You make do.

The sun had set. No parties planned, social events, nothing. Nothing to do on yet another weeknight in Lilongwe.

 Except for the usual, of course.

 My roommate Des and I sat in our kitchen tuned in to MTV, a glimpse of our North American lives back home. We watch MTV not because we miss our past 16-year-old selves, or home for that matter, but for the sense of irony it evokes.

 MTV juxtaposes everything Des and I love about Malawi. Africa is pure, genuine, organic and slow. MTV’s finest moments, on the other hand, feature Nicki Minaj jumping up and down while her every body part remains still because they are just that…plastic. Fake, superficial, and psychedelic. I deem her the face of MTV. Her plastic face, that is.

 The fear Nicki Minaj’s face instilled in me while watching MTV called for one thing and one thing only.

 A green.

 I mentioned in my first blog post that “green” in Malawi is synonymous for beer. It’s called green because Carlsberg is the only brewery in Malawi and their labels are, yes, green.

 I grabbed a cold one from the fridge and a pint glass from the shelf. I turned to the kitchen table and put down the pint glass. I flipped the beer bottle completely upside down in the glass.

 Now, for those of you who are also from the West you are likely thinking, wow that girl doesn’t know how to pour a beer from a bottle. But, I was taught at a very young age in Canada that when pouring a pint, you tilt the glass and pour the beer on an angle to avoid a foamy, bubbly beverage.

 “What on earth are you doing?” asked Des who has a broad understanding of beer and how it is supposed to be poured. Yes, she is Canadian and yes, she has worked in the bar industry for years.

 I laughed. 

“Just wait,” I responded.

 I proceeded to fill the pint glass with beer. No, not holding the pint glass tilted. But with the glass firmly placed on the table and the beer bottle flipped right upside down. I slowly lifted the bottle as the pint glass filled – occasionally letting the mouth of the bottle rise above the beer line to catch short bursts of air.

 And there it was. The perfect African beer, on draught.

 You can’t find beer on tap anywhere in Malawi. So unlike in Canada, you have to pour your beer from a bottle in a way that will give you the same frothy beverage you get from a keg.  

 In that very moment standing in my kitchen in Lilongwe I had a realization: my ways have become a bit more African. I, like everyone else around me, do not fret about what I don’t have, but find ways to make the best of what I do.

 In Africa, you have to make do with what you have.

 I have seen the people do this everyday in Lilongwe.

 Children make soccer balls out of plastic garbage bags. They bundle up the bag into a ball-like shape and use string to hold its form.  

 Some of these very children playing soccer have ripped shoes that have next to no soles on the bottom. Despite the fact they are wearing them, you can see either their toes popping out of the top of their shoe, or the sides of their feet. Some have one shoe, others have none.

 But they still play.

 Not on beautiful green fields of grass, but on orange clay with gravel and stones.

 People in the villages don’t have access to fuel, or even cars. This is detrimental when people fall ill or the pregnant women go into labour.

 So they use bicycle ambulances – bikes with a flat bed attached behind the bike so the women or ill can lie down while being transported.

 Most people in the cities don’t even have access to their own vehicle. But they find a way to get around.

 For instance, my friend Chris and I decided to see Cape MacLear a few weekends ago. The public busses from Lilongwe don’t go directly to Cap Mac, though. They drop you off in Monkey Bay, about 40 minutes outside of Cape MacLear.

 When we got to Monkey Bay we very quickly realized that not many people want to make the hike to Cape MacLear from Monkey Bay because the drive does a number on your vehicle. It’s a journey through mountain range. Lots of bumps, lots of turns, and lots of cliff hanger moments.

 We only found one man with a small white pick-up truck heading up the mountain. We jumped in the back of his truck, pitched him 800 kwacha, and off we went.

 Sort of.

 We drove in circles around the town. A Malawian man sat in the back of the truck with us shouting, “Cape Mac!Cape Mac!” One by one, people also looking for a ride up the mountain jumped into the back of the truck.

 Three people quickly turned into 10, and 10 people turned into…twenty four.

 Twenty four adults, two children, and two infants. Multiple suitcases, backpacks, and even two old tires. That is what we had piled into the back of a small-load pick-up truck heading up a mountain on bumpy, windy roads to Cape MacLear. 

 It gets better.

 After everyone piled into the back of the truck, the driver proceeded to drive to his friend’s shop where there was a large broken-down flat-bed pick-up truck that needed towing. I guess he figured it was a good time to help out his friend because the 24 people he had crammed in the back made his truck a heavier, more powerful vehicle.

