Monday, January 28, 2008

Village girl in the big city

I am slowly getting settled here in Lilongwe. I have moved here for a few weeks, or maybe months (we’ll see), to work out of the head office while I start on some new projects. While it’s good to be back in a bigger city and a treat to take advantage of all the comforts the city provides - regular access to email, a variety of food options, more consistent power, etc. – however, I am also very, very much missing my family in Machinga and the comfort and support that I had there. It’s amazing how much these others things (email, food options and power, for example) don’t mean as much as family and support. Moving and having to adjust to a new city, new projects at work and a new home has been a bit overwhelming but slowly as I settle into a new routine it is getting easier.

I am living with the fiancĂ© of Enellece, a Malawian friend of mine from Machinga. Frank is a tobacco breeder, who works for an agricultural research trust, experimenting with different tobacco strains, trying to breed varieties that are higher yielding, more resistant to pest attacks or certain climate conditions. Tobacco, or “green gold” as it is called here, is Malawi’s biggest export crop. I would’ve thought “green gold” would be maize as it is grown everywhere but apparently it is grown predominantly for local consumption and does not bring in much, if any, export money. Tobacco, therefore, is a very important crop and a lot of money and effort is spent on ensuring its successful production.

We also live with, and I share a room with, Frank’s cousin Grace. She is a 23 year old who is doing a diploma at a local college in business administration. She is quite sweet and has become something like a little sister. She likes to do my hair up in curlers and then get it all styled so I look “quite smart”. I think it just looks big! We play cards in the evening or I teach her some basic computer skills. I was quite worried when I moved in that I had invaded her room, and with all my stuff, it’s not like my presence can go unnoticed! But despite the invasion, she seems happy to have another girl in the house to do things with and I am very happy for the company as well.

So there have been many changes recently but as things settle down I’m becoming more comfortable again. The small town girl is getting used to the big city! I’m looking forward to sinking my teeth into my new projects at work. They all seem a bit overwhelming at the moment but hopefully, as I work away at them, they will become more manageable.

Stay warm and I’ll try to stay dry! The rain is becoming almost daily now!

Sunday, January 13, 2008

I'm Simple...

One of the most emotional times over the holidays was a few hours spent with one of my Chichewa teachers in Machinga. Chrissy, a kindergarten teacher and Albert, a high school English teacher, were a perfect pick for my language lessons. Good teachers with lots of energy, this couple was always willing to spend a few hours pouring over my notebook and small language text as I tried to learn. Chrissy would prepare popcorn or roasted peanuts and we would munch away, laughing at my mistakes until my brain was fried. Afterwards we would sit and play cards or checkers, bouncing their son Domenic on our laps, usually talking about Canada as they were very curious about everything from the politics to sports, from the weather to employment.

More than my teachers, though, this couple became some of my very good friends. Over Christmas, Marc and I gave them a book on Canada, with pictures and descriptions of the country and its vast and varied environment and landscape. We spent one afternoon for a few hours sitting with Chrissy and talking about Canada. Laughing as she asked questions about the ice on the rivers or the changing colours of the trees. “I would never survive” she said as she gasped at the snowy landscape.

As we were leaving her house and I was saying good bye as I was leaving Machinga for a few months to spend some time working in the head office in Lilongwe and do some research in another district, she said some things that made me think. In thanking me, she got very quiet and serious. She not only thanked me for the gift but for my friendship. “When I see you in town and I’m with my friends, they ask me about you. She’s different, I tell them. She’s simple. She’s like us”. You are not like others, she said. You are simple and humble. When you first came and were living here in Machinga, we all worried how you would be, living in these conditions coming from a country that is so different and more advanced. But you have no problems. You eat what we eat. You treat us no differently. You treat us as equals, we have good talks and we are friends.

