personal reflections on human rights...and other stuff

Malawian Journals, 1993

Here is some background on what these journal entries are about.

These particular journal entries chronicle the first month of my two-year stay in Malawi in 1993.

Wednesday, September 29, 1993
I've been in Africa for ten days now. I daresay I'm getting used to the pace of life around here. I had my first staff meeting today; I tried not to volunteer for too many things. I asked for the drama and chess clubs, and I also got stuck with something called "Top of the Class," whatever that means.

I don't start classes for another 3 weeks; I'll be teaching Forms I and III Math, for a total of 28 periods per week. It looks like it'll be a lot of work.

I arrived in Lilongwe on the 19th with the other volunteers and had our orientation there for five days. We all had a great time. I got to stay with Gary and got the opportunity to know him better. I'm glad that we get along well together; I can see him as being a good friend. He and I are both stationed in Zomba, along with Jason and Janine.

My living accommodations are more than what I expected. I own half of a newly-built house containing a living room, kitchen, shower, bathroom, 3 bedrooms, and a balcony with a garden on the side. I'm sharing the house with a woman named Eva from the Peace Corps whom I'm getting along well with. She teaches biology at my school, she's a bit younger than me and has beautiful eyes.

My worker is an 80 year-old man by the name of Mr. Ntambo. This guy just doesn't quit. He arrives at the house at 6 AM, waters the gardens and plants, cleans my house and Eva's, washes and irons my clothes to perfection, and even goes to the market to buy food for me if I ask him. And he still asks for more work. He kills me. Also, whenever I greet him and say hello, he answers back by saying "Thank you" all the time.

Postscript 2010: I was young at the time, only 23. I'd left home for work for a few months at a time prior to leaving for Africa, but this was a big step: to leave friends and family for two years. I was excited, nervous, and upon the advice of a Canadian ex-pat who'd lived in Africa for years, I left home without having any expectations - and was pleasantly surprised with everything that came my way (well, almost everything). And I recently caught up with Jason and Janine, 17 years later - strong friendships stand the test of time.

Monday, October 4, 1993
Went drawing with Gary yesterday. We walked along a pathway behind my house and decided to to landscape drawings of the mountain. We found a good location: the steps of an abandoned house. Thinking it was abandoned was a dumb assumption; just because it was run down, had no furniture, and broken windows doesn't mean no one lives there. As we sat on the porch a leery pair of eyes spied on us from a window. We knew it was time to leave.

We found a perfect spot by the highway. I sat down and started drawing immediately, and Gary soon followed.

Today was a rather good day. I got a lot of food at the market, killed 4 cockroaches, appointed myself head of the volleyball club and fixed Eva's bike. While I was at my desk this morning, Eva came up to me and asked me if I'd seen the headmistress's secretary yet. I said no. She told me to go look at her t-shirt when I pass by next; it was given to her by the former WUSC volunteer.

First of all, this girl is incredibly shy. She won't even talk to me; she'd rather write a note to me and stand behind me like a streetlight until I notice she's there. Then she'll bow and hand me the note. Secondly, she doesn't have a very clear idea of the English language, because the shirt read: "Life's a bitch and so am I."

I cracked up so much on my way out of the school I nearly fell over.

Postscript 2010: I remember the day I went drawing with Gary very clearly, because he got violently ill as we were drawing. It turned out to be common enough for most of the volunteers to feel sick at some point during their stay. I myself had been sick for the first three months after my arrival in the country. An unhealthy but remarkably efficient way to lose weight.

My thoughts on the not-quite abandoned house were reflective of my lived experience up until that point. I hadn't been exposed to much poverty back home. Being immersed in it shocked me, at times dulled my sensibilities towards it, and often affected me profoundly enough to shield myself from it by ignoring poverty altogether. Changing how I face poverty took years, and it is still something I struggle with.


Sunday, October 10, 1993
I'm going over to Gary's in an hour to meet up with Jason and Janine for dinner at an American professor's house. I'm looking forward to leaving this house today. I fixed half of Eva's bike and made the other half worse.

