Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Climb every mountain...gulp.

On a lighter note, I had a bit of an adventure last weekend that I thought I’d share with you. Livingstonia is village on top of a mountain by the lake, where the first missionaries settled and built a hospital and a church in 1898. Its beauty is legendary throughout Malawi, but its notoriously difficult to get to and ‘transport is a big problem’. I made a friend through my brother Julius with a man in our village that grew up there, and agreed to escort me if I wanted to go and see the place. His name is Horace, he’s 24 and one of the local football stars, and is now a close friend of mine. He helps his uncle run the maize mill at an estate down the road, and has 21 tenants that rent from them.
We had planned to set off early in the morning, but he was delayed because one of the tenants had stolen some things and run off. He was upset because this particular tenant had been a close friend, and he felt much betrayed by this, understandably so.
So it was a two hour minibus ride to the lake side, in a direction I hadn’t traveled yet, so I thoroughly enjoyed seeing more of the countryside. You must get tired of hearing about it, but the beauty of this country never ceases to enthrall me, and if I ever feel down, I just try and spend some time out drinking it in.

So the minibus dropped us at the end of a dirt road with a sign posted: Livingstonia 15km
Horace looked at me nervously and said, if we wait for transport it could be 3 o’clock before something comes. It was then 11am. I’m like, alright lets walk, we can do it! 10 minutes up the slow and steady incline I’m huffing and puffing like an overweight smoker and Horace is barely breaking a sweat. Holy embarrassing batman. He explains to me that there’s 21 bends in the road, but there’s a few shortcuts we can take as we reach bend 21 (they count down). I think I made it to bend 18 before needing to stop and rest, lol. The shortcuts were too steep for me to handle really, especially with the hot sun beating down so after the first couple we stuck to the bends.
The conversation was great though, we talked about all sorts of things (between my huffs and puffs) and got to know each other better. He explained to me many people make this treck up and down every day to buy and sell fish, or bread etc. The locals can even do it, taking all the rocky shortcuts, in the middle of the night!
Many short breaks later, we reached bend 5, and between bend 4 and 5 there’s this slightly hidden spring in the side of the mountain, with this amazingly cold water, and as we sat there collecting ourselves,(Horace was a little tired by this point) with the monkey’s playing in the trees overhead and the lake stretched out in front of us, I was so very grateful there had been no transport, or I would have missed that entire experience.
Before you actually get to Livingstonia there’s this amazing waterfall set back in the forest that drops over the side of the mountain into this valley that stretches out to the lake. Bloody breathtakingly beautiful.
Two and a half hours later we actually enter the village/town, and everyone is greeting Horace. Not only is this where most of his family lives, and he grew up, but he is well known throughout the area for his football talents, and his nickname is ‘Ironman’ for the way he runs so fast in his bear feet. We walk around the town, check out the church and the stone house the missionaries built, and grab some lunch, by this time it’s almost 3pm though, and there doesn’t look to be any transport going back down for the day. Not wanting to take the 2 hour treck back down that day only to have a two hour minibus ride back in the dark to mkombezi (not the safest thing), we decided to stay the night, which also meant Horace could play football with his friends and spend the night at his father’s house. I hung out watching the football, making some notes for work, we had dinner together at a local restaurant where we met some aid workers who were heading down the other side towards Rumphi the next day and offered to take us as far as they were going in their vehicle (sweet deal), and then he dropped me off at a resthouse.
The next morning we met the aid workers, who had a Canadian girl working with them through WUSC and students without borders from BC. It was pretty awesome chatting with someone from home again, and comparing experiences. They dropped us at the village where they were running a session on AIDS prevention and behavior change, and we continued on through the back roads and shortcuts that Horace knew to the next spot where we might find transport. It was awesome seeing some of the crops grown in this area, that I hadn’t seen before like coffee, bamboo, and macadamia nut trees. I never thought I could get so excited about agriculture, lol, but it’s actually really interesting to actually understand where your food comes from.
An hour later we’re hanging out at the nearest trading post, chatting, hoping and waiting for the next vehicle passing through that might get us home in time for the afternoon football match. As luck would have it, a safari vehicle with a white couple comes trucking through and stops for another volunteer just arriving, so we run up and ask if we can get a lift too. They have tons of crap in the back, so in order to fit I literally have to sit on top of Horace, but we’ll take it, who knows when the next vehicle will come. They’re a couple from Britain although the man’s originally from New Zealand, that have taken a year off work to drive through Africa tip to tail and back again, and the other volunteer is a peace core teacher here for 2 years with her husband, whose 7 months into the placement. Obviously, conversation was super interesting and left me really feeling like it’s completely possible to design your own future – especially when you’re white, well educated, and have money. Lol, I make a statement like that, and I immediately want to jump in to discussions about power, and privilege and feeling the responsibility of being in such a position to contribute to making positive change in the world, in whatever context possible. But I’ll refrain, I hate sounding preachy.
I’ll leave it at: they dropped us in Mkombezi, and it was good to be home again. It was great to feel like I’d made a solid friend in Horace, outside the family and neighbors, and to have had what could have been a bit of a let down as a tourist experience, as an absolutely unforgettable experience seeing this place through his eyes.

