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Au revoir Ngara

I’m afraid this might well be a rather short and rather garbled blog
post as I had my last night with all the volunteers last night and was
therefore up until 2am and woke up at 6 with the sunrise. Normally, I
would just leave it to write until tomorrow, but, you see, I have been
promised a full fridge from my mother when I get home if I can get it
written today. So here I am, writing.

Yesterday I got a card from the deputy headmaster of my school saying
“thank you for whatever you have done.” Aside from the great grammar,
receiving this card was the end of such a generous last week on the
part of the teachers and the community at Ngara. I can’t quite believe
that my time here is so close to being over, it hasn’t quite sunk in
yet and I’m not sure it really will until I am back in England.

The last month, like all the others, it seems, has flown by. Katie was
away for most of it (she had two weeks with her Dad and brother and
then went home early because she caught what they believed here to be
septicemia, but turns out might well have been TB) which meant that I
muddled along in Ngara on my own. Yet again, I spent a great deal of
time pestering ESCOM, the electricity company, for all the power to be
set up at the school. It is frustratingly close to being in, with all
the poles and wires in, all we are waiting on now is for the meter,
which I really hope will be in next term. Although annoying to leave
the project incomplete, I hope that it will be up and running next
term so fingers crossed, and there will be a new volunteer, Abi,
moving up to our placement, so she can take over my pestering role.
The lack of electricity at the school meant that we weren’t able to
start regular computer lessons there this term, but we did manage to
do a couple of workshops with a few teachers, which was great. In
fact, I typed up one of the teacher’s CVs for her and she had boldly
included ‘certificate in computers from Ngara CDSS’ at the end.
Perhaps a little premature, but I applaud her spirit! In true Malawian
style, the lodge that we went to for one of the workshops saw that
there were ‘mzungus’ (white people) running the workshops, and decided
that, in fact, we had to pay K5,000 (about £7) for the privilege of
sitting there. Interesting logic. That’s one thing I don’t think I’ve
really mentioned in my posts, is the increase in prices as soon as
people see that they have white people with them. Mini-bus drivers are
notorious for this. On the same note, last week we had a bit of a
battle with immigration who were doing stops between Mzuzu and Ngara,
where I was travelling. They tried to claim that it was the law to
carry around your passport with you at all times (absolute rubbish, by
the way, as the vast majority of Malawians do not have a passport to
speak of). Of course, seeing a taxi full of mzungus, they were rubbing
their hands in glee, eyes gleaming at the bribe that would surely have
to follow for us to get back home. Threatening to set up camp there
for the night though, this was not a battle we were going to lose, and
our very helpful taxi driver called various people, enough to scare
the immigration officer that was on duty, and after two long hours, we
were finally let through.

We have done a few extra-curricular things at school this month, other
than computer lessons for the teachers. I did a few French lessons,
after a few pupils expressing an interest in the subject and taught
them some songs which, of course, they sounded a million times better
singing than we ever did in class. We also went to the school netball
match at the village one away from us, where our girls were playing.
We rented a mini-bus to get them there, and the singing on this bus
was ten times louder (and probably ten times more in tune!) than the
singing at the back of a bus on school trips that I remember. This is
something that I will so miss about Malawi: how music is everywhere.
Music is not the only thing I will miss, though. Last week, in my
slightly neurotic way, I started to make a list of some of the other
things that I would miss about being here in Malawi, in an effort to
make the most of them while I was still here. The things that reached
the top of my list were the people and their general attitude towards
life – how happy and friendly they are – and the beautiful views and
sceneries that I wake up to every day. How am I going to wake up now
and not see the lake every day? This said, Hettie did send me a video
of the house that her and Dad are moving to in the next month (which,
coincidentally, took five hours to load) and I counted four plug
sockets in my room. FOUR. As much as I will miss Malawi, I am so
excited to get back to civilisation.

My last week in Ngara, I appreciated the people there to a whole other
level. I will walk you through the week. On Monday, I have to admit, I
was getting a bit irritated with people coming up to me and asking for
things; it felt like every conversation I was having was about money
or something that they needed. This is understandable: they have
nothing. And yet, I wanted to feel that my time there had meant more
than just helping with money. This quickly changed by Tuesday and
through the rest of the week, though. I was invited to a meeting with
the community on Tuesday, which was also meant to be a dance. Sadly,
this was rained off, but I met with a few members of the community who
I had been most involved with, who thanked us so much for our time
here and all that we had managed to achieve for the school. Tuesday
also saw the arrival of Abi, the fellow Lattitude volunteer who will
be at Ngara for the next term, so that we could do a neat handover and
it was so lovely to have someone to experience the final week with me
(and to help me sort out the house!). On Wednesday, we spent the
morning sorting out the house into things Abi would need and things we
would be donating and then went to the restaurant that some of the
other volunteers and I have been to almost weekly since arriving for
our traditional rice and veg. On Thursday morning, we went to Karonga
to stock up on a few things that Abi needed for the next term but it
was the afternoon on Thursday that was the highlight of my week. In
fact, a highlight of my time in Malawi: my leaving party. They had
decorated the staffroom, cooked an absolute feast and had prepared
speeches and, my favourite moment of the evening, a song. I managed to
record the song and will put it on my blog when I am back in a land
with slightly faster internet. It was such a lovely evening that I
don’t even think I can put it into words, but I hope that when I put
videos up you will at least get the gist. Friday, my final full day in
Ngara, was spent marking the exams that I had set and seeing teachers
for the last time. We were given tea at the Madam’s house, where,
again, they sung and then in the evening, we had dinner at Mr Mogha’s
house. We were both very full by the end of the day. Yesterday, it was
time, as surreal as it felt, to leave. I packed my bags onto a
mini-bus and waved goodbye to Ngara for the last (although I hope not
the very last) time.

