Sunday, August 24, 2014

Final Act

Over the past two years I have had the privilege of serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Malawi for a rural hospital in the central region of Malawi. I have had many ups and downs as you always do in life. The one thing they tell you about Peace Corps service is that your highs are really high and your lows are really low. But when I look at the whole thing together, I only feel gratitude now. I want to tell a story of a girl that I talked about once before in my previous writing. But I will just tell you the whole story again from the beginning of my encounter of her. I met Sarah when she was already 18 years old. She was born with HIV during the height of the epidemic in the late 90’s. Her father died before she was born and her mother followed in 2003. This was a time in Malawi when ARVs were still something that was not consistently found in the hospitals. She was given to her mother’s sister, her aunt to be raised. She was never told that she had HIV until she was 12 years old and figured it out. She was at the borehole gathering water where she heard the women speaking about the room number where people who had HIV went to get their medicines. But that room number was the same number where her aunt took Sarah every month as well. She was in secondary school at the time and in a boarding school. She became afraid that someone would find out that she was positive. She started throwing away her medicine in fear that the boys would find out and tease her. While in Malawi the stigma has reduced among adults who are living with HIV/AIDS, while children and adolescents it’s different. They still live in fear that their peers will find out and especially if you are a girl, you fear that the boys will find out. By the time she came home for school vacation she had rashes all over her body combined with T.B. She was counseled, given medication in a different bottle (disguised as vitamins) and sent back to school. That’s when my supervisor met her and then introduced her to me. She told me her story. By the time I met Sarah, her family was unable to pay her school fees so she sat at home. She told me her dream of wanting to graduate from Secondary School and become a nurse. I knew deep down inside that it was unlikely, but I still tried to find someone to help her. Thanks to a well-wisher, she was able to go to school. She was happy most of the time. She would come home sometimes and tell me of her fears that people would find out her status, but then she would go back after counseling. She came home one time and was really emaciated. I worried, but we gave her a different diet regimen and she improved. Some months passed and then she came home sick with T.B. again. I knew this time her illness was different. But no matter how sick she was she always wanted to return to school. I knew the conditions of the boarding school were weakening her immune system; lack of diverse diet, close quarters and stress. I tried to explain to her that it may be best that she goes to a local school until she could become strong again. But she refused. She told me once that ‘I don’t want to be a house girl’. At home she felt like a house girl, but at school she was free to focus on her education only. She came home one more time very sick. We laughed together knew that this time it was different. She tried to return to school to write her final exams, but was turned away because of her illness. Her mother called me one Saturday morning and said Sarah was asking for me. I came to her room to see that she was leaving us soon. I prayed for her, told her I loved her and said goodbye.
In Malawi when someone dies there are many different cultural practices that take place. First the family members come and show their last respect at the morgue. The chiefs come and give their condolences. Then they take the body to the home village to prepare for burial the next day. People come all day and night to sing spiritual hymns and grieve. I was not able to go the funeral the next day, but was grateful I had the opportunity to say goodbye to her. A few weeks passed and I was told that I needed to go to her house to collect something from Sarah’s aunt. I arrived and awkwardly spoke with her aunt in Chichewa about basic conversation starters. The weather, farming etc. Then she looked at me and said in perfect English ‘I want to give you something from Sarah’. She thanked me for the love and help I gave to Sarah. She spoke of how happy she was whenever she spoke of me. She said in Malawi, when someone dies they wrap the body in clothe. Then they take a piece of the cloth and cut in it in remembrance. She told me that I should take this clothe and wherever I go, whatever I do, always remember Sarah. Finally she told me to never forget her and to tell her story. So this is me sharing her story.
Sarah was my friend. She liked to read the bible and talk about the stories from the New Testament. She liked cake and liked to laugh.

This is her story. 

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Are you a Hippo or a Cheetah?

It's been a while that I have written and I must admit that as time has gone on I write less and less. It doesn't mean that I have lost hope in blogging or communication with those that are interested in my experience. It just means that the more I spend my time here, it becomes less extraordinary and more ordinary. Recently there was a NPR podcast about the 'haves and have-nots' . Spending my last two years with the 'have-nots' it has given me a unique perspective of how more than half of the world lives. And how that has changed over history. The question is asked during this podcast, should we continue to send aid to developing countries? Are we really making a difference?
This question I think lingers in minds of most who serve their countries in the name of development. Some say yes and some say no. What do I think after spending more than 2 years in rural community in one of the poorest countries in Africa? It's not that simple, I say yes and no. As I have learned as volunteer over the time, it's not what I do but what I don't do that really matters. Yes I can physically start programs and help with new innovative ideas. I can help launch programs that help reach Millennium Development Goals. I can give in a way that makes me feel good. But what is it that I think at least my community needs? I think they need capacity building. Which is what I am told by people,is what I should be doing. Either way you should listen to this podcast and see what you think. Then you can see if you are a Hippo or a Cheetah?

