Monday, August 15, 2011

SLIM meets Paul Farmer

Woody Starr, a pony-tailed Chautauqua local and all around character walked up to the stage and interrupted Paul Farmer, “Dr. Farmer, you have some big fans there in the second row.” Woody pointed a finger in our direction and Dr. Farmer looked up, waved and said hello. Nick, Alexis and I attempted to contain our squees of joy and hero-worship—only somewhat successfully.

Paul Farmer, the doctor/medical anthropologist/founder of Partners in Health/global health rock star had flown from his home in Rwanda to give this speech during the Chautauqua summer lecture series. His lecture detailed the Partners in Health model, and described the hospitals being rebuilt in post-quake Haiti. And he (awesomely) answered Nick’s question on Malawi

Q: This is from a group of students from the University of Pittsburgh, Student Leaders in International Medicine. We’ve met with Dr. Joseph in Malawi. Can you comment on your involvement in Malawi and its success? Also, do you need another personal assistant?

A: That’s very nice of you. Thank you guys. As long as it can be indentured labor, but they’re against that at Chautauqua. Dr. Joseph, who’s from Upstate New York, was a student of mine. He’s been working for Partners in Health for 15 years in Peru, in Haiti, in Boston, and then he went to direct PIH’s program in rural Malawi. It’s very much like all of our efforts in rural and urban areas, too. We’re doing three things at once: rebuilding infrastructure (in this case, there was no hospital in this district, as you may know), training local people to do this work and also putting resources into the system. So, that’s what happening in Malawi. The impact of those interventions, which have been fairly modest, again in partnership with the Clinton Foundation and the Ministry of Health, have been just enormous in terms of maternal mortality. In other words, the health system strengthening approach has led to massive reduction in infant mortality, maternal mortality, juvenile mortality and great outcomes among the patients we’ve been taking care of. So, to me, Malawi is just another conformation that many parts of this model are perhaps distinct from place to place, but most of them are actually general and applicable from the urban United States to the mountains of Lesotho. That’s what I believe the Malawi experience teaches us, too. Thank you for asking.

After the lecture ended, Nick, Alexis and I caught our breath and went to wait in line for the book signing. A fidget-filled hour later, Dr. Farmer arrived and began signing books. As we approached the table, Dr. Farmer greeted us “Oh, and you’re my friends from Pittsburgh.” We did our best to play it cool, since we totally meet public health pioneers all the time.

Dr. Farmer signed our books as we described SLIM, Project Malawi and how much we admire and respect his work and Partners in Health. He was kind, engaged and inspiring all at once. He even stood for a picture with us, despite his bad knee. And as we parted he said, “I love meeting young people, college students. They aren’t cynical. They inspire me.”

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

May 23, 2011

Ndimakonda Malawi (I like Malawi, I think?)

Boy oh boy oh boy. Standing there. Silly, tall uzungu, staring into thirty sets of white eyeballs, curiously looking us from head to toe. Maybe they are hoping we do something silly, or maybe they are just curious about the six white people who drove up with bubbles and plastic disks that they hav e never seen before. Frisbee is only entertaining for about 30 minutes in which at the end of those 30 minutes, we are left once again, standing there, hoping that little girl is crying because the other little boy kicked her or something, not because she is hungry. Ross and I couldn’t have felt more useful, kicking balls away from the children, spilling bubbles, attempting a little football...the usual.
Mchenga is directed by a tall jolly Malawian named Arnold who was more than hospitable with the overwelming portions of pumkin, sweet potatoe, and nsima that he offered. They have progressed immensely since last year, says Nicholas. And I say Pow kabam to that news. The floors in the CCBC are no longer dirt and the volunteers there seem incredibly dedicated to preparing the catchment area’s youth for primary school.
“Tomorrow you do business. Today you eat. Like you are home.” Thank you Arnold.
Ashley and Lauren are kicking butt on the research side of things, interviewing like crazy, something we were all anxious about getting started for them. Alexis shook her booty in the dance circle today, impressively I may add, considering this is the third day we have been pulled into the dance mix, pressured to gyrate and pop it like the Malawian women. Nick looked fitting dancing with that baby in the cheetah dress, grrrrrowl big papa.
Though it was enjoyable to watch the group of 40 or so volunteers share in our donated clothes and shoes, it also left me pondering the scene. I took a picture of the distribution of booty that reflects an image of desperation, of hands reaching and begging for the one or two shirts left in our suitcase. Yes these people are grateful, as acknowledged by the amount of zikomo kwambini’s you hear around the room. But I find it difficult to feel fulfilled...
The children are so cute and excited, it isn’t hard to lose track of time before you realize how tired and exhausted you have become. We hopped into the pick-up truck to make our way over to see the maize mill and the electricity, oh wait, excuse me, malawi electricity company has failed for the third month now to connect the power from the power line about 400 meters from the mill in order for the mill to actually function and serve a purpose. This electricity company does not know what is coming to them. Mzungu magic maybe? Alliteration maybe?
All in all, everything is fine. We are “sef,” thank you Morris. The bugs are a’ bitin, the journals are being written, and SLIM is getting it done. Oh! And I got to wash my underpants by hand wearing a chtenge, which was somewhat awesome.

