Friday, September 01, 2006

Washroom break

We all know that you can be a native English speaker and still find communicating in English a very challenging task. There are so many different interpretations among people living in Britain, America, and Canada. But living in Sub-Saharan Africa, I find my communication skills much improved. I now have expanded my vocabulary and communication styles to accommodate a wide variety of people. For example, when I request the use of a public washroom, I start with…excuse me, can you tell me where the washroom is? If I receive a vacant stare, I try again…restroom? Bathroom? Toilet – toilet, just get me the toilet! Of course, never underestimate the usefulness of silent communication…maybe crouching movements? Although, I have to admit that may not apply to certain contexts. In Malawi for instance, women pee standing up in the street – with an unapologetic stare back if you happen to rudely glance in puzzlement at them. No big deal. It’s quite a talent really. It is quite common to pee in the streets in Africa but the women standing thing gets you everytime – I think it was generally agreed that is not quite common elsewhere. And NO, I will not be practicing that particular talent. But don’t get squeamish. There is nothing wrong with answering a very basic human need by watering the soil. Anyway – my tip – keep communication context specific.

Greet a Stranger

It is amazing how we often underestimate our affect on others. I am beginning to think that perhaps we have inherent humbleness or perhaps it is an unwillingness to falsely portray a presumptuous attitude. It is difficult to imagine that a casual greeting to a stranger will leave an indelible impression. I once received a handshake that was a tad too firm and vigorous and I was surprised at my immediate involuntary dislike of the person. For some reason, I was convinced thereafter that the person was insincere and shady. I bet if you were to track a person who received smiles from strangers all day for no apparent reason, this person would have a fairly pleasant disposition that lasted indefinitely. Who knows, it may be your boss who has received all this pleasantness from others and she or he comes in and decides to give you a long awaited promotion.

About 2 weeks ago, I ran into an acquaintance of mine. I approached gingerly because I was aware he had very recently lost his mother to breast cancer. I was without being aware of it, becoming more tense (as we often do when we erect walls to emotionally protect ourselves) because I suppose was preparing to comfort and hear something sad. So I asked him quietly and sympathetically…much like our society expects in times like this…how are you doing? He completely floored me with his response. He said, “I’m great, why wouldn’t I be? How are YOU?” I immediately grew more sympathetic because I was convinced he was experiencing shock and denial (much like our academic knowledge about dealing with death and grief tells us). I just sort of stared at him. Perhaps waiting for my role as comforter to be revealed when he inevitably breaks. He then said, almost cheerfully, “look Sophie, she was suffering, I don’t perceive death in the same way you do…so I accept her passing.” He then happily gave me a goodbye hug and sent me on my way with promises of getting together. Do you know how I felt as I walked away? Lighter. Happier. And absolutely looking forward to the next social obligation of getting together and chatting. I hope you don’t think I’m implying that you should be happy under any circumstances, including death of a loved one. We are human after all. But often, I interact with acquaintances who when in passing ask the obligatory, ‘how are you’? they answer one of a few ways. “I’m okay and you?”. OR they answer, “I’m there”. “I’m alive”. It is then upon us to probe if we so choose. But who in our fast paced world has time to acquaintance…why are you just meeting the ‘I’m alive’ requirement? Why not more? If it is not compromising anything by you giving a more positive reply such as ‘I’m great’, ‘I’m excellent’ why not do so? Selfish? Maybe…but the subsequent rounds of goodwill you will relay in exchange for telling an acquaintance as opposed to a close friend that you are ‘excellent’ may out weigh everything else. What often happens at a very subconscious level for me is I now realize is I start avoiding those that constantly answer “I’m there”, “I’m alive”. Happiness draws you. So next time you are walking home, put a little bounce in your step, paste a smile on your face, tell that friend you run into how excellent you feel (upgraded from feeling ‘okay’ or ‘fine’, not crappy – cuz if you feel horrible, I wouldnt compromise truth – you’d just end up getting an ulcer from bottled up feelings J) and give them a hug if it is appropriate to do so. You might have just sent that other person to walk away from you feeling for inexplicable reasons, lighter, happier, and willing to give their staff a raise just because.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

the dichotomies of africa

Life in Africa? Well, it's been four months here in malawi and there is something about life here that brings in me conflicting responses. some days, i miss home so much that i can barely stand it. other days (and more often as time passes), i get a brief glimspe of life in its glorious forms. there is something about being here that makes you feel alive. what does that mean anyway - when people say i feel alive? can you remember back to certain moments in your life where you felt most alive? for me, i can remember a particular moment. i was running on an extremely hot afternoon in my home town...i was sweaty, hot, and had been running for over an hour but felt a boost of energy as i glanced at the quiet trail with blurs of greenery rushing past me. i remember thinking how happy i was to be alive and how connected i felt to my surroundings right then. it's as if you suddenly become privy to a secret that only you understand...but the moment is so quick, you wonder how it happened when you are jolted back to reality. shrug. maybe the heat had gotten to me more than i had thought :). in any case, back to my instances i feel like that are much more frequent. how can i not when i see land that stretches as far as the eye could see just beyond some very modern looking buildings.