Or, maybe there was absolutely zero logic to his random desire to lend a helping hand. I might never know the answer.

 His friend tied a green rope from the back of our truck to the front of his. It snapped twice. But eventually, we got the broken-down truck all the way across town to his house where he could maintain and repair the vehicle.

 After, we proceeded to Cape MacLear.

 Chris and I sat on the edge of the truck’s bed holding on for dear life. The ride was quite possibly the most uncomfortable journey of my life. With the sharp turns of the road, men standing fell over onto my lap. Each time I got closer and closer to letting go of the edge of the truck to end up left in the dust on the road laying flat on my back. Babies balled their eyes out. People were hot, sweaty, and smelt God-awful. Myself included.

 We looked at each other with mixed emotions: terrified about falling out or even dying, but also absolutely amazed with the setting we were in and the beauty of our surroundings.

 The Malawians looked at Chris and I with a certain smile on their faces. Their look translated into exactly this:

 “Welcome to Malawi, this is how we do it here. Get used to it.”

 And we have.

 You would too, actually. Because you don’t really have a choice.

 We got to Cape MacLear safely because we made do with what we had. And if we didn’t, we would not have been able to say we sat in the back of a pick-up truck with 24 adults, two children, and two babies while towing another pick-up truck in Africa.

 If we didn’t make do with what we had, we wouldn’t have done at all. Period.

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Your Paradise: it is what it isn’t

                  Leader of the pack

His name is Stone. And he’s as tough as one too.

 He is the leader of the pack, no questions asked. He walks down the beach, his friends follow. He does headstands, his friends do too. He swims to the pontoon in the middle of the lake, his crew dives in right behind him. No hesitation.

                       Tough as Stone

He even gleams more than his brother, who is older and about a foot taller than this little guy.

 He is ten, looks about six, and has a personality of a 30-year-old well-to-do man. 

 But, he does it because he has to.

He’s the leader of two businesses along the shoreline of Cape MacLear. This is arguably the most beautiful place I have seen in Malawi to date. Maybe even in the whole world. It is paradise.

 Or at least mine.  

 For his first business, Stone and his friends collect bottles. Just like in Canada and elsewhere, there is a deposit on bottles in Malawi. With their return comes a nice paycheque of 20 kwacha, which is about five cents Canadian.

 But when Stone isn’t scoping the shoreline for empty beer or Coke bottles, he is performing.

 He is the lead singer and dancer of Westlife. A band of boys about his age that perform for the people visiting and staying in the lodges along the beachfront. The very beachfront that lies just steps away from the village girls and boys like Stone call home.

 “Jess! Jess! Bottles?” Stone would shout to me my weekend visit in Cape Mac. And if I didn’t have any to pass off he would say, “Okay, music?”

 Stone and his friends race to their instruments when people agree to a performance.

 They have two types of drums. One type you can play standing. It has two hand drums attached to a stand that is a neck of a small tree. The other is nothing more than a large yellow jerry can that you sit on and beat with your hands below your waste.

              Stone’s Westlife Band

 Doesn’t sound like much, but what these kids can do with their resources is absolutely spectacular. No written description can even begin to give their music the credit it deserves.

But here’s the catch.

What is even more astonishing about their music is not how they play, but what they play.

 On a beach in the mountainous range of Malawi you hear 10-year-old boys singing African remixes of K’naan and…wait for it…Justin Bieber.

Being Canadian, I thought this was the coolest thing in the world. Not to say I am a fan of Justin Bieber, but the fact that these kids in the middle of Africa know the music of a young Canadian pop star is extraordinary!

 Even my Canadian roommates in Lilongwe are behind on Bieber’s biggest hits. And they have only been here six months.

 The other night we were eating dinner while watching MTV music videos on the television. Yes, we have a TV in our kitchen in Africa and yes I know that might seem absolutely absurd. I know I thought it was at first! Especially because of how our kitchen looks. It is a concrete hut, partially enclosed, and has lizards that scurry about on the walls and floors. I never imagined eating let alone watching TV in such a setting. It rules.

 Anyway, Bieber’s “Boyfriend” song came on the TV. I got up and started jumping up and down in sheer excitement. Truly. But remember, I am not a fan, ha! Des and Paula literally stared at me confused. Not only had they not heard “Boyfriend” before, but they had no idea Bieber was still a big deal.

 While Des and Paula have lost (or avoided) their Bieber-fever in six months of North American disconnect, these 10-year-old Malawian kids…haven’t. Wow, right?

