Friday, March 30, 2012

The End

“Till you thought yourself bewitched and cut off for ever from everything you had known once – somewhere – far away – in another existence perhaps. There were moments when one’s past came back to one, as it will sometimes when you have not a moment to spare yourself; but it came in the shape of an unrestful and noisy dream, remembered with wonder amongst the overwhelming realities of this strange world of plants, and water, and silence. And this stillness of life did not in the least resemble a peace.”

Monday, March 26, 2012

A Case for Peace Corps

I believe in Peace Corps and what it stands for at its core: a medium of cultural exchange and teaching. These are, I believe, essential and the most effective methods of development. Considering my opinions of aid, and it’s often negative impact on development, Peace Corps stands out as an ideal model. Its core is structured around teaching, based on the wisdom of teaching a man to fish, wisdom that the entire aid industry seems to have forgotten. Volunteers get paid a local salary and are expected to work with what they have. That means using local resources and as little money as possible to create development. This requires the community to work together, be creative, and create development with their own skills and materials. Ideally, all a volunteer does is pass on knowledge. And it’s highly effective in an isolated environment.

Unfortunately, the environments are not isolated; Malawi is a very crowded aid market, each NGO trying to outdo/out give the other. As a result, they get in their Land Cruisers and drive into the rural villages, where volunteers are, make large promises of buildings, money, materials, and leave to the nearest luxury tourist lodge. They may or may not come back with all these things. If they do, they drop them and leave, never to be heard from again except for a mandatory check-in so they can close out the project. This hurts the work of PCVs, who are actually trying to build an independent and strong community. It discounts our work and hurts Malawi in the long run. If a man is offering free fish and another teaching how to fish, which would you take if you were in poverty? In fact, you might even go up to the teacher and ask: why aren’t you offering free fish? This is the dilemma PCVs face.

This is the long and negative impact of aid. But Peace Corps still perseveres; its aims are much more long-term than all these NGOs. If you look at many politicians in Malawi today, they were, in their youth, taught by a Peace Corps volunteer at their school. Little by little, Peace Corps strives to demonstrate that developing skills in math, English, science, and using local resources and local skills are the ideal mix for sustainable and independent development. Malawi doesn’t need money, it needs exports and industries. And such things will never develop without proper education, which it severely lacks (plenty of UN and NGO built schools, but no good teachers).

After being in Peace Corps, I’m proud to have worked with an organization that holds such ideals. Granted they have their own issues and problems, but overall, I know I didn’t spend two years with an organization that perpetuates and exasperates the problems of Malawi under the guise of saving Malawi. Malawi’s need, and development in general, boils down to teachers and doctors. Not money and not resources or politics. If the population is educated, they can access more information, make educated choices, and independently improve their communities, thus improving the nation. If there are more doctors, then the population can be healthier, have higher life expectancy, and actually invest in their future as opposed to seeing life as a short-term endeavor.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Fisherman

A bit extreme, but the article generally summarizes my own thoughts about aid and development work based on serving in Malawi.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Death and a Farewell

It was Wednesday morning. Crane walked back to the house after 7, I thought she forgot something for school. I was washing my backpack, in preparation for leaving Mwazisi on Friday. She came in to the kitchen and said evenly: Benedicto's wife died. It didn't register. I thanked her, she left and I kept brushing the bag. Slowly the matter spawned in my mind, growing, until my hands stopped brushing and I couldn't move. Nothing seemed to matter anymore, not cleaning this bag, not moving my arms. I just stopped. I eventually forced myself to move the bag to the storage room and put the brush away. In the distance, a faint wailing drew closer. Louder and louder, the cry was screeching passing on the road. The students at the school all stopped and watched. I approached the window and saw Salome crying uncontrollably as her friends escorted her home. Another girl passed soon after, also wailing, on her way to Benedicto's home.

