Today is the seventh day since we have arrived in Malawi. Time flies. Malawi is really the warm heart of Africa. All the people have been so nice and friendly; they always smile at us. I still remember the first day we arrived in Kasungu village, the people welcomed us with dancing which was so amazing. We have tried our best to learn the local language to show our respect. I like it when it is night time in Kasungu; every night we can see a lot of stars in the sky, and also it is very quiet. It is making me feel better when we get through a whole tiring day.
Every morning the chirp of birds and bark of dogs wake me up. It is a very different experience and I really like it. The weather in Malawi is not as hot as I thought it would be. However, the weather in the morning and evening is a little bit cold, but in the afternoon it is hot. Three days ago, we climbed the Kasungu Mountain. It took almost 3 hours; everybody was tired but no one gave up. I am so proud of us. It was totally worth it when you saw the gorgeous landscape on the top of mountain.
Today we had a big meeting with the senior chief as well as 19 other village chiefs and some villagers. They were all very supportive of our projects. The Praxis Malawi project includes, a chicken co-op, a health clinic, school education, micro-loans and many more. After the meeting, everyone became even more excited about their projects.
School Girl: Where are you from? Me: Canada School Girl: It is nice there? Me: Yes, it is. School Girl: Can you bring me there?
Saturated in my surroundings I tripped on a shimmed step and almost fell face first into a stand filled with dried fish, neatly laid out in little piles drying in the sun. I was wandering through the abusive smells of the Kasungu Market, smells pungent enough to make “Love Panther” smell like moth balls. I walked in awe, intoxicated by sounds and colours so vivid a rave juxtaposed to this market would seem like an episode of Mr. Rogers. Engage sensory overload. The poverty was lucid….and so was the energy. My camera was rendered null by the impossibility of capturing this diversity. Maybe that’s just what I told myself in the fear of being robbed.
Three days prior it was our day to depart and I had slept maybe three hours the night before in a town called Grimsby at a family member’s home. I had fallen asleep to the sound of a blind and deaf dog walking around aimlessly. His hair had grown beyond management. He resembled some type of robotic mop cleaning the urine stained floors he was responsible for. It was no surprise his nails hadn’t been trimmed either, producing a sound that was somewhere near a disgruntled five year old playing on a flat snare drum. It didn’t even really bother me that much, it more so helped. Coupled with my anxiety it served as white noise to keep my mind from contemplating the unknown. The unknown of Africa, of Malawi, of my colleagues, my professor, the village I was flying to and in short, everything else.
Seventy two hours ago it was the fear of the unknown that kept me from sleeping and it is still omnipresent now. Twenty-four hours a day I’m not really sure what to say or how to act. Most Western social cues are rendered null. It’s a constant uneasy feeling, like watching a sex scene on television with your parents, or a Rob Ford interview.
The only thing that seems to allow me to stop the constant contemplation, reflection and misdirection is a few beers, “This commercial brought to you by; Carlsberg.” Carlsberg is the only beer one can get a hold of around here as they have successfully Rockefellered the alcoholic market in Malawi. These beers are usually coupled by a few stories told in a thick Cocknee accent by the local bar owner. In a few days I’ve heard of elephant tramplings and drunk dogs attacking pigs in the market followed by screaming AK47s….and those are just the ones I feel comfortable repeating on a public forum.
Like myself, he’s white and therefore together here in Malawi we are part of an extremely marginal minority. The only other time I saw white people was in the lobby of a swanky hotel. In Canada minorities are often institutionally oppressed, verbally and physically abused and alienated. Being part of the white minority in Malawi leads to quite the opposite, at least in a stage of culture shock known as the “Honeymoon Stage”- a veil of tourist mentality which provides comfort in the face of extreme poverty, disease and oppression. One notices the screaming and smiling children running after your bus, or running after you in the streets, begging you to take a picture with them- the attention feels good. My ego was eating it up. As deeper analysis set in I begin to realize that it is mostly children who pay you this type of attention. The children do not yet know the horrors of their (and mine) colonial past, or the continued defamation of human rights carried out by neo-colonialist multi-nationals on the geo-political battle field, all to serve the insatiable consumer appetite of the West, or at least perpetuated by the West’s apathy. There are also plentiful amounts of smiles, waves and greetings (Ndadzuka Bwanji?) from the older crowd, but I’m becoming quite cynical in estimating the undercurrent of motives that these greetings are travelling on. The educated and conscious Malawians we meet are more critical of our presence, for good reason. In these types of interactions there is no screaming of “Asungu” (meaning white person) and no shock from our presence. They have seen us coming before and knew we would come again.
