Pictures from Malawi

A typical view driving into the "Capital City", or downtown Lilongwe.

Here is our little house at Ufulu Gardens, where we have been for the past month, but not for much longer!

And if you turn 180 degrees from the picture above, and peer
through the plants, and over the no-man's land barbwire you can see my
closest Malawian neighbors.

It is the rainy season right now, and the plants and flowers are spectacular:

Food in Lilongwe

Food is probably my number one delight in our African life thus far.
(which isn't really saying much, as we have been working our butts off
and haven't seen _anything_ of Malawi yet) The supermarkets here are
great. There are a lot of them, and they are full of everything you
need. In the future it will be fun to buy from people on the street and
at the Lilongwe outdoor market, but it is awfully nice to have some
grocery stores to rely on. Foodworths, one grocery store in particular,
is really nice. It is an upmarket grocery store, and kind of feels like
Trader Joe's. You walk in and there are racks of freshly baked bread,
rolls, loaves, croissants and even bagels. Malawians seem to appreciate
their bread fresh, and I love warm out of the oven bread. Meat is cheap
and good here. The cuts of beef look much better than what they offer
in the UK. Fresh chicken is reasonable too, they offer boneless chicken
breast which is great, but they also serve packs of chicken feet, which
is interesting (Claudia and I once ordered Chicken feet in Manila out
of curiosity, and it pretty much tasted like you would expect Chicken
feet to taste - kind of crunchy chewy chickeny). Our new landlord also
happens to be the biggest poultry farmer in Malawi, with 400,000
chickens paying the mortgage on our house, while 10,000 get slaughtered
every day. So grocery shopping is good and comfortable, but not without
its African intrigues.

Continuing on the food track, the restaurants are great here. After
travelling in Ethiopia last year, and eating injera (sour pancake) with
spicy sauce every day, and then hearing that Ethiopian food was the
best African food there was, I was a little anxious about Malawian
food. But Lilongwe is full of excellent, reasonable restaurants with
all types of food. Ethiopian food was different, probably because they
have their own national cuisine, even their own type of grain (tef),
and they have never been colonized. For Malawians, to eat is synonymous
with eating corn porridge (encima). Conversely, ingesting mangos, meat,
rice and other non-corn items does not mean eating to a Malawian. You
have only eaten if you have eaten corn. For those of us in Lilongwe,
however, we have lots to choose from besides corn. There is a large
Indian population, so there are a lot of good curry houses. We went all
out at Modie's with drinks, appetizers, piles and piles of Naan, and
many different curries, and our total was around $25. I have already
discovered two good pizza places. I had a burger, fries and shake from
Steer's - a South African chain and while it wasn't In-N-Out, it was
much better than McDonalds.The best restaurant by far though, has been Buchanon's, a restaurant
located at one of the numerous garden centers that they have here. The
tables are outside next to a huge fish pond, with frogs providing music
by candlelight (the picture is of Buchanon's during the day). We had
South African wine with our T-Bone steak and beef kebab and it was all
top quality (the wine should be described as okay for the price, but a
welcome change after all of the Two-Buck Up-Chuck we had in the US).

Reading over this post, I sound a bit like an ugly American. I hate it
when people travel and they complain because the food is so weird and
awful. But living somewhere is a lot different than travelling through
a place. I have no doubt that we will eat and appreciate our fair share
of local cuisine, but comfort food is important in the long run.

This could be its own separate post, but when we first moved to Oxford
3.5 years ago, we fantasized about chimichangas, orange chicken, and
Sheila's blackened chicken pasta. But by the end, all I needed was a a
pint of real ale some bangers & mash and you could keep your long
lines at the Cheesecake Factory, thank you very much. It will be
interesting to see what becomes of my tastebuds here...

Arrgh Matey!

I saw this yesterday on a local bulletin board:

And here I was thinking I could bring some new entreprenuerial ideas to Malawi!


Technorati is like google for blogs, but even better. It is taking some serious steps towards delivering on the Semantic Web. But to be included I need to post this: Technorati Profile


Claudia is not dead, she is just in a meeting.

She was supposed to be home over an hour ago. She is never late. So, for the last hour I have been standing in front of the window, feeling my blood pressure rise higher as each minute ticks by.

