Sunday, September 30, 2012

Weight in the Western World

I woke up to the sound of an e-mail coming into my inbox. I open the e-mail to find a blog post from Jezebel, a feminist blog which I read religiously. The title? 'Shut the **** up about Lady Gaga's weight already'.

Apparently the tabloids are ablaze with headlines about how the beautiful, slender pop star has gained 25 pounds.

This makes me feel an anxious stiring in my (softer than when I left Canada) stomach. As my time in Malawi comes to a close, I have been thinking about what it will be like to go back to the Western World. There are many things that I'm looking forward to in Canada, at the top of the list being family, friends, consistent clean water, the light going on EVERY time you flick the switch, and (of course), cheese.

One thing that I'm not looking forward to is my culture's obsession with weight. Living in Malawi has been very liberating on this front. For the first time I can remember, I have let the weight thing go. In Canada, I learned at a very young age that thin = beautiful and grew up conscious about my weight. I'm sad to admit that I can not remember one day since I was 11 years old when it wasn't on my mind, how if only I was thinner, I would be more attractive. If I wasn't trying to loose weight, I was trying to accept my weight and not gain any.

Moving to Malawi and living in a culture where bigger is often considered more beautiful has given me a completely new perspective. It has allowed me to worry less about how people perceive the way I look and to feel more comfortable in my skin. This change in perspective, combined with a prevalence of carby foods and not having access to boot camp classes 3 mornings a week has caused me to put on a few kilos... and guess what?

The world hasn't ended!

I still enjoy going to the beach, have meaningful friendships and a lovely boyfriend who couldn't care less. The summation of my discomfort with gaining weight has come in the form of the waistbands on my pants. So why do I want to warn my friends and family that I've gained weight so that I feel less shame about it when I get home? I feel nauseated when I think about trying to reintegrate into a culture that holds narrow and oftentimes destructive ideals of beauty.

I recall with a new awareness the painful effects of idealizing thinness. There was a young woman a few years ahead of me in high school who died from anorexia and I have friends who were hospitalized as young as 13 from the same. I remember being 12 years old and lying in bed hungry by choice, fantasizing about food in my room directly above a fully stocked kitchen. Living in a place where over a quarter of the population is physically stunted due to malnourishment has given me some perspective on how messed up that really is.

I hope that I can go back to Canada with a positive perspective that will help heal this societal problem but I worry about how it will feel too. It is one thing to experience a shift in values, but another to hold onto those values in a place where every billboard tells you that you are wrong.

I suppose speaking out about it is a first step, and I feel grateful to have this blog as a forum to start doing so.

Monday, September 24, 2012

The Art of the Bucket Bath

Since the day I stepped off the plane 11 months ago, Malawi has been generous in her teachings to me. She has gifted me with many a lesson, sometimes subtly, but more often in an unexpected and rather intense manner.

In my time here I have learned pieces of a beautiful Bantu language, learned how to tie a chitenje, eat Nsima with my hands and ride a bicycle through a roundabout. I've learned the importance of acknowledging a fellow human being with a smile and a greeting and how to always be prepared for a power cut.

At my goodbye dinner in Ottawa, my friend Sara stood up and did a toast. 'I hope that everytime you bathe from a bucket, you think of your friends here in Ottawa.'

The table erupted in laughter and I chuckled along at her joke. A bucket bath?! I mean I was going to be living in the capital city!

Well folks, most of the world doesn't bathe using a shower and I have been inducted as a sometimes-member of that club.
I'm very lucky to be living in a place where we have water most of the time. This said, water outages aren't uncommon here. Sometimes the water goes out unexpectedly due to broken pipes. Sometimes the water board goes on strike.
Sometimes the water board goes on strike and then the pipe breaks because it hasn't had water going through it in a week. (That happened last month for a total of a week and a half without running water).

These outages have made me realize how much I take running water for granted. I always heard the expression that 'water is life' but only recently started to understand what that means.

