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Published: March 24th 2009
Forgot about me didn't ya... 😉
As you know I just arrived in northern Thailand for my new post with UNHCR, but I want to quickly wrap up the last few months in Malawi because there was so much going on! I will get these out quickly so I can start posting pictures of my new digs.
I think I may have mentioned in an earlier blog that I had been trying for months to organize some kind of traditional dance lessons in Lilongwe. These finally got off the ground in the first week of September, after I managed to find a space, and Kaye—the wonderful head dancer from the Congolese group Gigi & The Shooting Stars (whose videos I featured in an earlier blog)—signed on as our instructor. In fact, three band members all came to each lesson and participated in teaching, which was even better. I had a great group of women who signed up—and one lone guy, Santosh, who was one of the most rhythmically challenged, yet enthusiastic students. I was also keeping up with my twice-weekly Swahili lessons. ZOMBA PLATEAU - August 30-31
The Girls and I decided to head south to
Zomba Plateau, reputedly one of the most beautiful places to hike in the country. On the way down south, the road follows along Malawi’s eastern border with Mozambique, and we passed a huge, bustling roadside open-air market where Mozambicans come to trade with Malawians. Huge straw poles were draped high with chitenje
fabrics and second hand clothes imported from the West, and the roadside was colorfully lined with women sitting behind baskets of fruits and vegetables. Some sort of procession happened to pass by us just as we had stopped the car to wander through the market; sadly I can’t tell you much about it other than that it was pretty neat! But I did manage to capture a video you can check out above.
The drive up the mountain from Zomba was absolutely beautiful, with gorgeous views. Along the winding road, boys sell traditional woven baskets and special berries only found in this part of the country--blackberries and these incredibly juicy orange raspberries. After stocking up on some we decided to stay at a place called the Trout Farm - basically just a pond with a couple of small houses alongside that can be rented for something like
$12 per night. The facilities are very basic--no electricity, no running water, no views, except the cute little outhouse up the hill!--but it was absolutely perfect for us, in a serene clearing inside the forest.
One of the Malawian guys working at the farm offered to guide us on a hike up the plateau, promising to get us back by dark. We walked uphill for a few hours; as it began to get dark the temperature dropped dramatically. Luckily we made it to the major viewing points just before sunset, and then began hurrying down the mountain, wondering how our guide would manage to keep his promise to get us back before dark (he didn't!). In typical African form he kept assuring us we would be back before dark even after it was dark 😉.
Upon reaching our little house we quickly changed into a warm set of clothes and headed up to the big Kuchawe Inn resort for dinner. The food is far from spectacular and way overpriced, but it beat the wafers and Sprite on offer at the Trout Farm (with a name like that you would expect them to be able to feed the guests!).
The views from there are beautiful, though at night you can't see much. After dinner we started a fire in our little house and sat up talking late into the night.
The next day we wanted to get up to the highest point in Zomba, but definitely didn't have time to hike the whole way as we had to drive back to Lilongwe that afternoon. The guides at our hotel assured us that my car would make it up the mountain road; dubiously, we started up the rocky track, and within about 5 minutes had to solicit the help of the basket boys to get my car unstuck 😉. The road improved after that for a while and we tentatively continued going up, but it suddenly deteriorated severely and it became clear we couldn't go any further. We were all disappointed and trying to decide what to do, when a bright pink pick-up bearing the logo of Malawi's biggest cell phone network (Zain) came to the rescue! They agreed to drive us up to the highest point, where they were headed to maintain a cell tower. Unfortunately due to haze and/or pollution the views weren't as spectacular as they
may be at other times of year, but it was a fun ride.
After a brief stop at Malawi's premier university, Chancellor College, we headed back to Lilongwe, with plans to head to Cape Maclear a couple of weeks later. Around September 10, us girls went over to my neighbor's house for her showing of the Democratic National Convention speeches (which half of Lilongwe attended it felt like!). And of course, on September 13, it was my birthday. I had been sick earlier that week but luckily had recovered enough to paint the town red. John Paul's family had invited me out to dinner at the yummiest Italian restaurant in town, then later that night, my friends and colleagues had planned a dinner for me at the fancy Indian restaurant - back to back dates 😉. After dinner The Girls and I went dancing at Synergy, the newest addition to Lilongwe's nightlife scene.