My time in Ngara has taught me so much about myself and has made me
grow more than I could ever have imagined as a person. I will never
forget what an incredible time I had there, and will always treasure
the memories of the people and life there. The next adventure begins
tomorrow, with the start of the journey to Victoria Falls, but Ngara,
you will be in my heart forever.

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Mum’s Guest Post

‘Hello, how are you?’‘Fine thank you, how are you?’‘I’m fine.’‘How are you?’

So begins every conversation in Malawi. And by the end of my 10 day stay I had stopped using the variations ‘Hi’ or ‘Good thanks’ or ‘I’m OK’. They somehow seemed disrespectful.

Respect there is. Not for personal space – I recognise that, Liv. But on the other hand the nursery children knelt to ask the teacher’s permission to leave the room! And Malawi is comparatively safe. The people also have an immense pride in their country, despite the failings of the current government to stamp out corruption and improve the lot of the inhabitants of the world’s second poorest country (children with shoes are a rarity). It is beautiful. And there is a genuinely warm welcome. All of which makes it an emotional, if not always physical, pleasure to explore.

Another tradition was for everyone, from taxi driver to teacher to smiling customs official (usually an oxymoron) to chide me for staying such a short time and ask when I would be coming back. But it just wouldn’t be the same without Olivia there. It has been such a privilege to share her life for this short period of time. Although I recognise that I have cheated. I have , as a point of principle, used her pit latrine and eaten dinner cooked on the fire, been the ‘just one more’ squeezed onto the minibus, spent time in lessons at the orphanage/day care centre (Flo Ja) and enjoyed the challenges she refers to below. But I did not sleep on the mattress on the floor offered by the teachers (fortunately just too late), swelter in 50 degree heat, become ill from the water drawn from the bore hole, go for days without power or try to sleep under the tin roof in the rain and need to find the energy to inspire a class of pupils. But as I am regularly informed (Em) I’m no spring chicken (mentioning birds = enhanced therapy Liv)  and despite not doing it the hard way this was still a mother/ daughter adventure I will treasure.

And to Olivia, in the words chanted by all the children when one had recited their numbers/ alphabet/ opposites particularly well:

Well done, well done, su-per, keep it up, keep it up, what a good girl’

We are all very proud of you!

 

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Mum on My Malawi Adventure

To my loyal followers (/hi Mum)

Again, apologies for the length of time between posts but thanks to my naggers (uhem, again, mum) for making me write what I have done down because I know I would regret it if I began to forget the things I have done.

Anyway, what has this month entailed? I’m slightly struggling to think of things to write before Mum arrived (she was here for the last 10 days but more about that later), not because I have not done anything, but because it all just seems so normal now. It has been great seeing it through Mum’s eyes again though to re-open my eyes and remind me that nothing is actually normal: 3 hours to get to the supermarket with 23 people on a mini-bus is not a normal experience. And yet, for me, it just is!

Anyway, anyway, back to the point again: January. The first couple of weeks back from Tanzania, I was Katie-less in Ngara so threw myself into a couple of projects. The biggest of these was trying to get electricity into the school. This is still not a reality, but the posts and the wiring are all in, so now we are simply waiting for the meter, which, when I last spoke to the officer in charge (I am going for the approach of if I ring enough, they will get bored of me and therefore put in electricity to stop me from calling), he told me he was picking up this week. Fingers crossed for that though please! I also discovered a new lodge (with both a swimming pool and pretty good food!) while Katie was away, where I got talking to a girl who was working there in her university holidays. She is going into her second year at Mzuzu University studying tourism and hospitality and I found that she had a government grant to do so, which I hadn’t realised was a possibility. This gave me the idea of getting her in to speak to the girls at school in order to give them some ideas about an alternative future to being in an early marriage and no job because, as I have said previously, this is the route that so many girls go into because a lack of awareness of their other options. The talk happened once Katie was back and the girls responded very well to it, with a few coming to ask her questions at the end, clearly very serious about trying to get into university. With many of the girls wanting to do nursing, our next step is to try and get a nurse in to try and get a nurse in to talk to them about how they can achieve that.

The rest of January, I have to admit, went by in a bit of a blur of school, a few weekends away, and the joy of being able to watch films again that having a laptop has brought. Last week, though, I started to prepare excitedly for Mum’s visit. On Tuesday, I headed down to Mzuzu, managing to hitch with a man who had the comfiest seats I have sat in for a long time and an inbuilt DVD player in his car. Winner of a journey. I went to the joys of shopright (the new supermarket in Mzuzu, a place where it feels like I have died and gone to heaven every time I go in – is that sad? I don’t care) and stocked up on a ridiculous amount of snacks for the five hour journey to Lilongwe the next day, forgetting that I go every day with a gap of way over five hours between meals and am perfectly happy. I then met up with Anna and Sarah and Mzuzu Zoo (a lodge) as Sarah had the week off and Anna was also heading down to Lilongwe to meet her Mum. Anna and I got to the bus at 6am the next morning and arrived in Lilongwe ready, despite my many snacks, for a delicious lunch of smoothies, milkshakes and mammoth wraps.

