Above the Clouds

I knew we had been climbing for a while, but when I turned to see that we were actually above the clouds, it took my breath away. Yes, every single part of my body was in pain… yes, I was praying that we would reach the top soon… yes, there was still much more than half the race left… yes, I was wondering why the heck I signed up to do this… but I couldn’t help feeling truly blessed at that moment. Have you ever run a race above the clouds? I can officially say that it is an unforgettable experience.

Photo by Hayden Fennoy

Flash back to over one year ago… Pre-Service Training. One of our resource volunteers, Shannon, decided to join us on a morning run. (A resource volunteer is someone in their second year of service, who attends PST to help teach the trainees and give us advice/guidance based on their experience.) Shannon mentioned that she was training for the Porters’ Race in July. She explained it as an annual event in which people race up, over, and down Mount Mulanje. I was interested but also thought the whole thing sounded a little crazy.

My first look at part of Mount Mulanje


Fast forward to some months ago and our resident fitness expert, CJ, made a group for those interested in running the Porters’ Race. It was aptly titled “I wanna die on Mulanje 🏔.” I joined but did not think that I would actually follow through… I’m not much of a trail runner. CJ posted weekly running suggestions and I did train some, but not as much as I normally would for a race. When the time came to book lodging for race weekend, I knew I had to make a choice. I debated for a while and then decided, why not… it will be an experience!

The lodge (it was close to the start/finish)


I was right; it was a once in a lifetime experience. I definitely did not know exactly what I was getting into. To be honest, I’m glad I didn’t because I probably would have turned and ran the other way as fast as possible.

Here’s what I knew beforehand…

Doesn’t look too bad, right? Well, the steepness of the trail was beyond anything I could have ever imagined. There was not much running involved because… well, a lot of it was impossible to run. Imagine rocks and boulders so steep you have to get on your hands and knees, and try not to look over the edge too often while doing so. I would call it more of an insane hike that you are trying to finish as fast as possible. 

Photo by Hayden Fennoy


The Porters’ Race was originally established as a competition for Mulanje porters and mountain guides, who have done the trek countless times, usually carrying large packs. Over the years it has grown, and is now open to anyone over the age of 16 who is up for the challenge. We were blessed with good weather, whereas last year, it was incredibly cold and sleeting for most the race.

The crew before the start! (Photo from CJ Mishima)


The winner this year finished around 2 hours 15 minutes, with NO SHOES! (I could be off on his time, since I wasn’t there to witness it.) 11 Peace Corps volunteers ran and our fearless leader, CJ, was first in our group, coming in around 3 hours 15 minutes. He placed 3rd among all the international runners!

Photo from CJ Mishima (L to R: Datu, CJ, Tanner)


I finally finished the 14.4-mile trek up, over, and down the tallest mountain in Southern Africa at around 6 hours. I was beyond thrilled to make it to the finish line. Here’s a short reflection on my 6-hour adventure.

Trying to look excited before the start 😁 (Photo from Nyassa Kollie)


The race began and I was slowly jogging, for about 5 minutes… and then the mountain literally shot up in front of me. My muscles were thankful that Zack and I had climbed some Colorado 14ers, not that anything could have truly prepared me for Porters’ Race.

Photo by Hayden Fennoy


The climb felt like it lasted FOREVER. We were high above the clouds by the time we reached the top. At that point, I was looking forward to some flat trails and the opportunity to run… but that didn’t last for too long. What I thought was going to be a relatively flat ridge traverse, was not… lol. It required even more climbing, but I did manage to run when possible. 

Roughly middle of the race! (Photo by Hayden Fennoy)


I was grateful to have my Camelbak full of water because the last water stop was when we initially reached the top. I was also lucky to be with Hayden for much of the race before the downhill started. It was nice to have someone to turn to and say “this is insane,” and know you are not alone… someone is right there suffering with you. But it was also good to remind each other to take in the amazing views every once in awhile. It was a crazy race but it was also crazy beautiful the whole time. 

