Rain !!

A few minutes ago I was laying in bed deciding if I should go for a run or do the exercises I had planned. Suddenly from the steel roof began the unmistakable sound of pounding rain! I was quickly joined outside by a group of Dutch tourists watching the first rain shower of the season. In the two months I have been here it is the first time I have seen a fully cloud covered sky and I am interested to hear how Malawians feel about this turn of the season. Maybe today I shall buy an unbrella.

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First Chichewa conversation

Today was my first genuine full conversation in the local Chichewa language. I suppose I should note that I was speaking with a kid who was probably 7 years old and I was running at the time, but it really was a conversation, honestly. We both fully understood each other — it went something very close to this:

Group of kids: White guy! White guy! White guy! (Actually Mzungu! Mzungu! Mzungu!
[If you don’t follow the link to Wikipedia, I have some more details and an alternate etymological theory about this word at the bottom.]

Don to Group: See you soon.
{Ten minutes later I come running back again to the accumulating group of kids}
Group of kids: Mzungu! Mzungu! Mzungu!
Don: Let’s go! {I wave to them and a couple kids start running along with me. A girl emerges as the lead runner of a group that quickly dwindles to two.}
Don: How are you?
Kid: I am good, and you?
Don: I am good too. Thank you.
Kid: Thank you.
Don: My name is Don — what about you?
{Kid says name}
Don: Thank you {name}.
Kid: Where are you going?
Don: I am going to Balaka.
Kid: Nice.
Don: Thanks. {Don notices the second kid falls off the pace and returns to the rest of the kids.}
Don: He is tired.
Kid: Yes, he is tired
Don: I am tired. {Kid & Don laugh}
Don: I am not tired! {Don accelerates for a few strides.}
Don: I am tired! {Don goes back to original pace. We laugh again.}
Kid: I am tired. {Kid stops abruptly}
Don: See you!
Kid: See you!
Don: Zikomo! {That’s thank you in Chichewa}

Somewhere in the 500 metres that the kid joined me, a guy on a bicycle must have attached onto the back end of the conversation. Or perhaps he was just curious why a little kid was following a mzungu. I am reasonably confident that he thinks I speak Chichewa (at least a lot more than I do) because he started up the conversation by asking where I was going and I told him. And he then started talking and I would gasp the odd “in-dee-to” (which mean indeed) when he paused. Then he headed down a different path and said something like have a nice day and I said thank you and that was that.

The more successful I get at introductions and such, the more often someone starts talking away until I say “I don’t understand” in Chichewa and the “Do you speak English?” That is normally followed by more Chichewa and I smile and say in Chichewa “sorry I don’t understand”, and we usually laugh and that is that. Or we talk in english.

** The white guy thing (“mzungu”) is something I hear every day, especially when I run, in which case I will hear it close to every minute from kids in every direction. I was recently told, and Wikipedia confirms, that the root of the moniker is a Chichewa verb -zungulira which means to go around (and around). So white people were the ones always wanting to go around to the other side of this that and everything, so they became the go-around-people. My little Chichewa book lists another verb -zunguzika which is to become confused. Maybe I am just one of the confused people going around Malawi — that makes much more sense.

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A Refugee Engineer

Arop Lual Two, from Darfur Sudan. Photo by Duncan McNicholl

Arop Lual Two, fron Darfur Sudan. Photo by Duncan McNicholl

On Sunday a week ago, my EWB colleague Duncan McNicholl invited me to go to Dzaleka, near Dowa, northwest of Lilongwe. Duncan’s Perspectives on Poverty blog has been widely followed for his contrasting photos of people “looking poor” and then looking normal. His most recent post has more details about Arop, a telecommunications engineer (probably a technician, but the word engineer was his unprompted choice) from Sudan.

Dzaleka is the only UN refugee camp in Malawi and it has been in operation for over a decade. Originally it was some kind of political prison and then the UN started managed it for people fleeing civil war in neighbouring Mozambique — the war ended and now people from nine countries are living there, including Rwanda, Burundi, the DRC (Congo), Sudan, and Somalia.

The camp has ballooned to an estimated 15,000 from less than a thousand just two years ago, inevitably placing a burden on the environment, the UN, the local people and certainly those who are taking refuge here. People receive a modest ongoing supply of food, a little land to make a house (or perhaps one someone has left) and a tiny (10 sq M) amount of land to farm.

Before arriving I had very few expectations, perhaps a mental image of an archetypal tent city but it was immediately obvious that this community resembles most towns in Malawi, except there are no trees anywhere. The old UNHCR tents can occasionally be seen as a waterproofing layer on some roofs of brick homes. The bricks are formed and fired at the camp as they are throughout Malawi. The firing of brings probably contributed to the absence of any trees in the area. Deforestation is widespread in Malawi.

After the visit many questions came to mind as I continued to ponder what I had experienced. For example, consider the economy of the camp: refugees cannot work in Malawi, so how can people afford to attend video shops such as the one Duncan is checking out below? The UN pay some camp residents to work, including doctors and nurses at the health clinic and teachers at the schools. As in many things, the answer requires spending enough time in a place to get beyond the superficial questions and intital answers. 30 Kwatcha to watch a soccer match today

30 Kwatcha to watch a soccer match today