Hi there, it's Erin, Alicia's sister. We got three letters from her this weekend. Sounds like she is doing really well. The letters are packed with information and written by hand, so if I tried to post a PDF of the letters you probably couldn't read them online. So, here's some excerpts with information you are probably wondering. For those of you who have left comments on the blog, I have been printing them off and mailing them to her.
Disclaimer: I think I have fixed all my initial spelling mistakes, except for the Chichewa words which I have attempt to decipher from Alicia's small handwriting. One day Alicia will have to log on from Malawi and fix those.
Enjoy the read!
Letter dated 2/25/08: Day of arrival in Malawi
I haven't quite made the time switch yet, so while I am awake I thought I should write my first letter! I will admit during staging, my anxiety was quite high. There were so many unknowns, but at least I am in country surrounded by people who can answer my questions - and so far with all favorable responses!
The flight from Dullas to Joburg was 15 long hours... The flight from Joburg to Lilongwe was 2 1/2 hours - flying in was very beautiful. The country is very green right now as it is the end of the rainy season... Dinner: I had white rice, nsima (say: see-ma), mustard greens, a black/redish bean, and a very excellent banana. There was also chicken and soya (basically like soy crumbles but better that what you find in the store.) I didn't eat the chicken and the soya looked like meat so I didn't eat it - now I know all the volunteers say being a vegetarian is quite easy - meat isn't all that common. Soya is readily available, plus I still eat fish, which there is a lot of. People do eat with their hands. I tried it and it was a bit messy. I will have to practice this week so I am not so surprised at my host home.
Tomorrow we get all our shots (typhoid, rabies, yellow fever, and I will get Hep A and start the Hep B.) We also get our med kits tomorrow. We had six or seven hours of health training right off the bat so we don't get sick. Peace Corps already has us sleeping under mosquito nets - they are actually quite nice. My bed is comfy too.
There are 21 people in my group. They are all wonderful people. No one complains, everyone is very positive, they love to travel, are motivated, environmentally active, and hilarious. Even after 3 days together we are already forming close friendships and know that we have to look out for each other. They are going to be wonderful to work and travel with.
This next week we stay at the college in a dorm like building. We start language on Wednesday. The rest is cultural, technical, and lots of health training. On Saturday we go to our host homes. We will be broken into 3 groups and each live in the same village for the next 8 weeks.
Other random things:
- We get a subscription to Newsweek! I am very excited about this.
- It is actually a bit chilly. The college is at 5500 feet. Not so cold, but a bit chilly. Around 60 degrees last night. The hat and fleece will definitely come in handy.
- Peace Corps gave us some presents when we got here. 1 blue chitenje (wrap skirt), box of cookies, bars of soap, 2 candles, 3 or 4 notebooks, postcards, and a canvas bag with the Peace Corps logo! I have to say I feel a bit spoiled!
- My lantern is already useful, I am using it right now.
- The guitar made it here safely, and there are 3 others that know how to play
- It takes a very long time to hand-write letters
- It rained when we got here - In Malawi that is a good omen, to be welcomed by the rains.
- Our host family has been trained how to cook safely for us so we can avoid getting sick and they use filtered water.
Letter Dated 2/29/08
Ndikuphinzira Chichewa! That means: I am learning Chichewa. We started our language classes 3 days ago which are survival Chichewa. But today we were broken up into out language groups for the next 8 weeks. 5 of us are learning Chithumbuka, the language spoken in the north, and the rest of us learn Chichewa, spoken in the south and central regions. My group has 4: me, Mike, Jennifer, and Kory. Our teacher is Agatha and she is great! Tomorrow we go to our homestay. There will be two groups in each village and we will see our teachers in the morning (7:30 am) and then in the afternoon we have technical sessions (beekeeping, soapmaking, tree/plant i.d's, grant writing).
The past few days have been great- everyday I am here I feel better and better. P.C. Malawi has been recognized as one of the best P.C. programs - not only in Africa, but internationally as well. The training is great - I think I am learning as much as they can teach me about living in Malawi, culture, language, technical, and medical. Oh - medical is crazy! We have had so many shots this week - it hurts to write this letter! Meningitis, rabies, Hep A, Hep B, typhoid, yellow fever. The rabies definitely hurts the most. We still have a few more in the series, but we get those on Thursdays when we all come back to the college from the villages.
Today we did a bunch of stuff related to homestay: how to wash clothes in a bucket, start a fire, how to take a bath out of a bucket, uses from the chitenje (piece of cloth), and how to use the chim (in english - the latrine). Malawians do not like to talk about anything related to the bathroom. In fact, you actually never see people go in the chim - they sneak in so no one sees. It is all very hilarious (although tomorrow when I have to use it it may not be!)
My favorite food is actually mendazi, which is a fried dough that we have with tea. Oh, tea twice a day at 10 and 2.
Well, I need to study now. I really don't want to get behind and learning the language is the #1 priority for the next 8 weeks. I will be very tired and busy, so I'll write as often as I can!
Tiwonana (see you later!)
Letter dated 3/5/08
I am at my homestay now and we have been here for 5 days. My host family consists of my amayi (mom), abambo (dad), 3 host sisters: Janet, Violet and Meslinia. Janet and Violet both have two children each. Benja, Violet's son, is very funny. He dances all the time. I also can't learn any Chichewa from him because he just laughs all the time too. The name of my village is Chipazi (15km north of Dedza) and it's name means Bigfoot.
