Malawi Elections: Politics Front and Center

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The stage is set for the third and final Presidential debate

I generally do not blog about my job.  Not that I do not have an interesting one, I do, but my blog is instead about myself, my daughter, our travels, our life abroad.  And my job enables much of that, but its not all I am about.  One thing I like to write about though is what I see around me, the everyday of Malawi.  And right now my job and the everyday are one and the same.

I am a political officer, so my job is to understand the political situation in a country – how the structure of government, the methods of decision making, the form of representation, the formation and implementation of policies come together to shape the country and its domestic and international relationships.  As a traveler, I have always been intrigued by more than just the tourist sites, but also the interplay of history, politics, and culture.  Elections brings politics front and center and give one a fascinating peek into the character of a country.

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Makeshift voting booths in a school courtyard in the October 2017 by-elections

Malawi will hold its general elections on Tuesday, May 21.  Ten days from now, Malawians will go to the polls to elect their President, Parliamentarians, and Local Councilors.  This will be their sixth democratic election.  And I am here to see it happen.

Actually, this whole shebang has been unrolling since I landed in Malawi.  Within weeks of my arrival in August 2017, the Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) held six by-elections for parliamentary and local councilor seats that had been vacated.  Already, the rivalries for 2019 were on display.  Like the good ole U.S. of A, Malawi starts campaigning real, real early.

With my observer identification, I had an opportunity to visit several polling sites to observe the process.  Although I have voted in a good many elections in the U.S., I have almost always, by nature of my nomadic overseas lifestyle, done so by absentee ballot.  On only three occasions have I voted in person and two were small local elections.  In 2008, I voted in person in a presidential election.  At the time I lived in Washington, D.C., and I found it thrilling to stand in a line that spilled outdoors and around a corner.  For the first time I truly felt the thrill of exercising my right to vote.  Watching Malawians do the same was at least equally exciting, perhaps more so given how much more Malawians have to go through in order to vote.  There is no early voting, no absentee ballots.  Polling stations are often at schools, many in poor shape.  October is hot and dry, there may be little or no shade.  Though these were just by-elections in a few constituencies, and turnout was not high, I was nonetheless impressed, even moved, by those who made the considerable effort to vote.

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Seeing election fever first hand (from left to right) Democractic Progressive Party youth supporters; dancers open up the People’s Party convention; United Transformation Movement supporters show off the new party clothing

As the pre-election season continued I attended many election-related events.  The MEC launched its electoral calendar; I was there.  Some government events turned into political rallies; I was there.  After April 2018 by-elections in the southern district of Mulaje turned violent, the Multi-Party Liaison Committee, a district-level conflict management group made up of district election officials, traditional chiefs, political party representatives, local police, and more, met to hash out what happened; I was there.  When the current Vice President defected from the ruling party to launch his own; I was there in the crowd.  And when the People’s Party held its convention and re-elected former Malawi President Joyce Banda to lead the party again, there I sat, just one row behind her, the only mzungu (“white person” in Chichewa) in the audience.

As the country moved into its voter registration exercise (prospective voters cannot register whenever they want but only during specific two-week timeframes in their respective constituency), I too had the opportunity to observe the process.

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I was thrilled to be in the audience at the final Presidential election, the signing of the national peace pledge by presidential candidates, and attend the National Prayer Breakfast held at State House, the equivalent of the U.S. White House.  I have met in person two of the presidential candidates (the President of Malawi and the leader of the Malawi Congress Party), the former President Joyce Banda, and the wives of the Health Minister and the current Vice President (both accomplished women in their own right).  Sometimes I have to pinch myself.

There is so much excitement and pageantry in Malawian elections.  While in the U.S. we have a two-party system, in Malawi there were 52 registered parties at the beginning of this election season.  In reality, many of those are small “briefcase” parties, but there are seven running for President (one Independent) and 14 contesting parliamentary seats.   Supporter clothing is vibrant, and often in traditional fabric called chitenje; its so much more than just red and blue.

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The three main contenders — get these to hang on your rear view mirror

I feel incredibly privileged to be here in Malawi at this time, to watch a young and vibrant democracy in action, in a country that serves as a model in the region and the continent.  It is of course my job to cover these issues, and as such I have had greater access than most, but my interest goes beyond my career.  This is history in the making and the outcome — no matter who wins (and its anyone’s game at this point) — will shape this country for years to come.

 

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Rest & Relaxation: Americana, Jamaica, & Disney Magic Part 2

The continuation of the story of our first R&R from Malawi to the U.S. and Jamaica.

On the morning of our second full day in Jamaica, we had no plans.  Having no plans kinda makes me crazy.  But we were at an all-inclusive in Montego Bay, so it was not hard to find something as the resort had a list of the many, many activities they had going on.  We had breakfast, then took a walk around the property.  I found an intense pool aerobics class and C played in the water just behind me.  We has some of the all-inclusive “free” ice cream, and part Native-American C enjoyed more pool time while fair and freckle-skinned me hid under a towel watching.  We had lunch.  Then we prepared for our PM activity – horseback riding into the sunset of the last day of 2018.  Is that awesome or what?

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C rides confidently through the surf

Once again it was a group tour with a third heading out on ATVs, a third went with dune buggies, and the rest of us had signed up for horseback riding — an hour on a trail through historic farm land, complete with a 17th century windmill, ending in a short trot through the surf.  This would be followed by a ten minute horseback ocean jaunt.

C loves horses.  I try to get organize a horse experience for her whenever I can.  She always insists that she is old enough to handle her own horse and is annoyed over an over when someone holds the reins or rides alongside or even with her.  Boy was she stoked to not only have a horse all her own.  This would not pass muster in the U.S. at all, and I would be a liar if I said watching her did not raise all kinds of nervous butterflies in my stomach, but we did have several experienced guides who rode up and down the line checking on us all and the whole “ride” was more a horse walk, and C was the picture of pride, sitting tall on her horse.