 Well, not really.

 My initial sense of amazement of this changed after I really stopped to think about Stone and his friends.

I’ll explain.

 Cape MacLear is surreal. It is right on Lake Malawi. The lake is surrounded by a mountain range and yet the water still manages to appear endless. The beaches are like those you see advertised on the cover of magazines for all-inclusive resorts in Cuba.

 Men walk the beach selling bracelets, paintings and even, “happy pants.” Happy pants are squares of coloured fabric sown together. The pants really do make you, well, happy. And yes I bought two pairs. They are a perfect symbol of Cape MacLear’s atmosphere.

Happy pants make me HAPPY!

  It is captivating. All of it.

 So much so you begin to think you do not want to leave. You start to think the people would never want to leave. You go as far to think Stone and his friends must not even care to know about any other world.  

 But wait, they do.

The very name of their band indicates the boys’ knowledge and potential admiration of the UK boy band also named Westlife.

 And they wouldn’t know of Justin Bieber’s existence if they weren’t connected to life beyond Cape MacLear.  

When I realized this, Stone’s knowledge of Justin Bieber suddenly wasn’t as cute. It was sad. A harsh reality.

 Cape MacLear is my paradise.

                  

But it might not be theirs.

 Their paradise might very well be my reality: a world where Justin Bieber is posted on every teenaged girl’s bedroom wall. That is my idea of hell. But I know I wouldn’t be saying that if I were Stone.

My “paradise” is Stone’s reality. And his reality is this:

 He and his friends have nothing to keep them innocent. No lunchtime recess, homework, or school for that matter. Their reality is waking up to go to work at 10-years-old. The beach that I see as beautiful is where the women do all of their laundry.  The men selling happy pants are not actually happy because, well, I paid 10 bucks for two pairs and that was considered a lot of money.

His reality is that he could be a star, but has way less of a chance of becoming one because he lives in what I call “paradise.” He might not ever get the chance to leave Cape MacLear.

 I say with one hundred per cent certainty that if Stone grew up in North America, he would be the Usher to Justin Bieber. The reason Bieber has claim to fame and a job for that matter.

He has it all.

 He is captivating, loves to perform, and can dance like no other.  When he is not performing, he has the attention of every girl on the beach. Especially mine. That boy didn’t let go of my hand for a single second last weekend. I loved every minute of it.

 I just wish no matter where he grew up, Stone would be given the same opportunities as people like Justin Bieber – an 18-year-old skinny white kid from Stratford, Ontario of all places. 

 Your reality and mundane day-to-day living might be someone’s paradise. Stop to remind yourself of that.

Malawi’s economic conflict: adhere to the requests of international donors or continue investing in its major cash crop?

 There is a conflict in Malawi. And it’s between the country’s economic and health sectors.

 The World Health Organization (WHO) is putting pressure on the Malawian government to sign the Framework Convention Tobacco Control (FCTC) agreement. The contract demands a decrease in tobacco production worldwide in an attempt to increase people’s health and the global environment’s sustainability. Smoking bans in certain areas and mandatory health warnings on tobacco products are also a component of the convention.

 Stakeholders gathered with Malawi’s Tobacco Control Commission representatives in Lilongwe on Monday to discuss the likeliness of the country signing the FCTC agreement.

 “Most people across the world agree with the health objectives of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control,” says Tim Hughes, an international research consultant on this matter from the company Read Dillon in South Africa. “But there are contentious issues perplexing Malawians today,” he added.

 These issues, having nothing to do with health and everything to do with the economy, are at the heart of why Malawi is one of the six African countries yet to sign the convention. The others are Eritrea, Ethiopia, Mozambique, South Africa and Zimbabwe.

 Firstly, Malawi’s economy is heavily reliant on tobacco sales. Eighty eight per cent of Malawi’s gross domestic product comes from its export revenues. Fifty per cent of those revenues are from tobacco sales.

 Malawians fear that the FCTC’s restriction on tobacco production will reduce tobacco sales, and as a result, farming incomes. Farmers will be forced to invest in other crops to compensate for the loss of their tobacco profits.

 But there is a deeper level of conflict for Hughes.

 What is truly perplexing, says Hughes, is determining who is responsible for assisting the farmers through the transition from tobacco dependency to a specialization in other cash crops. This assistance is in regards to both financial support and providing education on different crop plantation.

 For Hughes, WHO’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control committee should bear the responsibility to educate farmers and financially support the crop diversification process.

 There are a few reasons for this.

