Archive | August 2009

Back in the Developed World

I am now officially back in the developed world. The Chileka Blantyre International Airport is north of Blantyre and you have to drive through several miles of people selling charcoal and corn along the side of the road in addition to dodging the occasional goat. The airport itself would be a violation of TSA rules, having nearly NO security, a non-working metal detector and no fencing between the parking lot and the tarmac. You are required to come outside and “identify” your bag, which could have just about anything inside. Malawi, fortunately, is no hotbed for terrorism and the thought of a Malawian blowing up anything is more bizarre than 10 circumcision festivals. The airport conveniently sports a “bar” (a guy in a suit who sells beer) and a “duty free shop” (a converted closet with some bottles of Malawi Gin and souvenier tshirts). It is truly the most sincere airport I’ve ever been to.

They do, however, have 30 minutes free wireless internet and an open power outlet, which is a bonus in Malawi. After flying over the beauty that is Africa, the huts and hand carved farming tracts, plumes of smoke billowing off the surface from fields burning to prepare for the next planting (and harvesting field mouse snacks!), I spend a weird and stressful 2 hours in Zimbabwe and am planted once again in the developed world, my cell phone suddenly spring to life. Holy shit. After 16 more hours, I’m here in the states thinking about how wonderful life is here and all the things that I could miss about Malawi (even though I was only there for 2+ weeks). Here, shit works, the water is drinkable, raw food is edible and…. shit works.

There, however, life is poor and full of problems, but people are real and human and take the time to ask you simple questions like “how are you?”, “how is your family” draped in a blanket of sincere smiles and a total disregard for clocks. I will highly recommend Malawi to anyone and everyone, it truly is a wonderful country.

Now, I am sitting in the comfort of the Delta Sky Club and await another 19 hour journey to Osaka. For your reading pleasure, I include an entry the internet would not let me post the other day:
This is my last day in Malawi. Although I’ve only been here a little more than two weeks, I can say that there are some things I will miss. A constant supply of bananas and tangerines, the ability to not spend more than $5.00 a day and still get by confortably. Kids that are happier than they should be and don’t reek of the materialism and superficial want of children in developed countries. I will miss being in a place where people do not complain and whine constantly, where people value friendships and family above anything else, where people don’t use clocks and don’t know what day it is, where people small and laugh constantly.

Given that this is the third (or first, or fourth, depending on the study and the index) poorest country in the world, where people aren’t expected to live beyond 41 years of age, where 10% of babies die in the first year of life, I find it truly inspiring that people can still find the time to ask “how are you” and sincerely mean it.

Certainly, there are things that I will truly NOT miss. Being stared at constantly. Being hit up for money at every turn. Having prices shoot up merely because I’m “white” and having to argue them back down. Being glared at with hatred by young unemployed men wanting to fight (this does not happen often but enough). Living in a barbed wire enclosed walled compound that feels like a prison after the sun goes down. Living an artificial, well fed life in a country where most live on less than a dollar a day. Being the victim of the constant scam, all designed to extract a little more money or a little more opportunities out of my mzungu blood.

I will not miss mini-buses, those rehashed Japanese suicide boxes that suffice for “pubic transportation” in Malawi. I miss clocks and doing things on time but it’s also sort of refreshing to take things as they come and accept that things happen when they do.

Thumbs up to Africa.

Soldier Lucius

Last day in Malawi, went to check out the Lucius Banda concert. Soldier Lucius is the biggest music star in all of Malawi. He only puts out CDR’s and has a few DVDs, but in Malawi that’s a huge deal. He’s amazingly well loved. There were over 2000 people at the show, with another 1000 or so standing outside because they couldn’t afford the $3.00 entry fee. Lucius was awesome, by the way.

He used to be an elected member of parliament, but got caught using forged education credentials and was sentenced to 7 years hard labor in Chichiri Prison, which is kind of like Auschwitz but without the gas chambers. I’ve seen it from the outside. There’s a room where they pack nearly 2000 men. They are so over capacity that the men have to sleep sitting up. A person dies every single day in there and rapes and violence are commonplace. It’s not the place you want to go, EVER. TB is rampant there due to the cramped quarters and poor circulation. It’s said that the Chichiri Prison increases the overall TB rate in Malawi by up to 10%.

