Friday, September 4, 2009

UPDATE: April-August

ilSo I arrived back from Ireland just the day before Swearing-In Ceremony for the new group of Environment volunteers. All the women in my group had traditional wear made for the event—and if I do say so myself we look quite stylish by Malawian standards! As always it was nice to be at the Ambassador’s house because he always feeds us so well! It is really weird to be on the other side of the table watching the swearing in ceremony for someone else. It is hard to believe I have put a whole year behind me, and what a year it has been, and at the same time realizing I’ve got one more year to make this experience everything I hoped it would be, to complete projects, and to get ready to go back home.
Keeping with tradition, we threw a big party for everyone after the ceremony. Beer Olympics 2009 was a huge success, complete with Chibuku Challenge, dizzy-bat, and a new addition this year, wrestling! The best part was sitting around in the morning with my big cup of coffee watching the new kids strapping all their stuff to cars, pretending they don’t have hangovers, and aren’t scared out of their minds.
We stayed around Lilongwe for a few days waiting for our Mid-Service Training (MST) to start on Sunday. We traveled down to Dedza on Sunday afternoon and spent 3 days reflecting on our first year at site, and discussing what the next year will look like. We spent a lot of time discussing how to wrap up our projects in a responsible way and how to start preparing ourselves for the transition home. After MST I travelled back to site and stayed there for the next 8 weeks—a new record for me! Spending that much time at my site doesn’t really phase me anymore. I won’t give you the day by day, but I included pictures below of the activities that I did during that time. Since I haven’t written in a while (sorry, like to be at site, not in the city!), for this post I thought I would break it up into days of the week and I can give you the back story and details on things as they come up.

I have lots of Big Brothers here, this is Devin and I waiting for food at MST

All of us hanging out at Ed's Bar during MST
Joel and Matt give a new take on traditional wear with suits made out of chitenje
Emily, me, Sarah P., Audra, Sarah S. Jen, Bright, Kory, Tenely, and Jenny--all the ladies of Environment 09
You are so jealous of my headress!
Environment 2009
Just a reminder.....

