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One Short Day

July 26th, 2011

When attempting to decide how best I should wrap up my blog entries I consulted other JFs to see how they were signing off on their time here in Malawi.

One composed a fantastic list of everything they love about Malawi from the mundane to the extraordinary.

Another categorized here experience using the five senses, detailing her favourite smells, sights, tastes, touches and sounds.

Both incredible ways to bring some closure to thoughts of Malawi.

To me the most important part of my final formal message from this warm heart was to capture

the subtlety,

the annoyances,

the ridiculousness,

the eagerness,

the pleasure,

the engaging kindness,

the dirty sweatiness,

the adventure,

the food,

the sometimes necessary fibs,

the blisters

and all the nuances of a single day.

 

Here is one short day.

I woke at 6:09 am my eyes puffy from staying up until 2 am to finish last minute revisions on the final presentation to our NGO which was to take place later that morning. I lazed in bed for several minutes, drawing myself slowly from the fiction of my vivid dreams to the reality of the day, picking carefully those things I knew to be true and those that were just figments of the night. Pulling the blue-mesh mosquito off of my top half I stretched fully, feet dangling off the small metal bunk bed that I’d snagged the bottom of the previous evening.

I bathed, dressed and prepared my bag in twenty minutes. Far faster than my Canadian record.

I ordered breakfast at 6:52 am. Sitting in the restaurant of the guest house I frantically jotted speaking notes for the presentation that was making my stomach ache as if four lumps of nsima had been stuffed down my throat in far too short a time period. The heaviness only increased as the other JFs filed in, ordering their breakfasts, time ticking away as our taxi’s arrival snuck ever closer.

It felt like everything was unraveling. My computer erased part of an important document needed for our presentation, my breakfast wasn’t brought out, my pen ran out of ink, my counterpart was delayed and arrived an hour late to our pre-presentation meeting, my breakfast wasn’t brought out, the cab arrived early for the first time in the history of Malawi and my adapter which I’d succeeded in jamming into the socket without getting electrocuted became stuck. Upon wrenching it from the wall I broke off the grounding stem rendering the adapter useless in Malawian style plugs.

At this point I dropped the plug on the floor and a made mental note to forget it ever existed.

Then my breakfast was brought out and everything got a little better. Thank you eggs, chips and toast.

The presentation went better than expected with a small feeling of closure lingering despite the large amount of work still to be done on deliverables. I walked with my partner JF through the residential section of Area 14, taking the short cut through the partly burning garbage fields that line the back of the Japanese Embassy to catch what would be my final public mini-bus ride in Malawi.

As expected a conversation was started by a man in the bus, asking of Canada and of my purpose and time here, giving his opinions decidedly of peoples’ attachment to gadgets as he played music on his phone which he also loudly declared could access the internet.

From the main depot I walked, in the now blistering sun, to the biggest market in Lilongwe. The river market is the busiest, dirtiest, smelliest, most revolting and wonderfully useful stretches of land I’ve discovered in the capital. Pools of muck plague your sandals, aisles of men lining the upper road holding sweaters, trousers, dresses of all shapes and sizes, digging deeper into the market, finding lost aisles with unexpected contents of adapters and bike parts.

I visited my favourite vendor in the market, a woman whom I’d brought an incredible amount of business to over the summer. I probably doubled her sales of chitenge in the month of July alone!

I chatted with her in broken English and Chichewa, admiring her new items of cloth as her neighbouring shop keeper showed my friend where to find mesh for her hair in that mass of a market.

Once the always difficult to find blonde mesh was purchased as well as a few more chitenges I really shouldn’t have been seduced by, we wandered out of the market, navigating our way to a chip stand I’d come to frequent.

50 Kwacha of delicious, deep-vat-fried, salted with extra oil potato later, I walked on my own towards the town market, leaving my friend to find a salon that could handle mzungu hair.

As I walked, I saw a set of burly Malawian men riding serenely in a large mini-bus, branded obnoxiously in the very identifiable neon pink of Purity Sanitary Napkin advertisements.

Not ten seconds later another mini bus sped past with a dozen foot-long fish proudly hanging from their front grate. As I stared at this fillet buffet, the driver honked and gave me a giant smile accompanied by a thumbs up. This eager smile reminded me once again that, apparently, I’m more interesting than ridiculous transport methods.

