Food! Chakulya! What people eat!

December 2, 2010

After thirteen months of living in Malawi, Canadians that I did not know saw me at the beach and told one of my friends that I looked ‘anorexic.’ I had lost twenty pounds, from 160 to 138. This was a problem.
Peace Corps volunteers often don’t eat as well as the people that they live amongst. The ingredients are different, the cooking methods are different, and the level of personal responsibility is different than it was in the U.S. At the time of my weight nadir, I was trying to cook only once a day. I would come home from school at three o’clock, eat a mango or a pb&j or (a real treat) an avacado with some cayenne pepper sprinkled on top, get the rice and beans going, and finally eat at five or six. I would eat semi-continuously until I fell asleep and leave the leftovers for a six a.m. breakfast. In case you are looking for a killer new year’s diet, this might work for you (make sure to walk five miles a day).
My neighbors, lovely people that they were, felt bad for me and would occasionally invite me over for meals or bring me some tobwa (unfermented millet drink that could serve as a meal), but I was pretty adamant about taking care of myself. This self-reliance had uneven results.

The primary food stuff of Malawi is Nsima. Under different names, nsima is popular across sub-saharan Africa. Nsima consists of corn flour cooked with water until it reaches a pasty consistency, like very thick but very smooth mashed potatoes. Patties are then formed by scooping into the mash with a smooth bowl and vary in size.
Nsima is used as an all purpose starch. You pull wads off of the patty and then use them to hold together whatever other food you are eating. When you first break open the patty, it is incredibly hot on the inside and will stick to your skin since it is semi-gelatinous. If you do this multiple times a day, as many Malawian do, then you build up calluses, but I never approached that level of comfort and so winced throughout the early parts of each meal.
The amayi, or woman of the house, cooks for most meals. Cooking nsima for a large group of people requires that you stir a great big wooden spoon through perhaps five gallons of this stuff at quick speeds, and if you could manage this stirring and the picking up of the hot pots you could be said to have Amayi Hands.
Local proverb has it that if you haven’t eaten nsima you haven’t eaten all day; the stuff is extremely filling and ubiquitous at Malawian tables. Most of the time it is served with greens of some sort, often pumpkin leaves or the leaves of the rape plant. These greens are cooked with oil and maybe onions or tomatoes. In addition to those two staples, beans or tiny dried fish or meat is served in a gravy. These three foods make up almost every Malawian meal, with potatoes or rice sometimes substituting for nsima.
Malawi was a British colony, so it might not be surprising that they are enthusiastic about the drinking of tea. What was surprising to me, however, is that Malawian ‘tea’ mainly consists of hot water, sugar, and powdered milk, with little regard given to the dried plant that gives the drink its name. In the school where I worked, I would load my cup up with tea and ignore the accessories while my coworkers would do the opposite. My emphasis was on caffeine, theirs on calories. If people have the time and resources, they have tea daily, often complemented by a dry corn bread, called African Cake.
Nsima with fixins is the staple of Malawian food, but other dishes are available. Since Malawi has a sizable population from the Indian sub-continent, curry, samosas, and other influences are around, despite the fact that Malawian food tends towards the bland.
Many Malawians and volunteers get the most out of seasonal fruits and vegetables. It is not unheard of for a volunteer to eat ten mangoes, though that can result in an allergic reaction to mangoes, especially on the skin around the mouth. Avacadoes, too, form the foundation of many people’s meals for a couple months a year. Citrus, eggplant, potatoes, garlic, and peppers are also available, but where you live mostly determines what is available.


Merry Christmas in Malawi (2009)

November 29, 2010

Christmas morning I planned on going to a local village on an hour long bike ride, but my traveling partner said that someone had died, so church was cancelled and I helped the new pastor move in instead.  He and his family are replacing the Chiwa family, my close neighbors and probably my best friends, who had to leave the area for health reasons.  After moving furniture, knick knacks in potato sacks, and thirty kilo bags of maize for an hour or so, I went to tend my garden.  Everyone tells me that I won’t be able to grow anything because I haven’t been buying fertilizer, but I want to see if you can grow without the prohibitively expensive dirt.  I also added some newly decomposing corn husks, banana peels, and coffee grinds from my kitchen to my growing compost pile.

