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Below are the 20 most recent journal entries recorded in ritaherkal's LiveJournal:

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    Wednesday, October 25th, 2006
    7:22 pm
    a collection

    From the bulletin board at the 2006 Rainbow Gathering.



    Video from the 2004 Rainbow Gathering. At 3:57 Rita (or someone who looked a lot like her; the Gathering can be confusing that way) makes her screen debut.



    A poem that Mr. A.F. Chingala, of Malawi wrote about Rita's school:

    The Illness of Chakhala

    She (Chakhala Primary School) was born in 1932,
    Very feeble and with no hope,
    Now and then echoes from relatives
    Saying "Accept it, Accept it!"
    "For it is what God has given us."

    Consultations upon consultations were made,
    That's to a number of doctors (organizations)
    In trying to win her life.
    Unfortunately, all showed no interest in assisting her.

    Hard cash! What?
    Was spent on her yearly for transport.
    But to our surprise, there was no progress
    Until the age of 17
    There were no signs of her recovery

    Another misfortune, this in 1949
    A well-known year in Malawi, not unlike this year (2005)
    For a great famine (gwang'wang'wa)
    When people were fed from wild roots
    Drought was the everyday story
    No water flowed in the Rusa River to serve our patience
    Indeed we were tortured relentlessly

    With little hope we stayed fast
    A private saying from scoffers were speculating
    "When shall she (Chakhala Primary School) die?"
    The same lips to the relatives was a great comfort
    "The tree cannot grow without staggering."
    By some miracle, until 2005 she was still kicking,
    With 73 years of age a barely a step made
    Oh, Chakhala was still ill!

    Oh! By the grace of God one day
    A man! Mr Sambo (BwB Project Coordinator), with an American daughter (Rita Herkal) came.
    He said he had come with a doctor to heal old Chakhala.
    We listened as if God from heaven had desceneded.

    Illuminating sounds were heard
    Chakhala! Chakhala will soon be healed!
    Those were the community echoes
    For its first time to take a good breath of success
    That was the time when the doctor came with prescriptions of healing

    I tell you cooperation is important in every society
    Indeed, we convinced them
    With no delay the doctor returned and we won the case

    The concerned were told to sign an agreement (BwB covenant)
    For our Chakhala to be healed
    Five group village headmen were involved
    Thus, present here in front of us rejoicing today.

    Inauguration ceremony today!
    What a beautiful block!
    Look, Chakhala now taking her first step!
    Indeed, Chakhala is healed from her chronic illness
    Now, the vision of the doctor has come to reality.
    Now, the vision of the relatives has become a reality.
    Monday, January 23rd, 2006
    2:44 pm
    as good a time as any
    (I found this on the internet. Rita wrote it in 2001 or 2002).

    *RITA HERKAL, B.A. with honors, 2000*
    (After graduating, Rita joined the Peace Corps. What follows is an account of her new life in Niger.)

    Niger is the poorest country in the world. It is my new home, and I am now six months into my twenty-seven months of Peace Corps service. The days pass by in a manner that is painfully slow, but the weeks fly. I live in what is referred to as "the bush" in a circular mud hut about twelve feet in diameter with a thatch mat roof. The landscape of my area is sand with scattered thorny Acacia trees. The hot season recently ended with days that felt cool at 105 degrees. Luckily, the rains have now begun, bringing slight drops in temperature along with an increase in humidity. It is much appreciated.

    My primary work at the moment is the difficult task of learning zarma/djerma, the local dialect. The village that I am living in, HollaBela, is composed of about four hundred Bela people. All of the villagers are Muslim, as is ninety-nine percent of Niger, and people pray five times each
    day. There is a prayer call sung before each prayer, and that is how I keep the time, as I did not come with a watch. The first prayer call is around 5:30 A.M., the second is at 2:00 P.M., the third at 4:00 P.M., the fourth at sunset, and the last approximately one hour after sunset.

    The highlight of my week is the weekly market in Balleyara, a fairly large town. I walk my bike two kilometers through deep sand to the road, then ride eight kilometers to Balleyara. People from many miles around converge in this weekly market to meet with friends, do their shopping, sell their wares, and relax. It is a very colorful scene as everyone wears their best and most brilliant fabrics. It is a scene of organized chaos with people everywhere, intermingled with goats, sheep, camels, and chickens. Women
    carry large loads on their heads ranging from water to woven mats to calabashes full of millet. The scene can be overwhelming but it is also a
    nice escape from the slow pace of the village. It is also a great time to indulge in food other than rice and millet, which is the strict diet in my
    village. No other food is available and I consider myself lucky to have onion, which I now consider to be a vegetable, in my meal. Occasionally
    women will come by selling mangos, as it is mango season, but usually I have to go to the market to get them.

    However, with the coming of the rains I have planted a huge garden, and I am looking forward to its harvest. I built a fence out of thorny tree branches to keep the goats and cows out, but am having problems protecting it from the chickens. I am very lucky that I am able to garden due to the fact that my water table is high - only two to three meters. Many of my friends in other villages have water tables as deep as thirty-five to fifty meters. Since all water must be pulled by hand, deep water makes it impossible to garden. I have also planted a small field of millet and beans, and lots of trees. The field is completely dependent on the rains, and last year there
    was a terrible drought so people are hungry this year. The government has brought some subsidized food to the area that I am in, but not enough.
    Everyone is hoping that the harvest in September will be a good one.

    I am shocked by things each day, yet the most surprising thing to me is not the physical environment or the poverty -- it is people's knowledge (or lack of) of the world. Only one female and two males from HollaBela attend
    school, and not one adult is literate. One day the chief asked me where America was. Then, one day the chief asked me where America was. Then, he
    drew a square in the sand and placed Mecca in the center. Next, he placed Niger along the side of the square and asked where America was. I placed it far outside the square and said, "very far." People ask me if America has a sun, a moon, or wind. They ask if it rains everyday - the equivalent here to streets being paved with gold.

    It is a wonderful country, and I am having a wonderful experience. I would not trade it for anything. There is nothing like it anywhere else in the world.
    Wednesday, October 12th, 2005
    2:30 am
    well, happy birthday anyway
    Happy birthday, Rita. Everybody gets a birthday.

    This seemed like a good day to update.


    _______________________________________________

    K. W. Harp wrote:

    A new study claims Denver beggars collect $4.6 million annually. Mayor Hickenlooper says he can end the city’s homelessness for $13 million per year. This was the topic of my almost-finished column, replete with tales of annoying beggars, when I received an e-mail with terrible news about a friend working in Africa. The subject: “Celebration of Rita’s life.”
    “She was traveling to Lake Malawi on a minibus for the weekend. A tire fell off and the bus flipped. She and six other people were killed instantly. Part of me wishes there was more to the story, but that’s it. It was purely random.”


    Rita died August 26. She was 27.


    Upon learning of my cherished friend’s untimely passing, it dawned on me that I could use this column to celebrate one of humanity’s true advocates rather than continue a policy debate too often removed from humanity.


