Leave for Change Blogs

Many Leave for Change participants blog - often before, during, and after their volunteer assignment - capturing the diversity and richness of their volunteer experience, their reactions to being in a new country, how they navigate and negotiate their mandates, and the impact the whole experience has on them personally and professionally.

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Introductory shopping, of course ...

Jacqueline Murray's Ghana blog - July 18th, 2010 11:25 AM
Saturday was a crash course on how to live in Ghana. I was kindly introduced to two styles of shopping by Judi, another Guelph volunteer. Alas we barely overlapped for 24 hours and as I write she almost landing back in Canada. It was great to have a day with an old hand who knows the ropes. So, many things accomplished including finding the WUSC office, walking along the highway noting which little booths sell milk or phone cards or reliable water. Every step of the way, taxis honk and wave hoping to pick up a fare. People offer rides and wares but there is not stress or pressure. Everyone has a greeting and, as is customary in Ghana, spends a minute or two exchanging pleasantries. I’ve fumbled a few times in the matter of not using my left hand when handing people money or doing pretty much anything Although I am profoundly right dominant apparently I take money out of my wallet with my left hand. That is one to work on! I’m working on trying to switch which side I carry my bag on to see if I can counteract that evil left hand grubbing for money.

The booths that line the roads, staffed by people selling whatever one likes, are a puzzle to me. I use the term booth to harken back to the medieval world which was familiar with such structures at their fairs. These, however, are permanent, at least as permanent as rickety structures can be. They seem to be placed on boulevards in front of the walls that hide lavish houses or church compounds or other things that I can’t imagine because these walled and gated fortresses – missing only moats and moat monsters – are also anonymous, unsigned and in stark contrast to all that clusters outside their gates. One does not enter the booth but asks one of the various women and children and occasionally men sitting in front. Peering in, though, there is a great disparity, some booths well and neatly stocked, others sparse and haphazard. It is clear some have sleeping quarters attached to the back, others do not. I have no idea whether these shop keepers are hardy entrepreneurs or squatters or whether at some point some one (police, Better Business Bureau, the people behind the walls?) will make them move on. For now, they are my stores and my shopkeepers.

And then, for abject culture shock, we went to Accra Mall, the western-style shopping mall a reasonably short but completely chaotic drive away. Getting the taxi is easy. Negotiating the price isn’t too bad but we did have to walk away from one gaggle of drivers at the mall who wanted more than twice the appropriate fare to bring us back – and tried to convince us it was a set rate. Ha! The trick is confidence based on knowing what the fare should be and knowing where you are going, not always easy in a city that basically doesn’t bother with street names and numbers. I simply need to know that I am staying past Atomic Junction and then past Video Junction and then past the last brickmaker turn left. As for the mall? It was a mall, leaning towards glitzy North American, but having the decided advantage of being where you can get things like milk and jam and internet cards and, not to disappoint those still fascinated by the flip flop saga, $250 Birkenstocks. Ha! The mall is heavily patronized by ex-pats: accents of the UK, Australia, USA and Canada all heard in the grocery store. This is where one comes for comfort food and familiar surroundings. I expect I’ll need another hit in a couple of weeks.

Arrival in Accra

Jacqueline Murray's Ghana blog - July 17th, 2010 1:04 PM
Our plane approached Accra in the same kind of clear dark sky that I left in Toronto. I had been particularly enthralled by the interplay of lights; white lights and yellow lights forming an intricate abstract design. The view of Accra first appears to be same incandescent kaleidoscope until we are directly overhead. Then the infrequency of the lights becomes apparent and the gleaming snaking highway below proves to be four lanes compared to the twelve and sixteen lanes that surround Pearson.

Customs, immigration, baggage are sheer delight: smooth, fast, efficient and all personnel, civilian and military, warm and happy to see you. “You’re volunteering? Well go right on through,” with no awkward questions about just how much luggage one woman needs for three weeks.

WUSC’s driver met me and then we joined what appeared to be a weekend, going-to-the-village, traffic jam. Then suddenly we pulled off the highway and started taking semi-paved roads through the darkened campus of the University of Ghana: the famed Legon. When we left the campus and drove along with local traffic through who knows where: most certainly places I’ll never find again. Quickly, something of the nature of Ghana becomes apparent. Dynamic, entrepreneurial and globalized Ghana with ads for Vodaphone on every single lamp standard for miles incongruously juxtaposed with street vendors, walking through the traffic hawking toilet paper, yogurt drinks and BIC razors.. The other side of Ghana is revivalist: we followed a van with “Sing to the Lord” emblazoned on the back, and a particularly fearsome non-indigenous (American) eagle lending emphasis. The compound of the Love God ministry is topped by rolls of razor wire: is that to keep out sinners or prevent the saved from escaping?

Hotel Suma is an oasis of calm from the chaos of Accra’s streets. Owners Eric and Juliana and their astonishingly precocious two-year-old son Nelson have created a cozy haven that is something of a mainstay for WUSC volunteers. This is the home away from home, the place where new arrivals land and the last stop for departing veterans. It will be my base for the next three weeks. The common area is lovely, with couches and ceiling fans and Ghanian music videos on the TV/sound system. Sitting and letting the fatigue of travel drain out, Patience, the shy kitchen worker, asked if I were hungry. Excellent chicken and fried plantains appear almost magically, and an icy cold beer added to the refreshment.

Thus were my first three hours in Ghana. Oh, and I found the flip flops!

Half way - Amsterdam

Jacqueline Murray's Ghana blog - July 16th, 2010 6:23 AM
What is it about July that I find myself traipsing back and forth to the bus station with large pieces of luggage and then weighing improbable things like socks on my kitchen scale? Getting two pieces of luggage under 23 kg each was as challenging as packing an 11 kg backpack. last year. Maybe more. But, kitchen scales aside, my bags were accepted in without embarrassing repacking at check-in or groveling for special consideration.

The Amsterdam Airport is a nice shiny place to transfer planes. My stay this morning is brief: only one hour. Just enough time to load up on latte before I spend three weeks in a country that apparently does not have a Starbucks on every corner. Perhaps this belies global corporatism.

I shall soon find out. 7 hours and counting......

Two Days and Counting

Jacqueline Murray's Ghana blog - July 13th, 2010 10:15 PM
Forty-eight hours from now I will be on the plane and preparing for take-off. Meanwhile the pace is quickening, the lists are getting longer, there's still some research to finish and I never did find the flip flops.

What I have found, however, is how wonderfully generous people are. I have broken down and got an extra duffle bag to hold all the "swag" that people have contributed. Lanyards, whistles, pins, pens and pencils. Even beach balls and most remarkable of all, backpacks. This is incredible and I am in awe of the kindness I see everywhere.

Pre-departure Prep:

Jacqueline Murray's Ghana blog - July 12th, 2010 9:20 PM
Three days until I leave for Ghana. The preparations are a funny mixture of my usual methodical organization broken by occasional flurries of last minute craziness. And whatever happened to those flipflops I got on the weekend.

I’ve learned a little bit more about the partner organization that I will be working with in Accra. It is Child’s Rights International. In 2007 oil was discovered in Ghana and CRI is concerned that oil companies develop child-centred sustainable Corporate Social Responsibility programs. This could address issues as disparate as building schools and establishing scholarships to developing appropriate regulations regarding child labour and other ways that children are exploited. So I am going to help CRI to develop recommendations to the Ghanian government. I am thrilled to be involved with such a terrific project. I spent today searching for and downloading relevant policy documents and academic analyses of similar policies in other African countries.

And then I spent the other part of my day assembling some necessities like packages of instant coffee. Apparently, drinking coffee is not central to Ghanian culture and while I’m all for adapting, I can’t quite imagine 24 days without a sip of java. The other thing I’ve been warned about is the longish nights/days. Accra is almost on the equator with 12-hour days and 12-hour nights...... and one needs some distractions for those nights when endless hours on Facebook are curtailed by intermittent access to the internet.

