Sunday, May 13, 2012

Guest Post: On Culture Shock

The great thing about culture shock is you know it's going to end. You can get used to anything. But it doesn't seem that way when you first get there.

I've been "in country" now for just five days, and already the experience is changing for me. This post is meant to be a snapshot of my mental state on arrival, and I'll revisit it in another post upon exfiltration (always wanted to use that word).

I'm fairly well-travelled, and I've been in poor countries before: Ukraine, Belize, Guatemala, Quebec -- but in those places I could, more or less, blend in. Crowds (becoming mobs) were my biggest fear coming here, and they've been a fairly irrational fear for most of my life. I don't like being an obvious target. I try not to attract attention to myself. I was worried that I wouldn't be able to do that here.

It sucks to be a chicken in a market in Malawi.
I was right. Not only can I not blend in, I am the center of attention wherever I go. People stare. People shout "mzungu" at me, as if it might have slipped my mind that I'm white (a problem I don't think I'll have). Neither of these things bother me too much. In fact, I find myself staring when I see another mzungu. I often think about going up and talking to them, but can't figure out what the conversation would be. "Hi! I see you're white. I am too!" Then what? Suggest a game of golf?

Here, however, white equals money. And folks don't have any. So I find myself swarmed. Swarmed by people just begging, often sporting a Chelsea jersey: "Hey boss, come on boss." Swarmed by people trying to sell me random stuff - guys seem to just have a handful of sunglasses or fruit or shoes: "Hey boss, good price, good price." Being called "boss" all the time takes some getting used to. Walking into a market, I get some sense of what life must be like for George Clooney all the time.

The swarming is extremely uncomfortable for me. People get right in your face, and often telling them "No" or "I don't want any" is taken as a sign they should try harder.

On one occasion two guys followed me home with what I judged to be the intent to just take what I had should the opportunity arise (which I'm happy to report it didn't). Of course on the flip side of this are hundreds of friendly, curious folks who just want to say hi. Sorting people into intention piles is practically impossible when you first get here.

The walk to work. In most places that ditch doesn't
exist and you are on the road with the cars and bikes.
Case in point: I was walking home from Vanessa's office the other day and a man comes up to me. His opening line: "Hey, nice tattoo." Tattoos are even rarer than mzungus around here. I try to be polite, but non-committal and thank him but keep walking. He keeps walking with me. His first question: "How long have you been in Malawi?" quickly followed by "Is this your first time in Malawi? In Africa?". Now, are these just innocent getting acquainted questions or is he sizing me up? Figuring that is must be obvious that I'm new here I tell him that I've only been here a few days, but lie and say I've been to Africa before. At this point he gestures to another man across the street, who upon seeing me grins widely and comes running up to us.

I've seen that look of recognition a lot now. People couldn't be happier to see me if I was a stack of pancakes and syrup. I feel like nothing so much as a giant walking pinata. 

When he negotiates the traffic and makes it to us (crossing a street in Lilongwe is as dangerous as crossing rapids) my companion introduces his friend as Happy George, so-called because "He's always happy." And walking beside this great white whale, he certainly lives up to his name. As they start talking, their schtick becomes apparent: they've worked together before. Happy George asks me where I'm from, I reply "Canada" and they tell me they have many friends from Canada. Feeling clever, I ask them who these friends are. They are only able to come up with one: a woman with Engineers Without Borders, who apparently doesn't have a name. Happy George presses on, asking me where in Canada I'm from, and upon learning it's Montreal asks me if I speak French. I say yes, which may or may not be another lie depending on how francophone you are.

The preliminaries over, Happy George and Co. move into the pitch proper. They tell me they are students at the technical college, one in welding, the other in carpentry. They say they also make crafts with local materials. Having categorized me as "Ayn Randian" they tell me they would never ask for a handout and think that people should work to get ahead. Touching my arm, the first gentleman (whose name I never got) adds, "We don't think anyone is rich just because of the colour of their skin."

And that was the biggest lie of all. Everyone is Malawi thinks I'm rich because of the colour of my skin. And they're not wrong.

