Busy

Written 1/5/2013

Happy New Year ya’ll! Busy has been the name of the game here in Malawi these last few months. Since the last time I wrote, a lot has happened!

For starters, I have completed my first term of teaching! The term went rather smoothly, though I continue to face many challenges in the classroom. There are just so many students in each class but what is more difficult is that their abilities vary greatly. I have some students that are grasping the material and doing well, and I have some students that can’t even understand the question being asked, let alone attempt to answer it. I have been trying to find a balance of getting all those behind on track while still moving forward to allow those excelling to progress through the material. Easier said than done. I have a few students coming to my house after school and asking me to “learn” them math and science. I am happy to help them, as their motivation and willingness to learn is very inspiring.

Motivation is a key factor in the Malawian school with both the students and the teachers. Some students hope to continue their education or get a decent job upon completion of secondary school. On the other hand, many students are very content with village life and will be satisfied getting married and farming for the the rest of their lives. These students come to school because it’s the ‘thing to do,’ because all of their friends go to school. It also means they don’t have to work in the fields or do other tiring chores during the day. These students do not work as hard as the others, which is frustrating at times. The best I can do is to make them aware that they CAN lead a different life if they choose to work hard. Of course, who am I to say that a steady job in the city is what they should aim for? That would be egocentric, and I am not here to force my opinions or my way of life upon them. The truth is that although village life has many struggles, they are happy the way they live. Even I will admit that life is comfortable in the village, for the most part. So I don’t tell my students how they should live out their lives, but try to show them that they have options, that there are other ways of living. Of course, they would have to work very hard in school, but they are certainly capable of that, given the fact that they work tirelessly outside of school.

Along with the topic of motivation, my fellow teachers can be even more frustrating than my students at times. I get along with all of them just fine; they are great people and have helped me immensely so far. They are actually quite competent, which is a good sign, but in order for them to be effective, they need to work on showing up on time, or showing up at all! Malawian time is simply terrible. I try to set an example and am ALWAYS punctual, and have noticed that their punctuality is slowly improving, too. Though it sounds like my school life is full of frustrations (which it is), things are improving, which is the reason why I was brought here after all.

At the end of the term, we had two weeks for term exams. Writing, administering and grading all the exams was a jolly good time though! (Not.) They took a while to write and even longer to grade. Grading them was an absolute nightmare. I had answers that were not remotely close to what the question was asking. I had answers that were completely incomprehensible. I had students that left multiple choice questions blank. (Ever heard of guessing?) I couldn’t believe it! What was even more shocking were the scores. I had a student get a 100% and I had a student get a 3%. I told you their abilities varied… We still have a lot of work to do, I know. Anyways, I finished grading them, all 350 of them, and then it was off to IST.

IST stands for in-service training. After the first three months of service, every group of PC volunteers reconvenes for a one week training. So all twenty members of the Education 2012 (two people have gone home so far) met in Lilongwe for training. For the most part, training was excruciating. Five eight-hour days of sitting and listening to a variety of different sessions about grant writing, teaching strategies, and a lot of PC admin stuff. Some of the sessions were pretty useful, but the best part was that we all got to spend a week at a nice hotel with buffet style meals, and it was great to see all my fellow volunteers. It was the first time out group had been all together since pre-service training (PST) in August, and we will most likely not be all together again until our mid-service training (MST) next August. We enjoyed each others’ company, and needless to say, there were many late nights that week. But the real fun was yet to come…

Since we all had a three week break between the school terms, it was time to vacation! But where to go… Where to go… The lake of course! I had been to the legendary Lake Malawi once before, but it was only for a brief couple of hours. It was time to step up my game and get lakeinated. About fourteen people from our Education group traveled to Nkotakhota, a boma on the central part of Lake Malawi. We rented a house on a very quite beach and relaxed like it was nobody’s business. The beach was beautiful and the water was so warm. We waded in the water for hours, putting ourselves at serious risk for shisto fibrosis, but we sure didn’t care! What’s a little chronic illness caused by infected snails when you’re having a grand ole time?! Besides, the Peace Corps medical staff has got our backs. Don’t roll your eyes at me; you would have been right there in the water with us. It was idyllic and we only got out of the water to stuff our faces with ungodly amounts of food. Wait, isn’t that what vacations are all about? It was the perfect way to spend Christmas- catching rays in paradise with my closest friends. These other volunteers have become my family here and I am so thankful to count on them for support. We’re all unique and adventurous in our own ways, which makes for a good and ridiculous time whenever we are together. We did a white elephant gift exchange and it was a great Christmas!

But it was time to get serious. So we packed up and headed to the well-known Cape Maclear for New Year’s. If you were to Google Lake Malawi, pictures from Cape Maclear are sure to litter the image results. Located at the very south of Lake Malawi, it has built a reputation of being one of the most beautiful parts of the lake. Not to mention, we heard that it was the place to be for NYE. We met up with a handful of other health and environment volunteers at a hotel on the beach called Malambe. Now, a hotel on the beach sounds pretty fancy, but don’t be fooled. We all opted to take the cheap route, paying a whopping three dollars a night to camp in tents on the hotel grounds. We were basically twenty feet from the water. It was great, because when we eventually stumbled back from the evening festivities, we didn’t give a fart where we were sleeping. NYE was a fun night. Just a twenty minute walk down the beach from our lodge was a nice hotel where the party was at. There were a lot of azungus there, and it was nice to dance and forget that we were abroad for a night. It felt like a club back home in the states. Cape Maclear was beautiful but also a little dirty. It has become a tourist attraction which has tainted its natural beauty. We did some snorkeling there and that was really cool. Seeing all the freshwater fish was magnificent. It put the crappy fish tank at every doctor’s office to shame, and Lake Malawi is probably where that fish came from. (Fact: Lake Malawi provides percent of the world’s freshwater aquarium fish.)

Needless to say, I made the most of my term break and the holiday season. I stayed in beautiful places with beautiful people, and that makes for a very happy Travis. However, I am ready and so thankful to be back home in my village. I miss my routine and am ready to get back to school. Back to the grind! Until next time!

Adjustment

Written 9/24/2012

So, who ever said I wasn’t smart? I have been living in Mpalale village for about a month now, and I am starting to get things all figured out. For starters, I have gotten very comfortable in my new house and have also settled into my new village and my new job. I am finally all unpacked, which should not have taken me so long, but hey at least it happened. I had a few furniture pieces made by the local carpenter and have added just a dash of my creative style to really make my new house feel like home. I love it! Also, I bought a paraffin stove which has been the best purchase I have made thus far. Now in the mornings, I can simply light the stove and it only takes thirty minutes to heat my bath water. It beats the hell out of waiting forty-five minutes to light charcoal in the mbowula. The mbowula and I are not friends. However, I am so very proud to announce that the chimbudzi [toilet] and I are now the bestest of friends. I never thought I would say this, but I do not miss toilets anymore. These days I love dropping my arse down low into lotus position and taking my daily dump. It’s nice and natural! I feel like I am at one with the earth, and my legs are going to be in great shape. Score!

