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!