As I walked, dust blew unforgivingly into my face, whipping my new chitenge dress to an inappropriate height… my knees! Still shielding my eyes from the ever swirling red dust I thought of how easy it was going to be to fill part of a roll of toilet paper with the gunk of the day building in my nostrils and eyes. Thank goodness for the filtering properties of my nose.

I saw a woman walking down the street towards me, hands at her sides, eyes scanning the street for customers, 100 bananas resting nonchalantly on her head.

As I walked, through the busy, developed section of town, my stride confident with my feet slapping familiar ground, a young man fell in to step with me. Calling me sister in Chichewa, he struck up conversation as all conversations are struck in Malawi. Not wanting him to treat me as a visitor, I told him I was from Malawi, causing an unbelieving laugh. Trying to prove my point I greeted him in Chichewa, asking his name and plans for the day. This small act which required very little effort to learn in my first months here earned me immediate respect and a decreased price on the bracelet he later sold to me. Malawians most definitely have mastered the art of friendlying someone into a purchase.

Hot and tired from the day’s work and wanderings I returned to the comfort of a guest house, washing my feet and face and lying exhausted in my cramped but comfortable bed. I let myself recover just enough energy to return to work, chugging a wonderful ice-cold coke from a glass bottle in front of the astonished kitchen worker. I will miss those glass bottles. Coke is immeasurable more delicious when you can’t taste the lacing of plastic or tin.

Finally, as I sat writing this post, back in the restaurant of the guest house, I chatted with the kitchen staff, re-learning their names in Chichewa, English and Tutsi. I laughed openly with the server at my pathetic attempts to smoothly incorporate clicks into my vocabulary. I practiced my shaky Chichewa as they tested me randomly throughout my meal and subsequent Orange Fanta.

“To drink, to drink, what is to drink?! Ah, no that is to bath!”

Still grinning from my animated conversation, I returned once again to this post.

I stared with dread at the space where my final lines would be written.

How could I fill them?

So instead, I stared at my feet, scrubbed so fiercely in the shower not an hour before, lines of dirt and tan intermingled to declare to the world what shoe type I preferred. Blisters and mosquito bites rose to annoy me as I shuffled them on the cool tile floor.

I waited, for a time, for my defining moment to arrive, for that definite describer of Malawi to walk through the curtained door. Nothing came and I became unsure if it ever could.

 

This was just life in another country.

 

With love from a warm heart,

LG

July 2011

I remember exactly what I thought the first time I read the Terms Of Reference for my EWB Junior Fellowship placement with the Agriculture Value Chains team in Malawi this summer.

“Oh no, I don’t understand… anything”.

It wasn’t until right before our mid-placement retreat that I finally felt I had a solid grasp of what our project’s goals were and what AVC’s purpose in Malawi is.

I, along with another JF, Jocelyn Light, was partnered with the Malawian NGO, the Rural Market Development Trust (RUMARK) in an effort to strengthen the distribution system within an already established agrodealer network. The agrodealers we have partnered with are small business owners who provide agricultural inputs such as fertilizer, chemicals and seed to smallholder farmers in rural Malawi.

The strategy currently being pursued by RUMARK is one of targeting larger agrodealers who have the capacity to be successful distributors of agricultural inputs in their area. This focus on high capacity agrodealers with well established connections to suppliers, the community in which they operate and other important players is being followed in an effort to better serve remote agrodealers and farmers who struggle to gain access to inputs.

Once I had an understanding of the strategy behind our placement, it came time for me to determine if I believed in it. Would helping those who had already had some success in the agricultural field really help those rural smallholder farmers with such little access to the inputs they needed? Would the benefits actually trickle down?

About two and a half months into my placement, I traveled north from Lilongwe to a trading centre, Dwangwa, just a few kilometres inland from the shores of Lake Malawi. Standing for most of the eight hour trip, I was ecstatic to see the vast sugar cane fields that fuel Dwangwa’s economy spread across the horizon. I traveled to Dwangwa to interview an agrodealer, Mr. Watson Mkute, who had been identified by RUMARK as a promising distributor. As I investigated the history of his business’ development and the relationships he had established within the community, I found compelling evidence of a strong distribution system already having been built.