So, more preparations await, ........ including figuring out how much more I can stuff into my half-packed suitcase........ when in doubt, overpack has long been my motto. That, and a feeling of excited well-being as this new adventure begins..... Hope you’ll stay with me.........

7 Airports in 36 Hours…

Vicki Hodgkinson's blog - June 29th, 2009 8:23 AM

My ‘body alarm’ woke me at my usual 6 am waking time even though…after the late night and the drinks, I probably could have managed with a bit more sleep!

Patricia, Annie, Ben and Chris kindly woke early to be sure they could join me for breakfast. I have really enjoyed having their company — people to share stories of our Malawi experiences and reflect on them together. It helped to keep perspective and patience with the things that felt so different and with the worries about whether and how best to be of help to our Malawian partners within the limited time.

I said my farewells also to the wonderful Malawians who worked at the Lodge – Sherrington, Loveless, Ella, Sinia and….most especially, Ruth. Ruth was there for me when I was sick….I don’t know what I would have done without her….she was my ‘angel’ when I needed one!! And we have discovered a special connection, too, because her youngest daughter was born on exactly the same date as my son! Ruth and her team at the Lodge made me feel at home.

Sherrington and Ella:


Ruth and Loveless:


I finished packing …thinking I had time to spare….but the driver from WUSC arrived early. The driver was Parco – “Gift” in Chichewa – the same driver who had come in the night to take me to the clinic when I was ill. He waited while I went and gave Patricia, Annie and Ben big hugs before leaving.

My flight from Lilongwe (airport 1) – through Lusaka (Zambia) (airport 2) — went off just as planned. This is not too be taken for granted in Africa, I’m told! I sat beside a very interesting young man, Brian, who works for a coppermine in Zambia as a community development officer. He is employed by the mine to help those in the communities nearby become self-sufficient and he was going on a course to help learn marketing skills that he could share when he comes back. He explained, as an example, that they have helped one community acquire and breed goats. Now they have enough to feed themselves with extras they could sell. They need some help, though, in learning how to move into marketing their excess meat supply. The course he is taking will help him, help them.

We landed at Addis Ababa (airport 3) in the evening and had a 4 hour lay-over…until 1:30 a.m. I re-read one of my favourite books, “Solving Tough Problems” by Adam Kahane. My Malawi experience has convinced me that his approach to an open way of talking, listening and creating new realities can be a critically useful way to addressing the intractable challenges burdening the country. Reading was about all you could do at this airport, with internet at $2 US per minute!

I finally left Addis Ababa and — after many hours — landed briefly in Rome (airport 4) where most of the passengers left the plane. I moved over to a set of middle seats that were empty where I could stretch out and get some good sleep time! Wonderful!!

I landed at Frankfurt at about 9:10 a.m. (airport 5), prepared for a layover until 5 pm. I had been told by a number of people that it was easy to take the train into the city, so I thought this would be a good way to spend my time. I headed through customs and ‘entered’ Germany. The Frankfurt airport is easy to find your way and I saw where I could change some money to Euros and find the train. Before I left, however, I thought I would find the Air Canada desk and make sure everything was ‘good to go’ for my flight later in the day.

That’s when all the smooth travel plans went to hell in a handbasket!! Unbeknownst to me, my ticket had been changed (when?? by whom? Why hadn’t I been advised when I checked-in with Ethopian Airlines in Malawi!!) As I stood at the Air Canada desk to check-in for my 5 pm flight home to Toronto, the plane I was “supposed” to be on was taking off!! To say that I was feeling stress was an understatement. I managed to stay calm, however….perhaps a gift from my time in Malawi, where things don’t go as planned most of the time…. and began an elaborate process of getting myself out of Germany and home to Canada.

The 5 pm flight to Toronto was overbooked and they could not promise me a seat! I was told only Ethiopian Airlines could help me fix the problem so that I could get on another flight/airline to get home…but the Ethopian Airline ‘desk’ was not scheduled to open until 2:00 p.m…..later than all but one of my other flight options to get home. The Air Canada agent reached someone with the airline by phone but they would not deal with the situation until their desk opened at 2:00 p.m.

Thank God….due to some crazy whim, I had taken with me the after hours number for the travel agency WUSC had used to book my travel arrangements. So, I got on my Blackberry and called. A woman named Jenny (…I love her!!….) at the travel agent and a couple of Air Canada ticket agents at the Frankfurt airport somehow got me onto a flight leaving Frankfurt for Ottawa at 1:45 pm and then, from there, a flight through to Toronto. The only other option was to spend a night in Frankfurt and leave on an Air Canada flight the next day at 5:00 pm!!! So I was incredibly relieved.

The stress was intense, however. I was not even booked onto the Ottawa flight until AFTER 1:00 p.m. and I had to run through the Frankfurt airport, get through the long queue at Customs, find and get to the gate in less than a half hour. The only thing I can say is that I was tremendously grateful for the kindnesses of those who helped me get on this flight, extremely happy to have my Blackberry and thrilled that I had kept my carry-on luggage very minimal! I came close….but didn’t cry!

So, I left Frankfurt for Ottawa. I had a couple of glasses of wine on the plane and watched a couple of movies. Thankfully I had slept relatively well from Addis Ababa to Frankfurt….this helped keep me sane!

The transfer at Ottawa (airport 6) was a bit crazy because I had less than an hour to make my connection. I had to wait to come through customs….a very, very long line…..and thankfully this went smoothly. Then I ran to find and then get to “Gate 13″…..a lucky, not an unlucky gate as far as I was concerned!!!

Little did I know that, in the background, my brother (who works for Air Canada) was ‘creeping’ on me through channels he had with the Air Canada. I had left a phone message to let him know my travel plans were changing and that my pick up would be different than originally planned….but through his contacts he had come to realize that something very odd was going on with my ticket changes. I think some of this ended up working to my advantage….as I did not have any ticket to show anyone….or ticket number. Thankfully, everything fell into place!!!

Finally, I arrived in Toronto (airport 7)!!! I was never so happy. My brother and neice were there to greet me!! Not surprisingly, there was no evidence of my luggage. A very good humoured Air Canada employee helped me put arrangements in place to track them down and get them delivered to me in Guelph. I suppose I’ll see them in a couple of days.

The drive home to Guelph went smoothly. I was greeted by Justin with a big hug….and the house looked pretty good, too!!! Not much food around, but — hey!!….this we can fix!!

I left Malawi for home around 7 am Saturday Guelph time and walked through the door around 8 pm. Sunday. So…about 36 hours and 7 airports later, I was home. There is really no place like it!

The Farewell Begins

Vicki Hodgkinson's blog - June 29th, 2009 7:50 AM

Last night there was another random power failure that lasted over 2 hours. Guided by the light cast from my flashlight, I used the time to begin organizing my things to go home. I took over to Annie and Ben a bunch of things they could use for their remaining months in Malawi – and some things for the children in the village where they work. Being it was June 25th, we deemed it to be Malawian Christmas!! (After all, there were pointsettas blooming in the garden!)

I also took Patricia the soccer balls & hand pump I brought (for the youth group where she is volunteering) and a few things that she might be able to use for her final weeks in Malawi.

Later the group of us walked over to the Capital Hotel (in the pitch dark – with the benefit of Ben’s and Patricia’s head lamps !!) to do some internet in the lobby. We were joined there by two RCMP officers – Galib (from Vancouver) and Bud (from Halifax) – who Ben and Annie had met. They are in Malawi for 3 weeks to train Malawian police officers who wish to participate in UN missions, probably to Darfur. These RCMP officers were very interesting company….lots of stories about their missions and training assignments around the world. We were invited to join them for dinner on Friday night and we’ve agreed to go and make it a celebration of my last night in Malawi.

Friday morning I left the Lodge and walked to the WUSC office to meet up with Jacob. I brought thank you notes and small tokens of my appreciation for the WUSC staff – all of whom had been helpful during my time in Malawi. Jacob, Lawrence, Grace and Tamara were particularly wonderful to me.

