mosquito net canopy, the lulling sound of the ceiling fan, and the sounds of nature, woke up easily.
We were on the hunt for predators — cheetahs or lions or both. Cats are naturally a big draw for game drives, but even in a well stocked park like Kruger in South Africa, catching sight of the big cats is never a guarantee. Liwonde has a total of eight lions (though ten were introduced in 2018, battles for dominance among males has already reduced the population). The cheetahs — seven of whom were introduced in 2017 — have fared better, with cubs born each year more than doubling the population.
We spotted the usual suspects, but also hippo grazing on open savanna in the early light, a herd of sable, another of eland (the largest antelope) some hartebeest (the fastest antelope), and zebra. And as luck would have it, the eagle eyes of our ranger caught sight of a lion in the distance. We arrived at the bank of a dry riverbed where two lionesses were snoozing. It was exciting to see two of the eight, though they made sure to be as absolutely boring as possible, and C quickly asked if we could drive off. But wouldn’t you know it, a male was lurking nearby, behind a dry ridge of earth in the riverbed. He popped his head up a few times to give us a look–Who had disturbed his nap? And then he rose majestically, standing on the ridge, his head raised as if sniffing the air, and began to saunter with purpose in our direction. And that is when C lost it. She began saying in a stage whisper “Oh, my gosh, oh my gosh, its coming, its coming, let’s get out of here!”
Of course, that lion lost interest in us very quickly, and languidly stepped over to the ladies and flopped down beside them. The excitement over. We drove for another hour or so, enjoying being together away from home, with our reverie occasionally interrupted by a wildlife sighting, but there were not more cats.
We had a light breakfast and lunch, and several more hours of lazing about in our room or sitting on our balcony, which faced a marshy plain backed by tall trees and attracted all manner of wildlife. I felt more content than I had in a long while. Then in the late afternoon we headed out on a sundowner boat safari.
A safari from the water is an entirely different thing from a game drive. The pace is slower (and far less bumpier — as my very first Malawian game driver called it “The Malawian Massage”). There is just as much a sense of excitement with a lick of danger — just as C was sure the male lion intended to leap across the ravine, up the bank, and dive into our jeep to eat us, she was wary of crocodiles and hippos, sure they would upset the boat. (Spoiler alert: they didn’t) Again, an abundance of hippos, crocs, and bird life, including, unexpectedly, four wayward flamingos, on the water and elephant and antelope on the banks. And as the sun set on my birthday, we were treated to the quintessential swift but deep red African sunset; I felt as if I were in the movie the African Queen.
The following morning we opted not to take advantage of another included game drive as we had seen so much wildlife and preferred to a lazy lie-in along with the sounds of the African bush. I wanted to hang on to that languid relaxation as long as I could before making our way back to Lilongwe.
But all good things come to an end. And just as the sense of calm had increased the closer we got to the park, the stressful feelings returned the further we drove away. Liwonde was wonderful, but a short weekend away was not never going to be restful enough to reverse the past seven months of pressure, frustration, and melancholy. We were still in Malawi. And we love Malawi, but it can still be a challenging place. And as I drove home, I could feel my irritation grow with the piles of bricks lying unused by the sides of the road in villages where people work hard yet barely eke out a living, with maddening drivers (too fast or too slow or too), with the poorly maintained roads…and when I was pulled over by the police (for the first time ever in Malawi) and the traffic cop tried to extort a bribe, the weekend’s spell was completely broken.
Still, there are certainly far, far worse places to be, and Liwonde was a great birthday getaway. I have also used up one of my COVID travel casualty credits, only three more to go.
Twenty-one weeks after the Embassy went on alternative telework as a Covid-19 mitigation measure and 24 weeks since we last took a trip outside of Lilongwe, we were once again able to venture outside the capital for day trips. We still needed to limit our interactions, liberally wash our hands or apply antiseptic, and wear face masks, but for a first time in a long time we could drive further than the exciting (dripping with sarcasm) 10-20 minute drive to the supermarket. For those in developed countries this simple change in our restrictions might not seem like much. For those that have access to national, state, and city parks near your home or other venues such as skateparks, waterparks, amusement parks, cultural parks, indoor parks, cinemas, shopping malls, museums, playgrounds…or even those ubiquitous things in developed cities and suburbs where one can stroll without being in the street, you know, sidewalks. Well, just imagine if none of those were available to you. Then you might get an idea of what it might be like to hang out in Lilongwe — not just in a pandemic, but all the time.
And then suddenly after half a year we could leave the city, do more than work and school from home with occasional outings to the office or the grocery store. I immediately set about organizing a day getaway to Kuti Wildlife Reserve with good friends. And we were like horses chomping at the bit eager to bolt at the starting gate. We packed up our picnic items and headed out on the 90 minute drive along the M14 toward to Salima. At Kuti, we drove through the reserve looking for animals and came across a few baboon, bushbuck, and sable antelope. We didn’t see many animals but we had a lot of fun anyway. Back at the reception lodge we unpacked our coolers, bought some drinks, and sat back with each other in their open-air dining area for some lunch. We were just so happy to be somewhere other than our own homes in Lilongwe.
Just before leaving the Reserve, we popped over to the Sunset Deck (even though it was not sunset – as we are not allowed to drive outside of the capital after dark), as it overlooked a watering hole. There were a few birds but nothing else…until my friend AS looks out in the distance, and, I kid you not, spots the Reserve’s sole giraffe at least half a mile away in a treeline. We drive over, park, and after a short walk through the trees emerged onto grassland standing some 15-20 feet from a herd of zebra, sable antelope, and the giraffe. Icing on the cake.
