Monday, January 26, 2009

norms & customs - cultural differences -

Come to think about it, there are many norms and customs that were interesting and different from where I'm coming from. If you are thinking of staying or visiting Malawi, particularly villages, you may want to be aware of few things.

Men holding hands
You only find a man holding hands with another man and not women or man-woman. I don't really know where this practice stems from but you see them everywhere in Malawi. Men holding hands with another men does not have to do with their sexual orientation at all. In fact homosexuality is a big taboo there. At night, only in town, you find some heterosexual couples holding hands but you don't find them so often.

The interesting part of the wedding in Malawi is the reception. It's about 3 to 4 hours of dancing where the newly wed couple or their parents stand up front with a bucket and others come there to toss bills into the bucket. Each group like "all the bride's colleagues" for instance gets called out to come up and start giving money. And this and only this continues for 3-4 hours... I guess I was expecting some touching speeches and refreshments. I needed break my big bills into small ones so that I can keep on tossing bills! What shocked me was that they announced how much people paid, aside from this money-giving dancing in an envelope.

In villages, they lay two lines of grass on the ground where someone who lives in the house between these two rows of grass passed away. If you are riding a bicycle or motorbike, you simple get off and walk slowly. If you are driving a car, you slow down and turn off the music or radio. If you are wearing a hat, you take it off when you walk pass by. At the funeral, you also give money. Like wedding, whoever paid the most amount and its amount was announced in front of everyone. You find many people at the funeral. They say that if you don't show up and show respect to others' funeral, no one would come to yours. I thought was interesting.

Women's dress code
There was a law in the past that women had to wear long skirts. You could have been jailed if you wore short shirts that time. Malawi was the last country that implemented pants for police women's uniforms. Likewise, in villages, covering my knee and above was the must to be respectful to those around me. I also had to be careful not to reveal my belly and the lower back in order to avoid stimulating men's sexual desire (that's what the local ladies told me). But showing breast has no sexual connotation. Women breastfeed their babies anytime, anywhere.

I only shared four but you will find many more examples of fascinating cultural differences. But it's just a matter of time till all of those become part of your normality. I almost forgot about them...

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

good bye Malawi

My one year went by so fast. As my flight took off, I couldn't help crying because of an overwhelming sense of appreciation. Right now, I am back in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, the eastern Caribbean, reflecting my one year.

I will still continue posting some more blogs about things I didn't have enough time to write about when I was in Malawi. But today, let me thank some special people I met that made my stay so memorable.

First and foremost, my two local supervisors, Shake Steven and Vincent Zuze (photo #6). They have the true spirit of volunteerism, working voluntarily for the sake of preschools in underprivileged community. They work day and night with the international volunteers like myself. They go to preschools everyday with them, guiding the community and translating Chichewa into English for the international volunteers. Shake is 70 years old and Vincent is 59 years old. They still ride bicycle with them for hours and hours on a daily basis. Without them, this preschool project is simply impossible. Thank you Shake and Vincent. I will never forget you.

I would like to thank all the volunteer preschool teachers and the committee members that I worked with. Like Shake and Vincent, they also work for the development voluntarily. Some more active and dedicated than others but they do so much for the sake of their community's development and the better future of their children. I post pictures of those people and the preschool building I assisted in constructing (photo #5). I also post pictures from my goodbye party they prepared for me (photo #1 and 4). From December to February is what they call "hunger season". They simply don't have enough food so they only get to eat once a day if they are lucky. Despite such hard time, they somehow managed to prepare rice, nshima, and even chicken. People in the village only get to eat chicken once a year for Christmas. I was overwhelmed with so much appreciation that day. They also gave me lots of vegetables and chitenji (clothes women use for rap-skirts) as the farewell gift. They are my treasures.

I should not forget about my colleagues (photo #3). We worked and they are still working so hard for a great cause. It's our mission to inform as many people back home as possible about what we saw and did. World peace can start from one's change in awareness. I hope to stay in touch with all of them.

My project leader Hyson Masache (photo #2) also helped me a lot. We organized so many trainings and meetings for the sake of the preschool development project. He was doing all the behind-the-scene work, and I shall thank him for that.

And my Malawian family... I will miss them so much. I just hope to have a reunion sometime soon in the future.
I left Malawi on January 19th and I am already missing my life there so badly...

Friday, December 12, 2008

38 more days...

It has already been 11 months since I came to Malawi. It is hard to believe that I only have 38 more days left before leaving this beautiful country.

