Posts Tagged ‘Malawi’

Move on? Resist? What’s the Plan? 2017

February 24, 2017
Me (Robyn) at Vic Falls

Me (Robyn) at Vic Falls

When I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Malawi, in 1992,  the country was  undergoing a big shift. There had been a president, who had named himself  life president, and had served, at that time, 26 years:  Hastings ‘Kamuzu’ Banda.  He was s dictator:   he terrorized the country.  He was supported by the Europeans & the USA because he was NOT a communist, and  he  supported apartheid in South Africa. About the only good thing he did for the Malawians was build a  decent road infrastructure.  The school and health care systems were virtually nonexistent.  It was a country run by elites. who went for medical care out of the country.  Malawi was socially stratified:  if you had a decent job and were literate, most likely you employed an illiterate servant to clean your house & probably cook for you. There was no way to improve your lot unless you were (or are) particularly ingenious.

Of course, I worked with elites.  They  two I worked with were honest, and had integrity.  Things were the way they were.  Pick your battles. but I explained to them that  democracy did not bring good government, but representational government.

And here we are, over 30 years later, and our  representational electorate has elected  a guy who lied, who had no plan, who  disrespects women, minorities, the handicapped…. people who are not white Europeans.  It will be interesting to see how  his Orthodox Jewish son-in-law works with the white supremacist  Bannon, who is a close advisor.  Really interesting….but I think they are sell-outs. I have some friends who I really lost respect for.  It’s one thing to think your friends are  uninformed—but to see they voted for the white guy because they believed ‘fake news’ (what we used to call lies….as ‘toxic assets’ were liabilities) and just didn’t like  or trust Hillary.   Was it because she was a woman?  Doesn’t matter—she actually got the popular vote. She won!  But due to the political mumbo jumbo of the electoral college, these former friends who voted for Trump think—really, that HE won!  It’s like saying 5-3=10!  So this is the new reality.

I fear for the environment.  Even the Clean Air & Clean Water acts were signed by Nixon—a Republican.  It is proven that when you offer free birth control and family planning information—the unplanned birth rate goers down, and the community prospers….but our rulers  really have a mindset that women should be punished for having sex—the punishment being raising  children, and this will lead to a surplus in labor.  Our economy can no longer absorb uneducated people—as it can’t absorb the educated ones! What other explanation can you  come up with for  defunding  Planned Parenthood or making abortion illegal?  It’s not like the people who make these laws are fostering or adopting orphans or kids in the child care system.

I also think  the Democratic Congress made the banking industry more accountable. Trump thinks it is too much regulation.  Education would  fix this, as kids would understand more, but with DeVos, they have demonstrated that  making sure kids learn math & science is not a priority.  it’s up to us…in the states…to work this out.

So, as a result of all this, I am much more in touch with my elected officials.  I let them know how I feel about everything.

But  are there  citizen movements emerging to develop strategies to  change it all back….or…?

While   I have big issues with the Affordable Care Act, the problem is with insurance companies, and it is time for Single Payer.  If Trump wasn’t flitting off to Florida every week, there’d be plenty  of money  for  people of all ages to buy into Medicare. You wouldn’t have to—you could still pay for private insurance if you really believe you’d get a better deal….but, having had to  deal with  health insurance a lot recently (Bursitis, and I was bitten by a dog), I can tell you, the government couldn’t make a bigger mess out of what things should cost & how hospitals get paid than the insurance companies have!

If we are going to ‘resist’ and make things better, we must educate ourselves, so we have talking points.  I want everyone who wants to make a difference get  4 books and read them.

  1.  The First is, “Lies My Teacher Told me, ” by James Loewen  You really have to understand American History, first, or you will be ‘condemned to repeat it.  It’s outrageous, what we learned in school and  what we think is real;

2. “Charlie Wilson’s War,”  by  George Crile.  Aaron Sorkin made a pretty funny movie by manipulating facts.  All of what Charlie did, and why,  is sort of ‘funny’ in an ironic way.  It’s important to understands what he did and who influenced him, as he changed history.  You will learn  that he actually armed what became the Taliban, ISIS, and all the others who hate  freedom;

3.  You ought to read a book on economic history.  “The Big Short,” by Michael Lewis, again, was a funny movie.  Not so funny  is that is our history, and he documents it and writes about it in a way you can understand.  Bottom line:  because we are  an innumerate nation, and so few of our schools teach  people real math and budgeting, our neighbors trusted the banks—even thought the numbers were right in front of them. We all lost, big time.

If this seems too convoluted, get a copy of Robert Reich’s book, “Aftershock.”  We could have saved ourselves, but Hillary didn’t make it engaging enough (that, and the Russians and FBI director Comey put the final nails in her coffin);

4.  Finally, how do we actually  get the hearts & minds?  You have to read Malcolm Gladwell’s book, “The Tipping Point.”  We’re not going anywhere in a hurry unless we know the dynamics of social change.  In simple language,  this book tells us how it’s done.

Advertisements

Vacations for Animal Lovers

May 13, 2016
Pariah dog sleeping at Ephasus in turkey

Pariah dog sleeping at Ephasus in turkey

My passion is  working with animals.  From  before I could read, I knew volume #7 of the Encyclopedia Britannica had the dog pictures.  I used to love  pulling it out and looking at the dog pictures.  Growing up, I lived in a very middle class suburban (Skokie) neighborhood, where, if people had dogs, they were behind fences.  If I saw someone walking a dog, I went crazy. Part of this obsession was because my parents wouldn’t let us have a dog until we were  mature enough to take care of one.  My father  owned his own business,and my mother  had four kids  under 7 years old. Looking back, I  totally understand the logic.  What happened, however, was that my sister and I  took every dog book we could find out of the library. We finally got  our first dogs when I was  nine-years-old.  We  taught that dog all sorts of things.  I took every opportunity I could find to work with dogs. I learned to groom dogs.  I have also titled my pet dogs in performance.  When you work with dogs, you learn your limits.  At one time, I wanted to own a kennel and have a bunch of my own dogs.  When I started working in kennels, I learned that it is  hard to give quality time to more than a few dogs. So many dogs need homes, and many without homes need advocates. What could I do?  If I fostered a dog, I would be cutting into the quality time I spend with my own dogs. and it would change the dynamic in our household.  So, I looked for opportunities where I could help others who  care for pets needing help.

