A few of my favorite things

What will you miss most?

The internet connection and time requirements for this post are just not available but to quickly update this blog I will give it a shot. I’ve been asked a lot lately, how are you feeling about leaving, what will you miss…?

IMG_5196I will miss the three boys; who without shoes, school books or a sense of security have always made me smile. They greet me with a smile every time they ‘find’ me and while they can’t speak English they ask me how I am and if I can help them. Most days it’s just 100 kwacha (about $0.25), sometimes it’s bread and water, other days it’s a wave from Gift telling them to go away, and when I’m alone near the supermarket it’s banana  muffins, a jug of juice, loafs of bread and a big hug. They have made me cry in the rain being unable to take care of them properly but they have made me strong. They are the ‘street kids’ of Lilongwe and they make everything seem very ‘real.’

I will miss the guys who shout and shout. Taxi! Taxi! I will miss the negotiation, the ‘ehhh eeway too much’ and I might even miss getting lost though they claim they know where we’re going. I will miss the broken door handles, the Jesus bumper stickers, the running out of fuel and helping to push.

I will miss the sound of a high pitched gentleman hollering ‘Aye-madz!’ meaning little bags of water for sale, always surprisingly cold and only 10kwacha (less than a nickle). I will miss the guys with the roasted groundnuts, the ladies with fruits, the people selling roasted chamunga (cobbed corn). I will miss the lady from Free Market who has the chip stand by the shake-shake-shack and I will miss the mystery meat on a stick. I will miss picking up food on the street corner and having more than you can eat, fresher and hotter than you can hold for less than $3.

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I will miss the babies with their big eyes, craning their heads for a curious look at the passing mzungus. I will miss all the patterns of fabric that cradle them against their mothers backs, and I will miss the smile of their mother when I pause to give a thumbs up and ask ‘bo-bo?’

I will miss waiting around. Waiting for a mini bus, waiting for a company car, waiting for lunch and waiting for phone calls to go through.

IMG_2119I will miss the music of the mini bus and the live chickens, fresh fish, drunk madalas and old nuns that climb in with you. I will even miss the harassment, the marriage proposals, the disapproving glares and the way the conductor hangs out the sliding van door shouting at anyone we pass.

IMG_5346I will miss the chamunga (popcorn) lady who does not whisper a lick of English but carries an industrial sized garbage bag of popcorn on her head. When she sees me she carries the brightest smile and delivers the best customer service of anyone in the country. Her popcorn is better than that you get from the movie theatre and a whole bag costs you 100 kwacha, ($0.25).

I will the Airtel corner stands, I will miss the fruit ladies particularly in Area 3 market. I will miss the sachet shop, the bicycle repair shop, the shoe makers and the barbers. I will miss being able to buy everything from hand soap to trousers to windshield wipers and movies from vendors on the sidewalk.

I will even miss the creepers from Tutla’s grocery and the 7-11 bakery. I will miss the Indians, the Arabs, the Lebanese and the Chinese who make Lilongwe the city it is.

IMG_5345I will miss the 5 hour bus rides turning into 12 hour adventures. I will miss my roommate Kelly, her t-rex arms, her Birkenstocks, her bitchy resting face and sharing way too much information. I will miss our dance parties, popcorn nights, battles with tarantulas and navigating through cultural faux-pas, our shared love for co-op camp and every hilarious situation we’ve found ourselves in: remember that one time we tried to order delivery pizza but they wouldn’t deliver or take our order on the phone, and when we did get pizza our cabbie rocked Celine Dion the whole way home.

I will miss the dorms of Nkhata Bay and the lodges of Livingstonia with all the worldly accents and mixed beverages you could imagine. I will miss being so far away from the western world. I will miss the sound of monkeys and birds in the tree tops and the lapping of warm water on huge rocks. I will miss being on top of the world, standing in one country and seeing the mountains of another, realizing borders mean nothing in the beauty of the world.