Thursday marked the day of Mum’s arrival and, giving her a very false impression of life in Malawi, her plane landed half an hour early. A miracle. I was genuinely expecting a call saying her plane was going to be delayed, perhaps by a few days  so for her to arrive in early was both a big surprise and a big big treat. It was so lovely seeing her after six months apart and I think we both shed a little tear when we ran towards each other and hugged in the airport. It was a scene almost reminiscent of the ‘Daddy my Daddy’ scene in the Railway Children, where I’m sure we moved people to tears around us. Well, maybe not, but it was certainly felt like that for me!

Taking advantage of the fact that I was in the capital with restaurants with a variety of food, I took Mum to an Italian restaurant that evening with Anna, Matt (our country co-coordinator who also happened to be there) and Owen (who had come along with Matt). Of course, having come straight from England, where food variety is something we expect, Mum was amused by the look of glee on my face at the sight of steak and apple crumble on the menu but, disappointing myself greatly, I was full after half of my steak and chips and couldn’t even think of pudding. Heartbreaking. Guys, it’s true, I’m a changed woman. We then made our way back to the Lodge, where Mum and I snuggled up and both slept very soundly.

On Friday, it was time to head up North, so, thinking I’d ease Mum into Malawian life, we got on the ‘deluxe, executive’ AXA bus. Well, turns out this ‘deluxe’ and ‘executive’ meant standing for the first two hours as they had overbooked the seats. Welcome to Malawi Mum. Eventually, though, we all managed to get seats, and had a comfy last three hours. We arrived back at Mzuzu Zoo and Mum experienced the slightly bed-bug infested dorm there (don’t say I don’t treat her well). We got up the next morning, visited the heaven that is shopright and jumped into a mini-bus with a total of 23 people on it. Mum couldn’t quite understand how Katie and I had got our high of 28 people on there because 23 felt pretty packed, but I reminded her of the minibus mantra that one more will always fit even if it means contorting your body in ways you didn’t think possible. Arriving at Chitimba, we left our bags at Hakuna Matata Lodge, where Mum had her first cherry plum (my favourite Malawian drink) and we managed to get a lift up to Mushroom Farm (another lodge) with the owner. I’m so glad we made the trip up there – it’s not a particularly easy or comfortable one – because Mum loved it. We stayed in a room called the ‘Cobb Room’, where Mum was particularly amused by the en-suite with a throne-like compost toilet and a view from the shower that might even rival the view from the showers at Little Thatch (sorry Katy!). I think I might start a picture montage of showers with good views. If you want to get more of an idea of the place we stayed here is their website:  http://www.themushroomfarmmalawi.com/. Here, Mum also met some of the other Latitude volunteers, and we played a bit of Trivial Pursuit (Mum and I were a team to which I made very little contribution but she did well – I maintain that this is due to the fact that it was an old version of the game and therefore Mum, being old (just kidding) was going to be better. Not that I’m competitive. We then enjoyed a delicious curry and snuggled into bed to watch one of my new favourite films (this was the second time I watched it in the space of a month) About Time.

On Sunday, it was raining, so we were in two minds about whether to walk down the mountain, but decided Mum would regret it if we didn’t so we donned our trainers and marched down with, after a lot of debate, the rest of group joined us. We went to a place called Chitimba Camp for lunch so that I could give a few films to a friend from my hard-drive, where Mum experienced her first Malawian ‘salad’, which is, essentially, coleslaw. We then went to collect our bags from where we had left them at Hakuna Matata, only to find that mine had been used as a snack for the monkeys and had a nice big monkey-tooth-shaped hole in it. Not ideal. I then took Mum on what was to be her bravest journey yet: on the back of a truck with a chicken in it. Now, if any of you know what Mum is like with birds (particularly chickens), you will know that this was a big feat, but she boldly got into the truck, sitting herself on the opposite side to the chicken. No-one can claim that she’s not game (pun definitely intended).

We arrived at Flo-Ja, where we were to spend the next few days, late afternoon. Having not seen the rooms since hot season, I was amazed to see how much greener it was. Mum was more distracted by the view of the naked man washing himself in the lake. Don’t tell her I said so. Again we cuddled up in bed for a film (can you see a pattern emerging here?) that Mum informed me would be a rubbish (so, therefore great) chick flick. It was not. I sobbed my way through it. Thanks Mum.

The next day, we got up and had breakfast at Flo Ja and then departed for our respective days of work – for Mum at the nursery and for me at school and then met back at Flo Ja for a little rest before heading back down to the school so that Mum could see my house. I also took her to meet the deputy head, Mr Mogha, for whom she had brought an old phone of grandpa’s. Thank you grandpa for that: he has sent me a number of texts on it saying he has never known such kindness and that he thanks you from the bottom of his heart. Again, we had a slight bird issue, Mum having to switch places with me on the sofa in order to be protected from the fierce (uhem) birds flapping around on Mr Mogha’s porch. We managed to get safely back to the house, though, and I cooked Mum a quick supper on the coal burner of tuna pasta. Luxury, I’m telling you.

