Visit with the Chief

Sindika has been asking me for months to visit his home village in the mountains north of Mzuzu. Malawians are proud of their home villages and have very strong connections there though they may be living long distances from “home”.   Sindika works in my garden and does my laundry so is a VERY valued person in my life and I have become so fond of him and his endearing nature.

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Sindika with the eggplant from my garden

My friend Sara and I drove Saturday morning with Sindika north to Chitimba where we left my car and hired transport to ascend the mountain to Livingstonia, one of the most historical places in Sub-Sahara Africa. David Livingston, the British missionary/explorer, brought religion, healthcare, and community to an incredibly remote but spectacularly beautiful area in Malawi, in the late 1800s.

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Chalet at Lukwe

Willy, a friend and native S African, about 65 years old and crusty as they come, drove us up the zig zag, heavily rutted, rocky, craggy mountain road in his beater of a truck. The journey takes an hour, literally straight up the mountain, and is harrowing and bumpy; no guard rails, fences or safety nets for the hairpin turns overlooking steep cliffs.   Many a vehicle has plunged off the road due to careless driving on this dangerous pass.

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Homemade bricks ready for firing by wood fire in the holes below

Willy gave us a complete historical account (an hour of non-stop talking) of David Livingston and the history of the area.   We dropped our bags in Lukwe, the lodge we booked for the night, and I journeyed on to Livingstonia with Sindika and Willy. Picture we are miles and miles away from any paved road, up on the top of a mountain, traveling to a remote village, no electricity, running water, stores, shops, anything!  Just people, houses, and crops.

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Village kids

Arrival in the village was uneventful, though I was met with the usual stares.   Not too many white people venturing this far back into the wilderness. Sindika HAD to show me his primary school (he is now 42) and I suspect that was a silent plea for funds to repair the outrageous condition of the building. The children sit on the cold and broken up concrete floor.   There are no light bulbs or window glass. No desks, no chalkboard/whiteboard. The faded, wrinkled lessons taped to the walls looked like they had been there for a year; a very sad and depressing classroom.

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Village classroom for elementary kids

We then journeyed further a field in the truck to the village itself. Met by the 3 “brothers” I was escorted around the village for a tour of the maize bins, the crops, family homes, and cooking areas. The women were busy drying their potatoes, pulverizing the cassava, and drying cassava and maize on huge sheets of plastic. Dogs and chickens were everywhere.

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Woman pulverizing cassava

Coffee, bananas, cassava, maize, okra, coffee,  and sweet potatoes grow abundantly. Acres and acres of crops surround the village and a small bamboo hut sits atop the neighboring hill with an attendant to chase the monkeys away from the crops. I suggested scarecrows. They had heard of this practice and were amused, but not motivated!

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Cassava drying

The dramatic finale to the visit was meeting Sindika’s father, the bwana, the chief of the whole area. I am guessing he is my age and has been ill. Greetings were exchanged and he held onto my hand for the entire visit, only to release it when I gave him the banana bread I had baked and toted around for 2 hours.

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Typical village home

We exchanged pleasantries and I learned a lot about the role of chief: he looks after everyone, he mediates disputes, has people arrested for crimes, is fully in charge of parceling all the land to people who need or request it, is the highest form of government in the village and generally supercedes the police.

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Sindika displaying the coffee plants

Dressed in a suit jacket, cotton button down shirt,  brown trousers, and special head cover, he was not the chief I had imagined from the Lion King movie.  Hard to believe that in the 21st century one acquires land by visiting with and gaining the respect and trust of the chief. Forget about the agents and the nightmare of 10 page contracts.

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Stoking the cooking fire

Willy drove me back to Lukwe, I crashed in bed at 8:00 after a delightful al fresco meal overlooking the valley. The arduous journey home began in the morning after a luscious meal at Mushroom Farm, a backpacker’s lodge on the mountain. We waited there for our transport for about 3 hours (it’s Malawi). We were not expecting to share the ride with 30+ boisterous men and women going to a soccer game in a flatbed truck packed to the gills. I couldn’t look going down for fear we would plummet over the edge, packed like sardines in the truck bed (will not discuss this with Hector, our PC security).

The hour ride down was painful, but we made it and walked another ½ hour to the car, another 2 hour drive home to Mzuzu.

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Our mountain transport, yikes

All in all, another incredible memory and cultural experience. Loving Malawi!

 

 

BEACH DAY

Close your eyes and imagine what the process would look like for a teenage girl choosing a bathing suit for her debut at the beach, first time ever….

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First time at the beach!

I imagine it like this….3-4 different stores, at least 20 suits to try on, first alone, then with friends to narrow it down. Gawking, preening, “my body’s not this, my body’s not that”, this one is over my $75 budget. Probably hours and hours before the momentous decision. Am I right women and mothers of teenage girls?

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Things are different in Malawi. Sister Martha and I planned a day at Lake Malawi for the girls. These are orphan teen girls that the nuns at the convent mentor and I see in a group once a week as well. All but 1 had NEVER seen the lake or gone swimming, do not own or ever worn a bathing suit. How was this going to work, and of course there is no money for any of this.

