Saturday, December 28, 2013

Giraffes Everywhere!

I’ve been shamefully remiss about my turn to blog, so I’ll begin with an apology for the lull and for the lengthy post following.

To reiterate Krissy’s Christmas post, we had a really splendid day relaxing and reflecting on our journey thus far, as well as enjoying a lovely dinner with our new friend Sami, a Cal Poly alum. She’s an inspiring woman and the project is great as well – I’ve included a hyperlink for those of you interested in checking it out.

Thursday, December 26th
This was meant to be our final day surveying a new community. However, when Daniel came to pick us up, he told us that one of the community members had died. We learned that funerals in Malawi traditionally take place on the day of the passing, and that the event is not only reserved for friends and family, but for everyone in the village – another example of the deep community bond we’ve been lucky enough to witness in Kumponda and Malawi. Since community surveying was no longer an option, we decided to hold our wrap up meeting with the AFES team in their Blantyre office. We discussed what we had observed in the community (namely a need for access to food, clean water, and adequate healthcare) and what the next steps were in our partnership. It was also a great opportunity to thank them for their hard work, selflessness, and friendship. We feel unbelievably blessed to have found such a great match for the Malawi Team, and it’s clear they are equally excited. Daniel, Elton, Paul, Grace, and Shaquiela have been true friends and gracious hosts. We agreed to meet the next day at the Kumponda Development Committee meeting.

We then embarked to Limbe (another urban area adjacent to Blantyre) in search of a chitenje factory. Have we talked about chitenje? You can see pictures of Krissy and I wearing them in previous posts. We’ve each had just one which we wore everyday in the community, but have been wistfully admiring the beautiful colors and patterns the other women in Kumponda wear. Sami told us that she’s having some sewn into skirts and dresses from a local tailor for around six US dollars per garment – immediate regret for not doing that on the first day here. We followed Daniel around like ducklings (as per usual), listening to him bargain in Chichewa at a number of stores until we found a shop with a great selection and reasonable prices. I’m terrible at tying mine as a skirt (yet great at entertaining the women in the community by attempting to do so), but think they will make lovely wall art/table clothes/beach towels back in the States. We’ve seen some impressive chitenje origami, most notably using it as a sling to carry a baby on the mothers back, hands free. This is made all the more impressive based on my inability to walk more than ten meters without it falling off my waist. Props, Malawian mamas. 

Friday, December 27th
We left earlier than usual to grab some snacks for our final meeting with Chief Kumponda and the rest of the development committee - apparently meetings are more enjoyable with refreshments in every country. We had the intention of visiting Thursday’s village afterwards, but tragically there had been another death that day. Unfortunately, this meant that we were unable to visit the community at all. We told Daniel to reassure them that us not visiting doesn’t eliminate them from inclusion in any projects we may do. We sat in the shade in the company of Group Village Headman Kumponda, the development committee, and the chiefs and representatives from the villages we had visited  – Zwanya, Maluwa, Kamwendo, and Kumponda. Similar to the meeting with AFES, we summarized the challenges and strengths we had seen, and talked about our next steps together. It’s a tough concept to approach, since we know that it will likely be a while before we can begin to implement a project there, and we still can’t guarantee anything. But they seemed just as willing to work together as they did on the first day, if not more so. We expressed our respect and endless thanks, and proceeded to take lots of pictures with the various village chiefs and representatives (to be posted when there is more internet access!).

It was bittersweet, as goodbyes are wont to be. I’m still overflowing with gratitude for the kind people we have met and the good fortune we had finding AFES and Kumponda. I don’t think I’ve processed my emotions enough to describe them eloquently enough here, but can say that the forefathers and mothers of the Malawi Team have done an impeccable job of finding a good fit for our goals here. Shaquiela even brought me a chitenje of hers that I had complimented in passing. When I offered her mine as a trade, she simply shook her head and insisted it was a gift. It will be treasured.

We decided to embark for Lake Malawi. Some car troubles led Matt, Krissy, Munir, and I back home while Daniel and Arash adventured onward – Arash will have to post about the great times had there later. We were bummed about missing the one attraction we had been told again and again to see, but decided not to dwell on it and ended up having a pretty amazing consolation day around Blantyre with Sami. As an ex-pat, she lives in an entirely different Blantyre than Daniel, so it’s fun to see it through her lens. She’s been here about seven weeks, and had some fun spots tucked under her belt. First we saw a French bed and breakfast-style place with a phenomenal saltwater pool, great views of the surrounding landscapes, and some amazingly awkward nude statues. We got gin and tonics (Malawi Gin is incredibly cheap and a local favorite) and relaxed outside until the late afternoon showers downpours rolled in. We got dinner at a place called Gelato Carnival (not a real carnival, but did have some impressive light up signs and lots of gelato) and headed to her favorite hang-out, Chez Maky, a local restaurant and bar. There we had the good fortune to run into a couple of guys in the midst of a Peace Corp stint in a district south of Blantyre. Hearing them talk about their living situations (100-degree nights, no electricity, no running water, and abundant wild creatures) made us all the more grateful for our living situation in the trust house. We shared thoughts on development here and on processing some of the things we’ve seen for the first time in the third world. They also had some great ideas for GIS resources we can use, making me excited to dust off some map making skills to establish an effective visual tool for understanding the physical and social needs and resources within Kumponda.

