Christmas Abwino

I woke up this morning just after 6 to a loud crack and looked out the
window and saw a security guard high up in a tree across the street
snapping off branches for firewood. This is definitely going to be a
unique Christmas.

With no extended family, with the heat, with a minimal amount of
presents, with a lot of things I can blame on Malawi - the Christmas
spirit is very elusive. I know Christmas is about Jesus and I look
forward to church, and to reading Luke with Claudia, and particularly
talking about the cultural context of Jesus' birth (I just finished
Thomas Cahill's wonderful Desire of the Everlasting Hills and Claudia is
reading the Philip Yancey's The Jesus I Never Knew so we have lots of
material) - but I am doubtful that we can create that special Christmas
feeling here. That said we are going to try! We have a printout of
Christmas songs, a turkey brining in the fridge, and most of all we have
each other.

In case you missed it, below is a copy of our annual Christmas Letter. Merry Christmas!

Christmas Letter Small.pdf

Christmas Tensions

One of my best friends, Adam McHugh has recently started a blog and I think it is well worth reading. He is a pastor ministering at the Claremont Colleges (where Claudia and I as well as Adam all went) and is doing some really profound writing. My only question is whether or not he can keep up this high quality high - quantity output. His Christmas as counter culture post is a great place to start.

The mountain man and the surgeon

Great article in the economist comparing a poor American with a Congolese doctor.

When Americans hear the words “poor” and “white”, they think of someone like Mr Banks. He has half a dozen cars in varying states of disrepair parked outside his trailer, car-parts everywhere and a pile of crushed Pepsi cans below his porch.

...thousands of miles away in central Africa, there lives a prominent surgeon whose monthly income is roughly the same as his. Mbwebwe Kabamba is the head of the emergency department at the main public hospital in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo.


Paint by number

So yesterday I spent some more time working on my Mondrian website. I love writing code that generates code - which is how I made the example I posted yesterday. Yesterday, as I moved closer to getting something I would actually deliver to a client I began to realize something about beauty that Mondrian's art illustrates powerfully.

Before I get to that point though, I have to confess that I have never taken an art appreciation class. My ability to understand, critique and enjoy fine art is mostly the result of one book: Mona Winks by Rick Steves and Gene Openshaw.

Mona Winks is a book that made the museums of Europe knock me over with their profundity. Like the Rick Steves travel books, Mona Winks helps you narrow your focus. It selects and helps you find the greatest hits of the greatest museums like the Louvre, the Prado, and the Vatican Museum. Once you have narrowed to the best of the best, the book explains what makes them so great. But perhaps most importantly the book links the pieces together, explaining the progression of technique, history and context that have resulted in something that often changed the world. With a bit of practice and preparation I have found that I can now do the same in museums that Mona doesn't cover, like the Getty in LA.

Mona carries you pretty well from Egypt to the renaissance and into the impressionists. It has a section on modern art as well, but it didn't do much for me. Pianos on the ceiling, a couch on top of a TV playing videos of people moaning, a box in the middle of the room - all of these still baffle. I understand modern art as a response to modern technology and short attention spans, but it is very hard to categorize or appreciate.

Which brings me back to Mondrian. Mondrian is abstract - most of his work is straight black lines with primary colors filling in the rectangles created by these lines. You can't call it beautiful like a Boticelli face, or powerful like a Michaelangelo sculpture, or emotional like a Van Gogh impression. Mondrian explains:

I construct lines and color combinations on a flat surface, in order to express general beauty with the utmost awareness.

After spending all day with lines and color combinations I have discovered a definite almost unexplainable beauty that can emerge from them. My Mondrian generator creates random lines and fills in random rectangles with random primary colors. But many are boring, some are ugly and a few are beautiful. With the realization of this spectrum of generated images that are all Mondrian-esque I can finally enjoy what Mondrian was up to. He probably anticipated a day when machines would create random imitations of his work - but he figured out how to build a very human inspired beauty from the seemingly random.

Random Mondrian

And now for something completely different. A client recently asked for a Piet Mondrian look and feel for some work I was doing for him. I don't think I will use this, but I created a randomly generated Piet Mondrian lookalike. Every reload gives you a new one!