    Rita spent much of her post-college life in Africa, first with the Peace Corps and most recently with Building with Books, an organization that builds schools in developing nations. Her job was in Malawi, a country with a disturbing infant mortality rate and a 37-year life expectancy.
    She e-mailed stories about Malawians pouring foundations in blistering heat without complaining, and how women would walk great distances to fetch water. Malawian children would yell Rita’s name as she handed out stickers and candy. She asked friends to send more of both.


    I met Rita—a brunette of intimidating beauty—at an annual summer camp in Greeley. A few years later, Rita was my date to the end-of-camp dance. We kept in touch through high school and the first year of college. I vacationed in Seattle to see her, and she visited me at CU-Boulder. Our friendship, however, was lost in college’s later years.


    Through either fate or cruel coincidence, I found Rita’s e-mail address three months ago. From Malawi, her reply was enthusiastic. Her last e-mail to me promised to never again lose touch. In response, I offered to visit her over the holidays in her native Wyoming. She probably never read it.
    In the world of public policy, we fight battles at a distance in columns, press releases and blogs. We talk a lot but often accomplish little. On the frontlines, people like Rita—of all ideologies—understand meaningful change rarely comes from bluster and rhetoric, but from confronting the dirt and pain of everyday life.


    The Malawians don’t care about school vouchers or teachers’ unions—they just want a schoolhouse. We file lawsuits over who owns the water that pours from our taps, while they walk to the river to fill buckets. As Americans, we are fortunate to have the luxury of such disputes.
    In Rita’s final letter to her parents, she wrote: “I am happy and healthy and so satisfied with my life and what I am doing. It truly is an incredible feeling to have each minute permeated with contentment and gratification.”


    I doubt Rita would have felt as accomplished by putting change in a homeless man’s hand or attacking the homeless problem with words written in an air-conditioned office. Instead, she would have been building low-income housing, brick by brick. I talk the talk; she walked the walk. That realization is both saddening and inspiring.


    Rita and I would have argued vehemently over politics and policy, but that doesn’t matter much in the grand scheme of life. History defines people more by their actions than their words, and Rita’s expansive legacy is already enshrined in gold. The world is a lesser place without my friend, but her influence will last forever.




    ____________
    and Ben Johns had this to say:

    In remembrance of Rita Herkal, who passed away on August 26, 2005.

    "Because we don't know when we will die,
    we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well.
    Yet everything happens a certain number of times,
    and a very small number, really.
    How many more times will you remember a certain
    afternoon of your childhood, some afternoon that's
    so deeply a part of your being that you can't even
    conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four or
    five time more. Perhaps not even that. How many times
    will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty.
    And yet it all seems limitless."
    _________________________

    I believe that's a quote from Paul Bowles, from the film "The Sheltering Sky." Thinking of Rita, I had thought of it too. I did actually sit and watch the full moon rise once, recently, from beginning to end. I've only done that a few times in my life. I don't think I've even done it twenty times yet.

    More posts are below, bits and pieces of emails and something from an old ACLU report.

    Happy birthday to you.

    and while you're at it...

    Imagine the newspaper
    they'd have to use
    if they decided to print
    all the good news.
    Sunday, September 11th, 2005
    1:46 pm
    memorial day


    Rita Herkal
    1977-2005









    This journal is a tribute to an incredible person.

    It is an editable, searchable archive that goes backwards and forwards in time. We can start with her emails from Malawi and work in circles from there. Rita lead an amazing life, and she wrote it all down.

    Please comment freely. If you have a story to tell, please share.

    It may seem a little strange to start a livejournal for a dead person. But; she's alive. Rita's alive as we remember her and need her to be. Always will be.



    A couple days after I heard about the accident, this song popped into my head. It was a song I hadn't thought about for years and years and years. I learned to play it and it made me feel better. I don't know if Rita liked this song or not. She might have.



    me and my friend were walking
    in the cold light of mourning
    tears blind the eyes
    but the soul is not deceived
    in this world,
    even winter
    ain't what it seems

    here come the blue skies
    here come the springtime
    when the rivers run high and the tears run dry
    when everything that dies
    shall rise.

    love love, love is stronger than death

    love love, love is stronger than death

    in this life we hunger
    for those we cannot touch
    thoughts unshared and feelings unexpressed
    lie upon our lives like the mist upon our breaths
    but awakened by grief, our spirits speak:
    "How could you believe
    that the life within the seed
    that grew arms that reached
    and a heart that beat
    and lips that smiled
    and eyes that cried
    could ever die?"


    here come the blue skies
    here come the springtime
    when the rivers run high and the tears run dry
    when everything that dies
    shall rise.

    love love, love is stronger than death

    love love, love is stronger than death


    shall rise

    Current Mood: peace
    Friday, August 26th, 2005
    12:00 am
    the accident
    Rita's work came to an end today.

    She was killed in a bush taxi accident near Malawi's capital city of Lilongwe.

    She died instantly.

    Six other people lost their life in the accident.





    ____________

    For many, the idea of physically building schools and living for long periods of time in some of the most remote parts of the world would come as an unwelcome challenge. For Rita Herkal, a 27-year-old volunteer from Wyoming, it was the opportunity of a lifetime.

    "Rita was an advocate for people who didn't have the same benefits in life," said Rita's mother Pat Herkal. "She was an activist and dedicated herself to helping the people of Africa."

    Steve Herkal, Rita's father agreed, adding that, "desk jobs weren't for Rita. She loved to be out in the field taking action."

    "Rita was an incredibly special and generous person with an inspiring commitment to serve the youth of Africa and children around the world," said Jim Ziolkowski, President and CEO of BwB, after announcing that BwB will dedicate the school she was working on to Rita and her family. "Thousands of children for generations to come will benefit from her work and now they will know that her life helped to bring them 'the light of education'."

    "Rita loved observing different cultures and was drawn to the rich culture of African countries," said Brett McNaught, who served with Rita in Peace Corps in the African country of Niger and was a BwB colleague. "She wanted to help people help themselves without disrupting their cultural values and traditions. She was a strong person, intelligent and driven."

    "She experienced in 27 years what most never experience in a lifetime," said Deborah Popowski, another Peace Corps friend in Niger. "She was a good writer too, and she captured almost every cultural detail in a journal she always carried around. She was one of the bravest and most vibrant people you will ever meet. She was tough on the outside when she needed to be, but she had a big heart and loved her friends, her boyfriend and her family very much."


    (quoted from a Building with Books press release)


    _____________________________


    Remembering Rita

    Tuy-Cam and I have come to deeply admire the Peace Corps Volunteers we've led and supported during the past five years in Niger. While there are vast differences among them, they all tend to share a deep commitment to service and a strong taste for adventure. Also, all of them are willing to give up American affluence for two years of poverty, hardship, and sometimes danger in the African bush. It hasn't been possible to develop close personal relations with each of the more than 400 who have served here under my direction, but many have become almost like family, and we follow their post-Peace Corps lives with much interest.

    One of our favorites was Rita Herkal, a member of the first group of new Volunteers to arrive after we did. She was an outstanding Volunteer, not only surviving in the harsh environment of a small Nigerien village but actually thriving in it. She extended her normal two years of service for an additional six months, and then stayed on in Niger for several more months to travel in the Sahara with a group of nomad herders.

