Wednesday, June 29

Two months in Malawi: Give me my money

I like Malawians. If a secondary school student starts a conversation on the street, it doesn’t end with him asking for assistance in paying for school fees or in obtaining a visa out of their country. They just want to ask some questions about the United States. The stall owners don’t quote me prices three times what their countrymen pay when I ask. They give me the straight price and save us both a few minutes worth of haggling. The third time the chain slipped off my Humber, a Malawian ran up to show me how to use a stick to work it out of where it gets stuck on some screws. The thirteenth time the chain slipped off my Humber, a passing Malawian spent ten minutes tightening bolts to make sure it would stop happening and didn’t ask for payment in return. It’s a nice change from Kenya where we constantly wondered what was in it for them whenever a local showed us some kindness.

There is one respect, however, in which the typical Malawian is more irritating than the typical Kenyan. It comes, unsurprisingly, from the children. Where the Kenyan children were content to scream “Mzungu” and maybe run up and touch us when we passed, the Malawian children take it a step further into the irritating. Rather than ask “How are you?” they put their hands out and shout, “Give me my money.” “Give me money” and “Give me bicycle” are also acceptable and common variations.

I want to know who told them how to say that. I want to know who told them it’s even remotely right to say it. The adults, even the teenagers, don’t say anything like that. Is it a common line in their English language education? Have they all seen Jerry Maguire and understood Cuba Gooding. Jr., as its hero? It’s not a begging culture that I’ve found here. Where did they learn to ask that? And why do they stop saying it around the time they turn eight? I just want to know.

Tuesday, June 28

A first novel: Beginning revisions

It came a week later than I had planned, but I have returned to my novel and begun revisions. With a draft complete from beginning to end and five weeks of distance and perspective, I have a better understanding of it. A title still eludes me, but I know the characters better and what they want and why and what they will do for it. I know what the novel is about. I know where I want to take it and where not.

I would not call these major changes. They are more refinements of ideas that were already in place from the onset and toyed with throughout the draft than a wholesale rejection of my first thoughts. I do not think that they will require massive rewrites, but it troubles me that the changes I have made so far are so minor. Except for bringing back the original paragraph which sets the narrator’s voice as one telling the story some decades later rather than in the moment, I have done little more than shift around a few words and delete some sentences.

I know this first draft is not good. I wrote more than a few sections in a rush to finish or to fill space or late at night when I only wanted to sleep. I know it needs work, but the work it needs is more significant than I am currently doing. The trouble is gaining the right perspective. Right now I am revising on too fine of a level, making things work where they are now instead of putting them where they would work better. To make an analogy with carpentry, I have gathered all of the lumber I need and have drawn up the plans but am sanding the wood when I should be joining the pieces together and reinforcing them.

I do not know yet how I can do that. For now I think that I will just push through, try to knock things into place better, expand a few sections that need it and delete the parts where the characters do not act true to themselves and the voice is inconsistent. When this draft is done, my plan is to print it and make handwritten notes and changes. When I can flip between pages and sections more easily, maybe I will have a better perspective on where to join and reinforce the sections. We’ll see.

Monday, June 27

A first novel: A persistent universe

For some time I have entertained the idea that this first novel of mine will also be the first in a very loose trilogy. I’m not thinking the continuing adventures of Kukat Lochilangor or anything so unified as Lord of the Rings but a trilogy of theme and place, an exploration of Kenya and the United States. This first is about a Kenyan in Kenya. The second will be about an American in Kenya, and the third about a Kenyan in America. A handful of supporting characters will recur between stories. Main characters may reappear only well after their own stories are told and in much more limited roles, but their presence will be felt. The new characters will know of those that preceded them and be inspired by them. The action of the following novels will only be possible through the efforts of the characters before them.

I like this idea as it allows me to use a first-person or third-person limited perspective but still see complex, conflicted characters and places through a multitude of eyes, but lately I have been considering expanding this idea even further. What if all of my stories took place within the same universe? The origin was in writing my second submission to the second volume of Machine of Death. I was trying to think of a name for one of the characters, another Kenyan, and I thought why not make him the son of two minor characters in my novel now? That’s all. There’s no more allusion to my novel because I cannot be too confident in any more of the details, but I like the idea that my characters had some existence outside of my writing, that their lives continued and mattered after I stopped writing about them.