Mr. Mkute’s main shop specializes not only in agricultural inputs but in hardware and construction materials as well. He owns two 15 tonne lorries which he uses to transport farmer’s sugar cane to the sugar cane processing plant and deliver anti-retro-viral drugs to remote regions of the country. This diversity of business allows him to tap into several markets within his own community, district and surrounding districts. Once mapped, I found that Mr. Mkute’s distribution network stretched beyond his own outlet shops to include smaller agrodealers and farmer’s groups from Dwangwa and the surrounding area.

Mr. Mkute has built strong relationships with supply companies based in Malawi’s major centres over the past few years and uses these connections to help those smaller agrodealers also operating in the Dwangwa area. The supply companies are comfortable dealing with a familiar client whom they already have a good credit relationship. Therefore, Mr. Mkute acts as a buffer for the companies by distributing goods to the smaller agrodealers and taking the risk of defaulters upon himself. Mr. Mkute is of high standing in the community and knows his clients well. Therefore, he is able to implement a screening process of his own when distributing goods on credit. In this way, he is able to protect his own business interests while still assisting those not able to secure lines of credit from the larger distributors.

There are many examples of Mr. Mkute’s contribution to the agricultural input community in Dwangwa but the one that I think encompasses the root of RUMARK’s strategy occurred in 2006. After being elected as the chairman of agrodealers for the area, Mr. Mkute realized that most of his fellow agrodealers were going out of business due to a lack of capital. In order to remedy this problem, Mr. Mkute consulted with the Malawi Rural Finance Committee and was able to negotiate small loans for the agrodealers in the area who were part of the agrodealer association. At the time, CNFA RUMARK vouched for the selected recipients as trained agrodealers. In order to ensure the loans, Mr. Mkute put his truck and his houses up as collateral and was able to secure 300 000 MK ($2000) for himself in addition to the smaller loans for his colleagues.

This kind of cooperative working relationship within the community of agrodealers has encouraged Mr. Mkute’s business to thrive along with the businesses of others in the agricultural input sector. The small-scale agrodealers present a secure market for Mr. Mkute to target while Mr. Mkute provides a convenient and consistent flow of goods and services to his clients. The success of these relationships has allowed Mr. Mkute to assist those smallholder farmers in the area with little access to transport and inputs by providing the use of his lorries for a reasonable price and providing goods on credit to farmers who are members of particular farmers’ associations in the area.

Mr. Mkute’s business model is a great success story on its own, but he has also proved to me that a hub agrodealer distribution system can work. By investing in high capacity agrodealers such as Mr. Mkute, I believe EWB and RUMARK will be able to increase not only the strength of the Malawian agricultural distribution system but also its reach.

Love from Southern Africa,

LG

 

July 2011-08-21

Unfortunately, life took over my life the last two months and taking the time to sit a down and write about everything that has happened just seemed like too much for me the longer I put off posting.

I’m going to take the easy way out and give you a brief recap!

End of June

Traveled to the beautiful Senga Bay in the east of Malawi for AVC team meeting/mid-summer retreat. Finally felt like I had some direction with my placement and started to feel great about the plans for the following two months. Absolutely adored the location, getting up at 5 every morning to bask in and capture the sunrises. Went cliff jumping into Lake Malawi! So scary and so fun!        Definitely, discovered one of my favourite places (thus far) on Earth.

Beginning of July

Traveled to Lilongwe to plan out logistics and strategy for the following two months. Finally made it to a tailor with my yards and yards of chitenge to have some beautiful clothing made. Traveled back to Bua, Mchinji District to do an intense week of research during my first high capacity agrodealer stay.

Met the love of my life in Bua, a four year old boy nicknamed Obama! Explored a market the size of two football fields and got some great friends to video tape the mayhem.

Middle of July

Traveled north along the lake to Dwangwa, Nkhotkota District to research another high capacity agrodealer. Stood for most of the eight hour trip, squished up against the windowshield of the bus. Amazing view of the twisty-turvy road. Reminded me of a rollercoaster… with a slightly larger chance of injury.

Arrived in Dwangwa to a sea of sugar cane fields. Even braved walking through a sugar cane field despite the danger of that action… Greeted by my agrodealer and his fantastically large family with open arms. Literally, I received 5 hugs upon arrival!

Met some very driven agrodealers in Dwangwa an surrounding area with fantastic hospitality. Will miss them immensely.