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So much happiness here!

The used clothing market in Mzuzu is AWESOME, but it is becoming winter here and temps are often 50 on awakening so would they even have bathing “costumes” as they are called here? Friday was D-day and Sister Martha headed for the market to do other shopping and briefly scouted the clothes. She found a vendor with TONS of suits and immediately picked and bought 10, for 500MK each or roughly 70 cents each,  SCORE!

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Sister Martha going for it!

Ok, so we have a nun picking out the suits? Imagine that back home! She met with the girls in the afternoon and doled them out as the girls sat eagerly waiting, politely and with no fuss over who was getting which suit. If the suit fit, they kept it, if not, they traded. Everyone was thrilled and eagerly awaiting the 2 hour car ride in the morning.

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Kande Beach

We made it to the beach by 9:45, overcast, very windy and cool enough for a sweater but it did not deter them. After a vigorous game of kickball where they all ignored the rules, we were sweating and ready for a dip. Since no one really knew how to swim, they were instructed on safety and chose a buddy to stick with. 11 girls, 2 nuns, and ME!

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Falless, Jenna, and Ruth

They clamored for the water and crashed, plunged, dove, ducked, dipped for 2 hours before we had to haul them out and take a quick break before lunch. The water was delightfully warm, thank you Africa, and they couldn’t get enough of it. What teenage girl brings her washing to the beach? Alinafe…

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Alinafe washing her clothes

Most have never been to a restaurant. We had lunch prepared for us and all sat at a communal table in the café: chicken, rice, greens, okra and of course Fanta and Coke. They inhaled lunch and followed with a craft project donated by Carol, my site-mate and colleague. They thoroughly enjoyed this and got all glammed up with the jewelry they made.

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First restaurant meal

Sister Jane was celebrating her 33rd birthday so we sang Happy Birthday, about 25 times, and gorged on birthday cake, yes from Shoprite. They also did an impromptu choir rehearsal in preparation for tomorrow’s service.

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Unimaginable beauty

I hit the shower and all the girls headed for the lake for another swim. When I emerged from the shower area, the girls AND the nuns were all lathered up from head to toe, shampoo and body soap and were bathing in the lake, mostly tops down, bottoms covered. Yikes! The security guard chastised them for the lathering, not the nudity, and directed them to the changing area but they all ignored his directions and continued their ritual, oblivious to men, women and children walking nearby.

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Girls are girls everywhere!

Does any of this matter? You bet….I was in awe of everything about this day; the beauty of the lake, the humility and grace of these girls who so lovingly accepted their used and ill-fitting bathing suits without a blink, the bond of friendships we share in such a short time, the contrasts between teen girls in Malawi and the US, the simplicity with which we can do life, their smiles and laughter….all of it pushes my heart open wider and wider.

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Clowning around with Sr Martha

I am able to pause here in Malawi, to clear the decks of “things to do”, of time to keep; to take in and appreciate the little things, the joys, the laughter, the heartache behind the silence and simplicity. It is bittersweet for me now as I count down the days to completion of my service here.

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Grace

But is it complete? I have been drawn into this culture like a moth to a flame, like steel to a magnet, and I am not done. I don’t know how, when or what will bring me back but I am returning because I am having too much fun and this is just too darn interesting, deep, and meaningful to let go of completely.

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Loving the lake

 

ZOEY, Journey of Faith

The longer I continue my service in Malawi, the more I realize the journey and the learning have less to do with my actual job than the lessons I am learning about faith, and my relationship with God.

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Vermont spring

Last week I received news that Zoey, my beloved dog and 24/7 companion for the last 12 years, had become very ill. After a few days of watching and waiting for tests, I decided to make the trip home as the vet said she was most likely suffering from advanced cancer, somewhere.

Peace Corps quickly gave me permission to travel and use my last vacation days plus some “without stipend” to make the 7000+ mile trip home. For some, this seems absurd, but those of you who are animal people get it. I arrived home to a thin, weak animal who couldn’t even get up to greet me or wag her tail. I was sad and scared but grateful I had returned. I had prayed the whole way home that she would hang on til I arrived.

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Me and mom

We spent the 9 days with my dear friend Deborah and her 2 dogs, Dexter and Akeelah. Between continuing tests, checking on mom, caring for Zoey, and taking care of myself, it was a pretty stressful and emotionally exhausting experience. After multiple blood tests, chest and abdominal xrays, abdominal ultrasound, tick titers, Coombs test, urine tests, trials of antibiotics, and IV fluids we still have no answer or diagnosis.

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road trip

My team of healers went to work quickly. Marcia, Martha, Deborah and I were pretty much talking, consulting, and trying different homeopathic remedies from 7 in the morning til 10 at night. Zoey continued to run very high fevers of 104-105 pretty much all day and night and nothing seemed to work. She was anorexic and would eat only tiny amounts at a time from my hand (chicken sausage or ground beef) Her kidney function was good and she was able to drink enough to keep herself hydrated.

