One Year in Malawi

It has been one year since we arrived in Malawi.  I have killed approximately 3,755 insects.  This includes the Great Moth Massacre of 2017, when overrun with small light brown moths whose exuberant spawning blanketed all outside walls of my home drove me to terribly irrational behavior.  I grabbed one of my black slip-on Skechers and ran outside smacking moths right and left, determined to end the lives of at least 1000.  I did it, but my temporary insanity rubbed the skin of purlicue  (the fascinating word for the web-like area between your index finger and thumb) raw of my right hand.  There was also the Terrible Termite Invasion of 2017.  While sitting at the dining room table, a few winged termites lazily swooped around the room.  I wondered how they had come inside and wandered into the kitchen to search for the wonderfully named bug spray, Doom, only to find hundreds swarming around the ceiling light.  My reaction may have involved some cursing, mild screaming, and some jester-like leaping about.  There were also bees in my bedroom and wasps in the yard, and evidence of large spiders lurking about (about an inch and a half diameter — two found dead in my home but one killed with a bloodcurdling screech as it ran across the room straight for me in Majete).  And of course mosquitos–after all we take antimalarials daily.

I am on my third stove due to some of the frequent power outages, or rather the subsequent surge after the power came back on.  In all my previous years in so many employer-provided homes around the world, I had not lost a stove.  But here I lost two; they literally went up in smoke.   Then in the midst of the dry season I awoke to find my house flooded.  A pipe on my water distiller, needed as we of course cannot drink the water, disconnected and water flowed full speed for hours through the night, covering the kitchen floor, making its way through the dining room, down the hall, and seeping into the hall bathroom and each of our bedrooms.  And today I find myself once again at the Kwik Fit mechanics next to the Embassy for my second punctured tire from nails in the road.

It’s all just part of living in Malawi, or just part of a certain level of living in the modern world.  Sure I may have experienced more insects and electrical issues here than in other places I have lived, but these basically mirror the lives of friends in the US – bust water pipes, malfunctioning appliances, pest control issues, and flats.   Malawi is our home.

And we have really settled in.  From our glorious garden to the joy of having fresh eggs provided daily by Carmen, Can, Leash, and Lou, our sweet egg-laying chickens (they love being pet!), our home is an unexpected oasis such that I have never experienced before.  This jet-setting world traveler is quite happy to spend my weekends idly circumventing the yard, sitting on our konde (screened in porch) listening to bird song and feeling the breeze, or better yet napping in my hammock.  On Sundays we hold “chicken run” days, in which we let our birds have free range of the yard for 10-20 minutes.  And we have acquired yet another family member!    After lunch with friends at the delicious Chinese restaurant at the Golden Peacock Hotel, our daughters excused themselves early to explore and returned with news of something you just have to see!  Behind the kitchen doors they had found a cage crammed with rabbits…and that is how Judy the Bunny came to live with us (released to us—and our friends who rescued one too—for 4,000 Malawian Kwacha or about $5.50). A handy friend is building her hutch, while Judy currently enjoys the konde and the bounty of our garden.

We are settling in in other ways.  I have rekindled my passion for reading.  Well, I never lost my interest in reading, I simply didn’t have the time or energy to do so.  Yet over the past six months I have happily devoured at least 30 books.  While that may not seem much to some readers please consider my occupation, my parental status, my prolific writing (!), and other hobbies like traveling and dabbling in small-time farming and chicken and rabbit rearing, and then my ability to read is nothing short of a miracle and should probably get me some kind of spot in the Guinness Book of World Records.  Am I right?

C (and I) made it through her first year at Bishop Mackenzie International School. Although she had attended preschool in Shanghai, this was full day school including riding the bus. Well, full day for what BMIS calls “lower primary” is only 5 1/2 hours, but with bus times she is gone 6 1/2 hours.  For this night owl raising a night owl, it was the early morning hours that posed our greatest challenge. C’s bus picks her up at 6:30 AM!! To make sure we don’t miss the bus I wake up at the crack of dawn, or even before (!), then the  nanny arrives at 5:30 to wake C the beast and get her ready for school. On weekends we revel in sleeping in until 7.  But as hard as it is for C to drag herself out of bed in the mornings, she loves her school and so do I.  And now my sweet, funny, smart six year old just started first grade.

