Saturday, March 30, 2013

Maji Zuwa & Me

My mama sent a text this week saying “People want blogs! Love you!” so I figured I may as well write to meet demand J I apologize for basically being the worst blogger ever these past two years. Soon I’ll be home and you guys will wish I’d just shut up about Malawi so figure I’d best take advantage while everyone is still interested, haha.

So I wrote a pretty brief post about Maji Zuwa in the past- but now I want to write the whole story Maji Zuwa has had a huge impact on my service and is a place I’ll be in touch with for the rest of my life. And you should all hear why.

Back in July 2011, I went to Maji Zuwa [Water & Sun Resort] for the first time with my former sitemate Meg and my BFF Jay. I knew nothing about the place, except that it was kind of new. In the lakeshore area where I live, there a lot of picturesque lodges- many of which have crabby, curmudgeon old expat owners-not to judge. I mean if you want to be a crabby old lodge owner, great- but I’m not going to be very inclined to visit your place. On this day for the first time, I met Matt Maroon- the American, very young owner (December 2012 turned 29). He hung out us for the day as we enjoyed some Carlsberg and the menu specialty, chapati tacos. We learned from reading the back of the menu that Matt (in addition to being the owner of Maji Zuwa) is a professor at nearby Univeristy of Livingstonia, and founder of the non-profit Determined to Develop, which sponsors dozens of kids’ school fees. We were all suitably impressed. We got Matt’s phone number, and he quickly became our friend and Maji Zuwa became great getaway from our lives in the village.

Over the coming months, over many shared meals and beers with Matt, we learned a lot more about him. He came to Malawi in 2006 as a (non-Peace Corps) volunteer, teaching at a school in Karonga. He was so moved by his experience here, making many friends and Malawian family members along the way, he wanted to stay. Over the coming years, living between Malawi and getting his Master’s in Anthropology in the USA, he found investors to build Maji Zuwa. Maji Zuwa is more than a lodge. Besides being tied to Matt’s non-profit, which does sustainable community development projects in the area, a dozen or so orphaned boys live here with Matt. Some of these boys literally helped build Maji Zuwa from the ground up. And all of them now help to continue to improve Maji Zuwa’s continuing construction projects, while also attending the local secondary school. Matt had experience working with underprivileged youth in the USA and that, along with his warm and friendly personality have provided a safe, wonderful environment for these boys to grow and succeed. The boys and Matt are like family to me- and I’ve shared many “family dinners” with them; every Saturday night is ‘family dinner’, where all the boys and all the Maji Zuwa guests eat meat and rice together (a real treat of a meal!).

I’ve had so many great memories with my Maji Zuwa family. After a particularly trying Friday in the village, I texted Matt about my woes and he invited to treat me and Jay at Maji Zuwa (covering my food and lodging costs) to talk it all over. Me, Jay, and Ross spent Cheesemas ’11 here at Maji Zuwa. I had my amazing 25th birthday/4th of July party here- where more than 40 other Peace Corps volunteers attended! And Matt had bought fireworks in the capital. It was a very memorable birthday. In 2012, I spent, Halloween, Thanksgiving weekend, Christmas and New Years Eve here at Maji Zuwa with my family and friends. I’ll never forget those holiday!

Maji Zuwa also attracts “voluntourism” in that it hosts visitors and gives them opportunity to experience Malawian culture and help with one of Determined to Develop’s projects. Matt also helps hosts long-term volunteers at the local secondary school where the boys attend- volunteers who serve as teachers for at least one term. Some of these volunteers have become lifelong friends to me! In addition, every summer Matt hosts college students from his alma mater University of Dayton thru the ETHOS program- a program that sends undergraduate engineering students to destinations around the world to complete a summer project. Those students who get to come to Malawi and Maji Zuwa definitely realize how lucky they are! (and last year they got to attend my amazing birthday party J ). So many out of country visitors have been just as moved by their Maji Zuwa experience as I have, being here for two years.

When I first came to Maji Zuwa- there was no electricity, one ‘summer hut’ (a covered, sandy area to sit and enjoy drinks and food) and the main open air bar. Workers would have to go to the local trading center to get us cold drinks! Now, there are two cement floored summer huts, electricity and huge TV in the bar, multiple refrigerators and freezers, and a stove/oven (back in the day everything was just cooked over fire). The bridges to the chalets are being rebuilt, dorm lodging is being built and most importantly- a spacious house is being built for Matt and the resident boys (they currently have been living in the office area of the main/bar building, they are killing for space!). It’s been amazing to see all these wonderful changes over the past two years- providing tons of work for local community members to benefit from. I can’t believe all that has changed, I love this place more and more as time passes.

