Wednesday, 7 May 2008

A glimpse into my every day life

It seems a little late to have a post on this, given that I've been here for over 9 months already.. . . I started writing this blog entry way back in November. I kept putting off posting it because I wanted to take some corresponding photos, but I just never got around to taking them. I have yet to take all the photos I would like to include; However, I have received a couple of recent requests for a post such as this, so . . . here we go . . .

The details of my day to day life here are different from what I’m used to in Canada, but not to the degree most people probably think. At the end of the day, I’m doing the same kind of stuff – it’s just the details that are different.

The hours I keep here are quite different. While back in Canada – especially during my undergrad – I wouldn’t make my way to bed until 1 or 2am, here I try to get to bed by around 10:30pm – even then, that’s pretty late by Malawian standards. My roommates are often in bed by 9:30, and in the previous place I stayed my roommate was generally in bed by 8pm. Still, 10:30 is early for me, but necessary, since my day starts at 5:30am.

While I’ve historically been very reliant on my snooze button, here I generally wake up unassisted sometime between 5:15 and 5:30 every morning (when I “sleep in” until 7 on the weekends, my housemates make fun of me for sleeping in so late!). I crawl out from under my mosquito net on my foam mat on the basic wooden frame bed I had made by a nearby carpenter.

One of my preferred breakfasts is phala – a porridge made of roasted maize and soya flour – with bananas. My roommates either don’t have breakfast or eat chips (fries) or rice porridge.

I leave for work around 6:45am. A short walk down my street brings me to the nearest minibus route. I generally have to wait no more than a few minutes before I see a white minibus come peeling around the corner with a man hanging out the window shouting “town! town!” indicating the vehicle’s final destination (the bus station in “old town”).
Photo 1: View down my street
Photo 2: A little shop across from my house

On certain days, I just don’t seem to have luck catching a bus from my usual spot. So, I have to walk through my area’s trading centre area to the main road. I take a shortcut which has me tromping through maize and cross an open storm sewer which serves as a bit of a garbage dump. Solid waste management leaves something to be desired here . . . storm sewers often become mini dumps which are burned occasionally as trash accumulates. This particular spot is close to a few tailors and a couple “saloons” (salons) so it is inevitably filled with many colourful scraps of fabric and LOTS of spent hair extensions (as a general rule: if a lady has a lovely head of long hair, it isn’t hers).

I pass a couple of carpenters, who work in open air shops using old hand tools. I bought my bed from such a carpenter.
Photo 3: My carpenter

Up a little further I pass a maize mill where ladies from all around gather to earn a little money by offering sifting services outside the mill.
Photo 4: Ladies at the maize mill. Those woven baskets there are used to sift maize.

Entering the market, I’m always greeted with a jovial “Muli Bwanji!” (how are you?) by a man running a little fruit stand. No matter how many times I respond with the appropriate “Ndili bwino, kaya inu?” (I’m fine, and you?), he always seems to be entertained, and has a good laugh at my expense.

Photo 5: Fruit seller

Vendors sell bags of charcoal. Charcoal is produced by slowly burning huge piles of wood in soil packed ovens. Charcoal is a very commonly used fuel for cooking in town, and is a significant contributor to the deforestation problem.
While production of charcoal is technically illegal in Malawi, it is still very common being one of the non farming related income generating activities available to the rural poor.
Photo 6: Charcoal seller

A row of ladies sell used clothing just outside of the market walls. The used clothing is shipped over from North America and Europe in shrink wrapped bails. I see all kinds of familiar shirts walking around town, from little kids in Montreal Canadians Jerseys, to big guys in purple “red hat society” shirts, or ladies in “world’s greatest dad” t-shirts. The used clothing market is largely attributed to killing any chance of sustaining textile industries in Malawi and other African countries.

Across from the used clothing ladies, chip sellers line the path.
Photo 7: Chip seller

Continuing on, I pass men laying fish out to dry in the sun, and ladies running little phone booth stations. There are tyre fitters and car mechanics who set up simple shops as well.
Photo 8: Tyre fitter
Photo 9: Car mechanic

Within a 20 m radius, one gets to experience almost the entire meat production process. It is pretty interesting, really. First, there is the heard of goats that is always gathered next to the filling station. They seem to be shipped in every morning by pick up truck; they have their legs tied together and are lain down on the bed of the truck for transport. A short distance away is a tree that I pass on my way to the bus stop. Each morning I walk by they seem to be a different stage in the slaughtering process: sharpening their knives as a goat nervously stands nearby; tying a goat upside by his/her ankles; slitting the throat; draining blood; skinning . . . etc. Sometimes one goat, sometimes two. A short distance away from the tree is the butchering table – a small table, completely in the open (and generally completely covered in flies…) There is always a goat carcass or two strung up, and one being chopped up into bits using what appears to be quite a dull knife. Across from this table are the men with the chip stands. While most are cooking up chips in pools of oil on metal tables, a couple sell fried goat meat and goat “offals” – mmmm.
Photo 10: Goats awaiting their turn
Photo 11: Goat slaughtering tree
Photo 12: Goat slaughtering tree in all its glory
Photo 13: Butcher

Now, continuing along my walk . . . passed the goat slaughtering tree, is another tree of note. On the weekends, the second large tree I pass serves as a barber shop. A man puts up a little cardboard sign saying “barbershop” and pulls up a chair. He seems to have quite the steady stream of clientele, there is always a row of people sitting on stumps by the tree, seeming to be waiting their turn. Across the street, I arrive at the bus stop.
Photo 14: The barber (no clients around at the time!)

