One Year Later

I finished my one-year fellowship in Malawi at the end of July and have been back in the States for almost three weeks now. As most things tend to do if you give them the proper time, my life in Malawi really came together during the last several months of my fellowship and I really did grow into loving my life there. This made my decision to return to Malawi in September an easier one.

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In late April/early May, I was asked to consider extending my time in Malawi to continue working for the World Food Programme. In May, two important and influential factors contributed to my choice to sign on as a consultant for WFP at the conclusion of my fellowship. The first and most important being that my dad was cancer-free. The second was the release of figures by the Malawi Government that confirmed that close to 40 percent of the country’s population would be in need of emergency food assistance during the upcoming year. To leave Malawi at a time when food insecurity was predicted to reach an unprecedented high felt counterintuitive. Additionally, to be able to work on a humanitarian response of this scale seemed to me a learning opportunity that I could not pass up.

Breaking the news of my decision to my family was difficult as it clearly meant that once again we will have to go through the goodbyes, distance and challenging communication issues. However, the decision feels right and I left the country happy knowing that in some weeks I would be returning.
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My time home has been so nice and as the days pass me by (too quickly for the most part), Malawi is somehow feeling more and more like a faraway memory. Sometimes I have to remind myself that my time in the US is temporary and that I will be returning to my job and life in Malawi shortly. It seems almost impossible that my world here and my one there are part of the same life as they are drastically different. However in some strange way they both seem to fit. Components of both feel extremely important to me and I often find myself wondering why it is that I was innately drawn to a career that demands I choose between being directly in the field and close to many of my best friends and family.

That being said, I could not be more grateful for the year I had in Malawi. The year threw at me challenges I could never have anticipated or prepared for, but at the same time I met some incredible friends and a group of co-workers I looked forward to seeing each day, all of whom made overcoming all the bumps along the way possible. My time at home has allowed me to more fully reflect on all that I learned over the course of the year. Malawi taught me better patience and problem-solving. I also came to fully appreciate the advantages of being flexible and embracing whatever it is your day brings–no matter how much you plan or try, there is absolutely no way to predict what your day may throw at you. It was a formative year and one that I know I will have long-lasting implications for me both professionally and personally.

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I leave for Malawi in just about two weeks. At points during the year I would have laughed had you told me I would be going back. But for right now, Malawi is another home to me and I’m excited at the thought of what my next four months there hold for me. Tionana (“see you soon”)–I will write more when back in Lilongwe!

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Malawi Update

IMG_4157.JPGIt’s been over three months since I last posted and I barely know where to begin as an update. In short, I spent the majority of March traveling to nearby countries and most of February working extra hours in preparation for my time off for my March travels. April felt a bit like it was spent readjusting back to life in Malawi as well as processing through a lot that was thrown at my family back at home. And May has been really good. I started the month climbing Mt. Mulanje in Malawi (pictured above), have spent a lot of time in the field (below) and just this morning was able to participate in a blood drive as hospitals here are facing blood shortages.
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Back to my March travels–my first destination was Rwanda. I spent a few days in the capital city, Kigali, where I travelled the city by moto (in between a scooter and motorcycle), was introduced to the WFP Rwanda office by another Princeton fellow, Malcom, and learned more about the genocide at what was an incredibly moving memorial. My friend Molly flew from the US to join me in Kigali and after our few days in the city, we boarded a public bus to see some of rural Rwanda. We stayed two nights in Musanze, which is beautifully green and hilly. Here I mountain trekked in a part of Parc National de Volcans to find a group of 11 or so mountain gorillas–called the Mafunzo gorilla group. We then left Rwanda for Moshi, TanzaIMG_3185_2nia where we met other fellows and some friends the afternoon before departing for our climb of Mt. Kilimanjaro.We spent five nights on the mountain and a total of six days hiking. Each day we passed through new terrain as the hike began in a forest and ended next to a glacier at the side of Uhuru Peak. Our entire group of 12 made it to the summit. The scenery was breathtaking and the stars at night so clear and seemingly close, but it was the people I spent the hike with that made the experience (pictured above).