But it is difficult for me to deal with the expectation that I am going to "make it rain" (in the strip club sense) everywhere I go. In the midst of writing this, I was interrupted by Vanessa because she and another Canadian (Noella) were heading out to a tiny credit union and an orphanage in another part of town. Having never been to an orphanage before, I'm not sure what I expected, but it was probably something along the lines of Dickensian kids in petticoats and fingerless gloves, sewing wallets and eating gruel. 

As soon as the kids saw the truckload of mzungus, they went berzerk - screaming and chanting in Chichewa which was translated to us as "They've arrived." This concerned me. How did they know we were coming? Why is this an event? Then an old man sporting a wool sweater vest and the single largest driving cap I've ever seen (he could have been heading out to the links himself) introduces himself as Alex the "Director of this operation." The kids are rounded up and made to sit quietly while he settles in to his pitch. He starts talking about financials, which organizations have supported them in the past, mission statements, and so on. He seemed particularly proud of a mountain bike one organization had bought him. But it was all at much too high a level for some out-of-work writer wannabe from Canada. He was speaking as if we were visiting foreign dignitaries.

Before I could say "There's been a mistake" we were ushered inside, and placed in three chairs at the head of the class and I realized there had been no mistake at all. The kids were made to put on a show for us. They recited the alphabet, the months of the year and other things, which they shouted at the top of their lungs. Truth be told they were quite charming. Then they were made to be quiet again while Alex, in true Glengarry Glen Ross fashion ("Always Be Closing") moved in to seal the deal. This time the pitch was aimed to appeal to our liberal guilt. "These kids' parents died of AIDS." "We feed them, they can't learn on an empty stomach." "They didn't eat today." And so on. Then he gave some helpful numbers, how much to support them for a year, how much for a month - to help us make a decision. I won't lie. I was pissed at being made to pay for a service I didn't want, and to be put through this guilt-based mzungu juicer. But I did feel guilty and I did want to do something. So, Vanessa and I gave $50 USD. Well, Vanessa did, but I'll pay her back.

Leaving the orphanage, I couldn't help but wonder if the only thing the kids learned there was the song and dance routine for foreigners and if we had just bought Alex another mountain bike.

Way back when I was doing my anthropology degree we talked a lot about participant observation. The problem as we saw it then was that by participating you change what's going on, so what are you observing? In Malawi, by observing I change what's going on, and it seems very difficult to participate.

Thanks to Vanessa for letting me guest post on her blog.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Of beers, beans, and bumper cars

It hasn't been all work, no play, these past few weeks...

On Easter weekend, Katrina, Gavin, Mike, Patience, Maria, Alice and I ventured out to enjoy the local club scene. We started the night at Mo's Bar at the Portuguese Club. With autumn upon us, the night was too chilly for sitting around outside, so we didn't linger there long. It looked like the most amazing place for a pool party, though…

The Portuguese Club
We then went over to Diplomats Bar, newly renovated and reopened in the centre of Old Town. When we arrived around 8-9pm it was relatively quiet, but by the time we left around midnight, it was packed with a crowd that looked evenly split between locals and expats.

The ladies at Diplomats
Drinking and dancing ensued, and at some point, a group of Chinese men sat at the other end of our booth and began chatting with us. This progressed to one of them planting himself between us and buying drinks for the "beautiful girls". Unfortunately the drinks  brought to us were gin shots (ech..), and he also would not tell us where he worked or where he was from, so we didn't have much of a conversation. One of his younger companions showed off some pretty wicked robot moves on the dance floor, though.

Random guy, Alice, me, and Maria about to "enjoy" a shot

Eventually we ventured over to "Zanzi's" for some late-night dancing, before calling it a night sometime around 1:30 or 2am. (Remember that here, "sleeping in on weekends" for me means getting up around 7 or 8am, so this is later than it sounds!)

Curious about the musical stylings of Malawian dance clubs? Well, here's one song (from Nigerian duo P-Square) that I hear constantly in bars, on the radio, and around town:

The other song I kept hearing on our night out? Party Rock.

Other recent amusements? Last weekend, we went out to the City Mall arcade with the kids (4 total between our house and the neighbours'). 300 kwacha buys you a minute and a half on the bumper cars!  

Note the fierce look on my face. Bumper cars is serious business.

