Monday, September 5, 2011

Last Post

I am seven days away from leaving Malawi.

It's weird.

I can't believe my two years are essentially over. I moved out of site last week -- in the process transporting myself, two backpacks, a suitcase, a grocery sack, a purse, and a box containing five cats on public transport. Naturally there were twenty-six full-grown adults in the minibus (think the size of an American minivan) plus your assorted toddlers and babies. I sat on the engine with poor Gizmo and her four kittens in their box on my lap. She did not want to get in the box, and my landlord and I were forced to corner her and manhandle her into a maize sack and then into the box. He was all for just tying up the maize sack really tight, like a full-body Ace wrap, and while that would have been easier to handle I don't think Gizmo's previously coddled psyche could've taken it. Once we got to Mzuzu and I surreptitiously unveiled the cats in my PRIVATE ROOM (purchased for this very reason), they were ok. Then I handed them off to the lovely Chelsea Mertz, their new guardian, who reports that they are doing well and that the kittens occasionally have hiccups which is "effin adorable".

The rest of moving out was a funny process. I'd been avoiding taking pictures in the village for the past two years, because whenever you get out a camera you're hounded by iwes (small children) and adults who want you to get their snap. I've promised untold numbers of print-outs to total strangers, whom, I'm sorry to say, will never receive them. But it's hard to feel bad when you just took it because it was the only way to get rid of their drunken harrassment.

Anyhow, I did take a bunch around the village. I promise to bore everyone with long slideshows when I come home, but I don't have the patience to upload them now.

Otherwise, it was a lot like moving out of college. I felt tremendously wasteful getting rid of so much stuff, but there was no way to efficiently get it home, so it had to go. Many a volunteer benefited from this, AND those lucky souls got to eat the rest of my American food! (Those dried beans from Central Market are truly amazing-- add garlic, cumin, an egg or two, and you've got some great bean burgers.)

Then I told all my neighbors they could come over on Tuesday morning and take what they wanted. Weirdly, my curtains were in high demand. I was dumb and did not specify a time, which means they showed up at 5.00 am (of course they'd already been up for two hours) and CLEANED HOUSE. One lady took my coffee cup -- with the coffee I was drinking STILL IN IT. Also gone when I blinked was a half-eaten can of cat food that I'd bought as a special treat for the Gizmo-girl. Unclear whether or not whichever neighbor took it knew it was for cats, not people (although there are probably higher sanitation standards for American cat food than for Malawian people food).

Honestly, I was much sadder than I expected to be. For long segments of this two years, I've just been waiting for the day I could return to all the people I love most (and, to be honest, reliable access to hot water). But for these two years, I've also had a defined identity as a Peace Corps Volunteer. That has often been frustrating--as when all my neighbors took my last visits as last opportunities to ask for money -- but it has also been easy, in the sense that I haven't had to think very hard about whether or not what I'm doing is worthwhile (I'm pretty sure it is). Now I will return to the land of delivery food, but also to an unclear future.

Also, though I haven't made the close Malawian friends that I hoped to, I did make a home here. I had a coffee cup that I used every day, a firewood-collecting strategy, a favorite bucket (blue Arkay), and a routine. And I was truly sad to leave some people -- my friend Paul Mkandawire, who is crippled from polio and came to check on me every time I was sick, my tomato lady Mrs. Ntchungwe, my deputy headmaster Mr. Phiri, the incomparable Tamala and Maebo (both six years old and big fans of American nail polish -- pink, natch), Mr. and Mrs. Safari, the glorious Khunga family, my students, and probably lots of people I'm forgetting -- luckily none of them will ever read this blog!

And, of course, I can't believe I'm saying goodbye to a lot of my Peace Corps friends. It's easier to stay in touch with them than with Malawians, of course, but who knows if I'll recognize them once they've showered and gotten haircuts?!?! A clean Peace Corps Volunteer is a COSed Peace Corps Volunteer.

But is leaving Malawi itself difficult, you ask, you many thousands of dedicated readers? .......Not particularly, actually. There are many individuals here that I respect and admire, but I couldn't take much more time in this culture. Not only is it very different from my home, but in many ways it contradicts my own values. And, while I will happily eat nsima anytime it is served to me, I have no desire to eat it ever again. It is, however, one of the most beautiful countries I have ever had the good fortune to visit, and I'll really miss waking up to that gorgeous lakeside vista every day.

