Thursday, July 16, 2009

Journey's End

Journey’s End
July 16 and 17, 2009

Leaving the beauty of Club Makakola was hard, but knowing that home was closer made it easier. We traveled well on the new road, stopped at the Mua vendors for a quick look and some purchases. I bought a lovely stylized statue of a woman, the face resembles those of statues by Zimbabwe carvers. Ann found a lovely mother and child and looked for a “tokoloshi” (a dream creature) but found none she liked. Students bought goat hide shields, which they learned later were from the Ngoni tribe. We made it to Mua Mission in time to get a guide for the tour of the museum before noon.

The museum is set up in three connected, circular hut-type rooms with a cement baobab tree in the center. The first room tells of the coming of the priest in 1902 to establish the mission. Mua comes from a “mangled” form of a Chiyao word for sugar cane, which is grown in the area abundantly. The priest couldn’t quite hear the pronunciation, so Mua actually is a word that means nothing in any language. Because the priest lived among the tribes for so long, they trusted him and welcomed him into the inner workings of tribal life. Otherwise, knowledge about the rituals would never be passed to outsiders. He was also able to amass an amazing number of artifacts from the three dominant tribes in the area: Chewa, Ngoni, and Yao.

The second room contains the artifacts of the rituals of the Chewa people. It takes your breath away when you enter the room with brightly colored masks and costumes hung everywhere. Here we see the masks and costumes of the Gule Wamkulu dancers (“spirit” dancers). These are the dances the students saw at Club Mak the night before, now being explained. When masked, a dancer takes on a different persona, he’s not himself and not accountable for his actions. The masks take many forms from human to animal. Circumcision of males is still a part of the “coming of age” ritual for boys. The guide tells us that circumcision (genital mutilation) of girls has died out now. For the most part that might be true, but in very rural villages there are still reports of this practice. The third room contains the Ngoni and Yao ritual artifacts. Ngoni’s were warriors who conquered the Chewas. They’re descended from Chaka Zulu. Many Ngoni are still leaders in Malawi. Yao are mostly Muslims because they inhabited the lake area, which was the slave route for the Arabs trading slaves on the east coast of Africa.

We set out for Lilongwe with students dreading the long drive, but we arrived before 4 p.m. at the Budget Lodge. This time students aren’t shocked by the differences and the hustle and bustle of Old Town. They’ve adjusted to Malawi “rhythms.” By 4:15 everyone was spread out doing his/her own thing – last minute bargaining, purchasing books and bags, super market purchases, ForEx, etc. By 5 they have convened at Ali Baba’s for pizza. By 6:30 everyone is back and settled in, rearranging their packing and getting ready for tomorrow.

This morning (Friday, the 17th) we’re in Pizza Land, the restaurant that serves breakfast for the Budget Lodge. We’re writing and eating and getting ready to post in an Internet Café down the street. By 10 we’ll load up and get on our way. We’re taking a young German man with us to the airport. That will save him a big taxi fare. We’re crowded but can always squeeze in one more for the 20 minute ride. When we board, the students will present Charles, our driver, with their gratuities and cheers. He always looks forward to this well-deserved extra. He’s a safe, thoughtful driver, and as the head driver at MIE, he is no doubt the best.

Our plane leaves at 1:00 p.m. We won’t arrive in Addis Ababa until 8:00 p.m. because we’re routed through Lusaka, Zambia. Students are happy to know that they can add Zambia to their list of countries on this trip: Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia, Ethiopia, and Italy because we stop in Rome for refueling. We arrive at 8:00 a.m. at Dulles. It’s been a memorable 28 days for everyone.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Two Worlds in One Day

Two Worlds in One Day
July 15, 2009

Of course, saying farewell to Annie Fletcher and her friend Limboni was bittersweet. She has been a part of the Study Abroad program since the beginning. So, after an laborious process of getting the bus loaded with the suitcases that were packed so they didn’t have to be off-loaded at Club Mak, we boarded with our carry-ons, just like on a plane but without as much room. Wooden chief chairs went under the seats and small luggage. But mostly we sat with backpacks and water and baskets on our laps. Without Moses and James (two guys from North Carolina A&T), the luggage would never have fit. With many thanks to them we were on our way to Mangochi.

