Friday, December 13, 2013

A Few of Our Favorite Signs

Any time we take a road trip we keep an eye out for interesting signs.  Here are some of the ones that have tickled our fancy, that we've managed to get pictures of.  We don't do this in a spirit of making fun, just a spirit of being in a place that's new to us where language is used differently.  It makes every road trip an adventure!

Do you really want furniture that goes "Boom"?  Even if it is genuine furniture (as opposed to imitation furniture, presumably)?

We're sure this makes perfect sense to someone.  But even Eric "The Stats Guy" couldn't explain this store name.

Anyone who has ever chewed on a stick of sugar cane knows that this is NOT how you do it!  Apparently Colgate gave this kid teeth that work like a beaver's, which seems a pretty good argument not to buy the stuff.  (A piece of cane is pretty woody; you peel off the hard green outside and worry off some of the inner fibers.  You chew on that until you've got all the sweet juice out, spit out the pulpy mess that's left, then gnaw off some more.)

 Finally, a cosmetic shop that might have a prayer of making me look good!  I think this might be what it takes.

 A "Document Doctor" - is that even legal?  Maybe that's where you go to get the finishing touches put on the Zambian or Malawian or Mozambican passports that you can buy on the street.

We've been told that the Chichewa writing here explains that if your goat causes damage to a car, you are responsible.  We are just in awe of the picture of the goat calmly walking away from the wreckage of an auto - Emma points out that this car is the same color as ours.  We hope that if we ever do hit a goat it's not a Supergoat like that one.

Apparently our living room furniture did not come from here, or we'd like it better.

We saw this box in a store full of cheap Chinese products: a Universal Vegetable Stuffing Home Device which promises "Multi-function machine broken dishes."  Tempting, but we managed to resist.

"No pain, no gain."  Coming to this bar will be painful but it will be good for you, we promise.
Joel asks, is having a bottle store with "No Limit" really a good idea?

Joel is the one who caught this one: "Praise God, I found a discount!"

Unfortunately even "Obama bread" wasn't enough to keep this bakery in business - it seems to have folded.  Too bad - we liked the bread.  We never did find the "bin Laden bread" that some friends told us about.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Miscellaneous News

We can hardly believe how fast the end of our time here is approaching: in two weeks and two days we get on the plane.  He is still racing to finish up everything he'd hoped to get done before we leave, with the added stress of starting to find a buyer for the car.  I've really enjoyed teaching - it's been an interesting challenge to find ways to relate the ecological concepts on the syllabus to practical applications of interest to Malawian agronomy students.  I asked them if I could take a picture, and they all said "Yes!"

It still seems crazy to us, and especially Joel and Emma, that Christmas is almost upon us.  I've spent more time than they have in the grocery stores in Lilongwe, so I've been hearing Christmas music.  (And here I thought I'd escaped that this year!)  Something about hearing "I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas" in Lilongwe, Malawi just seems a bit wrong.  Even more wrong: when you walk past the display of cheaply made plastic dolls in Shoprite, you could be forgiven for thinking you might actually be in Germany, or Sweden, or almost anywhere else in northern Europe.  If you persist you will eventually find ONE black baby doll in the midst of the whole blue-eyed, pink-cheeked throng, a token reminder that you are actually in sub-Saharan Africa where NO little girl receiving those dolls will have blue eyes.  Bad enough that somehow the idea of "for unto us a child is born" is somehow wrapped up in trappings from a completely different culture and climate, but to imply that that child had to be blue-eyed to be attractive is even worse.   Emma and I saw someone on the street wearing a Christmas chitenje whose picture of the Holy Family seemed to actually be of a trio of spaced-out Norwegians, but I restrained myself from whipping out my camera.  Emma, watching while I type this, says she wouldn't have called them spaced-out Norwegians.  But they sure weren't Chewa or Ngoni!  We don't think we've seen even one representation of a Christ with dark skin the entire time we've been here.
Looking for the one black baby in Shoprite's toy aisle is kind of like a big plastic game of I Spy.