We need water to prepare food, to drink, wash dishes, wash hands after using the bathroom, when you squish a mosquito on your elbow and want to wash it off, when you accidentally spill something on the floor, to make coffee in the morning... the list goes on.

I find myself becoming increasingly aware of the myriad of things that I use water for every time the water goes off.

One of the most important functions of water is obviously bathing, and you kinda have to bathe even if water isn't coming out of the faucet. But how to go about getting clean when there isn't a shower with a steady stream of water at your disposal?

The bucket bath.

I have learned how to bucket bathe through trial and error and find my technique constantly improving. After 9 days of practice during the water board strike/broken pipe saga, I thought I would share my new found skill. 

(These pictures were taken and sent to Sara so that she knows I think of her often. Sorry if you find them to be TMI)
Generally, the steps are as follows, if you have a better technique please let me know:

  1. Find water – I'm lucky that this process is relatively easy and does not involve walking a long way with a heavy bucket. For me it involves stocking up on jugs at the grocery store or going to the nearest working faucet (in my case at the backpackers down the road) and filling up.

  2. Heat the water – this isn't always possible but if you have electricity it makes the experience much more pleasant unless the outside temperature is over 100 degrees.

  3.  Identify water scooping mechanism. My favourite is a big plastic mug because it holds lots of water and can't break. Any other scoop is fine too as long as your mug isn't metal and your drain isn't 'leaking' electricity (oops learned that lesson!).

  4. Take the scoop and dribble water on yourself to get wet. This will help you suds-up with soap. Don't use too much water at this stage because you want to have enough to get the suds off.

  5. Soap up. Doing this everywhere in one go uses less water than doing each section individually.

  6. Trickle the water over the sudsy bits slowly and use your other hand to help rinse. The tricky bit? When you are washing your arms and armpits! 

  7. Think of your friends in Ottawa and feel grateful to be clean and have water!

Thursday, September 20, 2012

My Malawian music video debut

Malawi has a very special brand of music video that I haven't seen anywhere else in the world.

It is quite common for churches to raise funds through producing their own music video DVDs featuring Malawian gospel music with chitenje-clad women dancing and singing.

I had the privilege of accidentally winding up in one such video.

Driving through Nkhotakota boma (trading centre), I saw a row full of women singing and dancing beside the petrol station. Curious as to what was happening, I got out of the car to go check it out.

I stood with the crowd of spectators and asked them what is happening. They point to a man holding a video camera akin to the one my Dad used 20 years ago when filming our birthday parties. They explain that the Anglican church is putting together a music video DVD as a fundraiser.

The women finish up their song and the videographer spots me and waves hello. I greet him in the Malawian tradition, shaking his hand and asking him if he has woken up well. He then asks me if I care to join the women for the next song. I admit that I am a bad dancer and decline.

As I watch the women practice their moves for the next song I have two thoughts:

  1. This dance does not look too difficult
  2. How often does a mzungu get chance to be in a Malawian music video?! This is once in a lifetime stuff.
I tell the videographer that I can give it a try after all and he ushers me to join the row of women. True to Malawian reputation, the women are warm and welcoming and show me the moves, tie a matching chitenje around my waist and give me a handkerchief which is used to emphasize arm movements in the dancing.

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We start filming and I try to keep up with the dance moves and look serious. The randomness of ending up in a Malawian gospel music video in Nkhotakota really tickles my sense of humour and I find myself smiling broadly as I stumble through the moves. I must have looked incredibly silly, but after the filming the women embrace me and tell me their names anyways.

I promise to buy their video when it is released and am happy for the adventure.

You never know what a day in Malawi will hold!

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Battling depression and enjoying the scenery

I haven't blogged for quite some time now.
I could say that I've been busy and haven't had time to write, but it wouldn't be true.
There have been many times when I've come home from work and wanted to write but have stopped myself.
The truth is that I think that I've been depressed.

