Saturday, January 26, 2008


The last two months, while not busy have surely been eventful. I fear that I have been a rather strange face in my village, breaking a rule I set out for myself of being there as much as possible. I packed my bag and headed off to Namibia to visit Briana and spend Christmas with her and her family. It was a welcomed opportunity to see another part of Africa and to spend the holidays in good company. I left Blantyre, in a deluge or rain, en route to Jo’burg via Lilongwe. The first leg of the trip was a short 25 minute flight that turned out to have the most interesting passenger list I could have imagined. I sat next to 2 girls who were around my age who, judging by their accents hailed from North America. It turns out that one was from Canada and the other was from, South Brunswick, New Jersey (A town about 15 miles from where I grew up). They were working/doing research with a university here in Malawi. It is indeed a small world. The rest of the flight was a massive group of Muslim families, whom I learned were on their way to Mecca for Hajj. The plane literally cleared out as there is an Air Malawi flight direct to Dubai from Lilongwe. It really made me appreciate how global of a religion Islam is and how awful of stereotypes we have about it in the west. Anyway, we’ll save that conversation for another time.

Getting off the plane in Johannesburg was like stepping into another dimension. There was a jet-way first of all and once inside the airport, there were moving sidewalks (that worked), more shops than one could find in Chicago’s O’Hare airport, people speaking a million different languages and construction workers everywhere, I mean everywhere. This was shortly before seemingly every laborer and even some professionals in South Africa went on strike. The construction inside and outside the airport was truly amazing and, fingers crossed it will be completed for the World Cup in 2010. The next flight was very quick and not nearly as interesting. Nonetheless, it saw me arrive safely in Windhoek.

If Johannesburg was another dimension, Namibia was a different planet. It’s difficult to describe the vast differences in geography and culture in Southern Africa. As soon I stepped out of the cabin onto the ‘air-stairs’, I looked left, I looked right and apart from the quaint terminal, control tower and a few small hangers, I saw nothing… nothing. On top of this I seemed to feel the very moisture in my skin evaporate before I reached the terminal. I left the most densely populated country in Africa in the midst of tropical rain, and arrived in the second least densely populated country in the world in the throngs of a dry summer. I was surrounded by people speaking a number of Languages, some with the tell tale guttural sounds of Afrikaans, and Damara, a language where clicking seems more common than vocal sounds. This immense variation in only a few hundred miles, the distance between New York and St. Louis.

The next three weeks absolutely flew by. A few days in Windhoek (very much a small European city), where we went to a mall, ate some delicious food and generally dappled in the more luxurious aspects of Africa was a welcome treat. Having been thoroughly overwhelmed by city life, Briana and I set out to the Southwest toward the Namib-Nakluft National Park and the red sand dunes of Sossusvlei. A six hour drive from Windhoek on sometimes very narrow and dangerously steep gravel roads took us to the campsite just on the outside of the gate to the park. We passed maybe 8 cars the whole time. It truly was a different world. The idea is to see the dunes as the sun rise so that one can get the full effect of a two-sided dune, one side in shadowy black and one a fire-red (truly an amazing sight). We set off after all the giant overland busses roared passed our tent and on the way out (still in the camp ground) we hit a patch of sand that our poor Toyota Corolla couldn’t quite negotiate; we were stuck. We eventually freed the car and entered the park (on paved roads!) and set off for the main dune 60 km away a little dejected. After about 15 minutes inside the park, the sun began to rise and threw its rays against a number or equally impressive dunes and mountains. This turned out to be quite an advantage. We were unmolested by the swaths of tourists that were undoubtedly at the main dune in a race to get to the top before the sun peeked over the horizon. Instead we were treated to a panorama which included a number of Oryx or gemsbok, springbok, ostrich against small distant trees dwarfed in the presence or massive rich red sand dunes. We had a magnificent site all to ourselves that I wish you all could see (I’ll explain later).

The next evening took us to a desolate game farm which is now a country lodge perched on a rocky hill made up of a number of cave-like rock structures. We had the place to ourselves including the bar, delicious restaurant, large pool situated on a ledge overlooking the farm and distant mountains and a meerkat colony! It was a nice taste of luxury on our way to Walvis Bay. After a long drive through more desert, we reached the coast and were met with a shrill wind off the water. It produced a wonderful smell that I missed dearly. After another nice meal, this time with delicious sea food, we retired back to our B&B. The next morning we joined 5 others in a Kayak trip out to the southernmost reaches of the bay and to a colony of very playful and loud seals.

