Farewell, Malawi

Tomorrow it is wheels up from Malawi after four years. It is very bittersweet. This is the longest I have lived in the same place since I lived with my parents before college; the longest in one place for C as well. But it is time for us to go. I am sure I feel this way in part because this is what any person moving must do — they must steel their heart against the inevitable, accept the change in location, otherwise it would be all the harder. But the pandemic has most certainly played its role as well. Malawi is an amazing place and we have loved the opportunity to put down roots, albeit temporarily, in this country, but it can be a challenging place. The pandemic exposed more of those limitations because we had no outlet. There were few chances to get out and push the reset button.

A long time ago I studied cross cultural psychology. One technique I learned was that when departing from a location to make a list of those things you will and will not miss and those you look and do not look forward to in the new place. So, here we go:

Will Miss

Wildlife

Malawi has been such a great place to really get up close and personal with wildlife. First off, we have been able to go on safari in several national parks. In other countries, safaris might not be open to young children as they are not particularly well known for keeping their cool and being quiet when faced with African animals like lions or giraffes. But in Malawi, there were no age restrictions and we enjoyed game drives in Majete, Nkhotakota, and Liwonde National Parks. Secondly, just being in the neighborhood, we have come across pygmy hedgehogs, a bushbuck, and a genet. And lastly, our yard has been full of wildlife surprises. We have had a few snake encounters – a blind snake, brown house snakes, and a few white-lipped herald snakes (and I convinced my staff not to bludgeon them but to alert me so I could see the snake and tell them to leave it alone) – and lots of geckos and skinks both inside and outside the house.

We have seen hedgehogs and mongooses in the yard too. The first hedgehog I met ran right up to me in the yard and then across my shoe. The one in the photo — I saw in the road as I drove home one afternoon. The poor thing was rolled up in a ball hoping not to be hit and I pulled over, stopped traffic, whipped off my cardigan, and scooped it up to safety. I took it home, made sure it wasn’t injured, and then released it in my car-free yard. The baboon spider (what we in America call tarantulas) first showed up hanging out on my front door (made it a wee bit scary to go in and out of the house) and then one day just ran across my living room floor while I was watching television. Very exciting! But the very best of our wildlife encounters had to be the visit of a rare bat. One day she was just roosting in my carport in broad daylight. I was able to approach and take a few pictures and sent them to the African Bat Conservation team in Malawi. I was told she was likely either a Great Roundleaf Bat – only the second ever recorded in Lilongwe and the first to have been known to roost here – or a Striped Leaf-Nosed Bat – which would be the first-ever recorded in the city. What an extraordinary find! The African Bat Conservation sent out someone right away to photograph and take some measurements — but unfortunately, their most experienced tagger was out of the country due to COVID. C and I named the bat Nutmeg and were so thrilled she made our yard her home – and stayed visible to us – for the better part of three weeks. Through these wildlife encounters, I made up the hashtag #safariinthehood as we did not need to go anywhere at all to experience incredible African fauna.

Our Incredible Yard

I have previously waxed lyrically about our yard, but I must pay homage to it once again because of all it has afforded us. Not only did we get mongoose and tarantulas, but we were also able to grow fruits and vegetables, experience incredible birdlife, and enjoy new pets. Sitting on my konde or screened porch and I can hear the calls of many kinds of birds. I can hear tweets and caws, chirps and cheeps, whistles and trills. On any given day probably 20 types of birds. My favorite birds are the pied crows — a large crow or a small raven with a snowy white breast and collar. A mated couple calls our roof home and when they hop across the corrugated metal it sounds like loud stomps; I call them the pterdactyls then. But the most beautiful is the lilac-breasted roller — we have one who loves to regularly visit. When times have been tough over this pandemic period, a brief walk around the yard, sometimes in meditation, could help restore my spirit. I’ll miss this yard very much.

Travel Around the Country

Malawi is an incredibly beautiful country and I am so grateful that C and I were able to see as much of it as we have. In all, I made it to 22 of the 28 districts. Had it not been for COVID, I would have made it to them all, I know this. If I had to choose, my favorite places were visited were the Tongole Wilderness Lodge in Nkhotakota National Park, the Robin Pope Safari lakeside property of Pumulani, the lush tea plantation of Satemwa in the south, and the island resorts of Blue Zebra and Mumbo Island.

Extraordinary Events

As a first-time political officer, Malawi absolutely delivered an unforgettable tour. As the sole political officer, I have had the privilege to cover a whole host of issues from human rights, trafficking in persons, refugees, politics, and more. In the four years I have been in Malawi, I have observed two by-elections and two national elections as an election monitor, was part of the team to manage the first visit of a U.S. First Lady to Malawi, I nominated Malawi’s first-ever State Department-recognized Trafficking in Persons Hero, and helped to bring about the first Mr and Miss Albinism pageant, at which I served as the head judge. The 2019 national elections were challenged leading to a historic — only one other time on the continent — court decision to nullify the results and call for a new election. The new election, which was held peacefully, ushered in the opposition party for the first time in 26 years. I might have received an evening call at home from the White House Communications Agency after the election results were announced. I might have been very excited — though maintained my cool during the call. At the end of 2020, the Economist magazine named Malawi the Country of the Year. And I was here for it.