Despite the disorientation caused by trying to process Christmas decorations and hot humid weather, Joel and Emma were all primed for their school Christmas concert this past Tuesday evening.  Both their choirs were going to perform and Joel was going to participate in some recorder duets and trios, but it was canceled when Malawi announced three days of mourning for Nelson Mandela.  The government stated that "During the mourning period any entertainment activities in public places, including football matches, dances and other jovial gatherings should be suspended."  It went on to say that "It is expected that the broadcasting houses will play sombre music during this period."  Our car radio only tunes in to the frequencies used in Japan which seem to be lower on the dial that what is used in Malawi so we can't attest to what the radio stations are playing, but we can assure you that there is nothing sombre about the music booming from the speakers at the bar!

I don't think I've posted this story yet - if I have, sorry.  Joel was eating a grilled cheese sandwich and wanted to put some ketchup on it.  (If this sounds odd to any of you, you'll have to blame it on his Nafziger heritage.)  Unfortunately, he was too hungry to be careful.  Also unfortunately, our ketchup package looks a lot like the chili garlic sauce package.  You can probably imagine the rest of the story better than I can describe it!

Thanks to a year of excellent physical therapy before I left State College, I can now run regularly again - nice, since the rest of my days aren't usually very active.  Sometimes I run on the track that goes around one of the soccer fields here, which has quite a nice view; sometimes I go down the road east of our house, past little maize fields and the college cattle pastures, toward a plain studded with inselbergs (isolated rocky mountains).  Eric usually picks a route on the many winding, intersecting paths through the Bunda College forest...must be nice to have a sense of direction!  Today he took me along to see some wildflowers he'd found.  On the way back we came past the track, and the little kids that live in the tiny houses nearby came swarming out shouting "Azungu! Azungu!" (White people!)  They wanted to run too, so I did an extra lap around the track with them to their great amusement.  I've had kids join me a couple other times as well for a couple of laps - kind of fun.

 A big thank you to Becky Kephart for scanning and emailing some pages from the Hymnal accompaniment book.  People at the church here really seem to like it when Joel accompanies Eric with his recorder, which gets called a "flute" here.  Hard to believe we'll only have one more Sunday there - we're skipping church this coming Sunday because it will be all in Chichewa.  The head pastor of the church, Rev. Dr. Archwelis Katani Mwali, was at Maliros' for dinner last Saturday when we were there, and we enjoyed the chance to talk a while.  He says the Bunda CCAP church is very unique: its membership includes professors with Ph.D.s and other professionals, working-class people, and peasant villagers, all at once.   Other churches here would include a much narrower slice of the socioeconomic  spectrum, either poor or rich but not both at once.  Here, the fact that a university is located in a rural area has created this mix.  He said it's difficult to get the different groups to mingle much, but the one place it really happens is in the choir.  There are people from all walks of life singing together, and oh, how they sing.  I wish I could photograph those harmonies and post them for you!  Eric's comment: "It's a metaphor of what the Kingdom of God should be like, this joining of all kinds of people into something beautiful."  We have heard rumors that there is a way to get a CD of the choir singing, but we're still chasing it down.  ("Beatrice is the one you need to see."  When we finally manage to find Beatrice: "Alex is the one you need to see."  And so it goes...)  


Teaching at Bunda College

Eric is giving two classes now in R statistics, and I am guest lecturing in the Crop Ecology class.  Not that I am such an expert on Malawian agroecosystems; I'm doing the basics like nutrient cycling, food webs, and natural selection.   The class is run by Dr. Wezi Mhango, who Eric had met previously in his Lynch lab projects.  (She did her Ph.D. at Michigan State under the first post-doc of Jonathan Lynch, Eric's Ph.D. and post-doc advisor.  Eric says that makes them academic cousins, or something.)