Reception at Lilongwe SPCA. in Malawi

Reception at Lilongwe SPCA. in Malawi

There are many ways to help when you  can’t foster or adopt another pet.  Most shelter and rescues need help with accounting, marketing, and fund-raising, as well as recruiting  other volunteers.  Here in Chicago, I volunteer as a court advocate for  http://www.safehumanechicago.org  This means, when someone is charged with an animal related crime (neglect, cruelty, or dog fighting are the common ones), I go to court to make sure the judge knows that the community has an interest in this case.  Mostly, it is just being there.  We let the  prosecuting attorney know  we are there, and they make sure the judge knows we are there if the  courtroom is crowded. The police making the arrest also know that we are there.  This makes everyone take animal crime more seriously. Another thing I do is support pet rescues, especially pet rescues in  developing countries.  Now, due to the internet, where you can google ‘animal shelter/country, you can get linked up with  animal lovers in  most places.  In many places, you can even volunteer. I volunteered , via Cross Cultural Solutions, to work with a community based group in New Delhi, India, and some people told me about Frendicoes.  Friendicoes mostly does trap/neuter/release, and has a small shelter.  Virtually all the animals they have are pariah dogs and cats:  that is, they are true street  animals, and really not suited to be pets. Several years ago, I visited Turkey. Via networking, I was able to get in touch with  the people who run the Forest Sanctuary, outside Istanbul.  They had about 100 dogs at the time we visited.  Western Turkey is becoming very urbanized, but the Turks, for the most part, never  kept dogs in their homes.  Also, like impulsive people all over, many  buy dogs and tire of them.  Those involved in rescue are very pragmatic.  They do trap/neuter/release (and one reason for the  protest over loss of park land in Istanbul several years ago was not just  over loss of open space to a shopping mall…but loss of habitat for the street dogs and cats), but also care for  dogs at the Forest Sanctuary outside of the city. They work with a Dutch rescue, and ship many dogs suitable for homes to Holland. I’ve also  visited  ‘shelters’ in Hoi An, Viet Nam (http://www.vnanimalwelfare.org/category/slider/) , and both Lilongwe and Blantyre, in Malawi.  They all welcome volunteers.  Soi Dogs, in Thailand not only needs volunteers, but  people who can accompany a dog (as a courier)  from Thailand to the USA.  The Sighthound Underground and Galgos del Sol also need couriers, and you can volunteer to work in the Galgo kennel in Spain. There are also  animal shelters in more ‘vacation oriented’ places.  http://www.animal-kind.org  can put you in touch with  many shelters needing assistance.  So can Norah Livingstone: http://www.animalexperienceinternational.com/aboutus.html.  World Vets:  http://worldvets.org/volunteer/upcoming-projects/  has volunteer opportunities in  Central America and southern Asia.  If you are more the type who  just wants to observe, or maintain habitat, Earthwatch http://earthwatch.org/has programs, many involving habitat conservation or observation of animal behavior, overseen by scientists. Meeting  other animal lovers and sharing information is a great way to spend vacation time.

Azungu, Where Are You Going?

March 4, 2016

This blog is about the logistics of traveling around Zambia and Malawi on my trip in Feb. 2016.

Nomadic Matt, a travel blogger, claims you can travel around the  world for $40 a day.  I believe that may be true, especially if you camp out,  or stay in hostels or dorms, eat frugally, and don’t move around that much.  My own costs turned out to be an average of $110.67 a day, and would have been $99 —even less—if I hadn’t stayed in a few places that were over $30 a night ( and hadn’t bought souvenirs or taken a special tour).

For my 17 days on the ground…Lodging cost me anywhere from free (the overnight in Dubai—very much worth doing!!!  Emirates airlines…),  or  $12—to  my big splurge at Fawlty Towers in Livingtone, which was $40 (and there are deals on bookings.com, and possibly  other booking sites).  total:  $293.25.   Incidental groceries/snacks cost me about $35—& that included the kilo (yes—kilo! ) of macadamia nuts I bought from street vendors in Blantyre.  Transport was  a shade over $150.  This was the minibuses and matolas.  My airfare was a shade under $1300, and the visas were $180 because I wanted multiple entries.  I spent  $200 or so on junk:  2 t-shirts from the LLSPCA,  $65 on a dinner cruise on the Zambezi,  extra on magazines, cloth, the tailor, a phone (which I could never figured out—Airtel chargers for calls that don’t go through, and for some numbers, you have to use either a 0 or a + before the number….better to use your own phone if you can make the sim card work).

I have learned from fellow travelers, if you can, do not book your flight in the United States.  Lots of people book via Dubai or Asia.

Bus station, Lusaka

Bus station, Lusaka

You can get pretty detailed maps of Malawi and Zambia (& I bet many other places) on Amazon.com.  Google maps are good for cities.  I traveled in a circle, which added to my costs.  In  hindsight, this was not really the smartest thing to do, but then, I was hoping to get  transport from Blantyre to Livingstone, and this was unavailable.  In fact, it is known that Intercape runs buses from Johannesburg to Lilongwe—but you have to book the entire trip—you can not book a segment.  The lack of transport from Blantyre to Livingstone (through Mozambique) made the trip very much more complicated than I wanted it to be, but that’s how it goes.  I had to go from Blantyre  back up to Lilongwe (via AXA bus), then take a Kobs bus back through Chipata down to Lusaka.  Neither AXA nor Kobs  take credit cards.  You have to pay in local currency.

