Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Pictures! Pictures!! Pictures!!!

Check out the two Facebook albums below for pics from Malawi and my brother's wedding in AMERICA. You should be able to view the pics, even if you're not a Facebook member.
THEN - read the new post below. 

Malawi pics

Wedding in America - You MUST check out my fabulous dress :-)

Lady Gaga Comes to my Village

When  my Standard 8 students said that they wanted to listen to American pop music in English club, I thought they’d probably want to listen to Michael Jackson or Madonna, who are both well known and pretty popular here.  When they asked for Lady Gaga, I had a mild moment of panic, realizing that her songs aren’t really appropriate for eighth graders.  I quickly scanned through her songs on my iPod and picked the one that I thought would be least inappropriate - “Just Dance.”  It’s a fun, upbeat tune about dancing, I thought, right?  When I paused the song to explain to them the first few lyrics, I knew Lady Gaga probably wasn’t going to represent the best of American culture for these Malawian teenagers.  A small sampling of her lyrics:

I’ve had a little bit too much, much.  All of the people start to rush, start to rush by… Where are my keys, I lost my phone, phone. What’s going on on the floor?  I love this record baby, but I can’t see straight anymore.  

It felt a bit awkward as I explained that she’d been drinking too much and had lost both her keys and her phone, presumably because of her intoxication.  I explained what it meant to not be able to see straight.  Drinking in Malawi is a huge problem, since Malawians don’t seem to know how to drink just a little bit.  If they drink at all, they drink to get wasted, and those people (mostly men) are scorned in their villages because they drink away the family’s little bit of money.  I tried to leave the students with the impression that not every American goes to a club and gets trashed, but in the end, I think they only cared that they were listening to cool American pop music, and that it was a lot more fun than they usually have at school.

The Lowest Lows

I apologize for not updating you earlier.  To be completely honest, it’s not a lot of fun writing about it when things aren’t going well.  I’ve hit that mark around the middle of most people’s Peace Corps service, when they start feeling like they haven’t accomplished much and that they have no hope of really doing anything meaningful in their village.  The English clubs I’ve started teaching are the first positive thing that’s happened in my village in a while. 

The slide downward all started with the women’s mushroom group.  They seemed so promising when they started out – twelve highly motivated women who wanted to start a business and make money for themselves.  I helped them get a microloan from our local tourist lodge and helped them get the supplies together to build their mushroom-growing house, which is a little like a greenhouse.  I went away for some business, and when I came back, the house was finished.  I was so thrilled!  Volunteers are always talking about how their projects fail, but I had such a great group, there was no way this project would fail.  Enter tragic hubris.  The group had a great day planting mushroom spawn, an event I captured on video and shared with you here.  After planting, the ladies simply had to apply water to the floor of the mushroom house every day, and keep the temperature at an appropriate level.  Between the twelve of them, I was sure it would be no problem. 

Flash forward to a couple months down the road.  I was at Peace Corps In-service Training, and was excitedly telling other volunteers about my wonderful mushroom group.  We would soon be harvesting mushrooms and selling them for good prices.  The women were so highly motivated, they would definitely prosper and continue the project for years to come.  Maybe, they would even expand and become a mushroom-growing force in central Malawi.  When I returned to the village, the women’s group asked to meet with me.  The ladies told me the group chairperson had applied for money from a group of donors who come to our village every year.  They said she had received money, intended for the mushroom group, but had kept it for herself, and was going to put a new tin roof on her house.  Thanks to this, the group had decided to stop watering the mushrooms for the previous four days.  Of course, this meant nearly all the mushrooms were dead, and it turned out that this was just a rumor, with no actual basis in fact.  ARGGGHHHHH!

After this massive failure, my attitude took a turn for the worse and the little frustrations started piling up.  A group came to me, wanting my help in starting a village savings and loan, then they proceeded to not show up to the two meetings I scheduled with them.  My original attempt at an English club for secondary school students turned into a failure when only one student came regularly, and then he stopped coming.  My rabbits, which I were hoping would multiply quickly so that I could use them for a nutrition project, ended up eating their young and dying on me.  The tree nursery project I assisted with failed when villages stopped caring for the tree seedlings.  A secondary school student who came to me wanting help with math, left his math book with me, and then never came back to actually get the tutoring.  Even the multiple daily requests for things (give me a pen, give me a balloon, give me money, etc.) started to grate on my nerves.  I got fed up with the dependency syndrome that I saw in my community.  Basically, they’ve had so many charitable organizations come in to “help,” that many people in the village now wait for some white person to come give them money, instead of trying to make a better life for themselves by their own power.  I feel like probably a majority of charitable organizations working in Malawi are actually hurting the country, despite their best intentions.  Even Peace Corps may be grouped in with that lot.  There’s a saying that in Peace Corps you experience the highest highs and the lowest lows.  The last few months can definitely attest to the lowest lows, just as the first few months were the highest highs. 