It was a lovely ride along shaded trails and across grassy fields lit golden by the setting sun.  We arrived back at the mounting station and then switched horses for the ocean ride.  It turned out to be a full on ocean plunge.  The horses were quickly up to the base of their necks in the water, fighting the waves, which were on the rough side with the strong, steady wind.  I was immersed past my waist, practically floating over the saddle.  It was exhilarating and somewhat terrifying at the same time.  C was ahead laughing with delight.  I was so grateful when we turned around and headed out; C started to cry because it was over already and she wanted to go again.  The guide offered to take her out again.  And out they went.  C said it was the “best day ever!”

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Happy 2019!

That night we attended the huge New Year’s Eve buffet dinner.  There were mounds of food on dozens of tables decorated with half a dozen ice sculptures and an entertainment revue.  Being NYE the music was louder and went longer than the other days, our room reverberated with the noise.  Still C fell asleep long before midnight; I heard the count down, then nothing more til morning.

I woke to an overcast, yet sunny morning, a rainbow across the sky.  It was so perfect.

That and the next day were spent doing very, very little.  Sleeping in, pool time, mini golf, watching movies, eating ice cream, doing water aerobics.  Then on our next to last day we had a full day adventure — another group tour, this time to Mystic Mountain for the sky lift, which takes visitors 700 feet above the forest floor, then a Jamaican bobsled ride, and finally a zipline course.  C, not quite 7 years old, did it ALL, even as some adults were not so keen and even backed out.

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C zips through the Jamaican rainforest

Following Mystic Mountain the tour group shifted to Dunn’s River Falls, another of the “top” tourist sites in Jamaica, or so every Internet search told me.  If you take everyone on a cruise ship to only a few places, then naturally they become the top spots…  Not to say that Mystic Mountain was not fun or Dunn’s River Falls was not both beautiful and cool (both meetings of the word), but I was regretting not renting a car.  I had mentioned it to one tourist info woman and she tsk tsk’d, reminding me that “we drive on the other side of the road.”  It was with great glee that I explained I live in a country in Africa where I drive on the same side.  Still, I had not rented a car and by this point was losing interest in handing over my credit card for much more.

So we had to do the giant tour bus tango.  You know, where, no matter what, you seem to be the first to be picked up and the last to be dropped off.  Where the tour bus drives 30 minutes of an hour drive and then stops for a “break,” which is really a completely unnecessary shopping stop.  And you get herded off the bus, have to “gather around” for instructions, are only two people but have to wait for ten families of 5 people to get their wrist bands first, and the “free” lunch included in the tour is nothing to write home about it…  Oh, the joy….

We opted not to climb the falls.  I had read online that it was not such a good thing for younger children, and also that tour guides force their groups not only to buy unnecessary pool shoes but also link hands like kindergardeners, making a daisy chain up the falls.  Also, not necessary.  We did look at the falls.  C splashed around in a shallow pool.  Then we went to the splashpad and ate popsicles, blissfully away from the maddening constraints of the tour group.  At least for an hour.

It will likely come as little surprise that we opted to do nothing on our final day.  We were tour bus’d out! We needed a lazy day before another all day travel day.

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Transformed into Mulan!

Back to Jacksonville for another overnight near the airport, then, in a rented car, we drove to Lake Buena Vista, the home of Disney.  Oh the joys of driving on a fully sealed, pothole-free, multi-lane highway with clear lanes and actual shoulders!  We stopped at a gas station to stock up on U.S.-car-trip staples like string cheese and potato chips and gum.  Thank you America!  We arrived around noon to check in to our hotel then head over to Disney Springs where we had a lunch reservation at the Rainforest Cafe followed by C’s appointment at the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique for her princess make-over.

The next day we began our Disney park experience.  This was our 10th visit to a Disney park and our 3rd visit to Disney World.  I have seen a few articles on taking your child traveling but NOT to Disney.  I absolutely understand giving a child the gift of travel, but I believe mixing in a bit of Disney (or more than a bit in our case) not only does not hurt, but can also richly reward a family.

We had tickets for an early morning experience at Hollywood Studios, it seemed the only way to guarantee we could experience all the new Toy Story Land had to offer.  We had a chance to ride all three of the new rides several times before the park opened to everyone and the lines grew rapidly.  And there we were at 9 AM having already done all we had wanted to at Hollywood Studios.  So I upgraded to a park hopper pass and we headed over to the Magic Kingdom.  By the time we were done for the day – with C still going strong running to the car in the parking lot – I had 27,000 steps on my pedometer!

On Tuesday, after a painful vacation club presentation (never again I always tell myself – when will I ever learn??),  we drove about 45 minutes to Winter Haven, FL to visit Legoland.  C loved it because she could ride every single ride (and we did) and there were no crowds.  On several rides we rode it multiple times in a row, on two of them the ride operators did not even make us disembark and run around, we just stayed in our seats for another go.  My limit though was three times in a row.

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We had been dreaming of Disney sweets

Wednesday was Epcot; our first time to that park.  Crowds were relatively light and we were able to ride all but two of the rides.  More importantly though we lunched with princesses at the Akerhaus Royal Banquet Hall and caught up with a few others — C’s photos with Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Mulan, and Jasmine meant we had completed the goal of meeting all the Disney princesses.

By Thursday we were about theme-parked out, but I had bought a four day Disney ticket and we had two more days left.  We dragged ourselves to Animal Kingdom on a suddenly chilly day, and then back to the Magic Kingdom on the final day.  Lesson learned: three days at Disney might be our limit and/or build in some rest days!

Before heading back to Jacksonville for yet another night we stopped for another bit of fun Americana style.  When in Jamaica lazing about our room on one of our no tour days the movie Happy Gilmore came on.  In it, there is a scene where the mentor of Adam Sandler’s character Happy takes him to a fancy mini golf course to refine his short game.  C could not believe such a crazy mini golf place could be real and not just a movie set.  So I vowed to take her to one.  Congo River golf, complete with a realistic plane crashed into a waterfall, fit the bill.

We made it back to Jacksonville in time to meet my aunt for a late lunch – Mexican of course!  No telling when we could have it again.  The following day we flew to Dulles Airport to spend the evening before our flight back to Lilongwe.  My family lives right near the airport, one of my sisters works there, so we all met at my other sister’s place for a few hours.  We had a few less hours than originally planned as a snow storm had delayed flights — but for C the snow was the cherry on top of seeing her cousins and was the grand finale to our pretty perfect trip.

