Monday, December 14, 2009


Note: This post was written on an incredibly small plane (no Dad, I have no idea what kind, but it did have propellers. No, I don’t know how many.) somewhere over Southern Malawi. In celebrity news, a man who very much resembles Oliver Mtukudzi is sitting across the aisle from me and I really think it might be him. My conviction is based on the fact that it vaguely looks like him and the flight ends in Harare. So it is clearly him, or at least that’s what I tell myself as I unabashedly stare which I think is making him uncomfortable. Sorry Tuku (or random man if that is the case)…

I’ve just arrived in Malawi after a lovely 36 hour jaunt in Kenya, where I attended my friend Jackie’s wedding, caught up with SLU friend John in Nairobi, and successfully navigated the Thika nightlife with NYU friend Mike. More to come on those adventures…

Anyway, this is my first visit to Malawi, and to be honest, I know very little about it. While flying today I’ve compiled a list of the things I DO know for your reading pleasure:

  • 99.9% of my friends/family have never heard of Malawi and it is the only place in the world my Dad can’t pick out on a map, in spite of the fact that I’ve shown him 16 times. So for all of your sakes, Malawi is a long, narrow country in southeastern Africa, bordered by Tanzania in the Northeast, Zambia in the northwest, and Mozambique everywhere else.
  • Those who HAVE heard of Malawi have probably heard about it because of the association with Madonna. Yes, Malawi is the country where Madonna stole bought adopted two children who already had families orphans. However, the Malawians don’t seem too upset over the scandal as child-sized, brightly colored t-shirts with the words “Adopt Me!” and an arrow pointing to the wearer’s face are readily available in Lilongwe airport. I really wish they had one in my size.
  • Others may have heard of Lake Malawi, an aptly named popular tourist destination which lines almost the entire Eastern border of the country.
  • Blantyre, where I am headed for work, is incredibly complicated to get to from Kampala. My route was Entebbe -> Nairobi -> Lusaka -> Lilongwe -> Blantyre. This took approximately 16 hours despite its relative closeness.
  • The people are incredibly nice! The customs people actually smiled, a woman working in a small grocery store in Lilongwe airport allowed me to charge my phone in her stand and was patient while I asked her how to say things in Chichewa (I’ve already forgotten it all which is why that is not included in this lesson), and a policeman proposed to me and was undeterred when I lied to him and told him I had a “very large husband in America.” But he was very friendly about it!
  • Based on the view from the sky and Lilongwe Airport, it appears to be beautiful.

So as you can see, my information is limited. And while I will likely be quite busy with work, I hope to learn a tiny bit more about the country in the next week. And you know what that means—blog posts! I also plan to update about my visit to Nairobi and Thika, so WATCH THIS SPACE!

Sunday, December 6, 2009

The Development Set

Written by Ross Coggins in 1976 and published in “Adult Education and Development”, this poem was first brought to my attention in a grad school class, Politics of International Development, at NYU Wagner (thanks Gersh!). At the time it already seemed spot on, but now after having lived abroad as an active part of the “development set” for over a year, it’s downright eerie. While I’m not feeling the need to defend or attack the piece in a public forum at the moment (though trust me, I could, BOTH ways), I think it is an interesting read, both for those who like me have lived the expat life and grapple with these issues daily, and those who don’t fully understand my personal conundrums about my life’s work. Perhaps later I’ll tackle some of my personal feelings on the issue, but at the moment, I’ll just share and allow you to form your own opinions. How very democratic of me. Enjoy!

The Development Set

Excuse me, friends, I must catch my jet
I’m off to join the Development Set;
My bags are packed, and I’ve had all my shots
I have traveler’s checks and pills for the trots!

The Development Set is bright and noble
Our thoughts are deep and our vision global;
Although we move with the better classes
Our thoughts are always with the masses.

In Sheraton Hotels in scattered nations
We damn multi-national corporations;
injustice seems easy to protest
In such seething hotbeds of social rest.

We discuss malnutrition over steaks
And plan hunger talks during coffee breaks.
Whether Asian floods or African drought,
We face each issue with open mouth.

We bring in consultants whose circumlocution
Raises difficulties for every solution –
Thus guaranteeing continued good eating
By showing the need for another meeting.

The language of the Development Set
Stretches the English alphabet;
We use swell words like “epigenetic”
“Micro”, “macro”, and “logarithmetic”

It pleasures us to be esoteric –
It’s so intellectually atmospheric!
And although establishments may be unmoved,
Our vocabularies are much improved.

When the talk gets deep and you’re feeling numb,
You can keep your shame to a minimum:
To show that you, too, are intelligent
Smugly ask, “Is it really development?”

Or say, “That’s fine in practice, but don’t you see:
It doesn’t work out in theory!”
A few may find this incomprehensible,
But most will admire you as deep and sensible.

Development set homes are extremely chic,
Full of carvings, curios, and draped with batik.
Eye-level photographs subtly assure
That your host is at home with the great and the poor.

Enough of these verses – on with the mission!
Our task is as broad as the human condition!
Just pray god the biblical promise is true:
The poor ye shall always have with you.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Coming “home” again…

They say you can never go home again. However, in a (albeit quick and not-comprehensive) google search, I couldn’t actually figure out WHO says that. But “they” do say it, and maybe its true. Cliché, but honest.

But given my increasingly nomadic lifestyle (and that of my friends/family), I sometimes question where home even is. Theoretically home is where you were born, so if that were the case, Dallas, TX. Or some might say it’s where you spent your formative years. Ok, so Georgetown, TX. Or where your mail goes—Lakewood, NY. But none of these really seem to fit. If we follow the also cliché adage of “home is where the heart is”, things get even more complicated. Because I am blessed to have a wonderful family and amazing friends, following that logic home is in Chautauqua County, Georgetown, Houston, Uganda, Austin, Boston, South Africa, Dallas, Brooklyn, Washington DC, Mexico, Montana, Ghana, Charlotte, New York City, Cameroon, San Francisco, San Antonio, Afghanistan, Gainesville, Kenya, Canton, India, Copenhagen, College Station, Denton, London, Chicago, Alexandria—the list goes on and on.

Other more practical and less romantic types might argue that home is the place where you lay your head at night, and if that is the case, its unquestionably Kampala, Uganda, in a lovely flat with a view of Lake Victoria, three adorably obnoxious cats (just the way I like ‘em), two fantastic roommates, and the most colorful bedspread you’ve ever seen. And for now, I’m going to be utilitarian and go with that definition. Which means I’ve managed to thwart the system, and have, in fact, come home again. But I think the phrase is not to be read quite so strictly. I think the phrase means that while you can physically come back, it probably won’t be the same. And to be honest, that’s true. While I’ve only been gone for an almost negligible 3.5 months, coming back has been weird. Not weird bad, just weird. Its one of those situations where everything is the same, yet nothing is the same.

I’m living in a new flat, walking in a new neighborhood, working in a new job, learning a new vocabulary of a new development sector, preparing to travel for work to a new country, shopping in a new market, getting familiar with new transportation options, discovering new eating and drinking spots, making new friends, catching up on the lives of old friends that have continued and changed in my absence. And it feels different. Again, not different bad, just different. But in spite of all that, it feels really nice to be home again.

And while I miss all the other “homes” in my life like crazy, for the moment, this feels right.