Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Story of One Young Man

This is not just any story and this is not just any young man.  This story starts in Burundi where a 1-year-old baby is forced into the arms of another young mother because both of his parents have been murdered by the national army.  The baby boy is too young to comprehend the gravity of the situation or the affects it will have on his life but he is hungry and cries to be fed.  Violence in Burundi causes the young mother to flee the country in search of safety and security.  She flees to Tanzania and to a refugee camp where the young boy will grow up.  At age five he is separated from the woman who has taken care of him and becomes the responsibility of another man whom he will live with for the next 5 years.  From there the man will disappear, likely to South Africa, in search of work and a better life.  The boy, alone, scared, waits for the man to return as he was told to do. He sleeps anywhere he can rest his head.  He suffers.  Eventually a family leaving Tanzania take the young boy, now 10 years old, to the Dzaleka Refugee Camp, a place they are promised has a better future.  It is here, in Dzaleka, where the boy will spend his formative years sleeping on a straw mat, concerned about the source of his next meal, schooling when possible and finding refuse in football games and model wire trucks made of old fermented beer cartons. 

His family of circumstance stand by him just until their own biological children start to eat their way through the food rations provided.  The parents reach a breaking point and force the boy to choose between quitting school to earn an income or living alone and unaccompanied.  With wisdom beyond his years, he choses school.  Now, independent, his knowledge and determination are his strengths that keep his head above the water as he treads to find a different path.  

I met this boy in his 18th year, having spent 17 years of his young life living according to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and the local governments willing to house refugees.  It is the developing countries that provide for a majority of refugees around the world posing the obvious question: “Why is it the poor countries that take on a lions share of the burden when it comes to taking care of asylum seekers and refugees?”  Not in our backyard we say.  Not in our backyard.

In a session just last week I was speaking to this boy who has become a young man with far too many responsibilities and stress for someone his age.  He is a most genuine spirit with good intentions and a modest courage that speaks louder than his tenor pitched voice ever could.  Without rations for the month of February he is scraping by on one cup of pourage per day provided by the primary school where he is a student.  A 19-year-old 8th grader.  Language barrier, war and basic need have kept him from school across multiple academic years and his grade level, given his age, represents the dire struggle this boy has survived through.  I am proud to know him and humbled to realize that there are people living in this world that can prevail despite such tragedy.  Our session that day never felt like a session between counselor and client but more like old friends getting to the nitty gritty about life’s priorities, hopes and dreams, and the questions and uncertainties that still plague us. 

At one point in the conversation he disclosed that there are moments when he is physically present in the classroom yet his mind wanders and emotionally he finds himself with his head buried in his hands, “I have no family, I am hungry. I feel sorry for myself.”  Despite my battle to hold back my eminent emotions they still got the best of me.  My eyes reddened and welled up with heavy tears that seemed to be drawn from my eyes with exceptional gravitational force.  No young man should have to be deal with this.  As an old friend would, I attempted to provide some hope. “I have never felt sorry for you.  I see in you a strong young man that has continued to overcome, has continued to fight and has made something of himself and for himself.  You are more powerful than you know.”  With that familiar smile that begins at the outside corners of his gaunt cheeks, he replied simply, “WOW.”  Exactly.  My sentiment Exactly. 

When I see his dark eyes gazing from behind his mysterious expression I find myself smiling.  This young man has made an impact on my life.  His journey has inspired me and enriched my time here in Dzaleka.  In one short word he managed to sum up his story in a way that other words cannot. WOW. 

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Cranky Pants Loves Love

I’m in one of those moods.  One of those moods when I don’t feel like talking to anyone, preferring to turn my back on most everything and be alone with my thoughts.  I can’t put my finger on why exactly I have landed in this despondent state but non-the-less I am here.  I know the gloom will pass in good time but in some weird way I don’t mind wallowing in this 'Debbie Downer' mood.  It makes me feel grounded, knowing that everyone has their bad days.  As bizarre as it is, these moods turn me into a contemplative intellectual.  I brood over various things that have been on my mind, reflect on my life and the people in it and ask the hard questions.  Once I get tired of the philosopher in me I go back to being my enthusiastic self who thinks out loud even while others are listening, takes great pleasure in sunsets, makes wishes on stars, sings off key, laughs when it may be inappropriate and respects kids who play in the dirt.

