GO!

24 June 2018

[Above photo: Folk art from Malawi, on homemade paper using all native materials—twigs, leaves, straw.  ]

Tuesday, the day after tomorrow, we leave Blantyre for Lilongwe. There we’ll do the requisite Peace Corps Close of Service tasks: getting our praziquantel (for possible/presumed schistosomiasis), closing our bank accounts, certifying that we leave no debts and water and electricity bills are paid to date, having a last medical exam, having our final interview with Carol Spahn (PC Malawi Director) and saying goodbye to the wonderful PC staff.

Joined by friends Chris and Sarah Jones (from UK; intimates of Linda for 35+ years), we depart Malawi for S. Luangwa Reserve in Zambia where we are bound to see lions and leopards and hyenas, oh my! After a few days, we’ll head for Victoria Falls. I am tempted to go into the ultimate infinity pool at the top of the Falls and to do an ultralight flyover but we’ll see when I get there. Supposed to be a pretty amazing zip line ride, as well! No age limits, I hope. Like those measuring posts they have for kids at pony rides. Chris and Sarah will fly home from there and we’ll be off to the Okavango Delta. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Flying back from DC on Ethiopian Airlines was like going on a safari weekend. Eat, sit, eat, sit, eat, sit. It was a short trip, only 21 hours. Going was 24.5 because we had to refuel in Ireland. That may be due to headwinds encountered on the western flight, but I don’t know. If they had served injera, the spongy, sticky, sourdough flatbread that is a staple of Ethiopian life, it would have eased the pain. But, as I discovered, that was only served in First Class. When I get to Berkeley in October, I definitely want to go with one of my friend groups to eat Ethiopian.

The Fulbright orientation was comprehensive and useful. Again, we were fed and we sat, repeat many times for 3 days. I got up the first morning I was there and walked 75 minutes to the Lincoln Memorial and back. I even walked by the White House, stained now forever, I fear. I am always so taken with DC and its power and beauty and richness. The JW Marriott was very nice, the food incredibl e (grilled salmon as a choice at nearly every meal, many varieties of salad, and the deserts….!).  We kept joining all together and breaking into smaller, specific country groups, meeting all manner of interesting people. The largest group was English-language teachers, kids straight from college. It promised a kind of Peace Corps minus-the-rough-edges experience for a year. Then there were researchers and, finally, scholar/teachers in every discipline from environmental science and filmmaking to IT and psychology. Networking, I met scholars who will ask me to their sites to lecture and whom I can invite to mine, allowing us each a glimpse of, for me, Hanoi. For them, Yangon. I discovered that the academic year begins 1 December, so I’ll go a month earlier than I thought.

The Fulbright Scholar stipend is generous, with enough added to the airfare that I can take an extra box or two of books, which I’ll purchase with the generous book stipend. The housing stipend insures a comfortable abode.  All in all, it looks wonderful.

I am in hot pursuit of a contact at Medical University #1, where I’ll teach, so I can learn what they want from me. I can simply go and teach psychiatry but I need to assess to what level they are already trained  and what they feel they need. With 130+ East Asia Pacific Fulbrighters, I can imagine the logistics are difficult to coordinate this ouvre. But it is kind of disorganized and many people are in the same boat as me—a little adrift.

I have learned enough in Malawi to realize the importance of at least acknowledging cultural proprieties, even if I choose to violate some. For example, I’ll encourage the students to challenge me and force them to take some responsibility for their own learning, which is not how it is generally done in hierarchical societies. But I want them to be curious, to want to learn, and to be comfortable with critical thinking, not simply rote recitations. Also, as students we all must constantly struggle with our need to be right and how that interferes with learning. I’ll do some critical thinking myself about my pedagogy this Fall.

I have given two large bags of clothing to one of our guards. It was pretty easy to sort that out. Books have been more difficult but seeing how much I used UpToDate, a fabulous literature review and search service at Harvard, versus using books for instruction, I’ll leave almost all of my books here in the clinic and at the college. Now, to pack pottery and carvings so they survive the trip. We’ll leave our large bags at the Peace Corps office and collect them after our adventures.

We have been having farewell suppers with friends in Blantyre. Last night we travelled over the incredibly awful road to Sophie and Eric’s for an amazing feast and their company. Their house is a gorgeous manse in the woods on a hill out of town.  Their cow makes cream twice per day that is so thick it will barely pour. Eric used it in a reduction sauce for the pork ribs that was delicious beyond words, accompanied by homemade bread, potatoes au gratin, and a delicious salad, all from their garden. Linda made a mango creation with a macadamia-nut crust and wild berries on top. Lots of wine, a fire in the fireplace and …well, you get it. Eric separated, so far successfully, 4 month old Siamese twins three days ago, using two surgical teams, etc. A group of Norwegian surgeons who come to Malawi regularly were in attendance and they brought tubes of smoked codfish roe as a gift. It is amazingly tasty! And we saw slides of their family (with all 4 children) hiking and camping (and getting soaked) in Brazil. All very lovely. Tonight we’ll go to Peter and Caroline’s; we’ll shadow each other much of our trip, as we’ll be travelling a similar route.

Endings are not easy for me. Perhaps more so now because I am increasingly aware of my own eventual ending. The ultimate magic disappearing act, all of love and sorrow and adventures and boredom and accomplishment and failure—all those stories—vanish in a trice. I feel sad to leave here, especially the struggling Malawians I know, suspecting that it will only get worse as the population increases and the Earth warms and weather is less predictable. Linda’s co-faculty member, the former Dean of the School of Midwifery, and our neighbor (whose son I taught at COM last year), Ursula, mentioned yesterday that 3 graduating cohorts of nurses are scrambling to make a living outside of nursing. None of their government-funded placements have come through yet. I feel that my efforts here are futile in the long term.

Just as Melania’s prococative coat message–“I really don’t care. Do U?”– as she went to see the traumatized children who her husband is responsible for separating from their parents is infuriating and disheartening, the 600 pastors of the United Methodist Church that signed a petition for redress of Jeff Sessions, our Attorney General, for “prosecutable offenses” and “racism” gives me some hope.

However, I cannot quite get the point of all the chaos and pain being crudely and gratuitously delivered by DT in our country and abroad. I suppose it is to cement his “base” (which is truly base). I mean by that if I subscribe, little by little, to attacks and infringements on civil society, later when it becomes increasingly heinous and evil it is more difficult for me to protest and admit I was wrong. Partly it is from pride, but more persuasively because it challanges sense of my ability to perceive reality and that we hang on to very dearly indeed. Very clever.  It certainly worked in Germany in the 1930’s.

Although, what can be more evil and heinous than forcibly separating children, including toddlers, from their parents?

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