On top of the mountain with Hayden and Charlie! (Photo by Hayden Fennoy)


The downhill portion was KILLER for me. I am not very sure-footed when hiking down so I was pretty slow. Of course there were tons of amayis zipping by me with huge piles of firewood on their heads. I often resorted to following their footsteps and movement patterns to make it down with the same efficiency. I also sang out loud… A LOT. “Take one step at a time, there’s no need to rush…” 

I was getting super tired near the end and definitely tripped and fell towards the bottom of the mountain, no surprise there. But eventually I heard it… music… wafting through the trees… instant energy… my pace quickened. Off in the distance I could see the banner that hung over the starting line… then I heard cheering from my fellow volunteers. I made it! How? I have no idea but I did it! In fact, all 11 of us finished within 8 hours. An amazing feat to say the least.

Cassie and I glad to be done! (Photo by CJ Mishima)


It was by far the most physically demanding race I have ever done. It wasn’t just a race, it was a trek… up and down a mountain. I am definitely happy I did it, but will probably stick to my usual running races from now on, and hiking 14ers of course. Nevertheless, in spite of the sore muscles, scrapes, and bruises, I will always look back fondly on the experience I had “running” the race above the clouds.

Photo by Hayden Fennoy

Moto & Me

Prior to leaving the U.S., I contemplated what it would be like to get a dog during my service. I assumed I would enjoy the company, and that he or she might also provide an added sense of safety and security. I have always been a dog person, and not the biggest fan of cats. I mean cats always have this look, like they are figuring out the best way to kill you while you are fast asleep. (I know… kind of dramatic, but just trying to keep it real.) They say Peace Corps changes you, and that is true. Who would ever think I would fall in love with not just one, but multiple cats?

My homestay family had a dog and two cats, but to be honest, I did not warm up to any of them very much. I was accustomed to the whole American “my pet is a member of the family” mindset, but that is not exactly how it goes here. My family’s “pets” were not super interested in love and affection.

Febu, my homestay family’s dog


During training, we did have a dog who often visited us during sessions… Stella. Named by us. Now that was true love for me. Comfortable, dog love, the kind that I was used to.

Once I got to site, I decided against getting a dog. Who would watch my dog when I was away from home? I was worried that he or she would not receive the same warmth and love from someone who felt obligated to say yes, but didn’t really want to look after my dog. After all, I would feel the same about having to watch someone’s cat… wouldn’t I? Things were changing.

Pablo and Carlos… they broke me down. 

These cats are residents at a hostel I often stay at in Zomba. It took me a little bit to warm up to them but eventually I found myself anxiously awaiting my next Zomba visit, not just for the food, but to see the cats! Maybe this developed out of a desperate need for unconditional love, and then stumbling upon willing participants. Or just wanting to cuddle with something, anything. But either way… I was transformed. Every time I spent a weekend with Pablo and Carlos, I loved them more and more.

Fast forward about five months, and I had a visitor. Not another chicken or goat taking a stroll through my house, but a kitten!

The first day he came to my porch I tried to approach him, but he immediately bolted. Nevertheless, the kitten kept returning day after day. He slowly became more comfortable coming in and taking a look around. I was about to leave for a visit to the U.S. and things change quickly around here, so I assumed I would not see him again.

But alas, within hours of getting back to my village after being gone so long, he popped in to say hi. I was beyond excited, a feeling I still cannot believe is coming from the presence of a cat!

He’s clearly waiting for those cookies to be done!


While I was away my neighbors had to kill several rats that had decided to breed and create a nice little home for themselves in my bedroom. They chewed through the wall and were carrying food from my landlord’s side of the house to mine. I was utterly relieved to hear that my neighbors took care of this situation for me, but they did suggest I get a cat. I started telling them about the little kitten who had been coming around. They informed me that he is the landlord’s cat.

Apparently the kitten does not know that he technically has an “owner” because we have become best buds.

He loves hanging out on this tree in my front yard.


It’s a perfect situation. He’s very independent… gets his own food… doesn’t stay in my house every night… but loves to cuddle and spends lots of time with me.

Napping on the porch


A few nights ago, he stayed in my house. Around 2am I could hear some scuffling but figured if he wanted to get out he would meow. He’s a very vocal cat. In the morning, I came out of the bedroom to find him happily sleeping on one of my chairs. He immediately ran over to the bookcase, grabbed something, and then pranced over to me with a dead rat… extremely proud of himself. Hence the noises I heard in the night. So in addition to the love and cuddles, I am beyond grateful for his rodent-killing abilities! 

