Archive for July, 2011

Although I spent a lot of time staying and working in villages throughout my time in Tanzania, I never actually lived in one full time.  Here are some of the things that I have recently found intriguing/challenging/comical/confusing about village life in Malawi:

Morning Routines

Every morning (Saturday and Sunday included), the whole village wakes up with the sunrise and rushes to do their chores.  Come 5:45, Ge and I get pulled out of bed to start sweeping the house, mopping the floor, fetching water, washing the dishes from the night before (since it had been to dark to do them then), sweeping the dirt surrounding the house (yes, sweeping dirt OUTside) to make things look nice, cooking breakfast/tea, and boiling water for bucket showers.   It is not necessary to do many of these things first thing in the morning at all, such as weeping the house, but even less necessary to wake up particularly early to do so.  And yet EVERYONE does.  The most frustrating part of this routine is that most women (who are obviously the ones doing all the work) don’t really leave the house throughout the day.  They have little to keep them busy all day, and yet they rush to do everything in a half hour before the sun has even fully risen.  So god forbid you happen to “sleep in” one morning and wake up at, say, 6:15?  All eyes will be on you while you sweep your house since it is considered too late by village standards to be doing so!


There are a limited number of items in any given rural African household — namely dishes, buckets, pots and pans, and cleaning tools.  You would think the combination of owning only a few items and only have four relatively bare rooms in which to store those items would make finding things rather easy–but you are poorly mistaken!  Every morning (in my half-asleep 5:30am stupor), I go to search for the broom to sweep the floors or the sketchy plastic rag that we use as a sponge to wash the dishes, but they seem to never be in the same location.  The epic search continues for quite a while, full of aimless wandering around and lots of questioning Maggie, until eventually some neighbor comes by to return said item that they had happened to borrow to do their chores that morning (at an even more obscenely early hour).

Villagers–well most Africans I know for that matter–have very different views on “ownership” than we, as Westerners, do.  If I bought something and you wanted to use it, it would be impolite to just take that item without asking permission first.  Africans, on the other hand, have a very strong culture of sharing all that is available–what is mine is yours, no questions asked.  Despite the challenges that this regularly presents to my morning routine, it is a cultural point that I greatly respect and enjoy.


A couple of weeks ago, as I sat on the front stoop of our hut cutting some veggies for dinner, Ge and Dew frantically called me to come to the end of the strip of houses near ours.  “What is it??” I asked, and the response I got was NOT what I had been expecting:  “Come see the chicken men!”

There are hundreds of African traditions, particularly associated with cultural song/dance and dress, but most of these are seen only at celebrations and not on a regular basis.  The exception to that rule, apparently, is June-July in rural Malawi.  At this time of year, there are men that dress up in traditional costumes and are known to be the “bad spirits” of the country.  They run around through all of the villages surrounding town and are supposedly bad luck if you get too close to them — there are rumors of people defying them and then waking up the next day covered in bruises, having things stolen from them, etc.  As a result, their appearing causes everyone to first run in their direction to catch a glimpse of them coming, but then frantically scatter as soon as the “bad spirits” come close, women and children shrieking and hiding in their houses behind close doors.  The silliest part if this, however, is that their “traditional costumes” make them look strikingly similar to large chickens!  As a result, they acquired the nickname “chicken men” by our household/neighbors.   They continue to amuse me, and scare masses of children, on a regular basis.


In Western countries, children under the age of, say, 8-9 are culturally expected to be supervised almost all the time and are given relatively little freedom and/or responsibility.  Children in Malawi are a whole different story.   A couple of weeks ago, I saw a group of children (definitely in pre-school or Form 1  — no older than 5 years each) leave school and head to their respective houses entirely independently.   Could you imagine your local elementary school being let out for the day and no parents coming to get their kids? Of course not.  But in rural Malawi, kids are treated like adults from the minute they can stand on their own two feet.

Every day that I spend in the village, I look up to see children doing various things that no American child would ever be seen doing:  running around for hours completely unattended, carrying extremely large knives or other ridiculous things around, going to the market by themselves to buy things for parents/neighbors, tying younger children to their back and carrying them/babysitting them (like a 6 year old carrying a 6 month old), carrying buckets of water on their heads equivalent to the size of their tiny torsos, etc.  It is amazing to me the manner in which children are treated here–not being babied in the way that our Western culture tends to do–and what that does to their maturity and resourcefulness.  Needless to say, a Malawian 6 year old is WAY more productive and helpful to have around than any 6 year old I know in the states!