Plus the political situation here is getting sticky-- I can't write about it here, because it's still a Peace Corps blog, but if you ask me about it when I get home I will talk your ear off.

Can't think of much more to write, except for future plans: traveling from here to Istanbul, and then wandering around for a few weeks until I meet the Watkins/Harts/Umphres in Rome (and baby Hal!!!!!!! for the first time!!!!!!!), then home. A few weeks/months at home, applying to grad school, figuring out some way to make my Re-Adjustment Allowance cover my cheese budget, and generally starting over.

I'm signing off here. Thanks for reading!

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

GAD Camp!

I finally have something interesting to write about! We are in the midst of chaos at Gender and Development camp. We've got 25 kids and various PCVs in and out, 9 Malawian professionals, and unlimited amounts of donated yarn at the CCAP Mzuzu.

The goal of the camp is to expose kids to different professions and the professional lifestyle, and to inspire discussions about gender in Malawi. Every morning -- right now, in fact -- the kids go to various workplaces, to act essentially as interns and absorb whatever knowledge they can. They're shadowing a nun, a hairstylist, a doctor, a nurse, a mechanic, a radio reporter, a grocery store owner, a businesswoman, and a public defender (called a legal aide here in Malawi). We're really excited to expose these kids to places and people they've never seen. They're all kids from the village, whose parents are farmers or fishermen.

Yesterday we had a field trip to the courthouse! We got to meet with a Sheriff of the High Court (there's only two in the northern region) and a President judge, the second highest rank of judge in Malawi. It was so cool to see the kids asking questions about the law, education, and career paths, and I think they really got something out of it. The judge in particular was very helpful, and the Sheriff shared with us his experience dealing with alcoholism in his youth. The judge actually told us he has the best job in the world because nobody can tell him what to do, and he can send anybody to prison whenever he wants to. I'm pretty sure now, especially after dealing with some unruly kids, that I want to be a judge.

It hasn't all been easy -- organizing these professionals has been a challenge, especially because this culture does not exactly value punctuality or other traits that Americans commonly associate with responsibility. That said, the kids actually all got to their offices early this morning! Exciting.

We've also had some interesting discussions. After presenting a drama courtesy of Peace Corps Theater, which depicted some violence and sexual exploitation for the purpose of discussion, the kids all agreed that it was okay to "beat someone to teach them a lesson". They could not be dissuaded. Just pray that you don't ask them to teach you anything.

Got to go now so somebody else can use the internet, but I'll try to post at the end of camp!

Saturday, May 28, 2011


Now that I've been here for two school years, of course I know everything there is to know about the education system in Malawi. I have a lot of observations about it (and some pretty strong opinions, too, if you hadn't guessed), so I try to articulate them here. That sound you hear is me dragging over my soapbox.

To explain why many of my students answered the question, “What were Protestants and Catholics called in Buganda?” with “Playing five times a day” on their term exams requires two years of frustration, desperation, heartache, and moments of unalloyed, joyous triumph.
First, there's the dreaded R-L mix-up. In Malawi, the two letters are virtually interchangeable, giving my students names like Frolence, Calorine and Flank. Thus, “playing, ”despite repeated attempts to convince them that the thing you do with a football and the thing you do in church are, in fact, not the same. (This argument was particularly ineffective during the 2010 World Cup, when there really didn't seem to be much difference between the pitch and the pew.)
Which brings us to “praying five times a day.” A sensible answer, if they had been answering my first question: “Name two of the five pillars of Islam,” but irrelevant to Protestants, Catholics, and their Bugandan appellations.
This answer is the result of two serious problems in Malawian secondary schools: a myopic focus on examinations, and tolerance of functional illiteracy.
Malawian students are judged by one omnipotent standard: the national exams, administered in eighth, tenth, and twelfth grade. These orgies of multiple choice and fill-in-the-blank are the only measurement that determine whether or not a student may advance. Here's a sample question from the 2010 Junior Certificate Examination (tenth grade):

Complete the sentence with the correct form of the word in brackets.
The __________________ of the boy from school was a surprise. (expel)

Or, from the 2011 Sample JCE Examination:

How ironic is the statement, “I never eat more than one thing for luncheon”.