Traveled even farther north to Mzuzu, a city I love for some odd reason I can’t quite describe. Met up with old Canadian friends and headed to Nkhata Bay, a touristy location where I actually blended in a little. Ate a three course Thai meal, recharged my batteries at a resthouse before the long trip south and swam in Lake Malawi for the last time. Hope I don’t have a parasite!

Boarded an Axa bus at 5:30 am.

Discouraged an eager man who wished to be my tour guide of Malawi. Saw familiar Malawian faces on the ride south. Ate far too many chips on the side of the road. Chatted with the traffic police. Gave travel tips to a British couple doing a tour of southern Africa. Sat next to a chicken.

Arrived in Lilongwe at 5:00 pm.

End of July

Soon after I arrived in Lilongwe, tensions began to rise in the lead up to protests organized by civil society groups in Malawi. Through conversations with Malawians I gathered that these protests were organized in an effort to communicate the discontent some of the population feels towards the current government and the frustration felt with the standard of living in Malawi.

EWB aired on the side of caution and requested all in-country staff refrain from working on the days of the protest. For this period of time I stayed within my area of Lilongwe and primarily was in my host family’s compound. My area was mostly quiet, except for the occasional reminder of the demonstrations and police response happening in town.

Once things had calmed down from the protests and ensuing riots, my JF partner and I traveled to Zambia for an AVC Team Meeting. I was shocked and impressed by the level of development in Lusaka, with two Subways and a movie theatre. Enjoyed taking a few days to try and process the events taking place in Malawi and to take a couple hot showers.

As uncertainty continued to persist around the situation in Malawi, a small group of us decided to head to Livingstone to see the gorgeous Victoria Falls. Drenched by the spray from the falls, mugged by a baboon, free fell for 54 metres, stayed at Fawlty Towers (life is complete) and ate fantastic pizza! It was a glorious 36 hours of joy and whiplash.

Traveled back to Lusaka on the early early bus. The always changing situation in Malawi, constant travel and frustration with the little control I had left over my placement all culminated in taking a day in Lusaka to regain my footing and mental stability.

Traveled to Chipata, just on the Zambian side of the Zambia-Malawi border. Intended to stay for a night to break up the long trip from Lusaka to Lilongwe but was sick upon arrival. Went on Cypro for the fourth time this summer (my stomach lining must love me!), enjoyed a full night’s rest in a resthouse then continue on to Lilongwe.

Beginning of August

Also intended to stay in Lilongwe for a day to finish errands and prep for my final week of field work in Dwangwa but rumours of further protests and military intervention kept those travel plans in a holding position. A date was finally set for when we would have to return to Zambia for safety reasons and unfortunately my trip back to Dwangwa had to be cancelled. Sadly I had to say goodbye to my friends and family there by telephone.

A day before we were to leave the country, I traveled to back to Bua, which is along the road to the Zambian border to follow up with my field work and say my goodbyes. I had a very productive day and took some hilarious photos and video of my good friend Obama!

Early the next morning I traveled further along the road to Zambia to my first host family’s community, Kamwendo. I had a fantastic reunion with my house mother and sister with many a bear hug! It was incredible how easily I sank back into life with them and how comfortable I felt in the community after two months away. Unfortunately, my visit was brief and just hours later I was off to the border crossing in an effort to beat the large group of EWBers attempting to cross later that day. After a small mix-up with American money at the border I got myself through and off to my favourite resthouse in Chipata, Dean’s.

Middle of August

The entirety of the team of Malawi JFs and APS arrived in Chipata over the following days and we were all crammed into the scenic but small resthouse.  I spent the first few days working on case studies and exploring Chipata, taking the always terrifying but exhilarating bike taxis to the market and tailor and evening attending a very intense political rally. Election season is this September and the parties’ campaigns are in full swing. The current President even has a song about himself!

My JF partner and I soon moved to another location in Chipata to stay with an Italian ex-pat family to create more room for the Watsan team as well as for our own sanity. I spent the bulk of the week at their house working on final deliverables and trying to organize my thoughts and feelings about the idea of heading back to Canada.