After that weekend, the Embassy announced we would be able to take overnight trips again, though still with restrictions (only self catering or takeaway), and I knew I had to find something, somewhere for the Labor Day weekend. A little over a year before, friends and I had planned a getaway to the self-catering Chawani Bungalow at the Satemwa Tea Estates over the 2019 Memorial Day weekend. Unfortunately, the lead-up to Malawi’s general elections that year made it quite clear that in my position, I would not be going anywhere at the time (indeed I ended up working nights and through the weekend). I talked with my friends and they were game, then checked with the Estate and it was available, and I began planning again.
It is a five hour drive from our part of Lilongwe to the Satemwa Tea Estate in Thyolo District, in the deep south of the country. Previously, when I made the trip with my aunt we made a few stops along the way, yet this time we made only one short stop at the Chikondi Stopover – a well known shop and bathroom break approximately halfway between Lilongwe and Blantyre. Otherwise, we were on a mission! And after only those short drives to the store or the Embassy for months on end, that five hour drive to the tea estate went by in a flash.
C and I had been to Satemwa before, but our friends had not yet been, so we were eager to share this wonderful place with them. The Chawani Bungalow, an historic tea planter’s cottage, is nestled within the heart of the Satemwa Tea Estate, between tall trees and verdant rolling hills of tea shrubs. Its expansive gardens full of flowers and its lawn a massive tree perfect for kids to climb.
We did little. We made and ate meals together. The kids ran or biked around the yard and jumped into the pool — even though a final Malawian winter cold snap had dropped the temps to not-pool-weather-chilly. We went for walks along wooded paths, along the red-dirt lanes, among the tea. We gathered in the main living space before a warm fireplace with tea and chatted. We fired up the braai (southern African for grill) for a family-style picnic. We had high tea on the lawn of Huntingdon House and took the kids on a scavenger hunt. The kids climbed trees and fed the fish at the Huntingdon House pond. We got to know one another.
For the first time in a long time I felt “normal.” Seeing and being with other people face to face (not on Zoom or Google Meet calls), without masks, just enjoying one another’s company. And, of course, being away from Lilongwe, having a change of scenery.
Returning to work that week I did feel let down. That taste of almost pre-Covid normalcy, of a holiday, that had been so sweet on my tongue over the weekend turned a wee bit bitter. I longed for more. I had not had more than a single day off since our winter wonderland trip to Europe the previous December, and pre-Covid feels so very long ago.
Luckily I anticipated just such a post-getaway pandemic funk and had organized yet one more mini vacation with friends for the weekend after. This time, we headed to Blue Zebra, a small lodge on Nankoma Island, part of Marelli Archipelago, within Lake Malawi National Park. Just 15 minutes by speed boat from the shore, its like a world away.
Bumping along the choppy waves — and yes, Lake Malawi has waves, its a huge lake (3rd largest in Africa and 10th largest in the world) — we laughed and felt a carefree-ness we had not felt in awhile. I had booked the largest guest chalet on the island for myself, my daughter, her tutor, and tutor’s sister (who all live at my friend’s home — the daughters of her housekeeper — thus within our Covid isolation bubble). We had been so few places this year I was fully embracing the “go big or go home” philosophy. The large cottage has two bedrooms, a living room, dining room, and wrap around porch with another large dining table. With all these tables we were able to have all our meals together at our Cottage instead of in the Lodge’s dining area. The things we have to think of to travel in the time of Covid…
We tried to make the most of our time — trying to find that balance between relaxation in a new setting (just listening to the lapping water) and having fun. We spent time at the pool, hung out in the game room playing billiards (well as well as one can with adult amateurs and children) and trivia, talking and game playing at meals, and kayaking. We had just over 24 hours on the island — arriving around 11:30 on one day and leaving at 2 PM the following. It was too short of time.
It was a great getaway– absolutely. Even just the two hours in the car each way singing to our CDs (yes, CDs, because I have a 2006 Japanese vehicle that picks up only one Malawian radio station, and internet data roaming is poor), was wonderful. But I will say that the Monday after that last trip, my mood dropped precipitously. To take these trips I took no time off.
Limited commercial flights returned to Malawi on Saturday, September 5, the first such flights since the borders closed to all but special charter flights or buses since April 1. But restrictions remain — limits to the number of interactions with others, mandatory mask usage, and no dining-in at restaurants domestically, and Covid testing and quarantines for international arrivals, for example. I am so grateful that we did have a chance to get out with friends, though I am desperate for more travel freedoms. Still, we may not have sidewalks or amusement parks, but what Malawi does have is pretty spectacular.
To continue the tradition of writing the five pros and cons of serving as a Foreign Service Officer abroad and following my similar posts on Ciudad Juarez and Shanghai, its has come time to write about Lilongwe.
1. The Housing, Most Especially the Yards. The houses in Lilongwe are okay in my book. These are the residences one generally expects when posted to Africa: large, ranch-style homes. They are quirky, often 70s-style (perhaps the worst decade for architecture) with odd layouts and/or odd features, and require frequent calls to facilities to address issues. For example, I have a room with only two walls that is more like a large square hallway between two other rooms. And in that room there is also an unusual recessed wall. I also have a random, I don’t even know what to call it, a raised platform? dividing my living and dining spaces. Still, I love my home. But its really the yards that make the Lilongwe homes. I can wax lyrically about my yard for hours on end. I even wrote a whole blog post about mine. Every Mission home I have visited has a wonderful yard. They are large, lush, and leafy and filled with birdsong day and night. We have trees, so many trees, from fruit-bearing (avocado, citrus, banana, mango, papaya) to flowering (jacaranda, flame, poinsettia, palm, frangipani), and various other hardwood and softwoods. Many of us have gardens growing vegetables and herbs. I did not grow up with a yard, only a balcony, and the only other yard was the rock strewn one where scorpions liked to hide in Juarez; I shall always be grateful to have had the opportunity to live in my Lilongwe home surrounded by such an expanse of nature.
