The ABCs of my Peace Corps Service
The sun is setting on my time in Malawi. It’s hard to put the last 2 years of my life into words (or letters?)…..So, let’s do it!
A is for Airtel Autocracy
You know how in America, there’s a bunch of different phone companies? You can pick a big company, like Verizon or AT&T, pay a monthly bill, get a family plan, rollever minutes, network-to-network free calls, text limits, pay some extra for data, all that kind of stuff? Or spurn the big players and get a pay-as-you-go model like Boost Mobile (are they still a real thing???) and do you that way? Or maybe you’ve had an irrational fear of cell phone technology ever since that movie “Cellular” came out and you’ve shunned the whole movement for fear that someday a kidnapped lady will call you on your cell and beg for your help and you’ll end up sticking up an electronics store for a charger because your battery is dying and you’re starting to believe her story and you don’t want to lose the connection and why do I remember so much about this crapfest movie? Anyway, what I’m trying to say is that, unlike a modern NFL-style offense, you got “options”. Here, we have Airtel. Airtel, an India-based (pretty sure??) company present in many Southern-African countries, is one of only two options for cell phone service in Malawi. The other is TNM, which is Malawi owned, but has poor service in many areas and therefore most people have greater access to Airtel. TNM is basically the Malawi telecommunications provider equivalent of the U.S. vice-president, perpetually second fiddle and its function mostly ceremonial, but it still hangs around. Since most people are already on Airtel and it costs extra to call or text an Airtel phone from a TNM phone, most people choose to go with the Empire, or at least have a SIM card for each. The way Airtel service works, is that you buy service ahead of time (airtime), either electronically or via little scratch offs with PIN codes to dial in for units, and you use them to pay for calls, texts, and Internet bundles. And it’s super overpriced, especially the Internet bundles. And since there isn’t a lot of competition, they seem to be always raising the price of a text. When I got here, if you sent 6 texts a day, at 8 kwacha each, then you got 100 free texts for the rest of the day (basically if you wanna talk to people a lot on a certain day, you get unlimited texts after spending like 50 kwacha). Now the free text thing is totally gone, texts are up to 12 kwacha each, and they can pull BS moves like raising prices abruptly on holidays because they know a bunch of people will be texting anyway. Mabes you’re thinking, “Get a land-line, dum-dum!”? A land line in the village? YOU’RE the dum-dum!
(there is a whole essay in itself that could assess and catalogue how remarkable the introduction of cell phone technology has been for places like here, where land lines are inconceivable and communication was almost non-existent just a few years ago…somebody write that….I’ll read it). Buuuuut I shouldn’t complain. Peace Corps volunteers in Malawi less than 10 years ago might not have had any communication options besides writing letters (who DOES that), and Internet access was still only existent in an Al Gore fever dream. Maybe 10 years from now, all volunteers will be issued Google Glass, whatever that is. For now, we have Airtel, savior and Satan.
B is for BOOM
When I teach about figurative language, as a reinforcing activity I like to play songs with good uses of metaphor, simile, etc. and have the kids find examples via listening and looking at the lyrics. I’ve played Bon Iver, TSwift, Adele, Simon and Garfunkel, Green Day’s only good song, The Muppets, Blitzen Trapper, and…. “Firework,” by Katy Perry (we’ll get back to that).
So my form ones are big fans of onomatopeia. When I introduced it, I talked about how much fun it is to say the word, and made them all say it aloud, which in hindsight may have been a mistake because for the rest of the period at random times students would just blurt out the word and laugh. I also did random things like throw my notebook at the wall, knocked a chair over, and slammed the door and asked them to create an onomatopeia for the sound those actions made (ski-dum, shhhpap, and shlam). They are all about onomatopeia. So in the song “Firework” (told ya), at the end, KP goes “Boom, boom, boom” ….an onomatopoeia for the sound an exploding firework makes…. and they were all over it. And now, oftentimes when I walk past their classroom, or see a form one out and about, they go “Stanley! BOOM BOOM BOOM!” It’s super annoying, but also super great. There’s a big language and culture barrier between my students and I, so having inside jokes like this, no matter how few (or stupid), is something I cherish.