This is not a reading comprehension question. It refers, without printing the passage in which this statement occurs on the test, to a short story by W. Somerset Maugham. And how is a student supposed to answer this? “Slightly ironic”? “Incredibly ironic”? “Medium ironic”?
Small wonder that students care very little about the content of their classes; no teacher could reasonably prepare them for the caprices of the exam. These exams test specific knowledge, rather than skill sets. Instead of real comprehension, they are tested on the contents of various approved textbooks, which their school might not be able to afford. In Social Studies, students might be asked for the definition of “culture”; any variation from the textbook answer will earn zero marks.
Since your regular class time counts for virtually nothing except as exam prep, why study? In my subjects, English and History, there's really no incentive to do any reading. Most of the kids aren't taking the History exam anyway (the English exam is required). There's also no incentive to pay attention or participate if we're doing something that isn't on the exam -- meaning, any reading, creative writing, or critical thinking exercises. And yet, those pesky term exams keep coming around, and school reports keep getting sent home to Bamama and Badada.
Their solution: become inveterate and shameless cheaters.
After watching my students cheat, I finally understand how teachers and parents have eyes in the backs of their heads. The students are about as subtle as a Chihuahua trying to hide a giraffe bone. They whisper and fidget, get up to borrow pencils, use notebooks clearly labeled HISTORY as “scratch” paper. It would be easy to catch them but for the sheer volume of deceit; but then, catching them is one thing, and punishing them is another. Cheating is an accepted form of scholarship at many a CDSS. When, last term, I caught a student with an open textbook on his lap during an exam and reported him to the exam's grader, he lost only five points out of a hundred -- and I was chastised for not allowing him to finish the test. Avoiding that kind of slap on the wrist is hardly incentive for students to stay on the straight and narrow, especially when the penalty for failing is so high: another year's tuition for cash-strapped and hungry families.
There's also little reason for teachers to crack down on cheating. Since they are employed by the district, not by the individual school or town, their jobs rely on very little besides showing up sober, and sometimes not even that. In some respects, cheating makes teachers' lives easier. Students get better marks, pass on to the next grade, and the teacher gets a good reputation. Since, culturally, cheating is seen a whole lot like sharing (something we encourage in our kindergartners but not in our Stephen Ambroses), the community turns a blind eye to its dishonesty. Students win; parents win; teachers win. I shouldn't be surprised that they think I'm being too particular.
That's how we end up with “playing five times a day.” Looking over a neighbor's shoulder without looking too hard, somebody wrote it down. Then their neighbor copied it, and so on, until nearly every paper in the place bore the same non sequitur.
But, you ask (I certainly did), wouldn't they notice that “playing five times a day” makes no sense as an answer? There's no complicated vocabulary here, no confusing sentence structure. Every word is perfectly comprehensible. And yet, a majority of my students let it flow from their brains to their pencil tips without any apparent understanding of what they were writing.
Culturally, the understanding of education is very different from America's. Parents strongly encourage their children to study, and families who barely eat sometimes find the money for school fees. But I find their definition of “education” misguided: the exams have led to an emphasis on knowledge, to the detriment of thinking. Students spend hours copying paragraphs and illustrations out of the textbooks without understanding a word. Often, the only function of a teacher is to copy from the book to the board. Debate is not permitted. Discussion is not encouraged. Dissension is flat-out forbidden.
This is how functionally illiterate students reach high school. Sure, they can copy down some great notes on wind patterns for Geography, but they can't use “current” in a sentence. They are unable to answer simple questions about plot and character. Recently, when I asked for an example of a predicate nominative, a student combined two examples I'd written on the board to form “The dog is Mrs. Banda.” I cackled alone at the board, but not one student saw the joke.
The written word plays an entirely different role here. These kids never see a billboard, never mind a book. People wear t-shirts with printed slogans such as “This is what a Jewish feminist looks like” without ever considering what they say. Letters, and especially English letters, are strictly under the provenance of school. Once they leave these cement-block buildings, the only reading they'll do will be from the Bible (every time I sit on my porch reading a novel, people pass by and say, “Ah, Maggie, mukuberenga bibulo” -- you are reading the Bible), and the only English will be in newspapers. As such, written language is not an instrument for communication or expression, but a frustrating puzzle which must be broken apart for the sake of that darned exam.
It's not all about availability. Of course, most students have no access to books of any kind, much less the panoply of junior fiction that most American middle schoolers consider a baseline. But that's not the only reason people don't read. At our school, we have over two thousand books, donated by churches, organizations, bought by our school funds, and loaned from the Mzuzu National Library. Our shelves hold such gems as Antony and Cleopatra, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and the entire collected works of Dickens, not to mention lots of lower-level reading material. (We also have such donated treasures as The Royal Baby Portrait Album and How Our Sewer System Works -- how did the donors let these get away?)
Yet very few students ever enter the library. It's open every Tuesday and some Fridays, under my eagle eye, and still they don't come. I have tried to entice them with candy and National Geographics -- if you don't like that combination, you're probably dead -- with no success. There is simply no culture of reading.
Of course, this diatribe doesn't address any of the other serious problems in Malawian schools -- sexual abuse, lack of resources, corruption -- but it also doesn't address any of the benefits. These kids have unbelievable power of recall. They can recite, word for word, exercises from last week and paragraphs from books. I'd love to put them to work on the stage. They are usually cheerful, though rowdy, and they beg for extra class time (though when it is actually offered they don't always show up). There's none of the social stigma that afflicts American suck-ups. They greet me smiling in the street. And, of course, when I actually glimpse some understanding, detect some discernment, it colors my whole week with joy.
A few weeks ago, a student -- the aforementioned Flank -- came to ask me an unusual question. Not to lend him money, not the part of speech of “oceanic”, but why the Renaissance started in Italy. After recovering from shock and congratulating him on his perceptive question, I listed a few reasons off the top of my head: rival cities competing, healthy trade and industry, business from the Church. He looked at me suspiciously.
“Those aren't the reasons listed in the book,” he said.
Maybe, I said, but they're still true.
Flank shook his head. “I don't understand how you think like that. How do you think like that?”
“Practice. And training,” I said. I didn't add, years of reading; hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of education; upbringing in a culture and family that value knowledge and thinking; sufficient nutrition in utero supporting brain development; or any of the thousands of other factors that influence my thought processes.
Flank's chin lifted. He looked at all the books behind my desk, that dark background to my white skin, and he said, “I don't understand it, but I'm going to try.”
When I first started teaching, I thought all Malawi needed to reach the intellectual heights of the first world was books and computers. Now I appreciate that what they really need are more students like Flank -- students who use their heads for more than hat racks, who can distinguish between a dumb book and a smart one, who know that education is about more than facts. The intelligence is unquestionably there; it's the training and encouragement that's absent. It's only a matter of time before they finally nail that R-L difference. Here's to more English, and less Engrish.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Decking halls, starting school, and, as always, failing to take pictures.