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Grace and Precious

We all believe (well except for the vets) this mess was caused by a severe reaction to a vaccine she received earlier in the month. There is just no other explanation. Regardless, I was faced with the possibility of putting her down after my caregivers backed out and would not take her back. Who wants to care for a dog that is sick and could die on your watch?

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cooking nsima

Everyday I prayed for guidance, for direction, for an answer to the dilemma. Committed to finishing my contract in Malawi, I did not see staying home with her as an option. She was not strong enough to make the trip nor would a vet sign off on a health certificate to bring her to Malawi with me. No answers or people were presenting themselves, we still had no diagnosis, and I was becoming panicked and discouraged.

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swimming in Delray

Yesterday I scheduled the appointment to have Zoey euthanized. I had run out of options and she continued to run the high fever but was comfortable and eating a little. I had arranged for her to be buried on my farm in Reading (that I recently sold but they agreed that she could be buried there with the other dogs and cat and rooster) My neighbor Bill was planning to dig the hole this morning with his backhoe. The vet was coming at 2 pm to euthanize her right there in the field, LOVE VERMONT

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Mt Tom trail in spring

This morning I was guided to take a walk in my sanctuary, Mt Tom, with Zoey. When I looked into her eyes, she was bright, alert and clearly not ready to depart this life. I just could not bear the thought of making this choice to end her life when she still appeared to want to stay, with a pretty strong vital force.

I stopped at the market to get a scone (craving baked goods) and ran into a dear friend. When doing the “woe is me, no caregiver” routine, she suggested the name of a mutual friend. Perfect, I thought, and drove the 2 miles to where she was orchestrating the Saturday Farmer’s Market.

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Canoeing

After a brief reunion, I reviewed the situation and asked her if she was at all interested or willing and she said YES! Now bear in mind, this is 4 hours from the scheduled appointment time with the vet in the field. Needless to say, after introducing her to Zoey who was with me in the car, she confirmed that she would take it on. I just broke down and wept with relief and joy at the miracle that had just occurred.

I say miracle because I truly believe God intervened on our behalf, and at the 11th hour. The timing, the synchronicity, the circumstances, the solution, is indeed a miracle.   I am learning the lesson of patience, of waiting, of faith. Never did I expect this outcome to occur as it did. I could not have planned or orchestrated everything any better. Yet, I was hanging on by a thread, impatient, discouraged, frustrated.

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visit with the girls

I got to see that the answers and the solution will not come one minute before we are ready, before the highest good of all is determined. I am learning to trust that this time of patience and frustration and discouragement is the ripening and cultivation of faith. It happens with more and more frequency, the more I practice, trust, and the closer I stay to my higher power.

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Tomorrow I head back to Malawi to complete my service that ends on the 30th of June. I am eager to get back and finish some important projects and reconnect with my peeps. In the meantime, I have to trust that whatever happens with Anne and Zoey will be as it should be, and I have done all I can to support Zoey and her healing, and keep my commitments in Malawi.

 

 

Kaapstad

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Just another coastal shot!

When I visited Maui in 2007 I was so touched by the Haleakala volcano and the energy of the island that I cried when my plane took off to return home. Today I am filled with a similar experience of sadness, wonder, and anticipation as I depart the most beautiful city on earth, Cape Town, South Africa.

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Knysna heads

My 11 days in this magical place have completely captivated my spirit and nourished my soul. Everywhere I look I see beauty, majesty; nature in its rawness and splendor. My sadness in leaving is about my journey back to Malawi, my home for now, but a place of suffering, poverty, and blandness. Though my life there is enriched by my relationships and friendships, I have craved “civilization” as I know it.

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Grooming duet

For 11 days I savored fresh croissants, juicy burgers, gelato, fresh salads, and calamari direct from the sea. I slept with the windows unlocked and open, under a down duvet, listening to the Indian Ocean waves crashing in the distance. I delighted in running along the ocean in tight fitting Nike shorts with a tank top, my bare legs showing for the first time in 9 months and no one was staring. Well, maybe they were but not in the same way….I attended 2 AA meetings, my first since leaving the US in July, which I desperately longed for and thoroughly enjoyed. Wi-fi, cell service, and a rental car that didn’t rattle over every bump in the road. Wait, there were no bumps or pot holes!

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Very docile camels

Hiking alone up Table Mountain was challenging, invigorating, inspiring. The views from the top were unbelievably beautiful and impressive, overlooking the city as well as strands of white sand and turquoise water. I also fulfilled a life long dream of surfing, albeit short, as I crashed and burned on my first wave, suffering an open dislocation of my index finger requiring an ER visit.

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Surfing digger

I reconnected with Roy, a native Cape Towner who so graciously chauffeured me around, viewing Cape Town through the eyes of a native. He also served as my ambulance and braiied for me in the quaint cottage I rented by the beach. The 2 large ridgeback dogs and the elderly cat at the cottage provided me with the cuddling and connection with the animal world I am craving. We even stopped to take in the course walk at a 3 day event (equestrian) being staged in Noordhoek.