Then I went to the funeral, which was held at a local person’s house because the elderly woman lived on a small plot of land and everyone who is in a village goes to every funeral.  I sat quietly looking at my feet for most of the time, but when the local chief arrived he sat down next to me and we talked about the few things that I can: my job and how life is going and how I spend my days.  He wants to know all about me, and I think that he also wants to help me in whatever it is that I will be doing in his village.  A new goal is to improve my language so that I can interview him, and write and publish for the community a short history of him and his village.  Unlike many of Malawians, he is specifically tied to a place, so he would be able to give me the greatest depth and bredth of the village’s past and where it might go in the future.

The woman was buried and a local woman’s group wearing white shirts and head scarves sang and tossed flowers on the grave, which were paid for by a local woman who I will be working with closely.

In the afternoon I walked back to my neighborhood and some friends of mine and I haggled with a butcher who had slaughtered a goat for Christmas day.  They bought some and I ate goat chitlins for lunch.  Intestines of both goat and pig are quite tasty, but the smell sticks to your face and does not leave until you scrub off a layer of skin.

I read under the overhang of my porch for a few hours, and my parents were calling at five so I walked to the one place in the village which is the only place I can get reception–a trashpit on the side of the road adjacent to a bar.  Many people were walking through the village since it was a holiday, so I had to interrupt my conversation more often than usual to say hello to people and politely tell the drunks to continue being drunk somewhere else.

I didn’t get back to my house till late (seven thirty in village time) and was wrapping up my day with some reading when I heard my name being called.  “Mr T?  Mr T?  Food for Christmas?”  I thought that someone was asking for some sort of church collection and I hustled out to the side of the house to meet them.  It was my next door neighbor, carrying chicken and nsima dishes for me.  “You eat.  Food.  Merry Christmas.”

Language in Malawi

November 29, 2010

Since there are a lot of tribal languages, is there a common language that most people speak as a secondary language? Do a lot of people speak Swahili as well? Are the tribal languages so different that they can’t be understood outside of where they are spoken, or is it kind of like the Romance languages ie: with Spanish you can kind of figure out what’s being said in Portuguese and Italian with a little work.


I lived in the northern region of Malawi, in a small village called Enyezini. Translated into English, the name means “Land Under Stars.”  When the Ngoni people coming from the Kwa-Zulu Natal region in present-day South Africa settled in the area, it was late at night.  They chose a spot, looked up and saw that there were indeed many many beautiful stars.  It was standing rule for myself that I would smoke my last cigarette of the evening under the sky (when I lived in Enyezini and when I marked parts of the day with cigarettes), so it was gratifying to learn that they found the stars special and worthy of the town’s name.

Most of the local villages had a ring to them—Emvuyeni, Ekwendeni, Eswazini—specific to that region of Malawi, and the similarity is born out of the common cultural history of traveling from South Africa as part of one of the Kwa-Zulu groups, together known as the Ngoni’s.  The Ngoni’s were fighters and looking for land, so when they came to Malawi they fought and carved out small areas to live in.  They were not, however, cultural imperialists, and so unlike most invading groups, they did not impose a language upon the other peoples of the region and eventually took on their languages.  In my region, Chingoni is known by few elders and seldom practiced, though it has influenced how the primary language of the region, Chitimbuka, is spoken.  (To clarify:  Chi means language of.  Chingoni=language of the Ngoni).

Chitimbuka is the predominant language in the north, with many subregions speaking slightly different dialects depending on the different backgrounds of the people.  In many regions of the North, though, Chitimbuka is spoken and understood but is not the dominant language.  Along the lakeshore, Chitonga is spoken.  In the far northeast of the country, the region of Chitipa is said to be home to upwards of twenty languages, as this area is both a crossroads and has many hard to access pockets of land.

It is common for people of a village to speak many languages.  If you are a civil servant and working in a different area from where you grew up, you might speak five or more languages, including multiple regional languages, English, and Chichewa.  Both English and Chichewa language and literature are taught in primary and secondary schools, and other courses are taught in English with smatterings of local language.  Since it is the national language and taught in all schools, you can easily get along speaking Chichewa anywhere in Malawi.  If only speaking English, then you will be able to talk to some local villagers who excelled in school, foreigners if you can find them, and government employees.

