Saturday, August 11, 2012

Lake Malawi

A few weeks ago, I lead a conference for girls between the ages of 12 and 20 that live in Mozambique’s northern provinces as well as their girl’s group leaders. Mostly we just discussed sexual health, how to prepare for your future, and how to stand up for yourself. It was, almost, really awesome. A few hiccups that probably wouldn’t have taken place at a similar event in the US: two 12 year olds left their sink on all night because they didn’t know how to use one, thereby wasting all the water in the big water tank and leaving us without access to water for a rather extended period of time; a volunteer and a participant got malaria; people complained about their travel per diem (free money!); on the truck ride home, a girl had an epileptic-esque episode and everyone blew it off that she was ok, just, merely, possessed by a demon (no big); and 4 people of the 21 people that got tested for HIV (participants and facilitators) tested positive. I was, obviously, devastated at the news. I have no idea who these women/girls are, as the tests are confidential, but the percentage is staggering. But then again, I guess it makes the whole conference and all the prep headaches worth it for 4 people to learn their status, and therefore hopefully get some treatment and live a longer, healthier life. But still, not the stats you want at a girls’ empowerment workshop. Overall, however, it was the culmination of this year’s work for me and I was pleased with what the girls learned and will hopefully utilize in their lives and communities.

As a reward, I went to Lake Malawi after the conference with some fellow volunteers. Malawi is awesome. It is dirt cheap and downright beautiful. Lake Malawi (or Lago Niassa as it is called this side of the way), more specifically, is one of the largest fresh-water lakes in the world and boasts some of the most diverse and unique marine life around. We went to a pretty touristy place and it was weird. Not the “Africa” experience I am used to: on one side of the road that comprised the destination were lodges and backpackers and bungalows for tourists while the other was the typical Malawian experience: goats and bloated-bellied children with protruding bellybuttons from poor umbilical chord removal running everywhere, mud-huts, small shops that sell soap and candles, and people selling their extra crop on the street. It was quite the dichotomy. We sat with our feet up taking in the majestic lake while women and girls washed clothes and dishes in the lake two feet away. It was also interesting to see how the community has been affected by tourism: some kids sat on their front porch and played homemade guitars, yelling: “Take photo! You hear!” because they have obviously grabbed the attention of many a foreigner in the past and received small coins in return for their cuteness. At one point, we decided to go to the market to buy some bananas and sandals. Everyone we asked for directions, average Malawians, told us it was really far and we wouldn’t make it. It was not that far in reality and we did succeed, though probably some of the only tourists to leave the tourist bubble, as people didn’t really know how to handle us once we arrived. We all decided we felt more at home at the market than perusing the ebony and rosewood paraphernalia that people catered for tourists on the side of the road near our hostel. The owners of the hostel where we stayed also probably thought we were the cheapest mother-fuckers ever. The sign out front claimed to be the best value in town so, clearly, on our $200/month living allowance, we chose it. We ate peanut butter and bread for at least one meal a day, asked to do our own laundry instead of paying their staff to do it (their faces when I asked for a bucket to use in the lake were priceless), and we brought back the Malawian beer one night instead of buying the Danish beer that though bottled in Malawi, is “expensive.” This Malawi beer, however, was awful. Called Chibuku (Shake-Shake in Chichewa, the Malawian local language), it is basically fermented corn: a thick, foul-tasting, vomit-esque liquid that is sold in one-liter cartons for 50 cents. You drink it as if taking a swig from a milk carton and one sip in, we all decided, well that was fun, and dejectedly caved into splurging for the Danish Carlsberg, offering the local beer to a random dude. Needless to say, we did not fit in with the rest of the young, traveling crowd, but we had a blast anyway. We went snorkeling and kayaking, and forgot all the crap we had been dealt during the conference. This is my pitch for a Malawian vacation.

Another pitch for travel in south-eastern Africa: I finally got to watch Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations” episode on Mozambican food and culture. He boasts that Mozambique has the best food that he has eaten in all of Africa, which I wouldn’t doubt for a second (thanks to awesome seafood, a plethora of coconut-inspired dishes, and piri-piri (spicy) grilled chicken), and he shares some great visual shots of and interviews about the real Mozambique. Though his rather harsh commentary on Portuguese colonialism and the rebel group Renamo is only mostly deserved (and his impressions of Frelimo, the political group in power since independence, are more than a tab idealistic), he paints a slightly forlorn portrait of poverty in Mozambique. Yes, people are extremely poor. Yes, people live without running water, electricity, and grocery stores. But, to quote my sister who visited last week, people make it work and just go on living their lives. African poverty is generally less sad in real life than it is usually depicted through film and photographs. But Bourdain did take care to include how downright nice and welcoming and peaceful Mozambicans are, all undoubtedly deserved appellations. And he did ultimately claim that the hostility of many recently post-civil war African countries is nonexistent here, giving Mozambique a bright future, which is definitely true in my experience. If you want a taste of this, usually, fantastic country, definitely try to get your hands on a copy of the show.
Our copy machine finally arrived, but it was not the warm welcome I had anticipated. First, the teachers all individually commented that the machine was old and ugly. Well, I told them, it is second-hand because the brand-new ones were 3 times as expensive and even the money to get this second-hand one was a stretch. And the copy machine definitely performs its intended purpose: it makes copies! They still shook their heads. Then I told them that they would still have to pay for copies (though the price would be half of the price in town). WHAT!? they shrieked, this is our copy machine! Well, I replied, after we use all the initial paper and toner that our grant funds purchased, how will we buy more? They all just sat there, and I read their minds: we will wait for the next white person to buy us more.

Oh right. Duh…

But still, I think they will warm up to the copy machine once they start to see the benefits and I therefore thank everyone who contributed to this project. It will tremendously help my school for years to come as they get the copy-business underway and can use the profits to fund projects that directly profit the school and the students. Obrigada!

1 comment:

  1. Lake Malawi sounds awesome. Snorkeling, kayaking, disgusting beer, and not being like the average tourist...sounds like the perfect vacation/reward for your hard work. I think your women's heath conference was also a success despite the complaints/bad news. Even the littlest progress is going to make a difference in someone's life.
    Too bad about the bad reception of the copy machine, but like you said, I think they will learn to appreciate it.