If I follow through with this idea, even that may be an exceptionally strong relationship between two of my stories. Most of them will have nothing whatsoever to do with any other story, but I like the possibilities this opens up. Events after another story’s end can be mentioned. Hints of characters’ fates can be referred to. A character in one story can comment on the work of an artist in another and may hate it.

I can see how this can be a limiting idea. If I held tight to it in absolutely everything, it can hold me back from attempting stories too large as their impact on the world would spin its course too far from that of the real world, something I would very much want to avoid, but I don’t have to always hold so tight. I can be loose in it. We’ll see where it goes. It’ll be fun.

Sunday, June 26

Two months in Malawi: Bicycle

We live with cheat codes in the United States. Maybe not invulnerability and auto win but unlimited ammunition and double-speed build times for sure. In the United States I have a Gary Fischer. It has twenty-one speeds. It has front shocks. It has a solid frame. I can adjust the seat height to better fit me and allow full extension on the down pedal. It has knobby rubber tires, and a seat that is comfortable to sit on.

In Malawi I have a Humber. It has a single gear. It has no shocks. The brakes only barely work. The frame is held together by a few nuts in critical positions and is much too small for me. Even with the seat at its full height, my legs are never fully extended. My knee never makes an angle larger than one-hundred and ten degrees. The tires are smooth plastic, and I can’t sustain too hard of a turn to either side because the tire is so large and my feet so big that I would kick it on every revolution. The seat is made from the same plastic they make action figures from and offers no padding. Since the springs beneath the seat bent horizontally, it’s become more comfortable because my bottom rests on more than three narrow points. The Huffy I rode in the first grade was a better bike than the Humber.

The first time I rode it, pulling away from the shop, it shook so bad that I thought it was going to collapse into a puddle of screw, nuts and pipes. It probably would have if I had gone all the way back to our hostel because it needed immediate maintenance. I watched for an hour while the man tightened every nut, attached the brakes and bent the gears into shape so that the chain wouldn’t slip with every revolution.

In the game of life, the Humber is playing on the highest difficulty and employing the harmful cheat codes like one-hit kills against you. It makes even the lowest levels more exciting. I took my Gary Fischer across Spokane’s trails and down Beacon Hill and felt pretty good about that. With the Humber, driving on asphalt and over speed bumps is an adventure. It’s so off balance that it veers off course if I take a hand from the handlebars to scratch my nose. I have to fight up even minor hills in my single gear.

I will be glad to sell the Humber a few days before we leave Malawi and to be back on my Gary Fischer, but until then, I will enjoy my little daily rides down Malawi’s roads and be reminded of what biking was like a few decades ago and how far we’ve come.

Tuesday, June 21

Two months in Malawi: Zomba Plateau

I have bought Coca-Cola in Malawi. I like it more here than in the States. It is less sweet and has more flavor. I have seen my first knock-off jersey for the U.S. national soccer team in Mangochi. It was a red sash on a black background. I have seen here, too, authentic jerseys for the Chicago Blackhawks, Minnesota Wild and Toronto Maple Leafs because I can’t believe that there’s enough of a market to make knock-offs of them. I have watched the New York Yankees and Chicago Cubs play on ESPN on satellite television. And yet none of these things have reminded me of the States so much as our hike up and along the Zomba Plateau this past weekend.

The hiking trail to the top is wide and well used. Pine trees line it. They are not indigenous and their needles are long and soft, but they are the first pine trees I have seen in Africa. There are small waterfalls. There are raspberries and strawberries in the underbrush. There are duikers that can be mistaken for a small deer at a glance. There is a cool breeze, and the air smells heavily of mint. Halfway up we felt we could have been on any trail in the Rockies.

Not that we would have forgotten that we were in Malawi. Locals passed us carrying pine logs balanced on their heads. We passed a group of vervet monkeys scampering up the trees. Those were unusual in that they were the first we had seen so far outside human habitat. At the pinnacle we saw that we were not within a mountain range, just “an isolated syenite protrusion,” as the guidebook put it, rising up from the Upper Shire River Valley, and we could see few other lonely hills on the plains.

Much of the pleasure in travel for me comes in escaping the familiar and discovering the new. I enjoy seeing new landscapes and tasting new foods, but I was glad to take a familiar hike on the plateau.

Friday, June 17

Two months in Malawi: Matola

Every terrible thing I have ever written or said about matatus I take back. I want them again because, somehow, Malawi discovered an even worse form of public transportation.