As you might guess, Matt is a pretty special person and no blog post could ever do justice to his story or the Maji Zuwa story. Luckily for you, you will be able to learn about the whole thing in a documentary about him that is currently being made. As I wrote previously, Director Ben Blair has been on the ground in Malawi since November, recording the story for a not for profit documentary. Ben will be here until August, where he will then return to USA to put together the whole thing for your viewing pleasure. You can learn more about the documentary here, and I hope when it is released everyone I know will be able to see it, so they might experience a little bit of what I have (and you just might see an interview with yours truly!).

To wrap up, I want to tell a story. Back in July of 2011, I helped run the Gender and Development Camp in Mzuzu- I believe I wrote a big long post about it back in the day. One of our first icebreaker games was a name learning game- everyone stood in a circle. The first person says their name and does a motion (such as a spin or something) and the second person, says the first person’s name, does their motion, says their name, and does a motion. This continues around the circle until everyone is saying a lot of names and doing a lot of motions! It was the boy’s next to me turn, where he introduced himself as Frackson and did his motion- a good old fashion hip thrust. I was floored by this moment of quiet hilarity that I delayed in beginning my turn. Frackson, along with the rest of our campers, had an enjoyable week of learning and fun that I will never forget.

Flash forward/back to my first visit to Maji Zuwa. As I’m sitting at the table with just Meg and Jay, who approaches us but Frackson, from camp! As it turned out, Frackson is one of the boys who lives at Maji Zuwa with Matt. So I got to see Frackson grow, succeed in school, and become part of my family. I remember back when there was no electricity, Matt shared a story with me about Frackson. Frackson had been looking grumpy for a few days, so Matt asked what was wrong. Initially, Frackson resisted telling Matt. But a few days later Matt was like, you must tell me! And Frackson’s response was, “I’m not reading enough!”. At the time there was only light bulb (powered by solar power). So Matt permitted Frackson to use the light bulb for an extra hour each night. I love this story- a child so earnest to learn and getting the opportunity to. Frackson was first in his class in secondary school and held the honorable title of Head Boy! It has been great to see.

Just in January, Matt announced at family dinner that Frackson would be moving to Livingstonia to attend University of Livingstonia. I was so so thrilled to hear this! I asked Matt who would be paying for Frackson’s education and he said “me”, meaning, out of Matt’s own pocket. I told him that I wanted to help with Frackson’s education- having gotten to know him over the last two years, I know he is very deserving of the opportunity and will be a great success. I am hoping that my family and friends out there reading this will help me over the years to put Frackson thru university. This is an opportunity to really change someone’s life, and by extension, help him to develop his country. When I come home I will have more information on how you can help, but please feel free to contact me about it. I consider Frackson to be a family member, and thereby, he is now your family member too!!

I sit here writing this post from the newest summer hut at Maji Zuwa, on a beautiful lakeshore morning. I am so happy to finally share this tale with you, that have been such an important part of my time in Malawi and my life. I hope my family here in Malawi can count on your support in the future.

Sunday, February 10, 2013


I know that I still haven't finished writing about my trip across Malawi with Mike. Trust me that one day, I will finish writing about it (hint- today is not that day). It was an unforgettable trip so I know I'll always be able to write about it!

The end of my Peace Corps service is upon me. I can't believe it's reached this point. The last 3 months at site is when we're supposed to close out all of our work (so it remains in the hands of the community and continues when we're gone) and to enjoy the end of our village experiences. This last 3 months began with our COS (close of service) Conference with my health group, on the southern Malawi lakeshore. I got to spend 4 days and 3 nights with the group I came to Malawi with. We got advice for our readjustment to America, learned how we will close out our service (bureaucratically, pooping in cups for the doctor, etc), and got to spend some quality time together. It was wonderful! We were at a beautiful resort on the lake, the weather was surprisingly wonderful (for rainy season!), and the food was delicious. On our last night, we had a braai (the Malawian version of a barbecue), a lovefest for the incredibly supportive John and Irene (Peace Corps Malawi staff that ran our conference) and an amazing dance party, DJ'd by yours truly. It was one of the most memorable nights of my service, and made me so thankful for my group. The love and friendship I feel for my training group has made my service so special. I think we all wouldn't have made it if we didn't have each other! I look forward to having these relationships to rely on when I'm back in America freaking out at grocery stores and stuff.