Once down the mountain and a few showers later, our Princeton in Africa retreat took place over 4 days in Moshi. Reconnecting with the other fellows was extremely helpful and comforting as we all worked through challenges, frustrations and accomplishments we had had throughout the fellowship so far. It was filled with some extremely thoughtful and meaningful conversations and discussions, but also many, many laughs. We spent one of the days touring a coffee farm and hiking to a nearby waterfall. I left the retreat feeling like our fellowship class had suddenly become like a small family spread across the continent, which helped immensely with some of the feelings of homesickness I was having for my family back at home.

I then returned to IMG_3308work for a few days before leaving for Zanzibar with Raul for Easter weekend. We flew into Dar El Salaam where we boarded a tiny 12 person airplane to fly into Zanzibar. Our first day was spent in Stone Town (photos below)–a city made up of narrow stone streets, unlike any I have visited before.We spent the night there on a house boat (left), which in hind sight was a much better idea in theory than reality. After a few hours the next morning, finally over the sensation of feeling as if we were still on a boat, we arrived to the beaches of Nungwi (below). There we spent the day laying on white sand and swimming in the beautifully clear turquoise ocean.

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While Zanzibar was one of the most beautiful places I have visited, my days there were among the hardest. The night before I left for Zanzibar I received a phone call from my parents to tell me they had found cancer in my dad. My world shattered. It is a fear that crossed my mind when deciding to move this far away, but I guess I never actually believed it could happen until it did. Being so removed, a part of me didn’t believe it was actually real. At the same time, I felt incredibly anxious and emotional and to an extent helpless from Africa. My heart was back at home in Buffalo, so on my last day in Zanzibar, I purchased a flight to begin a 30 hour journey home to be there for my dad’s surgery.

I am happy to report that the surgery went well and that I was able to spend some tough, but meaningful days in the hospital with my dad before flying back to Lilongwe. The support our family was shown was so moving. The waiting room of the hospital was filled with people anxiously awaiting news about my dad, the phone calls did not stop throughout his week in the hospital, and flowers were sent from a WFP coworker, friends who climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro with me, Jack’s friend and others.

It’s interesting how something like this jolts your priorities quickly back into place. I fully realized nothing really  matters so long as the people I care about are ok. Of course watching my dad go through all he has was painful and beyond difficult, but seeing the strength of my mom and the way my siblings and I could come together to help each other through all the fear and anxiety was quite something. And I know we all step away from this even more aware of what it is in life that should never be taken for granted. I have just about two months until I return home in August and it’s the simple moments–like sitting out in Langford enjoying an ice cream cone with my dad–that I most look forward to having again soon.

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Football at Dzaleka

I visited Dzaleka Refugee Camp for the fourth time yesterday since arriving in Malawi. My other visits had been predominantly for work–one for a food distribution and another to meet with women participating in a UN project on the prevention of sexual and gender based violence at the camp. I had also spent a Saturday afternoon there in November at a music and art festival put on by the refugee community. This time though was for a football match (I was told that while in Malawi I can no longer refer to it as “soccer”). The UN team I regularly play for had scheduled a match for yesterday afternoon at Dzaleka against a team made up of thirteen or so refugees living at the camp.

Workdays are short on Friday so we arrivedDzaleka football field 2.jpeg to Dzaleka by 3:30 where I was handed a full uniform–shirts, matching shorts and even socks–to put on. Playing on a predominantly male squad, naturally these were men’s uniforms and were extremely oversized for me. However, looking like a team seemed to be extremely important to my Malawian teammates so I put on the jersey and socks. We then walked over to the “pitch”(pictured left) which was distinguishable only by the two goals on both ends. A little grass grew at one corner, but besides that the terrain was hard, dry dirt mixed with some rocks as well as a few small ravines and slopes. Maintaining good ball control proved to be a near impossible feat for the entirety of the match—one that most succeeded at much more skillfully than I managed to.

We warmed up and met our opponents and then proceeded to take a group photo before kickoff. As we all shook hands, I thought about how nice it was to interact in this context–all of us together to play some friendly football–rather than the typical context of interacting as WFP staff and beneficiary.