I’m posting this on our last morning in Blantyre. Time has practically evaporated during this trip and I’m still trying to process all of the wonderful things that have happened– Munir will be posting a final segment to wrap up our journey, so keep your eyes peeled for that. Although I’m sad to go, I can’t wait to roll up our sleeves and see the work our team can do in the coming months with our newly forged relationships with AFES and Kumponda. Gratitude is bubbling over.



P.S. Arash’s birthday was yesterday (Dec. 28), so send him some awesome birthday thoughts!

P.P.S. No real giraffes, but we've been looking - sorry Gabby!

Wednesday, December 25, 2013


Merry Christmas Everyone!

I hope everyone is enjoying the holidays! Although everyone is missing friends and family, we have learned so much about the community and the culture that we are going to take home.

Making our way through Kumponda on Christmas Eve we saw families carrying chickens, getting flour for nsima, and preparing for other Christmas activities. After talking with Daniel we learned that Christmas is about putting on nice clothes, dancing, eating, and drinking with friends and family. Families work hard to prepare the best meals of the year and do many things to make them happy. Luckily for us the Zuwanya community was nice enough to take a minute out of their preparations to let us survey their community. We started off the day with a meeting with the chief of Zuwanya where he told us about some of the different problems within their community. Some of the main things they mentioned were during the rainy season the river that surrounds their community rises significantly to the point where they are unable to cross, children can't go to school and community members can't get to the market. Another thing the Zuwanya community struggled with was the lack of fertilizer. Due to the high levels of maize being grown, the soil is unable to recover and replace nutrients making it harder each year for maize to grow. Along with these problems there was also an issue with distance to the nearest hospital. While surveying the community we talked to one elderly man who said he walked to the the hospital once a month for asthma medication, which takes about 2 hours each way. When we finished surveying the community many of the problems were the same but there were many others such as illnesses and hunger.

After all of our surveying was complete we headed over to our favorite grocery store for some food for the rest of the week and some lunch. When we headed back home we decided to take it easy after we surveyed in the crazy hot weather, or as Matt would describe it, "the surface of the sun." It didn't really feel like Christmas due to the weather so we put on Elf to get in the holiday spirit.

Christmas morning was hotter than ever, with every door open and three fans blowing it still felt like a sauna inside the house. Although we weren't able to do gifts instead of a traditional gift exchange Alice suggested we write each other haiku's.

One of Matt's

The sun is too hot
Maybe one day I will tan
Hippos never change

Munir's to me

You beat me at cards
You beat me at everything
God dang it, I suck

Another from Munir

How was I picked for travel
Seriously,  how?

One from Arash

Malawi Christmas
Not at home but with new friends
Time for lazy day

From Arash to Alice

I want hot coffee
Shuffling cards is very hard
At least I still win

From Alice to Matt

Ginger is so bad
Like the fiery sun
What is happening

From Alice to Munir

Saving Malawi
And trying to shoot the moon

And another

A tragic ending
Munir loses his right leg
Damn you small sedan

(Fitting six into a tiny car can be difficult)

Mine to Alice

When you wave, kids cry
You can tie a chitenje
You're good at poker

After haiku's we watched Burn After Reading and played some cards where Matt and Munir got this strange idea that if they teamed up they might be able to shoot the moon in hearts, however their idea did not go as planned.

Earlier in the year we had met with a nutrition professor at Cal Poly, Dr. Papathakis. Having traveled to Malawi before working with a program called Project Peanut Butter, professor Papathakis was able to give us a lot of information on Malawi and before we left set us up with a previous student of hers, Sami,  who is living in Malawi for the next few months. Tonight we finally met up with Sami and we all went to dinner at a delicious Indian Restaurant in Blantyre. Sharing the day with new friends and lots of fun.

Sorry I don't have any pictures in this one! Hope everyone had a wonderful Christmas,



Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Christmas Treats

It's 80 degrees and humid, but the air is full of cheer:

Saturday Night Live Christmas Treats


Today marks the midpoint of our trip and the start of a new week. After taking the day off yesterday to explore the areas outside of Blantyre, we resumed our visits to the Kumponda communities.

