A Traveler’s Tales from Malawi

Getting Older
May 23, 2008, 7:02 am
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Okay, it’s true. I have just celebrated my birthday which I didn’t think would be a big deal. However, since then (only 4 days ago), I have forgotten my cell phone at work twice and left my apartment keys at a friend’s place. My memory is already going…

To be fair to myself, I have been really busy at work, conducting interviews, attending meetings, and getting the usual editing and research done, so I may be exaggerating a bit 🙂

I attended a really interesting meeting at the US Ambassador’s residence where the Malawian presenters for the HIV Implementers Meeting in Uganda presented in front of an audience of their peers. It was interesting to see the various focuses and learn more about the research and programs being conducted in Malawi. My boss was the only one who presented on HIV prevention, except for a presentation on the prevention of mother to child transmission (PMTCT) which focused on diagnostics. All the other presentations were more clinical in focus and were mostly about treatment (ARVs became free for all almost a year or two ago) and testing.

There is also some really interesting work being done regarding electronic medical records. This surprised me due to the low connectivity levels throughout the country. In fact, only 6% of the entire population has electricity. Yet, they have devised some really innovative ways (such as windmills) to get such projects off the ground. I spoke to the speaker afterwards to learn more about the project and their experience because I remember quite vividly the challenges that Neighborhood Family Practice (NFP) had in implementing such a system in Cleveland.

It’s interesting. I’m learning that many of the problems that exist here are quite universal – just a different magnitude, cultural context, and financial means to deal with them. But otherwise, we face some of the same challenges in the US. For instance, I interviewed the Minister of Youth earlier in the week and he said that he would like to see the BRIDGE Project (the project that I work for…I’ll share more about it next post.) bridge the intergenerational gap whereby teaching young parents how to be parents. The family unit is deteriorating, largely due to AIDS and poverty. This is happening in the US for other reasons but still a real problem and concern. 


Exploring Lake Malawi
May 20, 2008, 6:13 pm
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This past Saturday, I spent the day buying furniture along the road on the way to Lake Malawi in Salima. It’s really quite amazing to see how talented and what hard work goes into making this beautiful bamboo furniture. Those who know me well, know that I’m not a shopper. Unfortunately, the woman that I went with had no idea. We were quite an entertaining pair. In fact, we made many locals laugh as we bickered. I was simply encouraging some decision-making. She handled it well 🙂

We made friends with a bunch of kids that would gather around us singing “hello, hi” and smiling as they extend their hands to shake ours. Again, I wished that I had my camera but again my batteries were dead. I really need to start planning better.

Then we made it to the Wheelhouse Marina and had lunch right at the lake. It was beautiful! The scenery even reminded me of Hawaii a bit. I think that I may have to go back and rent a canoe in the near future.

Sunday was my favorite day in Malawi thus far. No particular reason. The weather was a lot cooler; I went for an early walk to the vegetable market and simply felt really comfortable with my surroundings and myself here.

Some Facts and Figures about Malawi’s Workforce
May 15, 2008, 11:50 am
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Most Malawians rely on subsistence farming – mostly tobacco and maize. An estimated 75% of the Malawian population is dependent on tobacco farming although only a small proportion smokes.

Some 100,000 tons are grown, graded, stored and exported by 1.7 million people.

Another 5 million workers – according to the industry – are indirectly employed in support industries or are family members of tobacco workers. Women make up a large population of the workforce but children as young as 11 years old work grading the tobacco leaves.

The average life expectancy for Malawian women is 38 years. (Can you imagine!?!? It means that I would have to accomplish everything that my future beholds in the next 11 years!)

Women are the poorest and most vulnerable members of Malawian society. Nowadays, primary education is free so it is available although some economic and social practices hamper girls ability to gain an education. The literacy rate among women between the ages of 15 and 45 is less than 37%. Male literacy in the same age group is about 45%.

The majority of Malawi’s population resides in the rural areas. However, I live in the capital so although I see some of this disparity, I tend to interact more with women and men who are very educated and accomplished. In fact, a number of my colleagues work full-time and go to school in the evenings and/or are doing their masters online. It’s hard to make any overarching statements about Malawi. A lot depends on opportunities and largely the lack of opportunities available to people.

The thing to remember is that Malawi in a lot of ways is still a young country. Its constitution has only been in place since 1994, and it has only had 3 presidents since the time of independence.

Malawi: AIDS deaths drop 10 percent
May 15, 2008, 11:34 am
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Distributing free anti-HIV drugs in a district of AIDS-ravaged Malawi helped cut the death toll by 10 percent within eight months, according to a study published on Saturday by The Lancet.

The southern African country introduced free antiretroviral therapy from 2004, thanks to help from the Global Fund for AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, and by 2006 the drugs were reaching more than 80,000 patients.

Doctors from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and Malawi’s Karonga Prevention Study carried out an investigation among 32,000 people in the rural northern district of Karonga to gauge the impact on AIDS mortality after a free drugs clinic opened there in June 2005.

Eight months after its opening, the clinic was treating 107 patients out of an estimated 334 who were in urgent need of the drugs.

The overall death rate among local adults aged 15-59, the group most exposed to AIDS, fell by 10 percent compared with the three years before the clinic opened.

In absolute terms, this translates into nine lives saved.

Continue reading

First trip outside of Lilongwe
May 13, 2008, 2:43 pm
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I was reminded that I’m living in Africa this Sunday. I went to the Chickewa Catholic church service at 7:30am. The church was so ornate with wood carvings everywhere and the colorful dress of the readers and choir. I was especially amazed by the young children who were so well-behaved. After an hour and a half of singing, readings, and kneeing on the hard floor, I was getting antsy and eventually left early. (Sorry, Mom!) However, the children did not say a peep.