Tuesday followed a similar pattern, with Mum going to the nursery and me to the school in the morning. Again, I headed back for a little rest around lunchtime and we then walked back along the beach together in the afternoon. Mum was absorbed by all the local people going about their daily lives on the beach, washing, fishing, mending their nets and washing their clothes. We were invited for a late lunch/early supper at Madam Chenje’s house (one of the teachers) with the headmaster’s wife and were given a treat of a meal including pumpkin leaves (served like spinach), beans, local chicken, nsima and rice. We tried to eat as much as possible, but with two lots of carbs in one meal – it’s a little like eating potatos and pasta together – this was not easy, so we simply had to hope that we were not causing too much offence. Again, Mum had a few issues with the chickens wondering around the house, and, explaining this to our hosts, she elicited the response: “but don’t you keep chickens?” It is a shocking thing to a Malawian, you see, that not everyone keeps chickens. We began our walk back to Flo Ja, happily snapping pictures as the sun began to set, until I realised that I had left our room key back at my house and we had to walk all the way back again. It was at this point that we named Mum’s trip ‘Olivia’s Bootcamp’.

Following our slight treck the previous day, on Wednesday we spent a lazy morning at Flo Ja and then headed down to my local nursery. Here, we gave some of the things that they had asked for – chalkboards, balls and toys – and watched the children recount their numbers and sing some songs. I managed to take a few videos of this and will try to put these up when I have enough internet. We then got a mini-bus to Uliwa, where I took Mum to our favourite local restaurant, Mazachis, where we meet up with some of the other volunteers every Wednesday religiously. It was rice, veg and sausage on the menu – delish! From here, our aim was to take a mini-bus to Maji Zuwa, but Mum saw a chicken getting on the bus before us, so decided that we should take ‘Olivia’s Bootcamp’ more seriously and walk until we could get onto another mini-bus. After about an hour of walking, another mini-bus finally arrived and took us the final 10 minutes. On arriving at Maji Zuwa, we discovered that the power was out as the transformer had been hit by lighting, meaning that the only things on the menu were spaghetti, chips and Malawian salad and that nothing could be charged. James, who is one of the volunteers living at Maji Zuwa, and who works at the primary school up the road, was umpiring the netball and football matches at the school in the afternoon, so we decided that we would go and watch those with no power to tempt us into watching a film. This is a difficult experience to explain, and one that we felt Malawians do so much better than the English: every time a goal is scored, that team’s supporters rush onto the pitch together and shout the number of goals that they have in total. Again, I have a video of this that I hope to put up when I have better internet. Throughout the match, Mum and I both had children sitting on our laps who decided that, when we went to leave, they wanted to come with us. We kept trying to tell them to sit back down but still they kept following us, with none of the teachers trying to stop them. Finally, when we reached the road, we felt this was getting a little dangerous, with mini-buses speeding past and luckily a local intervened but otherwise we felt we could quite easily have accidentally abducted some children!

After such a lovely few days, Thursday brought with it the beginning of our journey back down south. We had another relaxing morning at Maji Zuwa, with Mum managing to have a little swim in Lake Malawi, we jumped on a mini-bus in the afternoon and, after a journey that involved what could have been described as human trafficking, with a man hiding under a piece of material to stop being fined by the police for having too many people in the mini-bus, we arrived in Mzuzu in the pouring rain. The locals looked at us like we were mad as we walked up to Joy’s Place (a lodge), dripping wet, and kept trying to offer us lifts on their bike taxis, but stubborn people that we are, we managed it all on foot. This lodge is, I would say, the nicest in Mzuzu, but Mum did seem slightly concerned when I informed her Katie had been there when there had been an armed robbery two weeks previously. Only the best for Mum. Luckily, though, we managed to make it through the night sans armed robberies and were ready for our journey to Lilongwe the next morning, also, thankfully, uneventful. We had smoothies and lunch in the afternoon and then settled in for the night at the lodge. Sadly, so did the rat visitor we had that night, which was not the most pleasant surprise, especially when I heard him rustling in the bag that held my left over carrot cake. Not OK. But again, we made it through unscathed, and went down into town for a delicious breakfast of banana pancakes, which I had with ice cream. I got a slightly funny look for that one.

After a massive hug and a few small tears, Mum left for her flight after breakfast. She managed to get home without her flight being taken over and landed in Switzerland as some of you may have heard happened to one Ethiopian Airways flight last week and has informed me that she has managed to get most of the dirt off. I hold high hopes that this will be a possibility for me when I arrive home in seven short weeks (no I can’t believe it either!) In the meantime though, I told you that Mum and I spent one cozy evening watching About Time, which is about a man who discovers he can travel back in time into his life. I wanted to leave you with this quote from the film:  “we’re all travelling together, every day of our lives. All we can do is do our best to relish this remarkable ride.” And relish this remarkable ride I will.