I also have yet to mention the arrival of Paul and Noella Duncan, two CCA volunteers working with Fincoop. (Here's their blog.) They've been here since early April and will be around until early June. It's been nice to have other Canadians around, and I've been using the excuse to go out to Bombay Palace more often! 

I've also been learning to cook some new recipes, and yesterday, with Cinco de Mayo as a weak excuse, I cooked up some fried avocado with red beans and lime rice. (Meant to be lime-cilantro rice, but my leftover cilantro didn't look so hot.) Katrina graciously showed me how to prepare the red beans. 

Tastes better than it looks, I think.
Even breaded and fried, I'm not a huge fan of avocado. I've been trying - they are cheap and plentiful here. I do like me some guac, but unfortunately there are no tortilla chips in Malawi.  

Now what? Brook shows up this morning (fingers crossed that his flight isn't cancelled - airline schedules have been flaky the past few months, as foreign airlines struggle with the forex shortage). Once he arrives, the adventures should begin again. Another pub crawl is planned, as well as a picnic, a tour of southern Malawi, and a safari in Zambia. 

Till then... wish me luck in not getting lost on the drive out to the airport!

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Of cakes, brides, and dead presidents

The cake is a lie. This post has very little to do with cake.

The cake is the product of several days tribulation at the end of March, wherein a storm took out our power for about 24 hours and forced the relocation of my cream cheese to the neighbour's fridge (about 20m away, but on a different transformer). Weekend cake became Tuesday night cake.    

Tuesday night cake was delicious, nevertheless. (Recipe here! Icing is standard cream cheese icing.)

Normally the rainy season would have tapered off by end of March, but the first week of April brought with it several days of rain. On Monday the 2nd, it alternated between drizzling and torrential rain all day. With Dan's car stuck in park due to the fuel shortage, our usual lunches at Mbambavu restaurant were on hold. 
My progress to Summer Park restaurant was stymied by a veritable river of water flowing down the alleyway, and I was forced to loop around past MUSCCO where I ended up hopping into a car and heading for lunch at the golf club with Dan, Fumbani (head of accounting), and Kingsley (head of internal audit and risk). While the golf club grounds were lovely, the restaurant was quiet. We discovered why when our food took over an hour to arrive (and we all ordered the 'lunch special')!

We made it back to the office around 2:30, and the rain started pouring again. Dan deadpans that Malawi is such a small country, with a population starting to outgrow its resources, and the population would quadruple with the number of people staying inside today with nothing to do but make babies.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

SACCOs in Malawi


Savings and Credit Co-operatives, or SACCOs, are simply credit unions/caisses populaires by another name. In addition to all the other benefits of membership in a co-operative, SACCOs in developing countries are also helping to bring financial services to individuals and groups who aren't served by traditional banks (here's an example from India, and another from Malawi). You may have heard of microfinance, another means by which poorer segments of the population are able to access loans and other financial services. This short video from Kiva goes over the basics, most of which are also relevant to SACCOs:

In Malawi, there are 45 SACCOs affiliated with the Malawi Union of Savings and Credit Co-operatives (MUSCCO), for whom I work. Many of these SACCOs began life as study groups, savings clubs, or similar organizations whose members started saving money together and loaning each other funds. Many remain small to this day, serving a small or restricted clientele (like employees of one particular company), while the biggest, Fincoop, has six branches and membership in the tens of thousands. 

Here is a whirlwind tour of some Malawian SACCOs I've had the chance to visit, and their diverse membership:

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Game Review: Mario & Luigi : Bowser's Inside Story

Mario & Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story (DS)
Finished: March 20, 2012

Gameplay: Like the other DS Mario & Luigi RPG, the gameplay here is less about raw stats and dice rolls and more about timed attacks and minigames. I personally would have preferred a little more min-maxing and dice rolling (a matter of taste, I know). I'm all for moving a game along and not descending into repetitive grinding, but part of the fun of levelling up a character in an RPG is watching him/her become more powerful over time. Tying attack success to my manual dexterity (not to mention flat-out replacing many battles with mini-games) makes me wonder what I was allocating all those points for each level-up. Another annoyance? This game tries its damnedest to use everything at its disposal on the DS system. For example, you're forced to blow into the DS mic to complete more than one compulsory piece of the game. How clever, you think, except that I felt like a tool playing this around other adults. I ended up retreating to my bedroom to complete these segments after the first time someone walked in on me blowing on (which I'm sure looked more like making out with) my DS in the living room. Is this a sign that I've outgrown the platform? 

