Disclaimer

Nothing expressed here reflects the opinions of the Peace Corps or the U.S. government. I say this in part to protect them from getting blamed for anything I might say, but also to keep them from stealing my jokes.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

basi

 “Basi,” in Chichewa, means finished – and I am. The end of my Malawi experience arrived sooner than anyone expected, and with an entirely unforeseen set of terminology and circumstances. In late November, I was granted Interrupted Service. And, with both sorrow and resolve, I chose it for myself.

On one hand, I’m reluctant to write about why this happened because it is heavy and unpleasant and I often sense that it makes people uncomfortable; on the other hand, I’m desperate to write about it. It has affected me deeply and continues to do so – “it” being partly the circumstances of my leaving, but mostly Malawi as this large abstract beautiful horrible hilarious absurd place that is so powerful and so grand and so ridiculous that it at times makes me forget to use commas, like right now. I will never be the same. And as a “normal” volunteer I would have had the chance to write one last thing, to tie up all the loose ends for myself and end the experience with closure and finality and reflection. I still want to do that. So I will.

Essentially, without getting into the specific details, here it is: I was assaulted twice in the space between June and September. I convinced myself that I was fine after the first incident, swallowing any residual anxiety about it and throwing myself deeper into my work, only to see those symptoms worsen despite my best attempts to ignore them. When I opted to seek help, I was assaulted again on the way to my first counselor appointment. Rattled and worn down, I couldn’t deny the combined impact any longer. Malawi was not a good place for me to be. When offered the chance to medically evacuate for 45 days, I said yes.

I got a lot out of those 6 weeks (although, admittedly, a mixed bag): an unofficial diagnosis of PTSD; the comfort of my family, my childhood friends, my hometown, and a Midwestern autumn; and most of all, a huge, overwhelming sense of relief. For the first time in months, I relaxed. I had perspective. With distance, I saw the dysfunction. When I left Tanzania several years ago, it all felt so premature, and I was filled with a feeling of “Wait, no – I’m not done! I wasn’t done!” But when I left Malawi, the difference was stark – I was just so relieved, so tired, and quite frankly so bitter. Malawi sapped my reserves, and left me with a feeling that I could never give enough of my money, of my time, of my attention, or of my affection. The prospect of returning filled me with dread. And so, with sadness and decisiveness, I gave myself permission to be done.

But in many ways I am not done with Malawi – I can’t stop talking about it. A few weeks ago, I was doing just that and an old friend said, “From all the things you’ve said, I really have no idea what it was like.” And he is right – I’m not sure that even I know. It was laid thick with contrasts and contradictions. I met some of the kindest, cruelest people I’ve ever known, and got to know a bit of the kindness and cruelty in myself. Just as my Peace Corps experience should not and cannot be defined by the way it ended, Malawi cannot be defined by any one quality.

When I first started this blog, you may remember, I aimed to offer an alternative to the typical one-dimensional view of Africa: to counter the stereotypes of a continent defined by poverty, violence, and illness by presenting a picture dotted with “hope and comedy and a little sweetness, too.” I hope I have done that. But I also realize that isn’t quite right either.

Malawi was a strange in-between land, a place full of gorgeous, glittering moments of feeling very young and very free amid devastating poverty and corruption. It was layered in extremes: joy coexisted with sorrow, and tenderness resided among brutality. There was shocking generosity and utter callousness, chaos and disarray and dishonesty living amid beauty and love and simplicity. And there is so much that I will cling to: Mary’s friendship, George’s raucous presence, Reuben’s dry wit, Mrs. Mbowe’s sass and class, the misty mornings, the dusty afternoons, the students who maddened and amazed me, the scores of strangers who looked out for me with no expectation of anything in return, the small hands that slipped shyly into my palms, and the jumbled collection of people I came to admire, to adore, and to call my family.

We cannot control what happens to us, but we get to select the thematic arc. So I choose this one: Malawi allowed me to close the first quarter-century of my life with breathlessness and awe and growth and gratitude and a bit of reality, too. It was a time when I watched the space between my childhood dreams and my daily experience grow very small, and when I found myself chanting, so very often, “Remember this, remember this, remember this.” And I will.