Group Silence

You know that awkward silence that sometimes happens during a group meeting or conversation, the one which you try to avoid at all costs?  Well Malawians not only embrace that awkward silence, but pretty much live in it.  It is entirely normal for a group of people here to just sit in absolute silence for extended periods of time.  From time to time I find this very welcome because it gives my head a break from the constant effort of straining to understand what is going on in their Chichewa conversation; however, most of the time it continues to leave me feeling uncomfortable and awkward.

In the silence, I’m left thinking about home and the types of things that I would sit around and discuss with my family/friends:  books, world events, interesting things from work, new music, upcoming events, hobbies, etc etc.  But my host mama in Salima, Maggie, and the other women of our village follow the same routine every day and know very little about what goes on outside of their basic lives, leaving those types of topics out of the question.  The thought of this makes me feel a bit guilty, but also gives me an added insight as to why certain cultural tendencies seem so normal to them while being entirely unusual to me.

Never Breaking the Mold

Although every culture has its trends, fashions, and ways of doing things, Malawian village life seems to fall even more strongly into the category of people “never breaking the mold.”  For example, I have been washing my clothes by hand for almost 2 years over the time that I have lived in Africa and have gotten quite good at doing so (if I may say so myself).  Regardless, a couple of weeks ago, our neighbor Juliana came over to give me a half concerned/half disapproving look as she oversaw me washing a few shirts.  She proceeded to push me out of the way and not only finish up the couple of shirts I had left, but also REWASH the other things I had finished.  My clothes were perfectly clean already, but just because I wasn’t using the EXACT same hand motions as the other women, I was obviously doing everything entirely wrong.  The same thing applies to the manner of cooking, the way floors are swept, the way women sit while they talk, etc.  Most things seem to fit into the set mold of what Malawian villagers are used to, and they tend to dislike change.  Every woman wears the same thing day in a day out: a sweater or t-shirt paired with a chitenje (traditional African fabric) wrapped around their waist to create a colorful skirt.  Eating rice instead of nsima (the staple flavorless, gooey food) for dinner is about as daring as they will get… and that only happens about once a month.

Coming from a culture where uniqueness and variation are highly valued, and from country full of people with different backgrounds/traditions/household norms, this conformity is sometimes challenging to understand and frustrating to fit into.  Nonetheless, these strictly followed everyday practices–along with all the other aforementioned intricacies of village life–are what constantly force me to reevaluate the life style in which I was raised and think critically about my own views on Western v. African cultures.  Despite the difficulties and challenges I regularly face in the village, the learning and reflecting opportunities that it provides me with are both endless and invaluable.


Peace, love, and chicken men



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About a month ago, I moved in with Genevieve in the village where she stays outside of Salima town.  Ge and I live together with a single woman in her mid-thirties, Maggie, and her nephew, Dew, in a mud hut in the village of Chipsie (just like what they call french fries sold everywhere on the side of the road).  Last week was my 23rd birthday, and to make up for the fact that I am miles from home and my family, Ge decided to plan a birthday dinner for me in the village.  The evening turned into one of the most memorable nights I have had so far in Malawi — but for all the wrong reasons.

Genevieve talked to a bunch of people in the village the few days before and they were apparently planning to make me a birthday feast — including duck (which is rare to eat here) and possibly even a birthday cake of some sort.  We ended up leaving work a bit early to go back to the house and see if Maggie needed help buying anything for the meal or cooking.  When we arrived back at the village, however, Maggie wasn’t home and everyone said she had gone to the market.  So Ge and I took a stroll to the market, but didn’t see Maggie and therefore assumed she had bought everything necessary for our feast and had already headed home.   We left the market without buying anything and made it back to the house.  When we found Maggie and Dew at home, it was soon apparent that the whole “buying a duck” thing for my birthday had gotten lost in translation and wasn’t going to happen, but we figured we would have a regular feast nonetheless.

A bit later, we started cooking some rice, which is a novelty in the village and immediately got me excited.  We eat Nsima almost every meal — the same as Ugali for you folk who have lived in Tanzania, and for those of you who haven’t, it is a thick white pastey food that is made out of maize flour and water, and is thick enough to make into small clumps and use a type of utensil for  scooping any and everything into your mouth.  Basically, it is an empty carb that sits like a rock in the bottom of your stomach and fills you up very quickly for almost no cost.  Anyways, about halfway through cooking the rice, Ge and I ask Maggie about what we should do to start cooking the relish (sauce to go on top of the rice), and got a blank stare in return.  After much miming on Maggie’s part followed by translation by Dew, we finally understand that Maggie hadn’t had enough money to buy anything, so there actually wasn’t anything to make relish with (no cooking oil, no veggies, no fish, etc)!  That meant that our “feast” was actually… plain rice?? Yep.  Not only was this not even close to a feast, but it was significantly less so than what we usually eat on any other day!