Khama AIDS Club: I meet with Khama AIDS Club every Monday morning at 9:00 AM. They are pretty much the only group I have that shows up on time. Well hell, they are the only group I have that actually meets on a weekly basis and wants to get something done. When I arrived in Sharpevale I asked them what they wanted to do and their first answer was to raise egg laying chickens. So, for the past few months we have been working on the grant writing project. They process was slow and painful as we widdled the budget down from 15,000,000 kwacha ($15,000 USD) to something reasonable say like, 30,000 kwacha ($200 USD). We applied for a grant through the Volunteer Advisory Committee. VAC is funded through the money volunteers pay to stay at the transit house. The committee is made up of 2 volunteers from each group and a few others. Every other month we get together and talk about volunteer issues as well as hear grant proposals from volunteers and then fund them if we like them (and if we have the cash). Khama AIDS was given the money in July and we started the project.
A club member, Matthews, went to Blantyre to buy 6 week old chickens. Unfortunately, upon arrival he learned that the incubator had broken last month and there were no chicks. Thankfully, someone took pity on the club since we live so far away and gave us the 6 week old chicks of someone who lived much closer and could travel easier. Also, he got to meet the President while he was there! Apparently, Dr. Bingu Mutharika (the President) was visiting the facility and Matthews got to meet him. How about that for luck!
After the chickens came back to Sharpevale the following happened in three days: I found out the coop had not actually been finished and had no fence. Five chicks were stolen the first night even while someone was sleeping in pen. Matthews didn’t buy the chickens from the factory he bought them from someone on the street. This person said he gave them the proper vaccines, but how am I supposed to trust ‘guy on the street’. Matthews used three times the amount of money allotted for transport to and from Blantyre. Matthews told three different people three different prices for the chicks—fishy, don’t ya think? Chicken feed was suppose to be bought in Blantyre, but wasn’t. Money was used to go to Balaka to buy feed, but we didn’t allot for it in our budget. The chickens were moved to my house because people think that’s the safest place. Oh, and we had to switch treasurers’ because after she started keeping the money, no one saw her for three weeks.
Thankfully, people are coming to take care of the chickens a few times a day everyday. I believe everything will work out and they will have enough money left to cover the cost of feed and medicine for the chicks until they start laying eggs and they can start making money. I really like working with Khama AIDS Club and I very much want this project to succeed. So much so that if these first few chickens work well and they learn how to save money, buy more feed, and re-invest—that I am willing to work out a partnership with the Montgomery County 4-H Poultry Club to expand the project. But, if it fails then not only does Khama AIDS Club lose out on a great opportunity, but I have to pay back VAC with the funds and be horribly embarrassed in front of my peers as I explain why the project failed. I have confidence that everything will work out because we have an excellent Chairman who will help to get things back on track. We shall see!
Another thing I like to do with AIDS Club is have workshops about every month. I learned through another Volunteer about ANAMED and Nelson Moyo. ANAMED I think was started by Germans but they only have one contact in Malawi and he will come out to the village and teach about natural medicine, but all you have to do is provide a place to stay and pay for his transport. I learned about him through another volunteer and called him up to plan a two day workshop with Khama AIDS. After a somewhat late start he started the workshop with a discussion about the differences between western and what he calls, mankwala wa Chikhalidwe, literally cultural medicine. The group discussed the benefits and drawbacks of each, and where they are each uniquely applicable and where they are not. It was great to see members of the group discussing and topic with such enthusiasm! It was also pleasantly surprising to see them recognize that their own cultural medicine had a place in their lives—that western answers are not always the right answers. Far too often Malawians will set aside the best and most beneficial parts of their own culture and defer to west simply because they have always been taught (or forced) to do so. In the afternoon of the first day we discussed the uses for all the medicinal plants that people had collected and brought to the meeting. Just on one mat we had 20 different plants: papaya, lemons, moringa, acacia, tamarind, amaranth, baobab, and artemesia. As Nelson would explain the uses for each plant the old people would speak up and say, “oh, I remember my grandmother using that when I was a child!” It so strongly reminded me of the interviews I did in Australia with Aboriginal People there—that we are just a generation away from losing all this knowledge.