Epilogue: A piece of Malawi is here with me now – actually, one of the best pieces of it. Thanks to some seriously above-and-beyond acts of friendship from Lauren and Allison and some possible insanity on my part, Chalo was flown from Malawi to America in early December. The journey was harrowing – it did not go as planned due to an airline mistake that will probably never be explained – but he is here and he is alive and he is adjusting beautifully. And I’m overjoyed to have him here, grateful to have a bit of Malawi to ease my own adjustment. He is lucky far beyond the limits of his canine brain, and continues to insist on holding hands with everyone he meets.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

let me paint a picture for you

A woman in my village has started a business selling baby hats. Let me say that again: baby hats. And these are not just any typical, functional baby hats to protect from cold and sun – these are glittering, decorative caps for the discerning infant, meant to be perched jauntily on a little head for pure STYLE. And business is booming. Many of the wealthier babies in my village can now be seen wearing tiny top hats in vibrant shades of red and purple, bedazzled in sequins and feathers.

It is so great I almost can’t handle it.
That is all. 


year of the dog: or, what an african village mutt has taught me about pedagogy, patience, and people

When it comes to animals, I’m a fool.

In Malawi alone, I’ve lived with four cats, three chickens, a few injured bats, and more than one serious consideration of a donkey (the idea of having one to ride to school is getting harder to resist – talk me out of it, please.) In recent months, my menagerie has dwindled to one: just Chalo. This piece of canine Velcro remains my ongoing project, my shadow, my bed-warmer, my running partner, my bodyguard, my plus-one to every village event, and honestly, on a tangible, daily, physically-right-there basis, my very best friend in the world right now. He turns one year old this week, and I can’t imagine how different my Peace Corps service would be without him. When nothing goes right – and in Malawi, that’s pretty often – he is a bright little spark who keeps me here, restoring my faith in my ability to teach something. My students might struggle to understand me, but I’ll be damned if I can’t teach a dog to give high-fives.

There’s something very compatible about these twin rites of passage: about raising the first puppy of my adulthood while completing my first year of teaching. They run parallel. They harmonize. The setbacks and successes of training and teaching flow together and stem from the same source (me), and beg the same questions: what am I doing right, and what can I do better? Chalo and the other animals in my life have been responsible for many of these revelations.

Here are the top 5 things I’ve learned about learning as they’ve been teaching me about teaching.

1. Rewards rewards rewards
Anything that is rewarded is repeated. Anything that is rewarded is repeated. Anything that is rewarded is repeated. It’s such a simple principle, but such a powerful one when harnessed properly. A lot of behaviors are bad, but in the moment they’re self-rewarding, so they happen again and again (like when Chalo runs out the gate without permission, or when my kids cut class). And punishment alone often isn’t enough to deter those ingrained bad behaviors, which my school proved to me early on: kids got threatened and punished everyday, but they still followed the same patterns. Negative reinforcement just wasn’t enough incentive to change. But through good old-fashioned counter-conditioning, I’ve been able to make a dent, weighting the behavior I want with big, meaty, happy rewards (praise! candy! high-fives!) so they start following that pattern instead. Positive reinforcement is, in most situations, a much better motivator – and I realized that thanks to Chalo, who didn’t start heeling on a loose leash until I rewarded him for what I wanted, instead of just punishing him for what I didn’t want.

2. Anger and intimidation really don’t work. Fair, firm corrections do.
This is huge, and maybe my biggest objection with the disciplinary style I see in Malawian schools: a lot of threats, a lot of yelling, a lot of bullying, a lot of public shaming. And it is made doubly jarring by the fact that I have been blessed with some really wonderful teachers in my life – true virtuosos who have modeled boundaries, limits, and control without showing anger, silencing a classroom of teenagers with a look, creating an environment where students want to do their best just to impress them. It is the same presence I’ve felt among really talented horsemen: a sense of extraordinary stability, calm, and “feel,” earning respect by giving respect, often without saying a word. I admire and aspire to this.

And no matter how many Malawians say I am wrong, I cling to these ideas: adults should be able to keep their emotional balance among children. Teachers should be better than their students. Intimidation does not belong in a classroom, and rage has no place among dogs, horses, or kids.

