New Places, New Faces

where my 8 hour journey to Migori began - the bus station in Nairobi

I spent the last week and change in a new part of Africa. I was so excited to see something new, and Kenya and Tanzania have not disappointed. I was based in Migori, Kenya first, and then in Tarime, Tanzania. All of this was to do some basic fact finding for a future project in collaboration with a few friends. Reliable information is hard to find from afar on these types of places, and I knew from my experience in Malawi that any information you can find is often shockingly wrong.

sitting on the side of the road in Kenya, waiting for a matatu

So, through some contacts and some cold-emailing, I was able to arrange a guide in each of the towns. They couldn’t have been more different. In Migori, I was guided by a young guy named Jeff, who had worked on a friend’s research project this past summer. He is full of attitude and ambition – he is starting flight school in January, and spent 3 years working at a Kenyan bank in South Sudan. Thus, he was by and large helping me out for the money, and nothing more (which I can respect – it’s the American ay) He is originally from Migori, and was extremely good at getting me the information I needed. His young, entitled attitude often irked me, but it was mostly just a veneer. Beneath it, he proved himself to be incredibly intelligent and funny.

In Tarime, I was connected to a Mennonite pastor through the only scholar that had worked in the area AND replied to my email, who is herself a professor at a Mennonite college in the US. Eluid was in his late fifties (I’m guessing) deeply religious and conservative. He was most definitely not in it for the money. He was much more of a typical African host, where it was very important to invite me to his home and share the food from his land with me. He prayed over everything. He made me a more than a bit uncomfortabel on many occasions, but by the end I realized that while we come from totally different worlds, he was a kind and wise old soul that sincerely wanted to get to know me and help me in whatever way he could.

my guide, Eluid, and the village chairman we had just met with. we all had soda and chapati.

Kenya and Tanzania were also pretty different. We chose this site specifically because it has two ethnic groups that cross the border. So, the same people are living on both sides. But the Kenyan side of the border is much more developed than the Tanzanian side, and the language situation is incredibly different. In Kenya, most people speak pretty good English, while in Tanzania, for historical reasons, kiSwahili is much more widely spoken than English. I maybe met 5 people that spoke English, and all signs, newspapers, television, etc. are in kiSwahili. Also, perhaps due its socialist past, Tanzania felt much less welcoming. The officials and regular people we spoke to were suspicious at best, hostile at worst. I’m a bit nervous about working there, but given my academic interests (in nationalism), I think it is a wise investment.

Tarime, from my window at dusk

Despite these differences, the food was quite similar (and quite good) on both sides of the border. If you are reading this, you know I love anything fried, especially if it’s made from dough. So, I love the local and abundant chapatis – like a flour tortilla. For transport, we took matatus and doladolas, which are the common form of public transport, essentially minibuses from Japan. As a quick aside, both names come from the cost of the transport when first introduced – matatu means three in kiSwahili, since the buses cost 3 Kenyan shillings in the beginning. Doladola refers to the US dollar, since early on a local ride costs the equivalent of $1. Of so I’m told. I largely avoided this experience this trip in Malawi, thanks to the Rav, but I made up for it here. The record that I experience was 22 people in a 10-11 seater.

beef stew, chapati, and coke

All in all, the trip was a success. Lots of new things to think about, and excitement to be starting something new, somewhere new.

A few parting memories:

Remember the random Spanish mzungu I mentioned running into? He lives in Tarime now, and we ended up having dinner one night, which was really nice. Oh, and one of the officials we met with in Tarime had 6 fingers on each hand – the sixth one was tiny, and came out a few inches below the pinky – fascinating.

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I’m writing this from Migori, Kenya, a small town near the border with Tanzania. I am here to do some preliminary work in preparation for a small project I’ll be carrying out here next year with a few colleagues. (more on this later)

If I’m really honest with myself, I have to admit that I have been more comfortable in Kenya, even in this small, remote town, than I have ever been in Malawi.