I told Wezi I didn't want to be "stepping on her toes" but she says she's glad of the help.  In the last two years, the size of the incoming class has been at least twice what it usually was in the past.  However, the size of the faculty has stayed the same.  So the professors are suddenly seeing class sizes double, and don't seem inclined to turn down help when a stray ecology professor knocks on the door asking to work for free.  Another professor told us that the class size increases can be traced back to the previous president of Malawi, who was very determined to expand and improve education.  However, education does not seem to be as high a priority for the current president, so now the college is dealing with increased numbers but isn't seeing the money coming from the government that is needed to deal with it adequately.

Campus has a lot of beautiful flowering trees and shrubs, though some people fear that these will be lost as the college must expand its classroom space to keep up with student numbers. 
When we ate with the Maliros on Saturday, we asked their son Prov how things are going.  He's a first-year student in agricultural engineering.  He's in some really big classes which are held in the marquee (the big white tent that they use since they're short of classroom space).  He says it gets pretty hot in there, with several hundred students packed in.  He says it's a fairly regular occurrence to have students faint from the heat.  Last week a girl fainted and fell into a fan - sounded like she might have lost a finger. 

I have found the students to be very motivated; they pay attention in class, copy down every word on my teaching slides, and respond to the questions I ask.  You get the impression that many of them are not taking the chance of a college education for granted.  True, there are those who skip class - students are students no matter where you are, I guess!

On the other hand, there are some problems here that I haven't encountered in the US.  The class schedule has just undergone what I hope is the last change, two weeks after it started.  (Changing the schedule of a course midstream don't seem to be as difficult as you might think. All the students in a given major and year take all the same classes, so if the new time works for one student it works for them all. In fact, if you fail one class you have to repeat the whole year's schedule!)  Crop Ecology meets three times a week, at a different hour and in a different place every time.  The classroom assigned for Thursday is too small so Moses recommended that I just strike  out with the class to find a larger room that didn't seem to be in use.   I haven't been that bold yet.

Things like that can lead to trouble: yesterday Eric found the room he thought he was supposed to use already occupied by another class, so he had to find something else at the last minute.  But while Eric felt a little frazzled by that whole thing, his students didn't seem fazed at all - someone chalked a note on the sidewalk outside the first room announcing the new room, and off they went.

Lecturing here doesn't worry me a bit - it's getting ready to start.  Will I be in the right place at the right time?  Will I be in the right place at the right time but still find another class has settled there?  Will the students find chairs?  Will there be a projector available?   If I find a projector, will it work?  (Some of the department projectors have very touchy cables, and one of them doesn't transmit any red so the colors are mangled.)   Will the electricity go off?  So far I've been lucky there  - no power outages while I'm teaching.  I'm too new to know which classrooms are on the generator and which aren't.  I always come with chalk and written notes just in case.

If I want chalk, I have to bring it with me from the department office - nobody leaves it in the classroom because it will disappear.  Another thing you'll never find in a classroom is enough chairs.  So it's hard to get started on time because for the first five or ten minutes the students who have been wandering around looking for chairs are straggling in with whatever they've found to sit on.  Again, this doesn't seem to faze the students at all.

The written exercise I assigned a couple Fridays ago was done in groups.  Normally when I do this I circulate among the groups to monitor how things are going.  This doesn't work very well when the groups are all speaking Chichewa!  I don't know how they manage to discuss the assignment in one language and write it down in another, but they do.  English is the official language of instruction in any level beyond primary, so at least I didn't have to grade any Chichewa papers!

Another difference here is the scarcity of textbooks.  There are some in the library but tend to be few and outdated.   I'm planning to leave my ecology text here - some students asked me if I could leave it at the library for them to look at.  When Eric went to the library yesterday to leave the books he brought on plant roots and on using R, the librarian told him their acquisition budget is about $7000 a year - not much, when you consider the price of technical books and texts, as well as the fact that anything they buy has to be shipped in from out of the country.  It made me think of all the textbooks sent by publishing companies as free samples to professors in the US, many of which never get used.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Exchange Rates

Since I am paid by deposit to our account in the US in dollars, getting Malawian Kwacha (MK) for our daily expenses always involves some kind of exchange. Whether exchanging US bills on the “black market”, getting MK from the ATM, or cashing a check at the US Embassy, we are always exchanging money, and (pretty much) always losing something in the process (how much one looses is hard to tell, but the banks seem to take at least 4%, and transaction costs can be as high as 10%). Apart from the US Embassy, which provides exchange services as a courtesy for Embassy staff and pseudo staff (like Fulbrighters), every other service for exchanging money is out to make a percentage on the process.