Today the letter C is sponsered by food and drink:
C is for Chippies, Chipati, Chicken, Chambo, Chombe, Chibuku, Chambiko, Carlsberg, Cassava, Coca-Cola, CHABWINO!
These are things that I have consumed or seen a lot of. Chippies are like fries, Irish potatoes peeled, sliced into wedges, and fried in oil, and they are the ultimate roadside travel treat. I love me some chippies. Chipati are basically flour tortillas. I’ve been making them a lot at my house lately, which is cool because not only are they delicious but they make me feel accomplished, with all the dough-mixing and rolling-out and what not. Chicken I like to eat (more on how I feel about their value as individuals later), chambo (a type of fish from Lake Malawi) I do not but it’s very prevalent and popular, especially near the lake. Chombe is a brand of tea and tea time is a ubiquitous tradition that has been passed onto Malawians from their British colonial overlords. Chibuku is a food-beer (see earlier post regarding it’s majesty). Chambiko is pasteurized milk product that I can best describe as “village cheese,” also the name of my renegade cat who ran away because she was afraid of being loved too much (shoutout to Biko, wherever you are. Remember the time it was storming and the thunder scared you and you shat all over me and my bed? Good times. What happened to us!?). Carlsberg is virtually the the only beer available (skip ahead to letter K for more about beer!), which isn’t awesome but it could be worse: we could’ve been stuck with two years of Natty Ice. Cassava, a starchy root, is made into a nsima type thing or also just boiled or fried. It’s not bad. Very popular in my area. And finally, if you think you’ve ever tasted anything more satisfying than an ice cold Coca-Cola from a glass bottle after trudging uphil for several kilometers in the warm African hot-season sun, well…I want to say you’re wrong, but I don’t know you and the things you’ve tasted, but…you’re probably wrong. Probably.
Bonus word: Chimbudzi, or pit latrine, which a long visit to is necessitated by the consumption of all of these things.
D is for Dawn
Dawn: the English translation for the “Kwacha,” or unit of currency here, of which I always seem to be running out of.
Dawn: the time that I wake up at in the village.
Dawn at Lake Malawi: the best sunrises I’ve ever seen in my life.
Dawn, the soap brand: of which I will need buckets of to clean off the two years of Malawi dirt and grime that have become permanent fixtures of my skin no matter how many times I bathe. Seriously, I don’t think I’ll ever feel fully clean again. But that’s okay, that just means I have a permanent souvenir of Africa (and a pretty inexpensive one at that!).
E is for Entertainment
(AKA E is for Egotistical and shameless opportunity to showcase the various cool mediums that I consume and interesting things I do, in order to seem just as cool or interesting to you, the reader)
So a little over a year into my service, my laptop died. And while I have had no electricity at my house, I was able to charge it at school everyday on solar power and use it to transfer movie files to my phone to watch after the battery drained. So there went my primary source of entertainment. But it actually wasn’t so bad. I’ve been finally reading as much as I hoped I would of before entering Peace Corps, finishing the entire Dark Tower series and discovering new faves like Jonathan Franzen and Dave Eggers. I’ve done probably over 500 crossword puzzles, and learned new words doing so (quick, what’s a six letter word that means “Styx ferryman”?). I’ve gotten into podcasts (Comedy Bang Bang, The Moth, Harmontown, B.S. Report, The Bugle all on the reg) and discovered new/old bands (Roxy Music, Afghan Whigs). I’ve done artsy things like jigsaw puzzles, dusted off my mad stay-in-between-the-lines coloring skills, chalk graffitied my walls, played a lot of ukulele, made a paper Christmas ornament, sewed a patch in my holey jeans, and given myself tattoos (temporary!). I’ve spent more time being available to students and teachers at school, just to chat, shoot hoops on our makeshift (now dead) basketball rim, or whatevs. So even though Charon, that old tough bastard, has chauffeured the soul of my old computer into the afterlife, it’s actually been ok. And I still even got to see how Breaking Bad ends on weekend binge-fests in town. It all good.
You figure out that crossword clue?
F is for FINE HOW ARE YOU
This is the name of a fun game I like to play with the local iwes, or small village children. Whenever they see me coming or going down the long road between my house and the tarmac, they get excited to greet me in English:
“HOW AHH YUU!?”
To which I reply with the customary:
“Fine. How are you?”