Merry belated Christmas and Happy New Year! I am so sorry I didn’t manage to send any cards this year – another victory for laziness. But I hope everyone had a wonderful holiday and has recovered from tryptophan-coma.

We had a grand time here in Malawi. Term 1 exams were finished on December 12, and then I spent a delightful week in Lilongwe with Peace Corps friends, including the lovely Jerrod and Russell, working on various grant stuff and watching a lot of TV. I came back to Chitimba for a bit and then it was vacation time again in Nkhata Bay at Russell’s house in Chifira. On Christmas morning fourteen volunteers chowed down on cinnamon rolls (baked over charcoal), eggs, and a gigantic jar of Nutella. Later that day we sat on Russell’s porch and in the space of about five minutes dispatched a large tin of cheese with crackers and mango chutney. Nice to know that even in Malawi (maybe especially in Malawi) food is an ESSENTIAL part of the Christmas experience. We tried to have some chicken or beef for dinner, but failed to find any meat for sale – so our collective present to vegan Chelsea was a vegan Christmas dinner. Then we had White Elephant (I got a blue bag that says ‘Yes to Carrots’ on it and a stuffed animal, and I gave a light-up tiara from the Mzuzu market). Altogether a lovely Christmas. Christmas in Malawi doesn’t really seem like Christmas, though. Last year, even though I had a great time at Jesi’s site, I was truly homesick on Christmas Day, missing the cold and sitting in front of a fire, having a tree and going to church. This year it felt more like a Christmas-themed party that also happened to be on December 25th, if that makes sense. After all, it may be very agreeable, but it’s not really Christmas if you spend the afternoon drinking beer on the beach, is it?