Malawi and its people are poorer than Kenya. The capital is not available here to buy a fleet of minibuses for the minor cities, and even if one made the investment, there would not be enough people who could pay for a ride to make it a profitable venture.

For the most part, this is not such a problem in Mangochi. The city is small, no more than four kilometers across at its widest. You can walk across it in a half hour. If you are in a rush or need to transport packages within the city, a bicycle taxi will suffice. If you need to travel to Lilongwe or Blantyre or another major city, you can take a bus.

It is, however, a problem when you want to make only a short trip outside the city to one of the villages, too far for a bicycle and too short for a bus. For these instances, Malawi provides the matola. A matola is a Chinese pick-up truck. The bed is shallow and long. Men stand just behind the cab and grab onto it or sit on the sides. Women sit in the center with their knees to their chests. Because the matolas that leave Mangochi go to villages over fifty kilometers distant, many of its riders pack a month’s worth of groceries and fish that they don’t have to make the trip too often.

The matola departs when it’s full. This is a floating number, higher now because of a national fuel shortage that has forced operating costs up, depending on just how large the passengers are, how many of them can be forced to stand and how many supplies are being transported. I rode a matola with Demetra that fit thirty people in the bed, not including children, infants and supplies. The police at the checkpoint didn’t care. They wrote the driver a ticket for having an expired sticker in the window and waved him on.

Of course the matola will stop to pick up every person who waves it down from the side of the road because that is another paying passenger. Unless it is a light load, there are a few seconds of hesitation when the matola stops as the current passengers try to figure out how to arrange themselves to make room for one or two more.

Riding a matola is pure terror. It is open air, and there is nothing to hold you in. You can never keep more than one hand on the cab because of how many other men are pushing to take their own hold on it. The sides are less than an inch wide on top and provide no balance at all. Fortunately the drivers are aware of their passengers’ precarious position and are less insane than those in Kenya, but you are constantly aware that it would not take a very small bounce or very sharp turn to make you lose your balance and tumble out or into someone else and knock them out. When I ride a matola I am constantly making plans on how I would jump out and curl to save myself if it takes the bend too fast or stops too suddenly for another passenger.

And that is why I bought a bicycle.

Thursday, June 16

Two months in Malawi: HIV theater

We are in Malawi for Demetra. She applied to and was accepted by the University of Washington’s Global Health Opportunities Program, so rather than spending the summer in Helena or on a reservation, she earns her credit by performing a community health assessment of Mangochi and developing and implementing a program that meets one of its particular health challenges. For obvious reasons, I am not doing that. I’m not even allowed in the hospital with Demetra because in the patriarchal culture, they’ll ignore her and treat me as the doctor even when she’s the one with the white coat and stethoscope.

So, while Demetra will tell me at lunch and in the evening about her time in the wards and meetings with the district health officer, my personal interactions with the health system of Malawi have been limited until this Sunday when I arranged for us to attend a university troupe’s performance in a local village that taught the people about HIV.

The stage was the shade cast by an ancient tree. It was theater in the round because the audience crowded around on all sides and had to be parted when characters entered and exited. The smallest children sat in the front while their older brothers and sisters and parents stood behind them to guarantee everyone a view.

I do not know if there was an official title, but it could have been called “An HIV Carol.” On the eve of his wedding to Shakira, Kenny is visited by three spirits. The first, the Ghost of HIV Past, reveals that Kenny’s mother passed HIV on to her son in the womb. The second, the Ghost of HIV Present, did something I did not quite catch because it was all in Chichewa. The third, the Ghost of HIV Future, reveals the future where Kenny does not deviate from his current path, and Shakira dies young. So inspired, Kenny amends his ways to seek treatment and protect his new wife from the infection.

In the second play two men, one with a stutter and the other with a bum leg, suspect each other of having HIV until they learn that such disabilities do not imply HIV and, furthermore, that even if it did, it cannot be transferred by sharing a meal.

It was a success, in some respects. The people seemed to enjoy it well enough. They laughed when Shakira’s body was brought out and when the one with a bum leg stole the other man’s bread when his eyes were closed during the prayer. They didn’t drift away after the plays began. Sixty men and women were tested for HIV and received counseling on their results. Perhaps, too, it aided in making the discussion about HIV public.