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December in Africa

After a month of being here there and everywhere, this week marked my first week back at Ngara teaching. That month, of course, went by the fastest because I wanted it to last much longer. What is that rule? Why does it have to exist? Anyway I’ll let you all in to what my month entailed. There were such incredible highs and lows that I felt I was riding even more of a rollercoaster than I did before.
I last posted in Blantyre, where we had been very kindly welcomed into Jade’s family friends’ home. From there we had the huge excitement of a safari (my thanks must go to Granny here as my Christmas money from her went towards this). We were picked up from Corrie and Alan’s house and driven two hours even further south to a place that I really wish I could remember the name of but just can’t. We saw impalas and warthogs (why is it that whenever I hear or see this word I hum “when I was a young warthog” from the Lion King to myself? It’s a hugely irritating habbit) and, most excitingly, giraffes and zebras. It was quite unbelievable seeing these animals up so close but just roaming around in their natural environment rather than caged in at a zoo. Doing a safari was something that, being in Africa, it would have been criminal not to do so I’m very glad we’ve ticked at least one successful one off the list (more about a less successful one later.)
From the safari we were taken back to Blantyre, where we then got on another mini-bus up to a place called Zomba. Zomba was Malawi’s old capital. It was moved down to Lilongwe when a newly elected president – I don’t know which one – decided that they wanted their home town to be the capital city. As a result it is fairly developed by Malawian standards. We stayed for three nights in Zomba after discovering Pacachere Lodge which was both pretty cheap and had good food: a winning combination. Admittedly, most of our time here was spent competitively playing the Malawian game of Bau with me desperately trying to beat Katie at at least one game. I think my success rate was somewhere around the 10% mark… if that high. But we also spent a day on the Zomba Plateau, a place in the mountains above Zomba with spectacular views. Here, we walked up past the fresh water streams, picking berries and gazing in awe at the dam at the top that provides the whole of Zomba with fresh drinking water. Dams are not something that I usually associate with beauty but this one definitely earned the title.
From Zomba, we continued further north to Cape Maclear. This used to be the main attraction in Malawi for backpackers but the focus has since moved on to Nkhata Bay (further up north, across from Mzuzu). I think the reason for the shift is to do with accessibility as Cape Maclear is not an easy place to get to but I can absolutely see what the appeal was (or is). It manages to combine the feeling that you are in a tiny, very remote village (which you are!) with the feeling that you are in a rather beautiful resort. It also helped that the place we stayed had good food and fresh smoothies. I think I am picking up somewhat of a correlation between places I like and good food… hardly surprising considering my diet in the week perhaps! Here, Katie and I were met by Lucy, Anna and Sarah who were just starting off their travelling, so that we could say a final goodbye to Lucy before she went back to New Zealand after 4 months here.
The following day, Katie and I headed back to Lilongwe for her to get ready for her flight home to Canada for Christmas and me to begin my mammoth journey up north and eventually to Tanzania. I left Katie at the crack of dawn the next morning and got on the 6 hour AXA bus to Mzuzu from Lilongwe and then onto the 3 hour journey from Mzuzu to Ngara. All of this went surprisingly, and thankfully, hitch-free and I managed to get to Ngara before nightfall. I stayed in Ngara for 2 nights, re-packing my bags and cleaning the house which somehow in 2 weeks come to resemble something out of a horror film, covered in cobwebs. I literally had to duck under a cobweb as I went into the house. I had a much warmer reception from my neighbours than the spiders residing in my house though and it was lovely to be back for a few nights, particularly with the excitement of seeing Dad and Emma in a few days looming.
The journey to Tanzania involved another early start. The first leg of the journey was from Ngara to Karonga by mini-bus. From Karonga, I got in a shared taxi to Songwe (the border between Malawi and Tanzania). Relatively few problems arose on this part of the journey (with the exception of the usual chickens and fish at my feet!) and crossing the border was equally smooth. Once I got into Tanzania, however, it seemed my luck had changed. The area surrounding the border, in itself, was intimidating: I had to walk a few kilometers with a heavy bag on my back while people (that I had luckily been forewarned about) hassled me, trying to encourage me to change my money with them. As I had been told that essentially, these people were thieves who would just try to take my money, I kept my head down and walked as fast as I could through the throng of people and lorries that were crossing the border. When I arrived at the bus depot, I saw that there was a mini-bus there going to Mbeya, where I was next headed and asked a man, who I presumed was the conductor of the bus, how much it was to get there. It turned out that, in fact, my presumption had been wrong. The man promptly took my money (too much, it turned out anyway) and left me to get on the bus. An hour into the journey, the actual bus conductor began to collect money. It was this point the lack of English in Tanzania became apparent to me. Luckily, one Malawian had also crossed the border with me, and managed to communicate to the conductor that I had had my money stolen and did not have enough to pay the fee. The conductor very kindly let me off paying and my panic levels began to lessen. I got safely to Mbeya, the most important thing, I guess, and went straight to the lodge where I hoped to stay. Well, of course, they had no rooms. I was directed to another hostel, one that I ever so slightly feared for my life in, and locked myself firmly in my room for the night.
The next leg of the journey was from Mbeya to Dar es Salaam, a long journey of 12 hours at the best of times, but with my luck on this journey, the bus started to break down about six hours in, going half the speed that it had been. The journey took 18 hours. On the plus side, I made the sort of fleeting friendship that you can only make when travelling with some other volunteers who had just finished their time in Malawi and were making their way into Tanzania and then into Kenya who told me a particularly amusing anecdote about a fellow volunteer who had decided to stay in Malawi, convert to Islam and, of all things, start a pig farm. Quite the combination. I arrived, rather exhausted, in Dar at 12:30 at night, hopped in a cab and got to my hotel. I took one look at the double bed, TV and shower that were in front of me, smiled a very wide smile and fell into a very very deep sleep.
The next morning, I took the opportunity to have a look around Dar. This is a city that is far more developed than anything I had seen in months on end (it is far more developed than anything in Malawi, but then it is not the second poorest country in the world so perhaps I should have expected that!) The taxis in Dar are surprisingly expensive so instead I opted for what is known as a bajaj to help me tour around – these are difficult to explain but are essentially a cart on the back of a motorbike (google it if you want to know what I mean!) This took me to a shopping center that could be easily mistaken for something you’d find at home with the added bonus that it had a cinema in it. This cinema was to prove particularly useful when I got back to Dar after Dad and Em’s departure. After spending rather too long in some clothes shops and the supermarket (you can always spot the traveler that has been in a remote place in a supermarket by the look of wonder on their face but nothing in their shopping basket), I went on to a local market, where they had some beautiful clothes, jewelry and wooden gifts. I felt it would be rude not to get anything so, of course, I made a few purchases here. I went back to the hotel, ate a lovely seafood pasta – I can still remember what I ate a month later, tells you how much I enjoyed it! – and crashed once more into my beautiful double bed with a film on the TV.
The next morning, I lounged about in the hotel in the morning and then made my way to the airport after lunch to meet Dad and Ems. The traffic on the way to the airport meant that the journey there took two hours rather than the 30 minutes it should have taken, but luckily I had left plenty of time, having been warned about this potential delay. It made me feel strangely at home sitting in standstill traffic, the likes of which I hadn’t seen since being back in London. Finally, though, the waiting and the delays paid off as I saw Dad and Em running towards me in the ‘departure lounge’ of the domestic airport. I hadn’t realised how much I had missed them until that moment.
We flew to Pemba (one of the Zanzibar Islands), drove to the other side of the island and then got a boat to another part of the island: it was quite an adventure, even for me who had been on a whirlwind adventure for the last few weeks of travelling! Christmas was fantastic. I won’t go into it too much because it makes me miss being with them! A couple of things really stand out for me though: I managed to get my PADI open water certificate, seeing some incredible fish, coral and even some stingrays. Christmas day was also very special: we ate seafood and fish and were treated to some Swahili dancing. Most of all, though, it was just lovely to be with them and hear about the parts of their lives that I had not heard about in the previous four months (particularly from Emma, who is the worst person in the world at talking on the phone/sykpe).
I had expected their departure to be difficult, but I found it much harder than I expected. It took me a little while to feel alright again but Dad had very kindly let me stay in the hotel that I was staying in before I met them so at least I was able to feel a bit miserable in a comfortable room. The day after they left, I dragged myself to the cinema (this was an absolute luxury and is the biggest cinema, I believe, in East Africa with three whole screens!) I went to see a film called ‘Secret Life of Walter Mitty.’ It was not the best film I have ever seen but it was a feel-good film, which was just what I needed. The film followed a man who worked for ‘Life’ magazine, processing the pictures of another man who was going on all sorts of adventures across the world. A number of things in his life had meant that he could not go on adventures for himself until, of course, about half way into this film. Okay, perhaps it is all a little predictable and, yes, he does get the girl at the end of the film, but a striking quote from ‘Life’ magazine reoccurs throughout the film which became important to Walter Mitty and spoke to me:
“To see the world, things dangerous to come, to see behind walls, to draw closer to find each other and feel. That is the purpose of life”
How fitting that was to get me back on track, remembering why I am in Africa.
I managed to get back to Malawi (flying rather than on the bus this time – an hour and a half rather than 18 hours – definitely preferable!) I had been dreading getting back, if I’m honest. As my grandma described it, it is almost like the second term of boarding school – not that I have ever been, but I can imagine – there is less of the excitement and adrenaline, and instead you are coming back to a world that you know quite well but is not always easy. In fact, although there were some slightly hard moments, it was easier than I had expected. I am definitely looking forward to Katie’s return though: it feels very strange in Ngara without her!
To stop myself from getting lonely in the last week, I have been trying to make myself as busy as possible. On Sunday, Sarah and her family were going on a safari with America and her Mum, so I decided to tag along with the group. Turned out, this was less of a safari and more of a water ride at a theme park. Don’t get me wrong, I usually love a water ride at a theme park, but they don’t usually go on for hours at a time. We did manage to see a hippo at a (very great) distance , but the only animals we saw up close were a grasshopper and some tzizi flies (some of which carry something called sleeping sickness, which does the opposite to what it says and gives you insomnia until you eventually go mad. Fun.) My project this week has also been to nag, nag and nag again the electricity company to put power into our school. Fingers crossed that this will mean electricity very soon. I’m quite good at nagging. Just ask my sister.
It’s 3 months now until I come home but in the mean time, I will keep trying to “see the world” and “to see behind walls.” I will continue to find good friends and definitely continue to feel every step of the way! I think I’ll skip out the dangerous part. Although there is a crocodile in the lake…