    After leaving Niger and spending some time with her family in the U.S., Rita got a job with Save the Children, a major international humanitarian organization. (Many Volunteers go on to careers with international organizations of this sort.) She was with a Save the Children affiliate called Building with Books, and her job was to help rural communities in Malawi build schools. She wrote a series of emails to us and many other Peace Corps friends describing her adventures and the progress she was making on the schools. In the most recent one, on August 24, she said, “I am happy and healthy and so satisfied with my life and what I am doing. It truly is an incredible feeling to have each minute permeated with contentment and gratification.”

    Two days later, on August 26, Rita was killed in a bush taxi accident. (Bush taxis are the aged, crowded, unregulated, uncomfortable, dangerous vehicles that serve as the primary, often only, form of public transportation in much of rural Africa.) She was 27. We should remember her as a hero who lost her life in service to humanity. She represented the best of Peace Corps, and the best of America.

    (from Foreign Service Life, the newsletter of americandiplomacy.org)


    __________________________________

    Remembering Rita Herkel

    I have just arrived in Dakar, Senegal after the long trip west and then south from China. Before the work here begins in earnest, I wanted to first take a moment to remember someone who died suddenly and unexpectedly last week. (This is something I wrote earlier in the trip but was unable to post before now).

    In a time when so many innocents are dying - victims of disaster (and sometimes inadequate help) such as in northern Niger and New Orleans, victims of a freak accident such as the Shiite pilgrims in Baghdad recently, victims of genocidal actions and policies, people blown up by others, other people caught in the crossfire of wars and conflicts, and so on, it may seem inappropriate to dwell on the passing of one person somewhere else. But every life is precious and this is one that I had the chance to cross paths with for a brief period.

    Last week, on 27 August, one of the people who had served as a volunteer in the group I was responsible for in Niger, Jenny Paulk, forwarded a really nice letter by another former Niger volunteer who was in Malawi helping to build schools - Rita Herkel. Rita had written it on 24 August to some friends, telling with enthusiasm how the work with the communities was going and expressing her feeling of being so lucky at that time.

    Four days later (31 Aug.) another e-mail from another former volunteer, Barney Smith, (it's considerate of them to keep me on some mailing lists) said that the Peace Corps office in Niger had decided to name the resource center at the office in her honor since she had died in a bush taxi accident a few days earlier.

    There is so much that could be said, and others closer to her or more eloquent might say it much better, but once past the shock, I couldn't help but think that if she had to go so soon, this was the way to do it. She was doing something that made her feel lucky and indeed was helping others. She went out on top, as the expression goes, something we might all hope for when our time inevitably comes.

    I knew Rita only as her Associate Peace Corps Director (APCD) - every volunteer is in effect assigned to a sector headed by an APCD - for the two plus years (2001-03) she served in the village of Holla Bella in the Balleyara district northeast of Niamey. I've always had a lot of respect for all volunteers, but as in any walk of life, some seem to shine especially. Rita as I knew her from being her APCD was one of them. In her work, in her integration in the local community (she had a very high level in Zarma language), and her relations with other volunteers she was exemplary. It was fitting that she be remembered back in Niamey

    I did not know that after her planned travel following her close of service in Niger she went on to work in Malawi. But it didn't surprise me. As a volunteer and in other development work she took the risks that we all do - local modes of transportation are sometimes quite unsafe whether because of mechanical issues, road conditions, the fault of drivers, or some combination. I don't know what it was the last day Rita took a bush taxi some short time after writing such a bright letter about her work, but she was among 6 people who died in that accident that day. Such accidents happen frequently without world notice, and at a rate certainly much higher than what we know in the West.

    There are so many senseless deaths, and with each we all lose something precious, intangible, and from that point on, forever unknown. Separation and distance from the ones we knew are never easy, but the sense of a lost future is hardest of all to take.

    This, then, is to remember Rita, her work, dedication, and spirit, and by her the many others who have left us too early. May their souls progress serenely and their memory inspire rather than sadden.

    (from Don Osborne, in his blog Beyond Niamey)
    Wednesday, August 24th, 2005
    2:21 am
    the saga continues


    Have you ever felt that things are going so smoothly that you wonder
    how you had such luck? That has been my feeling of late, and it is so
    great to be in that space. To be happy is a fabulous thing, but to
    know that you are happy and have such a solid sense of it is even
    better. I am so impressed and proud of the people I am working with
    on this school. Their dedication to it astounds me over and over.
    The number of volunteers from the community is still amazing and well
    above what we asked for or expected. The work is not easy, either.
    Men are digging two pits that are 4 meters deep for the latrine, and
    the soil is as hard as…bedrock? Not quite, but really hard and the
    only tools they work with are pick-axes and shovels. The women carry
    pail upon pail of water on their heads to be used for cement mixing,
    wetting the bricks, watering the concrete. Yet they still manage to
    sing throughout the day, stopping for a short dance before going to
    the not too distant well to get another pail of water.

    The bandage has finally come off of my finger. It is still a little
    sore and I can't use it for much (yet) but the nerves are starting to
    regenerate and I don't think there will be any lasting damage. I am
    so lucky, as I know that if I was a Malawian I would no longer have
    that part of my finger. It is amazing that the privileges of being a
    citizen of the "developed" world (I hate that phrase) extend to the
    far remote areas of Africa.

    We have finally found the site for our second school and will be
    starting to build it in a couple of weeks. The turnout at the
    initial meeting was amazing, with more than 300 people there to greet
    us. The enthusiasm of the community was contagious, and that is
    imperative to this second site since we will be in a race against the
    rainy season. Once people start to prepare their fields, we can't
    expect them to neglect that since it is an issue of survival and
    starvation.

    I am happy and healthy and so satisfied with my life and what I am
    doing. It truly is an incredible feeling to have each minute
    permeated with contentment and gratification.

    Current Mood: peace
    Wednesday, August 10th, 2005
    5:14 am
    stickers, stars, slabs, and site selection
    2 ½ weeks into construction and I am so amazed by the work and effort
    on the part of the community. We were expecting 30 villagers to work
    each day as volunteer labor, but the average for the first couple of
    weeks has been more than 100 per day! Amazing. They are so happy to
    finally be getting a school and their efforts really show it. we
    poured the concrete slab floor this week and the brick walls will
    start to go up next week. Due to all of the help from the villagers
    we are already ahead of schedule by 3 days, and it seems that the
    number will only increase. Women come with babies tied to their backs
    to pull water and men come to mix concrete, carry bricks, haul sand,
    and a multitude of various other jobs. Some of the elder men show up
    to work in full suits with jackets, and though it is hot and the work
    is extremely dirty, the jackets don't come off during the day. They
    have got to be some of the best dressed construction workers in the
    world!

    I have also made great friends with some of the children, as I always
    tend to do no matter where I am in Africa. I brought lots of
    stickers to give to them, and about once a week I will give one to
    each kid. Word travels fast and it doesn't take long before I have a
    little mob surrounding me. of course they love them, some putting
    them on their hands, some on their ear lobes, and some on their
    foreheads. When I walk around the village, I am always greeted by
    children's cries of, "Rita, Rita, Rita!" followed by a frantic wave
    of the hand. It is so cute.