the dichotomy of life is magnified here. what's different? well, i'm sure you've heard plenty of times that life is just simpler. who knew how servicable a pair of black shoes can be. fit for work, fit for weddings, fit for dancing, fit for chillin. it's amazing how your perspective of what you think you need changes so quickly. here, even the internationals who temporarily make this their home are different. i suppose this land attracts certain types of people. so much the same, but so much that's different. they are still scared of spiders but will fearlessly hike through snake infested mountains. they dance to Kanye West tunes but will ensure to stack KuthiKuthi in their homes. they spend hard earned money on luxurious trips to the spa but will rough it camping with heavy rain pelting down their tents. what can i say? they're just heartier, minimum fuss, no fear of bilharzia (water parasites), bring on the hippos (common in the lake), let's see the top of the mountain type of people. my dichotomy? life here brings out my my my strengths and my weaknesses. my strength? minimum fuss. i dont need 10 different pairs of going out shoes. my weakness? i wasnt scared of snakes until i started to frequently see them on random trips to say...a restaurant. now i check under my bed at night. my strength? i have a knack for picking up languages quickly. so i enrolled myself in french lessons while i try to pick up Chichewa for free :). my weakness? fear of the unknown. my strength? the unknown becomes less unknown every day.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

What do you think it is?

Today, a friend told me he lost another member of his family. that makes 5 people who died in the three short months i've known him. on most days, it's difficult for me to remember that i'm world's away from my home in canada. you become entrenched in daily wake up, you rush out the door in a frantic hurry for work, you get stuck in traffic, some days go by in a hurried blur, some days seem to stretch in time, you go home or you may socialize with a few friends, and then you start all over again. but it doesnt take long before someone or something jolts you back to remind you where you really are. you are actually in a place where you have had people away from work for 9 different funerals, but George with the five missing members still smilingly asks about your day. you are actually at a place where the life expectancy is 39 (!) years of age and your 38 year old co-worker laughingly jokes that she's got one more year left to live. when did i forget that a large scale event to commemorate lost relatives became an event to entertain the crowd with song, comedy and dance? how did i forget that i now live in a place where the very first person i spoke with informed me that his wife was infected with AIDS? we're not playing with odds, it is a very distinctive pattern. it is not a coicidence that in this time and place i notice problems from poverty to governance. i bet you're thinking that my friend George who lost 5 members all died from illnesses. maybe from AIDS? well...two died from simple infections easily treated in the West. one died from old age. 2 from violent mini bus accidents. i once saw a mini bus that was so broken down it was almost comical. all four sides looked ready to collapse. it was a car from the flinstone era. of course, you will see many a mercedes and BMWs. like i said though, it is not a coincidence. what do you think the problem is? we throw around lack of accountability, poverty, dependence on donors, governance issues, lack of capacity...dependence...accountability...dependence...accountability...but who knows...i'll let you know as soon as i find out.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Nkhata Bay

A few girls and I drove to Nkhata Bay (a town 4-5 hours north of Lilongwe) and stayed for four days. We went for the sole purpose of taking diving lessons - an activity i greatly underestimated. We chose Nkhata Bay for the lessons because we had great recommendations all around that they were the safest - and cheapest. 260USD. the place we stayed in - Myoka Village, is great if you like loud, partying backpackers :). actually, the loudness wouldnt have been so bad if our group hadnt been completely exhausted from the studying and diving the entire time we were there. as soon as we arrived, we were each given thick diving text books, and were greeted by a military type no-nonsense woman instructor. our first night, we had homework. we sat at the lodging's bar, studying, our books scattered in the midst of coffees and hot chocolates. The backpackers periodically ventured to ask if we were travelling study groups. we shot them the occasional envy i'm sure. i'm sure by then we had asked ourselves over and over what we had gotten ourselves into. I had managed to take a break from work, thinking i would be coming for a nice, RELAXING, sit on the beach type of getaway. instead, i was frantically perusing through a text book, reading about what happens to our ears and lungs if we dont take precautions. hmm. of course, we had other good incentives for passing the diving class (besides a healthy fear of dying from lung expansion). the money we had paid was non-refundable. anyway, we started off nicely, and dove our second day. i decided that day that human beings belonged on land. being underwater is just not natural. well...perhaps i can reluctantly admit now - after uncontrollably, and frequently surging to the surface, bouts of seasickness, and my less than graceful management of the heavy diving equipment, i can safely say it was fun :). now if i can only remember what military woman who likes to put the fear of God in people taught us for my next dive.

