It’s Not Goodbye, It’s See You Later.

This has taken me almost 2 months to write and I still don’t feel ready. I left for Malawi in March 2016, but my desire to join the Peace Corps began much earlier. It was an idea I pondered on and off since high school, and the timing finally felt right to apply years later, in April 2015. When I was accepted to serve as a Community Health Advisor in Malawi, I was elated, nervous, eager, anxious, but mostly, in utter disbelief that I was finally going to be fulfilling my dream. I knew there would be ups and downs, but I never imagined that my journey, my dream would end this way.

I am not going to write out a lengthy play-by-play of exactly what happened leading up to my departure from Malawi. It is a situation that can be difficult to understand from the outside looking in. There has been some harsh media coverage, full of judgment and cultural insensitivity. I do not want to add to these misunderstandings in any way. Two of my fellow volunteers, Amelia and Marc, wrote about what happened in an eloquent, uncritical light. The link to their blog post is here for those who want further information: https://ramblinmahans.wordpress.com/2017/11/07/homeward-bound/. As for me, I will just say that due to civil unrest in the Southern region of Malawi, I was removed from my site, as were many other volunteers. Since I would not be able to return to my village, I was granted “Interrupted Service” and consequently completed my time with the Peace Corps on November 3, 2017.

The departure from my village was unexpected. I was unable to say proper goodbyes to my community members. I left projects unfinished. We had just facilitated our first meeting of the Photo Voice Group, a project where kids can share their stories through photography. The students had so much fun practicing with the cameras and were looking forward to learning more. I had bed net care and repair sessions planned for the coming weeks. Members of a support group I work with had just asked me to help them with another cooking demo. I was excited to meet (and spoil) my neighbors’ new baby, due to arrive at the end of November, beginning of December. Moto, my cat, was getting bigger every day. I loved watching his personality grow and change, and was always entertained by his antics. But I had to leave it all in October… 6 months earlier than anticipated. One morning I woke up to news that we had to go. I packed quickly and had to leave in a hurry, not knowing when I would be back… not knowing that I would not be coming back. Two weeks later, I was on a plane to the United States, having “completed” my service, and feeling like I had been run over by 20 bulldozers.

I miss so much about my village. Now, sitting in the comforts of my mother’s home in Connecticut, I often find my mind wandering to thoughts of Malawi and the place I called home for 1.5 years. How are the students? Have they continued with the Photo Voice Project? Did Mrs. Maganga have the baby yet? What did they name her/him? Does the roof still leak in my bedroom when it rains hard? Is it going to be a good season for maize? Has there been enough rain for the crops, or maybe too much? What is Moto up to these days? Is he still as rambunctious as ever? How is my counterpart doing at nursing school? What about my other counterparts? What kind of health talks are they doing at the antenatal clinic? Have there been a lot of malaria cases this year? How is my favorite produce seller at the market?

I am sure that I will always feel somewhat unsettled because of how things ended. The lack of closure has been difficult, but I am focusing on all the fond memories of my time in Malawi. Communication is challenging, but I cannot just walk away from it all. That village is a part of me. Maybe I will make it back one day, but either way, it is important to me to keep those relationships going. They still sell international calling cards, right? :p I owe so much to my community, and all the people there who embraced me with open arms. They showed me love from day one, and helped me grow in ways I never imagined. Even though I did not get to see goodbye, I now realize that it would not have been goodbye… it would have been “see you later.”

I also have to thank everyone in the U.S. who supported me during this time abroad. Whether it be through letters, packages, donations to my projects, encouraging words, I am beyond grateful and appreciative. So I am signing off for now, but there will definitely be more adventures in the future and I cannot wait to share them with you!

FullSizeRender

Sunrises.Sunsets Njombwa (7)

Advertisements

The Perks of Being a Volunteer in the South during Hot Season

October… One of my most-loved months. Actually probably my absolute favorite month. As the cooler weather rolls in, the leaves slowly change and envelop us in a magnificent world of warm oranges, reds, and yellows. We enjoy the crisp, autumn air and spectacular scenery while sipping pumpkin spice lattes and hot apple ciders. We spend hours in our local orchards, filling our baskets with every kind of apple imaginable, never forgetting to savor the long-awaited cider donuts on our way out. Apples and pumpkins infiltrate every baked good, battling to see which one will come out on top, as the favorite of the season. Families are busy decorating their houses to match the breathtaking beauty that nature has unveiled this time of year. Having grown up in New England, was there really any doubt that I would turn out to be yet another pumpkin-spice obsessed lover of fall? So here we are again… October… autumn… my most-treasured time of year.