The Next Year

I’ve been in Malawi for a little over a year now, and will be here until late April of next year.  After the various frustrations, I’ve readjusted my strategy for work here in Malawi.  First, I’ve drastically scaled back my expectations of what I can and want to accomplish while I’m here.  Second, I’m not going to apply for any major funding for my villages, since all the “free” money is the root cause of dependency syndrome.  Any money I do bring into the community, will have many strings attached.  Third, I’m only going to do projects with people who come to me with specific ideas of things they want to accomplish.  I find that when I go to people with ideas, they say they’re interested, but maybe they’re just saying it because they think it’s what I want to hear. 

The most recent incarnation of English clubs has so far been a success.  There are three clubs – one for adults with high-level English skills, one for adults with low level skills and Standard 8 students, and one for Standard 1-7 students.  Each club meets once a week.  With the high-level club, we mostly read and discuss various topics.  With the mid-level club we study vocabulary, practice making simple sentences, and read easy books.  The kids club for Standard 1-7 is the most fun.  We sing songs such as, “Are you sleeping, Brother John?” and play games such as Simon Says.  They’re so good at Simon Says, and very quickly learn commands for “touch your nose,” “stand on the table,” and “turn around,” among others.  They also love the Hokey Pokey, but can’t seem to figure out the difference between right and left. 

Besides continuing the English clubs, I’m planning to do a healthy living training for the local HIV/AIDS support group, and may try to assist a farmer in purchasing a dairy cow.  Outside the village, I’ve been very busy with Peace Corps’ 50th anniversary, which we’re celebrating this year.  I’m coordinating the activities we’re doing here in Malawi, including building a media campaign, producing a coffee table book, producing a music cd, painting a mural, and holding a big celebratory event with Malawi’s president.  It’s an invigorating change of pace from village life, and gets my producing skills going again.  Fortunately, I have a great team of volunteers making it all happen, so I just have to provide guidance and help out here and there.  I’m also doing some writing for Heifer International and am heading up the Peace Corps volunteer equivalent of student council, so all this is keeping me busy.  Plus, I’m looking forward to visits from my friend Rebecca, my parents, and maybe some other friends in the next year. 

All in all, the last year has been an eye-opening experience.  While I wouldn’t say I’m having the time of my life here any more, I’m definitely glad to be here, and I still think Peace Corps provides a great opportunity for anyone with an adventurous spirit and a desire to challenge themselves. 

I’ll try to update more often, and with luck, may have some happier and more hopeful news to share with you in the future.  I know for sure that life is going to get better in just a few weeks when rainy season ends.  That means no more mud, fewer dreary days, and an easier time getting in and out of my site on the really horrible dirt/mud road.  So, things are looking up!

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Finally - An Update on the Last Few Months

It’s been a while since I’ve written, thanks to a crazy busy schedule. I think some people have an impression that Peace Corps is like a two-year vacation, but I’ve been working just as much here as I ever did in the States! Here’s a little rundown of what I’ve been up to since July. Once you read it, make sure you click on the link to my newest photo album at the bottom of this post. And, look at the last few posts below that, just to make sure you haven’t missed anything – like the video of my mushroom group getting ready to plant mushrooms!

July – After a fantastic July 4th party at the U.S. Ambassador’s house, I headed back to my village and started working with a women’s group that wanted to grow mushrooms for extra income. We applied for a micro-loan from the local tourist lodge, Ntchisi Forest Lodge, and got busy finding materials to build the mushroom-growing house. I also did a training with a beekeeping group, teaching them to make candles out of beeswax. They were amazed at how easy it was to make candles, which they can sell, and now they’ll have a way to use their beeswax to generate income, instead of just throwing it away. I found myself back in Lilongwe (the capitol) in mid-July for a state luncheon with the Malawian president. Our Peace Corps country director had met with the president earlier this year, and arranged a state luncheon for all the volunteers, to thank us for the work Peace Corps has done in the country since 1963. After the event, I helped our country director write up a report and press release. Turns out my journalism skills are coming in handy! I also got approval to write a monthly column for my hometown newspaper, The Caswell Messenger. Each column looks at an aspect of life here in Malawi, helping to fulfill one of Peace Corps’ main goals – teaching Americans about other countries.

