Monday, January 23, 2012

An African Love Affair…

….with Jomo Kenyatta International Airport

I was pretty upset about the prospect of spending Christmas away from my family and decided that if I couldn’t be with them, I should at least be in paradise.

In the weeks leading up to the Christmas holiday, I had been feeling very fuzzy, apathetic and out of it. I thought that it was a side effect of the Malaria pills. I would worry about how I was feeling, but then just forget about it because I was feeling so fuzzy.

My aunt Pat and uncle Max had given me a very generous financial gift before I left which I decided to use on a plane ticket to paradise (a.k.a Zanzibar) for the Christmas Holidays.

To get to Zanzibar from Malawi, you must first make your way to Nairobi then Dar Es Salaam, from where you can take a ferry or fly to the island. 

I waited at the Lilongwe airport for a long time – the flight was delayed by over two hours. I boarded exhausted, having not slept the night before due to a friend’s goodbye party and hurried packing. The flight was incredibly turbulent – my butt left my seat for one very terrifying moment. The Irish woman beside me could tell I was on the verge of hyperventilating and told me to ‘close your eyes and pretend like you’re on a rollercoaster’. That didn’t work too well. All in all, I arrived at my stopover in Nairobi exhausted with frayed nerves . I wasn’t looking forward to 6 hour stopover in Jomo Kenyatta Airport before continuing on to Dar Es Salaam.

And then I stepped off the plane and into the airport –

Almost immediately, I spotted a bookstore! I rush in, feeling suddenly excited and energized. I had been craving a bookstore and Lilongwe has little to offer in terms of books. I spent close to an hour in the store, picking up books, touching their pages, reading the back covers and beginnings (try not to judge me but I may have actually smelled one or two – I love books!). The woman behind the counter was incredibly friendly and had impeccable English – she recommended some reputable African literature and smiled as she handed me my bag full of book and magazine purchases. I paid on credit card! (The idea of using plastic to pay for anything in Malawi is pretty foreign. I had to pay for my plane ticket in cash – it took me two days to withdrawal the cash that I needed)

I bounced out of the bookstore feeling more awake and stimulated than I had in quite a while. I floated down the corridor (Nairobi airport is pretty much one long corridor) stopping in shops. There was an incredible variety of stores selling chocolate, jewelry, textiles, make-up…. One store even had cover-up for white people! Even though my stock has yet to run out, I almost bought it – just because I could.

At the end of the corridor there was a restaurant (with a piece of art on the wall!). I was seated at a table with a random man who was also by himself. He avoided eye contact while I beamed at him. I was pleased to see that the menu had many vegetarian options and I ordered a bean burrito. A waitress delivered a delicious looking, frothy coffee beverage to the woman at the table beside me – it was served in a clear, tall mug. I waved her down urgently and asked for one of whatever it was. Minutes later, I was sipping on a latte, devouring my new economist (the bookstore sold the economist! Not available in Malawi) and enjoying my spicy bean burrito. I was so completely and utterly happy that I couldn’t stop smiling. People looked up from their food and gave me questioning looks as I beamed back at them. I have rarely felt so buoyant and elated.

The next hours are a blur as I used the fast-ish internet at the post office, enjoyed washing my hands with the SOAP in the bathrooms, and generally just meandering around on cloud #9.

I boarded the flight to Dar feeling simultaneously satisfied and stimulated – ready for the next leg of my adventure.

I will post later about the following 3 weeks of travel through Tanzania and Zambia, save for a conversation that I had with a Canadian volunteer who I met in Zanzibar:

He listened intently while I raved about Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. When I was finished, he gently said ‘You know Lesley, the Nairobi airport is an absolute dive’.

After my initial confusion, a slow realization crept over me. It was the first time that I had fully allowed myself to acknowledge how poorly developed Malawi is. For want of being optimistic and happy in my new reality, I hadn’t allowed myself to admit how tough a time I was having adjusting. My break from the fuzziness came at the exact same time I left Lilongwe – I had been numbing myself so I as not to have to come to terms with the struggles I was facing. Realizing this has allowed me to move to a happier, more balanced place.

That airport may or may not be a bit of a dive by some standards, but I will always think fondly of my first encounter with JKIA. 

H20 Electric

I wake up in the middle of the night and stumble half asleep to the bathroom. As per usual, I look in the toilet for snakes (for more info, click here). Although I am pleased to report that I didn’t have any slithering, legless visitors in the bowl, there were a number of dead mosquitos in there. I turn on the tap and wonder if I slept oddly because I feel pins and needles in my hands as I wash them. Shrugging it off as another potential side effect of my anti-malarial medication, I make my way - crusty eyed and incoherent, back to bed.