After the Day itself most people left and the rest of us spent an extremely lazy week at Russell’s house cooking, beaching, and cultivating our respective caffeine addictions. He has a neighbor called, simply, Agogo (which just means grandparent), who came over every couple of hours to check on us and ramble on in four languages (Chichewa, Chitumbuka, Chitonga and English) about her doings that day. She is an example of the failure of the family system. Even though Malawi’s culture really values the family and the elderly, she lives alone and rarely has visitors. We also killed a rooster and cooked it. I really had nothing to do with the killing, though my squeamishness did not prevent me from gobbling up chicken the next day. The process took so long that what we had originally planned as supper became lunch, but it had stewed so long in tomatoes and onions and Herbes de Provence (yay Lily!) that it just fell off the bone. Ina Garten would be proud.

Then it was off to Nkhata Bay boma (the city itself) for New Year’s, which we spent hanging out at the Big Blue Star Backpackers Lodge, where I had a game-, dare I say life-, changing sandwich. (I’m learning right now that it’s a bad idea to write blog posts while hungry – sorry for the food focus.)

Now that I’ve been in Malawi for a while I’m getting more used to the idea that my closest friends here are Peace Corps volunteers. I wish I had more substantive relationships with Malawians, but they just haven’t materialized. I suppose it’s not too late – I have another eleven months or so, hypothetically – but part of this experience, I think, is learning what you can change about yourself and what you can’t. I am inescapably American. That’s not always a good thing, but it’s certainly not a bad thing either. Part of what’s so fascinating (and weird, and more than a bit insane) about Peace Corps is watching how people’s identities evolve, or perhaps devolve, when they’re stuck in an extreme situation. It’s very strange to have these things that you, consciously or not, rely on as part of your identity – your favorite coffee shop, your morning routine, your friends and family, your preferred books or magazines or movies, your hobbies, the way you dress – disappear or become unrecognizable. I’m not sure it’s a good idea for everybody, but it’s definitely revealing. It also means, I suspect, that hanging out with Peace Corps people once we go back to the States will be surreal. Certainly less smelly.

School! Term 2 has started. It will be much shorter than Term 1, since we’ve got to fit in two whole terms before the Junior Certificate Examinations start in June. That means racing through the syllabus and some busy weeks. I am also going to try and start teaching computer this term on our school’s three PCs to small groups in the afternoon – eek. The students keep asking me how they can watch movies or listen to music on the computers. They know that sometimes computers have this capacity, and they don’t understand that without an internet connection it has to be stored somewhere on the computer – they think it just happens, like movies are just floating around in the ether and somehow computers have the ability to process them, like radio waves. In any case, it will be exciting to teach them the glories of Microsoft Office and Paint. The Form 2s have gotten much easier to deal with lately. At the beginning of the term, they had a collective and untreatable case of surliness. A classroom of sixty sullen fifteen-year-olds is not a pretty prospect, so I am very glad that they seem to have recovered enough to treat modal verbs and poetry terms with the respect they deserve. In History, we are now learning about the ancient kingdom of Mali (Form 1) and the Age of Exploration (Form 2), having completed the kingdom of Ghana (Form 1) and the Renaissance (Form 2). Teaching the Renaissance was really fun, mostly because I got to talk about art. The kids were kind of confused, though, every time I passed around a picture of a painting – they thought they were supposed to be learning about the subject of the painting, not the feat of the art itself. It took some time to explain why the ‘Mona Lisa’ is important and what they were supposed to be looking at. However, they find some examples of Renaissance art fascinating – for example, Michaelangelo’s David, or Adam and God from the Sistine Chapel, or Botticelli’s Venus. Are you seeing a pattern? Nudity, as they say, alipo. I also thought it was interesting to see their reactions to Durer’s print ‘Katharina.’ It’s one of his characteristic black-and-white etchings of an African woman, probably a slave, who was living in the Netherlands. Although there’s no color, so you can’t see the actual tone of the woman’s skin, she is obviously African. I passed around a picture of the print and asked the kids where they thought she came from. “China!” they said. “America?” “Portugal!” Though the woman looked like them, or at least more like them than all the other paintings we’d been looking at, they couldn’t recognize their own racial identity in her features. I don’t know what made her so foreign to them – whether it was the age of the etching, its Europeanness, its lack of color, its presence in a history narrative ordinarily so blindingly white – but they were very surprised when I told them that she was African. Race may not be as complicated here as in the States but it sure isn’t simple.

As I post this, I am in Lilongwe, back from our Mid-Service Training. I'm actually ready to go back to site and buckle down after several weeks of vacation, so it's off to Mzuzu tomorrow, and school on Tuesday! Term 2 begins....