You can speak one Malawian language and have reasonable ability to understand and get around in another language’s region.  The three languages most common in the areas I lived, traveled, and worked in were Chichewa, Chitimbuka, and Chitonga.  All three are members of the Bantu language family, with historical roots in the Congo region of Africa.  Sharing that foundation and then being geographically adjacent with mobile populations, these three languages have a lot in common.  When I traveled in Chichewa speaking lands, I could make myself understood by using shared gramatical structures and subsituting one language’s verb roots for the other’s, and then using any vocabulary I could muster in Chitimbuka or Chichewa or, if pressed, English.  If flustered, sometimes I would come up with something from my sophomore year Spanish class from high school.

Malawi’s people travel abroad if they at all can.  So many Malawians bring back a little bit of the languages from where they work.  Also, Malawi is on a major route that connects Johannesburg, South Africa, to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and areas North, so speakers of variety of languages pass through Malawi and some Malawians speak languages spoken in the surrounding countries.

A notable exception is the border with Mozambique.  More traditional languages, like Chichewa, are much more likely to cross the border than the Imperial languages of English and Portuguese.  Perhaps because it’s so different from both Chichewa and English and perhaps because it has not presented the same economic incentive to travel and trade as other countries, such as South Africa and Kenya, very few people in Malawi speak Portuguese.  The people of Mozambique  have a similar relationship with English, outside of the capital Maputo and distinctly touristy areas.  As Mozambique continues to become wealthier, I do expect that more Malawians will travel there, learn Portuguese, and bring some of those language skills back to Malawi.

As with most of these topics, I am not an expert and the reality of language usage in Malawi is constantly changing, but I hope that this has been informative nonetheless.

Religious Culture

December 5, 2009

SLOPPY HISTORY DISCLAIMER: I have read books on these subjects, but darned if I remember every little “date” “name” or “fact.”

Some time around one hundred and forty years ago, David Livingstone decided to be a maverick and wander around trying to find a spot to set up a mission or establish business connections or talk smack on the Portuguese. One of the places he wandered through was present day Malawi. He talked smack but failed to set up anything that would last. He died deep in the bush soon after, but through the luck of an ambitious American newsman coming out to see him and giving much needed positive publicity, Dr. Livingstone’s death and image had a tremendous impact. Scottish Presbyterian Christians began arriving and setting up schools, putting people in dresses, and telling them to quit talking about witchcraft. One hundred years later, between fifty and eighty percent of the population describe themselves as Christian.

There is a disparity in the statistics because many many Christians flavor their practice with a range of beliefs that some surveyors would not view as Christian: polygamy, witchcraft practice, and never going to church because Sunday morning homemade hooch is preferable. Another fifteen percent or so are Muslim, a residue of the Arab trade along the East coast for several hundred years. These people tend to be concentrated in the cities in the center and south of the country.

In daily life, people do not quote the Bible but do quote pop-religious philosophy, like “Relax: God is in control.” This statement has never made me want to relax. Every day the government radio station plays a sermon/lecture by and American Evangelist, Joyce Meyer. One of her tag lines: “I said Yaaaaeauh, you can pray about anything you like.” Another: “God doesn’t mind if I wear rhinestones; if it makes me feel good to wear rhinestones, Jesus’ll tell you to go do it.  She probably has more impact on Christianity in Malawi than any other living figure.

Church services here are long, song filled affairs. I recently sat through a service that doubled as an ordination ceremony. Seven hours long. I am getting better all the time at multiplying large numbers in my head. One aspec of the service that is very different is that Malawians are very upfront about trying to soak the congregation for every last piece of coin that they have.  This makes me uncomfortable, and sometimes my discomfort is compounded by the minister’s request that I pray over the money. 

Certain cultural practices are directly tied to the Christianity of the country. Condom use is discouraged by most people of power in the village. Burial is the only proper way to dispose of a body. With both of these practices, though, it is difficult to distinguish other aspects of culture from religion. Traditional medical, spiritual, and cultural practices often melt together to form what is called witchcraft. Even amongst devout Christians, suspicions about whether or not and how effectively others are practicing witchcraft are common. Just like in America’s history, accusing someone of being a witch–usually someone more successful, a woman, or both–is a very effective way to eliminate one’s enemies. Often they are run out of town or their house is pulled down. This is one subject that I try to talk to people about: there is far too great a correlation between jealousy and witchiness.