I have settled on the name Moto. It means fire in Chichewa, and he is absolutely a ball of fire. There you have it. Moto & Me. Meant to be.

Stateside

I am back in Malawi after an unforgettable trip home. I spent time in Connecticut and Colorado, and enjoyed every minute with my family and friends. I would not consider myself to be someone who is easily homesick, but a short break from the ups and downs of Malawian life was definitely refreshing. Some days I am quick to forget why I decided to pursue this path, but support and encouragement from home helps put everything into perspective.

After over 24 hours of travel, a stop at Dunkin Donuts was necessary.

I also got to celebrate National Donut Day while I was home!


This was followed by indulging in so many other cravings…

The variety of food we have access to is slightly overwhelming, but also one of the things I miss most about being in the U.S. Of course, experiencing these luxuries again brings guilt. I think this feeling is well summarized by David Oliver Relin in Second Suns: Two Doctors and Their Amazing Quest to Restore Sight and Save Lives.

“Travel frequently enough, dislocate yourself often enough at jet speed, and your culture shock mutates into something else: not the shock of the new or the unknown but the unsettling juxtaposition of the present and the very recent past. Here you are. But there you were. And all too often that contrast points, in my experience, to a gulf between meager resources and material excess too wide to comfortably accept.”

It is difficult to put into words but you feel unsettled surrounded by so many luxuries. There is guilt, sadness, and disbelief that your two worlds are existing simultaneously. You wish you could do more, but recognize there are limits that you must work within. One of my biggest lessons so far has been to not get too entrenched in the apparent sadness of the situation. Luckily, this is pretty easy to move past when you are surrounded by so much joy and laughter every day.

Okay… enough of the heavy stuff for now, let me share some of the highlights from my trip home.

Getting manicures and pedicures with my mama

Being home after my dad’s knee replacement surgery… doesn’t stop him from handicapping obviously 😝

My mom treating me to my very own ice cream cake.

Planet Earth: Home Edition

Picking up a new hobby – quilt making!

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Teaching my friends about One Second Every Day videos… see above.

Enjoying my favorite breakfast at my favorite cafe with one of my favorite people 😊

Reuniting with my friends at St. Elmo

Spending time on the river

Eating so many chicken baskets, post-river trips

SNOW ❄️

Ummm… this 😌

Matching is the best!

Colorado mountains 💚


Until next time… sending all my love!

Time is Precious

Mid-Service Training… wow, that was fast! We arrived in Malawi on March 4, 2016, and were sworn in as volunteers a few months later in May. It feels like we just stepped off the plane into the sun, the heat, and the complete unknown. Days sometimes go by slowly, but time sure flies here. As we are about to welcome a new group of Peace Corps trainees to Malawi, our cohort spent a few days reflecting on our service and planning for the year ahead.

“Stepping” and singing our way into Year 2

It’s always valuable when we get to exchange plans and discuss successes and “failures” with each other. Plus, we come up with some great ideas together, like getting a cake to celebrate how far we’ve come.

Staff members sure know us well because they surprised us with ice cream… not once, but twice!

They were down to have some fun too… what started as a game of tug of war turned into a jump rope competition quickly thereafter. Peace Corps staff definitely showed us up in the jump rope department.

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Other highlights included getting a picture with Benson, our Safety & Security Manager. He has been such a huge support since coming on board. I cannot say enough great things about him.

Photo by Rachel Walls


We also had the opportunity to see Zathu perform. They are a newer group, targeting youth with messages about HIV, gender empowerment, platonic friendships, identity, etc. Zathu has a radio show and the members have done some road tours as well. And they are all AMAZING singers! Definitely look them up!

Following our Mid-Service Training, we had an all-volunteer HIV Conference. The education volunteers joined us for a few days, and a chitenje fashion show ensued.

Photo by Hayden Fennoy

Photo by Alexa Griffin


Although it was great for us to be together again as one big group, without Cami there, it felt as though something was missing. I could hear her laugh echoing through the halls of MIM and feel her positive energy during sessions. Time is precious. We never know how much we have and it goes so fast.

Photo by Monja Johnson


I know we all carry her spirit with us as she continues to inspire our work. It is a constant reminder to cherish every day.

