Friday, August 8, 2008

UPDATE: June 13 - August 8

I have been at my site for just over 3 months now, and looking back I’m am certainly glad to have what many volunteers say are the hardest three months of my service behind me.

I spent the last two months starting to focus in on potential project ideas. The goal is to get 3 or 4 times as many projects started as you can actually handle, because in all likelihood 75% of them will fail. I don’t say this to be negative, but to help myself keep my sanity. Every volunteer starts off with grand plans not to save the world, but at least try to “save the village.” I didn’t understand this three months ago, but if volunteers don’t lower their initial expectations about what can be reasonable accomplished with the framework of Malawian culture (not my own!), they are setting themselves up to be extraordinarily disappointed.

Being plopped down in the middle of a new culture leads me to think about it a great deal. One of the best quotes I continually refer back to—and has offered a great deal of support and new understanding—is one by one of my favorite political theorists, Reinhold Niebuhr. Serendipitously, I recently discovered that the Serenity Prayer (originally written: God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other—a very useful prayer to remember during PC service.) was written by Niebuhr and first carried on cards in the pockets of soldiers during World War II. He wrote, “Civilization depends upon the rigorous pursuit of the highest values by people who are intelligent enough to know that their values are qualified by interests and corrupted by their prejudices.” Those 30 insightful words have saved me a world of frustration and buckets of tears when I choose to remember them.

When I get frustrated it is usually (ok, always) because I haven’t taken the time to ask why someone is acting/reacting in the way they are. Why didn’t the builder show up today? Why can’t we meet on Tuesday? Why can’t you plant these random seeds I gave you? Answers: Out of respect for the dead, you don’t work on days where someone is put to rest, you have to work in the fields or else you and your family won’t have anything to eat, and I have the luxury (and it is a luxury of the developed world) to take a risk—and fail. Hmm, when stated so plainly it makes my frustrations seem petty, childish, insensitive, and oblivious. Cultural context is everything. Ok, I’ll get off my soap box now, but I hope I have given you something to chew on for a few weeks. As you can see, PC service tends to raise more questions than it actually answers.

The other day I was able to talk to one of my friends who is a volunteer with another organization in Nicaragua. Complaining to him how I don’t think I’m not nearly busy enough/feel completely worthless/wasting Peace Corps time and money/don’t want to wait a whole year to get busy, he responded most reassuringly saying, “Don’t worry. I spend 10 hours a day picking my nose and 2 doing something productive.” Excellent! It’s nice to know that my experience as a volunteer is not special or unique in any way. I’ve never been so happy to hear I’m the same as everyone else! With that said, please DO NOT be impressed in anyway by the following list. Although seemingly long—it represents of fraction of my waking hours. I have time for yoga, reading, learning to play guitar, learning to knit, running, gardening, and making random things in the kitchen (see Sometimes all of this in the same day!

So to make up for all of this down time I have decided to do something constructive for days when I don’t have activities planned, things get cancelled, or during the rainy season when people just don’t have time to attend meetings. I’m going to paint a 6x6 foot world map and a 2x3 foot map of Malawi in each classroom in my village. This could potentially be as many as 12 classrooms. Perfect project to work on over the next 2 years (and it just might take me that long!). This project came about for two reasons. First, for my own personal satisfaction—at least I know one project will work and if it did fail it would be completely my fault and no one else. That is reassuring. Second, the education system in Malawi infuriates me. The other day I taught the kids in my neighborhood a song in Chichewa, English, and Swahili (the original text). Mind you, Swahili is spoken in northern Malawi. Tanzania shares a border, but these children had not a clue where Tanzania was. I showed them a map and they asked me what “all that blue” was—the ocean! Classrooms here are drastically different than the ones I remember from my childhood. There are no colorful bulletin boards, carpet squares for reading, books, computers, education toys. And far too frequently, there aren’t any teachers. The very least I can do is paint a map on the wall.

After knocking down the walls to half their size, I hired someone to build a new roof over the existing kitchen and extend it toward the fence an additional 6 feet and toward the right an additional 4 feet. On the right side I plan to build a mud oven, grill, and fuel-efficient mud stove. The hope is that groups can meet under the new shade cover, women’s groups can make jam, cooking clubs can meet to cook new kinds of vegetables growing in the demo garden, and I have a place to sit in the shade so my neighbors don’t think I am a hermit inside my house all the time.

The month of July was so sparsely occupied that I filled a good portion of the time double digging my entire front yard into demo garden beds. If digging ditches builds character, then I’m Mother Theresa. I just finished digging the last bed (which will promptly be planted with Black Eyed Susans to show some Maryland pride) on August 3rd. I would like to have a group of women that cooks out of the garden once or twice a week. Everyone would bring nsima flour and the ndiwo (side dish) would be a new vegetable from the garden. I can also use it to demonstrate things like live fencing, tied box ridges, raise beds, mulching, small scale drip irrigation, intercropping, plant-pest control, etc. All things that people know how to do already, but don’t for one reason or another. Maybe if they see that it works (I hope!) they will be more inclined to try it themselves. Ah, the luxury of risk and failure.
Double dug garden in my front yard.

I taught a group of my neighbors how to make jam as a potential IGA. They weren’t too impressed with the profit margin. I will probably have to scale back this project and just focus on one person.
The Orphan Care Group in my village has decided to plant 150 Moringa oleiferia trees this Tuesday! I’m also really proud of this because was my first meeting that I had all by myself without my counterpart there to help translate. Moringa is an awesome plant that provides all the amino acids, protein, vitamins A, B, C, and E, and a host of other essential nutrients that are so often missing in the monotonous Malawian diet. The Mwanza area does have a whole host of fruits that are available, but people can always use more protein. The leaves can be eaten fresh (my personal favorite is Moringa and honey sandwiches) or dried and added at the very end of cooking. If the project goes well, there is potential for the dried leaf flour to be sold as an IGA.

The Home Based Care Group is well in the process of fine tuning small clay pots to be sold inside the Heritage Center. I have recently suggested they have flat bottoms and a woven basket made for presentation. We are also looking at the possibility of making even smaller pots to place a poured beeswax candle in.

On a personal level, I will be working on an IGA Cookbook/Handbook for Peace Corps Malawi. Surveys should be going out this month to all volunteers to get an idea of what foods are available and what people would like recipes for. I hope to include things like jam, brittle, trail mix, food preservation, and even things like candle and paper recipes. I would also like to redo the current Peace Corps Malawi Cookbook to make it more “site friendly,” but it was just redone 2 years ago, so we shall see.

That’s it! I’m in the park working on a variety of things: demo garden, rain tanks, food drying, emailing. I came through the park to do some work before heading to Blantyre this weekend for a wedding of a friend in the park. We had a surprise bridal shower today in the middle of Majete. It was a wonderful afternoon of good friends, food, conversation, and scenery. It’s days like this I have to remind myself how truly blessed I am to be here. I love and miss you all!


Caitlin said...

Hi! I'm a fellow Marylander.. and I'm heading off to Malawi in September (well, fingers x'ed - medical clearance is killing me!) to teach Math & Science. Great job on the blog.. I'm way inspired, and learning from your reflections already (see, you DID have a positive effect! (: )


Nicole said...


Glad to see you are doing well. I miss you tons. Your blog is great and you paint a really positive picture of where you are and what you hope to accomplish. I love you!


Caroline said...

I miss you Alicia!!! keep up the good work, you're amazing and an inspiration to us all :)