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Now, Officially a Second-Year Volunteer

This is insanity. We have now passed the anniversary of our arrival in Malawi, and since the new group of volunteers is sworn in, we are second-years. I'd like to say that it's flown by.... but it hasn't. Days are still pretty slow, and while it's crazy that we've been here for a whole year, it's also crazy that we've been here for ONLY a year. And we still have a year left!

At site, my projects have taken a few blows. I've had some trouble with robberies, and that means that MK 7000 that was allotted for my borehole project has disappeared (plus a bunch of my own stuff and money). Police have nabbed the culprit (a ten-year-old neighbor) so I hope this is the end of it, but it's still obviously a bummer.

In happier news, I may have been converted on the subject of cats. I have never been much of a cat person, despite interactions with many a fine feline. I have never really understood the appeal. But now a warm lump of fur is sleeping on my pillow every night, and I'm learning. Her name is Gizmo (I did not name her, but it's kind of stuck now). She's a three-month-old calico, still growing, and pretty silly. She jumps around a lot and has a love-hate relationship with the broom. I'm hoping that sometime soon this cold war she's waging on the mice and rats will escalate into armed (pawed?) conflict, but until then, she's getting her usipa (dried fish) for free. I just assume she's rubbing it in the faces of all the sad Malawian cats around.

We're approaching hot season now; the temperature is rising and so is my constant desire to be in the water. I am so lucky to live by the lake. Every time I start to feel a bit overwhelmed, I take my camping chair, my big straw hat, a book, and a Nalgene full of Crystal Light (preferably Green Tea Peach Mango flavor) down to the beach, and everything's better. Unfortunately I'm here allegedly helping people, "volunteering" if you will, so I can't spend all my time at the beach, and I occasionally have to go to school. We just have one class right now, as the national exam results still haven't come out and we don't know who passed Standard 8 and can move on to Form 1. Until then, the Form 2s have to suffer through my history classes alone. On Monday in English class we're going to work on writing summaries by watching the first episode of Lost. This could be a total disaster -- and this kind of thing must be what all teachers deal with in their first years.

Speaking of teaching, I am not a natural teacher, I have decided. Before I came here, teaching seemed like a career possibility -- and after a year of it, I have nothing but respect for the amazing people who taught me. But I'm not doing it. Having passed my year-mark now, I should start thinking of possible jobs/school/travel after Peace Corps -- any and all suggestions are welcome. What do you have to do to become a space cowboy?

Extreme Malawi story compilation:

1.The histories of Islam and Christianity are at the beginning of the Form 2 syllabus. After I explained about Muhammad and Mecca, etc., the students pestered me to tell them who was more important, Muhammad or Jesus. This debate between them (and the pestering) continued for several days.

2. On the bus yesterday (I'm in Mzuzu now), the bus driver and conductor had a very loud discussion about whether or not women should be involved in the church. They agreed that since we say "amen" at the end of a prayer and not "awomen", women were not supposed to pray. I thought about pointing out the failure of this logic when it comes to "menstruation" but kept my mouth shut.

3. Went to the funeral of Will's headmaster last Wednesday. He died very suddenly of unknown causes. An unbelievable number of people showed up from all over the region to the funeral, brought food, sang songs, sat in the sun all day to remember this man. Especially given how difficult and how expensive travel is here, it's truly amazing how communities can come together for these events.

4. Also, everyone thinks he died because of witchcraft.

5. One of the teachers at my school has been transferred (which is Malawian for "fired") but he refuses to leave, so he just keeps showing up to class. Nobody has the guts to just tell him off, and anyway, it's not like we have a replacement. Malawi to the max.

6. Day before yesterday watched a little boy with a sack of beans tied on his back like a baby walking around. He was talking to the beans, cooing, singing, skipping around -- adorable. It made me even more excited to see baby Hal when I get home.

7. A student brought me two pieces of paper for me to correct in English. One was a letter, and one was a set of lyrics. First he handed me the letter. My heart broke as I read it, because he was writing his brother, whom he hasn't seen for eleven years and who now lives in Zimbabwe. His parents sent him to work at a factory there and he never came back. Now my student is hoping to find him again and writing the same letter to all of his last known addresses. I could tell, too, that my student wanted me to help him with his English so that his brother, this Zimbabwean stranger, would be impressed with his little brother's education. I might have started to cry except he handed me the other paper, the lyrics, and asked, "What is this word: paparazzi?"
Lady Gaga has infiltrated even Malawi.