IMG_5033I will miss my house, the mansion. I will miss Chris playing guitar in the crack-den while I play my drum, where we sit not saying anything for hours just strumming and drumming. I will miss Nate always having a movie to watch or being down for a card game. I will miss Q’s pompous but hilarious comments on how hard it was having a housekeeper in university. I already miss Sam, and our natural organic friendship, our positivity circles and laughs on the day bed. I will miss Fayaz dancing and saving my ass from any potential disaster.

IMG_5210I’ll miss Blessings the receptionist, Patrick the accountant, the unnamed watchman and the quiet cleaning staff. I will miss the ladies, the divas and fashionistas of the office. I will be looking for the next coworker to deem Vengalicious and I will be waiting for the next great quote by Sylvester. I will miss the SACCO managers, their hospitality and the warm welcomes from villagers.

I will miss the daily things that are just ‘normal’ here. No car seats, no strollers, no seatbelts or seating capacity. I will miss the hand shaking and fist bumping. I will miss the smiles and nods and the older ladies who appreciate my ‘Maswera Bwanjis’.

I miss miss the Rastas. I will miss their soft spoken hellos and their meaningful ideas and stories. I will miss the happy pants, the lucky beads, the paintings, the pipes and the purses. I will miss dancing with them at the Black Missionaries reggae concert and hugging them to share the love. I will miss their guitar playing and how they always have everything you need. I will miss their smiles, their dreadlocks, their big hats and bigger hearts. I might even miss other Malawians asking me why I hang out with the Rastas and I’ll miss their look of shock then understanding when I explain.

Malawi 009I will miss the warm breezes, the hot walk up hills and the sweat mustache. I will miss ditch-jumping and traffic sprinting. I will miss waving down a ride any time necessary and being picked up by any truck that feels like it. I will miss riding around in the box of a pick up and never worrying if there are enough seatbelts for everyone. I will miss the crying goats, squaking chickens, cranky women and smelly fertilizer that surrounds everyday public transit. I might miss the ability to shrug off being late and excusing myself with a ‘This is Malawi, pangono pagono’

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Maybe most of all will be the music. I will miss the drive-by loud speakers advertising store promotions. I will miss the music from Culture Club and the fusion of sounds for Kuti and Living Room. I will miss the passion people have for dancing and I will miss watching the stress melt away when some Zambian songs come on. I will miss SACCO dance parties, and clapping and chanting with children on the side of the road.

I will miss the waves and the screams from the children. Asungu! Kamingi! I will miss their smiles and their curiosity.

Kids doing some modelling in Mchinji

I will miss Malawi because I haven’t finished appreciating it. I am still impatient when simple things take too much time. The unorganized chaos and underlying corruption that makes any progress at all feel like a victory that you cheated your way in to. I won’t miss the immigration officers or the random but frequent police road blocks. I won’t miss the drunken fights or the way some people can treat others.

I will miss Gift, his sound effects, his reassuring voice and every time he tells me ‘osadandaula’. I will miss touring Lilongwe with him, drinking sachets and finding a good spot to play the drum. I will miss the feeling of knowing someone cares about me and thinks I’m beautiful. I will miss being shown around and I will miss treating him to western luxuries.

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I will miss Moses, his deep voice and his jokes. I will miss being called ‘miliwad’ and I will miss him constantly telling me he will miss me. I will miss his sneaky smile and his drum lessons. I will miss him always asking me for a cigarette and I will miss helping him try and find love.

I will miss the true and honest friendship. I will miss having someones undivided attention and their commitment to friendship. I will miss never competing with a smart phone for my friends laughter and stories. I will miss staying out late, dancing the night away, trusting perfect strangers and staying in shady guest houses. I will miss their free time and how they don’t mind just sitting under a shade tree for hours.