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Roy and me Boulders Beach

We journeyed up the wild coast , mesmerized by the landscape. Endless rolling hayfields undulating into the jagged mountains reaching skyward on all sides, their peaks encased in white fluffs of clouds under a deep blue sky. Cage diving with the great white sharks was thrilling and frigidly cold, even in a wet suit. Robben’s Island moved me to tears as I listened to the experiences of those housed with Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners during their quest for freedom from apartheid.

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Christa Brand, Mandela’s prison guard, and friend

From the moment I arrived in this magical land, I was enthralled with the energy, the vibe, the beauty. I have felt my soul nourished and my spirit renewed. It was an experience of complete and utter joy!

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Proteas, the national flower

For years I have prayed to be led to a place that feels like this. But really? 7850 miles from my home and family? It is a challenge for me now to return to Malawi and keep my wits about me, completing the service to my program and my students with dedication and the commitment they deserve. But I am ready…ready to investigate with all my heart, the opportunity to live and breathe in this energy, at least for an extended time, at some point in the near future.

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Cage diving with the great white sharks

As many of you know, I am impulsive by nature and practice. As a result, I have prayed a lot over the last few days for a sign that this desire, this longing that I feel is somehow right for me.   Yesterday as I was returning from Robben Island I toured around the waterfront area, eating, shopping and just taking in the sights and sounds.

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View from Table Mountain

From a distance I noticed 2 massive red poodle sculptures lining the waterside. I smiled and commented to myself that Cabot and Jackson had decided to join me in Cape Town. I got the chills.   Of course it was orchestrated by Hooper. It didn’t occur to me until today that perhaps that was the sign I was looking for. That my beloved poodles were there waiting for me!

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Fat and happy

Tomorrow I will return to my site in Mzuzu; to the hand laundering, boring food, gaping wounds, and yes, the sweetest of friends. I will be launching a very big project at the hospital to improve pain management so will be busily engaged in work and service. But not too busy to begin my investigation of what may be the next phase calling me.

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Cape Town waterfront

My plan is still to return to Vermont in July after Kate and I travel for a few weeks following completion of both our PC service. While in VT I will have a chance to breathe, walk in the woods, visit with family and friends, and love all over Zoey. I also look forward to visiting Carrie in Austin and Tina, Lauren and the grandchildren. In Denver and Chicago.

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Sideways opening drawbridge

I look forward to that time of discernment and I will do all I can to approach it with an open mind and heart. But really, I want to continue on to the next adventure, wherever that will take me. And I really hope it is back to Africa.

LANGUAGE

My optimism for assimilating the African languages was dashed early on in my service here. Having always felt I had an affinity for language, I was in for a rude awakening when attempting to seriously study Chichewa. Malawi’s official languages are English and Chichewa but there are at least a dozen other dialects and languages spoken throughout the country, particularly in rural villages along borders with Tanzania, Zambia, and Mozambique. At times even the students are unable to translate for me when we have patients that speak Swahili or other rarely heard dialects.

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Rice field near Chitimba

That said, one of the most important features of Malawi culture is greeting people. So my efforts in language acquisition have focused on mastering the greetings. Further complicating the issue is that one never knows which language to greet in! If I am in Lilongwe, I can be pretty certain that Chichewa will work. In Mzuzu where I live, most people speak Tumbuka, but also speak Chichewa. The locals get frustrated if you speak Chichewa and want you to greet in Tumbuka!

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Woman selling fish in Karonga

On weekends, I often go to Nkhata Bay on Lake Malawi where they speak Tonga. So do I offend by offering my greeting in Chichewa? Or Tumbuka? When in Rome, do as the Romans….so I have been striving to at least learn the basics and actually now, feel pretty confident that I have mastered the essentials.

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Sunrise storm brewing over Nkhata Bay

I have been so fortunate to be living in Mzuzu, the largest city in northern Malawi. It is cooler here, less congestion, more trees, and generally safer, though overall Malawi is a pretty safe country. Directly outside the rear gate to the campus is the most beautiful dirt road that has given me the opportunity to run through the villages and farmland in the very early morning hours.

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Girls and their masks

It took me about a month to summon the courage to step outside the back gate, alone, and explore this road that was beckoning me to continue my lifelong passion for running solo in nature. I am much more content experiencing the endorphins and the calorie busting this activity provides.

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Patient ward in Chitipa

Day by day, I would advance my distance just a bit once I felt safe to continue, that no one would jump out of the bushes or maize fields to accost me. I know this sounds paranoid, but really, running alone on an isolated dirt road in the middle of Africa seemed a daunting prospect for me.

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Kelvin making lunch at One Love Cafe

Now, I am happy to report I can run for 30 minutes out and 30 minutes returning back to home on campus. The boogy men have stayed away and the villagers have become quite accustomed to the azungu woman running by in the early hours. I begin at 5:45 mostly because it is light enough, cool enough, and there are fewer people out to stare at me.

