Thursday, December 1, 2011

World AIDS Day – December 1st, 2011

It is more than a horror story, exploited by the tabloids. AIDS is really a test of us, as a people. When future generations ask what we did in this crisis, we're going to have to tell them that we were out here today. And we have to leave the legacy to those generations of people who will come after us.

Someday, the AIDS crisis will be over. Remember that. And when that day comes -- when that day has come and gone, there'll be people alive on this earth -- gay people and straight people, men and women, black and white, who will hear the story that once there was a terrible disease in this country and all over the world, and that a brave group of people stood up and fought and, in some cases, gave their lives, so that other people might live and be free.
These words were spoken in 1988 by the late AIDS activist Vito Russo. I keep a print-out of these words on my bedroom wall and derive hope and strength every day from them.  

The context for Russo’s speech was, in many ways very different than today’s reality. He was in New York in the 1980s when AIDS was ravaging the gay community and anti-retroviral therapy was not yet available. It was different in that we didn’t know as much about HIV as we do today. We didn’t have treatment. There was a lot of fear as many people, whole communities of gay men passed away.

Although it was a very different context, I am angered and saddened so say that many of the fundamental issues that made the epidemic so devastating in Russo’s time are still raging today.

HIV continues to affect the most vulnerable of us around the world. It is the number one cause of death in women of reproductive age worldwide. It disproportionately affects those living in poverty. Children are still being born HIV positive, although mother-to-child transmission is preventable.

Throughout the world, stigma and marginalization continue to perpetuate the spread of HIV.

It doesn’t come as a surprise that after years of colonialism, the slave trade and continued oppression, that Sub-saharan Africa carries the global burden of HIV/AIDS (an estimated 68% of people living with HIV live in sub-Saharan Africa).

Here in Malawi (and in many other countries in Sub-saharan Africa), HIV has a woman’s face. It is clear that this is linked to many women’s lack of social and economic power. Sexual and reproductive health rights are rights for everyone – not just those who enjoy power and privilege. Gender based power dynamics are fueling the spread of HIV with devastating effects here.

Within a Canadian context, women from the African and Caribbean diaspora, Aboriginal peoples, injecting drug users and men-who-have sex with men bear the burden of HIV. Is it a coincidence that these are arguably the most marginalized groups within Canadian society? If so:
-Why would a woman who has emigrated from an African or Caribbean HIV endemic country be 8 times more likely to contract HIV, after arriving in Canada, than me? 
-Why would an Aboriginal Canadian be 3.6 times more likely to contract HIV than me? 

There are approximately 34 people million living with HIV in the world today.  More than 1 million people die of AIDS-related death every year. 7 thousand people aquire HIV every day.

For these, and many other reasons, I believe that HIV and AIDS is one of the grossest injustices of our time.

The UN AIDS ‘Getting to Zero’ Campaign puts forth the goals of ‘Zero new HIV infection, Zero discrimination and Zero AIDS-related deaths’ by 2015 and encourages each and every one of us to be an activist.

There are tons of ways to be an activist! Of the top of my head, here are a few:
  • Get tested! Know your HIV status.
  • Choose to reduce harm to yourself and others by using a condom or a clean needle.
  • Talk about HIV with family and friends. Talking breaks down barriers and reduces stigma!
  • Wear a red ribbon.
  • Add a twibbon on twitter or facebook (
  • Learn more about HIV - educate yourself and share the information with others! (
  • Donate time, resources or money to a local or international HIV/AIDS cause.
  • Now for the shameless plug: If you are interested, I am raising funds to buy Bicycle Ambulances to be used in rural areas of Malawi to take people living with HIV/AIDS to the hospital. Distances can be very long, and those too stick to walk are sometimes carried or pushed in wheelbarrows. Bicycle ambulances (a bike with a stretcher on wheels attached to the back) provide a safer, faster and more dignified way to travel. Check it out at : or make a donation at !