I’m realizing now I could go on and on for pages and page, days and days. My heart is in Malawi, a small piece on the beaches of Lake Malawi, a small piece in the tea fields and SACCO offices. Another piece behind the waterfall, another piece in area three market… In just six months this place has swallowed me up and spit me out as a whole new person. Now for the transition back….IMG_2081

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What it takes to make a difference

3 Success Factors for a
Stronger Financial System
in the Developing World

When coming to work with the credit union system in Malawi I tried to leave expectations and ideals at the airport, but working alongside Itai, Elizabeth and Grace I’ve become even more passionate about the potential of SACCOs in southern Africa.

They all look so sharp, in perfectly tailored outfits matching their magnetic personalities and management positions. Each woman is unique with her own leadership style and ambitions but nonetheless they all exude confidence and kindness.

They are graduates of the Canadian Co-operative Association’s Women’s Mentorship Program and some of the strongest managers in Malawi’s Savings and Credit Cooperative (SACCO) system.

Itai and myself in the lobby of MUSCCO House

Itai and myself in the lobby of MUSCCO House

Itai Msiska was the first woman to represent Malawi in the program. In 2005, she boarded a plane for the first time, leaving 2 young children behind so she could collaborate with other savings and credit co-operative managers from the developing world to build a better economic future.

Nine years later Itai is still a shining star. At a recent project update meeting, colleagues from the national association and their international partners sat back as Itai delivered an impressive presentation on how many youth savings clubs Tikwere Community SACCO fostered in the last six months which led to a compelling explanation of why fighting the stigma of HIV is also important to SACCO members and their community.

The Canadian Co-operative Association’s presence in Malawi is largely focused on building capacity in the co-operative financial system while putting emphasis on community outreach and social programing. While the work of interns and coaches is greatly appreciated here, the real execution and success is credited to leaders like Itai who empower their staff to make a difference and mobilize community members to shift cultural or social norms to overcome their economic hardships.

In studying what makes some SACCOs more successful than others, I’ve concluded there are three factors which greatly contribute to their success.

1. The inclusion and empowerment of female leaders
Malawi has 42 active SACCOs and to date more than 19 women have participated in the overseas opportunity which Elizabeth Chinjala describes as a “personal and professional life changing journey.”

Elizabeth and her loans officer Chawanangwa

Elizabeth and her loans officer Chawanangwa

Elizabeth started as a data entry clerk at Lilongwe Urban Teachers SACCO fresh out of Lilongwe Technical College. In her eleven years of service she has rotated through accounting and loans officer positions, landing as the accounts and office supervisor of 5 staff.

In 2013 she was invited to Canada on the Women’s Mentorship Program and believes her success back in Malawi comes from the empowerment she received from Copperfin Credit Union in Thunder Bay, ON. Elizabeth lights up talking about her host who wrote a letter highlighting her talents and passion, encouraging her largely male-dominated board of directors to have faith in her leadership and witness the drastic improvements that would come with it.

Elizabeth's SACCO still processes every transaction manually with ledger books

Elizabeth’s SACCO still processes every transaction manually with ledger books

Since returning home Elizabeth has been rewriting her policies and improving the organizational structure to motivate her staff and improve service to her members. Elizabeth has been inspired by the Canadian Co-operative Association to continue her education and is currently working towards a Certified Accountant’s designation, costing her more than $550US a semester in a country where most people live off less than $2 a day.

When asked about her personal goals Elizabeth says “It is my desire that this movement push forward for the better, we have been in darkness too long,” with a sparkle in her eye that reminds me this woman has serious work to do.

2. Networking and sharing lessons learned
Networking can enhance a woman’s sense of belonging and encourage her to come out of her shell, but it’s much more than that.

In countries less developed than Canada, credit union managers are struggling to implement risk management systems because there are little to no regulatory or legislative frameworks. Even once they develop policies and procedures for lending practices or human resources there is very little support on the implementation and enforcement of such programs. Canadian credit union hosts have been very supportive in sharing their policies and providing technical assistance for ‘in-house’ controls and the results have been undeniable.

Malawians may not receive the support they need from the government but they have a strong sense of community

Malawians may not receive the support they need from the government but they have a strong sense of community

Delinquency rates at Lilongwe Urban Teachers SACCO were at 6% in 2012 and dropped to 1% in just over a year. Elizabeth says this change came from modifying lending practices to include the 5 Cs of credit and involving members through financial literacy initiatives.