There was, however, a pot of left over okra from lunch that afternoon, which Ge and I suggested we heat up but were quickly dismissed by everyone in the room.  This led to an hour long debate (while we enjoyed our plain white rice meal) over whether or not it is acceptable to eat okra with rice: Dew and some neighbors claiming that the two didn’t go together at all, while Ge and I saying that having any sauce would be better than plain rice!  Somewhere in the discussion, my question of “why wouldn’t you eat it [meaning okra] with nsima or rice?” got misconstrued as ” why wouldn’t you eat nsima with rice?” — which quickly prompted the response “Because that would be CRAZY” from all Malawians present.  After much confusion, Genevieve and I finally understood what they had thought I said, and the whole room burst into laughter over the concept of eating nsima and rice together.  For those of you who have ever eaten nsima (or ugali), you can understand how horrible that sounds haha.  The following few hours (and days) were filled with jokes of eating rice with nsima and debates over which foods are and are not appropriate to eat with which staple carbs.  It is times like these when I have to step back and admit that I may never entirely understand the logic behind what Dew and my other Malawian friends were thinking, but that doesn’t stop us from enjoying each other’s presence and laughing about our differences.  So despite the fact that Ge’s attempts to plan a birthday party for me failed miserably (sorry hun!), it was still a fantastically comical evening.

The one success of the night, though, was that Genevieve managed to teach a bunch of the village kids how to sing Happy Birthday and I received a wonderful musical show from them while we cooked the rice!   I also spent the next few days out by the lake with Ge, where we drank wine, watched movies, and made two ACTUAL feasts — including baking a carrot cake!!!  Those positives made up for all of the food failures of the first evening, as did the many texts and emails I received from people sending birthday wishes.  I am thankful to have such great friends, here in Malawi as well as back at home, to make this past week a wonderful one.   And a special thanks to Ge for being amazing 🙂

Peace, love, and white rice


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Since my past few posts have been very work-intensive, I though I would lighten the mood with some amusing stories from my last month. Here you go:

Almost a month ago, I moved to Salima District (east of Lilongwe, near to the lakeshore) to start my field research. For a full week or so at the beginning of my time in Salima, I had a beautiful new red motorcycle sitting in town, just waiting to be ridden. What was the problem, you may ask? I didn’t know how to drive motorcycle.  Karma — 1, Lisa — 0.  So I got myself set up with a translator/driver, Elias, and after introducing myself to the District Water Officer (DWO) and meeting with the Water Monitoring Assistants (WMAs) to hear about their opinions on siting/placement of new waterpoints, Elias and I headed off to the field.

I spent the next two weeks bombing around the district on the back of my motorcycle, interviewing villages about their understanding (or lack thereof) of how to get a borehole from the district government. Lots of exciting information gathered and case studies written up (all to be analyzed at the end of the month), but one thing was still bugging me–my inability to actually move my bike from one location to another if need be (or just for the fun of doing so). After much whining and complaining, I managed to convince a teammate of mine to come to Salima and try his patience while teaching me to drive. In the field that I originally practiced driving circles around, I was immediately amused by the faces of children staring at me wide-eyed from nearby houses; however, the real treat was yet to come. I have since been practicing driving non-stop and am getting relatively good, despite my occasional issues with starting off in first gear. Unrelated to the quality of my driving though, I have gotten a collection of fantastic looks from people that I pass on the street. Apparently the concept of a woman, not only on a motorcycle but driving a motorcycle, breaks all “appropriate” Malawian gender roles and makes me seen as a groundbreaker… or a maybe just a crazywoman. I have a phenomenal library of mental images relaying shock and awe from passersby, which continue to stack up day in and day out. Needless to say, people’s reactions have made my learning to drive even more exciting/enjoyable than the actual ability to move around on my own — although that does come as a close second.  Karma — 1, Lisa — 1… not so  bad, right?

