Something Like Normal

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

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

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

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

My little Pokemon enjoys a socially distanced Halloween

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

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

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

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

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

“Fall Break” in COVID Times

View of Lake Malawi from the Makokola infinity pool

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.

One of Malawi’s road travel challenges: eighteen wheeler accidents on the road – the first on the way back from Makokola and the second on the way to Luwawa

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.

Our mini Retreat condo — water features are rare in Malawi (in fact I don’t know of any other place with them)

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 sign on the M1 indicating the turn off to the Luwawa Forest Lodge

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.

Grassland, marshland, forest, and fresh air

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.

Luwawa Nature: a bejeweled locust and a rainbow of berries

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.

The horses return to the stables on their own

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.

Mini Getaways in the Time of Covid

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.

Sable antelope eye us warily at Kuti Wildlife Reserve

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.

A room with a view: Chawani Bungalow, Satemwa Tea Estate

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.

A brief late afternoon walk on this path behind the bungalow – restorative beauty

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.

Satemwa trees — kids in a climbing tree; kids dwarfed by giant Blue Gum trees

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.

Our super fabulous Superior Family Cottage

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…

Blue Zebra Views — (left) the view from our Cottage porch and (right) the view from the pool to an exclusive lakeside dining area

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.

A spectacled weaver (?) in the marsh grasses around Nankoma Island

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.

The Face Mask: So Fashion Forward

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 author contemplating the past and future of face masks

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.

My mask from my Korea days

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.

Generic — until I made it special with a sharpie

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.

For the love of face masks

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).

Malawi during COVID: Sunshine and chic chitenje face coverings

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.

Malawi Three Years: An Odd (COVID) Anniversary

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.

Happy Coronaversary

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 accelerate: 2,000 to 5,000 cases in four weeks

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.

Our primary supermarket’s notice – Lilongwe City instituted its mask policy before the national government

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.

C tries out the new handwashing station at the supermarket

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.

There may be all sorts of masks available in Lilongwe now, but my favorites are those made of the local chitenje fabric.

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.

Malawi: Elections in the Time of COVID-19

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.

2 Times TV election graphic

A still of Times TV presidential election coverage graphic

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.

Polling Day Malawi Style

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.

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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.  

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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. 

1 COVID from 1000 to 2000 cases

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. 

 

 

 

 

 

Malawi: Coronavirus Crazy, Coronavirus Calm

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?

Coronavirus Cases Continue to Rise in Malawi

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.

Coronavirus Precautions vs Political Crowds

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.

Lilongwe’s Newest Fancy Schmancy Billboard

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.

I Appreciate an Establishment With “Serious” COVID-19 Safeguards

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.

From My Yard of Wonders

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.

Malawi “Spring Break” in the Time of COVID-19

Part 2 D

COVID-19 Media Advertisements– text message (from COVID-19?), TV commercial, and print ad

This may be one of the greatest understatements of all time, but Spring Break 2020 was not as we had envisioned. I had had a truly fantastic trip arranged for C and I. Driving through a new country. Adventures. Mother and daughter bonding time. I know, I know. No one planned to spend their spring largely isolating from the world during a pandemic. If you have read my blog though you know that I am big into travel. I take just about every opportunity to travel somewhere. Its part of my identity and my daughter C is my travel buddy. I expect some might find my moaning about missing out on yet another trip to be tone-deaf, but each of us has at least one thing that we miss doing right now that makes this situation even harder. My inability to travel is one of mine.

Our last trip – a mini holiday to Johannesburg – was meant to give us a sense of normalcy, to let us do the types of things many Americans can do, but we are unable to do in Malawi. However, it was already well into the beginning of COVID-19 abnormalcy.  Although at the time of the trip (Feb 29-Mar 3), there were only a handful of cases on the African continent, there were already 2,900 deaths, including the first in the U.S. There were temperature checks at immigration and a few people wearing masks.  And two days after our return, South Africa registered its first case.  Within weeks, as South Africa prepared for its 21-day lockdown that would begin March 27, the writing on the wall was clear: we would have no Spring Break outside of Malawi.

