Wrapping it up in Lilongwe

8.8.16

There are two more days of training here and then we are sworn in as Peace Corps employees by the Ambassador at her residence. I suspect there’ll be a lunch there (hoping) and then we load up and drive to Blantyre, 4 hours away. We’ll likely camp out in our house, reportedly 3 bedrooms with electricity and running water—hot andcold—and security bars.

While there isn’t much violent crime here, there is a lot of petty theft, robbery, and burglary. We have had many and excellent lectures, complete with vignettes from prior volunteers’ experience, about safety. Much of keeping safe means not walking in the streets after dark—always take a cab but smell the cabbie’s breath for alcohol first—and avoiding being isolated or intoxicated. Women, of course, are the most vulnerable, since men are the perps. What is it with us guys? Wars, violence. Anyway, being culturally aware is very important. Saying “No, no.” by a woman is seen as a coy invitation, by both Malawian women and men. “Choka” is a forceful “Go away”, whereas “Chokani” is a polite “Go away, please” and may mean “Don’t go away. I’m just saying this not to appear too easy but I really like your attention.” A woman without an escort in a bar at night is presumed to be a prostitute. And women are modest here, with long skirts and no cleavage. So dressing more skimpily is seen as an invitation. It’s good to know these things. And Peace Corps is very, very thoughtful and careful about it all.

Anyway, we’ll have 4 days to furnish the house with the necessities; it is the assumption that pots, pans, silverware, dishes, glasses, towels, linens, etc. will all be gone when we get there. We get an allowance for them. And we’ll get hooked up to internet, which will hopefully be better than here in the Bridgeview Hotel. It is often very difficult to get on the internet and we use a variety of room numbers and strategies to do so, often going to the lobby where a different portal is available. The system is very frail and we can tell when others are on because it slows to a crawl. Forget streaming videos. I have a $10 “dumb” phone, as AT&T has failed to unlock my iPhone, despite the hours I put into trying to do so when I was in Maine.

We did some skits for our language teachers, demonstrating Malawian cultural practices that bewilder us. It was riotous fun and they all laughed a lot. The first topic was how public affection is forbidden between men and women; holding hands, even, is not acceptable. Yet men hold hands in public all the time. Even though homosexuality is illegal. Hmm. A volunteer is lying down, ill, trying to rest and is constantly visited by well-wishers who think that being alone is a terrible thing. That was a fun one. The teaching lesson with chombe—tea–, chombo—a commonly eaten fish—, and chomba—-locally grown marijuana, together with props and a quiz, cracked the teachers up.  They are a sweet and fun bunch and a great introductory resource to Malawi.

Linda is Catholic, her own take on it, as I guess everyone’s is pretty personal. Anyway, I go to church with her because she likes me to and because it isn’t a bad way to spend an hour a week, hearing a community of people being exhorted to be kind and generous and getting to sing together. We went to church today at the cathedral in Lilongwe and it was special. There were probably 1000 people there. Many, many incredibly cute little kids dressed to the nines, a choir of woman singing and shaking it to an organ, a guitar, a drum, and a tambourine, and a priest whose homily was about living consciously. He said, “A life unreflected upon isn’t worth living.” Wow! Did he do that for me, the psychoanalyst? English wasn’t his first language, so I think he was taking his cue from Socrates’ “the unexamined life isn’t worth living”. Or perhaps he knows ancient Greek and has the correct take. Anyway between the kids, the music, and the message, I was impressed, though I am still a non-believer.

After church we walked and walked—probably 7 miles all told. Midway we stopped at mausoleum to His Excellency Great Warrior former President For Life Dr. Banda. He lived 99 years and 350 +/- days and served to set the country on a peaceful path from colonialism to multiparty democracy, something the Middle Eastern countries didn’t have. A transition through strict, stable, even oppressive, rule to democracy. Apparently many long for the old days when things were more stable and predictable. Like many in the US longing for the 50′s. Seeing our own democracy in action this election cycle—and congressional behavior for the past 8 years—makes me wish for an enlightened dictator. Although I am convinced it is going to work out alright with our first woman president. Then we went to the old Capitol Hotel, which is elegant and has been expanded since Linda was last there in 1980, just after giving birth to her first child. (She recalls having “steak Diane”}. We had a lovely pitcher of Malawian coffee (Zuzu, from Mazuzu) sitting in a peaceful courtyard next to a reflecting pool.

Two further notes about our hotel. Plus side: We discovered it is run by Indians and even though they don’t serve beer (being Hindu), they make incredibly good Indian food with basmati rice and garlic naan for about $5/serving. We’ve generally eaten a buffet of ordinary Malawian food and only learned of their true heart’s cuisine this weekend. Negative side: My shoulders are sore if I sleep on one side or the other too long. I put it down to a hard mattress. Another volunteer noted correctly that there are no mattresses. We are all sleeping on box springs. Still, it is clean and quiet and conveniently located across from a money exchange which gives a great rate for dollars to kwacha (the country denomination).

We are all champing at the bit, wanting to dig into the tasks ahead. I’m already thinking about going to a conference in Goa about scaling up mental health interventions in resource-poor settings. I cannot wait to meet the medical students I’ll be teaching. Re-upping for another year might be in the cards. Getting engaged in global mental health efforts, at this time in my life, sounds like a tall order but one with great appeal.

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