    The nights here are amazing. No lights for many miles makes for great
    star viewing. The southern cross is bright in the sky, as is
    Scorpio, Sagitarius, and Libra. It takes less than a minute of
    viewing to see a falling star, and the sight is just breathtaking. I
    always miss the stars when I am in America. The only place I have
    ever seen stars that can compare to African skies are in the isolated
    depths of Wyoming (which is practically the whole state).

    We are now looking for the site for the second school. Some of the
    areas we have seen are so isolated and beautiful, more than 60 km from
    a paved road. Days of site selection are a treat, riding around the
    middle of the Malawian bush on a motorcycle, seeing areas and
    communities that are so far from everything that you wonder how they
    survive. One of the villages we visited had its nearest water source
    at a river 5 km away. In order to get one bucket of water for the
    household it is 10 km round-trip. I don't know how they do it.

    And now for my selfish plea. I want packages! Books, candy,
    magazines, American treats, at least a letter! I will even make it
    cheap and easy. My boss is coming to visit in early September and
    has agreed to bring all mail and packages sent to him in the states.
    He is actually one of my good friends from the Peace Corps so it is
    not a problem to send him lots of mail for me.

    Motivate! I can use some mail. Think of my isolation and the fact
    that I only eat corn mush everyday, for both lunch and dinner. I
    deserve it!

    So things are proceeding very well and I am very happy (and healthy,
    too). Thanks for all of the encouragement I have received from
    everyone. I really appreciate it.
    Wednesday, July 27th, 2005
    7:21 am
    village life
    I have finally moved to the village and I have to admit that I am so
    much happier there. We have started to build the school, and the
    amount of work and effort that the community is putting into it is
    absolutely amazing. There are more than 30 people working on site,
    and the work thus far has been nothing short of back-breaking. We
    have been digging trenches for the foundation, and the soil is harder
    than any I have ever seen. This is great news for the structure of
    the school but it makes for some very difficult work. The community
    realizes that it is worth it, however, and is very much appreciative
    for the opportunity to have a school.

    To finalize the agreement, we had a "covenant signing" last week.
    This consisted of each and every member of the community signing an
    agreement to supply volunteer labor and local materials if Building
    with Books supplied all construction materials and necessary
    oversight. For those that were illiterate, a thumbprint sufficed.

    Driving up with two 7-ton trucks full of materials (cement, rebar,
    timber planks, wheelbarrows, tools) was one of the most incredible
    experiences of my life. The joy and excitement on people's faces was
    unlike anything I have ever seen before. This was the realization of
    a dream that they have been waiting many years for, and I have never
    seen such happiness on people's faces. I felt like Santa Claus,
    except better, because in "real" life Santa never favors poor people.
    It was fabulous.

    I am in town for the day doing necessary administrative duties but
    will be returning to the village in the morning where the people are
    kind, the workers are amazing, and the school is being erected.

    Life is good.
    Wednesday, July 20th, 2005
    12:10 pm
    moving on
    Greetings to all, and I hope everyone is enjoying their summer. Cold
    season is finally coming to an end here, though of course it is not
    that cold. I welcome the oppressive heat, though. Since my time
    spent in Niger, I actually enjoy it.

    Thank you to everyone who wrote me about my finger. It is healing,
    albeit slowly, and it doesn't look like I will come out of the
    accident with any permanent damage. It is going to take a long time
    to heal, but I am just grateful to still have my finger.

    Our budget was approved (finally!) so on Friday I will be moving to
    the village. I am really looking forward to it even though it means I
    will no longer have e-mail contact. A small price to pay in exchange,
    though, in my opinion. The town I am living in is slowly killing me
    with boredom, and at least in the village there will be the African
    village charm and culture that the larger towns seem to lack. The
    construction of the school building should take about 3 months, and
    midway through we hope to start construction on the second school. We
    still need to do site selection, so that may be a pipe dream, but it
    is something I am hoping to accomplish.

    Today was National Education Day so I spent the day at a huge
    government function that was full of singing and dancing and music.
    It was very entertaining and included lots of women shaking their
    butts while dancing, "ancestors" dancing in some of the most
    incredible masks I have ever seen and traditional songs. The theme
    was "Education as the social vaccine to AIDS" and hopefully that will
    be the case in the future. Unfortunately, Malawi does not have enough
    teachers for the schools partially due to the AIDS crisis. Hundreds
    of teachers die each year as they are the age group that is the most
    affected. Very sad, and the education system is definitely suffering
    from it. Some of the teachers of the younger grades only have the
    equivalent of a 6th grade education themselves, so you can imagine
    their qualifications (or lack thereof).

    I am enclosing a couple of pictures of the ancestors. I hope they
    are viewable, as the system I downloaded them on is old and outdated.
    I will no longer be e-mailing, though I hope to be sending out
    occasional updates like this when I come to town. Things are finally
    moving forward at a quick pace and I am really looking forward to it.




    Friday, July 8th, 2005
    2:42 am
    a once in a lifetime adventure
    I have not sent a dispatch recently because I have been suffering from
    a case of writer's block. My two-month anniversary with the country
    has passed and things do not seem new and fascinating at every turn.
    However, I have observed many facets of American culture and life that
    have permeated the lives and language of Malawians, at least in the
    cities and medium-sized towns, and I am always a little surprised and
    taken aback by them.

    The Michael Jackson saga has played a large role in the news here, as
    it did around the world. Someone I work with made a statement about
    "Wacko Jacko" and I was a little taken aback by it. I have heard
    other people say it as well, so that phrase is well known. 50 Cent
    plays on the radio, uncensored, and almost everyone seems to be a big
    fan of American and British boy bands that sound like New Kids on the
    Block. I have even heard Dolly Parton's "Jolene" blaring from stereos
    on several occasions. Oprah's TV show is on everyday, though I think
    the episodes are a couple of years old. People wear Chicago
    basketball jerseys and Los Angelos football jerseys, though the only
    sport that is followed is soccer. They even call it soccer, not
    football as the rest of the world does. Cameron Diaz's TV show
    Trippin' is advertised on the radio, though only shown on DishTV
    (satellite dishes are fairly common among the wealthy, though quite
    expensive to subscribe to). Many men wear business suits and ties to
    work, and lots of the young women could be walking the streets of any
    American town.

    Of course, this is the "urban" Malawi and not what will be encountered
    in the villages. I attended a meeting in the first village where we
    are going to build a school last week and it included traditional
    singing and dancing, a traditional local band, and dancing of the
    "ancestors." The traditional dances are done by all women, with
    many standing in a circle and singing and clapping while one or two
    dance in the circle. The singing involves ululations and complex
    beats layered on top of each other, and the dancing involves much
    movement of the hips and butts, followed by hollers and laughter.
    Women of all ages dance, and the grandmother of the chief, who is
    close to 100, was joining in as well. The traditional band was
    comprised of four men and a younger boy. The younger boy was playing
    a percussion instrument that was comprised of many bottlecaps strung
    together on strings that were standing on three short wooden legs.
    Three of the men were playing string instruments that resembled a
    guitar, a banjo, and an upright bass. The necks of the instruments
    were wooden, with crudely carved pegs acting as the tuning keys for
    the strings, which were made of wire from a bicycle cable. I didn't
    think they could stay in tune, but they could! The banjo-like
    instrument had a wooden neck and a head made of animal skin. The
    guitar had an old rectangular metal oil container as its head and the
    frets were carved onto the wooden neck. The upright bass was the most
    impressive, however. The instrument was about 6 feet long, made of a
    long board for the neck and a large 2-headed drum for the bottom.
    The strings could be plucked to sound exactly like an upright bass, or
    played like a slide guitar using a glass botte. While it was being
    played as a string instrument, there was someone sitting on the ground
    next to it and playing the bottom like a drum. Very amazing, and the
    music was quite beautiful. The singing was all done in Chichewa, but
    the themes were the same as those found in music worldwide - the
    difficulty of women, the beauty of love, and the living of everyday
    life.