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The road is traveled by some walking to work, while others carry water from the bore hole, and often entire families will carry their hoes on their way to the fields. Already by this hour, many men and women are tending their crops with their hoes.

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My creation of spring rolls, African style

The children walk to school in small groups, carrying their thin, fragile, blue plastic bags holding their snacks and their plastic cup for water during the day. They all wear uniforms in varying degrees of cleanliness and repair. Many are sucking on mangos or sugar cane as they shuffle on to school which is at least 1-2 KM from home. Most are largely unimpressed with my activity and are so shy they will not even acknowledge me when I greet them or make eye contact, but others will shout at me from their homes calling, “Azungu, azungu!”

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View while dining at One Love Cafe

By now, I am a curious but well-established sight in the morning. Most probably wonder what the hell would inspire me to run up and down the steep and dusty hills, unaccompanied. Of course, I have been well advised to run in loosely fitting capris, and a full T-shirt so as not to horrify the locals by having too much skin exposed. The challenge for me is what language to use when greeting the people along the way. Do I use Tumbuka, Chichewa, or English. I have played with the variations, not wanting to offend anyone and by now am able to discriminate and choose a language accordingly.

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Yellow Cassia trees EVERYWHERE

Here’s a sample of morning greeting in Tumbuka:

Me: Mauka uli

Them: Ndauka makola, kwal imwe

Me: Ndauka makola, towanga chomene

Them: Yewo, yewo

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Goofy Level 2 students

To further complicate my language processing, I have intermittently studied Afrikaans. Though challenging, I actually enjoy learning this one and find it a bit easier than the tribal languages which are largely incomprehensible to me when someone is speaking fast. I am heading to Cape Town in a week so am hoping to practice my Afrikaans while in South Africa.

Tiwonana!! (See you later)

CLARITY

Two days after my last post, I received emails from both my sisters regarding mom’s failing health, and an email from my brother about Zoey’s well being. The night before I had some very vivid dreams, one of which was a hawk resting on a branch with his back and tail feathers facing me. Two white horizontal stripes emblazoned the tail, representing my 2 choices.

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Village kids greeting me on my morning run

When I awoke, my decision was clear. All of this information seemed to descend upon me as messages that indeed, it is time to return home. A feeling of calm certainty washed over me and I felt for the first time, very strong and clear about the decision. This seems like a miracle to me, that after wrestling and struggling with it for weeks, all of a sudden I had clarity and relief. Truly I believe it could not have come a moment sooner, and I thank God for patience and guidance during this time of transition and discernment.

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Sara’s baby piglets

After emailing PC, SEED, and the Nursing Department about my decision, I felt a huge sense of relief. For the next few days it was difficult to make it through the morning at the hospital, and when returning home at noon, I had to lie down. I went to bed at 8 pm for the next three nights, so exhausted, yet peaceful.

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Kate, mom, Carrie

Clearly, my body and spirit were so traumatized by this decision process and now I have such a sense of relief, and excitement about returning home. We have decided to move mom to Florida where my sister Mary lives so someone will be able to visit with her every week. After facetiming with Zoey for the first time in 8 months, I can visualize the reunion we will have, reducing me to a sobbing mess.

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Male surgical ward

This is what I have to look forward to: supporting my daughter, Kate, on her return from the DR after 3 years of PC service. Visiting with daughter, Carrie, and sharing her excitement about her job and new life in Austin. Spending time with mom. Walking in the woods and cuddling with Zoey. Visiting my 5 grand children. Catching up with friends. Figuring out where to live! Perhaps going to graduate school. How lucky am I!

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Traffic on my morning run

For now, I am going to enjoy and savor every moment and opportunity in Malawi. I am aware on some level of the beginning of the process of detaching, and want to be careful not to withdraw my heart and my spirit as a protection from the pain and sorrow I will feel on leaving.   I have many opportunities to continue to immerse myself and engage in fellowship with the peeps here.

Today I sat in church for 3 hours listening to the entire service in Chichewa, though Father Kamanga was kind enough to welcome me in English at the beginning, the only white person there.

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Jamming at Macondo Camp

Wednesday afternoon I met with my “girls’ group”, a group of orphaned teenage girls, to discuss sex, HIV, and dating. Wednesday evening I attended the 50th anniversary celebration of Brother Michael’s commitment to the St John of God Brothers, a beautiful tribute to a wonderful and kind friend who has loved and supported me here. Thursday evening 25 or so of us mzungu partied at Macondo Camp and listened to a band perform folk and county music, guitars and mandolin! Friday evening I treated my Level 2 clinical students to a feast to celebrate the end of our rotation together. We talked at the table for 3 hours.

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Brother Michael celebrating

Saturday, a student visited with me for an hour to discuss her choice not to have sex with her boyfriend of 4 months. She feels pressure from her friends to sleep with him though she is not ready and feels alienated from her girlfriends as a result.  So these are the real and tender moments that still grace my every day life.

