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

The Fuel Crises (written late October)

Cars queuing - you can see the fuel station in the distance

Since I arrived 2 weeks ago and saw vehicles queuing for fuel on my way from the airport, things have gotten increasingly worse. From what I understand, Malawi is short on foreign currency reserves (hence why people are offering to buy USD from me on black market prices almost 50% above the actual exchange rate). This has caused difficulties for Malawi in importing fuel which is coming in to the country less and less frequently. When news of a petrol station having fuel gets out, the station is buzzing with activity within minutes.

People queue down the streets and the station gets quickly packed with fuel-hungry vehicles. Some people wait all day for fuel and go home empty handed. The crisis has caused costs of transport (basic van-taxis that people use as public transport) to rise 50% this past week. Prices of soft drinks have doubled and the price of bread recently went up 16%. Although we all (myself included) are feeling the impact of the crises, as always, the countries’ poor are experiencing the effects most harshly. I may have to call 10 taxis and have my Friday evening plans delayed by an hour or two, but many people can’t even afford salt to eat with their basic meal of Nsima (ground up corn mixed with water) or buy basic commodities such as bread.
Vehicles queuing down the road for fuel

Over dinner on Thursday night with my new fellow-Canadian friend Kate, she remarked on how something ‘felt different’ this week. I agree with her that there is a certain tension in the air as this country’s beautiful and warm people carry an increasingly heavy burden and survival becomes even more difficult. 

Electricity (or lack thereof)

The ESCOM (power supplier) office for Malawi
Blackouts have become a part of daily life. I always have a small flashlight with me so that I do not, literally and figuratively; find myself completely in the dark.

Most of the cuts I have experienced are in the evening when I am at the lodge. The sun sets incredibly early here although it is summer. By 6 o’clock it is pitch black. The unfortunate thing about this is that it is dangerous to walk outside after dark - especially alone.

Coming from a place where I have a lot of autonomy over where I go and when I choose to go there, this has been a bit of a struggle. I don’t have a vehicle and with the fuel crises, working taxis are hard to come by and quite expensive. This has led to many evenings by myself in the lodge. The lodge has 2 back-up generators but both have been broken for most of the week. As such, I have chuckled to myself many-a-time as I sit in the dark on my bed, eating peanut butter off my finger (as I don’t yet have a place where I can cook for myself or a spoon). I am trying to get protein, which is tough when you are a vegetarian in Malawi. After hungrily opening the jar and eating a few big mounds of PB off my finger, my throat and chest respond angrily by painfully contracting as if to tell me ‘you ate too much of a thick substance too fast’. I slow down and realize the humour in what is happening. I laugh and then feel even sillier for laughing alone in the dark, sticky in the heat, mosquito net overhead with peanut butter residue on my finger. Try not to judge me too harshly reader!

In seriousness, the black outs are much more problematic than my sitting hot in the dark eating PB with my hands. These unplanned outages have been increasing because ESCOM, the country’s electricity supplier cannot keep up with demand. When you couple the power shortage with the fuel crises (more on the fuel crises later), the results are impacting the lives of Malawians more seriously – even fatally. I read in the newspaper this morning that two women recently lost their lives in a hospital due to the blackouts. One was in labour and was rushed to the hospital due to complications. During the operation, the power went out and there wasn’t any fuel for the back-up generator. They couldn’t continue the operation, and both her and her child died. A few hours later in the same hospital, a woman came in who had had a heart attack. The power went out on the operating table and she too died.  The fuel crises also means that the same hospital only has one ambulance running.

Civil Society Meetings on HIV/AIDS Leadership Through Accountability – October 26 & 27, 2011

I had the privilege of attending 2 days of civil society meetings of HIV/AIDS non-government organizations this Wednesday and Thursday.

They were a fantastic opportunity to get a snapshot of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the country and learn about Malawian responses.