In the morning, I wake up and go for a run. I am embarrassed to say the extent of the messy state that I was in upon returning – lets just it was a very vigorous workout on a particularly muggy Malawian morning. I need a shower.

I go into the washroom, turn on the sink and put my hands under the running water. The same thing happens as the night before and I am awake enough to acknowledge that it really hurts! I go to the kitchen to see if the same thing is happening. Dven touching the metal knob sends a sharp shock up my arm and through my body. I’m being electrocuted!

I seek out one of the buckets of water that we keep close for outages. Grabbing a mug, I decide to circumvent the issue with a bucket bath. I get in the shower, metal mug in hand and pour the first water onto the floor. I GET ELECTROCUTED AGAIN!!!! The shock moved up through the metal drain, through the water, through the metal mug and into my hand.

Now, I have become used to the fact that electricity and water are both a scarcity here and adjusted to frequent outages of both. However, this joint power-water combo is something completely new. In some cruel conspiracy, have the power and water both decided to work at the same time but joined forces to physically hurt me?!

After reporting the incident to the staff and learning that this is happening to other people (one poor backpacker actually got right into the shower before realizing it was electric water – I hope she choose to enter the stream with a leg or arm and not a more tender body part).

I switch the metal mug for a plastic scoop and opt to use the bathtub instead. Standing as far away from the drain, I drip water on myself so as not to create a steady stream. This works reasonably well and I manage to avoid being shocked.

Now for the part I have been dreading: I have to go pee.

I wonder if the toilet water or ceramic could conduct electricity upstream in the same way the drain did via the metal mug. Stakes are high here, but I really have to go. I ask my roommate Tyler if he thinks it is possible… he laughs and tells me that he thinks an electrocution of the worst form is improbable. I use my high-squat technique, honed by the snake incident.

I emerged triumphant based on my morning learning that a staccotoed stream does not conduct like a steady one – and the assumption that a ceramic bowl is a less likely conductor than the water contained within.

Later that day an electrician fixed the situation– electricity had somehow been ‘leaking’ into the water supply. After experiencing the endemic power and water outages, I thought I was prepared for anything Malawi could throw at me with regards to H20 and electricity. Well, that morning proved me wrong!

·      Never get too confident that you have mastered the art of living in a new place.
·      Expect the unexpected and keep a plastic scoop close by.

Friday, January 20, 2012

The Politics of Pants

A very upsetting and unfortunate incident occurred in Malawi on Tuesday. A number of women wearing pants and ‘miniskirts’ (in Malawi, a skirt just below the knee is considered a miniskirt) were attacked on the street in certain areas of Lilongwe. News of these attacks spurred similar attacks in Blantyre and Mzuzu, the other 2 largest cities in the country.

Women were held down and forcibly stripped in broad daylight by street vendors who claimed they were dressed provocatively.  These attacks were to send a message to Malawian women about how they should dress ‘appropriately’.

I can’t believe that this is happening in 2012. I remember listening in disbelief when my mother recounted the tale of her elementary school changing its policy to allow girls to wear pants when she was in Grade 8.  The concept of being unable to wear pants seemed completely foreign and distant. In Malawi, women were unable to wear pants until 1994 at the end of the 33 year rule of former President Hastings Kamuzu Banda.

The strippings have caused a public outcry with women and some supportive men from across the country arranging advocacy activities including:

-A campaign called ‘Vendor, Lero Ndikugule Mawa Undivule?’ (translates as ‘Vendors - today we buy from you, tomorrow you strip us?’. There has been wide acceptance of this campaign with many people, including myself, boycotting purchases from male street vendors.  
-A peaceful sit-in is happening today in Blantyre, including speakers on Women’s Rights.
-A march is currently happening near the Parliament building in Lilongwe.
-People are being encouraged to wear white in a sign of peaceful protest. Today I donned my white t-shirt and saw some people doing the same. It was tough to tell if this was deliberate or coincidental.

I have felt very angry and upset about the public strippings. These events were a gross contravention of women’s rights and have shone light on some lingering negative societal attitudes. I cannot get over how cruel a violation it is to forcibly strip someone in public.My thoughts go out to the women who were assaulted and those who do not feel free to dress as they choose.

I believe that these assaults erupted in part because of a very tense economic and political situation and hope that these horrific events don't overshadow other major problems that Malawi is facing. 