Dear Apple Orchards, I miss you. Love, Kristina ❤️

Fall in New England

Well, I may have adorned my house with all manner of fall decor, but this New Englander is definitely not enjoying the usual kind of October here in Malawi.

Leaf garland

Feels like home

Fall, winter, spring, summer… these are the seasonal shifts I have grown so accustomed to. But what about Malawi? What seasons have I encountered here? I would say it goes something like this…

– HOT season

– Rainy (but still very hot) season

– Cold season (which, this year, felt like just another hot season)

– then back to HOT season

Winter in the U.S.

Winter in Malawi

The temperatures vary greatly throughout the country, with the North being notably cooler than the South and lakeshore areas. As our Northern brethren boast that it’s too cold to get out of bed in the morning, Southern volunteers are slowly being baked alive in our tin-roof houses. They say you can easily identify which region someone’s site is in if you listen to them talk about the weather…

Outside temperature: 79 degrees Fahrenheit

Northerner: “It is so hot… I’m dying right now. Look how much I’m sweating.”

Southerner: “Where’s my sweatshirt… I’m freezing.”

I’m in the South, in Machinga district.

Right now you may be thinking “those poor volunteers in the South, that sounds miserable.” Don’t worry! It’s not that bad. Let me tell you about all the perks of being a volunteer in the South during hot season…

– We don’t have to waste time heating water to bathe. Leave it outside for 15 minutes and bam… the sun just warmed it for you. Or it’s so hot outside, that the slightly cooler bafa water is quite a refreshing treat.

– Laundry dries in about 20 minutes.

– We have become incredibly creative, inventing all kinds of ways to keep cool. Covering yourself with a wet chitenje is my personal favorite.

Soak in water… wrap around self… repeat.

– No need to shell out lots of money for “hot” yoga sessions… we can do them for free… in our houses.

– Sometimes the pity works to our advantage… like when your mom feels bad about the heat so she mails you a USB-operated fan (my best friend) and lots of Gatorade.

– We gain a strong sense of camaraderie with our community members, who also think it’s just too hot to do anything some days.

– We will NEVER again take certain things for granted, including easy access to AC, ice, ice cream, fans, and swimming pools.

– Eventually, we learn to become comfortable with being uncomfortable… so then being uncomfortable ends up feeling comfortable.

Yes, I still drink hot coffee, tea, and hot chocolate, while sweating, and I love it.

– Chocolate melts in the heat… therefore, it must be eaten quickly.

– Due to the nonstop sweating, we always present with a nice, glistening glow.

Rachel brought me donuts from Spain. I’m glowing with excitement… that’s not sweat 😉

– Traveling anywhere else in Malawi is amazing. If we go to another place in the South or to the lake, the heat feels normal. When heading North or to higher elevations, we truly appreciate the break from the heat, and the opportunity to “freeze.”

Gotta love the cooler temperatures up on Zomba Plateau

And the most important perk of all…

– We can leave Malawi knowing that we survived hot seasons in the South. For many of us, this will be one of life’s greatest challenges and accomplishments. But we will make it… we will conquer hot season this year, just like we did last year. And then we can head into the future confident in our ability to tackle any opposition that comes our way!

Can’t wait for these to be in my life again!

I feel ya sister!

Every day 😂

15 Things a PCV in Malawi Never Wants to Hear

Some of these are specific to the region I live in, and some are probably just things that I never want to hear, but I still think my fellow volunteers will be able to relate to this list.

1. “Your chim is almost full, it just splashed back at me.”

Ahhh, the joys of chim life. There’s nothing better than a brand new chim. You are comforted by the assumption that it won’t fill up during your service, or so you think… until the rains come, it fills with ground water, then collapses. That’s bad. But sometimes chims fill up, and don’t collapse. That is when the splash-back adventure comes in. The level is so close to the surface that when you use the chim, it literally splashes you. 💦

2. “Bombay is closed.”

When you are craving Indian food, and you find out that your favorite Indian restaurant is closed, and you have been dreaming about it for WEEKS, ’tis a sad day.