End of August 

… has just begun…. Traveled to Lusaka (yet again) yesterday. Enjoying a quiet space to work at a former APS house in the city. Trying desperately to finish final deliverables but enjoying the company of a new puppy who is a great distraction when needed. Took some time to check out Sunday Market, also known as “The Mzungu Market”, mzungu meaning white person, this morning. Found some beautiful stuff that I swear is mostly gifts for other people… Will be working hard the next couple days in lead up to our last team meeting and traveling back to Malawi to present to our NGO before our flight! It’s all just too soon.

Well, should get back to those deliverables.

Hope you enjoyed the “brief” recap.

Love from Lusaka,

LG

June 20th, 2011

Well since I’ve barely written about work since I started this blog I decided this one would be my catch up. And wow do I have a whole lot to say!

I’m back at the RUMARK office in Lilongwe. It’s been a busy month with a lot of focus on learning and getting up to speed on the history of the project area I am working in.

Just as a refresher I’m working on a project with a Malawian NGO called RUMARK (Rural Market and Development Trust) which focuses on agro-dealers, people who buy and sell inputs to small holder farmers, as part of the overall agricultural input chain in Malawi.

I’ve been in Kamwendo Trading Centre interviewing active agro-dealers in that area in order to better understand the way in which agricultural business here in Malawi works as well as the challenges faced by those working in the input chain.

I really enjoyed interviewing the agro-dealers as all had fairly different backgrounds in agriculture or other business sectors but very similar goals in terms of how they want their business to grow.

The major challenges identified by the agro-dealers I spoke with were:

1) A lack of access to capital

2) Access to transportation

There were of course many more, but most of those challenges stemmed from the above two which, in themselves, are very dependent upon each other.

In terms of accessing capital, the agro-dealers I spoke with are able to acquire small loans from financial institutions but the loan is rarely enough to cover the many costs associated with running an agro-dealer shop including transportation and stock.

In this post I’ll take a quick look at how the two challenges above play into the stocking of chemicals and fertilizers.

The cost of chemicals and fertilizers alone are extremely significant and the option of buying bulk, which would at least provide the benefit of wholesale prices is completely out of the question for small holder farmers. These farmers only require a small amount of both chemicals and fertilizers for their fields but all of the companies supplying the products sell in large quantities.

This is where the agro-dealers come in. Buying the products in bulk and repackaging them, usually without applying new labels and then distributing them to farmers. Agro-dealers still don’t have enough capital to buy really large amounts of goods though so they too struggle with the constraints placed upon them by the supplying companies.

The other danger to this is that often the chemicals and fertilizers are repackaged by inexperienced persons who are not aware of safety practices they should be using when handling such products. This has been the focus of many sessions run by NGOs who are training agro-dealers but the fact of the matter is agro-dealers can’t sell large quantities of these products to farmers so they’re going to repackage them no matter what in order to sell the goods.

The transport of chemicals and fertilizers is another sore spot for safety as financial benefit generally comes first. The mini-buses I’ve described in a previous post are truly the main mode of transportation and the cheapest if moving a small amount of goods. This means that in addition to all the people crowded into that small space, so too are packages of volatile and, for lack of a better word, smelly chemicals and fertilizers. Agro-dealers struggle to convince buses to take them from Lilongwe, where most suppliers are based, to their shops far out into rural areas as passengers complain of the smell of the chemicals (rightfully so) and the consistency of police check points makes transport a hassle as well as results in an additional cost in order to pass inspection.

The cost of acquiring their own transport vehicle, even just a car, is significant and requires a lot of capital which, as mentioned above, is scarce. Hiring a lorry to transport goods is one option but when transporting so little, as with chemicals and fertilizers, that action would result in a loss for the agro-dealer.

A quick look into why accessing large amounts of capital is so difficult for agro-dealers.

In order to get a large loan from a bank the bank requires collateral just as in Canada. So this means, basically, that you need to have a deed to something you own. In big centres such as the capital Lilongwe, it is required that you have a deed to the property you own. In the rural areas, by national law it is required as well but by traditional law, you only have to approach the chief of that area in order to own land. The chief approves all land claims and ensures that no land already allocated is at risk of being taken away.

This means that most of the land in rural areas does not have a deed number as the process of getting a lot registered is time consuming and expensive. So again, that problem of capital comes into play, with agro-dealers not able to access large amounts of funds to help them run and grow their business because they need large amounts of capital to acquire the documentation needed.