Jacob and I drove over to the COWLHA office for our ‘wrap-up’ meeting with Daphne. The meeting was a chance to review the main outcomes and ‘next steps’ from my assignment. Daphne was very complementary about my time at COWLHA. Jacob seemed pleased and invited Daphne to submit a further proposal to WUSC for a person who could stay for 4 months or more. He also suggested that WUSC might be able to get some bikes for COWLHA members later in the summer. (This would be a big help for the women in the small village so they could meet for support groups, COWLHA advocacy and go to health appointments.) Daphne was very happy with this outcome.

Daphne presented me with a gift from her and Victoria/COWLHA ….it is my very own chitenje!!! I was so thrilled. It is beautifully coloured with peacocks!! (Those at my office will appreciate the peacocks….knowing that I have, on occasion, gone into “full peacock” to get something done!!)

I gave Daphne and Victoria some things to express my thanks, and also left a little package of things to pass along to Agnes.

We went to the nearby restaurant for lunch and shared a farewell meal of Nsima and beef ‘relish’. I’m afraid that while I enjoyed the meal at the time of eating, it did not sit well. Thankfully, given all the things that Daphne and Victoria needed to do to prepare for departure for Blantyre early in the morning, I was able to leave early. I helped them with a bit of paper work for the per diems to be given to the 100 COWLHA women who had been invited to join the President at the official government Candlelight Memorial Service in Blantyre. They had arranged a bus for the women going from Lilongwe and it was scheduled to leave very early on Saturday morning. The ceremony wasn’t until Sunday, but all of the President’s guests had to arrive in Blantyre by early Saturday afternoon in order to be provided security clearance.

I said ‘farewell’ to Daphne and Victoria. They felt badly that they would not be able to take me to the airport on Saturday, but I assured them it was all okay. They were off to do some important advocacy work…..and all I asked was that they make the best of the opportunity to gain the President’s ear while they were at the Candlelight Memorial Service!

When I got back to the Lodge, I rested for a while until my stomach settled down from the lunch. I then dropped in to see Ben; Annie was out with the RCMP officers – Galib and Bud – to participate in their training workshop for the day.

Ben joined me for a walk over to “People’s” (…or, as the sign out front suggests, the Metro) to pick up some Malawian food items to bring home as gifts. When we returned, Annie was back and Patricia returned soon after. We were joined by Chris – an architect from New York who had recently arrived for a 3 month work assignment. All of us got ready to go out for dinner and walked over to the Capital Hotel to meet Bud and Galib. We then walked for about 30 minutes over to the “Al Fresco” … a really nice little coffee shop with a brick oven. We ate dinner on the patio and enjoyed their really yummy thin-crust pizzas ….accompanied by a few Carlsbergs.

There was plenty of story-telling and lots of laughs as we shared our various impressions of Malawi and some of our other travel adventures. We got to know Bud, Galib and Chris – each of whom were interesting individuals with unique life stories to share. It was amazing as I came to realize the breadth of experiences and backgrounds that was captured by the group around the dinner table. And, there we were 6 Canadians and 1 American, finding each other’s friendship in Malawi!!

After dinner, we walked back to the Capital Hotel and met up with Hannings. Hannings is teaching the course with Galib and Bud…and will join up with Bud again later in the coming months to teach it again in Namibia. Hannings is the Assistant Commissioner for Training for the Malawi police department. He arranged for us to have a driver to take us out on the next part of our evening’s adventures – a visit to the “Diplomat”.

The Diplomat is a bar in Old Town. I’ve never seen anything quite like it in my travels!! There’s a BBQ out front and a few ‘patio’ tables and inside it was packed. The ceiling was hung with bamboo rods with mens’ ties looped over as part of the ‘décor’!! There were ‘booths’ styled like huts on the one wall of the room and the floor was tiled….sort of…and a Malawian band was playing in the back. We found a table at the front window of the bar and squeezed around it. There were 6 bullet holes in the front window….a bit ominous!! But as we were there with Hannings plus 2 RCMPs….and Hannings wasn’t worried in the least ….I just relaxed and enjoyed the experience. This was my last night in Malawi and the place was hopping!!

Here’s a photo of Ben, Annie, Galib and Hannings at the Diplomat:


Can you see the ties hanging from the poles above the bar?:


The people-watching was absolutely ‘prime time’. We saw several remarkable things….including one patron who was literally dragged out the front door and pulled down the street where he would not be in the way. He seemed totally unaware of what was happening to him!!! We shared several beers together….and some Malawian vodka….and then got a ride back to the Lodge with some of Hannings’ men who came to pick us up in unmarked cars!

Wrapping up my reports

Vicki Hodgkinson's blog - June 25th, 2009 2:18 PM

This morning I arrived at work around 9:00 a.m. and spent the morning finishing my report overviewing the COWLHA advocacy program and bringing my final report to WUSC close to completion. Victoria and Agnes – with Steve the driver – headed out for another visit to the ‘field’ and Daphne and I spent most of the day office together alone.

Daphne is trying to get a report together for her Board and also to put the final arrangements in place for the COWLHA delegation going to Blantyre this weekend to be special guests of the President at the Candlelight Memorial Service. This is an annual event to commemorate those Malawians who have lost their lives to HIV/AIDS.

There were a few drop-in visitors to the office – including the consultant James – but otherwise fairly uneventful. Daphne indicated that she was planning to leave early and encouraged me to do the same. I gave her a copy of the materials I prepared – and copies of the photos from the workshop and Wednesday’s visit to the village. Then I headed out.

I stopped by the wood carvers market to buy a few things to take home with me – an adventure in bargaining if there ever was one. I think I didn’t do very well ….!!

I then headed home, stopping at the Capital Hotel for a tea and some time on the internet.

Going out to the “field”- Visiting the village of Chisamba

Vicki Hodgkinson's blog - June 25th, 2009 2:16 PM

Wednesday was a wild day!! I spent the morning working on my advocacy overview report for COWLHA and refining my final report for WUSC. Daphne and Victoria had left me alone in the office to go and run errands. They would be back, with the driver, in time for us to go to the village by 1:00 p.m. Agnes would be joining us.

In the late morning, Agnes arrived in the office. I closed up my computer and just spent time talking with her. She is such a terrific person…so bright and full of positive energy. She told me about her life as a teacher, her mother who lives in Selima and her two daughters….one of whom wants to study mechanics in Canada.

Around 2:00 p.m. Daphne and Victoria returned. There had been problems with some of the financial transactions needed to get all the pieces in place for the visit to the “field” ….to the village to visit with a Chief. So, we gathered ourselves together, got into cab of the 4-wheel-drive truck – driven by Steven – and headed off for….??? I had no idea!! We grabbed some lunch – chicken and chips – to eat on the way.

Daphne passed me a chitenje….as I would need to wear one over my dress when we arrived at the village.

Off we went. At first we drove on paved roads. We stopped at one point to pick up 3 cases of bottled pop and some other provisions. Then our drive continued. Here the land was much flatter than I saw on the way to Selima. The horizon was dotted with unexpected hills or small mountains. They appeared randomly on the skyline as surprises for the eye. As we drove, we got closer to several but, oddly, they always seemed just out of distance.

As our travels progressed, the roads became more and more rough until they were not much more than wide, dirt pathways. We saw people, goats, donkeys, bikes, more people…..all along the way. The roads are busy, but not always with vehicles.

Eventually Daphne yelled out to stop. Two women in matching head scarves and chitenje jumped into the back of the truck. As we went along we picked up others. As their numbers grew, they started to sing…..and then we approached the village, and their voices were joined by others who ran towards the truck. We got out and were welcomed by the women thronging around us, singing and dancing. They were so very happy to see Daphne and Victoria. I was a quirky little bonus….a “mazoonga”….a white person. The women hugged me and the children came up to get a closer look at me. It was a totally unexpected and somewhat overwhelming experience!!


We walked and danced and sang our way over to a space under a grove of trees. All the village was gathered there. Under a reed canopy punctuated with bouquets of hanging flowers sat the chief and the other leaders of the community…all men.