My village has been wonderful, too. The villagers are so grateful to have a volunteer in their school, and have been extremely welcoming to me. Neighbors have been giving me all sorts of food and insist on having me over for dinners. As if anyone has to insist for me to take advantage of a free meal… Needless to say, I am very thankful to feel so accepted in the village. The teachers and students at school continue to be very good to me. They have helped me get into the swing of things, explaining to me how things get done in the school. The answer is that the students do everything. They take roll, collect and distribute homework, enforce rules and punishments, clean all of the facilities, forcefully remove the local basketcase when he drunkenly comes into the teacher’s lounge, run to the market to get lunch for the teachers, and even work on maintaining my house. Oh yes, being a teacher and living on school property has its advantages. As punishment, students perform manual labor on school property, which includes my house. So far, they have swept my dirt (I still do not know why Malawians do this), removed weeds, mopped the inside of my house, and even constructed a brick path from my backdoor to the toilet and bathing room so that I won’t have to walk through mud during the rainy season. I would feel bad if it didn’t mean much less work for me. And it’s high time they learn not to walk into a class (my class) twenty minutes late! Mr. Claddock is strict.

Additionally, I have become very busy as of late, so I have hired help. How American of me, I know. I decided that washing clothes by hand was just too awful, so I have a girl who comes and does my laundry once a week and helps me draw water every now and again. I also have a boy that has been coming to start a large garden in my backyard. I am growing many different kinds of fruits and vegetables now. Well, at least my garden boy is. These two individuals are godsends. They work really hard and happen to be students of mine. They have agreed to help me, and I have agreed to pay their school fees for the year. I feel like we both win, but especially me since their school fees are just over twenty dollars for the whole year. They are happy to help, though. They are two of my Form 3 students, which may fill you in on why I find myself suddenly a lot busier than the last time we chatted.

I have received the Form 3 students that have passed the required exam, so I suddenly went from teaching one class to teaching three. Additionally, due to a shortage in staff, I have agreed to take an extra class, bringing my total to four different subjects. I now teach Form 2 Life Skills, which I am actually pretty excited about. It includes some really nifty topics, like decision making and entering puberty. I teach about four to five periods per day. Although school is exhausting, I am enjoying it. It is a lot of work having so many students (around 250 total between the three forms I teach), and it takes a lot of time planning lessons. However, the school setting is relaxed and things seem to work out nicely. My students are… interesting. They are not short on character; that’s for sure. They love to laugh and make jokes, but they do work hard. Their ages range from twelve to twenty. They enjoy dancing, listening to gospel music, and playing netball and soccer. [Side note: Netball is the most popular female sport in Malawi and the Malawi Queens, the women’s national team, happens to be ranked fifth in the world. It is really quick-paced and fun to watch. Netball will be played in the 2016 Olympics in Brazil so GO MALAWI!] Okay back to my students! Due to a shortage in textbooks, they are expert note-takers, and their perfectly organized notes blow my mind. I am struggling to learn their names, which is understandable since there are so many of them, and half of the names are Chewa names. I have an easier time with the English names, such as Oliver, Gertrude, and Bertha. However, some of the English names really seem to stand out, such as Blessings, Precious, Brief and Lonely. (I have even met a few villagers named Marvelous and Poverty. Malawians are awesome.)

As difficult as it is for me to understand my students’ English, they struggle much more to understand my English. Their need for me to speak slowly, clearly and to pronounce each and every syllable/consonant sound has got me speaking like a complete idiot, even outside the classroom and even to my fellow Americans. My everyday speech sounds like I am talking to an old, senile Russian woman. On the plus side, I am not mumbling anymore. At least my students can understand about 75% of what I am saying, which is definitely an improvement.

I think that is all that is new with me for now. I enjoy my new home and am starting to feel like a member of the community, which is what it’s all about people! I continue to learn everyday. I often chuckle to myself about the mistakes I make but it’s the best thing to do. It’s a big part of the reason I am enjoying myself. I make myself laugh, the students make me laugh, the villagers make me laugh, the goats that walk into my house when I leave the door open for five seconds make me laugh. Well,I laugh after I scream and chase them out. I hope you are learning and laughing with me!

Site

Written 9/12/2012

A lot has happened since the last time I’ve written. I’ve been busy, alright?! Things have really picked up these last couple weeks. Last time I checked, I was still in homestay. Homestay ended a month ago, and I was sad to leave such a wonderful family, especially since all my meals were cooked for me. I really do miss that. (Sigh.) Anyways, we had our village appreciation shindig, and the ribbon dance was a total success! I had my doubts, but it was as flamboyant, ridiculous and awesome as we had hoped it would be. (We’re goons.)

The last night of homestay, I exchanged gifts with my family that night at dinner and was really touched by their modest gestures. I gave candy to the kids, a chitenje [cloth worn as a skirt] to my amayi and my sister, and a mbowula [charcoal stove] to my abambo, because he is always cold. They gave me a polo that they bought secondhand at the market (that reads ‘Kennedy High Wrestling’), because I always wear polos. They also gave me a cup and a plate. They are the greatest! I really do miss them; the goodbyes were hard. The day after, I packed up all my belongings and headed back to the training site for the final few days of training. On August 29th, my fellow trainees and I completed our Pre-Service Training program and swore in as official volunteers! EXCITING STUFF! The ceremony was at the U.S. Ambassador’s house, and it was a really nice ceremony and had delicious snacks! We gave a speech in the respective languages we studied (Chichewa, Chitimbuka and  Chilambya according to which region you were assigned to) as well as a speech in English, which I gave. They said that they believe we are ready to set out on our own. I hope they’re right…

I bet you’re not as anxious to find out where I am living as I was waiting to find out. I mean Peace Corps knew all along but refused to tell us until the very last minute. The wait was painful and seemed to build everyday. (Are you feeling it yet?) The way in which they told us was pretty sweet, though. They used ufa [maize flour] like chalk and drew out a huge map of Malawi on the grass at our training site. Then, one by one, they led us out from a classroom in blindfolds and placed us on the map where our sites would be. We were then told to remove the blindfolds to find out where in Malawi we would be (and equally important, what volunteers and major city was closest to us). I removed my blindfold and lo and behold, I wasn’t going too far!