With all my extracurricular activities it may seem like I had little time for work, but in fact this was the busiest time of the year for me. We had a Refugee Committee meeting on September 18, which is a joint meeting of UNHCR's
Representative and Protection staff and Malawi's Principal Secretary for Home Affairs (which governs refugee issues) as well as the Refugee Coordinator and senior members of various government departments. We were there to push for the Committee to hold a meeting to make final decisions on the refugee status assessments my colleagues and I at the RSD Unit had been making for the last 6 months. We had a backlog of at least 400 cases by that time that were just waiting for the Committee's approval. Somehow, UNHCR's proposal succeeded and it was agreed that we would hold a week-long meeting to go through the 400 decisions at the end of the month. This meant finalizing as many cases as I could in order to get as many refugees their decisions as possible. CAPE MACLEAR - September 26-28
With its reputation as perhaps the most beautiful spot on Lake Malawi, I knew I had to find my way there before leaving the country. Having gotten all my files ready for the big Refugee Committee meeting the next week, I decided to finally take advantage of the UN's half-day on Friday policy so we could get to Cape Maclear a
little early. Unfortunately, on the way there and just before reaching Senga Bay, my brakes gave out and we had to spend the night at poor Vusa's - I don't think he expected to see us again so soon, but he was nice enough to put us all up. He has a private beach which is heaven to sleep on, so Nathalie and I pitched my tent under the stars and got a great night's sleep. Early the next morning we all headed to the mechanic's where new brake pads were installed while we waited...and waited..and waited.
We managed to get on the road around 11 and got to Cape Maclear by about 1pm. It was absolutely as beautiful as I'd been told, with beautiful green hills rising out of the water. But what is most amazing about it is that all the tourist locations - the hotels, restaurants, bars, etc. - are totally integrated into the village to the point that when you go through the village you would hardly guess there are any hotels at all. It's a totally unique feeling compared to the other resorts on the lake which, while perhaps adjacent to local villages, are
walled off from them. Our hotel in Cape Maclear, for example, was sandwiched in between two small mudhuts occupied by Malawian families. The entire villages runs along the coast, so no matter where you stay, you are on the water. It's one of the most magical places in Malawi, though as far as crystal clear water goes, Kande Beach has Cape Mac beat.
We lounged on the beach in the afternoon, then were treated to an amazing performance by a group of tiny little boys with homemade instruments. They had fashioned a drum out of a jerry can and a sort of stringed instrument they played like a guitar. They played one song we loved so much we asked them to play it again (the one in the video). You truly must watch it, it was adorable. The lyrics are below. Afterward we had a lovely dinner down the village a ways at a guesthouse called Gaia which turns into a magical, candlelit spot at night - very romantic. The next day we organized a boat tour to one of the islands, where our guides would cook us a traditional lunch and - they promised - allow us to
see fish eagles up close. It was absolutely lovely, they grilled us some fish with fresh tomatoes and greens and rice, and then fed the leftovers to the fish eagles (can't say I approved of that, although it did give us incredible views of these birds).
The following Monday, the Refugee Committee meeting started. It was held for five days at a conference center in town, a very lovely villa where we all sat in groups in the landscaped garden to review the files - not a bad way to work! One representative from the RSD Unit was assigned to each of several small groups of government officials who would go over each decision made by the RSD Unit - either granting someone refugee status and thereby entitling them to remain in Malawi lawfully, or rejecting them and thereby making them vulnerable to deportation. Our job was to defend any decisions that the government officials wanted to overturn, and answer their questions about the law and reasoning supporting each case.
As you can imagine, I butted heads with some of the officials on many occasions 😉. They most often wanted to overturn grants of status to single women
Sunrise at Senga Bay
This was just after Nathalie and I woke up from the tent on Vusa's private beach
with large numbers of children, because by granting status to the mother, all her children would get status as well. How many children a person has obviously has no bearing on whether or not they meet the criteria for refugee status, which was my job to convince them of. Despite the overwhelming bias against refugees I encountered among the ministers, I managed to prevent them from overturning every grant they questioned, except one - out of sheer persistence alone, I think! I would just keep arguing until breaktime, when they would immediately give in because none of them cared enough to keep at it when they could be snacking instead.
After the meeting concluded we were graced with a national holiday that meant I was rewarded with a three-day weekend - and
a trip to Kande Beach
with my pals Nathalie and Johanna, and
in Nathalie's car which meant that I got to be a passenger and let someone drive me around for a change 😉. There isn't much to report about this trip...after my high-stress week dealing with government offcials - which I think must be frustrating no matter which country you're in - I didn't do much
Checking out the new brake pads
At the mechanic's in Senga Bay that morning!
but laze on the beach and sleep on the sand under the stars!
Next: the Lake of Stars festival, and Zimbabwe!!
♪ Lyrics to Cape Maclear Percussion Ensemble song ♪
♪ ♪ ♪ ♪ How are you?
How are you?
♪ ♪ ♪
How are you?
How are you?
♪ ♪ ♪
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