Sunday, 20 July 2014

How was it? Marking 2 years since I left for the Warm Heart of Africa.

My first African sunset
"Was it completely different?" "What was it like?" These are all questions that I have been asked repeatedly over the last 3 months since I moved home from Malawi. To be honest, I really have no idea how to answer them. Every answer I give seems hollow, like I am doing my time there a disservice. How can I sum up my experience in a few sentences? How can I give people a glimpse into my life there without boring them to tears with minute details? How can I do this wonderful country justice?

Some of my students

Even now sitting with my laptop I am wondering how to say the things I want without turning into one of those preachy 'My life changed' type person. But it would not be an exaggeration to say that Malawi changed me. It challenged me in ways I could not imagine and could not even to begin to describe and did truly change me in ways, I learnt loads about myself and my comforts and had a crash course in development, aid and public health. My attitude towards aid and charities changed seeing small NGOs with small budgets achieving so much at grassroots level, while the bigger NGOs have CEOs on huge salaries with huge shiny landrovers. Organisations such as Butterfly SpaceTemwaPhunzira and Determined to Develop are achieving so much with a fraction of the budget of bigger NGOs with an emphasis on sustainability in the areas they work in. I also saw the aspect of working for a big international organisation whose intentions were brilliant but often ended up spreading themselves thin trying to cover all aspects at once as opposed to perfecting one aspect.

First up a little background about the Warm Heart of Africa. Malawi is a small landlocked country in South Eastern Africa that has made the news most recently regarding their presidential election that was, most definitely, fixed. It often makes it's way into the 'poorest countries in the world' lists and last year made international headlines when a dispute with Tanzania over Lake Malawi and a potential oil find, could have led to war (if you were to believe the papers). Lake Malawi is the third largest and second deepest lake in Africa and the ninth largest in the world and is a huge reserve for the country. It draws tourists to it's shores to snorkel and dive among the, more than 1000, species of cichlids and it provides a life, and an income, to thousands of people who live on it's crystal clear shores. I moved to this beautiful country having accepted a job at the Malawi School of Optometry programme (see What I do for more information) and having to actually google the country to see where it was! I spent 18 months in this country and made memories, and friendships, that will hopefully last a lifetime.
Sunset over Lake Malawi
How could you not want to jump
into those waters?

How do I explain the little things in me that changed? That I could bathe myself using a bucket and a cup, heating the water on my stove if the mains water had been shut off. That I read by candle light on the frequent Sundays without power, that awaking on a Sunday morning involved me straining to hear my cistern or fridge, if I heard neither then there was no point in getting up, that forward thinking involved me making coffee on a Saturday night and having iced coffee on a Sunday morning when there was no power. How can explain my daily life that involved shopping in markets, kicking up the dusty red earth as I went, and jumping into a shared taxi that looks like it is held together with sticky tape and the prayers of it's owner to go home. The hopping into a 12 seater minibus with 25 people, a goat, some chickens and about 50 kilos of dried fish that became normal to me as did eating with my hands and eating parts of chicken I had never eaten before (neck, gizzards and feet anyone?) . It's the little day to day things that are hardest to verbalise.

My bedroom
Bucket Bath

My lovely house

First night in Mzuzu, ending in the hotel
Mmmmm Double Punch
And then there are the people I met. I am not exaggerating when I say the people in Malawi are special. Both natives and expats. The friends I met in this country will hopefully be with me for years. The people I danced to P-Square with, the friends who crowded into my house to watch Sister Act 2 on a tiny laptop, the friends who greeted me with a hug and a cold green when I arrived in their bar, the friends I shared Gold Label and boozy coffees with on Chikale Beach and the friends who were always at the end of the phone for a quick drink and chat or numerous mugs of tea,  the people I played slapshots with. I'm not sure what I expected when I moved to Mzuzu but I sure didn't expect to meet the range of kind hearted, amazing people I was fortunate to spend time with. The people who are making their lives in Malawi, the people who are there working to help Malawi in various ways, the people I am proud to call friends. From my first night in Malawi I was welcomed into this amazing group of people, where, like many Friday nights to follow, we drank greens at the Zoo, celebrated the arrival of Hassan with numerous whisky shots and danced until the wee hours in the Hotel, to my last few weeks in Mzuzu that involved lots of dinners, numerous afternoon beers and many tears, and like many before me, I bade Mzuzu a fond farewell. (See here for some amazing people who left before me). I of course cannot forget the amazing friends on the lake, my 2 other Desperate Housewives of Nkhata Bay (TM), my Izo Izo dancing buddies and my swimming friends at Butterfly who welcomed me into their families and their lives with open arms.

I mean look at these cuties
The first 12 pubs of Mzuzu

I did truly fall in love with the country, with the people I met and indeed with one special person, a person who, in his own special way, changed me and the way I look at life and for that I will forever be grateful. A person, I could have happily spent the rest of my life with, someone who I talked about this with and someone I was willing to go back to Malawi to be with. However that person also taught me what it was like to experience true betrayal and intense heartbreak, things I was not prepared for and that knocked me for six. Picking up the pieces of my life and moving on was one of the toughest things I have done. Another lesson learnt, another chapter in the story of life.