    After the women danced and the band played, traditional "ancestors"
    came out to dance. These were 3 men covered in black mud from head
    to feet, wearing hundreds of strips of cloth tied around their waist,
    ankles, wrists, and neck and a large mask to hide their faces. They
    represent the ancestors of the village and appear at all big
    ceremonies or meetings. While people drum, they stomp and dance
    around, communicating with those watching through dance and hand
    movements. The dancing reminded me of possession ceremonies I had
    seen in West Africa with the same frantic-quick movements and stomping
    and stirring up of lots of dust. They were carrying large wooden
    staffs that they hit the ground with, and in one of the dances the
    staff became a large phallic symbol. This made the crowd go nuts,
    hollering and ululating and clapping. After the ancestors had danced,
    the meeting was over and we headed home. I am very much looking
    forward to moving to the village and starting to build the first
    school. The date keeps getting postponed for various reasons, but
    building really should start within the next two weeks. It was
    supposed to begin next week, but I ended up in a hospital in
    Johannesburg, South Africa so it is posponed once more. I will write
    about that adventure in the next dispatch, but safe to say I am alive
    and well thanks to some incredible evacuation insurance I had.
    1:05 am
    America in Malawi
    I have not sent a dispatch recently because I have been suffering from
    a case of writer's block. My two-month anniversary with the country
    has passed and things do not seem new and fascinating at every turn.
    However, I have observed many facets of American culture and life that
    have permeated the lives and language of Malawians, at least in the
    cities and medium-sized towns, and I am always a little surprised and
    taken aback by them.

    The Michael Jackson saga has played a large role in the news here, as
    it did around the world. Someone I work with made a statement about
    "Wacko Jacko" and I was a little taken aback by it. I have heard
    other people say it as well, so that phrase is well known. 50 Cent
    plays on the radio, uncensored, and almost everyone seems to be a big
    fan of American and British boy bands that sound like New Kids on the
    Block. I have even heard Dolly Parton's "Jolene" blaring from stereos
    on several occasions. Oprah's TV show is on everyday, though I think
    the episodes are a couple of years old. People wear Chicago
    basketball jerseys and Los Angelos football jerseys, though the only
    sport that is followed is soccer. They even call it soccer, not
    football as the rest of the world does. Cameron Diaz's TV show
    Trippin' is advertised on the radio, though only shown on DishTV
    (satellite dishes are fairly common among the wealthy, though quite
    expensive to subscribe to). Many men wear business suits and ties to
    work, and lots of the young women could be walking the streets of any
    American town.

    Of course, this is the "urban" Malawi and not what will be encountered
    in the villages. I attended a meeting in the first village where we
    are going to build a school last week and it included traditional
    singing and dancing, a traditional local band, and dancing of the
    "ancestors." The traditional dances are done by all women, with
    many standing in a circle and singing and clapping while one or two
    dance in the circle. The singing involves ululations and complex
    beats layered on top of each other, and the dancing involves much
    movement of the hips and butts, followed by hollers and laughter.
    Women of all ages dance, and the grandmother of the chief, who is
    close to 100, was joining in as well. The traditional band was
    comprised of four men and a younger boy. The younger boy was playing
    a percussion instrument that was comprised of many bottlecaps strung
    together on strings that were standing on three short wooden legs.
    Three of the men were playing string instruments that resembled a
    guitar, a banjo, and an upright bass. The necks of the instruments
    were wooden, with crudely carved pegs acting as the tuning keys for
    the strings, which were made of wire from a bicycle cable. I didn't
    think they could stay in tune, but they could! The banjo-like
    instrument had a wooden neck and a head made of animal skin. The
    guitar had an old rectangular metal oil container as its head and the
    frets were carved onto the wooden neck. The upright bass was the most
    impressive, however. The instrument was about 6 feet long, made of a
    long board for the neck and a large 2-headed drum for the bottom.
    The strings could be plucked to sound exactly like an upright bass, or
    played like a slide guitar using a glass botte. While it was being
    played as a string instrument, there was someone sitting on the ground
    next to it and playing the bottom like a drum. Very amazing, and the
    music was quite beautiful. The singing was all done in Chichewa, but
    the themes were the same as those found in music worldwide - the
    difficulty of women, the beauty of love, and the living of everyday
    life.

    After the women danced and the band played, traditional "ancestors"
    came out to dance. These were 3 men covered in black mud from head
    to feet, wearing hundreds of strips of cloth tied around their waist,
    ankles, wrists, and neck and a large mask to hide their faces. They
    represent the ancestors of the village and appear at all big
    ceremonies or meetings. While people drum, they stomp and dance
    around, communicating with those watching through dance and hand
    movements. The dancing reminded me of possession ceremonies I had
    seen in West Africa with the same frantic-quick movements and stomping
    and stirring up of lots of dust. They were carrying large wooden
    staffs that they hit the ground with, and in one of the dances the
    staff became a large phallic symbol. This made the crowd go nuts,
    hollering and ululating and clapping. After the ancestors had danced,
    the meeting was over and we headed home. I am very much looking
    forward to moving to the village and starting to build the first
    school. The date keeps getting postponed for various reasons, but
    building really should start within the next two weeks. It was
    supposed to begin next week, but I ended up in a hospital in
    Johannesburg, South Africa so it is posponed once more. I will write
    about that adventure in the next dispatch, but safe to say I am alive
    and well thanks to some incredible evacuation insurance I had.
    Sunday, June 12th, 2005
    12:15 pm
    wild demon hyena
    Here in Malawi there has been a crazy killing hyena. It is
    now dead, but it took a couple of days and one hundred bullets (so
    said in the national newspaper) from the police and military to
    finally kill it. Most of the people in Malawi, including those that
    are well educated, believe that it was either witchcraft or an angry
    ancestor coming back to haunt the area. Here is the story.