These musings though are not just lamentations of travel unrealized, but rather a compilation of thoughts about us riding out COVID-19 in Malawi.

COVID-19 Makes its Malawi Debut

Part 2 G

Malawi streetside billboard.  The translation of the Chichewa is “Ways of Protection Against the Coronavirus Disease.”

It would not be until April 2 that Malawi would confirm its first cases of coronavirus, the 50th African country to do so (out of 54), and seemingly one of the last countries in the world. Though truth be told, there had not been testing available before then, thus there was a quiet assumption it was already here. Although C’s school had already prepared for social distancing as had the Embassy, and the President of Malawi had declared all schools in the country closed from March 23, there did not seem any immediate change to the rhythm of the local people. The colorful, crowded, chaotic markets continued.  Mini-buses — though supposedly with fewer passengers squeezed inside, per the President’s guidelines — continued to trawl the city streets. Stores remained open, though with hand cleaning stations outside.

Part 2 C

You know those stories of animals, such as deer, swans, dolphins, goats, and the like roaming emptied city streets and waterways? This is Malawi’s version. Also, an 8 foot Southern Africa Python was recently found in Lilongwe.

But following the first death on April 7, the undercurrents seemed to shift. I began to see Malawians wearing masks while driving their cars or in the supermarket. Supermarkets and the TNM (Telecommunications Malawi) store set up those floor stickers to encourage social distancing while in the store. I began receiving text messages with helpful suggestions to counter the spread of the virus. Companies took out full-page coronations-related ads in the newspapers. But there was a sense that it was the more well-to-do urban Malawians that were getting the messages first and foremost.  They are the ones driving cars, shopping at Chipiku Plus, and topping up their phone data plans at the rather upscale TNM shop at Umodzi Park.

Then on April 14, the President announced a 21-day lockdown to begin at 11:59 PM on April 18.

Lockdowns Are Not Created Equal

Social distancing, self-quarantines, and lockdowns are just not the same across the world or across socio-economic lines.  In Malawi, one of the poorest countries in the world, there are no Whole Foods, Wegmans, or Trader Joe’s (upmarket U.S. food stores).  There is no Amazon delivery bringing us all manner of goodies. Pizza delivery drivers are not essential workers here as there is no pizza delivery. Until a few weeks ago when a few bespoke expat-oriented restaurants began to offer limited delivery, there was none in Lilongwe. Though now almost all restaurants are closed. There are no drive-thrus (well, there is one, at one of two KFCs in the country). Supermarkets do not deliver.  While we can walk around, there are no sidewalks, and at night almost no streetlights (and probably 50% or more of the lights do not work).  There are no parks or walking trails where we might enjoy a stroll or bike ride. For awhile the parents of C’s best friends took her with them for bike riding at the BICC (Bingu International Convention Center).  There is a large open area in front of the convention center and hotel, and terraced roads linked also by stairs going up a hillside. But last week, security personnel turned them and others away, declaring the only open area of its kind in the city closed to persons seeking recreation.

Part 2 F

Left: There seems to be a lot of confusion whether you stay one meter or two from each other, so I like how our favorite supermarket just split the difference and went with 1.5 meters. Right: Yet, on the eve of the originally-scheduled lockdown, with the store packed, social distancing went out the window.

This is not a woe-is-me tale, but a reminder to folks living in developed countries with many amenities available to them, that this pandemic period is much harder on others.  And I am not talking about myself.  Although I do feel some envy for some of the creature comforts and conveniences I see and hear about from others at home, I am better off than 90% (or more) of Malawians, many of whom live hand-to-mouth, making their small income from daily informal work.

Part 2 E

In the last week, roadside traders have begun selling homemade Chitenje masks. The first time I bought them, they cost 500 MWK. A few days later the price had doubled to 1000 MWK.