When I am in one of these seldom dumpster dispositions I can count on thoughts of my classroom and the individuals in it to lift my spirits.  So with that, I would like to introduce you to a group of people I have been privileged enough to spend the last year of my life with.

They are men and women ranging in age from 25-66; asylum seekers, refugees and a local from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Burundi and Malawi.  Everyday they are eager to learn about our coursework as well as tangential gems of wisdom that seem to sprout up and grow into teaching moments.  A description of my students based solely on their nationalities seems distant and unfamiliar when my intent is to show you the warmth of their personalities and the uniqueness of their spirits.

More specifically, they are a guitar maker, a pastor, a grandfather, an entrepreneur, a mother of six, a nurse, a community leader, a volunteer, a head counselor, a survivor, a storyteller, a quiet soul, an extrovert, a thinker and then there is me, the token Mzungu.  We are all individuals whose fate has brought us together to learn, laugh and share time.    
The Community Counseling Track Students 

My students are amazing human beings that have taught me more than I could have ever expected about myself and about what true priorities are.  We have shared secrets in the sanctity of each other’s company, built trust and companionship, exposed our weaknesses, asked honest questions and responded with sincere answers.  Over time we have become a unified group coming to understand each other’s idiosyncrasies and building off of each other’s strengths.  Academically we are learning about rapport building, clear communication techniques, Cognitive Behavior Therapy, Depression, symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, stages of trauma and recovery, counseling perspectives, self care and therapy especially focusing on people living with HIV/AIDS, unaccompanied minors, older adults and people with disabilities.  During each and every two-hour session we learn something new and I am able to tuck a life lesson into the back of my brain to be cherished for later.

I was recently pondering the concept of student to teacher reciprocity and I came to the conclusion that our scale is mostly lopsided.  On a daily basis I am thanked for my contribution but I feel my students need constant reminder that it is, and always has been my great pleasure and privilege to work alongside them.  I have explained that they are the reason I get up in the morning to walk 25 minutes through the rain to the office.  They are the reason I travel one hour in a cramped Land Cruiser to get to camp.  They are the reason I can look back on the last year and smile my crooked smile. 
Play Therapy Session

There are moments in the classroom when I can see people making connections between theory and their work.  Their eyebrows raise, their mouths tilt slightly open and the light bulbs inside their heads not just goes on, but beams with understanding.  At these moments I usually rise to my feet to drive the lesson home but more so because I can't seem to contain my excitement.  Their realization is my proudest moment. Their accomplishment is my accomplishment.  My students are always so grateful to be learning amongst a population that is mostly and forcibly idle (According to Malawian law refugees are unable to gain legal employment, which manifests itself into boredom, frustration and restlessness often multiplying the risk for mental health issues).      
The other day I walked in on a serious study session before our class even started.  My learners were questioning each other, nodding, clarifying and reaching a new level of comprehension.  When I realized what was going on around me my eyes watered up and made the extra hours of preparation, lesson planning and photocopying all worth it.  "This makes me so happy you have no idea."  Their work ethic and initiative fills me with a sense of satisfaction.  I am able to measure my success through their progress.  Based on their growth and accomplishment I would say that I have, and am, making an impact.  My days are long and despite the occasional ‘no good, very bad day’, when I get into that cramped Land Cruiser to go home I know that my privilege is going toward a greater good.  Sometimes on the ride back I am stressed out from the demanding schedule, other times my brain checks out and I can’t seem to form proper sentences, still other times I laugh uncontrollably out of sheer exhaustion, but always, ALWAYS, I am happy knowing I get to do it all again tomorrow.