    In an area that is approximately 40 miles south of the capital city,
    what was initially called an "unidentified wild beast" was identified
    as a hyena that must have been rabid. Over a period of 2 days it
    killed 9 people and put 13 more in the hospital with serious injuries.
    It was not attacking people who were out hiking around, but was
    breaking down doors of people's houses (not doors in the American
    sense, of course, but still…) and ripping them to shreds inside of
    their houses. The age of people who were killed ranged from babies
    to teenagers to old people. Villagers were trying to kill it with
    axes and machetes, but to no avail. There was a nasty picture on the
    front page of the newspaper that was a boy of 8 or so who essentially
    had the lower part of his face ripped off. There was a man whose
    teenage son was killed who said he sat with the boy all night, holding
    all of his intestines that had been ripped out and knowing that he was
    going to die. People were sleeping on top of grain silos and in
    groups at the local school for protection, but the beast was attacking
    people during the day as well. really crazy. Apparently there was
    a similar incident 2 years ago that lasted for several months and the
    hyena could not be killed. It terrorized and killed people over a
    period of more than 2 months, attacking during the day and the night.
    Finally, a ranger (who was apparently the local medicine man) killed
    it using a combination of medicine and a gun. Crazy. You almost have
    to believe the superstitions, you know? Everyone here does. I just
    thought that the story was so unbelievable that it had to be passed
    on. You can read a lame condensed version of it here.

    http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20050615/ap_on_re_af/malawi_killer_hyena
    Thursday, June 9th, 2005
    2:09 am
    Finally choosing a school
    I have finally started making trips to the field to determine where we will
    build our first schools this year. The efforts I have seen by poor
    villagers have amazed me. It is obvious that some of these places want a
    school more than anything, and will go to great lengths in order to get one.
    The hardest part is knowing that we can’t help everyone right away, and
    having to tell them no.

    The first village I visited was called Chambidzi. Building with Books had
    visited them several months ago and told them the requirements of us
    building a school there. The village has to provide all local materials,
    including sand, quarry stone, molded and burned bricks, and water. When we
    arrived, we found 69,000 bricks ready to be used, 12 tons of river sand that
    had been collected in buckets and brought to the site on people’s heads from
    3 km away, and 14 tons of quarry stone that had been collected by hand and
    brought on oxcart from 5 km away. Amazing. There are currently 4 classes
    of students, all being held in different community churches with the
    students sitting on the dirt floor. Many more tons of sand and stone still
    need to be collected, but it is an impressive start. The villagers had
    built several classrooms with mud, but torrential winds and rain blew over
    all of the walls, destroying their work. This is most likely the first
    place we will build a school this year.

    The second village had put in tons of effort as well (literally), but it was
    much more isolated and poor than the first. It was located 15km off of a
    road that vehicles travel on (we were in a 4-wheel drive traveling on a
    bicycle path) and the village consisted of tenant farmers of tobacco that
    work the land for wealthy merchants. They are dependent on the success of
    the tobacco crop which was very poor this year, so many did not even get
    paid. The village has no water source and villagers walk over a kilometer
    and a half to a dirty river in order to get their water which runs dry from
    September until December (I don’t know where they get their water then).
    They had built a schoolhouse with mud and a straw roof, but the area has a
    terrible problem with termites so there is essentially no roof left. When I
    walked in to greet the students, they greeted me with “Hello Madame, How are
    you? Feel free.” I thought it was great that of the 15 English words they
    know, 2 of those words are Feel Free. (Schools here are taught primarily
    in the local languages until middle school). This village had 136,000
    bricks ready to be used and had collected 14 tons of river sand in buckets
    from the same river where they get their drinking water. They had collected
    and carried, once again on their heads, 35 tons of quarry stone from half a
    kilometer away. These villagers were so poor and desperate for an
    acceptable school building that they had carried almost 50 tons of materials
    to the site. Yet I had to extinguish their hopes for a school this year due
    to the lack of water. It takes a lot of water for construction, not only to
    mix the mud and cement, but also for those working to drink. The river
    would likely run dry before the project was finished, and then the project
    would be halted. It was heart-wrenching to tell them this, though. I felt
    terrible for the rest of the day. They need so much more help than a
    school, though that would be a start.

    Yet one has to start somewhere, and it looks like we will be breaking ground
    on our first school at the end of the month. It will be a great first step.
    I have been asked why villages can’t build a school on their own. They
    can build a mud structure, and many have, but the roofing is then made of
    grass or thatch which deteriorates quickly, due to a combination of weather
    and termites. All construction materials are prohibitively expensive, even
    by American standards. Each school will cost around $13,000 to build,
    including one paid laborer, and most of that cost is materials. The cost of
    things here is astonishing.

    So the journey continues.
    Tuesday, June 7th, 2005
    3:37 pm
    (from a personal email)

    I have to say that I was very very impressed with your French. And
    you had claimed that you couldn't speak it at all! It was very up to
    par, in my opinion and I was surprised at how much you picked up in
    only 2 months. By now are you in America yet? If not yet, soon I
    suppose. Are you looking forward to it or dreading it? I always feel
    a little of both when I return. I wish my language studies were
    coming along as well as yours but I have to admit I have been fairly
    lazy about it and really have not learned as much as I was hoping to.
    Not yet anyway. When I move to the village I am sure I will learn at
    a flying pave because I will have to in order to survive. I do wish I
    was trying harder though. Learning a new language is very satisfying
    once you get it down a little.

    So you are going to the rainbow this year? I wish I could go but of
    course that is a pipe dream. Every time I miss it (always in Africa)
    I get really depressed around the last week of June thinking about it.
    I know it will be fabulous. I do wish I could go. Know that you are
    welcome to come visit me here anytime. It really is beautiful, though
    as far as long-term living goes I definitely prefer West Africa. Of course
    the people here are great. I just have a problem with always comparing it to West
    Africa where, to me, it was blissful. But I do like it here and would
    much rather be here than in America, hands down. I try to go to the
    lake whenever I can, as it is amazing. I didn't make it there this
    weekend but am hoping to the weekend coming up. Tuesday is a holiday
    so I will probably take off Monday and have 4 days – parfait!
    Tuesday, May 31st, 2005
    2:34 am
    Snorkelling on the Lake
    Malawi. A very beautiful country, indeed, but I had no idea how wonderful
    it could be until I visited the northern side of the lake for the weekend.
    I had heard mixed reviews about the area. Guide books call it a
    “backpacker’s mecca,” Malawians say it is very nice, and a German woman I
    met who works in Malawi did not like it due to the “fake Rastas” making a
    living off of tourists. I would have to side with the opinion of the
    guidebooks. It was absolutely beautiful, incredibly peaceful, and quite
    possibly the most idyllic place I have ever visited, aside from the Redwoods
    and Moab.

    The trip began with an incredible drive through mountains, plateaus and
    forests before dropping down to the lake. The forests are considered
    reserves and are quite beautiful, aside from the fact that over half of the
    area is planted with non-native trees for timber-harvesting purposes. There
    were banana trees everywhere with their big purple flowers drooping down and
    little green bananas spiraling up from the flower. True, the leg of the
    drive that was only supposed to take 3 hours took almost 7 but my patience
    amazes me sometimes, and at least the drive was beautiful. I am sure it
    would have been just as beautiful if we were moving twice as fast but I
    tried not to think about that aspect since it was beyond my control. I just
    happened to be in a small bus that didn’t have the engine power to take the
    weight of the passengers up the hills of the mountain. Finally I arrived in
    Nkhata Bay.