In other respects, it was less successful. Between plays there was a quiz on HIV with soap and condoms as prizes for correct answers. Maybe one in five got their answer right. When the plays were done and we returned to the truck, kids no older than ten had their hands stretched out and asked for condoms, leading one to wonder if they really knew what they were for. Follow-up visits to offer further testing and assure that those who tested positive had visited the hospital are rare because the funding is not there.

It’s a young program, only three years old. I hope that it gets the continuing support it needs from the community and donors to maintain it and continue helping people.

Sunday, June 12

A first novel: Thoughts on an artistic statement

I completed the first draft of my novel on May 9. I wrote a post to celebrate the occasion and make plans for the break from it before returning for revisions. I was going to prepare a couple of submissions to the second volume of Machine of Death. I was going to finish two short stories that were very nearly there. I was going to gain a fuller conception and understandings of the novel’s characters and what it was about.

I was less than successful in attaining these. I wasn’t lazy. I was busy, which is okay. Preparations had to be made for the summer. Things needed to be stored and things needed to be packed for our return to Africa. There were three days of driving. There was a week back in Minnesota visiting family and friends and canoeing and shooting and fishing and all that. There were two days on airplanes and in airports. There was a week in Kenya to visit the kids.

Now that we have mostly settled into life in Malawi and are prepared for the next two months here, I have finally found the time to work on these earlier goals. I haven’t returned to my earlier stories yet, but the Machine of Death stories are going well. The trouble is with my goals relating to my novel. I am starting to wonder if they aren’t too ambitious, if I might not need to start at something more fundamental, specifically an artist’s statement.

I never considered one before. They sounded pretentious. They sounded limiting, setting down what you think is worthwhile and what is not, but then I read some essays by Flannery O’Connor and Ngugi wa Thiong’o. I began to understand artistic statements better. They exist whether we elucidate them or not, even if they are as simple as entertaining through stories of men and women who are irresistibly drawn to one another despite conflicting personalities or of strong men who fight other strong men. They may be limiting, but they also give focus within that range. They do not have to be static either. They can change.

I have no idea what my artistic statement will be. I have snatches of what it might be, but I do not see the whole. I will give it some thought. I will experiment with some and see what I write from it.

Friday, June 10

A week in Kenya: Kibera

Walks the streets of Nairobi around the Hilton or past the City Market and men will come up alongside you and ask if you are interested in a safari to Maasai Mara. These shills for tour operators will stop short of cutting you off, but they will push brochures in front of you and not stop talking. If you make the mistake of stopping to talk to them, they will go on to suggest Lake Nakuru and Tsavo, all in the hopes of attracting you to their offices to make payment on a booking. They never mention the slum tours, but those are options, too. For the right price you can walk through Kibera or Mathare or any of Nairobi’s many other slums with a guide and see where the inhabitants eat and drink, work and play, wash and sleep.

I admit to a longstanding curiosity to see Nairobi’s slums. I want to know how they compare to the rural poverty of Pokot. I want to see how they differ from those in Jakarta built on and around the city landfills. I never would have paid for a tour. Neither would I have gone by myself, but an opportunity presented itself last week when our Tanzanian friend wanted to visit a woman who had helped her once when she was in need. Demetra and I quickly asked to accompany her.

The friend’s name was Mary. She was Maasai. She did not wear a shuka ¬or the elaborately beaded fan necklace. She wore a blue and black dress and had her hair done at a salon. She left her tribal lands and its cow dung cooking fires to gain a college degree. She worked for a while at a pharmacy but wanted her own. She moved to Kibera and opened it. Her husband was Caleb. He had just returned that day from Kisumu where he was visiting family. He sold groceries in Kibera.

Their home was the size of a dorm room. Half of it was occupied by their bed. The other half held a new blue couch, one table with a Chinese TV and DVD player atop it, and a second table with their dishes. The walls and ceiling were pieces of corrugated steel and decorated with a variety of bank calendars. There was a single bare light bulb, but they turned it off early because it only added to the room’s stifling heat. There were maybe four other rooms like this in their row, all sharing walls, so that you could hear the telenovella played in the room next door and the baby crying at the very end of the row. There was no door, only a hanging sheet. Neighborhood children poked their heads in and another friend passed through and joined us for lunch. It was like eating with my German relatives. It was impossible to leave an empty plate without being offered another scoop of rice and beans or a banana.