Extraordinary People

On this tour I have worked with some of the best the State Department has to offer — truly extraordinary officers who serve their country with distinction. And I have had the honor to meet the best and the brightest of Malawi in the course of my duties. I had in my phone contacts a high court judge, high-level Ministry personnel, members of Parliament, important persons at the Malawi Electoral Commission, prominent human rights activists, and more, and when I called, they answered! I met a former President – the second female president on the continent – twice, the wife of the Vice President twice, the previous sitting president once, and the current president, before he became president, on several occasions. But it has been the everyday Malawians (or those living in Malawi), those like I featured in my Faces of Malawi blog posts (here, here, and here), I have met that have really been a big part of this tour.

Will NOT Miss

Massive Stacks of Bills. I do not carry a wallet here in Malawi. Instead, I carry is a fabric coupon organizer so that I have the space bills. The largest Malawian bill is the 2000 kwacha note, which is the equivalent of $2.47. There have been rumors of a possible 5000 kwacha bill since my arrival, but it never materialized. Malawi is largely still a cash-based society, though I have been able to use my credit card at the supermarkets and mobile cash has recently been introduced, so things are changing. I will be glad to retire my coupon carrier for a while, at least until I arrive in Guinea. In related complaints, the cost of some things is surprisingly the equivalent or even more than in the U.S. One is petrol. Currently, in Malawi, the gas prices are around 900 Malawi Kwacha per liter. That is the equivalent of $4.20 a gallon versus the current average price in the US of $3.17. And the Internet – I have posted before that Malawi has the most expensive Internet data in the world and you most certainly do not get what you pay for.

Driving and Parking. I have heard that traffic in Malawi is mild compared to many other developing cities. It is not so much that there are major traffic jams — I mean there are, but they are due to a limited number of roads. But it is the quality of the driving that really drives me nuts. I have heard, anecdotally, that there are a good number of drivers on the road without valid licenses. Given some of the driving I have seen, I believe it. But the parking too… A former colleague told me that a speciality of Malawi is to always construct buildings with a fraction of the parking needed. For example, the Bingu National Stadium can seat over 40,000 people, but there are maybe 500 parking spaces only. But it’s not just about there not being enough parking, sometimes there is plenty of space, but it’s made worse by some extraordinarily bad parking. There are a few places like the Game complex and the Gateway Mall that appear to be a magnet for those with the worst parking skills. People park a third of the way into another spot or diagonally into spots or in spots that do not exist. Sure, there are people all over the world who are terrible at parking, including the U.S., and its likely that parking will be challenging in Guinea, but I do hope for a respite from the special brand of driving and parking I have encountered here.

Mosquitos, Nets, and Malarone. We have spent four years sleeping under mosquito nets and taking malaria meds. In the rainy season, from approximately November through March, the mosquitos are relentless. Each morning I find myself conducting a bizarre clapping session as I kill one after another. When we head to Guinea we will back to this but I look forward to nearly a year away from it.

Grocery Disappointments. Sigh. It is such a disappointment to order items from the US and have them take four weeks to get to us and then they are crushed or melted. But this is what has happened with probably 50% of my Tostitos (half the bag pulverized) and my gummy vitamins (half of it melted into one solid mass). But even purchases here are subject to a lot of uncertainty. About two weeks ago I bought a container of hummus for $5 and I get home, open it, and find it covered in mold! And cheese, it’s a regular game of what will I get — could it be smooth and delicious or will it taste like stale dirty socks? I would say 8 of the past 10 watermelons I have purchased from the fruit seller have been bad despite the constant assurances that they are selling me the most delicious, red, and juicy fruit possible.

Overall, Malawi has had far more positives than negatives. I do not regret staying for two consecutive tours or staying here through the pandemic. Though COVID and the related travel and life restrictions have definitely made things more difficult but Malawi was our home. Now, we both look forward to some things in America we have missed for some time. My daughter puts string cheese, slurpees, and Taco Bell at the top of her list; I especially look forward to salads, sidewalks, and more of a sense of normalcy — though I do admit I am a bit concerned about the culture shock we will encounter going from a place very much in a third wave of the pandemic to a place where many appear to believe we are past it all.

Farewell, Malawi.

Hello, USA.

Malawi: Winding Down

The countryside around Dedza, central Malawi

We are slipping ever closer to our departure from Malawi; we have less than a month to go though I do not today know exactly how many days are left. I had a date in early August, but realized that due to COVID I could request to depart in July. I then had a very late July date, but then the airline flying that route cancelled the flight. We have new tickets but the already paid for reservation for my cat on that flight has yet to be confirmed for the new itinerary. Therefore things are not quite settled until the cat’s ticket is settled.