As the time slips away faster and faster through my fingers while I prepare to leave I realize that most of the ‘goodbyes’ will be just that. Good bye.  I am struggling with the idea of such a permanent and abrupt ending but I don’t think time could possibly dull the memories only enhance them.  The thoughts will occupy small parts of my mind and huge parts of my heart.  I have made sacrafices to be here but the work has made it all worth it.  It is not a sacrafice I would be willing to make forever and I suppose as our program wraps up, now is as good a time as any to leave though I am not completely convinced.  Truth is I have no regrets as I return home except for my failure to learn Chechewa (AND French, Swahili, Kurundi, and Kirwanda).  I would not change a thing though.  Not even the perpetual broken window at HEM, the leaking roof or the boldness of the odd toilet flies.  Not the power cuts that made making copies impossible or the rusty red mud that got crusted in between my toes during the rains.  I would not change the afternoon water fights with Clotilde or take back the random embraces from children infected with ringworm.  If I had to do it all again I would keep the grit in my rice that almost cracked my teeth and still listen intently to the never ending stories of needs and struggles that could not be satiated.  I would not give up the warm greetings in the mornings nor the search for toilet key number 6 nor the inquisitive stares at the bore hole.  I would not modify the limited lunch menu selection of rice, beans and chapatti or beans, chapatti and rice, nor the need for three interpretations of the same English phrase so we can all be together.  I would not change having to hunt down masking tape to uphold lesson plans or having to sit on dirt floors to hold counseling sessions in cold, mud brick homes.  I would not change the days I left with tears in my eyes from heartbreaking stories nor distant shouts of  from excited children None of it. I wouldn't change a thing.  My experience has been  painfully perfect.    

Dome's Favorites:  Some quotes I pulled from email correspondence with my students (some of which may be the first ever email they have ever composed).

“I hope and believe that you are all sarounded by Angles who will guide and protect you in every step you make.”

“Good morning .I am very happy to have an opportunity to write to you
even  i do in late.
I appreciate how you teach us very well in spite of the crying  of my
child.Now I am doing my job very well because of your teaching.Thank
you again GOD bless you.”  [*breast feeding babies are always welcome in class.]

“It so good to wish and be in touch with someone you have been with.
the chance of life i expect it in : education, friends and membership.”

“When you are experiencing those down days, can you take a picture of their progress?  It is very real.  It has changed them. Honestly and truly your impact has made such a difference in their lives” –my supervisor  

Sunday, January 15, 2012

49er Faithful

Kickoff was set for 11:30 p.m. Malawi time and there I was at 11:25 scrambling to get 107.7 The Bone Radio Station from the Bay Area to feed me audio from Candlestick Park.  A video feed from an online link was unreliable and the clock was ticking until game time.  My previous attempts to befriend any American diplomat with access to the Armed Forces Network (AFN) failed and my plan b and c were quickly becoming dire.  In the end Coach came to my rescue and was able to set up her Skype video so that I could watch the game via video chat from her living room in Pacifica.  *Thanks for sharing a beer and some time with me buddy.

For four hours I sat at my small dining table watching a 2x2 inch picture with poor, pixilated quality and next to no audio.  The painful reality of what I had been reduced to in order to watch this playoff game became inconsequential after the first three scores of the game were all owned by the 49ers.  As time wore on and the Saints took their first lead late in the fourth quarter my anxiety grew and sitting down no longer became an option.  On a quarter back draw to the left Alex Smith ran 28 yards to the touchdown.  To counter, Drew Breeze hit his receiver over the middle and he rumbled 66 yards for the score.  I bit my nails till there was nothing left.  I swore like a sailer who had been at sea for months.  I screamed out loud despite my housemate sleeping soundly in the next room.  Ultimately, when Alex hit Vernon over the middle for the final score I was stomping my feet on the ground and pumping my fists as if I had made the catch.

Nine years I have waited for this moment of shining redemption.  When you are a diehard fan, staying up until 3:30 in the morning and watching fuzzy figures on a small computer screen is the sacrifices you make.  After all watching your team and their 'lights out' defense become divisional champions is a feeling too sweet to miss.

To have been at the Stick for our glorious win in the final seconds of the game would have been that much more incredible but knowing we will live to see another Sunday is good enough for me.

