All things big and small

I’m in Dakar, Senegal sitting on a flight back to the U.S. that originated (originally) in Johannesburg via Lilongwe, as they transfer passengers and staff, restock food, fold up blankets, and get ready for yet another 8 hour trip to yet another destination. If this plane is anything, it is a metaphor for my life: Another country/city/place, everything I own packed neatly into three suitcases in the cargo hold and 2 carry-on bags in the overhead. A life lived abroad all suddenly coming to a strange and seemingly abrupt end.

The process of change and transition, no matter where one is geographically or psychically, is never easy. Moving my life from Lilongwe to California has been a series of mini battles – some good, some bad, some more complex than others, and almost all of which have been in my own head and my own heart. For almost two years, Lilongwe has been my home. And although I knew it was time to leave, even though I could feel my body and my heart telling me it was time to go, it just never felt like quite the right time. Now that I’m here, on this plane, it all seems too soon and too fast. It feels a bit like I’m about to walk into a party to which I was not necessarily invited…and one that I’m poorly prepared for (and certainly not dressed for) to boot.

My last week in Lilongwe was spent in tears: tears with my housemates, tears with my coworkers, and tears with my clients. I pulled out of camp last Thursday sobbing in the front of the Land Cruiser as a dozen of my women clients showed me off waving and crying themselves. It was heartbreaking in a way that I cannot even describe…quite honestly, I don’t really want to. Although it was a very public good-bye, on the inside it felt a lot like someone squeezing my heart until it bled.  Given the hiccupping sobs I was rocking while leaving camp that day, I’m sure this wasn’t exactly a secret to anyone within about a 1 kilometer radius.

There was simply no way to prepare for it – no matter the time or the place, that final day in camp was going to be heartbreakingly beautiful and desperately tragic, not just for me but for everyone whose lives I have become inextricably intertwined with over the past 20 months. I’m on a plane leaving Dakar in the middle of the night one week later and I’m on the brink of tears just discussing it. I get the feeling that maybe the overwhelming feeling of loss is never quite going to go away – I am, in many ways, willing it not to, like my emotional baggage is the last remaining link I have to my life in Africa which is quite literally getting farther and father away as I write.

I left Lilongwe on Tuesday, after a weekend of going-away dinners, going-away BBQs, going-aways in general. At one point I think I just stopped processing the whole thing and sort of flat-lined emotionally because the very thought that I wasn’t coming back this time was too goddamned unbearable to contemplate. Leaving Malawi was more than leaving a job that I loved:  It was leaving my people, a group of people who over the last 20 months have become my family and my support network, silly, loyal, and occasionally dysfunctional as we all are. I feel as thought I am leaving my home– and again, as I say these things typing in the middle of nowhere transatlantic-dome I am crying like a bit of a maniac and hoping that $2 Malawian valium is somewhere within arms reach for the next 8 hour leg of this trip. (Malawi lesson #252: It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to. If you have a problem with that, mentally stated to the American man sitting next to me looking HORRIFICALLY uncomfortable as the woman next to him types and drips tears onto her keyboard, too bad. Pass the tissues, kids. I’ve got 14 more hours to go and I’m just getting started).

Malawi was not a “trip.” It was not “part of my travels.” I didn’t go there to party or go on adventures to the lake every weekend (although I will admit that these were all immense bonuses to the last nearly 2 years of my life). I went there to work and accidentally stumbled upon a life, one that I miss with an intensity I don’t yet know how to explain.  In many ways, Malawi made me whole again at a time when I didn’t even know how broken I really was. I found “people” in Malawi that I didn’t realize I needed until it all sort of tumbled together in this unexpected balance of f**ked up expats and life-hardened refugees. It just might be the most ridiculous faux group counseling scenario on the planet – and yet somehow, in sliding into all this, I rediscovered myself. I went to Malawi to help people put their emotional lives back together and in the process, it seems, I too ended up getting patched up along the way.

I always joke about how Malawi is like Never Never land, how even Peter Pan has to leave the island and grow up eventually. It recently occurred to me in a discussion with a friend that maybe this metaphor isn’t so accurate after all. Life in Malawi is very real, real on in-your-face levels few people in the West have to deal with on a regular basis. The last 20 months of my life has been a crash course in all things poignant: Death, dying, loss, hope, joy, love, and all sorts of in-between crazy shit I cannot even begin to explain. (Goat induced panic attacks? Three-quarter length suits? Inexplicable shortages of water, fuel, electricity, internet, and telephones occasionally all at the same time? $20 butter and the world’s most expensive processed cheese?). All of these ridiculous and amazing things, bundled into this crazy time and spread out over a refugee camp and an expat community I didn’t know I needed until I stumbled my way into all of it. And now? Now it’s over. And Peter Pan or not, it’s time for me to leave.