Daphne, Agnes, Victoria and I were directed to sit at the front under the canopy with the Chief. The women who had been dancing, I learned, were all “positive’ and they sat together on a reed mat in front of the Chief. As we approached the Chief to sit in the chairs beside him, I followed Daphne’s lead. We each got down on our knees and shook hands with the Chief and then scuttled along on our knees to shake the hands of the other leaders sitting beside him.

After we were seated there was more singing and dancing – and a prayer. We were expected to stand and dance & sing along with the women….which we did. I think it must have been quite a sight to see me in my chitenje trying to move with this African women’s dance moves. Believe me, I didn’t even try to sing in Chichewa!!!

There was a poem read by a young man in Chichewa; I understand it was a call for people to help those with HIV/AIDS. There was a drama done by the youth about the importance of getting tested for HIV/AIDS and of having safe sex, etc. Then Daphne gave a rousing talk and the Chief responded. At the end, there was more singing and dancing and a closing prayer. The whole proceedings were in Chichewa. As she could, Victoria would lean in and whisper in my ear about the general gist of what was happening.

As I listened to all that was going on, I did my best to drink in the whole surroundings. The children were all there sitting and listening…very well behaved in light of the topic that was under discussion – which must have been a bit boring for them. I enjoyed looking at them and exchanging ‘eyes’ with some of those who would bravely respond to my smile or discreet wave.

At one point, one of the toddlers – being carried by an older sibling – came up close to me. The look of my white face caused him to burst into frantic tears! I fear he had nightmares from seeing me!!

After the ceremony was over we were walked – accompanied by more dancing and singing by the women – over to a mud building where Daphne and I were invited to sit with the Chief and the other leaders. I think we were in the Chief’s house….it was very nice as compared to the others in the village and appointed with upholstered furniture.

The pop was brought in and served to us. Then a loaf of bread was opened and we were invited to take some. Everyone drank and ate heartily. There was some further conversation in Chichewa and some business was transacted. The Chief spoke to me in English and made me feel very welcome.

Afterwards, I took a picture of the Chief and other leaders with Daphne, Victoria and Agnes. I also took a picture of a group of children gathered to watch — which very nearly created bedlam beyond all imagining!!!! Many of the women who had been singing and dancing got into the back of the truck so that they could get a ride back to their part of the village. (It is very widely spread out and they have to walk quite a distance to get to the place where the ceremony was held.) I got a photo of the women in the back of the truck and then we started the journey home. Dark was beginning to come upon us as we left.



The women in the truck sang all the way along our route, with the volume only decreasing slightly as we dropped one or another off at the place where they lived. It was an experience like any other I have had, watching the sun set on the Malawian horizon – dotted by the unusual ‘mountains’ – with the sound of these wonderful voices coming from behind me as we made our way along the dirt road.


I think we left shortly before 6 pm. We stopped just as the light was fading so Daphne and Victoria could by some pork; they saw a man with a freshly butchered pig at the side of the road. Later, in the deep dark as we made our way over the very rough dirt ‘roads’, we stopped again because we were about to pass two young men with their bikes loaded high with firewood. It is much cheaper to buy the wood from them (for cooking fires) than to buy it in the city. So, Daphne and Victoria negotiated a price with them for one of the bike loads of wood. They put the wood in the back of the truck and we continued on our way.

I was laughing and teasing Daphne that I never dreamed we could end up on a shopping spree in the middle of rural Malawi, in the pitch dark on this small dirt road! We also stopped on the way home to return the pop bottles and the other ladies I was with took the chance to pick up a few groceries. Of course….as is common in the way of random Malawian things….the power went out while they were in the store. No big deal if you are Malawian….just get out the candles and take your time to get everything sorted through!

The driver took each person home – I got a peek (in the pitch dark!!) of where Victoria, Daphne and Agnes lived. I got to have a quick introduction to both of Agnes’ daughters and to see Daphne’s daughter, Tamara, again. I got home around 8:00 p.m. I was so tired from all the day’s excitement and the stimulation of my brain by so many different things. I fell asleep only moments after my head hit the pillow.

The last week of work in Malawi

Vicki Hodgkinson's blog - June 25th, 2009 2:14 PM

It is very hard to believe that it is already the last week for my work in Malawi. The time has passed by quickly.

Monday I focussed on the final preparation of my powerpoint presentation for the advocacy workshop on Tuesday. I dropped into the WUSC office on the way to the COWLHA office and was able to get confirmation that the budget proposed for the workshop had been approved. We called Daphne right away so that the money could be transferred to the COWLHA account and plans could be put in place for all the logistics. I was also able to borrow WUSC’s computer projector.

Grace, the receptionist at the WUSC office – who is an incredibly kind person and a life-line for so many different things – arrived to the office sick with malaria. She looked awful and had a terrible night’s sleep. Grace was going to head to the hospital to get medication and then head home to see if she could rest. I was quite concerned about her. By Wednesday, when I saw her again, the medication had already taken effect and she was doing so much better!

Tuesday was the day of the workshop. There were 12 participants, including Daphne and Victoria. All of them are “positive”….they have tested positive for HIV. Two of them came from outside Lilongwe and had to travel by bus for many hours to be able to attend. Overall, I think it went well. If only I could have spoken Chichewa, it would have been better. While everyone could understand English, mine is weighed by a heavy Canadian accent (…at least to Malawian ears), and they can speak more readily in Chichewa. We managed, however, and Daphne helped with translation – “my” English to Chichewa and Chichewa to English.

One of the best parts of the workshop was a little ice-breaker exercise I did with them. I asked them to draw the design they would like to have on their chitenje (skirt wrap worn by all Malawian women, particularly for ceremonies and official events). The women all participated and then got up and explained their design. Through their descriptions I learned a lot about their feelings towards being “positive”, their dreams for themselves and for others with HIV/AIDS and their commitment to building better conditions for Malawian women.

Later during the workshop, I was able to sit and talk with some of the women. They shared some of their stories. They told me about the struggle of coming to terms with having HIV, the challenges brought by the stigma it carries, the positive things they are doing in their lives to live fully, and the feelings of empowerment they have gained through membership in COWLHA. It was tremendously moving….but I dared not let a tear come to my eye. The last thing they want is for someone to feel sorry for them……they are busy living and seeking to be respected as human beings first, as mothers, daughters, friends, co-workers….and only subsequently, as victims of HIV.

The status of women in Malawi leaves a lot……a whole lot…..to be desired. It is a huge obstacle for women living with AIDS/HIV – it is probably the most serious underlying challenge to getting an appropriate response to their needs and circumstances. As a Canadian woman, I ache to see what they must contend with and the basic assumptions about my way of living that cannot be applied to life as a Malawian woman. There seems to be a mood for change among the leadership….but there are signs that the support may be somewhat more superficial in its application. One senses there is also a strong resistance to upsetting any circumstances that allow men to remain firmly in control of leadership in most of the critical aspects of Malawian society. There is so much work to be done……

Weekend Malawi-Style

Vicki Hodgkinson's blog - June 25th, 2009 2:11 PM

Friday was my ‘work at home day’. I got quite a bit done in the morning…although my workshop presentation did not progress as much as I intended.

Around lunch time, Ben and Annie arrived at my room. They had just returned from the village where they volunteered. We agreed to meet over in their ‘lounge’ area to share lunch time. Lunch was a bit of this and a bit of that. I still wasn’t back to my regular appetite, but I managed to have a bit of fruit, some juice and my soya nuts. I really enjoy hearing Ben’s and Annie’s tales of life in the village working with the children.

Ben had discovered that there is a wireless signal in their living area that is available for free from time to time. So, I brought my lap top down to their lounge area and Annie and I discovered that we could get a connection. So, I did some emails and checked on the blog. Then I worked on my COWLHA materials for a while.