 Firstly, the FCTC agreement is demanding farmers to decrease tobacco production prematurely, says Hughes. They have not conducted research they promised, he says, or formal consultation with any individual farmers or a specific country.

In addition, the FCTC is failing to acknowledge that the global demand for tobacco is currently increasing, not decreasing. This is controversial and even, irresponsible, he adds.

“The FCTC, health bureaucrats in Europe and stakeholders elsewhere are making recommendations to stop farmers or curtail farmers from growing tobacco without consulting with them,” says Hughes. “And in fact, currently they make no substantial well-researched empirically grounded recommendation as to how tobacco farmers can transition out of tobacco production.”

 Until the committee provides substantial research, consultation, and assistance in the transition process, Hughes says countries dependant on tobacco sales like Malawi should refrain from signing the convention.

 “This goes against democratic procedure,” says Hughes. “This is highly unfair, irregular, highly undemocratic, high handed and frankly neo-imperialist if not neo-colonialist to impose what is not a solution onto Malawian farmers without at least consulting with them.”

 But this isn’t to say there isn’t any benefit for Malawi to diversify its agricultural sector.

 Despite the potential binds of the FCTC agreement, there is a national push for crop diversification in the country.

 Although it accounts for the majority of the country’s income, a lack of crop diversification and specialization is hindering Malawi’s tobacco industry. Too many farmers are producing tobacco. The quality of the tobacco leaves vary throughout the country. Profits are dispersed amongst multiple people. No one specializes, no one fully benefits.

 Felix Jumbe, the president of the Farmer’s Union of Malawi, says crop diversification amongst farmers in the country is essential for that very reason.

 But there are more reasons to add to the list.

 For instance, there are too many international lobbying groups promoting the prohibition of tobacco’s use and trade. If their movements succeed, Malawi will be left with nothing, says Jumbe. Not to mention, Malawi has the potential to be a leading producer of other cash crops, he adds. Tobacco has just always stolen the limelight. There is no excuse to not make the most of these other markets, says Jumbe.

 These crops include tea, sugar, cotton, maize, rice, legumes, ground nuts and fish, Jumbe says.

 In some ways Jumbe’s view align with Hughes’. He accepts that Malawi’s current economic budget does not allocate any funds to facilitate farmers in the diversification process.

 “We need financial injection,” says Jumbe. “We need a financial donor to transform the farmers from tobacco to other crop producers.”

 But on the contrary, he thinks it is the Malawian governments and not the FCTC’s responsibility to initiate the process of diversifying the country’s crop productions. Through policy and legislation, he says, the Malawian government should designate farmers to a specific crop specialization.

 “We farmers need to get organized,” says Jumbe. “For instance, some can specialize in tobacco while others in tea.”

 This will simplify the transitional process for farmers, says Jumbe. Farmers can hone their production skills in one focused area. Business transitions will be more efficient and farmers will be able to monopolize and maximize their profits in one area, he says.

 “That way, we can slowly move away from a tobacco dependency,” he says.

 The Malawian government made its first attempt to organize its tobacco industry in April 2011. Farmers now have to become registered tobacco farmers in order to sell their crops. The Tobacco Control Commission monitors the sales of each specific farmer as a result of the new legislation.

 A total of 172 countries have signed the FCTC convention to date. The United States is not one of them, says Hughes.

Honey cruller or an African donut?

 It was Saturday night. My friend Des and I decided to escape Lilongwe for the weekend to explore Blantyre, another big city in Malawi.

 I describe Blantyre as the Toronto of Canada, Lilongwe being Ottawa. Both fairly developed, bustling, and have a bumping night scene. One is the capital, the other is not. Both easily could be.

 We were sitting at the bar of the lodge we were staying at, eating dinner and having a great time.

 In the midst of my loudest cackle, for those of you who have heard it you will know what I am referring to, the bartender approaches me.

 “Are you Jessica?” he asked as I nodded. “I think you left your door open. Or it has been kicked down.”

 Laughter stops.

Des and I go to our room and sure enough, the door was kicked in. My iPod gone, Des’ wallet stolen.

 Laughter starts.

Des moments after being robbed and getting a new room hence the standing door. (Sidenote: the new door barely locked, ha!)

 We figured there was not much to do about it at that point, but continue on and have a good night.

 The owner of the lodge felt awful for what had happened so he insisted on giving us an open bar tab. We didn’t complain.

 But the next morning…we surely did. Or, we could have.