3. The sound of your bike tire tube popping, especially when you are still far from home.

Worse if there is no one around who has the supplies to help you fix it. Lucky for me, the last time my tube popped, I had just pulled into my yard. Perfect timing for a not-so-perfect situation.

2 perfect tires… for now

4. “You have giardia, again.”

There is a plus side though. When you finally feel good, you can truly appreciate how heavenly it is to feel normal and enjoy food again.

5. “No Service.” 

Curses! I just want to send one Whatsapp message… please just give me a couple bars of E. Let the “walking around in circles, waving your phone in the air, trying to get even a minute of service” ritual commence.

6. “The power’s off so Ndovi is closed today.”

But I need ice cream! Not just one, at least two today… begin praying to the ice cream Gods that the power comes back on. (Ndovi is our favorite/only ice cream man in Liwonde.)

7. Goats eating your fence.

Hearing then watching the one thing that is maintaining your privacy, slowly disappear.

Goat damage

8. “I don’t think we are getting paid until next week.”

We are volunteers, not the Rockefellers… enough said.

9. “Korea Gardens is full.”

When your favorite lodge in Lilongwe is full, ’tis another sad day.

Our first magical experience at Korea… feels like so long ago

10. “It’s raining… in your house.” 

Yes, this happens. It is useful to wear a rain jacket inside… eventually you just get used to it.

Rain outside

Rain inside

Rain inside

11. “There’s weevils in the oatmeal.” 

They truly are evil little creatures that will invade everything if you aren’t careful. So far, I have found them in oatmeal and beans. I despise them.

Evil weevils

Imagine finding this entire container full of weevils

12. “The VRF is really due October 5th, not the 15th.”

VRF stands for Volunteer Reporting Form; it’s how we report about the activities we are doing at site. We complete it every 4 months, and it can be a lengthy process.

13. Minibus brakes screeching to a halt, as they stop, yet again.

Nothing better than a 4-hour journey turning into a 10-hour journey.

14. “There’s still no packages for you.”

Due to location, when my packages arrive in Malawi, they go to a post office in a town called Limbe. And then they sit there, until transport eventually brings them to my post office… and that can take a LONG time.

15. “Apparently it’s 121 degrees in your house… probably because it’s 96 degrees outside and you have a tin roof. Have fun sleeping tonight.” 

Hot season = when your house becomes an oven and the sweating never stops.

#ovenlife

Crowd Favorites

Learning should be fun. Regardless of age, if we are not engaged with the material being taught, we quickly lose interest. I think we have all experienced this at some point. Just picture a crowded lecture hall… professor in the front talking AT the students, going ON and ON… no pause for discussion or questions… every single face staring back with the same blank expression and eyes glazed over… clearly thinking about their to-do lists, plans for the weekend, or my personal favorite, what’s for lunch.

Scenario 2… you attend a seminar with a passionate presenter… you spend more time up and out of your chair than you do sedentary… you leave feeling excited, challenged, and looking forward to using what you learned. I like this scenario better. You like this scenario better. Everyone likes this scenario better.

A big part of what I do in Malawi is health education. I teach about malaria, HIV/AIDS, nutrition, etc. Sometimes it is easy to make the material fun and exciting. I previously wrote about GRS (Grassroot Soccer), a program that teaches kids about HIV and gender issues through games. We don’t just tell the students that having sex with someone older increases their risk of contracting HIV, we show them through limbo… and it is absolutely a crowd favorite.

Pad projects… another big hit among the women. It’s easy to sneak in important health discussions while sewing, chatting, and laughing as a group.

Cooking demos have been another opportunity to engage and excite. Hands-on activities are a great way to increase the likelihood that people will remember key messages later on.

You may remember me previously discussing bed net care and repair sessions at outreach clinics. My health center’s catchment area includes almost 30,000 people. That’s a lot of individuals to reach. To make this task easier, we have 10 outreach clinics, mostly for children under 5, but services are expanding to include other age groups as well. Since it would be difficult for these mothers to bring their children all the way to the health center for vaccines, etc., due to the distance, we come to them.

Bed net care and repair session at an outreach clinic

These monthly meetings are an awesome time for health talks. You have a captive audience. They often have to wait for long periods of time to get the kids weighed and then vaccinated. You can help them pass the time by sharing important health information, preferably in a fun way. One such activity I utilize at clinics is about malaria in pregnancy, adapted from Peace Corps Zambia.

