All is well. We arrived 2 weeks ago, 8 Peace Corps Response volunteers; 4 “older” and 4 “younger”, all women. The group includes 2 PhDs, 1 MD, 1 former Associate Peace Corps Director (me) and four out of 8 are former PC volunteers.
We had a 10 day orientation/training at a hotel/conference center in the capital Lilongwe, focusing on Peace Corps admin policies, Malawian government structure, district level structure and resources (or not), cross-cultural orientation, and Chichewa language (I am having a harder time learning a new language this time around.)
We met with USAID and Embassy officials, got fitted for bikes, went to the market on a crammed mini-bus and bargained as best we could, all in the first week.
Then our Malawian counterparts (District Directors of Planning and Development) arrived for two days of collaborative orientation. It focused on understanding American and Malawian work styles, helping recognize cultural differences that might create barriers, reviewing District Implementation Plans and beginning to develop a work plan for the next 12 months. The work plans will be further developed over the next weeks as we do an organizational assessment, attend many meetings, and learn the assets and challenges of the district council to which each of us is assigned. HIV and AIDS prevention is under the National AIDS Commission and implemented through local district or municipal councils. (It’s always HIV and AIDS here, not HIV/AIDS)
We left Lilongwe on Wednesday the 19 with our counterparts and were driven to our assigned sites. I have been assigned to Blantyre, the second largest city. It’s the commercial capital of the country, so think of me as living in the New York City of Malawi! I live in a house vacated by the previous PC Response volunteer. It has 2 bedrooms and a large yard with fruit trees and, get this – a garden!!! At the moment my furniture consists of a bed, a table and 5 chairs. Peace Corps provided us with a medical kit, water filter, bike, helmet and mosquito net. We also were given a “settling in allowance”, the equivalent of $290 to purchase supplies and get through the month. Budgeting is challenging, there are many initial expenses. Our monthly “salary – living allowance” is $212. We are expected to live at the level of our counterparts.
I have purchased a mini stove/oven (like a large toaster oven with two burners on top) and a small dorm-size refrigerator, plus many kitchen and cleaning items. For food there are two large but expensive grocery stores; Shop Rite and Game (South African). There are smaller Malawian groceries throughout the city, one not far from my house. In addition, I purchase many staples at the local market. The variety of vegetables and fruit is just wonderful. The market also sells used clothing (you know those bags of clothes we all donate to Goodwill, etc.) plus hardware, cloth for whatever article of clothing you may want to have made by a local tailor, and beautiful local crafted baskets, wooden furniture, etc. The wood products are an issue because Malawi’s forests have been largely depleted due to cutting for firewood – over population. I am trying to get used to the vagaries of water and power outages, washing my clothes by hand, city noises, walking or biking everywhere (good for my health), not getting run over because they drive on the left side like the British, and how to look “professional” while sweating. The only air conditioning I’ve experienced was at a bank.
I am enjoying being in Malawi. The people are friendly and welcoming. They appreciate that we make an effort to speak Chichewa, however badly we mispronounce. My first day of work is tomorrow, so expect much more detail about what I’m doing the next time I write.