Before I make my trip home to the U.S. to spend time with more loved ones, I went to my friend Rachel’s site for a few days. Our time together involved hammocking, harvesting sweet potatoes, and giving HIV health talks to over 300 male secondary school students. Yes, it was as crazy as you are imagining!

Ready to harvest


As I sit at the airport in South Africa, waiting for my flight to New York, I can’t help but feel nostalgic thinking about when we first passed through here, just beginning our Peace Corps journey. Some have gone, more will come, before you know it, we will be leaving Malawi as well, hoping that we have helped at least a fraction of the people who have encouraged and supported us along the way.

“Sometimes you will never know the value of a moment until it becomes a memory.” -Dr. Suess

Views from the Minibus

During service, we spend a lot of time on transport. For some volunteers this means private cars or NGO vehicles, for others it’s big buses, but you haven’t truly experienced Malawi until you have taken a ride on a minibus.

I have shared this photo on the blog before. There is a minibus behind all those people. The vendors are busy fighting their way to the windows to persuade riders to buy all manner of things (carrots, onions, sodas, cookies, lollipops, etc.). Most of my transport time involves minibuses, but I have also spent countless hours on the back of bike taxis to get to site.

Those packages actually served as a great backrest during the ride.

Mop transport

Travel days can be incredibly long, overwhelming, and often frustrating. But when I am getting bogged down by the negative aspects of the journey, I just have to look outside, marvel at the view, and snap a picture of yet another awesome Malawi moment.

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For instance, that is a truck full of chickens. All nicely tucked in. Sometimes you don’t even need to look outside to see such things because your fellow passenger will be a chicken or goat. When I studied abroad in Egypt, my mom said she pictured me riding around in vehicles full of chickens, which was not the case. Little did she know that vision would come true a mere 7 years later, in a different country, but on the same continent.

There are plenty of other animals as well. Although I have never had the pleasure of sharing a minibus with a cow (would it fit?… Malawians would find a way), you can still see them on your trip.

The travel between my village and the capital city of Lilongwe takes awhile, but I get to enjoy some pretty awesome views along the way.

There is always a noticeable temperature drop as the minibus inches it’s way up the hill to Dedza or when I head in the opposite direction to Zomba.

The long travel is a blessing in disguise. I have had the opportunity to see so much of Malawi through these windows, regardless of their condition.

A lot of areas we stop to pick up/drop off passengers are bustling with produce vendors. We recently saw broccoli and cauliflower for the first time! That was a nice surprise.

Look closely to spot the broccoli

There is always a lot happening inside the minibuses too. During your minibus travel, you have to be handed at least one baby to feel like a real Malawian… just another member of the family.

Photo by Rachel Walls

One of the coolest Malawian women I have met was on a minibus. I took notice of her when she started reading a Jodi Picoult book… plus she was wearing some killer nail polish. She introduced me to tsabola chips (basically spicy potato chips), and they are now one of my favorite road snacks.

You just never know who you will meet or what you will see once you set out. A few weeks ago we experienced the thickest fog I have ever seen.

Where’s the road? (And notice how empty the minibus is… that’s rare!)

It was eerie, but kind of beautiful at the same time. Malawi blanketed in a cloud of fog…

Yes, I will continue to complain about the long, uncomfortable travel, but when I leave here, I think I will miss it. There is something special about seeing the world through a minibus window.

Energized

HIV Boot Camp III. 27 volunteers. 11 countries represented. 6 days. 1 mission.

Our week in Zambia was packed. Tons of sessions, resource sharing, brainstorming, and action planning. We walked away with new knowledge, ideas, friends, even more passion for HIV work, and a newfound love for our neighboring country, Zambia.

We were extremely lucky to be staying in an amazing hotel. We lived like royals for the week. You know it’s going to be fancy when they bring you complimentary fruity drinks upon arrival.

I cannot say enough about the incredible food all week. The breakfast buffet was heaven. Made-to-order omelets, eggs benedict, pancakes, and waffles. Cereal, granola, yogurt, fruit, cheese platters, danishes, more types of juice than you could ever imagine. It was unbelievable. And that was just breakfast. I could go on and on, but I don’t want to bore you too much, so I’ll just share some pictures.