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Goofy Level 2 students

Thanks to Harvey Blatt, I now have a terabyte drive filled with movies to watch as evening diversion if needed, and popcorn I can make on the stove (no microwave).   I have recently just completed Season 2 of Breaking Bad, WOW! Riveting….and at times necessary!

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Girls’ group dancing

This week I travel 4 hours north to Chitipa and Karonga to supervise students in the district hospitals. This is stressful as it is a new environment, hotels are strange and gross, and the food is meager and boring. Another chance for adventure and new experiences! Stay tuned…

 

 

 

 

CHOICES

Indecisive, fickle, on the fence, wavering, waffling, of two minds, vacillating, unclear, tentative….all words that describe my current state of mind. Yikes! The decisions later in life become more complex and burdened with pros and cons that can be examined from more than one point of view.

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My garden in the afternoon

Faced with the decision of extending my service here in Malawi has become one of the most challenging choices in the last 10 years! Initially I believed that 1 year was more than enough to be away from home, family and friends. Now, there is a longing in the pit of my gut to stay for another year.

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Beautiful village woman

This seems like an insane proposition. I am in a country that is imploding. The Malawi kwacha (currency) is propelling itself towards outrageously low stakes against the dollar.   The government continues to put more in its pocket than it gives to the people. Throughout the country, families are struggling daily to put food in their mouths. Theft, corruption, disease are rampant.

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Kitty family

On a daily basis, someone comes to ask for food, a job, or money for school. I am approached in the parking lot, the hospital, my front door, on the street. I witness intense suffering in the hospital every minute I am there. Wounds are ghastly, infections are aggressive, poverty is everywhere. People are dirty, smelly and bugs crawl out of wounds.

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Carol at the rose quartz mine

Yet, living in this country opens my heart and inspires me to focus on something outside myself. I forget about the minutia of whether I will have a chai or a latte at Starbucks. Whether I will prepare the $20/pound swordfish or the tenderloin. Whether to buy the new shoes I have been coveting at Macy’s. Life becomes simple and beloved.

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Zoo after a swim

I believe it is this simplicity and tenderness that have embraced me here in Malawi. The people are gentle, uncomplicated, kind, warm and have completely opened their hearts to me. There is great humility here, in every positive sense of the word.  Living in Africa is mysterious, challenging, alluring, and seductive and that appeals to my sense of adventure.

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Boniface at attention!

Returning to the US during the election process does not appeal to my apathetic political spirit. I would rather remain in the bush with the zebras. It is far more soothing to my soul than getting myself riled up over some political debate.  AND OH BY THE WAY, it is -20 in Vermont tonight!

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male surgical ward

Severing my attachment to this environment would be difficult. My brain and spirit are like sponges now, sucking up every morsel of information and experience, incorporating them into my soul. There are days I cry, and days I am at such peace with the simplicity of my life here. I am leading a project at the hospital to improve pain management ie there is very little. The objective is less patient suffering. I would hate to leave with this unfinished. I adore my students. The teaching is invigorating, challenging but joyful.

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Circumstances at home compel me to re-examine my choice. Mom is slowly failing, I haven’t seen her in 8 months. Carrie has moved to Austin, started an exciting new life, new job. Kate is returning home after 3 years in the PC herself, requiring tremendous adjustment. My precious 24 hour companion, Zoey, continues to search for me, but is in good health. They all evoke feelings of guilt, desire, responsibility, and a deep longing to come home. It feels highly indulgent and self-centered to stay.

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View of the lake from Chitimba escarpment

Most days I am unwilling to let anyone in on the state of my decision. It is a moving target. I have approximately 10 days before it will be too late to change my mind. My decision must stand. In the meantime I have done Ben Franklins, prayed, meditated and sought the advice of friends, family and colleagues. I am still torn. In the end, it is up to me and I have to trust that there is no wrong decision; I will be supported in whatever I chose.

CONTRASTING LIFESTYLES

This is a challenging time in Malawi. The Malawi kwacha (currency) is in deep trouble, recently falling to an all time low this week of 720MK/1 USD. When I arrived in July it was 480. This time of year is very difficult for Malawians as the rains have come but the new crops are growing and not ready for harvest. Most people have run out of food and are hungry. You see it reflected in their faces, their sluggish pace. It wasn’t until just recently that people were begging or asking for jobs or $$ both on campus and in the parking lot at Shoprite.

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Patient laundry at the hospital

For the first time in my cushy life I am witnessing firsthand people going hungry daily, begging for food and money. People are desperate. There were riots in Kasungu 3 days ago because there was no maize AT ALL for nsima, the local staple food. People were demonstrating and impatient waiting in line for the government to deliver maize to the location so there would be food for those without. Of course, everyone was afraid they would not get their allotment.

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Delectable nsima served at hospital

As we traveled home from the northernmost region I was struck by the number of children standing on the side of the road with buckets full of mushrooms, mangos, and cassava for sale. They sit or stand in small groups by the side of the road all afternoon, waving for you to stop to buy their food, a heartbreaking sight.