We arrived at Dr. Ndalapa Mhango’s village slightly before him because he had taught a class at Domasi College beginning at 7:30 a.m. Ndalapa is a remarkable man, who was in the Virginia Tech in-country master’s program here in Malawi and later came to the US to complete his doctorate. Each year, he has agreed to talk to the students about his life growing up to help us understand the traditional village “world.” His father now 102 years old sat on the porch to greet us. Each student knelt, curtsied, or bowed to him as they greeted him in the Malawian way. His father was a medical doctor from the north of Malawi, but settled in Mangochi, taking three wives and a concubine. His children numbered more than 100. The house we visited had 15 bedrooms because all three wives lived in the same house (not always the practice). However, the bedrooms housed many children at a time and were allocated according to the age of the child. Ndalapa showed us the first bedroom he shared with his brother, who now takes care of their father. It was small and windowless. When Ndalapa moved to secondary school, he moved to a small room (also shared) but with a window.

We stood in the living room/dining room that looked much like something in our homes today. But Ndalapa described how it was then. His father had a separate table at which he was served. His father always had Western ideas and style; he ate with a fork. At a table in the same room, adolescent boys ate. Outside on the kitchen porch, the adolescent girls ate at a table. On the floor in the room with their father, as many as thirty children ate on the floor from a common large bowl. Even today, in the villages a similar feeding pattern is still practiced.

Ndalapa talked of rising at 3 a.m. to walk to milk and feed cattle, returning to prepare for school, rowing across the river to then walk to school. Once when walking to the cattle, they met a lion. He said, “I should probably not be here today” and smiled. Lions came to the house but usually killed dogs first. Now with deforestation, they have retreated to the mountains some distance away. Crocodiles infest the river nearby. At a different time he had talked to me of a brother who had been killed by a crocodile. As he said, “We live with hippos, crocodiles, and hyenas.”

He is related to everyone in the village. They have gathered around us and follow us as we walk through parts of the village, not typical in some ways because the houses are spread farther apart than in some villages.

We bid Ndalapa good-bye, who will return to Zomba via his recently purchased car. He had learned to drive in the US, and he said he must travel slowly on Malawi roads because of all the goats, bicycles, and people. It’s just the way I feel about driving here.

Our students were mesmerized by this gentle, intelligent, highly educated man, softly telling his story in such a candid way. I believe they understand the magnitude of his accomplishments. Having an educated father as a model no doubt helped. Also his father refused to have the children go through the rituals although Ndalapa’s mother was Yao, a dominant tribe in the Mangochi area. These things helped but the struggle was arduous.

After we parted, we drove 30 minutes to Club Makakola on a newly paved road that previously had taken 50 minutes or so. Now the road is paved all the way to Mua Mission. We will save more than two hours tomorrow, which means we depart Club Mak later. Everyone is happy about that.

At Club Makakola, I find my old friend Nick who greets us. Nick is the manager. Students are transported to another “world” immediately as they get off the bus. The gardens are lush and immaculate. The reception area has large carved statues of warriors, fountains bubble. Each “hut” has lovely Dedza tiled bathrooms. Beautiful batiked bedspreads under while mosquito netting. Free wireless access. A swimming pool and beach bar. And a beach with umbrellas and chaises. Within 30 minutes all students are in the pool, on the beach, or at the bar. They’re in heaven after working hard for three weeks.

Together we all watched a dark red sun descend behind the mountains, casting in a fiery streak across the lake. We basked in the shared moment.

After dinner (a sumptuous buffet), Nick has arranged for traditional dancing with an amazing acrobat group from an adjoining village thrown in. The dancing included the dance that Africans brought back to their villages after World War I. Some students had seen children practicing this dance in their schools. That was followed by four different masked performers doing the “spirit” dance -- Gule Wamkulu. Coming back from Malika Church, students had seen a masked man in strips of corn in the road. He was a “spirit” dancer. These dancers were also dressed in strips of cloth that shook frantically when they danced and with different masks, usually red, but sometimes with fanciful non-human face masks. Students scurried forward intermittently dropping small bills into the baskets they set in the grass near their performances. Nick pays the performers and discourages such tipping, but the performers are persistent and I have seen them cut short their performance if people aren’t tipping. We retired to our thatched “huts” full of food and the days events.

Tears and Laughter

Tears and Laughter
July 14, 2009

The last day in the schools is always long and filled with mixed emotions. It’s long because we stay at MIE until after 7:30 p.m. for a celebration dinner we give each year for the teachers from the three schools. It’s emotional because each school has a celebration for our students who have taught and worked with them. They made the women skirts and tops and Todd got shorts and a dashiki. The women changed into their new finery in the shed that serves as the library. I have no idea where they took Todd. But we and the teachers, who went with us to change, all sang and danced our way back to the classroom where the others waited for us to appear in our Malawian togs. I asked the students to say something about their experience, and that’s when the emotions ran high. It’s tougher on them because perhaps they won’t be back, or at least it will be a long time. I know I’ll return next summer, so my sadness is softened.