Today the Malawi kwacha is trading at 412 to the US dollar (second black arrow on graph below), so $100 buys you 41,200 MK. When we arrived, it was trading at around 325 (first black arrow on graph below), so $100 was only worth 32,500. So this isn’t all bad for us – our dollars go farther. But of course since many goods are imported (or their production depends on imported materials), their prices reflect the exchange rate, so the devaluation from 325 to 412 means that for many goods prices have (or will) increase substantially.

Image from here, annotations mine.

It also means a real loss of value in assets. For example, in August we bought a car for 2.2 million MK. This translated to a cost of about $6,800. Four and a half months and 6,000 km later, we have to sell this car. Even if we sell if for the same price we paid for it, 2.2 million, it has lost value, since that 2.2 million is now only worth $5,500. This drives home the point that these changes in exchange rates have real consequences for people. Imagine if this was not a car but your savings account!

Many Malawians have referred to the economic crisis of last year. That was a large devaluation of the kwacha – over a short period time the kwacha went from about 160 to around 270 (yellow box on graph). This must have been a very difficult time. The real value of savings accounts declined by 40%. But it seems the crisis continues since the kwacha is now at about 412 – a decline of over 60% from 2 years ago.

I’m not sure how I would here deal with this reality, but I think it may explain why building seems to be the most popular thing to do with money – buildings may not appreciate much, but they probably won’t lose value very fast either.

Monday, December 9, 2013


Yesterday was the Chichewa service at Bunda CCAP, so we stayed home and listened to a service from University Mennonite (Our church in PA). Actually we listened to the 50th Anniversary celebration service, which we were sad to miss, but Malawi is pretty far (and $11,000 too much to spend in tickets) for a weekend trip.

At one point during the service they called up all the 3rd generation from the congregation, and I realized “That would have been Joel and Emma”. At that point I found myself thinking “What on earth have we done?”. We have put down deep roots in central PA, and I don’t think we’re really realized how much it may cost us to leave.

As a family we are at an odd place. We’ve left the home we’ve known for the last 10 years - the town where I have spent more of my life than anywhere else, and the town where Joel and Emma were the 3rd generation in our church. But before we had time to root ourselves in our new place in Greenville, we left for 5 months in Malawi. As this time comes to a close, we find ourselves saying “when we go back…” and not quite being able to say “home”, because we don’t really know where home is.

I know some of our new friends in Greenville may read this. Please don’t take this the wrong way. We want to make a home for ourselves in Greenville, but we are keenly aware of what we have lost.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Selling Things

One of the things you notice early on about Malawi is that quite a lot of people are engaged in the business of selling things.  Some arrange their wares on a cardboard box or a bit of plastic sheeting by the road; some roam the downtown sidewalks; some stand in traffic at intersections.  In the countryside the road through small towns is lined with little sheds constructed of reeds or sticks, whose rickety counters display carefully stacked cairns of tomatoes, piles of tiny silvery dried fish, or pieces of goat meat.  At the little open-air Malawian diner we sometimes eat at in Lilongwe, vendors wander through with armfuls of shoes or sport coats, or the ubiquitous little cards for cell phone airtime.  (The restaurants that cater to expats and rich folk keep the vendors out.)  When you stop at a gas station you might be offered shoes, MP3 cables, windshield wiper blades, books (a textbook on Modern Chemistry, anyone?), CDs, sunglasses, various charging cords, apples, mangoes, cassava (snacked on raw, but not recommended that way by your humble correspondent).   

We often have vendors coming to our door in Bunda with tomatoes, onions, greens, okra, or sometimes whole dead fish.  We've seen door-to-door bra salesmen, a backpack salesman with an unbelievable number of bags hanging from him, guys with big racks on their bikes to display their wares of gourds, loofah sponges, little brooms, or even rows of clothes on hangers.   