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C loves Disney


A note on the shutdown:  This is not a political post; this is not that kind of blog.  But as a State Department employee in a designated “non-excepted” position, the shutdown, which started at some point as we flew over the Atlantic Ocean, meant I was among the 800,000 federal employees furloughed without pay.  It was a strange time — hearing some officials characterize the furlough as a “vacation,” which is patently incorrect, yet here I was on an actual vacation, an R&R earned for serving overseas in a location that has “distinct and significant difficulties.”  As the shutdown wore on, I did feel increasingly uncomfortable.  In the past I was “excepted” and worked through the shutdown.  One of my sisters, who works for the Transportation Security Administration, continued to report to work as scheduled, without promise of a paycheck.  I had colleagues at State both at work and at home.  I earned my R&R and my daughter and I deserved to enjoy it to the fullest, but it was not completely without guilt.  I returned to Malawi with the shutdown still in effect and remained at home furloughed another week.  Although the shutdown focused on Washington, D.C., the majority of federal government workers serve outside the capital, and there are tens of thousands of us working overseas.  We have families, pets, responsibilities, go to the office to do our jobs, and for the most part live normal lives, just like other Americans.

 

 

Rest & Relaxation: Americana, Jamaica, & Disney Magic Part 1

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Sunrise at Jax Beach our first morning

Finally, our first rest and relaxation (R&R) vacation was upon us.  It seemed very long in coming after a whole lotta planning and a seemingly endless busy season at work.

It had been over a year since we had been to the United States.  Initially I had planned to return in July as I had a three-day capstone course topping off a year-long, mostly distance learning, interactive leadership course.  I had hoped to take another week plus and bring C so she might spend the week I was in training with her dad, and then we would have another week together seeing friends and family, maybe going somewhere new.  But a complicated transfer season at a small post, the timing of my training and proposed leave, and a few other factors resulted in my not returning to Washington last summer.  This denied time away from the U.S. and my uncle’s congestive heart failure diagnosis led me to plan for a winter R&R stateside.

As the R&R shaped up in early August, I became especially determined for it to include all things: some time with family, including C spending time with her father, some time reconnecting with the little bits of Americana we missed, and some mother-daughter fun somewhere new, somewhere often described as “paradise.”

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C looks out to sea at Jax Beach

Unfortunately my uncle D declined rapidly and passed away in mid-September.  In this lifestyle we often miss rites of passage from weddings to funerals, to births and graduations.  This reality hit particularly hard this time; he had played a prominent role not only in my life but in my daughter’s.   For this often solo traveler, I realized I had visited my aunt C and uncle D in Virginia, West Virginia, Florida, and Germany; they had visited us in Ciudad Juarez and Mexico (where few people would despite the proximity), and we had traveled together to the Bahamas, France, Luxembourg, and South Dakota.   We would not get a final visit.

After a long trip that involved stops in Addis Ababa, Dublin, and Washington, D.C., we landed in Jacksonville, FL.  My aunt picked us up.  We headed to her condo first to relax and get cleaned up (we had just spent 30 hours traveling) but soon headed to the beach to watch the rise of a very full moon, eat Mexican food, and check out the Jax Beach Deck the Chairs holiday light display.  It was all very special.  Normal if we lived in America perhaps, but special because we do not.

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Family bonding over fantastic puzzles

The following morning we woke up early so we could also welcome the sunrise at the same beach.  However, a cold snap had descended on Florida, temperatures were in the 40s.  I had packed a few cold weather clothes for C, but had none for me.  So we bundled up in spare items my aunt had; I put on my Uncle D’s sweat pants and sweat shirt.  As we stood on the beach watching the sun break over the ocean’s horizon, I felt like my Uncle was with us.

Then we took C to the airport to meet her stepmom TG, who was flying in from KY to bring C back to her father’s place for Christmas.  Yes, indeed.  My not-quite-7 year old daughter would be flying for the first time without me.  This is a pretty big deal, right?  Early on when I made this plan with C’s father, I had felt a wee bit nervous, but once the day arrived, I was okay.  And C was super excited to fly with TG and see her dad.

And I got five days with my aunt, just she and I.  We went to the movies.  I am sure I mentioned before that there are no theaters in Malawi.  But we went to see Mary Queen of Scots, i.e. not an animated children’s movie.  We hung out at Target, ate out at Mexican and other restaurants or just had chips and guac at home, and built puzzles.  We laughed at our ridiculous struggles with my aunt’s cable and when the young 20-something at the movie theater charged me the retiree price.  Then C returned from KY and we celebrated my aunt’s birthday with lunch at one of her favorite places.

My aunt drove us to our hotel next to the Jacksonville airport where we would stay one night before heading out early for the next phase of our trip.

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There was no direct way to get from Jacksonville to Montego Bay, so once again we spent much of the day traveling.  Generally I am okay with it because even the journey can be relaxing and fun, and it is a means to an end.  And I booked the flights after all.  But as I was quite eager to get to Jamaica — it is someplace I have wanted to visit for awhile — even with the upgrade to business on our first leg could not make that trip go fast enough.

We landed at 4 and checked into our resort, only 15 minutes from the airport, by sunset.  Our room had a beautiful view out toward the main pool and the ocean beyond.  The warm Caribbean breeze felt wonderful.  The all-inclusive hotel had pre-booked us for one of the reservation only restaurants for the dinner.  We enjoyed our meal and then headed back to the room.  Then the entertainment began, so loud it sounded as if the band was at the foot of our bed.  The front desk told me it would last until 10 pm, but we were so tired we fell asleep anyway.