Another outreach clinic

I started facilitating this demo in April. For World Malaria Month, I wanted a variety of malaria education activities… so I turned to our Stomp out Malaria in Malawi Manual for ideas. Sometimes there is a really important topic that you want to cover, but are struggling to think of a creative way to present it. It can’t always be fun and games… or can it?

After reading about the Malaria in Pregnancy Demo, I wasn’t sure how it would go over in my community. It seemed like the perfect way to explain a complicated, yet extremely important topic, without putting the audience to sleep. I decided to try the demo at least once and it was a HUGE hit! Since April, I have done this demo countless times, and will continue to do so until I run out of people to share it with 😝

So what is this crowd favorite all about? Let’s start with the materials you will need…

2 clear containers, colored water, scissors, tape, pieces of plastic, rubber bands, and a picture of a mosquito.

The aim is to show how malaria affects your fetus when pregnant. Malaria can cause a lot of issues, including anemia, miscarriages, stillbirths, low birth weight, birth defects, and maternal death. A big problem is that pregnant women often test negative for malaria even when they do have it. This is because the malaria parasites “hide” in the placenta. The parasites in the placenta do not mingle with the mother’s blood, so a malaria blood test will show negative, when it should be positive. I decided to make a diagram to better explain this visually.

The malaria parasites also cause the placenta to thicken, which blocks oxygen and nutrients to the baby… what we show in the demonstration.

To start the demo, I ask for volunteers to hold the 2 containers, explaining that each container represents a fetus. The white plastic is the placenta. It allows the transfer of nutrients and oxygen from mother to the baby… hence the holes in the plastic.

We then pretend that one mother has malaria. She has not been sleeping under her bed net. We put a picture of a mosquito on this container to remind everyone that this mother and fetus have malaria.

Since placental malaria causes the placenta to thicken and harden, we place tape over some of the placenta holes for this mother and baby.

Now the colored water comes into play… representing the nutrients and oxygen the baby needs to grow big and strong. As we pour the water over the placenta of the healthy mother, the baby receives lots of colored water, aka nutrients and oxygen.

But what about the mother with malaria? Only a small amount of colored water is able to seep into the container… the baby is being deprived of essential nutrients and oxygen!!!!

During the demo, we go more in-depth about key terms and how to prevent malaria. And we always leave time for questions, but people love the visual demo so much, we spend a lot of time on that. This has been such a success with so many different groups. People run to get their friends so we can show them too. At the end, it is exciting to witness the crowd teaching back, clearly understanding and fully able to explain how malaria affects pregnant women and their babies. When you find a crowd favorite, it’s best to stick with it for a solid amount of time to reach as many people as possible. And that’s our plan 😊

What does a doer do when there’s nothing to do?

Yes, in theory, it is so true, and I have always appreciated this in the past. But I am not on vacation. I came to volunteer. I like to work. I love to work. In fact, I have trouble doing nothing. Taking time to relax… that is not really in my nature. Usually when I take a day to rest, I end up completing at least 10 tasks from my to-do list. That’s just who I am. I’m a doer. I can thank my parents for this work ethic, especially my father, who most certainly blessed me with this Type A personality. A man who doesn’t know how to truly be retired. He will never stop working. It’s who he is. He’s a doer.

My dad and I after my graduation from my masters program.

So what do doers do when they have nothing to do? Well… they come up with something to do. Before I began my Peace Corps service, I heard it over and over again… “be prepared to have A LOT of free time.” I didn’t worry too much; if there’s one thing I know how to do, it’s fill my time.

Then I got to site. And often had nothing to do. Luckily, when you first move into a house, you can organize, decorate, paint, the list is endless. But now I’ve been here for over a year… there is less that “needs” to be done.

This took some time…

…as did this.

Right now, students are on school break. They won’t be back until the middle of September. I facilitate several programs with the schools so when the kids are gone, there is definitely a lull in my activities.

I still have lots to work on at the health center, but things don’t always work out. Plans fall through. Projects take longer to get off the ground than expected. You end up with a ton of free time on your hands.

So now that my house is more in order, work activities are lined up, my grant proposal is completed and submitted, this week’s laundry is done, my dinner is slow-cooking over the fire… what do I do?