The past month has been a bit of a roller coaster. Lots of preparations to wrap things up in the office and at a home. A series of actions to check items off lists. Slowly sorting items into piles of things to sell, to donate, to give away, to put in luggage, into unaccompanied baggage (UAB), and into household effects (HHE). It might seem on the surface to be a rather straightforward process, but it is not. The two of us qualify for 450 pounds of UAB, which will be sent to the U.S. by air. It seems like both a lot but also not very much. We will be in the U.S. for about a year, so we want to be able to take a fair amount with us. Our HHE will be placed into storage in Europe until we arrive in Guinea in the summer of 2022; the shipment will only be authorized after our arrival and can take a few months. Therefore its likely we will not see these items for 15-16 months. If my daughter tells me that I can put something into HHE then I might as well just get rid of it now as she will be a different child 16 months from now.

We have whittled down quite a bit of the pantry and toiletry items. It feels a little odd as Malawi is a consumables Post – a place where we are able to get a extra shipment of foodstuffs and items for personal or household maintenance – and thus we arrived with large stocks of those items. Now we are out of vitamins and down to the last tubes of toothpaste, the last bottles of shampoo, the last bits of so many things.

In the midst of these preparations, Malawi has experienced the lead up to a COVID third wave. The third wave in Africa started in early May. South Africa had been seeing increases particularly with its own variant (the Beta) and the Indian variant (Delta), and as was to be expected it did not take long for it to spill across borders. By early June, the cases in Malawi started to climb just as the county began to administer the second shot of the AstraZeneca vaccine. Unfortunately, before the end of the month vaccines in Malawi were finished.

I had really hoped that before we departed Malawi we might get in another vacation. We had managed to get out for our holiday in Kenya just before the second wave and we have had a few trips within Malawi after the six-month prohibition against traveling out of Lilongwe at the beginning of the pandemic was lifted. I thought we might get to South Africa and Lesotho to finally complete the trip we had had planned for April 2020, but Ethiopian Airlines refused to honor the flight credits we had and with the COVID numbers going up yet again, it seemed best to remain in Malawi. I started to look into whether we could get in another domestic vacation but we had already done a good job in getting out and about; there were few places left on my bucket list. Many we had already been to twice. Those we wanted to get to were rather far, with still limited facilities due to the pandemic, or cost prohibitive.

Thus I found myself with 11 consecutive days of off just hanging about the house. As if we have not already been hanging around the house for much of the past 18 months. Yet this time, I have the upcoming departure from Malawi, our Permanent Change of Station (PCS), fast approaching so though my inability to scratch my travel itch yet again has done a few things to my psyche, I am also grateful to have had this time to both relax (lots of sleeping in, reading, watching DVDs), manage some final play dates for my daughter, and to do some of that whittling down of things.

Rock Art Paintings at Namzeze

But I could not be content with just that. There was one more place I had hoped to visit. There are two UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Malawi. One is the Lake Malawi National Park and we have visited there on multiple occasions (such as here, here, and here). The other is the Chongoni Rock Art Area. Scattered across 127 sites in the Chentcherere hills of central Malawi, around Dedza, these are a mix of paintings on rock by BaTwa pygmy hunters of the Stone Age and Chewa agriculturalists of the Iron Age and “feature the richest concentration of rock art in Central Africa.”

The last bit of, um, road?

On a beautiful, clear Sunday morning (after days of overcast days), C and I, with our friends CR and her daughter AR, headed about 100 kilometers south on the M1 to the Dedza Pottery Lodge. We stopped there so CR could pick up an order, we could all use the facilities, and we met our guide Samuel. CR jumped into the backseat with the girls and Samuel took the passenger seat, and we headed back north along a dirt road. We drove around 45 minutes to the turn off to the Namzeze site, which Samuel said was the best as it featured paintings of both the BaTwa and Chewa people. The road then got pretty bad. It was just a track through tall grassland. At times it was okay, but at other times there were some parts where bits of the road was missing, making ridges with fissures deep enough to maybe, if not swallow at least stall my car.

At last we came to an area just above a wooden log bridge. We stopped here as there were significant gaps between the log and it was too much of a challenge with my car (especially one I have already sold!). I was really pleased that although the road was challenging, the signposting was good.

We then walked up the rocky hillside for about 40 minutes or so (I suppose some can certainly hike it faster than two middle aged women of middling activeness with two nine year old girls) until we reached an area with a large covered opening in the rock, a shallow cavern, the Namzeze paintings. There we sat as Samuel gave us a bit of information on the drawings and the people who made them. He said the paintings done in red ochre were made by the BaTwe people, and could be as much as 10,000 years old, and the ones in white clay were made by the Chewa people and are approximately 2,000 years old (though it is not all that clear, even on the UNESCO site, that the paintings are that old). The red paintings, as they are older, are fainter, and of mostly graphic designs (lines, dots, shapes) while the white clay designs are of four-footed animals and birds, which are likely related to ritualistic initiations.