At conference, I found out that my Peace Corps service will officially be over on April 25. I will no longer be a Peace Corps volunteer midday on that day. Crazy to think! When my service is over, my friend Jay and I will be driving around Malawi on an advertising trip for Maji Zuwa, the lodge owned by my friend Matt. I believe I have spoken about Maji Zuwa ALL THE TIME? (I promise to write a separate post about Maji Zuwa's impact on me another time.) But anyway, we are going to be visiting lodges and resorts all over Malawi to drop of posters and talk with lodge managers about promoting Maji Zuwa! It's going to be so fun, I am very excited. And then, on May 10th, I begin my journey home on the aeroplane!!

When I get home, I will begin my immediate participation in my sister Kara getting hitched on June 2! I believe this includes getting a dress fitted, getting my hair styled, going to a bachelorette party- I am ready to finally step us as belated maid of honor. The rest of the summer I plan on doing some traveling around the US of A- surprisingly, I have not seen very much of it. I plan on hitting up NYC, Florida, the west coast for the FIRST TIME, and more! Potentially even Cape Cod for a Peace Corps reunion! In addition, my amazing parents are taking me and my sister Dana on the Disney Cruise to ALASKA!! I have never been so excited for a vacation!! It should be a pretty fun summer.

In the fall I plan on buckling down and getting my job hunt on. I'm going to take the GRE and apply for enrollment to graduate school in 2014, probably for a Master's in Social Work. I'm looking forward to the next step in my career.

So that's the 411 on me! Anyone out there with any job contacts, in need of a babysitter/petsitter/house sitter, or selling a used hybrid car, please gimme a shout! All friends and family, please contact me so I can begin to fill up social calendar :) I miss you guys and can't wait to see you SOON! >89days!

Monday, November 5, 2012

Malawi Trip - Part II

I left you hanging with the beginning of my encounter with the hippos of Liwonde during our canoe safari… we were so close to them! We just quietly canoed on by, and although we got some seemingly dirty looks (but who can really read a hippos face?) we passed by safely. It was a beautiful view of the river and the park from where we were canoeing. Mike, photog extraordinaire, took a billion pictures which will hopefully be updated to facebook soon for your viewing pleasure. I couldn’t even name all the animals we saw (and that Mike has pictures of), we saw a lot of the smaller type of animals.

UNTIL… we turn our canoes around and begin to head back the direction we came, when we see, a small herd of elephants feeding themselves in a field. We have to stop our canoes, because the path we need to go thru is too close to the elephants- and the facts are, although elephants are beautiful and majestic creatures (my personal favorites) they will stomp the shit out of you if you bother them. And I guess they’ve earned it, being the biggest land mammal on Earth and all. So we sit in our canoes, watching the elephants eat… for awhile. More than a half hour passes, and our canoe guides take some safe efforts to force the elephants to leave- namely, tapping the side of our canoes with the oars. [Ideally] just bothersome enough to send the elephants away, but not so bothersome that they will desire to stomp us.

Another half hour passes with our subtle oar tapping. Elephants show no sign of moving. Our guides start talking amongst themselves between our canoes, apparently discussing what we should do. They decide… to move on,  and head toward camp. We’ve been stopped in our canoes for more than an hour, so I guess it’s just time to move on… much to Kate and I’s fear. Mike was desensitized to the danger of elephants as he had just ridden a domesticated one in Zambia. Kate and I on the other hand, were quite fearful. As quietly as we could possibly be, our guides paddle our boats forward as Kate and I duck down into our boats, in pathetic attempts to hide/keep an eye on the elephants, should they decide to head towards us to stomp us. We moved very, very slowly, but eventually, we’re in the clear, out of view of the elephants and we can begin to chat again. Mike asks his canoe guide if he can paddle back the rest of the way, as we are nearby now. Mike takes over paddling when his guide says “There might be elephants around the corner” and my canoe’s guide says “alipo”, which means, “it’s there”, and we look up, and see in the near distance a baby elephant. Cue Kate and I’s desperate ducking, we paddle by, and make it back to camp before a full on panic attack is induce. Whew!!

It was a very exciting safari that was TOTALLY worth the money ($20!!!). We were exhausted from all the sun exposure (even with our awesome hats) so we went to get lunch in town, and have some drinks by the river (where we could watch the hippos have their meetings at a safe distance). It was a really wonderful stop on our trip and Kate was a wonderful host!! Thank you Kate!!!