I’ll try to be a bit more regular about posting in the last month or so now. Again, any questions or topics you’d like me to comment on are welcome, its difficult to know what people are interested in hearing about, and sometimes I feel like I could talk forever, and other times I don’t know where to start. Hope you’re all well, take care, until next time ~m 

A woman's work is never done...

So I kind of fell of the face of the planet for a bit eh? Lol, sorry folks, didn’t mean to be so MIA, the last month has been…well… hard to explain, thus the lack of posts.

I’ve been putting a lot of effort into trying to understand the way RUFA works and how I can have some positive impact on the organization, which has been challenging but I’ve been learning and growing a whole bunch.

First of all I wanted to respond to some questions my good friend colleen asked me recently (miss you girl). In our EWB workshops we’ve talked a lot about gender roles, and how important they are to consider when attempting development work. Specifically the question was do women actually feel discriminated against, and do they want to see change?
So I’m not going to claim to have the answer to that question, but I can talk about some of the experiences I had and things I’ve seen here.
So let me tell you about my sister Chrissy. She’s the wife of my host mother’s eldest son Maduna, who both live with us, and is my best friend here. She’s the one who’s helped me figure out how to do everything (ie. hand wash all my clothes), explains what’s going on at home when I’m all kinds of confused, and has helped me form relationships with other women in the community. She’s a year younger than me, but is already a wife and a mother, so while we’re at different points in our lives, we get along great and laugh and joke together. When I’m home, I help out as much as I can with the daily chores as well as looking after the baby Jessica. The family hierarchy is such that most of the grunt work falls to Chrissy as the female in-law. What does that mean? That means sweeping around the house, fetching water from the borehole down the street, preparing most of the meals for the entire household (7 adults – not exactly light work), doing all the dishes, doing all the laundry for her husband, herself, and Jessica, and being 100% responsible for caring for Jessica, which means unless myself or one of my brothers are around to hand her off to, Chrissy’s doing all these things with Jessica strapped to her back. She hopes to one day attend the training center in a neighbouring village to become a carpenter, which is pretty cool, and I think a little unconventional. Before that can happen though she must wait until her and Maduna are financially independent, have their own home, and have enough extra income for the school fees.
This is what it means to be a woman in the village. And let me tell you, its bloody hard work. Add in things like preparing the maize for the maize mill (about a four day process), or in areas where there is no maize mill pounding the maize into a flour by hand, raising 2 or 3 toddlers, and fetching firewood from god knows how far, and you start to get a bigger picture. Now imagine you husband’s passed away, or left you as is increasingly the case for Malawian women, and you’re now responsible for growing or buying enough food to feed your family and providing the basic necessities, and if possible, generating enough extra income for school fees for the children. Or maybe your sister has died from AIDS and now you’ve got 7 children instead of 3 to provide and care for. Or the youngest one has malaria but you don’t have the money for the medication, the doctor’s fees, or the transport to reach the doctor.
I’m not saying men don’t work hard too, especially farmers, but the onus is on the women to create a functioning household. This is why many development projects focus on making these tasks easier, or are directed at providing more opportunities for women. But I’m taking it a bit too big picture; let’ take it back to direct experiences.