Left: Our guide Samuel surveys the valley from the mouth of the hillside opening; Right: C and AR in front of the rock art

After about 30 minutes at the site we had a more rapid descent to the car. We drove part way back to the Dedza Pottery Factory to drop off Samuel and then headed back to the M1 and Lilongwe. I am glad that we went, that we had one more adventure to see another special aspect of Malawi.

It is such an odd time now. PCS’ing — moving internationally — is hard enough, stressful enough in normal times. During a pandemic puts it at a whole new level. Flight schedules are more limited. Ethiopian once flew daily to and from Lilongwe and now its four times a week. And schedules seem subject to more changes and cancellations than usual. And the testing regimes on top of it. It’s a lot to think about. And it is all mixed up in the complicated feelings of departure from a place where we have spent a significant amount of time and after already a year and a half of a pandemic. Most Embassy families we know are currently on their R&Rs and we are the last family to PCS this summer. C’s best friends leave two weeks before us. Our last few weeks are going to be hard, especially on C. There is unlikely to be another PCS like this. At least I certainly hope not.

We head next to the U.S. where it seems from where we sit that most have returned to a level of normalcy. My sister, a TSA agent at a major U.S. airport, has reported “post-pandemic summer travel,” except that implies an end to a pandemic that is very much still in progress and accelerating again in many parts of the world. I am focused almost entirely on managing our departure; the arrival in the U.S. is a whole other step. I do not know what to expect.

Setsubun – Hoping Fortune Comes Our Way

Fortune and Demon – the Representatives of Setsubun

Today, February 3, is Setsubun, the Japanese festival to celebrate the end of winter and welcome Spring. I remembered this because I have a Japanese car here in Malawi and every day when I start her up, she chirps a welcome to me in Japanese akin to “Today is such and such day of the week and date. And here is an interesting/random fact about today.”

I am still writing up my blog posts for our R&R to Kenya and generally dislike posting a random post while still not done with a series, but we are in the middle of the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic here in Malawi and I am just feeling down. I am tired of the teleworking and the distance learning (I know, who isn’t?) and am suffering some pretty severe bouts of insomnia that is leading to headaches, exhaustion, and exacerbating the pandemic fatigue. Even though I knew that a flip of the calendar would not magically waive the pandemic away, here I am a month into the new year, deep into the Malawi rainy season, and I could really use a pick me up. So, when I got into my vehicle today and it chirped it its forever optimistic female Japanese voice, “今日は2月3日水曜日です.その節分,” or “Today is Wednesday, February 3. It’s Setsubun,” a waive of nostalgia swept over me. I was immediately transported back to when I lived in Japan and celebrated this holiday with my friends. Back to when I was younger and not a parent and not living in a pandemic.

My friend Bill has embarked on a pandemic lockdown inspired daily writing exercise — to stretch his writing chops, entertain friends and family, and perhaps pave the way into some sort of post Foreign Service career. While he is closer to retirement than I am, I too have found myself, especially when in the pandemic isolation doldrums, to flirt with my one day, perhaps sooner than expected, retirement dreams. I have long wanted to write about the years I lived in Japan. I figured I would take C to Japan and write about that trip and then as companion pieces, revisit aspects of my three years there. But a good look at the very long, minimum three flight trip, with either very short or very long connections, that would take us from Malawi to Tokyo, flattened my resolve; COVID-19 killed it. I still plan to one day write those posts. So with a combination of inspiration from my friend Bill and my Japanese RAV-4, here I am writing about Setsubun.

In July 1997, I arrived in Kogushi, a small fishing village on the San-In coast of Toyoura-town, Yamaguchi prefecture in the western part of Japan’s main island of Honshu. That makes it sound really romantic. In fact, if you literally translate most of it, Yamaguchi means “mountain’s mouth” and Toyoura means “rich bay,” and that sounds even more beautiful. Only Kogushi 小串 is not as lovely. It means “little skewers” as you can see the character “gushi” resembles a stick with two pieces of meat on it, like a kebab. I thought “little stick” more fitting, as in “I live in the sticks” or way outside the city.

The view from Akiko and Isao’s house during an evening party

I was an English teacher at the local high school through the Japanese Exchange and Teaching Program through the Japanese Ministry of Education and Sports. To cut a long story short, I was plopped down in the middle of this rural area to teach English to less than enthusiastic high school students. As the only gaijin (obvious foreigner) in town, I stuck out like a sore thumb. Parents would force their children to sing me the alphabet in the supermarket and people wanted to invite me over to their houses for the sheer quirky fun of having a real live blonde American in their home, but honest to goodness friendship was hard. The other teachers in the school stayed clear of me, largely because they did not speak English well themselves and the English teacher was a bit of a creep so I didn’t want to hang with him anyway. It was not easy to make friends and after the initial excitement of the honeymoon period passed, I found myself pretty lonely.