I arrived with the WUSC-Malawi Country Director on Wednesday morning. I had been forewarned that time is viewed differently here, so I wasn’t surprised when, at 9:30 (Meeting was scheduled to start at 9), the facilitator announced that 3 meeting attendees were running late and asked if it would be ok if we waited another 45 minutes for them?
Consensus was reached that we would wait. The meetings officially opened after 10.
Something I have learned quickly about meetings here is that they always start and end with a prayer.

*A word on the prayers: They seemed a bit odd to me at first and I was quite skeptical of the practice. I must say that I am now quite enjoying the prayers.

Although I may not experience the act of prayer in the same way as most attendees (i.e. my spiritual belief system is not founded solely in any one religion and does not translate into taking the bible literally), I love the act of taking time to consciously and collectively set positive intention for the task at hand. I also enjoy the expression of gratitude. *

After the prayer and introductions, the facilitator announced that we would take our first break as it was 10:30 and many people hadn’t eaten or taken tea since breakfast!  We then took a 30 minutes break although we had yet to dive into the substance of the meetings.

About 5 minutes into the first presentation, the power cuts. The room immediately starts getting even hotter and we continue the presentations in the dark. By the end of the day, the power has gone off more times than I can count. This is becoming an increasing trend… but more on that later.

Some interesting things that I learned about HIV in Malawi:

-The infection rate has dropped in the past years from approximately 12% to 10.6%.
-Young women ages 15-24 are increasingly vulnerable to contracting HIV as the practice of transactional sex increases. The ‘sugar-daddy’ phenomenon is alive and well here as women have very little economic power. Many women will date and sleep with older, educated and wealthy men in return for the 3 C’s (Cash, Car, Cell Phone). Given the economic and traditional gender power disparities, it is difficult for women to negotiate condom use.
·        -In the same vein, HIV is also very present in educated, wealthy men. At the meetings, an out-spoken and fiery female representative from Malawi’s National AIDS Commission highlighted the irony of having a room of mostly educated, well-off men identifying ways to decrease HIV infection in the country.  She said that perhaps instead of trying to think of ways to empower economically disadvantaged women to negotiate condom use, the attendees should have a drink together after the meeting and consider what they should do in their personal lives to slow the spread of the virus. I wanted to stand up and applaud but opted to sit quietly in my seat instead. In another glorious moment she admits to personally be unable to use a female condom with her husband despite her relatively high economic power. She questioned out loud how she could expect a young, impoverished woman in a rural area to convince her partner to use a female condom when she herself could not.
·      -The practice of having multiple, concurrent sexual partnerships is a major contributor to the spread of HIV. In addition to a primary partner, many people (mostly men) are also having other sexual relationships. These vast sexual networks fuel the spread of the virus. Many people also select sexual partners based on if they ‘look like’ they have HIV. Others assume that they are already HIV positive and make riskier decisions accordingly.
·      -Although there is little data on this, ‘Minorities’ (the equivalent for the LGBTQ – Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/Transgender/Queer/Questioning…), and more specifically in this context Men who Have Sex with Men) are a very vulnerable group in Malawi. It is imagined that they are at high risk of contracting HIV and prevalence is estimated at 21% although there is not any ‘official’ data given that homosexuality is illegal. Biological factors as well as difficulty in accessing services (due to the illegality) make this a very grave issue.
·      -The state of gender inequality in Malawi, including Malawian women’s lack of sexual and reproductive health rights has had a horrific impact on young women as far as HIV is concerned. Cultural practices such as Chiharo (widow inheritance), kulowakufa (widow cleansing), fisi (initiation sex), chimwanamaye (spouse swapping) and bulangete la mfuma (pimping of a young virgin to a visiting traditional leader) fuel the spread of HIV in Malawi.

As you can tell, HIV is my area of interest, but I will spare you from more details as there is a strong possibility that you don’t find this as interesting as I do!

Needless to say, I was very touched by the passion and engagement of meeting participants. I am very excited to work on the advocacy team that will carry many of the issues going forward.