I was extremely moved by her words but also saddened. Why should she expect me to treat her or anyone else differently? Why should they worry about how I will live in “these conditions” when they do so everyday? Why should she be surprised by my actions and thank me? But the sad part is that in rural areas, the vast majority of Malawians are surprised when they are treated as equals by foreigners. They are surprised that we can survive without flush toilets and stoves, creature comforts and knives and forks. But there must be a reason why they are surprised. They must have not been treated with respect enough times in the past that when they are, it seems “different” or “surprising”. It makes me more eager and determined to break down these stereotypes at every opportunity. Everyone has prejudices. But we are all human beings and need to work to remove these prejudgements, good or bad, about others because of where they come from or the colour of their skin.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Christmas in Machinga

Happy New Year! I hope everyone is settling well into 2008 and had a safe and happy holiday season!

My Christmas holiday this year was spectacular! I had a wonderful few weeks traveling around the country with Marc, my boyfriend who came to visit from Ottawa. It was wonderful to be able to share some of my experiences with him, for him to meet all of my friends and family and as well, to explore some new and exciting places together.

Before Marc’s arrival, the days leading up to Christmas were fairly uneventful. But when Marc arrived, it was like Santa Claus stepped off a plane! He arrived with an enormous bag of gifts, not just for me but for the Kachifumbu’s in Machinga. I was truly overwhelmed and humbled by the thoughtfulness of friends and family back home. The meaningful words in Christmas cards, the CD of Christmas carols, the pictures and all the gifts were very special, stirring up a lot of emotions – missing everyone at home, being proud of what I’m doing here but most of all, feeling very truly blessed and lucky to have so many special people who support me. I thank each and every one of you for your thoughts and wishes. You cannot begin to know how much it means…

We spent Christmas with the Kachifumbu family in Machinga, and it truly was a wonderful day. Florence and I spent Christmas Eve preparing a Christmas cake while Marriot and Marc went off to church. When I say “Christmas “cake it was actually a white cake complete with dried cranberries from Canada, icing and sprinkles – a special treat as Florence had requested a “Canadian” cake for Christmas. That night, Marc and I stayed up late and played Santa Claus. It was so fun! After everyone went to bed, we snuck into the sitting room and decorated a Christmas tree we bought, put up photos we had developed and laid out all of the goodies for the family under the tree.

After Santa's visit

Sleeping that night was difficult with all the excitement and anticipation but all tired thoughts were forgotten as we listened to the gasps, the giggles and whispers at the discovery on Christmas morning. We spent about 2 hours opening presents, one person at a time, relishing every moment – dinky cars and dolls, clothes and soaps – all the while laughing with excitement and enthusiasm with the unwrapping of each item. It was also very emotional – both for me and them. It was so nice to see this family – my family – who has given me so much, taken me into their home and their family as if I belong, never making me feel different or strange, they have taught me so much, they have loved and supported me, talked with me and comforted me – it was so nice to see them so happy and overwhelmed. To be in some small way, if only for a few hours, a part of creating so much joy. To see them so overwhelmed by the gifts themselves but also because they had been remembered in the thoughts of total strangers in Canada. For all of you who sent something, please know that you have been a part of a very special Christmas for a very lucky couple from Canada and an extremely special family from Machinga.

The morning was spent playing with new presents and chatting under the mango tree with friends as they stopped by. The kids were looking very snazzy in their new clothes – although Nixon and Catherine refused to wear anything else for a few days afterwards! The soccer ball was kicked around much to the delight of the neighbouring kids. Catherine’s new doll never left her side even when she was sleeping. It was dragged around by the hand or strapped to her back like a real African baby. We enjoyed pop and even wine at dinner as a special treat that Marc and I brought. It was the first time that they had had wine! That afternoon Marriot, Florence, Marc and I set off on a walk. And on our way home as dusk was falling on a perfect day, we were treated to a beautiful double rainbow arching over the vast green farms that surround the village. It was a day full of joy and laughter, the smiles of children and the love of family and friends – everything that a perfect Christmas day should be.

All of us in our new Christmas clothes

So although it was without snow, without carols and without the total gluttony of food and thousands of gifts, it was a Christmas that will not soon be forgotten. My aunt wrote in her Christmas card to me “your adventure has been the source of not just entertainment, but a reawakening of the knowledge of what is important in the world”. I hope in some small way, that you all feel like that. That would be a great Christmas present for me…