Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Smoke and Mist

A friend I made near Victoria Falls
Two and a half weeks ago, I swam to the edge of Victoria Falls. Mosi-oa-Tunya, the local name for the falls translates to “The Smoke that Thunders”. From miles away, visitors can see what appears to be a giant pillar of mist that looks like smoke coming directly from the heart of the falls. I lay on my stomach with my head extended over the Zambian side of the gorge. The mist barrels upward with such force it felt like a summer shower on my face. The roar of the falls was so loud that it literally shook the ground. I understood why the ancient legends label that spot as the home of the river gods. I could feel the roar in me. My heart raced as I tried to let out a yell that could match the sound of the falls. I failed. My mouth was filled with water from the alien, upward rain and I choked. I coughed and looked up across the gorge. There was a brief gap in the mist where there was standing a group of Japanese tourists. I smiled and waved at them and they gave an awkward, halfhearted wave back. They clearly thought I was crazy and I didn’t mind. I left that little pool at the edge of the falls, in the middle of the Zambezi River, knowing that I a part of me changed.

Victoria Falls 
Just a few days ago, we hiked Mount Mulanje. The mountain is actually a large plateau (almost 2000m in elevation) with various peaks that extend out of the already impressive base. From a distance, it appears as a lone mountain. There are a few small mountains in the area, but nothing can compare to the immensity and power of Mulanje. The first day of hiking involved nearly 4 hours of climbing up shear rock faces on your hands and knees. The second morning of hiking took us to one of the peaks (2553m in elevation). The peak ended in a steep drop off which allowed for an unhindered view of the surrounding region. From that elevated perspective, all of Malawi seemed to be covered in a thick, hazy mist. It appeared dreamlike, as if the entire world was still asleep. A part of me wanted to yell off the mountaintop, “Wake up Malawi! Don’t you know the things you can be today?” Instead, I sat near the edge and asked myself, “What will I be today?” My answer then, as it is almost every day, was, “I’ll be me.” The rest of the hike was hard, as climbing mountains usually is, but it was the dreamlike mist that held my attention. My affirmation about being myself remained as a reminder that going through the motions, like we often do, can rob us of whom we are. Once again, I part of me changed.

I come home from Malawi in about a week and a half. I haven’t been in the US since April 26th. I am hungry, tired, and ready to jump in my bed and sleep for three straight days. I’ve eaten mouse and cricket, watched Germany win the World Cup, and I have had a constant group of children follow me around every afternoon for the last three months. A part of me is screaming out for the routine of being a student. Having a constant schedule, going to the grocery store when I run out of bread, and hot showers every morning are things my body craves. Another part of me, however, will not accept the fact that next Saturday, I come home.  It might sound odd but I will miss the smoke and mist of Africa.

Nearly every morning, the area around SAFI is covered with a foggy mist. It is beautiful to wake up to. The way it blankets the ground fascinates me. Frankly, I wish I could come up with some metaphor for its meaning to make it sound cooler but, more than anything else, I just think it looks cool.

Smoke is also a very common sight in Malawi. Nearly every meal is cooked on a coal fire. Children also set fire to fields in order to hunt field mice (if you want to know what they taste like, imagine burnt field). Excess trash is burned in the fields as well. I feel surrounded by fire and smoke almost constantly. Its warmth brings people together. Malawi is known as the “Warm Heart of Africa” and every time I see or smell smoke, I think of the warmth of the people. It really has been a blessing to be here for the last three months. The people are incredible and I’m going to miss them very much. 

Just finished hiking Mt. Mulanje
This experience has actually changed me as a person. I guess that is the purpose of all experiences we have in our lives. Being raised in the LDS culture, I feel like I heard that a lot. Everything I experienced growing up has help build the person I am today. My mission surely did the same. This time in Africa is no different. Working with new people and experiencing their culture and seeing their hardships have made me more grateful for so many things. I've been forced to be humble when I want to be proud and patient when I want to be hotheaded. It has also taught me many things that I just don't know how to describe yet. When it is all boiled down, I am just grateful that I've had this experience. 