Next was another taste of Europe in Swakopmund. A holiday town about 35 km north of Walvis Bay. Good food, a nice beach and relaxation were in order. After a few days there we took the train back to Windhoek (not recommended). It took 12 hours (overnight) paralleling a stretch of road that takes roughly four hours to drive. We met up with Briana’s parents and after a quick night in Windhoek headed back to Swakopmund for a bit more fun in the sun. This is unfortunately the site of a bit of a setback. I was reunited with my laptop, and I immediately uploaded all my pictures that I have taken thus far onto the hard drive. After two lovely days in Swakop, we headed north, and on the way out of town, we were signaled over by a minibus, to make a rather embarrassing story short, they picked up my laptop which apparently flew off the top of the car, where I inadvertently left it. I was immensely grateful for them having retrieved it, but it was indeed destroyed. Alas, we will figure out a way to get my pictures back!

Fortunately we spent a wonderful Christmas Eve on a Game farm in the central northern part of the country. We had a delicious meal and retired to a night of cards and drinks. All in all a peaceful and relaxing time. As we worked our way north toward Briana’s site, we passed what is known as the ‘red line’. Left over from Apartheid days, the majority of the land south is white-owned ranch or farm land and north is the traditional home of the Owambos and other African people. Crossing the line in to the more densely populated part of the country was a little more familiar to my Malawi experience. Eventually we came to Briana’s village and school. We were given a wonderful and warm reception including an introduction in front of the Church, a tour of the school and a lengthy meal at Briana’s home-stay family’s house, capped off by a show of traditional dancing. Though different in various ways, it was interesting to observe the many similarities between Chewa and Owambo cultures. After all, they did emerge from the same group of people hundreds of years ago. This is where my trip to Namibia was cut off. I bade farewell to the Andersons, before their journey East to Victoria Falls and into Botswana and headed South, back to Windhoek.

All in all, it was a fantastic trip and what I believe an integral part of Peace Corps Service. It’s difficult to take extended leave from the village, for sentiments of desertion and a disruption in ongoing projects, but I feel it necessary to make the most of my time in this part of the world to where I may or may not return. So I will leave it here. If any of you are considering a trip to Namibia, I highly recommend it. If you can tolerate a fair bit of driving, the possibilities are numerous and the country’s tourism industry is very well established and a pleasure to deal with.

Next up, Mom and Dad come! Oh Boy!


Back In Malawi

I began this blog in order to keep track of the intricacies and the various facets of my Peace Corps service in order. I anticipated that internet access would be scarce at best and up until now I admit, I have done an abysmal job. Nonetheless, in the words of our ‘eloquent’ former secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld “it is what it is”. And now you are in for two long ones.

First, thank you all who sent Holiday cards. I truly appreciated the thought of all of you and it made coming back to the village all the easier knowing that you’re all still out there!

My return trip to Malawi went smoothly and I rewarded myself by attending a New Years gathering at a volunteer’s site near Nkhata Bay, directly on the lake - a truly breathtakingly beautiful part of the country that I had previously not seen.

I found returning to my site extremely difficult. It was a real treat to spend time with friends and loved ones, and the uncertainty of the future and the retreat into village life was daunting. After traveling through a fairly well developed country, I saw Malawi in a new light. Though the rains are indeed a staple in the recipe for life and indeed they bring out, in force, any living thing that had been dormant during the dry season and the physical beauty of the country, they also bear a curse. Until now, people had been relatively healthy, clean and patiently awaiting the arrival of the rains. Well, they’re here and things have changed.

As many of you have probably heard, there has been massive flooding in Zimbabwe, Zambia, Mozambique and Southern Malawi (my area) for the better part of the last month.. The Zambezi river has swollen to record levels, and though the government in Mozambique has done a commendable job of responding to the humanitarian crisis, the fact of the matter remains that life is made tremendously difficult for millions of people here because of what we in the west would deem, a ‘wet winter’ and leave it at that. People in my village, although safe are becoming increasing isolated in a time of great need. The road out to the district town, if you can call it a road, looks more like a detonated mine field in some places and like a tidal basin in others. Now I fully understand why most of the vehicles in Malawi are in such a state of disrepair. I understand why people are now reluctant to join me in my various ‘crazy’ projects. They have myriad more pertinent issues to worry about; protecting their precious food crops from being washed away, securing fertilizer in order to give them that healthy yield, attending to sick loved ones as a result of the high temperatures, increased humidity and the proliferation of mosquitoes and battling hunger that arises around February as their stores begin to vanish. This time of year truly shows just how difficult life is for millions of people in similar situations. Nonetheless, life goes on with nearly everyone in my village, bar myself, not batting an eye at the deluge that is such a potential threat. To my stark realization, this situation is commonplace.