It’s clear to all the teachers at the Government School how much this experience has meant to the Virginia Tech students. Todd (who is often called Toddie because in Chichewa words almost always end in a vowel and they find it difficult to say a single syllable name) spoke from the heart, saying that if Malawi is the “warm heart of Africa” then the Government School is the “warm heart of Malawi.” They loved that. Deanna teared up some, but got through it. However, that caused Jessica and Kacey to wipe away tears as they talked. Again the teachers really appreciated such heartfelt emotions. The two Rachels talked last with Rachel L. saying how the experience had helped her and Rachel S. telling them she had been to Malawi before but had not had a school experience. Again, I was proud of them, their work at the school, and their ability to handle the demands of a new culture.

We spent the afternoon discussing human rights and gender issues as well as reflecting on a question posed by Todd – what has been the most memorable event – and by James (from NC A&T) – what have you learned from this experience that will help you as you enter teaching or another career. Excellent questions that generated some good discussion. By that time it was time to decide what song we would sing to end the dinner program. “Amazing Grace” won and we practiced. Actually, the first stanza is quite appropriate: grace shall keep us safe and grace shall lead us home. Everyone is thinking more of home now, but they are looking forward to Club Makola and sitting on the beach tomorrow.

For dinner we had fried chicken, rice, and greens with a soft drink and banana. The servings were large, which the Malawians loved. Some said they wished we had a celebration dinner every month. It’s quite an occasion for them because they can bring a guest, which means a couple can have a night out together. Some women had on beautiful Malawian dresses. All of us wore the outfits that the schools had made us. Thank goodness the electricity stayed on because there wasn’t a candle in sight!!

Tonight we pack all the souvenirs we have purchased in suitcases now mostly empty because all school supplies and extra clothing has been given away.

A Day of Downs and Ups

A Day of Downs and Ups
July 13, 2009

Today was as busy as it gets. We started at Malemia School with our students distributing the ponchos that Deena and others had made. Unfortunately, we had to pull some teachers into a very important meeting on the Chibale Project, and our students were left with fewer teachers. Also during these three days people are registering for another election at the school site, so there is much going and coming on the school grounds. (Because Joyce Banda, the Domasi area member of Parliament, was elected vice-president in the recent election, a special election has to be held. She is the first female to hold such a high elected office!)

Consequently, our students had difficulty controlling hundreds of students in the early grade classrooms, made worse by upper grades pouring in and even children from the community who don’t attend school but hang around. Everyone coped, but it wasn’t easy. They’re learning, reflecting, and evaluating much that has happened here.

In my mad dash from Malemia to the Government School (about 1 ½ miles) to take care of some business there and return to Malemia, I tripped on a rock and went sprawling face first into sand. Scraped elbow and hand, stubbed toe, and a bruise the size of a half dollar (or Malawi kwacha) on my chin. But the fall could have been disastrous. I fell into one of the few places of sand on the road. A few feet away, the road is very rocky. So I feel fortunate. I trudged to do my business and returned to Malemia to take a taxi to the bank in order to add the chair of the feeding program committee to the account, a decision that had been made in our meeting.

Last year when we set up the account, it had taken us around five hours. Every process in Malawi is excruciatingly long. So when we were told at the bank that we would need to essentially re-apply, start the process for establishing our account again, our Malawian counterparts nodded quietly and were ready to acquiesce. That wasn’t going to happen!! I gently but firmly talked with the manager of “enquiries.” He tried talking to me as if I didn’t understand what he was saying about their process. I told him I understood perfectly what he was saying, but that I was sure it didn’t have to be that complicated. We went through that a few times until I said that if we had to start the process again, we could as easily go to another bank. We were there to add a name and deposit more money. But if that couldn’t be done, we’d be on our way more or less. Not surprisingly, it could be done with a small addition of a letter and school stamp that we’ll attend to tomorrow. My actions did not go unnoticed by Mrs. Ussi and Mr. Laibu, two of our partners. Both were pleased by how it had been handled. I was firm and persistent but not abusive. Everywhere – banks, government offices, garages, hospitals – that someone has some power to exercise over someone else, processes become arduous and petty, sometimes involving days. I do know that in our country government offices have the reputation of doing the same, but businesses usually respond to customers in a timely fashion.