Birdsnest Backpackers in Lusaka, Zambia

Birdsnest Backpackers in Lusaka, Zambia

So, here’s what I did:  1.  I flew into Lusaka, and stayed at the Birdsnest  backpackers, a low budget ‘hotel’ (rest house) for a couple of nights.  There is nothing to do in Lusaka, no city buses, only minibuses and taxis. I’m told there is a good zoo/botanical garden, but it would have required a very expensive taxi ride.  Lusaka sprawls. You’re in the countryside, but still in Lusaka.   I flew into Lusaka because I wanted to visit the Chishawasha School, which I have made donations-in-kind to for the past several years.  Nkole Chewe (the  manager of Birdsnest) and I went out there on Sunday.

2. From Lusaka, I took the Kobs bus to Lilongwe, It is at least a 12 hour trip.  I did get to see a good portion of Eastern Zambia, but there  was no wildlife.  That is how Africa is now.  I stayed at Mabuya camp, another low budget, but typically African  place, in Lilongwe.  From there, I went to

nearSalima3. Lifua Villagem near Senga Bay.  I did this via mini bus, bicycle taxi (about 1 km only) and matola.  This segment was the most nerve wracking of the trip, because I really didn’t know where  exactly I was going, just north of Senga Bay.  It was as remote as Malawi can be, except it was on Lake Malawi.  I spent the night at the Friendly Gecko, and the next morning went to…

 

Mua Mission

Mua Mission

4. Mua Mission.  Mua is also remote. I didn’t really want to spend the night, but I don’t regret spending the night.  There is a museum there— probably the best in the country, and I would not have gotten to Mangochi by night fall.

5.  In the morning, I went to Mangochi, to see Malawi Children’s Village, a well known place, now.  I got there via minibus, matola, then minibus.  It was more circuitous than I had hoped, as I wanted to go by 1 route, and the minibus driver dropped me at a matola on the way to Monkey Bay, but in the end, this was really more of  a ‘direct’ route.  I  got to   MCV about 2 or so, and got to see the compound, as well as buy some trousers and  some small bags.  I got to see Open Arms, the orphanage, as well.  That night I stayed at…

Palm Beach Resort, outside Mangochi, Malawi

Palm Beach Resort, outside Mangochi, Malawi

6. Palm Beach Resort. The proprietor, Mrs. Breitz, picked me up at Malawi Children’s Village.  It is a very nice place right on the lake.  I was going to try to get a minibus into Mangochi boma (‘city’—if you can call it that), but as luck would have it, a small film crew, at the suggestion of Mr. Breitz, gave me a ride all the way to…

7. Blantyre.   I just wanted to stop by Blantyre Civic, where I used to work, and  stop briefly at the  Blantyre SPCA.  I also got to see Limbe—what’s become of it.  I was in Blantyre from Saturday evening until Monday afternoon, when I took an AXA bus back to…

8. Lilongwe. I got in late Monday, and spent Tuesday getting my stuff back from the tailor, and also  getting some other  cloth.  I left early Wednesday on the Kobs bus to get back to….

Mabuya Camp, Lilongwe

Mabuya Camp, Lilongwe

9. Lusaka—another 12 hour ride back.   I just hung around on Thursday and got a…..

10. bus ticket to Livingstone early Friday. That was  a six hour trip.  I stayed in Fawlty Towers that night, and also went to the museum in Livingstone.   Livingstone really has a ‘suburban’ vibe, and I had a lovely dinner at a   restaurant called ‘Ocean’s Basket’, which I discovered is a small chain. On Saturday, I went to Victoria Falls park, where I spent a good  part of the day, and went on a dinner cruise in the evening—where I saw the main wildlife of the trip:  a few hippos in the Zambezi, and a heron in a tree.  On Sunday morning,

11.   I got a Mahzandu bus back to Lusaka.  It was air conditioned, and thankfully, not playing Christian music videos.  I  got back late  Sunday afternoon, to Lusaka and Birdsnest.  I was going to  go back to Chishawasha on Monday, but I suddenly realized my flight was that night!  So, that was the whole trip, and I will embellish the details in my

Me (Robyn) at Vic Falls

Me (Robyn) at Vic Falls

 

next blog post.

BTW– Azungu, wazungu, mzungu, nzungu…means ‘white person’. Not a slur or pejorative, it is what we are.  Black people are ‘people’:  Muntu or mto.  The ‘root word’ is dzungu—which means pumpkin. I bet some child called us ‘zungu’ and it stuck.

 

 

The Blog About Going Back to Africa

January 29, 2016
a colorized version of G.P. Murdock's ethnic map of Africa

a colorized version of G.P. Murdock’s ethnic map of Africa

One of my friends said I had to write about this, as just arranging this trip has been an adventure.  I was  a Peace Corps Volunteer in Malawi in 1992.  I was a town planner. Peace Corps Volunteers are not supposed to be in politically sensitive positions, and I  actually tried getting another agency (NGO) to pick me up, but the times were  pretty tense, as the European Community was leaning heavily on Hastings Banda (Kamuzu) to allow multi-party elections and a free press.

My job was actually development control…and I was briefly given an assignment  financed by UN Development Programme to organize residents of traditional housing areas (that is, residents of urban communities which allowed  squatter housing, or housing that would not pass building codes) to  have control over their water supply…but that didn’t work out due to the Malawi Congress Party, as well as the Europeans leaning on Banda, and the funding was withdrawn in about four weeks.

In any case, I lived in Blantyre and  at one point, the  Government of Malawi —at least through the office of President and Cabinet, wanted me to take  an illegal action and confiscate some land people had title to.  So, it was stressful.  But now it is  over 20 years later, and I want to not only see how things are, but I want to visit some projects I’ve been supporting (Zambian Children’s Fund in Chishawasha, a bit outside of Lusaka), the Lilongwe SPCA, and the Malawi Children’s Village  outside Mangochi.  I will also visit several other projects, and Victoria Falls in southern Zambia.

