Wednesday, July 1, 2009
Homestay to Site Visit
It took us twelve hours in the PC Land Rover to ride from Bolero to Dedza, 350 kilometers, light speed compared to public transportation, but we rolled into the Malawi College of Forestry before dark and it was just like old times. Only two months have gone since our group stepped onto the tarmac in Lilongwe airport, our skin still pink and delicate, our pockets bulging with little bottles of South African wine from the plane. First week at the college was fun, mainly preparation for Home Stay and interviews. They taught us how to eat Sima with our hands, how to take a bucket bath, how to wash your clothes in a basin and other things like that. The Peace corps staff interviewed us to find out what our preferences were as far as site placement and work-related interest. I told them I didn't care where I was weather-wise but that I was interested in beekeeping. Now, beekeeping in Malawi is serious business since with relatively little monetary input a group of villagers can harvest a large amount of wax and honey from just a single hive and sell at a profit. But I wasn't really thinking of that during my interview. I just wanted to have a lot of honey around me all the time, but as it turned out, it got me a sweet sight placement which I'll get to later on. After the first week all I knew was that I was one of the five people in my group going North—to the land of the Tumbukas. After a week at the college our group of 19 got split up and sent to two villages just a few kilometers away from the college. My village was called Mzengereza, which in Chichewa means someone who is “a lout, a good-for-nothing”. When I first arrived at the house, the Abambo, father, motioned me inside and we sat down, I on the couch, he on a chair opposite me, and sat in awkward silence punctuated by me saying, “Chimandisangalatsa kuli kuno! It makes me happy to be here!” Then he would smile and nod and look at the wall again. This went on for some twenty minutes, and I was feeling incredibly claustrophobic when my host sister came in and said, in perfect English, “Ah! it's so nice that Host Brother and Abambo are chatting!” I was lucky in that my host sister spoke English very well since Mzengereza is a Chichewa village, but I was learning Chitumbuka, another language which is only spoken in Northern Malawi. Family I lived with were the Chitsulos, which means “hard metal” in Chichewa. In the family are Amayi Chitsulo, Abambo Chitsulo, and three kids, Patrick (7), Caroline(4), and Morris(2). Emelia, 20, who is actually Amayi's sister, lived in the house too. Abambo is one of the kiln operators at Dedza Pottery, an industrial pottery facility a ways from the village. My family was very fortunate in terms of the father having consistent employment. In Malawi having a paying job is not the norm and often times families are subsistence farmers that might get some piece work every now and then, one-day jobs, etc. The Chitsulos were very open to implementing all the technical components of our Peace Corps training. One night I showed them one of the books we were given about how to start a kitchen garden using waste water from bathing for irrigation. I came back for lunch the next day and they had already dug out a big square area and built a fence around it! In one month of home stay my family built two Dimba gardens, made a big compost pile, planted two fruit trees, and helped me build a mud stove in their kitchen, which uses less wood than the traditional three stone method of cooking. All in all they were pretty exceptional and I've been told that it's not very common to find people so willing to try new things. After Home Stay we did site visits and then Language Intensive, a week-long retreat in Bolero designed to sharpen our language skills and otherwise immerse us further into the Tumbuka culture. Everything in Language Intensive Week was intensive. Everyday we did Intensive Eating, Intensive Sleeping, and Intensive Bao Playing. We also held a sima eating competition in which Matteo was the only contestant, and he ate six patties by the end of dinner. (Sima is the main staple food of Malawi and it's basically corn porridge stirred a long time until the consistency of playdough and then molded into large patties. Normally its eaten with side dishes like beans, greens, meat, etc.) *Also of interest to note. Malawi produces really good hot sauce called Nali. Bolero was a nice place to decompress after site visit and hang out with the other people headed North. I don't think I could have asked for a more ideal site placement. My future home is a place called Livingstonia, an old mission town in Malawi that sits on the edge of the Nyika escarpment overlooking the lake which is just 15km away. The weather is temperate and there are no mosquitoes because of the elevation. The combination of rolling green hills descending down to the lake makes it very similar looking to coastal California. On the other side of the lake you can see big mountains in the distance, which