Thursday, 27 December 2007

My Malawian Christmas

I just finished celebrating my first tropical Christmas. It was definitely a big change from every previous Christmas I’ve experienced!

I was invited to spend Christmas this year with my housemates. I initially assumed that they would be spending Christmas with their parents and the rest of their family, so I had expected to be a part of some large family gathering at their parents’ home in a town near the Zambian border, an hour and a bit outside of Lilongwe. However, I soon found out this was not going to be the case. In fact, the plan was to spend Christmas at the lake with some friends.

In the afternoon of Christmas eve, my housemates Khala, Bon, and I got picked up by a minibus that was rented by Khala’s friend Isabel. The minibus was packed to the brim with people (a number of Isabel’s siblings and cousins were also joining us), lots of luggage and food, as well as extra mattresses and a braii.

We stayed at a place called the “Beach Villa” which was actually a complex of 20 or so “villas” (which make them sound fancier than they are . . . they were really just 2 bedroom cinderblock chalets) by the beach. There were 12 of us and we took up two of the chalets. We set up the braii (bbq) and so started a weekend filled with meat. It seemed like that braii was constantly loaded up with piles and piles of chicken, beef, or sausages. Not a vegetable or carb to be seen! I came prepared with a package of my trusty soya pieces so I made my own supper that first night.
Photo 1: Braii by one of our chalets

On Christmas eve evening we sat by the lodge eating, drinking, and listening to really loud music when someone informed us of a performance of gulewankulu (big dance). The Gulewankulu is an important traditional dance here, performed by “chilombo” or “moving spirits” who dress in masks and costume. No one has been able to give me a satisfactory answer as to what these moving spirits do exactly, but they are from the rural areas and dance at functions and celebrations, and otherwise just run around and cause mischief. If you’re not careful and especially if you disrespect them in some way, they may put a curse on you – so watch out! They also perform their dances for general spectators, such as what was happening by the lodge.

A large crowd gathered by the beach where the performance was taking place. The place we were staying at was filled with Malawians and I was the only Muzungu there, and in the crowd of spectators. The musical accompaniment was provided mostly by 5 or so drummers, who used wooden dug out drums with goat skin – they would frequently tune their instruments by placing the drum in the flames of a fire. The chilombo wore costumes ranging from a woman’s dress (though the dancer was more than likely a man), to coveralls, to big smocks covered in scraps of various fabrics. The masks ranged from being very plain to being huge and elaborate. The dancers went up one at a time (there must have been around 10 in total) and all had different styles, mostly depending on their costume - some were lots of hips, others lots of twirling and rolling around in the sand, and one danced with fire while another wore stilts. People in the crowd could go up and give the dancers money and then get them to do something for them. Typically they might want them to do some particular dance move, or dance with them, or have a photo taken. One little girl, who couldn’t be over the age of 7, went up and seriously busted a move in a dance off with one of them, and the crowd roared in approval. Someone I was with, without my knowing, gave one of them money to take a photo with me, so all of a sudden I had a crazy dressed dude come barreling towards me and pull me towards him for a photo op – I was slightly mauled but the crowd certainly l loved it!
Photo 2: Chilombo Dancer

Photo 3: The drummers

Once the show (which went on for at least a couple of hours) was done, we returned to the braii for yet more meat (I must admit to feeling a little left out!). All of a sudden we heard screams coming from nearby, followed by a herd of running children coming tearing past us. I went over to investigate the situation. Turns out, a black mamba snake (well, that's what I was told it was - they are quite poisonous apparently) had slithered into one of the chalets, in pursuit of a toad that had hopped inside. A group of men wielding pieces of PVC pipes came to take care of the situation. The snake was hiding under a bed so then men proceeded to jab it to near-death and then triumphantly came outside with the snake dangling at the end of the stick. The crowd shouted out instructions for them to chop its head off – the only proper way to do away with a poisonous snake apparently. So, they proceeded to chop the snake’s head off with a stick.
Photo 4: The snake being . . .um, done away with . . . (sorry for the slightly graphic image!)

The next day was filled with swimming and barbequing. I bought some fish (fisherman just wander around the beach and up into the lodges with bunches of fish tied with string for sale) so I got to participate in the festivities a little bit more which was nice!
Photo 5: Isabel, myself, and Khala on the beach

The dancers returned so we watched a few more performances – one of the dancers had a remarkably santa claus like mask on, the closest I came to seeing Santa on Christmas this year!
Photo 6: Dancer twirling
Photo 7: Santa?

In the afternoon we headed over to the nearby Livingstonia beach hotel campgrounds. We packed up the braii and set ourselves up right by the beach. It was quite a nice place, and absolutely hopping, filled with people. So, we spent the rest of Christmas swimming and eating. I received many phone calls from home, which was very nice!
Photo 8: Our prime location by the beach
Photo 9: Someone bought fish to bring back. You'll often see buses and cars around the lakeshore area with fish hanging outside - they do this because the airflow keeps the fish fresh apparently (plus I imagine that without a cooler, the fish would stink up the inside of a vehicle pretty quickly!)