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My team included ten or so Malawian guys, Raul and I, meanwhile the Dzaleka team was made up of Rwandans, Burundians and men from the DRC. The referee was a refugee as well and along the sidelines kids from the camp were eager to act as sideline refs, stopping the ball as it went out of bounds. A crowd of a hundred or so refugees from the camp gathered around the perimeter of the field to watch (pictured above)–certainly the largest crowd I’ve played in front of! And the best part came whenever a goal was scored–the entire crowd would erupt in cheers with all the kids storming the field in celebration, looking to pass out high fives. I imagine organized sporting events are infrequent at Dzaleka with other forms of entertainment seemingly limited, which is likely explanatory of the excitement and crowd.

kids at Dzaleka.jpegWhen not on the field, I spent the rest of the match watching from the sideline with some of the kids (pictured left). The game finished as evening started to set in so we thanked the other team and community before heading back to Lilongwe. Playing at Dzaleka among people who have had to flee their home countries to live as refugees here in Malawi helped me to gain a sense of perspective as I have felt some feelings of homesickness myself lately—it left me to wonder what missing home means to them when the hope of ever returning home may not exist. Also, at a time when I’ve really been missing family, I was able to more fully see how certain sacrifices that moving here demands are balanced out by these experiences that are so vastly different. While Malawi has meant having to live far from my family and friends for the year, Malawi also means Friday afternoon football matches shared with a team of refugees.

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Banja

Last week at this time my mom was on her way back home from Malawi. She was in Africa for close to a month and was joined by my dad, Jack, Ker and Em for a few of the weeks so that we could be together as a family (“banja”) for the holidays. Coming to Africa for a visit is an undertaking as it requires shots, visas, plane tickets, malaria medicine, etc. so their effort to make it happen meant so much to me. On top of that, their willingness to step a bit outside their comfort zone and come somewhere so far and unfamiliar is really quite admirable. And words truly cannot convey how wonderful it was to have them here with me. I guess you don’t really understand how much you’ve been missing people until you are reminded of what it is like to have them back as a more constant part of your daily life.

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Their trip began with a few days in Lilongwe. I was able to show them my house, office and other aspects of my daily life here. They met the
blue zebra boatmajority of my coworkers and also came to the hospital that I had stayed at while sick so were able to talk with my doctor at my follow-up visit. We also managed to navigate the busy Old Town market during a trip to the large chitenje market  where we bought fabric that a local tailor made into clothing for them to wear back in the US. From Lilongwe we traveled to Salima, beginning the first leg of our travels.  There we took a small boat out to anBlue Zebra pool island on Lake Malawi–as the lake is the pride of this country, it felt a fitting way to begin. Blue Zebra, the lodge where we stayed, is alone on the island and being the only visitors for the first night, we had the island to ourselves. Lots of resting, swimming and some kayaking was done during the two days we were there. And other than experiencing a water cut while at Blue Zebra and a quick car break down, our first week in Africa together went relatively smoothly.
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Next stop was South Luangwa, Zambia where we stayed at a game lodge went on safari. Upon reaching the border of Zambia, we were instructed to exit our vehicle so that we could walk across the border from Malawi into Flatdogs VehicleZambia where our passports were stamped. We then arrived at Flatdogs Camp and were shown our “luxury” safari tents–throughout the night elephants and hippos couldbe heard walking around outside the tents. During our time there, we woke up both Thursday and Friday morning at 5am for our morning drives during which we had coffee in front of a herd of giraffe one morning and in front of a safari morningriver of hippos the other. We also did a night drive with a spotter who pointed out animals as Coffeethey roamed the terrain at dark. This was an unreal experience made even more memorable when a leopard on the hunt came unexpectedly close to my dad in the back of our vehicle. By the end of the three drives, we had seen everything we had hoped to–elephants, impala, hyena, wild dogs, lions, zebra, buffalo, among others–due predominantly to our incredibly knowledgable guide Yotam.
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From there we flew to Cape Town, South Africa to spend Christmas week.
IMG_1851We stayed in a beautiful home in Camps Bay with the Atlantic Ocean in front of us, Table Mountain to our back and Lion’s Head and the Twelve Apostles (mountains) to both sides. An upstairs porch made for some beautiful sunsets and great nap spot. While in Cape Town we visited Mandela’s prison cell on Robben Island, the V&A
Waterfront, the Hout Bay market, the District Six museum and were able to do a face painthike up Skelton’s Gorge on Table Mountain as well as a hike up Lion’s Head. A highlight was definitely a dinner we had at a restaurant featuring cuisines from all over Africa.  Live music and African dance was exhibited and the night began with our own short drumming lesson–Jack in my opinion stole the show with both his drumming and later attempts at African dance.