Tuesday, May 21, 2011

May 21, 2011
Today we departed from our usual scurry around rural Lilongwe to see a different side of life here in Malawi. Alf, our neighborhood Indian elder, was kind enough to invite us to join him and the rest of the members of the Lilongwe rotary for their weekly lunch meeting. Apparantly rotary clubs have universal mannerisms, as Emily found the behavior of the rotarians in Lilongwe quite similar to those of the rotary in Upper St. Clair back home. There was lots of food, bawdy behavior, appreciation of the company of good looking woman, and plenty of ego jabs to go around. Each one of us sat at a table surrounded by rotarians and made small-talk during lunch, while Nick was invited to sit at the head table and schmooze with the President. Aside from the jokes, the men of the Lilongwe rotary have very generous hearts, and share their wealth with the surrounding communities. Emily made a good point as we went back to the car after lunch: the problems faced by these two rotaries we have come to know are vastly different. While rotarians in Upper St. Clair clearly have their hand in a lot of philanthropy in the Pittsburgh area outside of helping SLIM in our goals for MPALUTI, the issues dealt with by the Lilongwe rotary (extreme poverty, HIV/AIDS, malaria, and limited access to clean water, to name a few) are serious and daunting challenges to confront. However, they are dealt with in the Malawian way: Give whatever you can to those around you, no questions asked, and smile while doing it. We were even able to form some contacts with rotary members who are auditors and another who works closely with our arch enemy, ESCOM, and is willing to help us out with our situation (it’s good to know people in high places).
After our bellies were full with good food and a good laugh, we rested for a bit before meeting Mirriam to help her with some errands around town. One thing we were able to do for her during our day was get her an internet adaptor for use on her phone. Apparantly this little gadget is a lot more reliable (and affordable) than the internet she was currently receiving, and we hope that it will allow her to manage Paradiso and the MPALUTI network more effectively, as well as keep in better contact with us back in the States.
That night we met up with one of our good friends, Frasier, and he showed us what the nightlife in Lilongwe has to offer. Besides showing off his hometown, Frasier showed off his dance moves, and we all learned a thing or two. I’ll admit, I have never danced as much in my life as I have in Malawi. It’s like its own form of communication here, and I’m just learning how to talk. I think I do ok for myself though, considering I’m a mzungu and I may be the tallest woman in the country (if you saw the size of the people here, you’d know I’m not exaggerating too much). I think I may even bring some of my African dance moves back to the States. Watch out Oakland!
Teonana Mowa,

Cha Buino

Saturday, June 4th

Cha Buino

Cha Buino, or “it’s good,” is probably the short and simple way to describe SLIM’s Saturday at Nenchengwa Bay of Lake Malawi. The day began with a beautiful sunrise. There should be no surprise there; how many sunrises aren’t beautiful in some way? Well, to my understanding, as I slept right through it, this particular sunrise was breathtaking in beauty, only to be matched by the stars we gazed upon the evening prior. It rose slowly of the mountains across the bay, beginning our day of fun and relaxation.