In stepped Akiko and Isao. A couple in their 60s who lived a few towns over somehow got word to me that they would like to meet me and discuss the possibility of starting up an English course for adults that would be run out of their home. Akiko and Isao would be my saviors, they did so much more than open their home to me. They gave me adult conversation, even if in broken English (and my even more dismal Japanese), they gave me friendship, with them and with the other adults who joined the class. They introduced me to Japanese customs and celebrations. They visited me in the hospital when I had my appendix out (an odd but amazing experience to have in small town Japan). And they even had my mom, aunt, and aunt’s friend stay with them a few days when they visited Japan, to give them an authentic Japanese experience (and me a break from four adults staying in my small two tatami mat room flat).

I started my three times a month lessons for adults in Akiko and Isao’s living room in January of 1998. They had a beautiful traditional Japanese home perched on a hill overlooking the Sea of Japan. It looked like a miniature of a Japanese castle — all white with a grey tiled roof, with eaves that turned up at the ends, with animal figurines dancing on the roof spines to the edges. Inside they had tatami mat rooms, fitted with traditional recessed alcoves with Japanese shrines with photos of ancestors, dolls, and old pottery, befitting the home of the granddaughter of a Samurai, which Akiko was. It wasn’t all traditional though. The heated toilet seat with about 20 controls for all kinds of toilet experiences, was a modern treat. And the jazz musician paintings that took center stage in their living room still fit perfectly. I was overwhelmed to be invited to teach here and almost cried when I came home from the first class.

Just a few weeks after I started, February arrived and Akiko and Isao offered to host a Setsubun party for the class. I had no idea what that was but was grateful for an invitation that would have me doing something other than sitting alone, cold (my apartment, like many Japanese homes, had crap insulation), watching Japanese television I could not understand, for an evening.

From left to right: Akiko and Isao with my mom, aunt, and aunt’s friend in Shimonoseki; Me with Akiko, Isao, and some of our other adult evening English class students; Me with Akiko and two other English class students at Toyoura-cho’s marina

Setsubun is sort of like Japan’s answer to America’s Groundhog Day. Though its origins are also old (8th century for the former and 4th century for Candlemas, the precursor to Groundhog Day) and around the heralding of spring, but do not involve anyone waiting around for the appearance of a fat rodent. Instead, it involves two people dressed up like an ogre of misfortune (oni) and the personified appearance of fortune (fuku) and the tossing of troasted soybeans. That sounds way more fun, right?

Arriving at their home after dark on a cold February night, I was a little surprised by the festivities. Neighbors dressed up like Fuku and Oni, looking a bit like a scary versions of Cookie Monster and Elmo, burst into the house as we threw the roasted soybeans (fukumame or “fortune beans”) at them with silly abandon while shouting “Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!” (“Devils out! Fortune in!). I am pretty sure I shrieked a lot. I had no idea that a Japanese celebration would be so fun; I had expected sedate.

Following this we headed in to Akiko and Isao’s house, where they had transformed the living room into a sort of dining room. Around the room where multiple kotatsu, low wooden tables with electric heat sources built into them for cold winters, each with an electric hot plate and a ceramic bowl perfect for cooking nabe, the Japanese version of the hot pot, the perfect dish for a cold winter’s night. Set out on the tables were various hot pot ingredients: cabbage, carrots, thin white Japanese mushrooms called enoki (the only mushrooms I have ever eaten), and various proteins such as tofu, shrimp, chicken, and beef. The dashi (broth) of kombo (seaweed), sake, mirin, and soy sauce already simmered and small bowls of ponzu (a light watery citrus-based sauce with a dash of soy sauce) and ground daikon (white radish) sat ready for dipping our cooked food in for added flavor. It was all very delicious, but it was the laughter and camaraderie that really warmed my heart.

Left: There is some fuku in the house! Right: Me enjoying my first nabe party

I will forever remember that night as one of the best of my three year’s in Japan. We recreated it each of the three years, but it was that first setsubun that was the best. Never before (and I struggle to think of a time since) had I felt so welcome overseas. That class became more than just a class. They were my friends.

Tonight, what I would really like to do is throw the shit out of some roasted soybeans while surrounded by friends shouting Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi! Because we could all use some major fuku fortune right about now. Am I right?

The Face Mask: So Fashion Forward

Every so often I write about something a wee bit different. Not about my travels or life abroad. And this particular topic has been worming its way into my brain for a few weeks. First as a few throw away thoughts, jokes to friends and acquaintances, until it filled out, and surprisingly, or maybe predictably, turns out it is sort of about my living overseas.