And work.  Wow.  What a year.  I arrived having never before done this particular position and being the only one.  Learning on the job is a State Department specialty and it has been a steep, STEEP learning curve.  But Malawi, well, what a place to parachute in and figure it all out.  Not only is Malawian politics and political culture fascinating (I’ll just leave this here:  Bloodsuckers.  Google it.  Never a dull day in Malawi), but it is also very accessible.   I have met a former President and Vice President, the First Lady, the Second Lady, Members of Parliament, political opposition leaders, up and coming leaders, prominent academics, walked right into various government ministries (and not been subsequently thrown out).

C and I were able to travel some around Malawi, the region, and further afield.  From Zomba and the lake at Senga Bay and Cape Maclear to Majete National Park.  I took C on her first safari when we visited South Luangwa park in western Zambia.  Holidays in Paris and Cape Town rounded out our year.  I fear this post is beginning to sound a little bit too much like one of those end of year updates people send out in their Christmas cards…

Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world.  Most people probably could not find it on a map, many have never heard of it.  But it has been my home for the past year.  This first year in Malawi has been an overall a quite happy, though admittedly difficult at times, adventure.  C loves it here.  She tells me often.  I am a fan as well.  The big news is we have extended for a third year in Malawi; we like it that much.  We look forward to what our second year here has in store for us.

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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.

 

 

 

Easter Over and Over

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C finally doesn’t run the other way when confronted by an adult in a giant bunny costume (played by one of our fine U.S. Marines)

I did not used to care much for celebrating U.S. holidays while overseas.  In many of the places I lived before the Foreign Service – Korea, Japan, China, Philippines, Singapore – most of the big U.S. holidays celebrated when I was a kid (Easter, July 4th, Halloween, Thanksgiving) were, while not always completely unknown, not of any local consequence.  Only Christmas seemed to have penetrated these countries to varying degrees.  And that is usually when I went on vacation.

Now that I have a child, and C is of a certain age, building holiday traditions is important to me.  And having her participate in U.S. cultural activities can give her a foundation in “American-ness,” even though she has spent most of her life outside her country.  Yet even though we live in Embassy and expat communities, the translation of U.S. traditions abroad is, well, sometimes, creative.  It’s a combination of what is available overseas, budgets, and local interpretation.

This year we celebrated Easter four times and each time we got something a bit different.

Our first Easter event was that organized by the Embassy’s Community Liaison Office.  The USAID Director graciously volunteered to host the event at his beautiful home, complete with very large – perfect for Easter Egg hunting – yard.  It was a lovely Spring, er, Fall (Malawi is in the Southern Hemisphere after all) day and C was dressed in Easter-appropriate finest.  There was face painting, Easter Bunny photo ops, and brunch potluck.  And, of course, an egg hunt.  Divided into age groups, the Embassy children lined up for their chance to participate.   A huge swath of the yard was littered with eggs.  For the littlest group this was perfect – but by the time even C’s group stepped up to the starting line, the kids were already plotting how to go beyond the little group, to the far end of the lawn.  The rope dropped and they flew past the eggs in front of them, running at full speed.  While there were a few eggs placed on top of large rocks on in trees, all the eggs were hidden in plain sight.  Once the time was up, the children turned in their eggs to receive a prize bag with candy, stickers, tattoos, and pens.  C very much liked her gifts but disapproved of the ease of the hunt.

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C blows by dozens of easy eggs

No problem.  Our next hunt would solve that issue.

One of the (if not the) nicest hotels and restaurants in Lilongwe advertised an Easter event including an egg hunt.  As I had not yet been there I thought it a good opportunity for us to have lunch, check out the hotel, and secure more Easter booty.  C had been sick as a dog the night before, but rallied for a chance to join another egg quest.

Approximately 35 children lined up to participate.  And waited.  Some baskets were handed out.  We waited some more.  Some hotel staff said it would start “soon.”  More kids showed up and needed baskets.  More baskets were fetched.  More waiting.  After awhile it was apparent this event was running on Malawian time.  At last the kids were released.  Almost immediately there was confusion.  The organizers had pointed the kids toward a walled area and said the eggs were hidden in that area…and also the area to the right of the pool…and around the building.  Everyone headed first into the walled garden and we looked and looked and looked.  For a good ten minutes no one found a single egg.  Even parents helping were unsuccessful.  This was an event for children aged 4-12, yet the eggs were hidden so well that the kids might have had a better chance unearthing Jimmy Hoffa, the Fountain of Youth, or the Lost City of Atlantis.