Am I still in Peace Corps right now?

Awesome salad bar for lunch

Different dessert bar every day #poshcorps

Cake/brownie bites = My fav snack!

It was also the first time I’ve had access to a gym in over a year. I normally hate the treadmill, but not running on one for so long caused a major change of heart. I loved every single minute I was on those treadmills.

Although it was cool while we were there, the pool provided a nice atmosphere during meals. Hopefully I will be able to return to Zambia in the future, and explore further. We were busy with boot camp activities, but we did manage to make a few shopping trips and enjoy the hotel’s ambience.

We started every day with presentations from each country about HIV activities they are implementing. It was really informative and gave us some great ideas for things to try in Malawi.

Photo by HIV Boot Camp Staff

The resource fair was another opportunity to share and learn from each other. The representatives from Uganda even gave us an HIV education game for students and other community members.

Photo by Alexa Griffin

We didn’t just learn about games, we played one as a group. Each person received a notecard. The cards were distinct colors and had various stickers on them. We were then told to visit a bunch of stations, like the clinic, the pharmacy, school, etc. We quickly discovered that not all were treated equally. I don’t want to give away too much because we want to play this game at our post in the future. Overall, the game is a great way to better understand the struggles of linking people to HIV care and support services.

“Game of Life” – Photo by HIV Boot Camp Staff

“Game of Life” – Photo by HIV Boot Camp Staff

One of the projects I am most excited about is Photo Voice. This is a way of using photography to share stories. It can be utilized to tackle a variety of issues, such as HIV/AIDS, by presenting specific prompts to guide the participants. Prior to arriving in Zambia, we each completed our own Photo Voice task at site. During boot camp, we spent an afternoon doing a gallery walk, sharing our pictures, and discussing the stories behind them. I am excited to investigate ways Photo Voice can be used here in Malawi.

We also focused on “Men as Partners” as an important aspect of HIV work. In Malawi, the incidence rate of HIV for females (15 – 24 years old) is 8 times higher than it is for males of the same age. These young women usually have older male partners, which is why it is essential to also target men when implementing interventions.

There is a HIV Conference coming up with all the environment, health, and education volunteers. Alexa, Kyle, and I are excited to share all that we learned at boot camp. One of the best parts of the whole experience was hearing about the HIV/AIDS situation in other countries. We were able to inspire each other and provide some fresh perspectives. I definitely left feeling energized and really looking forward to my next year of service!

Our plane made a pit stop in Zimbabwe on our way home!

A picture is worth a thousand words.

I just arrived in Zambia for HIV Boot Camp! I’m here with two of my fellow volunteers. We will be meeting staff and PCVs from several African countries. I can’t wait to tell you all about it at the end of the week!

This last month was busy… lots of malaria work for World Malaria Month. I also made some new animal friends… and did not get trampled by any of them! I call that progress. There was some great food along the way as well… and who doesn’t want to sing a song of joy after a delicious meal?

A picture is worth a thousand words, so I will share some photo highlights from the month. Get ready for a very random assortment of Malawi moments!

Ever wonder if any of my bike taxi drivers wear helmets? The answer is yes!

It may not be your traditional helmet but it’s always a good idea to be ready for construction. I love when things are so versatile.

Fast forward to the pot of gold at the end of the journey… FOOD! When I stay in Zomba, I usually get the same breakfast and it is ALWAYS DELICIOUS.

Could there be any better way to start the day?

In the early morning hours prior to enjoying my coffee, fruit, and pancake, I witnessed some monkeys raid a maize field. I will never tire of watching their antics.

However, I would say my best animal encounter this month was with the chameleon who decided to join me for breakfast in my nyumba (house).

He didn’t want to stay… I guess he is not a fan of oatmeal.

That’s alright… I had work to do anyway. For my malaria and pregnancy demos, I decided to make a big diagram. In order to show women how malaria affects the baby during pregnancy,  we can do a demonstration using bottles, plastic, and colored water. It is a way of portraying how malaria hardens the placenta, making it difficult for the baby to get nutrients. I found a great picture online and used it as the basis for my visual aid.

Little did I know that the picture I copied was of a placenta previa, not the position of where a normal placenta would be… whoops. One more thing to add to the “what I have learned in Malawi” list.