Getting dressed in the morning has never felt like a political act until this week. I wavered for a very long time at my clothing rack on Wednesday morning. On one hand, almost all Malawian woman were wearing long skirts for safety reasons and it had been recommended that I follow suit. I was also worried that if I wore pants and anything happened, media attention would detract from the real problems the country is facing. I also continue to be conscious of my role as an outsider with regards to taking on issues that are not my own. On the other hand, I am aware that I enjoy a significant amount of privilege by nature of being an upper-middle class white skinned Westerner. It is very important for me that I use my privilege to ally with those less privileged. Women’s rights implicate everyone and it is an honour to champion them in any small way that I can. 

I wore a long dress on Wednesday and felt wrong about it all day. After a conversation with two gender specialist friends,  I put on my pants – one leg at a time - on Thursday and set out for work (pepper spray in hand).

I received a heckling from a man on my walk to work, but a thumbs up from a young woman in a long skirt. The thumbs up far cancelled out the heckling. I am happy with my decision – I am wearing pants today and will continue to do so in support of women's rights.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

International Volunteer Day - December 5, 2011

Training of TUSEME ('Let us Speak Out' Club) at School in Malili

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.’ -Margaret Mead

Monday (December 5, 2011) was International Volunteer Day. To celebrate, the UNDP in Malawi put together an event for volunteer organizations and volunteers in Malawi.

The ceremony included some speeches and the launch of the UN Report on Volunteering. The thing that impressed me about the event was the acknowledgement of the important work of domestic volunteers.
Oftentimes, I feel like there is a misconception that volunteers in Malawi are well-wishing westerns that fly in from cold countries then leave. It is true that there are many foreigners volunteering here. It makes sense that one of the least developed countries in the world would attract resources and support from other, more developed nations. I have had the privilege of meeting many very dedicated and passionate foreign volunteers here.

Mother Group Training

That said, the term volunteering has become synonymous in some people’s books with azungu (foreigners/white people). This undermines and fails to acknowledge the resources that many Malawians pour into their communities and country. I think of the Mother Groups – women who donate their time to promote the importance of educating girls in their communities. I also think of the selflessness with which Malawians take care of their extended family and members in their communities. Of course, this is in addition to the many Malawians who volunteer on the side with non-government organizations and dedicate their time to unpaid internships. I believe that this is the case in many other places, although the stories we often hear in the west are of westerners volunteering in developing countries.

In the case of disaster relief, ‘Ninety percent of the people saved are saved by their neighbours and family, 10 percent by people who rush in from round and about, and about 0.01% of people who come in from the other side of the world.’ (Tony Vaux, author of the Selfish Altruist).

I recently attended a Mother Group Training in Malili, a rural area just outside of Lilongwe. FAWEMA was concurrently training a TUSEME (Kiswahili for ‘Let us Speak Out’) club with learners from the same school (the pictures from this entry are of the volunteer training). This school was comprised of a few small buildings and has approximately 800 regular students (although 1100 are officially registered). The energy and enthusiasm of both the Mother Groups and children was amazing, especially given that they are giving up their personal time for something that they believe in. 

Mother Group Training, Malili
TUSEME Club Members in Training (Classroom), Malili
Group Work - TUSEME Club Training

At the risk of sounding cliché, volunteering is one of those activities and passions that overcomes barriers of language and culture and connects people from around the globe. 

TUSEME Club Training
I think of the energy and commitment of the Mother Groups and am reminded of my mentors Angela and Julie from the Rotary Club of Ottawa… my former volunteer board colleagues at the AIDS Committee of Ottawa… the Rotarians that have played an integral role at coming close to eradicating polio in India … community volunteers in HIV/AIDS in the townships of South Africa… my family helping to raise a guide dog… my church community supporting a local shelter… the Malawian mother groups and TUSEME clubs… and the myriad of other volunteers of all different demographics everywhere in the world. 

I am incredibly excited by the knowledge that there are people speckled across the globe who dedicate their time and resources for the sole purpose of wanting to make a positive impact, to touch something or someone, to leave the world a slightly better place. My deepest gratitude to all of the volunteers that I have had the privilege to know.

In one of my favourite books, Touch the Dragon, Karen Connelly writes:

‘I'd like to believe--and I sometimes do--that every boundary between people can be crossed, that we are connected to each other by invisible bonds that override distance. My skin stretches over the earth.’

I think that volunteering may just be one of those bonds. 

Some New TUSEME Club Members
with gifts from Christ Church, Mississauga

Mother Group and Trainers - Malili