3. Review review review
If I think my students know something after one try, they don’t. If I think we’ve reviewed too much, we’ve probably reviewed just barely enough. If I want Chalo to always come when called, he needs to practice in the yard, in the kitchen, by the road, in the market, on a train, in the rain, on a box, on a fox…everywhere. And if I want my kids to use the past progressive tense consistently and correctly, the same idea applies.

4. Expect high standards, but don’t make them impossible to reach.
I’ve seen horses that, if asked to do something beyond their abilities, will just shut down: eyes glazed, a withdrawn expression on their face, every part of them in a far-off place. I’ve seen Chalo check out if he gets too confused about what I’m asking. And I’ve seen the same look from my students if I’ve pushed too far, too fast. I don’t want to bore them, but I also don’t want to demoralize them, so finding the happy medium between a challenge and an impossibility remains a tricky balance for me. I hope to get a better hold on this in my second year.

5. No matter what, and no matter what species you are, ah-ha moments are magical.
Those flashes of cognitive connection are pretty dazzling. I have no idea what I’m going to do after the Peace Corps, but the joy of chasing down that moment could keep me a teacher for the rest of my life. Whether with dogs or with people, I swear to god, there’s nothing better.


Happy birthday, Chalosi.




Sunday, August 25, 2013

madam chambezi, year two

To be honest, there’s a lot I’m dreading about my rapidly approaching second year of teaching: the intricate bureaucracy, the sap-slow staff meetings, the focus on punishment instead of praise, the throng of school practices that defy logic, the demands placed on me as a white foreigner with connections and a computer. But there’s one thing I can’t wait for: seeing my kids again.
The student I’d predict to be most likely to go to university is Samson. He announced in the first week that he hoped to become a priest, and he did so in a sort of high-strung, highly enunciated, holier-than-thou manner that made me not like him very much – but he has since become one of my favorites. I marvel at his sincerity, his effort, and his limber way with language. He works miles ahead of anyone else in the class, forms sentences with varied structure, and has definitely reached the same neighborhood as fluency. And he is always smiling.
Jacob is the other star of Form 3, but he’s a little trickier to figure out. He perpetually wears a knowing smirk, and for good reason – usually, he does know. He readily raises his hand and jumps at opportunities to perform, but always with this slow, sly swagger, a posture that seems to say, “I don’t care that everyone’s watching me, but I know everyone is watching me.” Mysteriously, that classroom swagger fades on the street. He lives closer to me than any other student in the school, and yet he never comes up to me on his own. In fact, he is downright shy. I can’t explain it, but obviously the image you choose to project can be complex, especially when you’re 16.
There are other students who are less intellectually flashy, but whom I’ve been lucky to get to know. Petros is one of my favorites – he has the look and walk of a young Barack Obama, but presented in a wildly friendly, almost puppyish way. He drifts easily between the school social circles, but always sits alone in class, seemingly by choice. And he puts a heartwarming degree of effort in his English, despite the fact that it isn’t his best subject, and despite the fact that he is not the brightest in the class. He is hard not to notice.
There are others as well, of course: quiet, contemplative Richard, who prefers to just listen but writes spectacularly when given the chance; sweet, eager Elijah, who leaps at the opportunity to erase the board for me; sassy, straightforward Thoko, who is a girl with the air of a woman; and beautiful, brave Maggie, the first of any of the girls to approach me on her own, often the only girl to speak up in class, and the student who delivered an argument so passionate, cogent, and bold in one of our Life Skills debates that I consciously thought, “I want to be like her.” There’s whisper-voiced Felix, who I sense does not get treated well by his classmates, but whose time will come, and there’s multi-dimensional Benjamin, who runs with a rough crowd and comes to school erratically, but has started to glitter under the right light, turning in essays with surprising fluency and looking at me with more engagement and fascination. It’s hard to say who will still be here next year – my guess is the two suspendees, Bornface and Hastings, have slipped away for good. But others are harder to pin down, like Stanley, the boy who disappeared from school for weeks, was put in jail for attacking a woman, and then came to my house on a Saturday afternoon asking for help with his English. We’ll see.
The ten-year age difference between me and most of the Form 1s creates a much different dynamic. They’re more boisterous and bouncy, eager to talk because they’re less self-conscious about what they don’t know, but terribly difficult to talk to because everything they don’t know happens to be a lot. It’s a very female-driven room, too – Judith, Chance, and Bubile would run the whole show if allowed. (And to be honest, they could, undoubtedly). It’s harder to get to know the Form 1s in the sea of faces, but there are some standouts: adorable Cecelia, always in a pink jacket and ready to offer a guess, even if she is (unfortunately, usually) wrong, and mischievous Chiku, who means well but can never be trusted. (On an end-of-term survey, in response to the question “What did you like about this class?”, he wrote “You because you are so beautiful and wonderful and delicious.” Oh god.) There’s quiet, sharp Prince, who confided in me that he hopes to become a teacher “just like you”; Salayi, whose grades from the beginning of the term are almost unrecognizable compared to her final exam results (in a great way!); and sweet Divason, who sits in the back with rapt, faintly lovestruck attention, sending encouraging smiles my way that really help, whether he realizes it or not.