Fellow red and gold lovers have this to say about the win:

-"Speechless" exclaims Brian Caughell
-"Unreal" says Courtney Coster
-"It took years off of my life" shouts Raymond Camahort

"Who's Got it Better Than Us?"...NOBODY! Thank you Coach Harbaugh    

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

13 Months of Sunshine in Ethiopia

Some say that Ethiopia is a clash of cultures between the traditional Orthodox Christian and Muslim worlds but I would say it is more of a wonderful blend of both worlds passionately intertwined and brimming with roasted coffee beans, traditional drum beats, vibrating shoulders, Amharak language, pungently sour injera, ancient monasteries, roaming livestock and a beautiful, loving people.  The mingling of traditions that washed over me during my two weeks of travel throughout Ethiopia was like nothing else I have ever experienced in my life. 
Mango, Avocado & Papaya Juice

Our itinerary was set for a breakneck speed but did allow for a few days of relaxed nothingness.  We flew into Addis Ababa (Meaning New Flower) on the 17th of December only to turn around and catch our connection to Lalibela the very next morning.  From Lalibela we took a puddle jumper to Gonder and traveled by bus up to Debark and to the entrance of Simeon Mountain National Park featuring Ras Dashen, the highest peak in Ethiopia at 15,157 feet.  From there we were on foot covering beautiful trail until we reached Chenek Camp where we were picked up on Christmas day to travel by 4-wheel-drive across rocky terrain back to Gonder.  From Gonder onto Bahir Dar on a 10-hour cramped mini bus then back to Addis Ababa en route down to Awasa, south of the capital, for a new year’s celebration lakeside under the stars.  Come New Year’s Day we were back to Addis Ababa flying back to Lilongwe on the second of January to start work on the third day of 2012.  All this in 17 short days.

Take a deep breath.  I was able to.  Now for the colorful details that will give you a glimpse into the world of Ethiopia and the incredible destinations we visited. I hope the colors of my limited pallet can paint a vibrant enough picture to do the country justice. 

Lalibela.  A town set on top of mountainous plateaus resting at elevations close to 8,600 feet.  A town differentiated from the others due to its two storied brick houses perfectly round with thatched roofs coming to a thimble shaped closure.  What makes the place so well renowned is the rock-hewn churches carved from solid pieces of rock that date back to the 12th century.  The churches are still places of worship today and if one rises before the sun one can watch robed monks spill out of the stone entrances, shoeless and silent, just as they did hundreds of years ago.  Lalibela was named after King Lalibela (Meaning Honey Eater) who ruled Ethiopia for over 40 years.  Honey and bees are still a cherished commodity in the town where locals extract the sweet nectar from fresh honeycomb to make tej wine.  The highlight in Lalibela for me was sharing a coffee ceremony in the small home of a local man, his mother and sister. 

The coffee ceremony:  I can tell you from experience that two White girls traveling through Ethiopia are magnets for kind locals and crazy nut balls alike.  One of the former named Sisay invited us into his home to share in a traditional style coffee ceremony with his sister and mother.  If I had to guess the age of his mother based on the wrinkly skin clinging to her hallowed cheek bones, her cloudy eyes staring into the distance and the brittle skin around her arthritic hands I would wager 80 to 85.  As it turned out she did not know the year of her birth, as it was not officially documented back then, but given the season she was born in and the events of that year she was able to give me an age range between 60 and 65.  The rings around this woman’s trunk were highly deceiving to me.  Life in a high-density Ethiopian village proves to take its toll on the body to say the least.  On the other side of the spectrum his sister had a beautiful caramel colored complexion, light green eyes and a delicate face that if ‘discovered’ could easily grace the cover of Vogue. 
The Coffee Ceremony
We took seats atop cushions on the ground which, I was sure, converted into sleeping mats come sundown.  I was happily surprised to find out that in the village neighbors share a running water faucet, consistent electricity and the tasks required to ferment the local beer for an afternoon happy hours of sorts.  Progressive I thought.  Below our feet on the cement floor laid newly cut grass and red poinsettia flowers that created a beautiful display for the 12 ceramic cups that nestled into a wooden tray on top of them. The sister placed freshly picked coffee beans onto a large iron saucer that was shifted by hand over a hot charcoal flame.  As the beans lost their moisture they cracked and fizzled sending an aroma into the air that was so rich I could almost taste it.  The beans were then placed in a mortar and pestle and ground to a fine powder while a ceramic kettle was placed over orange burning coals raising the water temperature inside to a rolling boil.  After the beans were ground they were measured with an experienced eye and dumped into the kettle blending strong and earthy goodness for the freshest cup of coffee I had ever had.  I added a teaspoon of sugar to my cup because everyone else was doing it but in the back of my mind I felt like the sugar might somehow taint the perfect concoction that had been labored over for the past 25 minutes.  It didn’t, BUT if you were to jump off of a bridge I would too J.   The flavor was rich and nutty with a noticeable strength that lifted my sagging eyelids from lack of sleep.
The Streets of Debark

