Restoration on the Lower Lake

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Beautiful early morning view of Lake Malawi from Sunbird Nkopola

It was a long summer.

I mean, weeks and weeks and weeks of covering for other positions empty during a transition gap, different duties due to a dearth in staff, and the unexpected because it was summer and we were short staffed and by Murphy’s Law this meant an uptick in political, economic, and consular activities.  It is one thing to anticipate it, but another to live it.  Do not get me wrong–I am not lamenting the work, much was quite interesting–but I was envious scrolling through the photos from weeks-long Home Leave or vacations of friends.  I might have had a wee bit of uncharitable, or rather undiplomatic, thoughts when a colleague told me in mid-August how he was so ready for a vacation, six weeks after returning from a month off in June.   It took a great deal of my diplomatic training to just smile and say “I hear you!” and not trip or shove him.  Diplomacy is such an amazing art.

It will still be six more busy weeks before C and I take off on a much deserved out-of-Malawi mommy-daughter holiday, but I decided that at least for the Labor Day weekend we would get out of Lilongwe, tackling some place on my Malawi bucket list.

Lake Malawi is the third largest lake in Africa and is sometimes called the “Calendar Lake” as it is approximately 365 miles long and 52 miles wide.  On the western shore of Lake Malawi, about ten miles north from where the lake ends, narrowing drastically as it flows into the Shire River (pronounced Sheer-ray), lies the small lakeside town of Nkopola.  This was our destination for the weekend.

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The road through the high hills

Malawi is surprisingly hilly (surprising to folks like myself who prior to arriving had little knowledge of African geography).  The country sits at the southern end of the East African Rift; the north and central western portions of the country an undulating series of hills rising and falling between 2,000 and 5,000 feet above sea-level.  I decided instead of heading east and then south, we would first head south on the M1 and then just past Dedza, which skirts the Mozambican border, turn to bisect a high hill range towards the banks of the lower lake.

I had heard the road would bend and curve, yet I was still unprepared for the serpentine twists that with each turn would reveal yet another stunning view of the stark, yet beautiful, countryside.  Little traffic (there was more foot traffic than vehicles) meant I could stop on the road now and again for a few moments to snap a photo or simply gaze in happy astonishment at the vista before me.  C too gasped occasionally from the back seat.  This road took only about 40 minutes of the three and a half hour drive, but it stands out in my mind.

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Rooms built against the rock face

We arrived at the hotel just at lunch time and happily checked in, finding we had been assigned one of the unique rooms built into the face of rocky outcrop fronting the beach.  The rooms themselves were nothing to right home about.  There was a decent queen sized bed, a nondescript desk, and a too large chair that would not push under the desk enough to allow easy passage between the bed and desk.  Outside our window a large cactus obscured almost all view of the beach.  But you could hear the waves, see the bright sunlight glinting off the cacti thorns and a brilliant blue sky between cactus spines, and C breathed in deep and declared the air to be fresh and clean.

The room may not have been all that, but the lush hotel landscaping, particularly on the side of the grounds where are room was located (the other side were ground level rooms and rondavals with much less greenery) certainly made up for it.  Hungry we headed to lunch.  The tasteless interpretations brought to us left so much to be desired, but it being hot and beachy, we had little appetite anyway.  C just wanted to get her swimsuit on and enjoy the water.  Pool, lake, whatever.  We headed to the pool where C quickly made friends (it helps to bring diving fish toys and a giant inflatable sea turtle on which at least four kids can ride), and I enjoyed a book.  I felt inexplicably angry about the lunch service, but I could feel the tension beginning to melt away.

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The pathway to our room

We had a quiet evening.  By that I mean we did little but hang out in our room watching a Marvel movie on the television and dining on the half decent version of room service pizza.  However, a large conference of Malawian auditors rocked on late into the evening, the thumbing music from their venue reaching even to our location at nearly the furthest room away.  Still we slept well.

After breakfast on Sunday we drove the twenty or so minutes to the township of Mangochi.  Once called Fort Johnston during colonial days, it was originally established in the 1890s as a defense post on the Shire as it flows from Lake Malawi and as a deterrent to the Yao slave traders.  Today there are few traces of this colonial past.  We stopped to look at the Queen Victoria Memorial Clock Tower built in 1901, its dilapidated clock face almost entirely missing, and a cannon from the Gwendolen, the Mangochi-built British gunboat and the largest ship to patrol Lake Malawi. It took almost as long for me to write that sentence as it took to circle the clock tower and read its historical markers.