August – The first week in August, I went to visit the Heifer International dairy cow project in Mchinji, in western Malawi. I was really impressed and wrote about that visit in a previous blog post. Then, headed home and hosted a birthday party for one of my fellow volunteers. It was fun to have some people over to visit, and they were also able to visit the mushroom house and tour my garden, to get ideas for their sites. The next week, I took a tour of Mwera Mkaka with the Irish ambassador to Malawi. Mwera Mkaka is a milk processing group that’s about nine miles from my village. It was inspiring to see how the participants in the group have improved their lives in just the nine years or so that the group has been operating. I made some contacts there that I hope will help me with livestock projects in my area. In late August, I went to Camp Sky, an educational camp for secondary school (high school) students. I taught broadcast journalism, which proved to be a popular class with the campers. Turns out, even in Malawi where TV is a rare luxury, everyone wants to be on TV or the radio! After Camp Sky, I travelled to Karonga, in northern Malawi, for the Women2Women Camp, which helps to empower secondary school girls. I taught public speaking and listening skills, and helped with other classes on topics such as sex education, entrepreneurship and women’s rights. I was pleased and impressed with what these girls were learning, and thrilled with their enthusiasm. Women in Malawi are generally treated as second-class citizens, with their husbands and other male family members making all their decisions for them, and controlling their actions. I think the girls that attended this camp will be better able to stand up for themselves and be strong, independent women, because now they have the knowledge that they can succeed on their own. I’ve never been a champion of women’s rights, but this camp certainly made me realize how important those rights are, and how important it is to empower women who may not have a voice.

September – The first part of September was spent working with the mushroom group and a tree nursery project with the tourist lodge. Then, I went to Dedza, in central Malawi, for a two-week Peace Corps training, with all the volunteers who arrived in Malawi when I did. It was great to be with them again, and we learned about a lot of different topics, including income generating activities (such as soap-making and jam-making), HIV/AIDS education, and tree grafting.

October – I travelled south to Liwonde National Park for game count, a two-day adventure of counting wildlife in the park. The first day, I hiked 16 kilometers across the park with another volunteer and two scouts. The second day, we sat in a “hide” to see animals coming to a watering hole. We saw a lot of different types of antelope, as well as a few elephants, hippos, warthogs and water buffalo. But, we didn’t see nearly as many as we’d like – thanks a lot poachers! After game count, I travelled further south to Mulanje to visit a fellow volunteer, Amy, and the guy who was the first volunteer at my site, John Fort. I had a great visit, with beautiful views of Mt. Mulanje, the third-highest peak in Africa. John and I went swimming in some natural pools near the base of the mountain, which was amazing, and I got to see how well Amy speaks Chichewa is integrated in her community. She’s a great inspiration for me! Finally, at the end of October, I headed HOME to America. My brother got married November 6th, so I went for the wedding. While I was there, I visited the third, fourth and fifth grade classes at Stoney Creek Elementary School in my hometown and spoke to a couple classes at North Carolina State University. And, I should give a big shout-out to Ms. Johnson’s fourth grade class at Everetts Elementary School in Roanoke Rapids, NC. They’re my World Wise Schools class (it’s a program through Peace Corps). I visited them and had a great time talking with them about Malawi. The students gave me a wonderful book with all their pictures and personal stories, and I’ll look forward to keeping up with them for the next year.

That’s pretty much all that’s happened the last few months. Sorry it’s taken so long to update you. As you can tell, I’ve been busy! Now, I’m back in Malawi and ready to get going on some more projects, so I’ll have lots more to tell you in the future. Thanks for your interest in what’s going on here in Malawi, and thanks for all your support!

Malawi photo album for August - November

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Growing Mushrooms

Once again, I didn't have time to write something for you, but I uploaded a video of the women's group that I'm working with.  They've built a mushroom-growing house and I helped them plant the mushroom spawn.  They should be harvesting mushrooms in a month or so, and will sell them for additional income.  I'll tell you more about it later.  Check it out:

Mtendere Women's Group - Preparing to Plant Mushrooms