On our second day the group actually agreed to start an hour early. I couldn’t believe it! So we had a full morning of discussing the signs and symptoms of different diseases and then all the different treatments you can use to treat it. It was difficult for many people to write all this information down, but they were fascinated and so tried to keep up as best they could. In the afternoon the group learned how to make herbal tea. This first of hibiscus flowers everyone liked because it has a natural sweetness and pretty pink color to boot. The second of artemesia, almost everyone hated. It looked like you are drinking dirty pond water from all the crushed leaves and the flavor is horribly bitter. Evolution taught us not to like bitter things. Bitter equals dead. But Nelson just said, “just keep drinking, it’s wonderful for you,” as he slugged back cup after cup while most of us struggled to take a few sips. I snuck back inside and dumped a ton of honey in mine and then lied (at least with a smile now) that I loved it. Have to set a good example, right?
Ok, back to the normal Monday. After AIDS Club I try to have and joint executive committee meeting with the irrigation clubs. There are four that were started by Bryan and Keah. They always forget to come to meetings so we actually only have one about every other week because I always have to send letters to remind them. Anyway, I’m trying to do two things: get them on a regular maintenance schedule and teach them how to dig a gravity-fed irrigation scheme (i.e. use the pumps in the right way and not like a garden hose). There are over 30 pumps between the four clubs alone and they are not of any use to anyone if they are broken. We are having meetings about paying annual fees to be in the club. This money would then be used to send one person to Lilongwe with a list from all four clubs to buy replacement parts every six months. Individual families would be responsible for covering the cost of the broken parts of their pump, thus encouraging proper use and personal responsibility. This way, transport cost is shared between all the clubs and no pump will go idle for more than 6 months. The other program I am working on with them is to dig a demonstration plot for a gravity-fed scheme at each of the four clubs. Right now most people are dragging the treadle pump pipes from one plant to the other. This is not only an in-efficient way to water crops, but also a good way to put lots of holes in the pipes. A few members from each club would also come to help dig (or at least observe) at the other three clubs. Each plot of land has to be assessed individually to see what the best design and most importantly placement will be. People must decide how many sets wide to make it in multiples of two because every set of beds shares one minor water channel. They must also determine what the major and minor slopes of the land are as the main channel must lie on the former and the feeder channels on the ladder. As of August we have still only visited one club, which means I have 3 more to go, but it is a work in progress. We have dug the proper irrigation scheme and Mr. Liwonde’s garden and he is already harvest lots of vegetables from it.
This was a nutrition workshop we had back in May. We had really great turnout.
A collection of medicinal plants at the ANAMED Workshop
Me and a baby. Malawian women always carry thier children around like this, now that I have actually done it I much more appreciative, because it is really not all that comfortable and you get peed on!
Nelson is showing people the aloe vera that is growing around my house.
When you have a big crowd to feed you need a big pot to cook all that nsima in--and two people to stir it. Construction on the main channel for a demonstration scheme for one of the irrigation clubs.
Me and Mr. Dickman. I visted his garden one day and he really wanted me to take a picture of him by the well.