Afterward Sisay’s mother and I sat down to have a chat only the obvious problem was she spoke Amharak and I spoke English.  Amharak has no relationship to any Latin based language therefore forming the sounds with my mouth proved extremely difficult let alone uttering the basic greetings.  Despite the language barrier I felt as if we took an immediate liking to one another and when she began to show off her tattoos I was captivated.  Traditional designs resembling parallel railroad ties adorned her chin stretching from ear to ear.  Her name in Amharak was emblazoned on her left forearm and more designs, that had at one time been intricate but were now bleeding into her wrinkled skin, were lining her shinbones.  When I pulled up my shirt to reveal the tattoo of my gnarly old oak tree her eyes lit up and at that moment we bonded.  Though my body art was not designed to attract men as hers were, in that instant we were simply an old woman and a young woman sharing the special meanings behind our tattoos while marveling at the rare circumstances that brought us together on this fateful day.  Quite a scene and a memory I will never forget.

Gonder.  Viola and I took Gonder by storm.  No sooner had we arrived in town had we met an Ethiopian and Israeli man, who both became a part of our travel plans for the next few days.  We visited Debre Birhan Selassie Church and relished in the 80 cherub angel faces smiling down at us, drank exotic juices from avocados, mangos and papayas that were as colorful as they were delicious, ate giant circular plates of injera smothered in shiro, doro wat and garlic infused meat tibs, drank macchiatos for six Birr (17 Birr=1$/US), flew around on 3-wheeled motor bikes known as Bajajs or tuk-tuks in other parts of Asia and Africa, stopped in small doorways and storefronts to admire jewelry, taste locally brewed fire also known as alcohol and dance to the melodic drumming of local musicians. 

The highlight for me was sharing in the company of the locals and visiting a traditional tej bar.  You are awkwardly familiar with the scene already.  Indiana Jones walks into a poorly lit establishment in a foreign land on the other side of the world in search of a grail or an arc or some historical relic owned by Jesus Himself.  As the hazy air clears and Indy comes back into focus all the locals have taken notice of the strange man in their presence and an awkward silence hangs in the air until the clanging music and banter resume just as monkey brains are enjoyed at the dinner table.  In Gonder our Indiana Jones moment came when we walked into a traditional tej bar and all of my senses were joyfully overwhelmed with curiosity and intrigue. 

Red and yellow bulbs shed light onto colorfully woven rugs, hanging cowhides, spiraling mountain goat horns and large wooden drums.  A steady beat and the rise and fall of a woman’s voice filled my ears, potent incense engulfed my nose and burned the back of my throat, the tej wine caused my mouth to pucker sending a warm trickle of magic down to my stomach, my hand gripped the smooth beaker shaped glass holding the fermented wine and my eyes soaked up the energy that came from the crowd of fun seekers, old friends and working women. 
Highland Kids Selling Handy Crafts 