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We spent a relaxing Christmas day in Cape Town with church in the morning and a particularly windy walk on the beach at Camps Bay in the afternoon followed by gelatto (one of the things I miss most in Malawi)! My mom and Emily also accompanied me to visit the township I had previously worked in, Imizamo Yethu, to try to find a former student of mine named Olwethu. My search was unsuccessful, but by going Emily and my mom were able to see the poverty and exceptionally poor living conditions of all those still stuck living in townships created during apartheid. My past experience working with the kids from Imizamo Yethu really solidified my desire to come back to do more extensive work in Africa, and being where I am now, it felt fitting to return.

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Cape Town is where I said goodbye to my dad, Jack and Kerry, meanwhile my mom and Emily came back to Lilongwe with me, making that first round of goodbyes a bit more bearable. Em left on New Year’s Eve and my mom and I were able to spend New Year’s weekend together at a forest lodge in Ntchisi District. We survived an hour and a half drive on a rocky dirt road made worth it by the view of the first two sunsets (we were accompanied by about eight Malawian children for one) and the night sky of stars at the lodge.

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Things are now back in full swing at work and in Lilongwe. My first few days after everyone had left were a bit tough as I re-acclimated myself to the idea that it would be seven months before seeing them again. As I have said before, absence of my family and close friends back home is by far the toughest part of pursuing humanitarian aid work in Africa. Still, I am so grateful they were able to experience my life here. Connecting with them back at home is now that much easier as they are more fully able to visualize so much of what I describe whenever we are in touch.

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On the mend

Last Tuesday I woke up with collarbone and stomach pains, which quickly accelerated into a high fever with accompanying chills and dizziness/a headache. It was safe to assume it was malaria, so I was treated for that at a nearby clinic, but as my fever continued to rise and by Thursday morning my symptoms became more extensive, I went to the Partners in Hope (PIH) clinic where there’s a doctor specifically for UN staff. I got a variety of tests done–chest Xray, EKG, ultrasound, blood work–and met with the doctor after which I was admitted to the hospital to stay for what ended up ended up being a total of 3 nights.

While it’s never enjoyable to be sick, especially in a foreign country with healthcare that quite honestly makes you really value your own back at home, my time spent at PIH had some unexpected wonderful parts to it too. This starts with my friends here. They were incredible in the absence of my family. From Jasmin driving me to and from the multiple clinics, to my doctor friend Ally coming over late at night to check my symptoms and then sitting through consultations with the doctor, to Raul, Sarah and Kate spending multiple days and many hours sitting in the same uncomfortably hot hospital room, everyone made it so I never felt alone. Many other friends set aside time to come visit, bringing cookies, chocolate, drinks and even flowers along. Constricted to one room and limited activity, the time spent together actually ended up being quite fun.

I had not anticipated the incredible support of my coworkers either. Immediately upon admittance to the hospital, an email was sent out to all staff informing them I was sick and the following morning, at 6:45am, I woke up to find my coworker Chaliza entering my room to sit with me for a while. Another coworker Hussein visited me multiple times and Phillip, who sits next to me in the office, came on Friday evening. Our Deputy Country Director, Mietek, and his wife took an hour out of their Saturday to spend with me at the hospital. And from the ones who could not visit, I received both emails and phone calls that continued through today.

And not enough can be said about the kindness of the nurses, doctors and hospital staff. While occasionally I did have to remind them that it was time for my next round of medicine or that my IV bag needed changing, they worked in such a gentle and pleasant manner that my stay felt a little less like being stuck in a hospital. One nurse, Monalisa, even offered to be my guardian during the night when my friends had gone. In Malawi, it is a general rule that each patient be accompanied by a guardian–someone who sits by the patient’s bed–at all times. In a practical sense, this helps in hospitals where the patient to nurse ratio is unmanageable with guardians typically aiding the nurses to monitor the patient and provide general care. In another sense though, the guardian is there so no patient is alone while he/she is sick. I find it to be such a wonderful concept that fits so well into what Malawian culture seems to be all about.

