Monday, August 4, 2008

Donuts! Donuts! 15 Kwacha!

I’ve always loved markets. The frantic bustle of a community coming to life through the art of haggling thrills me and I usually make a point of hitting the Saturday bonanza. Usually, I’m on the receiving end of increased prices – since I’m clearly not local – and the frantic cries of vendors distinguishing themselves, not by merchandise or value, but by the level of their voices. But not this weekend.

Madam Domasi, a neighbor to the cassava flour factory, has a small business selling lunch and snacks at the market. Always looking to supplement my meager volunteer stipend, (and the opportunity to penetrate the vendor community in search of lower prices) I managed to get a job with the Madam as a donut vendor.

Malawian donuts are slightly different from those in Canada, but the idea is pretty much the same. Dough, rolled into a donut shape is fried in oil with delicious but regrettably unhealthy results. The difference here was that we made them over a fire. Although donut making clearly wasn’t one of my natural talents, with the help of patient Madame Domasi, we soon had a basket full of donuts and were off to the market.

Initially, I set up shop on a corner lot between some clothing vendors (trousers! Yao! Yao! Yao! 300! 300! trousers!) but soon found that customers here were more interested in browsing. I needed more volume, impulse purchases, and people with the munchies. I headed for the bar.

Now, perhaps you’re thinking: “Surely Duncan, dim lighting, oak countertops, and ale on tap are not to be found in rural Malawi.” Well, you’re right. The bar was a small straw hut enclosed by a fence of high elephant grass on each side. Inside, an older woman tends to three large cauldrons of fermented maize.

If Guiness is the beer that eats like a meal, then “masese” is the beer that eats like a Thanksgiving feast. More of a porridge than a beverage, large quantities of this filling brew are sold for roughly 35 cents. I had found my donut selling hotspot.

A mzungu (westerner) selling donuts in the market was a spectacle; here it was out of control. I got as many requests for donuts as I did for chatting, tasting the local brew, and singing in the local language. I did all three (in moderation of course) and sold a lot of donuts in the process.

More than anything, it was good fun. It took me about three hours to empty my basket but queries about when I would be hawking donuts again continued throughout the week. Under pressure from the community, I ended up returning to work the following Saturday and might be back for a third if I can make it. I still need to go back for my discount trousers and my donut enterprise, “Duncan Donuts,” looks like it’s primed to be a million Kwacha idea.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

The Bat

The latrine near the factory is a small, mud brick structure with a neat, rectangular hole cut into the floor. The chamber beneath is fairly large and apparently cave-like enough to have attracted an inhabitant.

The other night, a bat flew out of the hole in the floor when I came in to squat. I remember childhood stories playground friends used to tell about a snake that had once found its way into a toilet. That story hadn't ended well. Terror seized me to think about the damage that a furry, winged mammal could do. They have teeth and little claws right?!

I vowed to never return at night…

…Until the next night when digestive troubles once again had me bolting for the latrine. Out of bet! Headlamp! Toilet paper (I’m so glad I brought extra)! Off I go!

Trousers were around ankles before I remembered my furry friend below. With great effort, I paused for a few precious moments to investigate. Sure enough, as the light of my headlamp shone through the floor opening, I saw him flit about beneath. Running out of time, I frantically grabbed a piece of straw from the thatched roof and waved it through the opening. But he wouldn’t leave.

I was out of time. I dropped into my back-catcher’s stance and could do nothing but hope. There aren’t many things I really, truly, miss from home. Most of our creature comforts are surprisingly easy to do without. But this instance, as I squatted, racked with anxiety, had me truly craving a ceramic, flushing, bat-free, American Standard™.

I thought I was home-free until I sensed it. A chirp, a slight gust of wind and he was out! With unmatched agility, the creature navigated the narrow space between floor and bare hide to escape from his cave. Instantly standing at full attention, I was done; it scared the crap out of me.

I haven’t been back yet at night, nor do I plan to if I can help it. Ever.

Village Life

The village of Chikandwe is a typical Malawian village of 16 families and has been my home for the past several weeks. About 5 km from the IITA office and the main road, I feel like I have a pretty good balance between office work and rural living. I sleep on a reed mat in a mud brick house without electricity or running water and then jog to work in the mornings to internet access and colleagues who specialize in food security.
This past weekend, Malawi celebrated its 44th year as a country and I celebrated with a three day weekend at home with my host family, the Bandas.

