Aparna in Mozambique

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Latest Adventures and On Living Abroad...

June 2007

Latest Adventures and On Living Abroad…

Greetings loved ones! Wow, I can’t believe it has been nearly a month since I last wrote you, yet again. I guess that my thrilling social life in Malawi has just kept me that busy that I haven’t been able to write you. Ok, maybe I’m not that engaged, but I do promise that I’ve had my hands full with visitors, school, and projects. Let me start with an update and then I’ll move on to some issues that have been bothering me of late.

First, however I would like to send a HUGE thanks to those who have contributed funds or supplies for the children. In the next two weeks, Donna and I will be conducting health workshops and distributing supplies and I will be sure to send you the full details of where your supplies went and how the children received them. THANK YOU so much! We have collected a large enough sum of money to buy toothbrushes, toothpaste, soap, and essential items for the entire school of approximately 100 students.

My latest events…..

My biggest news is that my brother was here to visit me from May 21 to June 3 and it was a wonderful two weeks. He got here on a Monday and we started off his visit on Tuesday by playing soccer (or football as the rest of the world knows it) with the students at my friend Donna’s school. Then, we went on a tour of CURE hospital, which performs free orthopedic surgeries for children. I met the executive director of the hospital at a Rotary dinner and he offered to give us a tour of the hospital, which was excellent. We got to see the wards and the amazing facilities of a private hospital. Although it is private, all of their services are free. They do this by charging the adults for elective surgeries (mostly people living in Blantyre) and also raising money through private funders. They do tons of surgeries relating to birth deformities to illness induced disabilities. It is really an amazing hospital because in a country like Malawi, if you are poor, your one commodity is your ability to work. If you have a disability and you can’t work, well, then you lose your most valuable commodity. So, what they are doing for people isn’t just making them feel better, its helping them reintegrate and leave normal, productive lives. My brother has a copy of their DVD so if anyone is interested in learning more about them, please shoot him an email at akumar95@gmail.com. So, on the same day, we then went to the Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital, or Queen’s, as we call it here. My classmate Judith, the matron of the Obstetrics and Gynecology ward, took us on a tour of several of the wards: the pediatrics ward, obstetrics and gynecology, and TB. It was a stark contrast to the other wards. We saw many children who were malnourished (although she told me not as many as usual because the crop was good this year), TB patients in open facilities (whereas in the U.S. even one would be isolated) with up to 30 people in one room (although all with beds, light, and bednets), many sick, premature newborns with no incubators and sharing beds, as well as many children with malaria. It’s no shock as the number one killers in the under 5 age range are malaria, diarrheal diseases, and acute respiratory diseases. It was a great experience for my brother to be able to compare this hospital as he moves into his residency. I hope that he can share what he saw (and remember the details a bit better) with his classmates. Queen’s is actually one of the best and biggest government hospitals in Malawi as it is a central hospital and a point of tertiary level care.

After this, Achie and I traveled south a bit down the Chikwawa road to the lower shire, a region that is lower, swampier, greener, and has several rivers, unlike other parts of Malawi. We went to Lengwe national park to start off our nature tours and you can see the pictures through the link. We mostly saw monkeys and antelopes, but also saw giraffes when we went to the private park, Nyala Park, which is located in Sucoma. This is nestled right next to the biggest sugar company in Malawi, Illovo, so you will see lots of sugarcane in the photos. We then returned to Blantyre that Friday and had a great but long Friday at the international trade fair with Donna’s school. Achie was a chaperone for standard 5 and I was a chaperone for standard 3. I am not sure this was in his itinerary, but he got to see how maize is ground, how peanut butter is made, the various tractors and other equipment, as well as have a good time with the children on the ferris wheel and bouncy house. It was good fun…and after all that, we had a night out in Blantyre, which was probably just like a night out in the states for my bro! The next day, Jess, Donna, me, Achie, and Vishal packed a picnic and went to the highest peak in Southern Africa (or something like that!), Mulanje. Most people hike up Mulanje. We, however, drove up to a spot called the Likhubula pools, a serious of small pools and waterfalls and ate till we were stuffed and then slept on the rocks. It was a great time! That night, we went to a very famous singer’s concert, Oliver Mukhudzi, in the open air at the French Cultural Center. Everyone in the entire city of Blantyre was there, I believe! I have seriously never seen so many people in one place here but glad my bro got to see that too. The music was lovely except that we didn’t understand Shona and to Achie, it seemed like they kept saying the same thing over and over again. The real exciting part about it though was how happy and excited the crowd was. The next day was Jess’ birthday and all of our friends had a lovely afternoon of drinks, cake, and presents at one of our favorite spots, Chez Maky’s. Then, we went to an amazing Indian dinner at Bombay Palace, according to Achie, one of the best Indian places he has ever eaten. From there, we went to our favorite place to cuddle up by a fire and relax over a coffee or drink, La Dolce Vita. It was a wonderful time to relax before our next big trip.