Our next twelve hours consisted of fun in Lake Malawi. It began with some frisbee in the shallows between myself, Ashley, Emily, and Lauren. Nick was resting off the night before on his yellow submarine, and Alexis was paddling with all her might to meet him. Lauren and I also had a turn at the canoe, only to find that neither of us are particularly strong.

We ate lunch and took in some direct equatorial sunrays before heading back into the Lake to view it from a slightly different angle. Lauren, Emily, and I got a hold of some paddle boards. (Picture oversized surfboards that you propel forward with a 2 meter oar.) It was a bit exhausting at first, just another reminder of why maybe I should try lifting a weight or two sometime soon, but once we got the hang of it, it was actually very relaxing. We glided atop the clear water, watching fish swim just beneath the surface.

As the sun began to set, some of us searched a little zen in our lives and attempted yoga. It was more peaceful for some than others. Finding balance can be a difficult thing, but trying it is the first step.

We cleaned up for dinner, a huge meal of steak, chicken, or curry. We ate until we were content. As we settled in after dinner that satiated feeling took a bit of turn on us. I don’t know what did it, but oh did something do it.

Not too many Z’s were caught that night. The starry night lit the path as the azungus tip toed across the grass between the cabin and the latrine into the early morning. That morning was not cha buino.


Wednesday, May 30, 2011


Wednesday was a day to be remembered for all ages…literally. It began with a visit to the Kangoma Youth Group, continued with a dinner with our more mature friends, Alf and Marianne, and finished with the celebration of our friend (in Chichewa “Zanga”)’s birthday.

For the past school year Nick had been leading efforts to raise money for the Kangoma Youth Group which is an outshoot of the Tilerane CBO. He spearheaded a series of Rock out for Africa concerts and, with the help of other SLIM members and awesome turn outs, managed to raise about $1000 to send over to the Kangoma Youth Group to save the program.Nick was seriously passionate about the endeavor, and we all believed in the cause to the extent that we could, never having been to the youth group. But today we were all fortunate enough to see why he felt so compelled to help keep this program going.

There’s a vibe there. I realize how lame this sounds but there’s really no other way to describe it. It is literally all youths running the programs; kids our ages and younger are initiating programs and following through. They take care of the younger children and maintain IGAs like a maize garden. And there’s peace there. A serenity one would least expect at a location run by teenagers. I’ve always associated teens with angst and complaints and general laziness but I guess in Malawi its just when the giving begins.

After hearing some incredible singing by the youth group members and watching a educational comedy about HIV/AIDS, we played a much less intense futbol passing game which we all adored because it excluded the running. I learned the hard way that if you don’t head-kick the ball correctly, it hurts. Also not so fun as a woman to hit the ball with your chest. Mental notes made.

Following this amazing afternoon at Kangoma we headed back to Budget and met up with our adorable, elderly, wise, crazy, carving/jewelry entrepreneur friend Alf and his wife Marianne for a Chinese food dinner. The couple have been married for 43 years and Marianne informed us that this is much in part to the fact that she just lets Alf do his thing. Alf made sure that our food was served in waves (“use your brain and bring the second round out five minutes after the first round”) and taught us that oranges are even more delicious when salted.

As if the day couldn’t get any lovelier, we finished up the night with a 30th birthday celebration for our market friend Osman, and our two other palls Morris and Allen. Lauren, Nick and I covertly snuck off to get a cake while Alexis, Ross, and Emily started off with the boys to a nearby club, Diplomat. Unfortunately, grocery markets close at 8 pm in Malawi. Nick, innovator that he is, suggested hat we go to Antonio’s, a nearby Italian restaurant. There we found half an apple pie, half a chocolate cake, and some sample gelato spoons. A perfect birthday cake. We utilized a half-used candle from our hotel and were off for the festivities. Osman was quite please with our :creative: offerings, and we danced the night away as all good nights in Malawi go. It was a perfect last night in Lilongwe before we headed off to Liwonde Thursday morn. It’s clear that awesomeness knows no age group in Malawi, and I hope I can learn to be as selfless as the Kangoma youths, as wise (and amusing) as Alf and Marianne, and look as good as Osman does at 30 ☺