People have asked me a lot would I go back. And the answer, "In a heartbeat". Even though things have fallen apart with my relationship and my work, Malawi is a very special place that has wormed it's way into my heart. I took me into it's grasp and continues to draw me to it. I am proud of the little things I achieved in Malawi; I saw the first ever optometrists graduate, I taught students who will provide a much needed service to Malawi, we did vision screenings that involved thousands of people who might never have had their eyes tested, I made friendships that I value, I saw animals and places I never imagined, I camped all over Sub Saharan Africa, I had experiences I had previously only imagined. And while I have regrets about how things ended, I am glad I got to give a little back to this fantastic country that gave, and continues to give me so much.
A baby monkey visited me in my house!
                    Hundreds of school children waiting to have
              their eyes tested

Quote for the Day: "I went to sleep dreaming of Malawi, and all the things made possible when your dreams are powered by your heart" - William Kamkwamba, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind

Thursday, 10 July 2014

Robben Island: A pilgrimage for Nelson Mandela

When you think of South Africa, you think of Nelson Mandela, the country's first black president, someone who fought against apartheid and was jailed for his belief that blacks and whites should be equal in his country. And then you think of Cape Town and you think of Robben Island, the island where Mandela and so many other political prisoners were held. Having just finished reading 'Long Walk to Freedom' on my 18 hour bus journey from Windhoek, I was eager to visit this place that Mandela started his autobiography and the place where he spent most of his adult life.

Having read a lot about visiting Robben Island, not all good, I was not expecting much. Having read about being rushed around the island and not having time to explore, I still wanted to visit this place shrouded in so much history. I had visited the Nelson Mandela Gateway at the V&A Waterfront at enquired about availability. The horror stories about week long waits for tickets were false and I was there during the summer in February and could have left that afternoon if I wanted. Granted, if you were a larger group then you may have to wait a day or 2 (and in Cape Town, that is no hard thing, read about it here) but as I was looking for 2 tickets, it was very straightforward. I paid R500 for the 2 tickets (approx USD50) for an 11am sailing. Ferries run at 9am, 11am, 1pm and 3pm daily and it's recommended you are at the Gateway 30mins prior to departure. Realistically there are 2 boats that go across at the time and you could be on either. TIP: Try to get there earlier and get the first boat as then you can look around a bit before going to the prison for your tour.

As a result of  going through some fog en route. 
Robben Island is about 9km off the coast of Cape Town and was used as a metal health asylum and as a leper colony in previous times. It is most well known for having been the site of internment of South Africa's political prisoners during the apartheid regime and served as a maximum security prison until 1991. The boat trip over was all part of the experience. Seeing the seals that gave Robben Island it's name swimming next to the boat and the island being shrouded in a low lying fog giving an eerie, and damp, trip into the harbour.
Our guide giving the ANC salute

The tours are run by former inmates and the inmate running our tour was arrested as part of the Soweto uprising and was housed in the D block. He talked of his experience in the prison and of the strong solidarity among the political prisoners, something that Mandela touches on in "The Long Walk to Freedom". Touring the prison grounds, seeing censored letters and the famous garden where the first draft of Mandela's autobiography was hidden and getting a chance to peek into that famous cell, adorned with a wreath and a memorial candle, all added to the poignancy of the day. Yes, you are herded around in a big group, yes there is not much time to explore on your own and yes, it can be irritating if you are used to slow exploring but these reasons are not enough to warrant you passing up this opportunity. Having read the book, and seen the mild undercurrent of racism that still exists in South Africa, and indeed all across the globe, it gives you a strong feeling of what these people were fighting for. They were fighting to be considered as equals, to be given the basic human rights that the white people were given. Simple things like interracial relationships were illegal under apartheid, black people were only allowed live in certain areas and in the case of District Six, were force ably removed if the area was reallocated to a different racial group. Education, welfare, even park benches were segregated. Mandela talks about how this segregation even continued within the prison walls with differing uniforms and food for White, Blacks and Coloureds.
Mandela's cell

The garden where the first draft of
'Long Walk to Freedom' was hidden.
Cell block D

Following the tour of the prison we boarded buses to travel around the small island seeing the lime quarry where Mandela and his fellow inmates conducted their physical labour and held meetings and taught fellow inmates, stopping off to admire Cape Town with the majestic Table Mountain towering over the city. A sight that was so near but yet so far for the inmates. A view that tempted more than one inmate to attempt to swim to the mainland. Once again the guide on our bus was fantastic giving insights and facts about apartheid, even going so far as to explain to the whole bus that if Puncque and I had been together during apartheid, we would have been breaking the law!
Under apartheid laws this would have been illegal

Rows of letters between the
 Irish government
and the Irish Anti Apartheid movement
Coming back to the mainland we took some time to walk around the museum at the Gateway. For me, there was a huge surge of pride as we wandered around an exhibition on the Irish Anti Apartheid Movement. To feel that my little country on the edge of Europe had a role to play in the anti apartheid movement. From the brave 10 women and one man who picketed Dunnes Stores for nearly 3 years when they refused to handle South African goods, to Nelson Mandela being given the freedom of Dublin city and him choosing Ireland as his first European country to visit after his release.

Mandela receiving the freedom of Dublin in 1990
At the end of the day, when you attend a major tourist attraction be it Robben Island, Ankor Wat, the Louvre or Maccu Picchu you will battle with crowds, you will have the things you are allowed to do dictated by the people who run that attraction. Is this a reason not to visit it? Not at all. If you miss out on these places you will be missing out on a piece of history, an amazing sight or an experience of a life time.

NOTE: Today I went to the world premiere of Blood Fruit, a documentary about the Dunnes Stores strikers and their role in the Irish anti apartheid movement. It was an amazing story that finished with a letter from Archbishop Desmond Tutu congratulating all involved in the making of the documentary.

QUOTE FOR THE DAY: "Certainly, travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living." Miriam Beard