Welcome to Mpalale Village, folks!
Location: In the Dedza District of Malawi, 6km from a paved road, 15km from the nearest town, 80km from Malawi’s capital, and 50km from Lake Malawi
Population: Approximately 4000 people
White Population: Me
Elevation: No clue.
Climate: Idyllic! As it is higher in elevation than most of the country, it has a mild highland climate, warm by day and chilly at night.
Attractions: Just next door to the Malawi College of Forestry and the Chongoni Forest Reserve, Mpalale is near to hundreds of some of the oldest rock paintings in the world, making them World Heritage Sites. The reserve also offers a variety of highland wildlife, such as baboons, leopard monkeys and samango monkeys. Lastly, surrounded by hills and mountains it is every backpacker’s dream, great for day hikes and breath-taking views of the terrain.
Culture: Mpalale is said to be a very traditional Malawian village. I think what they mean by that is that there’s no electricity. But also, the culture is very rich in this small village. It is well known for its variety of traditional dances, namely the gule wamkulu. The gule wamkulu is said to be one of the oldest and most prized representations of the ancient cultures of Malawi. It is a secret society, so nobody is supposed to know who is in it. They perform traditional dances in costumes that mask the identity of the performer. The costumes are elaborate (aka- scary) and the idea behind it is that the audience is not supposed to know if they are watching a man, woman, or even an animal dance. According to the villagers, it is an anti-Christian society consisting of drunken and uneducated individuals, but according to me, it’s pretty entertaining and a pretty good time.
Places to Eat and Shop: Well, the village is tiny and so vendors come once every week to the village market. Fridays are our market day and the market is severely limited, providing only a select few vegetables and household necessities. You can find some delicious chipisi [french fries] or freshly made mandasi [doughnuts], though! Apart from that, one must go to the closest boma [town] to find most items they need. That boma is Dedza and is 15km away.
Places to Stay: My new gorgeous house, of course! You are welcome ANYTIME to my luxurious three bedroom palace. With large windows, high ceilings and a tin roof, it features a spacious living room, a dining room, and a kitchen and store room. The backyard is fenced in and complete with an outdoor kitchen, bafa [bathing room], and a chimbudzj [toilet]. Located smack in the middle of the village, it is right in front of the bore hole and next door to the primary and secondary schools.

If you couldn’t tell, I’m a big fan of lists. The following is a list of things that I have found challenging about living alone in a tiny village in the bush:

1.) Starting a fire. It sounds so easy! It’s not, and the other new volunteers are encountering similar problems. I cook on a mbowula [charcoal stove], and the charcoal is proving very difficult to light. I’ve tried a variety of different methods- wood, paraffin, paper, one time I even tried frying an egg over a candle. Despite my creative efforts, it takes a whole hour sometimes for the mbowula to be ready to cook over. It doesn’t sound like such a big deal until I remind you that running water does not exist. So for the last couple weeks, I’ve been taking colds baths because it takes me an hour to start a fire and another hour to heat my water. And if you know me, I am certainly not a morning person, either. Fortunately, I’ve gotten used to these freezing morning showers.

2.) Cooking. I never realized how helpless I was when it came to cooking. Of course, the challenge of cooking over a fire does not help, but my culinary abilities are definitely improving. My first couple attempts at rice were outright pathetic. The first time, I ended up with porridge and the second time, I ended up with half-cooked rice. Obviously, I ate them anyways. However, I am officially an expert at whipping up a gourmet peanut butter and jelly.

3.) Fetching water. Okay, it’s really not SO challenging because the borehole is right in front of my house. However, it has made me aware of how much water I use daily and consequently, I’ve become very conservative when it comes to water use. I’d say I have to fill and carry about three to four large buckets of water per day. I shouldn’t complain; my arms get quite the workout. However, the women in this village put me to shame, carrying tubs the size of small jacuzzis right on their heads. All in a day, right?

4.) Transportation. Malawi’s terrain is kicking my butt. Everything in the village is close to me, but everything else is not. Peace Corps gives us a bike to get around, and I am involuntarily becoming an avid cyclist. The closest store to me is about fifteen kilometers away, and the only way for me to get there is to cycle the hilly dirt road the whole way. I’ve done it once and it went okay, but the trip back with all the crap I had bought was slightly horrible. I’ll get better at it, no doubt. I have to cycle six kilometers the other way to get to the paved road to go anywhere else in the country. And may I add how pleasurable it is to experience a Malawian mini-bus ride? With four rows of seats, the drivers are convinced that at least twenty-five grown adults can comfortably squeeze in. Don’t forget the kathundu [stuff] and livestock that these individuals may have bought at the market that day… Fun stuff.

5.) Time alone. Of course, I came to Malawi with the understanding that I would be spending a lot of time by myself. However, after living with a Malawian family and/or twenty-one other trainees for the previous ten weeks, it has been an adjustment having so much time alone. Thankfully, everyday chores such as cooking, washing my clothes, washing dishes, keeping my house clean, getting water, etc. take longer than you would think and help to keep me busy. Also, I have a Kindle now that has become my new best friend. I would estimate that I have read close to ten books in the last three weeks alone; it’s great. Lastly, I spend some time writing this boring blog and responding to all my fan mail. I LOVE getting letters, so thank you to all that have sent some! I am writing back!

Despite my complaining, these challenges are my favorite part of village life thus far. It makes everyday interesting, that is for sure. I feel like I am growing up a little bit. I’m still deciding if that is a good or bad thing. Can’t I just stay young forever?! Thankfully, I’ve had a lot of time this last couple weeks to adjust to these challenges. I have an extremely light load at school temporarily, which brings me to my next topic, the reason I have come to Malawi in the first place.

Teaching! This may prove to be the biggest challenge of all. Before I tell you about my school, the students, etc., I must share some information about how the education system works here in Malawi. First, students must complete primary school. This consists of Standards 1 through 8 and is equivalent to our 1st through 8th Grade system. Students must pass an exam at the end of Standard 8 to be admitted into secondary school. It might take several attempts and years of repeating standards to pass this exam. Secondary school is equivalent to our high school system and consists of Forms 1 through 4 (freshmen through senior year, basically). After Form 2, all students take the Junior Certificate Examination (JCE) that they must pass in order to be admitted to Form 3. If they fail, they can repeat Form 2 and take the exam again, which many students do. After completing Form 4, students take the Malawi Schools Certificate Examination (MSCE), which is a very important exam. It determines if they are qualified to go to a university or it may qualify them for various employment opportunities. If they fail, they can repeat Form 4 and take it again. For both of the major exams (the JCE and the MSCE), some students fail and do not take them again, opting instead for the typical and poor village life of marrying and farming. The students are bright, but all of their learning and the exams are carried out in English, their second language. Additionally, their instructors are also teaching in a second language, so things are a bit more complicated for these students. Factor in an extreme shortage of resources, materials and qualified instructors, and you have a recipe for disaster. Enter Peace Corps for some assistance.

