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....