When I started this blog, I decided that I wouldn't write about certain things. I believe that the Western world is bombarded with images and stories about Africa that don't do justice to such a complex, beautiful region of the world. I didn't want to jump on the 'Africa is hunger, flies and AIDS' bandwagon because there are already so many sources telling that story. Although I see a lot of malnourishment, HUGE flies and work with the organization representing people living with HIV and AIDS in Malawi, there is so much more that I've wanted to share about a very special place. It's for this reason that I've wanted my posts to remain positive and been holding back writing when I haven't been feeling in a positive mindset.

I received a call from my Mom last week. She said that a woman from the church called her to ask if I was OK. She was worried because I hadn't posted for a while. This news made me feel wonderful because I didn't think that anyone would really notice if I stopped blogging. I resolved to post something immediately, but was so stuck on posting something positive that I didn't write anything at all. In a place where people choose to be happy with so little, how could I be sad?

The next day I was in Nkhotakota , a lakeside town in rural Malawi. It was Friday night and I was visiting my boyfriend, Daniel and some friends from South Africa.
We were on our way back from a concert - a rare treat in a place where Malawi's big names don't usually visit.
We had danced to the light kwasa kwasa beats late into the evening. The music was beautiful, the night was full of bright stars and people were having a wonderful time. Despite all of the ingredients for a perfect night, I found myself pretending to have a good time while secretly trying not to cry.
This feeling of disoriented upset had become quite constant the past months and I had been pushing it back.

Sitting in silence on the way back from the concert, Daniel gives me no option but to face up to my feelings. His voice pierces the darkness of the car's interior as he explains in his mild scandinavian accent that I'm having a tough time. He tells our friends that:

'Sometimes when you are living long term in a place like this, working in development, you just hit a point where you can't make sense of things anymore. I think that Lesley is going through that right now and I think it would be good for her to talk about it'.

I suck in the warm lakeside air, feeling it hit my lungs sharply. At first I want to punch him – how dare he put words in my mouth and expose me like this? The anger passes quickly and I allow hot tears to roll down my cheeks. It feels good to let go and cry. I start to feel less disoriented as I allow his words to situate me.  

I've hit a point where I just can't make sense of things anymore.

Since that in-car intervention, I've started feeling better and realizing that my real challenge hasn't been feeling disoriented and faithless. It has been acknowledging it.

I'm living in a gated compound where the high walls are decorated with shards of sharp glass and an electric fence. It isn't safe to be alone at dark in Lilongwe and sometimes I feel afraid. I've also been scared to let go emotionally and have put up walls so as not to find myself doubly in the dark in a foreign place.

But isn't feeling lost the first step to getting back on track?

In acknowledging that I can't make sense of anything and that I'm not in control anyways, I have released myself to put aside my fears and embrace experience again. This past week has been tiring but wonderful as we've been doing organizational capacity building work with a small NGO. Seeing the participants desire to better their communities has left me feeling excited and engaged although there is no certainty that our work will make a difference.
I've started feeling interested in people again and enjoyed asking them questions about their lives and hearing their perspectives. I've gone outside at night for no particular reason and felt small looking at the stars, in the same way I did as a child. I've cried a lot but it has been worth it to feel alive and joyful.

Sure, I still feel like I'm on a journey in a very foreign place and that someone has snatched my map and left me grappling to find direction. The difference is that I've stopped pretending that I know where I am and where I'm going. Instead, I'm using my energy to observe what is around me so that I can sketch a new map - and at the same time enjoy the scenery. 

Some pictures from enjoying the scenery of last week:

Sunset over Cape Maclear, Lake Malawi

Breakfast with veg fresh from the garden and cheese from Lilongwe :)

Young women can do it! In last week's training session.

The Warm Heart of Africa , in Cape Maclear

Taking a break from governance training, Nkhotakota Youth Organization
Participants dancing in gender training, Nkhotakota youth organization

Children in Nkhotakota, Malawi

Ferry stop from Mozambique - Nkhotakota