For those of you who may want to visit Nkhata Bay, you will find the stay - in terms of food and accommodations - very affordable. Four of us shared a room for about 7 USD each a night. Food cost about 2200 Kwachas - which is the total equivalent of about 16 USD for my entire stay! amazing huh? mind you, that's pretty cheap even for Lilongwe. I find Malawi in general to be surprisingly expensive in goods and services. But if you stay in Myoka village, make sure you choose a room far from the dining area as there was music and entertainment every normally this would be more than welcome but if you want to turn in early (as we did every night exhausted from studying and diving), you wont get any sleep. We dined at Njaya one night - great for those who want quiet and rest.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Settling in...

I'm finally starting to settle in Malawi. I'll tell you one thing though. Malawi is not for those without purpose. it's not for those without jobs. if it was not for my work, i would be...dont know what i would be but it wouldnt be a good thing. There is a serious lack of entertainment spots. i miss...i miss having the choice of NOT going to movie night. I miss...sitting in a cozy coffee shop and talking for hours about nothing with my girls. just when i was starting to convince myself that i have to give up these past-times, i was invited to a theatre spot in Lilongwe - MadSoc Theatres? - and we saw in interesting satirical play about the government's relationship with the development community. ha. no, that really was a genuine laugh - being part of the development community, i was indeed able to see the funny (but unfortunate) satire in the play. so, it's a matter of actively seeking out those entertainment spots people. if you're not the social type, forget it, you're lost. people have parties here like there is no tomorrow. you will see retirees dancing at a home party past midnight. there are a few clubs and such for those who like to dance outside of their homes, but still have to visit these spots myself. also, if you are willing to travel 1 to 3 hours outside of the city, the abundance of outdoor activities are something to experience. next week, me and 3 other girls are going to drive 4-5 hours north of here to go diving (Nkhata Bay)...will let you know how that goes...i'm very excited!

Sunday, May 28, 2006


I visited Mangochi, a town about 3 hours south of Lilongwe. i went for work. we stayed at a gorgeous resort (check out the pics) by the Lake. I believe some refer to the area we stayed in as Monkey bay. i was chased by a Monkey. yeah yeah, laugh all you want, it wasnt funny at the time when i ran away screaming. i woke up the hotel was 6am. i suppose i got a bit carried away taking pictures...thought i was a national geograhic photographer or something...the monkey didnt like the flash i just stared at me for a second...and then made a loud cry and lunged...i ran away and didnt look back...they stopped being cute after that. other than that, the place was paradise and i was glad i got a bit of a chance to enjoy it even though i was there as a work retreat...

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Idle Inanity

Boredom. B-o-r-e-d-o-m. This is a word that at one time or another, everyone understands quite well here in beautiful Lilongwe. As gorgeous and new the surroundings are to my 5th day, i hadnt yet started work (which definitely improved situations since i had some human interaction), and i was completely dependent on my uncle for rides and he worked full time. SO. i was left to my own devices. I was warned before i went to Lilongwe. But i didnt mind because i was there to experience new cultures and landscapes, not experience night life. but i was beginning to think that i would miss the choice of NOT wanting to go out...the choice of going out to a movie theatre just because. Even the locals would nod quickly in sympathetic understanding as soon as someone so much as mentioned the word boredom. But i have somewhat embraced boredom. you see, it is the kind of word that one can base social interactions and forms instant bonds of friendship. In fact, boredom forms the beginnings of many creative outlets. How then can one develop inane bouts of creativity, without idleness? Aside from the cerebral cortex being activated, boredom can also be the start of friendships. For instance, sitting in my uncle's office (before i started work 2 weeks later), with no good reason for being there other than an attempt to get out of the house, people walk by and slow down when the glimpse a new face. They look bored. after some walking back and forth, they finally decide to come in and rescue me from getting dizzy from twirling in the chair like a child. Before long, we are engaged in deep, meaningful conversations such as...their deep desire to buy neutragena products...or that shampoo they cant for the life of them find here in Lilongwe. boredom is not so bad. well, i better go now. the birds outside my uncle's office are making a different sound.