Grace stands outside her beautiful AHL SACCO branch

Grace stands outside her beautiful AHL SACCO branch

Grace Modekayi, manager at Auction Holdings Ltd. Employees SACCO joined the program in 2010 and even four years later she is drawing on member engagement ideas from her visit to Canada. “It was so impactful to learn from other managers who understand your culture and want to see you succeed, I still keep in touch with some of the other African leaders.”

Grace also gives high praise to the CCA facilitators Bev Maxim and Laurie Tennian who fostered the caring and sharing atmosphere that generated so many solutions to everyday inefficiencies. “We need to learn from your experiences and be inspired and encouraged by the growth, size and management of your credit unions.”

All of the managers agreed some of the most meaningful changes were small adjustments like respecting privacy and confidentiality of members leading to stronger, more honest member relations. Other successes gained include the development of stronger strategic plans and a better understanding in the role a board of directors should play in savings and credit cooperative growth.

3. Member participation and understanding
Co-operatives are powerful agents for economic empowerment. I’ve been privileged to meet many members who have gone from poverty to prosperity thanks to member-ownership.

Kids in Nsanje take a break from their chores and sit in the shade at a local shop owned by a SACCO member

Kids in Nsanje take a break from their chores and sit in the shade at a local shop owned by a SACCO member

Malawi is a landlocked country nestled between Tanzania, Zambia and Mozambique, the local currency is kwacha and most locals live off less than 1,000Mk (about $2.50) per day. A monthly supply of maize flour and a few tomatoes will cost a family more than 17,000Mk, money they get through selling wild mushrooms at a local market, or working labor jobs for larger agricultural operations or auction floors like the employees of Auction Holdings. Working seasonal cash jobs is a way of life here. For many people who rely on the support of successful siblings to put food on the table and pay for school fees it is easy to understand why saving for tomorrow may feel impossible.IMG_4840

Managers like Grace work with their directors to come up with deposit products that attract these members and accrue generous interest. Other managers across the country have been forming and training small groups of less than 30 people who save together and take turns borrowing money from the collective savings. These Groups Savings and Loans Associations (GSLAs) are eligible to be SACCO members, where the individuals may take time to save up for their share requirements of 5,000Mk. GSLAs are a tool that has mobilized savings for even the poorest rural resident; in communities where many members are illiterate, they have created a symbol system so that financial services are 100% accessible to everyone.

Their small groups have become platforms for SACCO messages and services, gender mainstreaming, farming study circles and so much more. They began as opportunities for mattresses and mosquito nets and members have begun opening up profitable businesses like fueling stations and taxi services. Their success wasn’t just about accessing affordable credit; it was about an understanding and discipline for savings.

At Auction Holding Employees SACCO Open Day in September, members were proud to discuss their sense of self-reliance and the gratitude they had for the SACCO instilling it in them. The Open Day entertained members with a comedic performance that encouraged SACCO membership and hilariously highlighted its benefits. There was also a quick quiz on products, service and the recent dividend paid to members where prizes were given for correct answers. There was a dance party and a snack break and there was no shortage of civic education done right.

Dancing at the Open Day with members of the SACCO

Dancing at the Open Day with members of the SACCO

Grace said she got the idea for the event in 2010 but waited until the right time to propose it to her board of directors, they were sure glad she did because more than 30 new employees became SACCO members that day.

It is small every day acts of responsibility and compassion that have contributed to the economic growth of Malawi’s people and financial system. SACCOs have had no shortage of hurdles to clear this year and with an election in May they are expecting more change and challenges. But this is a nation of hardworking women and proud men and thanks to leaders like Itai, Elizabeth and Grace there is a growing spirit of co-operation.