There are some guys at certain intersections in Lilongwe selling the kind of posters you'd expect to see in a classroom: maps of the world, parts of the body labeled in English, labeled pictures of fruits and vegetables.  We are guessing some charitable group was appalled at the lack of supplies in public schools here and tried to help out, and this is what became of their donations.  At other places along roads and sidewalks in town you can buy everything from laundry soap to roasted peanuts to passports from the south-central African country of your choice.

The kids' favorite vendors to spot are the guys who stand beside the roads holding up puppies or kittens for sale.  It always looks to us like the kitten sellers must go home with pretty scratched-up arms at the end of the day!

Some of these salesmen take "no" for an answer and keep moving.  Others, however, are not so easily deterred.  You'd think that the guy selling sunglasses might have been a little discouraged by the fact that I was wearing sunglasses at the time!  I had a fruit vendor follow me into the produce department of a supermarket once - without his wares, but he came up to me while I was in the produce department and tried to convince to go outside and buy his fruit.  By far the most persistent vendors we've encountered have been the strawberry vendors.  I was very surprised but it seems there are strawberry fields in some parts of Malawi.  Strawberry season seems to be over now, but while it lasted we were awed by the determination of the vendors.  They called to us, followed us, tried desperately to persuade us, ran after the car a couple of times.  Joel decided that the next reality TV show should pit two strawberry vendors in an arena for the ultimate sell-down.   They became such a family joke that once I said, "OK, I'll buy your strawberries - if I can take a picture first."  They were good strawberries after all, if a bit pricey.

When we buy from vendors we are often a bit suspicious that we are getting the mzungu (white person) price.   Sometimes we're more than a bit suspicious.  Before the rainy season started we were warned that tomatoes would become scarcer and more expensive once the rain started, so I told Emily, who washes for us, that I'd like to buy a lot of tomatoes to put in the freezer.  She said she would find some.  When she came with a HUGE load of tomatoes on her head, she told me about buying them:  The vendor said 2000 kwacha, then asked Emily why she was buying so many tomatoes.  Emily told her, and the vendor immediately said, "Oh, for them it will cost 2800 kwacha."  Emily became very indignant retelling this story; she told the vendor "2000 kwacha is what you said first, take it or leave it."  So the price was 2000 kwacha in the end, but it confirmed what we already suspected about our "special treatment" in the informal economy.

Eric had a direct run-in with the informal economy when he wanted to buy a different pair of running shoes.  He couldn't find anything large enough in any of the stores, so he was advised to go to the open market.  I went along for the fun of it, wandering around and looking at things while he got down to business.  All the shoe sellers are in one part of the market; each has a few dozen pairs of shoes at most, some new, some used.  They keep the dust off their products with little whisks made from unraveled fertilizer sacks.  I could tell during my wanderings that he still hadn't sealed a deal, because I kept seeing guys carrying very large shoes jogging toward where I had left him.  Eventually my curiosity got the better of me and I went back, to find him surrounded by no fewer than 14 vendors each determined that he buy their shoes. 
Eric: In their eagerness to sell me their shoes, the vendors were willing to be very approximate about size. I told them I needed size 12 shoes, but at least half of the shoes they brought were size 11. One of the guys would hand me a shoe, I'd look at it and say "this is size 11, not 12", and they would proceed to remove the insole and say "now it will fit you well". I tried on several pairs of shoes that would have been painful to run in, but each vendor in turn insisted that that shoe must fit me.
 He finally found some that worked but had very little success in the bargaining stage.  (Even having seen a thrift-store price tag on $9.95 in one of the shoes, he ended up paying way more than 5 times that).  One of our friends asked outright what he'd paid and was shocked - it was probably four or five times what a Malawian would have gotten them for.  This friend said vendors are pretty aggressive even toward Malawians; it's not just us.  He talked about getting onto minibuses and having drivers of other buses shouting at him: "No, get on this one!  This one is better!  This one is faster!  This one is leaving right now!"