Narnia and Malawi

Apparently Narnia is experiencing a bit of a revival thanks to Hollywood. I love CS Lewis's books and my wife and I have recently reread most of the Narnia series. In Oxford we visited his house and even considered living in it for a while. But it was a bit out of the way, so instead I just drank ale at the pub where he, JRR Tolkien and some other buddies used to meet to share their stories with each other.

Last week we gave The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe to Delato our night guard to read. He loves to read, but books are shockingly expensive here (like 30USD for a paperback), so he doesn't have much to read. Since it is a children's book we figured the book wouldn't be too difficult for him.

He seems to be enjoying it, but he is kind of upset about all of the magic in the book. He is Christian, and in Malawi this means rejecting ideas of magic, witches, spells and the like. Of course the irony is that Narnia is a thinly veiled Christian allegory, and Lewis is one of the greatest Christian theologians ever (check out Mere Christianity). Aslan represents Jesus, and Aslan sacrifices himself to atone for Edward's wrongdoing. But I am afraid that Delato doesn't see this - he just sees a story about a magic talking Lion battling evil witches. He probably heard similar stories growing up in his village, but with warnings about so and so village being where the witch lives or "that is why you must never kill a Lion". In fact, Temwa (Claudia's colleague) recently had to cancel her holiday because her niece has been accused of being a witch. Temwa has to go to the village to support her niece, and prove that her niece isn't a witch. Temwa (Aslan?) says that often it is the accusers of witchcraft that are the witches themselves, and she aims to confront them.

In other words you can't mix Christian concepts of redemption with talking animals and good magic without really confusing Malawians. It will be interesting to talk to Delato after he finishes it and determine if he noticed any of the Christian themes.

Logistics of famine relief

Truckloads of emergency relief supplies are maybe two weeks away, Mr Patel tells this village — bags of vitamin-enhanced maize, dried beans and cooking oil. And the bad news? There is not enough for everyone who needs it.

Mr Patel asks these uniformly impoverished people, who live in mud huts, to choose who among them will be fed — to nominate the neediest of the needy. Of about 5000 households in this community, little more than 1000 will get food.

Link to full article

Manna from heaven or bird flu?

Last week some villagers discovered a hill full of thousands of dead
birds. It is the hungry season, so people rejoiced at the manna from
heaven. Samples have been sent to South Africa for testing, but this
could be very bad news indeed.

Dozens of villagers used pails to collect the fork-tailed drongos,
which range through much of sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Asia, in
preparation for "feasting on mysterious manna from heaven," Wilfred
Lipita, the country's director of animal health, was quoted as saying in
news reports. A Malawi newspaper, The Nation, reported that one resident
was found with 700 of the birds and that one dead bird appeared to have
been banded in Israel. Officials warned residents not to eat the birds
because of the risk that the flu virus might be present. In most of the
human cases reported in Asia, the disease was contracted while preparing
fowl for slaughter or by handling infected birds. The flock of birds
died in Ntichisi Province, about 125 miles east of Malawi's
administrative capital, Lilongwe.

From an an
article NY Times
. A more in depth article.

And in case that news wasn't bad enough for you, 11 people were killed
at a church when lightning struck the building this weekend. link


My biologist friend Amanda (who runs Children in the Wilderness and whose husband works directly with wildlife saving groups in Malawi), says this was almost certainly a poisoning by hungry villagers. Perhaps you are thinking that poisoning the food you are going to eat is a bad idea. And you would be right.

HIV/AIDS education in Malawi

Billions of dollars are being spent to change behavior in Africa and stop the spread of HIV/AIDS. A lot of work still needs to be done. For instance, a small survey of middle class Malawians revealed that about 20% think that you can catch HIV/AIDS by sitting next to someone. So when I saw this picture from Geeta's visit to World AIDS Day celebrations:

I couldn't help but think that there is still a long long ways to go.

Gates Foundation gives grant to Opportunity International

This is great news:

Opportunity International, one of the world's largest microfinance organizations, today announced that it received a $2.2 million grant over three years from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation that will go toward a project to develop a trans-African network of new commercial banks for the poor. In addition, the project will reach underserved rural residents, offer credit for working out of poverty, provide savings and insurance for protecting assets, train in business and HIV/AIDS prevention, and encourage women's empowerment.