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Hunting in Paris

Finally a few older children found some eggs and a sense of hope resurfaced in the others.  C actually found an egg!  I was so proud of her.  Then the organizers said all the eggs on that side had been found and we should return poolside to look some more.  C found another egg!  But she would not pick it up, requesting I do so, because it was broken.  And then I got a good look at what we were hunting for.  They had not hidden plastic eggs.  They had not even hidden hard boiled eggs.  They had hidden brown, haphazardly painted, raw eggs!!  I asked an organizer how many eggs there were — 40.  Forty brown chicken eggs masterfully hidden in two large hotel yard areas for 35 children with a wide age span.  I tried to put myself into the shoes of whoever planned this life lesson in massive disappointment…

C and a few others had managed to find 3-4 eggs.  An older boy, maybe 10 years old, had found 8 eggs.  Another older boy had 9.  A girl a few years older than C had 13.  She won.  (Later she revealed she had simply asked those sitting next to her to contribute their eggs to her basket so someone would beat the older boys – brilliant)  Most of the kids had found none. Only the top three winners received a prize.  Again C felt disgruntled.  This hunt had been (WAY) too hard.

DSC_1303Our third Easter hunt took place in Paris.  As my friend and I had planned our trip to arrive in Paris just before Easter, it made perfect sense to track down a Parisian egg hunt.  And we found one advertised online at the Parc Andre Citroen for a mere five Euros.  We only had to wait for the tickets to go on sale; we checked online regularly for the release date.  It was like waiting for Taylor Swift concert tickets.   Purchasing opened and we snapped up two, one for each of the kiddos.  Once at the park, we went to the registration booth, showed our tickets, and received instructions.  The kids 3-6 years of age were to find only three eggs- one white, one orange, one pink.   In a field there stood several red cardboard boxes.  Inside were plastic eggs — one box would hold all blue eggs, another box all green, another all yellow, and so on.  So the kids had only to run to a box and if it had the color egg they need, pluck one out.  It never would have occurred to me to set up an egg hunt in this way.

The kids finished so quickly and then turned in their three eggs for a gift bag that contained a juice box, pan de chocolate, applesauce, and Kinder Eggs.  The real thing.  Not that stuff passed off as Kinder Eggs in America, the Kinder Joy, but the real, honest to goodness, banned in the U.S., Kinder Surprise.   Oh boy!  Although C seemed to find the hunt on the lame side, she forgot all about it once she received her reward.

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Find me quickly before the poultry does!

Our first weekend back in Malawi I prepared our fourth and final egg hunt — this one would be at home and based on the at-home searches organized by my mom when I was little.  I filled a mismatched pile of some 37 plastic eggs with jelly beans and miniature chocolate bunnies.  For the largest and most decorative of the eggs, I inserted a piece of paper on which I had written a clue.  Then I hid them in our living room, on the konde (our screened in porch), and the backyard.  Then I called for C to begin looking.  Some eggs were easy to find, some not so much.  My nanny and her sister sat in the living room observing the proceedings with what seemed a mix of amusement and wonder.  After C had found all the eggs, she opened the three with the clues.  One read “I am not a chocolate chicken, but I can be found among my feathered friends.”  C raced off to the chicken coop to find a large chocolate bunny nestled in the wood shavings.  Another clue led her to a drawer embedded in the stairs to her loft bed, and the third to the playground outside.  At the latter two she found gifts to unwrap.

Truth be told — I had never had an Easter egg hunt like that growing up.  As a child, my siblings and I would come downstairs on Easter morning to find our Easter baskets filled to the brim with goodies — always a solid milk chocolate rabbit, jelly beans, maybe Peeps, and some small gifts.  Then we would have an egg hunt in our living room.  But here I was making do, making my own tradition, and C declared it the BEST Easter egg hunt EVER.

 

Malawi Yard Wonders

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View of my backyard from my porch

Growing up I did not have a yard. We lived in a two story condominium.  There was a small patch of grass in the front and a common area to the side, as we were located on a corner lot.  Come to think of it, even as an adult I had never before had a yard.  I lived in a series of dormitories and apartments.  We did have a back patio in Juarez, half cement and half rock garden, but I would not call that a yard.  Now here in Malawi we are blessed with SO MUCH YARD.  While we do not have the conveniences we had in Juarez and Shanghai, our yard is a highlight of living in Lilongwe.