Tuesdays are a really busy day for me. I have to be at school by 7:20 for the start of classes. I teach four 40-minute blocks to Forms 1 through 4 (Grade 9-12). Although the school administration is the most difficult part of working at the school and on many occasions they make me want to quit, I really enjoy working with the students so I keep going back. For the whole of Term 2 we focused solely on HIV and STIs—obviously they most important topic to teach them about. I try to keep things as lively as possible with games, group activities, dramas, role-playing, and all other sorts of things I thought were dorky when I was a student.
During this term I thought that it would be most appropriate to teach how to use a condom. I thought I would probably get in trouble, but knew it wasn’t actually illegal to teach condom usage in school…so I just went ahead and did it without really giving my head teacher or the PTA a heads-up. Figured they might let it slide, and if they didn’t then at least I got to teach the kids how to use condoms before I got shut down. I taught the Form 2 and 3 students and at the very end of my Form 3 there was a knock at my door from the Deputy head teacher telling me I had to “cease and desist” and “leave the premises immediately.” I told them there was no way in hell I was leaving and that I didn’t have time to chat because now I needed to go and prepare a new lesson for the remaining Form 1 and 4 students. In retrospect, I guess I didn’t give people enough credit. After I was hauled into a painfully long joint meeting with the PTA, the School Management Committee, the Head and Deputy teachers, I was given permission to teach condom usage only with one caveat. No anatomical models. They weren’t happy that the students were learning how to use condoms, but they knew it was important; their beef was with the fact that I had used an anatomically correct model. In the end I was happy to be able to continue with my lessons, but I was disappointed to see we are not giving our students the best information possible. Many people talk about their commitment to stopping the spread of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, but in this case I certainly didn’t see a full commitment. All talk, no action. Plus, it is really difficult to give a proper condom demonstration using just your hands—it does the students a huge disservice. Anyway, carrying on with the week…
Tuesdays I go to the market. Sharpevale market has people that come from all around with food, used-clothes, shoes, hardware, fruits, meat, bike parts, and even cassette tapes. I could really live out of my market but I’m too much of a snob and like things like lentils and olive oil. These days the real determining factor about whether I go into Lilongwe or not is when I run out of oatmeal! I realized I’m so very blessed to have such a big market with just about everything I need. Caitlan and I usually head down after school and do our shopping and then have a cup of tea in the market before heading home. Some days we even get lunch at one of the local restaurants.
Another recent project I have started is trying to form a Groundnut Cooperative (GC). Sharpevale has lots, loads, tons of groundnuts—but no one has a market. The local government agriculture distributors will buy for 65 or 90 kwacha per kilo, but most people don’t like that price so they just hold on to them. There is a company in Lilongwe called African Commodities Exchange (ACE) and they post commodity contracts on the web for buyers to choose from. Peace Corps (and especially Brian) has encouraged us to work with them for a few reasons. One, the sellers stipulate the points of the contract. Meaning community members choose the price, place of pick up, and whether they want replacement of cash for the feed sacks. The community chooses a target and a low price that they will be willing to sell at. If ACE sells the nuts above the target price, they keep the difference (its how they make their profits).
This whole process has been painfully frustrating and every single day I have to force myself not to give up on the project. I have tried so many times to have meetings with farmers in order to choose the price they like, but no one comes. No one wants to come unless they know the price. No one wants to bring their groundnuts into storage unless they know the price. But, I don’t decide the price—they do! That my friends, is a text book case of a Catch-22. So I keep office hours Tuesday to Thursday from 9 to 1 waiting for people to bring their groundnuts into storage. I wait and wait and no one comes. People tell me they have lots of nuts and that they will bring them, but they never do. Some people have suggested that we just bring them the day the buyer comes. But I know that could have all kinds of problems. We tell the buy we have 5 metric tones of groundnuts and then they show up and find of a ton, maybe two? I know I am fighting an uphill battle on this one because the local farmers have been screwed not one, but two times in commodity bulking projects. Two years ago an NGO called Africare said they would find a buyer. People bulked their nuts at the Agricultural Project (just like we are) and then Africare never found a buyer. And ten years ago ten metric tones of maize was stolen. Outright stolen. The buyer came to pick it up but didn’t bring any money. He said he would return with the cash but never did. I really try to take this project one day at a time, but my patience is wearing thin.
Another point of contention is the price. Trying to make people understand that the price of commodities change based on the world economy is difficult. How could something so big affect the small African farmer? They know the price of things change, but I think are unwilling to accept it. They will quote me prices from 2000. 2000. It’s 2009. They want the highest price they have ever gotten and sometimes more. I have explained so many times every which way I can how things work. If you go to the market and 3 people are selling tomatoes for 50 kwacha and one person is selling them for 100 kwacha, who will you buy tomatoes from? They said the 50 kwacha tomatoes, but then turn around and ask for 150 kwacha for a kilo of groundnuts when the market price right now is barely 100 kwacha. Like all of us, they inherently know basic economics, but it seems like they are just unwilling to accept them. And I have to be the bad guy and say, “no, you can’t ask for that price.” This project just makes me feel all warm and fuzzy.
On the bright side, my site mate Jen and I are going to work to bulk for the same contract. Hopefully with more groundnuts we can get a better price. Her counterpart at BERDO understands the history and the cultural differences that are keeping the project from moving forward so he has offered to help us by putting BERDOs name behind it and helping to organize people. We are planning to finish bulking by October 1. If it won’t work by then, it won’t work. Sometimes as a volunteer you MUST realize that as much as you want the project to work, as much benefit as you see coming from it—if you have to push that hard to make it go then maybe you shouldn’t push at all. It is a hard lesson to learn and for me I’m the one that feels guilty afterward. It’s my fault, what did I forget to do, what cultural element didn’t I factor in. I know that’s not totally rational (so please don’t send a slew of emails telling me so), but I always said I would make a damn good Catholic. Once again, we shall see!
One of the students got a bit too excited about beating up HIV....
This is a drama showing the interactions between ARVs, HIV, and secondary infections.
On Wednesday I wait again at the Agriculture office for people to bring their groundnuts from 9 to 1. But, we have been trying to have a weekly meeting at 2 PM with local groundnut farmers to answer any questions and listen to them complain about the price and how it is so much work to shell the groundnuts for selling.

