Aparna in Mozambique

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

THe Need for Beauty in Our Lives

September 4, 2007

So, first off, let me extend my apologies to all of you! I haven’t forgotten to write. It’s just that, honestly, I didn’t feel like I had anything worthy enough of your time to spit out. Ok, so fine, there have been the excitements of riding in minibuses with my classmates, chickens, buckets of fish, stacks of cassava root, and maize….there have also been the thrills of hand washing my clothing for 4 hours once a week…..also, the many new things I have found that I can purchase at “shoprite” or as my friends and I call it “the mall.” Did you know that you can get peanut m and m’s, sandals, the tastiest sausage rolls in town, gardening equipment, coke light, and electrical appliances all in the same store? And while, yes its amazing that a suburban-esque grocery store exists in a place where 50% of the children are stunted and 20% of the children are undernourished never ceases to amaze me….as you can see, my life is really not that exciting. Honestly, your experiences of getting engaged, going on vacation, riding the subway, or crashing cars (yes dad, talking to you!) thrill me to no end.

Project Updates and My exponentially less interesting than other peoples’ lives…


Ok, first let’s start on my updates. I spent the last week in Mangochi, which is near the lake, doing a module on Nutrition. I learned all about nutrition and HIV, Malnutrition, Micronutrients, Macronutrients, and a Healthy Diet in Malawi. We also did two field exercises, one in a school and one in the community. For the community exercise, we took anthropometric measurements. We measured weight, height, and mid upper arm circumferences (MUAC) of approximately 30 women. The three other groups did nutritional assessments, dietary food intakes, and other forms of anthropometric measurements for children. In our assessment, we found just 2 of the women to be undernourished, which was a very good sign. The region where we did surveys, Lungwena, within Mangochi district, is a research site of the College of Medicine so it is good to know that their work there is going well. The second set of surveys in the school were to measure micronutrients. My group measured for presence of blood in urine to determine presence of schistosomiasis. Out of 30 students, we tested only 3 positive, which was also an excellent sign. The most significant thing that I remember is the difference between boys and girls in this test. The boys made their samples and just brought their little containers. The girls, on the other hand, slightly more timid, found giant flowers for their sample containers and nestled their urine jars in the middle of the flowers. It made me laugh! Such is the difference between boys and girls!! The other groups of my classmates measured the level of iodine in the children’s salt (there was almost none!), checked for dental fluorosis and goiter, and screened Hb levels for anemia using a Hemocue machine. All in all, it was an amazing “community health” experience and I learned so much. Our assignment for the course is to assess the Prevention of Mother to Child Transmission (PMTCT) strategy that the government is just getting ready to design. Basically we are thinking about nutrition for the infant and wondering how to take all of its needs into account while worrying about the rate of transmission through breast milk. If anyone is interested in hearing more about this, let me know and I’d love to chat about it.

In terms of my research, things are moving along. I spent a few days in Zomba meeting with some key players to get more information on traditional birth attendants (TBAs). My research broadly focuses on TBAs and how to integrate them into the maternal health care system. In a place like Malawi, nearly 80% of births can take place at the TBA, so it is very important in securing the good health of both the mother and the child. I also went to visit a project in Mangochi that has been working with TBAs for the past 6 years to learn more about ways to work with them. It has been really enlightening and I am excited to see how the next few months pan out in terms of my final thesis paper. I am working on all of my approvals to get started to hopefully, in the month of October, I will be doing my qualitative research. If anybody would like to know more about this, I am also happy to send my proposals along to you.

In terms of Rotary, I gave two presentations, one in Blantyre and one in Limbe. The Rotarians at both clubs are very interested in linking to the U.S., especially in terms of matching grants. As we are in Malawi, there is no shortage of need. The Naperville club had partnered with the Limbe club in the past, but Rotarians, if there is any other interest, please let me know and I am happy to start helping with a project for you. Next week I am going to visit the Lilongwe Rotary club to give a presentation. They are a fairly new club so it should be interesting to see what they are interested in developing in a link to the U.S. Towards the end of the month, I should be visiting the Mzuzu club and am excited to make this 8 hour journey to the north. In terms of the nutrition project that I mentioned in my last blog, I have procured a link with the Rab manufacturing company here, who makes a nutritional supplement. With a donation from the Orland Park Rotary Club, I am going to set up a project at the school I have been working with to incorporate this high energy spread into the children’s porridge on a daily basis so that it can be more nutritious and filling and to help the children sustain their energy for the entire morning. It is really exciting and I will let you know how it progresses.

I am also working on some other small projects, mostly assisting a group in the U.S. to form a school to school partnership in Malawi, but also helping with a nutrition project for the Palliative Care Association of Malawi (PACAM) as well as continuing to support the sexual and reproductive health team of the Millennium Villages Project with various information requests including research on family planning and sexual and reproductive health services. So, you can see that in my last few months, I have a busy schedule, but one that I am very proud of and very excited about. I know that I can only do so much while I am here but my hope is to create really strong links for future work and to possibly continue with my research and contributions when I am in Mozambique and beyond.