Here’s where it gets fun. So these kids know virtually no English besides this greeting, and don’t really understand it’s intricacies. So when I ask them this back, they also respond in joint, parrot-like fashion…….
“FINE…….HOW AHH YUU!?”
…….Not realizing that they have just asked the same question twice.
To which I reply:
“Fine, how are you?”
To which they say:
“FINE…….HOW AHH YUU!?”
ANNNND you get the picture. So it goes. On and on. At first this got frustrating, like I was trapped inside a twisted Sesame Street children’s spoof of an Abbot and Costello bit, but now it’s turned into a game of wills. Whoever fails to respond “Fine, how are you?” loses. The game goes on until I’m either out of earshot and can’t hear them anymore, which I count as a win, or either they get bored, weirded out, or some combination of the two and stop, which I also consider a win. But even though I pretty much always win, I don’t think there’s ever really a loser no matter the outcome.
G is for Greetings
So I’ve talked before how big a deal greetings are in Africa. When you pass somebody on the road, when you come in to work, when you exit the chim and awkwardly run into your village chief waiting in line outside it….anytime, it’s customary to greet people. In the morning, all of my coteachers say good morning and ask me how I am…most of them do so in English. Everybody must ask everybody how they are, even if everybody is in the same room and can hear everybody’s responses. One day I decided to conduct a little experiment. I entered the staff room like any other morning, and found 4 other teachers already in. They each greeted me, “How are you?” And for each of them I gave a different response to see if they would notice or care:
“I’m just okay.”
“I’m feeling a little tired today.”
“I ninja star bicycle vest.”
Everybody was within earshot of my various exchanges, but nobody reacted any different than usual (except that last one which generated a surprised eyebrow raise….to which I smoothly followed up with a quick, “I mean, yeah! And how are you?” when they continued to stare at me quizzically). They just thanked me and moved on. I continued the charade for the rest of the morning whenever I met a new person. I don’t know what I was trying to prove with this little social experiment, but sometimes in the village you have to find ways to keep yourself entertained. Reread letter E for more ideas on how to stay entertained in a village!
H is for Hills
My site, Luwazi, is full of lush, sloping, flowing hills. It’s great…and terrible. I complain a lot about the approximately 3km up and down dirt road it takes to get to a paved one from my house, but really, the scenery of deep green mountains jutting into crystal clear sky is beautiful. The walking sucks, but the view is magical. It takes your breath away in two ways (HEYYYOOOOOO!!!!! JOKES!!!).
I is for Isolation
I live in the bush. It’s at least a thirty minute (grueling, in hot season) walk to get to a paved road. There’s no electricity around except for a few people and my school which has a solar panel hookup, so at least I can charge my phone. There’s one small tuck shop near the school that sells eggs, bread, cooking oil, lukewarm cokes, soap and other small items but other than that there’s no market. I live right next to the school, so its basically just my co-teachers who I have as neighbors. I’m out there. It can be lonely, but it’s quiet. Isolation can be nice. It can allow you to both learn how to play Beyonce’s “Drunk in Love” and rock out “Take Me Home Tonight” by Eddie Money on your ukulele with no one’s judgment. It gives you the freedom to bump Savage Garden and the soundtrack from “Les Miserables” on your iPod speakers with no feelings of shame. It affords you the distraction-less time to do things you wouldn’t normally do, like practice your free-style rapping or shave your beard into fun styles ….or even things you actually DO have to do like lesson plan or grade exams (I’m always amazed by the amazement my co-teachers have in me after term exams, when I have finished making all of my 120+ exams within a week of the test date. I mean, what else do I have to do? My puzzle ain’t going nowhere). But after a while you realize that isolation also makes you a bit cray, like when you catch yourself building a Fromagical shrine out of care package Cheeto bags, Kraft Mac & Cheese boxes, and cheez ball tins, or think that killing ants with a makeshift lighter/aerosol-sunscreen-spraycan fire torch apparatus is normal human behavior. You also realize that it kind of turns you into an old person, like when the shrill laughter of a child ruffles your feathers and not being able to solve a crossword puzzle can give you an ulcer the size of a small cosmic body, say Pluto or even it’s smaller satellite Charon.
Speaking of crosswords, you figure out that 6-letter clue yet?
