Thursday, December 31, 2009

Colonial Tourism

(The sounds of frogs i think, in a pond outside of our lodging)

CRASH!  A wayward frisbee thrown by me lands on the table set out for us on the deck and knocks over a glass which shatters.  Sadly, this is the 3rd piece of dishware that we have managed to break.  Maria unintentionally placed a platter over hot stove top causing it crack, Saeed dropped a bowl, and now i shattered a glass with a frisbee.  Not long after the glass shatters, one of our Malawian stewards comes out and and with a big smile on his face helps cleans up the glass shards.  Earlier, the other Malawian steward prepared tea for us, and had cooked us a breakfast of sausages, fried eggs and toast.
Earlier today, the three of us took a horseback ride through the estate. It was a gorgeous ride and we were led by a white woman (from Mozambique).  Now Maria and I were not comfortable riders, so we had two Malawans help us by leading our horses for us.  To be clear, without Jeremiah's help, i would not have been able to ride at all, as my horse was far more interested in eating the grasses along the way then paying attention to his asian rider.  Jeremiah was friendly, and the ride was at a slow pace, in the shade and didn't take more than 45 minutes.  Nevertheless, i couldn't help but feel guilty, and i must have thanked Jeremiah at least 20 times through the ride.  If he had asked i would have gladly traded places and let him ride the horse while i walked beside him.
 It is certainly not lost on me that we are staying in a lodge built for the British Colonials, and that we have, not one, but two Malawan stewards attending to our various needs.  Aside from my middle class uneasiness of having any sort of servant, I do wonder what Jeremiah, Enock and Mavuto think of this entire arrangement.  They all are unfailing welcoming and are always smiling.  Naturally this makes me worry that they must think i am some asshole westerner.
But i am not sure whether this colonial guilt--a guilt that i am pretty far removed, is even proper.  I wonder whether i would feel bad at all if Enock and Mavuto were white.  Would i feel bad at all if Jeremiah was leading the ride, and it was a white man who was leading my horse during the ride?  I doubt it, and herein lies the tricky part.  If my guilt comes from the simple fact that they are natives, and more specifically because they are black, than how can it be justified?  No doubt, the historical context is important, but the actual economic reality is more relevant here.  There is a huge difference between actual colonialism and having people eager to tend to our needs because they are paid to do exactly that.  Enock, Mavuto, and Jeremiah take pride in what they do, and it would be a different form of arrogance to assume otherwise.  As i mentioned earlier, from what little i can tell, the workers here are treated well, are not exploited and seem sincere.   Tourism can be an important economic resource for Malawi, and while i may not care about whether i wake up to the smell of fried eggs, fresh juice and sausage, plenty of people do. (Not that i object to those smells in the morning...)  Now if this all sounds like rationalization, well, then i'll make sure to get Enock to write you a letter explaining otherwise.

Satemwa and travelling Malawi

With the rain pouring down in sheets, I am sitting comfortably under a covered deck sipping some delicious red tea.   I am currently staying at the Chawani Bungalow at the Satemwa tea estates, and the beauty here is hard to describe.  Satemwa is a fair trade tea estate that welcomes visitors to stay at the old colonial houses that the British built here in the 1920s before they left Malawi after independence was declared in the 1960s.  The green tea bushes mixed with the white skies and red earth makes this place seem like a paradise.

I can't help but notice how the people inside the estate all seem happier, healthy and extremely warm.  As we drive through the estate to our lodgings, just about everyone waves and smile at us, whether they were picking tea, or just walking down the road.  Maria explains that the owners of the estates take care of their workers and often provide free health care.  The workers here also seem to live on the grounds, and as you can see, they are able to grow their own crops. (Sweet potatos).  The housing looks small and rudimentary, but compared to what i saw on the road, they seem to be much better off.
We left Lilongwe on Monday and drove to Blantrye, which is the largest city in Malawi.  There is only one main road, but it is reasonably well maintained, (Lake Shore Drive has been worse), but that isn't what struck me about the road. All along the road, were people.  I don't mean people in cars. but rather, nearly the entire drive there would always be people walking along the road, children in pairs, women carrying loads, groups of laborers.  And all along the roads were small huts, sometimes the huts would congregate enough to maybe call it a small village, but they were essentially huts.  The huts seemed like a bad stereotype of Africa, straw and red earth mud would be shaped into small rooms enough to hold maybe 2-3 people.

