Sunday, December 7, 2008

Triumph of the Human Spirit

I was making my last(?) tour through Kabindiza village. Gift and I walked along the dry, dusty road and chatted about day to day stuff. How many goats did he think he would have by next year, when the rains would come, what he was going to grow this year. We turned off the road and made our way through some fields and came to a clearing, to the village that is adjacent to Kabindiza. There we saw Gift’s friend. I never got his name. He was sitting down on the ground among some women and children and they were chatting. Gift shouted at him that we were going to visit his home. The man put his arms on the ground and in a half pushup, walked himself (using his hands) to his house, his feet dragging beside him. His legs were like toothpicks. His body seemed to big for him. He has polio.

We got to his house and sat down. He smiled and laughed, as we chatted about day to day stuff. He told Gift his radio was broken. Gift said he would fix it. We talked about the weather, the planting season, and he asked about Gift’s family. We shook hands and Gift and I took our leave.

I was sitting in my friend Martha’s house. We chat about the weather, about her mother, about her son Philip, who is terrified of me. She shows me around the house, which her and her mother rent for 1500 kwacha per month. She shows me her room, which is empty save for a mosquito net. She shows me her mother’s room, which is empty, except for a few clothes, and a mosquito net. We walk out of the house and stroll over to where some bricks are baking in the sun. Martha is building a room where she can bathe. It won’t be pretty, but it will be something. We chat a bit more, and we laugh and joke with one another. I look at the time and realize that I have to leave. Martha’s mother asks me if I’m really going to leave without eating. I know they have nothing to give, so I reply that I am. Martha walks me back to the road where I can catch a bus. In a low voice, she asks me if I would be willing to buy her some relish for their meal. I give her 40 kwacha (30 cents Canadian). We laugh and joke a bit more before we get to the road. I say my goodbye and leave.

Women, who walk for hours every day, a baby on their back, collecting firewood. Women, who cook, clean, fetch water. They really are the backbone of humanity. Throughout Malawi, I saw people who were hungry, broke, homeless. Yet, most receive visitors with a smile, and a laugh. Many know that the future will not be bright, but they have hopes for their children, and they carry on. And even when I denied them something that they had asked for (money, clothes, ipod), they still wished me well.

When I had hurt my leg and was using a crutch, even strangers who were stricken by polio, and were using crutches were concerned about me.

In the midst of suffering, perhaps because of it, the human spirit is able to shine brightly. I think that is the greatest gift that I received while overseas. To see that, though there is a long way to go to eradicating poverty, the human spirit, though faced with hardship, denial, and suffering, will ultimately triumph.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

homeward bound

I'm sitting in the lounge in Nairobi. The sun is going down. Out the window, there is a world of infinite events, happening to a much less than infinite amount of people. How do I feel? Small. Waiting in an airport for a connection can be very tedious, boring etc. But its also a good space to reflect. Its like a stopping point in between two journeys. So, Nairobi separates me from my life in Malawi and my life in Toronto. How do I feel? Weird.

There are few places that I would ever call home. Weirdly enough, I would call Malawi home. Its strange to say, but there it is. Perhaps its a result of only staying in some place for 10 months, a result of always being on the move, of being struck with new sensations, stimuli, experiences, and learning every day. Maybe if I stuck around longer, I'd be feeling homesick for Canada, that Malawi would be turn into a routine like everything else.

Though, my life in Malawi, was pretty routine. Get up, go to work, come home, cook, etc. Maybe, it's easy to look back at something and see it more fondly than it was. Then again, its easy to look back and see it for being worse.

I'll miss Malawi. I already do. As my buddy Graham said, "this is good living." it really is. Okay, reflection is over. Time to look ahead. Time look forward. Hello Canada.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Mama, I'm coming home.

This is my last week in Malawi.

Tomorrow I get on a bus for Lusaka. Then I jump on a plane to Toronto. Then to Fort Mac. It is difficult to leave. Malawi is such a beautiful country filled with so many great people. It really is the warm heart of Africa. Not only will I miss my many Malawian friends, I will also miss the Engineers without Borders crew. Never before have I been in a group of such warm-hearted, intelligent, hard working people. If you ever have the chance to go overseas with them, take it.

Last time? in Kabindiza

Last weekend was an interesting weekend. Both happy, sad, and interesting. I won't tell you all of it, but I'll tell you some.

I headed out to Kabindiza village to see the family that I had stayed with. I had been gone for a very long time, so they were skeptical that I would ever show up again. I brought my bicycle with me, as I figured it would be a nice gesture to leave it there.

I got to the minibus in Lilongwe and asked if I could bring the bike. They agreed but for MK350. I knew I was getting ripped off, but i really didn't care. I just wanted to transport the bike. I jumped on the back of the bus. On the way there, the conductor tried to collect the MK350 from me, but there was such an uproar from the other passengers, all shocked that he would charge me that much that we settled for MK100. Beauty!