We ended the day with a party for Annie Fletcher, who owns Annie’s Lodge. She is a remarkable, loving woman – once a member of Parliament – who has always made our stay in Zomba memorable. But this year was even more so because of the Lucius Banda concert and the lunch at her home on Malawi Independence Day. Ann got a beautiful cake, I bought her a gift of wine, several people made beautiful cards and signs, and Todd blew up balloons and decorated the conference hall/bar, making the place festive. Annie was an hour late because as she said, “I’m not good with good-byes.” Her friend, Limboni, told her she had to come and he drove her to the Lodge. The whole scene was a love-fest – the outpouring of love and thanks were genuine. I was so proud of our students in the way they honored her for what she had done for them. And also for who she is and her contribution to Malawi.

Going in the Wrong Door

Going in the Wrong Door
July 12, 2009

Today some of us dressed in our Malawian finery to go to church again. We trooped down the hill to the church. Ann said, “Let’s go around; I like going in that door.” I looked in the door we were passing and said that the seats we sat in before were right there. So we entered and seated ourselves. Caroline leaned over and said, “I think we went through the men’s door.” Sure enough all the men were seated on that side and the women on the other. I had never noticed before although most of the time I had come in the “women’s door.” But previously we exited through the men’s door. Todd and Jeff had moved from our side the last time we attended and I just assumed they wanted to be by themselves. Obviously, they had noticed. And I was oblivious!! I’m sure they have forgiven our faux pas. Malawians are gracious and loving.

The music was wonderful. There was a guest singer from another church choir. After the service we left to a rousing version of “When the Saints Come Marchin’ In,” one of my favorites.

The evening buffet was in the dark with flashlights. Half of enjoying food is seeing it. No Internet all day. And electricity was off three times during the day. Note: This blog is a brief summary of a blog I lost somehow and simply can’t create because I write each day and don’t take notes! I’ve tried to post for three days and in the flurry lost the original blog. Apologies to all.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

A Day at a Community-based Orphanage

A Day at a Community-based Orphanage
July 11, 2009

The day started with a torrential downpour, harder than any even during the rainy season. This is supposed to be the cool, dry season, but so far we have had much rain. People say it’s unusual, and it certainly doesn’t match anything in my ten years of trips here. We were scheduled to go to Chifundo Chatu, a community based organization established to assist primarily vulnerable children, elderly people, and victims of HIV/AIDS. Children are classified as orphans when the mother dies because it is the belief that a man cannot care for the family and still maintain his work life. Such children frequently are taken in by family members or neighbors. However, relatives normally treat these children as hired help, rarely sending them to school or providing them with even bare necessities like blankets or shoes. Some may be mistreated physically. This organization endeavors to assist families who take in orphans and to educate them in the appropriate treatment of vulnerable children.

The rain continued to pour and we received a report that the road was more or less impassable. We postponed the trip until afternoon, hoping the rain would stop and the road would dry quickly. So off we went to Zomba Town to the internet café and other points. I spent forty minutes just getting logged into my VT webmail. And another hour and a half, trying to download and read the emails that were critical. I responded to three emails. It’s very frustrating to spend time that way. A group of British students came in while we were there; the one sitting beside me was a frustrated as I was.

Before our trek up the hill to Annie’s Lodge, Ann stopped to negotiate with a vendor to get a sign made for her home that says Annie’s Lodge. We arrived exactly when our bus arrived to take us to the orphanage. The sky was blue and the sun was shining. It was a glorious afternoon as we wended our way from Zomba toward the mountains behind Zomba Plateau. In Zomba we turned onto a paved road that quickly gave way to a fairly wide dirt road, but with each kilometer and each fork we took, the roads became narrower and narrower until we were on more or less a wide path that ended in the village that served as the home base for the orphanage.

Mr. Dinnex J Mdala met us at the community center that will eventually serve as a day care center when it get completed although I did not see any progress from last year. Several community members of the board were there and several women sat on benches. In another row, about a hundred orphans sat looking on. In all there are almost 400 orphans and approximately 400 other people classified as vulnerable, elderly or HIV/AIDS. Usually, the villagers greet visitors with songs and dancing and skits about their program, but today a funeral was in progress across the way and out of respect, such greetings were cancelled. Mr. Mdala, who is with the Ministry of Education and leader of the program, took us to his house for soft drinks and bread. He talked to us about the needs of the organization. We returned to the community center area for official words of greeting, where the three universities presented him with their donations, which was counted in public and publicly announced to keep everything honest and transparent.