The rainy season has begun and villagers are busy cultivating the land and planting maize seeds. Contrary to the lively greenness of baby maize plants, people in the rural areas are suffering. Many face hunger.

When I went to several villages to meet with the preschool teachers and committees this week, I did not see people cooking. So many people approached me asking for help. I asked them how they survive without enough food. They told me they eat only once a day. They cannot even afford madeya, the remaining pieces of maize after milling, which is given to animals.

The only edible things available for all are mangos and the local insects called Ngonbi. I saw my friends waiting underneath the lamps trying to catch as many flying Ngonbi as they can. They take off the wings and eat them raw or fried with salt.

I feel guilty.

As for my preschool development project, I have few more big tasks left.

Next Thursday is the graduation for half of the teachers who have participated in 2 and a half years of training. It will be a Christmas party where they get to eat meat and rice and enjoy soda.

Before the end of the year, I also have to purchase all the materials needed for starting up small businesses for 8 preschools. This is a small-scale microcredit program whereby the selected preschool committees receive all the materials needed for a small business and little by little from the income, they have to return the money needed to buy them. Such businesses include village style bakery, barbershop, cellphone charging using solar panel, piggeries, tailoring, and goat meat sales. I am very much excited about the outcome.

I also have to finish up a preschool construction, passing down the information to the next volunteers, saying goodbye to everyone….

Time is running out…

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

I can't believe how fast time goes by... I only wrote one blog entry in whole September and now it's almost end of October... I've been busy lately but let me try to update some news.

From September 15th through 28th, we had a 2-week long preschool teacher certifying program facilitated by Malawian government officials. I was just there for logistics and serving food but this was quite an experience.

In the end, everything went fine. But my teachers thought they'd receive allowances either from gov't or me. NOT TRUE. And they were so upset. The thing is that in Malawi, organizers of any seminar is expected to give money to the participants, which is not normal in my culture. I've already spent SO MUCH money for the feeding and accommodating the participants, buying all the materials needed, and inviting the gov't facilitators. It was amazingly difficult to make them understand that this program was only for their education and certificates from their gov't. Eventually, I don't know when, when the gov't decides to acknowledge preschools and start giving salaries to the teachers, my teachers will be the first ones to receive it. Well, who knows when that will be. But I hope for the best. Anyways, today, the gov't officials came back to deliver some donation items for preschools like plastic cups, plates, cooking pots, books, and some educational materials. The problem is that they aren't enough for all the represented preschools... How am I going to decide who gets what? It will be a lot of work figuring out which school has what by now...

What else did I do?

I coordinated a preschool visit with Billy, a coordinator from an NGO called Feed the Children. They are willing to donate mixed ufa (flour to make porridge for children) every month if and only if the preschools meet their requirements. They've already started providing ufa to 4 of our preschools. Especially the hunger season is coming soon, their help would mean so much. I'm just hoping that they will approve many more schools.

With the help of my ex boss's donation, my colleague and I have been assisting a preschool construction. It's going slowly but surely. The village community had to agree to prepare bricks (mold and burn all the bricks needed) and find volunteer builders. Well, it's not easy for them to be a volunteer when they face poverty and hunger. It took us a long time to find them. Then we agreed with the community that they'd have to feed the builders while they're working. Now, they've finished up to window level. We bought and delivered almost all the materials needed. We chose bright blue/greenish color paints for the walls :) I look forward to our common action painting day and the opening ceremony!! It will be a one and only building with painted walls in the whole village and surrounding villages.

What else? Yes, my team has been working on a new project- micro-credit program for preschools' income generation. The idea is to provide all the materials needed to start an income generation activity in a form of loans. Respective preschool committees need to return little bit every month from the profit until they fully pay back all the money needed to buy the materials originally. Yesterday was the deadline for its application and in the course of next few days, we'll be busy selecting the best of the best whom we can trust. Some had an idea of animal keeping, others thought of buying fish from lake and reselling it in their villages. Bee keeping, cooking oil making, soap making... Ideas are plenty. But we'll have to further discuss what works the best in the village setting and so forth. I hope to see positive tangible results in the near future.

Monday, September 22, 2008


I had an easy idea about getting malaria, thinking “may be I should experience once now that I’m in Malawi” But hey, NEVER AGAINA! Fever, vomiting, body ache, dizziness, ear-ringing… My first experience with malaria was nothing but awful. I don’t want to get it ever again.