 

I paid for the airfare ($1268.36, Emirates Air) back at the end of June, 2015. Yes, the airfare has gone down a bit over $200 since, because the price of fuel has fallen…but that could not be guaranteed, so I really didn’t overpay that much, and I spend the night in Dubai.

Doing research on getting transport had taken up a lot of time, as you can’t get any info  directly from the bus companies, or it contradicts what everyone posts on TripAdvisor and ThornTree/Lonely Planet.  That’s how it is. Unless you  join a formal tour company for a ‘safari’, which is extremely expensive these days, you have to be flexible about how you plan to get around. Thankfully, all the NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) now have websites, and their people are very helpful about telling you where to stay and how to get there.  I will get into the itinerary.

I knew I had to get a visa for Zambia ($70 plus the certified letter costs), and I actually was thinking of going to Hong Kong this time  because I didn’t want to have to get another Yellow Fever shot—which was required for some time for visas to either Zambia or Malawi.  A Yellow Fever shot (I’ve had 3) will make you quite sick, and is not cheap—you have to go to a  specific travel medical center to get one, and they not only charge about $150 for the shot, but  $$$ for ‘overhead’.  No thanks.

So I sent my passport off to the Zambian Embassy, and it took them  about  two weeks, or did it?  I sent it USPS certified mail, and I got a notice that it was returned, but since I was not home, I had to go to the post office and stand in line…and then, it turned out the   mail person had ‘forgotten’ to take it out of the bag, so they told me they would deliver it the next day…and did not, so I had to go back on Monday, now having no receipt because I had signed it over, and they found it.  It was very stressful.

So, I’m set, just have to pack, but I am on Facebook (Peace Corps Malawi feed) & someone posts last week : “has anyone tried to get a visa to Malawi now that the rules have changed?” What?  A visa had not been needed for Americans or Europeans  since independence, but now the reciprocal deal is  that if  your country charges their nationals for a visa, they charge you (&  the US charges about $160 to Malawians)…so I tried emailing the embassy in Washington, DC, and none of their email addresses are  good. I downloaded the  application forms, and left a message—and the embassy called me back!  They said I could NOT get a visa at the border, to send my passport Fed-Ex and they would  process it & send it back!  So, that was $100 + the $55 to get it there and back.  HOWEVER, I will point out that the official Malawian Tourism site—run by the government—still has the old, inaccurate information on it.  What are you going to do?   What ended up happening is that I sent it, tried to track it, it got to the embassy, and…sat there because of the huge blizzard.  Most embassy offcies were closed, but I left a message and they told me a few people had gone in and would send it back tomorrow.

I’ve budgeted about  $3000 total for this trip. Some places are set up to take credit cards, which is good, and food and transport are still inexpensive by American standards.This is a 20 day trip including  air transit days. Minus the air fare, that’s $86 a day.  Can I do it?  We’ll see.

Big problem is  I am taking a lot of stuff to leave there. About  five  pounds of fabric to be made into clothes,  about 10 pounds of books  as gifts, and other odds & ends.  I never anticipate bringing that much stuff back, but if i can find  bone or malachite jewelry—or bowls, that would be nice.

So, this will be the last blog for a while.I will be spending all my energy getting around.

 

Book Review: The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer

August 21, 2015
a colorized version of G.P. Murdock's ethnic map of Africa

a colorized version of G.P. Murdock’s ethnic map of Africa

As many readers of this blog know, I have traveled in Africa several times. I was Peace Corps in Malawi in 1992.  Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world. Even though it has been the recipient of much foreign aid (from USAID, the European Community, and even medical personnel from Egypt), the government policy has been to NOT have it trickle down to the populace.  Who knows where it went. Consultants?    When I served in Peace Corps, literacy hovered around 35%.  Only 15% of households had access to radios. The incident of AIDS was 25–90% depending on how close you lived to a paved road.  Malawi is still very much a country of small holders:  small  farmers.  Many have been encouraged to  plant the cash crop of tobacco (hey—the Chinese still smoke like chimneys, as do the Eastern Europeans and Middle Easterners…), but then, due to quality issues, the  government  parastatal buying the tobacco to resell  will only buy a small portion of what small holders were selling…and you can not eat tobacco.

With access to the internet (via mobile phones, originally brought to Malawi by the Malaysians), more people are getting more information. However, in addition to AIDS, malaria is still a huge  problem, as is TB. So many Malawians do NOT live near paved roads that it is difficult to  get  information (so most of what you get is via rumor) or access to health care.  Primary school is free, but often teachers are merely high school graduates themselves, and don’t own any books for the subjects they are teaching.  You have to pay fees to go to high school.

Knowing this,  this is why  Kamkwamba’s story is so remarkable.  This book was written by  one of those kids who didn’t get to go to high school because his family could not afford school fees.  He feared for his future, of course, but  he was a curious kid, and thankfully, there was a free library in his town.  All the books were donated.

Farming is the type of job  where there are weeks of intense work preparing the soil and planting….and then you wait and hope and pray.  Malawi has  always suffered droughts, made worse in recent decades due to deforestation. This  story takes place  just after the turn of the century.  While Malawi was no longer rules by Kamuzu Banda, it turned out that the devil they didn’t know was worse, as Muluzi, the president at the time, was in total denial about  people starving due to crop failure due to the drought.  Kamkwamba does a brilliant job of describing how bad things were at this time.  It’s humbling.

He also describes the culture of the Chewa people very well.  The gist of the story is that he had a lot of time on his hands, as he wasn’t in school, so he borrowed books and taught himself physics.  He  found scrap parts, and built a windmill so his family could have electricity.  He becomes  famous in his village (one reason is that he charges villagers cell phones!),  Malawian journalists write about him, one thing leads to another, and  his education (having been interrupted for five years) is sponsored and he is asked to give a TED talk.  Very happy ending.

This is a marvelous book, available on Amazon (I’ve included a link), and I’d recommend it to anyone who wants to learn about Africa, resilience, perseverance, or who wants to make a difference and help others like Kamkwamba.  When I first became curious about Africa, the classic, “The African Child,” by Camara Laye, was recommended, and that is  a sort of idealized view of African childhood.  This book is better.  It would make a great gift for any child, and be a great addition to any school library.

