Sunday, October 30, 2011

Celebrating Halloween and Mulako wa Lhomwe

Thinking about the difference between this weekend and last weekend is one to smile about. Last weekend, we decided to bus south to outside of Thyolo to a large celebration of one of the main cultures in southern Malawi – the Lhomwe. Since the President Mutharika is Lhomwe, he decided to build a cultural centre to preserve the Lhomwe language, dance, songs and traditions. I do not quite support the idea of a cultural centre for only one group and not the tens of others in the country, but I thought it would be nice to see how people celebrate. 

Cooling off with freezies under the shade on my new
 mulako wa lhomwe chitenje
So off we went last Sunday by minibus to Mulako wa Lhomwe, not sure what to expect exactly, other than a lot of people. The minibus dropped us in what seemed like the middle of nowhere amongst a sea of thousands of people, and we wandered into the grounds still not sure what was going on. We did get there after lunch and missed most of the real action, but we did get a glimpse of some dancers, some of which spontaneously paraded behind while we were walking. Although I get stares and questions daily, I am not sure I have felt like I was sticking out that much before. But I understand people’s curiosity and with a pile of strawberry freezies in hand, we enjoyed the few hours we spent there before cramming into another full minibus to come home.

Example of things people were wearing to celebrate
Contrastingly, this weekend we celebrated our own culture by dressing up in costumes and eating candy. Entertaining our 5-year old selves by transforming into ninja turtles for a night has value for refreshing ourselves and feeling connected to what is going on back home. 

Plus, I love getting creative and crafty, since making costumes here is a little bit different than at home, considering Halloween is not celebrated at all here. But the outdoor market presents endless possibilities if you are willing to get a little creative.

Just a little note to say I am doing well and enjoying both Malawian and Western culture! I also had meetings on the World AIDS Campaign and HIV leadership through accountability in Lilongwe this week, which was quite educational and highlighted the challenges that civil society organizations here face in trying to get the government to follow through on their commitments to stocking central stores with ARVs and essential drugs, nutritional supplements for people on ARVs, etc.

More on work later, now that the rainy season is fast approaching, it is incredibly hot so I am starting to work and think at a slower pace.

Heros in a half shell - turtle power!

Friday, October 21, 2011

Inspiration for Lord of the Rings

Quite literally, J.R.R. Tolkien is supposed to have visited Malawi in the 1930s just before he wrote The Hobbit. There seems near irrefutable evidence supporting this claim:

After climbing for 5 hours, we finally reached the
plateau - quite Lord of the Ring-esque, no?
1. The Shire (pronounced Shiré) River running from Lake Malawi through Mozambique and into the Zambezi River in Zambia.
2. There is a legend that a secret population still lives in the mountains. At least according to oral tradition, the plateaux of Mulanje Mountain used to be inhabited by the Batwa - Stone Age 
hunters and gatherers. In Chichewa, Batwa means dwarf - not a bad precursor to hobbits!
3. Check out the photos for yourself, from the mist shrouding the jagged peaks, to fields of mysterious and almost alien-looking trees, plants and grasses.

Apart from the Tolkien connection, the talk of spirits surrounding and inhabiting the mountain range was also alluded to numerous times during our 2 day excursion. This is certainly reflected in local beliefs and names. The highest peak, Sapitwa, translate into "do not go there" in Chichewa, suggesting that the peak is out of bounds for spiritual reasons. While we were socializing in the lodge on the plateau, whenever there was silence, we ewre told that spirits had past. According to villagers those who disobey the spirits often pay a high price. Several locals and visitors have disappeared over the years, including a Dutch woman in 1994 whose body was never found despite both governments searching for weeks. Creepy.

Navigating tea plantations: Local villagers
 carrying back collected dried grasses for
 building roofs and fences
Stunning landscape
we encountered during the climb
Now, back to our story. It's almost rainy season - and the hottest season in Malawi - so we thought it best to climb Mount Mulanje before it gets too slippery and muddy. And so Saturday morning myself, my two housemates Dominique and Louise, as well as Rylea and Bonnie, two Students Without Borders (the student branch of my volunteer program) based in Lilongwe, set out for Mulanje by mini-bus. We had intended to take Louise's temporary car, but with the current fuel crisis, there was no petrol to be had, cueing or not. 

The CCAP lodge where we cooked, rested and
checked out some unreal stars!
After 2 hours we arrived to meet our crew - our guide, his cousin, two porters and a teacher from the multi-purpose learning centre. Steven, our guide, took us up to the beginning of the trail and so began our 6 hour, and at some points near vertical, trek up the Boma path. Little did we know at this point that the Lonely Planet notes the Boma path is extremely steep and "almost impassable" at times. Good thing we were blissfully unaware at the time. All gruelling climb aside, the landscape was beautiful and mystic.