Had somewhat of a busy weekend. Eva had 9 of her Peace Corps friends over for the weekend - she invited me over for dinner with them Friday. The food was good (burritos), but everyone was in their own little social circles so I felt left out and didn't say much all night. Saturday rolled around and I got my first package from home - Ma, of course. It was good to hear from her. Kinda made me sad thinking of her.

I met up with Stephanie and Eva at the pool later that afternoon - Felix, a British VSO, joined Steph and I for a few beers at the Hot Spot Bottle Store. It was my first experience at a Malawian bar, and it was a lot of fun. I drank 4 Browns [Carlsbserg beer] and met two Malawians who were pretty cool.

Left my house at 7:30 this morning to climb the plateau with Gary. We didn't quite make it to the top because we made our own trail. We got to a crest and stayed there for about an hour. He wanted to talk about philosophy again, and that time it got a bit much for me. I think there are times when you should forget the heavy philosophical jargon and just talk bullshit. It's necessary or else you'll lose your mind. At any rate, we climbed down and then I went swimming. That's all for now.

Postscript 2010: By this time, Id been in Zomba for only a couple of weeks and had still not started teaching. It was an important time to forge new friendships, some of which I have thankfully kept to this day. I no longer stay in touch with Gary, now a physicist somewhere in the US; but he was a great friend to have back then. Stephanie, originally from the UK and working as a science teacher at a neighbouring school, stayed in touch with me over the years and remarkably enough lives only a few kilometres from my house. As for my neighbour Eva, she's just written to me, telling me of her recent trips to Haiti in the wake of the earthquake. As a pediatrician, her skills are desperately needed there during this time. It's comforting to know that for many of us volunteers from Canada, the US and the UK, our experiences all those years ago in Malawi have in one way or another helped define Publish Postwho we are today.

And as for talking philosophy too much...well sometimes you do just have to sit down and watch the clouds go by.

Wednesday, October 13, 1993
Mefloquine [an anti-malarial drug] night last night. This time I didn't have indigestion. My omelet sucked last night and I've concluded that I don't have a non-stick skillet.

The headmistress called me into her office yesterday wanting to discuss "housing accommodations." She wanted to know how I felt about "temporarily" having a Malawian roommate. I said I would feel uncomfortable and it might affect my work. I'll keep my mouth shut and hope the matter gets settled.

I called Ma yesterday, woke her up at 5:30 in the morning. Only talked to her for 3 minutes and got cut off without saying goodbye, which made me sad, but she sounded in good spirits (although a bit disoriented because I woke her up).

Just killed another roach; he's still floating in the toilet. Damn bastards are heart suckers, I'll give them that much. The score now is 18-0 in my favour. I figure once they get a point it's game over for me.

Postscript 2010: While this was a short entry, it relayed a number of preoccupations, namely a nasty anti-malarial pill which regularly made me sick and gave me the wildest dreams (detailed later), feeling homesick, and a war in the kitchen with mean, sick cockroaches. But more tellingly was my discomfort at sharing my accommodations - which were plentiful for a single man - with a fellow Malawian teacher. I have always enjoyed my solitude, but refusing to share living space with someone who needed a place to live belied whatever altruistic values I supposedly had which drew me to the country. The teacher, Mr Makungwa (pictured, left), eventually found a place to live nearby and we became good friends. A bit older than me, he prided himself by showing off the English he picked up from trashy American novels. His most memorable greeting to me one morning was, "Good morning, you lizard-shit bastard!"


Friday, October 15, 1993
Score: 20-0 as of last night [me against the cockroaches]. 9:30 AM and Reality is eating my chair. She's an OK dog, but she's sometimes over-affectionate.

We had our chess club at school yesterday - we only had 3 boards and enough pieces for 2, so we gave a board to the girls and Mr. Jeke and I took another board. We had a fun game and I barely managed to beat him.