On Monday, we headed off to Liwonde National Game Park. It was so wonderful! Except of course, for the road there. We are talking a 25 km road with sharp rocks, wooden plank bridges, and generally sand and mud. Our car got stuck of course, twice. So, we ended up calling the lodge and having them come to rescue us. It was great once we got there though. Amazing food, rooms, and company. There were five American missionaries there from the Rafiki foundation and we had a great time on all of the safaris together. We did a jeep safari at night, a walking safari in the morning, and a boat safari in the afternoon! I couldn’t believe it. We saw elephants, lots of monkeys/baboons/crawly things climbing in the trees and tons of hippos and crocodiles in the water. So, Achie did have a real African experience after all, full of animals and safaris! Which is not really what I generally experience here in Malawi, but it was so nice to be able to have this opportunity. One of the many things that I wouldn’t have done if I was here alone.

From there, on that Tuesday, we went to visit my friend Bill at Mangochi. We stayed the night there and Achie got to meet Asaf, Derryl, the South Africans, and the many friends that Alyx and I made in Palm Beach on our adventures. The next day, Bill joined us and we went up to Cape Maclear, which is a very touristy (for Malawi) backpacker type of spot. It is almost unreal how much is feels like the tropics. You see boys in board shorts, girls with dreaded hair, and people selling lots of handicrafts, beads and the like all around. This was the highlight of Achie’s trip. We snorkeled in the Lake and saw tons of cichlids everywhere. It was amazing…I’m not sure that I knew how many types there were. But I saw brown ones, black ones, green ones, stripes, solids, polka dots, anything you could imagine. We snorkeled around rock beds and watched fish for hours. Bill mostly read and I only snorkeled the first day, but Achie snorkeled for two days straight!

After Cape, we went on down to Mangochi to drop Bill off and on the way, we stopped at Malawi Children’s Village (MCV). It was so interesting to see the various projects that they run; you can check it out at: www.malawichildrensvillage.com. The most amazing thing to me is that they had high speed internet provided by an NGO called Solace International. It makes me realize that it is in fact possible, to get everyone wired! I wish that I knew more about technology but it seems like a great new frontier. We then went and ate in the village. A man named Daniel who works at Palm Beach invited us to his house so Achie even got to eat Nsima and Relish! He REALLY had an experience, I thought. From Mangochi, back to Blantyre it was! We got back on a Friday night and we went to my friend Vishal’s for dinner. It was so lovely to have a nice home cooked Indian meal and for Achie to meet some Indian’s outside of India and America! On Saturday, as usual, we met the girls (Jess and Donna) for lunch at Shoprite and then Achie and I did our “bits and bobs” as Donna would say, in town. Then, at night, we went to an amazing dinner at Hostaria restaurant and proceeded to meet some other friends at a braai (barbeque) for a little while before heading home to pack for Achie’s early morning flight. Sadly, the next day, Donna and I drove him to the airport at 5 in the morning and said our goodbyes. Back to normal life it was!

Of course while Ach was here, I did almost no school work so the next week was an absolute blur to me. That’s right, I was shocked back into normal student mode. I started out the week after he left with a module on health economic evaluation, which was great and we learned to cost health programs. The following week, I had a module on Grant Proposal Writing and in between I handed in all of my assignments from the HIV/AIDS module, TB module, and Communicable Disease Control module. It took a lot of work and sleepless nights but hey, that’s what being a student is about isn’t it?