I put on some decent clothes and walked out to the porch. Simone was passing by, dressed all in white. I stopped him and he told me about the death and then took off in the direction of Benedicto's home. I locked the door and followed. By the time I reached the road a crowd of people were already making their way to pay their respect and give their condolences. Some others were still gathering in the distance. It was like a great migration, shop keepers, barbers, teachers, students, famers, everyone left what they were doing and immediately began the journey to the house upon hearing the news. In the crowd, some women were crying, as if echoing a much deeper sadness sounding from the house in the distance. Karkarara's house. There is no other way to describe this loud, penetrating cry, other than utter and raw sadness. It dwells in your mind and wells in your eyes.

I haven't been to a funeral in a year and a half. I don't usually go because I don't know any of those people. I also thought I had grown hard or cold, worried that my voice turned indifferent and my feelings incapable, that such events could affect me no more. But today it came rushing back. By the time we reached the house, many had already gathered. The men stood outside, in front of the house, and the women were inside, with the body. I joined the men and stood, and watched, and listened. The sound was reverberating and powerful. The cries came from everywhere, down every path, through every field, around every stalk of maize. They collided at the house where, from inside, the deep sadness echoed about the brick walls and emanated from the windows and doors. I could see the people around me, but my mind was absent, as if it was observing the scene from somewhere out of this world. It was clouded in darkness, lost on a singular thought. I chanted the gyathri mantra under my breath in hopes of preserving sanity.

I had just seen her, days earlier. Dorothy Kumwenda, was a strong woman; muscular, intelligent, and one of the hardest working people I have met in Malawi. She participated in every project in Mwazisi with enthusiasm and dedication, even ones that didn’t succeed. She, Benedicto, and their kids, including Salome, were the perfect Mwazisi family. They didn't fall to politics or jealousy; they lived, worked hard, and welcomed new ideas with an open mind. They were never selfish and always took care of others. Mrs. Kumwenda ran several small businesses in Mwazisi and was a wonderful person. You could see it in her eyes, glowing with happiness and she always greeted with a smile. How could a life just be taken? One that was so strong and lively? It's such a fragile thing and we forget how fragile. I couldn't stop thinking about Benedicto and his children. To not have his wife, to not have their mother, what would they do? Salome is the oldest, what will happen to her schooling? I thought of my family and how much I wanted to be home.

I was relieved when Mr. Zyambo walked out of the house. He had helped carry the body from the health center. He saw me and walked over. I felt as if a heavy burden was lifted off, having someone I consider family stand by. He explained that she had had an itching sensation inside the lower part of her leg. The itch slowly moved up her whole leg and turned into a sharp pain, pulsing from inside. She had difficulty walking. Benedicto went to Eva Demaya to get medicines, as the local health center had none, but they did not help. The HSA, and everyone, thought it was a minor thing that would pass. These kinds of ailments occur often and people don't worry much. Yesterday the pain moved up her whole body to her head. They took her to the health center and the HSA put her in a bed. The medical assistant couldn’t diagnose it, so they called the district hospital. A car wouldn't come until the next day. She died in the morning.

Just like that, she was gone. No medicines in the health center, no doctors other than the few in major cities, no help. We were all asked to pull some logs and sit. I took a spot next to Mr. Zyambo. We all sat, silently listening to the cries. Salome and her sisters came from the fields crying, screeching, and walked into the house. Benedicto walked out, his face had vanished. The life was taken out of his eyes and in its place sadness resided. He was looking but not seeing and a relative helped him walk to the other house. I had never seen him like this. I wanted to grab someone, anyone, and just hold them, even if just their arm, to pass the sadness, to share it. My head leaned to the side and I wanted the sadness out. I sat holding it in and hoped that Mr. Zyambo would not leave. The HSA came and sat next to me. He explained the elders were gathering to talk about the origins of Mrs. Kumwenda, so that we all know her life, where she was from, what she has done.