are actually in Tanzania. Two kilometers down the road from town are a couple of backpacker lodges, one called Lukwe Camp, the other called Mushroom Farm. I walked down to Lukwe Camp and met the owner, who is an American named Bruce, and he was really friendly and looks almost exactly like Jerry Garcia. He told me I can come by any time and eat a cheeseburger. He said a lot of Israelis role though there, as well as Europeans and Canadians, so it'll be nice to hang out there with the travelers every once in a while. Just a little walk from Lukwe camp is Manchewe Falls, an epic waterfall that runs year round and looks like something out of National Geographic. Basically I'm living in a place that people go to on vacation, except I get to live there for two years. Pretty sweet. For now, I will live in the annex of a landlord's compound whose name is “Four Kwacha”(Kwacha is the Malawi currency). His house is huge, with two stories, and a satellite dish. Though I don't live in the mansion part of it. Built into the side of the house are two little rooms with a tin roof, that's my current residence. The house is actually in the village of Livingstonia, which is not what I had expected. Even though Livingstonia is called a village it's more like a small town. The whole place is piped with running water and many people have grid electricity. I wasn't happy with the fact that I didn't have my own house and that I wasn't in a more rural setting so I talked to one of the administrators during Language Intensive Training and she agreed that the housing situation is not satisfactory. So, Peace Corps is going to find me a new house in one of the villages surrounding Livingstonia! Therefore Four Kwacha's pad is just temporary housing. The first night of site visit they invited me up for dinner and we watched American WWF wrestling and the Jesus channel for about an hour. Didn't I come to Africa to escape from that stuff? Yes, but the stuff found me. They turned on world news for a little while, which I was really excited about since I'd had no idea what happened in the world for the last two months. But after a couple of precious minutes they flipped it back to wrestling “Liiive from Corpus Cristy Teeexas!” and a program called the “Hope Channel” which consisted of a guy in a Roman toga acting like Pontious Pilate, talking about “The Jeeews...” Just a few hours before I had told Four Kwacha and his family that I was Jewish and they were really confused about the fact that Jews don't read the new testament. Four Kwacha kept saying, “But Yoel, Jesus does appear in the Old Testament, In Daniel and other places.” But I asked him how can Jesus can appear in the old testament, if it was written long before Jesus was born, thus the name “Old” testament? He didn't get it though and I think it was a low point for Malawian-American cultural exchange. That being said, most of my experiences with people here have been very positive. Malawians are extremely friendly in general and are just excited to talk to an American or any foreigner for that matter. I told someone in my host village that I was born in Israel and he stood there for a moment, gazing to the ground in unblinking silence, then said, “You are truly blessed.” Being Jewish is not a problem in Malawi. Mostly because the majority of people don't really know what it means when you say that. I tell people that I'm Jewish and they nod for a while and then ask, “So, are you a Christian?” I usually just say “Yes”. In Malawi, it's not so important as to what religion you belong to, just as long as you belong to something. A common question when you meet someone here is “Mu kusopa nkhu—where do you pray?” If you tell them “I don't pray”, it's very, very strange and it will only invite further questions from them, so it's better to just say something like Christian, Catholic, Scientologist, whatever. We'll all be sworn in as volunteers in a few days in the Capital city, Lilongwe, then off to our sites for three months. I probably won't have internet access until a month from now, since I'll have to use an internet cafe in Mzuzu when I go there for restock in a month. Mzuzu is the main city in the north so I can go there every few weeks to get supplies that I can't find in Livingstonia and stay at the Peace Corps Rest House up there. Sorry if you've emailed me and I haven't responded. It takes a really long time for a single page to load because they still only have dial-up/modum email service in Malawi, so apologies for lack of communication on my part. If you write me a letter (you know, paper...stamps) I will write you back. It's a deal. If you want to talk to me on my cell phone (peace corps gave us african cell phones) talk to my parents and they'll give you the number, if they like you. I can't put the number here because it's a public blog, and it's really expensive for me to call the states. Skype works and is pretty cheap. I hope everyone is well. Rest assured that your Yoel is happy and healthy. Tisanganenge: We will find each other.