I was going to church for a few months, rotating different congregations so they would all feel respected by the outside guy, but I stopped going when I realized that I usually left the three hour ceremony extremely pissed off. Now I go outside and read instead.


December 5, 2009

            Hey everyone.  It’s December, WordPress is mocking me with snow flake images while ear sweat distracts me from my writing, and I am about half way through with my time here in Malawi. 

One of the reasons joining the Peace Corps appealed to me was that two years is a significant amount of time, and after a year I’d still be adjusting to the place.  How I feel right now confirms that supposition, and I continue to learn new things about myself and how narrow my assumptions can be. 

An example would be the issue of marriage here in Malawi.  Even compared to its sub-Saharan neighbors, Malawi has an extremely conservative culture.  In the early nineties they were cutting the long hair off of guys at the airport, and I have only seen two women, neither local, wearing trowsers in my village.  Also, polygamy is very common here.

Several of my co-workers, acquaintances, and some friends have multiple wives.  When they ask me about my opinion, I tend to act morally superior.  Little by little, though, I am loosening up.  Is it universally morally reprehensible to support more than one woman, or a relatively transient moral truth that is currently popular for Western culture?  How much of my negative thinking on the subject is based upon my assumption that having two full time families would be a romantic, financial, and logistical nightmare?  How important in these discussions is the conception of love as total devotion and comitment to one person?–a line of thought that is not as commonly held in Malawian culture. 

            In short, I am deciding to shut up about things a little bit more over time.  The best I can do in many of these conversations is to quietly describe how I view these things based on my quite different upbringing.

            Despite the myriad reasons for me question to all of my thoughts and motivations, I am enjoying myself.  I sit on my front porch and read to little kids.  I poison myself with two day old beans because my curry covers the smell, but then get to spend all night reading and smoking cigarettes because I am too sick to sleep.  I have teacher development workshops where I look like a homeless person compared to my participants but still manage to pull it off. 

            This past week I had a two day workshop.  On the exit survey, I ask what I could do to support the teachers in the future.  One of them wrote, among other things, that I should provide “more love.”  

            In general, I am excited for this next year.  I think it will go by quickly and that I will be a bit more efficient in getting to the good work I’m here for.  I’ll try and take time away from checking on the beloved Iggles to let you know.


September 26, 2009

Thank you for the questions, I will write about transportation today and soon address the spoken word and tunes of Malawi questions.

Not many people have cars in Malawi, since it is still developing.  When people do make some money, automobiles are the best investment they can make towards more income, because once you have a car you can use it as a taxi and drive people around all day long, typically on a fixed route.

The cities have minibuses, otherwise called matolas, which are known as minivans in America.  These have one driver and anywhere between one and five people with the responsibilities of advertising by screaming at passerby’s, negotiating fees, and shoving and posturing with other taximen.  Speedometers and fuel gauges never work, the vehicles make heinous noises and spew nauseous fumes and are typically packed with up to fifteen passengers, goats and chickens.  They are the standard of transportation within and between cities.  You can get off anytime you want and be picked up on the side of the road very easily, but you can’t do a thing about the level of comfort or when you leave or how many times you stop en route.

Another option is biketaxis.  Over the back tire of a single speed bike is a seat, complete with handles and places for your feet, so at first you are surprised at how secure you feel.  Usually young men, the drivers are usually friendly and open to negotiate.  Sometimes they negotiate poorly.

Recently I was in a Southern Malawian city and with two friends, and we had to get across town quickly.  I found some bike taxis and asked them how much.  “One thousand.”  “Good bye.”  “Okay, fifty.”  This was a terrible price for the driver, so I jumped at it.

Outside of the urban areas and off of the main roads, back onto the dirt paths, many different forms of transportation will to take you into the main hub of an area and connect you to neighboring villages.  Bikes, walking, and the privately owned taxi-vehicles, giant flatbed trucks among them, will take you where you need to go most of the time.