Around 2:30 p.m. a call came through about some money I had been trying to get wired to me by VISA. (The lack of a PIN number on my VISA card continued to be a problem and this, as it turned out, was the only way to get around the problem.) This was the outcome of a rather tortured process….that required intervention by my good friend and colleague, Kate Revington, from the Canadian end. For those who may travel to Malawi in future – be sure to have a PIN on your credit card AND make a note that it is impossible to call collect from Malawi!!!

With the 2:30 p.m. call, I received information on how to pick up the money at a Western Union office in Lilongwe. The offices close at 4:00 p.m. and the money had to be picked up within 3 days (…not 3 business days)…..so the race was on. I had to pick it up on Friday as we were planning to leave for Senga Bay at 8:00 a.m. on Saturday morning and wouldn’t be back until some unknown time on Sunday.

Patricia was great….she came along with me to try and track down the closest Western Union office and get there before 4:00 p.m.! Remember….we are in Malawi….and people can’t really explain how to get from here to there without depending on landmarks….which you may or may not know. There are very few street signs. There are no addresses in the phone book or in other tourist pamphlets advertising banks, money transfer locations, etc. We were told that the Western Union office nearest to us was located inside the “People’s” store. What they didn’t tell us is that the People’s store was formerly called the “Metro” …..and that’s the big sign on the front of it. No “People’s” signs anywhere!!!

In any event, after asking a lot of questions and taking a route that was more than just a little circuitous, Patricia and I arrived at Western Union….just in the nick of time!! I got my money transfer making me feel much more at ease going into my final week in Malawi.

On Friday night, Ben, Annie, another WUSC student, Kristen, Patricia and I all went to Mama Mia’s for dinner. My appetite was beginning to re-emerge and I order a fairly plain pizza. It was a lovely thin crust pizza and I managed to get about half of it into me and took the other half home to tuck in my wee fridge in my room. (It will be lunch or dinner one day this week.)

Adventure to Senga Bay

Around 8:30 a.m. on Saturday morning, Kathy Stiles, the Regional Director for WUSC, came to pick us up to go to Salima/Senga Bay. Kathy is based in Botswana but has been in Malawi most of this week for meetings and to have a chance to visit with various WUSC volunteers. She kindly offered to drive a group of us to Senga Bay …..which makes it so very nice. We don’t have to take the bus…meaning we can stop along the way and come and go as we please.

Joining us were Kaitlin and Christine – two longer-term WUSC volunteers based in Blantyre.

The drive to Senga Bay was so very interesting. One can really get a much better sense of how the average person is living. Along the road, you see clutches of thatched roof houses – often round – that represent a family living together in community. There were goats everywhere….some pigs. You see things being carried along with help from a bicycle….everything from bales of reeds used to make thatched walls, fences, etc., bales of reeds used to make wicker (baskets, furniture, hats, toys), pigs (dead & ready to be butchered), bags of corn, bags of charcoal (used for cooking fires), bales of sugar cane, multiple people (!!)…..

You will see billboards carrying key messages from government.  For example, Malawians need their nurses but they are hard to find and keep. The President has named them “angels”:

Malawians need their nurses but they are hard to find and keep.  The President has named them "angels"

The land is rolling hills. It’s quite dry right now and the trees are losing their leaves. It is the end of harvest time and the thatched bins are loaded with ears of corn. They remain husked and the bins are emptied as the corn is needed. Rice and other grains are spread on the ground in neat squares (on cloth) to dry.

We saw boys with mice skewered on sticks. They are selling the mice to eat. We saw communities which were part of agricultural initiatives to use irrigation. They had stands with neat rows of tomatoes and cabbages for sale. There were all kinds of people, goats, cows, dogs, sheep walking along the road as we drove through to Senga Bay.

It’s Saturday, but there are still lots of people walking to church. The women are all wearing the same head scarf for their church. As you pass the churches, you see groups of men and groups of women gathered under the trees for bible studies. There are Muslim men and women, too, recognizable by their head wear and clothes.

As we got closer to Lake Malawi, there are more and more roadside stands selling wicker. This is a product that the area is well known for. Wicker mats, wicker baskets and plant stands, wicker furniture – chairs, couches, shelves, beds, wicker hats….you name it!! We stop to buy a few things, bargaining to bring their initial prices down to something a bit more reasonable!

We arrived at the “Livingstonia” and enjoyed the first little while on the beach. It wasn’t very hot and it was windy, but it was a very pleasant place to spend a Saturday. A local band came down to the beach to play Malawian tunes for people. The band was made up of musicians playing some typical instruments (guitars, for example) but also some not-so-typical instruments – a wire looped with bottle caps was a percussion instrument that the drummer used. There was a stand-up bass, too. It was not like the ones we see ….an African drum at the bottom with a single string attached on a long flat board. It made a wonderfully distinct bass sound!

Here’s the view from our room:

The view from our room of Lake Malawi when we stayed at Senga Bay.

We were joined by Halid and his wife Rhoda. Halid is a veterinarian from Tanzania on a south-to-south exchange facilitated by WUSC and involving Vets without Borders. He is one of the few – if not the only – veterinarians in Malawi. He is working with dairy farmers in the Mzuzu area….but he gets involved in all sorts of veterinary activity. Once people know he is around, they flock to him to get his help and advice.

The whole group of us ate lunch together on the patio, overlooking the vista offered by Lake Malawi! We lounged for the afternoon, walked over to a nearby curio market to do some bargaining, and just enjoyed the chance to be at the beach.

A fisherman in a dug-out canoe on Lake Malawi

Dinner on the patio was another time for us all to visit and share stories. It gets dark so quickly and early in Malawi, that we all found ourselves tucking into bed in good time. Patricia and I shared a room together. It was quite comfortable and very posh by Malawian standards.

Back to Lilongwe

Sunday we spent the morning on the beach. It was a little less windy and the sun was very pleasant.

We left in good time so we could get the two young women who are based in Blantyre back in time to catch their bus. The trip by bus to Blantyre is a good 4 hours…assuming no delays…from just various, random Malawian factors!!

The drive back to Lilongwe provided another opportunity to drink in the views and scenery typical of rural life in Malawi.

Sunday night Kathy took Patricia and I for dinner. We picked up another WUSC volunteer, Kristen, who is living and working at the refugee camp on the edge of Lilongwe. Kristen is teaching in the school at the camp and it was quite interesting to hear her accounts of life there. She and Kathy were talking about the 5 young people from the camp who have been selected to go to Canada to live and study under the WUSC refugee-sponsorship program. There is such excitement for the 5 who will be leaving for Canada in August. While I will not have time to visit the camp, Kathy has promised Patricia that she will instruct the WUSC office to make sure she has a chance to go and visit before leaving Malawi. (Patricia’s assignment is a week longer than mine.)

Dinner was at an Indian restaurant in Lilongwe. The food was fantastic! I had curried cashews…so yummy. Cashews, peanuts (ground nuts) and macadamia nuts are all readily available in Malawi.

All in all….it was a wonderful weekend that – thanks to the generous hospitality of Kathy Stiles – was full of great new opportunities to see and experience Malawi.

LAST Sunday afternoon in Lilongwe

Vicki Hodgkinson's blog - June 21st, 2009 9:55 AM

Somehow I have lost track of posting a note about Patricia’s and my adventures last Sunday afternoon (June 14) when we went to visit the Mausoleum for Banda (Malawi’s first President) and the Lilongwe Nature Sancturary.

We were able to walk to both of these places.

At the mausoleum, we learned some interesting things about Malawian history and politics:

The literal meaning of Malawi is “flames of fire”. The fire started burning with Malawi’s independence. The flag depicts dawn. Coming from the dark (under British rule) going into day. Malawi thinks of itself as “the warm heart of Africa”

The four fundamental principles upon which Malawi as a nation was built are depicted by the four pillars at the mausoleum for Kumuzu: unity, loyalty, obedience and discipline. These were the principles that Kamuzu used most to advocate most to Malawians: to be loyal to him and the government of the day. He was a strict disciplinarian.