As the cries continued, the local preacher walked out of the wailing house. He held out his hands and spoke in Tumbuka. She has gone he said. She has arrived in the arms of God, she has finished her journey in this world, this journey we are all on. We are all renting our bodies, renting our lives from Jesus, living in this world, and someday we will have to leave. I was never a supporter of Christianity, not the faith but the organized religion, considering its bloody past and cultural damage it has caused, especially in Malawi. I believe in the faith, in the core values and ideals espoused by Jesus Christ. Today, when I heard the preacher talk, though I couldn’t understand all of it, I felt a light shine through the creeping darkness inside. His words, his manner of speaking, his faith, uplifted the dwelling sorrow. I don't know why or how, but I felt something, something countering the penetrating cries from the house.

My mind cleared and I saw people gathered around the home. Benedicto was sitting on the front steps with his head in his hands. Mr. Zyambo said that we should leave soon so they can make the funeral arrangements. I nodded. Slowly people began to leave. Women came out of the house, men walked out through the fields. They were returning to their daily tasks until the burial. We all had gathered to give our condolences and support, to show Benedicto and his children that we were here for them, the whole village. Everyone will be here. We got up and made our way back. It was a silent walk until Mr. Zyambo spoke. He said life here these days is very unpredictable: no medicines, no healthcare workers. I nodded my head and branched off to Crane's house. He said he would come get me at the time for burial.

The burial didn’t happen until mid-morning, the next day, Thursday, as the rest of the family had to arrive from all over Malawi. It was hot that day. The sun was scorching, skin burned if it dared to peak from a sleeve. The wails grew louder, but now mixed with the singing church choir. She was laid in a beautiful coffin, adorned with yellow and orange flowers. After the burial and fiery speeches from the preacher, everyone dispersed in the afternoon. I walked home and packed my things. The next morning, this morning, I got up early, walked with Crane to the trading center, boarded the Mbezuma and left Mwazisi for the last time.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012


I’m uncertain how I feel at this very moment. Unclear. I feel like throwing up. Anxious. My heart beating at an unusual pace. I feel nostalgic yet a little underwhelmed by it all. I’m worried I should be feeling something more, more depth, more grief. But I feel something. My nerves are edgy and I feel like I’m cutting a rope, a safety line into the past. The place that was home for two years, I leave it behind, all of it.

Crane made a point this morning, in a fit of random, inexplicable laughter. She said it’s strange that we perceive returned volunteers as magical beings that reside in a magical faraway land; a place that’s dream-like, a mirage, a fantastical place, unattainable, unreachable, out of the realm of comprehension. A place we could never be, because this is our home, our reality. She continued that soon I would one of those magical people, far, far away.

And we assume this other place is happy and all is wonderful. Like a familiar idea of the West.

I felt, thought, expected it to be a bigger event. Not necessarily festive or celebratory, but just bigger, more important. A bigger deal than it actually was, which felt more like throwing a rock in sand than in water. Nothing happen. My landlord, Mr. Singini, inspected the house , I handed over the keys, my neighbors kids raided the boxes of junk I left in the kitchen, and I picked some moringa leaves for dinner. That was it.

It was like any other day. But it was the last day. My last day, most likely, forever in that house. So many memories, good, bad. Bear recommended I spend some time alone in the empty house, which evoked a need to pray, strangely. It had a holy or vast greatness to it, the empty house, as if it was a shrine to memory, each brick an idol encompassing two years of life. I chanted three “oms,” as Bear recommended leaving good vibes for the next resident, and just walked around.

It was like walking around a temple. You feel something, but it’s intangible, it has no shape, form, or definition, and as a result you draw your mind and soul to feel what you believe should be felt in such a place. You draw something that is tangible, fathomable, like memory or love. But what you really feel you can never say, only knowing that something is there.

A lot of memories in that house. I remember the times I was scared, the times I was alone, the times I was sick, and the times I was truly happy. I remember laughing uncontrollably with Bear and Zebra. I remember all the times I spent exhausted, passed out on the mat or on the couch and just staring at the ceiling. Or watching the iron sheets as rain pounded the roof and water dripped down the troughs. I remember aimlessly watching the geckos, their unusual clicks and alien movements on the walls. Home.