J is for Joyce Banda
…Because she became President right before I arrived in Malawi, and now has left office right before I leave, which some people may attribute to coincidence, or cashgate, or “term lengths,” or some other type of arbitrary nonsense, but really I know it is because I am her political muse. Here’s to you, Joyce ContraBanda, dynamic mystery wrapped in enigmatic intentions, wrapped in many a chitenje.
K is for Kuche Kuche
Kuche Kuche is the one Malawi beer you can get that’s not Carlsberg (unless you want to pay twice as much for an import like MGD). It comes in large bottles but with a lower alcohol percentage, is made from rice grown in Lake Malawi, and it’s name roughly translates to “from sunset to sunrise” (or something). It’s decent, but it has a reserved spot in my heart’s parking lot because that was my family’s drink of choice when they came to visit. I’ll always remember buying the bar out of them when we finally made it to the lake. And after surviving fire, car breakdowns, a speeding ticket, douchebag rastas, extreme cold, and (probs) more, they were well deserved. Plus, the name is so fun. Say it. Now try not to say it again. I bet you did. Sucker.
INTERLUDE: a source of common frustration and amusement for me is the odd way in which Malawians randomly exchange the letters “L” and “R.” It’s so curious and unexplainable how some words will always automatically necessitate a switch between these letters, yet some never do. For example, when I grade essays, students always write “pray football” instead of “play football.” But, for instance, they’ll never say “fluits” instead of “fruits.” It’s cray and weird and wonderful. So to honor this little quirk, “L” and “R” have exchanged places in my alphabet. That’s why the next letter is
R is for Rasta
The “Rasta” is a breed of Malawian that fancy themselves true followers of Rastafarian beliefs and disciples of Bob Marley, but are really just Malawians that want an excuse to have dreadlocks and smoke a lot of weed. For example, most (94%) faux-Rastas I’ve met in Malawi drink beer, eat meat, spread their rasta “message” through accosting white people into buying their crappy art and curios, and are just kind of assholes in general. But I’ve met a few legit Rastas. And many that associate themselves with the faux-rasta business curio-culture but are really chill, friendly, interesting to chat up, and sell wares but aren’t bullish and pushy. I enjoy them. One thing all rasta types have in common: they love to talk to me. Mabes it’s my long hair, my easygoing nature, or the difficulty I have in saying no to people (that one), but whenever I’m in Nkhata Bay on the lake, a rasta haunt, I can’t get away from them. Some are cool and I trade with them (in fact, one guy who was closeby visiting his nephews remembered I stay at Luwazi and stopped by to say hi and I ended up swapping my tent for a bunch of wood carvings), but others peddle the same overpriced generic artwork and wood carvings you see all over the country and even though they say they need money to use for medicine for their visibly messed-up foot you know they’ll just use it to buy satchets. These “Rastas” not a bredda to I.
Some rasta names I have encountered:
Happy Coconut, Natty Prince, Monkey Dread, Pumpkinhead, Elephant, King Marko, Happiness, Dr. Smiley, Sugarman, Mr. Bamboo, and so many great ones I’ve forgotten.
Bonus Word: R is for Reggae
Not just popular with the Rastas, it be everywhere mon!
M is for Mefloquine
This is the malaria medication Peace Corps put me on. So far my only side effects have been crazy dreams where I ride a giraffe to a movie premiere (fun!), play a game of knee-walk only paintball with people I went to high school with (weird), or get tickled by clowns (my personal Hell), for example. To read more about Mef, check out this feel-happy article:
PS-Don’t worry. I’m fine.
N is for Nineteen
The approximate number of steps that I live from my school/place of work. It’s nice having all of my responsibilities in a close area, but I can’t help but feel like maybe I’ve missed out a little bit on other things by being so close, like living in a more village-commune community setting, hanging out at these sweet fish ponds/banana groves I happened across this week while out for a stroll with my replacement who was visiting as a part of his pre-service training, or seeing the famous Luwazi waterfall which is apparently a thing (on my Peace Corps bucket list). But, you know what they say: the shorter the commute to work, the happier you are! (that’s a thing people say right?).
Asterisk: Actually… it’s more like 30 steps from my house to the school, but I wanted to write about a word beginning with N that was NOT nsima. I really don’t want to waste any more time thinking about it.