 After one (or ten) too many, a night of solid dancing, and two hours of sleep, Des and I had to drag ourselves out of bed at 6 a.m. to catch a bus back to Lilongwe. No iPod to distract us, little money to get home, and no Tim Horton’s fix on the way to the bus stop.

 “All I want is an everything bagel with herb and garlic cream cheese, a honey cruller and a medium double double from Tim Horton’s,” said Des. And I agreed, with emphasis knowing that the day ahead was going to be disastrous.

 But it wasn’t. And am excited to tell you why.

 The bus was scheduled to leave at 7:30 a.m. It left at 7:32. I was amazed. This is the first and only bus I have been on since arriving in Malawi that has left within the hour it is scheduled.

 It gets better.

 At about one hour into our journey, the bus pulled off of the road. We looked out the window to see a small market of people bustling about. Music was bumping and better yet, there were two men making chips. By chips, I mean French fries, but they are called chips in Africa. Des and I couldn’t believe our luck. Food was in reach when were anticipating going six plus hours on empty stomachs filled with nothing but our previous night’s complimentary beverages.

 We got off of the bus. And only 400 kwacha later – which is about a buck fifty in dollars – we had two large take away containers of delicious chips topped up with lettuce, tomatoes, and hot sauce. Sounds unappealing, but I assure you it was magical. Even for 8:30 a.m.

 Our bus journey continued. And so did the magic. The bus attendant walked down the aisle of the bus and switched the televisions on. Music videos played. All music that gave me a little sense of home – Usher, Beyonce, and even George Michael! Not my top picks, obviously, but perfect when you need a little dose of familiarities. Okay, well, George Michael might be my top pick, but that can remain on the down low.  

This was all heard while looking out the window and seeing nothing but Malawi’s breathtaking mountainous range.

View from the bus

Perfection.

Following the music videos played a very serious yet eye-opening Malawian movie. It juxtaposed the music videos, the sights and the sense they provided. It was about abortions and was exceptionally interesting to watch. It was called Seasons of a Life. If you want a glimpse into Malawian controversies highlighted in a film, watch it.

 At about half way through our voyage, the bus pulled off of the road again. This time, not only was our cry for food answered, but our prayer for Tim Horton’s! Well, sort of. People swarmed the bus with baskets of goods held above their heads. I saw bottles of Coke, more chips, tomatoes, and potatoes.

 But then there he was. A man with donuts…piled on a stick! These weren’t just any donuts, but African donuts. Fried dough, no frills, no sugar coating. And they leave a sweet grease mark on anything they touch. I am addicted. No lie.

 “Zingati?” I asked. “50 kwacha,” the wrinkled, older man replied.

 I handed him a 100 kwacha bill and grabbed two donuts off of the stick he raised to the window.

 I turned to Des who had just watched the entire event go down. She was in hysterics. Not only did I just buy two donuts through a bus window in Africa, but off of a man with donuts on a stick. From her seat, she could only see this floating stack of donuts waving about. No man, just donuts. A moment for the books.

 I shall pause for a moment to mention that my business transaction with the donut-man was not abnormal. In my first blog post I mentioned drive-thru’s. I commented on how absurd drive-thru’s are when you really stop to think about them. They force you to eat-on-the-run, providing no time to stop and enjoy your food. I also praised Malawians from abstaining from this North American custom. Well, I retract my statement about Malawi not having drive-thru’s! They do…but just in a very Malawian-type-of-way.

 If you are on a bus in Malawi, expect it to be swarmed by people trying to sell you goods. I have now purchased chips, Coke, samoosas, and yes, donuts through a bus window from people who run from their village homes once spotting the bus approaching in the distance. And, I might kick myself for saying this if I am later jinxed, but I have yet to get sick from any street food! It is surreal.  

 There are other business transactions in Malawi that amaze me. If you need something, most chances are you can buy it right off of someone on the street. Or anywhere, really. People in Malawi are generally selling something at all times.

 My first Malawian bus ride ever taken a woman turned to me, opened her suit case, and showed me a bunch of socks. All types, all colours. Sadly, I didn’t need any socks at the time or else I could have been convinced. They were nice looking socks.

 I have also been stopped to buy bananas, CDs, DVDs, baskets, brooms, sponges, oranges, eggs, and even, airtime! I buy the airtime for my cell phone right from the curb side. Same with my bananas. And, it is honestly not rare to see men walking around with cartons upon cartons of eggs stacked on their heads. In fact, it is more common than uncommon.