Kenyan countryside

I have been trying and trying to put my finger on why, but I haven’t yet. What I do know is that is has something to do with not being as different here as I always am in Malawi. Maybe that’s because Kenyans are richer, more educated, less isolated, have a real, modern city for a capital, or maybe it’s because there are more white and more middle class Kenyans than Malawians. I don’t know. I just know that people don’t look at me, I’m not as conspicuous, and even if they inevitably notice me, no one gives two shits about who I am or where I come from. Foreigners are constatnly talking about how friendly Malawians are, but I guess for me that friendliness and curiosity is tiresome. I just want to be seen as a person, and not a white person, or a bank, or a novelty to be pointed at. And more importantly, I want to not be seen, something that seems possible here. This afternoon I had a liesurely lunch on a balcony and read the paper. People were all around, but it was like I wasn’t there. And that, more than anything anyone could have said or done, made me feel welcome in this place.

To say all this feels like a betrayal of a country and a people that I’ve come to feel very attached to. Like I’m somehow “cheating” on Malawi. I still find myself walking around Kenya, constructing sentences in my head in Chichewa. I feel a pang in my gut when I remember that I won’t be speaking that tongue anytime soon.

Malawi was never really very easy for me. There were times that were some of the most amazing of my life, and I made real friends that will stand the test of time and distance. But a lot of the time there was hard, in a way that it’s easier for me to see now that I am gone. Somehow, being in Kenya has clarified for me some of my feelings about Malawi. In the past, I’ve always gone straight back to Europe or the US, at which point the comforts of the West and the familiarity of home coincided with leaving Malawi and Africa, such that I couldn’t sort out what it felt like to be gone independently from being really happy to be home. But being in Kenya, in what feels like a middle place between those two worlds, I see much more clearly what an alien I was in Malawi. I could never fit in there, never be seen beyond my appearance, except for by a few. And right now, that feels very devastating to realize.

I had a lot of stories I wanted to tell you all, like how I got the best haircut of my life from a flamboyanlty gay Kenyan man in Nairobi or how the only white guy I’ve seen since leaving Nairobi (in the really small border town of Isebania) was some random Spanish guy I had met over a year ago in an equally small town in Malawi. But right now I’m just mourning my time in Malawi, both missing it and feeling relief that I am not there right now.

Despite the sadness I feel at admitting that Malawi was not easy, I also feel like I could never love Kenya the way I do Malawi, particuarly because of that difficulty. It’s how all things in life are, no? Easy things are boring. I told me friend (whom I met in Malawi) this the other day, and she laughed, but this is the best analogy I can come up with: being in Malawi is like camping. Your days are simpler in that you have many less tasks at hand, but days are more complicated by the fact that they few tasks for the day – eating, washing, etc. – become much more complicated to achieve. Things are uncomfortable in many ways, from your bowels to your bed, but that serves to make you appreciate the small comforts only that much more. Just like with camping, each day is challenging and brings the unexpected, and even on the days when you are reduced to tears at some point, you know you will look back with hindsight on that disaster as an adventure. But, at the end of the day, no one wants to camp forever. And it was time for me to leave Malawi.

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Photos of my last days

I’ve been lazy. I don’t feel like writing. Maybe it’s the looming doom of 6 months of solid writing that I see in my future. Anyway, I thought I’d post a few pictures from my last days in Zomba. You probably only look at the pictures anyway.

auga goofing off with the sunglasses joachim left behind, junking up the car

our last game session in Chimaliro

at Domino's with the super-star team

on top of the water tower on my last afternoon in zomba

two of my closest friends in zomba. aishia my roommate, and alick my chichewa teacher.


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Last Day in Zomba

Data is entered, surveys are scanned, and I’m packing my bags. I’ll be leaving on a jet plane from Lilongwe on Tuesday.
Kenya, here I come!

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Change of Plans

My original ticket had me leaving Malawi on December, 22 and flying to Holland where I’ll spend Christmas with Joachim and his family. Then, some colleagues and I got funding to do a small project in Kenya and Tanzania next spring, and we decided that I should try to go visit our planned research site while I’m already on the continent. So, I bought a ticket from Malawi to Kenya, and back, for Nov. 29 to Dec. 12, which would mean I’d be coming back to Malawi for 10 days after Kenya, which was fine by me.

But then I was almost denied entry back into Malawi when Joachim and I visited Zambia, and was told that I would not be allowed back into the country once I left again, until I have gone back to the US. So, I decided to change my plans so that I wouldn’t come back to Malawi after my trip to Kenya.

This wasn’t particularly cheap, but in the end it means that I will get to Europe a week early (my Kenya dates didn’t change much). It also means that when I leave Malawi next Tuesday, I won’t be coming back in the near future.