I’ve included links for the African Library Project and Zambian Children’s Fund.  In the last century, I used to send books via ‘M’ bag, to schools in Malawi.  I sent several tons of books, but the U S Postal Service stopped this as it was too expensive (they had to pay to store containers until they were full). It you send books to  either organization, they  will send them in containers and make sure they are delivered.  I send the books UPS, because I know from experience that the USPS often is rough with boxes and empty boxes have been delivered.  The Africans  really need books on science, business, public health, first aid,  and teachers editions.  They can also use maps.

Who knows how many kids like Kamkwamba there are, who are curious, but don’t have access to books?

 

https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?search=William+Kamkwamba&title=Special%3ASearch&fulltext=1

http://www.amazon.com/The-Boy-Who-Harnessed-Wind/dp/0803740808/ref=pd_sim_14_1/185-7381202-9985626?ie=UTF8&refRID=1JHS80E4ZQ1VAAS6G14J

http://www.africanlibraryproject.org/?gclid=CjwKEAjw9dWuBRDFs9mHv-C9_FkSJADo58iMa3PZxGrRVw6NNZQacpRvHv2_5RGkn2ON0jSGUM_TaxoCBKDw_wcB

http://www.zambianchildrensfund.org/

Is Greece a Failed State? Transparency International! Hello!

November 10, 2011

A few years ago, I  visited Egypt.  Amazing  country.  Thousands of miles of absolutely nothing, punctuated by  areas of intense beuaty, and a  long  area along the Nile of human history.  Incredible.

One thing I noticed, as we drove along, was the  many unfinished buildings. In fact, one of the hotels we stayed in (in Luxor) had a totally unfinished floor.

I asked the guide about this, and he told me that you don’t have to pay property taxes until the building is finished. You can occupy the building, but you don’t have tyo pay taxes.

Ah, yes.  This is how it is in much of the developing world.  That’s the law.  & so their infrastructure crumbles.  You wonder, “How do they exist?’  Foreign Aid.   The Europeans, the  Americans. even the Chinese.  It’s a way to build relationships.a  But it’s also a way to keep the corrupt in power, and the irony is that this foreign  aid is supposed to benefit  the citizenry.  The stand off is, it benefits the politicians, & the  citizenry don’t have to be mature and pay  for what they need.

Granted, a lot of the citizenry won’t be home owners, they will be renters, and they could not afford an abrupt change —because  their landlords will pass on the increase to the renters.  Many will either  take in  ‘roommates’ & over populate the property, or become homeless.

I saw this in Malawi, when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer.    I saw it in India, where the homeless/landless canp out  in front of the gates of the wealthy.  We are seeing it in Greece.

I have a friend whose father is Greek, and she has spent  a lot of time in Greece.  She rolls her eyes when you ask about  why you can’t get someone evicted for nonpayement of rent (possession is 9/10ths of the law…& squatters pay off  the people  who would evict them).

Many Greeks go to other countries, make a lot of money, & return to Greece to retire, as the pensions are so favorable….for Greek nationals.

The fact is, the only difference between the Greeks & the Africans is, the Greeks are  mostly cuacasian.

So,  even though the rest of Europe, the EEU, knew that was how the Greeks operated,they welcomed them into their economic community. It made no sense, unless you  would be funding them with other peoples money & making a commission.

I remember when  Transparency International sent  representatives to the African Studies Association conference. The officials, formerly of the ‘World Bank‘   told us how they were going to work with  developing governments to  bring good governance and respect for ‘rule of law’, so they could borrow more money after they had squandered ( and because they were tricked, in many cases—-I refer you to Naomi Klein’s  excellent book,Shock Doctrine:  the Rise of Disaster Capitalism) what they had already gotten.

I recently read a review Adam Gopnick, the New Yorker writer, wrote on The Wealth of Nations.  He highlighted  the notion that it benefitted buyers and sellers to act with integrity.  it was part of the deal…yet the people in charge of doling out money for investment seem to be…unclear on the concept.

Before I went to Egypt, I traveled in Malaysia.  Malaysia is an amazing country.  Very high rate of literacy,   excellent health care system (hey. compared to the USA…) modern infrastructure.  It seems that these people have a different view of transparency and capitalism than the Europeans & Americans.  This country is what America would be like if we hadn’t invested in wars instead of ourselves.

In the next few weeks, a super committee will present to the Congress of the United States  a way to close our bazillion dollar deficit. They are going to raise the eligibility age for  social securlty and medicare, and most likely eliminate the tax deduction for home mortgage ingerest and  real estate taxes.  They will NOT—you wait & see—lower their own salaries or pensions, nor will they  eliminate foreign aid or cut military spending.  We will still have a department of education that  realy  doesn’t do too much to improve the quality of lives in America.  In fact, we will still have all the government departments that repackage our tax dollars & send it out.   Very high income people—the 1%—will not be asked to pay more for anything.

& we will still have people like Cain, Bachman, & Perry having a degree of  credibility becaus they are not Obama, and because most Americans are  exhuaseted, frightened, and innumerate.  I don’t know hwat the solution is.  You can’t  undo  what all those who didn’t have integrity  did to create this mess.

 

Just Throw Money

January 15, 2010

I’ve wanted to address this topic for some time, but what really got me going was a front page story in the Chicago Tribune about nonprofit executive compensation how some are receiving over $500,000 a year with other benefits/

Uh, this is news?  It’s no secret, but I guess enough people fall for direct marketing mail & ‘image’ that it does seem shocking that so many make over $200,000 a year (in this case, they were pointing out an executive director who was paying herself over $600,000 a year for managing housing for low-income people, with  a good per centage of the units having housing code violations.

A long time ago, I realized it made no sense to  send money & support an organization where the  employees made more than I did.