I know that going back to the U.S. is the right thing to do right now even if I feel like I am breaking my own heart and tearing myself away from the people I love…even if I feel like I don’t know what I’m going “home” to when home feels more like Africa than anywhere else. What scares me the most is not returning to the states, because I am looking forward to it on some level. I’m nervous about living in California for the first time in 8 years but this too is a new adventure and there is an anticipation about living in the place of my birth for the first time in what seems like eons.

What scares me the most right now, as I look west in the middle of the night over the Atlantic is facing the reality that a chapter in my life has closed for good. Malawi is over. My job is over. I have become another hole in the lives of my friends in Lilongwe and the people at Dzaleka…in time, I will just be another chapter in a story, but one that cannot be re-visited or re-opened. There will, quite simply, never be a time in any of our lives like this again.  It is so very Malawi by virtue of its beautiful tragedy – immensely joyful and sad, intriguing and terrifying, friendly and yet lonely all at the same time. And now? Now it exists in memory, like a scene in a snow globe: perfect and untouchable all at once.

I am, for once in my life, not whinging. I am not lamenting. I am not complaining. As sad as I feel right now, somewhere over the Atlantic between Africa and America, the emotions I feel are not out of angst, depression or despondency. Rather, they are out of love and immense gratitude to my friends, to my once-upon-a-time home in Africa, to my clients, and to the universe, I suppose, for taking me in, for dropping me on African soil, for making me part of a community I didn’t know I was supposed to be in until I got there.

I am not ready to say good-bye and so I won’t. I will simply say, “thank you”. To whom? Well, that is a list too long to start. You all know who you are. You know I miss you with an intensity that will probably always make me smile, and very well may always make me cry. Thank you for the blessings of the past 20 months. Thank you for teaching me to love. Thank you for gifting me back me. A million times thank you for all things big and small.

So, as they say in Malawi? Tionana. See you later, my loves. This is Meagan Demitz, a once-upon-a time Malawi expat, signing off the island for the last time.

Over and out. 

If God is with us, who can be against us?

There’s a guy who sells bumper stickers down the road from my office. He hangs out around the traffic lights in Area 15, right next to the homemade sling-shot hawker, the stray puppy purveyor, the mop/broom/feather dust buster man, and an ever-changing variety of mobile merchants who sell live chickens, turkeys, and your occasional duck off of the handle bars of their bicycles.

The thing about bumper stickers in Malawi is that there are only about five – five staple phrases that you are sure to see on the back of at least every other vehicle in town. For the humble worker: “No Food for Lazy Man.” For the romantic: “I Love my Wife” (also available in “I Love my Husband”). For the God-fearing man: “RELAX: God is in Control” or the sticker that graces the back of my 1996 Toyota Corolla: “This Car is Protected by the Blood of Jesus.” (Trust me, if you were in a driver in this country, you’d want Jesus on your side too). And last, but not least, the Malawian adage that most aptly plucks the strings of satire: “If God is with us, who can be against us?”

Who can be against us…who, oh who, can be against us? Oh Malawi. You really just walked right into this one, didn’t you?

As much as I would like to think that I am optimistic about the future of international development and the burgeoning government systems in which we work, there are moments where the sheer irrational logic that seems to dictate infrastructure and problem solving in this country just completely overloads my capacity for lucid, balanced reactions. Malawi, I love you like a second home, but seriously? You are doing my head in.

There has not been steady running water in my neighborhood in almost 7 weeks, which when paired with the twice weekly electricity blackouts, the 72 hours this past weekend where the entire country was without functioning cell phones, and an apparent region-wide diesel fuel shortage, is making city living around here a real kick in the pants lately. When this first started, I made one, maybe two phone calls to the water company, politely asking when we might have running water again. “Yes, Madam, we are working on it. We do not know what the problem is.” Fair enough. Pipes burst, shit happens. I tell myself that there are people who work at the water board whose only job is to fix this sort of thing, maybe there is some kind of clandestine mercenary plumbing troop tasked with rappelling down in the middle of the night to fix busted water lines or clogged dams for the betterment of Lilongwers everywhere. I mean, no water for 7 weeks: There MUST be a contingency plans for this right? There must be. There has to be. Someone quash that grumbling rage in the pit of my stomach that says mockingly, “you are a moron. Of course there isn’t.”