Their operations are guided by the universal principles that encourage people all over the world to help themselves and their neighbors. Strong management skills and commitment to member inclusion will accelerate how SACCOs adapt to meet the needs of their communities. With graduates of Women’s Mentorship Program and like-minded managers across Africa, Asia and the Americas the financial systems we see in the ‘developing world’ today will be history in just one generation.

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An Education

My fellow intern Bonnie has a really great post that ends with a powerful quote, be thankful for what you have learned in life and how you have learned it.

bonn voyages

Alfred has the kind of smile and bright eyes that makes a person honest and friendly, no matter what his natural disposition might have been. Pair that with being the sole person in Benako to speak a few words of English, and he’s easily the most attractive man in town.

We roll in to the tiny Tanzanian border-town just before sunset, eager to head Eastward and save ourselves an extra day of travel.

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Catching Up!

Days Pass Like Trees Seen Through Car Windows

I’ve been starting a bunch of different writing pieces and haven’t finished a damn one of them in over three weeks. **NOTE really want to add photos to this blog but the internet is just not cooperating, pepani! (sorry)**

The kindness of my friends and family, sending me loving “miss you” messages has got me feeling like I should really blog. Nothing life shattering, just something from the heart about how my life has really been going here.

I spent my Christmas on Likoma Island not far from the shores of Mozambique. With an only slightly overpacked bag I toted along my journal with every good intention to pour my heart into its pages. Instead, I ended up meeting some amazing travellers from all over the world.

My Christmas on the beach was bizarre but beautiful. The water in Lake Malawi was warmer than most of the showers I’ve had here but more than that, the laughter I shared with my roommate and our new Finnish friend Jason and German sidekick Sandra really lit a fire in my soul. I enjoyed the company of some American Peace Corps volunteers, the US Ambassador and her husband, a great couple from Australia who met in Africa, the list goes on.

We all traveled back to the mainland together on the same local boat, well all of us except the ambassador who obviously took an expensive private flight. After blowing an engine an hour into the trip, we spun for a painfully slow hour in the same spot over the rocky waves in the middle of the massive lake. With understanding and sick, sarcastic humour we survived the smelly nine hour sea-sick passengers back to Nkhata Bay.

I was fortunate enough to spend that night in a local guest house, sharing a room with the hilarious dream team that became Jason, Kelly, Sandra and of course myself. We each chipped in $1 for the total cost of the room and went to get some fanta and coke for Jason’s bottle of Malawi Vodka (cringe). After the first two showered, I ran out of water mid-shampoo and Sandra ran to ask the staff for a bucket of water.

While Sandra saved me big time, she just didn’t have it in her to join us on the beach after not having a proper wash up and so she went to bed defeated. Kelly and I got some Carlsbergs and joined Jason and the vodka in the sand under the stars and talked life and played ‘never have I ever’ until all hours of the morning. The next day we all went our separate ways to continue on our own journey for New Years which lead to Kelly and I taking a ridiculous 11 hours ‘direct’ bus to Lilongwe from Mzuzu (a regularly 4.5 hour drive).

Once arriving in Lilongwe late at night we tracked down her boyfriend who had flown in that day from Canada. After stopping at numerous hostels and worrying her sick we finally found a friend known as Drunk Sam who confirmed that yes indeed a bearded ginger from Canada had arrived earlier that day and was sleeping in a tent.

We met up with Nate the ginger the following day and despite our best efforts to make it to Cape Maclear for New Years we ended up celebrating with local friends with a nice dinner out and then a few drinks at home.

Before heading back to work from our vacation, Kelly and I moved out of our tarantula and cockroach infested flat and into a beautiful mansion by Malawian standards. Two other Canadians, Chris and Samantha along with Q a tall Dutch guy welcomed us to the new 5 bedroom house that offered a full garden in the back, a kindhearted housekeeper and believe it or not cheaper rent.

Since moving in, I have been spending a lot of time getting to know the roommates and following them to new restaurants and night clubs. I’ve been staying up too late talking about development with Chris, which usually turns into us talking about the energy out in the universe, appreciating the little things and me listening to him pick at the guitar.