I went to the Zomba Music Society last night with Ron and his friend John who teaches math at some school. It was an interesting evening, with a lot of good players and just as many bad ones. Ron did two duets with Mitch on the clarinet - Ron's not too bad, but Mitch is really good. A Malawian wearing a groovy green outfit did a duet with Ricardo Garcia, the guitarist. I was introduced to him after the show since he was a painter like me.

This makes the third day of my headache - I wake up feeling really lousy in the mornings. I hope it doesn't persist throughout the weekend.

I'll be leaving for Dedza at 3:30 this afternoon with Gary. He wanted to take the bus with Jason and Janine but has a class which ends after the last bus leaves, so I agreed to go along with him, mainly because I wouldn't want him going alone his first time hitching and I want to experience hitching myself. I'm sure it will be "different" as Jason would say.

Postscript 2010: Mr. Jeke was a kind man who taught a range of subjects including home economics, which was unusual for a man. He was gentle, the kind of guy who always had a smile on his face. One day he came by my place and I asked him to listen to a song which was popular in some circles back in Canada - by a group called Deep Forest. It was sung in a language unknown to me, but since my arrival in Malawi, I recognized "bwana, mzungu" - roughly "boss white man." The singer was basically telling the white man to go home and to leave him alone.

Rereading this post, I cannot for the life of me believe I wrote "groovy" to describe someone's attire. I do remember that artist. He did eventually come by my place and we talked for a while, but when he set his eyes upon my cheap Sears toolkit he couldn't let it go, utterly fascinated with its ratchets, drivers and hex keys. He pleaded to borrow it, which I took to assume to be a permanent transfer of ownership. He creeped me out enough so I did not invite him over again.

Hitching a ride by the side of the road was something I never learned to fully appreciate (nor master). Many volunteers from the previous years insisted that hitching was the way to go. Walk out by the side of the road, pat your hand down as though you're patting a giant dog, and poof, a car stops for you. Wasn't all that easy for me and Gary. We took turns hiding away from the road, hoping that drivers would be more likely to stop for one hitchhiker rather than two (then the other guy would jump out of the bushes and hop in. Clever!). After about an hour or so, we were fortunate enough to have two men in a Land Rover stop and pick us up. The driver was a man of Indian descent born and raised in Malawi, who was raw in his anger at being mistreated by Malawians. He had no Malawian citizenship and he and his family were banished from their home in the 1970s and forced to move to one of the designated urban areas, a move enforced by the president at the time, His Excellency the Life President Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda. more on that guy and why he banned a Simon and Garfunkel song another time.


Thursday, October 21, 1993
Had another good day. Just finished supper - swan 40 laps at the pool with Cathy, one of the new Peace Corps girls stationed in Lilongwe.It turns out she's from Malone [New York] and used to be a lifeguard at Meacham Lake [where I used to go camping] - I couldn't believe it.

I had my first drinking night out with the boys Tuesday. Hanik and Mike, as I got to know them, came over to Eva's for a couple of beers. She invited me over and after drinks we went to the bottle store and drank some more. Eva was getting tired so we drove her back and returned for more beers. I got to practice my Chichewa with the guys at the bar - I had a really good time.

The fun wasn't over yet, though: we got in Mike's car and made our way down to the university's bar. Along the way, I told Mike how much fun driving is and sure enough, he let me steer. Whoah, was that ever fun! Driving where the passenger seat normally is and on the other side of the road! We drank yet some more and finally I made it home by 11, had supper and a shower and popped a mefloquine.

The weekend turned out to be pretty good, too, and I would have enjoyed it more had I not had the bends. Gary and I left his place by 4:30 but couldn't manage to get a hitch so we stayed at his place that night. Saturday rolled around and we took the bus to Lilongwe (4 hours), then one to Salima (1 1/2 hr wait and a 2 hr ride), then finally jump-started a minivan with two tourists from Holland and we made our way to the campsite. The last ride was all right until the last stop when 25 people shoved themselves in along with the hundreds of chambo [fish] and just as many flies. Goddammit I almost jumped out the window at my stop.