Home for so long, you don’t know much else. There is a lump at the bottom of my throat and my chest feels heavy.

Monday, February 6, 2012

The Heart of Darkness

For two years I have lived in Malawi. It’s been a bewildering and often frightening experience in a sparse and desolate landscape. Not so much frightening because of the experience, but of confronting oneself and ones inner most demons.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve looked in a mirror in my life. Superficially inspecting my clothes or examining areas of thinning hair. But never have I seen myself, as if a mirror was a mere distraction from inspecting my insides, occupying my mind and sight with layers of flesh and follicles of hair. In Malawi, far from the cities, the demons fly, they have form and shape, and there isn’t a mirror in sight. Your fears are sharpened, your wits tested, and you walk amongst the scum of the worst of your selves.

Never do you feel so alone. A strange land that never makes sense because it can not. It’s impossible and that is what makes it such a haunting, terrifying, and perturbing place that drives so many travelers and strangers to insanity and to their wits’ end. It exists, nothing more and nothing less must be asked of it. No questions, no order, and no sense must be extracted and suddenly one finds a peculiar sort of peace. Giving oneself to a greater power, to nature, and letting existence carry on. We have such little control of our lives, a fact often forgotten in the comforts of home that it explodes with a vengeance.

And how do you face yourself? The worst of yourself? The best you have seen, but what of that inner darkness, kept buried deep under layers of years and ignorance. When people will ask me about Malawi or my two years in the warm heart of Africa, I will expect to detail my projects and the sights I’ve seen, the foods I’ve tasted, and tell anecdotal tales from my village. What I will discard is the two years spent with the darkness in myself: the frightened man, the weak, the paranoid, the angry, the violent, the merciless.

Anxiety, paranoia, all stemming from fear of the unknown. I hear shouts and shrieks in the night from youngsters roaming the fields, mysterious drums beating in the distance into the morning, and drunken men aimlessly babbling on the streets. The wind blows fiercely and branches scrape the tin roof like nails on a chalkboard. Fear manifests in its worst form in solitude. Though it was not as fierce when I arrived, it manifested. To be alone in an alien place in the pitch darkness of night, you see nothing and hear sounds in the blanket of quiet, and your inner wirings only know survival.

“It was very quiet there. At night sometimes the roll of drums behind the curtain of trees would run up the river and remain sustained faintly, as if hovering in the air, high over our heads, till the first break of day. Whether it meant war, peace, or prayer we could not tell.”

Though it’s been almost a century since Conrad’s story, and countless foreigners have passed and lived through the heart of Africa, there is still a mystery to everything here. Perhaps not the in cities or tourist destinations, but out in the villages, far from a road or light bulb, it is still a foreign place. I have met numerous white people who come here on missions or as volunteers and proudly utter the few phrases of vernacular they know and boast their oneness with Malawians. They claim to have found their home, their love. Though in their mind it may ring true, in actuality they don’t belong at all. I can’t describe what drives them, though often it is one’s unhappiness at their own home, a feeling of inability to fit into their own culture and society. So they come here.

The truth is no white person, no matter how long they have lived here, or claim to have friends like family or that this is their home, have no idea of the realities. They often live in cities or tourist areas, and never longer than a service contract in a rural area. And after centuries of exploiting, proselytizing, and living here, they still claim it as a region that must be fixed and put in order, a problem that must be solved. They still lack understanding of how life works and continue to plaster a Western ideal of society and religion on a nation that never has and never will fit a mold.

The Indians and Chinese, however, seem to have accepted the fact that Malawi will remain a mystery to them. And they deeply fear what they don’t understand. For them it is a business relationship, they seek wealth and no more. Not religion nor friendship. They keep a vigilant watch over their workers and their enterprises, and secure their houses and shops with iron bars and bribed policemen. They are quite aware they don’t belong here and aware they are not liked or often welcome in this country, and because of that they are two groups that endure and sustain an existence in Malawi.