 But amongst all the things sold on the streets of Malawi, there is one specific thing I cannot wrap my head around or even put on top of my head like the Africans do, for that matter!

 Animals.

 Men walk around selling chickens. I saw this in Uganda, too. The chickens are tied at the feet, hanging upside down, and are usually swaying off of a man’s belt loops. Wild.  

 It gets even…wilder? I can’t even put words to this next bit.

 Driving down fairly popular streets, you can sometimes spot men at the side of the rode with one arm out and extended. What are they holding? A kitten or a puppy. So you literally can buy a puppy or kitten off the side of the road in Malawi. I am determined to get a picture of this because it is that bizarre. I hear that if the men are spotted by police officers, the pups or kittens get taken and brought to the humane society. Yes, I am an avid animal lover. Can’t hide that one.

 Des and I walked right back into the Lilongwe street sales as we got off of our utopian bus from Blantyre. Another magical moment appeared as we got back to our lodge that we so often refer to as “the compound” or “the palace” on its good days.

The compound/palace

 The power was on!

 After only two hours of sleep and a long, yet lovely, bus ride, Des and I had the freedom to shower in hot water, make coffee, and cook! Problem free.

 Power cuts happen every single day in Malawi.

 It can be for an hour, or two, or even four at times. It can be bright and early, in afternoon, or late at night. There’s no routine to it. But surely, I am going to miss waking up to the sound of a generator when I go back home. Or, having to wait for water to boil for my morning coffee. Or, doing my make-up in the dark with my headlamp on. Joy! (I have actually gotten really good at doing my make-up in the dark. But…I might think that because, I am in the dark. It shall forever remain a mystery. I guess until someone says something, at least).

 I learned to appreciate power cuts the very first day I was in Lilongwe. I went to the lodge next door to mine to use the pool. The clouds very quickly rolled over the sky so I was forced to either go home or find something else to do in a brand new city where I knew no one. Sadly, there was no power. So that also decreased my options.

 Max, who works at this said lodge and has since become one of my closest friends, came up to me and asked if I wanted to watch a movie off of his laptop with him until the power came back on. 

 “Sure,” I responded. “But aren’t you working?”

 He laughed.

 “This here is Malawi,” he said. “When the power is off, there is no need to work.”

 Lesson learned. And very much applied on the daily.

 So, there we were. Back in our safe little compound in Lilongwe. Fed, washed, and hangover gone. Arguably one of the best days in Malawi yet.

 But let’s backtrack.

 Des and I were faced with a choice. We could have gotten robbed and gone to bed. Instead, we embaced the experience. If we hadn’t, our next day would not have been appreciated. The chips, the Malawian “Tim Horton’s” drive-thru, and our arrival to a powered compound would not have seemed as oh so sweet.

 “It’s all about the small wins in Malawi,” says Des, who has been here six months.

And she is right.

 When travelling, go for the African donuts. Forget about Tim Horton’s honey crullers.

Embrace the day as it comes. The power cuts and all. Or else, your day and all its obscurities will get the best of you.

The African Paradox

 In a place that has “so little,” you gain so much.

 This is the African paradox.  

 So let’s stop and analyze why this might be. I state upfront that I am no expert on this topic and have only done my small share of travelling. But this is what I have observed and experienced firsthand.  

 People worldwide deem Africa as an “underdeveloped” continent.  And in a lot of ways, it is.

 When you walk the streets of an African country, you see underdevelopment and its affects. There is no denying it. The economies, politics, infrastructure are all visibly behind other countries in comparison.

 In Malawi, specifically, children follow me home begging for food or money. Yes, because I am a “mzungu” – meaning I am white and thus presumably from a country with more money and “greater development.” Men and women with disabilities sit on the sides of the roads because many have no means of transportation, or mobility for that matter. Many homes are made of clay and sticks. And this weekend, I got robbed. Goodbye iPod. Poverty and its affects are real, they exist and run deep.   

 But what you see in Africa is not the full picture. This, I state with certainty. What you feel and experience in Africa far surpasses the level of development in most, if not all, “developed” countries.

 The answer to why is at the crux of the African paradox.

 Living in such vast levels of underdevelopment, African people as individuals have become more developed. Because African people have less tangible, material goods, they are sound spiritually, in-tune with the meaning of life and what is important. They know their passions and are driven by them. Not money. They have perfected the art of being happy with less. Happy with themselves, with people, with their relationships.

 But most importantly, happy with the moment right in front of them.