The hike down was much tamer, lucky considering my calves haven't worked so hard in awhile! We stopped and admired the view much more, drinking from small waterfalls and if you're me, slipping and skinning yourself on slippery rocks!
Our group - James, Bonnie, Me, Geoff, Rylea, Steven,
Louise and Dominique (missing our rasta porter Chiku)

All in all, a great time climbing and you never know if the allure of Sapitwa will bring me back in the coming months.

Also, for anyone who reads in French, you should check out Dominique's blog here.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Recognizing Child Labour in southern Malawi

Last Thursday and Friday I had the chance to learn about, visit and interact with children and young people involved in a special program to fight against child labour in Malawi. About two years ago, the Government of Malawi actually admitted and recognized it had a big problem with child labour, concentrated in the agricultural sector but also in domestic work, industry and of course, the informal sector. This recognition led to the Malawi National Action Plan on Child Labour 2010-2015.
With the "middle" class of learners aged 14-17 years who
 will study secondary school subjects until they are ready
 for vocational skills training of their choice.

The main culprit is the tabacco industry, a huge legacy of British colonialism in the country. In the southern region where tabacco is grown, many families, including their children, work the fields to help sustain an industry that has been suffering as of late. The worst regions for this are Mangochi, Lilongwe, Kasungu, Nzinba and Rumpe. On the other hand, the tea industry - more attuned to corporate social responsibility - has already insisted that children not be employed in the fields. 

In Malawi, a child is defined as 16 years and below (even though they ratified the CRC, which defines a child as less than 18 years old). However, the employment act says children 14+ can work as long as the working conditions do not put them at risk.

Since Malawi recognized the issue of child labour and its inconsistencies in national law, the International Labour Organization (ILO) decided to provide support to their national plan by making a concentrated effort in 4 key districts to create Child Labour Free Zones across all sectors where children might be involved. The project is a mouthful but pretty self-explanatory: "Prevention, protection, withdrawal and rehabilitation of working children through education and vocational skills training."

Teachers at Chonde multi-purpose learning centre
for children affected by child labour
One of the organizations I work with, AYISE, is the implementing partner in Mulanje district. The project only got off the ground about 4 months ago and works through community child labour committees (CCLCs) to involve all players in society, from parents, to religious leaders and village headmen. On one side, the program takes children under the age of 14 that have dropped out of school for an extended period of time to work, or who frequently skip school to do piecework at the market, and brings them to take classes and in many cases have some form of counselling at the multi-purpose learning centre. Working with local primary and secondary schools, the goals is to mainstream the students back into the education system, while assisting their families to set up income generating activities to help alleviate poverty in the family. Hopefully this will prevent the children from having to drop out again to help their families. The teachers also monitor the mainstreamed children to make sure they're doing well all-around.

Class list for both older and younger children
For the children that are 14-17 years old, they finish a simplified high school curriculum and through partnerships with local businesses, are able to learn a skill of their choice like tailoring, teaching, carpentry, or welding, given tools and basic entrepreneurial knowledge to eventually start their own business.

In 18 months that the pilot project will run, almost 1,500 children will benefit from education and skills training in Chonde village - the first zone in Mulanje district to benefit. I got to visit the first learning center and talk to some of the teachers, all of whom are from the village and feel very strongly about encouraging a future for these children.

The kids happily told me what they wanted to be when they grow up and asked me questions about Canada - like if we walk around without shoes like Malawians. I told them in winter that it's like being inside a refrigerator so we have to wear big boots all the time.

Talking of challenges with the teachers, I was told that the children's attitude is the hardest obstacle to overcome. They have decided that education will not benefit them and teachers must make them understand that knowledge is power, more so than their piecework at the market. But at least it is a start and positive role models, like the youth involved with AYISE who have had the chance to see other countries, can go a long way in encouraging children to work hard for a better life.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Making a home

Our backyard gardens with lovely Jacaranda trees
Home sweet home
Our papaya tree at sunset
As promised, I wanted to give you a peak at what I come home to every day. It's definitely becoming a home for me, except that the photos collage of everyone I taped to my wall, all fell down while I was at work today. That's pretty much the quality of a lot of products here! Have a good week everyone:)

View from the balcony to the golf course behind us

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Questions of Culture and Gender

You frequently hear the term ‘culture shock’ when referring to Westerners settling in far away places and facing traditions, attitudes and behaviours that conflict with their own values and ways of thinking and being. I am clearly not immune to these feelings, but I try to understand and respect where other people are coming from, while still trying to ease in the human rights and gender equality parts where I can.