Taking in the scene was so entertaining that it occupied my brain’s capacity and ability to socialize with the rest of our group of Ethiopians, Spaniards, Englishmen, Judeans and Germans.  When I finally snapped out of my daydream the thoughts that were racing through my head came spilling out of my mouth in rapid succession. “Look at them, can you hear that, did you taste this?”  Just as I was thinking about the people I would love to be in the company of in addition to those surrounding me I was called up by the musician to dance.  An invitation I realized I could not turn down.  The traditional style of dance performed by the locals is all done with the upper body.  The shoulders take on a life of their own, bouncing and vibrating to the beat in unison as the torso undulates in a circle provoking other dancers to shake more furiously to the music.  The audience took notice when I was able to mimic the professional dancer in front of me but more so I think because this ‘Faranje (foreigner) had rhythm.  My shoulders bounced along, arms akimbo, eyes fixed on my partner.  The drum beat on, the crowd cheered and questions came from the audience, “Where did you learn to dance like that?” 
Scissor Kick
The Simeon Mountains.  Breathing in pure mountain air, basking in warm rays of sun light by day, shivering to the bone chilling cold by night was just what I needed.  Traveling the same trails as local villagers over steep escarpments, through rocky river beds, past troops of Gelada Baboons and up to mind blowing, awe inspiring peaks allowed me to reconnect with nature and relax a part of my brain that had been wrapped up in work for so long.  A Christmas morning nap on a grassy bluff with 360* views of the park made for a good start to Jesus’ Birthday.  I was affected by the altitude, which kept me from attempting the final day’s summit, but some time for reflection and appreciation apart from the group was fulfilling nonetheless.  Time posing with a Kalichnikoff assault rifle while asking for peace on earth was another cheerful Christmas day activity.  Not being on Amigo Lane made the Christmas season different from any one previous and in all truth made it less festive, as if a piece of me was missing yet I was still filled with a sense of joyous satisfaction that only a rambling heart can experience away from what is comfortable and familiar.
Gelada Baboons
Mule Men Driving Mules in the Simeon Mountains

Bahir Dar:  The source of the Blue Nile, the islands of Lake Tana, the 14th century Monastery Kidane Mihiret, Goofy Danny and his older hawk-eyed traveling companion visiting every country on the map, an offer to visit the Danakil Depression free of charge, my first visit by the diarrhea devil (despite my frequent occurrences with diarrhea over the years I never seem to spell it right on first attempt), stick wielding guards beating back minibus operators in the hectic depot, more dancing and more general enjoyment.  No hippos. 

Awasa and the New Year:  The foreigners in Ethiopia on January 1st were the only ones celebrating the New Year, consequently because they(we) observe the Gregorian Calendar and not the Ethiopian Orthodox Calendar which will be celebrating 2005 come September 11th.  As one woman put it, “You are seven years younger in this country.” What a nice perspective.  A warm welcome from Viola’s cousin made Awasa seem soft around the edges, relaxed and immediately familiar.  Her cousin Melanie is living in Awasa and working as a schoolteacher in one of the local villages.  It was her cousin along with a smiley local Rasta and10 young Germans who rented a minibus to take us to Lake Langano. Viola and I tagged along and smooshed in between couch cushions, fleece blankets, overstuffed backpacks, bags of random food items, gallons of water and 24 flailing arms and legs all excited to celebrate the dawn of the new year.  The enthusiasm was made that much more intense because we all were chewing chat, a locally grown plant whose juices have an upper affect on the body.  While it doesn’t taste good, actually more like bitter dirt, the affect is quite nice, leaving one absorbed in deep conversation, awake and ready to attempt anything and in a mellow mood.   
Awasa and the St. George Cethedral
The highlights for me were five simple pleasures: 1)  Getting to roast raw dough over the fire on sticks, like smores minus the chocolate, a treat known to Eastern European’s as Stick Bread.  2)  Listening to Lynard Skynard’s version of ‘Simple Man’ at high volume , singing along and feeling every word as the artist intended.  3)  Sharing the greatest events of 2011.  Reflecting and looking back over our year and letting the group in on our cherished moments.  Even the scout looking after the camp participated.  He stood up, chest swelled, to share that not two weeks prior he became the proud father of twins.  Two baby girls that changed his world.  4)  Sleeping under the stars in the Southern Hemisphere. 5)  Swimming in the sweet milky colored lake New Year’s Day and basking in the warm sun, toes dug into the sand with a good book in hand.
Viola and I on our way to ring in the new year
An Ethiopian Sunset

If I measured the length of the 17 days we spent in Ethiopia by the amount of mind-expanding cultural experiences I would say it was closer to three months.  By the time the wheels of the plane touched down in Lilongwe everything had turned green and grown wild over night due to heavy rains.  I walked into my same old house yet it felt as if it were for the first time.  The new perspective on the world was my first sign that our adventure was a good one.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

And to All a Good Night

The first Christmas spend away from 96 Amigo Lane, away from California, away from America and away from my family and friends.  A new experience, a new corner of the world, a new culture and a new way of celebrating.