I just got discharged from hospital yesterday afternoon. I was hospitalized for 2.5 days.
It all started on last Thursday when I started to feel pain in my joints and back. I thought it was just muscle sore. The following day, the body ache was pretty much all over the place. Especially my palms and back of my feet were giving me strange feelings and pains. I started to feel fever. It was only 37.1 around 11am. I went to bed to rest. By 1pm, my fever went up to 38.5. By 5pm, it was over 40 and I was half unconscious, at which point I was sent to hospital. As soon as I got to the hospital they took and temperature and blood test for malaria that obviously showed positive. They gave me an injection to relieve the fever and transferred to the emergency room. After that I was moved to ward room where I spent two nights vomiting and vomiting and vomiting.

My malaria level was only 1 out of 5 (5 being deadly) but because I was taking malaria prevention pills so consistently that normal quinine medicine wasn’t strong enough to kill what was inside of my body. So the combination of high fever and strong medication caused me nausea and I had to throw up constantly. Oh, it was a nightmare. And quinine medicine blocks your ear as though you have ear plugs in your ears. I was not hearing properly. On 2nd day, the blood test still showed positive. So I had to stay one more terrific night. On 3rd day at last, the testing showed negative and I was given an option to go home. Doctor recommended me to stay one more day as my fever still persisted but hell no, I wanted to go home and take shower and be with my friends.

Today, I feel much better but still am suffering from fever over 38. Pain killer pills are doing the work but I’m still not well yet. I just hope I won’t get it ever again… ever EVER!!!

Friday, August 29, 2008

Government hospitals

I was impressed when I first heard about government hospitals. Hospitals of "free of charge" sounded very relieving after seeing so many people and children suffering from malaria and various infections in the villages. But of course, they can't provide the same services I get back home where I have to pay a lot of money for health insurance.

In the area I work, there are 2 government hospitals. People go there walking for hours and hours. When they finally get there, they may be lucky enough to get the medicines if it's malaria. Often times they run out of the medications and people simply have to go home with nothing but their weak and sick bodies. If it's an infection, they give you Panado (local pain killer tablets). Do Panado tablets heal infections? Obviously no.

The other day the wife of a field worker in HIV/AIDS project came asking for my help. Her son had a badly broken arm. I could clearly see it was broken. She went to one of the gov't hospitals and got Panado but she knew that it would not do anything. She had no money because the husband was away. I arranged the transport for her and her son and gave her money to go to a clinic to get his arm X-rayed and treated.

Another day, my local supervisor for preschool project fell down from bicycle. As he is turning 70 years old this year, he was having lots of pain in his back. His muscle must have been torn apart or something. He went to the gov't hospital and again, got Panado.

And today, at a preschool I'm supervising, I saw a 5 year-old boy with a swollen hand. He has 12 fingers and 12 toes. I'm not sure if that has anything to do with the infection but his right hand was huge. His mother told me that she took him to the gov't hospital before and then of course got Panado... The teacher there told me it's a type of skin disease that requires an injection if I understood her chichewa (local language) correctly... I'm bringing him antibiotics ointment and pills tomorrow.

The reality is that people from the villages can't even afford the transport to go to a bigger gov't hospital in town with many volunteer doctors from overseas. Given that, they can't afford to get treatment at any other private clinics of course. But it's a life-or-death matter. And in fact, so many children and adults die from malaria and diarrhea, completely treatable diseases. There is no way I could help everyone. I know. But can't there be anything I can do to change this situation?

If nothing gets treated, what's the point of having a hospital? I wonder...

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Life without electricity and running water

Tomorrow marks the 14th day without electricity and running water.

Why no electricity and running water?

Someone stole the electricity cable which was from Germany and is no where to be found in Malawi. How is that even possible?! Well, the water tank in the area is run by electricity and thus I have no running water.

Luckily there is a water pump. But the thing is that over 200 people live in the same area and we have to share this one and only pump... I can't waste my day waiting in line just to get some water...

When did I bath??
Let's not think about that...

So yes, I finally came to town to check emails today.

Suddenly I wanted to ask if the electricity company is doing something about this problem.
The response from the administrator of the place I work is the following:


We're paying for electricity on the basis of consumption and not advance-payment. So, there is absolutely nothing we can do about it. How funny!

Okay, I should just get used to it. This is how majority of Malawians live everyday and I should experience their life style.

It's just amazing to see how dependant I am on electricity. I've talked about this already but it's just amazing. It really changes the productivity of work and above all, the hygiene! No wonder many children I see in villages have infections and what not.

Anyways, I'm proud of mastering charcoal cooking and carrying bucket full of water on my head.
That's something I would never learn if I weren't here.

Let's see how long this will last...