Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Father of the Gazelle

In an (albeit incomplete) Venn diagram comparing Abu Dhabi and Malawi, the central over-lapping section might include these commonalities:

lots of sun, few trees, Islam, high-heeled women, bodies of water inextricably linked to economy and local pastimes, former reaches of the British Empire, relatively conservative dress

On Malawi’s side, consider the following:

old vehicles, no fuel, nsima, a shortage of bottle caps to package beer and soft drinks, lots of dust, one-story buildings of mud brick and thatch, few resources, great weaves

And, alone in Abu Dhabi’s ring:

9% of the world’s oil reserves, global cuisine, vending machines selling bars of gold, the world’s largest flagpole, lots of sand, towering buildings, glitz and glamour, cars not exceeding the age of five years

Abu Dhabi means “father of the gazelle”—as the story goes, Bedouin men found the island in the eighteenth century, led by a gazelle in search of water. In the 1930s, the economy there suffered heavily when Japan’s commencement of pearl manufacture created an industry-wide recession. But, in the 1950s, oil was discovered and the kingdom became rich overnight. A Cinderella story: the oil money was redistributed, every young man inheriting a piece of the pie.
The result is an incredibly high standard of living for everyone. Or, almost everyone.

Again and again, I was surprised by small kind acts of strangers; the notion of Arab hospitality is not exaggerated. On the plane, a young woman insisted on putting away my carry-on bag. The flight attendant paused to explain the Arabic word for coffee. Later, observing my bafflement at a coin-free phone booth, a man hurried to lend me his calling card.

Amel, my gracious hostess, is a building conservator in a place obsessed with new. Old buildings are discarded layers replaced by taller, swankier towers in a perpetual effort to outdo the last. Abu Dhabi claims the world’s largest flagpole, most leaning building, biggest carpet, biggest pearl, third biggest mosque, a Formula One racetrack, and an application to become one of the seven wonders of the marine world. Next year, they will build--no joke--a Guggenheim and Louvre. It is a place bent on redefinition, at the same time shaped by and clinging to its traditional past. The new Sheikh Zayed Mosque, looming bubbly on the horizon, borrows unapologetically from a plethora of architectural traditions: Indian domes, German chandeliers, palm-tipped column capitals, Turkish tiles; 38 contracting companies contributed to its design, said our guide, Mansour. Inside, back-lit glass flowers entwine with inlaid mother-of-pearl blossoms vining up the wall, and the design of an over-wrought chandelier is mirrored below in the world’s largest single piece of carpet, hand-woven by 1200 Persian women. There appears to be no concern for over-doing the bling; everything in Abu Dhabi is big, shiny, and glitzy. And yet the city shies to be compared with its gaudier, louder neighbor, Dubai.

Abu Dhabi exports 2 million barrels of oil every day and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future, according to a recent guidebook. No one seems concerned about what will happen when the oil runs out. We did, however, visit Masdar City, MIT’s representation of alternative energy possibilities, a “Reality of the Future” constructed to palliate the complaints of critics who point to the city’s excessive carbon footprint, one of the world’s biggest.

At a swanky bar in Emirate Palace, I hid in the bathroom for a few minutes, taking in the expensive mirrors and light fixtures and massive doors, all reeking of quality, and felt ashamed of my nappy blue sweater, stained dress from the “Do Not Want” box, and glue-repaired sandals. Poor choice of color, a cream dress; the crowd was black-clad in heels, sparkly belts, and chained purses. After appreciating the absurdity of the situation—two nights ago spent in a mud-floored stable, manure and sweat-caked from the farm, tonight gawking at gold bars in a vending machine—I re-joined the party.

Trying to answer questions about my line of work proved difficult. “Ah, you were in Africa? For two years?” A man’s eyes brightened; charity is a pillar of Islam, and he seemed to believe Peace Corps fulfilled that requirement. “So you are going to heaven!”

They all laughed.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

A last day

There are some days that Malawi is unforgiving, especially in hot season, and especially lately when everything seems to be in short supply.