I am feeling better and better with each day. Fortunately I responded quickly to the medicines and was guided by Ally’s wise medical guidance, so things never got too bad. My parents and Jack arrive in Malawi tomorrow, so this certainly is helping me to feel better too. In general though I remain so incredibly grateful to everyone here in Malawi that helped somehow turn this experience into one I actually view positively. I remain in awe and am truly overwhelmed by all of the support.

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(Headed home after being discharged from PIH on Sunday)

*Pictured at the top is a surprise package from my sister Emily that by chance arrived my first full day in the hospital!

Thanksgiving in Malawi

Home and my family feel really far today as I am unable to spend Thanksgiving with them. This is only my second time being away from home for the holiday and both times have evoked a feeling of real homesickness. In most ways life has come to feel normal here in Malawi, however the regular longing to see my family and friends back at home is the one part I am not sure I will ever fully adjust to. I have been able to FaceTime from home–a unexpected surprise that has allowed me to stay more connected with people than I originally thought possible. Still, on days like today, I crave being able to physically be with the people I care about, something I know will be a determining factor in whatever plans follow my fellowship year. 

My Thanksgiving here began last night when I went to a friend’s house to do some Thanksgiving cooking. Not wanting to miss out on the holiday, a group of us decided to make plans to go to Cape Maclear (part of Lake Malawi) this upcoming weekend and prepare a Thanksgiving meal to enjoy while there. Word spread quickly about celebrating at the lake so now a total of 60 of us will sit down for a meal together on Saturday afternoon. With so many of us far from our homes and families, in a sense we have quickly become each other’s families here in Lilongwe. Being here and experiencing this life in Malawi together has proven to be incredibly unifying and has created a bond I anticipate lasting a long time. I feel so grateful for all the incredible people I continue to meet, the good friends I have made and the experiences we’ve shared in Malawi together (pictured at the top is me and two friends watching the sunrise at the lake in Nhkotakota). For this “Thanksgiving” weekend, we’ve secured three turkeys and have asked everyone to contribute a dish. My favorite Thanksgiving food is cranberry bread, so naturally I chose to prepare that last night for this weekend. Cranberries are in short supply here, so baking this involved rehydrating a few bags of dried cranberries. My friends Ally and Katie simultaneously prepared cranberry sauce and stuffing–we had to refrain ourselves from eating it all as we recounted our favorite family traditions on Thanksgiving while listening to lots of American/country music. 

Today was a pretty normal day in the office. I brought in some cranberry bread to share with my unit and good friend Raul, explaining that it was my favorite Thanksgiving family recipe passed down by my mom and grandma. Those in the office familiar with the holiday made sure to wish me and other Americans in the office a “Happy Thanksgiving.” My friend/coworker Sarah and I even received an email from the Deputy Country Director, Mietek, with an embedded image of word art spelling out “Happy Thanksgiving.” By being out of the U.S. for this holiday, I’ve come to appreciate how wonderful it is that we dedicate a day to expressing our gratitude for all that is important to us. It seems to be something very unique to American culture and one of the aspects I feel most inclined to share while abroad. Malawians are undoubtedly very grateful in nature, so the concept of gratitude does not need to be explained to them, still the tradition of verbally expressing this gratitude is one that seems new to so many. 

I will end my Thanksgiving tonight with a FaceTime call to my family back at home–it is something I have been looking forward to all day. Although it will not completely make up for not being there with them, to see the faces and hear the voices of my mom, dad, Jack, Ker, Em and my Gran will suffice until I can eventually give them a hug in person. As I said, I never stop missing them and all those I care about while I am over here in Malawi, but in a sense that only intensifies the gratitude I feel for having them in my life at all. 

Balaka

I spent most of last week outside of Lilongwe and the WFP office on my first overnight field visit to the southern district of Balaka for three nights. Many of WFP’s resilience-building programmes are taking place in Balaka, so the primary purpose of my visit there was to see these–specifically WFP’s Food For Assets (FFA) projects, which focus on building access to assets meant to reduce disaster risks and build long-term resilience to shocks (pictured below is one of the project sites). My days in Balaka ended up being my best days in Malawi so far. I traveled with two coworkers, Hussein and Dom, who are part of the resilience team in the office. They showed and explained to me the different ongoing projects and also served as translators, making it easier to connect to the farmers and families I was meeting as we traveled to different villages in Balaka.