I admire them and I’m maddened by them. They disappoint me and they amaze me. And I cannot wait to see them in two weeks.

August

…has been a ridiculous whirlwind. Let me count the ways.
  •        - stupidly jumping off a truck and landing in a stupid way that has stupidly rendered me unable to walk for the past two weeks
  •      -    having my first ever x-ray at my first ever Malawian hospital, and discovering it to be one of the most surreal experiences of my life
  •          reuniting with the other 16 remaining members of my original Peace Corps family at our glorious mid-service training
  •         catching and playing with wild hedgehogs – a phrase I never imagined I would utter in Malawi
  •           meeting the nearly 140 other volunteers in-country (many of them for the first time ever) at an all-volunteer conference in Lilongwe, and finding it both invigorating and overwhelming
  •         witnessing the swear-in of the 20 new education volunteers, administered by the Director of Peace Corps
  •         chatting with the U.S. Ambassador to Malawi over a Fanta…while limping ridiculously
  •        accidentally brushing off the U.S. Ambassador to Malawi when she apparently said to me, “I hope your heel heals soon!”, and I limped away (ridiculously) and ignored her. Good-bye, career in Foreign Service.
  •         celebrating the 50th anniversary of Peace Corps Malawi by attending a gala at Kamuzu Palace, the home of President Joyce Banda…while limping ridiculously
  •         giving a speech in Chitumbuka in front of the President, the Ambassador, the Director of Peace Corps, and Vanessa Kerry…while limping ridiculously
  •         participating in a dance circle with the President…while limping ridiculously


Here’s to the next ridiculous 12 months.




ku amerika

I’ve now spent the past two Independence Days in the company of government-issued friends in a dusty, faraway land. And in the months between those two fourths of July, they have taken on deeper meaning, as I regularly catch myself fantasizing about a place where things are easier: where people show up on time, where I am not a spectacle, and where I do not lie awake thinking about all the different kinds of sandwiches, unable to sleep through all the Pavlovian drool. Mostly – and quite notoriously, at this point – I cannot think of the United States without feeling a huge, swelling appreciation, and a subsurface urge to cry. Malawi has made a sentimental patriot out of me. From 5,000 miles away, I finally see how incredible we are: how rare and precious it is to come from a hodge-podge nation of mongrels held tenuously together by the ideal that we are all the same, that we are born free, that we deserve to be happy. We fail, over and over again, to live up to these ideals, but still we reach for them – and that is extraordinary.

And yet I know, on some level, that I dream of a cartoon America. In July I went back home, and I saw something with more shadows, more complexity. I heard the verdict of the Trayvon Martin case while sitting in a Burger King. The only other diners were construction workers, sitting startlingly separate and in stone-faced silence: black men at one table, white men at another. I went to a public forum where people in my small Missouri town voiced opinions about a proposed human rights ordinance that would prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation – and my jaw dropped at some of the things that were said. A bevy of citizens stepped up to announce, “I’ve never seen anybody complaining of [discrimination] in our town, so it’s a non-issue. We’re wasting our time here.” I couldn’t stop thinking of Malawi, where homosexuality has long been illegal, and of how many battles we all have left to fight.