Once again, we went to meet up with the AFES team at the Kumponda group village headman’s home before heading out to visit a new community. We are starting to become regulars here.  The children are getting even more comfortable and warm with us playing around and holding our hands.

The children of Kumponda village are always excited to see us.
This visit was to Kamwendo, which would be our most remote community yet. Although it was only a 15 minute car ride from the main road where the Lunzu trading center is, it is a very large distance for a community that primarily travels by foot and sometimes by bicycle.

These women carry these containers full of water up to several miles a day for their families.

It was apparent that the distance significantly impacts the ability of the community to access services, especially healthcare. We met some families that only get to the main road once a year. The desperateness of this community was even greater than others that we have visited, which is largely to their remoteness.

A Kamwendo mother comforts her sleeping child

Many of the families here very seldom access healthcare facilities due to the fact that the Mulambe hospital in Lunzu is a private and is too expensive for them. The public hospital that has free services takes a full day for them to get to, making a visit to the hospital a several day journey.

The primary issues of this community are similar to those of other that we have visited though they all center around economic deprivation. Hunger is a major problem in Kamwendo, largely due to lack of funds to buy fertilizer for their crops.

Even in the face of all of this hardship, the spirit of the Kumponda community at large is positive and impressive. It has been encouraging to see how happy and playful the community children have been in spite of their situation.

The children of Kumponda village
When I was first invited to be a professional mentor on this trip, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Though I have been doing a lot of work in Africa, I knew that Malawi would be very different from the countries that I have traveled to and have been working in. What has surprised me the most is how positive and peaceful the people are here although this is one of the most underdeveloped places on the planet. There is so much we can all learn from these people about how to make the best of a difficult situation and how to persevere in the face of hardship. 


Monday, December 23, 2013

Photo barrage!

We’ve had requests for photos, so here they are.  But first, a little bit on what we were up to today!

We woke up late expecting to take it easy.  With a modest goal of reading over our notebooks and talking through the week’s activities, we started the day with a leisurely breakfast and tinkered around on the ukulele until 9, when Daniel called with a revised plan.  He suggested we spend the day on Mulanje Massif.   At roughly 10,000 feet, Mulanje is Malawi’s tallest mountain, or piri.  Daniel picked us up at 10 and we piled into his car for the hour long journey to the mountain.  Daniel blasted Malawian reggae as we drove southeast from Blantyre through the rolling hills and endless tea plantations of the Thyolo District and into the town of Mulanje.  The temperature dropped noticeably as we ascended toward the mountain.

Mulanje is extremely impressive, with several major peaks arranged in a neat row that also defines the border of Malawi and Mozambique.  The true altitude of the formation was concealed by clouds until we approached its base.  When the mountain came into full view, we could see spires of exposed rock rising dramatically from the dense jungle beneath the summit.  Verdant slopes are broken up by vast waterfalls.  This is a completely different world from the hot streets of Blantyre.  We began our exploration with a short hike to a waterfall near the base of the mountain.  I regretted wearing flip flops as we navigated the steep, muddy terrain.  After a few hundred vertical feet we passed by several locals who were descending with huge bags of coffee balanced on their heads.  I’m pretty sure one of them was wearing flip flops too…  Continuing on, the members of our party issued alerts of weird spiders, ants and millipedes along the trial, we concluded that watching a documentary about stinging insects last night was a bad idea.  The mountain fauna were large and brightly colored.  In light of the previous night's documentary, we had to assume that each creature was more deadly than the last.  Nevertheless, we pressed on and the breathtaking views from our destination were well worth the effort.

We hiked down to get lunch in preparation for our next hike.  The restaurant at the base of the mountain had pretty great curry, although the best thing about it was their pet monkey, who was roughly a week old according to Daniel.  He was very friendly, but despite his clear enthusiasm for meeting new people he could hardly stay awake for over a minute.  We finished our lunch, bid him farewell and set out for the other side of the mountain.  Arriving at an unassuming trailhead on the north end, we hired a guide named Lucious to show us the way to a swimming area about 2,200 feet up the side of Mulanje.  We ascended on foot and after an hour of hiking we reached our destination.  This spot was amazing: a natural pool bordered by smooth rock ledges, fed by a giant waterfall and surrounded by imposing rocky peaks a mile overhead.  We hung out there for the afternoon, flipping, twisting and diving off the rocky overhangs into the water.  The pictures don’t do it justice.