My host father, Bauleni, his wife Fonase, and their five children are wonderful people and, though they only speak Chichewa, have really made me feel at home in the village. This has strongly motivated me to learn the language and, through the help of frantic gesturing and lots of laughter, I feel my Chichewa skills are really coming along. (Although, the other day, I accidentally said: If I find the chief on the path we will stop and love one another” instead of “greet one another.” Fortunately, only my family was present.)

I participated many different aspects of village life over the weekend. One of the highlights was the “Gule Wamkulu” that I wrote about in a separate blog. With time off of work, I did my best to help out with chores of the household and errand running. The following are a few stories of different chores:

Farming – The village is situated next to a marsh and, immediately next to this, Bauleni tends fields of maize, rice, leafy greens, and small potatoes. With the rice now harvested, we set out in the morning, hoes in hand, to till the soil in preparation for planting potatoes. It felt good to be working outside in the cool morning next to the marsh. Although my 13 year-old brother Pemphero clearly out-classed me in both pace and skill, I still feel I contributed and incredulous passers-by all assured me that I was doing great.

Farming is hard work. As I look at my hands now, I count 11 blisters, blisters that I continued to try and hide from my family as I assured them of my ability to help. For the remainder of the weekend I was not allowed to wield the hoe but was given the task of planting potatoes instead. Working in the fields was hard but relaxing in the shade afterwards while eating sugar cane completed the experience and made it deeply satisfying.

Cooking – The staple dish in Malawi, as in much of Southern Africa, is nsima. Nsima is cooked from maize flour, boiled in water to produce a thick, doughy porridge that is then eaten with a relish of vegetables, beans, fish, or meat to name a few. I had repeated asked my mother Fonase to teach me how to cook it and she agreed to teach me one afternoon.

Cooking nsima is not so much complicated as it is difficult. Physically I mean. Once enough flour is added and the food begins to thicken, stirring becomes quite the workout and Fonase had to step in a few times to help out when my arms started to fail me. Embarassing though it may seem, I would challenge any tough guy to take on the weakest looking woman in the village. She would mop the floor with him.

Lunch was a smashing success but, since I am fairly physically incapable of cooking nsima, I’ve decided to stick to helping prepare relishes.

Charging the Battery – In the main house there is a wireless radio powered by a car battery and over the weekend we traveled to a nearby town to charge it. A bicycle is the chief mode of transport for just about everything here. From stacks of firewood higher than a person, to 50kg sacs of maize, to live pigs and goats, a steel reinforced bicycle carrier handles it all and the car battery was no exception. Handling a one-speed bike with a car battery attached through the dusty trails to the town about 8 km away was no easy task but, following Bauleni’s lead, we arrived safely at the town of Four Ways. The next day, with the battery charged, Malawian gospel music once again sounded from our house and the children gathered around to listen and dance.

My life in the village is vastly different from my one in Canada in so many ways yet is beginning to feel very much like a home. In the evenings, if I run home quickly enough I can jump in on the evening soccer match the kids play in the village centre. I’m pretty much the worst player on the field but we have a great time nevertheless. There should be more pick-up soccer matches in my life back in the “developed world.”

I Am a Terrible Roomate....

For those who participated in the latest quiz, my roommate is in fact a “nkhuku” or chicken. The Chichewa word for eggs is maizera and, through playing with the word and my odd sense of creativity, I named her Macy.

I write about this now with a heavy heart. It was entirely unintentional but it came to pass that I ate my roommate.

When I returned to Chikandwe, my home village near the office, I was concerned to not find Macy in my room anymore. Both her and her nest had been removed; I assumed the worst.

I asked my family if they had, in fact, eaten her but they assured me she was alive and well. Then, the next day, I spotted Macy trying to enter my room when I left the door open to brush my teeth. I breathed a sigh of relief.

Yesterday, we had chicken for lunch. Sure, the connection seems obvious now, but I didn’t think to ask of the bird’s origin until halfway through a drumstick.

-“So, did you buy this chicken or raise it yourself?” I asked.

-“We raised it,” my host father, Bauleni, replied. “This is the chicken that used to stay with you.”

The thigh bone I was suckling on almost fell out of my mouth.