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Stately and ghostly Rose Hall

On our first full day I was eager to get started.  We arranged a taxi to Rose Hall, a late 18th century plantation house.  The Georgian style mansion commands a lovely view towards the sea, but also is representative of the sometimes dark history of plantation life in early colonial Jamaica.  It is most famous for being haunted by Annie Palmer, the “White Witch of Rose Hall,” who murdered slaves and husbands indiscriminately.  I love me some historic houses and tours of them — I have taken C on plenty of them (from the historic Adams House in Deadwood, SC to the Mary Todd Lincoln house in Lexington, KY) so she knows the drill and tolerates them.  She seemed rather excited to see a haunted house, especially as it was during the day.

The only scary thing that came out of that trip was the price the taxi driver demanded upon return to the hotel although he had failed to show up at the appointed time.  It turned out the hotel info desk had incorrectly informed me of the fare; taxis really do charge an arm and a leg from tourist hotels.

My mood had soured as a result but a good lunch renewed my spirits and we set off on an afternoon tour on the Martha Brae river.  Floating down the river on a bamboo raft is one of the top attractions for Jamaica.  All started out okay.  We were picked up from the hotel about 1:30.  As luck would have it, we were the first guests to be picked up.  We then drove to two other hotels to pick up a family of nine, then a family of 11, after which we drove the 30 minutes to the rafting village.  And there we stood around for at least another 30 minutes, ostensibly to pick up our “welcome drink” included in the rafting trip, but it seemed designed for alcoholic visitors to booze up.  Finally, someone brought life jackets and led us down to the rafts.  C and I were in the middle of the pack — the family of nine before us, the family of 11 somewhere behind.

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The Martha Brae

As we floated down the river, I figured we would go at a leisurely pace given our older Rastafarian captain, but soon enough we were passing everyone else.  Our guy might have seemed slightly out of it, but he was slow and steady, while the other guests, mostly liquored up folks making a mess out of poling on their own (but having a blast doing so), and the romantic couples, were especially in no hurry.  We blow past them all.  While C thought this was super awesome, I realized the faster we reached the end, the longer we waited.  And sure enough, we waited about 15 minutes before the nine-person family rolled in.  And then we waited, and waited, and waited.  Only 45 minutes later the rafts of the other family finally arrived.  There had apparently some kind of payment issue, but I was still annoyed we waited an extra HOUR.  I was reminded why group tours can be a huge pain in the a$$.

We arrived back tired, had a quick dinner, and hit the hay, lulled to sleep by the rambunctious stylings of the entertainer of the evening.

 

 

 

 

Zanzibar: A Spice Island Getaway

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Approach to Stone Town with the ferry

We needed a holiday.  I needed a holiday.  The head honcho told me it had been awhile since she had seen one in such need of a vacation as myself.  She was not wrong.  After a busy summer wearing multiple hats, followed by a visit by FLOTUS (First Lady of the United States), immediately followed by the visit of a member of Congress, I was desperate for more than a long weekend away.  I really love Malawi, but I needed a bit of time and distance away.

Zanzibar  It is one of those place names that evokes the exotic. It hints of history and adventure.  I have wanted to visit for quite some time and at last we would.  It did not hurt that it is one of the closest island beach places we can get to from Malawi.

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C getting lost in Stone Town alleyways

We flew to Dar es Salaam on a Friday evening.  We flew south to Blantyre, Malawi’s second city, and then back up to Dar.  We landed at 9 PM; its not my preference to arrive in a new place after dark, but we have to work with the few flights we have available, which often have less than ideal schedules.  I arranged for airport pick up and direct transfer to our hotel.  At nearly 10 PM at night there was little traffic, and as we whizzed down the road in the darkness I was struck that the road had four lanes, nicely white painted lines, and a flyover.  There is not a single flyover in all of Malawi (though one is currently under construction).  And it occurred to me we had not been outside of Malawi for five months.

The next morning we took a short taxi to the Azam Marine ferry terminal for our two hour trip to Zanzibar.  Arriving, the taxi was immediately surrounded by mesh-vested men, their vests I suppose declaring they work in some capacity there, but frankly, I thought, anyone can buy a vest.  I jumped out of the taxi quickly because I knew as soon as the trunk was open these guys were going to jostle one another to grab our suitcases.  I swooped in first, but made a quick calculation that we might be better off with one of these men than without, so made eye contact with one and nodded.  He took charge of the luggage and we followed swiftly behind.

Vested-man’s help got us to VIP luggage check and, what I can only guess is the equivalent of “economy-plus,” waiting area, a no-AC area just slightly less crowded than the waiting area for the masses, where I sat on a plastic chair and C sat on a cement stair.  Our two hour trip was uneventful and we slipped into the dock at Stone Town right on time at 11:30.  Here we went through immigration for the Revolutionary Republic of Zanzibar.  A psuedo-official looking woman told me to get our yellow fever certificates out, but then neither she nor anyone else actually asked for them again.

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Stone Town?  More like Cat Town.

I knew our hotel, the Doubletree, was located somewhere close by, about ten minutes on foot, within the rabbit warren of narrow streets, but I had no map.  Yet I knew approximately where to go and what it was near, so C and I headed off, each with a backpack and a rolling suitcase, through the gauntlet of “helpers” despite their warnings that it was “too far.”  At Forodhani Gardens I asked a group of three men the general direction and one opted to lead us with apparently only hope, but not a solid expectation, of a payoff.  Within five minutes we were checking in.

We settled in, had lunch at the rooftop restaurant with a beautiful view of rooptops and the sparkling Indian Ocean beyond, then headed out on our own walking tour.  We visited the Old Fort, walked past the under-renovation Palace of Wonders, sought refuge from the burning sun at the Sultan’s Palace now a historical museum, and then visited the finely decorated historic Old Dispensary.  Along the way we came across many, many stray street cats, much to C’s delight.  Just walking back from the Old Dispensary, we counted at least 20.  Cats quickly shot up to C’s favorite part about Stone Town.

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Walkway through the mangrove forest of Jozani

For our second day we headed out on a tour of Jozani Chwaka Bay National Park, the only national park in Zanzibar.  It is the home of the endangered red colobus monkey, found only on Unguja, Zanzibar’s main island.  We drove for nearly an hour through the island’s villages.  Look for images of Zanzibar online and you will first find pictures of sparkling blue waters, dazzling white sands, palm trees, and beautiful people in beach ware.  Then you would find photos of the crumbly, colorful, crooked streets of Stone Town.  But there are few if any pictures of the island interior, the poor, tumbledown, desperate looking villages.  Looking around, I thought a lot about Malawi.  Zanzibar has 2.5 times the GDP per capita than Malawi, though Malawi has nearly 20 times the population.  I push the uncomfortable thoughts aside.