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Painting traffic lines by hand

Imagine the folly of encouraging students to teach their patients about protein diets for wound healing! Patients receive 1 meal per day from the hospital consisting of nsima and beans. Other nourishment must be provided by the family or guardian. When a patient suffers from severe burns or an infected leg wound, we educate them on the importance of eating protein. These people cannot even afford to buy powdered milk, never mind cheese, eggs, beans or chicken. Generally, the caregivers provide some kind of disgusting liquid porridge; it is brown, liquid and is made with flour, sugar and water; no protein and very few nutrients. If you are willing to eat it, it fills the stomach. At times they are able to afford an egg or maybe some small fish for 50 MK, about 7 cents. Otherwise, they go hungry.

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Chitipa countryside

I have smuggled food into the units for my favorite patients but this is dangerous as it alienates them from the others, gives me a bad rep, and isn’t really fair. But I do the best I can to control my desire to feed everyone. I have learned that I can’t give everyone something; the beggars, the children, the women, even the students ask for things on a daily basis. It causes such internal conflict and moral dilemma. How does one choose? I have my own moral compass and I just do the best I can….

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Quail for sale at the market

Meanwhile, I am living the life in my own little world. I have an incredible 3 bedroom house to myself, a beautiful fenced and private back yard, a part-time gardener/clothes washer, and my own vehicle. It is hard to make eye contact with the laborers that swarm outside my house daily. It is the gathering place for the landscapers and security personnel during shift change. What they must think of this azungu and her lifestyle. I feel guilty and helpless most of the time when faced with this. However, I am thoroughly enjoying my experience and building my community day by day so I go inside close the door, enjoy myself, and forget about it; the only way to survive. And sometimes I help someone.

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Crafts at farmer’s market

Traveled to Lilongwe, the capitol, this weekend for beautification and a weekend with girl friends. What a stark contrast to the average Malawian’s life. The last Friday of the month and everyone has been paid so lines are tortuous and long at banks and supermarkets as people are replenishing their stores and have cash to spend.

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Linnea choosing salsa

Thoroughly enjoyed my weekend in Lilongwe with friends at the farmer’s market, largely attended by mazungu (expats, white people) but jovial and interesting nonetheless. I bought Haloumi and parmesan cheese, fresh lemon grass, earrings, homemade tortillas, and ginger peanut butter.

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Amber’s garden

Had long and engaging conversations with my friends Emese, Amber, and Megan, and Linnea. Able to get haircut, color, pedicure, and eyebrows waxed! Watched 2 episodes of Breaking Bad with Emese.   Chinese one night, Nepalese the next, and homemade ice cream to die for! Also bought a blender and more glass brewing containers for my Kombucha! Ready to head home and make pesto and smoothies with my new toy!!!

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grasshopper

Grateful to be here with a job, food, and friends…

 

 

 

Returning

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Chalet on safari

Early on in my service in Malawi, I experienced some deep, dark moments of doubt and wondered whether I had made a dreadful mistake. Emotional ups and downs seem to be part of this experience. They fortunately are balanced with moments of joy and satisfaction that appear in an instant, completely unexpectedly.

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Christmas table decos; poppers, streamers and hats

What I wonder is, how can one go from being in a fetal position, depressed, sobbing, and hurting to the core, to absolute elation 24 hours later. Is this a normal part of the human experience? Peace Corps? Me? Or all of the above?

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As a sober woman, I walk the fine edge of balance 24 hours a day. Achieving balance and emotional sobriety has taken years of practice, self-evaluation, asking for help, and vigilance. It is put to the test almost daily in a position like I have here in Malawi. Additionally, several interpersonal relationships have called into question my faith in myself, my discipline, values, and courage.

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Nasturtiums in my garden

Returning from a wonderful vacation in the US to another wonderful vacation in Africa was challenging and required tremendous patience and honesty. I arrived in Mzuzu to a living situation that was uncertain and potentially incredibly painful. Spending 24/7 with my 24 year old daughter was beautiful but also difficult as she challenged me on several fronts, about my behavior, choices and actions.

I finally arrived home Sunday to an empty house after a month of constant companionship with family and friends. Having made some changes in relationships, I was sad, depressed, scared, and hurting deeply. My faith in God is unwavering, but sometimes I wonder if I am heard, and what exactly is the hold-up on the relief?

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A little bit of heaven, my back yard

Later Monday morning, I received some news that has drastically altered my life for the better. I will have my own house for the next 6 months, through the end of my service here. I found myself dancing, singing, and thanking God for mercy and an amazing gift this week.

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New kitty hiding behind basil

When I contrast that to my day before, I wonder….by taking action on one thing, does that trigger another reaction, and so on. I believe that by taking a stand for myself, the universe, God, Spirit, whatever, follows by pouring into my life that which we deserve and need.

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Zambia sunset

In the last 72 hours I have been on my knees, sobbing hysterically, dancing with joy, scared to death, indecisive about choices I am facing. The tears come out of no where, all times of day and night. I am in that wilderness of indecision, grief, and anticipation. It is uncomfortable and hurts.