Sunday, March 9, 2014

The story of "Jane"

This month marks my 30th Birthday. What a place to mark such a special occasion. I was grateful that on my 30th birthday I was able to celebrate with the great friends that I also came to Malawi with exactly 2 years ago. I can still remember my feelings at that time as though it was yesterday. I remember the anticipation mixed with sheer terror. I remember having no idea of what to even expect. I feel now that life can never really give you more than you can handle. Looking back now, I know that I am exactly where I am suppose to be. For that reason I have extended my contract for an additional 6 months to finish "unfinished business". Though I struggled with this decision for a long time, I eventually came to this conclusion with a lot of faith as well. I am grateful that 2 years later I still find things that are unfamiliar, exciting and at times uncomfortable. It is that uncomfortableness that allows for a person to grow. To be pushed beyond normal limits. To become that person that we all hope to be. But most of all I'm grateful for my community who continues to be a great support system for me. Now I would like to tell you a story of a girl in my village that has given me passion for my work, in hopes that one day I can help combat and fight for people like this.
The Story of "Jane"
Jane is a 18 year old girl in my village. Both of her parents died when she was a child in the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. She was born with the disease without a choice. She started taking the ARVs when she was a young child, not even knowing what the medication was for. It wasn't until she was in the 7th grade that she heard women gossiping at the borehole that people who have HIV take their medicine in room 5 at the hospital. Terrified that anyone would find out that she is positive she became nervous. When she went away for secondary school, her aunt who raised her arranged with the headmaster that she could take the medicine from him everyday. Afraid that people would find out she stopped taking her ARVs. By the time she came back to the hospital she had a terrible rash and TB as a result of a lowered immune system. Since then we have been able to send her back to school with the help of well-wishers. In Malawian culture because the girl is a niece to the aunt, her uncle stopped supporting her financially including paying her school fees. As a result she sat at home waiting for nothing. Until a well-wisher was able to sponsor her at school. She was afraid to go to school locally as the schools in my catchment area aren't of the best quality.  ( If one wants to be a nurse in Malawi you must have good grades, and as this is her dream she knew it wasn't possible with a mediocre school )She also had fears of the gossiping women that might gossip about her HIV status and boys would tease her in school. She then found a school about 40 minutes away that allowed her admittance. She has had a second chance with this school. She has found other girls that are positive and they can support each other. She has good teachers and a good support system there as well. The only problem is boarding in secondary schools, gives little options for diet. The food is so poor that she is unable to go a month without some type of illness as her immune system is again weakened by the poor diet. We have tried to talk her into going to a local school so that she can have a better diet at home, but she refuses. She know that if she goes to school locally she has little to no chance of advancing professionally. Therefore, she risk her life, literally to go to school. Each time coming back from school holidays, more ill and thinner.
But it is my hope that with better policies to support "Jane" and better systems in place future Jane's can live better lives. It is my hope to work to help the next generation face less stigma and less struggles just to get an education...

Saturday, February 1, 2014

What Malawi Has Taught Me

The rainy season is in full force with rains here almost everyday. The rainy season marks the time of year when it is busiest. Every morning people go to their farms and try their best to make their one shot in the year to provide food for their families for the year and if they are lucky to make a little profit. It also brings for me time to reflect. I have been thinking of all the wonderful things Malawi has taught me.
  1.  How to start a fire with a plastic bag.
  2. How to carry a variety of things on my head.
  3. How to kill a chicken.
  4. How to speak another language.
  5. How to pretend like I understand another language, even if I really don't understand :)
  6. Compassion
  7. Patience-what African time really means.
  8. How to clean myself without a shower ( very effectively I must say ).
  9. How to garden.
  10. How to relate to someone with a completely different culture.
  11. How to make something out of nothing.
  12. How someone can be so proud when it seems as though they have nothing.
  13. How strong a woman can really be as she carries 50 kgs on her head while breastfeeding a child and then come home to cook dinner.
  14. How to laugh at myself.
  15. How human beings can survive in any conditions.
  16. How most of the world lives.
  17. How let everything go at the end of the day.
  18. How to love nature.
  19. How to give respect to the elderly ( because if you live in a place with a low life expectancy, it is truly an honor to grow old.
  20. And most of all....I've learned about myself, my strengths, my weaknesses and how to be humble.
It is often said that when you come to call a place your home and really live with the people you are forever changed. As I always say, Malawi has given me more than I can ever give back. And for that I'm grateful.