The park is lovely and green.  We take a short hike through the trees and are lucky to see blue monkeys and the red colobus.  We actually see quite a few, very close to the parking area.  Then we walk on a wooden walkway through a mangrove forest, catching sight of fish and crabs below us.  On the way back to town I have the tour guide drop us at an Italian place on the outskirts of historic Stone Town.  My daughter orders a burger — perhaps the best we have had in five months.  Following lunch, we head back into the maze, stopping first at the Old Slave Market, now a small, but extremely informative museum.  We slowly make our way back to our hotel — we count stray cats along the way.

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Doors of Stone Town

On our third and final day in Stone Town we opt for a spice tour, probably the most popular tour on the island.  And why not?  It makes perfect sense as Zanzibar is one of the original spice islands, a centuries old location of trade in cardamon, cinnamon, nutmeg, pepper, and cloves (one the world’s number one producer of cloves).  I worried C might grow bored, but the guide catered to her, giving her ample opportunities to try and guess the different spices we encountered.  He also wove grass handbags, headbands, and bracelets as we walked.  C did not want to wear them but was happy to put her beloved stuffie into the bag.  After our excursion and lunch, we again wandered the narrow alleys of Stone Town, visiting Jaws Corner, where old guys go to sit around and chat (and there is an old phone tied to a telephone poll with a sign advertising “free international phone calls”), the old Hammani baths, and the Mercury House, where lead singer of Queen Freddie Mercury spent some of his formative years, had mother/daughter henna designs painted on our hands, and I took pictures of more Zanzibar doors.  And we played with more cats.  Of course.

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One cannot deny how pretty the view is

From Stone Town we moved about an hour north to a resort on the western coast, the Sea Cliff Resort and Spa.  This was a real change of pace — from sightseeing around the island and walking around the historic city, to the leisurely pace of an all-inclusive beach resort.  Well, not quite beach, it isn’t called sea “cliff” for nothing.  Hanging out by the pool is not usually my thing.  I love sunshine and a view of sparkling ocean water, but I am very fair skinned…yet, my daughter loves the pool, the ocean, the beach, sunshine.  I try to make sure each vacation has something for each of us.

 

I had hoped we might do a few activities at the resort, but it turned out that few of them were actually held there, with the exception of horseback riding, one of the key reasons I decided on Sea Cliff.  C LOVES horses.  She envisions herself some kind of horse whisperer.  While at the age of 6, she has had more horse experience than I have, but it is still limited to horse-sitting other than horse-riding.  I also reserved the Sea Cliff because of its kids’ club.  A few years ago we visited the Dominican Republic; it was our first time at an all-inclusive and it was magical.  Before, an all-inclusive was the antithesis of what I looked for in a holiday, that is before I began traveling as a single mom.  Now, it is not always what I like to do, but I do like to throw at least one into the vacation mix every year if possible.

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No beach, but this lovely boardwalk out to a sunset pavilion made up for it

Unfortunately the kids’ club was under renovation.  And although they had moved it to another part of the resort, actually in the game room where there was a pool table and foosball, both things C likes to play, and they had a bouncy castle and trampoline, C was the only child dropped off at the kids’ club.  We saw other children at breakfast and dinner, but only one or two during the day.  Though I did drop her off a few times for only an hour or so, she preferred to sit in the back of the gym with her tablet while I worked out.  So we spent more time together than I had anticipated.  That is not a bad thing at all, of course, part of the purpose of the trip was not only to have some distance from Malawi and our usual routine, but to have quality mother-daughter time.  Unfortunately for us both, some work had followed me on vacation.

 

It is another of those small post realities.  I am the political officer but as we have a small State Department footprint, I also back-up the Economic and Consular officers.  The recent departure of the Management Officer (retired) without an immediate replacement, the Financial Management Officer (FMO) would need a back-up certifying officer… I only needed to take a 40 hour course and pass a four hour test before the FMO went on a two week training session the first week of November.  So while C had some pool time, I had some fiscal data time.

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C and I walk into the sunset on the back of horses

Still it was a beautiful place and we had some good time together.  Despite the work, it was a perfect holiday together.

Until we had to head back to Dar es Salaam.  Although C had been fine on the ferry over, we were not so lucky on the way back.  I had purchased business class tickets, which were exactly like the economy class seats we had on the way over, with the exception of their location on the boat.  I chose front seats, in front of the aisle and the television.  None of it mattered.  About 45 minutes into the trip, C declared she was not feeling so good and then without warning projectile vomited on her backpack, my backpack, the seat, the floor, miraculously missing most of herself.  A boat attendant was at our side in approximately 30 seconds with a roll of paper towels, apparently well-trained for such incidents.  I got C to the restroom at the back of the boat to clean her and our backpacks off.  We sat back down, only to 30 minutes later get to experience the whole magical experience again.  Except this time she made sure she got it all over her clothes and her stuffie and somehow in her hair.  There was only so much I could do to clean her up.

We disembarked in Dar rather smelly, others gave us a wide berth.  At least at first.  Once we stood ready to gather our two rolling suitcases and walk the 10 minutes to the hotel, we were suddenly the hottest tickets in town, no matter how much we stunk.  We probably just looked all the more pathetic and susceptible to “assistance.”  Men tried to grab out suitcases out of our hands and almost demand we accept their help.  My “No, thank you,” and “we are fine, thanks” were completely ignored.  Men on foot, and men in taxis, and men in other forms of transport pursued us.  At one point I was completely fed up and angrily told the man walking behind us that we were “JUST FINE” and to “PLEASE LEAVE US ALONE.”  And of course he said, “ok, ok, Hakuna Matata.” And I about lost it.