2. Climate/Weather/Nature. One thing that is universal among those who live here are the raves about the weather. If you are a fan of the snow and ice kind of cold, then Malawi is not the place for you. But if you enjoy warm weather with a touch of chill in the winter months, then this is the place. There are three seasons: the cool and dry (roughly April-August), the warm and dry (approximately September-November), and the warm and wet (around December-March). In the first, it can be surprisingly chilly overnight and in the early morning, with temperatures in the mid-40s to mid-50s (Fahrenheit). But it does not remain cool all day; in a way it reminds me of the winters of Ciudad Juarez with its high desert chill as low as the 30s but up to the 60s or even 70s during the day. Lilongwe is not high desert, but its elevation at 3,440 feet (1,050 meters) above sea level may take some by surprise. Its rarely humid; its heat in the warmest months in the 80s. It’s rainy season turns the leafy areas of the cities (like our yards) and most especially the countryside, a blindingly lush, verdant green. And while all is not perfect, of course, as the rust brown dust invades our homes, and climate change, poor government planning, and deforestation can wreck havoc in this poor country, there is always some natural beauty to be found.
3. Wildlife. Something one thinks of when bringing young children to Africa is the opportunity to take them on safari — to see the forests and savannas teeming with African animals. The reality though is that many game parks and lodges on the continent do not welcome small children. Many have policies of no children under 12 or even under 16. However, Malawi is different. While there are a few activities my daughter cannot take part in (generally walking safaris are out — and from the one time we visited a cheetah sanctuary in South Africa and saw how the animals tracked her as we walked through the facility, I get why), but she is welcome most anywhere. And its not just the wildlife in parks, but that in our very yards and neighborhoods. From the monkeys we may see at or near the Lilongwe Wildlife Center (including at times on the Embassy roof) to the haunting high-pitched whoop of a hyena (I’ve heard it twice in the capital and a colleague saw one once). Within our own yard we have seen hedgehogs, mongoose, and snakes — a giant blind snake, a herald, and a brown house snake (all harmless to humans, thank goodness, but still inspire fear in our gardener and guards who often assume all snakes are mambas) — and once we saw a genet (a cat-like animal similar to a mongoose or a civet) run across the road at twilight in our neighborhood.
4. Travel. Okay, Malawi does not have the attractions of many of its nearby neighbors — there is no equivalent of Victoria Falls or Zanzibar or the Maasai Mara. But there are many posts in Africa where travel is extremely limited for security reasons — such as being unable to drive beyond the ring road of Abuja. In Malawi, you can travel. And while the costs of a few nights at one of the fancy lodges will set you back more than many might like (I see a lot of complaints on TripAdvisor, but Malawi does not get the tourists that more well-known African destinations do, thus small market equals higher prices), the costs may be more reasonable than other African destinations. Lake Malawi is the third largest lake in Africa (10th in the world); it is also the most biodiverse lake in the world for freshwater fish. You can snorkel (away from the shores where the crocs and hippos hang out) or just admire the way the waters lap the shore and fall asleep to the sounds of the waves — the closest tourist part of the lake is just a two hour drive from the capital. But there are also great national parks, including those that are under management by the South African conservation NGO African Parks (Prince Harry is the President) — Majete, Liwonde, and Nkhotakota. There are unique travel destinations from Likoma Island, a Malawian exclave surrounded by Mozambican waters in Lake Malawi, to the tea estates of the south. And if you hanker to cross a border to travel, the beautiful South Luangwa Park in Zambia is just a three hour drive from Lilongwe.
5. Colleagues / Meaningful Work. There is something about Malawi, to its “Warm Heart of Africa” motto; it gets under your skin, burrows into your heart. Yes, it is one of the poorest countries in the world, so development money is welcome and needed. But its not just that. While there can no doubt be incredible frustration with the level of corruption uncovered, the seemingly backward steps the country has made since independence, there is also an indomitable spirit and an extraordinary amount of talent in this country. There is an incredible amount of progress being made compared to many other countries on the continent or around the world — one of the first countries in the world to launch a national Adolescent Girls and Young Women strategy; it will likely be one of the first to reach epidemic control on HIV/AIDS; its apolitical, professional military one of the first on the continent to receive U.S. certification as peackeeping trainers; and the Constitutional Court and Supreme Court’s landmark decisions to overturn a presidential election — and for that court mandated new election to be held peacefully — brought the country worldwide attention and admiration. And maybe because it’s a lovely, generally quiet place with a good school, or because one can get an immense amount of satisfaction from the work, the Embassy attracts some of the finest officers and staff I have ever had the pleasure of working with. These are people who have impressed me with their professionalism and kindness, and made me want to be better.