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Despite its condition, the fact it remains standing and its placement at the edge of town and ahead of a bridge over the Shire, make it worth at least a cursory visit

C and I then headed over to the Lake Malawi Museum.  I only know of three museums in all of Malawi and I have been to “museums” in developing countries before, so I had set the bar appropriately low despite the surprisingly high marks on Google Reviews (six reviews giving it an average of 3.8 stars out of 5).  As we approached the single story ranch style building, which resembled a cross between a warehouse and a home, a sad metal playground consisting of a slide and the cross bars of a swingset without the swings in the yard to the right, it was not immediately clear it was open or operational.  The wide concrete slab in the yard likely a parking lot for cars that never come.  But two individuals, a thin older man and woman, sat on the porch next to the open door, giving more the impression of squatters than museum curators.  As I read the entrance fee of 500 Malawian Kwacha (USD 70 cents) and tried to hand over the money to cover both C and I, the man informed me in garbled English that the museum, though technically open, had no electricity.  I said that was fine, we would still go inside, figuring some windows would still provide some light.  But there were no windows and the darkness inside was near complete.  Not wanting to miss out on one of the major attractions of Mangochi, I asked the man if he had a light.  He pulled out a small torch and I lit up the flashlight on my phone and together we made our way through the tiny museum, past sad dioramas of Malawian wildlife, a replica of the deck of the Gwendolen, and a pathetic aquarium.  Well, if it had had fish it would have been poor, but the four small tanks empty of water and life did not even rate it the name “aquarium.”

As I handed over the money and thanked our torchbearer, and turned to leave, I mentioned to C it had been a waste of time.  She however insisted we go back inside one more time!  She said she had not seen enough of the boat deck, though I noted given how dark it was, it was hard to see anything at all.  She was adamant so we had a second visit.  C gave the museum 5 stars; I give it 1/2 a star, due in a large part for the amusing adventure of going through it in the dark.

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Beach view from the rockface stairs (the monkey on the roof also enjoying the scene)

Not relishing another poor lunch at the Sunbird, we had lunch at another nearby resort and then stopped at a wide expanse of dirt where dozens of goats were lazing about.  C dubbed it “Goatland” and boasted that she would easily catch a baby goat and implied we would then toss said goat into our car in and add to our growing menagerie.  Though I made it clear we would not be making off with some villager’s goat, I am glad C is not as good at goat catching as she proclaimed.  We then spent several hours on the beach – C playing in the surf and in the sand, with myself again reading a book.

The following morning I felt completely refreshed.  I took some time to just breath in the lake air and listen to the soothing sounds of the lake waves and the twitters of morning birds.  The restorative powers of a beach, nature, rhythmic swells, felt almost overwhelmingly strong.  Once again I felt surprised how even a few days of a change of scenery could do so much for my spirit.  C and I snuggled for a bit; how I love sharing these moments and places with her.  Then we packed up for the trip home.  Even the drive made me happy.

 

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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.

Intro to Lilongwe

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Not much to see here folks

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

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

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

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A jacaranda-lined road in Area 10

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

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

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

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Visiting the King’s African Rifles monument

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

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The view from the top floor of the President Walmont Hotel

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

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

Faces of Malawi: Fruit Sellers

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Seventy percent of Malawians live below the international poverty line of $1.90 per person a day.   Therefore for the vast majority of the population, life is hard every single day.  I do not understand those who say those who are poor are so because they are lazy.  Here I meet so many people who work really, really hard yet find themselves just keeping their and their families’ heads above water.

Located in Area 4, close to the center of the oldest part of Lilongwe, is the “Old” Chipiku supermarket.  It is called the “old” one to differentiate it from the newer one found in the center of the Old Town.  It’s chaotic parking lot is half dirt and half chewed up asphalt.  At the far end of the parking lot are a few large trees where the fruit sellers have set up their makeshift selling center.  They are not the only fruit sellers in town of course, there are plenty of corners and parking lots where fruit sellers may congregate, but I have found the largest concentration to be at the Old Chipiku.

These are young guys.  They range in age from 20 to 32, and most of them have sold fruit the majority of their adult lives, some even starting as children.  They work from 6 AM to 6 PM, seven days a week.  They have little to no time for hobbies.  Most live in either Area 36, the outer part of Lilongwe proper or in Bunda, rural Lilongwe.  It costs between 500 and 1000 Malawian Kwacha (MWK) (68 cents to $1.37) one way for them to get from home to work.  They live with their mothers, their wives and children, or on their own; none of the wives work.  Housing costs range from free to 8000 MWK ($11.00) a month.  Each week they clear on average 5000-6000 MWK ($6.85 – $8.22).  So although these young men work twelve hour days, 84 hour weeks, they live below the international poverty line.  They do not dream big, they just want to live a bit better, have more stability and regular income.

We talked in English although the majority do not speak it well, just enough to make a sale with English speaking customers.  Those who could understand and speak better assisted with Chichewa-English translation.

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Steven

 

Steven is 22 years old.  He lives with his mother in rural Lilongwe.  One of five children, he has been selling fruit since 12 years of age, for ten whole years.  Basically since he left primary school.  When asked about his hobbies, he was at first very confused as he doesn’t have much free time with twelve hour days and an hour commute each way.  Pressed, he revealed he enjoys playing football (soccer).  If he could do anything else for a profession he would like to be a mechanic.