Fortunately, Lucius got out early and only had to spend 3 months in there. Lucius was well known during the dictator Banda’s reign for singing highly political songs criticizing Banda’s policies and thus is known to the people of Malawi as a protector of the poor and marginalized, basically everyone. Hence, the name “Soldier” Lucius.

I had an interesting conversation with a man (named Precious) who sells Irish potatoes and tomatoes in Chikwawa, south of here. He spoke flawless English and graduated from high school but can’t get a job doing anything but selling produce. He makes about $40 a month and spent $10 of it getting to the Lucius Banda concert and could buy one beer. He told me that “In America, everybody rich, yes?”. I said, no, there are many poor people and unfortunately a large number of them look like you. He said “No, everybody rich. They all have their own car, electricity, water in the house, and a solid place to live that don’t leak when it rains.” Honestly, I couldn’t argue with him. With the exception of the homeless, the poorest of the poor in America are better off than many “wealthy” people in Malawi. This guy lives in Chikwawa with his parents, with no power, no water in the house and a leaky roof and no hope for the future, though he’s educated and bright. He hopes to make it to South Africa so that he can find a job. I think that he would be happy to come to America and would be ecstatic to even do something mundane like bag groceries for $7.00 an hour. Shit like that really puts things into perspective.

Lucius put on a fantastic show, but the sun started going down so I had to rush home to get there before the zombies come out. At about 5, you see people hustling to get home. Noone wants to be out after the sun goes down, especially women. White people are prime targets for muggings since unemployed young men know we have money, phones, etc. I’ve never walked around past dark, but I’m sure there are zombies.

On the way home, I had my first ever Chichewa conversation with an old lady. She asked me how I was doing, where I was from and where I was going. I answered in a clumsy fashion, but somehow she seemed to understand. She was very kind and thanked me for speaking with her. Then I had to start bolting as the sun was going down. I then proceeded to run into 5 people I know, who greeted me like I was their best friend. These are truly the kindest, friendliest people I have ever met.

Today in Malawi

Things I saw yesterday: 5 guys trying to load a delivery truck onto the back of a flatbead by hand without lowering the bed. 5 guys changing a transmission in a Toyota van in a grocery store parking lot without jacks. 5 guys in the middle of a round-…about trying to replace the rear axle on 6 wheel delivery truck in rush hour traffic.

Malawi update

Money in Malawi is bizarre. A street vendor sells what would cost $3.00 in the US for $.60. In a completely natural, kneejerk fashion, I declare that too much for 5 pounds of bananas and talk him down to $.20.

The old guy who makes $30.00 a month to sit on our porch holding a machete from 5pm to 5am, Sunday to Sunday just came up to me and asked me to give him $2.00 so that he could buy some food for his wife who has recently been hospitalized at the large (largest in Malawi) facility near the house I’m in. I was going to tip him anyway as he’s a really kind man and gave him the equivalent of $10.00, which is, of course, a full third of his monthly wage. He was holding a large bottle of water and I asked him what he was going to do with it. He proceeded to tell me that he was going to take it to his wife. Apparently, hospitals don’t give water to their patients. You have to bottle and bring your own.

These people do amazing things with very little. The health system is entirely rudimentary and care is, by our standards, medieval, but given that beds are filled to 200% capacity and the small staff is criminally underpaid and overworked, they do a fantastic job with very little. Some facilities don’t have running water. Some don’t have power. They teeter under the load of a sick population, providing treatment to who they can, however they can and don’t utter (to my ears) a word of complaint. I went to one facility and there was a nurse there who was in her 80’s. She had tried to retire but was immediately called back since there was noone to fill her position. The lines fill at close to 5 am, and the facility sees about 300 patients on a slow day with a staff I counted to be 6: One doctor, three nurses and two pharmacists. During peak malaria season, they can easily double or triple that.

The monthly wage of a nurse in Malawi is pretty good: $270 per month. A doctor gets about $400. No one appears to get a day off. Some doctors have research responsibilities that I’m sure provide a respite from seeing a million patients all day. I would wonder what these people could do with American resources. I have met some of the brightest and hardest working people that I’ve ever seen in my lifetime here in Malawi, all working under conditions that would make the average American drop.

And here I go, haggling some kid with bananas down to less than a quarter.

Ndirande Movie Theater

Triple bill in Ndirande “Joy Vision” DVD theater: 1. Blood Diamond 2. Punisher 3. I Spit on Your Grave All three movies only MK50. Unfortunately, I was moving too fast to get a picture.

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