On safari at our house

It has been a while since I wrote anything about what has been happening
in our garden so I thought would provide an update. The big news is the
rains have arrived, and within 48 hours the entire country has turned
from hazy brown to a clear green. It is quite amazing actually. Perhaps
the most amazing thing are the flying ants. They are dormant for like 9
months, then about an hour before the first rain started they began
emerging from holes in the ground at a staggering rate. Somehow they
know exactly when the rains will start, and all fly out at once. As soon
as they emerged we had about 30 birds swooping and catching them in mid
air. All of this was happening right outside my office and I was
fascinated. I went outside and took some videos, but they are too big to

"A plague on both your houses!" A few hours later when it was dark, the
air was full of a different flying insect, more like a small brown
grasshopper with 4 wings. There were about 50 crawling on each window,
and quite a few made it into the house as well.

I think it is pretty wasteful to water grass in a country when people
are complaining of draught, hence some of our grass died this winter/dry
season. Our gardeners are now replanting it piece by piece. In America
you buy a truck full of sod - grass and dirt that you just unroll and
instantly you have thick healthy grass. Here, they transplant it, blade
by blade.

We have been eating very well from our garden. Tomatoes, onions, green
peppers, chili peppers, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, lettuce, maize,
carrots and tons of herbs too. Also, our four huge mango trees are full
of mangoes that are just ripening. If anybody has some good recipes for
what to do with bucketfulls of mangoes please share!

Boy George (our lizard like creature that is definitely not a chameleon)
now has some new friends (children? lovers?) and he scurries all over
our lawn.

I also found a real chameleon crossing the street while I was cycling,
so I brought him home and named him Karma. They are incredible
creatures. I placed him into some plants next to where we have breakfast
and he instantly blended in and disappeared. We also have Amp, our
tailless yellow lizard who likes to watch us while we eat lunch.

I can't remember if I blogged about the tarantula that we found in the
kitchen. Claudia's eyes moved to just behind and above me and got really
really big. It was straight out of a horror movie. Lazaro our gardener
found him near the beer the next morning and squashed him.

There are also number of bats in our attic that squeak us to sleep, and
large cockroaches which seem to feast on guano, swim in our hot water
tank and then die in the midst of their gluttony. It certainly adds a
unique set of minerals to our baths.

Stories from the Malawi blogger meetup

I just got back from the first Malawi blogger lunch. It was great! Five of us showed up: Geeta, Jesse, Soyapi, Tess, and me. We shared a number of what I will call meta-blog stories - stories resulting from from our blogs and how people have responded to them. Tess was fairly freaked out to know that people besides her family and friends read her and Jim's blog (Geeta had brought her along). While most of the blogs started out as ways to communicate to people back home, Soyapi's is different and more directed at Malawians in the IT sector. Regardless, we all had experienced a moment (I think Tess was experiencing it during the lunch) when we realized that complete strangers were reading our blogs. It is a terrifying and exciting thing and for better or for worse it changes how and what you blog. The challenge is to continue being yourself and sharing whatever is on your mind, even if that means freaking out family, being controversial or revealing just how boring your life really is. This led to an interesting discussion about free speech, and criticizing the government and whether or not we feel free to do it. Geeta shared a fascinating story about a guy whose email was intercepted in Zambia. In the emails he had criticized the government to some friends back home and told his Mom his username and password for his Yahoo account. Since he was talking about passwords the government accused him of being a spy and deported him!

It was also great to just hang out with some geek minded people. At one point Soyapi was telling us about some Malawi specific Firefox extensions he had written, and he said, "you know Firefox?" - and everybody enthusiastically said "YES!"

We are hoping to make it a regular event, perhaps once a month or so. There are a lot more bloggers in Malawi that need to meet!

Solar powered mobile phone towers

It looks like a solar powered mobile phone tower has been developed and deployed in Malawi.

The solar-powered base station does not rely on either mains power or a diesel generator for back-up, so each site will be significantly cheaper to operate and maintain.

The design is also environmentally friendly.

Above all, the solar powered sites give operators the freedom to place sites wherever they want, rather than where the local infrastructure is available, says Moolman.

If I only knew where Chiringa was I could go and take some pictures!

This must be some sort of mesh network though right? Otherwise they would have to place the tower where there is some sort of wired network coverage. Are mobile phone towers usually configured as a mesh network?