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Mother-Daughter henna

Perhaps the biggest annoyance of our visit to Dar/Zanzibar was the overuse of the swahili phrase appropriated by Disney for the Lion King so everyone knows it.  And very irritating “helpers” used this phrase to guilt tourists into coughing up money.  In Stone Town, while C and I followed signs around a corner to stairs leading to a Japanese restaurant, a “helper” appeared at our sides to “help” us find our way.  I told him repeatedly I did not need help, but he refused to go away, insisting “its my job. Hakuna Matata.”  His “job” to lead people where they already know they are going? No doubt, hoping I would slip him a few dollars (as if not more useful in Zanzibar as Tanzanian shillings).  I did not.  As I headed to a shop about 9 PM to get C and I some snacks a man began to videotape me with his phone, right in my face.  I asked him to get out of my way and stop recording, but he said I needed to “help him or let me die.”  At that moment I completely and utterly understood why a celebrity might punch a paparazzi.  But hey, “Hakuna Matata.”

We made it past the “helpers” and to the hotel, our sole thought to check in and clean up.  Maybe exercise — the gym for me, the pool for C.  Only to find out once in our room on the top floor that the hot water was not working, the hot water tank was on the roof, just above our heads, so while waiting in our executive floor suite we could hear every clang and bang of someone attempting to rectify the water situation.  The executive floor lounge was closed on Saturdays.  The pool and rooftop bar closed for renovation.  We were told two hours until the water would be fixed.  It took four.  C and I tried to make the best of it, but it was not easy.  Though I can laugh about it now.  Sort of.

Overall a good trip.  Overall being the key word.  Certainly not boring and a trip we will not forget.

 

Intro to Lilongwe

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Not much to see here folks

Here I am, nearly a year living in Lilongwe and only now beginning to write an introduction to Malawi’s capital city.   Yet it is just recently that I began to truly transition from Lilongwe being just a place I have moved to for work to a place where I live.  I am not a local; I am not a long-time expatriate.  Nor am I a mere tourist.  But I only wander so far; I have my routines.  So this is my introduction to Lilongwe.

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The Bingu International Conference Center and the President Walmont hotel, both Chinese-built modern marvels in Lilongwe

Malawi’s capital city is not particularly large, its population hovers around a million, yet the city is spread out with few buildings taller than two stories.  The tallest building in the city, I think the whole country, is the twelve story President Walmont hotel, located in the City Center.  Well, that is somewhat a misnomer.  Lilongwe’s core is divided by the Lilongwe nature sanctuary/forest reserve.  One one side the older part of the city, where the old town is located, on the other, newer side you find City Center, Capital Hill, most Embassies, including that of the U.S., and areas where most expats live.  The city is literally divided into Areas — all with numbers, a few go by names.  But its a patchwork with Area 10, 11, and 12 adjacent to one another but also next to Area 43.  Area 40 sits next to Area 13, 16 and 19 (and make up much of City Center).  We live in Area 10 and my daughter’s school is in Area 3, but they are across town from one another, 20 minutes by car on a good traffic day, nearly an hour on a bad one.  Confused?  Often so am I.  Sometimes I do not know why I bother to ask someone where they live because if they say some place other than Area 10, 11, 12, or 43, I would be hard pressed to know where they are talking about.

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A jacaranda-lined road in Area 10

Staring out the window of the airplane as we descended into Kamuzu International Airport, I strained to see signs of the city that would become my new home.  I could make out only a few buildings scattered among faded green brush and burnt orange earth.  Soon afterwards as we bounced along the two lane tarmac to town I wondered aloud the whereabouts of the city.  Having already driven a good 20 minutes I had yet to see signs of a capital.   That day it never really materialized as we turned off the M1 into Area 12, then Area 10 to my new residence, located in the relatively leafy, well-to do zone.  Our homes, with high brick walls, often topped with a profusion of barbed wires, and guarded by dogs or security personnel or both, do not necessarily scream “foreigner,” as there are locals and local government buildings scattered throughout these residential locations, but they most certainly project privilege.  Yet even those first days and weeks driving from home to the Embassy or to Old Chipiku, one of the most expat-oriented supermarkets, Lilongwe seemed remarkably unoccupied, provincial.  Only after more time did I expand my driving radius, finding there are in fact crowded, congested parts of the city, yet they remain outside of my usual stomping grounds.

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The monument to Malawi’s first president, President for Life Hastings Kamuzu Banda.  Now you have seen it.  You’re welcome.

There are not many tourist sites in Lilongwe.  Normally when I arrive in a new place, I like to hit the ground running and do some sightseeing as soon as possible.  Certainly in Shanghai, my bucket list was long and I had no time to waste.  Here, I focused more on just getting myself and C settled as a read of my guidebook weeks before had already informed me the touring would take little time.  There is the Lilongwe Wildlife Center, which will give visitors a one hour tour of the facility, though there are not many animals there, especially after their two lions passed away.  They have one of the nicest playgrounds in the city and a pretty good restaurant/cafe.  Sometimes they have concerts and show movies under the stars.  I expect many people might be disappointed by a visit, especially if they have already joined a safari, which is unlikely if they have made the trek to Africa.  But the center is still very much worth a visit as they are a major player in animal conservation in the country.

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Visiting the King’s African Rifles monument

Guidebooks also list the Kamuzu Banda memorial, the WWI / King’s African Rifles monument, and for lack of much else to add, the Parliament building.  The mausoleum of the country’s first president is wedged between Umodzi Park, with the Chinese-built President Walmont hotel and Convention Center and the Chinese-built Parliament building.  I do not know anything on Banda’s thoughts on the Chinese other than the Chinese Embassy assisted some of his political rivals to flee to Tanzania, thus with that he might not enjoy his final resting place.  But it is a quiet and pleasant place to spend 15 to 20 minutes unless Parliament is in session as then the grounds swarm with ruling party supporters.  Banda’s statue also graces the plaza in front of the WWI / King’s African Rifles clock tower, located not far from the Parliament.  Here you have a good chance of someone with some keys letting you inside to climb maybe 300 stairs to near the top landing where one has to switch to a narrow metal ladder hanging over the terrifying gap all the way to the cement floor below.  Our “guide” pushed my then-5 year old daughter up to the final landing and it scared the beejeezus out of me.  I insisted he get her down and she stand flesh against the wall on the stairs.  My heart pounded as I climbed up myself.  The one dingy window on that landing is set too high up for my 5’5″ self to look out so I took pictures holding my camera high above my head and hoping for the best.