Following the announcement of a 21-day lockdown, small-scale traders in the cities of Blantyre and Mzuzu held protests, which spread to other areas such as Kasungu and the capital Lilongwe. Many of the protestors are concerned that unable to engage in their livelihoods they are more likely to die of starvation than of the coronavirus. Contrast this with protests in the U.S. which largely seem to be a question of civil liberties and larger economic concerns vice life and death. A Malawian human rights organization took the government to court, claiming the lockdown implementation has not been aboveboard and does not include enough consideration of and protections for the poor, and obtained a seven-day injunction.  Therefore the lockdown is currently on hold.  Political or not, the virus nonetheless has been politicized; the erratic political environment coupled with the potential health crisis leaves even more uncertainty about the way forward.

Easter Under COVID-19

Part 2 A

The Easter Bunny is an essential worker who follows COVID-19 protocols

Originally, C and I were to be away on the holiday, so I had planned to celebrate the Sunday before. With no vacation though, I considered moving it to the actual day, but C was just too excited. And after two weeks of homeschooling by a horrible new teacher with zero patience (yes, me), I wanted to do something that would make her smile. Well, first I forced her to clean up the living room (I asked my nanny/housekeeper, who also happens to be seven months pregnant, to just stay at home during this time — paid of course), and then the morning of I set up her Easter basket, full of locally-sourced chocolate (the selection is much better than you might think) and some luckily-ordered-before-Embassy-mail-ceased surprises (our diplomatic mail arrives on planes, there are now almost no more planes).  I also hid 34 plastic eggs in the living room and entryway for our annual egg hunt.

As the week wore on I questioned my decision. I grew melancholy as the Easter weekend, and the day we would have flown out, approached. But a very clever colleague came up with a plan. She reached out to all staff with children to see if they might be interested in a visit by the Easter Bunny on Sunday morning. Then she dressed up in the Embassy Easter Bunny costume and a partner drove her around from house to house. Once at our house C and the Easter Bunny practiced social distancing, waving discretely to each from at least two meters away. Then the Easter Bunny poured some plastic eggs full of candy on the lawn and with a final wave, backed away.

Introverts Are Hermits and Other Annoying COVID-19 Falsehoods

<Heavy sigh> I cannot begin to tell you how much it has driven me crazy to see all the memes and posts stating that introverts have been preparing for the self-isolation and social distancing of this pandemic all their lives. Introverts are not anti-social misanthropes. Introverts recharge their energy when alone, while extroverts pull energy from being with other people. Sure, I generally prefer individual pursuits like reading, writing, solo exercise, solo travel, but that does not mean I never want to be around other people. In fact, traveling on my own often forces me to strike up conversations with strangers far more than if I were part of a group. I do like people, just usually in smaller doses. I have discovered that working from home is not my cup of tea. That does not mean an open plan office with lots of chatter is for me either, but I miss going to the office. I miss the satisfaction of face to face interaction with my coworkers. I woke up one day last week and felt an immediate desire to crawl right back into bed. Then a feeling of déjà-vu came hurtling toward me from the deep recesses of my brain, a flashback to when I was in Singapore during SARS. I did not thrive during that time and I am not thriving now.

Part 2 B

C and I find new uses for our Shanghai pollution masks and acquire local Chitenje fabric masks

I am learning new skills and hobbies, but not because of one of the many overly ambitious blog posts told me to do so in their Top Ten Best Ways to Make it Through Quarantine. Want to know what I am learning?  How to juggle homeschooling, housework, and working during a pandemic, dealing with insomnia, and providing American citizen services to our community and private Americans living in Malawi. I cannot say I am hitting the ball out of the park on any of it.  Describing my homeschooling skills as mediocre is probably overselling it, but hey, these are new skills, it takes practice, right?

This is a difficult time for everyone, I know. How you cope is relative. I try to see the bright side of things, such as the Tostitos I ordered by Embassy mail are unable to get here and thus I am not stress-eating them and my daughter’s school shoes will make it through the school year after all. I can also wear jeans and a t-shirt every day, which is my happy place for clothes, or if we are being really real, pajama pants and a t-shirt. Basically, I try to maintain my sense of humor. And with travel on indefinite hold right now, I am especially relying on it.

Stay safe.

 

Uncertainty Reigns on the Rift’s Edge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enter: Coronavirus.

CDC COVID-19 world map outbreak March 28 Malawi

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

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

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

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

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We are still flush with TP — for now

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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