My not so interesting life:

I sometimes do really believe that people feel like I am living in an adventure land theme park. I can assure you that I am not. And I’m sure that you believe me after reading my brilliant introduction to this week’s blog. I want to let you all know to PLEASE send me your news. If I’m not up to date with your lives when I get back to the states, I will be very disappointed. Yes, this even applied to all my aunties and uncles out there. I even want to hear about the latest pooja, what exciting dish you have made recently (please don’t tempt me though with the things you know I love to eat), what annoying thing any of my cousin’s has done (and the Lord knows that there are a lot of us), or any other news/gossip (most of what occurs in our family as conversation would probably be quoted as gossip in a poll of normal Americans) is more than welcome.

I guess this is just part of settling into a place, but you lose the novelty and when you lose novelty, you just start to live. I don’t think twice anymore about the fact that I wake up at 5AM in the morning (almost everyone does in Malawi); that my lights go out without fail every night at 5:30PM so I make sure to cook until then; or that I wash my clothes for four hours a week; and I definitely don’t think about the fact that I am actually in Malawi, riding on a bus with chickens (two of whom died on our ride back from Mangochi), stopping at a classmate’s farm, and looking out the window at the beautiful mountain scenery and endless maize crops. Maybe I’m just not that deep….or maybe I’ve come back to my conclusions that a place is as exoticized as you want it to be. And that when you get down to business, you are just living as you would anywhere else. Well, with limitations that is.

On Being Glamorous…

I have had a hard time with one thing in particular since I’ve been here. This goes back to my blog post on meeting other foreigners in Malawi and seeing the lives that they lead here. As you might gather from my previous paragraphs, on the whole, I feel that my life is very very normal. What does that mean? Yes, I still go out to eat on a Friday night. Usually, I like to have a nice meal at L’Hostaria Italian restaurant. If not, I go to the market and buy fresh vegetables and spices and have some friends pool together for dinner. My latest creation has been sweet potato curry. Or, I read, or go on a day trip. Ok, so there is no TV for me. But, I do listen to the BBC. And yes, I have power cuts, but I compensate by boiling water and still have hot baths. So, I live normally.

What that translates to is that I dress normally. Yes, I don’t wear gore-tex boots and parachute khaki pants. On the weekend, it is perfectly ok for me to wear jeans or a skirt if I go to church with my friends. And in class, I do wear trousers and dress shirts, earrings, and yes, even makeup at times. When I give rotary presentations, I wear a suit and I wear high heels sometimes on the weekends when I have people over for dinner or if we go out to eat. In effect, I look almost exactly as I would at home. Well, maybe not as glammed out as I would be in New York, but relatively dressed up. Why you might ask? It’s a complicated issue. The difference between city living and the rural life and the gap between the urban and the rural gives me flexibility and the ability to wear my bonnie bell lip gloss if I want to.

Many people believe that even the most urban places in Malawi (or even “Africa”) are remote and uncouth. That is far from the truth. People dress really well here and they speak very properly. In fact, foreigners are known to be these hippie don’t brush their hair or shave their beards types. It’s a common known stereotype. I find that my classmates are some of the most polished people I have ever met. While in the states it would be common to see torn jeans and dirty white tee-shirts in the classroom, here is isn’t uncommon to see a lovely skirt suit or a well-pressed Perry Ellis dress shirt with a tie for the males. Granted, some of the individuals that come from abroad are coming to do mission or peace corps type of work so its not fair to compare them to academic urban Malawians. And in the field, I agree, Birkenstocks might be useful. But, I also think that it is important to look around. If you go to the village, women don’t wear Birkenstocks. They usually wear the likes of a tee-shirt, small sandals or shoes and a chitenje (traditional cloth that goes over a skirt). So, although we have the utility argument, it is also important to open our eyes, adapt, and move on. Of course, we can never fit in completely no matter how similar we dress to others, but still, it helps in assimilation and also in realizing what you need and don’t need to survive. My conclusion is that bandannas are good if you don’t want to get bugs in your hair (which I often find after a day out for too long), but aren’t much of a fashion statement in Malawi.

That leaves me as a person who believes in presentation. In a place where all are on an equal playing field, presentation matters. And that is the first thing that one will notice about you, no matter how intelligent or lacking you might be. What is wrong with looking good and feeling good? Even if you are far away from home in the middle of a country which most people have never heard of in the middle of sub-Saharan Africa….its still a place and a place like and unlike many others.