There we go. Now I got it… the proper placement of a normal placenta.

And of course the month would not be complete without some bed net demonstrations.

She was insistent on helping mom clean the net… always good to start ’em young.

Oh and my village now has two cows…

I haven’t seen cows since we were in training at our homestay village, so it is very exciting for me.

And in case you were wondering what American brownies look like…

I got you covered! 😊

All-in-all it was a very productive month. I even had my first rat move in. He didn’t get to stay too long before I called in reinforcements to remove him from the premises.

Now for just a quick preview of our Zambian adventure…

Who needs luggage when you can use a plastic bag? Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.

More on HIV Boot Camp coming soon… stay tuned!

The Faces of Malaria

April is World Malaria Month!

Worldwide, there are…

  • 214 million cases of malaria reported annually.
  • 438,000 malaria-related deaths every year, 90% of these in Africa.

In Malawi…

  • there were 6.9 million cases of malaria in 2015.
  • 40% of hospitalizations in children under 5 are malaria-related.
  • 30% of all outpatient visits are for malaria.
  • 57% of households have at least one ITN (Insecticide-Treated Net).
  • 34% of those families slept under an ITN the night before the survey.*

At my health center, there were…

  • 8,655 confirmed cases of malaria in the last year.
  • 312 confirmed cases of malaria last month.
  • 4 consecutive months of malaria test kit stock-outs in the last year.
  • 4.5 months of malaria treatment stock-outs in the last year.

But those are just the numbers. What do they really mean? How are families affected by malaria? What happens when there is no malaria medication available? It is difficult to get a clear picture of the problem when you focus on the numbers alone. Everyone’s story is vital to gain a better understanding of the situation. These are the faces of malaria…

Women, men, girls, boys, babies, grandparents, sisters, brothers, mothers, fathers… malaria does not discriminate. Its wrath rips through entire families with no mercy.

My counterparts and I have completed numerous door-to-door malaria surveys in our catchment area. I have learned more about how malaria has affected Malawi through these conversations, than by reviewing any amount of statistical data.

The numbers don’t tell you about the 4-year-old girl who has been unable to walk since she was diagnosed with cerebral malaria in January.

Or the man who cannot tend to his fields because he does not have the energy to move.

Or about the mother who traveled 2 hours to the health center daily for a week, praying for malaria medication to be re-stocked.

Every household has a story to share. These narratives make up essential pieces of the malaria puzzle. In my community, malaria is accepted as inevitable. Everyone gets it; it is just something that happens, like a common cold. People were shocked to hear that we do not need to use bed nets or worry about malaria in the United States.

Foster (my counterpart) and I are collecting photos of families who sleep under their bed nets. We will post them at the health center as a “Wall of Fame” to encourage others to use their bed nets correctly. To my surprise, every house we have visited so far has had at least one bed net hung.

Now that doesn’t mean they aren’t misusing some of the bed nets. There were many households with a bed net properly hung next to one being used for maize storage. This was an opportunity to discuss other solutions to these issues so people will no longer need to use the bed nets for anything but sleeping. The more we talked, the more we learned. Several families acknowledged that they only sleep under the nets during the rainy season, when mosquitoes are ubiquitous.

Overall, community members know a lot about malaria, how to prevent it, the symptoms, the importance of seeking treatment, etc. Nevertheless, when malaria meds are out-of-stock, most families have no choice but to wait it out. One mother talked about preparing for the stock-outs by not completing malaria treatment when it is available. She felt that it is better for both kids to get some treatment, than for one to get none at all. My counterpart and I can go to great lengths to explain all the problems with not completing treatment, but will the advice be heeded in desperate situations?

I have been doing malaria work at site for almost a year and there is so much more I need to learn and understand to complete this puzzle. I have the numbers. They create the essential outline of the puzzle, but the narratives fill in the rest. It’s these faces of malaria that have helped me find new, better ways to assist my community.

Bed Net Care & Repair Session

Bed Net Care & Repair Session

We can talk and teach until we are blue in the face, trying to close the gaps we have discovered. Yet, there may be more than meets the eye. My counterparts and I will continue to facilitate bed net care and repair sessions… sharing new skills and ideas, but even more important will be our door-to-door follow-ups with the families. It is during those conversations that we find out the malaria story of each individual and where their needs still lie.