I am not someone prone to worrying. But in Malawi, we are closer to death. I feel it everywhere. There are obvious things like AIDS and diseases, but it is much more than that. Danger seems to be lurking everywhere here. The roads are narrow, the expats drive drunk as a rule, and there are stories. Stories about people with machetes. These are not nice stories. These are stories about Claudia's co-workers that happen 3 blocks from our house. Back in Hometown, Western Country, when someone you love goes out at night, you probably say, "Be careful", but in Malawi it takes on a whole other meaning. Vigilant care is essential to survival here.

Back in the UK Claudia and I used to laugh about Malawians and the dark. She told me how they HATE to be anywhere but home when it is dark. So if there is something requiring her co-workers to be out after dark, it is the equivalent of your boss calling you at 3am telling you to come into the office. Darkness brings danger, and as I was walking in front of our guest house trying to get a mobile phone signal to call Claudia the darkness seemed to speak from the distant lightning flashing far away in the clouds, illuminating nothing, providing only contrast that made the dark seem darker. Perhaps Conrad had something to teach me afterall.

I was sure something was wrong. Claudia's phone had dropped off of the network. I thought about assembling my bike which is still in the box. I considered asking the Indian guy next door to drive me into town looking for Claudia. I finally decided to call Patrick, Claudia's office worker and our infinite source of local knowledge. He made some calls, and sure enough she was in a meeting.

This was instant comfort. She was alive! Alive! Breathing, walking, talking wife! But now after writing this, I must consider all that I have said. The darkness still surrounds the situation. She is in a meeting with a bunch of Malawians - the tellers from her bank to be exact. The same tellers that threatened to strike in November. It is dark and they have not left yet. Something is wrong, and I fear Claudia, just over a week in her new job, is on the receiving end of it. Perhaps a trip to the Malawian hospital would have been better.

Georgina, Malaria and feeling helpless

I am sitting here doing my work, as Georgina, our servant cleans up the mess that Claudia and I invariably make everyday. She gets a call on her mobile phone and then goes outside to take it. She returns and tells me that her 7 year old son has been taken to the hospital. He has a severe case of Malaria. I ask Georgina if she can go to him, and she says that she has to work, and she doesn't have money for it anyways. I recall the welcome letter in our house here that says we can't give anything to the staff - that they are searched when they leave the gate. I also recall the advice of various people we have met over our past week here. "Don't get involved in your servants' personal lives."

Georgina goes back to work, cleaning our bathroom. I can hear her sobbing quietly. What am I doing here? I want to help the people in Malawi, but I feel paralyzed.

She just got another call. He has cerebral malaria - one of the worst kinds. The fact that he is in the hospital is proof of this enough, malaria is common here, and most people just tough it out. Her son has been put on a Quinine drip. Quinine! This is the ingredient in tonic water and why British imperialists in the 1800s used to drink Gin & Tonic. It is only effective against the weakest strains of malaria.

Next to me on the table is a bottle of Malarone pills. They are a brand new medication, that we take every night to avoid catching Malaria. They are available only in the West. I have been told by an expat that just one pill will often cure someone with the virus. They cost more per pill than Georgina probably makes in a week. Should I give her a few? I don't know the right dosage for a 7 year old - or if it is dangerous to mix with Quinine.

Well, she was just told by her boss that she is allowed to go to the hospital during her lunch break. I asked her if she has enough money for the minibus to the hospital and she said yes, but she is unsure about the hospital bills.

I will definitely help her, I just have to decide how best to do it.

It is for situations like this that having a bank account is so important. People without bank accounts do not save money. It is too dangerous to leave any significant amount under the bed, so money is spent as it is earned. This is why Claudia's work at OIBM is so crucial. With a bank account, people save and are better equipped to handle the disasters that life invariable yields. Unfortunately it is easier to say that from Oxford than from Malawi.

Malawi = Home

Apologies faithful readers for my long absence. It has been nonstop travel for the last 6 weeks, but I am now finally here in Lilongwe at my final destination.

They seem to be giving me the authentic African experience here. It has been less than a week, and there has already been an assassination attempt on the president! (Read bout it here) Let the good times roll...

In case you were hoping for some more tranquil tales from Africa then perhaps you will enjoy these recordings I made in the whee hours of morning from our back porch:

Malawi sounds 1
Malawi sounds 2

More to come, I promise!!

First Impressions of Malawi

8 hours by car from Reno to LA. 10 hours from LA to London. 1.5 from London to Oxford. 1.5 from Oxford to London. 3 to Rome then 6 to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. (Wait around for 15 hours). 5 hours to Harare, Zimbabwe and then 1.5 to Lilongwe. The grand total: 36.5 hours spent on moving vehicles in 5 days.

