Sunday, June 22, 2008

The baby wait

I’m sitting behind the worn, paisley couch in the giant living room of this Lilongwe, Malawi house. It’s Bridgette’s house, though her husband might say otherwise and their landlord might too.

Bridgette is nine months and six days pregnant if you trust the midwife at the hospital down the road, which I don’t necessarily.

My goal was to follow a woman on the day she gave birth and I won’t bore you with the searching trips up and down this skinny country, or the phone calls to bureaucrats who gave me the phone numbers of other bureaucrats, or the two women who agreed to the project and then delivered before I could start rolling.

I’m here in Area 25 with Bridgette and have been for four days now.

It’s 9pm and she’s just gone to sleep, its Saturday night and her taxi driving husband said “I’m coming back” as he headed out the door just before dinner. Bridgette, her brother-in-law and I watched a music video show and the evening news as her three-year-old daughter Alice (pronounced Ah-yeec) slept on the couch. There’s one TV station in Malawi (“The Station for the Nation”) so DVDs are popular. We’ve watched a bunch these last days; from Lion King to *NSYNC to Rush Hour.

Following people for a day in their life has been a wonderful excuse to get to know them in a way a foreigner rarely can. But spending the better part of a week cloistered in this big, ragged house has been several standard deviations more so.

Like other Africans I’ve followed, Bridgette has an uncanny knack for ignoring the camera, so much so that I’ll sometimes gesture or joke with her and she won’t notice. When I speak from behind the lens she’ll turn as if she’s been startled by someone she didn’t see standing there with a giant camera. The fly-on-the-wall aspect is enhanced by not understanding what’s being said. I’ll have the Chichewa translated later; for now I just shoot as much as I can and hope there’s something interesting in there.

I think it’s relevant that I don’t know what they’re saying and they know I don’t. On the first two days I brought translators. The first was lazy and the second greedy and I decided I didn’t need them anyway. Bridgette speaks some English and with a translator here she felt compelled to entertain (or at least talk to) the visitor. “That woman likes to talk,” she said when the greedy translator left.

I’ve agreed to go to church with the family tomorrow, the service will be three hours and I’m trying not to fantasize too much about Bridgette going into labor mid-sermon. I’ll be happy whenever this little stakeout ends and our story has its conclusion. But on the other hand I’ll miss running around with Alice and watching TV and sitting down to dinner with a family.

Monday, June 16, 2008

You have a friend in Malawi

Lilongwe, Malawi
Malawi is said to have some of the world’s friendliest people and I must say I’ve found the truism to be true. As soon as I crossed the crooked border from Tanzania I found the people more welcoming, more helpful.

The other day I was riding back to town in the car of a businessman and his wife. They had agreed to give me a lift from an area with little public transportation. I asked them why Malawians are so friendly.

“I think it’s because of our first president,” the man said, and once he gave his answer it was clear his wife couldn’t chime in without fear of appearing to contradict him. “He was very generous and taught people to be kind and considerate.”

“I think Malawian people always think, ‘What is it like to be the other person?’”

I thought that was the perfect explanation because beyond surface “friendliness”—constantly asking strangers ‘how are you?’—what impresses is the helpfulness. There is no better place to hitch a ride or borrow a cell phone or ask for directions. Perhaps it speaks to our own shortcomings that “friendliness” is really just when people do us favors without asking for something back.

Whenever I’ve had the “friendliness” conversation with a Malawian they’ve always pointed out that not everyone here is nice, as if it could be otherwise.

But even my run-in with a no-good proved positive. I took a mini-bus to the main Lilongwe bus stand for my trip towards the lake a couple days ago. It was a busy and crowded place and as I struggled out of the van with my two huge bags a guy in a Chicago Cubs hat came by the van and slipped what he could grab out of my left pocket. I caught it out of the corner of my eye and saw a familiar piece of paper flutter to the ground.

“What’s that?” I shouted mid-robbery as I bent over to pick up the list of phone numbers. “Thief!”

“What do you want me to do?” he asked, quite rhetorically.

I found I had shoved him against a nearby van with my one free arm and was shouting “thief” in conjunction with more colorful adjectives.

He didn’t push back but cowered a bit, was pushed against a second van and then scampered away as I advised him to “run, run you colorful-adjective thief!”

It was a strangely empowering experience that I highly recommend. Unlike successful robberies which have occupied my mind for days or weeks after the fact, this one rarely surfaces in my memory and when it does I just check to make sure my bag is zipped and turn to the passerby who has just called over to me and say, “Hey. Good. How are you?”