In terms of recent adventures, Donna and I have taken to hiking and walking and the past week (there was a holiday on Thursday), we climbed Michiru, which is just outside of Blantyre, and were brave enough to walk near the famed hyena pits on the trail. Although I have to say that we didn’t actually see hyenas. On Saturday, we spent the day hiking at Zomba and it was a beautiful 4 hour hike where we got to see a view of Zomba, Blantyre, and probably some further districts in Malawi. We could even see as far as Mozambique. It was a great view from the top, called the Emperor’s View (after the Emperor Hailie Selassie of Egypt) and when we got to the top of the mountain, my friend Jeanie read a Psalm from the bible (121 for those interested) and we just enjoyed the moment. It was a great end to many weeks of moving with my brother and studying hard for my classes.

About Rotary, I attended the Limbe Rotary Club last week and I loved it! To be honest, I was getting a bit frustrated with the Blantyre club and it was very difficult for me to get involved in their projects but it gets really tricky sometimes because it depends on the schedules of other people. So, even if they are active in the club, they may not have time for me, to explain all the ins and outs of the activities with me so that I can participate. The Limbe club reminded me a lot of the Orland Park club back home and I felt so comfortable at their meeting! I already have been invited to two Rotarians’ homes for dinner and I am meeting with another next week to discuss a health project they are working on, so things are really picking up on that end. It feels wonderful because I am really trying my best to get more involved with Rotary but it hasn’t been easy with classes and finding the right way to fit in my interests with those of the club. In July, I also plan on visiting the Lilongwe club so I will be interested to see the ways in which they are spreading Rotary and if I am able to in August, I will go all the way up to Mzuzu to visit the other club in Malawi there (about an 8 hour drive from Blantyre).

A Few Thoughts on the Difference Between Working and Living Abroad…(This is meant to be provocative, so please feel free to disagree or agree and write back!)

So, here come my mental wanderings for the past few weeks. Of late, I have been meeting mass amounts of Americans. And every time, I make an observation about the way that they act and wonder how this relates to me? Do I look like that, do I talk like that, do I act like that? And so what if I do, does it make a difference? Am I jealous of the other Americans? Maybe I want to be the only American in Malawi?

It all started last week when a group of Americans from the University of North Carolina came to do the course on Health Economic Evaluation. It was really strange because the first day I was late to class (obviously because my brother had just left the day before). When I walked in and saw just a handful of my classmates and about 8 American women, I had no idea how to react. I just stood in the doorway for a while and eventually recognized my classmates and sat down. I’m not used to seeing any foreigners here for actual classes (they usually work at the hospital or on a research project), so it came as a huge surprise to me. I reacted in my normal way, greeted my classmates, sat down and introduced myself. I was sure that they knew I was American from my toothy grin, poor fashion sense, and lack of volume control when I spoke. They didn’t however. Actually no one really turned around to greet me like I thought they would. Where was my warm welcome? Where was my what’s up sister? Good to have you here. Where was that American camaraderie that I was looking for?

Well, the entire week was built on group activities so luckily we had a girl join our group from the UNC project. They are students in public health that will be here for 2 weeks of classes and varying amounts of their summer to do research. I thought, yes, we are going to be friends right away. She will be so excited when she hears what I am doing here. But, it was suddenly two hours later and almost no word from her. Finally at the end of the group, she acknowledged me and asked me where I was from. It was a bit weird, she was analyzing me, seeing what I was doing, checking me out, and then just moved on. My first instinct was to reach out to the pack of American girls lost in Blantyre. I had loads of friends, transport, and connections. They didn’t. But, they didn’t seem interested so I just kept my distance and let them figure things out on their own. That is, after all, what I had to do and maybe it was important for them to experience that as well. The week went on and during our tea breaks I eventually got onto chatting with all of them a bit. One of the girls was going up to Mangochi so I ended up giving her my friend Bill’s contact information and he told me that they have been in touch since then, which is great. And I finally got onto chatting with them when we had a class dinner at the end of the week. They had some interesting stories: one had worked in Kenya, one had done my scholarship in Cape Town, and the others had really interesting PhD research on nutrition and HIV/AIDS and Prevention of Mother to Child Transmission (PMTCT).