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Flowers of our yard

Each morning I sit in my screened in porch or konde to meditate.  With my eyes closed I hear the chorus of bird song, from tweets and trills to caws and coos.  I hear the rustling of the wind through the branches and fronds.  With my eyes open I see only foliage and sky and it feels as if we are miles from other people, and certainly not living in a capital city.  (okay, as you can see from my photo I can also see my brick wall and concertina wire, but that detracts only a wee bit from the reverie).

6. playground

A view of one side of the back yard with playground and trampoline

To be honest, having a yard was a part of the calculus I made bidding on my job in Malawi.  Every other place I applied to had apartment living.  Every other place had a larger political section.  There is much I enjoy about my work here, but when the pressures of being the sole political officer bear down, I need only to sit on the konde and breath in the sights and sounds of our yard, talk a stroll around our house, or watch my daughter on her playground or run through the grass to know we made the right choice.

We arrived in August, at the tail end of the cool season, after there had been little rain for many months.  The grass was brittle and yellowed and much of the back garden bare,  but the jacaranda tree with its lilac blossoms and the small flame trees in full fiery bloom gave the yard color.  The palms, though with some brown fronds, still tall and green.  The papaya and banana trees were bearing fruit.  C and I began to make plans.  I hired a gardener.  We bought flowers and planted seeds.  I have never had much of a green thumb and was not sure what would grow but we planted green beans, peas, watermelon, broccoli, cauliflower, romaine lettuce, corn, carrots, tomatoes, potatoes, onion, strawberries, tomatillos, turnips, and maize.  We started a compost pit.  We learned we not only had banana and papaya trees but also lemon, avocado, peach, mango, pomegranate, and guava.  We also had aloe and lemongrass.  Our yard was filled with wonders.

3. Growing Fruit

Some of our trees bearing fruit

Then like most of Malawi, where 80% of the population is involved in small hold agriculture, we waited for the rains to arrive.  From late November our patience was rewarded.  With each rain the plants became greener and more lush.  New plants sprouted, pushed out of the ground, and quickly grew.  The fruit trees became heavy with ripening bounty.  The transformation was astonishing.

1. Before and After Yard

Our garden section transforms from October to February

Not everything was a success.  The broccoli, cauliflower, watermelons, potatoes, tomatoes, onions, and more did not grow.  The papayas and peaches were poor.  The pomegranate and guava immature, withered on their bushes.  Our sweet yellow corn matured quickly, soon we had a good 20 stalks with one to two ears, but once picked the flavor was bland, the produce tough.  I am not sure what went wrong.  Was it poor soil, bad seeds, inconsistent rains?  At times the rainy season burned hot and dry like October, and at other times torrential storms pummeled the earth.  Having never cultivated plants in my life, I could not say.

9. fruits of our labor

We were rich in tomatillos, avocado, and carrots

Yet some plants did remarkably well.  Our banana trees regularly ripen massive bunches of 100 plus fruits.  We keep about 20 ourselves and then divide the rest among the nanny, gardener, and guards.  The five small mango trees produced a good 25 delightfully sweet fruits – deep green on the outside with bright yellow flesh.  I had not before been a fan of mangoes and had given several away before finally trying one of our fresh ones right off the tree.  My feelings on mangoes may have changed forever.  The massive avocado tree produced so many fruit we could not keep up.  Even eating countless bowls of home made guacamole, tossing some into smoothies, and giving them away like hotcakes, many ended up in our compost or fertilizing the ground where they fell.  The lemon tree has done well, the green fruits still turning yellow.  The scent of fresh lemon is wonderful, but given my limited culinary skills (to put it mildly), I am at a loss with what to do with so many.  C wants to make home made lemonade and sell it — not realizing that we do not exactly have a market here.  When the nanny informed us our carrots were ready, C and I spent a fun afternoon pulling them up and rinsing them off — only to learn later from our rather surprised nanny, that she meant we should pull them up gradually.  Oops, rookie gardener mistake.  The tomatillos did amazingly well, much to the amusement of the nanny, gardener, and guards, who had never seen them before.  They were even more tickled to learn that I had little idea what to actually do with them once picked.  I have a large bag frozen just waiting for me to make salsa or home made chilaquiles some day.