I had been sweating about clearing immigration in Lilongwe ever since we were hassled in London by Ethiopian Airways for only having a one way flight. Every time I would try and sleep on the airplane I would pull the eyemask down and scenarios and stories would run through my head: we are making a tour in Southern Africa of microfinance practices, we'll be in Malawi for 3 weeks then head to Zambia. But what if they notice that Claudia already has two stamps for Malawi? Sweating in an eyemask is not conducive to sleep.

Despite losing months of my life due to stress and sleeplessness, we sailed through immigration, grabbed our luggage and met Patrick, Claudia's jolly procurement officer at OIBM.

The green landscape surrounded us. The oddest thing about the landscape here, is that there seems to be a sparseness to the trees. Everything looks so green, that I would expect jungle to start where the pavement ends, but it is not the case. There are big open areas of green, many farmed, many just "bush", meaning non-tree scrub vegetation.

Our drive from the airport welcomed us to "Real Africa". Women carrying huge items on their heads, 4 year old children tending crops, men with rolled up umbrellas in one hand, and machetes in the other. A white family in a Landcruiser that we had spotted in Addis, zoomed past us in green Landcruiser. This is not the Africa of Lion King, this is Africa as it really is.

Our first few weeks we will be spent at Ufulu Gardens, a sort of African home away from Western home sort of place. It is a very nice fully fitted two bedroom house. I was so happy to see that there were screens on the windows. I had seen pictures of the interior of houses, and all of the windows I saw were made up of rows of 6 inch tall glass that could be rotated to let more or less air in. But I never saw any screens, and I was dreading a years long battle with mosquitoes. But, at least at Ufulu, there were screens and this made me very happy. One can never guess from where comfort will be found in a new place, but the screens were a start for me. Insects outwit screens though, and within hours I had killed a gigantic flying bug.

We slept the day away, and woke up in the afternoon. We had about 10 dollars worth of Kwacha, the local currency, and we needed to pick up something for the party so we ventured into town after Patrick dropped off a little Toyota four door for us to use. Lilongwe is elusive. There are a few concentrations of buildings around, but there are a lot more isolated buildings surrounded by bush. Roads with huge potholes, loads of people walking along, and no buildings in sight, betray the capital status of Lilongwe. We encountered 2 stoplights. Red lights don't seem to imply waiting, which I think I can get used to, but at one point I had a green arrow and cars kept coming and that was unsettling. Oh yeah, and stopsigns don't exist - even at a four way intersection. Good thing I was taught "Defensive Driving" by Mr Clemson, who also happened to be Reno's number one love song DJ, Dick Richards. If he could only see me now. We went to Shop-Rite, an African grocery store chain. Parking was an absolute nightmare - not unlike those sliding picture puzzles, where there is one possible configuration to make the picture look right, but only one tile can be slid at a time. Except that each tile had a mind of its own, and I had no idea what I was doing. Shop-Rite was impressive and crowded, it will be very easy (barring parking) to get just about any type of food we would want here. In fact I would call grocery shopping here a definite improvement over the central Oxford Sainsbury's that has sustained us for the past three years.

We got home around dinner time. Ufulu Gardens provides us with breakfast in our house, as well as daily cleaning. It will be a good way to get used to the concept of having servants around. So we had them make us a little meal for dinner, which was good, but kinda weird to just come out to your own dining room and find a whole meal waiting there for us.

Our first day was New Year's Eve and We had been invited to a party thrown by someone Claudia had met on an earlier visit. It was our first foray into the life of African expats. There were people there from all over the world: the US, Spain, Germany, Lebanon, India. Not a single person from Africa. We had Peace Corps staff, people from relief agencies, a guy that runs a hair extension factory, and some Americans that are pretty much doing whatever they can to ensure that they remain in Malawi and don't have to return home.

It was more social comfort then we found in Oxford in our first 6 months. The food was great, the conversations easy and interesting. It was easy to see how one could slip into a lifestyle of parties at big sprawling homes surrounded by similar minded people. Of course, this isn't why we came, but it is awfully nice to know that it is there when we need it.

The New Year rang in, and with it our new life in Malawi. Would we get Malaria 9 times like one guy I met has? Would we have stories of robberies and swindles? Would we be celebrating New Years in Lilongwe in 2010? Will we even make it to February 1st?