01 September 2011

Lunch with primates

Esther and I sat on the terrace of a bourgeois hotel on top of Zomba plateau. There were trees, bushes. There was a manicured lawn and a chess set with pieces two feet tall on a large board. The pawns were squatting villagers. The bishops medicine men beating drums between their thighs. I asked Peter, so his nametag read, for some coffee and a salad.

My book on my lap, I heard Esther apologetically explain that she couldn’t paint. “Everything’s so green. It’s too monochrome,” she decided. I, on the other hand, couldn’t read because the grounds were so lovely and its inhabitants so strange.

A rowdy troop of baboons, playing tag up and down trees and getting into spats, arrived with the lunch crowd, a semiotic pairing of species. The humans were pleased with the exotic turn out, and the baboons, for all their blasé posturing, cast beady-eyed glances at the food.

On a limb above me a female sat flirtatiously bobbing her eyebrows and itching her chin with her foot. Finally, her right forearm casually draped over her bent knee as she leaned forward a touch, much like the man seated at a table on my right. He had a whopper of a tourist hat, one of those saucer-brimmed safari things with a mosquito net tucked in there somewhere, and a thick moustache that really stuck out when the middle part of his face was covered by his fancy SLR pointed at the baboons. Oh, cute! They’re eating bark! Click.

Peter finally arrived with the coffee. He placed a small pitcher of steamed milk and a dish with turbinado and white sugar packets and no calorie sweetener on the table. The salad apparently must wait. “Monkey. Sugar,” Peter pronounced mysteriously.

“You mean the monkeys like sugar?”

“Guard the sugar carefully,” Peter affirmed.

As I thanked him, I noticed my flirt of the afternoon moving up the tree with alarm. A watchman had come round from somewhere with a slingshot. He sent a pebble whizzing through the branches with expert aim through the tangle of branches. The other baboons gave way, their pink derrieres shamelessly on display. The guard strode across the grounds and disappeared somewhere in the verdure.

Things didn’t seem right, though, as my salad came out dripping in mustard vinaigrette. A bunch of palms near a balcony rustled. A male, human, screamed. A plate crashed to the floor. People sounded worried. Everyone looked up to see a baboon perched on the railing, eating what looked like chicken before a group of upset simians in formal wear.

“Do you think those people get a free meal?” Esther mused. “Or a discount?”

And in the meantime the flirt had moved closer, just at the edge of the terrace near my table. I covered the sugar dish with my hand and pierced a cube of chicken, not bad. Then suddenly with amazing speed, she quadrapedaled toward the table where the man with the hat and moustache had sat. She swiped his sugar dish off the table, sending the packets across the terrace.

The hat looked back from the steps leading to the exit and pressed his camera to his face. The baboon stuffed her mouth full of the turbinado packets (Click.) and, resigning to lesser pleasures, swiped at the less appealing white sugar, (Click.) which also went straight (Click.) into her mouth paper and all, before she ran for the hills with Peter and the guard in tow. (Click. Click. Click.) The cheery red packets of calorie-free sweetener lay sadly behind, unwanted by a baboon or any human with taste.

“Peter,” I said as he returned panting a bit to his tables, “maybe you should take the sugar? And could you bring the bill? Please.”

13 August 2011

Unusual conversations

1. A crowded office protected by mossy brick walls from the hum of traffic outside. The sun pours generously through the windows and burglar bars, casting shadows on a tall man hunched in front of a computer and another leaning casually back in a chair that squeaks.

Tall dude: "Wow. This internet is driving me nuts."
Dude: Confused by the idiom. "You want nuts?"
Tall: "No. I'm irritated."

2. Same crowded office but in the evening. The sun is low. It's cold. A tall man spreads himself along a couch. Another twenty-something man leans against a desk. He looks inquisitively at the clearly fatigued man on the couch.

Another dude: "Tell me about racism in the United States."
Tall dude: "Sure. Do you have a specific question?"
Another: "Yea, I do. Umm. Is it better now, you think?"

The tall man sits up from the couch and thoughtfully itches his facial hair. He then explains a massive history with only a few sentences and some perfunctory hand gestures.

Tall: "So it's better, but we can still make progress."
Another: "I was watching Oprah some months ago..."

3. A rural Malawian school. Classes are out. A tall teacher with a bag full of ungraded notebooks strides out of the library . Dust kicks up and laps at his faded Dockers with each step. He needs to wash them soon. A student still in full uniform, a blue v-neck sweater with a neat white collared shirt underneath, black trousers, and black close-toed shoes, stops him.

Student: Sirrah, can I ask you a question about geography?
Tall teacher: Sure. Do you have a specific question?
Student: Sirrah, we should sit down.

The tall teacher puts down his bag and gestures toward two chairs outside the library. They sit.

I know you are not a geographer, sirrah, but I have a geography question.
Tall: That's just fine. We'll see if I can answer it.
Student: Well sirrah, you know some nights the moon is very big, and sometimes it is very small. But sirrah, some nights you cannot see the moon at all. Sirrah, where does the moon go?

The tall teacher laughs and begins drawing funny pictures with circles and lines.

4. Night. Top of Mulanje plateau. A group of weary hikers, exhausted from the day's hike and excited to summit the next day, try to sleep on the cold floor. In the adjacent room, secondary school students chat, joke, and generally annoy the exhausted and excited hikers.

Tall hiker: What time is it?
Blonde hiker: One thirty.
Tall: *&#!