Throngs of mission groups and NGOs have probably set foot on the same ground I am now, shook hands with the same people I did today and maybe even made the same type of promises-only to leave. They left after their church was built, after their research was done and after they had enough pictures of them holding Malawian babies. I’ve realized that in order to really get serious about assisting my Kasungu friends, I would need to make a long term commitment and I would need to embrace a new emancipated pedagogy that stresses the importance of the oppressed being their own example.
Teach a man to fish, don’t drop fish off and take a photo for Facebook while doing it. The pressure of putting systems for progress in place within 36 days is immense. What provides me comfort is knowing that not only can I continue researching back home in Canada, but I now realize that this re-location has provided a much needed reaffirmation of the importance of my career choice as well as the importance and appreciation of information emancipated from the West’s curriculum. The guilt I mentioned earlier may in part be from avoiding this type of information, because, well, it’s hard to swallow. Now that I am immersed in it, it’s impossible not to.
The wealth in Canada is so pronounced compared to where I am now, naturally the question arises as to how this polarization of wealth and disregard for human rights is continued and how can this human suffering be alleviated. Still I search.
Remember the Crazy Canucks? Well, they are back and in Malawi. We had a bus breakdown on the way back from Cape Maclear and what would have been a quick call to CAA and a thirty minute wait in Canada became a six and a half hour “experience” living on the side of the main Malawi highway. Luckily, we all had our share of ideas of what was wrong with the bus and Linden did a great job of yelling out “Check the oil! Did you check the oil? I would check the oil” to make sure everything was covered. Equally lucky was that despite Linden’s gags, the problem was not with the oil…because if it was the oil, we would never live down the fact that we did not check the oil. Personally, I thought it was a problem with low windshield wiper fluid.
This could have been a very, very bad situation and the students did an outstanding job putting a positive spin on something we had no way of controlling. In all honesty, the best laid plans in Malawi can go astray; it’s just the way it is. It doesn’t stop us from trying to plan everything we possibly can, but we have to realize there are just some things out of our control. Fortunately, the bus stopped next to a small village with lots of trees for shade and a water pump. Local villagers had no problem with all of us spilling onto their land to find shade from the hot sun and gave us friendly smiles and simply went about their business. As the minutes passed, a call for a new society was laid out … just in case a rescue bus was never sent. At first Amy produced a mini broom made of discarded corn husks, proudly claiming that her skills would ensure that we had a means to sell a fundamental (and cute!) product that would economically sustain us. After the first hour, when people realized that the replacement bus had not even left the shop…things went all Lord of the Flies.
Corinne our president
With a knife in hand, I declared myself “The Tool Maker” and fashioned two pointy sticks. Handing the sticks to Louisa and Barbara they became our military, ready to defend us against all things that feared pointy sticks. With security taken care of, spirits were high and people started accepting responsibilities left, right and center. Someone let out a cry, “What will you do for your new country” and people accepted the challenge. Elise took up the essential responsibility of fulfilling the role of “Book Critic” and continued to read her paperback novels. In response to the Champlain student’s noble sacrifice, Brave Arshad then took on the responsibility of “Movie Critic” and watched the arduous four hour film Gettysburg on my Itouch, but the batteries died after an hour and half (btw, I told him the South won, please keep this between you and me!). Roxy became our chronicler, furiously taking detailed notes of everything that occurred around her, so that future generations would know how they glorious new world was built. Jae sacrificed the comforts of our newly found utopia and acted as conduit between us and the rest of the world by staying on the bus, just in the remote chance rescuers ever came. Realizing that this could potentially take decades, Jae put herself in a hibernation like state to assure that someone would be there, a sleeping diplomat if you will, to show the way to what would certainly become a highly successful civilization. A civilization needs leadership and it was declared that whoever could climb the highest in the giant tree that was providing us shade would govern our people, so Corinne became president and Linden vice-president. With a proven track record of being able to make tiny brooms, Amy went on to be the “Minister of Eventual Industry”. Naomi sat at the bottom of the great tree and placed a book over her head, and by using osmosis became our intellectual. With the conjoined Hollywood name of “Rebel”, Rebecca and Annabelle were our counter-culture, “keeping it real”, while at the same time reminding us that our society was a precious thing that needed to be guarded against usurpers. I think Frank stood on the highway and shook his head at us…what purpose this served was a mystery…but nonetheless gave our society mystery, perhaps a new religion?!