I do not know for what the people who pay for these urban safaris are looking. It may be some sort of karmic balancing to acknowledge Kenya’s squalor after spending thousands on flights and days spent in luxury watching exotic fauna. It may be a personal reminder that their lives could be that much worse and that their complaints about delayed flights and lines at the DMV are ultimately very shallow. It may just be an opportunity to see something different and to have atypical stories and pictures to share with family and friends back home. It probably is some blend of the three and cagey tour guides no doubt emphasize one aspect or another depending on what their customers expect and want.

I found a vibrant community. It was with some pride that Mary told us Kibera was the second-largest slum in Africa after Soweto in South Africa. She and Caleb liked living there. I do not doubt that Mary and Caleb would prefer to have indoor plumbing and consistent electricity and more than a single room, especially once they have children, but they still chose it over their homelands. The slum offered them opportunities to economically advance their lives. There were restaurants and bars. There were pharmacies and markets. There were clothes and toys. There was a coffin maker. There were schools.

Humanity can adapt to an awful lot. That not every person in prison commits suicide and that communities continue to exist in Pokot is proof enough of that, but the slums are far from the worst there can be. I know there is no privacy and I am sure the crime rate is incredible and that there are other psychic troubles that I have not imagined, but materially, someone camping in a tent is probably more deprived than a slum resident.

I do wish that one day there are no slums because every person and family has the same opportunity for the material things and utilities that we take for granted in the developed world and that they do not have to content themselves with what Mary and Caleb enjoy now, but until that day comes, Kibera will do.

Thursday, June 9

A week in Kenya: Nairobi Safari Walk

The man who collected the entry fees made an effort to convince us that the Nairobi Safari Walk was a superior option to Nairobi National Park. His argument hinged on the fact that animal sightings were guaranteed on the Safari Walk; they were not in the park proper. This was not entirely true. Though a glorified zoo, the animals, except for the Colobus monkeys in their cage, could still escape to their pens or into the ditches running along the fences and be out of sight of those on the platforms and walking paths.

Not that we needed convincing. We were going on the Safari Walk. Its entry fee was twenty dollars American. Entry to Nairobi National was forty dollars American and required a vehicle, doubling the total cost at minimum. The Safari Walk only became a better deal when the man took Demetra’s alien card and did not notice that it had expired near a year ago or that it did not, in fact, permit her the greatly reduced resident rates.

That would make the Nairobi Safari Walk the second zoo we visited in Kenya after Haller Park and Bamburi Forest Trails outside of Mombasa. We walked the path twice. We saw the ostrich and its whip neck. We saw the leopard bat at its tail in surprise. We saw the crocodiles be still. We read the educational signs and learned facts about the hyenas. We waited for the lion and elephant but never saw them. It was cool. It would have been cooler if my camera had not run out battery just before we saw the cheetah playing with the old thatching thrown down by workers replacing a roof or the Colobus monkeys chasing each other through their cage or the duiker slinking through the underbrush, but I’ll take it.

It seems like a cheat. Kenya is the nation of long safaris through Maasai Mara and tours around Lake Nakuru. To visit and be content with the zoos, attractions not unknown in the United States, seems like less than a full embrace of all the nation has to offer.

It is, but allow me to raise some points. Kenya’s parks are not American parks. There are no hiking and biking trails. There are only roads. Outside of Hell’s Gate, entry to all of Kenya’s national parks is only possible through a motorized vehicle. It makes sense. There are a great number of animals that can kill you pretty easily, and a car provides protection, but it means you go at your own pace. Even if you do want to dawdle over a patch of flora or wait from a particular vantage point, someone will always be waiting for you, even if you are paying him to drive.

The zoos you take on foot and at your own pace. You can stop and backtrack and go around again. They are quiet, and the air is cool. You can sit. That is a glorious break from the madness of the cities and their dearth of public spaces and people who are not trying to sell you something.

Neither do the zoos feel terribly much more exploitive than the parks. Around Lake Nakuru our driver cut off a rhinoceros already walking away from another car. Yes, it allowed better pictures, but the man ran the car right up next to it. The animals are safe from that in the zoos, and the zoos aren’t even entirely artificial environments. They’re merely penned sections of their natural habitat.

Yes, someday I would very much like to go through Aberdares and spend a few days in Tsavo and Maasai Mara, but until my finances allow that, I will be happy with Kenya’s zoos.