Daniel shows us a wash basin that AFES constructed last week.
This family raises hares and doves to sell at the market

Finding time to dry firewood between frequent deluges

A well near the center of Kumponda
Collecting water samples

Mother and daughter retrieving water

Here come the kids
At the schoolroom

They love high fiving
Daniel gets some help at the borehole

The next three photos are a series.  We named the girl in the white dress Sassy Sally for obvious reasons.



Taking water samples at the Lunzu River
The kid in the red pants is called Vincent and he followed me quietly for fifteen minutes before dropping a joke in perfect English

Christmas bug


This little guy was all tuckered out

The shopping mall in Mulanje town

Swimming pool.  Note the enormous peak in the background.

Alice, Krissy and Daniel

Sunset on Mulanje

Our trusty ride outside of the apartment
Art shot for Gabby

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Hot Soup & Robots

Weekends are laid back in Malawi, which is a nice change of pace from our hectic past few days. Daniel picked us up at 10:30 (read: 11:20) this morning and we headed into the community to collect our first water samples. We’ve been focusing primarily on interviewing community members, but since Saturdays and Sundays are typically days for rest, worship, and fun in the community we decided to take some preliminary samples, which only required Daniel’s help. We’ve seen a range of the water sources the community relies on in the past few days. Some look ok – there are two boreholes in Kumponda Village which seem popular, and most people have said that it’s their first choice for drinking water. But we’ve also heard they’re not always reliable, so we checked out some of their alternative sources as well. The first the community calls a well, but that’s not the first word that comes to mind looking at it. It’s a hole in the ground about 5 feet deep and 6 feet across. Every time we’ve seen it there has been about a foot of muddy water standing in the bottom, and today was no different. Regardless, in the five minutes we took gathering a sample there was already a queue to fill up buckets. We asked some people waiting why they chose this source and if the water makes them sick. They said that the walk to the borehole is too far when they are feeling sick or weak – even if the well water makes them more so. We also heard that the well had been there for a long time, although we’re still unsure about how long. One woman, who was somewhere between 50 and 80, said that it had been there since before she was born. We’ll be looking more into this next week. Daniel has explained that clarity is almost exclusively the criteria community members use to determine if the water is safe to drink, so they’ll often let the sediment fall from the ‘well water’ and drink the clear water they scoop off – a serious concern of ours.
Both of the boreholes pump clear water, and (we think) reach a confined aquifer about 32 meters deep. The first pump is adjacent to the primary school and chief’s house in Kumponda village. Here, we met the group of about ten kids who have consistently greeted us in the village, between three and thirteen years old. After grabbing some quick samples from the pump, we were led to the Lunzu River, which is just shy of a kilometer from the borehole and flows through the Group Village. Being escorted by our friends was fun, and they were excited as always to be photographed. They’ve been interactive with us, giggling and smiling and talking in Chichewa, but today we learned that some of them actually speak pretty good English. Many of them also worked up the courage today to hold our hands while we walked – a common gesture for  people of all ages in Malawian culture, but also heart-wrenchingly adorable.
 The river itself is pretty astonishing. I’ve never seen flowing water that was so opaque - it’s about the same color as the milky Mzuzu coffee Matt and I have been inhaling since our arrival. The banks are grassy with large smooth rocks serving as the access point (but thankfully no hippos in sight). We know this is another alternative source of drinking and washing water for many of the villages within Kumponda Group Village, and we have heard that illness often comes after consumption.  After some final sample gathering and goodbyes to our friends, we headed back into Blantyre. We had our first interaction with wildlife when a big, black waspy guy flew in the car window and hit my tooth (sting free) and another got trapped between Munir’s hand and foot (not sting free). After a stop at the ShopRite (which is basically the same as an American supermarket, not my expectation in the least) to pick up a few more groceries, Daniel joined us for a lunch of hamburgers at our house (graciously made by Arash and Munir).
Got a good dose of translation laughs when a traffic light was out and Daniel told us that the robot was broken, conjuring up imagery that was more Jetsons than traffic calming. His English is great, but we’ve been particularly enjoying some of the subtle differences in phrasing, like in the aforementioned car/mud/ditch adventure when he said we were in “hot soup” instead of “hot water.” I think the people here have been enjoying our butchered Chichewa as well – our greeting routines consistently draw belly laughs from the people we meet (even though I think we’re all getting our Muli Bwanjes down pretty well…?)
Daniel and the rest of AFES have been incredibly gracious hosts and we couldn’t feel more welcome here. To reiterate past posts, I’m continually astonished with the unrefined warmth of the Malawians we have met. I’ve never seen such heartbreaking poverty in my entire life, yet have felt instantly welcomed every place we’ve visited. Tomorrow we’ll be taking the day to do some analysis of the info we’ve gathered so far and to assess what we have left to do in our final week (wait….what??).
All for now,