25 years after his speech, Vito Russo’s words are still relevant. Now, more than ever, we need to consider ‘Why we fight’ and if we are really fighting. We have started to turn the tide on HIV, but there is still so much to be done. Today I invite and challenge you join that brave group of people that stands and fights so that others may live and be free. 

Home in Malawi (Nov 30, 2011)


Outside my house - hammock for relaxing and stargazing

Today I wake up feeling rested and excited about the day ahead.
I am incredibly lucky to have a found a wonderful place to stay.

I am renting a room in a small, 2 bdrm house a 25 minute walk away from work and town. The house itself is quite cute, smaller than an apartment. It has a kitchen, which is great because I can cook and keep food, as well as a bathroom with a shower (and even hot water sometimes!). My room is great – it has windows on 3 walls and I wake up every morning bathed in light with a view of green tropical trees and a grass fence. 

Outside the place there is a small porch with some basic wicker furniture where I like to eat breakfast.  It seems funny, but being able to do small things like boiling water or making coffee and eggs feels great after my month of staying in different lodges.

There is also a papaya tree with a hammock right out front my door. Last night I lay on the hammock drinking a cider and watching the stars appear. It is peaceful and I feel safe and happy there. The moon here hangs differently – as a sliver it smiles with its sides turned upwards.

Papaya Tree

Moon smiling in the sky
The best part about where I am living is not the house but the location. It is at the back of a campground for overlanders and backpackers. The place has a camping area, grass huts and dorms where people can stay and is quite lively. There is a small bar, a restaurant with a great vegetarian menu, a book exchange and a swimming pool. There is a also communal area where people hang out. Last night I heard music while lying on the hammock and went out to investigate. A band was practicing by the pool table – a mix of local and foreign guys with guitars, djembes and their voices. I sat and listened to them play, read my book and chatted with a man from Finland.
Given that it gets dark at 6 p.m. and it is unsafe to walk outside after that time, it is wonderful to be able to be around people and have things to do without leaving the camp area. If I need privacy, I can go hang out in my room or on the porch of the house, which is perfect.

If there isn’t any running water, there are always buckets of water in the communal bathrooms so I am never without. 

I also now have a roommate now who seems very nice – Tyler is a young guy from Indianapolis who is also volunteering here.

It is funny how having a welcoming physical space makes a huge difference. I don’t feel as disconnected and foreign anymore. I am part of a community and have a place that allows me to be myself and that meets my needs.

I feel so grateful for my new home. 


Living Room

My new bike - a gift from my Aunt Mary & Uncle Sandy

Monday, November 28, 2011

Visit to Liwonde Secondary School

On Wednesday I had the privilege of visiting Liwonde Secondary School in Southern Malawi.

The school has 4 buildings as pictured above. There are 367 students at the school.

Here is the grade 12 classroom. There are 87 students in the class.

This school a major part of FAWEMA’s work given that they use it as a place to model interventions that encourage girls to stay in school. Many girls drop out of school in Malawi for a variety of reasons. Among them, there is a common belief that as soon as a girl hits puberty and grow breasts, she is ready to get married and have children. Forced marriages are a major issue for teen girls in Malawi. 

The principle showing enrollment numbers
As you can see, there are fewer girls. In forms 1 & 2 (grades 9 & 10), teenage pregnancies cause many drop-outs.

The purpose of our visit was a FAWEMA organized award ceremony for the top performers in Math and Science subjects. They also used it as an opportunity to speak to students and the community about the importance of educating girls and to promote interventions aimed at keeping girls in school.

I happened upon the school choir preparing for their presentation at the ceremony that afternoon. I watched enchanted as they sang and danced. Below is a video clip from one of their songs. This song is about how FAWEMA promotes the education of girls.  

After their presentation I clap and they run over to meet me and hang out. 