In late June, in the middle of my mid-service “what am I even doing here?” crisis, I was given an incredible gift: being one of the first people to meet the group of twenty new Peace Corps volunteers. I was with them when they experienced, for the first time, the very things I have become numb to: bumping along in the backseat of a range rover on a red dirt road, dodging goats and chickens, sensing our mere presence send ripples in every direction, leaving a trail of stares, waves, and cheers in our slipstream. They were delighted. They were enraptured. They found it beautiful. And I did too, just by seeing these Americans’ fresh reactions to this wild, wonderful place that I find so frustrating, so infuriating, so slow, so joyous, so hilarious, so warm. It was so powerful I nearly cried, and I couldn’t help but be reminded of it just now, as I hugged my family good-bye for another year, choking back a very different kind of tears in the security checkpoint.


It’s easy for us Peace Corps volunteers to paint one-dimensional pictures of America and Malawi, to pine for everything we had on the other side – but god, we have so much, in these perfect people, in these two deeply imperfect worlds, and in all the gifts scattered between them.




Tuesday, June 18, 2013

encounters with the acirema

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about good intentions, development practices, and that famous article about the Acirema people, with all their unfathomable body-related habits, their tile-lined altars to hygiene, and their masochistic, horror-inspiring beautification rituals. (Spoiler alert, if you never took an Intro to Anthropology class: the Acirema are us, and we are weird.)
I say this because my village imposes two competing yet somehow coexistent roles on me: one as “hapless, na├»ve outsider who must be looked after and taken care of,” the other as “encyclopedic expert on all things in the universe.” You would think these roles would be mutually exclusive, but somehow they are not. At the beginning of rainy season, when bizarre thatched oval pods started cropping up in inconspicuous gullies and side-paths around my village, I hypothesized about their possible uses (e.g. mushroom growing nursery, compost storage area, wilderness chicken coop, or sexy rendezvous meeting place for two humans lying really close). And we all laughed when I learned how wrong I was, and how obvious the answer would be to a Malawian. They were traps for catching flying ants. Duh.
But a few Sundays ago, when a package from Canada arrived at one of the churches in my village, I was thrust into the opposing role. The box was filled with toys and trinkets, sent with the best of intentions, and expected to bring some small joy to children imagined to have very little. But in reality, the gifts ushered in confusion more than anything else. No one (not even the teachers I work with, many of whom own laptops and televisions and are comparatively worldly) had any idea what these items were or what they were for.
And so, over the course of several days, dozens of people approached me with these Acireman artifacts. First they skirted around the issue with the elaborate greeting ritual – a string of how-are-yous, how-did-you-wakes, and how-is-home that circled around the central topic and approached it politely from the side, following the Malawian concept of courtesy by way of circuitousness. (As opposed to the American concept of courtesy by way of efficiency.) Then and only then would they show me their item: a canister of play-dough, a yo-yo, a bottle of mouthwash. And I would laugh each time – not at them, but at the serendipity of seeing an ordinary item from home and realizing that it is the first one I’ve seen in almost a year. I now react the same way to airplanes. (Or rather, airplane. I’ve seen one in the past twelve months.)
I found myself being presented items from my culture and explaining their uses in simple language, while kind of enjoying the Malawian interpretations even more. The most common questions: “What does it do?” followed by “So, you do not eat it?”
Chance, one of my Form 1 students, called me over at one point. “Madam, can you identify this one?” She did not have the item, but rather a rough sketch of it, which she narrated in faltering English. “It is a long instrument, with ujeni [whatsit]…different colors and…I don’t know, it is what, Madam?”
I had no idea what she was talking about, and after several wrong guesses, I asked her to just bring it the next day.
When she pulled a deck of watercolors out of her bag the following morning, I laughed again – in part because I hadn’t seen art supplies for such a long time, and in part because all of her descriptions were so far from the actual reality of a watercolor set. The artifacts of Acirema culture are totally inscrutable through the eyes of the outsider, even when they are reflected back upon an Acireman.
I demonstrated the basic idea of watercolors on a piece of paper, a crowd gathered.
“Ohhhhh, we thought it was for this,” one girl said, sweeping the paintbrush over her eyelids.
And as they admired the cat I had painted, a boy asked for clarification: “So, Madam, it is not for eating?”
“No Paul, it is not for eating.”

 “It is for ujeni,” said Chance, “for beauty pictures.”