    Nkhata Bay is a little fishing village that is surrounded by green
    mountains, citrus and banana trees and of course the lake that extends to
    the horizon so it looks like the ocean. The people are all incredibly
    friendly and there are many places to stay since many Malawians vacation
    here as well. The accommodations are incredible. I stayed at two
    different places, and both were picturesque bamboo huts with stilted
    balconies overlooking the lake. I spent a fair amount of time at the fish
    market along the water, watching the wooden dugouts bring in fish of all
    sizes, ranging from 1-2 inchers to 4-foot long catfish. After spending
    time with the dead fish in the market I would go back to the place I was
    staying (for about $3 a night) and go snorkeling where I saw fish more
    incredible than any I have ever seen in an aquarium, and they were in their
    natural habitat. There were fish of all colors, but many were different
    shades of electric blue. There were fish of bright aqua, deep purple,
    light blue, electric blue, teal, orange, white, yellow, green, black, and
    white as well as fish with stripes of black and white like a zebra, orange
    and black stripes like a tiger, blue and black stripes, blue and yellow,
    along with many other combinations. There were some fish that were the
    color of the sand so you could hardly see them, others that were opaque so
    only visible when the sun glinted off of their moving tails. The fish did
    not seem to be concerned with the fact that I was mere inches from them and
    it truly was amazing. I am going to get my scuba diving license while here
    and am really looking forward to that.

    Tomorrow, the man I have hired as field coordinator starts so I am looking
    forward to that. Within a month, I would like to break ground on a school.
    Things are progressing smoothly (aside from the fact that I am having
    problems extending my visa) and I am enjoying myself. Of course, visitors
    are always welcome.
    Tuesday, May 17th, 2005
    4:59 pm
    Monkeys on lake Malawi
    I was lucky enough to finally see the renowned Lake Malawi last weekend. I had spent the week in Blantyre, not getting much done and getting more frustrated by the day. I decided that I would go to see the lake on Friday since I was not going to be able to work until Monday regardless, and I knew that it would be a little more exciting than Kasungu, the small town where I am based.
    Lake Malawi takes up approximately a third of the entire country of Malawi. It is long and narrow, ringed by mountains and almost all of the land surrounding the lake is protected so it is still pristine and beautiful. The lake is filled with fish, a large part of the Malawian economy, and has some of the best scuba diving in the world. There are hundreds of rare species of fish in the lake, and many have not been identified yet. There are small fish similar to sardines that are eaten in every way imaginable – ground into powder for sauce, fried whole, boiled, dried – and at night you could see many boats on the water using lights to attract the fish to their nets. In the morning, women would come around with large bowls filled with fresh fish on their heads, selling a small pile for about 8 cents. The other common fish is similar to the tilapia, medium sized and very tasty. People fry it whole and then eat it with nsima and sauce. It has become one of my favorite foods here. The color of the lake is absolutely beautiful, a bright turquoise that changes to greens andother blues depending on the depth. I took a boat ride so was lucky enough to see not only a lot of the lake, but also the small fishing villages that sit on the edge of the shore, mountains rising straight behind them and only accessible by water. There are also many hippos and crocodiles in the water in some areas but I saw neither.
    I was lucky enough to see some wildlife, however. There were hundreds of species of birds, all colors and shapes. There were a lot of eagles that look similar to the American bald eagle, also protected. There were birds that were red, every shade of blue and yellow, bright green, black and white. Some had long hooked beaks,others were the same shade of green as the mango trees they sat on,and all of them were entertaining to watch. More entertaining than the birds, however, were the monkeys. I do not know the species, but they were fairly small, grayish-white, with black masks on their facesand long skinny tales. They were comical, to say the least. They would travel in groups and come seemingly out of nowhere. All would be quiet and then I would hear the rustling of the leaves, the loud bangs as they landed on the tin roofs, the squeaking and chattering as they talked to each other. They would climb the papaya and banana trees, looking for any piece of fruit that was even remotely ripe. If there was food out, they would decide whether they were brave enough to attempt to take it. Then they would just sit in the trees and look at you, play with the leaves, swing on the vines. I think monkeys are fantastic – I really like them. After they were bored or had decided that there was nothing available for them, they would swing on to the next area.
    Speaking of wildlife…
    Throughout the country, people eat birds of all sizes and varieties,even tiny ones. They sell them skewered on sticks, but I can't imagine that they would sate anyone's appetite, even slightly. Another tasty treat sold on skewers are mice, cooked and ready to eat. People sell them in the markets, along the side of the roads, all over. In Niger, hungry children would eat mice but here in Malawi,even adults eat them and it is not considered a famine food. I don't know if I would go so far as to call it gourmet, but it is definitely common.
    I should have someone hired for Building with Books by the end of the week and will then be able to start work in earnest. I am looking forward to it. Moving to the village to build schools really appeals to me. Soon….
    Wednesday, May 11th, 2005
    8:27 am
    to market to market
    Another week survived in Malawi and I have started to get a little more acclimated. Things still seem new to me on a daily basis, but I think I have passed the stage of perpetual awe. I have spent the week in the largest city in the country, Blantyre, having meetings with people and doing paperwork. I have been working on getting NGO status for Building with Books in the country, but it is a slow process. It was a 7 hour bus ride to get here, but the scenery was gorgeous. Rwanda is called the land of a thousand hills but I really think that title belongs to Malawi. Mountains are everywhere, there are lots of trees, and small villages consisting of either conical thatch huts or rectangular mud brick houses are scattered throughout the countryside. It is a very beautiful country. When passing through towns and villages there would be women on the side of the road selling piles of tomatoes and potatoes, running to the windows of the bus if we stopped so that people could buy something to eat. It is obvious that deforestation is taking place but it does not seem tobe happening at a devastating rate yet.
    I went to the produce market early this morning to get something to eat – I was hoping for a papaya – and the market was fascinating. It was really early – maybe 6:45 – so everyone was setting things up and it was just bustling with activity. In a fairly small area there were hundreds of people sorting through produce, bartering, buying and selling. There were thousands upon thousands of tomatoes in piles and people were going through them, putting the ones that had gone badi nto a pile (there were far too many of those)! There were piles of onions with the greens still attached being sorted by size and then being tied in bundles; piles and piles of cabbage, with people workingto tear the outside bug-eaten leaves off. Sellers were arranging small piles of carrots, eggplant, squash, and green peppers. The place was a massive center of activity and work being done. But, alas, no papaya. I ended up getting a couple of hard boiled eggs instead.
    Late last week I sat in on a meeting at Save the Children, and one of their program focuses is on AIDS and behavior change. Some of the things that I learned were absolutely shocking to me - no wonder AIDS is increasing! All of these activities are regular cultural behaviors in this particular area where SAVE is working. I am not sure how widespread they are across the country, but prepared to be shocked. 1) When a husband dies, his brother inherits the wife and kids and takes over as new husband. Obviously, if the husband died of AIDS the wife is going to infect his brother.2) Having children is so important in this society that if a couple can't produce a kid, they bring other men into the relationship to try and get the woman pregnant.3) What we would call swinging is pretty common here, apparently, with large numbers. Groups of friends will come together and all share partners.4) When girls have their first menstruation there is a coming of age ceremony. After the ceremony it is arranged for her to have sex with an older man, one who has likely had many partners in the past.5) Evening markets are very common and females, mostly teenagers and some in their early 20s, will barter sex for items that the vendor is selling. The vendor usually goes to a different market every week, sleeping with different girls every night.6) In church choirs which are typically made up of all girls younger than marriageable age, practice is held late and it is common for men in the church to sleep with them during or after choir practice. A proposed solution is to make girls drop out of choir when they reach adolescence, but the men will still be involved in the church.
    And people wonder why AIDS is a growing problem. With cultural practices like these, it is hard to convince yourself that there is much hope but of course there has to be. There are a LOT of people working on AIDS education and behavior change, and this has to be having some effect. In the next couple of days I will be heading back to Kasungu. Perhaps I will be lucky enough to spend the weekend at Lake Malawi. It issupposed to be absolutely beautiful. It would be a nice way to spend the weekend.
    Wednesday, May 4th, 2005
    6:41 pm
    Dispatches from Malawi, Week 1
    It is hard to believe that I have been here for almost a week yet it is the typical African time warp – each day seems to last an eternity, but the weeks fly by too quickly. I am enjoying Malawi and have been amused and fascinated by a variety of things everyday. One of the most common activities for those that do not work here is drinking, all day long, starting at breakfast time. The most common drink is called "Chibuku – Shake Shake," a local beer made from fermented cornflour and soda water. I have not tried it, but it is apparently thick and chunky, hence the "Shake Shake." Whenever I say it aloud it makes me giggle, "Shake Shake." This is such a strange departure from Muslim West Africa where all alcohol is taboo. Bars are sometimes called Boozing Centers and there is even a Boozing Street here in Kasungu where a large number of bars are located. Of course, there are many people who do not drink as well – it seems to be an activity primarily of the unemployed young men.
    One of the most striking features of Kasungu are all of the coffinshops in town – there seem to be more coffin shops than any other business, and carpentry is the largest and also the fastest growing profession in the country. AIDS here has been absolutely devastating, and 1/3 of the total population is infected. The average life span has dropped to 36 over the past 15 years, due solely to AIDS. Malawi is much better off than Niger in almost every aspect as far as poverty goes – the people are not as hungry, the roads are significantly better, people have better clothes, there is more infrastructure – but life span is much shorter because of AIDS. It seems that people are constantly attending funerals and there seems to be no relief in sight. I don't know if the problem is promiscuity, lack of condoms, failure to understand cause and effect, or a combination of all of these factors but it is quite sad to see and almost impossible to comprehend.
    Kasungu is located at the base of a beautiful mountain, Mt. Kasungu. I attempted to climb it on Monday morning but only made it to the smaller peak because I ran out of water. Many people climb the mountain on Friday afternoons and stay until Sunday, praying. I saw some people praying when I was on it, chanting and singing in Chichewawith occasional yelled intervals of "Jesus Power, Jesus, Jesus, Power Jesus, Jesus Power!" Malawi is an intensely religious country, Christian in the southern and central regions and Muslim in the north, though mixed with animist beliefs as well. The missionaries were quite successful and I think that there are still a lot of them here. I have had some interesting discussions about religion with Malawians and am always amused when one of the first questions that people ask when they meet you is, "Do you pray?"
    The food is decent, infinitely better than the food in Niger though not as good as the food in Ghana. Nsima is the mainstay, corn flour cooked into a thick porridge that is eaten with the hands and dipped into a tomato-meat stew. Collard greens are also always served and they are delicious. Coke and Fanta are found everywhere. There is also a local tilapia fish that is common. It comes from Lake Malawi and is quite good, though I prefer the chicken.
    Yesterday as I was walking around I was lucky enough to catch a traditional medicine ceremony. There were 3 medicine men, and they had many, many animal horns from various types of African antelopes, some of them quite large, as well as animal skins, tree barks, carvings and fetishes and a stuffed weasel-type animal. They were chanting and shaking shakers, focusing their attention on a spot that had a little coffin (a miniature replica) with the weasel on top of it and some charms and fetishes around it. As they were chanting, they kept sprinkling flour around everything as an offering. This went on for some time. They would look to the sky and chant and sing, sprinkle more flour, etc. I could not understand what, exactly, was happening as it was all in Chichewa but I assume it was for a spirit of the recently deceased. Very interesting.
    I am looking forward to being fluent in Chichewa. My language skills are coming along, but of course it is difficult. Many people here speak English, which makes it even harder. However, I have been working diligently at learning the language and I am definitely making progress.
    Overall, I have to say that things are going well. I have looked at resumes and am waiting to hire someone to help me run the Building with Books program. I hope to break ground on a school in late May or early June, and in the meantime I am trying to establish non-profit status for the organization. In truth, I am just happy to be back in Africa.
    Friday, April 22nd, 2005
    6:46 pm
    heading out
    Hello again. The time is nigh for me to leave the continent and head to the other side of this little orb. Yep, I am out of here (finally!). My plane leaves on Tuesday afternoon from New York and I was lucky enough to find a flight that went directly to Johannesburg, South Africa. However, between the long distance and the time change I am not going to arrive in Malawi until Thursday afternoon! I guess I better have a good book…