Then they moved on with their lives and went to do their individual research for the next four weeks. It was pretty much the same the week after, only, lucky me, one of the girls took my number to meet up this coming week, although I have yet to see if she will actually call me. This past weekend, I also met a couple of really interesting Americans who I seem to have more in common with. There is a Chinese American girl from California who did her MPH at Johns Hopkins and is now doing research here with them and goes to Donna’s church. There is a guy who works for the French Doctors without Borders and has worked internationally in finance and PR for the last 5 years and there is a girl who works for PSI, which does social marketing around health related issues in Malawi and will be here for 2 years. They tend to be more on the same page as me in terms of life and living here in Malawi. Then last weekend, I met two students in their first year of medical school that are going to go down and work with the Millennium Villages Project for the rest of their summer. They were so arrogant when I spoke to them that my roommate Donna physically walked away while I was conversing with them. The salvation of the weekend was a friend of a friend who is working for Save the Children this summer and who can just as easily eat chicken and chips on the side of the road as have gourmet coffee in a five star hotel and is truly interested in learning the Malawian way of life.

So, why am I so upset with all of this? And why am I wasting time telling you about all of the 10 Americans in Malawi at the moment. It is because I think it can help us understand a bit more about our identity as Americans, as people, and why that is important to us at all. My issue was that I really wanted to feel some sort of kinship with the other Americans here. I see them as just the same as me. But, I am not sure if it works vice versa. I had a really interesting conversation with one of my classmates after all of the other Americans left the class. I asked them (because I was extremely curious) if I was like them. My classmates responded that I was different. I asked why? They told me that they were very involved in their own business and not too concerned with chatting with my classmates.

That’s when it hit me. There are so many people that come to work abroad, to do these so called international projects. This is, after all, so trendy in America at the moment. This is partly because of the Brad Pitts, Anjelina Jolies, and Madonnas and others involved in the Millennium Promise, but also because people are becoming very concerned with the well-being of people in other parts of the world.

So for me, however, I can’t say that this is what called me to come to Malawi. I truly believe in the intellectual capacity of the developing world. My parents, after all, are products of the universities in India, at a time when India was not the industrial and technical giant that it now is. The developing world is not an abyss; it is a place where intelligent people live. It is only that the opportunities do not always exist for upward progress or exit as they did in the past. And if that is not the problem, well, then we can talk of things like HIV/AIDS and the fact that much of the educated population will die before the age of 40 and never have the chance to contribute to the creation of these opportunities through policy change and sustainable projects. And I chose to come to Malawi (not “Africa,” but a specific country within Africa). I chose to come because I wanted to experience what it was like to live in another country. I didn’t come to ride around in a fancy white pick up truck with a UNICEF logo on it and be so concerned with my mission that I only associate with my coworkers, only talk about my projects, and only write home about the misery and suffering that I see. I came to Malawi with the time and the capacity to talk to Americans, British, Zimbabweans, Congolese, Kenyans, Irish and all others with just the same capacity as I have to talk to Malawians. One of my friends from the MPH program put it best to me when she said, “Its like people come here and are so quick to jump into work and are interested to see all of Malawi, but have no time to talk to Malawians.” Because I am here through Rotary, it was always a point for me to meet people, exchange with people, share a meal, have a discussion, and most importantly learn. And to learn, for me, does not mean to sit in a class and act like I have ESP and know everything that the professor will say. It is sitting and being humble, being like a child in the classroom. My colleagues are people with years of experience. They are District Health Officers, Senior Social Scientists, and Research Coordinators. Who am I to be an expert? I am not. I know that. And I believe that this attitude makes my purpose here a bit different from some of the people that I have met. This is not to say that the work of NGOs, research institutions, and foreign universities are not important. And this is not to say either, that there are not many people who are, in fact, experts and have so much to contribute. I am just saying that that is not my place in Malawi. And I have met people whose place it is not either but they are conditioned to believe that they do have that duty.

Something to think about…do you agree?