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Africa's take on Obama

Lilongwe, Malawi
You might think Barack Obama would be real popular here in Africa. You might think Africans take some pride in the success of an African-American, that they feel a connection to him the way the Irish may have enjoyed the success of Jack Kennedy.

These days, I’d say that’s somewhat true.

But its been striking these last months to observe Obama’s emergence in the African consciousness. In February, in West Africa it was rare to meet someone who had even heard of the leading Democratic candidate. They knew about Hillary Clinton though, and liked her.

Landing in Kenya in late-April was a quick remedy for Obama’s surprisingly low profile. But even though he was well known and well liked, he wasn’t necessarily seen as a native son. When I leadingly asked a man in Nairobi what he thought of a Kenyan being president of the U.S. he didn’t take the bait.

“Oh no, he’s not a Kenyan, he’s an American,” he said.

In fact, as often as I’ve seen a Malawian sit in rapt attention as Jesse Jackson gives a speech on TV, I’ve heard from a Malian that Africans go to the developed world and forget the folks back home. (Indeed, a shocking and oft-repeated fact to help explain the health crises in Malawi is this nugget: There are more Malawian doctors in Manchester, England than all of Malawi).

I’ve never heard the term “African-American” used by an African; the word is “black.”

The relationship on this side of the disapora can be complicated, no less so since the U.S. and Europe aren’t viewed as welcoming to those who would like to work—or even vacation—in the rich world.

And there are familiar concerns for Obama’s candidacy here, mainly the question ‘Can a black man be elected?’ Some here are certain he can’t. And many aren’t sure he should be elected, still suspecting that Hillary would be better or McCain deserves consideration.

The most loyal constituency here are the ex-pats—Europeans and Americans—who live within the swirling complexity of racial injustice everyday and who may see Obama as a fulfillment of some struggle they know they are part of even if its nameless. The Dutch doctor who insists President Bush is a war criminal has an Obama campaign sign above his dining room table. He thinks Obama could change the world, could make America a positive force rather than a destructive one. Even he knows expectations are unrealistic.

But for a long time traveling as an American has meant getting browbeat about our current president. It’s refreshing now to be asked with hope and admiration about our next one.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Why is Africa so messed up

Lilongwe, Malawi
The first time I had the conversation was with three South Africans at an outdoor restaurant in Dakhla, Morocco. They had spent the last eleven months traveling up Africa’s west coast and were trying to sort through what they’d seen.

“All the American college girls in Ghana…” one of them said, trailing off. His point was that Ghana already had plenty of help while most of West Africa had none. But still more bubbly heroes landed in Accra every day. “It’s just…” frustrating or infuriating or stupid or disgusting. I don’t remember what he said but I remember what I said.

“But you can’t really diss do-gooding.”

Here I am now four months into my trip and I’ve had the conversation many more times. Its had in places like I’m sitting now, a dorm room at a camp site, where the white people sit around a table and confide in each other the revelations and disappointments of their experiences here.

So much of what we know about Africa in the west comes from stories designed to attract our money or our sympathy. To do that the story must be sure not to diss the do-gooders, or the Africans.

But around a guesthouse table at the end of the day, at the end of four months, those premises can seem false.

So the conversation dances around dangerous conclusions, dances around fears that you might sound racist. Or hopeless. The conversation is really about one question though: Why. Why is Africa so messed up and how could it get better.

Why, the Israelis ask, did the Tanzanian man they tried to help start a restaurant just run off with the money?

Why, the Indian restaurant owner asks, are his employees so lazy?

A lot of the time the conversation ends up dancing around the idea that people here are just lazy. The more you think that might be the case, the less willing you are to say it.

I’m willing to say it because I believe it isn’t true. I believe that western people have imposed western ideas on cultures with different priorities. Are Africans lazy or are Europeans so focused on tasks and far-off goals that they lose contact with their friends and family and the enjoyment of their life?

But in so many ways Africa has been colonized by western ways of living and is now irrevocably linked to them. The ubiquitous cell phones and expensive western clothes are incompatible with a mentality that prioritizes an 11am beer over heading back to the office.

Never mind that most people aren’t heading back to an office but to a plastic table where they sell cell phone credit or bananas for a few pennies profit.

So as Africa sinks deeper into the trap of this cultural divide, good intentioned people from the same countries that helped cause it, try to help Africa “catch-up.” They try to teach them the “right way” to farm, the “right way” to teach, the “right way” to run a business.

They try to give food to the hungry, care to the sick.

You can’t diss the do-gooding.