O is for Observed, as in protocol
I’ve been to my fair share of staff meetings, trainings, ceremonies, and other public events, and it seems like half of the running time of these things is spent “observing protocol.” What this means, essentially, is that whenever somebody begins to speak at such an “official” event, they first have to address all of the higher-ups and whatnot before launching into what they want to say. This may be as simple as saying, “Through the chair…..” before saying what you want to say at a staff meeting, or say you’re about to give a speech at a Peace Corps volunteer swearing-in ceremony it may go something like: “US ambassador soandso, Peace Corps director soandso, Peace Corps deputy director soandso, Minister of Education soandso, Chief Education Inspector soandso, Member of Parliament soandso, Group Area Chief soandso, Village Headman soandso, Peace Corps volunteers past, present, and future, all invited guests….” It can get long. And every person that would speak would repeat all that. It’s a lot to keep straight. Which is why whenever I talk at a meeting or ceremony or anything I just start with, “All protocol observed.”
P is for Poultricide
I doubt this is a real word, but everyday I have to fight my inner poultricidal tendencies. I hate chickens. I hate when roosters crow in the morning. I hate how they come into my yard, the sense of entitlement they have. I hate the way their stupid necks jerk around and their eyes spastically blink. I hate their smell. I hate when they rudely sneak into my classroom and won’t leave until I chase them out the door. I hate it whenever somebody brings tied up chickens on public transport, especially when a box of them is handed to me to hold. I hate how they hang around in the middle of the road and are too stupid to get out of the way and force my ride to slow down and the second the driver presses the breaks they scurry away while taunting me. I hate their stupid faces. I hate how much they make me hate them. They are the worst. The only thing I like about them is how they taste, which only makes it harder to stave off the murderous impulses. Lucky for them, I’m too much of a chicken (ha) to actually act on these urges, because the thought of actually killing a chicken by myself or just the act of watching one’s throat being cut freaks me out in a very serious way. Speaking of:
Q is Queasy
Is a feeling I’ve felt a lot over the past two years. Queasy when on a speeding minibus taking hairpin turns way too fast and just narrowly missing out on swiping the mirror off a semi. Queasy when I use a neglected, particularly noxious chim. Queasy when passing through the fish section of the market and getting a whiff of the usipa thats been sitting out in the sun all day. Queasy whenever I see the Guli Wamkulu perform, tribal dancers from the central region that wear scary masks and dance in a creepy gyrating way and look like clowns and freak me out and give me nightmares and let’s not talk about them anymore. Queasy when I discover that one of my favorite students hasn’t been around this term because she left school after getting pregnant and married. Queasy whenever I have to be around a chicken or pig or something being slaughtered. Queasy whenevs I take a sip oc Chibuku. Queasy when my internet’s not working and I can’t check the score of a Packer game. And currently, I’m feeling queasy about saying goodbye to my life here.
L is for Lake Malawi
My favorite thing about Malawi. Enough said.
S is for Stars
Away from light pollution and air pollution and buildings, the night sky of rural Malawi is magnificently grandiose. I could never get sick of these stars, and will miss seeing them every night when I’m gone. Lake Malawi itself has garnered the nickname “Lake of Stars,” not for the ones in the sky but the “starlight” of lanterns on fishing boats hung up to attract fish at night. It’s quite a sight to gaze out upon the lake at night, with stars both twinkling in the night sky and bobbing up and down upon the waves.
T is for Tonga time!
The region I live in speaks a minority language called Chitonga, and is inhabited by the Tonga tribe. What my co-teachers tell me about Tongas (most of them come from elsewhere in the country) is that Tongas are loud, head-strong, good fisherman, and care too much about the way they dress. The Peace Corps volunteers in Tongaland also associate strongly with the Tonga name, and it is a well-known fact that the Tongas are the coolest Peace Corps volunteers in Malawi (we even have a secret handshake)! If we were a Game of Thones house, (and whose to say we won’t be in the 7th book), our sigil would be a fish eagle plucking a fish out of Lake Malawi, and our motto: “Hot season is coming…..” because it always is.