My village is lucky to have a man that owns a Land Rover making three trips to the local city and back to the village every day.  I’m not sure how much money he makes, but I do know that he allows our village to function at a relatively high level—information, goods, and people move between the city and the village because of this man’s efforts.  And he has a son who has my name.

To go to the main city, I can ride a bicycle for two hours or talk to this man and pay two hundred kwatcha, a dollar and change, to go to town.  Though most people are cash strapped, if you have the reasons or the tastes to go into the city you can probably afford to pay this price.

Because of family ties, inherited rights to land, language barriers, and lack of exposure to the full array of options, many people do not leave their small network of villages and live similarly to their grandparents and next to their grandparents.  If you are lucky enough to be exposed to English as a child (even in educated families this is not assumed), to go to a school that is not besot with corruption or lack of resources, and have a desire to work hard and leave the village, you can pass the secondary school exit exams and usually find a job somewhere.  If these few things happen, you can illegally move to another country, become a taximan, or even grow your hair out and sell bad art to tourists on the beach.  More education, more options.

Those that do well on their exit exams have the opportunity to go to college, but almost no one can afford to.  College graduates become civil servants, and these people are placed all over the country without regard to preference or background.  Teachers, nurses, agricultural technicians are placed in rural areas throughout the country and constitute the majority of the middle class.  Though these professionals are not highly paid, they are educated, have traveled more widely, have a steady income and are more likely to speak a variety of languages.  You meet these people in every village, and especially on transportation.

Personally, there are some aspects of transportation that are wonderful and some that make me want to stab myself in the eye.  You can ride in the back of a truck on a beautiful day and watch the landscape roll by, or you can be in a position that slowly tears your tendons as someone sits on your knees and drives your feet in the other direction, a babies butt held in your face, and smelly drunkards sweating learing and talking about Jesus.

Always, it is surprising what truly gets your blood up.  The other day I paid for the premium busline, the one that leaves on time and guarantees you a comfortable seat all to yourself.  This one even had televisions playing music videos.  Unfortunately, they were playing a Celine Dion video collection.  Fourteen tracks.  All Celine.  People singing along.  One of the most painful moments of my experience here, so upset and completely unable to do anything about it.

It passed, but in the future I will opt for the truckbed.

Now Accepting Questions

August 20, 2009

Recently an old man barefooted and wearing a ratty old blazer with a mushete over his shoulder trequested a copy of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar from me. I had it, and the man was very grateful.
“This book is poetical, political, and historical. It is a very good book. I wanted to read it again before I die.”
I just finished traveling all over fair Malawi and had a great time. To have my sister and bro-in-lo visit was the best present I have ever receieved.
Everything is fine and dandy, and I want to do my part in informing the America of my life in Malawi, but I am not sure what to say. What is interesting about my life here? Should it all be stories about bats flying out of the long drop toilet?
So, please send me questions about my lifestyle and the country here, and I will happily respond.

Happy Birthday America, Malawi

July 6, 2009

I spent the 4th of July at the ambassador’s house.  Most of my day was spent standing next to something called the Giant Jumping Castle telling expatriot kids to behave.  That was awkward because I am not sure my efforts to protect the children from harm and,  if possible, fun, were actually supported by the parents of the children.  This apprehension was abbetted by the beers that my friends bought me as I watched the children.  Perhaps there is a correlation between the awkwardness and the beer-drinking. 

The dee-jay played solid American fare for the three or so hours–Huey Lewis and the News to the Stax Records collection–but made the mistake of assuming that ABBA was American.  For shame.

We left for the house in afternoon.  After all of the food I was more than happy to lie on the couch and move as little as possible.  Prom was the theme for the evening, prom and badmitton.  Neither one is best enjoyed on a full stomach. 

We danced–vampires, 80’s side poney-tailed preistesses, a few flannel flowers, the requisite tongue in cheek t-shirt tuxedo–and the night slowly dissolved.

I went to sleep relatively early, slept in, and that was my vacation.