Ok, I believe that this is an important point of contention. It is very deeply connected to personal development and the pursuit of understanding people, which is, after all, what drives me and keeps me awake on many a sleepless night. In order to understand people, we have to understand ourselves and work on ourselves. Every week, I try and work on a different quality relative to the experience that I have. Last week, I worked on being gentle in my speech and thought. I practiced this by listening when people talked, not getting angry when I was stopped on the way out of a shop, and by speaking in a soft fashion even though I might have been agitated with a question. This week, I am working on ego. With all of these thoughts of being an understanding person and differentiating my experience from others, it has often come up in conversation, what I am doing here and why. Sometimes it is difficult not to challenge another. It is easy to fall into the attitude of my project is cooler or more exciting than yours. But, I rarely if ever let on to what I am doing here. I just listen to the stories and the experiences. I have met people from many parts of the world working in a variety of settings. When we are in the field, we are equal. There is no need to compare who is doing better than another. How would we even begin to measure this? In the number of children we feed or the number of TB patients we treat? No, this is not important. It sounds ridiculous if you actually articulate it. To tie it all back together, it takes a certain kind of humbleness and an acceptance that we are all trying to do acts of good and be selfless rather than build our resumes by writing the many obscure places we have visited and worked in our young age. And it’s not a race either. It’s not a competition. And at the end of the day, we just have to settle for the fact that whatever we do is a drop in the bucket of what needs to be done. But if that drop is pure and expects nothing in return, it will yield a flood. If it is not, well then, it is in fact, just a drop……

You may or may not agree with me on this end. And you may not really see how meeting a bunch of young Americans has pushed me to think so much about my purpose here as a learner. But, I hope to hear your thoughts on this and how I might be able to change myself if you think that I might need an attitude adjustment!

I sincerely look forward to hearing you comments once again. And please look at the newest pictures up in my brother’s album link below.


I hope that you are all safe and well. We will be having workshops with the children in the coming weeks so I hope that you will all be tuned in to see their smiling faces. Please send me warmth….it is winter in Southern Africa!!

Thinking of you all,


Blogger ashwin said...

Hi Aparn,
Thanks for the post. Yeah, it seems easy to fall in the trap of comparing ourselves to others and forget what one was doing in the first place. Although, I would like to believe that many of these do-gooders who travel abroad are actually trying to help people, many are just there for the reasons you mentioned: to boost their CV, exciting international travel with the facade of mission work, and the list goes on. Although helping people may be an objective, it's lower on the list. Just today I met someone who told me that her long term goal was to start an NGO and provide medical services for international populations in need. While we were sitting there, I noticed a designer purse and rather fancy clothes. More than what was needed for the situation. How about giving up the money used for that designer pursue and investing that in people who really need it? I wondered if she even thought about this. I also wondered why she wanted to start an NGO herself without any clear purpose. Are there not enough NGOs already in existence to contribute to? While helping people, did she also want to see her name labeled on that NGO? Unless we fundamentally change ourselves, it is very difficult to bring about true change in the world. So, keep up with your questioning and desire to better yourself, it's the only way to go. Well, I think that's about all I have to say.


1:48 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Your words have me thinking about identity. For most people, identity is associated with their past, guilts, fears, and other shortcomings instead of inner beauty, creativity, and a sense of destiny (future accomplishments). It is the bane of human existense and the primary reasons we (can) never reach our true individual potential.. Unless we change (for which there is little incentive for Americans), we also see others through this same poopy colored lens. Because of the deep inner shame this causes, the poor and downtrodden become enemies of the religious and privileged. It also opens the way for self imposed oppression, because if you know who you are, you are not capable of allowing it.

In my mind, thats the one thing that makes Americans so dangerous (and such easy targets) when they go abroad. I am sure those students from UNC were not only coming to terms with all the lies, misinformation, and guilt of coming to Malawi, they were also coming to terms with the loss of "privelege" in the environment. Your personal identity has no relevance in a place like Malawi, especially in the field you work, unless you are spending all of your time socializing among the privileged few. The potential for the people of Malawi to pick up your cultural trash (externalities of your self) and run with it is too high...