Goodnight zangas,

Monday, June 6, 2011

Uzungu May 31, 2011

“Uzungu Uzungu!” Yep, that is us. Uzungu translates to white people in Chichewa, and truthfully there is nothing more adorable than seeing a five year old Malawian sprinting out their home to catch a glimpse of the uzungu driving by. With a thumbs up and sometimes a Jackie Chan inspired karate kick sent our way, the Malawian children get a thrill from seeing us. It is not a day in Malawi, if we haven’t heard uzungu.
So anyways, Sunday, last Sunday, Sunday the 31st of May. I apologize first and foremost for the extreme delay in blogging. Of course things lead to these sorts of delays, like being that we are in Lilongwe, and excited and wonderfully busy.
We all relaxed during the day on Sunday, taking in the sunshine and tieing up some loose ends in terms of paper work and academic supplement. Ross, Ash, and I worked thoroughly on revamping the MPALUTI Microfinance proposal so we could present it in it’s best form to the Rotary on Tuesday. We took it easy on account of the fact that we had a little concert to attend that evening. By little concert, I am referring to a reggae concert, in Malawi, with a bunch of real, genuine Rastas.
Oh yes, we got the opportunity to see the Black Missionaries in concert. The Black Missionaries might be the most popular reggae group in the country, perhaps in this region of Africa. In a field in the middle of a golf course, imagine about a thousand rastafarians doing their rastafarian thing, and the group of uzungu, doing it right there with them.
Bob Marley colors littered the field, either worn as a hat, or a jacket, or a chitenge, it didn’t matter. This was some serious reggae loving Malawians.
Now let me describe dancing to reggae. Okay, loosen up the arms and the legs. And the neck I suppose. Now bend over slightly, arms a little above your shoulders, kinda swinging forward while your legs alternately kick forward. To the beat of the music, or not. It hardly matters. The eyes are closed or looking up to the sky. There is probably a Carlsberg in one of your hands. And you are feeling this music. The dancing is somewhat silly to us, but everyone else is doing it. Sooo...
Our rasta friends weren’t even ashamed to dance with the silly uzungu. The concert lasted till it got dark (which isn’t very late, probably around 7) where we then returned to the comforts of Budget Lodge with pizza in tow. Oh, and a black out. Just another night in Lilongwe.


Sunday, June 5, 2011


Liwondwe National Park (Drove all day thursday, park on Friday)