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Puppy love

During my meditation today, I played Returning, Jennifer Berezan’s beautiful chant. Once again, sobbing, I began to realize how far I have strayed from “home”; that my tears, my fears, the tumult in my gut, results from taking a stand for myself and being brought back to my center, with a subtle grace and a loving presence that I see glimmers of now and then. Most of the time it just hurts.

Through choices I have made, I have strayed from my core values, commitments, integrity, and standards. This is a slippery slope for a recovering person, but with my faith in God and support from my friends and family, I think I am returning home, to myself.

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Christmas Day dinner

Today I am grateful  to be crawling back to center, to be alone in my own house, to have friends and family I can count on, and an amazing job in a country that is beautiful, joyful, and mysterious. I look forward to the walk out of the wilderness into the light, with full anticipation that all will be well…

 

 

Near Death on Christmas Eve

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Never in a million years did I imagine that I would spend Christmas Eve on safari in Africa, over 7000 miles away from home. Carrie and I arrived in S Luangwa, Zambia on the 22nd after 2 grueling days of travel through Zambia from Victoria Falls.

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Victoria Falls

Croc Valley Resort is perched on the Luangwa River along the perimeter of the National Park. With luxury tents, chalets and camping accommodations the safari resort offers a respite from the heat of the day after traveling on game drives in the early morning and late afternoon.

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Baboons grooming

We have ventured out on 2 morning game drives (breakfast at 5:30) and 2 late afternoon drives at 4:00. The drives are 4 hours long and feature a tea break 3 hours in.

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Herd of water buffalo crossing the road

Food is plentiful and delicious and the scenery is peaceful and lovely, watching the enormous hippos snort and play in the river.   During the evening hippos, antelope and at times elephants wander into the campsite to graze.

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Monkey eating butter on the bar

Monkeys and baboons are everywhere. You have to be alert and quick as in the morning the small monkeys leap onto the table to steal food right out of your hand! Smart and crafty, they will note when you leave your seat and skirt the table to take advantage of your departure.

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The game viewing has been absolutely breathtaking. By far the most outstanding drive was Christmas Eve morning. We came upon a pair of mating lions lounging under a large tree just off the road. Our guide, Kalima, stopped so we could observe and take photos. Breathtakingly beautiful, the lion pair was actively engaged in a mating ritual which we were privileged to observe first hand.

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The pair segregates themselves from the pride for 4-5 days during which time they actively mate every 10 minutes or so for this entire time. Their coitus lasts about 10 seconds after which they growl and carry on and collapse on the ground and rest. It brought tears to my eyes as I felt so awed by the scene and the privilege of watching such beauty and intimacy in the wild.

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Female relaxing in the bush

We came upon a second pair of females lounging on the cool rocks in the bush just after our tea break. We could approach them in our jeep and got within 20 feet of them to photograph.

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Mating male, resting

On our return, we stopped again to observe the mating pair and this time Kalima drove off road and up to within 15-20 feet of them. Though not allowed to do this, there were also 2 other vehicles that had driven up close to witness this amazing site. The pair mated just as we parked up close and personal, completely uninterested in our approach. Now, bear in mind, this is an open jeep and the guide is not armed.

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Zebra buddies

Then, disaster! As we prepared to leave, our jeep got stuck in the mud. The other vehicles had departed, leaving us alone.   Both lions were watching us closing, literally within 20 feet of the jeep. Kalima was trying to rock the jeep in and out of the mud to no avail. Six humans in the jeep all thought simultaneously, “Which one of us is going to die.” This was a very serious situation. I was terrified. We all stayed completely still. I hid behind my camera, reclined as if taking photos. No one moved a muscle or spoke.

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Male impala

Kalima was unable to exit the jeep to lock the wheels due to the proximity to the lions. His strategy (planned or not) was to rock it and make as much noise as possible with the engine. It worked. The female stood up and began slowly walking away. The male rose and followed her, gazing over his shoulder at the pathetic humans stuck in the mud.   We paused, still as statues until they were 50 yards away. Kalima got quietly out of the truck to lock the front wheels. After another 2-3 minutes of rocking and roaring, we were able to depart from the mud.

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Male giraffe

Every single one of us looked at each other and gasped sighs of relief; definitely the scariest moment of my life. I truly thought one of us would die or suffer some vicious attack.

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Elephant trio

Our evening drive was marred by rain and high winds, though we still ventured out and saw some hyenas and the usual bands of zebras, a baby elephant, and a gennet cat. Returning home to a cold shower, ugh, I donned my fleece jacket and shoes and socks to enjoy a delicious dinner Roy prepared on the braii for our return at 8 pm. Seated by the river under a thatched shelter next to a bonfire in a wheelbarrow, we feasted on beef tenderloin, potato salad and Greek salad for our Christmas Eve dinner.

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Sunset on our tea break

So grateful to be here and enjoying this beautiful continent, and my daughter’s company.

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Leopard stalking prey