A Mid-Termer’s Report

Hello everyone!

Three weeks have gone by since I arrived in Malawi. Apologies in advance for not sparing many words! Hopefully this will give you a sense of the experience of daily life for me here.

The sun rises at about 5:30 a.m., a red ball on the hazy, smoky horizon. I have used a blanket once in the two and a half weeks I've been here. I crawl out from under the mosquito net and even me, Miss cold feet, is pleased to feel the cool of the tile floor underneath me. I'm sharing a small house with Kathryn, a teacher from the UK who also works at the Children of Blessing centre. She tends to get up later, so I'm greeted by my other two roommates, namely, Darcy the cat and Kiara the dog – both great company. ( Amazingly, my allergy to cats has never flared up in my whole time here, even after giving in to Darcy's near continual pleas for scratches behind his ears.) As I sit outside in the garden in the cool of the morning, I notice that even the birds speak a different language here! I'm enjoying hearing the new songs. The water has never been off in my time here in this apartment., which has been awesome – it is not a given that every tap or every toilet that I will come across in the course of my day will be working! I have also learned to appreciate the hum of the refrigerator – it means there's power! This is not always the case, and power cuts are random and scattered throughout town on any given day. No power means the candles get lit and the propane stove comes out – feels like camping!

On Monday, Wednesday and Friday morning I get to visit with Mary, Kat's housekeeper, and her little 9 month old, Overtone. He gets packed around on her back in a titenje, the multipurpose fabric that can be baby sling, apron, skirt, blanket, or even a diaper in a pinch. I've noticed that some women wear at least a couple – you never know when you may need an extra!

Edwin the daytime guard opens the gate for us (most houses are surrounded by walls) and we start the bumpy ride down the dirt road to the “tarred” road. (I'm getting used to referring to things by their British name, a by-product of the former British colonial influence, plus the fact that I'm living with a Brit!). Most roads that aren't paved are BUMPY – close cousins to any deactivated logging road I've driven in BC! Apparently the roads have improved a ton under the current president, with lots of paving and widening having been done.

It takes about 20 minutes to drive from our neighbourhood in Area 47 to the far northwestern end of town, Area 25, where the centre is located. It borders the “peri-urban” slum area of Ngona, where about 50 000 people live in an area about 2.5 km by 0.5 km. The Children of Blessing ministry had its start there before it outgrew its location moved a couple of kilometres to its present digs.

Lilongwe is built on a grid system, kind of, and is pretty darn spread out. I'm having to adjust to city life after living out in the country! Public transit consists of minibuses, or a variation of a minivan that has three rows of bench seats. The stops aren't marked, you just have to know where they are. The drivers and their partners work together to hustle passengers, honking and calling out from the window or the open sliding door to people on the side of the road. The time it takes you to get where you're going depends on how many stops are made and how long the driver stays put at a given stop rustling up more passengers. I've gotten to ride in the minibuses a few times now. They're often a little beat up, well-worn, and they work.

The folks who aren't getting to work in a car or a minibus may be riding in the back of a truck, the back of a bike, or on foot. People walk significant distances here – many of the moms are walking for an hour or two with their kids on their backs to get to the centre, some more. The concept of going to the gym for exercise is kind of ridiculous in this context.Also visible on the side of the road – the mico-economy of individual entrepreneurs holding up their wares, be it whatever fruit's in season, cell-phone top-up cards, kittens, whatever. Some things take a lot longer here – lining up at the gas station, lining up at the bank machine, etc.. but the drive-by shopping opportunities are a pleasant exception. Bargaining is often necessary. I have also been introduced to the concept of bicycle as pick-up truck here, with working men carrying hefty loads of firewood or cases filled with bottles stacked precariously high.