Looking forward to some fun events coming up soon: my birthday, Thanksgiving, the mudslide that is the beginning of rainy season.... Wish me luck at school, and keep me posted!

Monday, August 30, 2010

11 Months and Counting

We are almost at the year-mark now -- on September 27th, I will have been in Peace Corps Malawi for a year (minus a few weeks in America). Yikes!

Many things have happened since my last post. The most notable is Camp SKY 2010, the biggest Education sector project in Malawi. We hosted 68 campers, 8 junior counselors, 7 teachers, and a whole colony of cockroaches at Kasungu Teacher Training College for ten days. I am still recovering.

Camp SKY was a great reminder of what we are trying to do here. It was so nice to see the kids getting to be creative, work with art supplies, play games, have class discussions -- all these things that are standard elementary education in America but are so devastatingly absent here. I think I hadn't realised how very important these elements are in education before coming here and seeing an entire population whose intellectual growth is stunted. It turns out pipe cleaners do have a purpose.

I taught English, Cooking, and Drama. It was awesome to teach to a class of ONLY SEVENTEEN! Woo! We mostly did vocabulary strategies like Latin and Greek roots, context clues, etc. It was fun, and these kids are so impressive. In one period, reading the prologue to Romeo and Juliet, I asked for a synonym for 'grudge'. I got 'antagonism', 'hostility', 'animosity' and 'emnity'. This from kids whose parents are cassava farmers, who attend secondary school with at least fifty kids in the classroom, whose families have never owned a book. Amazing. Of course there were still a lot of 'Malawi, GET IT TOGETHER!' moments, like when visiting the Parliament building. We got to take the kids on a field trip to Lilongwe to see the brand-new Parliament and the airport. The Parliament building is a truly surreal exercise in cross-cultural exchange, since it was built and paid for by the Chinese government. There are Chinese characters all over everything, and the guard posts at the corners of the parking lot have decorative scrolls on the corners. There's also a pagoda in the adjacent park. It's weird.

The kids had a great time, though. As we left the building I heard a number of kids say that their new aspiration is to become an MP. They'll have to figure out the bathrooms first, however -- they were befuddled by the indoor plumbing. As every parent or teacher knows, bathroom breaks are essential, but ours took longer than usual because we had to demonstrate to each kid how to use the faucets and the liquid soap dispensers. We did not demonstrate the toilets, but this might have been a mistake, because one kid reached into the urinal trying to flush it. Ick.

We also got the first female Attorney General of Malawi to come speak, the chief of police in Lilongwe, and a whole bunch of other folks. Great fun. The kids had salsa dancing lessons, made Chinese dumplings and French crepes, had to run their own booths during a Carnival, performed Shakespearean monologues, built solar ovens, made compost piles, and all other kinds of fun activities. It was a great time, and I am very happy now that it is DONE and I can SLEEP.

Heading back to site tomorrow to continue working with my women's group. Things are moving along -- trying to get a grant to fix the borehole so they can make some kind of irrigation scheme, etc. I was very proud to be approached by the HBC (Home-Based Care) group of the village, all people living with HIV/AIDS, who wanted to start their own garden project. I hope that means that people are talking about the project and excited about its possiblities.

Off to figure out lunch in the city.... the possibility of cheese is making me drool. Thank you so much for everyone who gave money to Camp SKY and the wonderful travelers from PHPC who sent supplies -- I hope you know how much we, and the students, appreciate it. Thank you!!

Friday, June 4, 2010

As If You Hadn't Done Enough for Me Already


After a few weeks in America, I've realized that my lovely friends and relatives want to help out. Thank you so much for your support, your love, and your willingness to listen to me endlessly describe carrying water on my head.

If you'd like to donate, wonderful! I am trying not to give a lot of money/things that come from personal resources here in my village, for sustainability reasons, and because way too many people already ask me for stuff. So, please go to:

This is a site started by some former Peace Corps volunteers. Any money that you donate to PC projects will go directly TO the projects -- no administrative costs, since we already get paid by your tax dollars - yay! On Friends of Malawi you will find some opportunities to help out, including Camp SKY 2010, a Peace Corps Education Sector project that I'll be spending a lot of time on as soon as I recover from cheeseburger-in-America overload. Thanks again, and don't worry, I'll be hitting everybody up for money and supplies again very soon.