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The view from the top floor of the President Walmont Hotel

Our lives in Lilongwe are quiet.  Weekends are generally spent at home, puttering about our yard.  We head to the Lilongwe Wildlife Center to recycle, stop by Old Chipiku for groceries, maybe get a mani-pedi up the street or head to my boss’ house to use the pool.  As one of the Marine Security Guards told me just before his departure — “Lilongwe is a nice enough place to live but if you are between the ages of 17 and 30 it is on the boring side.  There isn’t anything to do.”  Good thing C and I fall outside that age range and thus for us Lilongwe is pretty okay.

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One of my favorite things about Lilongwe are the advertisements on the trees

Malawi: The First Summer Begins

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Sleepover fun with star light

Summertime.  Remember when you were a kid and you looked forward to the hot, leisurely days with your friends through a long school-less summer?  Maybe you even piled into the family car for a drive to the beach for a week?  Spent a week or more at a summer camp?  Or maybe you do not even have to think back that far — you might be on your summer holiday right now.  Perhaps a road trip?  Or spending some time at the lake or at a mountain cabin?  Have your toes dug deep in some sand?  Whenever summer comes around I still associate the season with those long languid days.  I long for Summer Americana.

Foreign Service summers though are different.  In the Foreign Service, summer generally means either you are transferring or you are covering for those who are (or those who have to take mid-tour home leave), and thus watching colleagues, some who have become good friends, leave.  Summer is the end of an era.  One in which you are too busy to mourn until September rolls around.

As this summer gets underway, it feels even stranger.  In Shanghai I did not take any leave between May and September for either of the two summers.  But then again, neither did anyone else — all my co-workers in the visa trenches slogged through the high visa season together.  Here though, in this much smaller Embassy, we are on the cusp of a very busy, and somewhat lonely, summer.

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Sleepovers mean sleeping fun in the living room

OK, hold up.  I know, do not cry me a river.  I DO get vacations.  Absolutely.  I was just in Cape Town last month, Paris in April, and last Spring you would have found me enjoying a not-at-all-shabby seven week Home Leave.  I am not at all vacation deprived.  But indulge me if you will, because while the Foreign Service certainly has its perks, it has its downsides and sacrifices too.  I try to keep it real.

One downside is the transfer season position pile-up.  This is not my first rodeo–summers in the service are always busy, but this is the first time as the sole direct-hire Foreign Service officer in a section at a small Embassy.  I am the political-military officer.  I also cover the economic-commercial office in the absence of that individual, and back-up the Consular officer.  This summer there will be gaps–multiple weeks with no Economic, Consular, or Public Affairs officers.  I am also a social sponsor for an arriving family, an office sponsor for another new officer, and will serve my duty week (when Embassy personnel man the after hours American citizen emergency line) this summer.  And politics in the country are heating up ahead of next year’s elections.

Another downside is the wee bit of mommy guilt that sometimes tickles in the back of my brain.  Here I am giving my kid an international life full of once in a lifetime experiences, but my parental conscience pricks me all the same.  She is the single child, of a single mother, whose job requires us to move every few years.  Maybe “guilt” is not quite the word, but I wonder at times about this lifestyle and the effect it will have on my daughter.  Last year we lived in three different countries on three continents, so while it is a relief to not be moving this year, the goodbyes happen regardless.

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Now that her friends are leaving, C has to get creative with her playmates — she invited our chickens into her play fort.  (the cats are also thrilled at her increased desire to cuddle and play with them)

C just finished up her first year at the international school.  She has 8 1/2 weeks off before the next school year begins.  It is not just that it is the summer holiday and she will not see school friends for awhile, it is more than that.  Several of her friends are leaving, or have already left, Malawi for good.  And now that she is older these friendships mean more to her than in the past.

To help her say goodbye, we hosted sleepovers for the first time at our house for four of C’s best mates who would move away this summer.  I tried my best to make them Sleepovers To Remember.  We had movies and popcorn, turned our rooms into dance clubs with revolving colorful star displays on the ceiling and C’s favorite pop songs “blasting” from my mini speakers, and did fun crafty things like make suncatchers or Shrinky Dinks.  We stayed up late.  We went to the Italian restaurant around the corner in pajamas.  We had chocolate chip pancakes.  The guest child got to collect the eggs from our chickens in the morning.  I repeatedly heard THIS IS THE BEST SLEEPOVER EVER.  Top Parent Award Achieved.

The final sleepover was perhaps the hardest.  C’s best friend is our next door neighbor WW.  Like C he is six, enjoys music, playing for hours, and butt jokes.  He and my daughter are thick as thieves.  I think back to when I was five and six and my next door neighbor Kent was my best friend.  He too moved away after Kindergarten.  Dang, this is going to be hard.

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Ready to walk to “summer” camp in the chill

It is what it is.  A phrase that rolls off my tongue with increasing regularity.  To try to stem the summer boredom and sadness I have come up several ideas to keep C engaged.  She will attend “summer” camp the first week of July (actually one of the coldest months in Malawi with temperatures in the low 50s Fahrenheit overnight/early morning) with the possibility of additional weeks (the nearby preschool offers up to four weeks for children aged 2-8 at a cost of $5.50 per day).  I am increasing her guitar lessons from once a week to twice.  Recently I started reading chapter books to C, so I bought several books to read this summer such as James and the Giant Peach, The Indian in the Cupboard, and My Father’s Dragon.  One of my New Year’s Resolutions this year is to do more arts, crafts, and activities with C, so I ordered several things to facilitate this (because I just do not have the energy to be a Pinterest mom).  I have art supplies, Kiwi Crates, and an Easy Bake Oven I gifted C as an early half birthday present.   I ordered “American History in a Box” for Kindergarten and First Graders, a great resource for American kids living overseas and attending schools that do not teach U.S. history.