My school is called Mpalale Community Secondary School, and it has about 350 students and ten members of staff. There are very few textbooks, no laboratory, and no lab equipment. Students walk from neighboring villages as far as six kilometers away to come to this school. They learn many subjects- the usuals such as math, English, biology, social studies, etc., but also Chichewa, agriculture, and Bible knowledge. I have been given three classes to teach- Form 1 Physical Science, Form 3 Biology and Form 3 Math. As described above, students entering Form 1 and Form 3 must pass their respective exams to be admitted. Malawi is a bit behind in grading these exams (a common trend), so although school has been in session for two weeks, I have only taught Form 1 Physical Science for a week now. The Standard 8 Exam results just came out a week ago. The JCE results are still not out, so I do not have a Form 3 class yet. (This is why my workload has been so light as of late.) Like I said, I have had the Form 1’s for a week now and all I can say is “Holy cow!” (In my head, I used a different, more profane expression with a similar meaning. Sorry Mom.) First of all, I have 100 students in my Form 1 class. You read that correctly, 100 students! And they are crazy! We have started very slowly with very basic material. I’ve been abnormally cautious about speaking verrrrrrrrry slowly and enunciating every last syllable, but they stare at me with their jaws hanging wide open as if I am speaking some alien language they have never heard before. I ask if they understand and they say, “Yes sir.” They don’t. They’re definitely not accustomed to hearing an American accent, so hopefully they will catch on quick. They are fun though. They were really shy and hesitant to answer any of my questions, until I busted out the masawitis [sweets] from my pocket. These suckers will do anything for candy. Now when I ask a question, I am overwhelmed with hands shooting up in the air snapping at me. “Sir! Ooh ooh I know! Sir!” It’s nice that they are participating, and I like being called sir, but only in the classroom. I’d rather not be an adult outside of the class, thanks. I’ll save that for later! They call me sir and/or Mr. Craddock, pronounced like Claddock. In Chichewa, L and R sounds are completely interchangeable, which, for example, has led to me receiving notes from my teachers that read as follows: “Please remember to rock the Form 3 classroom.” True story.  Oh, I’ll rock it alright!

Like I said, my course load has been light because I am only teaching one class to the Form 1’s, but I should have more students any day now! It has been a blessing having some time to adjust to living in the village and living alone. Everyday has its ups and downs, but the good times easily outweigh the hard times. I get more and more comfortable each day. I am very lucky to have such a nice house and a welcoming village. Additionally, the school and its staff has been very accepting of me, and it has made other things easier for me! I am still enjoying this challenge and still missing all of you back home! I hope to hear from you soon!

Homestay

Written 8/5/2012

I am writing this from a small hut (true story) in a village called Katsekaminga, located in the Dedza district of Malawi. For the past five weeks, I’ve been living with a typical Malawian family in their home. The homestay aspect of our training is something unique to Peace Corps. Of the many other volunteer organizations from all over the world here in Malawi, Peace Corps is the only one that allows (requires) volunteers to learn the language and the culture by becoming a part of a Malawian family. It has definitely been quite an eye-opening experience and will certainly be a highlight of my time here in the warm heart of Africa.

A month and a half in Malawi and it still feels like I’m living in a dream, like I could suddenly awake any moment back in my parents’ house in Arizona (Dear God!, please don’t let that happen!). Instead, I wake up every morning in a small room made of white-washed mud with a thatched roof of straw. It’s the middle of winter and suspiciously cold (for Africa, at least), but still every morning I yank my mosquito net out from underneath my mattress and greet the day with my best ‘carpe diem’ attitude. Everyday the sun shimmies out from behind the empty maize fields and invigorates the dark continent and myself with hope and excitement. I’m living in the freaking bush for crying out loud! My amayi [mother] is already awake, of course. She’s probably been awake since 3AM working in our compound, sweeping the dirt, preparing breakfast, doing laundry and who knows what else. Her name is Anne, and she’s truly one of the most remarkable women I’ve ever known. She’s sixty-three years old (that’s old in Malawi), average in height, but extremely fit and thin. And why wouldn’t she be?, considering she does more physical activity in a single day than I do in a whole year. She works nonstop from the time she gets up until she goes to bed around 9PM. Her steady arms lift large buckets of water onto her head several times a day to carry back to our home. Her callused hands remove pots straight off the fire and can pick up brightly-lit, orange coals. Unbelievable, really.

My private abode is part of a very typical Malawian family’s compound. A straw fence separates our living space from the rest of the condensed village. Inside, there are five individual mud brick structures, homes to different members of the family. My amayi and abambo [father] sleep in the largest, which is just big enough to fit their bed and a common eating area. It’s quaint, but not too bad since they spend the majority of their day outside, anyways. The real common area is the bare earth and the open air that connects our rooms, where I can find all my family members during the day cooking, doing laundry, or grinding the endless amount of maize they’ve harvested into flour. My room is closest to theirs and just a tad smaller in size. Inside, I have a twin size bed, a chair and a table that I can do work on and holds my water filter.

I roll out of bed everyday around 5 AM. Okay, it’s closer to 6AM these days, but that is still pretty early for Travis. My amayi has my hot bath water waiting for me in the bafa [bathing room] and breakfast already on the table. God bless her. I take my glorious bucket bath and then head to the table for some breakfast. Breakfast usually consists of three egg sandwiches (one just doesn’t cut it), French toast (bread doused in egg, but more oil than egg), porridge (also known as overcooked rice with sugar), sweet potatoes, or my personal favorite- mandasi (homemade doughnuts mmmm). Of course, breakfast would be incomplete without my daily banana and cup of tea. By 7:30AM, I have begun my daily waddle to class for our training. Morning lessons go from 8AM to 12PM, when we break for lunch. Like clockwork, my amayi already has lunch on the table. The rest of the family is up now and I am always happy to see and greet them. My abambo is named Bonifus (I have NO IDEA how to spell it, but that’s what it sounds like). He is sixty years old and very thin, obviously. For a couple weeks, I actually thought he was taller than me, but one day, standing next to him, I realized that was just an allusion because he’s so lanky and that I am taller than him by a couple inches. He speaks some English and acts as a telephone when my amayi goes off about something in ridiculously fast Chichewa, of which I understand absolutely nothing. Bonifus is quite the social butterfly. He can be found chatting it up with the neighbors or vendors in the market about who knows what, probably maize, religion or Barack Obama. It must be nice having no chores or responsibilities because the women do all the work. Oh wait, I too don’t have lift a single finger. Moving on…

Lunch usually consists of rice, mashed potatoes, or nsima with a vegetable relish (steamed cabbage or mustard leaves with tomatoes and onions) and some form of protein (beef, chicken, soy pieces or an egg). I actually don’t mind the food except for the fact that variety is nonexistent. However, I can’t bring up Malawian food without taking a couple moments to talk about the staple food- nsima. At first I hated it, but now I find myself craving it every once in a while. Malawians LOVE it. They cannot get enough of it, which is good because they eat it twice a day everyday. In regards to nutritional value, they would be better off eating cardboard, but I think cardboard would be more expensive than nsima. It consists of maize flour (cornmeal) and water. This flour, however, is ground from maize and then taken to a mill where they bleach it and strip all nutrients from it. Apparently, the ufa [flour] lasts longer when it is processed, and they prefer the taste of the processed flour (processed food- not JUST an American pastime, apparently). The reason they eat nsima is because it makes them feel full and takes quite some time to digest. (Insert story about how I didn’t poop for my first couple weeks of homestay.) They grow the maize themselves so it’s very inexpensive and can feed a family for the year, or almost the whole year. The couple months before the annual maize harvest is when many Malawians run out of food and money and suffer from hunger. Lastly, nsima is eaten traditionally by hand, but be careful, because it tends to be unreasonably hot and can be extremely dangerous to the unknowing foreigner (me). Ouch.