The author contemplating the past and future of face masks

The Face mask: finally, an accessory I can embrace. I have, at times in my life, hoped I could carry off a particular accessory to accentuate my personality. Well, not really, but I read that on a rather silly website that this is something accessories do, in addition to defining an occasion or defining one’s style. I do have jewelry, mostly necklaces and pendants, including some very interesting and much loved pieces I picked up in my travels. And for a time I was quite into shoes. I wear spectacles, but that’s so I do not bump into things and, you know, be unable to do my job. My prescription makes them expensive and I am unwilling to buy more than one pair.

I have tried to hats — cute baseball caps, a floppy straw beach hat, comfy beanies — but my head must be oddly shaped because they never look quite right. There are also those really simple but colorful fabric headbands that seem to render certain women who exercise to also look effortlessly chic. In case you are wondering, no I am not one of those women. Those bands will not stay on my head, but instead steadily, stealthily slide across my crown until they slump listlessly to the ground. I also, briefly, tried to up my game with neck scarves. I have a few I purchased in Nepal and Southeast Asia, some I bought at a fancy shop at the mall in the building where the Consulate was housed in Shanghai, a really beautiful one brought back from Pakistan by a former boyfriend. Sigh. I tried, I really did. But those did not amplify my style either.

But face masks. Whew, its like I have finally found the accoutrement for me. They fit my face. And they cover up my slightly bulbous, fleshy nose, with its high bony bridge I wanted, in high school, to reshape, and they play up my blue gray eyes and my quite flattering forehead. Oh yes, I have found the accessory for me.

The thing is, I realized after some introspection, face masks are not a new thing for me. I have actually been sporting them for some time, or at least at different phases in my life. And, I thought, how about that? For once I might just have been fashion forward.

My mask from my Korea days

From September 1995 to October 1996, I lived in Seoul, South Korea, where I worked six days a week as an English teacher in one of those institutions of after school cram instruction, called a hagwon. Between teaching, working out at the gym, and studying Tae Kwon Do (and weirdly, all three locations resided in one single building in Il-won-dong, Kangnam-ku, yes, the district in Seoul made famous by the Gangnam Style song), I had little free time, but when I did I often went clubbing with my friends. And there, I was on the ground floor of K-pop, before it was really known as K-pop. I bought cassette tapes (yes, it was that long ago) of my favorite Korean bands, and the favorite of my favorites was just about everyone else’s favorite: Seo Taiji and the Boys. And on a Sunday, my only day off, in the fall of 1995, I bought myself a knock-off Boy London face mask from a street vendor in Itaewon. I could probably write a short novella at least of my time in Itaewon, just up from the Yongsan Garrison of the United States Forces Korea, where by day I could find American goodies snuck off base and sold in hole-in-the-wall stores and by night could dance away with my friends and soldiers. But the point is I bought that mask, which because I had no clue about the British Boy London clothing brand, thought it referred to Seo Taiji and the Boys, forever associating it with my first, brief love for a band that sang lyrics I could not understand. I loved that mask. And I still have it!! I fished it out of a box just yesterday as I searched for something else.

Generic — until I made it special with a sharpie

Fast forward seven plus years. Boy London has been in a box for a long time and the Seo Taiji and the Boys cassette long ago lost. Now, I am in Singapore for graduate school. I have roommates again and there might have been a wee bit of clubbing on occasion, though more often small parties usually hosted by Indian friends and roommates, with Bollywood-infused dancing. A little more than halfway through my year, the SARS pandemic made its Singapore debut. It would be dramatic to say things changed overnight, because they didn’t, but things did change. And lo and behold, the face mask came back into my life. Though this time it was, of course, not about wanting to keep half my face warm during a cold Korean winter or temporarily brand my visage in cottony pop culture fabric. This time, I had to wear the mask for public health purposes. And I had no special mask, just generic single-use ones. But I still found it, not fun, but, me?

Jump ahead to the fall of 2014 as C and I are preparing for our move to Shanghai. Now, I am told, I’ll need a mask again, this time for the poor air quality days of Chinese cities. Though this time I also get to inculcate my daughter into the wonderful world of face masks from a young and impressionable age. I go for the top-of-the-line N95 masks in fetching plain colors for me—including a wonderful pale grey/blue that really accentuates my eyes—and a snazzy oriental print for C. So enthralled am I with this purchase that I schedule a photo shoot for C and I with my photographer sister, to truly capture this momentous moment when I bequeath my fetish for fetching face fixtures to my offspring.

For the love of face masks

I discovered though that getting a 3-year-old to wear and keep on a face mask is no mean feat. The photo shoot had not quite instilled the fun factor I had hoped. I also wear glasses and in the winter months, when the pollution levels tended to be higher and the masks were more often needed, I had to choose between wearing the mask and seeing where I was going. My warm exhalations steaming from the mask’s ventilation valves would fog up my glasses and though Chinese cities had come a long way since my first days in the country in 1994, there was still a chance a manhole or drain cover might be left off and I would plunge to my death (or just injury and pride as what happened when I fell into such in Japan of all places), so I needed full vision to navigate the sidewalks. My affection for face masks might have slipped a bit then, just a bit.