Monday, December 30, 2013

A New Years Wish

As I was reading the blog of my good friend who is also here in Malawi I was slightly inspired of his blog of 'New Years Resolutions' that I thought I should write a blog as well. Last year at this time I went to South Africa, but this year I have decided to stay in Malawi to see what the holidays are like from here. The holidays in Malawi bring so many blessings. Though it's odd to think about Christmas in a place where the rainy season and the hot season is coming to an end. As per my culture, Christmas is marked by the cold weather, snow and an explosion of Christmas decorations. Here it's a little bit more settle. Though this is a country where majority of people are Christian, there are resources lacking here to make it as colorful as it is in America. Also this is the time of year that for most Malawians, is the most important time of the year. Planting season is marked by the rains. The first rains come at the beginning of December, while 'warning showers' can be seen as early as the end of October. In my district of Mchinji we have had decent rains this year. However that is not the case for some Malawians who live in areas that have had predictions of major food insecurity by this month. So before I talk about my Christmas experience, I must put things in perspective for the Malawians that have a more down-key Christmas, as they are looking for food, money for seeds and fertilizer.
In Malawi, Christmas in the village setting has more of a focus on the birth of Christ. There is less commercial feel as commercialism is less reached in the village setting. I decided to see what that was like by staying in the village for Christmas. I have the privilege to have been invited to the sisters house on Christmas Day as well. I kept asking Malawians in my village what they were doing for Christmas. It mostly centered around going to church, spending time with loved ones and eating some type of meat. So I got up Christmas Day and still had butterflies in my stomach as I always do. I have this thing in my mind that everything has to be perfect. House must be spotless for guest to come by, cakes made for everyone and presents wrapped. I first went to church which was very lively and a festive celebration. Going to the Catholic church that is just outside my door as given me a new perspective to Catholicism. Before coming here, I had little interaction with the catholic church. But here I'm enjoying it. The music was festive with a mix of the keyboard and traditional drums. I then rushed home to give out some gifts and take cakes to different people. I was then went to the sisters house for lunch. It was a beautiful festive mood as I felt just like I could have been back home at a Christmas party. Christmas music was playing, all the sisters made food from their country, Philippine noodle dish, traditional stew from Nigeria and a fresh salad with artichokes from Spain. There were also so German volunteers who brought 'snow'. It was the type that you add water put in the freezer for some time and you have snow. For some it was first time to see snow. There was the polite touching of the snow and sniffing. Then one sisters picked up a ball and threw it! Next thing I knew was that I was in the middle of a snow ball fight in the middle of sub-Saharan Africa. So everything I wanted for Christmas I got and more. I just want to say I am so grateful for everyone who has sent love and wonderful Christmas wishes my way, it means a lot. I would also like to say that I am grateful for the Christmas presents sent by family and friends I am also so grateful. So here is my wish that I hope I can fulfill to the country that has given me so much and I feel that I have given so little in comparison. I will work harder.
 Lately I have having discussions about what can help 'develop Malawi'. I am by no means an expert, but I would say I know what I have seen on the ground. Part of my mission to come here as a Peace Corps Volunteer is to see what really happens on the ground. There is always this argument, which is more effective development work on a micro level or a macro level. I'm still not sure about that one as well, but I do know, before I can understand development work on a macro level, I have to see what is happening on the ground. This can be very challenging as you can imagine the amount of poverty and suffering that I see on a daily basis. But the question is, yes people are starving but 'what can I do?' It's the saying of teaching a man to fish....But if want to know what I really think, is that things aren't as sustainable as they could be. I'm just going to speak based on my experience as a development worker here in Malawi for the past 1.5 years. How do you develop a country? I think it's on a macro level and a micro level, they are both important. How do you do it on a macro level? You put policies in place to protect the most vulnerable classes, but most importantly the youth. As it has been said before, the youth will really determine the future of Malawi. And how do you do this on a micro level? You save as many children as you can. The poverty I don't speak of is a reality for girls who come to my door and tell me stories that you can't even imagine. It's easy to say it's better to teach this girl to fish then to give her fish, but it's not that simple. Child marriage is still a problem and seeing that over half the population is illiterate it is easy to see why it would be difficult to even begin developing a country like this when people are not educated and/or exposed. How can someone really understand the importance of water and sanitation if they don't know what bacteria is? How can someone start a business or make a budget if they can't read and write. I have met some of the most intelligent people in Malawi, who never went beyond the 5th grade. So what to do with this poverty? Invest in one child at a time. I pray with the new elections that the Malawian government will do more to support education. Because with my belief from what I have seen in the small amount of time is that if you want to make an investment in a better Malawi, a better Africa and a better world...educate those who have no voice, so that one day they can be productive members of society. I would also like to thank those who have made a small investment to support girls in their education. Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all!