I eat lunch everyday with their youngest child. Her name is Dalitso and she is nineteen. She says she goes to school but I have yet to see any evidence of that. I just recently heard through the grape vine (the village rumor mill in Malawi could rival that of any season of the Trashy Housewives of Who-Cares-Where) that she is pregnant and that she may or may not be carrying the child of a married man. Talk about a scandal! (Stay in school kids!) Anyways, we chat, listen to music (Beyonce, Akon or Michael Jackson usually) and play cards after we eat lunch. Needless to say, we are best friends. She has one older brother named Francis. He doesn’t know how old he is (a common trend here in Malawi), but amayi looked it up for me and has informed me that he is twenty-one. He is going to school to be a pastor, and his favorite thing to say is, “That’s powerful.” It’s quite entertaining when he uses this expression in response to me saying things like, “I’m fine, thanks” or “Training was boring today.” It gets me every time. It’s quite… powerful, really.

The oldest is named Doris. She is twenty-six and is married with three kids. I can’t remember her husband’s name for the life of me but their kids are a hoot and a half. Genie is the oldest. She is eight and has a mind of her own, which has resulted in multiple LOUD episodes of corporal punishment in the Jameni household. I like her. I especially liked when she hid under my amayi and abambo’s bed during dinner one night to avoid being spanked. This resulted in some quality, heart rate-increasing dinner entertainment when she was forcefully dragged out by my amayi and Dalitso. Of course, Genie isn’t one to go out quietly. In her efforts to hold onto anything and everything to avoid being taken outside, she knocked over multiple chairs and bookshelves and nearly removed the door from its hinges. The room looked like a tornado had taken its sweet time as it skipped through. After the dramatic episode, when the family was reassembling the room, my amayi said something in Chichewa that I obviously didn’t understand but made the whole family laugh. Thankfully, Dalitso translated, “Genie- she’s very powerful.” Yeah she is, and a bit of a BAMF, too! Owen is next and he is six and missing many teeth currently. He’s quiet and polite. That’s all I have to say about him. The last born is named Mphatso [gift] and he is four. He is crazy, loud, and always causing problems according to Dalitso. I like him, too. He’s afraid of me, except when I give him candy. Owen and Mphatso can be found at anytime of the day running around with all the other barefooted kids in the village playing with fire and/or giant machetes without any adult supervision. No, I am not joking. In fact, I am sincerely envious of this kind of hands-off parenting and free for all upbringing that these kids have.

Next to my room, two of the family’s cousins stay. I know absolutely nothing about them except that they work at a gravel yard or something and enjoy the occasional beer (or twenty) on the weekends. We exchange hello’s when one of them stumbles by. Also, until just recently, I thought the two men were the same person. (Oops.) The last family member that lives in our compound is my amayi and abambo’s oldest grandchild. Her name is Takondwa. Her parents died some time ago so Doris is her adoptive mother. My amayi and amambo had eight children at some point, but the oldest five have died (tuberculosis, car accident, home-building accident, and a couple of unknown causes of death). Takondwa is thirteen and goes to school. My amayi and abambo also have three grandchildren from a deceased son, who live with their mother in Mozambique. I met them, and the youngest cried uncontrollably at the sight of an azungu [white person]. The mother insisted on shoving the child right up to my face which did not help the cause. Equally important to note, my family has a about fifteen chickens and a really fat pig. We’re all just one big happy family!

Anyways, I think I lost my train of thought. After lunch, I go back to training from 1:30 until 5PM. Dinner is sharply at 6 and is no different than the lunch menu. Dinner is followed by some mild kucheza [chat] about my life in America, my day at school, or Barack Obama. Did I mention that they love Barack here in Malawi? The whole world does, which is a nice change of pace from when the whole world hated us, and by us, I mean President Bush. After dinner, I go to my room and read until it’s very, very late and I can’t keep my eyes open for another second. This usually happens around 8PM, sometimes 7:30 PM. When the hell did I get like this? Welcome to Africa. When the sun goes down and you have no lights in your living space, you just go to sleep. Besides, with training Monday through Saturday and church on Sunday, I have to be up early everyday.

Now, please allow me to divulge the interested reader (you are interested, right?) with a few more of my favorite experiences from homestay:

1.) The first thirty minutes of my homestay was quite interesting. My amayi set out a chair for me to sit on in the middle of the compound. One girl starting pointing to random objects and telling me the words in Chichewa. Tree, house, chair, etc. Seconds later, without warning, I was swarmed by fifty little kids that were staring at me and hysterically laughing for no reason at all. I thought maybe I had a booger hanging out, but my nose seemed to be in check as usual. It was quite overwhelming because for a while I thought all of these kids were a part of my family and I was beginning to reconsider what I had just gotten myself into. I wanted to live in a Malawian household, not a Malawian Chuck E. Cheese. And they were slowly moving in even closer on me. Every single one of them was pushing themselves up against me (zero personal space) just laughing uncontrollably. One little boy began petting my arm hairs; he sure did like that. I had no idea what to do, so I just sat there for twenty minutes and laughed with them. Until they ran off to go play with knives and the like. Malawian children sure are intriguing.

2.) I did my laundry once. This resulted in all kinds of laughter from all the family members as they sat back and enjoyed the afternoon flick, “White Man Does Wash”. They cleverly pointed out that I wasn’t doing it right, which I was already aware of seeing as that there was no electrical machine to do all the work for me. The climax of the film came when I had to take a break because my hands were nearly bleeding from scrubbing so hard. My amayi ran over, grabbed my hands, and said something to the equivalent of, “Oh my heavens! Look at these hands! Baby hands!” I have never seen Malawians laugh so hard. And that is the story of how I came to be known for weeks afterwards as “Baby hands”. This deserving title was later reinforced when I tried to explain to them that I couldn’t just grab a scalding hot pot from the fire like they could. I’ll work on it.

3.) One Sunday morning, I decided to tell my amayi that I wasn’t feeling so studly and that I would rather sleep in than go to church. She looked a little worried but I told her in my jumbled Chichewa that I was just tired. No big deal, right? Wrong. Ten minutes hadn’t passed before a member of the training staff was in my room asking if I was alright and insisting that I call the director of training immediately. Apparently, my amayi had ran (literally, full on sprinted) to tell him that I was sick in bed… with malaria. I should have known this would happen. Malawians consider all sicknesses to be malaria until proven otherwise, regardless of the symptoms. Soon, another staff member came to check on me too. My little game of hooky had turned into a full on fiesta in my bedroom. I should have just sucked it up and gone to church for Christ’s sake. Just when I thought my morning was a total bust, my amayi brought me breakfast and tea in bed. She’s the greatest. What am I going to do without her?