I am also ashamed that I had my first moments of emotional reaction to trying to operate in a different context. In pre-departure training, we were briefed about how it can be emotionally challenging when things don’t work out the way you believe they should when working in a different culture. A few times, I found myself feeling angry and frustrated at the process and speaking frankly and out of emotion. I don't think it showed as I managed to keep it professional, but I am still not ok with it becauseI know better than to do that. It is completely unacceptable. I am trying to be gentle with myself and take it as a learning experience, but it is difficult. I have spent some time reflecting on how it felt to become emotionally drawn into such a situation so that next time I can take a minute, breathe and then determine how to be most effective.

Day 2 - October 25, 2011

I wake up exhausted and roll out of bed, grab a quick shower and eat breakfast while waiting for Phalys to pick me up. She arrives and we head back to the WUSC offices to continue briefing.
I meet again with Alice and the country director and it is a productive but challenging meeting as we review expectations.
One partner wants me to lead and train a research team, although I have very little research experience.

The country director then explains to me that they want me to do a work plan for each of the organizations I will be working with, and indicates a number of items that he wants on each. Given that they have requested that I spread my time between 3 organizations, I want to temper expectations as to what I can realistically do.

They also start pushing my time in Lilongwe to 8 months. I really want to make sure that I get to MANASO in Blantyre and try to gently push back without being confrontational. After a delicate verbal dance without any resolution, I resolve to speak honestly with Alice tomorrow and explain my fears to her. I will tell her that I am scared that my time in Lilongwe will get pushed from 8 months to a year and that I wont end up going to Blantyre to work with the organization I was brought here to support.
I decide to also throw some patience and openness at it. I am not here for my own selfish purposes and I try to remind myself of that. I do however think that I will be of best use in my area of specialty and interest. 

I then meet 2 Canadian volunteers for lunch. They both look much like me – sandy haired, blue-eyed twenty somethings melting in the Malawian heat. They both seem a bit tired and wilted but are friendly and offer me some great tips.

After lunch I meet with the Executive Director of MANET+. It sounds like the organization is doing some fantastic advocacy work, and there are some files that I am very interested in working on. I hope that I get to spend a lot of time with them although my office is on the other side of town.

Phalys drives me back to Area 3 Lodge and I put on my sneakers, go for a pitiful little run and then come back and do some other exercises as to try to maintain some muscle strength. Everything is fried and fatty here and I am terrified that I will balloon up. Compared to the thin locals, I already feel like a little tank plodding around, oversized and bloated.

I go into the kitchen to heat up food and ask an employee where the garbage is. He looks a bit shocked, opens the fridge and starts rustling around. He defeatedly pulls out a head of lettuce and says that they are out of cabbage. It takes me a minute to realize that garbage kind of rhythms with cabbage and that we have had a miscommunication. After a few attempts to clarify, he looks at me oddly and says ‘you mean the rubbish’. Oops!

The most awkward miscommunication I have had thus far was when I asked if I was allowed to wear pants to work (rather than the long skirts that most women wear). I was gently but firmly told that ‘pants’ are underwear and that yes, I can wear trousers.

I have been making a concerted effort to learn words in Chichewa (Malawi’s National Language). The words continue to slip off my tongue and into nowhere. I hope that if I keep trying they will imprint themselves in my brain. I can’t seem to remember a single word other than mzungu (white person – this is easy because it is shouted at me all the time) and Zikomo (thank you).

So Zikomo for reading, I am off to bed, sticky under my mosquito net.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

First Day (October 24, 2011)

After a night of confused nightmares (probably from the Malaria pills), I wake up, shower, dress and have breakfast (I drink both the B&B water and eat watermelon – I hope that is ok). Phalys, the driver picks me up and we head to the WUSC offices for the first day of orientation.

Everyone seems friendly at the offices and we sit down for a meet and greet.