The school also has a ‘Speak Out’ club, where a small group of girls get together to determine ways to talk about issues commonly affecting their peers. Through refusing the cultural silence so often expected of girls and women, hopefully girls will be retained in school. 

Some Speak Out! Club Members
We also took the opportunity to ask some children about the challenges they face in school. The group we spoke with were either orphans or vulnerable children and FAWEMA supports them by paying their school fees (approximately $30 for the year). We sat outside and had any interesting conversation.

The students told me about their favourite school subjects (most liked Math, Science and English) and their hopes for the future. Many wanted to be nurses, one a doctor, one an accountant and one a lawyer. They also told me about a typical school day for them. This is a summary of their answers:

-They wake up between 3 and 5 am. They cook porridge for themselves; some walk to fetch water (up to a distance of 3 kilometers). Some study in the mornings. They go to school for 7AM.

-School ends at 2:30 after which they walk home.

-At home, they make Nsima (Malawian staple of ground up corn and water) and then study until 6 o’clock when it gets dark. Since flashlights and lamps for gas are expensive, they can’t study after that time.

-They pray and/or eat more Nsima before going to bed.


The students told us that one challenge that they don’t have the equipment that they need (exercise books, pens, pencils, lab equipment, etc).

The science lab. Unfortunately they don't have many science supplies (microscopes, chemicals, droppers, etc) so it is difficult for them to pass the University/College entrance practical exams because the exam is the first time they have the materials in front of them. 

The award ceremony was quite the event. There were many speakers and performances by students, the mother group and FAWEMA members.

The top students received a knapsack with a biology text book and a pair of shoes.

Top performers with their awards

Mother Group members hug students who received awards

WUSC sponsored bicycle being presented to Mother Group

WUSC provided a bicycle in support of one Liwonde community intervention - the Mother Group. A Mother Group is a group of female community members that volunteer in schools and communities to remove barriers that cause girls to drop out.  They work with teachers, local leaders and community members to sensitize them on gender issues and the importance of educating the girl child. They also ensure that there are bathroom facilities that allow for proper menstrual hygiene, support teen moms, address cases of abuse, etc. Given the long distances that Mother Group volunteers walk, bicycles are quite helpful in supporting their work. 

We also gave out some awards to other girls at the school. From the Christ Church donation items, we put together small care packages that included soap, underwear, nail clippers, band-aids, facecloths, etc. We will put together more of such kits with the remaining supplies to provide to vulnerable girls at different schools. FAWEMA thinks that one benefit of these kits will be supporting attendance of girls during menstruation given that the items can be used for menstrual hygiene (many girls stay home during the week of their periods).

Life skills teacher Mrs. Ruth hands out care packages

I finished the day by watching the girls play net ball (kind of like basketball) in gym class. They were amazing! What a day!

Monday, November 21, 2011

Time to stop wearing my wishbone where my backbone ought to be

Today I feel defeated.

I want desperately to be the person that everyone wants me to be here – joyful, passionate and productive in support of a beautiful country that is in much need of lots of TLC.

Although it is true that Malawi is a beautiful country and that is very much developing, I am sad to say that I don’t feel like I am doing my part. I feel tired, broken and lost.

I haven’t been acknowledging this because I want to have a great experience here and want to be able to give to causes of importance. The truth is that I don’t feel like I am doing those things right now via my volunteerism. This entry isn’t intended to be negative or disheartening, rather I need to acknowledge that what I have been doing here isn’t working so that I can be better - for both this country and myself.

First off, let me be a bit indulgent so that you know the context from which I am writing this.

I spent the night sick. Feverish, chilly and aching behind my eyes. I ran to the toilet more times that I can count. I drifted occasionally out of conscious and then woke up disoriented and afraid.