-“Mnzanga!” (my companion!) I exclaimed.

-"Haha, yes," Bauleni replied. "You are eating your friend!"

Lunch, though delicious, was difficult for me to finish. I have no illusions about why chickens are raised here but I still feel terrible. I thought that because she consistently laid eggs she would be safe. Apparently not.

She was a great roommate in so many ways. She didn’t make much of a mess, didn’t throw wild parties that kept me up all hours of the night, never complained, and even provided a delicious meal when she moved out. I only wish I could have reciprocated a little more positively.

Macy, I’ll miss you.

Gule Wamkulu

I didn’t know what the first word meant, but the second assured me that, whatever it was, it was big. The wife of a chief in a neighbouring village had died and people from the surrounding area were gathering to pay respects.

This was the third funeral I attended, so I figured that I at least had some idea of what to expect. Wrong. I have never seen, and likely never will again, anything like this.

Roughly 1,000 people had assembled in this small village. As my host father, Bauleni, and I arrived, the sound of drums eminated from the centre of the crowd and the cries of wailing women carried over from the home of the deceased. We were led to the cemetery, where a large crowd had already gathered, and sat amongst them on mounds of dirt still remaining from the harvest. Bauleni explained the scene to me but, with my still limited comprehension of the Chichewa language, I only partially understood. The word “njobvu” kept coming up, which I was pretty sure meant elephant, but since there are no elephants in this part of Malawi, I kept second guessing myself.

Then the elephant arrived. Not a real one, but a giant, black float carried by four figures hidden inside the legs. Preceeding the elephant were two men, presumably herders, wielding hatchets and long thin sticks with bits of red cloth tied to the ends. Each wore fluorescent yellow and pink shorts and a black executioner hoods tied around their heads with strips of pink fabric as they dashed around the elephant waving their weapons wildly.

The body of the elephant was enormous. Stuffed with what looked like either grass or cloth, the animal was about twice the height of a man. With a trunk, painted features, and sewn-on ears, it was truly a sight to behold.

Eventually, the “njobvu” arrived at the cemetery where its herders rushed to bar the way. With frantic gesturing of the long sticks, the herders brought the elephant to a halt and instructed it to sit. The burial commenced and, upon completion, the elephant rose and left not to be seen again.

Apparently, the elephant is a sign of great respect at a funeral and only appears when a prominent member of the community passes. The chief makes an offering of money to the elephant who, in turn, escorts the procession and oversees the burial.

With the burial over, it was time for the Gule Wamkulu. In a large clearing in the centre of the village stood a great tree and, next to it, a tall, slender pole resembling a flagpole was firmly planted in the ground. The crowd gathered in a great ring around this clearing with the chiefs and their guests sitting under a thatched awning at one end.

Bauleni and I sat on the ground on one side at first but were soon escorted to a series of benches on the opposite side. As the sole mzungu (white person) in attendance, it was hard to avoid drawing attention.
Then the dancers arrived. Each one of them wore masks, elaborate headdresses and costumes made of cloth and fur. The drummers set up at one end of the circle, wdarming their drum skins over small fires, as the dancers made final preparations. One by one, dancers entered the ring for their performances. Drums thundered through the clearing as each performance set a new standard for what the human body can perform with legs and rhythm. At the end of each performance, people who enjoyed the dance would rise and offer money to the dancers. Nervous does not even come close to describing how I felt with so many eyes watching as I approaches these masked dervishes. But the crowd loved it. Waves, thumbs-up, and laughter welcomed me back to my seat every time I got up to “kusupa.”

The dancers were nothing short of incredible. One, wearing a giant, red, wooden makst, had squirrel pelts sewn together for a cape, and a leopard skin draped around his torso. With each intensive thrust, fur would wrap itself around his body, exaggerating each movement to outrageous proportions.

Periodically, a different kind of dancer would enter the ring at the same time another was dancing. Wearing only a loin cloth and black executioners hood tied at the forehead and neck, these men were coated from head to toe in black mud. Wielding long sticks resembling lances, they would leap into the circle and begin to run and dance wildly, their jet black figures resembling the black riders from the Lord of the Rings. When their dances finished, they would seek out a spot in the crowd and lunge forward with their stick as the crowd dived sideways to avoid these terrifying figures.

