Put the "try" in "triangulate" (and the longest post ever)
Today I learned the fine art of triangulation- That is, asking a question (at least) 3 ways until you get a response that actually answers the question you were trying to ask. This dabbling in triangulation was necessitated by my first use of an interpreter while trying to discuss the positive effects of CPAR programs with beneficiaries and volunteers in rural Malawi. It was also through my interpreter that I experienced the 10:1 rule first hand. The rule is simple and often without exception: for every 10 words the interviewee says, your interpreter will say 1. This further spurs the need for more intense probing and searching for synonyms of words such as "impact".
Overall, the day was fabulous. I had a great time in the field with Steven Matemba, CPAR Project Officer. We visited three communities that are benefiting in various ways from CPAR’s uniquely integrated programs.
What I expected to be a quick trip out of town ended up being a 5.5 hour jaunt deep into rural Malawi. But why should I be surprised- after spending 3 weeks in Malawi, you’d think I’d have learned that nothing ever happens as quickly as you think it will (in fact, there is an inverse relationship between estimated and actual duration).
After bouncing down 80 km of dirt road in a land cruiser (one way), I was more than relieved to finally arrive at our intended destination. It quickly became clear just how isolated these communities are, and how much they stand to benefit from CPAR’s start-up initiatives and home based care programs. While we only planned on visiting one village, we ended up visiting 3, taking the time to conduct in-depth interviews and photo-ops with various community members, in addition to the usual work on Steve’s agenda at each village.
By time we finally arrived in Kambalani village, where the Community Based Home Care (CBHC) program is about to be implemented, I was exhausted but still interested to meet the CPAR-trained volunteers. As I sat on a rickety, rotting wood chair in the village waiting for the group to congregate, I experienced one of those moments where you are overcome with awe at the reality of where you are and what you are doing: I am sucking on sugar cane in a rural Malawian village, obsessing over the fact that I have just shaken hands with everyone and their dog and have not had the opportunity to sneak away to the land cruiser and squirt some sanitizer on my hands. This is remarkable.
I am elated and relieved to report that the communications training is going seamlessly. A huge part of the reason we took 5.5 hours to do 3 hours worth of work was because of all the time we spent playing with the camera and asking beneficiaries to hold certain poses and stand in certain places as we pondered over angles and lighting. After missing a couple critical close-up shots in the first village, we actually went back to get what we needed. The shots that we captured and the learning we accomplished completely validated the time spent musing and backtracking.
Lauren, Eric and I have spent the past five nights in the house, eating a lot of rice and watching a lot of the satellite t.v. that was installed on Tuesday. It is dark in Malawi by 6 pm, and our massive reduction in group size has left us feeling slightly unkeen to wander out into the dark and often powerless African night (there are blackouts almost every day in our area. Today we learned to keep the kitten inside the house during said blackouts when the guard dogs are unleashed. Thanks to Eric, the situation was quickly diffused and there were no casualties- a terrified and extraordinarily puffy kitten was safely squeezed into the house through burglar bars).
Yesterday was interesting. We got home from work early, and as I flopped in the yard for a quick date with a book and the late afternoon sun, the sight of an azungu beached out on a chintinge (traditional African wrap skirt) was to the great amusement of the live-in caretaker’s children, who giggled as they not-so-secretly spied on me from around the corner of the house.
While on this topic, I should mention that the live-in caretaker who serves as our gatekeeper, dog-keeper, dishwasher, laundry-doer, housekeeper, and thereby lifesaver, is properly named Blessings- touché.
As I lay in the yard enclosed by the tall red-brick fence and accompanying iron gate adorned with razor wire, I can hear the strong echo of the call to prayer ringing loud and clear through the city. Beyond the gate are voices speaking Chechewa, birds chirping, cars whizzing by, horns honking, incessant hammering, and street vendors carrying vegetables, shouting appeals into the open air. These are the sounds of Lilongwe. I was contentedly enjoying my afternoon until an alleged relation of the man whose house we are currently occupying came to the front gate. After being told that neither her alleged relation nor his "houseboy" were home, she inquired as to the whereabouts of "wife of houseboy". At this point, I told her I had no idea, but she was welcome to go into the backyard and see if she was home. Lesson learned: do not let alleged relations wander onto property in search of people whose names they do not know. Alleged relation did not go to the caretaker’s house at the back of the property. In fact, she wandered right into the kitchen, took my water ration from the fridge and left promptly. At home, a stolen water jug would not be a huge problem. In Malawi, the only time I drink water is when I buy water (partly because I am too lazy to boil water and too stupid to figure out how to use water guard). The bottled-water bandit that took my water for the evening and next morning set my rose-coloured glasses slightly ajar. However, after a green or two (I had to drink something…), they were set right again.
So, what’s the point of my midnight rambling, you might ask? I think it is this- as an outsider in Africa (or anywhere, for that matter), there will always be something to triangulate, quadrangulate or octangulate- a question, a custom or something totally implicit. Sometimes, no matter how many times you look at something or how many questions you ask, you just won’t get it. And I think that’s okay- in a way, that’s part of the mystery and allure of travel and living in foreign places. Not having to understand everything diminishes the need to be in control that we feel in familiar surroundings. Yes, a random woman stole my water. But, it is what it is, and that’s the last time I’ll let someone I haven’t seen before onto the property, relative or not.
Despite the fact that there are things I will not and cannot ever understand, coming to a new country and having crazy and different experiences has added great depth and breadth to my understanding of life and human nature. At times I cannot believe how uncannily similar we all are- when we speak different languages but sing the same song at a club…when we play the "how old do you think so-and-so is?" game, and then laugh when we find out our Malawian colleagues did exactly the same thing.
So far, this experience has been an amazing mishmash of ups and downs, smooth sailing and bumpy roads (literally). It has pushed me to find new ways to express myself and ponder different perspectives, and taught me that if at the end of the day I have asked 18 questions and not gotten one straight answer, it’s okay, for what I have learned in the process is probably much more valuable than the answer to my question anyway.
Until next time,