Let’s fast-forward to this past weekend, six and a half weeks after this utility debacle began. I am on the phone, once again, with the water board, arguing against the most incomprehensible reasoning I have ever heard in my life in regards to why there is STILL no water between the hours of 6:30 a.m. and 7:30 p.m. every day in Area 12:

Me: Good afternoon, Sir. I am calling about the problem in Area 12. We still do not have water. When will this be fixed? 
Water Man: Yes, Madam, we are working on it. 
Me: Right, so what is the problem? 
Water Man: Ahhh, we do not know.  
Me: Sir, it’s been six weeks. Your company turns the water off at the exact time, for 12 hours a day, six days a week. 
Water Man: Yes. We do not know what the problem is. 
Me: Ok, but that is what I’m saying: The problem is that your company turns off our water EVERY DAY. 
Water Man: Mmm-hmmm, yes, well…we do not know what the problem is.

Based on my dead-end conversation with the “faults” line personnel, my housemate then decided on Monday that perhaps a physical visit to the water board might prove more fruitful in terms of information gathering. Wrong. That scenario clearly ended in similar obscurity, with a rather bright-faced Northern Irishman storming out of the building muttering unmentionable curses and with no clearer picture of how, when, or why anyone would conceivably expect that there be reliable utilities, like water, in this city.

Argue that I am petty and spoiled all you like. I don’t care. I live in a house, in a city, I pay for public utilities and I have quality of life expectations, although they are certainly more tempered and flexible here than they would be at home in the U.S.  But what I would say in retort is that my annoyance with the infrastructural failures of this country is the accumulated frustration of living in a place that seems so apathetic to problem solving. Yes, my water may not be a major concern to you, Mr. Water Utility Man, but that is because I am a half-enraged white woman who, you figure correctly, probably has other alternatives to getting water when I need it. I can go to the posh hotel around the corner for a shower or I can drive up to a friend’s house for a hot bath and a cup of tea. But that is sort of the crux of the problem, now isn’t it, because there are LOADS of people who live in my neighborhood who can’t do the same thing. They are housekeepers, watchmen, guards, gardeners, tomato sellers, maybe even bumper sticker vendors – they are the ones who have to bear the brunt of bullshit like this and I am equally, if not more so, infuriated for them. As a Malawian friend of mine said last week, “it is very bad. Water is life. Without water…this is a difficult thing.” I obviously agree although after nearly two months of dealing with this, I can’t say that I have an immense amount of faith in the system’s ability to right itself at this point. Bucket showers and evening water hoarding continue, as do the occasional early morning shouts of “F**K MY LIFE!!!” that come from the bathroom when my half-naked roommate realizes, once again, that there is nothing coming out of the tap and we are both going to work dirty today. 

An expat friend wrote me in a gchat the other day, “I realized recently that living in Malawi is, sadly, like interacting with a teenager on a daily basis:  Stubborn, temperamental, crazy illogical, and sure that it is right 100% of the time.” As development workers, we are here trying to build systems of sustainability, to create projects that help people better themselves, their lives, and their country – at least this is the altruistic half-truth we all tell ourselves. But I question this rationale and wonder if our involvement here is, perhaps, doing more harm than good. I mean, how do you build sound, sustainable policies and projects if the infrastructure of a place is still so unreliable? It’s like building a fortress upon a foundation that has been crazy-glued together with a colorful mish-mash of questionable internal policies, politics, and ever-shifting international influences. I often feel like we are just tripping over one another, dog-piling onto an already incomprehensible bureaucracy that seems to bottleneck at the top before anything gets down to the bottom where it is really needed. 

I know God is with us, even as someone who walked away from the Church a long time ago, I believe in the spirit of something bigger and a faith in hope, and I can see that in the faces of the people I work with every day. But it isn’t God I’m worried about: It’s us, the communities of this country, expat, Malawian or otherwise. The biggest enemy of development is development itself and maybe all we’re doing here is compounding the problems, proliferating the crux of the issue even through our most altruistic efforts to make things better.

At the end of a 12-hour workday, when I’m tired and I’m dirty with red African dust, when my heart feels heavy and I’m angry at the world for the list of injustices we just can’t seem to sort out, the only thing I want to do is go sit in my shower, under an artificial rain of warm water and pretend, if only for a moment, that everything isn’t f**ked up, that God is nearer than he is far, that everything we’re all doing here is for some kind of purpose.

So, God, if you’re listening, cut us some slack. We could use a break here. And a little bit of water too.

5 minutes of zen

Today is Thursday, which means it’s dog washing day in Lilongwe. Once a week the city streets fill with purposeful individuals leading one, two, sometimes four dogs at a time down the road into Area 18 where the doggie dipping station is located. It’s mostly house staff that carry out this weekly routine – guards and gardeners, mostly men, wearing the unofficial uniform you see around here: Royal blue jumpsuits or brown work trousers tucked into big black mud-rucker boots, all walking or jogging along side Malawian mutts that look as though they must have been cloned from the same little beast ages and ages ago. And it’s the same once a week, every week; rain or shine, hot or cold. Dogs will be washed come hell or high water.