I am both sad and relieved. Things lately have really gotten bad. There are shortages of everything now (beef and stationary are the latest additions to the list), in addition to all the things that were already in short supply. Civil servants aren’t being paid anymore, and Air Malawi, the national carrier, had to cancel all flights for the forseeable future because both of its planes are still under repair in South Africa and they can no longer pay for the plane they were renting from an American company. People are here are saying more and more often that things are going “the way of Zimbabwe”. So it feels like a good time to go. It makes it easier to leave, knowing that I will be back at some point.

In the next 10 days I have a lot to do. I am teaching a 5-day intensive Stata (statistical software) course to the management team and data entry superivisors here at IKI. I am also cleaning my data as it is entered over the next week. Finally, I am sorting all the paper we’ve collected for some IKI guys to scan so that I can take an electronic copy and burn the paper copies. And then there is packing. And saying goodbye.

I’ll see some of you when I get back in early January, and others of you when I visit Alabama in February. Until then, Happy Thanksgiving everyone.

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South Luangwa NP and Goodbye to Joachim

he looks ready to go, huh?

The day finally came when Joachim had to leave. Actually, it was the night because his flight left Malawi at 2:50am. He’s safely back in Europe, enjoying the actual best beers in the world (not “probably the best beer in the world” as the cautious slogan is for Malawi’s national beer) with friends in Belgium. I wish he were here with me, or, even more, that I were there with him. But I have six more weeks to put in here, so I’ll make the most of them.

Before Joachim left, though, we took a quick trip to South Luangwa National Park in Zambia.

entering the park

First of all, everything seemed better in Zambia. Fuel galore, cokes, bottled water, attentive waiters, etc. Second, the park was amazing. We saw all the large animals in the park, except for leopard. Lots and lots of lions, which was the main thing I wanted to see.

friend or foe?

We even got to see two kills. The first was a pack of lions killing a cevet (a small raccoon like animal) just to be mean, since the didn’t eat it. And the second was a pack of African wild dogs – the second most endangered mammal in Africa and an extremely rare sight – killing a bushbuck (a deer like animal). Our chalet/lodge was right on the river, so we saw hippos and elephants all day.

small, medium, and large

It was an amazing trip, and I’m so glad we were able to have an adventure together before he had to leave.


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Bloodsuckers and Satanists

Zambians have been suspicious of our project, to say the least.

The main focus of my research has been on Malawians living near the border with Zambia. But because I want to look at trust and economic interactions across ethnic and national lines, I need to recruit some Zambians for the behavioral activity we do twice a week. This has proven to be difficult week after week.

The first few weeks, the Zambians would drift in hours late, and we’d end up having to send the vehicle out to their villages and try to rush back with enough to get started, since the Malawian participants would have already been waiting for hours. One upside of picking people up in the car is that we were able to fully explore the question of how many people you can fit into a two-door Rav4.

Once we had fully impressed upon village elders that being on time was really important, we hit another hurdle. For some reason unknown to us, a fairly influential man living in one of the bordering Zambian villages stood up at a funeral (at a funeral all people living within walking distance will be there) and told everyone present that we (my research team and myself) were satanists. He went on to say that if they accepted money from us – we pay them something for participating – they will die within two years.

The guys worked day and night for a few weeks trying to undo this damage. They talked with the guy who said it, explaining what we were really doing, and he conceded that we were not, in fact, satanists. But the damage was already done. We’ve had a hard time recruiting since then.

In a separate incident, some people saw that we were giving out red tickets and asking them to come to the local hospital at a certain time, and they determined that instead of participating in the research project like we claimed, we really wanted to suck their blood. There is a common belief that people with cars often sneak into villages and suck people’s blood while they sleep. The way I have heard it, it is not like a vampire biting your neck, but involves needles. This suggests to me that the belief must have started somewhere in the past based on a real occurrence. But if you google “blood sucking” and Malawi, you will see that this is a big problem.

When we were speaking to one of the senior chief’s advisors about this in Zambia, he attributed our problems to the “primitivity” of the people. Even once, in the height of frustration, Augustine blamed our problems on the Zambians we are working with being so “backward”. But, before you judge them, and nod your head in agreement, ask yourself how many people you know that won’t walk under a ladder or open an umbrella indoors? I know that my grandfather would turn his car around if a black cat crossed the road. Did you know that most Americans do not “believe in” evolution? Who’s backwards now?

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