Kamuzu was never married and had no children. He lived with a personal hostess, a personal assistant, Mama Cecilia Kadzamira. She is a medical nurse by profession and she is still alive. According to her, the picture of Kamuzu placed by the replica of his tomb at the mausoleum was taken when he was in his 20s. In the picture, he is holding a ‘fly whisk’, made of a lion’s or horse’s tale. It was his trademark and a symbol of authority. You never saw him in public without it. He had several of them. He has one in his grave and the others have been set aside for display in the museum to be built near the mausoleum as part of the parliament centre.

He was a Christian, a Presbyterian, and his favourite biblical verse (recorded on his tomb stone) is part of Psalm 23 (Lord is my Shepard). According to his hostess, he used to recite the verse every morning when he woke up. He was a doctor of medicine who studied in the U.K.

Mausoleum to Banda iii

He is embalmed to last for 100 years. Originally, the intention was that he would be on view but the family members (nephews and nieces) refused.

He was also connected with the symbol of the lion. At a meeting of the African Union in Egypt around 1970-71 they were discussing the situation of apartheid in South Africa. Most of the northern and western African states wanted the members of the AU to unite to fight the white South Africans. But of all the people at that meeting, Kamuzu stood up and said, “Oh, gentleman, I do not agree to that position. Our people down south will suffer most. Why don’t we use contact and dialogue. Then the Chairman of the meeting praised Kamuzu saying, “This gentleman has patience like that of a lion.” That’s where the title came from.

A few months before he died, he apologized to the Malawi nation. “I had my time. I ruled Malawi for 20 years and there might have been some other things that were not going fine…maybe some other atrocities. You never know some were done by my followers. But one thing for sure, I am saying sorry for everything bad that happened during my tenure of office.”

Malawi changed from a one-party state to multi-party in 1994. It came out on the national radio … at that time Malawi did not have television …even before the official election results had been announced, Kumuzu came on the radio and said, “I have seen, I think, my rival has won. So, for the winners, I want you to rejoice peacefully and, as for the losers, that’s what life is all about.”. Most Malawians were used to a single-party state and they were wondering what would happen. So, people were very happy and comforted when he went on air and said everything is okay, “This one can take over; I have lost.” So we will never forget him.

“He had his weaknesses but, nevertheless, he was Malawi’s founding father.”

These notes come from the information provided by our tour guide (and caretaker) at the mausoleum, Frederick. Here’s a photo of Frederick:

Mausoleum to Banda ii

As we walked to the nature sanctuary, we walked past the site where the new Malawian parliamentary buildings are being constructed

New Malawian Parliament Building Billboard Depiction

The Nature Sanctuary is a place where they take in injured animals or animals that for any number of reasons need to be rehabilitated and supported to re-enter life in the wild. We saw a crocodile, many different types of monkeys, a lionness (who will not be able to return to the wild due to her injuries), a hyena, a boa constrictor….and, while he was too shy to be seen by us, the lair of a leopard. The area was a pretty walk in itself.

Lilongwe Nature Sanctuary x

Lilongwe Nature Sanctuary xiv

We made it home in time — before dark! — but only to find that the water was not on. We sure could have used a good long shower after the dusty walking. But…..c’est la vie Malawian!!

New Cabinet, Workshops and other sorts of ‘carpentry’??

Vicki Hodgkinson's blog - June 18th, 2009 10:47 AM

Thursday morning arrived with me feeling at 90% and having had an excellent night’s sleep. I grabbed a ride with Patricia’s colleague from YECE again and got dropped off in Old Town. I walked to the COWLHA office and ran into Solomon, the young boy who sells papers among the Ministry of Agriculture offices around us. I was eager to buy the paper because it had coverage of the new Malawian cabinet appointments.

Malawi had a general election in May (the 19th, I believe) and this is only the second such election with multi-party participation. The whole business of multi-party democracy is a learning experience for Malawians. They have had to come to grips with the idea that it’s okay to be a “loser” in the elections. (It doesn’t mean you are out to topple the government and need to be ‘managed’ by the ‘winners.) They are also growing to understand the idea of a ‘loyal opposition’….because in the past if you didn’t agree with the President/party of the day, then you were on risky ground. Interestingly, this past election campaign featured supporting civic education programs and initiatives designed to keep polling activities orderly. They also ran special initiatives to increase the number of women in the Malawian parliament and their numbers were increased such that women are around one-quarter of the elected representatives. One gathers that these various initiatives went very well.

In any event, Malawi had previously ‘enjoyed’ a minority government but, with this May election, it has provided a majority government with a president who appears to have considerable general support among the populace. He has acquired a reputation for standing up for Malawi in dealings with international financial institutions. He’s an advocate for women – 11 women are in his 42 member Cabinet (26% of Cabinet as compared to the last one with only 17% women) – and is giving strong leadership in addressing the challenges of HIV/AIDS. It’s so interesting to see how they are grappling with regional, party and economic politics as the work of the new government is unfolding.

And, like any good multi-party democratic system, many promises have been made by those elected to government. The honeymoon period is still in place, but soon the expectations will begin to call this new marriage with the Malawian people to reality. I suspect the ride ahead will not be easy; clearly the needs are huge and the resources are extremely constrained and often come with ties. (For my colleagues at the University, this storyline may sound a bit familiar!!) Truly, though…..the basic social and economic needs of this country are breathtaking.

So….getting back to my day….I arrived at the COWLA office just before 8:30. Daphne and Victoria arrived around 9:30 a.m. They had gone to an internet café on the way to the office. I took the opportunity to read the paper and some other materials I had with me.

The first thing Daphne wanted to do was prepare a budget for the workshop I am to offer next week. WUSC has offered to cover the cost. So, Daphne sat with me as I pulled out my rusty Excel skills and pulled together a spreadsheet that reflect the budget categories and costs she felt needed to be covered.

I suggested to Daphne that she might like to write to some of the relevant new Cabinet ministers to offer congratulations and offer help from COWLHA, etc.   She seemed to like the idea, so I drafted a template letter to the Ministers for her to tailor to suit each minister’s situation and also one she might send to the President.   She took the drafts to look over.

I then prepared an outline for the workshop program and shared it with Daphne for her input. She agreed with the approach, so this gave me a basis for continuing to work ahead on a set of powerpoint slides. (WUSC will lend a computer projector so we can use it for the workshop. This saves on paper, which is also expensive.)

As I started working, Agnes arrived. I think she was briefing Daphne and Victoria on some of the planning activities for the Candlelight Memorial program that will take place shortly after I leave. They spoke Chichewa and the conversation was quite animated – with lots of howls of agreement and laughter. Not the easiest conditions to work in, but I plowed through.

I didn’t really stop for lunch. My system is still only inching forward to normal eating routines (…but I ate eggs this morning!!). I just snacked on my soya nuts and cranberries which I brought from home (…great move…). I was just about to ask Daphne to sit and chat with me about some of the information we would cover in the workshop, when she and Victoria advised that they needed to be out of the office for the balance of the afternoon. Victoria was going off to a meeting for the Candlelight service and Daphne had to head to Blantyre (..about a 4 hour drive from Lilongwe..) for an important government meeting. Furthermore, neither of them would be in the office tomorrow. They offered to give me the keys to open the office so I could come in on Friday….but only if I wanted to come and work there.

“Go with the flow”, ….I said to myself. Okay. Well. I guess I will take our budget to the WUSC office this afternoon and then head back to the Lodge. I can work there just as easily as I can at the COWLHA office. (Thank goodness I brought my notebook computer!) So, we just agreed to see each other again on Monday morning….that would be the day before the workshop…..! Okay, I’ll just do the best I can with what I’ve got.

I dropped into the WUSC office and provided them with a soft copy of the budget. Tamara thought it looked okay, but she wanted Lawrence to look it over before it is submitted to Jacob for a decision. I left it in her hands.

I also had the opportunity to meet Cathy Stiles who is in Lilongwe. Cathy is the Regional Co-ordinator for WUSC and is based in Botswana. She is here meeting with all the current WUSC volunteers in Malawi and, wonderfully, in order to meet with Patricia and me, she has agreed to go with us to Senga Bay this weekend. Better yet, she has offered to drive….and we are bringing along some other WUSC volunteers. It should be great fun. I look forward to getting to know her a bit and chatting with her about my experience.