1. Insects, Insects, and More Insects. In general, I would say I have a “live and let live” attitude toward insects. I am not a huge fan of being in close proximity to creepy crawlie bugs, but with as much backpacking as I did back in the day in Southeast Asia, I could maybe be described as “chill” when it comes to bugs. Not that I will not screech at the top of my lungs when faced with a giant flying coachroach or a good-sized spider — I absolutely will — but I have seen others really freak out. Of course, I cannot say I was quite prepared for the buggy world that Africa had to offer me. Exhibit A would be the Great White Moth Invasion of 2017. Some sort of small white mealy moth and about 10,000 of his friends hatched in my yard in the Fall of 2017. They were everywhere outside — well in my yard, no one else seemed to have these — and would get in my face, on my clothing, covering every square inch of my garden wall. I completely lost my sh*t one day, grabbing a shoe and vowing to kill, at a minimum, 1,000 of those buggers. And I did — so much crazed whacking that I developed a painful blister. Thankfully, those seem to not be an annual occurrence, but unfortunately, Exhibit B, the termites and flying ants are. With the first rains, these horrible winged creatures rise from the wet earth like the living dead and hover around every single external light in massive swarms. My guards and staff delight in this season — frolicking among them gathering them for snacks — but I also tend to lose my mind at least once every termite season. Its also a battle with them on the property — they have eaten through bits of my chicken coop, rabbit hutch, my daughter’s playground. Exhibit C would have to be the spiders. Until COVID, we did not have wall crab spiders (or “flatties”), approximately 2-3 inch diameter, dark brown/black arachnids, but I encountered them elsewhere: in the B&B and my friend’s home in Harare, in several Malawian national parks, and other lodges. I learned they can run surprisingly fast and have a propensity to run toward me rather than away. Twice when we visited Pumulani, the beautiful lakeside lodge in the Malawi National Park, large, and I mean the size of my hand large, spiders found their way into our chalet. Lots of screaming ensued. The Ambassador recently found a juvenile baboon spider in his son’s bedroom. I haven’t see one of those….yet.
2. Lack of Entertainment. Lilongwe is most definitely a “make your own fun” kind of place. If you require external modes of entertainment, then Malawi is probably not for you. There are no cinemas, no malls (no, the 20 store Gateway Mall, anchored by two supermarkets, does not count), no museums (even in the whole country there are only a handful and they are sorely in need of some TLC). Entertainment venues are limited — not nonexistent, mind you, I am sure you can find something if you really put your mind to it. For instance, there are the huge Tumaini Festival held at Dzaleka Refugee Camp and the Lake of Stars, a three day international musical and cultural festival that draws acts from around the world, both usually, but not always, held annually. For nearly two years we had no Community Liaison Officer, so even few Embassy organized social gatherings or trips, and now there is the pandemic. As a single introverted parent working as the sole political officer, I have had enough to keep myself busy. However, COVID has exposed how very little there is to do as even the quarterly trips to the Lake or a National Park or within the region that would restore us are mostly unavailable.
3. Internet. Some might say, “Oh, no worries on the lack of entertainment venues. Give me a good Internet connection and a Hulu, Disney Plus, Netflix, or Amazon Plus membership and I am good.” Well, in Malawi, you then have to contend with the country’s poor telecommunications infrastructure. First, its expensive. The infographic demonstrates that in 2020 Malawi ranked as the most expensive for internet data among 155 countries worldwide. If you pay an arm and a leg but in return you receive speedy connectivity and top quality service, then you could live with it. However, second, the service provided leaves so much to be desired. There are many times I clearly have a strong signal, and I know I have the data, but for mysterious reasons the Internet still does not work. This extends to telephone services. Dropped and poor quality calls are the norm. Sometimes related to hops, skips, and jumps in electricity, and other times the theft of communications equipment. For instance, the Embassy’s landlines are knocked out about once a month when someone steals the cables.
4. Roads/Traffic/Parking. Potholes, lack of road markings, non-existent shoulders, sometimes even half a lane missing from continued erosion, a limited road network, and sharing the roads with everything from poorly maintained, speeding mini buses, long-haul trucks, bicycles, livestock, and all manner of humanity, make driving in Malawi, well, um, interesting. It’s not terrible. I have seen and heard of worse in places like India, Vietnam, China (recall the 3 day traffic jam in Beijing a few years ago), Kenya, Indonesia, Philippines and the like, but driving in Lilongwe has changed me. I have gone from a mild mannered driver to someone who lays on the horn and yells obscenities. My daughter has heard ALL the bad words just as a function of being in the car with me. I guess part of my frustration is because Lilongwe is NOT a megacity soI do not understand the traffic. There are clearly not enough roads and much-referenced anecdotal reports indicate that some 100 new cars are registered each day in the capital. I certainly get behind quite a few “student driver” cars on the road, and from what I have seen, I am not sure the teachers know how to drive either. But while I am not impressed with the driving here, the general inability for persons living in Malawi to park well exceeds the poor driving. There is one parking area in a large shopping complex in the City Center that attracts the worst of the worst. Diagonal parking, parking that overlaps two spaces — whether side by side or pulling well into the space in front, parking in make-believe spaces, parking behind other people…
5. Poverty Exhaustion. This is probably the hardest to deal with and the most difficult to write about, and to admit. You cannot get around the fact that Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world and that you, an expat with a good paying job, are living here, behind the high brick or cement walls topped with razor wire of our compounds. Relationships with many Malawians are compromised by privilege. Our privilege. My privilege. Attempts to help often end up in cycles of dependency. A simple one-time gift meant to “help” could open up repeated asks, of expectations, that on some days threaten to pull you under. Then the guilt. You have so much, they have so little. It is necessary, even crucial, to understand one’s level of privilege in the world, to not take for granted the access to education and healthcare afforded me by an accident of birth country and skin color. I feel it every single day here and some days I wish I could ignore it. I am not sure I deserve to, but I want to. Yet living here has opened my eyes to my many blessings and I hope has also given my daughter a dose of that reality as well.
The negatives can be hard, some days more than others, but the positives far outweigh them. My daughter and I would not have signed up for two consecutive tours, four years, here if they did not. And most others I know have also extended here — there really is something special about Malawi.
Every so often I write about something a wee bit different. Not about my travels or life abroad. And this particular topic has been worming its way into my brain for a few weeks. First as a few throw away thoughts, jokes to friends and acquaintances, until it filled out, and surprisingly, or maybe predictably, turns out it is sort of about my living overseas.