ETHIOPIA. 2011/2012.

Details, pictures and stories upon my return to Malawi.  Until then a MERRY CHRISTMAS TO ALL,  I love you with everything I have.  

Friday, December 16, 2011

I'm Lauren Michelle, I Smile so Well

It’s funny.  I was playing indoor soccer tonight in the gym of African Bible College, a local college with exceptionally nice facilities as compared to other public institutions in town.  The five-man (actually 5-woman) teams were a mingling of Malawians, students, professionals and ex-pats from various corners of the world.  The point of significance was not the hodgepodge of nationalities but more so the age of the players involved.  Girls in high school, age 14, looking spritely and brimming with energy up to the oldest player-Me. Age 30.  Generally, teams are selected based on the color of the t-shirt people wear and as luck would have it all of the ‘veteran’ players (not necessarily experienced but older) were placed on the same team.  Kickoff happened and it seemed to be young vs. old(er).  

There was a moment when I was subbed out and simply observing the game progress from the sideline.  Our team had maintained possession and had better vision on the court, which meant a lopsided score in our favor (Not that anyone was really keeping score because the games are always friendly). One of the young girls of 14, who looked more like 12 with a baby face and an infinite motor, had possession of the ball and was dribbling down the court.  Our defense was slow to retreat so the goal was all but wide open.  She took her shot and made it.  You could see her chest visibly swell with pride.  A small jump, followed by a fist pump and an audible, “Yesss”.  Keep in mind the score was a lot to a little and there had been no ‘touchdown dances’ prior.  Her moment was short lived but the celebration brought a smile to my face.  Her enthusiasm and competitive spirit actually reminded me of me way back when. 

My imagination whisked me out of the gym and into George Deklotz stadium, under the lights of Las Lomas High School.  Back then I was confident with my athletic ability, which might have teetered on arrogant if not for the lightning fast midfielders that kept me humble.  I had an energy and attitude of invincibility that made that time in my life so naively special.  To be perfectly honest, I still feel an air of invincibility however that feeling is fading with the knowledge of the impact an emergency would have on my family and friends.  For this reason, I take myself a little more seriously although I will never allow fear to keep me from pursuing the life I feel destined to lead.  Not going to happen. Sorry Mom and Dad. Base-jumping is still in the cards some day…OK, back to the story. 

As I giggled to myself and watched the young players work I reflected on my years since my own high school days.  In hindsight, I realize that I have grown up.  I have grown up A LOT.  I guess I have not changed, so much as grown to become more of myself.  I believe my journey to this point has been an indescribable adventure chalked full of highs and lows, although I must admit that the positive events have far outweighed the negative ones.  Never ending family support, teaching moments, opportunity, connections with people and places, giving back, love and education.  Experiences that have built me up and broken me down and created the person I am today.  I am not admitting to adulthood here but there is such a vast contrast between myself then and myself now.  That said, I know I don't always make the best decisions (my stubborn pride and that little voice inside my head screaming, "Do it" often muddle my ability to do so) but the most important thing is that I have no regrets.  This little moment in the gym tonight brought all of this awareness to the forefront and continues to make me smile as I write this.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Bits and Pieces

To have a long pinky nail here in Malawi is to have an elevated status.  The nail does not serve a purpose, as many fiends used it in the hay days of the 60s and 70s, but it is more to show others without saying a word that you do not do manual labor.  To do manual labor means you are constantly using your hands and digging in the earth, which would not be possible with an extended fingernail. 
Flame and Frangipani Trees blossoming now in Lilongwe

Garbage collection happens in various neighborhoods throughout Lilongwe but is not a practice happening everywhere.  The solution and general rule of thumb is to dig a large pit in your backyard, burn anything and everything that will disintegrate, melt, dissolve or otherwise send ozone destroying fumes into the atmosphere then throw the rest in the pit to wallow for eternity.