I flag the bus down and squeeze myself in. It wasn’t so long ago that it was a much tighter fit. A recent law was passed restricting the number of people allowed per row to 3. Previously, 4 people were squished into rows really meant for 3 – not too comfortable. However, fewer people per ride means higher prices.

A minibus trip to most parts of the city costs 90MK (65 cents). That doesn’t sound like much, but when you compare it to average wages people make in this city, it is huge! Let’s say you need to take a minibus 2 times a day, 6 days a week, 4 weeks a month – that comes to 4320MK per month. Compare that to some typical wages . . . My watchman is paid 2500MK per month, office clerks at my housemate’s work (the Ministry of Foreign Affairs) make 8000MK per month. Transportation in this city has become cost prohibitive for many.

By minibus it takes approximately 15 minutes to get into town from this point. It isn’t a terribly thrilling ride . . . We pass a couple of nicely landscaped traffic circle – traffic circles here are amongst the most nicely landscaped places in town. On Saturdays you often see wedding parties using traffic circles for photo ops! Traffic circles are the norm with traffic signals only found at a couple of T-intersections. Traffic signals are called “robots” here. I recall being a little confused overhearing a conversation on the new robots being installed in town when I first arrived…
Photo 15: War memorial. I went to check it out in December, a month after it was officially opened. Even then, plaques were already falling off . . .
Photo 16: Pedestrian bridge over the major road which brings me by minibus (the stop for which is just past the bridge) to work. No one really uses the bridge – the only time I see it being used is by people jogging up and down for exercise.

I crawl out of the minibus (it takes some technique) at my stop which is near the Shoprite and main People’s trading centre (PTC) Old Town. Shoprite is a big South African grocery store chain, while PTCs are a Malawian chain.

My office is a short walk away, and I generally arrive by around 7:15am. I’ve been spending much time in the office recently. I’ve actually moved on to working on a different project now, one which I’ll be writing about soon.

I often get a little peckish around mid morning, and dash out of the office for a quick snack. What I pick up for a snack is often quite seasonal. At present, my current favorite things are: boiled ground nuts (peanuts), which I purchase from ladies that carry basins of them on their head; guavas or green tangerines, which I purchase from men who walk around town with boxes of them for sale; and roasted sweet potatoes, which I purchase from men who roast them on charcoal stoves in the markets.

My lunch hours are busy times, filled with errands. There isn’t much time available in the week to do shopping and the like – stores open and close within normal working hours during the week (typically open between 8 and 5), close around 1pm on Saturdays, and most stay closed all day Sunday. It is pretty frustrating; I don’t know how people get anything done! I’m lucky though; my office is located centrally in the heart of Old Town which is pretty handy. I know my area like the back of my hand, and I have my preferred shops to get pretty much everything I need.

I usually bring leftovers for lunch (the day we got a microwave at my office was very exciting for me), but a day or two a week I’ll go out for lunch. One of my most commonly visited spots is a restaurant in the market called “the Silver Spoon.” I will usually get nsima with vegetables and beans – approximately $0.80 (the price went up recently!).
Photo 17: The Silver Spoon

It gets dark pretty early now, so if I want to get home before dark (which I do!) I need to leave the office by 5:30.

By the time I arrive at home, my watchman is sitting at his post. Most everyone in this town seems to have a watchman. They are key in reducing opportunistic criminals – our watchman has scared off would-be robbers who have lurked by my window on a couple of occasions.

At home I’ll hang out with my roommates for a bit. We usually make supper together – some combination of rice or nsima with veggies and eggs, meat (or tasty soya pieces for me!), fish, or beans. I’m generally in charge of preparing the veggies – my housemates used to squawk about my not using enough oil in my cooking, but they’ve gotten use to it!

I usually bathe during the evening, even though my housemates seem to think this is weird (they always bathe in the mornings). We lack a geezer (a hot water heater) so I put on a big pot of water to boil – I’m not a fan of cold baths! I fill up my trusty red bucket with the warmed water and head to the bathroom where I use a plastic saucepan, a loofah (which grow locally here), and a bar of soap to get squeaky clean before starting my day. I dry off using a piece of chitenje fabric which I wrap around me before returning to my room.

And then . . . off to bed!