The campsite by the lake was great and the water was gorgeous. The second day we went to a fishing village nearby and saw two fish eagles dive for chambo right next to us. The locals wanted money to take us out on a boat to see hippos so everyone went except Dominique and I who went into a hut and drank warm Cokes with the locals. They asked us if we wanted some "gold" (marijuana), but we politely declined.

That afternoon some of us went to a restaurant for lunch. We all ordered chicken, and since it took nearly two hours to get it, we assumed they had to kill the chicken, which was as rubbery as those Super Balls we used to play with when we were kids.

Postscript 2010: Rereading this entry I realize how absurd life could be in what once was and remains one of the poorest nations on the planet. Having arrived almost a month before, I had still not taught a single class but was living a life that most Malawians would find inconceivable. My salary was a "monthly living allowance," or MLA, and it was by Canadian standards pathetic at just over two hundred dollars a month, but nonetheless about double what other teachers were making (and I was without any dependents). Take the first paragraph: swimming laps. The pool in question was the one maintained by Mr. Banda and part of the Sir Harry Johnston Primary School (Johnston was the first commissioner of Nyasaland in 1891, the country that became Malawi in 1964), a school for rich Malawians and expats. My annual membership, as best I can recall, was around forty dollars. I had been paying Mr. Ntambo about twenty dollars a month to cook, clean, feed the dog, take care of the house, buy food, wash and iron all my clothes, five days a week from 6 until 6. Even with a modest MLA I was living large and rapidly steering away from the life I had expected to lead before leaving Canada. Cheap beer, marijuana on demand (if I wanted it), swimming in the afternoon. However, I was sick for the first three months after my arrival, shed at least ten kilos. And the food, like that rubbery chicken, was hard to get used to.

What I had begun to notice, but regrettably not pay enough attention to, was the kindness afforded to me by gentle souls such as my worker Mr. Ntambo. A man of few words other than "Thank you, Sir" or "Good morning, Sir," Mr. Ntambo went about his work with a diligence I found simply remarkable for a man his age (I'd guessed he was 80, he was in fact almost 73). Before leaving for Salima that weekend, he called out to me as I left my house and told me to wear my hat because the sun was hot. I'd forgotten it and went back in the house to put it on. I left my house with a feeling I hadn't experienced in weeks: someone who cared for me, someone who looked out for me. It would be one of the last times I would see Mr. Ntambo.


Sunday, October 24, 1993
Mr. Ntambo died this morning. It doesn’t shock me too much, but I am upset and frustrated. Frustrated because he died only because he didn’t have any medical attention. My thoughts are a jumble now – I keep seeing him saluting me dutifully in the morning and saying “Thank you, sir” with a smile showing from ear to ear. I will miss him. It’s ironic that I found out the news of his passing as I was watering his garden. I could feel my heart sink. He was a very giving man. I will remember him fondly.

Postscript 2010: I do indeed still remember him fondly. He was a tireless worker, always busying himself with something to do. A few days before he died, while he was working, he actually sat down on a chair in the house; it was the first time I’d ever seen him sit (he would crouch in the garden to eat). Eva and I told him to go home. We didn’t hear from him the next day, but had news from his family that he was not doing well. His daughter visited me Saturday morning, asking if there was anything I could do to help. He had been suffering from diarrhea. I offered her some Immodium in my ignorance.

His death marked me because he was such a kind and gentle soul, but also troubled me because it was such a needless death. I’m sure my own feeling of guilt because I didn’t do enough to help him also contributed to my inability to accept what happened. He most probably died from drinking unsafe water, but then again, in Africa, sometimes you never know. All these years later, access to potable water around the world is a privilege for so many, and well beyond the reach of 700 million people worldwide. Access to water is a human right I rarely address in my current human rights work, but when I do, the memory of that dear man always resurfaces.