The Face mask: finally, an accessory I can embrace. I have, at times in my life, hoped I could carry off a particular accessory to accentuate my personality. Well, not really, but I read that on a rather silly website that this is something accessories do, in addition to defining an occasion or defining one’s style. I do have jewelry, mostly necklaces and pendants, including some very interesting and much loved pieces I picked up in my travels. And for a time I was quite into shoes. I wear spectacles, but that’s so I do not bump into things and, you know, be unable to do my job. My prescription makes them expensive and I am unwilling to buy more than one pair.
I have tried to hats — cute baseball caps, a floppy straw beach hat, comfy beanies — but my head must be oddly shaped because they never look quite right. There are also those really simple but colorful fabric headbands that seem to render certain women who exercise to also look effortlessly chic. In case you are wondering, no I am not one of those women. Those bands will not stay on my head, but instead steadily, stealthily slide across my crown until they slump listlessly to the ground. I also, briefly, tried to up my game with neck scarves. I have a few I purchased in Nepal and Southeast Asia, some I bought at a fancy shop at the mall in the building where the Consulate was housed in Shanghai, a really beautiful one brought back from Pakistan by a former boyfriend. Sigh. I tried, I really did. But those did not amplify my style either.
But face masks. Whew, its like I have finally found the accoutrement for me. They fit my face. And they cover up my slightly bulbous, fleshy nose, with its high bony bridge I wanted, in high school, to reshape, and they play up my blue gray eyes and my quite flattering forehead. Oh yes, I have found the accessory for me.
The thing is, I realized after some introspection, face masks are not a new thing for me. I have actually been sporting them for some time, or at least at different phases in my life. And, I thought, how about that? For once I might just have been fashion forward.
From September 1995 to October 1996, I lived in Seoul, South Korea, where I worked six days a week as an English teacher in one of those institutions of after school cram instruction, called a hagwon. Between teaching, working out at the gym, and studying Tae Kwon Do (and weirdly, all three locations resided in one single building in Il-won-dong, Kangnam-ku, yes, the district in Seoul made famous by the Gangnam Style song), I had little free time, but when I did I often went clubbing with my friends. And there, I was on the ground floor of K-pop, before it was really known as K-pop. I bought cassette tapes (yes, it was that long ago) of my favorite Korean bands, and the favorite of my favorites was just about everyone else’s favorite: Seo Taiji and the Boys. And on a Sunday, my only day off, in the fall of 1995, I bought myself a knock-off Boy London face mask from a street vendor in Itaewon. I could probably write a short novella at least of my time in Itaewon, just up from the Yongsan Garrison of the United States Forces Korea, where by day I could find American goodies snuck off base and sold in hole-in-the-wall stores and by night could dance away with my friends and soldiers. But the point is I bought that mask, which because I had no clue about the British Boy London clothing brand, thought it referred to Seo Taiji and the Boys, forever associating it with my first, brief love for a band that sang lyrics I could not understand. I loved that mask. And I still have it!! I fished it out of a box just yesterday as I searched for something else.
Fast forward seven plus years. Boy London has been in a box for a long time and the Seo Taiji and the Boys cassette long ago lost. Now, I am in Singapore for graduate school. I have roommates again and there might have been a wee bit of clubbing on occasion, though more often small parties usually hosted by Indian friends and roommates, with Bollywood-infused dancing. A little more than halfway through my year, the SARS pandemic made its Singapore debut. It would be dramatic to say things changed overnight, because they didn’t, but things did change. And lo and behold, the face mask came back into my life. Though this time it was, of course, not about wanting to keep half my face warm during a cold Korean winter or temporarily brand my visage in cottony pop culture fabric. This time, I had to wear the mask for public health purposes. And I had no special mask, just generic single-use ones. But I still found it, not fun, but, me?
Jump ahead to the fall of 2014 as C and I are preparing for our move to Shanghai. Now, I am told, I’ll need a mask again, this time for the poor air quality days of Chinese cities. Though this time I also get to inculcate my daughter into the wonderful world of face masks from a young and impressionable age. I go for the top-of-the-line N95 masks in fetching plain colors for me—including a wonderful pale grey/blue that really accentuates my eyes—and a snazzy oriental print for C. So enthralled am I with this purchase that I schedule a photo shoot for C and I with my photographer sister, to truly capture this momentous moment when I bequeath my fetish for fetching face fixtures to my offspring.
I discovered though that getting a 3-year-old to wear and keep on a face mask is no mean feat. The photo shoot had not quite instilled the fun factor I had hoped. I also wear glasses and in the winter months, when the pollution levels tended to be higher and the masks were more often needed, I had to choose between wearing the mask and seeing where I was going. My warm exhalations steaming from the mask’s ventilation valves would fog up my glasses and though Chinese cities had come a long way since my first days in the country in 1994, there was still a chance a manhole or drain cover might be left off and I would plunge to my death (or just injury and pride as what happened when I fell into such in Japan of all places), so I needed full vision to navigate the sidewalks. My affection for face masks might have slipped a bit then, just a bit.
And now, here we are in 2020, and everyone (well most everyone, I guess not the anti-maskers who just are not getting into the spirit of it all) is getting in on the face mask action. But C and I, we are old hats at this. In fact, I would like to note that in 2016 I wrote, on this very site, a blog post about the growing face mask fad in China. Seriously, I kid you not, you can go back and look, but here is my prophetic prose: “Is this what it has come to? My coveting anti-pollution masks as an accessory? As far as I know Louis Vuitton and Juicy Couture are not yet into designing face masks, but is it only a matter of time?” And yes, I not only covet more face masks, but Louis Vuitton and Juicy Couture and many more brands and designer houses are now in on the action (and huge kudos to Louis Vuitton for repurposing studios across Europe to produce and donate non-surgical protective masks to frontline healthcare workers).