I am scared to eat anything and have been drinking as much juice, pop and water as I can manage to rehydrate.  At first I was scared that I had Malaria, but I now think that an Ethiopian meal that I ate last night is the culprit. I then woke up to a hurtful e-mail from a very dear friend and stumbled to work trying to hold back tears. At lunch, I went to pick up my new bicycle. Being on a bicycle always makes me feel happy…  and for a few seconds I am just that, soaring down a hill, over a bridge… people wave and smile at me as the breeze provides me with a temporary escape from the oppressive heat… then the bike starts making funny noises, I realize the brakes barely work and the pedal falls off. I turn it around and push it back up the hill to try to get a refund. All-in-all I feel emotionally, mentally and physically drained.

The other thing is that I am having trouble with is self-motivating and getting excited about work I am doing as I wait for the HIV stuff to start. I have been very tentative about taking too much initiative for fear of being pushy – I know that I come from a direct culture and am a very direct person. That said, I can’t sit idle or with only small pieces of work and just take up space here. I also must carve out where I believe I can make an important contribution and believe that the organizations I am with would be responsive to this.

As Elizabeth Gilbert so brilliantly says in ‘Eat, Pray, Love’, it is time to stop wearing my wishbone where my backbone oughta be. It is time to get down to making things happen and choosing the experience that I want to have.

In that vein, I have done enough indulging in negativity. The reality is that we all are responsible for choosing our thoughts and feelings. If I want to have a positive experience, I need to make it happen by thinking and feeling positively. Although this can be trying as a visible foreigner in one the poorest countries in the world, it is no one’s fault but my own if I don’t put in/get something valuable out of this experience.

Out of my wallowing and into my decision to pick myself up by my bootstraps, here is my action plan:

1)   Start taking Chichewa lessons. Language gives an important insight into culture and can break down many barriers. If I can show that I am making an effort to learn, I think that people will know that I am serious about being here. It will also help me understand what is happening (i.e. in meetings, politics and on the minibus when everyone is laughing but all I can understand is ‘Azungu’). I have requested to have 1-hour sessions 3 times a week and hope to start soon.
2)   Kill ‘em with kindness & choose an attitude of gratitude. I am finding that due to certain challenges I am facing, I am not being as positive or friendly as usual. If Malawians still manage to smile and ask how I am despite crushing poverty and a fuel crises, why can’t I choose kindness and positivity? I am going to choose to smile - even when I want to cry. I will fight my instinct to withdraw by choosing to being interested and engaged instead. I have a lot to be grateful for here in Malawi - a nice home in a great spot, some newfound friends, warm weather (& no winter!). I also am blessed to have friends and family back home and the support of the Rotary Foundation to do something that I am passionate about. I will choose kindness and gratitude.
3)   Health (Physical, mental, spiritual & emotional). I will continue to exercise and try to get the nutrients and proteins that my body needs to function and feel good. I am going to continue to keep abreast of local and foreign news as well as read for pleasure (African lit would be great if I can find some!). My new place is going to make all of this much easier – there is a pool for swimming and a hammock with a beautiful view of the sky for reading and reflecting. Being in a permanent place with a kitchen will allow me to cook more and have nutritious food on-hand.
4)   Re-finding my passion! I will keep my eyes and ears open for initiatives that make me feel interested and excited. I will do the work that is asked of me, and at the same time look for things that I find interesting and take initiative to do them.
5)   Be honest with myself. I have let a whole bunch of things build up and haven’t shared them because I haven’t wanted them to be my experience. I need to remind myself that it doesn’t matter what I think the moments of my life should offer. If I’m not honest, how will I move forward? 

First World Problems in a Developing Country (Nov 15, 2011)

I wake up in the night and make my way through the dark to the bathroom. This might sound stupid but I have a fear of snakes – specifically snakes in the toilet. As per my ridiculous habit, I peer tentatively into the bowl before dropping trou.

I must say that I no longer consider my toilet bowl checking a ridiculous habit. There WASSSSS a snake in there! Ok – a really skinny short snake or maybe a large worm, I am not sure which one.