Okay, about 43% of what I wrote actually took place.
Seriously, I am reminded of when Melanie and I were offered a short-term contract with a major university with a study abroad program. Our job was to teach basic classroom management strategies for the cohort as they were bound for China to teach ESL classes. Months later, when we ran into the director of the program he exhaustedly told us of countless phone calls he received from students, screaming over the phone that they had just seen a cockroach in their bathroom and demanded immediate evacuation. A lesser group of students would have been overwhelmed by the experience of being stranded on a Malawi highway for hours. This group simply carried on. Crazy Canucks!
It was the third day of their journey and the temperature was -29˚C. The three Malawians gritted their teeth and suppressed violent shivers, but nevertheless managed to pull on their woolen hats and five sweaters with great gusto. After all, they were in Canada now, and Canadians did this all the time.
They rode in a Mazda. They had asked to travel by snowshoe—like they’d heard “real Canadians” did—but their request had been met by a puzzled stare from their host. Regardless, they felt quite pleased with the view as they stared eagerly out the window.
“So many trees!” exalted the first.
“Wow,” agreed the second.
“I think I just saw a deer!” exclaimed the third with tremendous excitement. Instantaneously, they pressed their noses against the window pane to catch a glimpse, ooh-ing and aah-ing accordingly as the creature disappeared in the bend of the road.
The host pulled into the Tim Hortons parking lot. He led his guests into the restaurant rather quickly, which didn’t save them from the assaulting temperature discrepancy between the host country and their own.
Once at the counter, met with doughnuts and bagels in a display case, their faces broke into grins.
“Great food! Can’t wait to eat!” said the first.
“Yeah! I’m so excited to eat here every day for the next month!” said his friend in an unfaltering winning smile, all the while reflecting privately on his desire for beans and nsima.
“…Yeah…” said the third, for he was an agreeable sort of fellow.
Later that night, after a day spent hugging and tickling strangers’ children, despairing over the misery of call center workers, and being frightened by a spider in the shower, the guests felt tired.
“Imagine if you had to live like this everyday,” said the first. “I guess you would adapt.”
The second laughed. “I don’t think my friends at home would last a day.”
Some days are less awesome
“It’s different,” said the third, “but I think I like it. There’s something special about this place.”
The three friends fell into a comfortable silence. They contented themselves with gazing dreamily at the night sky, hushed by the sight of the stars, their minds wandering to those who awaited their tales in a homeland that seemed at once far away and ever-present.
When the woman seated next to me on the plane warned me that my malaria pills were known to have mood swings as side effects, I laughed.
“I’m seventeen years old,” I told her. “I’m used to it.”
And yet, three days later, I must admit that the array of emotions I’ve felt since our arrival has certainly explored an interesting range.
The village of Makupo is lovely. So far, our stay has gone without a hitch. Our hosts are polite, funny, patient and so welcoming. Since my departure from Montreal, I’ve been shown time and time again that I have been given everything to be grateful for in this life. After a mistake that almost cost me my entire trip, I was blessed with help from my hometown that allowed me to catch my flight against all odds. When we arrived in Makupo a full day later, we were greeted with singing and hugs. It is difficult not to feel blessed.
Dizzying periods of bliss, however, often seem to be accompanied by negative counterparts. Coming from an environment wherein one’s personal space is sacred and not to be infringed upon, being told to wander around as we please and feel completely at home was at once nice and slightly nerve-wracking. It’s difficult to refrain from cooping up in our hostel and conversing with other members of the group rather than challenging the language and cultural barriers we face in the villagers. My limited Chichewa skills makes me feel as if they might secretly start to believe that I’m a total dork; even if I know that the premise is completely unfounded, I need to constantly repeat it to myself. It’s hard to shake the feeling that someone staring at you is doing so with a spiteful connotation, especially since our pallor is so blatant and unavoidable.
Nevertheless, this journey is astonishingly eye-opening—especially since we haven’t even started our study yet… These three days have been chock-full of surprises. I’ve discussed Celine Dion with a Makupian, enjoyed a beautiful choir performance from the children at a school for the blind and visually impaired, and even piled a stool on the bed to try to squish a giant spider with a walking stick. I can only hope that the next few days will be as stimulating as these have been so far, mood swings or no.