4. high maize

C and the maize.  C is not quite 4 feet tall

But it was the maize that grew the most.  Maize is the number one staple crop of Malawi and is part of the every day diet of most Malawians.  During the growing season, nearly every available plot of land is turned into a field of maize.  You will see it along the roadsides.  This is not the sweet yellow corn favored by Americans, but rather a more bland, white version.  In Malawi it can be eaten boiled or grilled but is most often dried and ground up into flour to make nsima, a thick porridge.  Unbeknownst to me my gardener planted a 15 x 15 foot area of my garden with maize.  Not that he could keep it a secret for long as the shoots sprung up and up and up.   I was surprised how tall it did grow.  First three feet, then five, until some was at least eight feet high.  I had the space so I did not so much mind, and I felt some solidarity with Malawian farmers.  In a way, I too was a small hold maize farmer.  When the President of Malawi announced a state of emergency when a fall army worm outbreak devastated at least ten percent of the crop in affected areas, my nanny pointed out that the insect was attacking my crop as well.  When a massive rainstorm flattened about 80 percent of my plot, I realized how quickly nature can destroy a crop.

To round out our small farm experience we also acquired some chickens!  I never imagined I would own chickens; however, prior to our arrival in Malawi, the former occupants of our home offered to leave behind not only their playground but also their fowl.  I was unsure at first, but C was smitten with the idea, so I agreed.  Unfortunately for those chickens, there was a miscommunication with the former residents when they moved out, and although a neighbor was looking in on them, a few days passed and the guards decided they had been abandoned and made a quick meal of them.  We ended up being reassigned another house just days before arrival so we did not even have the left-behind-coop.  So, soon after arrival I commissioned a local carpenter to build us a coop and I placed an order for some layers (chickens that are best for egg laying vice broilers that are for meat.  Look at me, up on the chicken lingo!).  Just two weeks ago we took possession of our four point-of-lay chickens.  I had no idea how much I would like having chickens.  They are actually quite soft and they like to be pet.  One runs up to me when I open the gate and arches her back for a scratch between her wings.  We look forward to visiting them each day.  C named them Carmen, Car, Lou, and Leash.

chickens

Our coop and the chickens proudly show off their first egg

We have also had encounters with lizards and frogs, with a two foot long blind worm snake (we both touched it), and even an African pygmy hedgehog that waddled up to me and let both C and I touch her quills.

I look forward to spending more time in our yard – to getting more seeds and trying again with the garden, with I hope more success.  Our yard has offered us so much more than I could ever have expected.

Malawi: Settling In…At Last

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Home Sweet Home

We have been in Malawi for six months!  Long before coming here, I knew this first six months would be crucial and it would not be easy.  I knew reaching this milestone would be very important for both myself and my daughter — to finally put 2017, the year of two intercontinental moves, three countries on three continents, two jobs plus training, two schools, two nannies, one childcare center, and so much more behind us.  So often colleagues told me (warned me?) that it would take at least six months to be comfortable in the new job and country.  In my previous government assignments in Jakarta, Ciudad Juarez, and Shanghai, it did not take me so long to acclimate; I felt comfortable within three months.  That did not happen here.  Not even close.

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99 boxes of stuff in the hall, 99 boxes of stuff… (actually only 91 boxes)

In the Foreign Service we seem to have an uncanny ability to forget how incredibly difficult it is to move each and every time, how difficult it is to arrive at a new place and wait weeks, if not months, before making the new house a home.  It is a defense mechanism.  If we remembered, perhaps we could not keep doing it.  We arrived in mid-August.  Amazingly, just 12 days later our Unaccompanied Baggage (UAB) arrived.  Even more incredible is my Household Effects (HHE) arrived from Shanghai, via a storage facility in Europe, in mid-September.  It was not until November that my supplemental HHE from the U.S. arrived after its epic journey from my apartment in Arlington, VA to the port at Baltimore, MD, then by boat to Beira, Mozambique, where it was loaded onto a truck and driven to Lilongwe.  Every day that passed C and I became more comfortable with our lives in Malawi, with the school, with work, with the grocery stores, with the ways to get around town.  The first time I drove to C’s school she guided me based on what she had seen out the school bus window.  The first time I figured out the other way to the supermarket was like winning the lottery.

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First room completed – C’s jungle bathroom

It was slow going.  New job.  New position.  New country.  New continent.  New colleagues.  New car.  New house.

In the Foreign Service, at the vast majority of posts, where you will live is mostly out of your hands.  We do fill out a housing survey to help direct the Housing Board in making their decision — but this is my fourth move with the government and every survey I have completed was fairly basic: your name, position, rank, family size, and maybe an area for few requests (near the school? shorter commute? pool or no?).  The Housing Board will do its best to assign you but are limited by when you arrive and what houses are available at that time.   At some posts, like Malawi, the pool of houses is tight, so there may only be one or two available when you roll into town and you are probably not the only person showing up then either.  And the houses available in each place is only as good as the local construction allows — in many countries/cultures built in closets may be non-existent or hall closets a luxury.  A bathtub might be really hard to get.  Or medicine cabinets or outlets in the bathroom.  Storage space may be plentiful or nowhere to be found.

