Wednesday, December 9, 2009

What say ye?

Working on my blog this semester has been an experience through which I laughed and a lot of times, cried. By writing it from Malawi, Africa, I made make my blog only about Africa. Sadly, not so many funny stories come from Africa. There were some really funny stories about rats, bats, and internet so slow that a pigeon can carry one’s letter faster than it can be downloaded onto a computer :-) But so many stories are about horrific things people can do to one another. It was a major challenge for me because I love to laugh and usually look for humor in life.

This task was very time consuming as well. Because my internet connection is so slow I had to literally spend hours searching for articles that were adequate enough and not too morbid. I wanted to make sure that the articles I was writing would capture the attention of my readers and make them stop and think.

Now that this semester is over and I don’t have to write in my blog any more I want to ask you, my readers: will you keep reading my stories if you do not get points for doing so? Shall I keep this blog or let it rest in peace? What say ye?

Malawi wedding customs

This story comes from my Malawian friend Davis. I asked him for something that goes on in a regular village and this is what he came up with.

A Malawi wedding starts three weeks before the actual wedding day when the bride and groom fist announce that they are to get married. At that point the preparations are in the full swing. The first “battle” the families need to wage is where the actual party will take place. Usually the bride’s family wins and the party will be celebrated in her village. A week before the actual wedding, the partying starts. Every night for seven days from sun down till sunrise young people will dance muganda in a circle around a band playing traditional drums.

At last the wedding day arrives. After the wedding ceremony at the rented hall the couple and their guests will move to the village where the celebrations will shift into full mode. There will be more dancing, singing and the beating of the drums, and lots and lots of delicious food! Special ushers will carry baskets full of wedding cake and village cakes traditionally made in an empty soup can. These slices of cake can range from $.40 to $7 for a piece! The money raised from these sales will go as a gift for the newlyweds. Also guests will be called to a special platform where they will dance and throw money into baskets. This will be one’s chance to show how much money he or she has!

And what sort of wedding would it be without people getting drunk and making fools of themselves? Davis told me about this one man that lives in his village and attends weddings on a regular basis. There he would inevitably get drunk. This man has never gone to school and can only speak Chichewa. But when he gets drunk an amazing thing happens! He starts to speak English! Now, that kind of makes me bitter since it took me 15 years to reach this level of English! And all I could’ve done is got good and drunk! :-) Non alcoholic drinks that are served at a wedding are regular soft drinks and tobwa, a non-alcoholic beer made of corn, millet, and sugar. This beer is thick and one has to use one’s teeth to strain all the particles out of it while drinking. If not prepared properly E coli bacteria can grow and cause some serious health problems that can kill a person if left untreated! Then there is something with a little zing to it, opaque, a beer made with corn and sorghum and it does have some quantity of alcohol. But nothing can compare with the potency of kachasu! It is made of corn hull, sugar, water, animal dung, and lately with ARV (Antiretroviral) drugs! The is no way to measure the alcohol percentage in this particular brew so most of the time it exceeds the safe 40% by far! There are cases where people who drank it lost their sight or even died! To make it even more potent, as if losing your sight is not potent enough, some people put chamba (marijuana) leaves in it. Now that would give you a high to “die” for!

After this one last party the couple is officially married and all of the guest, drunk, fed, and penniless, finally go home!

I laughed a lot through Davis’s interview. To me some of the customs he described were funny and I have lived here long enough to fully appreciate them. At the same time I cannot judge the unknown. I would hate for someone to come over to Ukraine and judge the customs of my people. I sure hope you have learned something new today :-)

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Sir Harry Johnston International Primary School

Today I would like to tell you about the school my children go to. It is called Sir Harry Johnston International Primary School and is located in Zomba, Malawi. It is named after Sir Harry Johnston, the governor of Nyasaland, now called Malawi. This school is operated on the British curriculum and offers excellent education. Because of this my children write “mom” as “mum” and “color” as “colour!” The other day at the dinner table my son asked me to pass him a bottle of “tomato sauce,” which is “ketchup” in our good old American English! Their little accents are precious. Of course, who am I to talk about accents! :-)

My children are blessed to be able to go to school with children from all over the world with Christian and Muslim backgrounds. They will learn that they are not alone in the world and how to get along with people of other races and religions. Because it is so small, about 70 children, everyone gets special attention.