    I am quite impressed with the organization I’m working for and the work that they do so that is an assurance. Most of the work is done domestically, in inner city high schools, but the international work is impressive as well. I will have my work cut out from me from the first since I am opening a new program in Malawi. This ranges from setting up bank accounts to hiring staff to acquiring NGO (non-profit) status for the organization to site selection. It will be an incredible learning experience and I have heard only good things about the people of Malawi so I am excited.



    Receiving letters and mail will be crucial to keeping my sanity, so please write! I will have some access to e-mail, though I don’t know how often that will be. Amazingly, I will most likely have a cell phone as well. Strange to think that the first cell phone I ever own will be in Africa. It is not by choice, but I have to have some way to keep in touch with the staff back here in the states.



    Farewell to all. I will be thinking of you often, rest assured.
    Thursday, April 7th, 2005
    6:38 pm
    Connecticut News
    Greetings from the East Coast. No, I haven't made it very far yet but I do have mailing addresses for both Connecticut and Malawi. I will be in Connecticut until April 21st and will then be heading out.

    I have learned a lot more about the organization and I am pretty impressed with it. It is a small non-profit with about 12 people in the office but it is expanding at a quick rate with new or semi-new offices in Detroit, Chicago, Philadelphia and San Francisco. A lot of the work that they do is actually based in the states, working in middle and high schools through "clubs". They promote volunteer service and twice each year they take groups of students that are in their clubs on 2-week "Treks for Knowledge" in countries where they are building schools. Currently, those countries are Nepal, Nicaragua, Haiti, and Mali, and I will be opening the program in Malawi.

    I have been extremely busy trying to get things ready for me to go, buying the plane ticket, getting all of the information I will need, making contacts in Malawi, etc. I am staying in Stamford, Connecticut, a suburb of New York City that is not quite as bad as I feared it would be. I am staying at the YMCA which is actually pretty nice, aside from the fact that I do not have access to a kitchen. I decided that it wouldn't be a bad idea for me to go on a raw diet, but have found myself eating lots of chocolate with the fruits and veggies. Don't worry - I make sure to eat a good lunch and they increased my stipend so that I could eat out for dinners (which I will, of course).

    I hope to hear from all of you. I do not have access to my hotmail account while I am at work because the organization is housed at GE (they provide the office space, phones, computers, etc. for free) and they have a very strong filter on the internet. I am checking it occasionally at the library, but not often. Back to work...
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