As is becoming my habit, I’ve dropped into the Capital Hotel to do my emails and post information on my blog. I enjoyed a cup of yummy Malawian coffee while working.  I’ll then head back to the Lodge. Tonight and tomorrow, I’ll focus all my energy on getting the workshop slides done. If I can make further progress on the complementary advocacy report I’m working on for COWLA, I’ll do this as well. With the workshop on Tuesday, I’ll need Monday to refine details with Daphne. Tuesday will be gone….leaving Wednesday and Thursday to finish up my advocacy report and project report for WUSC. I’ll also have to work in a wrap-up meeting with Jacob. Saturday, I go home. I can’t believe how quickly the time is flying by.

I plan on posting photos tomorrow!

Cabinets, workshops….am I in carpentry???  Yikes.

Random Malawian Things

Vicki Hodgkinson's blog - June 18th, 2009 10:40 AM

Wednesday night, Patricia and I enjoyed a very nice evening in the company of Ben and Annie from New Brunswick. They showed us photos of their experience working in a village on the outskirts of Lilongwe where they are volunteering with a school. The village is about a one hour walk from the Lodge. They take the mini bus there, leaving by 7:30 in the morning. After school finishes in the early afternoon, they walk back to the Lodge giving them time to reflect on the day.

The pictures of the children are wonderful. Ben has introduced them to ‘frisbee’ which has been quite a hit. They also shared photos of their trip to Lake Malawi (near Mzuzu) last weekend. It looks beautiful.

It was particularly good to have their company last night because we were subject to one of the periodic power outages. Randomly, the power will go out. Sometimes for just a couple of minutes, other times 15 or 20 minutes…and other times several hours. Last night it was out for about 2 hours. This is no small consideration when you consider that it is pitch black by shortly after 6:00 p.m…..just a bit too early to head to bed….and it sure can run through the batteries if you try and read by flashlight!

Power outages are just one of the little random Malawian things. The water also goes off – without notice – for periods of time. When we return from the hot afternoon at the Lilongwe Nature Sanctuary on Sunday, for example, the water was out and did not come back on until the early hours of the morning ….at least not before bedtime. This was not ideal as both Patricia and I were in need of a good shower after having walked around outside most of the day.

Which leads to the next little random Malawian thing….actually, more of a Lilongwe thing. It is blessed with rich, red coloured soil. It almost puts you in mind of PEI with its red hue. However, it’s currently quite dry. We were told it hasn’t really rained since April. So, Lilongwe is currently blessed with red coloured dust. It’s everywhere….! Whether you are wearing shoes or sandals….its all over your feet. At the end of a day of walking, it’s like a film all over you. People with cars (i.e., rich people) are constantly having their vehicles washed to get the dust off.

There are other little random Malawian things….like

- men wearing short-sleeved business suits

- men wearing short ties

- ladies with piles of things on their heads, a baby tied with a wrap to her back and her arms full of other items

- bill boards calling for men to have vasectomies or for people to get tested for HIV

- bill boards calling for national action to protect food self-sufficiency

- little stands EVERYWHERE selling pre-paid cards for cell phones (Zain and TNM are the big companies in Malawi)

- people selling pan roasted peanuts ….usually standing right beside the stands selling pre-paid cell phone cards!

- people wandering with flat baskets filled with bananas for sale

- hot milk…for ‘food safety’ more than anything else. (No one is seen drinking milk as a beverage, just a bit with cereal or coffee. It’s very expensive.)

-….and the minibus.  Here’s a couple of mini bus photos (per my neice’s request!).  One is of the “Shoprite” waiting area where I get dropped off in the morning and pick up a bus on my way home from work.  It was taken at noon on a Friday….when it wasn’t yet too busy.  The other is a photo from inside a mini bus.

Mini buses waiting for passengers near Shopite in Old Town Lilongwe

Minibus to Old Town

Moving Forward …already half way through my time in Malawi!

Vicki Hodgkinson's blog - June 17th, 2009 10:50 AM

It’s Wednesday — half way through the second week….half way through my time in Malawi!  The time is flying.

Yesterday afternoon, I managed to do a bit of reading and note taking for my work at COWLHA. I didn’t have a lot of energy and still was not interested in eating very much.

Patricia came by my room when she returned from her work at YECE and we caught up on the events of the day. Her experience continues to be similar to mine….bits of forward progress with a strong emphasis on ‘going with the flow’!!

I settled into bed early (6:00 ish) – listing to the Malawi ‘playlist’ that Justin put together for my travels. A knock came on the door and it was Ben, Annie and Hershey. They are students from the University of New Brunswick who are part of a group doing volunteer work in Malawi. Annie and Ben are also staying in the County Garden Lodge; they work with school children (many of whom are orphans) in a village on the edge of Lilongwe. They have been here since the beginning of June. Hershey just arrived this week and will be joining other UNB students in Mzuzu, about a 4-8 hour bus trip north of Lilongwe. (Yes…4 to 8 hours, the range is wide because the travel is unpredictable!)

Annie, Ben and Hershey had heard that I was sick and came to check on me. When they didn’t see me at breakfast in the morning, they had asked after me. I was very appreciative of their concern and kindness in dropping by. We chatted about the events of the day and I shared the story of my ‘trip to the clinic’! They were helpful in giving advice on using the phone system in Malawi (there are a few tricks, it turns out.) This will allow Patricia and me to make better use of the phone WUSC has loaned to us.

I didn’t sleep particularly well, but I got up and showered this morning, had a bit of breakfast (“Coffey”, toast and a banana), and got myself ready for the day. Fortunately, YECE came to pick up Patricia for work and I was able to get a lift to Old Town by car….allowing me a bit of respite from the minibus! I’m definitely feeling better than Monday but still not quite myself.

I arrived in Old Town by 8:00 a.m. and, before walking to COWLHA, I went to an internet café to check my emails.

I arrived at the COWLHA office shortly after 8:30 a.m. and was greeted warmly by Victoria. Daphne arrived soon afterward. I have suggested that today, Daphne and I work together reviewing COWLHA’s 2007 advocacy plan. I want her to brief me on the status of each of the advocacy objectives (several of which I already know are dated), the role and activities of COWLHA with regard to each to-date, the “lessons learned” and whether they are still relevant given the advocacy directions set out in COWLHA’s recently completed strategic plan.

This will have to wait until later in the day, however, as Daphne has been called on short notice to a meeting with the local office of the UNFB. They want to review the budget proposal Daphne has included in a proposal submitted by COWLHA last week. Daphne departed along with Victoria (so she can run pressing errands for COWLHA while Daphne is in the meeting.)

While I was alone at the COWLHA office, Stella dropped in to leave an invitation for COWLHA members to attend a candle-light church service on Sunday to commemorate those whose lives have been lost to AIDS. She told me a bit of her story. She used to be a teacher with Daphne. She left teaching and joined a local church (Presbyterian, I believe) and was eventually hired to co-ordinate the church’s AIDS related programs. She is assisted by a committee of people from the church that includes COWLHA members. I quite enjoyed my brief time with Stella. As she left she said to me, “I have a story that I could share about my life. Perhaps we will have an opportunity another time.” I hope so.

Wisdom also popped in to pick up an envelope that Victoria had left for him. He was on his way to a community about 200 km outside of Lilongwe to do some work with an organization there. He seems to be doing consulting work (in advocacy??) while on his vacation from his post at the rubber plantation.

My appetite remained submerged. I ate the only thing that appealed to me: a juicy mandarin orange. As I sat in the COWLHA office I could hear the prayers being called from the mosque across the river, near the Old Town market.

The afternoon has proven to be productive. I finally had a great chance to sit and work through various pieces of information with Daphne. We shared stories and I generally had a good feeling that our relationship is advancing.