Another situation to look at is becoming an agent of a supply company therefore be able to access the goods of that company in great quantities on credit, you must complete an application. This application for Canadian standards is fairly simple though you would still need to be a successful business to qualify.

The application requires the applicant to provided a bank account number, a utility bill and numerous other pieces of documentation of the validity of their business and they’re success.

The issue of a bank account can be solved with some time and effort if not already covered. Documentation of success will depend on whether the agro-dealer has taken records over the past few years and how comprehensive those records are.

The tricky part is the utility bill.

Most small agro-dealers don’t have electricity let alone running water so the question is,

“Where are they going to get a utility bill from?”

And secondly,

“Why does the company need a utility bill?”

This is something I’ll be looking into as part of my placement but I can’t help wondering, does this example not mirror what is wrong with so many development projects?

Constraints being set from a high level with little knowledge of on the ground realities and how those constraints will limit the accessibility of the service being offered.

Or, is having a utility bill really a necessity of the company that will absolutely ensure the stability of that relationship with that client?

Hopefully, I’ll discover some insights into those and many more questions meandering around my brain by the end of August.

Hope you enjoyed a taste of my work.

From Lilongwe, Area 14,

LG

The Path

This one is a bit out of order but I wanted to include it.

June 9th, 2011

Milly took me to this beautiful place today. About a 2 km walk down the path that leads through Mseycha village near Kamwendo. When the lights are on, you can still hear the fast African music and humming of the maize mill in this part of the village. As we walked south though, the sounds faded and all that was left was the wind and the waving tall grass. Taller than a person.

The path was gorgeous. First cutting through the village, banana tree stands lining the road and shading out travel. Small children also lined parts of the road watching us pass then resuming they’re tasks; pumping water, carrying produce or helping a man slab bricks together with mud.

Once past the village a rolling grassland with scatterings of mango and cassava trees lay before us, leading all the way to the dark blue mountains of Zambia. I took out my camera at this point, virtually no people, therefore less attention to my western ways.

A walk that should have taken 20 minutes on way now took 40 as I crouched sporadically to “take a snap”. Milly laughed self-consciously whenever she fell into the frame.

The path was breathtaking, Milly showing me the Africa I had seen in my mind for the last 20 years. Words and photos do this landscape little justice so I will refrain from trying to do so.

All I can say is colour makes this world.

Came to our destination, a semi-sturdy wooden bridge across a typical African river. Narrow and deep.

First time across, walking hand in hand, mine clutching Milly’s for reassurance. Across safely and now walking up the hill to look back upon where we’d walked. Absolutely gorgeous.

Milly convinces me to brave the tall grass to get a better shot of the river. I must trust her.

The hike back is quieter, the wind gusting dirt now, with less crouching for photos but still, this place steals my sorrows.

LG

June 14th, 2011

I called my dad today. Well, I “flashed” him.

No. It’s not what you’re thinking.

“Flashing” is common practice in Malawi and from what I’ve heard most of Africa if not all. Most people here don’t have phone plans. They do pay as you go an buy credits with which ever service provider they have a sim card for. Calling from phone to phone, even in country to the same provider, is very expensive so generally people text which is slightly more affordable.

So, if you’re running low on credits or just really don’t want to pay the rates but need/want to talk to someone, you “flash” them.

“Flashing” is calling a person, letting it ring once then hanging up. This lets them know you want to talk but don’t have the money as incoming calls are free. The person then decides whether they want to call you back ie. whether you’re worth the credits.

So whenever I want to talk to my family back home I “flash” them. We have a system where I flash twice in about a minutes time so they know it is me calling and not just a pesky telemarketer.

My dad called me back (thankfully!). We began discussing my time in Malawi so far and I expressed  my desire that I could spend one day in Canada for every two weeks in Malawi as I was enjoying myself but had been experiencing more frequent rounds of home-sickness than I do when away from home at school in Ottawa.

My dad asked, “What would you do with your day in Canada?”.

With very little hesitation, I replied, “As silly as it sounds, talk to people!”.

Of course I meant specific people such as family and friends, not randoms on the street though I’m sure that would yield interesting results.

“And tell jokes!”,  I added.

The humour I enjoy, and use no matter how poorly,  is completely based in language whether it be through word play or tone.