All the while, a lone figure with a devilishly grinning satanic mask sat beneath the large pole in the centre of the clearing. When the other dancers had finished he rose to take command of the show.

He started with a strut that was ordinary enough but soon made his way back to the pole and, with a leap, began to ascend it with bare hands and feet. With the agility of a monkey, he worked his way up to the top, pausing briefly only to gesture wildly to the cheering crowd.

He reached the top, paused, then leaned over the top of the pole so that only his stomach touched it. Perched on top like a skewered beetle in a science museum, he began flailing his arms and legs in a motion resembling a freestyle swimming stroke, drawing cries of fear end excitement from the crowd.

Finishing his stroke, he proceeded to flip upside down and, gripping the pole with only his feet, began to descend. The crowd went nuts – myself included. People from all sides rushed forward to throw money as the inverted devil slinked towards the ground.

The entire scene, from start to finish, was a spectacle I will never forget. It was a tremendously rich cultural experience and I learned the meaning of a “Gule Wamkulu” – the great dance of the Chewa tribe.

Dzaleka Refugee Camp

I’ve been putting off writing about this and it’s because I still feel like I’m reeling from it emotionally. Recalling the experience is still unsettling and, though the emotional effects will fade with time, I don’t think the memories ever will.

Two friends of mine are working for the UN in Malawi this summer and were able to arrange a visit for myself and a few other EWB volunteers to a refugee camp.I suppose I didn’t know what to expect. Most of my expectations were formed from the movie “Blood Diamond” and, when it comes to realities of Africa, I’ve found that Hollywood and the media can be of limited accuracy.

The Dzaleka refugee camp, operated by the UN High Commission for Refugees, is different. It is the only camp in Malawi but the permanence of it is staggering. I was surprised at first by the absence of fences that I assumed would be surrounding the camp. Perched on a now deforested hilltop far from any other settlements, fence or no fence, most people here won’t be leaving anytime soon.

It was originally established in response conflict in Mozambique in the 1980s and has now existed for close to 20 years. With Mozambique now at peace and the refugees repatriated, the camp continues to harbor people fleeing various conflicts in Southern and Eastern Africa, mostly from the D.R. Congo, Rwanda, Burundi, Ethiopia, and Somalia.

Perhaps the term camp is misleading. For me, the word summons images of tents and other temporary shelters yet many of the structures are very permanent. Of the approximately 10,000 people living here many have already spent many years at Dzaleka and have few prospects for the future.

Refugees have three options: they can stay in the camp; they can return to their home country; or they can try to resettle in a third country. Cases successful with the last option are exceedingly rare and, since many either cannot or are unwilling to return home, most sit and wait.

And who can blame them? Here, food stipends from the UN ensure that people can get by and a primary school funded by UNICEF offers primary school for children. There is also a small high school and students who excel here can apply for WOSK scholarships to different countries but their numbers are very few.

I think it was the stories of people that really got to me. Of the thousands at Dzaleka, I only heard the stories of a few yet each one had its own unique horrors. I met a woman from Rwanda whose entire family had been killed. A man from the DRC had a similar story. Formerly the son of a Chief, his family had been shot and his village destroyed. Somehow, he escaped into the jungle but was eventually recaptured. He spent 10 months in prison, became ill, and eventually escaped from the prison hospital and fled to Malawi. He has now been at the camp for 6 years and has mixed feelings about returning home. Though the DRC is his origin, with his family dead, there is not much of a home for him to return to. So he waits.

I feel a little differently about the experience now. A friend of mine who is working for the UN brought up a good point. If I were to burst into tears after hearing someone’s story, what are they supposed to do? Comfort me?

I’m glad that I experienced it, difficult thought it was. I think my biggest realization was that refugees exist every day of the year, long after a crisis “ends.” I was raised in a very different reality where I did not experience such hardship and, even if I cannot truly understand the plight of the people I met, I can know that it exists. There are people who have a more difficult life than I, those who suffer, and even if I choose to look away, that doesn’t mean that their realities do not exist.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008


Posting pictures is generally problematic, but I've been able to downsize some of them to make posting easier. Here are a few of my favourites from the past little while.

Also, I will be putting up a new quiz very soon. I had toyed with the idea of polling people's estimates on how long it would take me to get malaria but I ended up getting it before I could post. Don't worry, I'm fine. I wouldn't do it again though.