On our way out of Blantyre, as we drove down a road, we came to a much larger congregation of people, and this was the market.  I hope these pictures do it justice, but this market was huge. The produce being sold was fresh and extremely cheap.  It was pointed out to me, that the shaded parts of the market were reserved for the men, while the women were forced to out into the sun.   Despite the laziness of men being an international phenomenon, the market itself was special, we were the only non-Malawians there, and it made little difference.

Monday, December 28, 2009

The Children's Wards

I woke up this morning to the sound of a rooster crowing and it was a lovely way to wake up.  I was going to accompany Saeed to the hospital where he works.  i didn't know how much I was going to see, but i really looked forward to seeing whatever i could.  The hospital itself was composed of essentially two separate parts.  The main building was the hospital and where they saw outpatients, and where outpatient care happened.  I got a very nice tour, and it was a modern building (built in 2006) and the facilities were very modern, so much so that i wondered whether my preconcieved notions about health care and Africa were a liberal middle class creation.  But, sadly, it was not the case as Saeed took me with him as he did his rounds in the Wards, which is where the in-patient care took place.

I linked a sound file to give you all a sense of what it sounded like, and post these pictures to give a sense of what it looks like.  But I wish i could also link the smells in the wards.  Don't worry, it isn't a terrible smell, but there is a smell that is both very human and very sick.  Saeed told me that the wards were very empty today as the it was a holiday schedule, but i can only imagine what it would be like normally.

So, here are some simple facts.  First, many of the children in the ward all have HIV, and as such have HIV related illnesses such as K-S, (a malignancy) or PCP,  But that isn't the truly tragic aspect.  It is the fact that many of these children are treated for simple malnutrition.  I am not sure if the pictures get across how malnourished and small some of these children are.  Saeed explained to me that one of the most revolutionary changes in medicine was this substance that is essentially vitamin enriched peanut butter.  Prior to using this peanut butter the mortality rate for malnourishment was quite high (i think 50% or so), but after it started to get used, the mortality rate dropped to single digits.  A simple change from using a milk to peanut butter meant more ability to discharge children, less risk of contamination and poof, a great increase in the number of lives saved.

Maria asked me what i thought after seeing the wards, and i don't really have any words.  In a way, we in the States are bombarded with images of what i saw, children who are malnourished, crowded, and just plain sick.  So in that sense, i saw what i expected to see, and sadly it reinforced some stereotypes of Africa.  But, despite seeing images i expected to see, i don't think there is anything that can convey the sense of absolute waste and senselessness. It is one thing to have children and people die to wars, famine and pestilence, but it is something else to know that so many children are also dying to dehydration, poor hygiene, and simple malnutrition.

So before this devolves into a mush of pessimism and tragedy, I did want to point out a few things. What i found remarkable was the community that was created in the wards. Women with sick children on their backs were in the middle of caring for their children, also talking with their friends, sitting and eating.  This one child, who was 5 years old and suffering from K-S,  was the most stoic and brave boy i have ever seen.  His name translates to "Happiness" and I hope he gets a chance to live up to his name.  The doctors i saw working there were amazing, Saeed included.  Remember when i said it seeing Saeed seemed like glancing into high school, well, watching him treat these children certainly reminded me how far we are from high school.

We drive off to Balyntre, the biggest city in Malawi and off to the tea estates soon.  Needless to say, i don't think i could forget the hospital and the children's wards.