Sir Harry kids are able to participate in a variety of sports like swimming, football (soccer), cricket, and hockey. Last year my son participated in a malaria fundraiser swim and was able to raise quite a bit of money. They are also able to participate in pottery lessons, drama lessons and other afterschool activities like Chichewa classes and Arts and Crafts. Chichewa is the main Malawian language. They have a brand new IT center where they are able to learn computers like their peers at home.

Although we are so far away from home, I feel that my kids are not missing out on things their peers do but are gaining the kind of experience children in America will never have. The experience of diversity!

Malawi the Beautiful

This whole semester my blog stories have been pretty grim. I bet some of you may even think that I am the most miserable of all beings and absolutely hate living in Africa. But it is not so. Yes, living in Africa is a challenge! Everything from cooking to cleaning takes an effort. Constant power outages and things plainly not working can drive the sanest of souls absolutely mad!

But there is another side of Africa, the easy going side, where no one gets in any hurry. Where people take time to visit one another on a path and neighbors come by just say hello. Where people laugh and find joy every single day even when there is nothing to laugh about. And the countryside: it is breathtaking! I absolutely love to look out the car window and watch the scenery pass by. Magnificent mountains reaching high into the sky and the sprawling plains with a cluster of huts sprinkled here and there. Little children playing with homemade wire cars called galimoto. A man dressed in a Nyau mask made of straw walking through the village with a crowd of people following him. A woman with a huge bucket of water on her head, a baby tied to her back and several other young children tagging along behind. All of these scenes are everyday life for millions of Malawians!

The most glorious of all sights is Lake Malawi, after which the country got its name. Malawi in Chichewa means “flames” and during the sunset it does look like it is on fire. In places the lake is so wide that it looks like an ocean. The lake water is clean and pure and is full of fish that can be found only in this lake. I love to sit on the beach with my feet in the water and watch a sunrise or a sunset. The sunrise is so beautiful with the lazy sun slowly making its way over the mountains of Mozambique, gradually changing the sky into magnificent colors. On the horizon I can see fishermen in their dugout canoes, some just tiny black specks on the horizon. At night they use torches to help them see what they are doing. In the inky darkness I can see those spots of light as if the starry sky fell on the ground.

Malawi’s tropical climate makes it perfect for the lush vegetation. The green is so bright that it is almost poisonous. The wide array of colorful flowers will dazzle you with its brilliance! Purple jacarandas, flaming red flowers of a flamboyant tree, pink and white frangipani, strange looking bottle brush trees, and so many more! Pictures cannot give these colors any justice and the scent is intoxicating.

My favorite time of day is sunset. At sunset the color of the clouds can range from deep purple to light yellow. Sun rays filtering through the clouds make the lighting look semi-dark, as if there is an eclipse. This yellow lighting looks absolutely amazing with all the greenery. My favorite scene is the “pancake” tree in the middle of a green plain with an evening orange sunlight catching its leaves and a heavy dark blue cloud in the background. It is absolutely gorgeous!
Africa has this amazing phenomenon. It gets dark here quick, like “blink and it is dark” quick! And once it’s dark, it is dark! You cannot see your hand in front of your face! The blind darkness is filled with the sound of insects. Sometimes the noise they make is so loud it is almost deafening. The lightning bugs sparkle here and there, making everything look like a fairy tale. I love to go outside on my porch at night and look into the starry Malawi sky. The Milky Way here is absolutely amazing and the stars twinkle in all of their glory. They are so low here that I can almost touch them. During the dry season I can see forest fires skirting the mountains like an expensive necklace. All of these phenomena make Africa as beautiful a place at night as by day. Each period offers its own jewels to gaze upon.

And the rains! The rains are the lifeblood of Africa! They come fast and furious with tremendous thunderstorms that shake the house. Nothing sounds better than the pitter-patter of the raindrops on a tin roof. So soothing! I tend to miss it during the long dry season. You can see the rain move across the country. You can actually hear it come! It sounds as if a raging river is fast approaching and all of a sudden you are soaked through!

And the critters here, oh my! If you are a lover of strange things like I am, you will love this place. You can find anything from poisonous snakes, wicked looking centipedes that are called bongololo to monitor lizards and chameleons that are enormous! Not a day goes by when I do not encounter one of them.