4.) We got out of language class early once. A few of my fellow trainees and I were feeling brave and decided it was high time we check out the bar scene up in this village. We were itching to try Chibuku, the Malawian beer that is made from fermented maize (duh), packaged in a milk carton, gritty in texture (from the maize) and served at room temperature. Who wouldn’t want to try that?! Anyways, we decided to head to the bar, making sure to take an alternative route so that we didn’t have to walk by our homes and tell our families. We were on a top secret mission, and it felt so good to be bad! We got to the bar and ordered our beverages. They were absolutely disgusting but we sure didn’t care! We hadn’t drank half of our crumby beers when one of our training staff members walked right up to us out of nowhere. How did he know we were here?! Nobody knew we were here! He was cool about it and said that he was just checking in on us. He left and we continued drinking the alcohol-infused, liquid nsima. All was good again. Not two minutes went by before someone pointed and said, “Hey, that’s somebody’s amayi!” Snap! Indeed, it was. How did she know we were here?! Megan cursed under her breath and quickly passed off her beer to me. (It’s socially unacceptable for women to be seen drinking, let alone be seen at a bar.) She quickly collected Megan and ushered her home like she was a misbehaving teenager at a party where she shouldn’t have been. Did that just really happen? It was actually pretty funny at the time, but probably not for Megan. It was about thirty minutes till sundown, so we decided to head home. We got about halfway to our homes when we turned the corner to find nearly all of our amayi’s heading our way. THEY KNEW! How could they possibly know?! My amayi ran right up to me and screamed, “Where are you coming from?!” I panicked and muttered, “Uhhh, the bar…” Thankfully she was laughing as she scolded me and told me to go home! My amayi could never be mad at me. She explained to me later that night that I shouldn’t go to bars unless I feel like getting stabbed once or thrice times. The point is that we went from having nobody know we were drinking corn on the rocks at a bar to having everyone in the whole dang village know in a matter of minutes. Ladies and gentlemen, please allow me to introduce you to the Malawian village rumor mill. We had just experienced it firsthand, and it’s serious.

5.) Another example of the rumor mill came when I found out that my sister was knocked up, as I mentioned earlier. I had noticed she was a bit fuller than most Malawian girls, but she had told me on day one when I asked if she was married, “No! I am schoolgirl.” I think we have very different understandings of what that expression means. Anyways, another azungu visited last week. She is a second year Peace Corps volunteer that lived with my homestay family the year before. I was shocked to see that Owen and Mphatso are brave enough to go anywhere near her, let alone let her hold them! They don’t come near me unless I have candy! However, I was more shocked when the first thing she said to me was, “Is Dalitso pregnant?” OMG what kind of question is that?! “Of course she’s not,” I said. But twenty minutes later, as we were gnawing on nsima and I was staring at her protruding belly, I realized that she was indeed impregnated. I have no idea how I didn’t notice before. It’s not like I could have asked her anyways. Asking about pregnancy is tabooed and considered extremely rude. But that’s a pathetic excuse; I just hadn’t freaking realized it. I couldn’t believe it. I went back to language class later that afternoon and broke the news to my fellow classmates and language instructor. My fellow trainees gave me the expected ‘NO WAY!’ response I was looking for. My language instructor, Agatha, had a more interesting response, “Oh yes, I heard about that.” WHAT?! You mean my own teacher knew about this and didn’t tell me?! She explained how she was just walking down the street one day and overheard a couple women talking about it, and she recognized the name of my sister. Just great. My teacher had found out by passing by a couple of gossiping amayi’s before me, the person that ate every meal of the day with prego. Rumor has it…

6.) We all have heard me whine about having to poop in a hole, but the truth is that after a few traumatizing experiences, I think I finally have the hang of it. The rule of thumb when it comes to the chimbudzi [toilet] is to always expect the unexpected. I learned this the hard way. One afternoon, I felt a deuce coming on so I grabbed a couple sheets of toilet paper and headed to the chim. I could tell it was going to be a nsima poop, solid and easy, and I was feeling confident about my chimnastics abilities. I was very much mistaken, and the few sheets of tissue I had grabbed was not even close to being enough. Now, I know normally I am quite shameless seeing as I am in the middle of sharing my most humiliating bowel movement-related story. However, at that particular moment in time, a wave of self-consciousness came over me, and I found myself too embarrassed to hike up my pants and walk all the way back to my room to get the whole tissue roll just to come back and finish the job. Additionally, if I had indeed just hiked up my pants, I would have been left with a crap stain on my underwear the size of Mount Kilimanjaro. So I improvised and did something much less embarrassing. I took out my pocket knife, cut off my underwear, wiped my cracker with them, and tossed it down the chim like any other quick-thinking, sane person would have done. Thinking about it now, I don’t remember why I thought that was a good idea, but I stand by it! My willingness to make a complete arse of myself and my ability to laugh about it afterwards is part of the reason that I will surely survive here in Malawi. However, although a good pair of undies went to waste that day, a very important rule was reinforced as I watched my stanky boxer briefs flutter to the bottom of the chim. It’s said to be the number one rule of Peace Corps worldwide: Always carry two things with you at all times- (1) toilet paper, and (2) a book, in case you run out of toilet paper. Lesson learned.

7.) This experience isn’t related to homestay per se but it took place during this time frame. I shook Hillary Clinton’s hand, NO BIG DEAL. The U,S. Secretary of State was in the middle of a whirlwind tour of Africa and stopped by to personally thank all the American organizations giving aid to Malawi. She specifically thanked the Peace Corps, adding that she always enjoys meeting the young and energetic individuals that serve as volunteers. She was very well-spoken, and it was special to be recognized by someone of such importance. She also made a guest appearance at a camp for girls that Peace Corps puts on called Camp GLOW (Girls Leading Our World). Could you imagine a better living example to speak at a camp promoting women’s empowerment?! Yeah I know, but Oprah was probably really busy.

8.) One more! This one is short, I promise! Peace Corps is organizing a village appreciation party to thank the villages for hosting us and have asked the trainees to perform a little number for the event. Now, you would think that we would take this opportunity to perform a traditional American dance (you know, like the always sophisticated YMCA or the electric slide) or to share some sort of cultural aspect of America with our villages, but we decided to do them one better! We are going to give them a performance to remember, something they have never seen and will never see again in their lives… a ribbon dance. That’s right! As we speak, we are putting together an extremely complex routine where we prance around and twirl ribbons. And you just know we’re going all out. It should be quite interesting. I’ll let you know how it goes.

So yeah, this is what my life has been like the last five weeks, not too shabby but certainly all sorts of interesting. Homestay ends a week from today and I will really miss my family. They have taken great care of me and treated me like their own son. Actually, they treat me better than their own son. Pretty powerful. Soon we will be finding out the schools we will be teaching at and where in the country we will be living for the next two years. The story is still just beginning. That’s right people, great things are still to come! Stay tuned!