I’ve asked various people what gender equality means to them, and why they think it is important. The answers and attitudes towards this topic have surprised me in a lot of situations, and I don’t want to generalize too much, but a common response is that it will make development happen faster, or that the developed countries tell us its important and they must know, because they’re developed. From what I’ve seen it’s not tied to human or civil rights, it’s seen as an externally driven, necessary step to being considered civilized. And these responses are from women as well as men.

I should note here, that most of this is based on experiences in a rural setting, and I think things are a little different in an urban setting. In a village though, most women marry during or just after secondary school, so it’s difficult to distinguish between being a woman and being a mother.

I could talk for a long time about a lot of factors related to this subject, and the things I’ve seen or heard about here, so feel free to follow up with me when I get back. A big question I have though: is that if you change these well defined and understood roles for men and women, or more accurately husbands and wives, how much would you destroy the culture itself, and what kind of gaps do you create in the social infrastructure.
I feel full of questions about what it means to be a woman anywhere in the world, and more specifically what it means to be a mother.
The deep respect I have for Malawian mothers, however, is something I will carry with me, and my hope in the future is that to be one is not such a struggle for so many.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Fire it up!

The schedule with RUFA this week had me attending a 4 day mud stove training session in Mhuju with Chiza, another project coordinator of RUFA. The first day of the session was mainly practical and focused on establishing what the women expected from their stoves and the different methods of cooking that are well established in the area and the pros and cons of each. The second day focused on the practical exercise of making the clay to make the stoves as it would take a few days for it to set after mixing it. The third day was theoretically focused around how fire burns, the mechanics of combustion and the most efficient way to cook, and an overview of why these mud stoves are so beneficial. The fourth and final day involved the actual creation of one of the stoves, and the initiation of the women’s committee that would function as future stove promoters in this area. The women were high spirited, and sang songs and danced as they worked, and were very warm and kind to me.

It’s an interesting initiative being run with different variations of locally appropriate stoves in many developing countries, so it was great to see how the process works on the ground. There are many benefits involved with using these mud stoves instead of the more traditional three stone fire pit, including health benefits, and more efficient cooking, requiring less firewood. That sounds like such a simple statement, but the implications are so large. Deforestation is becoming more of an issue throughout Malawi, with detrimental effects on the entire climate and as a result on crop yields – and as agriculture is not only the main way most families feed themselves, it is also their main source of income, the ramifications could be huge. The more direct impact of course is that the women who collect the firewood are having to walk further and further to get this supply, eating up a large chunk of time, as well as being back breaking work, or should I say neck breaking as they carry the huge stacks on their heads… again a feat that never ceases to amaze me. So at the very least this program will allow the women to make those trips less often. At the same time RUFA has other initiatives to combat these issues including encouraging households to have their own woodlots with trees that need pruning regularly to provide a ready source of this firewood. The stove program is something I’d like to delve into a little bit deeper this upcoming year in one of our Chapter meetings at the University, and as the meetings are open to all, make sure you ask me about it if you’re interested to find out more when I get back.

All in all I couldn’t be happier to be working with people who are not only tackling the challenges contributing to poverty but the environmental degradation that is so closely linked with these issues. It’s certainly a personal wake up call to realize how much our personal well being really is tied the well being of our habitat. In Canada I find we’re distanced from any direct impacts enough to ignore the subtle warning signs, but here it can smack you in the face if you’re not careful. Things to think about to be sure….and boy do I do a lot of thinking these days. Thanks for all your comments, and emails, its awesome to hear from you. Big hugs and high 5’s ~m

For the love of the game

One of the many advantages of being home on a regular basis has been the ability to attend regular netball trainings and games with the women’s team in the village. In the past I’ve just been watching to understand the game and its rules, but in the past couple weeks I’ve been playing a few times a week. The game’s really similar to basketball except no dribbling – which is fine because I was never much good at that anyways, lol. It’s been years and years since I played basketball, but its funny how much comes back to you, and I’d forgotten how much I had loved it. While there’s no backboard, the hoop is relatively low compared to my height, so it’s not too difficult for me to get the ball through it. People in the village love the fact I’m actually playing, and word is spreading fast of goal-shooter marika. And that’s far and away been the best part of it all, being able to form friendships with some of the other women in the community, and become known as Marika instead of the Mzungu. I even got to get up early one morning to help the team harvest a field to raise funds for the team. Multi-tasking for me really, I can learn more about the harvesting procedures and the rhythm of Malawian life, while gaining some trust and respect with the women.