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I left for Balaka Monday afternoon in a WFP car and enjoyed a scenic drive south, part of which was spent driving along the border of Mozambique. Once outside of Balaka, I was picked up by another WFP driver, Francis, who exhibited the warm-heartedness I’ve witnessed among so many Malawians as he welcomed me to Balaka. He brought me to the end of a day-long training put on for farmers to provide instruction on how to use and maintain an instrument called a rain gauge. Fifteen rain gauges were to be installed at the farmers’ homes the next day as part of a pilot FFA project in order to help them to better measure and record rainfall, information that can then be used to plan when to begin planting.

I woke up Tuesday morning to join Hussein and Dom for breakfast right at our hotel, the Coco-nut Lodge, and Hussein and I were then picked up by Concern Universal’s (WFP’s implementing partner for the project) driver. I sat in the front seat and the back had been turned into two long rows of bench-like seats to maximize space. I quickly became aware of how important the large size of the vehicle and high clearance is when going into the field–it is impossible to travel on the dirt roads connecting many of the villages without a car of this size. We then stopped at a nearby store to get waters (which you learn to drink slowly to minimize the need to find a bathroom out in the field) and some snacks for the day as we would not be stopping for lunch , picked up some others from Concern Universal who would be joining us, and then headed into the villages.

IMG_1111We spent the day installing 15 different rain gauges at the homes of rural farmers and their families. After arriving at each home, we would greet and meet the head farmer and his/her family (which tended to be quite large). I was shocked both by how many of the families we visited were female-headed, which meant they were responsible for the majority of the farming, and also by the strength of so many of these women (one woman with her rain gauge pictured to left)! Installing the rain gauges involved cutting down a IMG_1117piece of wood to the correct size, fastening a holder where the beaker would be placed, digging a hole deep enough in the ground to secure the rain gauge and then once constructed and in place, reexplaining the proper use and maintenance of the rain gauge (pictured to the right). I was mostly an observer of this process as my one attempt at helping to dig one of the holes (pictured at the top) made it very evident that I have little experience in farming or manual labour work. I did however spend time speaking with some of the farmers (with the help of Hussein as my translator) to get a sense of what they anticipated these rain gauges would do for their farming seasons. I was surprised to learn that most of them had been doing very little to track rainfall and plan their planting seasons accordingly. There therefore was an air of hope and gratitude among each of the farmers–they seemed more than willing to take initiative and ownership of this project as it meant the chance for a more successful harvest.

Putting faces to the beneficiaries of these projects was quite moving. Seeing their homes, families and lives was both humbling and really put the level of poverty so many Malawians live at into context for me. Overall there was something so wonderfully intimate and personal about the experience. Every family welcomed us in their own way–we were offered fresh mangos by one woman (which I ungracefully managed to eat skin on and all) and were welcomed with song at another. At several villages, huge groups of kids would gather around us out of curiosity for what it was we were doing (pictured below), meanwhile at a few of the locations, it seemed like the entire village came to be a part of the installations in some way.

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We ended our day at a little stand in one of the villages where goat meat was purchased for a small braai (pictured below). Little did I know that the meat would be cut right off a dead, recently-skinned goat hanging directly in front of us. I will admit, I was a bit worried my stomach was not equipped to handle this, but I am happy to say no stomach issues resulted and I really enjoyed it–so much so that we went back for a second one the following day.

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I spent Wednesday seeing other FFA projects and accompanying my coworker Dom to a training for rural farmers on how to use past weather patterns to plan ahead for future planting seasons and to account for climate change. We then ended our stay with a walk into Balaka at night. Seeing places after dark is not a privilege I often have here, so it was fun to be able to do this with Dom and Hussein. We headed back to Lilongwe the next morning to coworkers eager to hear about our trip. I hope to be able to spend more time in Balaka in the future as my time there amounted to one of the more incredible experiences I have had. I learned and saw so much, and met some of the hardest working people whose lives are far from easy or luxurious. Part of why I came to Malawi was for the chance to surround myself with people from vastly different experiences, cultures and ways of life–working here allows me that and continues to cause me to challenge my own assumptions and beliefs and ultimately to learn more about my own self. To be able to have a job that allows for that and such enriching life experiences feels a bit surreal. Also an unexpected benefit of my trip to Balaka was that I discovered more fully my excitement for resilience work as it pertains to development–I believe it is an area I could really see myself exploring further in the future.
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