Lakeshore Explore

April 27, 2009

We sauntered down through the hills with two of us straggling while struggling to repackage their elaborate luggage. If you ever go camping with a few people, I give full marks to rice and lentils for ease of cooking, but at the beginning of a journey they are heavy. I am slim lithe and lucky that two of my fellow travelers were about twice my size and so they carried the heavy packs.
The Ilala sends out small boats that are motored to the shore to pick up travelers, and we queued up to fight for space on the boats. Most shores that the Ilala visits do not have ports, so we waded up to our knees before tossing our bags and bodies aboard. On the boat we had a nice breakfast, made a friend named Roderick and stared out across the water. The hour long boat ride saved us a solid day of hiking.
The lodge where we stayed, the Zulunkuni, was tucked into a cove where a river dumped into the lake. As soon as we arrived, the owner gave us beers and invited us to climb up the river with him. Over underneath and within waterfalls we went up the hill the watery way. The entire path required attention, and my feet are now smarter because of it. On the way back down we had to slide on our rears down a flat slick rock face. I held my glasses in my hat against my chest but when I surface I had lost a lens and had no hope of recovering it.
I fared better than one of the dogs that joined us, though. On the way up, the pup slipped on some rocks and toppled out of view and over a twenty foot waterfall. Moments later we recovered the harried but functioning dog.
For the remainder of that day and the morning of the next I did nearly nothing but stare at the water and go swimming. One of the chalets had a porch that hung ten meters above the lake, and I chanced a couple of jumps of it. We were to jump a little to right to avoid some rocks. I nearly failed.
During one of the attempts my toe dragged a bit on my final step, and I fluttered my arms and legs before splattering into the water. I don’t think I should jump off of particularly high objects in the future, because my mind tends to freak out a bit the moment I leave stability. Maybe this is why I can’t jump very well; I prefer to feel gravity press my feet to the floor.
The next day we waited in the late morning for our friend Roderick from the Ilala. He had invited us to his house, a stone’s throw away, for lunch and to meet some of the people of his village. The day was hot, the hills were long, and twenty minutes into our journey we stopped to ask Roderick how much longer it would be. He told us just a short bit more.
Another twenty minutes later, we asked how much longer it would be. Just so soon was the answer. Because we are Americans and we were wearing watches and we are lazier than Roderick in terms of walking all day for hazy reasons, we pushed him on some time specifics. It would be another hour or so.
What followed was a series of explanations of what a stone’s throw should mean. I picked up a stone, threw it, and asked him to do the same, so that we could see exactly what the distance was. We told Roderick we would not go any further, and he called us liars, and we called him a liar, and everyone left the conversation dissatisfied. We trudged back to the lodge, ate some food, and eventually mellowed out again.
In our Peace Corps training they warned us of foggy directions, unclear time assessments, and purposeful deception. Still, we were surprised when he acknowledged disguising the true distance. “If I had told you the full distance, you would not have come.” He was correct.
The next day we were hoping a boat would come and take us to the next tiny town on the shore, but the water was choppy and instead I had some of the best hiking of my life. The sky was a little bit overcast, the temperature was fairly temperate, and we had eaten or given away all of our food so our packs were lighter. At one point I was coming out of the hills down a cape and had gorgeous deep blue water to either side of me.
That night we arrived in Ossisya and just missed the chance to hire a private car that would take the nine people of the party directly to the city. Instead we waited four hours and boarded a large truck, dubbed Grave Digger in tribute to its ability to blunder through seemingly impassible roads. At multiple points we had to dismount the truck to either ease its passage or to save our necks in case it toppled over. Each time we got out, we had to climb back in. The bed of the truck was woefully overcrowded, the people were ruder than ever before in my Malawian experience, and the four hour ride was generally heinous. At one point we were beginning to move and I was still hanging on the side of the bed, trying to negotiate my body into the small space in front of me. I turned my body and dropped my butt into the square foot space, pissing off the women around me who had taken to calling me the catch all derisive term for white people, azungu, but with a malice I had not yet encountered. At some point in a long and uncomfortable evening we arrived in Mzuzu, and I crawled behind the wall of the compound, took a lukewarm shower, and watched The Departed until I fell asleep.


April 2, 2009

It’s awkward when you accuse your next door neighbor of cheating in your class. I am trying to continue to be nice to her, to ease the tension. It was already awkward enough when her mom cleaned my outhouse without asking.