More time at the Agricultural Office. Yay! At least during all this down time I get time to study for the GRE. Thankfully that nightmare will be over on October 24th, after which I will be promptly learning Lilongwe and going to the beach for the rest of the weekend!
On Thursday afternoons I have Tilimbike Women’s Club. We still are not on a regular schedule—the women are always busy. The club has dwindled in numbers, but I am starting to teach them how to sew by hand. If people have clothes to be made (national wear) they will take them to the tailor, but people could greatly benefit from learning how to repair clothes. Just fixing hems, seems, a torn shoulder, and putting on patches would extend the life (and look) of clothes here. Caitlan is helping by teaching the women how to knit, mostly because I can’t. Hopefully in the near future we can pick out a simple project with just a few stitches and each woman can work on that.
The oil pressing project isn’t going so well. The women think it is a lot of work to press oil so they really just use it for personal use and they also bent the threads on the screw cap when cleaning it so it had to go to Lilongwe to be repaired. Maybe I’ll buy them the first bag of groundnuts to start the business. Haven’t really decided how I’m going to revitalize the project. I have a student who went to a local IGA workshop run by PCVs and I’m thinking it would be great confidence booster to her to teach the women in a one day IGA workshop just focused on groundnut oil, just to get the project going again.

Friday, Saturday, Sunday:
I use these days to do all kinds of things: yoga, long runs (training for a half-marathon at Christmas!), laundry, clean my house, lots of reading (and now GRE studying). I also try to plan my lessons for school or AIDS Club and inevitably there is some extra meeting that I need to gave or someone’s garden to go and see. I get to spend time with my neighbors and often sit around and play with the kids. Their new favorite thing is bubbles and making bead necklaces. Caitlan might come over for the night or maybe I’ll go down to Balaka and visit with my friend Erin.
Other random projects/events in the past few months:
On May 19th we had the National Election. Funnily enough, it was extra quiet on Election Day! I went to the market and no one way there and somehow all the children had disappeared. Even the chickens seemed quieter. All in all the election went smoothly. It may sound a bit odd, but it was more important for Malawi to have a peaceful election as oppose to a fully democratic election. And that’s all I have to say about that via blog so I don’t get myself in trouble.
Something that has really taken off and that I’m really excited about is that Mrs. Liwonde is learning to sew on a sewing machine! She is my neighbor and really like my mom while I am here. She really takes care of me and now I want to take care of her. The women of Damascus United Methodist Church gave me a more than generous donation to help women in Malawi. I used the money to buy a sewing machine with the hopes of finding someone that would be interested. Mrs. Liwonde was very excited to learn how to sew and so we found here a tutor. They come to my house every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday and sew for a few hours on my front porch. It should take a few months for her to learn how to sew, take measurements, and make her own patterns. At the end she can start a business and will then pay back 25% of the cost of the sewing machine (standard procedure in the aid world). Hopefully we can use the money to set up a shop for her in town!
On July 4th we celebrated well, July 4th! Happy Independence Day, America! As always the Ambassador opened up his house to the American Mission in Malawi. The Ambassador has quite a sense of humor and he asked me to do him a favor—go insult some guy I’ve never met by telling him he had quote, “the ugliest shirt I have ever seen.” I recon when the Ambassador asks you to do something, you do it. The guy I had to insult told me to tell Ambassador Bodey that he would like to give him a special gesture, but that there were children present. It was funny and I got an extra beer out of the deal—not too shabby! After the 4th Celebration we decided to have a Peace Corps Prom at the Lilongwe house. I don’t have the best pictures, but you can tell the party was 80’s themed in all its glory. The markets of Malawi are a treasure trove of cast off 80’s wear and Halloween costumes just waiting to happen.
Happy 4th of July, would you like to buy a PC t-shirt?
Erin and I enjoying the grass at the Ambassador's house!
You would have to pay big money for a dress like that back in America, even if it was for Halloween. I think Cupcake, vamp, hershey kiss. The 80's were such a great decade, no?

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