*(The statistics for this post were gathered from the Stomp Out Malaria in Malawi Manual, the 2015-2016 Malawi Demographic and Health Survey, and my health center’s monthly reports.)

Tour de Students

After a heartbreaking loss for our Peace Corps family, it was hard to imagine how things would ever feel normal or good again. But life is full of surprises. You end up finding happiness and inspiration in the most unlikely places. It took 3 days of muddy roads, dambo crossing, new faces, a ton of laughing, and lots of maize to remind me why I made the decision to leave my friends and family and join the Peace Corps 13 months ago.

The English Club at the secondary school wanted to send family photos to their pen pals in the U.S. My neighbor (Mr. Maganga), who leads the club, explained that many of the students live very far away. He did not want me to feel obligated to travel all over the area. Mr. Maganga suggested just taking some more pictures at the school. I could tell the kids were excited at the prospect of getting photos of their homes and families. I knew we had to make it work somehow. I had no idea this journey would turn out to be one of the best experiences of my service.

Day 1

It rained on and off all morning. Luckily, it turned into a light mist just as we were ready to leave around 9am. My guide, Meria, offered to lead me to the students’ homes located closest to the school.

Exploring new areas

Meria and I knew each other a little from the pen pal exchange and my GRS program. Yet, upon arrival at the first house, we were unsure of exactly how to proceed. Meria and I switched back and forth between English and Chichewa, both a little embarrassed when we were unable to understand the other. Neverthless, as the day continued and we fumbled through translation, we grew more comfortable with each other. I could tell a friendship was beginning to blossom.

Meria with another student’s family

We were able to reach 5 families and make it home around 1pm. It was enlightening to see where the kids live. I have interacted with them mostly just at the school. I was surprised by how far some of the students commute on foot. Meria chuckled when I said this… I had no idea how much farther out our adventure would take us the next day.

Patuma with her mother and sister

Day 2

I arrived at the school around 2:10pm. To be honest, I was a little tired, feeling sad, and wanting to be home. The boys were ready to go so I knew I needed to suck it up. They were beyond excited and luckily for me, that energy is contagious. It didn’t take long for my own mood to shift. I was even more elated when I found out that Meria would be joining us again.

About 15 minutes into the trip I realized this was going to be a little tougher than the last time. The “roads” were about a foot wide with huge potholes, rocks, and water everywhere. I thought maybe it would only be that way for a short distance but after an hour, it was clear that this was as good as it was gonna get.

The start of Day 2… Little did I know what lay ahead.

Along the way, the students helped me learn so many Chichewa phrases. And I was teaching them some new English words, like swimming pool and sunburn. I was initially terrified and nervous about biking the treacherous pathways. What if I fall? I don’t want them to laugh at me or think I can’t keep up. Those thoughts were quickly tossed aside when 3 of the boys flipped over their bikes on a particularly “chunky” section. We all had a good laugh, knowing it wouldn’t be the last fall of the day.

One of the boys who took the initial tumble off his bike

The families were incredibly gracious and happy to have a visitor. At every house, my bag was stuffed with maize, which was so generous when you consider the extent of this past hunger season.

On our way to the last student’s home, he told Meria and I, “don’t worry, this is a good road.” Well, I taught them how to say “swimming pool” after we waded through thigh-deep water and rice to reach his family. And to think that is how he travels to and from school, 5-6 days a week.

Photo taken after we survived “the swimming pool”… the green around Meria is all rice.

Meria and I made it back to the school just as the sun was beginning to set. Mr. Maganga was tutoring some students, and they all made the standard Malawian “eeeeeeeee” noise when they saw what state I was in.

I think Mr. Maganga was worried about my mental status until I explained how much fun I had. It’s crazy to think I have been living at my site for almost a year and there is still so much I have yet to see.

Day 3

Our journey was not nearly as intense as day 2, but still so much fun to get to know more families. My favorite picture of the day…

Lemelero was dressed in his school uniform but told me to wait while he changed into his farming attire. When he came out, I could not stop laughing. Lemelero thought he was pretty funny, and so did I. You know when you laugh for so long that your face starts to hurt… yup… that’s what happened. He said, “They need to see real Malawi and that is farming and maize.” We all agreed it was our favorite picture from the Tour de Students (credit to my sitemate, Alexa, for coming up with that title).