I made this observation for the first time on a bus heading out of Lilongwe. The bus was scheduled to leave at noon. It left at 2 p.m. It sat idling in the parking lot for two hours simply because, it wasn’t full yet. The bus ride was supposed to be five hours, it wasn’t. It was 11.

 In the back row of the bus sat me and my five “mzungu” friends.

 What did we do to pass the time? Yes, you likely guessed it. We listened to our iPods.

 But this isn’t obviously what the other, African, passengers did. Many sitting with chickens between their legs (amazing, I know) they talked, ate, and slept. The man in front of me turned around and insisted I ate one of his samoosas. It was great. Others read newspapers. And once they were done, like the man infront of me, they shared. They passed the paper off to the stranger sitting next to them. At one point, a man stood up and preached. He did so for an entire hour. People loved it. They clapped, cheered, and even cried.

 By the end of that 11 hour bus ride, my friends and I looked rough. We complained, felt sick, and were annoyed. 

Everyone else, they looked at ease. Content, even.

In Africa, happiness doesn’t need to be financial success, a nice car, or even something to strive towards in the future. Africans have shown me they do not look to material goods for status, personal representation, or entertainment. Happiness is finding peace in each and every moment, no matter the circumstance.

In North America, I use technology and material goods to pass the time. My van, my laptop, my iPhone – they prevent if not cure waves of boredom.

 They distract.

But if there is one thing they don’t do, it is evoke time for personal reflection. In fact, they prevent it. The distraction they provide is not only from your surroundings, but from your own thoughts, feelings, and as a result, proactive actions.

In Africa, those types of material goods and forms of entertainment can be hard to come by. And as a result, people spend more time both tuned-in and hanging out with themselves, or, with the people they love. They don’t live to distract themselves, they live for the moment.

 Africa is teaching me to do exactly that.

 As a North American 21-year-old woman, I came to Africa underdeveloped in this regard. Out of tune. Young spirited. Even lost.

 But I have lived the paradox. In a place with less, so I have gained.

In Malawi, I wake up for work at 6:30a.m. I don’t leave the radio station until 5 p.m. Well, my ride is supposed to leave at five. It is usually more or less at six or 6:30..Oh, Africa. Either way, by the time I get home it is dark outside. But at night time in Malawi, you do not walk alone. Or at all, really. Even if you are a man. So you either travel by car, or you stay at home in the evening. You sit and find ways to enjoy, not pass, the time with the people around you. The true African way.

This is not at all what I am used to. In Canada, I thrive off of independence. Having my own schedule and sticking to it. No delays, ever. Whether the sun is up or down, I am out and about. I am constantly running errands, going to the gym, going to work, doing assignments. You name it, I never stop. I realize now that what I once thought was my way to “relax” was really just my way to distract myself.

 But in Africa, I don’t have many of my North American tools of distraction or entertainment.

As I just mentioned, my iPod was stolen. I have a computer that barely turns on. And my brain is so over reading ever since I graduated university that that isn’t even an option for entertainment. It is pure resentment at the moment. So, I resort to doing as the Africans do.

 I chill. Hang out with friends and talk. Debrief. Relax. Live. I move at a snail’s pace. I laugh, and lots. I EAT! Food is a precious, precious thing – I indulge on the daily.

 It is beautiful. All of it.

I have never spent so much time living, but have never spent so much time doing…so little. Got to love the African paradoxes, huh? They are everywhere here. I am sure I will fill you in on more soon.

As a result, I have learned that so much can be gained by doing less. By tuning in to your own thoughts and feelings. Priorities, what matters, what makes me happy.

 So let’s address the original perplexities of how so much is to be gained in a place with “so little.” So much is to be gained in Africa because the people that appear to have less, have more. More self-awareness, self comfort. Less expectation, less demand. They live in the moment, take life as it is, and are happy as a result.

 But this isn’t the only lesson I wish to highlight.

 Please don’t be quick to write this place off as “underdeveloped” because you might just get trapped in thinking there is nothing to be gained here.

We westerners do not know it all.

 Have less, gain more. Trust me.

Malawi is in break-up mode

Break-ups are monumental. They mark a time of massive transition in one’s life.

In a relationship, you are fully-committed to another person. You make compromises for each other and decisions as a unit. But with a break-up, that all ends. Overnight, you have no one to answer to but yourself.

Everyone reacts to this sensation differently. The sudden sense of change is quite overwhelming.

Some people embrace the time of mass transition by taking things slow, getting used to standing on their own two feet again. Others run. They take off with their new sense of freedom at full speed.

Malawians, they are sprinting.