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3

Busy busy busy

Yet again it has been rather a while since my last post so you would think that the length of this post would be a long one. It seems though, after racking my brains for things to report, I have come up with very little. How this can be when I am living life in Africa and having new experiences every day, I’m not sure, but there we go. It’s probably rather positive, or I like to think so, because it means that I have settled in far more than I ever thought possible. The goats on the buses (or their equivalent) no longer seem worth reporting because they are just part of every day life. Well that’s weird in itself. I never thought I’d say I was used to a goat under my feet. Travel has changed me!

So what can I think of to tell you? In the last month we have had our first volunteer’s departure, the end of term exams (that also brought with it the end of term) and the beginning of our Christmas travels. Also important to report is that Catherine (our student who was sick) seems to have made a full recovery, much to our relief, despite some rather hair-raising days and is now back to her hard-working and helpful self.

Georgia (our fellow volunteer) left half way through November after three months here. I can’t quite believe we have already got to the stage where people are leaving already. Both Katie and Claire are also going home for Christmas. It’s very strange for me imagining people doing that trip home and thinking that they will be surrounded by crazy things like TVs, sofas and fridges (the important things in life). Having said this, having started our travels, I am currently enjoying all of these things myself in the house of some of Jade’s (a friend from university) family friends from her time in Malawi. They are such lovely lovely people and have welcomed Katie and I into their home with welcome arms and we are loving every minute of it.