I have so much I need to do in the two weeks I’ll be home in CA before I have to head out to Provo, but I am feeling ready to jump back into my real life back in the states. I know that, at least for a while, every foggy morning or smoky bonfire will bring back the memories of being here. I’m almost ready to come home but I know that a part of me will always be here in Malawi with the people I’ve had the chance to work with. It is almost like leaving my mission again. Bittersweet. I know my life will bring be back to Africa at some point in time so there is no point in getting too down about it. I’ll let band, school, and work consume my time and energy for a brief period of time, and before I know it, I’ll wake up back in Africa, South America, or anywhere else my life will take me and that is fine by me.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Like Disneyland but better…

You know life is good when this is next to your tent
Anyone who has been to Disneyland remembers two things; the “magic” and the crowds. The “magic” consists of beautiful recreations of reality. Nobody can bend the fabric of what is real and what is false quite the Disney staff. The crowds are self-explanatory. You find yourself surrounded by people from all over the world who’s sweaty, smelly children keep running around and screaming for countless hours. You may find yourself pushed to your limit but, somehow, the “magic” brings you back down. Very few people leave Disneyland unhappy.

Africa- obviously- is not Disneyland. Africa is a continent western culture associates with poverty, hunger, and AIDS. Although these things are persistent problems, we tend to focus too much on the negatives- like the lines and heat at Disneyland- instead of the “magic”. Africa is not a continent of problems that need to be solved but of deeply rooted cultures and beautiful people. It sounds cliché but there really is something magical here.

The last two weeks, we have had the opportunity to start teaching the nutrition and food preservation classes to the families at SAFI and to children at Primary (Elementary) Schools. We experience first hand what life in Malawi is really like. Yes, there are problems with malnutrition but the families and children we teach are so excited to learn from us and apply what is being taught. Yes, families face some financial struggles but who doesn’t? People here are happy. Children play, adults work, occasionally people get sick, often people are healthy. Girls giggle and play when boys they like walk and life continues as normal. Most of the time, it is a blast.

But sometimes we have to deal with miscommunications, bad weather, plans falling through, and problems with our projects. It is like being stuck in lines at Disneyland. It’s frustrating and feels like the circle of Hell reserved for people who didn’t rewind videos before returning them to Blockbuster. Despite that, when things turn around, the love I feel for Malawi comes to the surface and the “magic” is back.

Not the elephants that tried to charge us... but still huge
The last few days we took a long weekend to experience “Wild Africa”. We went to Liwonde and Lake Malawi National Parks. We got to see hundreds of hippos, waterbucks, kudu, elephants, impala, and other animals. We went on a river cruise and Land Rover game drive. The river cruise felt a lot like the Disneyland’s Jungle Cruise and the game drive felt exactly like the Indiana Jones ride, but with one major difference; it was real. The elephant that tried to charge us was real. The hippos peeking their head out of the water were real. The boat and Land Rover were real. Most importantly, the people were real. Everything about it was magical. There was no need for animatronics. Nothing was bolted down to floor. Nothing was artificial. Although I enjoy Disneyland, I experienced the real thing. No amount of twisted metal and audiotapes can even be compared to living it firsthand.

At Lake Malawi, along with snorkeling, tubing, and playing around, we walked along the beach to spend time with the natives and the other tourists. To be honest, I was also trying to find a place to watch the World Cup (interesting fact: I was at Disneyland when the last World Cup started and in the Missionary Training Center when it finished

), but we also wanted to make some new friends. We found a group of people sitting around a fire playing drums. We happily joined them. Quickly, a group of about 15 people sat around and we got to enjoy each other’s company. The World Cup quickly became less important as we talked and played around the fire. We quickly formed a web of association with people from all around the world, all with different desires and problems. The time we spent there around that fire felt almost as magical as the safari.

I guess this is a roundabout way for me to say that if you aren’t living your life- both the good parts and the lines at Disneyland- you are really missing out. Not everyone can drop everything and spend a summer in Africa, but everyone can put down the phone, computer, iPad, etc. and experience what is real. Cherish your friends and family, experience nature, talk to a stranger (obvious dark alleys are not the best places to do this), and don’t let the fake things dominate your life. If your relationships are fake, make new relationships. If your entertainment is fake, try something else. Disneyland version of happiness is great, but go find the real thing because it is better. If you can’t feel, smell, touch, see, or taste it, is it really worth your time and energy?