Training

Written 6/26/2012

I have been in Malawi for less than a week, and my mind is completely exhausted from taking it all in. I had been such a lazy turd for so long, my mind is thrilled to feel so alive and useful. So here’s how things went down…

Our long journey to Malawi (oh man, it was so long) finally came to an end as we touched down in the capital, Lilongwe. Upon our arrival, the other trainees and I looked like someone had beat us like a piñata at a five-year-old’s birthday party, and we are thankful to not have to make that trip again for another two years. We were greeted by some Peace Corps staff and a few current volunteers with signs that read “Welcome to Malawi” and “Welcome Education 2012”. It did make us feel really welcome and was exciting to see as we taxied into the tiny airport. That’s when it hit me, OMG I’M IN MALAWI! I’M IN AFRICA! (Insert sudden, loud use of profane language here.) There wasn’t time to relish in this epiphany though. We scurried to round up our belongings, pose for a welcome photo (I cannot emphasize how good we all looked after traveling for more than thirty hours), and sardined ourselves into a mini-bus to head to our training site.

Our training site is at the Dedza College of Forestry and Wildlife and is located about an hour from the capital. This is where all the magic happens. Here we have very informative (agonizing) language and technical lessons from 8AM to 5PM Monday through Friday. Thankfully, it is broken up by multiple tea breaks; Malawians are very serious about their tea. In our training, we have language instruction, medical sessions (about malaria, diarrhea, and other fun health-related stuff), and sessions about Peace Corps policies, etc. We will dive into more education-related material eventually, but for now it is a lot of administrative business. For instance, I learned that our medical insurance does not cover bungee jumping related accidents and that we’re advised not to swim in Lake Malawi so as not to contract schistofibrosis (sp?). Of course, Peace Corps volunteers partake in both of the aforementioned activities. We wouldn’t be here if we didn’t have that ‘act before thinking’, free-willing kind of spirit, now would we?

I am thankful not to have to go through this intensive training alone. There are twenty-two of us, and we are all huge freaks. I mean that in a positive way, of course. When you take into account the fact that we have voluntarily taken a hiatus from our lives of luxury in the States to teach hyperactive teenagers and poop in a hole for two years, you know there’s got to be something a little off with all of us. It goes without saying that each one of us is a special case; it’s what brings us together. Getting to know the other trainees has been quite a treat. Because we’re all unique, adventurous and borderline insane, we get along very well and enjoy each other’s company. It’s a good thing, too, because they’re the only friends I’ve got here. We are learning to confide in and support each other, something we will be doing a lot of for the next two years. I can tell that we are all going to be good friends.

Apart from learning the Chichewa language, we are also learning much about the Malawian culture. It’s a good thing, too, because we are trying NOT to offend people during our stay here. Important things I have learned include the following:

1.) Private parts extend from the chest to the knees. Women wrap a chitenje [large piece of cloth] around their waste to ensure that their knees are properly covered. Don’t want to come off as a hule [you can probably guess the meaning of this word]. The exception to the chest to knees rule comes when a woman needs to breastfeed, in which case women feel free to pop their boob out anytime, maybe even in public, maybe even mid-conversation with a stranger. Women never wear pants, but rather long skirts. Men also always wear pants because shorts are for boys, apparently. Let me tell you how much I am going to love wearing long pants when it’s 100 plus degrees outside and humid as all get out. I’ll worry about that later.
2.) It is incredibly rude to smell food before you eat it. This indicates that it smells bad. Also, you must leave a little bit of food on your plate when you are finished eating so that the people feeding you know that you have eaten enough. Clearing your plate indicates that you are not full.
3.) Greetings are serious in Malawi. To not greet someone you walk by in the village is to ignore their existence. They will go home wondering what they did to offend you. Consequently, greetings are recited at least a thousand times each day.
4.) Time is fluid in Malawi. You might agree to meet with someone at a certain time, and they might show up two or three hours late. Church may be scheduled to start at 8AM but by the time the village folks have moseyed their way over, stopping to greet a hundred people on the way, church will probably commence around 9AM. Thankfully, Americans are super patient and understanding when it comes to waiting for someone who is hours late… not.
5.) Dogs. The dogs are wild here in Malawi and are associated with rabies, which is associated with death. Therefore, Malawians treat dogs like flies and are quick to swat them and/or throw large rocks at them. I’m not really sure how to mentally prepare myself for the first time I witness this kind of canine abuse, but it apparently will be something regularly seen in the village. I can’t wait to see the look on their faces when I explain to them that stateside dogs are like part of the family. As if they don’t think I am crazy already.
6.) Do not hang your undergarments out to dry in plain view. Ultra-conservative country. Self-explanatory.
7.) Witchcraft, it’s real people! Well, at least in the villages it is believed to be real. People will pay money to visit a witch doctor to try and solve a problem they might be having. They’ll blame unexplained occurrences as being a result of the witch that lives next door that is obviously casting terrible misfortunes upon them. They may even decide to burn this witch’s house down. Conspiracy and chaos can ensue from such accusations and rumors, but it sure keeps everyone on their toes.
8.) Lastly, our training staff has prepared us to feel like a total spectacle, which we are here in Malawi. Everything we do is weird, and even when we are acting culturally appropriate, they still think we are the bee’s knees and insist on being all up in our business. We stand out like a sore thumb so that definitely does not help the cause.

Below please find a list of activities that Malawians are sure to find quite odd:

1.) The fact that we may want time to ourselves is just bananas. They will ask why you are spending time alone in your room and wonder what’s wrong. You may want to read quietly outside, but Malawians will think something is wrong upon seeing you sitting by yourself. They’ll crowd around you and read over your shoulder, maybe even grab the book from your hands to see what all the fuss is about.
2.) The concept of exercise for the sake of health and fitness is absolutely outrageous to Malawians. Why would you waste that kind of energy? I would feel the same if my daily activities required as much physical labor as they do. Why WOULD I waste time and energy to climb a freaking mountain?! Fortunately, I support this sort of energy-conserving attitude. Lazies unite!
3.) They think it’s crazy that we are fascinated by the astounding view of the nighttime sky here on the dark continent, with its clearly visible milky way and an infinite amount of glistening stars. To them, the sky is just they sky; it has been there forever and always will be. Stop staring at it already, white man!
4.) It’s weird that we carry water around in a bottle. If a Malawian needs water, they just ask another villager for a drink, no problem. It’s a problem for us since we’re anal (no pun intended) about making sure our water is properly treated and filtered, so as to avoid the inescapable ‘oopsie poopsie’. Apparently, you are not a true Peace Corps volunteer until you’ve literally crapped in your pants. I’ll let you know when I have been officially initiated into this wonderful club. So far, so good.
5.) It is strange to everyone and their mom here in Malawi that us trainees are over twenty years old and are not yet married. People marry very young here and women in particular are thought to have an expiration date. Thanks, but I’ll save marriage for when I am truly desperate or forty years old.

I am positive that there are many other things that Malawians find interesting about us that I will discover upon relocating to my village or during homestay. Speaking of which, homestay is the next step in this crazy Peace Corps roller coaster. Soon we will pack a little bag and will be thrown into the shark’s tank that is a typical Malawian family, with which I will scarcely be able to communicate. Talk about awkward… I mean, what a great learning experience it will be! All that we have learned about Malawi’s culture up till this point has come via word of mouth from our expert trainers, but now we will have the opportunity to experience the culture for ourselves. We will learn WHILE we unknowingly offend them. Great. Actually, I am very excited for this part of our training. Nervous for damn sure, but excited! I have much to learn! Here goes nothing!