You can imagine the dilemma one faces when they really have to go pee and there is only one toilet and that toilet has a snake-like creature in it. Do you hold it? Pee outside? Go ahead and pee on the snake-thing?

I think that my toilet-bowl friends were blind snakes -
saw them on a 'snakes of Malawi' poster
I am not entirely proud of what I did, many of you know that I am a vegetarian and firm believer in animal rights.  In my defense, I had to go really badly and there is a night guard with a really powerful flashlight. Imagining him shining that light on my bare pale skin as I squat peeing quickly ruled out that option.

I also reason that the thing is ok in water given that it is swimming in the bowl… so I squat as far away from the throne as possible and try not to hit him. As I go back to bed I wonder if I have hurt him and hope that wormy-snake germs can't travel upstream. 

When I return to the bathroom a few hours later, there are a number of them. Some swimming, some crawling under the rim of the seat and one has even made it onto the floor. I conclude that they know how to jump and opt not to squat over them… 

First world problems in a developing country. 

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Thank you Christ Church! (November 2nd)

Christ Church United - Mississauga

I was incredibly warmed by the generosity of Christ Church ( before my departure. This is the same place where my parents met, married, and baptized their children. My late grandfather was a minister there and it has been an important place for my family for decades. Although I don’t personally experience my spirituality in the form of any one religion, I recognize that communities of faith can (and oftentimes) do wonderful things. Christ Church is certainly one of those communities!

The Sunday before my departure I received a warm send-off in the form of a prayer from the congregation. They also asked if there was anything I needed. I provided a list of useful items that I was collecting to donate upon my arrival. The response was incredible. My Aunt Sandra collected bags upon bags of soap, toothbrushes, toothpaste, nail clippers, etc. We almost had an issue getting everything into a jumbo suitcase but we managed it!

I have brought the items to the FAWEMA office and we will be delivering them to girls in schools in rural communities (more to come on that!).

After a particularly challenging day, I arrive at the lodge sweaty and exhausted at dusk. I sit down on my bed, eat some peanut butter out of the jar with my finger, and log into my e-mail. I open the waiting message from my mother to learn that CHRIST CHURCH DONATED $1000 FOR ME TO SPEND ON SOMETHING THAT I BELIEVE IS NEEDED!!!!!

How heartwarming is that!? The generosity of people never fails to amazing me. I didn’t ask or fundraise, they just decided they wanted to do something to help and entrusted me to do it to the best of my ability!

I have decided that with half of the money I would like to buy a bicycle ambulance. In rural areas, hospitals are often very far away. Although guidelines say hospitals should be accessible within 10km, oftentimes the distances are upwards of 35km. This is a long distance for anyone, but especially if you don’t have transport and are sick. The bike ambulances provide a low-cost, sustainable (maintenance is factored-in) way for people to get to the hospital. It is basically a bicycle with a stretcher on wheels attached to the back. In the absence of these, many people are carried or pushed in a wheelbarrow to the hospital. The ambulance is a more dignified solution and is used by people with full-blown AIDS and pregnant moms among others. The bikes are made locally to encourage the industry here. I will post more on the ambulances later.

I am so touched and proud of Christ Church for choosing to make a difference in Malawi.  I am also honoured that they have selected me as a mechanism for this to happen.

I am still thinking and consulting with how to spend the other half of the money but I think I will use it to put 4 vulnerable girls through a year of high school. Going to secondary school is inaccessible for many children. There are school fees, uniform, transport and supply costs that make it financially challenging. Oftentimes if a child is going to continue their studies in a family, the parents will support a boy-child. Also due to the HIV/AIDs issue, many girls don’t have parents that can support them.

With Christ Church’s generosity, I want to show 2 different ways that donations can make an impact. More to come! 


I have never experienced anything like these Malawian bridges before. 