Roadside view of vendors
Knowing that Malawi is a deeply, almost fundamentally Christian-dominated society with only about 13 percent Muslim and 7 percent traditional religions, I was quite surprised to see how polygamy is widely accepted and practiced in the northern region of the country. The Church, working within these confines of tribe, recognizes only one wife. The Executive Director even joked, half seriously, about taking a much younger second wife in the near future. But, I spoke with a colleague who is about my age and he seemed to say that young people are, for the most part, breaking from this tradition.

The Yao, who live along Lake Malawi, are the main practitioners of the traditional religion gule wankulu. As far as I know, they incorporate particular dances and elaborate masks to make a connection with their ancestors, and rely on beliefs passed down orally from generation to generation.

Shot of a young girl in a chitenge taken while heading
 through the countryside back to Blantyre
Another cultural practice is an agreement between a couple who are unable to conceive a child where another man, a fisi  - literally translated as ‘hyena’ – sleeps with the wife so the couple can still have a child and appear “normal” within the community. And if a husband dies, his brother “inherits” the widowed wife. At least women can wear pants now, which until recently were not culturally allowed.

At least women are assuming the role of traditional leaders in some villages. However, while the national HIV rate is fairly constant at 12 percent, more than 60 percent of those are young women.

Borrie, who is Youjong's new kitten,  decides it's nap time.
Youjoung is an AYISE volunteer from Korea.
Female empowerment overall is pretty low, in the streets on weekends, the overwhelming majority of people hanging out and goofing around are men. In both organizations I work with, less than 20 percent of staff members are women. At AYISE, at least they are attempting to “empower” their only two female staff members by enrolling them in driving school 3 mornings per week. And I can tell you that driving in Malawi is not easy! But at least the fact that AYISE is making a small effort is a start.

However, as far as I can tell, gender equality is still at its beginnings stages here and while I am not shocked to hear and see so many examples of it, I am secretly glad that azungu do not have to follow all the local customs.

Getting a taste of local music at Lake of Stars

Front seat minibus view coming out of Limbe on
Friday afternoon.
And apparently getting a bad flu as well, but at least I’m on the mend! Last weekend, Dominique (my Canadian housemate) and I headed from Limbe – a neighbourhood east of Blantyre where I transit through to work when I’m at AYISE – on Friday afternoon en route to Mangochi and finally Nkapola Lodge where the Lake of Stars festival took place. A definite downside to travelling to new places by local mini-buses is that you have to rely a bit more on the advice of people around you. 

Friday night saw some pretty good reggae and the UK group The Very Best as a Malawian project – so that was pretty cool. The spot was beautiful, with the stage set up right on the beach and since Nkhapola is situated close to the extreme south on Lake Malawi, it is fairly narrow and you can even see Mozambique – Olá!

Show stealers - Freshly Ground!
The next day, we started checking out the villages in the area surrounding the festival, since we were curious to see how the Festival’s model of responsible tourism was playing out in practice.  At least all the hotels were fully booked, with many people, us included, camping on hotel lawns. But I’m still interested to know if the people in these poor communities just see a whirl of azungu and affluent Malawians, without getting any of the benefits.

On the music side, I highly recommend for everyone to check out Freshly Ground from South Africa, an awesomely talented group of people. Maskal – from Lilongwe – was really great, especially because we had a Malawian giving simultaneous translation during the entire show!

An excited Chinese delegation!
As you’ve already noticed from the title of this blog, Malawians pride themselves in being the “warm heart of Africa”, it doesn’t just refer to the climate – and I really saw this warmth among the people on Saturday night. You might have heard about the magnitude of Chinese presence in Africa, and Malawi is no exception. The Government of China was a sponsor of the event, and a Chinese Cultural Delegation performed, sandwiched in between two reggae and R&B acts. Dressed in traditional outfits, a handful of Chinese singers and musicians played over recorded music, which nearly drowned them out and was a far cry from something you might expect from a music festival in Malawi. But still people danced, cheered and encored throughout the performance!
Poet and activist from Guyana

Moving to his own rhythm

All in all, a fun weekend and an ideal introduction to regional and Malawian music. This weekend I took in Poetry Africa, as part of the Blantyre Arts Festival, which celebrates spoken word, songwriters, musicians and activists – individuals who contribute to social change by making their audiences feel and understand the continent’s burning issues in a new way. I really enjoyed TJ Dema and Chiwoniso and her mbira.

I’ll post about some cultural observations and lessons I have learned, along with some photos of our house later tonight.

Happy Sunday!