C and I, like most people in the world, wear our masks much more often now and have traded in, or at least swap our, out heavier N95 Shanghai masks with the colorful, lightweight, and simpler masks made from the traditional Malawian chitenje fabric (much of which is actually made in Indonesia as the higher quality, more expensive fabric is known at the markets as Java). But unlike many others, C and I are not newbies to the face mask scene, and eased into our mask wear with greater ease than most. Alas, my face modeling days are mostly behind me, though maybe C has a bright future in this no-doubt growth industry.
I would be remiss if I did not also point out that my cat too was way ahead of the face mask for pets curve. While I see photos and articles on the trend in China nowadays, I would like to just post here again a photo I posted four years ago of my cat, Kucing (pronounced “Ku-ching;” it means “cat” in Bahasa Indonesian) temporarily sporting my daughter’s face mask, which she wore without resistance.
It is amazing to recognize that for once, I was on the forefront of a trend. Me, who still had an 8-track player in the eighth grade (when everyone else was on to cassette tapes) and still had a cassette player in 2006 (and someone at the gym mocked me for it). Finally, my time has come.
Three years. I have not lived somewhere for three consecutive years since my stint as a Japanese Exchange and Teaching (JET) program teacher in Yamaguchi, Japan from 1997-2000. In the twenty years since I left Japan, I backpacked around the world over the course of a year and then changed addresses some 18 times to or within 11 different locales until our move to Malawi in August 2017. Yet here we are, three years into an unexpected, but very welcome, four-year tour in Malawi, though, of course, the last half of this third year has not been quite what we had planned given the coronavirus pandemic.
No question the pandemic has turned everyone’s worlds inside out one way or another. My struggles with teleworking, child care, homeschooling, and housework are not unique. Friends around the world are wrestling with these same concerns. And for when the particular idiosyncrasies of being a Foreign Service Officer (FSO) in Malawi during the pandemic (because no, we don’t have a State or National Park to take a walk or hike or bike ride in nor can we have Whole Foods deliver), I have my friends and colleagues here to lean on and commiserate with.
After the presidential election re-run, on which I had focused on since the beginning of the year, had come and gone and the new administration had begun governing, I found myself suddenly, painfully aware of the pandemic and the isolation and limitations it had placed on us. At the beginning of July, I found myself feeling unmoored. School had ended for the summer, the election was over and the results accepted peacefully, and a few other major work projects had wrapped up. And the hope I had held for months that the pandemic would be over by July, like SARS had been when I had lived in Singapore, had been completely ripped up into tiny pieces. Instead of being close to the end, it was still going on, and the numbers of confirmed cases were and are still increasing in Malawi.
Confirmed cases, which began in early April, had reached 1,000 by early July, then doubled to 2,000 by mid-July, and the case numbers continued to climb. A month later, by our anniversary date of August 13, cases had nearly reached 5,000 (they did the following day). Those numbers may not seem like much in comparison to other places, but coronavirus response capabilities are not created the same. Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world and resources like medical staff, hospitals, and equipment are not at the levels of more developed countries. Just think about testing capacity: I have heard that neighboring Zambia tests as many as 7,000 individuals a day. In the U.S., the average daily tests between 1 March and 30 July were over 350,000. Even if you just take the state of Florida, which is close in population to Malawi, there were approximately 27,000 tests daily in June. In Malawi, testing averages a few hundred a day.
On August 8, the government at long last issued stricter coronavirus measures — this after the initial lockdown attempt in April was slapped with an injunction when human rights activists took officials to court over their implementation. Masks are now mandatory in public spaces, businesses in close proximity to hospitals are closed, church services are limited, and weddings and other large public gatherings banned. Before the restrictions went into effect I had already seen an increase in mask wearing in Lilongwe, with persons from all walks of life wearing their masks while driving, taking buses, selling their wares, and even walking in the open air.
And while I have not heard of anyone beating up anyone who has asked them to wear a mask to enter a store, compliance is not universal. Churches bristled over the regulations forcing a reversal on the restrictions on places of worship. Wedding parties are most certainly still happening – there are wedding reception venues embedded into our neighborhoods and the past few weekends my friends and I have been treated to hours and hours and hours (I mean, like 1 PM to 9 PM) of non-stop dance tunes.
Malawians have reacted to the pandemic and the restrictions much in the same way people have in other countries around the world. Some comply with measures, some do not. Some escape from quarantine, others voluntarily submit themselves. Some push for school and airport re-openings while others warn about the repercussions of doing so too early. When I am not frustrated by my inability to work at normal levels or being unable to travel, I am fascinated to have this ringside seat to the Malawian debates and to compare them to what I am seeing back home.
Perhaps the most interesting to observe and experience has been the innovation local businesses have implemented to keep customers. Before the pandemic there were only ad-hock delivery or pick-up in Lilongwe. Now however there is a food delivery service utilizing motorcycles, which can zoom around traffic, and pick up from just about any restaurant. Some supermarkets are also now delivering and the recycling group comes to pick up once a month in my area.
I have not regretted once staying here in Malawi for the pandemic. There are many other FSOs who are not as fortunate. Some may have only arrived at their Post a few months to half a year before the pandemic hit, giving them scant time to settle in, receive their belongings, learn their jobs, and meet colleagues and classmates and make friends before the quarantines and isolating began. Others were preparing to leave their assignments in the summer and opted to take the Global Authorized Departure (GAD) to shelter in the U.S. until they could make the move to their new duty station – quarantining in hotels or with family or in other temporary digs for an indeterminate period of time; unable to say proper goodbyes to friends and colleagues and leaving behind most of their belongings to be packed by others. And if they have been lucky enough to secure orders to their new assignment, many are quarantining in new, unfamiliar places and starting new jobs and schools from impersonal new homes.