April 5, 2012 not only marks the death of Malawi’s former president Bingu Wa Mutharika, but the day the country entered its break-up mode mentality.

I shall explain.

From what I have been told, Mutharika was a rather head-strong boyfriend. He always wanted most of the power in the relationship, leaving Malawians with very little. Section 46 of the penal code and the Injunctions Bill are amongst the many examples.

But Malawians are surely sticking this to him now that he is out of the picture.

For instance, Members of Parliament amended the Civil Procedure Bill in Parliament Monday. This law, most often referred to as the Injunctions Bill, refrained Malawians the right to sue or challenge any government worker in court.

Thanks to the Malawian new found sense of freedom, this is no longer the case.

Some of the vary MP’s who defended Mutharika’s support for this law stood in Parliament Thursday before the bill’s amendment retracting their previous approval of the bill. Funny how break ups provide clarity.

But, they also bring confusion. The break-up mode is emotionally all encompassing, really. The highs, the lows, the instabilities.

On Thursday, forty eight MP’s declared their independence from any political party. Forty eight! This would be unheard of in Canada. But, I guess if I had a bad break-up like Malawians, I would want to fresh start too. Time to re-establish myself. No ties to any person, any political party.

That said, five independent party members declared support for President Joyce Banda’s People’s Party.

But with the confusion also comes some blurred priorities. This is also happening in Malawi as a result of the sudden transition.

The flag, for instance, has been a hot topic. Mutharika changed the sun on the Malawian flag in 2010 from a half sun to a full sun. The half sun symbolizes Malawi as “country on the rise,” according to my co-workers here. So Mutharika’s desire for the change to the full sun, then, was to deem Malawi as a country that has “risen.”

But tabled in Parliament Thursday was a bill that suggests Malawians should revert back to the old flag.

On Wednesday, it passed.

This is not to suggest that this was a bad decision. In a lot of ways Malawi is still a country “on the rise.” And Malawians are the ones saying so. The old flag is just better suited, according to most.

But, going back to the old flag does symbolize of the anti-Bingu break-up mentality that Malawi is in presently. The jumbled priorities bit of it at least.

Firstly, this was one of the first things tabled in Parliament this session that began May 18. It was tabled on Thursday, the same day as the Disabilities Bill and Civil Procedures Bill.

The Disabilities Bill took eight years to pass. Eight years! Having it tabled on the same day as the flag-issue suggests they are of similar importance. I would have to disagree if this is actually the case.

Secondly, Malawians now have to apply for new driver’s licenses and license plates because the current ones have images of the old flag. Everyone just got new licenses and plates two years ago when the flag was first changed. Attention could be better placed and money better spent. Blame it on the break-up.

Malawians recognize this.

“I think it’s a good idea,” says Chimwemwe Manyozo, a 23-year-old Malawian who has lived in the country his entire life. “But it is coming at the wrong time.”

Applying for a new license is 15,000 kwacha, says Manyozo. License plates are around the same cost as well. Together, that is about $100 US dollars. That is a lot of money in Malawi right now given the kwacha was devalued by 49 per cent this month: “People don’t have that kind of money.”

No one handles a break-up perfectly. There is truly no right or wrong way. But feeling liberty, confusion, and mixed priorities are all apart of the process.

I would say Malawi is coming out of this one with its head held exceptionally high. And in a break-up, that is all that counts.

Malawian government passes Disabilities Bill

People with disabilities have reason to celebrate!  Members of Parliament officially passed the Disabilities Bill Thursday at a Parliamentary meeting.

 The bill seeks to increase the rights and opportunities for people with disabilities. And there are many ways the bill will makes this happen.

 Members of Parliament said in the meeting’s discussion that the bill will enforce the government to set up a trust fund for people with disabilities. This means the government will use the fund to provide financial assistance people with disabilities.

 In addition, the bill legislates that newly construstructed buildings be accessible to people with disabilities. An increase in accessible transportation is also on the government’s agenda as a result of the bill’s passing.

 The Disabilities Bill was officially drafted eight years ago. Its original draft failed to catch significant government attention. 

George Mkondiwa, Malawi’s Principal Secretary of Disability and Elderly Affairs, said at a Disabilties Bill stakeholder’s meeting last week that this is because the bill was too short sighted in its orginal form. The bill’s first draft only highlighted the demands of the Malawi Council for the Handicapped (MACHOA), he says. In 2009 the bill’s mandates were expanded and have since gained attention and approval from the current government.

 The bill recieved support from all parties when it was passed Thursday.