It bothers me that Brangelina and Madonna have made it is so "trendy" to go to Africa nowadays, though people have always come and gone. I'd hate to think people leave w/o authentic experiences, and return stateside having cemented their own racist and otherwise negative preconceptions of Africans and their predicament in the modern world.

For most people, i think the culture shock upon arrival and the realization that you'll be making a huge difference brings you face to face with your guilt. (I posit that people are more afraid of success than failure). If these students & volunteers make a real difference and they "succeed", what are they to do next? Go back to the states and return to a life of privelege built on the very backs of the people that gave them their badges?

I remember being in Brazil and spending time with some street kids and their pimp and prostitute parents in the favela. They didn't want to believe that an American can think they weren't the only ones living wrong. You have to convince them that the taxi driver and the government official is equally responsible for their plight as a country. Everyone has to change for the better.

I admire you for taking the time to study how Malawis are as a people, and to internalize it. They talk softly and listen as most "southern africans" do. The fact that the Americans did not see you as one of them is a blessing, trust me. You've been in Malawi long enough to have come back down to earth. YOur UNC crew probably associated you with the native crowd and dismissed you like they dismissed the population they are there to help...

On a final tip, my goal in life is to be like the friend you describe. A person that is truly "classy" is who they are where ever they are. To a person like that, personal identity is irrelevent.

Talk to you soon,

Agent Brown

2:21 PM  
Blogger The Bear Maiden said...

Hello from NYC!

I've been thinking about your post, Aparna, because I think what you ran into is what we call racism. It's not just about "do-goodism". It's "I'm in a position to help these poor brown-skinned folk, and I'm so great because I'm doing it". Then they get over there, and face you, and aren't sure where to "place you" in their mental picture.

My sister ran into a similar attitude going through Fordham U to be a social worker.

I don't comment often but I love reading about your travels, your work, and viewing your pictures. I'm so proud of you.

11:11 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


There is so much here, in your words, that it is hard even to begin a proper response, but I have wanted for some time to be part of your discussion.

My question regarding the youth whom you are describing is this: Do we all start out somewhere in our quest for "global" or international understanding, and is this "somewhere" not often initially negative? Meaning, before a person is able to go abroad with more appropriate intentions, do they maybe need this initial experience to learn sensitivity?

Don't get me wrong, I do not excuse or accept cultural insensitivity as part of a natural road to self-betterment, but I do think that the initial anthropolgist exists in ALL of us, and that it takes work, time and experience to understand and diffuse this.

As for experiencing unfriendly Americans, most of the people I know who have been priviledged (and priviledge is an important element here) to spend a chunk of time abroad, have felt some sort of ownership. I imagine that this would be multiplied by the element of social work/projects.

Do these younger Americans sense your comfort in Malawi and feel threatened by it? If they are pushing to learn by personal experience, are they unsure about learning from another young American? Is this completely to their detriment?

Absolutely. This is not "okay" or not okay, necessarily, but it is somehow natural. It is also natural for you to find this frustrating.


As for the question of what to do with people who "just want to help," I've always wondered if the most effective projects would be construction, wells (water-related), etc. That way, there are hands and bodies working, regardless of being intellectual or religious or priviledged or arrogant or confused or guilty...

But again, it seems like these projects would all be more effective if people from the community were hired on to help. That might get people working together towards a tangible common goal, create as sense of ownership in the community, and remove a bit of the theoretical element.

Finally, the point you hit upon that I so deeply agree with is the question of "your own back yard."
When one volunteers in her own hometown or city, she can enjoy the benefits of choosing projects that are tangible and that are handed over to the community when she finishes, and maybe more importantly, she doesn't leave the community when she is done.

I think many Americans have lost touch with what is happening right in front of them, and have become very wrapped up in doing something "cool." (I chalk this up to cultural and social priviledge, but I could be simplifying. The fact is, we have so many options that we aren't sure why we are choosing.)


Well, AP, I think that all of your thoughts are amazing, and I hope that you will take these short paragraphs as humble ramblings. I have enjoyed rethinking these issues through you, and hope that I will come to a place where I can discuss them with more understanding and clearer thoughts.

For now, I hope that they at least show you that I am listening, and that I am proud to call you my friend!

Alex (Gandy)

8:12 AM  

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