I have to admit—I have worked for several nonprofits.   The difference between a  for profit, publicly held corporation and a non profit is—nobody sells stock in a nonprofit.    The similarity is—-they both have boards of directors, and  Americans  expect, it is understood—that there is a certain level of integrity. The board members are watching  both the  Chief Executive e Officer and each other. They aren’t supposed to waste money.  But they do.  The more money they have, the more money they waste.  It’s worse than sad. They allow  people and companies they contract with to rip them off and/or provide shoddy service.   Unless the public gets wind of this (as  happened to the American Red Cross several years ago),  they do what works for them, personally, and not what  they say they want to do in their mission statements.

What is extremely troubling to me is….the amount of foreign aid frittered away because there is no accountability.  I was at  an African Studies Association conference, where some people were speaking about Transparency International.  Seems  some World Bank and USAID officials were tired of the corruption they were funding. Their attitudes had been, “Oh, you squandered it?  Have some more!”    The idea was that  those governments that instituted  transparency & respect for rule of law would have more access to government aid.  Well, it’s been  about 10 years or so.  Checking the Transparency International it’s hard to tell if any progress has been made.  The  receiving governments are still getting money from donor countries.

I recently read Paul Theroux’s book,  Dark Star Safari:  overland from Cairo to Capetown. It’s his  overland journey (meaning no fly overs0  in  2002.  If you’ve been to Africa, it’s a great book.  If you haven’t been, it might be difficult to visualize what he is describing.  Theroux was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Malawi (where I served) in the 1960’s.  He’s fictionalized his experience several times, but what he does NOT fictionalize is  the attitude of so many Africans.  They accommodated so many foreigners for a chance to  break out of tribal caste systems, to get any crumbs that foreigners might leave and give them  an artificial, superior status in their communities.  So much of what was built was misused, wasted, neglected—and has crumbled.  No foreign government ever demanded community support for  what they were delivering.  I saw schools, libraries, and hospitals vandalized and looted.  There was always the attitude that the foreigners—especially the Europeans and Americans, with all their white guilt would keep on throwing money.

Most Americans don’t  understand that many  governments of less developed countries, hire lobbyists, in Washington, to  insert  foreign aid into the budget—our federal budget —for their countries.  Of course, Israel and Egypt get the most—-for  arms.   So do India & South Korea.  That’s where a lot of foreign aid goes.  But what about aid for infrastructure  and  human development?  Very few people beyond academia keep track.  Initially  the leader of the country  looks good for bringing in a gift.  As deterioration occurs slowly, the benefit diminishes.

Having seen this kind of foreign aid go to waste so many times, I only support  community based organization.  Yes, they may waste as much money as American ones do, but if they have a track record, I send donations-in-kind and cash.  3  I am particularly proud to support are  Malawi Children’s Village, Sango Chicago, and Global Alliance for Africa.  I believe they are successful because they have partners in the U.S. to  provide technical assistance and insist on transparency.

Malawi Children’s Village is actually in Mangochi, Malawi is run by a physician, Dr. Sibale, & his wife.  Originally conceived as an orphanage by 2 Returned Peace Corps Volunteer physicians, the community asked for  technical support  for keeping HIV affected orphans with their extended families, and help with a school, library, a health clinic, vocational training, and school fees.  They’ve been in existence since 1996, and can bost many high school and college graduates among the orphans, thanks to  the assistance of supporters. The  money donated really does go  to help the entire community uplift themselves.  They have statistical proof.  The American address for donations is:  MCV. c/o Garry Prime, 20 Pond Park Rd., Hingham, MA 02043.

Sango, Chicago—is a group of Kenyan Nationals who  are trying to support needy students from their district in western Kenya.  Money donated goes to school fees, and  clothing and educational supplies for the students and their schools.  http://www.SangoChicago.org

Global Alliance for Africa has also been in existence for about a decade.  The executive director, Tom Derdak, is a professor of philosophy in Chicago,  He originally conceived the organization to  provide  scholarships to nursing students in Africa—-as nurses are desperately needed. The problem was that nurses expatriated themselves to Europe and America—so their skills were not being kept in Africa.  With the approval of his board of directors, Dr. Derdak changed the focus  to  assisting community organizations providing vocational and business development training, and assistance with microloans, bicycles (via http://www.workingbikes.org—another great organization), and books for their community libraries.

There are many, many small organizations doing wonderful things.  Range of Motion Project provides artificial limbs &  training to those providing orthotics in Central America, and is expanding.

In the Chicagoland area. I also support Blessed Bonds (P.O. Box 129, Palos Park, IL 60464) which  provides fostering for pet animals owned by the elderly. disabled, and those in crisis needing temporary shelter for their pets that they do want back once they are able to have them.  Also, CARE/Evanston Animal Shelter, which takes owner surrenders, and only euthanizes very ill or temperamentally unstable animals—& is transparent about it.

Keep in mind that —although  the  nonprofit organizations—the 501 (c) 3 orgs—-are supposed to be overseen by or at least accountable to—the government, nobody is paying attention.  It’s a matter of integrity that the organizations do what their missions  state they are doing.

(more…)

A Bit of A Revolution….

December 10, 2009

I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Malawi in 1992.  People  who are not  travelers & volunteers  often wonder about what we do.  There are a bunch of books that RPCV  (that would be Returned Peace Corps Volunteers) have published on  their ‘experiences’.

2 very good books are Land Without Time, but John Sumser, who is RPCV Afghanistan.  His account is  truthful and humorous, and you understand from his description of his time of service that most of us are not do-gooders, but adventurers.  Paul Theroux also wrote, My Secret History, which contains his account of volunteering  in Malawi.

For the most part, our lives are pretty mundane except for the aggravations caused by lack of infrastructure, lack of  real support from Peace Corps staff, and  constant cultural  & language based misunderstandings.  When you are a Peace Corps Volunteer, you learn the difference between a problem and an inconvenience.