In the midst of all my research and motorcycle driving, I managed to make it to the lake a few weekends for some fun and relaxation. My first weekend in Salima, I went to meet a few other EWBers in Senga Bay and had an awesome evening by the lake — complete with campfires, bongo drums, boxed wine, and all that jazz. Senga Bay holds a particular place in my heart because it is the same place where, almost one year ago, I happened to meet Mike and Megan (the team leaders of our EWB WatSan team) in a random hostel and first heard about EWB Canada. Had it not been for an impromptu trip to Malawi/Senga Bay last summer (thanks Nat!), I wouldn’t be living in Malawi now! Back to the point — in the midst of my distracted galavanting on the beach, a slew of things got stolen out of my bag, most notably my phone and prescription glasses. This resulted in multiple days of bus trips back and forth to Lilongwe to activate a new phone and get fitted for a new pair of glasses so that I was not left semi-blind for the remainder of my year in Africa. In the end, all was successful and I am back to seeing perfectly (although with a slightly uglier set of glasses than before).  Two weekends later, I took a trip down south to another spot by the lake, Monkey Bay, and got extremely excited by the fact that our hotel had a trampoline at it. When is the last time you jumped on a trampoline?! That excitement, however, turned rather quickly into dismay as I proceeded to jump/fall/be catapulted off of the trampoline and seriously bruise myself in multiple places (including my ego — I mean really, who falls off trampolines?).  Karma — 3, Lisa — 1… ugh.

Then, this past weekend there was a team meeting in Lilongwe, which was attended by not only our usual group of 15 African Programs Staff (APS) but also by our team of Junior Fellows (university students here on their summer break) from both Malawi and Zambia. The usual team meeting was therefore followed by a 2 day retreat for the JFs at a hotel in Senga Bay, which some of the APS attended as well. I had the bad luck of getting sick with malaria halfway through the team meeting and have that continue through most of the JF retreat. That meant a full weekend spent being malarial by the lakeshore. For those of you who know me well, you know I have already had malaria about 5 times… and I must say, near a lake is probably the best place to get it if you must. Nonetheless, the boat trip to an island to go rock jumping and late night campfires with the JFs would have been significantly more fun sans-malaria. Karma — 4.  Moral of this whole story: Lake Malawi is a wonderful place to visit, BUT it apparently distracts you with its beauty and makes you especially prone to injury, disease, and irresponsible behavior that leads to your things being stolen…. or at least it does for me. Either way, I think I’ll stay home from the beach this weekend and just hang out in the village. Maybe I’ll have better luck with that!

Two other funny stories: first, while hitchhiking out of Salima to get to Lilongwe for the team meeting, I happened to leave a small bag of mine (with nothing overly important in it) in the back of someone’s truck. Malawians (and all Eastern/Southern Africans I know, for that matter) have this cultural thing where they love to call any and everyone many times for no real reason other than to just say hello… which is nice sometimes, but gets annoying rather quickly. In order to avoid such a situation of incessant calling, I had unfortunately given the driver an incorrect phone number (for the first time in my 1.5+ years living in Africa) and he therefore could not get in touch with me when he found my bag. After resigning myself to the thought that I had lost my stuff, I ran into the guy on the street in Salima a week later and he promptly returned the bag! Lisa — 2… nice! Is my luck turning around? Ummm no. Story two: took my motorcycle to mechanic yesterday to get the horn fixed because it wasn’t working. I know, a horn doesn’t seem overly important to you if you are driving in the states. In Malawi, on the other hand, a horn is a must in order to shoo away crossing goats, men with absurdly large loads of things on the back of their bicycles, etc. So I take my bike to get fixed and leave my translator with it while I go to do some work. After a few hours of waiting, I return to find that the mechanic was actually drunk (at 2:30pm) and screwed up my bike more than it was before while not even managing to fix the horn.  Things that would only happen in Africa… very frustrating (although admittedly somewhat funny in retrospect).  Karma — 5, Lisa — 2.

I have another few days left in my research, at which point I will have visited approximately 30 villages and will have enough data to (maybe?) make some conclusions about water point siting in Salima. Then it’ll be on to a week or two of analyzing all the data that I collected and trying to make some sense of how that information affects EWBs strategy with respect to water point siting and Evidence Based Decision Making. That makes me tired just thinking about it… maybe it will be more fun if I do it by the lake?? Or maybe that will just lead to me breaking a finger while typing.

Anyways, my research is quickly coming to a close and the question on my mind, and probably yours, is “what’s next for me?” And the answer is yet another issue of bad karma. That has to do with the three leaders of our team, coaches for my research, and planners of my placement all having been/will be back in Canada at some point or another between last month and next month, causing some organizational set-backs on the ground here in Malawi. Long story short, I have no idea where I’m going next. End score for the month: Karma — 6, Lisa — 2.

So will the stars align and make my next month a little less disaster prone than my last? Let’s hope so. In the meantime, I’ll continue with my research and keep having a blast, despite all the minor setbacks. Because let’s be honest… at least I don’t have an office job!

Peace, love, and trampolines,


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