I’ve been observing this odd, collective morning ritual every Thursday now for the past year and despite the fact that I don’t have a wee pup of my own, I realized this morning that somewhere along the way this quirky, quintessentially Malawian routine became my routine as well. In a world where the everyday mundane is grounded in disarray, missed deadlines, delayed appointments, and spinny bureaucratic mania, Thursdays are the sentinels of order and peace, as if the whole of Lilongwe had been, up to that very moment, holding its breath until it finally has the chance to let out a great big pleasant “sigh” of relief. No matter what the day is about to bring and no matter how crazy you know things are about to get, there is always a moment on these mornings where I get a little mini moment of Zen, a few minutes of giddy bliss as we head north through the city towards the camp. Warm early morning sun. Streets dotted with pops of royal blue. Reddish-brown dogs proudly walking down the sidewalk as they show off their clean coats and shake off the water from their early morning baths.

It’s a beautiful part of my week but it is the absurdity of the scene that makes it kind of amazing. We are basically talking about a once per week canine pilgrimage in search of cleaner fur, maybe some kind of pound-puppy enlightenment. I asked one of my coworkers why dogs only get washed on Thursdays, as if there might be some secret meaning behind this weekly ritual I now find myself looking forward to every week: Dogs get washed on Thursdays, he said, because that’s when the dog washing basin is open – most people go in the morning because by the afternoon, the water has become dirty and unusable. And that is that. Make a mental note the next time a stinky dog crosses your path.

I think one reaches a point while living abroad where the bizarre becomes more normal than strange as our social paradigms start to shift from the far West to some murky in between space that straddles our past and our present. Last weekend I sat on a porch drinking box wine and watching a hippo eat grass 10 ft. away from our chalet. On Tuesday I walked through camp and watched kids play soccer with no shoes and balls made from plastic bags. Two Saturdays ago we stumbled upon a head-on collision on the M1 freeway – no one was killed but those who stopped to help injured passengers also happened to be on their way to a “jorts” (jean shorts) themed party. Because hauling bleeding, concussed people out of cars while wearing denim-on-denim mini-shorts in the middle of Lilongwe is bizarrely kind of your average Saturday night around here.

I don’t know what normal is anymore, or if there was ever a baseline for “normal” to begin with. In a final example of this mish-mashed mosaic of mundane and peculiar, our housekeeper was sick last week with Malaria and so went back to her village for 7 days to recover. Our housekeeper basically keeps the house in operational order – if you fuss up the system or fail to maintain the House 33 status quo, soft words of passive annoyance will be spoken, and it’s pretty fair to say that you’ll end up feeling like a badly behaved 12 year old all over again which, let’s be honest, is a pretty accurate description of the two of us who live there.

So it was about day 4 was when my housemate and I realized 1. We had no clean clothes, 2. No clean dishes, and 3. We have regressed to the point where we can no longer take care of ourselves. It’s not that we couldn’t sweep up the house or wash our own clothes, because that can and did happen when the two of us ran out of underwear…literally. It was more the realization that we live in an environment where having house staff is so the norm (shades of 20th century colonialism, much?) that we have forgotten what it’s like to deal with the day-to-day business of our lives even in our own homes. Abnormal would be not having a housekeeper or a gardener, or security guards at the gate of your house every night – it would mean having to deal with your messy house and grubby garden just like you would back at home in the States, Ireland, Canada, wherever. Just like zillions of people do everyday.

I can see eyes rolling from across the globe right now, like, “Jesus Christ, get a friggin’ grip and do your own damn laundry.” I agree – it’s ridiculous for sure. But normalcy is all just a matter of perspective of time and space. Wild hippos and warthogs are a stone’s throw away from your porch in Malawi just as squirrels and blue jays are at home. Housekeepers clean clothes on one side of the globe while millions of people trek out to the Laundromat every week on the other. Social life revolves around theme parties in one place and sophisticated cultural activities rule the scene everywhere else. Potato, potahto. Tomato, tomahto. Who’s to say what’s normal in the end, anyway?

Life here may be strange and unkempt, and a little bit off the rails, but it is a life and everyday of it is meaningful in some way. And who knows, in 20 years things may be different – perhaps the bizarre will become normal and visa versa. Maybe one day the stodgy limitations of this one-doggie-bath-per-week society will be lifted and Malawian pups everywhere will have access to clean bath water 24/7.

But for now, I hope it doesn’t change; I hope this one piece of life here remains the same. Because silly as it may seem, sometimes it’s the only thing that makes sense. Clean, happy dogs and a big bright blue sky. Seems pretty normal to me.