Another interesting thing about the ceremony was that men and women sat separately – the men to the left and the women and children to the right. It was cool to see how this congregation embraced Catholicism and yet made it their own. There is another Catholic service in English that is in a church right next to the one I went to. Next time, I will check that out. I heard that it is more similar to what I am used to. I wonder what leads people to choose one versus the other. It may be related to status and probably one’s English ability, but I’m just speculating.

Afterwards, I took my first day trip outside of Lilongwe. I went with three girls about an hour south to Dedza, which is well known for its pottery. It was a beautiful drive, reminded me some of the mountains and landscape of Hawaii minus the water and plus a lot more livestock especially miniature goats. It was also the first time that I saw some of the villages in Malawi. It’s amazing to see how people live. It’s a tough life. Everything is work. There really are no conveniences. It made me think about why HIV is such a problem and to a certain extent I was not surprised. When there is no electricity and no disposable income, sex is a free and fun alternative to the hardships of life. Further supporting the fact that it is more than a health problem but one of poverty.

I meant to take pictures of Dedza and my trip but unfortunately there was a power outage the night before and I didn’t get to charge my batteries. At first, I was afraid that my camera was broken which would be disasterous with my colleague’s wedding approaching. But I quickly remembered that I woke up to no electricity which is quite a frequent occurrence.

This week…
May 8, 2008, 8:10 am
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This week has been a very busy week at work and in general. Unfortunately, I attended my first funeral in Malawi. I should clarify. I did not attend the actual funeral (because it will be in the South) but went to the mortuary to meet the family to say prayers. A coworker’s brother-in-law passed away. It was very sad and yet eerily beautiful. I don’t know how Malawians do it but they can sing in such a beautiful harmony with no instruments accompanying them. It was also an eye-opening experience because there are certain similarities and also unique differences to the mourning process here. It was a very humbling experience.

Because the week has been so busy, I can’t remember if that took place on Monday or Tuesday. I also babysit this week for my two little friends, who surprised me one evening on my way home with a chalk drawing of myself in front of my apartment. It was really cute! Even my colleague who drove me home laughed.

I constantly make him laugh while he has been driving me home from work this week because I just ask random questions about Malawi. For example, how do women (and men) learn to carry everything on the top of their heads? It’s quite impressive and amazing! I see a lot of women carrying grains, laundry, or water on the top of their head, a baby strapped to their back, and a bag in each hand. It reminds me that I have terrible posture but other than that I can’t really fathom. Tom laughed at the question and asked if I took pictures of the people. I smiled and said no and tried to explain that I don’t want to look like a tourist. I don’t think that he fully understood; however, he explained to me that in the villages they often don’t have other options; it does take practice but it’s relatively easy.

I know that you are not supposed to ask people about politics and religion, but as you know, both topics interest me a lot and religion seems to be a big reason why some people come to Malawi and most Malawians ask me after the weekend if I went to church. So I have been asking more and more questions lately; however, I’ve asked less about religion due to how personal the topic is.

Yet, yesterday, I had a fantastic conversation with a female Malawian lawyer, who I play volleyball with. She had a really interesting perspective about Malawi’s history and politics. I will definitely share more later. Tracy, just so you know, I am researching your questions about women and the workforce. I just want to be able to provide a balanced response so I have been asking women that I meet more about their experiences. I told a few of them that I’m going to profile their stories on my blog 🙂 So stay tuned!

Anyways, last night was my first volleyball game. It was a lot of fun; we won! We played against a team of only three people so it would have been really sad if we wouldn’t have.. I am the only American on the team and one of two white people, which is really cool because you tend to see a lot of expats together. I’m not knocking that because I am definitely one of those people a lot of the time outside of work; however, interacting with Malawians is the best way to get to know and understand the culture. Not to say that I will ever really be able to wrap my head around everything but it’s a good start. However, it’s just like the States where you have to remember that people are speaking from their experience and that doesn’t mean that is how everyone thinks or acts in Malawi.

Happy May!
May 5, 2008, 9:11 am
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May is definitely my favorite month, not only because of my birthday (and the birthdays of numerous family members and friends – HAPPY BIRTHDAY!), but also because of the beautiful weather and the flowers beginning to bloom. Well, the truth is that Malawi has had quite beautiful weather since I arrived. I was actually told that in a month or so it will get colder. However, right now, it’s perfect – warm during the day and the cooler at night.

However, I have been sneezing a lot lately. It could be the pollen and/or my new 2 year old friend Sam (the irony – I’m not talking about my pet geco but an actual person 🙂 ) that has the sniffles. I’m babysitting for him and his 6 year old sister Sydney tonight. They are neighbors of mine who are a lot of fun. Between them and my new housekeeper/friend (who was over to work some this weekend while I didn’t have electricity which caused long moments of boredom..aka opportunities to teach some card games and learn some Chichewa), I played a lot of crazy eights, rummy, and go fish this weekend.

Other than that, I baked brownies Friday night for a neighborhood potluck which was a lot of fun…and the food was fantastic! My neighbors circle the globe and each brought something from his/her home country. The Ugandan food was particularly great! My brownies impressed everyone – the truth is that I found a brownie mix box at the grocery store. What luck! 

You can basically find just about everything in Malawi. The quality tends to not be as good, and the price may be really expensive. You may have to be a bit creative but most things are available.