Story: Quirky. The main villain talks like the "all your base are belong to us" guy. Plot drives the game and the unlock of new abilities and areas; you switch between characters/viewpoints often, and there are a lot of conversations. I found it excessive: for the first few hours of the game, it felt like I seldom fought more than 4-5 creatures in a row before being pulled away to play a minigame or listen to a conversation or switch to a different character.  

Difficulty: Lightweight (as can probably be expected for a game geared to a younger audience). You pick up items that let you retry battles if you lose, and save points are never far away. The timed attacks still require some skill, though. 

Overall rating: 3 / 5

Friday, March 9, 2012


When I first arrived in Malawi in late January, I would see the occasional queue of cars at gas stations. The queues disappeared for a while, and returned with a vengeance about two weeks ago. 

Driving... is that a queue on the left? But there's no gas station around here...

The fuel queues are mostly a result of the foreign exchange (forex) shortage (if you wanted to travel to Malawi, now's the time: bring US dollars!). An overvalued currency and a trade imbalance have led to a serious shortage of foreign currency with which to import things like fuel. (I mean serious: I'm working for a financial institution, and they can't acquire enough foreign currency to send employees travelling abroad.) 

Following the queue...

The official bank exchange rate is 170 kwacha for 1 US dollar, and so far the highest I've been offered on the black market is 300 kwacha for 1 US dollar. A news article from earlier this year sums up the state of things. (Since that article was written, the government has rejected those initial calls to devalue, but the debate about whether to do it continues). 

600m+ down the road, I reach the gas station that's the source
of the queue, and almost get stuck in the traffic jam there.

So what you do you do if you need fuel? Queue for hours (if not days, at this point) and hope you luck out and the station you're parked at gets a delivery... or turn to the black market!

This is probably terribly unsafe. 

I'm told fuel is going at around 6$ a liter now on the black market. Of course, there's no guarantee that what you're buying is proper fuel (I imagine you can be fairly certain of the opposite). And despite the illegality of reselling fuel like this, the above picture of our shady black market fill-up was taken approximately 20 meters away from a legitimate gas station (which, of course, was out of fuel). 

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Game Review: Metroid Fusion

For lack of a Goodreads-esque forum in which to post my thoughts on video games, I shall use this blog. First up:

Metroid Fusion (GBA)
Finished: February 25, 2012

Gameplay: An old-school platforming and shooting romp. I'd never played a Metroid game before (not even the more recent non-platforming entries), so I made the grievous mistake of asking Brook "this one's like those Castlevania games, right?" when I first picked up the cartridge. After (or despite) being treated to an impassioned recounting of the Metroid franchise's history in relation to Castlevania, I packed it up for my trip. Subsequent research shows that the first iterations of both franchises came out approximately a month apart in 1986 (Metroid was, in fact, first), so I'm not sure I actually committed any sort of deadly gaming sin by comparing them as I did, but regardless, I discovered Castlevania on the DS, too (with Dawn of Sorrow) and was keen to play more games of the genre (what genre is that, anyway? Action-platformer-shooter-something?). I digress. All this has nothing to do with gameplay. You run around, jump, shoot things, shoot bigger things and get upgrades from them, jump higher, and eventually save the galaxy or some such. It's very fun. You either like the genre, or you don't, or you've never played it, in which case this is a fine game to start with.

Story: Utilitarian, to put it in the best possible light. "Something's going wrong in sector 5!". You go to sector 5 and fight some guys. "Samus, an alarm has gone off in sector 3!" You travel to sector 3, fight a boss. Etc, etc. Mass Effect this ain't. It does make the one interesting bit of story reveal near the end more impactful, somehow. 

Difficulty: Tough, but I beat it after putting the DS down 2-3 times and vowing to stop playing altogether, so it's probably just the right amount of tough.

Overall rating: 4 / 5