Still others who were to transition this summer but chose to ride out the pandemic in a familiar place may now be unable to depart as commercial flights have not resumed in either their losing or gaining Post, or both. Some FSOs who had a year or more left in their assignment but chose to take GAD in the U.S. are now facing decisions of whether to break their assignment and try to find a position in a place they can get to or continue waiting for who knows how much longer to return. There are thousands of FSOs and other overseas government employees across the State Department, USAID, Foreign Commercial Service, Foreign Agricultural Service, Department of Defense and other agencies such as the Center for Disease Control, Department of Justice, Customs and Border Patrol, Drug Enforcement Agency, and Peace Corps (yes, all these agencies and more have overseas positions) and their family members who are in these circumstances.
But C and I are just riding the pandemic out in our home. While there were and still are adjustments for managing work and school in these circumstances, we did not have to add in other uncertainties. There was no need to pack, no need to move, no need to familiarize ourselves with a new city. I did not have to start a new job with all new co-workers. C did not need to start at a new school with new friends. And I am so incredibly grateful during these strange and trying times that we have this place where we are so comfortable, so at home. One more year to go.
I love history. Digging into the past to shed light on a current place or a time. Yet, one thing to read about history, and another to live it. Of course, there are those incidents that we remember where we were such as the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion (middle school art class) or 9/11 (asleep in bed in my basement apartment in Monterey, California) but these are generally not moments we personally experienced, not like now. Now, we are all living through history. We are in it.
I wrote earlier about the convergence of the coronavirus pandemic and the historic Malawian presidential election re-run as a result of a landmark Constitutional and Supreme Court decisions — only the second time a court had overturned an election on the African continent. Also, I noted just as COVID-19 made its late arrival in Malawi, one of the last countries in the world to confirm a case, the massive campaign rallies began, often sans precautionary measures. Faced with a new election court-ordered to occur before July 3, the country, at least politicians and their supporters, opted to focus more on the elections than precautionary health measures. This seemed a risky endeavor given Burundi had run its own elections just a month before with the 55-year old incumbent dying of what was likely COVID-19 less than three weeks afterward.
Nonetheless, elections are like catnip for a political officer and I was giddy with excitement in the run-up to the June 23 poll. Part of the excitement was the “will they or won’t they” uncertainty over whether the election would happen before July 3 or if it would be postponed — either due to the need for more time to organize the proceedings or because of the spread of COVID-19 (or both). Only two weeks before the President finally appointed the members of the new electoral commission that would oversee the management of the election and results. A week before the government attempted to unceremoniously force the Supreme Court Chief Justice – who had been at the helm of the court that had made some election-related decisions unfavorable to the ruling party – into early retirement. On top of this were the Embassy preparations for managing some limited COVID-19 compatible way to observe the elections. There was never a dull day and I relished feeling part of something really important and a sense of being very much in my element.
I too tried to think more about the elections than the pandemic.
With help from donors (including the United States), the electoral commission procured personal protective equipment (PPE) and handwashing station materials. But you can lead a horse to water… We can see resistance all over the world (most markedly, perhaps, in the United States) to obeying such guidelines. In Malawi’s favor, polling sites are generally outside, often in dirt schoolyards.
There was just never going to be a great outcome with some 7 million eligible voters and tens of thousands of polling station workers, security personnel, and domestic observers fanning out across the country during a pandemic, especially with a large percentage of the impoverished country continuing to eke out a living having made the choice that the risk of contracting COVID-19 was preferable to them or their families starving. Try to imagine the predicament: weighing the purchase of face masks — selling for anywhere from 500 MWK to 2000 MWK (0.64 cents to $2.59) — for your family against being able to eat a second meal.
Lilongwe’s brand new billboard, installed after the July 6 inauguration
Unlike in the U.S., elections in Malawi are not a one-day affair. In the U.S. there are hour-by-hour broadcasts of the tallied votes beginning just hours after voting begins, but in Malawi, polling is generally one day, but the vote count and announcement of final results can take up to eight days. Again, as a political officer, this is exhilarating. I was glued to my television and following online for the updates and keeping our decision-makers and Washington informed. Four days after the election, on June 27, close to 11 PM, the electoral commission announced the winner: following the landmark court decision, the historic election had returned a stunning upset, with the opposition leader, a former pastor who received his Ph.D. in Theology from a U.S. university, restored his party to power after 26 years. And returned the former Vice President-cum-opposition candidate-cum court restored Vice President to the vice presidency once again.
Seen in my neighborhood the day after the result declaration: opposition supporters celebrating the loss of the former President with this mock funeral – nyekhwee is a Chichewa word which means “very bad consequences and repercussions”
In the immediate days following the result declaration, the new President and new/old Vice President were sworn in (June 28) and inaugurated (July 6). There was a lot of euphoria, especially in Lilongwe. Spontaneous street parties erupted as the anticipated winner made his way from the southern capital of Blantyre to the national capital Lilongwe. Supporters lined the roads. The celebrations went late into the night.
As the election celebrations died down, something else was spreading. And between the swearing-in ceremony, which although outside did not involve social distancing or much mask-wearing, and the inauguration, which the new President scaled down significantly from a major event at a 40,000 seat stadium to a small affair at a military barracks in the capital.
From 1,000 to 2,000 cases
Malawi confirmed its first COVID-19 case on April 2, making it one of the last countries in the world to do so. It took the country 85 days, nearly three months, to get to 1,000 cases, but only two weeks, just after the elections, to double that number. That may seem low compared to numbers in the most-affected countries like the United States, Brazil, India, Russia, Italy, and the United Kingdom. But the spread, though bad in a few hotspots like South Africa, Nigeria, and Egypt, has not been as much on the African continent as on others. But the numbers are rising and in places like Malawi, where the medical and economic infrastructure was weaker to begin with, may have more devastating consequences.