As far as competitive games go though, I just travel with the team as a supporter, and as the men’s football team schedule usually coincides with the women’s netball schedule it means being part of a rowdy revelry in the back of a large truck signing songs with the wind flying in your face, aka one of the highlights of my week. The netball game is only half as long as the football game, which is a bonus because then I can watch the second half of that game too. And village football is an experience like no other. Last week the netball court was double booked, so we watched the football game in its entirety. It was a critical match with a neighboring team, and was neck and neck the whole way through. When the game was tied, with about 10 minutes left in the game, you could almost cut the tension with a knife – when suddenly WE SCORED! And the explosion of joy from the crowd was like nothing I’ve ever seen; the entire population of Mkombezi it seemed ran out on to the field arms waving, yelling and screaming, did a little individual dance and ran back to their spot around the outer perimeter. I just laughed with sheer joy at the spectacle, as I was completely taken aback. The antics died down quickly and the game finished with us maintaining the lead, much to the satisfaction of all our supporters. Its one of those memories I know I’ll carry with me for the rest of my life.
The fact the game is played for the most part in bare feet on a dirt field that is rarely level, only underlines the strength and skill of these men in my mind, and puts in perspective a real love of the game.


Well the 17 days in Bolero plan didn’t exactly turn out the way I thought it would, but that happens in general, with almost everything here, and is something I’m getting used to. I spent 5 more days with the FAIR team before mixing things up a bit, but an eventful 5 days they turned out to be. Everyday is an adventure here; and taking things in stride is so very important. While waiting for one meeting to start, my coworkers started snacking on some local sugar cane sticks. It’s an interesting process where you bite the outer shell of the cane off with your teeth, and then bite off chunks of the inner fibers, suck the sugar juice out of them, and then spit it the rest out. When they offered me some though, I had to explain we don’t grow it in Canada (in the area I come from anyways) and needed directions to figure the whole thing out. Apart from being a great source of amusement to these men, it was another one of those ripples of culture shock; understanding exactly which field this snack food was coming from, buying it from the farmer that grew it, and eating it right from the raw plant, provided a stark contrast to unwrapping a granola bar I would have bought from a grocery store in Canada…with barely a notion of what the ingredients were, let alone where they came from, or where that wrapper would end up.

I’ve been spoiled once again, as one of these 5 meetings happened to take place right on the doorstop of Vwoza Marsh Game Reserve. Doubly so, as CAPS, a member of our team had previously worked with the staff on negotiating peace with the surrounding villagers (I’ll get to that in a minute), and was super tight with them still. What did this neat little equation add up to? That’s right ladies and gents, after a long day of work, a quick tour of the sights and sounds of one of the hottest spots for wildlife in Malawi. ELEPHANTS!!!! Sorry, guilty pleasure, but it was the one thing I didn’t want to leave this beautiful country without seeing, so I felt super lucky to have satisfied this itch so early in my placement. And yes, they are as majestic in reality as they were built up in my mind, even if we did have to stay over 100 meters away at all times.
Also sited were baboons carrying their young around, warthogs (again my mind jumped to thoughts of timon and pumba from the lion king – I swear the cartoonists must have come to Malawi for inspiration), Kudo (deer-like creatures), and hippos (really just the tops of their heads peeking out of the water) all against the backdrop of the indigenous forests and glittering lake. The best part is my co-workers were just as into it as I was, and the conversation was full of anecdotes from past encounters with various animals either personally or in their home villages.
Some of these were rather sad tales of poaching and loss, however, which brings me back to the work CAPS had done with the park staff. When the government first put a big push on to protect and conserve this native wildlife, it involved extending the surrounding border of the park, forcing some people to relocate their homes. This caused a lot of conflict, and in some cases caused the villagers to feel hostility towards the protected animals. This, combined with the all too alluring compensation offered on the black market, made poaching much more popular. From what I understand, the park staff had under the previous government been rather militant. Under the new legislation their roles were supposed to be changing, but to many their gun was still their right hand man. Tensions between the villagers and the park staff were rising quickly until CAPS, hired to facilitate discussions between the feuding bodies, helped the villagers to realize that the animals belonged to all Malawians and were a source of national pride, and the park staff that maybe times were changing, and a new approach was needed.