So, takulandirani! I welcome you to Malawi, the Warm Heart of Africa! Beware when you come and visit it! Once the African sand gets into your shoes, you will have to keep coming back to shake it out!

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Somali pirates capture huge tanker taking oil to US

On Sunday, November 29 a Greek-owned oil tanker, the Maran Centaurus, delivering oil from Saudi Arabia to New Orleans, USA, was hijacked 800 miles off the coast of Somalia. “A spokesman for the Greek coastguard told Reuters news agency that about nine armed pirates attacked the ship close to the Seychelles.” The ship had 300,000 tons of dead weight and 28 crew members, made up of 16 Filipinos, 9 Greeks, 2 Ukrainians, and 1 Romanian. Maran Tankers Management said that the crew was OK. The tanker is now heading towards Somalia.

In November 2008 the Sirius Star, which carried two million barrels of oil, became the largest vessel hijacked by the pirates. It was released in January 2009 after a ransom of $3 million was paid to the pirates.

Somali pirates have been a problem for awhile now. Every few months one can hear news of them capturing this or that ship. Somalia has not had a functioning government since 1991 and pirates have been left free to roam the waters in search of “prey.” Recently the pirates started venturing farther into the ocean. They use a “mother ship” to go out into the high seas and then use smaller boats to carry out their attacks. Currently, Somali pirates hold 11 vessels and 264 crew members captive.

Somalia analyst at the International Crisis Group Rashid Abdi said that the presence of the world’s navies has made little change to the way pirates behave. “This incident clearly shows the pirates are becoming bolder. So I don’t think the solution is in building the naval deployment there, or increasing the naval deployment. The problem is actually in dealing with the governance crisis which feeds the problem of piracy.”

As long as the companies are willing to pay the ransom, the pirates will go out and capture as many vessels as they can. Over the years I have seen the number of hijacking cases increase. I am sure that there are even more hijackings that are not reported. Obviously, simply patrolling this area is not working. I have an idea on how to crack down on piracy. The owners of the ships need to hire fully armed military personnel that would travel on the ship and keep watch 24/7. When they would see anything approach they would call out a warning to stop or they would open fire and follow through with the threat if the warning was not heeded! The pirates do not hesitate to use brutal force and firearms; why should we spare them? My idea may seem radical to some of you, but why should we suffer being bullied like that? They need to learn that “if they live by the sword, they will die by the sword!” The main problem with my idea is the cost these companies will have to put into this protection but as Thomas Jefferson’s slogan of 1805 states “Millions for defense, but not a cent for tribute!”

Rwanda becomes a member of the Commonwealth

Recently Rwanda became the 54th member of the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth is like a club for the countries that used to be British colonies. Although Rwanda used to be a German and then a Belgian colony, it decided to turn away from La Francophonie and become Anglophone. Rwanda is the second country to join the Commonwealth with no historic ties to Britain, the first one being Mozambique joining in 1995. Information Minister Louise Mushikiwabo in an interview with the Rwanda Daily Times stated that Rwanda is pleased by its admission, “My government sees this accession as recognition of the tremendous progress this country has made in the last 15 years.” Rwanda’s decision to join the Commonwealth was supported by Britain, Australia, Canada and India. It was also backed by Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa, and the host country Trinidad and Tobago.

Recently Rwanda has changed the teaching language in schools from French to English. The transition is not without problems as Professor Alphonse Ngagi, who has overseen the switch, does not speak English himself! He said, “We are putting a lot of emphasis on English because it is not yet widely spoken here and after all it is the international language.” Universities’ notice boards display announcements written in English. This switch is not sudden as the trade opportunities and relations between France and Rwanda have been poor for years.

Not everyone thought Rwanda would be admitted, though. Before the admission the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) urged Rwanda to increase political freedom and stop the harassment of journalists. Later on the report said, “CHRI acknowledges that Rwanda has what appears to be a well-deserved reputation for governmental efficiency and for being less corrupt than a number of other countries – but its claims about the lack of corruption appear hollow when considering its complicity in the illicit economy of the region.”

Just 15 years ago Rwanda was torn apart by genocide in which Hutu tribe killed around 800,000 Tutsi neighbors. But the county was able to put this ugly past behind and take great strides forward!