 

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Leonard

 

 

Though he looks older, Leonard is only 21 years old.  Not only that but he is married with two children, one six years of age, the other one.  He usually sells papaya, but when it is not in season he works on his mother’s farm; she grows groundnuts (the groundnut production in Malawi happens to be dominated by female-headed households).  One of seven children, with three brothers and three sisters, his parents could not afford his school fees, so he only finished two years of secondary school.  He also enjoys playing football in his little free time and would also like to be a mechanic.

 

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Willard

Willard is 32 years old, married with two children.  He has been selling fruit for 17 years!  Willard has a certain aggressive, but charming, method to approaching customers.  It must work as among the fruit sellers interviewed, he reported the highest weekly profit – 20,000 MWK ($27.40).  In his free time he not only plays football but also makes wood furniture.  If he had the money he would like to become a driver and build his own home.

 

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Ishmael

 

Ishmael is 25 years old and has been selling fruit for 12 years.  Originally from Mangochi, he lives in Area 36 with his younger brother.  He is still single because, he says, he is just not ready to settle down.  He too enjoys playing football, but if he were to have another job, he would like to be a “big businessman,” though the type of business does not really matter to him.

 

 

 

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Ibrahim

 

 

Also from Mangochi, Ibrahim is 28 years old and has spent the past seven years selling fruit.  He was the only Muslim among those interviewed, which matches the approximate 15% of the population who identify as Muslim.  He is single and lives alone in Area 36.  He only finished primary school, but has dreams of being a mini bus driver.

 

 

 

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Saidi

Saidi is 30 years old, married with two children.  He is fairly new to fruit selling, having only been doing it for three years.  Previously he grew cotton on his own plot in Mangochi.  In Malawi, cotton is primarily grown by smallholders in the south of the country, but the industry had not been doing well the past few years.  He wishes he could be a freelance mechanic — he wants to take work when available and set his own hours but have better pay.  In his free time he plays “draft” or draught, the British word for checkers.

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Zachias

 

 

Zachias is a 28 year old from Zomba.  He only finished primary school.  Previously working as a manual laborer, he has only been selling fruit for three years.  He is married with three children.  They live together in a single small apartment, what they all referred to as “boys quarters,” with one bed for 2,500 MWK ($3.42) a month.

 

 

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Onesmo

 

 

Onesmo is 25 years old and has been selling fruit for five years.  He is originally from Zomba, in south-central Malawi.  He is married with two children.  Like the majority of the fruit sellers he only finished primary school because his parents could no longer afford the school fees.  (Although free primary education – through the first eight years – was introduced in Malawi in 1994, but secondary schools charge fees).  If he had the chance to do anything else, he would like to be a mechanic.  He said he had no hobbies other than praying.

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Levy

 

Levy is 31 years old.  He seemed the most serious and educated of the group.  Born in Chiradzulu, in the south-west of Malawi, he nearly finished high school when his parents both died in quick succession from an illness he would not name.  With four brothers and three sisters, he had to make a living somehow and packed up his bags and came to Lilongwe.  That was 11 years ago and he has been selling fruit ever since, now supporting his wife and two children.  He would really like to sell a durable good.  Selling fruits is inconsistent, they spoil quickly and there is no guarantee each day how much will sell.  Cell phones seem like a safe bet for him.  In his free time he enjoys playing “draft.”

 

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Francis

*Francis is 31 years old.  He is married with two children.  Unlike many of the other sellers, he has only been in Lilongwe for three years, and only selling fruit for a year and a half.  Previously, he sold hardware but changed to fruit because he makes more.  Before Lilongwe, he was one of Malawi’s many smallholder maize farmers.  In 2015 periods of drought and then severe flooding led to a sharp decline in maize production.  He would also like to be a driver so he could earn more.  Since he has a history of steadily moving into better paying jobs, of all the men I interviewed I believe Francis just might get there.  Francis is the reason I wanted to do this photo-story series.  He is my go-to fruit guy.  He always has a smile on my face.  The day I went to visit the fruit sellers for photos and interviews, Francis had left early to return to Mulanje to bury his mother.

During the interviews the atmosphere was jovial. These men were eager to share their stories and have their photos taken.  They joked and laughed and their spirit was infectious.  But later I felt a sense of anger and sadness overcome me.  The stories so depressingly similar, the dreams so simple, yet deceptively so as they are, for the most part, unobtainable.  My privilege so glaringly obvious as the groceries in the back of my car cost twice their monthly take home.   At 2000 MWK a pop, I had spent 16,000 MWK just on eight bottles of flavored water, what they might net over two and a half weeks.  And I am very aware that my posts on Malawian life are uncomfortably juxtaposed with my vacation and travel posts–activities so far out of the reach of the average Malawian.  These are but some of the faces of Malawi.

 

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.

 

 

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

7. view

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.

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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.