I’ll put in a little disclaimer here, that there’s probably a lot more to the story all round, I’m just sharing my basic understanding of the situation, I just thought it was interesting how much communicating change and emphasizing ownership and empowerment can change a situation.

Bouncing around between Mkombezi, Rumphi and various villages in Bolero started to take its toll though, and after stepping back and re-evaluating why I’m here and the value I hope to add in some way to RUFA’s programs, I asked Geoffrey if I could spend the next week with the project coordinator who was running some existing RUFA-specific programming in a neighboring ADC. It will also allow me to actually spend every night at home for a while. I’m growing attached to my host family, and I don’t really like being away from them for too long, they’re my base for normalcy here. More on life in Mkombezi and RUFA’s programs to follow.

Saturday, June 2, 2007

Wild Thang

So the adventure of Nyika….The original plan was to leave Rumphi by 8:30am Thursday morning, after picking up the farmers in 7 different communities and the supplies for meals. The drive was estimated to take about 3-4 hours, so we’d complete the tour Thursday afternoon, stay overnight at the park at the youth hostel camp and head back early Friday morning.

So Thursday morning, I got up at 6, got ready, breakfasted, and sat…. and waited.. and waited. I’m pretty used to things not starting on time here, but by 9am I started to get concerned. No worries though, 9:30 the truck showed up, and we made our way to Rumphi. Unfortunately we ran into some set backs gathering the necessary supplies, so by the time we actually managed to hit the road it was 10:30.

Back up the bumpy road I’ve almost gotten used to by this point, and this time, we take that turnoff towards Nyika Park. When we arrived at the gate entrance we took the necessary bathroom break before tackling what the sign said was the final 60kms to the lodge at the centre of the park. At this point it was noticed that we had a problem. The minibus we had hired for the trip was leaking oil…badly. About half an hour later we managed to trace the problem back to a connecting hose that was leaking from both sides. Luckily we had our truck, and there was a mechanic and some tools with which to improvise not too far into the park. It was, however, going to take at least an hour or two to repair, being in a bit of a tricky position.

So, trying to make to best of a bad situation we assembled the group, and began a discussion about what exactly they were hoping to get out of the trip, and to think critically about the conservation and resource management projects they’ve been running in their communities.
Actually, I got to facilitate the discussion, which was the first time I’ve been put in a leadership position for RUFA, which was both exciting and a little scary at the same time. It went well though, and although I still needed someone to translate for me, the crowd could pretty much understand me between the English they had and my hand gestures, lol.
Thanks to my training with EWB, I had the additional thought to take advantage of the fact many of them were from different districts and we organized them into small groups to share problems and best practices while we distributed refreshments.

Hugely successful, and they expressed an interest in setting up a future meetings every couple months to continue this practice, so we began to discuss the best way of doing that. At this point though, it was almost 4 o’clock in the afternoon, so we agreed as many people as possible should go ahead in the truck to at least prepare some dinner and prepare camp before dark, and then, if the minibus was not fixed, the truck could return for a second group.

Thankfully not more than hour later the mini bus was fixed and the rest of us could finally actually cross the boundary into Nyika Park. As we began the sloping and winding road up through the forested area the setting sun cast the most spectacular light across the landscape. But once it completed it’s decent into the horizon, we were not left in darkness, as luck would have it, it was a full moon, and a clear sky. So while the roads got more treacherous, the first glimpses I got of the sweeping grasslands were by moonlight, and the first wildlife we could see were the owls and rabbits scrambling to get out of the way as we barreled down the dirt roads.
Three hours later we finally made it to the camp – 60kms my ass. We found out later that they post that so tourists don’t get scared off, but it’s actually more like 160 kms.