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C’s play room

Building codes or shoddy construction practices or local preference may present you with some fairly interesting housing designs.  In Jakarta I had a room in the middle of my house.  Yes, right in the middle.  Four walls, no windows.  In Juarez there was no insulation in my bedroom floor, which sat right above the garage.  In the winter the floors were like walking on ice.  I had a patio but the cemented part of the patio was reached via a rock garden where scorpions lay hidden.  In Shanghai there were no hall closets to hang coats and all our bedroom closet doors were made of leather.  Yes, leather doors.  My cats liked those.  I did not so much like paying the $200 for damages and the inventive plastic cover I had custom made to protect them.

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My red and white (and horrid cabinet) kitchen

Our home in Malawi certainly has its quirks.  There are no outlets in the bathrooms.  So I plug my hair dryer in an outlet next to my bed where if I stretch out the cord I can check myself from a distance in the bathroom mirror.  The kitchen cabinets appear not to have been updated since the house was built, probably in the 70s, the off-white paint with wooden trim makes me think of wood paneled station wagons of the time period.  I hate them.  And they either do not close or they close so well I have to use all my strength to yank them open.  There is no hall closet anywhere near the front door though there is a nice built in wooden cabinet where I can store shoes and other random items — though when you look inside it seems about half of the back of the cabinet has been eaten away.  Luckily, I expect no one will ever look inside but me.  There is an odd bench-thing that divides my living room from the dining room.  I puzzle over its purpose and how I feel about it.  For C’s birthday party I used it to place some food and drinks but with kids it just seemed like I was asking for an accident.  Usually C uses it as a play platform — it can be the savanna in the Lion Guard or the forest for princesses or a surface to launch off cars.  We have a non-functioning fire place in the living room as well.  And our corrugated roofs… during hard rain the sound is so deafening we cannot hear each other speak and when the large ubiquitous black and white pied crows scamper around on top they sound like pterodactyls.

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C’s Moana inspired bedroom

Our bedrooms are small-ish and boxy.  And there is little wall space to hang pictures or artwork.  One side is all closet and a built in desk with mirror, one side is all window, and one side has to fit the bed with large frame to hang the mosquito net.  It is the same configuration in all three bedrooms.  I lose the fourth wall in the master bedroom to the dresser, the built in mirror, the door to the bathroom, and the door to the room.  There is only one small space to hang anything.  I know, why should I complain?  I have a built in desk and mirror.  I have LOADS of closet space.  And I have three bedrooms for two people.  I am honestly not complaining — just giving the facts, ma’am.

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The dining room.  Same old, same old furniture.  Zambia wall hanging, chair covers (because the cats like the chair backs too much) and my knickknacks in the China cabinet make it mine

As is usual for Foreign Service homes we have bars on all our windows.  We have bug netting attached to all our windows, which I assume is par the course for mosquito prone countries.   And like most homes in the Foreign Service we have the same old tried and true, and much maligned Drexel Heritage furniture.  Although I did not have this furniture in Shanghai (as we had furniture provided by the apartment complex), I have had this same furniture in Jakarta, Juarez, and now Malawi.  In one way it is comforting to know exactly what the dressers, dining room tables, side tables, china cabinets, sideboards, desks, chairs, sofas and more will look like.  Although I have little to no idea how my house might really look until I arrive, the furniture is not a mystery.  I plan decor around the furniture.

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Exhibit A

However, it can be really hard for friends and family to understand this lifestyle.  I have never picked out my own home.  Although some people paint, I have never done so and just use my wall art to change things up (you have to paint it back white before you leave).  With the exception of a few accent pieces, I do not bring or choose my furniture.   Sometimes we might be able to give some pieces back or exchange, but at some posts you cannot.  See exhibit A: the “between room.”  Another quirk of this house is this random room.  It is located between the living room and the room I have designated as C’s play room.  It has only two walls; it has no doors.  It has two cute, but strangely located windows.  It had the same boring but functional beige curtains found all over our house, in every single government provided housing I have had (again with that Shanghai exception).  It has an odd cut out in one wall and a built in shelf in the stucco of one of the walls.  It has plastic wiring covers snaking across the walls and a few oddly placed spot lights.  It’s weird.  I know.  But it is the house I have to live in for a few years and I must make the most of it.  But the picture I posted on my Facebook drew the ire of friends and family.  It is ugly!  Get rid of ALL that furniture!  Get a rug!  Throw away the curtains! The lamps and spotlights are dumb — get rid of those too!  People did not understand that A. I had changed out that sofa.  Initially it had been brown.  The same exact not-so-fetching brown as the sofas in the living room.  I thought this mustard an improvement.  In fact, knowing what was available in the warehouse, I had requested it!  and B. the photo represented my completed attempt at decoration and not a plea for help and design tips.