I have patiently spent the past few weeks reading, wiping sweat from my brow every few minutes, puttering around in my garden and preparing for the arrival of my parents. I have found the evening bucket bath to be a welcome reprieve from the intense heat and humidity (about 95-100 degrees and close to 100% humidity). Last week however I was in for a bit of surprise as I worked my way back into my house after an evening bath, I found a small boy, around 12 years old sprinting from my house. I chased him to the front and then around back where he nimbly scaled a tree and escaped over the fence. I had noticed a few things missing from my house in the previous days, but chalked it up to my inability to keep tab on my possessions. Now I had proof that I was not crazy. This episode did give me quite a fright. Previously I had felt EXTREMELY safe in my village, it is perhaps one the most favorable aspects of my life there. Anyway, I shouted for help and everyone came…. Everyone, even the drunks. My neighbor rushed over with his hoe over his shoulder and peered through the darkness to see if there was anyone else. I took tabs on what was stolen, a flashlight and a plastic knife, as well as my jar of locally made peanut butter. These were missing a few nights previous. And to my dismay, my Leatherman multi-tool that was a gift to me from Stephanie at the farm was gone. The village headman was called, my landlord neighbor came and both apologized profusely, visibly irritated at the situation. We went over what had happened a number of times and they assured me that something would be done.

I was told that the headman and his village police group were conducting an investigation and had a pretty good idea of who had done it. The next day, yesterday morning, I was called from my house at about 6 AM to the headman’s. When I arrived, I found the village police, a group of about 5 men whom I see almost every day including the man who built my fence, my landlord, the chief, a few very old men whom I greet every day and I gather to be the “elders” seated in a circle with the small thief on the ground in the middle. Though my Chichewa isn’t the greatest, I detected stern questioning of the boy who was small, a bit dirty and visibly quite ashamed. After a while with a recount of what happened, the men got him to admit stealing the peanut butter. After a number of false excuses and denials, they carted him back to his house where the found the flash light and the small plastic knife. At this point they tied palm leaves around his wrists and around the wrists of the father who had also been lying and offering excuses for the boy. They brought him back and questioned him about the Leatherman. At this point the entire village of about 100 people including some I had never seen before; men, women, children headmen from nearby villages and other prominent figures gathered around to observe the proceedings. It was shaping up to be quite a shaming. Throughout all this, my heart was racing and a mixture of sorrow and anger passed through my blood. The boy decided he wasn’t going to tell them where the Leatherman was, but after a threat of a lashing from the sugar cane, he said he threw it back over my fence. With this the men jumped up grabbed him by the arm and dragged him back to my yard. A quick search yielded nothing and upon further questioning, the boy changed his story to say that he had dropped it down the village headman’s pit latrine. With this, the men became enraged at his stories and dragged him again, back to the headman’s house, made him climb down into the pit to dig it out. As the men removed the cement slab a horrible stench emerged. After being nearly thrown down the pit with a hoe the boy shouted a few times and vomited, he then claimed to have sold the knife in the previous day’s market to a man from a distant village. The interrogators were livid grabbed him again and took him back to the circle of elders and threatened him with lashings if he was found to be lying. A lengthy and stern scolding bordering on humiliation was given to the boy and his father by the old men and the headman. The village police told me I could return home and they would come to me with further news and take care of the remaining business (not sure what that meant). I had been planning to travel to Blantyre for the weekend in any event. Upon my return I will have the complete story. Hopefully I did not leave too early as apparently the district police were to be called. I was, however reassured that the village police would take care of everything.

The whole episode left me with mixed feeling. While I felt angry and cheated by the boy and his father, I also felt sad at their circumstances. The boy’s father couldn’t have been more than 35 though he looked like he was 60. He clearly was a drunk, and this was reflected in the upbringing of the boy who does not attend school and has been known to be mischievous. I also felt a wonderful sensation of comradery and community as people rushed to apologize and offer their help. I was reassured that I was every bit a part of my village as the oldest member. I felt grateful for the overwhelming support that has been shown to me by my neighbors and fellow villagers. A significant aspect of Peace Corps service is community integration, and after this episode, though I still am a bit put off, I feel that the positive response has contributed to my sense of successful integration and has been more of a positive impact on my experience as a whole.

So this is where I leave you. My experience with village justice is still fresh in my mind, I’m sure I will still need more time to synthesize my feelings. It seems as though this system of keeping order in the village is rather effective without the immediate presence of an established public police force. I’m sure I could offer opinions about issues of justice in traditional settings around the world. Let’s just say I feel as though in my experience it was appropriate and further discussion about that can be saved for another day.

Take care everyone and hopefully I will get my hands on some pictures soon.