Tall hiker unzips his sleeping bag. Dons a head lamp. Enters adjacent room. The head lamp glares into the eyes of fifteen stunned students. This man is crazy.

Tall: Slow, measured, enraged special English Who can tell me what time it is now?

5. Bar in rural Malawi. Loud music--bad music like Dolly Parton and Kenny Rodgers. (Where is some Akon, you know?) Cheap menthol smoke. Drunken voices. A tall foreigner shoots the breeze with an aged local fellow. Gray hair. Bad eyes. Weird breath.

Aged local fellow: I have many daughters. They are not married. I can give you some.
Tall foreigner: Oh. I see.
Aged: How many cows do you have?

The elderly fellow eyes the outsider, surely rich with cattle. His glance shows a certain enterprising smugness. He can perhaps double the dowry to eight or even twelve cattle! Three daughters, twenty four to thirty six foreign cows!

Tall: I have zero cows.
Aged: Pause. Confused disappointment. You cannot have my daughters.

No comment

Malawi was in international news last month and probably will be again next week. (Don't worry. I'm safe.) Check out headlines.

Malawi protests leave at least 10 dead

US suspends aid to Malawi after killings

Malawi activists plan new rally after recent deadly clashes

07 July 2011


I was listening to a BBC phone-in program and washing dishes. The program’s discussion had to do with cultural change in Africa, and one of the comments—the speaker angrily wrote off Africans as superstitious and uneducated—stunned me, almost made me drop my precious Nescafe coffee mug. Why the malice, yo? The comment was bitter. It lacked substance. It perpetuated the Africans-are-superstitious stereotype. It also came close to striking a nugget of truth. (But the caller is still pretty lame.)

CASE STUDY 1: I was going to buy eggs and bread to make French toast on Saturday morning, when I ran into a familiar face. He was a retired army officer. Curious about the Malawian military, I struck up a conversation on the subject. He listed qualifications, described their training, and finally mentioned combat. Apparently he had seen peace-keeping action in Somalia or Rwanda—I don’t remember.—and worked with Americans. He said, “I know you westerners don’t believe in witchcraft, but tfighting somehow disturbs you. That’s witchcraft disturbing you.”

Westerners would get the man a therapist. PTSD, much? For Malawians, though, PTSD, insanity, depression, even anxiety is witchcraft.

CASE STUDY 2: I was drinking beers with teachers. They were rattling away a mile a minute in Chitumbuka, so I just sat and sipped, sat and sipped. A teacher eventually turned to me to explain: “We were just saying how wives bewitch their husbands. They make them stay at home, help sweeping, cleaning, or what what.” Not wanting to be disagreeable, I sat and sipped.

To put this in context, men do not help around the house in Malawi. That is women’s work. Things that disrupt the flow of life, daily expectations, things that go against the grain are often pinned on witchcraft. Of course, westerners wouldn’t describe a helpful husband as bewitched.

CASE STUDY 3: A friend walked me to my home at night. I looked up to admire the Milky Way soupily laid out across the sky when an enormous meteorite whizzed into the atmosphere. “Wow! Did you see that?” I asked. “That was a witch’s plane,” said a friend. (WTF, right?)

Malawians updated the witch on a broom. They fly invisible airplanes nowadays.

I could give you more examples. The guy who told me to spit on my urine so witches couldn't use it to hex me. Another who told me I have nightmares because I’m bewitched.

The reality of witchcraft here runs deep. As the Puritans did, people here die when an angry mob confronts their sacrificial lamb, their explanation for the unexplained, their witch. Crying witchcraft is easy, very comfortable. No need to analyze the intricacies of battle, the personalities involved, the movement of matter through space, the concept of heat and friction, but then again my students have asked where Brazil is in the United States. They didn’t believe me when I told them man had walked on the moon. They didn’t not know about whales. How do you explain PTSD when “whale” is a new concept? How should I begin? How presume?

My question for the BBC caller: what do you expect? Witchcraft is the traditional cozy way to make sense of the new--and it wasn't all that long ago that hairy Europeans introduced their God and their science. I wonder if one day our Big Bang and atoms and behavioral psych will be just amusing.

28 June 2011

New pad, new address

Around early July my genie in a bottle grants three wishes: electricity, running water, hot water heater. I will leave the village for a Boma--That's a colonial remnant for British Overseas Military Area, but today it means kind of large dusty town playing host to the district's bureaucracy--and get all the perks of a large market, power lines, and pipes. I hope for only two things. 1) Readily available ginger to make ginger tea and ease digestion. 2) Predictable rolling blackouts so my sun-dried tomato fritatta doesn't get stranded in the toaster oven.

Of course, I'll have to work to earn my keep (A toaster oven is no small thing.)so I'll report to a local NGO during the nine to five. Their programming supports orphans and vulnerable children and tries to not support HIV/AIDS.

This pushes my homecoming back a little further. Probably by May 2012 I'll have all the news that's fit to print on some--What do you call them?--app, coffee, a crazy long NetFlix queue. Until then, I have a toaster oven.

I have a new address. That's the point of this entry, so if you want to pen a letter or stuff a box, use this:

Jerrod Dolenz, PCV
Peace Corps Malawi
P.O. Box 208

Another plus. My monthly internet fix will soon be weekly, bi-daily, maybe daily! So, drop an electronic line. Be in touch. Let's get connected and stuff.