We quickly morphed from established foreigners to tourists once again as we carted heavy backpacks across Old Town to the bus depots. Navigating the broken and disrupted sidewalks during morning rush hour is somewhat treacherous; especially since you can’t describe the better half of our group as morning people. We turned into the bus station, pressing our bodies up against the brick wall to avoid being clipped by the mirrors of the dirty white minibuses that came flying by, closing their doors in motion and screaming their destinations. Seeing azungos, drivers jumped on the opportunity to con us into traveling with them, regardless of the destination. When we finally found a large bus appropriately labeled we discussed prices with the man in hasty English and boarded the bus at half past seven. Leaving required every seat to be filled. It wasn’t until a little after nine that we inched our way out of the station, just barely clearing the crowded lot before our driver accelerated, setting a pace that would be maintained, if no exceeded, for the remainder of the trip.
The city of Lilongwe and its surrounding Traditional Areas is the bottom of a bowl with jagged mountains forming its sides and city limits. The scenery leaving Lilongwe changed dramatically as we sped along, crossing through foothills and winding up through the various small mountains. The road narrowed, shifting from dusty asphalt to uneven red dirt that dropped off drastically within feet of either edge. I steadied my body, forcing myself to maintain my upright position while keeping my gaze out the window. The driver jerked the bus to the side as a van flew by, kicking up a small dust storm in its wake. My nose bumped against the cool Plexiglas, adding to the other decorative smudges that obstructed the clarity of my view. A young boy watched with interest from across the isle as I fidgeted in my bag to find hand sanitizer, which I promptly lathered on my hands and used to dab the tip of my nose. My smile caused him to bury his head in his fathers lap, overcome with embarrassment. As with most children and curiosity, he soon lifted his small forehead, revealing two wide, almond shaped eyes.
Below the road thatched huts lie in small clumps and the occasional fire released thick, grey smoke. Everything appeared relatively barren and uninhabited. The distant figure of a woman wrapped in a faded chitenje hanging laundry on a line was the only indicator I saw of life I saw for miles. As we climbed higher the land below us extended endlessly under a vibrant blue sky. Clouds cast lazy shadows over tree-speckled hills. Never in my life have I seen such vast, vacant land.
I can count on one hand the number of vehicles that passed us on our five-hour trip south towards Blantyre. We were very much alone and the driver took great liberties with both speed and road surface to shorten his trip. Approximately every half hour we would come to a stop while passing through more densely populated villages. Inspectors would board the buses in search of rogue children while vendors knocked at the windows, displaying their goods on their heads. Most were peddling edible items and by the end of the journey our bellies were stuffed with a nauseating mix of fried doughs (donuts, maize dough balls, somasoosas, chips) and Fanta. The old women who sat behind us appeared bent on making stew during the trip and they purchased a wide variety of vegetables at each stop. At one point the bus lurched forward and plastic bag busting with small potatoes released its contents over the floor. The one woman was elated when we stopped in front of a market along the Shire River where vendors approached with fish in hand alive and flipping. She fumbled with her bag and, much to our dismay, revealed just enough for the purchase of two large, live filets. Fortunately we were only a few minutes from our destination.
Stepping off the bus was relieving for only a few seconds before drivers offering to take us into town swarmed us. The uninformed traveler would have agreed, open landscape seemed to stretch for miles with no indication of where “town” would be. Nick pushed us forward, navigating his way through the crowd towards the dirt path that ran alongside the road. Behind a small cropping of trees appeared a wide unmarked road and a black metal gate marking our accomadations for the night.