The 2012 Education Group of Malawi Peace Corps Volunteers

Our Wonderful Language Trainers

Afrika

Written 6/20/2012

The journey started nearly two years ago. Like many other twenty-something-year-olds in college, I found myself doubting my chosen career path and yearning for one last adventure before being forced to settle down. (9 to 5’s are sooo overrated.) Anyways, fueled by a memorable experience from my semester abroad in Spain and an affinity for language and learning about new cultures, the Peace Corps seemed like something I would be interested in. I really didn’t know much about it (not many people do), but the more I looked into it, the more I thought that it could be a good fit not only for me, but also for my professional career. Apart from loan deferment and full health and dental coverage (who doesn’t love that?!), the Peace Corps has some really nifty benefits. For example, there are scholarships for returned volunteers for a variety of masters programs, as well as uncompetitive eligibility for any US government job, meaning that if I meet the minimum requirements for that position, I automatically get it. I’d say it’s a double whammy- an unforgettable experience and a resume builder, not to mention that it also gives me time to decide what I want to do with my life… So I decided to apply.

Many people have asked me what the application process was like and how I ended up on this plane to Africa. Well hold onto your pearly whites, because I’m about to tell you! It was extensive to say the least, intentionally so, in order to weed out the uncommitted applicants. I guess the process couldn’t shake me though. First, I filled out a lengthy online Application (step 1), asking every little detail about me and requiring multiple essay responses, my job and volunteer histories, my school transcripts and two letters of recommendation. It took me about two weeks to turn in the completed application, but I guess I did a spectacular job fooling them (kidding, of course) because a week later I got a call from the local Peace Corps recruiter to schedule an Interview (step 2). Peace Corps recruiters interview qualified applicants and decide based on the application and the interview if they have what it takes to be a Peace Corps Volunteer. Many of the questions asked had to do with emotional maturity, such as one’s ability to cope with the stress that comes from living and spending much time alone and from feeling like an outsider in a foreign community. Basically, they’re trying to gauge whether or not you can make it for two years and just how flexible you are. I guess my killer charm and wit won that schmuck over too, because he called a week later to inform me that I had been nominated to teach science in Central/South America. (Hmm, that doesn’t make sense, I know. Just read on.) The Nomination (step 3) is an important step in the process because it means that one has been deemed a worthy candidate pending the next step- the Medical, Dental, and Legal Clearances (step 4). This step, however, proved to be the most detailed and lengthy. Essentially, Peace Corps must determine if the nominee is healthy enough to serve and it’s also the medical and dental histories that they keep on file if and when an applicant serves. It took me about five to six months (longer than most applicants) to turn in the completed information, just in time for some substantial budget cuts to the Peace Corps. Though I was expected to depart in September 2011 to serve, I was told that I would most likely have to wait until Summer 2012. Disappointing, but I wasn’t doing anything too interesting at the time. I’ll wait, duh! Additionally, due to budget cuts, programs subsided in some countries, hence why I didn’t end up in Central/South America. I guess it just wasn’t meant to be…

In November 2011, just when it seemed like being a volunteer was no longer in the cards, I received a call from the Peace Corps placement office asking for some final information. The call lasted over an hour, and I was very nervous, having been caught off guard. Much to my surprise, the woman at the other end of the line said she loved my energy and my ‘go with the flow’ attitude and that I should be expecting my Invitation (step 5) within the week. WHAT?! I was floored. After waiting so long, it was crazy that it was finally going to happen and so suddenly, too. I was elated to come home later that week with a thick blue packet waiting on my doorstep. The letter inside read, “Congratulations! It is with great pleasure that we invite you to begin training in Malawi for Peace Corps service.” My first thought? Where the hell is Malawi?! Before consulting my best friend Google, I had a feeling I knew exactly where it was- Africa. I took a day to ponder the offer and came to my decision: GAME ON AFRICA! With the understanding that I would be serving in one of the poorest countries in the world, I decided that if you’re going to do it, why not do it big? (I wasn’t looking to join the Posh Corps, after all.) I emailed Peace Corps my Acceptance (step 6) to serve in Malawi. My assignment will be teaching biology in a Malawian secondary school. Apparently, in Malawi all teaching is conducted in English but during training, I would learn Chichewa and much about the Malawian culture. Okay, I can do that! (I think.) I was to depart in June 2012, which meant that I had seven months to tie up loose ends in the States and prepare for my service. So naturally, I left it all to the last few weeks. (Many thanks to my friends and family who helped me with everything! Seriously.)

June 18th seemed to lollygag my way, but when the day finally arrived, I was ready, terrified but ready. The hardest part was getting on that plane from Tucson to Philadelphia. Leaving my home, friends and family was harder than I thought it would be, and I already miss you all! But off to Philly I went, where I met the twenty-one other volunteers that are in my training group. Our staging was only a day but it helped prepare us for our trip to Malawi. It was nice to meet the other volunteers and to know that we weren’t alone, that we were all in the same boat and we would have each other to lean on. We migrated to the JFK airport late at night and boarded the early morning plane to Johannesburg.

Now having sat here in this painfully uncomfortable seat for the last ten hours thinking things over, I still don’t know what to expect. I think it’s better to have no expectations, though. I’m just going with the flow! I’m certainly excited for what’s to come but scared, to the point that I think I could actually wet myself a little bit. (I won’t.) Insecurities emerge as I begin doubting myself and my ability to really ‘make a difference’. I think we all have doubts. All I know is that I’m incredibly humbled that the Peace Corps, my friends and my family believe that I have what it takes. I know I’m going to have to work hard, but I am up to this challenge. I think I will love this challenge. I feel like this is what I’m meant to do. And I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the love and support from my family and friends. You all inspire me and I am eternally grateful for all you have done and continue to do for me! I hope to make you all proud. In a matter of hours, I’ll be touching down on my new home for the next two years on one last crazy adventure. (Okay, who are we kidding? It probably won’t be the last…) Pray for me!

Tomorrow

“I, Travis Craddock, am accepting my invitation to serve as a Secondary Biology Teacher Peace Corps Volunteer in Malawi, departing June 18th, 2012.”       -11/04/2011

It is the night before my plane leaves, and still I find myself trying to fully understand the decision I made six months ago on that plain November day. You see, those words above embody a promise I have made- a twenty-seven month commitment to live and volunteer in a developing country as a member of the United States Peace Corps. Tomorrow, I board a plane to Malawi, Africa where I will begin my journey of fulfilling that commitment. Tomorrow, I step out into a new world with the opportunity to offer my knowledge and services to those in need, to learn about and become a part of a beautiful nation and its culture, and to proudly represent my friends, my family, my country and myself in doing so. Tomorrow, my life changes.