The rest of the trip was relatively uneventful. My flight from Johannesburg to Lilongwe was slightly delayed but not for any appreciable amount of time. I landed at Lilongwe (the capital of Malawi, but not the biggest city) at around 1:30 in the afternoon. My first impression as i stepped off the plane, was hot moist air, something lacking in Chicago these days), warm sunlight, and lush greenery. The earth here is a very deep dark red and it is gorgeous.

I got off the plane, went through customs, grabbed my bag and was greeted by a face i haven't seen in just about 17 years. Saeed Ahmed looked nearly the exactly same as i remembered him. He was wearing a nice "unshaven, i am a doctor working in africa" look that i couldn't pull off without a "beard in a can" but otherwise, it was like looking back into high school. Our first stop after the airport was to grab some lunch, so we headed over to this place called Steers, an african version of McDonalds. (though in town there is an actual McDowells, which if anyone ever saw Coming to America, it was exactly as you would think.. same colors, same golden "half-circles"). I thought this was hilarious since the day i left, i looked really hard for a decent burger place thinking that my chances of a burger was low in Africa...

We drove to his place, which was a huge, beautiful place and was immediately greeted by Moose their giant dog who is a mix of a Great Dane and South African Mastiff. Moose is a very sweet and affectionate dog, who loved the attention, and i was happy to provide it.

I also got to meet Saeed's lovely wife Maria. I would say they are an adorable couple, but i don't think that is accurate. They are more like the rockstars of public service, both young, accomplished, generous, and stunning.

Despite being absolutely exhausted, Saeed was eager to try out the new frisbees i brought for him from the US and we met up with some people to play Ultimate out at this field at an international high school.

Let's just say that despite my team outnumbering the opposition 4-3, my presence was an obvious handicap as we got destroyed. Despite a thorough beating, and the ironic unsportmanlike conduct of a german baptist missionary, I had a blast, and it was definitely a nice way to spend a few hours after having been stuck on a plane for more than 20 hours. I was quickly incomprehensible and crashed quite soundly after dinner. BTW, I think Mosquito netting is awesome, and I may install one in my own bedroom soon.

On My Way

My watch tells me it is 2:30 am (Munich time) while my computer clock apparently has it as 7:30pm in Chicago. But the time is completely academic at this point. I am in the air over Africa, it is at night, since the sun hasn't risen in this part of the world yet, and i have about 5 more hours to fly. This has been a grueling trip travel wise, and i am just not sure how i am going to be on the other side. My usual strategy for plane rides is to make sure i am so sleep deprived that i simply sleep through most of my flight. Unfortunately, this trip had 2 red eye flights, both starting at 8:50pm, this meant i couldn't quite sleep deprive myself. Without the crutch of not sleeping for 24 hours to help me face the discomfort of an 9-10 hour flight i have predictably been unable to sleep at all inside the plane. I am a bit concerned that after i do finally finish flying, i will not have slept for like 2 straight days by calendar time. Oh well, hopefully, it'll help me get over jet lag.
Of course, this is no plea for sympathy. I am right now, listening to Mile Davis (So What), after having watched 2 movies of my choice on my personal screen (GI Joe, Garden State, i will watch Iron Giant before we land) typing on my computer. I know my complaints about my neighbors stretching themselves onto me, knocking me awake, or putting thier heads on my shoulder, would be exactly what Louis C.K. mocked about flying these days.
I already did a bit of tourism already. I had a longish layover at the Munich airport (about 7 hours); which according to the airport officials was not quite long enough to take the train into the city safely. But i lucked out and found a Christmasmarket outside the airport. The resemblance to our own christmasmarket in chicago was striking.. though when i tried to order hot cider, i got hot wine instead. Beer was plentiful (as expected), the sausage delicious, and the people exceedingly kind. I know i must have reinforced the asian tourist stereotype as i took pictures of everything including my food (sausages, bratwurst, and a pretzel), a BMW sign, and of course beer being sold with soda... Enjoy!