Alice teaching me how to wear chitenje
 (traditional sarong worn commonly by
Malawian women as a wrap, to carry
babies or as a head piece)
I then have an ‘expectations and fears’ section with Alice, the program manager. She is lovely and hilarious and listens to me as I tell her about wanting to be useful but not wanting to impose the way that I think things should be done. I have been worried sick about the ethics of what I am doing. I want to help, support and ally – not repeat colonial and post-colonial patterns or follow one of many well-wishing volunteers who does more harm then good. She also teaches me how to wear a chitenje (traditional sarong worn commonly by Malawian women as a wrap, to carry babies or a head piece). 
She tells me that my mandate has been expanded to work with a second organization because MANET +, the umbrella organization for people living with HIV and AIDS does not have office space for me. As such, they found another local NGO that has a spare desk. FAWEMA is the Forum for African Women Educationalists (the MA is for the Malawi chapter). It sounds like they do some great work to encourage women to stay in school after having children. They also do a lot of training around HIV and sexual and reproductive health. The feminist in me likes the sounds of it!

Alice also thinks that the items that the church kindly donated through my Aunt Sandra’s coordination will be useful with some of the women’s groups. They have hygiene projects where women can stay at a special place when they are menstruating so that they can stay clean and go to school. Apparently a lot of girls don’t go to school during the week of their periods because of lack of hygienic items. Missing a week a month means that many can’t keep up or end up dropping out.

WUSC Malawi Staff @ Lunch
I then go to the CIDA program office to get a briefing of the Canadian development context in Malawi. The briefing officer invites me to join him at the Hash House Harriers weekly run that night. I happily agree.

After lunch with the program staff and a hilarious health briefing at the clinic, I head on a ‘City Tour’ with Steve. He shows me how to take the local transport – I bump my head getting into the overcrowded and sweltering minibus. We go to the local market and walk over the scariest bridge I have ever been on in my life. I get random thumbs-up from a few people – not too sure why but that’s ok!

After getting a SIM card and water we walk the few clicks back to my guesthouse.

I arrive sweaty, disoriented and exhausted and eat raw Mr.Noodles out of a bag because I don’t know where to find food.

The CIDA man picks me up at 5 and we go to the wildlife reserve where they take care of hurt animals. I have never seen anything like the Hash House Harriers!  You literally run along a path until you hit a junction and the fast runners run up ahead in both directions looking for a marker that indicates you are going the right way.
After about 8km of excursion through the bush, passing a one eyed lion (among other animals), crawling a pipe over a river and running over yet another scary bridge, we end up at the reserve bar. A few wood stools and a bar fridge stacked with beer is a welcome treat after the run.
The hash group turns out to be a roundy group of mzungus (white people). They find something to ‘punish’ people for (I get punished both for being new and speaking French). They make me down a cup of beer while they a sing some sort of song about being a piss pot. I got a special round of applause for being the wooly-socked Canadian who could chug the fastest beer. Wow.

I arrive home boiling, exhausted and pass out.

Arriving in the Warm Heart of Africa (October 23rd, 2011)

Sleep eludes me as I lie under a mosquito net for  the first time in my life in a lodge in Lilongwe, Malawi.

It is apparently 3AM, but my body has yet to sync with what my mind knows to be the time.
The occasional rooster goes off – I thought that they were only supposed to cock-a-doodle-do in the morning?
I feel mildly disoriented – the past 40 hours have been an absolute whirlwind.
I didn’t feel any excitement until I was on the plane from Addis Ababa to Lilongwe.

Sitting in the airport lounge, trying to stretch out my muscles after the 12 hour flight from Washington, I see Atuweni.

I met her in July in Armenia, before I had even applied for this volunteer posting.
She was a Malawian delegate to the meetings of the international organization that I was attending.  She had told me about Malawi and chuckled as she said ‘Maybe one day you will come see our country’.