U is for Ujeni
This is by far my favorite Malawian word. It basically means, “whatchamacallit,” or “doohickey,” or “thingamajig,” or whatever. It’s so versatile. Say you come to talk to me and you have leftover mango debris hanging all over your face. I may say, “Hey, you got a little ujeni right there.” Or say somebody needs help carrying a bunch of crap and they’re like: “Are you just gonna sit there or help with this ujeni?!” Or mabes you’re playing a game of pickup basketball and somebody swats a shot into the bleachers with a Muntombo-esque tenacity and snarls, “Get that weak ujeni out of here!” while waving their finger at you. Or say some drunk guy who gets cut off at the bar starts to complain about how the government is taking everything away from him and I ask him like what kind of stuff an he just says, “ujeni.” It can be inserted successfully into so many situations and contexts. It’s like the tofu of words.
V is for Vula
Vula means rain, and boy has it been a big part of my life. As I’m typing this now, in July, it is STILL raining! (usually rainy season ends in early springtime)… When it rains hard, everything shuts down. Students don’t travel to school, teachers come late, and most people just stay at home. Attendance gets to be more of a problem during term 2, when the rains start. Even if students do make it before heavy rains set in, the intense pattering of the rain against the tin roof of classrooms prevents students (and myself) from hearing anything I say. The pounding rain is harsh, but I actually find it a little relaxing to chill out under the constant humming of a downpour. The force that these African rains can hit with really makes you marvel at the power of nature. This is where I would now make a joke or quip about the song “Africa” by Toto and “I bless the rains….” but I think I have already used them all up.
W is for witchcraft
Many Malawians still put a lot of stock in the powers of dark magic. I think a lot of times, “witches” are easy targets and scapegoats for when something goes wrong, instead of people taking ownership for mistakes. But it is interesting. And hey, it brought back my stolen iPhone to me! Still waiting for my letter to the Malawian version of Hogwarts to arrive via owl. Check out this article, that’s NOT from 100 years ago but now:
X is for Xenomania
Back home, when I thought or talked about race, the “colors” that were “different” weren’t my own. I was the norm, the default setting for a middle class male from Eau Claire, Wisconsin. Nobody asked me where I was REALLY from, it was obvious where, from here!, even if my ancestors came from Ireland and Germany and elsewhere. In Malawi, I’m white, but there’s so many places I could be REALLY from. England? Ireland? Australia? South Africa? In Wisconsin, the normal for white is “probably from here,” in Malawi the normal for white is “outsider.” I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’ve never really though about my race, my whiteness, as much as I have here. I never before have thought that I was different. I blended in. My skin color wasn’t a target on my back, it was camouflage.
Here I’m more cognizant of my skin color then I’ve ever been before. I’m not Cam, I’m an azungu, a white person. When I go places, I feel like a celebrity because everybody looks at me and yells excitedly, but it’s not because of anything I’ve done or accomplished or any trace of celebrity I actually possess, it’s only because my skin is white and I’m different. Babies cry when they see me. Grown-ass adults blatantly stare. Shop owners try to sell me things at a higher “azungu price.” It’s unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. Don’t get me wrong: I know that just being born white, male, and American in a world affected by hundreds of years of colonialism and racial hierarchy grants me powers and privileges that are unseen of by most here and has put me in the position to be able to come to places like Malawi in order to “make a difference.” I’m not whining, just noting how big of a paradigm shift there is between where I’ve been and where I am now. It’s frustrating, refreshing, eye-opening, and worrying to experience life in this new way and to realize how myopic my view of the world used to be.
Y is for YEWO
Yewo means thank you, and I owe a huge YEWO to all of my students, coteachers, community members, and all the awesome Malawians I’ve met, worked with, and learned from, for making my 2 years here so awesomesauce. I know I gripe a lot about some people and some of the realities here, but in earnest….Malawians are the most kindhearted, genuine, amusing, loving, confusing, and beautiful people I’ve ever met. My Peace Corps experience could be summed up using so many different words, but the one that comes to mind right now is special…and that’s because of of the people I’ve spent my time with. Malawi: YEWO CHOMENE!!!
Z is for Zebras
Zebras are my new favorite animal. They’re like horses….but cooler! Maybe one day I will adopt a pet zebra. And maybe I will name it Charon. I’ve always liked that name for some reason.
You figure out that crossword clue yet? It’s killing me!