When I was in  high school (I graduated in 1971), it was difficult to get real information about social and political dynamics of  Africa—indeed—about anyplace not either Europe or America was extremely exotic

.  It’s not that there was no body of literature.  It’s that the way our educational system is set up in America.  Anything that doesn’t relate to European culture and history is ignored. I stumbled across an article about the Yoruba of Nigeria, in an American Heritage magazine, & the impact it had on me was dramatic.

Since then, I know that there are English literature teachers  teaching from Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (another classic), but ‘back then’, we were taught that Africans had no culture, no language, no history, and the white people who enslaved them actually did them a favor by civilizing them.  Hard to believe?  I also came of age during the Viet Nam War, and the stuff we were led to believe about the Viet Namese (not loving their children, stuffing their diapers with bombs and throwing them at soldiers) was also quite amazing.

White Americans tend to think we have the market cornered on intelligence, maturity, and sophistication. and integrity.  We are the new Russians.  Arrogant &  ignorant on the ways of the world.

I wanted to major in Black Studies & Forestry in college, but my parents wouldn’t hear of it.  So, I became a dog groomer.

Years passed.  I went to Tanzania in 1985.  At the time, they had a 90% literacy rate, because Julius Nyerere put all his development money into education—-but nothing into infrastructure.  A great place for a safari, but a frustrating place to live.

2 years later, I went to Kenya, with Operation Crossroads Africa, Inc.  I spent about 4 weeks, with other American students, making bricks at the AIC Girls Inland Primary Boarding School in Kajiado, in Maasailand.  That was an awesome experience.  We thought we were making bricks for a classroom building, but I quickly realized  we’d maybe have enough bricks for an outhouse (I’ll write about that in the future).  Our value was, really, that the Africans had never seen white people (wazungu) do physical labor.

Anyways…Malawi.    I ended up  majoring in anthropology in college , and concentrated my research on topics  relating to East Africa, with a bit of Indian studies thrown in.    I got into grad school, graduated with concentrations in land use & community development. There were no jobs, so I decided that was the time to join Peace Corps & get some international experience. I had vague ideas about a career in either foreign service or development work.  Still naive…

After I got back from Malawi, I worked as a consultant for a friend’s educational company. What his company did was contract with Peace Corps & hire the trainers who trained Peace Corps Volunteers in their countries of service.  At the time, he did this in Senegal, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Honduras, Costa Rica, Paraguay, and a few other places.

One day, we were working, and my friend got a phone call from the General Accounting Office. They were auditing Peace Corps contracts.  The auditor wanted to know why he opened an account in Honduras, and closed the account 3 months later.

My friend told the auditor that the project there was completed, so he repatriated the money.

The auditor didn’t understand…sort of implying that he was laundering money.    I remarked that the guy had probably never been a Peace Corps Volunteer & had his money devalued 30% overnight.

Peace Corps volunteers aren’t paid, but they do get a living stipend.  It is deposited directly into a bank account, and you are expected to pay your food, utilities (if they are available), clothing, transportation, & expenses out of that account.  Peace Corps  makes sure you are provided housing & health care.   I don’t know if it is still true, but the money is transferred into your account in local currency.  In the case of Malawi, this was the Kwacha.  You were advised to , once  the transfer was made,  change  this into dollars. There  generally was no charge for this, but you had to go down to the bank & stand in line, & this could take up the better part of the morning or afternoon.  & I never did it because  the Kwacha had been stable for over 20 years:  3.3 to the dollar.

I had heard rumors that London Club (this would be the European donors–the colonialists who have propped up the African governments they  formerly managed) was strongly urging devaluation, but it was just a rumor.  Radio was censored in Malawi.  You might get the BBC for 5 minutes at dawn or dusk, and it might be mentioned.  Some of the elites had satellite dishes and had access to CNN—but when did I see  elites?  Newsweek magazine? Please.

But anyways, things were not going well on the ground.  I was an urban planner, and I had been slated to work on a United Nations Development Program scheme to provide recycling services & trash pickup in several squatter communities.    Not only would this create jobs, but if the communities go themselves organized, they would have  more access to  improved water services.  This involved doing a bit of community organizing, and I knew exactly  the people to do it:  the Homecraft Workers.   These were women, trained as social workers (of sorts)  who were sort of community grandmothers.  They were very highly respected in their communities.

The problem was that NOBODY did ANYTHING that the MALAWI CONGRESS PARTY didn’t tell them to do. It was sort of comical.  I had been given permission by key players in the government. They wanted the UNDP money—they were prepared to take all the credit for the community improvements.  However… trouble was brewing among the loyal opposition, and  at just about the time I had the meeting with the Homecraft Workers, a bunch of Malawi Young Pioneers (you know—the ‘regulars’—the employees of the machine) got beat up.  It was clear to the expatriates in town what was happening,  but the Homecraft Workers were not going to make a move until they were directed to by a Malawi Congress Party bigwig.  & they were laying low.

So, there I was, with essentially nothing to do besides nag people to pay their development fees (part of the reason I was there, in Blantyre, was because there was a problem with the concept of transparency and respect for rule of law…this isn’t just Malawi.  When I first got there, my counterparts—Luka & Nkoma—, told me I was from America—I didn’t know what it was like.  I told them, “Actually, I am from Chicago. We’ve had a single party system for over 50 years.  I know exactly what it’s like.”)

I was in a ‘tail wagging the dog’ situation, where of my staff of 40, 35 were spending virtually all their time either  trying to sabotage any improvement to the system or flat out not working. But that’s another story.

So, I got up one morning, turned on the radio, & the news is that the currency has been devalued 30%.  & since my money was in Kwacha, not dollars, 30% of it had essentially disappeared.  Peace & Calm , Law & Order prevailed…

That’s how it started.  This was on Monday.  I went in to work & told Luka  and Nkoma what happened.  Oh, well, life goes on.   So does the rumor mill.  In a country with only 35% literacy, & only 15 % of households owning radios, you get ALL your information via rumor.  Nobody really knew  how this was going to impact us all,except that hard currency was going to be extremely dear.