I must admit that sometimes I revert to my old ways… like when I recently spent 3 days re-organizing and labeling all the pictures on my computer from the last 8 years. Or when I spent hours organizing shelves and supplies that have already been organized a million times.

An organizer’s dream come true.

But Malawi has forced me to learn how to enjoy doing nothing. To realize it’s okay to do nothing. That relaxing is an important part of life. We should go into that “vacation mode” more often, and need to, in order to mentally survive what life throws at us.

This has allowed me more time for hobbies. But now I actually take pleasure in them versus viewing my hobbies as tasks that need to be accomplished. My former self would rush through a knitting project or drawing in order to feel the pride and relief of getting it done. There’s little joy in that.

In Malawi, I still knit.

Trying out some new patterns for fall 🍁

I still run.

I still cook.

I still paint.

Painted this for my mom and it actually made it back to the U.S.! So glad it did not get lost!

I still bake.

This week’s batch of peanut butter brownies… did you ever eat Funny Bones as a kid? These taste just like them!

I still read.

I still take time for yoga.

Plenty of time for self-timer photos 😊

But I enjoy these activities even more now. I will always be Type A. I will probably always look at life as one giant to-do list. But I know there is beauty in truly having nothing to do. Sometimes people back home ask me how I fill all my free time. “Stare at the walls” is my response, usually followed by some laughter. And it’s true, but I fail to mention that I’ve gotten some great thinking done while staring at those walls. Project ideas. Life lessons. Future plans. Reflection about this experience. All thanks to so much free time, no electricity 😝, and nothing to do. This is probably how some of the best inventions have been thought up, right?

Good Food is Good Mood

If you know me well, you know I love food… especially dessert. Cake, cookies, ice cream, brownies… my parents should have named me Sweet Tooth. Thus, it may come as a surprise to know that before arriving in Malawi, I did not spend hours thinking about what the food situation would be like. I was told Malawi had food security issues and relied heavily on maize. I read about nsima, the staple food. I knew I would be staying with a homestay family during training, and that meant eating as Malawians do. But what about afterwards? What would I cook for myself? What kind of foods would be available in my village? These questions were floating around somewhere in my mind, but in the midst of preparing for a 2-year journey and saying goodbye to those I love most, food concerns were the least of my worries.

When you move in with a Malawian family, you get a crash course in food very early on. First off, no silverware… that’s why we have hands. Although there were utensils made available to me, I wanted to experience food as my family did. After a few nsima burns, I would like to pretend I started to develop some thick skin, but that would be a lie… 10 weeks later, I was still burning my hand trying to grab nsima patties.

I realized I have almost no pictures of nsima! But here is one of the students I visited at home, enjoying a big bowl full of nsima patties!

For breakfast, there was tea, with sugar and sometimes powdered milk. To eat, we would have rice phala (porridge), madonas (similar to doughnuts), or French toast (no syrup and cooked with LOTS of oil). My amayi soon noticed madonas were my favorite, which meant they started appearing almost every other day for breakfast. Gotta love her ❤️

Amayi making madonas

I was also a huge fan of the rice phala and have made it for myself several times at site.

Rice phala (with cinnamon) and coffee at my site

Lunch and dinner always included either nsima or rice, usually nsima, some greens cooked with tomatoes, and often onions, and then either beans, soya pieces, eggs (hard-boiled or fried), or fish. Adding pumpkin to the meal was a special treat and we would often have maize (like corn on the cob) before or after a meal!

So what happened when I got to site? Family and friends back home were curious… what do you eat? What can you buy? To my surprise, my new Malawian community members were also interested to know… what do you cook? Do you make nsima by yourself? Well, much to their disappointment, no… I do not make nsima. In fact, I do not cook very Malawian meals at all. My perfectionist self initially contemplated this as being a failure on my part. Should I be making nsima and greens like my neighbors? Am I just not integrated enough? Eventually I realized that food is as it has always been for me… comfort… and I want to be comforted by the things I love.

Plus, I told my perfectionist self “hey girl, you do cook some Malawian foods… rice phala… pumpkin… beans… okra… greens.” I think it’s the fact that I’ve never done the whole nsima thing that makes me feel less than. But as I learned during homestay, I am terrible at making nsima… it’s best left to the experts. Even though we ate it so much for our first few months in Malawi, I crave it now! I look forward to times when I know I’m going to be chowing down on some nsima 😊

That little white chunk is nsima… one of my first meals in Malawi before we went to the homestay village

So let’s get back to the question… what do I cook at site? My mornings are predictable. I usually work out or run, and then I make oatmeal and coffee… every day. I have to go to a bigger town to find oatmeal but I make sure to stock up when I’m there.