I recently bought a great bongo drum and have been learning to play. While I’m feeling comfortable alone in the confines of my room, when Gift comes over to give me a lesson I usually get embarrassed and give up pretty quickly. I’m working on it, trying to take my own advice that practicing is the only way to get better, pushing myself out of my comfort zone will allow me to grow in ways I can only dream of… but when he picks it up and rattles off a rhythm so beautiful I just want to listen for hours but after 2 minutes hands it back to me for my basic 4-2-2 beat I just don’t feel like I’ll ever get better.

Sunday’s have become a regular jam session for us. Usually led by Moses and Gift, we head to the outside of Area 3 Market, pull over some benches and buy some sachets and settle down with two or three drums. The crowd always gets larger as the afternoon goes on and we usually play until the sun goes down. The guys get super creative, turning glass bottles into symbols and everyone’s clapping on one or two different beats, it’s magical!

This weekend I’m away. I came to the northern region of the country last Wednesday and have been traveling to different SACCOs helping them enhance their business plans and create marketing plans for the upcoming year. It’s been amazing and I have met so many managers who are really committed to the growth of their members and have been very receptive to everything I tell them.

I had planned a trip to Livingstonia after these meetings but plans changed and my work became heavier than anticipated so I just took a 45 minute ride to Nkhata Bay for the weekend. Still hoping to make it up there on Monday afternoon.

I know it’s crazy but I will kind of miss ‘dorm life’, living out of a bag for a week or two at a time. This morning I woke up to the sounds of so many different languages. Lodge staff laughing in Tonga while hand-washing laundry outside, some German travelers making plans for the day, birds singing and a Spanish couple bickering. It’s kind of fabulous to be in a place you can picture before you even open your eyes. I’m sure if the ants could make noise they would be the loudest, they are everywhere! You learn to get used to it because there is just absolutely nothing you can do to get rid of them. Right now there are some on my laptop, there are a lot all over this table and a few on the rim of my coffee mug, I slept with them in my bed and anywhere you sit they crawl on you, ahh this is Africa.

Sorry for the delay in posting updates! I have been so busy trying to finish all my postcards and actually experiencing life here that electronics and internet are only a passing thought and whenever time does permit the power usually goes out or the wifi stops working. Thinking of you often!

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Rojas and Rocketships

When A Child Changes Your World

Two years ago I was afraid of babies. Yes, afraid. Someone would shove their newborn child toward me and I would refuse to open my arms. No thanks, that life is too fragile to take into my own hands. When my closest cousin had a baby boy I grew a little braver and for the sake of showing my maturity and love for her and her family I started to interact a little more physically, hugging and playing.

Now that Collin’s getting bigger, louder, stronger, faster and funner, he’s no longer the terrifying infant I once knew, I can’t wait to go home and bond with him. This longing for hugs and playtime is credit to some of the children in Malawi.

Enter Rojas. Rojas is a tiny young boy who has taken a fond liking to my friend Moses. He has a wonderful imagination, a cute coy grin and often wears a long sleeve t-shirt that says “video games stole my soul” (hilarious). Rojas has a younger brother and a very poor mother and no father figure but the men from the craft market. He travels across Lilongwe on his own via minibus for the attention and love of Moses. I have never seen a grown man reach out to a child the way Moses does with Rojas, even among all my great father-friends no one stacks up to Black Mo and this little boy.

Last weekend I was sitting with Gift and Moses on a wooden bench under the shade of a huge tree in the market. I spotted Rojas coming, but he didn’t come straight for us. He’s a lone soldier, not older than 7 or 8, who stopped to play with an out-of-order pay phone and then picked up some rocks (actually a spaceship and crew) before he skipped past me and Gift to snuggle his way into Moses arms.

They talked to each other in Chichewa and for a good half  hour they had an uninterrupted session of Moses pulling on his ears, teasing him, kissing his cheeks, telling him stories and answering his questions.