On Wednesday, I went to the Polytechnic to see the weekly download of the ABC (American) news feed, & on my walk back to my office,  there were  truckloads of men in work jumpsuits  driving around shouting, “Strike!”.  By the time I got back to the office,  the rumor was that middle managers salaries were being raised 30%.  Ok, that’s about 200 people in the entire country. What about the regular folks?  Nobody knew…& they were innumerate anyways. That’s why there was tension

The next day, Thursday,  all hell broke loose.  Those workers driving around  shouting “Strike!”  Were from the industrial park.  The rumor was…later that  Wednesday afternoon, Carlsburg Beer workers went out, & the rest of the plants  fell like dominoes…they were all right next to each other, so they all went out.  Our  office campus was about a mile away, and when I got to work on Thursday morning, we had hundreds of people milling about. We were the local authority—-just Blantyre City government.  But when you’re illiterate, you don’t know from city or country—-all you know is government.  & suddenly, there was military, with tanks and guns, on our campus.  We were in the midst of a general strike.

I tried calling the Peace Corps office in Lilongwe (which was about 2 hours away in a fast car, or 6 hours by bus), but the lines were busy, so I called the USAID contact at the embassy.  I told her we were having a general strike, and  she said—I am not joking, “What’s a general strike?”

It was obvious that no work was going to be done that day. Anyways, I was going to go to Zimbabwe in 2 weeks, & I needed dollars…and another charming thing about banking in Malawi was that they’d only let you take $100 out of your account at one time—so I had to go every day to accumulate my now  expensive dollars.

I got on a bus (the buses were still running), & halfway to  the CBD (that would be downtown business district), the bus stopped, & people started getting off.  The street had been blocked by flagpoles (this is also  interesting—via the Malawi Congress Party ‘hotline’—they’d get the ‘regulars’ out to put up flagpoles with flags of the country of visiting dignitaries from other African countries…we were expecting some bwana from Tanzania).

I took a photo of this, and noticed hundreds of people walking  away from the business district. Whatever, I was going to the bank.  Along the way, one of my staff  was coming my way.  He asked me where I was going, I told him, and he laughed, and said, “Robyn!  The bank’s not open! There’s shooting in town!”

I didn’t hear any shots. We were outside Queen Elizabeth Hospital  at the time.   Midway between Blantyre ‘city hall’ (my office) & the bank.  He kept walking east, I was still walking west.  I took maybe 10 more steps & heard the shooting, and realized I had to get to a safe place.

I walked to Phil & Sharon Erros’ apartment, about 100 feet more. Sharon, a nurse, was at work, but Phil was at home because he had been working on an independent project.
“There’s shooting,”  I said to him, as he let me in.  ”  I’ve heard.  What do you think we should do?” he asked me.

“Let’s call the Peace Corps Office & see if they are going to evacuate us.”  I knew they weren’t.  Blantyre is in a valley.  The only 2 roads into town would surely be blocked.  But we had nothing to do, so we called, & the Country Director told us to just stay there.  I don’t think he believed us.   Malawi was the calmest country in Africa.

Now, remember, the government owns  THE radio station, so there is just regular programing.  NO TV.  Nothing. All you can do is sit.  The bullets were flying quite close to the house…& this went on till about 1 in the afternoon.  I was getting antsy. When it had been very still for a couple of hours, until about 3, I told Phil I was going to walk home.  As I was leaving, Sharon came in, from the hospital. They had been sort of under lockdown, but now NOBODY  was on the streets.

It was about 2 miles to my house, but that’s what I did.  I walked home, filled the bathtub with water (you do that  in case they shut down the water works), took all my decorations off the wall & packed my big bag,  hung around, read a bit, & went to bed.

Friday morning—it was dead out. I  decided to go into work.  The campus was dead except for my department.  My employees showed up!  At least my key people.  So there we were.  I told Luka & Nkoma I was bored, and that I didn’t want to stay around all weekend,  and that I was going to go to Zomba (Zomba is a college town about 30 miles away, and I had friends there).  They both decided that it might not be safe out on the street for a mzungu, and  decided to check around & see if the buses were even running before allowing me back on the street.

The coast was clear, so I went to the bus station & on to Zomba.  My friends, Sam & Florence Chikwembani, had been in grad school at Northwestern. That’s how I knew them. and Sam was  totally beside himself.  It turns out the  newspaper—the government paper—was reporting on the rioting.  So was the BBC.   As Sam pointed out to me, this had NEVER happened in Malawi.  We learned that the word had spread to BIWI—the industrial park in Lilongwe, and there were demonstrations (rioting?) there on Friday.  So. of course, after the excitement died down (by Monday),  Peace Corps wanted to know how I knew…& I had to tell them that I live with these people, duh!

The upshot?  The London Club–particularly the British office of Overseas Development Assistance (their version of USAID), froze all foreign assistance.  That put a stop to several development programs.  They were pushing for free, multiparty elections and a free press, & would not resume aid until changes were made.

USAID?  nothing. That’s not how we work.  In fact,  there was a drought, and people were starving, & I bought empty USAID  food bags in the Limbe market.  Where was the corn that was in those bags?  The government of Malawi transferred the food into their own bags, and gave it to the starving people, courtesy of Dr. Banda, the Life President.  All the Peace Corps volunteers knew this was going on, but the  elites—U.S. govt. embassy & USAID staff were oblivious.  They were doing business with this decaying government as though nothing was amiss.

So, the  ‘revolution’ petered out, and the exiles remained mostly in Zambia.

Elections didn’t take place until 1996.  I returned for a brief visit then, and people were optimistic. The economy was thriving and there were several newspapers.  I asked Luka & Nkoma which paper they trusted. They told me none of them.  You still had to read between the lines.

Malawi isn’t the most corrupt country in Africa.  However, I am in no position to say how transparent  government is.  I still live in Chicago, and we still have a single party system.