For all the claims of friendships you see only high-wall fences, barbed-wire compounds, guard dogs, and hired security companies protecting white people, wealthy Asians, and luxurious imports parked in grand homes. There is no friendship. The rasta-whites laying about the lakeshore be damned with their faux-rasta brethren selling curios to adventure-seekers. This is a place that cannot and will never be deciphered to foreigners and white people. If I am wrong, then let all of Malawi be prosperous.

Once we abandon plans to exploit, convert, or understand Malawi, then only can we grow closer. As I have said before, all foreigners must leave, everyone. Then only can Malawi become a nation, the strong, cohesive, beautiful nation that is waiting under piles of aid and ruin. The foreigners, and more so the white people, have perpetuated a continent of darkness, no longer in a awful colonial way, but in a legal, modern, exploitation under the guise of a guilty apology supplemented with financial assistance. The mines continue to expand. The oil continues to flow through pipelines. The lands continue to be taken.

And the nation grows darker.

Friday, January 20, 2012

In Limbo Grand

In a strange place right now. I knew this place was coming, I saw the signs along the years. I look at my friends back home, a perfect four years for them. They are all by now VPs, Senior Analysts, Associates, Corporate Developers, Acquisitions Specialists, CFA designated, brilliant, successful and on a trajectory to something highly valued in society. They are financially sound, able, and academically qualified to move their lives forward, to graduate studies, starting a family, finding balance and happiness in their lives.

My life amounts to a handful of six month jobs and two years in rural Africa. It’s like I’ve moved no where and have no where to go. The plans and ideas I had in my head at graduation didn’t pan out, the plans changed, and often too quickly life took sharp turns, but I adapted. I don’t regret the decisions and events that led to this very moment and I certainly don’t regret my two years here. I’ve never been happier and purposeful than I have been here. However, I’m underwhelmed by what’s at the end of the road.

It’s somewhat daunting to think of the past four years, my mind has nothing to anchor, everything was so brief and fleeting. A set of dominos laid in a thousand different tracks, and the sequence that fell dropped me here. And the dominoes continue to fall back to America, and then where? To what? I have not a clue but my heart has palpitations merely considering the thought. In a flight to safety, I cling to a world I knew, though not so well as my peers, but it’s all I remember of home.

Will I fit in any more amongst my friends back home? Or will they be so different and so far in their careers and lives, on such a different economic level, that we have nothing in common any longer? Am I smart enough? Capable enough? Have I lost my edge, a sensibility that was sharpened through dedication and persistence on a specific set of tasks? Do I want to start all over? Do I want to do this? If not, what else can I do? This is all I know and this is, if my memory hasn’t failed, is what I was good at, what I enjoyed. Most might not believe it, but I loved what I did.

The friends I knew, I loved. I don’t know if they will be the same people. Two years is a long time and I will have missed that much of their lives. We may no longer have anything in common, no tales to recount, no adventures shared in recent memory. Just a giant hole. A dark empty space of silence. Or worse: perhaps I’m not the same person anymore. Then what? A frightening thought because that’s not something easily changed or controlled. That’s forced exile.

I don’t want to be that guy. The guy in a circle of friends that sometimes carries the burden of failure. Not failure in the sense that they have actually failed at life, but relative failure, failure in comparison to the immense success of others and what society considers as a benchmark of success. They have climbed that ladder in leaps and bounds in a highly competitive field in one of the worst economies in history. It’s a race and I feel like I left the track in the heat of competition. And now when I return, it will be a whole new race and perhaps I’ve forgotten my abilities. Or lost the hunger.

Not a lot in the world more competitive than the finance lot. They have the hunger. I had hunger and I certainly hope I’m famished when I return home.

Part of me is a little frustrated. I worked too hard and scarified too much to get where I had. I had such a different set of expectations for what these two years would be like, what life after would be. As with life, it never goes as you planned. Yet it sometimes takes unexpected but wonderful turns. My two year turn was unexpectedly wonderful, but now what? Is there a turn waiting back home? Will it expedite? Can I catch up? I’m certainly going to try.