They asked for pictures, and Kelsey, our premier photographer, did the honors. We mingled, playing with the children, until it was time to say good-bye. Again, Ann sang them a farewell song. Malawians are quick to sing and dance, but they appreciated the reciprocity and applauded loudly.

A Day of Blessings

A Day of Blessings
July 10, 2009

The day began at 6 a.m. trying to get my blog up during the one break in the clouds. Ann and I have a spot where we sometimes get a fairly good signal before either the clouds, rain, or electricity interferes. But this morning it was the monkeys that caused our problems. With my lunch bread and banana beside my computer, I was focused on my computer with the minutes ticking away at almost $4 for 30 minutes. A monkey leaped onto the table and snatched by banana, which started a rush of monkeys seeking other bananas. Ann, of course, obliged and soon had them in a frenzy. But alas there were no more bananas, so my lunch peanut butter sandwich lacked its usual accompaniment.

Today Mrs. Alippo Ussi, one of the Primary Education Advisors for the Zomba District, arranged for us to meet the scholarship students that the Chibale Project has sponsored. The eight students are in Form 1 (freshman year) at Domasi Demonstration Secondary School. That school was completed a couple years ago by the Japanese government and serves as a lab school for Domasi College of Education. This is the first year of the scholarship program.

Each year the top students who take the eighth grade School Leavers Examination are selected to go to secondary school. The very top may be selected to attend the two or three government run top residential secondary schools at the government’s expense. Unfortunately, these are usually students who have had the advantage of tutors and private education. The next tier of students selected is assigned to various other residential secondary schools; however, the parents must pay for them to attend. The last tier is selected to attend community day schools in their catchment area. However, even though the fees are small by our standards, many parents cannot afford the tuition and uniforms that are required, thereby ending a good student’s opportunity for further education. One church in far southwest Virginia, the home church of a Virginia Tech student who went on Study Abroad in 2008, and a primary school in the Midlothian area, where the mother of a student who went in the 2007 group teaches, donated money for a worthwhile project. Thus the scholarship program was born.

Three students from each school – Malemia Primary, Domasi Demonstration Primary, and Domasi Government Primary, which are the Study Abroad schools – are selected by a school committee to receive the scholarships. The teachers know which students are needy and which are not because the point of the program is to further the education of deserving students (those who rank in the top 12 to 13 percent of all Standard 8 students in the nation). And so we met our scholarship students who have now completed two of three terms in Form 1.

There were two girls and six boys (one student had decided to live with an uncle to attend school elsewhere). Seven parents or family members attended for us to meet them. One student is an orphan who lives with his uncle. Another’s sister came to have her picture taken with her scholarship brother. We talked with them and with the parents (Mrs. Ussi translated). The money is in the fund to provide Form 2 scholarships for these same eight students, at which time they must take another examination to see whether they are selected to proceed to Form 3 and 4. I hope we can collect enough money to send so that another three students from each school can be given scholarships for Form 1 and 2. Ideally, I would hope to continue with the Form 3 and 4 years as well. This is the best possible way of making difference in lives. Dr. Ndalapa Mhango, a man who received his doctorate from Virginia Tech and is on the board of the Chibale Project, talk to us about the concept of “needy” when I asked. He said that oftentimes families will sell their goats to send a child to secondary school, only to have the student drop out at a later point when the goats are gone and the family is then destitute, having given up a source of continuing income. The cost for sending a student to community day school is currently about $35 per year with the initial uniform costing around $15. For $155 a student can get a secondary school education. To say the least, the morning was heartfelt and inspiring.

Off I went to MIE, where members of the choir from Malika Church found Dr. Ann, Dr. Liz, and I to thank us for again coming to their church and assisting them in a small way. They presented us with a painting and letters, saying how much they appreciated our support for their tiny village church. A couple years ago a priest from a larger Catholic church in the Domasi area met the group when we went to Malika and tried to convince me to bring future groups to his church rather than a village church. I’m sure Malika knows that because they say that they don’t take for granted our preference for them. It was a beautiful farewell experience made even more memorable by Ann singing to them a song about friends parting. Ann has a beautiful voice and they applauded her gift of song.

At the end of the day we stopped the bus in Zomba Town for a run to the ForEx, the store for water, and collecting photos for school projects. The bus stops and students disperse themselves in all directions to do business. At the ForEx they had my receipt written without even asking my name and lodging address. It’s rather disconcerting because they know who we are and our every move.

The day ended with a family style buffet by “forced” candlelight of course (translation – the electricity was again off), and a party later with dancing in the same area after the electricity came back on.