My last day was another rollercoaster, beginning with a well-intentioned but unreasonably early phone call at 4:45 am. The sun was baking by 7, no power to make coffee, no power to print photos at the shop next to Game, no power to print my travel itinerary at the office—but fortunately enough power to shop for shoes at Mr. Price.

Final signatures, hugs goodbye. A queue spilling onto the sidewalks of Shoprite for the latest rare commodity: soft drinks. What will Malawi do without Fanta? The country is also out of forex and fuel. A marriage proposal at the veg market, including an invitation to Mozambique to learn Portuguese. On the hot, cramped minibus ride, my seatmate asked: How long have you been in Malawi? When are leaving? Did you like living among Malawians? When will you come back? Questions I have answered dozens of times in some form or other.

I joined Alex, sun burnt in a twelve-hour queue for diesel, and we managed to walk the length of City Centre 6 times for water, cash, jerry cans, and assistance jump-starting the truck. Back at Nature’s Gift, Wibke and Jessica had taken up work in the medicinal garden, mulching more paths and giving me hope the project is in good hands.

On my last run, kids yelled at me from a mango tree; another group of boys tried to run beside me. After two years, I still haven’t found a zen response for this, only impatience.

I watched the sun set over the empty maize rows and Kumbali forest, took a final bucket bath, gorged myself on Indian food and good company, and—accepting there must always be unfinished business and unsaid goodbyes—put down the pen.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Permaculture, Natural Medicine Training, Festivals!

Some photos of October, my last month in Malawi... Diesel Petrol Palibe: a frequent scene these days

Somehow China always takes the cake.

Alex talks permaculture at UNDP's climate change conference in October.

Sunset on the road from Salima, one last time

Salima puppy cam!

A last trip to the lake, camping with Michelle and Stevie, at the Sandfest at Livingstonia Beach. The king of Swaziland showed up too.

Eston leads a tour for Msalura LEA teachers, who visited with Martin Pullen on another trip over from the UK. Many thanks to Martin and Msalura for bringing moringa poles, which serve as truncheons for a gazebo in the Natural Medicine Garden.

A new tractor for Wibke's chickens in the residential gardenWater management in the residential garden

Solar pump

Kelvie and Carol in Memo Garden

A visit from a traditional healer

Nelson builds an A-Frame to demonstrate planting on contour

Chili oil brewing

Pounding eucalyptus powder

Eucalyptus powder

Another use of artemisia

Solar oven

Scouting out materials at the Anamed training

Integrated Pest Management... attracting beneficials

The road to Dedza

Chowe sunset

Earthdance in Chowe, Mangochi

Monday, September 12, 2011

A few months of photos

Veg box number one. NGP recently began selling weekly subscriptions for organic produce from the Kusamala Market Garden. The glorious beet.

Eston and Alex lead a resource walk at Kachere Juvenile prison.

Jatropha nursery day. We planted 3000 jatropha, which will be used to make biodiesel for the NGP truck.

Jatropha week 2.

A bushbaby committed suicide on the transformer and we lost power for a day.

Thatched-roof classroom at NGP.

Permaculture in the Memo Garden; using water wisely.

People I love, on a boat to Lizard Island in Senga Bay during Close of Service Conference.

From a beach chair at Sangilo.

Nkhata bay.

Looking toward Livingstonia on the road from Sangilo. Esther and I stayed with Meg in Chitimba for a few days during the country-wide political demonstrations.

Yummy bulgogi (Korean barbeque) by Esther.

The borehole from Esther's window.

Dedza sunset in Mpalale village, where I stayed for a week in July helping with this year's pre-service training.

Salima friends, Patrick and Vincent. Sitemate welcome party in Senga Bay.

Ernest, my watchman and friend, now under Sally's employ.

Afternoon guest.

Footwear fashion in Salima

Blessings gives a goodbye speech at Msalura's graduation "celemony"

A goodbye fanta party with my neighborhood friends