But I’ve come to believe Africa is an enormous, thin-iced lake and the west is sending lifeguards.

People are falling through so they send warm blankets too, and stack them on the melting sheet of ice. And then they send swimming instructors.

The responses are as logical and well meant as they are short-term and possibly corrosive.

Someone else will send ice cubes to preserve the lake. Can you see the shrinking ice? There are 800 million people living on it. How many lifeguards and swimming instructors and ice cubes do you think the NGOs can send? They’ll keep sending them and if you cared you’d donate a warm blanket to the drowning children of Africa.

What I like about this metaphor is that it doesn’t present an actual solution. What I like about this metaphor is that if someone is drowning you SHOULD send a lifeguard.

What I don’t like about this metaphor is it presents the challenges Africa faces as “problems” that must be “fixed.” It portrays it as a dire crisis; as if all of America were the Lower Ninth Ward.

And it would be better if the metaphor were extended to point out that the NGOs are sending fish but not teaching anyone how to fish. Or they’re sending fancy fishing rods with little instruction and no budget to repair them when they break. They certainly aren’t considering that Africans may already know a way of fishing that works better here than what you do on Lake Geneva.

But what you can’t forget is the westerners who are giving of themselves here really are better people than you and I. They are. But that doesn’t mean much for Africa.

I was having the conversation by a pool at a four-star hotel with a high-level European who’s spent 32 years of his life in African development. I asked him what he’d do if he were king. He paused and sighed and didn’t want to say it.

“I know it’s a dream. It’s a fantasy. It’s not possible. But in my dream, all the aid organizations, all the NGOs, all the development projects, everyone…. Everyone leaves.”

Thursday, June 5, 2008

A bus to nowhere


If you’re headed south to Malawi from Tanzania don’t buy a bus ticket to Lilongwe from Mbeya. That’s one thing I’ve learned.

The con men sold me the direct ticket from Mbeya to the Malawi capital yesterday when I got off the bus from Iringa. The idea was I would take a local Tanzanian bus to the border and then switch to the Malawi bus for the rest of the ride. Forty thousand shillings seemed a bit high, but not too high and I feared waiting to buy the ticket at the border could leave me without a seat. I was a bit suspicious, but I spend large swathes of my time here being suspicious.

I woke at 5:40am and the mini-bus trundled out of Mbeya an hour later. There were thirty of us in something a bit bigger than your parents’ mini-van. After four hours we were at the border and it became clear my ticket would take me no further. I had been napping until just before we made it to the border and it was the rudest of awakenings. Still in a fog I held my ground, got back on the bus and said I was going back to Mbeya to get my money.

It was a stubborn (or principled) thing to do since even in a best-case scenario I’d be going 12 hours out of my way to get $32 back. But I had an oh-no-you-don’t anger towards the friendly college student who ripped me off and it wasn’t about the time or the money; in fact the whole premise of his scam is that no rich whitey will bother going all the way back once they catch on at the border.

I believe that violence in the media does encourage violence in society and I believe this mainly because five years of watching boxing all day as my job really made me want to get in a fight. I still haven’t had the chance to throw a right cross but I was viscerally ready on the ride back to Mbeya. You couldn’t quite say I was willing to die over $32 but I was ready to inflict and/or receive more harm than $32 probably merits.

Five squished hours later we got back to Mbeya and the bus driver and “conductor”—whose job is to shout out the bus for more customers—told me to get out so they could sneak up on the bogus ticket seller without him seeing me in the van and realizing something was up.

I wasn’t sure whether to trust them but I didn’t have much choice so I took pictures of them and their van (something I nearly did with the ticket seller and obviously now wish I had) and waited at the police post.

The police seemed genuinely dismayed with my fate and not nearly competent enough to do much about it. The best “lead” was the serial number from the bogus ticket, since the seller still has the book of tickets, but I had to recommend writing that number down twice before the cop caught on.

The boys on their stealth mission didn’t find him and I wanted to go to Malawi so I cut loses and tried to catch the twice weekly direct bus that actually does go through Mbeya and down to Lilongwe. But no one knew anything about the bus and I finally ended up in the car of an Australian missionary looking for it in vain. She took me back to the main bus station where I had first departed 10 hours before. I got on another mini-bus and came here to the border, which had already closed.

A Tanzanian customs guard who happened to be on the bus got off with me and walked me to a guesthouse near the border. It was full. But another one had a room and I set up shop a few hundred meters from Malawi. I bought a nearly cool Serengeti beer and my first meal of the day. Just before the thundershowers rolled in I sat down at my broken laptop to write this stupid entry.