I am feeling better….still not myself. On my way home on I picked up some crackers and some almonds ….something to work into my system to begin to return it to normal. The mini bus ride was relatively uneventful today….just a stop for gas along the way.

I am finishing this post off around 4:40 p.m. sitting in the lobby of the Capital Hotel. I look forward to an early bedtime tonight. Before that, however, I hope to go over to Ben’s and Annie’s room to see some of their photos of the village where they are working.

I will post photos eventually…..including one of the mini-buses, as Lauren has requested.

Missing everyone….but feeling good and comfortable here despite my health adventures.   (For those so inclined….please don’t worry!!! )


Home again, home again, jiggety jig;

Sean Yo's blog - May 10th, 2009 8:48 PM

I’m home, safe and sound.  The trip from Hong Kong was great – Cathay Pacific is fantastic.  Despite the great service and food, it was an excruciating 15 hour flight since I was so excited about getting home and seeing my girls.

It’s been rough for me and amusing for everyone around me the last couple days as I try to reset my body clock to my normal time zone.  We headed off to my parent’s house today and had a lovely time celebrating Mother’s Day and my father’s Birthday

I have lots to unpack and a ton of photos to sort through.  I will be putting together some catch up posts and hopfully sharing some of my follow up work now that I’m back in Canada.

Sean In Hong Kong

Sean Yo's blog - May 8th, 2009 11:55 AM

Well, the 2nd leg of my long trip home is complete.  Yesterday I flew from Malang, East Java to Jakarta.  I have a really great visit with my Cousin Ay Fang and her family.  Today I spent the day with my Cousin Arief who took me to the airport.

Hong Kong International Airport is enormous.  A sprawling behemoth of glass and metal, built on an artificial island dredged out of the ocean, filled with designer brand stores, smoking lounges and and endless stream of people from around the world (48.6 million of them last year).  I mean, I saw a Montblanc store here…nothing but Montblac…the shopping here is dizzying.

When I was here at HKIA last, with my dad, we had Dim Sum since I am a devotee of this delightful form of Chinese cuisine and Hong Kong has a reasonable claim to being the world Capital of Dim Sum.  It was very good, in fact some of it was fantastic – and I expect the Airport doesn’t have the Dim Sum in HK.  However, the local competition in Southern Ontario stands up very well, especially the fine offerings of Cameron Seafood Restaurant in Kitchener.

This time I went for Japanese Ramen at Ajisen Ramen.  This is the real deal – just like instant Ramen noodles, but, erm…not instant <grin>.  This picture is pretty terrible, but the Big Boy Camera is packed away so I only have my backup camera with me.

Ajisen Ramen @ HK Int'l Airport

I got Combo #3: Ramen with Soup, Fried Pork Chop and Pan-Fried Pork Dumplings.  And of course the requisite World-Dominating (Diet) Coke.  The soup was rich and had a wonderful onion flavour.  The dumplings were quite delicate and very tender.  The porkchop was nice and crispy and not salty at all – I was really expecting it to be very salty.  The Diet Coke tasted like watered-down global domination.

Combo #3T

All in all, it was an excellent meal and a huge portion to boot.  It ran me exactly $80HKD or just shy of $12 CDN, which I think is very reasonable…especially considering this is at an airport.

My flight leaves at 3:05am local time so I still have 4 hours to go.  I should land around 5 or 6am at Pearson Airport in Toronto and I expect to clear customs and have my luggage about an hour later.  It will be fantastic to see the family, and amusing for them to watch me try and stay up all day to beat the jet lag, I’m sure.

See you back in Canada.  Large double-double with sweetner…here I come <grin>.

Visit to MM Univeristy

Sean Yo's blog - May 7th, 2009 12:39 AM

Yesterday I had the amazing opportunity to visit the Universitas Muhamadiyah Malang (MMU), the largest university in East Java.  I was invited by Prof. Soeparto, the head of the International Studies department, and a friend of my Uncle An.  After my teaching was finished, MMU sent a car to pick me up and take me to their beautiful campus.

I met with a visiting scholar from Sudan and his son, which was fascinating.  Our news coverage of Sudan is defined by Darfur and the conflict there.  It was enlightening to learn more about Sudan and very nice to be invited to visit his school, which is an International University.  I have to admit, if Indonesia is almost too hot for me, I might just melt away in Sudan. :)

I then had lunch with the MMU IT Staff – primarily their web development team and networking analysts.  They asked me to give a talk on web development strategies and provide an assessment of their new website.  It’s always hard to give this sort of advice, but with the added mixture of not being from Indonesia and the challenge of communicating in Second Languages, this was a difficult task.  However, the MMU staff were very gracious and I think they understood that I was humbly offering one perspective with the hopes that it could help them.

It was a lot of fun to talk shop, even if we did it in half-English and half-Indonesian.  It’s good to know that Geek is a universal language.  Once we started talking about JQuery and XHTML/CSS validation, I knew everything was going to be okay.  I used the University of Guelph website and the still-in-development Agapé Social Foundation website as examples to compare with the MMU website.

I also asked the MMU staff for some assistance with researching the best option for installing internet at the ASF.  They were very kind and immediately offered to help.  Here’s hoping this project moves forward soon.

After my meeting with the IT Staff, I was surprised with a visit with the University President (referred to as a Rector in Indonesia)!  He was very welcoming and shared stories about his time in Canada, including his time at University of Victoria in the early 90s.  I was given some wonderful gifts of a MMU tie and batik shirt.  I handed out pins from City of Guelph, Province of Ontario, Canada and U of G.  However, since the visit with the Rector was a surprise, I was all out of pins!  On the drive home I remembered that I actually did have 1 more pin…the U of G pin I was wearing <smile>.  So I asked the driver to wait (an impressive task considering I still haven’t figured out how to say “wait” in Indonesia :) and I wrote the Rector a short note and sent the letter and pin back as a gift.  Better late than never…<smile>.

All in all it was great to visit MMU and make some new connections.  There is something very special about working at a University, something about working to educate and make the world a better place that is very rewarding.  It is also something that is especially apparent when you meet with people who are pursuing the same mission…even if they are 15000 km away and speak a different language.

Many thanks to Prof. Soeparto and Om An for this incredible opportunity.  It is something I’ll never forget.  Here are some pictures of my visit:

For those of you wondering how I happened to have a shirt and tie packed and ready to wear on just such a visit, I must give credit to the fantastic training I received for Leave For Change.  I was told to alway bring a tie and always be ready to give a speech because international visitors are often invited to speak when abroad.  It was true in Nepal and it was true in Indonesia.  Thanks to Leave for Change for the great advice that is continuing to pay off. <smile>

Field Trip!

Sean Yo's blog - May 6th, 2009 9:14 PM

I’ve wrapped up the classroom teaching at Agapé.  It has been a fantastic experience.  It went very smoothly – of course there were the required technical glitches, but it wouldn’t be IT Training if everything worked the first time <grin>.

As part of setting up the new website for the ASF, I have also set up their site with Google Apps which will give them access to GMail, GCal and GDocs all with their Agapé email accounts.  It’s a great package for communication and collaboration and it’s free, which makes it just about perfect for a non-profit like the Agapé Social Foundation.

However, since there is currently no Internet at the ASF office, I can’t train them on how to use Google Apps there, where I have done the rest of the training.  So, today we’re off to an Internet Café and we’re all going to take a test drive of GMail and the rest of the GApps tools.

Hrm…maybe I should have got permission waivers from their parents.  <grin>.  Well, it’s the Internet…I mean…how much trouble can they get in?

Wrapping Up

Sean Yo's blog - May 5th, 2009 9:24 PM

Today is my second last day teaching. I’ll be showing the Agapé staff how to use WordPress as a Content Management System to run a website. After class I will be visiting a local university to meeting with their web development team and Networking Services group to provide some advice and share my experience at a Canadian University IT department.

Yesterday afternoon and later this afternoon I am meeting with past participants of the Agapé programs to put together some Success Stories and photos for the new Agapé website.

Busy, busy, busy! And I’m off to hop in the shower and get ready.