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Our living room with its unusual divider

But, here we are at last.  Six months, one quarter of the way, into my two year tour in Malawi.  Just now we are beginning to feel settled — in no small part because we have finally made our quirky, randomly assigned house into our home.  There is much to love about it.  From the wonderful enclosed but open air porch or konde where in the morning I sit quietly meditating and hear the sweet chirps and tweets and caws of no less than ten types of bird song and where I have had many a satisfying afternoon nap in my hammock.  To our high ceilings, pitched in the living room.  My daughter loves her Moana-inspired bedroom and does not care about the curtains or the carpet or the lack of wall space.  She and her friends love the play room (and let’s be honest the living room too — do not let that photo fool you, normally it is covered with toys).  No one else has to love it, just C and I.  And we know we are lucky to call this house and Malawi our home.

 

The Holidays in Lilongwe

1. Holidays

I do not always carve watermelons for Halloween, but when I do, my carving is awesome

I grew up in the US and had the usual holidays.  My mother used to sew our Halloween costumes.  She asked my sisters and I what we wanted to be several months before and then made it.  We trick or treating door to door in our neighborhood.  When I was younger, my aunt, and grandparents would come to our home for Thanksgiving dinner.  Once we realized we were not huge turkey fans we switched to our favorite: chicken schnitzel.  My mother made her own advent calendar and we made cookies and made crafts leading up to Christmas.

But there is a strangeness to moving frequently that challenges holiday traditions.  One never knows what will be available from one country to the next and what local customs may or may not exist.  We have to get creative.  Also, in the Foreign Service most of us head to a new post over the summer, and as we are struggling to settle in to new schools, new jobs, new homes, new routines, the holidays of autumn arrive.  One after another.

Prior to arriving in Lilongwe, C and I had already decided on her costume for Halloween.  She would either be Wonder Woman or a genie / belly dancer; one was packed in our UAB (unaccompanied baggage), arriving not long we we did, the other was ordered in August to arrive many weeks before the big day.  About a week before the holiday, the Embassy hosted a family-friendly snacks and happy hour with BYOP (Bring Your Own Pumpkin) for carving.  As the day approached I wracked my brain for where I might buy a pumpkin.  I vaguely recalled having seen something pumpkin-like at a supermarket.  But which one, I did not remember.  And, thinking back, the pumpkins had been white or green, but definitely not orange.  I asked around.  People were not sure.  An orange pumpkin seemed a tall order.  On the other hand, watermelons were in season and sold at regular spots alongside the road… Our first Halloween in Malawi also turned out to be my first time ever watermelon carving.  It turned out almost every had the same idea.  It also turned out that carving a watermelon is a little easier than carving a pumpkin, and the insides are more immediately consumable.

2. Holidays (1)

My “very confused holiday” trunk or treating decoration representing Halloween, Easter, Christmas, Birthdays, and Valentine’s.

The Embassy also arranged a little “trunk or treating” and party for the community.  I have now learned that other posts do this, but it was my first experience with it.  In Juarez there was trick or treating at the Consulate and in Shanghai residents of our apartment complex signed up with apartment management to give out candy.  In Malawi, we all live in free standing houses and although none of us live more than 15 minutes drive from another, we are somewhat spread out.  With trunk or treating, approximately 20 community members volunteered (me included!) to decorate the trunks of their vehicles.  The cost of admission for each trick or treater was a bag of candy.  Then bags of candy were distributed to each trunk decorator so there was plenty to go around.  Trunk decorators parked at the party location and kids trick or treated from trunk to trunk.  There was PLENTY of candy to go around, especially as kids could visit every vehicle in twenty minutes or less and then circle back around and do it all over again.  I had a few visitors come by about ten times!