The minibus stops in Nkhoma. The bike ride from Nkhoma to Kabindiza was absolutely beautiful. Whizzing by small farms on a dirt road, with the mountains in the distance was amazing. I enjoyed waving to people, old men and women sitting on the door steps of their mud houses, men working in the field, women carrying goods from the market on their heads, the children running to the road to stare at the white dude on the bike, all of them crying out, "Azungu!" It was a lot of fun.

In Kabindiza, I was greeted warmly, as usual. I stayed with Barrack and his family again, and we had nsima for dinner, with some pumpkin leaves for relish. It was great. There have been some changes since I last left. Little Mphatso no longer runs his store, apparently, he ate his capital. Same for the guys who sell chips on the side of the road. Across from Barrack, a new mud house has gone up, apparently a new tea room. The house is built slightly askew, and with the thatching looks a bit ominous, almost like a haunted ghost.

That night, the most amazing thunderstorm took place. Lightning flashes in the distance, and from 3 different sides (270 degrees). The flashes were so bright, you were temporarily blinded. It was pretty cool. Then the clouds hit us and it rained hard, for about 20 - 30 minutes. Everybody was happy. The first rains of the season. My friend Gift remarked, "You've brought the rains." We spent the weekend visiting in the village, talking about farming, about Canada, about Malawi, about life. Its funny how quickly a place becomes home.

Although everyone was asking me to stay longer, I knew my welcome was wearing thin. The fertilizer subsidy is upon us. Some in the villages get coupons so they can buy fertilizer for a much cheaper price. Tomorrow was the day when they would go to the trading centre to pick some up. Unfortunately, there aren't enough coupons for every family in the village (31 coupons for 85 families) so people have to share them. Don't believe the hype in the newspapers. I woke up from my vacation reverie when I saw how Regina, my host mom, and her sister in law each struggled to put MK800 together so they could each buy a bag of subsidized fertilizer. MK800 is about US$5.50

The next day, I left early because I knew both Barrack and Gift wanted to get back their fertilizer. I pondered if I should stay longer and help them get the fertilizer. The night before, I got word that my neighbour in Lilongwe had died, so I decided I should head back for the funeral.

As I was walking to Nkhoma (about 7 km from Kabindiza), Barrack and Gift fell into step determined to walk me the way. I protested but new it was futile, that's Malawian hospitality. Luckily a bus came by. A bus came by? when does that happen? A quick handshake and a hug and on my way home to Lilongwe.

Malawian Travel Time

This morning, I’m in Karonga. I am heading to the uranium mine Kaylekera to have a look at what is going on over there. Yesterday, on the way from Mzuzu to Karonga, I started chatting with the conductor on the minibus. Edwards (conductor) gave me some of the inside scoop on how to get to Kaylekera. Apparently, there should be a bus carrying workers from Karonga every so often and I should be able to hitch a ride.

So this morning, I leave my small hostel room and try to find the bus. Guess what? No bus. I see a matola heading to Chitipa, and Kaylekera is on the way to Chitipa. But its only 8:30 am and I need to get there by 3 pm. So what to do in the meantime? I see a sign that says Kaylekera is only 55 km away.

I run into Edwards again, he explains that the matola should drop me off at a T intersection and that Kaylekera is 5 km from the T intersection. He also mentions that there should be cars running back and forth from the T intersection and will also take you for a small fee. I have plenty of time.

Woah! Red Flag! I don’t have plenty of time. In Canada I would see a 55 km sign and estimate, okay a 1/2 hour to get there, 1 hour tops. But I’m in Malawi, time to do some Malawian math.

Time now = 8:30 am
Time I need to be at Kaylekera = 3 pm

I’m taking a matola which is basically riding in the back of a truck. They don’t leave on scheduled times and only when their full. The road is most likely dirt all the way there. So 1 hour normal travel time will stretch into 3 hours. Also, there might not be another matola after this.

Also, Edwards said that there are cars at the T intersection, and that it is 5 km. He seemed a bit uncertain of the total distance. As a rule, Malawians are not strict on time, and they tend to like to please so they will often underestimate distances that you have to travel, perhaps to keep you from wimping out. So, cars waiting probably means no cars waiting, and 5 km probably means 10 or more. So add 2 more hours walking time.

My 1 hour has now stretched to 5 hours.

I’m still hanging with Edwards, the time is now 9 am. Yup, I better get on the Matola. I jump on. I wait on there until about 10 when we finally take off. We get to the T junction by noon. There are no cars waiting. The sign at the side of the road says Kaylekera 12 km. After a 2 hour hike, I reach Kaylekera. The sun is brutal and I’m a mess of sweat. It’s 2 pm. Yup, 5 hours. Malawian travel time.

Newspaper article from March

Here is a newspaper article from March that I dug up. I'm not posting this as a value judgement, but merely to highlight the realities of Malawian Life. Not everyone believes in witchcraft, but a lot of people do. Also, you can get a strong sense of the values present through the style of reporting.