A potential business opportunity arose as a few tourists came by and I suddenly found myself ‘alone’ with Rojas who was enthusiastically entertaining himself with the concrete and stone spaceship. He had found a piece of tinted beer bottle glass that became the shield of the spaceship and a few cigarette butts that became the ammo for a rubber tube bazooka. He flew his spaceship over and under the bench and when I made him a landing pad of cardboard and sticks and he zoomed in for to disembark. We unloaded the small rocks, the soldiers, and rushed them to the hideout (a hole we had made behind one of the bench legs).

Quickly the game changed. In the dirt around the carving displays we found the lid of a glass jar and a broken long forgotten stone hippo carving along with a wooden crocodile. Rojas took the crocodile for a swim through the flower petals and leaves that had fallen off the tree we were sitting under. He was fishing and the tin lid was our frying pan. Each little petal was a fish and my disfigured hippo was the chef. Once the animals had hunted and properly cooked their fish we were onto incorporating them into the space mission.

The crocodile could now fly and was the enemy of the concrete spaceship and rock soldiers. He could shoot bullets from his tail and if he ate a leaf he could travel at super unstoppable speeds. I was in charge of flying the spaceship but even my impressive manoeuvres between benches and rock forts were no match for Rojas’ flying croc.

After being shot down by the crocodile, there was a crash landing amongst the rubble of other rocks, I unloaded my soldiers and Rojas helped. We danced our rocks on to the top of the bench and together tag teamed the evil crocodile he left abandoned on the far side of the bench. Some soldiers stood guard facing the crocodile, while others scaled their way to the ground by way of a corn-husk rope. We took down the crocodile by surrounding it from all angles.

I’m not sure how long we played together, making universal sound effects and very little conversation but it was one of the best afternoons of my life. For the first time in a really long time I was living completely in the moment. I didn’t know what time it was, I didn’t dig out my phone or look around for someone who might be looking for him, I was just completely there heart and soul with Rojas and our spaceship, fish fry, crocodile games.

I bought Rojas a banana flavoured lollipop and we sat staring and smiling at each other for ten thousand patient licks. I wanted a picture but you can’t interrupt moments like that with a camera, they just seem too staged.

Sitting quietly among our carvings, cardboard and concrete I looked up into the tree canopy. I thought a lot about my childhood of playing in the woods with whatever was around, making potions out of berries and carving spears with pocket knives. I heard the cawing of a bird but couldn’t see it and while I was daydreaming about my own play forts made under the trees, Rojas cawed and cooed back to the bird, to which it responded.

Rojas made bird calls in between lollipop licks and when I looked over at him he put his small hand on top of mine and didn’t say a single thing. He looked up at the trees and called to the birds and I looked at the perfect little fingers that were resting between the creases of mine. He rhythmically sang to the bird and it faithfully responded in the same pattern. His skinny legs swung back and forth like a pendulum and the toes of his right foot grazed the dirt underneath us. I leaned back and looked up into the tree, the gentle touch of a child keeping me connected to nature and imagination.

I’m trying to describe what it feels like to have everything you could ever emotionally need in one small 3 meter radius but the words don’t serve the moment justice. It is an almost impossible thing to really lose yourself and leave behind your ideas of how it should be or what needs to be done to really just enjoy a moment with a small child. When you get there, the peace you feel in your heart is almost overwhelming but in an understated sense. I know that sounds contradictory but to feel 100% free is a surreal but calm place.

When the lollipop was finished we made up another game and when Moses and Gift came back Rojas did not seem the least bit concerned that they had returned or even that they had left. As if to transition from make-believe-land to reality, the winds picked up and the clouds rolled in. Suddenly Rojas and I were in the way of carvers closing up their shops for the storm and before I knew it we were saying goodbye. 

Rojas is special and while I will never have the bond that he has with Moses, I do look forward to seeing him around. It’s hard to handle the way my brain instinctively tells me not to leave this small child behind when we head off with our own grown up agenda but the boys assure me he will find his way and we will see him again. It is a whole other world living in Malawi, living in the moment with a young boy and his imagination and allowing him to go off on his own in the same fashion he arrived.