Part of the reason for my silence for the last month also has to do with business. Now this is not a word that I would usually associate with Malawi and yet our last month has been incredibly busy. Hectic even. With the end of term looming, as the only two people in the school with computers, Katie and I were given the exiting job (!) of typing up all of the teacher’s exams for them and then getting them printed. This, it turned out, was a particularly time consuming project, particularly for the chichewa exams for which I had to check every letter while typing! We then had to administer and mark all our exams in the space of five days which was certainly easier said than done. Of course, it is important to note, this was not a time limit that was imposed on us by our fellow Malawian teachers, but by ourselves because of our desire to get the most out of our possible travelling time. The other teachers have two weeks of exam time and don’t have to have the papers marked until the end of the holidays, or, to quote one of the teachers “when you feel like it.”

All exams done and marked, we began our trip down south. We got up at 4:30, with the feeling of excitement that you can only get when leaving early in the morning for a holiday, and got on a mini-bus to Mzuzu (three and a half hours). At Mzuzu, we met Claire, and hopped on one of the big national buses down to Lilongwe (another six and a half hours). Lilongwe provided us with some fantastic food (mexican, steak, and ice cream — what more could you want?), so much so that Katie and I were tempted to stay a few more days to see what else we could sample after Claire had left for England but we decided, instead, to carry on to Blantyre and how glad we were that we had once we had reached Alan and Corrie’s (Jade’s family friends) house:

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Our thoughts for the next week are to slowly make our way back up north and hopefully to do some kind of safari but I’m sure I will let you know what we have done in a few weeks.

5

New Ways of Seeing Things

Where to even begin with this week? Every day seems to have brought with it some new drama or excitement and not all of it good.

Our weekend started in Mzuzu, buying exciting things like weetabix (me), cheese (Katie) and, perhaps most surprisingly, gnocchi (both of us) in a shop that has now become our new heaven – Chipiku Plus. So many western delights! And just to top it all of I then had a pizza. Amazing. And I managed to eat the whole thing: even more amazing considering my lack of appetite out here! We then headed up to Bwengu (where our friends with electricity/sofa/fridge live) for a ‘traditional malawian weekend’ as we were told in our text – quite what this meant we were not sure. Did this mean we’d be eating nsima all weekend? No, it turns out. Instead we were to attend a royal ceremony in Rumphi. This was quite the affair, with dancing, drumming, singing and, quite unexpectedly, rather a few drunk Malawians. There is a huge stigma in Malawi with alcohol, often with the assumption that if you drink you are an alcoholic. Most of the time this stigma, particularly in villages, is quite apt: those that drink are drunk at 10 in the morning. But in some circles, often amongst the more well-to-do Malawians, drinking is more acceptable. This was one of those circumstances. Trying our best to ignore our numb bums after sitting on the floor for so long and find some meaning in the chitumbuka that the ceremony was being conducted in, we decided to leave after a few hours and headed back down to Bwengu to go and let the kitten that we were looking after for the weekend out of the bathroom that it had been locked into.

The way back to Bwengu from the royal ceremony bought the beginning of the next instalment of the mini-bus sagas. I thought I had seen it all, really I did. I happily accept chickens at my feet, babies being breast-fed and the pungent smells of both armpit and fish. Well happily accept might be a little strong but certainly I have come to expect all these things. Yet, even to my reasonably well-adjusted to Malawi state, when a live goat was squeezed under my seat, even I was a little surprised. The image of a goat nibbling at Mum’s skirt at a petting zoo maybe 10/15 years ago kept appearing in my mind, and I couldn’t help but feel that it would be a pain to have to get a new skirt sent out because a goat had eaten mine on a mini-bus. And then there was the journey back to Ngara. Sitting happily in prime position on the mini-bus – the front seat – minding our own business, Katie looked up to find that there was a child of about two being pushed through the window onto her lap with a man saying to her “He costs me 4000 kwatcha a day, why don’t you take him? Madonna – you know Madonna? – she did it.” Well if Madonna can do it ok then. We think he was joking, there was a definite smile on his face, but you never really can know. I just wonder what would have happened if we had said “Oh you’re right Madonna can do it so I will take this child with me.”

Back in Ngara, we were expecting a quiet week ahead. How wrong we were. And it’s only Wednesday. Monday was mostly uneventful, with the only difference (although it seems to be a fairly regular occurrence) being that the headmaster was not at school. He reported in sick first thing to be met with gossip in the staffroom that he must be hungover (he is the only teacher at the school that drinks). I, personally, just think he was just ill, but who am I to state that opinion?