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Seasons of Malawi

The beginning of Holiday season is marked in America with Thanksgiving. Here in Malawi there is no such holiday that really exist. There are many festivities that take place around the end of the dry season. In Malawi there are 2 main seasons; the rainy season and the dry season. Because we are on the other side of the equator they are the opposite of my homeland. April-May is the harvest season with the rains ending. At that time people have more food and money then most of the year. They have been able to sell their harvest if they have cash crop or extra harvest or if they want to make a little bit of money. The weather becomes cooler by June-August, which is also very windy. This is called the "cold season". When people complain about the cold I just laugh and tell them they would die if they stepped foot on Michigan Avenue in December when the wind comes blasting around the tall buildings and cuts through your body ( this is of course difficult to explain in Chichewa ). This is also wedding season. Because it is cooler, not raining and people have money I presume. This is also time for more traditional dances of the Gule Wamkulu. This is a traditional dance that originated from the Chewa tribe which is very prominent in the central region where I am located. From what I have been told is made of men who have been initiated to do these dances during adolescents. There are different levels and no one knows who you actually are because you are dressed in disguise. They were used for many different reasons, but mostly each mask was associated with a special dance that taught a lesson. Now they are used for different ceremonies and celebrations. The Chewa believe that living things were created by God — Chiuta — on the mountain of Kapirintiwa, which borders present day Malawi and Mozambique. Ancestors and spirits of other living creatures play an important part in present day society by being in constant contact with the living world, predominately through dance of those initiated to "Nyau", or secret societies."Gule Wamkulu", literally meaning "big dance", have become a sort of title for secret societies of traditional Chewa religious practices. The Gule Wamkulu ceremonies consist of formally organized dances to admire the remarkable physical abilities of these individuals — considered to be adept at their dance as a result of their spiritual state. Informally, Gule Wamkulu, or "Gule" is a term associated with anyone who participates in the rituals of these secret societies. The peak season for Gule occurs in July, with young men dressed as ancestral animals, trees, or in masks of ancestral spirits. The Gule themselves are initiated through formal ceremony into this society. Gule are considered to be in 'animal state' when they are dressed in such attire, and are not to be approached. If one has the misfortune of passing a Gule on the road, traditional behavior consists of dropping a few coins for the Gule — never handing them the money directly for fear they will grab you and take you to the cemetery for ritual purposes. Generally, it is best to avoid Gule in informal situations. In their animal or ancestral state, they are unpredictable.
Within the village, Gule may appear in small groups of 4 or 5 and villagers do their best to avoid any encounters. Gule are common in the afternoons, a strong incentive for tending to all business outside the home in the early hours. These secret societies have allowed for a close knit kinship between members of the Chewa — and equally divided them from neighbor groups.
As they weather becomes hotter in the months of September-December just before the rains come. It is amazing to see the landscape change in this amount of time from a dusty landscape to a beautifully green landscape. It is very easy to forget that it is Christmas time. As of now it is hot and humid as we wait for the rains to come. Luckily enough I have the opportunity of being in a community of a parish. Where Christmas is greatly celebrated and there are feast to commemorate different catholic holidays. Though it isn't the same as being with my family, luckily enough it nice to have a family and community wherever you go.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Death in Malawi

Many times I like to write funny stories to make light of the tough situations that we are faced with everyday. But regardless of what I write I must face the fact that I am living in a developing country where the life expectancy is 57 years which has grown dramatically (almost a  by a decade) when it was less than 45 years, and the average person lives off of less than $1.25 a day. When I was home I never had too many people that were close to me pass away so often, here it seems more common. I know I've talked about how the funerals are the most beautiful part of the culture here but it is also the saddest. Because death is so common, you mourn as much as you can that day, then you recover quickly. Here in the past month I have lost 2 people in my life who were so supportive of me in my first year in Malawi. First a priest who died too young and next my Abambo ( father like figure)  of my village. Both them were so supportive to me when I was building my clinics. The priest came all the way out to my village 15k away to support me and see the opening ceremony. We he died I never had real closure. Then today my abambo died suddenly. I used to visit him during my first few months in the village. He would give me whatever he had in harvest and always told me he loved me and was so proud of me. When I got to busy to come and visit him at first he was sad. But when I opened my clinics he also came riding his bike 20k. He said to me "now my daughter I see why you were so busy". Now this is sad. But people do die. So all we can do especially here is just know that your time with each person is precious. That no matter how busy you are you should always take your time to greet everyone. I used to get annoyed at having to great every person throughout the day. But now I get it. You must acknowledge them, let them know you appreciate their presence and give respect as though each time you see them, you may not know if you were see them again. In America we move to fast never really looking in a persons eye to actually greet them and send them love. Look into someones eyes today and just thank them for their presence.