How Aesthetics Affect One’s Life…

Everyone craves beauty in their lives. This may be as simple as ironing your clothes really well or having your room painted in a color that you love. For me this means painting my toe nails an absolutely bright color every week (usually pink or red) and wearing high heels at least once a week. It reminds me that I am, in fact, a human being. And not just that, I am a woman from the United States and that is just OK. It is so much a part of who I am that to do the things I did before. And although I can do without them, it reminds me of who I am. Does this make sense?

What I want to get at is that the little things in life matter. And having little bits and pieces of beauty, something to look at and revel in its beauty and truly enjoy is innately human. You can see this in the homes of the wealthy with their crystal chandeliers and designer handbags. And you can just as easily see this in the homes of the much less fortunate in the village in the fake flowers on the table or the 1980s photograph from a peace corps volunteer pinned up on their wall.

But, I often wonder….can this be translated into “development” or “humanitarian” work? This very same topic recently came up in the following exhibit sent to me by a good NYC friend. This exhibit looks at various ways of designing useful items for the developing world while making them very pleasing to the eye, things like insecticide treating nets (ITNs) to prevent malaria. I have to admit that the photos are beautiful and it is especially striking to see such beautiful things in basic contexts. If you have the time, I would love people to take a look at the site and give me their feedback on it.

This was a recent exhibition of Design for the Other 90% at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum in NYC. You can see it at: http://www.designobserver.com/archives/027474.html#more

My reaction to my friend and the exhibit was this:

“I often think of how aesthetics affects the poor and if its possible to make beauty in even the most remote places. To some extent, it matters. It makes people feel good about
themselves and content that their life is worth something more; so much so that they can indulge in pleasing things. However, the bottom line is that utility and practicality override any other consideration. Its a sad but true reality; I can relate to this from
my immigrant grandparents. Their time was a different time, a harsher reality, and they had less of a desire to waste time with pretty things. There was no sense in it. So, yes, designers should keep at it. But keep in mind their audience and understand that being
beautiful should be a second consideration to being useful. Keeping utility at the forefront and not how "cool" or "innovative" an item is could definitely make a difference.”

I look around when I am in the field and it is often dusty. Nothing shines, the houses are barren, and clothing is colorful but often ragged. I strongly believe that having such things affects the way that you view yourself and view yourself as a member of society. To have beautiful things means that you are worth something, that you are valuable, that you have the time to dwell on pretty things. To me, painting my nails makes me feel good about myself, even though I should be studying. I make the time for it. And I enjoy it. Should this not also be something that we afford to others who have less? Should we also not be concerned with donations and contributions of things that add aesthetic value to one’s life? Give people things that you love. This is more of a contribution than something that has no value to you. Things that you love can even be beautiful. They add to self-worth, which is, in my mind, the cornerstone to development. This is no small task, we are talking about self-worth translating from the individual to the collective scale. A massive shift in self-perception. Could providing beauty in each individual’s life help to do this? I would love to explore this concept more.

So where does this blog leave me this week? I have now resigned to the fact that I am what in society one would dub a “thinker.” This is mostly based on the fact that I realize I will be in school for at least 4 more years, but also on the fact that I spend most of my waking hours philosophizing on the inequality in health care access and on the challenges of development. In the division of doers and thinkers, I am overwhelmingly classified as the latter. Eventually, I am sure this will work out for me, but for the time being, most of my friends and family just think that I am a big time day dreamer who has happened to get enough support for people to believe in me enough to work on some complex issues abroad.


Family and friends, I really look forward to hearing your contributions on this blog post. I tried to keep it shorter than usual so that we can have more comments. I also want to send you biweekly updates for my last few months here so we can feel more connected and stir as much debate as possible before my trip home and back to Mozambique.

I apologize but there are no pictures of my life right now, but I promise that within the next few weeks, I am going to post pictures of my absolutely normal life in Malawi!

Warm hugs from the warm heart of Africa, as always!!!


Blogger Soumya said...

Smashing entry...!! You have opened a window to your soul!!!! Keep at it and enjoy eveny minute of it!

7:46 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Aparna, Once again I enjoyed reading about your life in Malawi bt I want to disagree with you on one point. I believe that you are a "DOER" for the following reasons:
1. You could be studying public health in the U.S. or Europe but you took the risk to go to Africa and deal with the world's biggest health problems.
2. Many of the children do not have parents because of the HIV epidemic and it is immensely important that you are involved in the nutritional classes and field work. The children know that you really care about them as individuals and it's impossible to do a cost benefit analysis on that human interaction.
3. I think the nutritional supplement program you are setting up is right on the money and necessary.
Keep up the good work and enjoy your Friday nights on the town. Loved the pictures of you and your friends. Sincerely, Mike Casey

6:00 PM  
Blogger Alexandra said...

I saw this article and thought it was worthy of sharing.



9:07 AM  
Blogger Reema said...

Great to hear that you are doing well and learning so much! Sounds like an incredible experience and I am glad you are sharing it with everyone. Keep writing - I love reading about your life in Malawi!

5:49 AM  

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