Sometimes I add raisins and cinnamon, or any kind of fruit. I can also get raisins and apples in other areas… my compulsion to stock up on everything has increased exponentially since getting here.

This week’s oatmeal featuring apples and cinnamon (P.S. No frig means I use powdered milk)

In my village, I can usually buy whatever kind of fruit is in season. Right now, it’s bananas… so banana chocolate chip pancakes are my current obsession. I like to eat them for lunch or dinner. If I could eat breakfast for every meal, I would!

The chocolate chips and syrup did not come from Malawi… straight from the U.S. via care packages thanks to my friends and family! You are all angels! 😇

Little tangerine-type fruits are also in season right now but not for sale in my market. I can get those in the town where my post office is, approximately a 1-hour bike ride from my house.

I usually only have one kind of fruit… this was a special day!

For lunch and dinner, besides pancakes, I make a variety of things. My favorite meal is beans with guacamole and chapati. Taco Bell hot sauce thanks to Zack! Avocados are no longer in season but someone was miraculously selling them in my market last week. No idea where they came from but I wasn’t going to question it.

Tomatoes and onions are pretty much available year-round, although the quality and price shift month-to-month. To make the chapati, you need cake flour which is another item I have to buy during my “bigger town” shopping trips. Oh and check out my recipe page for more info on how to make chapati and some of my other favorites:

https://kristinalovesmalawi.wordpress.com/recipes/

Additional meals I like to whip up include tomato soup, pasta with sauce, mac and cheese (another care package delicacy), fried rice, lentils, and various tuna creations.

Curried lentils with veggies from town

Tuna macaroni salad – Kristina’s Malawi style

Favorite snacks are popcorn and groundnuts (basically peanuts). Although you do have to be careful about how many groundnuts you eat because trust me, you will have issues later if you stuff yourself too full 😬

Roasting groundnuts my neighbors brought me

We can buy peanut butter at grocery stores, which is perfect, because sometimes all I need is a spoon and a jar of peanut butter to make the whole world seem right again.

My fav!

In my village, vegetables, besides tomatoes and onions, can be hard to come by, but readily available in the “bigger town” produce markets. Problem is… it’s difficult to stock up on vegetables because they go bad quickly, especially during hot season. Solution is… pickling and fermentation!

Kim chi on the left, Pickles on the right

Nothing better than homemade kim chi and pickles. It’s the perfect way to have access to more vegetables in between my visits to town.

Now on to my favorite aspect of the food world… BAKING! Brownies are my speciality here. Peanut butter brownies to be exact.

Chocolate chip banana bread has also been a big hit with my neighbors. And there are plenty of bananas right now.

I also like using cake mixes and frostings from the U.S. when I really want a taste of home.

With no electricity, hence no stove or oven, charcoal has been my main baking method. You put whatever kind of batter in a pot that has a good lid… put some hot charcoal underneath, some hot charcoal on top and ta da… baking perfection. Well, sort of… I’ve definitely burned an item or two but there’s always some part that is still edible.

I hope this has helped all the curious minds out there, both American and Malawian, to better understand what I eat here on a daily basis. No, I don’t cook nsima, but I think my neighbors have enjoyed trying out my American cooking. Can you guess their favorites?

1. Brownies.

2. Kraft Mac and Cheese. The Deluxe kind of course.

I would say they have excellent taste 😊

***I went back and forth about writing this post for a long time. Hunger season is real. This past year was particularly rough on a lot of families. It’s difficult to watch your neighbors struggle when you know there is only so much you can do to help. I am often asked “what’s the staple food in America?” I try to explain that we eat a lot of different things but Malawians want to know… what’s the staple food if it’s not nsima. I often wonder what they would think if they saw an American grocery store… the variety… the surplus. Families in the U.S. do not depend on one type of food to get through the year. We don’t have to worry about potential consequences of a bad harvest. It feels like two completely different worlds at times. I hope I did not offend anyone with this food-focused post. I try to look at it positively as another opportunity for sharing and cultural exchange. As previously mentioned, Americans aren’t the only ones curious about what I cook. My co-workers’ favorite question is “Kristina, what’s for lunch today?”