Malawi is a predominantly Christian country, so Christmas is a widely celebrated holiday here. I’ve been doing a bit of an informal poll with people I’ve talked to over the past few weeks, trying to figure out what a typical urban Malawian does for Christmas. Most don’t seem to have any particular traditions – sometimes the lake, sometimes dinner with the family, and often nothing in particular.

My Christmas this year, while very enjoyable, definitely didn’t feel to Chrismasey to me! What with the bbqing, swimming, fireworks, etc it felt more like a Victoria Day or Canada long weekend to me!

People often asked me what Christmas was like back in Canada, so I told them about typical Christmas traditions. Upon hearing that people usually celebrate with a big dinner the typically reaction was to express disappointment with how dull our Christmases are! I would hardly call my usual Christmases boring, so I tried to elaborate on how fun things usually are, but still, the fact that the weather is cold and most things happen inside was enough for all Canadian Christmases to be deemed boring by the Malawians I was with. Oh well, I’m still very much looking forward to Christmas back at home next year!

Thursday, 20 December 2007

Seasons Greetings from Malawi!

It seems that the Christmas season is upon us. While my friends and family back in Canada are busy with parties, family gatherings, last minute shopping and tree trimming, I find myself feeling very far away from it all . . .

This will be my first Christmas away from home, and I won’t lie – I’m pretty bummed about it. Though, I keep having to remind myself that it is already late December and that Christmas is just around the corner –the usual signs signalling the arrival of the Christmas season for me aren’t here to nearly the same degree! There are few Christmas parties, no crowded shopping malls, no Christmas lights, no snow. It is probably the warm weather that throws me off the most! Some of the grocery stores are decked out in Christmas decorations, and the Shoprite has been playing Christmas carols since the beginning of November, but aside from that, it is distinctly unfestive here, compared to what I’m accustomed to!

To get myself into the Christmas spirit, I've decked out a small portion of my room with decorations - much to the amusement of my roommates!

Photo 1: Posing by my decorations

Photo 2: My room

As far as Christmas celebrations go, I believe I'll be spending a few days at the lake with my roommates. Festivities here are kept quite low key it seems, and my roommates aren't even going to be spending the holidays with the rest of their family (who are all within a couple of hours of us).

Spending Christmas day by the beach will be quite a dramatic change from my usual celebrations, which take place at the farm of some wonderful family friends (I'll miss you guys this year!!!!).

Photo 3: Christmas dinner at the Monkmans' place

In other news, my boyfriend is arriving in Malawi on December 27th, and we'll be doing some travelling around together, which will be very nice!

In case I’m unable to post for a little while, I wish you all the merriest of Christmases and the happiest of new years!

Friday, 7 December 2007

Some photos . . .

I can hardly believe that I’ve been here for over 4 months - here are some photos from the last couple of 'em!

Photo 1: Boys with mouse bashing sticks – this charming group of young men are wielding mouse bashing sticks. I’m not sure of the exact process, but somehow they entice mice to leave their holes and then bash ‘em to death (kind of like a real life whac-a-mole I guess!). Mice are eaten in some of the rural areas around here. One common way of preparing them is to dry them – mice are lined up and held between sticks and then dried over coals for a few hours. Once they’re done they’re eaten whole – fur, teeth, the whole bit!

Photo 2: Out in the field - I spend much of my time (30+%) doing field work, which typically involves doing surveys and assessing site conditions.

Photo 3: An unusual well - In the rural areas many communities are equipped with boreholes that have hand pumps to draw the water out. This well, however, was a little different . . . The water flows freely 24/7 from the pipe as it is an artesian well.

Photo 4: Dog in tobacco nursery – This cute little guy is relaxing in a tobacco nursery. Tobacco is a very important crop here, and it is raised in nurseries during the dry season before being transplanted in fields when the rains come.

Photo 5: Ladies in field - This photo was taken last week in the Southern Region of the country, where the rainy season has started. Farmers in this region have started cultivating their rain fed fields, such as can be seen in this photo where the fields are green with maize.

Photo 6: Cute kid with WFP cans – A very cute little kid hanging out with some World Food Program cans of oil now used as planters.

Photo 7: My new home - I moved into a new place little over a month ago. I’m now living with 2 roommates, a brother and sister . Various siblings and family members of theirs always seem to be passing through to stay here too. I am much much happier here than at my last place!

Photo 8: Hair salon in the living room - my roommate Khala getting her hair done by her friend Penelope from down the street. I feel like I have extremely boring hair here; ladies have their hair drastically changed ever few weeks. Meanwhile, I get my hair cut like once a year and keep it in a perma-ponytail. . .