The next day we headed to Zomba- the former capital of Malawi. It is a very developed area, with a big university, lots of NGOs, businesses, and the famous Zomba Plateau. My friend Gibran lives in Zomba town and hosted us for the night most comfortably in his very fancy loft apartment. We had brownies and watched tv!! The plan was for Mike and I the next day to head to the plateau to camp the next night, so it was nice to live it up fancy style before our overnight camping trip.

The next morning we repacked our bags and shopped for some food supplies to take with us camping. We headed to the base of the Zomba plateau and began the walk up.. it’s a paved road all the way up (there are less developed paths, but we knew the road would take us to our camp site). We walked for a bit of it but then we were easily able to hitch a ride all the way to our camp site, the Trout Farm- the site of a fish farming operation in progress. The ride was beautiful. Zomba plateau houses a very full and green forest reserve, and a beautiful dam. Again, Mike gladly took pictures. We set up camp and then set out to hike some more- there is a big loop of a hiking path around the top of the plateau, supposedly 7 hours. Mike and I packed some bread and peanut butter to take with us to eat on our long hike. Using Mike’s impeccable sense of direction we were able to just wing it- although our hike had no big “end point” or destination, we stopped at some beautiful sites and enjoyed the exercise. We also may or may not have left our initials carved in a tree stump somewhere.

We got back to camp to find someone selling fresh raspberries harvested from the plateau- we gladly bought the whole bowl and destroyed them immediately. Delicious!! So yummy!!! I’ve never really considered myself a berry person but these were delicious. As the sun began to set, we met some fellow campers- a swiss couple with an AMAZING truck that turned into a residence. It looked much more comfortable and warm than our dinky (yet awesome) tent. We started a big fire to cook and for warmth- and enjoyed a dinner of delicious ramen noodles and soya pieces. It was a wonderful evening of chatting around a campfire, who doesn’t love that? Unfortunately, when we headed to bed, we found we weren’t as prepared for the drop in temperature that comes with being on top of the plateau. We were quite cold, the difference in temperature between the plateau and town was astounding.

But we survived!!! We were tired from our not so great sleep, but we packed up and headed down the mountain. We did not luck out so much on the way down- we had to walk the entire way, which was a little rough (but made me appreciate the ride we got up that much more). On our way down we stopped at Casa Rosa, a new Italian restaurant, where we had chocolate crepes and fruit salad. It was random, and delicious. We headed back to Gibran’s to get our things together and for a rest, and that afternoon, we set off to Blantyre- the biggest city in Malawi, located in the southern region.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Malawi Trip - Part I

(I am publishing this in parts, as I find it difficult to write so much in one sitting. Enjoy Part I!)

in August/September I was fortunate enough to be able to take two weeks vacation to finally, travel around Malawi. And I was even more, extra super duper fortunate that my best friend Mike was going to be travelling with me! If you ever followed my old blog updates from my time in The Gambia, you may remember Mike as that guy I hung around with constantly during my first trip there. It was in The Gambia that Mike and I actually decided that we would do the Peace Corps. Mike was sent to serve in Lesotho in June 2010, and completed his service in August 2012. Upon completion of his service, Mike travelled from Lesotho to Malawi, taking time to see some of the cool sites along the way (i.e. Victoria Falls), and arrived in Malawi towards the end of August.

I hadn’t seen Mike since we said goodbye in May 2010, so it was truly thrilling to see him when he arrived. I know I am so crazy lucky to have been able to go home this past April/May, so I wouldn’t have to wait so long to see my friends and family. Lucky me! The poor guy had been travelling for 22 hours on a bus to get to Lilongwe (capital of Malawi) where we were meeting, so we happily ate and passed out- our big journey began the next day!

From Lilongwe we went to Dedza- to the Chongoni Training Center, where I received my anamed training this past April (hope you remember my blog post). The founder of anamed, Dr. Hans Martin, was visiting from Germany, and a few of us volunteers (and Mike) got the chance to meet him. For me, it was truly inspiring to meet Dr. Martin. Anamed has had endless influences on my work in Malawi and my perspective about nature’s role in our lives. To meet the founder of an organization that works to help so many people in need in tropical regions across the world, in a way that is compatible with nature, is something I could have only dreamed of. It was anamed coming full circle for me!