And now, here we are in 2020, and everyone (well most everyone, I guess not the anti-maskers who just are not getting into the spirit of it all) is getting in on the face mask action. But C and I, we are old hats at this. In fact, I would like to note that in 2016 I wrote, on this very site, a blog post about the growing face mask fad in China. Seriously, I kid you not, you can go back and look, but here is my prophetic prose: “Is this what it has come to? My coveting anti-pollution masks as an accessory? As far as I know Louis Vuitton and Juicy Couture are not yet into designing face masks, but is it only a matter of time?” And yes, I not only covet more face masks, but Louis Vuitton and Juicy Couture and many more brands and designer houses are now in on the action (and huge kudos to Louis Vuitton for repurposing studios across Europe to produce and donate non-surgical protective masks to frontline healthcare workers).

Malawi during COVID: Sunshine and chic chitenje face coverings

C and I, like most people in the world, wear our masks much more often now and have traded in, or at least swap our, out heavier N95 Shanghai masks with the colorful, lightweight, and simpler masks made from the traditional Malawian chitenje fabric (much of which is actually made in Indonesia as the higher quality, more expensive fabric is known at the markets as Java). But unlike many others, C and I are not newbies to the face mask scene, and eased into our mask wear with greater ease than most. Alas, my face modeling days are mostly behind me, though maybe C has a bright future in this no-doubt growth industry.

I would be remiss if I did not also point out that my cat too was way ahead of the face mask for pets curve. While I see photos and articles on the trend in China nowadays, I would like to just post here again a photo I posted four years ago of my cat, Kucing (pronounced “Ku-ching;” it means “cat” in Bahasa Indonesian) temporarily sporting my daughter’s face mask, which she wore without resistance.

It is amazing to recognize that for once, I was on the forefront of a trend. Me, who still had an 8-track player in the eighth grade (when everyone else was on to cassette tapes) and still had a cassette player in 2006 (and someone at the gym mocked me for it). Finally, my time has come.

Malawi Three Years: An Odd (COVID) Anniversary

Three years. I have not lived somewhere for three consecutive years since my stint as a Japanese Exchange and Teaching (JET) program teacher in Yamaguchi, Japan from 1997-2000. In the twenty years since I left Japan, I backpacked around the world over the course of a year and then changed addresses some 18 times to or within 11 different locales until our move to Malawi in August 2017. Yet here we are, three years into an unexpected, but very welcome, four-year tour in Malawi, though, of course, the last half of this third year has not been quite what we had planned given the coronavirus pandemic.

Happy Coronaversary

No question the pandemic has turned everyone’s worlds inside out one way or another.  My struggles with teleworking, child care, homeschooling, and housework are not unique.  Friends around the world are wrestling with these same concerns.  And for when the particular idiosyncrasies of being a Foreign Service Officer (FSO) in Malawi during the pandemic (because no, we don’t have a State or National Park to take a walk or hike or bike ride in nor can we have Whole Foods deliver), I have my friends and colleagues here to lean on and commiserate with. 

After the presidential election re-run, on which I had focused on since the beginning of the year, had come and gone and the new administration had begun governing, I found myself suddenly, painfully aware of the pandemic and the isolation and limitations it had placed on us.  At the beginning of July, I found myself feeling unmoored.  School had ended for the summer, the election was over and the results accepted peacefully, and a few other major work projects had wrapped up.  And the hope I had held for months that the pandemic would be over by July, like SARS had been when I had lived in Singapore, had been completely ripped up into tiny pieces.  Instead of being close to the end, it was still going on, and the numbers of confirmed cases were and are still increasing in Malawi.

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

Confirmed cases, which began in early April, had reached 1,000 by early July, then doubled to 2,000 by mid-July, and the case numbers continued to climb.  A month later, by our anniversary date of August 13, cases had nearly reached 5,000 (they did the following day). Those numbers may not seem like much in comparison to other places, but coronavirus response capabilities are not created the same. Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world and resources like medical staff, hospitals, and equipment are not at the levels of more developed countries. Just think about testing capacity: I have heard that neighboring Zambia tests as many as 7,000 individuals a day.  In the U.S., the average daily tests between 1 March and 30 July were over 350,000.  Even if you just take the state of Florida, which is close in population to Malawi, there were approximately 27,000 tests daily in June.  In Malawi, testing averages a few hundred a day. 