Tuesday morning, however, came with its fair share of drama. Having been up to the neighbour’s house first thing to charge all our electronics for the day, I went back around 10 to collect them. My phone, check. Katie’s phone, check. Katie’s ipod… not there. As calmly as possible, I went back down to Katie to alert her to the fact that I couldn’t see her ipod… maybe it was just me? It was not just me and we quickly reported it to the local nursery, primary school and our school, with the information that Katie had seen a child loitering about waiting for her to leave as she was on the phone outside the house. The various teachers and head-teachers sprang into action faster than any neighbourhood watch would in England. A reward was offered for the finder of the ipod or the suspect and we marched down to the suspected boy’s house, following our head-teacher. Not in, we reconvened at the secondary school, with the promise that the ipod would be found as soon as possible and a direction to go back to the house and relax. Half an hour later, we recieved a call: we have found the boy and the ipod, come quickly. So we traipsed back up to the neighbour’s house to find a boy sitting in the corner, not looking in the slightest remorseful. And there, on the table, was Katie’s ipod. Thank goodness. Pictures and information from it have now all been backed up and it was certainly a lesson to us to be a little more careful when leaving electronics charging, but the kindness and helpfulness of the locals, if anything, made us feel more safe. They made it clear to us that they wanted us to feel safe and comfortable because otherwise we might report back to our countries that Malawi was a bad place to go and they might not get any future volunteers – we assured them this would not be the case. We were then asked what should they do with the boy? There was a debate between deal with it themselves or go to the police – we politely declined to get involved, feeling that it was not our place to do so, and feeling a little uncomfortable at both prospects, being that he is a 13 year old boy. Going to the police seems a little extreme, but the alternative, which we suspect was a beating, wasn’t something that we wanted to associate ourselves with either. Incidentally, his parents, when phoned, were insistent that he go to the police. I don’t know what happened in the end.

So this drama over, surely, now, we would have a peaceful rest of week. No such luck. Having been complaining of stomach pains the previous day, Catherine, mentioned in my previous blog, came in today looking very ill and with reports of having thrown up and had diarrhoea last night. Yes, kids, she still came into school. I insisted that I take her to the doctors because she is not the type of girl to complain, in fact quite the opposite. It turns out she had been feeling quite ill since Monday, but that she hadn’t wanted to burden the people she was living with so had kept quiet. By the time we reached the doctors she was actually convulsing. I can’t explain it any other way. I have never seen anybody so sick and never want to again. The ‘doctor’ (although there are not actually any trained doctors at this surgery, or any in a nearby radius), gave her an injection to calm her shaking, stating that he thought she had the early signs of septicemia, but also gave her the medicine for malaria in case it was that. After the injection, she continued to shake for about half an hour whilst we waited for the rest of the medicine. We managed to get her a bed, this being the first time I have really taken advantage of being white out here and thus being seen faster, and I sat with her while she tried to close her eyes for a little while. As she did this, I had a small sob. I couldn’t help but feel how different our situations were – if I had been in this position I am fortunate enough to know that my parents would move heaven and earth to try to make me better. Catherine’s mother is dead and her father shows no sign of caring. In fact, had I not insisted on her coming to the doctors with me, she may well have died herself. A thought so sobering that I had another cry on Katie’s shoulder when I got back to the house a few hours later. She seems to be doing much better now but I will go and check on her soon to make sure.

On a more positive note, this week, the beginnings of the work to get electricity into the school are occurring. Perhaps slightly selfishly (but also to help the local community, I promise!) Katie and I have donated the equivalent of £20 each so that now they can afford to make this happen and it has been reported to us that it may even be up and running by the time we are both back in January. This is unbelievably exciting. Possibly even more so than the M&M pretzels that I got in the package from grandma this week (thanks Grandma – they are all gone already!)

On the wall next to my bed here, I have a quote by Henry Miller written:

“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things”

This week, my way of seeing things has changed again. Doubtless, it will change again next week.

2

School

I am aware that I have been a bit rubbish with blog posts the last few weeks – this is both due to a lack of time and a lack of things to report! And the heat. Oh the heat! It is very hard to motivate yourself to do things in this level of heat, without the promise of an air con, an ice cream or even a cold water round the corner. So, essentially, I’m lazy. Sorry.

Anyway, the news that I do have to report is mostly centred around school as the past few weekends I have been based at Maji Zuwa, making an effort to save a little money to travel at Christmas.

Coming back to school after our week off, we found that the reason for our week off had been a clerical error and Mother’s Day would, in fact, be on the Tuesday so after a strenuous days work (ha!) we had another day off. What a relieve because, really, we’d been working ourselves to the bone… We used this day to go to Karonga, taking the head-girl with us because she can only afford to travel there once every other month. In treating her to lunch, I found that she is a big Beyonce fan, and for those of you that know me well enough you will know that this meant she instantly went up a great deal higher in my estimation. There was talk of her transferring schools this next week in order to live with her Aunt, who was living alone, , which would have been a great shame, but this has been postponed until at least next term which is very good news as we have struck up a good friendship with her.

We have also become good friends with another form 4 student – Catherine – who, over the last few weeks has been filling us in on some of the aspects of her very difficult life:

Catherine’s mother and father got divorced when she was younger. No difference to many of us then. What is different for Catherine is that her father then married two other wives. Polygamy, although frowned upon by the more educated people in Malawi, is often socially acceptable. One of her step-mothers has been very cruel to her and her siblings – how, we have not felt it appropriate to ask, but suspect that there is rather a lot of beating involved. In 2011, Catherine then had to drop out of school to help care for her mother who had become very ill, and her 4 siblings. Her mother died a year later, leaving Catherine with an alcoholic and uncaring father and her siblings. This is her first year at Ngara, having moved to a family friend’s house in order to get away from her step-mother. I am now tutoring Catherine as she is wholly determined to turn her life around and make a better life for her and her siblings. She is an absolute inspiration. Yesterday, we gave her some money to allow her sister to come and see her (the equivalent of a pound) and tears streamed down her face in gratitude. What I have done, coming to teach in Africa, however hard it may seem at points, is no where near as much of a struggle as what this girl is facing and it is an absolute pleasure helping her out in any way in what I have no doubt will be her journey to success.