2 children die in inferno, mothers arrested

Two sisters have stunned people of Mondiwa Village, Traditional Aughority Machinjiri in Blantyre after they allegedly threw their two children on a raging fire on Saturday - burning them to death - claiming the children were practicing witchcraft.

The sisters - Agnes Kamanga-Gadama, 30, and Catherine Kamanga, 23 - are also alleged to have locked up their four children (including the two who died on Saturday) in their house for a week without food, saying (the mothers) were praying and fasting to rid their children of witchcraft.

The tortured children are Mayankho Gadama (9), Martin Gadama (7), James Gadama (3) and Pemphero Phiri (eight months). Agnes is mother to the first three while Catherine is parent to Pemphero.

Mayankho and Martin died in the inferno while James and Pemphero were rescued from the ordeal by villagers who rushed to the house after getting suspicious.

The two mothers have since been arrested and as of yesterday morning they were being held at Bangwe Police Station.

According to Limbe Police spokesperson Chifundo Chibwezo, the sisters - who hail from Nkhotakota - say they are members of a reputable established church (name withheld). “They say as Christians, they decided to pray and fast when their children allegedly confessed to practicing witchcraft.
“According to the neighbours, they would hear some shouting coming from the house but the children were never seen outside [the house],” said Chibwezo.

But things took to a dramatic and shocking turn Saturday afternoon when a passer-by saw the suspects roughly beating up the children outside the house as the smoke was seen inside the house.

“The passer-by rushed to the village elders to alert them about the incident and when people rushed to the house, they found Mayankho and Martin lying dead with burns all over.

“the villagers quickly grabbed James and Pemphero and put out the fire. The matter was reported to Police. James and Pemphero were rushed to Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital as they were dehydrated from the fasting and had inhaled a lot of smoke,” siad Chibwezo.

However, in an interview at the Police station yesterday, the sisters denied having killed the children.

“We did not throw the children on fire. We were just praying for them because they confessed they were wizards. While we prayed for them, they would vomit things like vegetables, snails and frogs.

“Strange things were happening. THe wall clock also started talking. Then Mayankho and Martin just fell down,” alleged Agnes, who spoke confidently without stuttering.

But when asked why the children had burns, the two - who did not seem shaken after being shown the pictures of the deceased burnt bodies - just fell silent without an answer.

Throughout the interview, the two remained composed without shading a tear even after the news that Mayankho and Martin did not survive the ordeal.

Agnes’s husband, Gadama, is currently serving a one-year and five months jail term at Chichiri Prison in Blantyre after being convicted of theft last year. Catherine divorced her husband in 2004. The families moved from Nkhotakota to Blantyre in 2003.

As of yesterday, toddlers James and Pemphero were receiving treatment at the hospital after being starved of food for a week. Mayankho and Martin’s bodies were at the mortuary awaiting postmortem.

Monday, October 20, 2008


I'm riding matola from an engineering conference by the beach (I know, tough life). We're whizzing by villages, passing mud huts with grass roofs, clothes lines up, with children running around. Adults are sitting in the shade that their roofs provide and are chatting happily. I see an old woman walking around bare foot through the dust and dirt, carrying tomatoes. I think about this old woman. You know, a lot of us might look at her and pity her. But, she carries a lot of dignity. She looks happy. She just wants to make sure her kids and grandkids are okay, like any grandma. The only difference between her and me, aside from our gender and age, is that my life might have a bit more of a safety net to it. Welfare, health care etc. Or so I hope, sometimes I think we all walk a fine line, just at the edge of the precipice, but that's a story for another day.

This woman, she has never used a computer, never driven a car. She's woken with the sun, and gone to bed with the moon. She doesn't think about cell phones, or what the latest fashion is in Italy. She hasn't attended a football match, yet she is dignified. There are so many different ways of living. A lot of times, my life in Canada has been racing after things that I thought I needed, that I thought I wanted, that I thought were necessary to fulfill my part in the social contract. But, really there is no more value in my life than there is in hers. Mine might be more varied, and I might have more opportunity to try new and different things, but at the end of it, her friends and family will mourn her at her funeral just as mine will me. She is important to someone, and has contributed to the life of someone. I hope I can do the same.

As an overseas volunteer, I am not here to bring dignity to her. She already carries much more than I can ever give. She has much more than I do. All I want to see is that her vulnerability is reduced. That when she gets sick, there is a hospital. That when her kids or grandkids need to learn, there is a school. That the scourge of HIV/AIDS transitions from reality to memory. I'm not kidding myself. I can't do any of these things, but I want to see them done. We can all work together to see these happen. We can reduce vulnerability. She already possesses dignity. She recognizes it in herself. Perhaps, we will all work to eliminate these vulnerabilities when we recognize it in her as well.