During Mango season, one can purchase close to 30 mangos for $2.  They are sold by the bucket load so a vehicle is necessary to transport the heavy cargo back to one’s home before they become too ripe.  The proper way to eat a mango is by tearing into it like you would an apple.  Bite through the skin, spit in out and enjoy the juicy orange flesh inside.  Always carry floss on your person because the stringy fibers will no doubt get stuck in your teeth like a stubborn popcorn kernel.
Mango 'stall' on the side of the road out of Senga Bay 

There are precarious footbridges constructed out of medium sized branches and nails that span across the Lilongwe River separating the produce market from the clothing market.  To cross one of these bridges to visit the clothing market there is no tariff but to make the return journey one must first check for bridge trolls, walk with great caution not to fall through the fractured gaps, then pay 20 MK to the toll taker as if the experience couldn’t have cost you some broken bones and a swim in the muddy waters below.

In area 18, by what is known as, ‘the stage’ men jog around with crockpot looking dishes made of plastic.  When cars or mini buses slow down near to them, their jog breaks out into a feverish run so that they may sell the product inside of the dishes.  Sausage.  Ahhh street meat.  All will tell you that the product inside is 100 percent meat however every local knows that soya products are cheaper and often sausage stuffers will concoct a sausage looking thingamajig with part meat, part soya, part parts.  You never know what you are going to get but you can guarantee it will be salty.

Malawians love sugar and salt, “too much.”

In the latter part of November and December everyone anticipates the beginning of the rainy season here in Malawi.  The 85 percent of the country involved in subsistence farming are busy preparing the ground with a spade attached to a short wooden club that acts as a multipurpose tool.  The earth is turned over manually and formed into neat and tidy rows with elevated mounds of dirt for irrigation purposes and to prevent flooding of the seedlings.  Maize feeds the country along with some variations of tobacco and cotton for export as well as beans, tomatoes and cassava.  Women and men are bent over their plots of land working away with sweat and blood to subsidize their diets as well as their incomes.  Tractors are a rare commodity and are reserved for large scale farming operations owned by the government and wealthy land owners.  
A 'teaching moment' on the beach-Yes that is a beer in my hand

Female condoms are distributed in camp however the purpose for which they are intended is never realized.  Instead, the inner ring made of a soft plastic is separated from the overflowing waterfall of latex and then used as a bracelet adorned by men, women, girls and boys alike. Pretty.    

To be fat in the African sense is to be healthy and strong.  It does not in any way have the tainted perspective of the Western World where people would take offense to the pudgy adjective.  -“You look fat!” –“Why, thank you…”

JRS has formed a social football team that plays on Saturdays against various Malawian social teams and NGOs.  We are currently 1-2-1 on the season with premier league aspirations.  Often I am the only female on the pitch trying to give ‘us’ a good name but the foot speed and raw talent out there is hard to match up against.  What is important is that we look really good in our uniforms and have fun doing it.
The JRS team

In the Rwandan and Congolese culture it is considered impolite for women to whistle at any time.  This practice is reserved for men only and I am told that women who do whistle do so because they want to be like men.  I learned this little factoid only after whistling at a colleague from far off in camp.  When we discussed the cultural relevance in class today I was amused to find out that out of the nine women in my class, only one could actually, physically whistle.  All five men could.  It was then that I whistled like an angelic bird and we all had a good laugh.  Note to self-no more whistling outside of the house.

I brought home a small tree/plant and we decorated it with random items from around the house to celebrate the beginning of the holiday season and an upcoming Christmas.  It is imperfect and resembles Charlie Brown's feeble tree but that is why we love it.  For your information that is a chitenje tree skirt.  Our tree will be planted in the front yard upon my return from adventuring in Ethiopia over the holiday break.  Merry, happy times all.