I hope I will have more moments like this one but if not I hope I can learn how to bring myself to this state of calm and clarity when I need it most, and I hope you can too.

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Sweaty Mess

How Turning Into A Sweaty Mess Made Me Feel Beautiful

On the beaches of Likoma Island where au natural is the preferred 'look'

On the beaches of Likoma Island where au natural is the preferred ‘look’

One of my favourite things about hot humid weather is how wavy it makes my hair, call me vain but it’s true. In a warm climate and I get these beautiful wavy locks that take zero effort to maintain. Now the ‘health glow’ that comes with it, is more accurately a shiny, slimy stream of sweat that surfaces above my lip, across my forehead and down every ugly crevice of my body.

Yet somehow, allowing myself to become a permanent sweaty mess has actually helped me feel better about who I am as a woman.

Here’s how…

There have been days I have stood up after a long afternoon of outdoor training session when I can actually see a distinguishable sweaty butt print on the bench and I know there is a matching one on my skirt. It happens, this is Africa. But you don’t want people to look at the sweaty butt stain, and if they do notice it you don’t want them to remember you by it the way they would in North America. When no amount of effort you make on your appearance is going to change how sweaty and disgusting you look by 10:00am, you start to concentrate on the other outward projections you can control. So when I can’t be good looking, I hold true to just being good. I smile more and I put more of an effort into talking to people, shaking their hands and looking them in the eye. People will remember you for you when you make the effort to be more than the white girl who already stands out.

This is what I look like when I'm out of the office, in one of three tank tops (same style different colours) and a big bun on the top of my head, pulled back with sun glasses and of course a chiteje at hand

This is what I look like when I’m out of the office, in one of three tank tops (same style different colours) and a big bun on the top of my head, pulled back with sun glasses and of course a chiteje at hand

It’s easier to change you and your attitude than it is to embrace the changing attitudes toward you.

Even after three and a half months of living in Malawi I have a really hard time accepting the compliments that are thrown my way daily. My friends can attest that I used to whine, yep I’ll admit ‘whine’, about how I could never get a guy to glance my way at any social outing. Back in Alberta I am the ugly duckling, unless some strapping redneck has beer goggles on then and reckons that class and consideration have no place when it comes to charming this girl. I can tell you though it is a surreal feeling to not just be different but be beautiful in the eyes of someone else. In Malawi it is very easy to attract attention and being the ‘warm heart of Africa’ people are friendly to begin with, but you can’t help and smile when someone hisses “pssst” at you when you pass, just so you can turn around for them to tell you “you’re so beautiful”.

Gift and I (in my custom-made-in-Malawi dress) at my company Christmas Party in December. One of the guys who definitely thinks I'm wife material

Gift and I (in my custom-made-in-Malawi dress) at my company Christmas Party in December. One of the guys who definitely thinks I’m wife material

Now don’t get me wrong, I realize that being overweight must make these guys think I’m a fabulous cook who knows how to take care of someone and myself. My white skin makes people think I have money and my friendly nature and need to talk to people makes me approachable. But as someone who has suffered from a non-existent level of self esteem at multiple moments in my life… moving to Malawi was something I needed to do to feel good about myself.

Personally, professionally, in social justice and service to others, I feel like I found a part of myself that was tucked away deep in my heart. Because the locals help stroke my outward ego and because my family tells me they miss my humour and personality, aaaand maybe because I’m another year older I feel like I can finally accept and love the beautiful person I am.

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Excuses

So Much To Say, So Little Time

If you know me, you’ll know I’m a perfectionist especially when it comes to putting my name on something. As a result, this blog has suffered.

I pledge that in the next 10 weeks, this blog will become more interesting with more regular posts. I have so many stories to tell that it’s actually been a challenge to sit down and give these people the credit and description they deserve.

More coming soon about my internship and it’s impact on Malawian SACCO members, more about my personal life, the places I’ve traveled, the food, the fun and the future!

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