Meria is boarding at the school so we finished up with her showing me where she sleeps and cooks. She is going to teach me how to make the best nsima and I will show her how to bake the most delicious brownies.

Three days, 16 students, 1 flat tire, a lot of smiling later… and I feel like there is some light and passion back in my life and my service. I went into the Tour de Students only focused on the logistics of getting it done. I had no idea what a memorable experience it was going to become for me. And I cannot even fully explain why. It was fun. It was silly. I felt like I was a little kid again. I made new friends. I felt strong and adventurous. I saw more of my community. I learned about Malawi. I laughed. It’s as simple as that.

Trampled

I would like to believe that I have cultivated good relationships with most of the animals that inhabit Malawi. I share my house with spiders, cockroaches, scorpions, ants, and lizards. We have agreed upon arrangements that work for all parties involved… well, maybe not exactly… my apologies to the cockroaches and scorpions, but I will never be fond of you and it is my mission to rid you from my nyumba (house).

As I ride to and from outreach clinics, I encounter a multitude of chickens and goats along the way. I slow down to ensure I don’t hit them. They are ALWAYS indecisive about which way they should run, in order to escape impending death.

The pigeons love to create a racket when fighting amongst each other and bouncing around on my tin roof, but I have grown accustomed to their ruckus. And don’t we all love a 4am rooster call or even better… a rooster who decides that it is ideal to make noise ALL day and night, because no one should ever sleep.

Elephants, hippos, crocodiles, kudus, and baboons have graciously allowed me to stare in awe and photograph their beauty, with no complaints. Well… except for that one elephant. That one time.

Let’s just say that in general, I appear to be in good (or maybe just “okay”) harmony with Malawi’s creatures. However, last week, this tranquility with the animals was trampled… quite literally.

I was on my way to the school to meet with my GRS (Grassroot Soccer) group. Several months ago, my neighbor told me about a shortcut that would get me to the school quicker. Ever since, I have always taken this path, along with students and other community members just trying to get from point A to point B.

On this particular afternoon, there was no one else on the path. Kids were still in school; families were finishing up lunch. As I turned the corner from my neighbors’ house, I stumbled upon some creatures. One was resting, the other was munching away on grass. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary.

The one, who had been busy eating, stopped and stared at me… he held my gaze and refused to let go. I thought “hmmm… okay… that’s interesting… the animals usually look away after a second or two.” I continued to walk towards my destination when all of a sudden, in my peripheral vision, I saw him stampeding towards me.

This creature was charging right for me, full force. He rammed me from behind… HARD. I started to panic, but knew I shouldn’t run. I assumed that would provoke him more. I continued, walking as briskly as possibly, trying to exude a calm aura.

Next thing I know I hear him charging towards me again. I get rammed even harder and knocked to the ground. He tramples me and then walks away. I am sure if anyone was witnessing this encounter, they were having a real good laugh. Even now, I can’t help but giggle when I think of how stupid I must have looked getting trampled by this thing.

Luckily, he was satisfied after taking me down and didn’t come back to finish the job. Now you are probably wondering… what was this creature… a lion… a crazed goat… a village dog… a baby elephant.

No… no… no… and once again, no. My arch nemesis is a sheep.

There he is (the next day) claiming his territory.

That’s right… a sheep. I later discovered that he belongs to the neighbors behind me and is known for this behavior. He rams anyone that gets too close to his female counterpart. I originally thought he was a pregnant sheep, about to give birth and irritated by my disturbance. Clearly, I don’t know much about sheep, but I had an interesting first lesson, that’s for sure.

I cannot lie, some days here feel long and monotonous, just like we experience at home in the U.S. And then there are the days when you think “Did that just happen? Is this real life? I wish someone was here to witness this.” The day that I was chased, rammed, and trampled by a sheep will be forever engrained in my memory. I am grateful for the encounter, if for no other reason than it is amusing to look back at and laugh about. Thank you Malawi, for giving me another first… you continue to provide me with the scariest, most hilarious, and utterly unforgettable experiences.

Watching him through my fence… always best to know where the enemy is.