Elections in the time of COVID – is it a good idea or no? Democracy won here in Malawi and it was an incredible privilege to have a ringside seat to witness that historic moment, but COVID is still carving out its mark in history. Malawi never had an option for mail-in voting, not like in other countries. Now the population is reaping both the rewards and the consequences for its in-person voting. And I am still here to experience it.
We are beginning our twelfth week of teleworking. Our twelfth week of homeschooling. Our twelfth week without our nanny. Our twelfth week of dragging C into the Embassy with me when I need to go in. The twelfth week since the President of Malawi declared a State of Disaster.
It has been a long three months.
Tonight I learned South Africa does not plan to re-open to international tourists until February 2021. And one of my South African cable channels aired the movie Outbreak. Well, certainly an interesting choice television executive, very interesting. Though perhaps a wee bit too soon?
It is after all only early June. Perhaps there might still be a slowing to this pandemic sometime soon? I would really like to think so, but it sure feels as though there is no end in sight. When I last wrote on May 20, Malawi had only 72 confirmed COVID-19 cases. But two and a half weeks later the count is up to 409. That number pales in comparison to most other nations around the world and still is in the lowest third of countries on the African continent. But it is rising. Many of the recent cases have been undocumented deportees from South Africa, the hardest hit country in Africa. Most were packed on to buses for the two day journey back to Malawi and then consigned to a stadium in Blantyre for quarantine and testing. And promptly some 400 escaped. I wish I could say I am surprised. But nope.
There is presumably an election in approximately two weeks. A re-run, or as the Malawian media likes to call it a “fresh” election, ordered by the Constitutional Court, which nullified last May’s presidential election. And yet the pandemic continues. These two events do not make a great combination. For one, many Malawians love to get out to political rallies to see their preferred candidates. And two, many Malawians have been outright ignoring the government’s COVID-19 guidelines. In the political rally advertisement above, one can maybe just make-out the fine print (circled by yours truly) that states “All COVID-19 measures apply.” However, the second picture (not mine) demonstrates how simply stating COVID-19 measures apply does not in fact translate into reality.
I am also not surprised by this. After the Malawian government attempted in mid-April to impose a lockdown, similar to that of South Africa but without the same coordinated finesse, it was met by informal sector protests and a court injunction halting its execution (up til today). The President himself has been out on the campaign trail without a mask and surrounded by thousands of supporters. It is thus little wonder that many Malawians are opting to continue ignoring government guidance.
There are those who are following the rules or at least giving a solid “A” for effort. But even those who have tried are becoming tired, so very tired, of the isolation and loss of income. Restaurants that had previously closed or were allowing only pick-up or providing new delivery services are slowly re-opening to dine-in. A few days ago, for the first time in 11 weeks, C and I headed out to our favorite restaurant, a small Italian place located in a residential neighborhood, owned and managed by an Italian with over a decade living in Malawi. We were the only customers and the wait-staff wore masks. I made a move to grab our own masks from my handbag, but quickly realized the ridiculousness of trying to eat with them on.
At the Chinese restaurant at the Golden Peacock Hotel, masked staff looked incredibly hopeful when we arrived. Although we opted for take-out, we were still required to have our temperatures checked before entering. This reminded me of my days in Singapore during SARS, though it was the first time any establishment in Malawi has done this. And when the thermometer malfunctioned while taking C’s temperature, after three tries the hostess just waved us inside.
Hotels, too, are re-opening, with some claiming, as in the colorful newspaper insert above, to have “serious” coronavirus precautions, clearly in contrast to the many who are not taking it quite so. The supermarkets remain open, but have upped their COVID-19 game with more stringent hand-washing stations, social distancing floor markers, and all staff wearing masks, including some with full plastic facial shields.
Studies indicate that it can take an average of 66 days to form a new habit. So, after 11 weeks, we should be used to all of this. I suppose in some ways it is easier than when this all began, but I am far from accustomed or comfortable with the situation. I cannot sleep. My insomnia is moving from acute into the realm of chronic. And I am not alone. I regularly receive messages and emails from colleagues and friends who also find themselves up at odd hours. I do not want this to be the new normal.
There are bright moments. Our community has tried its best to come together. One of our colleagues, who loves to cook, has opened up a “Quarantine Kitchen,” providing delicious meals every Friday for order. C and I once made cupcakes, with our own delectable homemade buttercream frosting, and then drove around our housing areas delivering them them to other persons in the mission. Without the lockdown, I have been able to continue my tennis lessons, and they are a highlight of each and every week. C and I often take walks together. Cargo flights have been reinstated, and thus our State Department mail has as well.
And there is still our beautiful yard. Last Friday, I was exhausted and stressed. My insomnia had kept me up until 3 AM, but unlike in previous days and weeks, I did not get any work done in those wee hours while C slept. I did nothing. Not the restful kind of nothing either. But on Friday afternoon I took a meditative walk around my yard. A slow stroll taking in the birdsong and the colors and textures of the incredible variety of flora my yard offers. From pink and yellow roses and deep red poinsettia in full bloom to the unidentified green pods bursting from small red branches that resemble coral and a split, decaying pomegranate fruit. The nearly perfect emerald green leaf with its a few carefully chewed insect holes, the deep glossy striated burgundy of fallen banana petals, a curled, desiccated leaf, and a cluster of small violet buds. These sights rejuvenated me.
I do not know how much longer this will last, but I try to stay hopeful it will be on the sooner end than the later. It is what calms me during the coronavirus crazy.