After watching some films about Nyika parks and waterhole footage, we scarfed down some dinner and hit the sack. I’d been told it actually gets quite cold at night at Nyika because of the high altitude and weather patterns, but I haven’t been able to gauge what’s really considered cold here yet, as sometimes it’s not even cool by Canadian standards and people will complain of the cold. But this time, they meant it, I was so glad I’d brought my fleece sweater, but was kicking myself for wearing sandals instead of socks and shoes. Luckily, after crawling underneath a couple blankets, warmth returned and sleep took hold.

The next morning, we breakfasted, had a brief discussion with park extension officers about their programs, and ventured out into the park, at first in vehicles and then a small loop on foot to try to get closer to some of the animals. I won’t bother trying to put into words the beauty of the place, I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves, it literally moved me to tears. And yes, I hate to be so cliché, but from the moment I entered the park, I totally had ‘The circle of life’ from the lion king playing in the back of my mind.

After a quick lunch and a wrap up discussion about Nyika and its history, we began the long trek home, which was thankfully this time, quite uneventful. After 10 days traveling back and forth to Hewe, and two days in Nyika park I’m quite ready to stay in one spot for a few days. Tomorrow I’ll journey into Mzuzu to post these entries and run some errands, but Sunday is football day in my village and the boys I live with will be playing on home ground in their league, so I want to be here to root them on. Monday we leave for Bolero for 17 days or so to complete the next round on meetings with the VDCs in that district, so it might be a while before I get back to the internet, but I’ll probably have multiple entries prepared again so you can read them at your leisure in the meantime.

I hold you all closely in my heart and in my thoughts on a daily basis, and hope all is well with you, take care, chat soon. ~m

AHHH -- pictures are taking too long to upload, sorry you'll have to wait till next time!

Life is a highway....sort of

RUFA has joined in coalition with 4 other organizations to form a new initiative in Northern Malawi – FAIR – Farmers Agricultural Innovation in Rural Malawi. The Program is funded by Find your Feet/Harvest Help, a UK based NGO and The Development Fund of Norway. The implementers of the project will be RUFA, MACRO – a Malawian NGO offering counseling and support services to HIV/Aids patients, and the Ministry of Agriculture. What’s unique about the program is the approach we’re using; before offering any kind of aid or support, we’ve been facilitating discussions with the community’s governing bodies to discover issues preventing true ownership of development activities and to empower the community to tackle these issues themselves. This process is being lead by a man named CAPS (he actually has 5 names, but this is the acronym they form, so people use it as a short form, lol). He’s one of the most talented facilitators I’ve ever seen in action, and I’m learning an incredible amount from him. It’s a complicated process and definitely something I’d like to share more about when I get back, but for now lets just say it makes for interesting work.

For the last 10 days, a group of 8 of us, representing the 4 main organizations involved have been traveling to a remote district near the Zambian border. There was no suitable accommodation for us there, so we’ve been commuting the two hour drive there and back every day to the nearest town with a motel. It so happens that this isn’t actually that far from where I’m living, so Geoffrey and I have been commuting an extra half an hour home to conserve costs. This can mean up to 6 hours a day of traveling packed into a single pick up truck/on the back of a motorbike. And no ladies and gentlemen, we’re not talking about paved roads here; we’re talking about winding, climbing, narrow, rocky, potholed dirt roads that make for one hell of a journey. The landscape is stunning though and totally makes it worthwhile; the tops of the mountains are swallowed by drifting clouds, making the sky feel closer than ever, the rock formations are something out of the lion king, and the trees couldn’t be more African.

Its been a bit of a tease because these communities are all bordering the Nyika national park, and every day we drive up to the turnoff for the park… and go the other way. I can’t complain though, RUFA’s organized a trip to Nyika this Thursday when we’re done this batch of community discussions for some of their lead farmers to reinforce the value of natural resource programs, and guess who gets to come? My first opportunity to see some African animals! Zebras, and antelope, and hyenas oh my… all on one of the most beautiful plateaus on the top of one of the mountains covered with ancient forests. Excited much? Pictures and stories to follow….