Pomp and Circumstance… Sort of

“What’s your favorite part?”

“Tell us the craziest thing that’s happened.”

“It must be so different. Does it feel weird to be back?”

You get a lot of questions when you make a visit home during Peace Corps service. Curious minds want to know… what is it really like? The inquiries can get a bit overwhelming if you don’t prepare yourself. My decision to keep a blog has helped tremendously with this because although there are still questions, this has been a place where friends and family can come to be part of the adventure.

People are particularly fascinated by the differences that exist. A house without electricity or running water. A village where the most common form of transportation is walking or bicycles. A hospital without the latest technology or even one computer. Yes, the discrepancies are enormous, but there are also a multitude of commonalities.

Favorite mode of transportation in Malawi

Favorite mode of transportation in Florida

Even with the experiences that have felt so unbelievably “foreign” to me, I always find at least one small aspect that feels familiar. Malawians are also curious about these things.

“Do you do it this way in America?”

“Is it the same where you are from?”

I guess it is part of our human nature to compare and contrast. A way to organize the world. How is it different? How is it the same? Although no one from back home has asked specifically about graduation ceremonies, people here have inquired as to how we celebrate such occasions. From my experiences, I have come to learn that Malawians and Americans share some common graduation practices.

Since arriving in Malawi, I have attended graduations for primary school, secondary school, and most recently, university. Although unique, every ceremony did share certain similarities with our U.S. events. There’s music, names called, families cheering, and lots of celebrating.

So many cameras! Gotta get the perfect picture!

Prior to attending the graduation at the local secondary school (equivalent to high school), I was extremely nervous. I had only been at site for a month and was unsure of what the ceremony would entail. Once I got to the school, I was comforted to see the familiar setup. Chairs for the graduates, a separate area for friends and families to watch the ceremony, and decorations happily announcing what event we were all there for.

As the day progressed, the biggest difference I noticed was that after calling a student’s name, friends and family would run up cheering and tossing money and other gifts. It was so fun! There was music blasting throughout and it was difficult to not get caught up in all the excitement.

When it came time to lead a graduation ceremony for my GRS (Grassroot Soccer) program, I knew I had to pull out all the stops. We had decorations, music, dancing, and although I did not toss money for the girls, I brought lollipops and certificates, which seemed to make them happy enough.

At the end of the Girls Camp that I most recently posted about, we also had a little celebration with certificates and dancing. They even added the names, Alexander (my counterpart) and Kristina (me 😝), into their songs. And we took plenty of photographs, which is another common thread we share. Graduation = must take lots of pictures, in the U.S. and Malawi.

Now onto the university graduation experience. Benson, our Safety and Security Manager, along with some other members of the Peace Corps staff, graduated with their bachelor’s degrees at the end of July. I was incredibly honored to be in attendance.

The ceremony was held at Bingu National Stadium, and it was quite the event! Outside of the stadium there were several vendors selling fresh and artificial flowers, along with so many photographers. While the ceremony was going on, pictures were printed and framed so you could purchase them before leaving. We didn’t even have to search for the photographer who took a photo of our group… he found us mere moments after we exited the stadium. Smart business in my opinion!

For the ceremony, the other volunteers and myself were treated to awesome seats on the stage… perfect for taking a few photos of our own. Seeing all the excited graduates all decked out in their caps and gowns, brought me back to my own college ceremony.

Circa 2010 😝

For a moment, I forgot I was in Malawi… that is until the procession started and “Pomp and Circumstance” did not play. It was replaced by that slow running song, you know the one from Chariots of Fire. If you Google “that slow running song,” it comes up immediately, lol. So it was unexpected but still a familiar song!

The procession was followed by various speeches and then all the graduates were called forward to receive their diplomas. Now I must say, the Malawians have got this whole name calling thing down to an art. You know when you go to a graduation, and your son or daughter is up right away, and then you have to sit and wait for the remaining 604 graduates before the ceremony is finally done. Yea no… not the case here… they were whipping through names so quickly, I was quite impressed. I think we should definitely follow this model in the U.S. I am sure more than a few of you would agree with me on that!

Benson takes the stage!

Benson and his family invited us over for a delicious celebration meal after the ceremony. So much incredible food! The whole day was amazing and will definitely be one of the experiences I talk about the next time someone asks, “what’s your favorite part?”