There is a river that flows through part of the city, and one main bridge to cross it. The problem is that it can be quite a trek to get to that main, concrete bridge. Being incredibly resourceful, people have built their own, less official bridges. There is basically a man who buys some timber and employs some people to help him make the bridge. The result is a rickety (some are worse than others) joining of wood planks by old nails. Some have huge gaps and wobble in the wind or when you set foot on them. You pay the bridge owner 10 kwatcha (about .7 cents) to cross the thing. I have thought more than once that perhaps someone should pay me for arriving alive on the other side! One particularly exciting such bridge came into my life when a colleague offered to show me where to go from the office for lunch. Given that she said it was close, I didn’t change out of my pointly-toed stilletos that I was wearing in the office (the office culture is very formal, I am not being a princess!). As we walk, my colleague turns to me and asks if I can swim.

And then I see it…  lacking in the timber department and looking even more rickety than her brothers downstream. I pay to get on the thing, and slowly make my way across, trying to ensure that both the point of my shoe and the stiletto heel make it onto a piece of wood. It wobbles and creeks. When we arrive on the other side, my colleague announces that there was a volunteer before me that refused to go on the thing.  I don’t know whether to feel proud or stupid.

Bridge photo shoot:

The scary bridge's more stable brothers

Malawi 101

Since accepting the posting, I have often been asked where Malawi is. I would be lying if I said that I didn't have to look at a map myself before boarding the plane!

Malawi is a small (slightly smaller than Pennsylvania), landlocked country in South-Eastern Africa. It is bordered by Mozambique, Zambia and Tanzania. A former British colony, it became independent in 1964. It is known as ‘The Warm Heart of Africa’ for its friendly people and warm hospitality. It is also known as ‘Africa for beginners’ because of its relative safety to other African nations and small size – a good place for first time travellers to this diverse continent. 

It has a mostly rural population, one of the highest birth rates in the world, and also a high death-rate due mostly to the prevalence of HIV/AIDS (currently estimated at 10.6% of the population). 

The life expectancy at birth is 51 years (only 11 countries have a shorter life expectancy). The HIV prevalence rate is the 9th highest in the world, which is of course inextricably linked to the short life expectancy. It is also the 10th poorest country in the world as per a 2010 business insider report.

If you care to know more, here is the link to the CIA world fact book:

Malawi's Location in Africa - Please Excuse the Old Map

I would also like to say that as much as I will write honestly and candidly about my experience here, I will have to take into consideration that I am in a place with a different type of democratic political space than in Canada.


I never realized the oddness of the western excitement over Halloween until I moved to Malawi. 

I get invited to a Halloween party at a Canadian expat’s home and excitedly accept the invitation. My excitement soon turns to a mild panic over my lack of a costume. I end up using a water bottle to hold my hair up straight over my head, put on a beige dress and duct-tape some yellow shiny tampon wrappers together and stick them on my belly button. 

Voila! A yellow treasure troll a la 1980s. I cab to the party with 3 other girls in makeshift costumes – xena warrior princess, a tiger (think headband with paper ears and a paper tail) and the ‘wrong season’ (decked out in Christmas paraphernalia). I realize how odd locals think we must be when the taxi driver doesn’t even notice that we are dressed in ridiculous costumes. The party turns out to be a blast, a mish-mash of expats and wealthy locals in make-shift costumes, we chat and dance late into the night and I arrive home as the sun is rising. 

The bride of frankenstein sported the same 'do!

Saturday Trip to the Market - October 29

On Saturday I receive a text from another Canadian volunteer who asks if I want to join her to go shopping in the market.

I gladly accept the invitation and we meet in Old Town and head off to the local market. It is a scene of chaos as vendors try to sell us everything from mops to cucumbers to used bras. I buy a few mangos and some beans for the week ahead.

I also buy a chitenge (pronounced CHE-TEN-JAY), a traditional local cloth worn in sarong-style by women. I will need a few for when I go to rural areas where pants are still not the norm. I purchase a beautiful blue and green one. 

Vendor - Folding my new chitenge!
Entering the market