Basically, I have got a ton of things for C to do.  I just wish I could take some time to spend with her doing them, but that is not in the cards for me this summer.  It is certainly not going to be Summer Americana.  It’s more Summer Foreign Service Style.

 

 

Packages & Patience

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Monday = Mail Day!

Mail.  Once upon a time, way back when, getting mail was exciting.  As a child my sisters and I would compete for the opportunity to check the mailbox.  We lived in what we called a condominium — I am not sure this phrase is even used any more — but it is basically a townhouse, if not somewhat smaller.  The mailbox was located across the street in a cluster box unit.  Getting hold of the key from my mom was like winning the lottery, or at least on the same level as scoring money for the ice cream truck.  Sure, there was junk mail then, and of course bills, but receiving a card or handwritten letter would happen with a fair amount of regularity.  Arriving at college, mail — letters from friends and family and care packages — also held a special magic.  Even when I lived in Korea and Japan, before the internet and email really took off (dating myself again), I regularly composed and received long missives. Yet these days in the world of instant messaging via smart phones, email, Facebook, and a whole host of other social media sites that I have no clue about, waiting for the post has lost its significance, at least for the majority of Americans.

Not so for the American expat, especially those located in more out of the way places.  First let me caveat all that I write here with the fact that I am a Foreign Service Officer and thus have access to Embassy mail; other expats generally have to rely on the local postal system.  This means I actually have a U.S. address located at a State Department facility in Virginia.  My mail goes to that facility where they then forward it on to our Embassies.  Some overseas missions have the Diplomatic Post Office (DPO), which essentially establishes a branch of the U.S. Postal System at select diplomatic missions overseas.  Here in Malawi we have the former, which is a little slower and has more restrictions than using the DPO.

These days of course I do the vast majority of my correspondence via the Internet, but when it comes to packages, well,  “snail mail” it is.  While folks in the U.S. are getting their packages within a few days, even same day, our mail takes just a wee bit longer, on average three weeks.  At certain times of the year, for instance Christmas, it can take longer as our mail flies “space available.”  There are then no quick last minute online purchases. Last year we received notification in late October that packages should be ordered for receipt at the Virginia pouch facility by November 10, to ensure delivery before the holidays.  When C’s school emails on Monday that Thursday is book character day, there is no way to order something to arrive in time.

Until recently we received two air shipments a week, with the mail being sorted for pick-up on Monday and Tuesday.  But a few weeks back the mail room supervisor notified the Embassy community that shipments would be reduced to once a week, and due to the short notice we would not receive a delivery either that or the following week.  However, overall we are a large mission, with lots of employees.  And, as it turned out, we had quite a lot of mail heading our way.  So, in the second week the decision was reversed — an Emirates air freight flight would arrive Friday afternoon in Lilongwe bringing in our many, many kilos of mail, and to accommodate the large delivery the mailroom would re-open for pick-up between 5 and 5:30 PM.  (This is an especially big deal as we work longer hours Monday to Thursday so the Embassy closes for business at 12:30 on Fridays)

At a quarter to the appointed time, C and I began our drive to the Embassy.  The late afternoon sun directly in my eyes; I felt giddy.  There is always excitement surrounding an out-of-the-ordinary event.  Once in the Embassy parking lot we saw many more of my colleagues’ cars pulling in.  I smiled and recalled a story a fellow book club member had shared when I lived in Jakarta.  The woman and her husband had served in Yemen in the 70s.  Naturally, foreign products were hard to come by, so when someone got word the cargo plane from France was landing, the news traveled fast.  People stopped what they were doing, jumped into their cars, and drove down to the airfield to welcome the flight carrying wine and cheese and other goodies from Europe.

Our convergence on the mail room at Embassy Lilongwe in the Spring of 2018 cannot really compare to dozens of international diplomats flocking to the sand swept Sana’a airfield of the late 1970s.  The latter holds a certain element of romance to me.  And yet, the diplomats of today were likely no less desperate for their delivery as the diplomats of yesteryear; its all relative after all.  Of course we have access to the internet and thus online shopping with our favorite retailers like Amazon and Walmart.  But whether we rush to pick up a package of our kid’s favorite cereal or hoof it to meet a plane with some much desired fromage, we are trying to have a little taste of home while soaking up the culture of afar.  And that Friday the mail room and the area just outside had a festive feel.  Coworkers and spouses gathered around catching up and laughing. For the children, it was as if we had organized a spontaneous play date – several clamoured into one of the mail carts, others ran impromptu races, they played on the gymnastic bars outside the gym.  In the fading light as we awaited our names to be called so we could sign for and carry off our boxes, there was most certainly a sense of shared community and happy anticipation.

Oftentimes when I receive the “you’ve got mail” notification in my in-box I cannot even recall what I have ordered.  Not so much because I purchase a lot but because I barely remember what I did the day before.  Just kidding.  It’s more a function of never quite being sure which order made it into which pouch and plane.  It’s a bit like Christmas every time, sort of a secret Santa gift exchange with yourself.  And while there can be a level of frustration marking time for the arrival of  that one thing I really need (or convince myself I need), I must admit to an overall enjoyable level of satisfaction in the biding of time.

Waiting for the post for weeks does, I believe, teach patience.  In a world of ever increasing desire for the instantaneous – and an ability to meet those expectations –  it is almost refreshing to have to cool our heels in anticipation.  Over time one finds there are many things one (and one’s children) can do without.  If I cannot order some seemingly needed item for the  book character/international day/Star Wars themed event at C’s school, then, well, it’s not really that vital.  We can in fact soldier on quite well without it.  Little by little I order less, I find local substitutes, or my tastes change and I no longer crave those same favorites from home.  Not that I stop ordering altogether mind you, I have a fairly strong, bordering on unhealthy, addiction to Amazon.  I cannot quit just any time.

I miss composing and posting long letters.  The stationery, the stamps, dropping them in a mailbox.  Yet, I love that living overseas means mail still holds a wee bit of mystery – even if it’s just wondering if the package contains the special diet cat food or chocolate Lucky Charms.