Once we arrive at the centre we most often find it in full swing, with seven or more kids and caregivers in the main room on mats working on lying on their stomachs, reaching while on their backs, rolling and sitting. In a side room the level two kids (anywhere from two to five of them) are working on kneeling, sitting, and standing. In these two therapy rooms, moms and sisters carry out the exercises, therapist, rehab technician, and aides assisting. I'm parked mainly with the level two kids, trading places with the caregivers and making my way around the room spending hands-on time with each kid. Therapy when you don't know much of the local language is interesting. I know how to say good job, stand up, sit down, you're tired, you're mad... and other than that I just burble on in English and use a lot of body language. My co-worker Victor, a rehab technician, is most often there to translate when I want to talk about positioning or exercises with the caregiver. Preschool and school activities happen down the hallway, with staff challenged by the task of meeting the needs of a huge range of ability levels within the group of kids present on any given day. The decibel levels can get up pretty high if there are multiple kids unhappy at the same time. Lots of wet bums and nursing going on. You know, kid central. I was a little overwhelmed at first but I'm good with it now.

The kids get a meal-break midmorning, which has also given me the opportunity to sample some local staples like pala la soya (a porridge made of soya maize), pala la mpunga (rice porridge – with sugar and ground peanuts – yum!) and nsima (maize porridge) with usipa – little salty fish. For my tastebuds, that one needs a little ketchup or mango chutney or something.

After break, a group heads to an outdoor area at the back of the house to work on walking in the parallel bars or with the homemade wooden or metal walkers, and to work on ADL's (washing and dressing).

The morning closes for the larger group with games, announcements, songs and prayer. Those on the feeding program stay behind to get their allotment of pala, and kids needing any extra attention for equipment or exercises are seen. Folks on the vocational program settle their earnings for the day.

Tuesdays and Thursday mornings are a scaled down version of the rest of the week, with a smaller group of kids at the outreach clinic at African Bible College Clinic children's ward. Afternoons have been a mixed bag – helping out with the remedial schooling activities going on back at the centre, running errands with Kat, the odd nap, and hanging out with the babes at the nearby Crisis Nursery. Have you ever been on a mat with 10 babies at once?! It's a pretty interesting dynamic, I must say! We've helped with feeding times (picture chicks in a nest!) and a little physio. I basically sat and hung out and watched for the babies who were moving the least, and concentrated on them! This afternoon I got to meet with the Canadian couple running the Village of Hope orphanage here, get a tour, meet the kids and assess a couple of the babies they were a little concerned about. Playing with kids, you know. Hard to take, but someone's gotta do it.

I was blown away by people's generosity in donating items for the kids of COBT, and it's been fun seeing these items going to good use. Diaper covers are keeping things driers for moms. Games, educational books, coloured pencils, stamps, puzzles and colouring sheets went to the school room.

The puppets, Lego, tool set, animals, musical shakers and Twister game went to the preschool room and an assortment of toys went to the ABC outreach clinic. The Christian kids music CD'S will be used at the Wednesday afternoon bible club. Any shoes and diaper covers not yet distributed will go to Christmas gift packages.

I've been so blessed by being connected right away to an awesome Christian community in the form of Flood church. It's a young and dynamic group and I've felt really welcomed. We have small group meeting on Mondays, prayer on Tuesdays, and other get togethers. I'm starting to get to know these folks better and have had some really interesting conversations with some of Kat's friends from Malawi.

My co-workers are a good group that care about these kids. I'm slowly getting to know them a better and they are graciously helping me to add to my Chichewa vocabulary. It can be really isolating being in a room where you aren't following the conversation around you at all. Thankfully I'm starting to recognize more words.

Lilongwe is a city but the traffic isn't that bad and the drivers are pretty reasonable. Daytime is pretty safe – I walked on my own the half hour to ABC clinic with no issues this morning. Fuel (petrol) is about $1.70 a litre and groceries are about the same prices as in Canada, some things being more expensive, like cheese and yogurt (ouch!). Not cheap to live here! There is a central game park in the city that I want to check out and some little oases with beautiful gardens where you can get a greenery fix. The blossoms here are fantastic – purple, fuscia, yellow... I've had the chance to get away to Lake Malawi near Mangochi with my roomie and her friends and that was be-yooo-tiful. Swaying palms, water lapping up on the beach, moon rises, sunrises, and fish eagles soaring. On the way there, villages and termite mounds and baobab trees (which are the most fantastical cartoon trees you've ever seen). And mountains! Well, big blue hills in the distance, anyway.

So there you have it – a big long update. Congratulations to those who read this far! I so appreciate your prayers and words of encouragement. I feel looked after – healthy, safe, and blessed. I love to hear from you so keep those emails coming!

Blessings from Shawndele:)