Well, that has apparently happened.
Funnily enough, she was on the same flight to Lilongwe from a few days of business is Addis. Her presence reminds me of the serendipitous nature of human connections is this big, beautiful world. She invites me to join her and her family for church one Sunday and also invites me to go with her and her husband to volleyball on Wednesday. I eagerly accept both offers.

On the airplane to Lilongwe, I heave my oversized carry-on into the overhead bin. My Canadian patch must have given me away, for as I collapse sweating into my seat, ready for the last lag of my journey, the gentleman beside me asks if I am a WUSC  (World University Services Canada - link) Volunteer. Lucky is the Executive Director of a Youth NGO that trains Malawian youth on sexual and reproductive health. His organization has taken WUSC volunteers in the past and he hints that they need a new one. We talk and laugh throughout the flight and agree to be in touch in the near future.

As we land in Malawi, I already feel welcomed, connected and warmed by Atuweni and Lucky’s presence.

After elbowing my way to the small and crowded luggage belt to collect my 4 oversized suitcases, I heave them (along with my 2 giant carry ons and my overheated self) by the baggage inspection lady who looks at me suspiciously and asks if I am not bringing a lot for a year.

I feebly explain that I didn’t think my hair product is available in Malawi in attempt to mask the fact that two of the suitcases are full on donations of soap, toothbrushes, etc from my family and church.

Finally through, I am met by a WUSC Malawi coordinator and driver. We pile my things into a small-ish car with a cracked windshield and set off towards my new home.
Purple and red flowers on trees
The thing I notice first about the landscape are the trees – they are beautiful! Some have bright purple flowers and others are green and look like African savannah trees from national geographic. I suppose that is what they are!

We drive past people riding bicycles (often 2 per bike) and women carrying baskets on their heads with children in tow. The Zambian dance hall music beats from our car and out of my open window as we slow to pass jam-packed fuel stations. Steve, the WUSC Malawi officer explains that with the fuel shortage, people drive to the gas station in the morning and oftentimes wait all day for the fuel truck to arrive. Sometimes they don’t manage to fill up by the time the fuel is gone. There are so many cars jam-packed in and around the station that I can’t imagine there would be enough for each of them to drive their cars home at the end of the day.
I feel all-the-more grateful for the ride from the airport as the driver accelerates and we move beyond the visual manifestation of the fuel crises.

In the lodge I attempt to unpack but feel dizzy and fall asleep. When I wake up it is dark and I am a bit confused to be surrounded by the blue mosquito net. Growing up, friends who were into princesses had these hanging over their beds in Canada. Purely for show, the white nets elicited a feeling of a luxurious other-worldliness. As I lie hot in bed, the irony is not lost on me that these nets are a basic survival tool. I wonder if Disney will come up with Princess Please-God-I-Don’t-Want-to-Get-Malaria.  She could come accessorized with Deet, Malarone and some Purrell for good measure.

Speaking of Purell… In Canada, I tend to avoid hand santizer unless I am camping or sneezing at work. The reason being I want to keep my immune system strong via exposure. As such, I only brought a few small bottles of Purrell to Malawi as they were a gift from my colleagues.

I owe my colleagues a thank-you note. I had my first Purrell moment when I turned on the tap and watched brownish water fall over my hands, doing the opposite of cleaning them. I chuckle at the irony of Purrelling ones hands to get clean from the water you used to wash them.

Waking up under net
first day in Malawi
As I lie awake I feel oddly disconnected, like I have shed the intricate web of support that I am part of at home. I lie hot under the blue net feeling like an uprooted tree.  Severed from the land and nutrients that held it up.

I am alone.

I know that everyone is well-wishing from the other side of the world, but the reality is I am lying by myself far away under a mosquito net in Malawi. I allow the feelings to move through me and don’t hold onto them. I also feel free and excited. That’s all for now.

Xo Love Princess Purrell surrounded by a Mosquito net in Malawi.

Beginnings... on the plane to Malawi (October 22, 2011)

Beginnings are a funny thing.