Halloween in Malawi this year had an extra wrinkle.  Starting in September, rumors of supernatural “bloodsuckers” began in the southern part of the country.  Over the course of approximately two months, the rumors spread, accompanied by vigilante justice to capture, and even kill, those suspected of either being bloodsuckers or their associates.  While this may seem rather unbelievable–the rumors and the violent response–it was all too real and had a sobering effect on our work and celebrations.  The international school cancelled the costume dress up day; the Embassy cancelled an evening party; and I kept my scarier decorations in a box at home and came up with something else.

3. Holidays

Not my usual Thanksgiving tableau

For Thanksgiving C and I stayed in town.  There is just the two of us and I am not really much of a cook.  Certainly not Thanksgiving dinner kind of cooking.  You know, a meal that involves more than two dishes.  The Embassy Community Liaison Officer organized a event at a nearby lodge with a restaurant set by a pool and among gardens.  There, in 80 degree weather, approximately 20 of us met up for swimming and lounging poolside and a custom-made dinner.  The hotel staff did a pretty good job re-creating a traditional meal complete with turkey, mashed potatoes, green beans, and corn on the cob.  The corn unfortunately was too tough / too raw to eat, but everything else was quite good.

Then of course the Christmas season followed.  Unlike other places I have lived overseas, Malawi went full on Christmas-mode.  In late October I headed to the Shoprite supermarket at Gateway Mall for some grocery shopping.  There the entrance was decorated in all its holiday splendor – a Christmas tree, gigantic tinsel arches, large dangling ornaments, and even a huge silver bow.  Inside there were two aisles of plastic trees, tinsel, lights, tree topping stars, Santa and elf costumes, and loads of wrapping paper.  Wrapping gifts would be no problem. Getting them is a little bit more work.  In late October the Embassy mail room notified the Embassy community that in order to ensure delivery for Christmas orders would need to be received at the mail facility in Virginia by November 10!   Impromptu gift shopping can be tricky for many of us overseas. Not even a chance to use Black Friday deals for Christmas gifts.

4. Holidays

Gingerbread house in the subtropics

C and I headed back to the US in early December; I had training. The stores there too were chock full of Christmas.  As usual the back corner of Target was as if Santa’s workshop had exploded.  C wanted ALL the Christmas decorations.  In particular, she wanted a three foot tall light-up lawn unicorn.   I tried to explain that it would not fit in the suitcase.  And that the plug and voltage would not work in Malawi.  And finally, that in America people decorate their lawns for other people to see, but we had a high wall all the way around our house.  C said that without that unicorn it would be the WORST Christmas EVER! But she also desperately wanted a gingerbread house, so I bought one.  I put it in the suitcase, snug so that it would not get crushed, and transported it the two flights and 17 hours back to Lilongwe.  Not a piece broken. C said it would be the BEST Christmas EVER!

We missed the Embassy Christmas parties, but returned in time for our own Christmas celebrations. We made the gingerbread house.  We put up our tree and decorated it–C had insisted I trade in the small tree I bought in Shanghai for a larger one, so I had purchased a five foot fake in the US and brought in my household goods shipment.  I hung up our stockings, with two new stocking holders just bought at Target — great for those who have no idea if they will have a fireplace or anything resembling one as they regularly shift around the world.  And I began the my tradition of the weeks of gifts for C.  We also prepared gift baskets for the staff.  I know, I still feel weird saying–and writing–that I have staff.  But it is a reality for many in the Foreign Service and there is no reason to pretend otherwise.  I had initially not been sure what to include thinking I might get something special while back in the States.  But I learned that what most people want are the staples – rice, sugar, salt, cooking oil, biscuits for tea – because Christmas in Malawi is about food and family.  I really enjoyed buying the baskets and the contents and assembling them, though giving was most definitely the best part.  Because I spend so much time overseas and even when back in the US my family has opted for the past several Christmases to do a gift exchange, it had been a long time since I had given gifts to so many people.

5. Holidays

The Christmas baskets

Then we headed to Majete for Christmas.  New Year’s was a quiet affair for us.  We headed out again to Gateway Mall – the closest thing to come to a US-style mall in Lilongwe.  C rode a motorized animal and we goofed off in the equivalent of the dollar store.  At home we had ice cream and watched The Goonies.  C, snuggled up against me on the couch, dozed off long before midnight — probably a good thing because when 2018 rolled around it sounded as if the neighborhood was under attack.  I hugged her tight.  Our holidays here, and our first five months, were different, but pretty okay.