My friend Carolyn was also in Dedza meeting Dr. Martin with me, so from Dedza, Carolyn, Mike, and myself headed to Mangochi where Carolyn lives. Mangochi is a southern, lakeshore district. We had a hell of a time travelling there- hitching rides and not spending too much on transport, laughing all the way. It’s great to travel with Carolyn as her language skills are crazy awesome (and by now we’re in a region of Malawi that does not speak the language I know). It was a pretty full day of travelling, but we arrived at Carolyn’s cozy house with ELECTRICITY for dinner and sleepytime.

The next day, Carolyn took us to Club Makokola- probably one of THE nicest hotels on Lake Malawi. There was a beautiful pool (that cost about $2 just to get in the pool) just yards from beautiful Lake Malawi! It was also the first place I’ve been to on Lake Malawi with actual, cushioned, lounge chairs. Having lived a cushy life filled with lots of parent-sponsored vacations, I appreciate a good lounge chair. It was an amazing day. Having seen a place so ritzy, it convinced me to work on maybe convincing the Angelos to make a trip to Malawi… should you speak to my parents, be sure to give them encouragement!

That night back at Carolyn’s, being the wonderful host she was, made us fish tacos!! Even though I live on the lake, I rarely eat fish- mostly because I don’t cook it myself, and I don’t cook it because I don’t go to the lake at 5am to go buy it. But Carolyn lives near her district capital, so lots of vendors are around selling fish and other foodstuffs. Pretty awesome.

The next morning we visited Carolyn’s health center, in my attempt to still feel connected to work (even on vacation, a PCV never rests!). Carolyn works at a government health center (whereas I work at a church sponsored health center) that is BRAND NEW to her area. It is small, but very very nice, and just getting started from I can tell. It seems to be filled with motivated health workers, and Carlyn clearly has a great relationship with the staff there. It’s got to be a neat experience working at a brand new health center in an area where there was none, and really working to create the positive relationship between the health center and their catchment area. All volunteers’ experiences are different!

From Mangochi we hitched a ride to Liwonde. First we embarked on a matola (pick up truck) that promptly broke down not long into the ride. I was not having this, so while we were on the side of the road and people were attempting to fix the matola, I flagged down another car, and we made a run for it! It was a quick and pleasant driver, going further south, from the lake to the Shire River. We arrived mid-late afternoon, and met up with Kate at a local bar that overlooks the river- which is full of hippos! It’s quite the view to say the least J Kate lived in my homestay village and was in my language class during PST, so we are close friends- that never get to see each other because of the great distance between our sites! Kate is a nurse and has her master’s in Public Health, and here in Malawi she is working on a project sponsored by the CDC- she is helping with very important malaria research- testing the effectiveness of medicine, mosquito nets, and more.

The next morning, we headed to Liwonde Game Park- “game” as in wild animals!! Kate had looked up some things for us to do and we decided to take a canoe safari in the river that was run by a lodge in the game park called Bushman’s Baobabs. The lodge was beautiful! I highly recommend it to anyone travelling thru the area. We arrived and signed up for our canoe safari. They were packing a cooler for our canoes so we even got to bring some Carlsberg refreshments along for the ride J With our two guys, complementary hats (just for the ride) and our cooler, we loaded our canoes and headed out!

Almost as soon as we got to where the river gets really wide, we saw a bunch of hippos! It looked like they were having a meeting of some sort, and I swear one of them was giving me the eye like I was interrupting...  (leaving you hanging! keep a lookout for Part II, coming so soon!)

Friday, September 7, 2012

seeing Malawi for the first time!

I try not to start every blog post with an apology about not posting very recently, so I won't... but you get my drift right? I haven't blogged in awhile. I've been on holiday with my best friend Mike, whom I first visited The Gambia with in 2007, traveling around Malawi- and I mean really traveling. Until this trip, I had never been south of the my Peace Corps training site, Dedza- in the central region. Now, I've been to the southern region!! Hit up all the hot spots- Mangochi, Liwonde, Zomba, and the biggest city in Malawi, Blantyre. I'm glad that I won't feel like I've missed out on parts of Malawi by the time I go home. It's hard living in such a remote corner of the country- it takes awhile to get places, to say the least.

I plan to expand further on my trip for you guys, but I hope a lot of you have been keeping up with me on Facebook too, as I've tried to keep everyone posted on my findings and post some pictures along the way. Somehow, at every stop we've made, my little internet USB stick has had 3G. If only my site did!! But expect a more detailed post in the coming weeks for sure.

Hope you are all well. Love to you all!