On August 8, the government at long last issued stricter coronavirus measures — this after the initial lockdown attempt in April was slapped with an injunction when human rights activists took officials to court over their implementation. Masks are now mandatory in public spaces, businesses in close proximity to hospitals are closed, church services are limited, and weddings and other large public gatherings banned. Before the restrictions went into effect I had already seen an increase in mask wearing in Lilongwe, with persons from all walks of life wearing their masks while driving, taking buses, selling their wares, and even walking in the open air.

And while I have not heard of anyone beating up anyone who has asked them to wear a mask to enter a store, compliance is not universal. Churches bristled over the regulations forcing a reversal on the restrictions on places of worship. Wedding parties are most certainly still happening – there are wedding reception venues embedded into our neighborhoods and the past few weekends my friends and I have been treated to hours and hours and hours (I mean, like 1 PM to 9 PM) of non-stop dance tunes.

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

Malawians have reacted to the pandemic and the restrictions much in the same way people have in other countries around the world. Some comply with measures, some do not. Some escape from quarantine, others voluntarily submit themselves. Some push for school and airport re-openings while others warn about the repercussions of doing so too early. When I am not frustrated by my inability to work at normal levels or being unable to travel, I am fascinated to have this ringside seat to the Malawian debates and to compare them to what I am seeing back home.

C tries out the new handwashing station at the supermarket

Perhaps the most interesting to observe and experience has been the innovation local businesses have implemented to keep customers. Before the pandemic there were only ad-hock delivery or pick-up in Lilongwe. Now however there is a food delivery service utilizing motorcycles, which can zoom around traffic, and pick up from just about any restaurant. Some supermarkets are also now delivering and the recycling group comes to pick up once a month in my area.

I have not regretted once staying here in Malawi for the pandemic. There are many other FSOs who are not as fortunate. Some may have only arrived at their Post a few months to half a year before the pandemic hit, giving them scant time to settle in, receive their belongings, learn their jobs, and meet colleagues and classmates and make friends before the quarantines and isolating began. Others were preparing to leave their assignments in the summer and opted to take the Global Authorized Departure (GAD) to shelter in the U.S. until they could make the move to their new duty station – quarantining in hotels or with family or in other temporary digs for an indeterminate period of time; unable to say proper goodbyes to friends and colleagues and leaving behind most of their belongings to be packed by others. And if they have been lucky enough to secure orders to their new assignment, many are quarantining in new, unfamiliar places and starting new jobs and schools from impersonal new homes.

Still others who were to transition this summer but chose to ride out the pandemic in a familiar place may now be unable to depart as commercial flights have not resumed in either their losing or gaining Post, or both. Some FSOs who had a year or more left in their assignment but chose to take GAD in the U.S. are now facing decisions of whether to break their assignment and try to find a position in a place they can get to or continue waiting for who knows how much longer to return. There are thousands of FSOs and other overseas government employees across the State Department, USAID, Foreign Commercial Service, Foreign Agricultural Service, Department of Defense and other agencies such as the Center for Disease Control, Department of Justice, Customs and Border Patrol, Drug Enforcement Agency, and Peace Corps (yes, all these agencies and more have overseas positions) and their family members who are in these circumstances.

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

But C and I are just riding the pandemic out in our home. While there were and still are adjustments for managing work and school in these circumstances, we did not have to add in other uncertainties. There was no need to pack, no need to move, no need to familiarize ourselves with a new city. I did not have to start a new job with all new co-workers. C did not need to start at a new school with new friends. And I am so incredibly grateful during these strange and trying times that we have this place where we are so comfortable, so at home. One more year to go.

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

Part 2 D
COVID-19 Media Advertisements– text message (from COVID-19?), TV commercial, and print ad

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

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

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

COVID-19 Makes its Malawi Debut

Part 2 G
Malawi streetside billboard.  The translation of the Chichewa is “Ways of Protection Against the Coronavirus Disease.”

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

Part 2 C
You know those stories of animals, such as deer, swans, dolphins, goats, and the like roaming emptied city streets and waterways? This is Malawi’s version. Also, an 8 foot Southern Africa Python was recently found in Lilongwe.

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

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

Lockdowns Are Not Created Equal

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

Part 2 F
Left: There seems to be a lot of confusion whether you stay one meter or two from each other, so I like how our favorite supermarket just split the difference and went with 1.5 meters. Right: Yet, on the eve of the originally-scheduled lockdown, with the store packed, social distancing went out the window.

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

Part 2 E
In the last week, roadside traders have begun selling homemade Chitenje masks. The first time I bought them, they cost 500 MWK. A few days later the price had doubled to 1000 MWK.

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

Easter Under COVID-19

Part 2 A
The Easter Bunny is an essential worker who follows COVID-19 protocols

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

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

Introverts Are Hermits and Other Annoying COVID-19 Falsehoods

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

Part 2 B
C and I find new uses for our Shanghai pollution masks and acquire local Chitenje fabric masks

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

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

Stay safe.

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.

Malawi: The First Summer Begins

IMG_E1950

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.