Punning is a staple in my everyday interactions in Canada. Strange word association, rhyming and all the intricacies of a good (or bad) pun entertain me to no end. Punning is also a huge part of how I express myself.

In Malawi, not only is telling a pun virtually impossible for me but so is understanding one. I don’t know enough Chichewa and even if I had memorized more words I really have very little concept of the connotations or double meanings of the words I already know.

Honestly, I don’t really even know if people tell puns here.

When it comes to English jokes, my house sister has a good understanding of the language but again, the double meanings of words, whether they be offensive, sexual or downright hilarious are lost on her just as Chichewa jokes are lost on me.

The other aspect of humour that doesn’t translate here is sarcasm. And oh how I love sarcasm.

Seriously. That wasn’t sarcastic!

The idea that what I’m saying isn’t genuine just doesn’t cross my family’s mind. So out of respect but also because of some unfortunate mix-ups, I’ve kept my sarcasm to a lifetime minimum.

The constraint this has put on the way I communicate is definitely manageable but it is unfortunate as not only do I enjoy expressing myself through humour but I find it to be a fantastic outlet for stress and frustrations.

I once got up the courage to ask a Malawian friend if sarcasm is used in Chichewa. I found her response to give me a new level of insight into how Malawian culture works but also how it is perceived. I confirmed that she knew what I meant by sarcasm and then after a short pause she stated, very matter-of-factly, with no sarcasm, no hint of humour,

“Only the Muslims.”

From Kamwendo,

LG

June 5th, 2011

I love it when the lights go out.

Just as you begin to prepare supper, a flurry of activity ensues as the hot pots are transferred from the small, dated electric stove to a single charcoal burner in the yard. One pot at a time, one dish at a time, preparation for supper continues as dusk fades to darkness and the whole of the world, except for your small pocket and the sky above melt to shadowy masses and disembodied sounds.

The glow of the charcoal lights the ground below faintly and allows your eyes to distinguish the outline of your cooking-mate just feet away.

My mother offers me an cold coke, purchased the previous Sunday as a treat on a hot afternoon but forgotten until now. The condensation on the smooth glass bottle tickles around my finger tips as I gratefully accept.

Staring, momentarily dumbfounded, at the non-twist off bottle cap I relinquished the bottle to my sister, watching jealously as she deftly popped the cap off with her teeth and delivered the now accessible drink back to my outstretched hand.

Perched on a wobbly wooden stool, my legs hot from the heat of the burner, my top cold from the cool Malawian night air and the chilled coke, I stared up at the southern sky.

Vast, yet seemingly so close with no other lights intruding.

It is difficult to describe the difference in the southern and nothern skies as I’m sure most of the differences I detect, besides the differences in constellations, are very much constructed in my own head.

The southern sky is vast but seems defined. I look south and see the Southern Cross, only visible below the equator. I look north and see the Big Dipper, a staple of the northern sky. The only thing missing, the only thing that reminds me I’m not looking at the entirety of the sky is the obviously absentee north star.

That bright light that my mother has pointed out to me far as long as I can remember. That fixed point of navigation is not where to be seen.

The sky is rudderless.

As the last of the dishes are scooped from the scalding pots into their serving plates and put out in the candlelit living room, the whole family gathers, perched in their habitual seats waiting patiently for father to say grace. The small children are shaken from sleep and we sit in silence for a moment before serving the food. Every action taken is ritualistic and that feeling of ceremony is enhanced by the flickering glow tossed about by the singular light source.

Just as we begin our meal, the moment is harshly lost as the lights return and the TV flickers back to life. I sigh as the romantic image of my family and our life is stifled by the glaring light and intrusive sound of commercials. My heart drops and the cold reality of the outside world returns.

The TV switches to a commercial of a middle-aged, professionally dressed woman, in a large hat proclaiming,

“You too can be a part of the tea party!”

I turn to my sister, my mind flooded with images of Republican rallies and political pundits in America and ask, partly hoping to start a discussion about Malawian politics,

“What is the tea party?”

She looks at me with bemusement in her eyes and explains, as if to an enquiring child,

“It’s a time when family and maybe friends come together to drink tea and maybe eat biscuits.”

I laughed heartily internally, smiled gratefully at her explanation and sat back contently, ready to enjoy my nsima and relish.

From Kamwendo,

LG