Group shot with Benson and his family!

I know how wonderful and special it is to have friends and family in the audience on your graduation day, so I feel blessed to have been a part of that for someone who is always so supportive of me, and all the volunteers.

I’ve posted this one before 😝 Rachel and me with Benson at our Mid-Service Training!

I hope I have painted a good picture of what graduation is like here in Malawi. One more thing we all have in common… graduation is a time for celebration and congratulations!

I Feel Like A Kid Again

Bare with me for a moment as we take a quick trip down memory lane. For those of you who took part in this childhood ritual, let’s close our eyes and think about going to summer camp. Feeling the warmth of the bonfire on our faces. Remembering the delicious taste of marshmallow, chocolate, and graham cracker melting together. Spending hours drawing, coloring, and making bracelets to share with newfound friends. Singing, singing, and more singing… learning every word to the catchy camp songs. Not wanting to leave at the end of the week, wishing for just a few more days of fun. I am grateful that these are a foundational component of my childhood memory bank. Lucky for me, last week, I was able to help create this type of camp experience for 330 girls at a boarding school in rural Lilongwe.

Sunset at the Atsikana Pa Ulendo School

For the Peace Corps Malawi community, helping with a camp seems to be an essential part of the volunteer experience. This was my first taste of what that really entails. 330 is A LOT of girls and required an amazing team to ensure everything ran smoothly.

All the counselors when we first arrived at camp!

Prior to the camp, I joined 6 other Peace Corps volunteers and approximately 16 Malawian counterparts to prep. And by prep, I mean cut all the necessary materials for 330 reusable menstrual pads.

It was a ton of cutting, but we got it done… miraculously! Besides pad prep, we were put in pairs and learned what sessions we would be facilitating. Alexander and I got right to work planning. Our sessions focused on identifying the difference between sex and gender, discussing gender roles and empowerment, teaching the girls about the ins and outs of HIV testing and counseling, and helping them to identify star supporters in their lives. Alexander just finished secondary school and was a knowledgeable partner with great ideas and energy.

Alexander teaching the girls about chromosomes!

The morning before we left for the Atsikana Pa Ulendo School, we all practiced for each other. It was the best way to perfect our sessions and helped us feel ready for camp.

Esnart and Andrew showing us how it’s done!

And of course we spent time eating delicious “city” food…

Looks spicy 🌶

…before getting on the bus to go to camp!

The next 3 days were some of the busiest of my service. Thinking back, the only thing I can compare it to is graduate school. Attending classes, going to my internship, doing research at the school, and working. Every day was exhausting but so rewarding. Same goes for this camp. The girls were excited, engaged, friendly, passionate, eager, and beyond smart. I can’t even count the number of girls who told me they are hoping to earn their PhDs. It’s hard to not feel inspired when you are surrounded by such amazing girls with big dreams! (They had to explain biomedical engineering to me… no joke.)

Writing down their Star Supporters 🌟

And even though the days were long, we found a new friend to help us relieve any stress.

The girls worked hard during sessions, but there were a lot of fun and games involved too. I mean after all, it is camp!

No matter where you were at any given time, you could hear energizers and songs echoing throughout the school grounds. The Malawian counterparts were by far the best at keeping the energy levels up. I would not have survived without them! If you want to learn any of the catchy tunes, just let me know, I am more than willing to send voice recordings 😝

Although we taught sessions for all the girls, we were each assigned a specific team. Alexander and I were leaders for the “Super Girls.” I could not have asked for a more energetic, creative group! ***Video of our team song also available upon request! It’s too big of a file for me to upload while I’m in my village.

When the camp was over, we had separate graduation ceremonies with our respective teams. The girls put on some great performances. I have never smiled so much. It felt just like being back at camp when I was little. The singing, the excitement, the laughter… all the ingredients for an unforgettable night.

The only thing missing from the whole camp experience was s’mores. But we did enjoy other good food, including mandasi, scones, and zigegy, which are basically chippies (or french fries) dipped in batter and fried again… yummo! And in case you are wondering what it looks like to cook nsima and porridge for over 300 people…

…it looks like that!

Our time at the Atsikana Pa Ulendo School was short but I think everyone would agree with me when I say it is something I will always remember fondly. Those girls inspired me in ways that they will never fully understand, and that is the best gift anyone could ask for!

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.