I oftentimes wonder if they even exist in and of themselves at all.

Perhaps they are notable only because they make us take notice of the existence of something. As humans we need ritual to mark events in our shared and infinitely long story.

I am divided in writing this for it is unethical and impure to claim this as a beginning, but in my imperfection I need to start somewhere.

So welcome to this beginning, a folded page corner in a vast and expansive book. A small makeshift indicator to mark one human experience in our deliciously large and unfolding novel. 

I would like to start with a snippet of a personal story, although the truth is that no story is solely my own.

My mentor and beautiful friend Angela recently e-mailed me a poem that begins as follows:  

When you set out for Ithaca
ask that your way be long,
full of adventure, full of instruction...
(Ithaca by C. Cavafy)

I enhale and feebly attempt to embrace the wisdom of these words as I sit in a jolting metal box in the sky hurdling towards Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. After countless vaccinations and 6 hurried weeks of preparation, I am on my way with my wits half about me and 400 malaria pills in tow.  

Although I have been in transit for 14 hours and have received two very 'up-close and personal' airport security checks, I am only a portion way through the beginning of this journey. Here are the details:

Final destination: Lilongwe, Malawi (not quite Ithaca!)
Mandate: Policy advocacy and research with Malawian HIV/AIDS NGOs.
Length of assignment: 1 year
Sponsor organization: Uniterra 

Is this really happening!?

I have looked into the faces of smiling and excited friends and family and feebly attempted to appear excited. I have hugged concerned and upset loved ones and hoped that my lack of emotion about my assignment didn’t seem ingenuine.

The reality is I don’t know what to expect. I have numbed myself to the impending reality of my new life. I don’t expect this to be easy, but I don’t know what to brace myself for.

In the past 2 days the location of my volunteer mandate has changed and expanded. Although I will still be doing policy advocacy and research, I am now scheduled to spend the first portion of the year in Lilongwe, the capital city. There I will share my time between the Malawi Network of People Living With AIDS (MANET +) and the Forum for African Woman Educationalists in Malawi (FAWEMA).
The second portion of my assignment will be the southern Malawian city of Blantyre, the country's commercial and economic hub. There I will volunteer with MANASO, Malawi’s Network of AIDS Service Organizations. 

I acknowledge these facts mentally although they elicit a flatline emotional response.
I remind myself why I am doing this. My passion is social justice in a health and human rights context. I am specifically interested in policy level responses to HIV/AIDS.  Rotary International has a ‘4-way test’ which asks 4 questions to help guide decision making. I use the test in the context of the HIV/AIDS epidemic to remember why I am on this airplane. 

(1) Is it the truth? / (2) Is it fair to all involved? 
It is NOT the truth or fair to all involved that the most marginalized communities and individuals in the world deserve to carry the burden of a preventable virus.

(3) Will it build goodwill and better friendships? 
The stigma surrounding HIV and AIDS does the opposite of building goodwill and bettering friendships - it propagates fear, violence and hatred.

         (4) Will it be beneficial to all concerned?
AIDS related illness is the number one cause of death in women of reproductive age worldwide. It devastates families, communities and continents by causing drought, death and by crippling economies

I sign off for now in gratitude for all of the beautiful people who have nourished me emotionally in preparation for this journey. My family moved me cities and offered up their basement for my things. My extended family showered me with encouragement and useful gifts.

Members of the United Church of Canada have provided me with over 50 pounds worth of useful items (soap, tooth brushes, etc) to donate on the ground.

My friends have been a garden of rocks. Firm in their support and freely giving in their love.

Thank you. 
I ask that my way be long and full of learning. 
I inhale and move forward.

Some pictures of night-before preparations with my parents, Aunt Mary and Uncle Sandy

Mom & I


Sandy - he dutifully stood on the scale with the suitcases to ensure they weren't overweight...

Packing up Donations from Christ Church

Surrounded by suitcases!