My day roughly goes at follows: wake up at 5:30 am from the chickens, get out of bed at 6:00 am. My amayi has hot water to wash my face. I get dressed and eat breakfast, sweep my room/straighten up and then go to school. It is only a 5 minutes walk to Agatha's house where we have language for 2 hours, then we go to technical training. Then back home for lunch. Afternoon is usually the same as the morning, but our trainers do try to keep things interesting.
Today, we had some great surprises! We all got to see each other as all three groups met in the same village for technical training. It was wonderful to see everyone, and it was also Devin's birthday. He got a birthday cigarette, a chocolate bar, a piece of string, and a mint (use what ya got!).
The village is actually a lot of fun. The first few days are tough. It takes 10 minutes to figure out how exactly you are going to brush your teeth or take a bath - the lack of routine can be very tiring. But now I'm an "old pro" and things are much easier. Actually, bathing is one of my favorite parts of the homestay! My amayi has a hot bucket bath waiting for me when I get home from school at 5:00 pm. After two days I finally had learned enough Chichewa to say that I only needed 1 bath per day (not 2) in the evening. It was my first language exchange beyond greetings that actually worked! Last night I had an actual conversation in Chichewa with my host family - I was quite proud of myself. Another thing about Chichewa (and Malawi) is that just a few words will get you very far. Malawians are very big on greetings. There are 4 different greeting for different times of day and they each follow a specific pattern. You have to greet everyone - even if you don't actually know them. This means I actually have to leave 20 minutes prior to class in order to be there on time. Thankfully we have found some "backroads" in the village that have far less people (if any) to greet. Second, "zikomo" or thank-you in english goes a long-way. They use if for everything and anything all day long!
The people in my village are actually quite happy looking despite their situation. Not too many people walk around with a frowny face. The children are required to go to school until 8th grade, and then it becomes difficult to continue for a variety of reasons. Most people live in compounds with a main house (about the size of my room at home), an outdoor kitchen (but it is actually covered so it gets a bit smokey), a chim (outdoor toilet), a storage house, and maybe another storage house or bedroom. The children run around in essentially rags. Women and mens cloths fair a bit better - most have 3-4 outfits and 1 pair of shoes. No one has glasses, or braces. There are no toys - except soccer balls made of plastic bags, stick and hoop games, old bottlecaps. I brought crayons with me to draw pictures to help me learn Chichewa and they were completely amazed. There are also a ton of children. The average family has 4-7 children, but some have as many as 9. There is one well for the whole village and my amayi and host sisters have at least a 1/2 mile walk to get water for cooking, washing, bathing, and drinking. There are no lights anywhere. In fact, the thing I miss the most is light. It makes it hard to study after 6 pm when I am already tired from a long day of class. On the plus side, the stars are incredible - well worth the trip to Malawi just to see the stars. You can see the whole Milky Way and stars way near the horizon. I think my host family thinks I might be crazy because I just stare up at them while I brush my teeth. Amazingly, the children find ways to entertain themselves, people make do with what they have, and manage to keep a strong faith all the while.
Letter dated 3/6/08
So, I thought I should share two funny stories thus far. On my second night in the village I stupidly thought I had enough Chichewa to say something. So, I accidentally told my family "Ndikakonda kudya nyumba" Or " I like to eat houses". What I was trying to say was I like to eat beans (nyemba).
Second, watching mizungu (white people) in Malawi is a spectator sport. You get very good at dealing with the fact that you are living in a fish bowl feeling. Children like to shout "Azungu" at you all the time. So, yesterday I turned around to a group of children and started jumping up and down and shouting "Azungu" back at them. They all stopped immediately, stared at me, and then ran away screaming. It worked like a charm! The other method is to stop and tell them your name.
Also, on the name thing - no on can say my name. We tried A-lee-sha. A-lee-c-a. They can only say Alice - and I'm not really a big fan. I may have to shorten it to Ali or something.
Language is tough. I don't feel like I am learning enough - that at the end of 5 weeks I will essentially have enough to be fluent. I have decided that the thing I miss the most is light. It is hard to study by just flashlight and a lantern. At the end of the day I am tired - I just want to go to bed even though I know I have homework, flashcards, and workbook exercises to do. The sun goes down around 6.
You are probably wondering what I am eating! Breakfast is usually "chippies" - which are fried potatoes, and an egg. Lunch and dinner is either rice/potatoes/nsima, greens (liked cooked spinach, but with tomatoes) are always there, beans, soya, eggs also make a frequent appearance. I eat with my hands, unless we have rice or mashed potatoes, then I use a spoon. The bananas are awesome and I eat several of those a day (they are much smaller). My favorite food is actually served as a snack with tea. Medazi, yum! It is fried dough you eat with or without sugar. Malawians love fried food, salt, and tons of sugar.
Weather: It rains at night in Dedza, but the rain is starting to taper off as we move into the dry season. It is cool during the evening and I sleep with two wool blankets at night. The sun is super intense and burns quickly. I learned that mistake early - now I put on sunblock before I even go out the door. I got a wicked sunburn on my face the first day - don't worry it looks much better now. Ok, got go study study study.
All my love, Alicia