Photo 9: Khala in doorway - my new roomie hanging out in our back doorway. After work almost every day we hang out on the back stoop eating popcorn enjoying the cool evening air.

Photo 10: Rickety bridges – The main market in town is divided in 2 by a river. If you want to get from one side to the other you have 2 options; you can walk a ways out of your way and take the main bridge, or, take a much more direct route across one of these private bridges. For the low low price of 7 cents (or 3.5 cents if the guy in charge is feeling generous) you can take a thrilling, death defying stroll across one of these rickety bridges!

Photo 11: Rickety bridge 2 – we made it safely across! During the rainy season (which is nearly upon us here in Lilongwe) these bridges get washed away, so the owners have to rebuild every year.

Photo 12: Bday at lake – I spent my 24th birthday with some friends at the lake.

Photo 13: Bday at the lake - brownies lit with birthday candles, decorations, balloons, and noisemakers, what more do you need for a complete birthday?

Monday, 3 December 2007

Let the rains begin!

It has been quite some time since I last posted . . . I have found myself to be quite busy lately – work has been hectic and I’ve been out of town a lot recently on field visits. A few other unexpected things have also come up, all of which have conspired to keep me from writing. So, I shall fix this situation with just a quick post today, and the promise of a more substantial one soon!

My most recently field trip had me visiting Blantyre district, in the south of Malawi. It seems that the rainy season has hit there in full force, adding a new, fun, and muddy dimension to field work!

The problems we encountered made me realize the challenges that the rainy season poses to conducting field work, and reminded me of one of the 6 biases that Robert Chambers (1983) describes as impeding outsiders’ contact with rural poverty, particularly the more extreme cases.
  1. Spatial biases: urban, tarmac and roadside (attention focused on communities with better roads leading from major cities
  2. Project bias: attention and funds beome ever more foccussed on increasingly atypical pet communities
  3. Person bias: views of a few key informants (the most articulate and therefore atypical) become recorded as representing the entire community
  4. Dry Season bias: visitors typically schedule visits during most clement weather; many of the more severe problems go unobserved
  5. Diplomatic biases: prevent real problems from being exposed and confronted
  6. Professional biases: specialization of interest resulting in tunnel vision, discourages an understanding of linkages
I find myself thinking about how these biases apply to the work that I do, and what steps we can take to minimize them as much as possible. As one example, we use random sampling techniques to select the sample of clubs we visit during our surveys, so we don’t choose villages based on ease of access, distance, etc. However, this becomes more difficult to stick to during the rainy season, when many routes become impassable…Indeed, getting heavily stuck in deep mud not once but twice in less than 18 hours, I could see that bias number 4 will undoubtedly play a role in the field work I participate in for the next few months, over the course of the rainy season period.

On our first afternoon of work, we started down one fine looking road before the field coordinator we were with informed us it had just been newly constructed. Normally it would be fine, but it rained for a couple hours earlier in the day . . . Before we knew it, the tires were bogged down with mud and we weren’t going anywhere in a hurry. The nice new road was a mess!

Photo 1: new road

We tried turning around and heading back the way we came, but ended up quickly sliding into a ditch, requiring the help of people from the neighbouring villages to get us out.

Photo 2: push!!!

We attracted quite the crowd!
Photo 3: Our crowd of onlookers

No sooner had we made it out of the ditch and we ended up in the ditch on the other side of the road . . .whoops!
Photo 4: ...and again!

Back on a solid road, we managed to get to a few more sites . . . along the way we passed this group of gentlemen at a dam washing their bikes clean of mud.

Photo 5: bicyclists cleaning mud off their bikes

The very next day we set out bright and early in the hopes of a productive day! However, just as we rolled up to the first village we were to visit, rain came pouring down in sheets. Due to the nature of work we were there to conduct it wasn’t practical to head out in the rain. So, we sat in the vehicle, and waited it out. Nearly an hour passed with no end in sight, so we decided to revise our plans and return later in the day. We couldn’t go back the way we came because of flooding, so we were directed up a path we were assured was a much better road. . .

Photo 6: The awesome "much better" road, or so we were told

Sure enough, we got very stuck.

It was pouring rain out, and we had no one else around to help us out. We sat and waited for the rain to let up for a few hours – we needed help from people from the surrounding villages, but no one was out and about in the pouring rain! After a few failed attempts we were just about ready to give up and make the 10+km trek in the rain back to town on foot, with the hopes of somehow getting the vehicle out the next day, when a group of people showed up, ready to help!

I didn’t end up getting any photos which truly captured how ridiculously stuck we were, I was shocked that we actually got ourselves out – in involved the help of several farmers, and some creative use of rocks and planks to get ourselves out of a gully.

Photo 7: another audience!

Photo 8 : final shove!

We gave up on our workplan for the day, and returned to the village a couple days later to conduct our surveys.

Yes, I have little doubt that this whole rainy season thing is going to present some complications in the work we want to achieve…should be interesting!