Emily and I woke in a balmy room and struggled to overcome the oversized mosquito net that served to insulate our beds, restricting the breeze and trapping our own body heat. Ross knocked again, with a little less compassion, and we grumbled, rolling out of bed. I switched on the bathroom light, allowing it to dimly light the entire room. Fifteen minutes later we were seated on cushioned planks, elevated in the bed of an old maroon pickup. The six of us huddled, shivering beneath a black sky with our knees digging into the backs of the seats in front of us. The stars had all but disappeared and the sun was just beginning to rise. Wind tore past us as we sped into the mountains, the sky beginning to grey. An orange haze deepened as it crept over fuzzy crests with teasers of sunlight and warm appearing between the peaks. We wound our way into the park past small, rural villages as a dense fog settled over the mountains. Women looked up from their work, their faces blank and eyes tired. Children squealed and waved their hands with vigor, throwing up tiny thumbs. The sun had all but risen when we pulled into a compound with an assortment of small buildings and elaborate reed roofs. We were seated on a circular patio on cushioned wicker furniture and given mugs of chombe tea and properly percolated coffee. We relaxed and explored, looking through the odd assortment of old books that lie on the coffee table.
A rusty olive green jeep of sorts pulled up and a lanky British man with some of the worst teeth I’ve ever witnessed pointed towards it and politely told us to enjoy our trip. The vehicle was European and from the early 70’s. The engine gurgled as it idled, allowing us to scuttle over the side and plop our already tender behinds onto the wooden plank seats. We did so in complete disregard for the man who had so kindly attached a metal latter to the side and stood with his hand extended as a gesture of assistance to all who were boarding. Despite the intensity of the early morning sun, the air was still unpleasantly chilled with an unforgiving breeze. We approached a gate and sprawling Jurassic Park style electric fence. We hopped off the truck and paid a uniformed officer a small fee to grant us entrance.
The road narrowed, each side sloping downward and blending into the rest of the forest. Our guide, a jolly, kind faced Malawian man, was in the process of placing a disclaimer on the entire trip when one of us let out an excited gasp. Despite our acquired immunity to many of the strange and often unbelievable things we have experienced in Africa, this weekend offered its fair share of stunning experiences. The large pack of grey elephants that lumbered across the path only a few meters in front of us was no exception. The dominant male pushed through the brush with his stubby tusks and made room for the rest to stop and graze. A baby eagerly followed the lead of what I can only assume was his mother. When the novelty of it all finally began to dwindle (although only minimally) we drove on and for the next two and a half hours we dangled our legs off the vehicle and watched as herds of impala grazed alongside warthogs. Baboons scattered themselves amongst them all, digging their way through heaped piles of elephant dug or sitting slumped, letting their tails hang limp behind them. There were a whole assortment of cute critters, but what seemed to strike us the most was the 4,000 year old Baobob tree that towered over the rest of the forest. Its trunk measured well over four meters around and it extended throughout, branching out to form and elaborate, leafless canopy.
Our morning began at five so by the time we returned to the lodge we had hours to waste before any buses were expected to leave for Nanchenga. I would say scheduled to leave, however, I don’t believe such a concept exists in Malawi, things occur whenever they please. Liwondwe is much more rural then Lilongwe and it was rare to see any vehicle venture off the main road. Bikes serve as the primary form of transportation, carrying up to three people through town. They line the roads, marketing their services and religious proverbs on comically decorated passenger seats. (Passenger seats are basically a padded board attached behind the bike seat itself and extending over the back tire.) For one hundred kwacha, Nick, Alexis, and I each hoped up behind young Malawian men and anxiously asked them to cart us to the market across the river. Anxious as always, I cringed as my “driver” pushed off and struggled to leave the dirt and cross onto pavement. Alexis and company made it off without a hitch while Nick’s bike swayed violently, the back tire flattening into the dirt. The ride itself, once it got rolling, was phenomenally smooth and relaxing. We coasted downhill, crossing through a predominantly residential village and crossing the Shire River by bridge. The stench of the market hit us while crossing. Fish dangled from wooden beams, spinning as people and wind passed. A literal leg of lamb, the whole darn thing, extended out over the path. On the bus ride to Liwondwe we had stopped alongside this particular market while the police lazily searched the bus. Vendors swarmed, haggling prices of half-dead catfish and bundles of sliver chombo. (Chombo, not chomba; that would be weed. I’m not sure why they made the spelling of their staple food item and most marketable good so similar…) A man approached balancing the lid of a cardboard box on his head containing a shinning auburn colored tea set and yelling 3,000 kwacha. Not to shabby folks, that’s less then twenty American dollars.
Nice exchange rates and hand made goods make me a very compulsive shopper. It’s fair to say I have a slightly more then slight obsession with Malawian woodwork. Over the past twenty-four hours I have been dropping obvious hints to show how badly I wished to revisit that market. The bike came to a halt along the side of the road and I awkwardly dismounted. Sitting beneath a shabby tree along side of a superette the vendor was casually polishing a wooden mortar. It turns out my beloved tea set happens to be solid mahogany. Lauren decorating heaven? Correct.


Nanchenga Bay and Lodge (Friday night)

I had never been so content to be grimy and unsanitary in all my life. Without any reservations I stretched out along the sand swept wooden dock, letting my feet dangle off the edge. It swayed gently as someone walked out towards us in silence, creaking slightly as they slowed their pace, coming to a halt somewhere in the darkness behind me. The rocking remained. Rolling waves slapped against wooden beams, glistening as they receded in the light of one small bulb fastened to the underside of the dock. I tilted my head, glancing through gaps in the boards at the schools of fish bumping into each other, illuminated just enough that you could see straight to the bottom. All six of us laid in silence. I had never seen a sky so dark or so stunningly speckled. The only artificial lights for miles was the one beneath us and a warm glow coming from the bar on shore. The sky was blanketed in stars and light dustings that glittered. I didn’t believe that stardust was a real thing, simply a concept created for the magic of Disney movies. That sky was coated in it. A few of us cried.

- Lauren