I know my generation hears that a lot, but after this weekend, I’ve decided that I am going to make some changes. It is time to not just live my life 87.9% to the fullest, but the full 100%.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Sometimes we have to kayak into the wind…

Before I jump into this post, I want to it clear that although spending my summer here in Malawi is very fun, it is not a glamorous vacation. Yes, there are a lot of things that we do that are very fun and those are the images that most of you will see on Facebook and Instagram, but other than those fleeting moments of relaxation and trying to snatch a quick photo that will get the most possible likes on social media, we spend most of our time trying to keep our heads above water. I often find myself lacking the materials I will need for my projects, lacking the ability to communicate effectively, and, being the only guy on this internship, lacking a good guy friend. Sometimes I notice myself dwelling on the things I lack, and I find myself frustrated and occasionally even angry. It is often easy to shake our fists towards heaven and think to ourselves, “I’ve made a terrible mistake.” Generally, we haven’t made an error of judgment, we just happen to be kayaking into the wind.

This past weekend, us interns had the wonderful experience of going back to Lake Malawi. We planned to take a 2-day kayaking tour of the lake which would include cliff jumping, snorkeling, volleyball, Frisbee, a little bit of hiking, and camping overnight on a beach. The first day of the trip we were full of energy and really very gung-ho about the experience. Having grown up in Minnesota, I found myself the most experienced kayaker in the group (except for our guides of course) with many of the group never having kayaked before. Day One seemed pretty easy for everyone at first but towards the end of the day, most of our group was happy to set up camp. We later found out that in just one day we had travelled 18 kilometers. The next day, we had to kayak back those same 18 Km to but this time; we had a strong head wind.

Anyone who has canoed or kayaked into the wind knows that it is often very difficult. Not only does the wind try and force you backwards, but also you might find yourself slowing turning towards one side or the other. Life’s challenges often come at us in a similar way. We end up not only having to spend our strength to keep moving forward but life’s obstacles can also push us way off course from where we truly want to be headed.

About halfway through Day Two of kayaking, the wind was really taking its toll on our group. The smiles from the previous day were fading. Sunburns and sore muscles stopped being ignored and became painful reminders that we still had a long way to travel. The ideas of “I can’t do this”, “this is too hard”, and “what is the point?” slowly crept into the mind and fogged out all other thoughts. The key is that we continued going. It never got any easier, in fact, there were times when the winds picked up as if to just make us angry, but we all just kept on paddling. By the time we saw the first signs that the trip was almost over, we rejoiced.  When we landed on shore, some of the girls even cried. Having had experienced what it is like to be forced back by the wind before on trips to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in Northern Minnesota, I had full confidence that at some point in time our struggle would end, but for those who have never experienced that feeling before, it was truly an eye opening experience. They had to move forward with just the wavering faith that if they kept paddling, they would make it to shore.

Sometimes life is really easy and nothing seems to hold us back from our pursuits but in other cases, we find ourselves facing the winds of life with very little other than the hope that it will get easier. That little glimmer of hope needs to be cultivated. Even just a little bit of faith can make the most outrageous tasks possible but they require time, patience, and a lot of hard work.

Right now I find myself in a situation where patience is a key skill that I need to develop. Things aren’t perfect but I am working with what I do have to make the best out of my time here in Malawi. I am waiting for my sunburns to heal and the vegetables that I need to arrive but in the mean time, I will embrace the fact that I am learning and growing everyday with each obstacle and difficulty. I can tell myself over and over that things would be different if I was “in charge” but I’m not. Certain situations will just be outside my control and I had better accept that and move on rather than getting frustrated and hung up on the details. I will find ways to contribute and be productive. In life, we should do the same thing. Why wait around waiting for the situation to change when there are things you can do now? So what if you needed to adjust your plans? You just have to keep moving forward, even if it is against the wind.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Charitable Research Paradox

Before I get ahead of myself, I am glad to say that I am finally working on my project. Since Monday, I have been drying carrots and tomatoes using various amounts of salt to assist in the dehydration process. I also started a small batch of sauerkraut that I am planning on using as a starter for a separate fermentation project, and pickled some carrots. My goal is to create a blend of preserved vegetables (dried, fermented, or pickled) that could help Malawian families consume more Vitamin A and C, as well as increasing the iron and zinc intake, but also ensure simplicity so that the families can continue to make and use it once the “azungu” (white people) go back to “Azungu-land”. To say I have made major headway would be an enormous overstatement but I am satisfied to state that I am started. To be completely honest, I have new ideas everyday but because everything I do has a three-month time limit, I have to focus on the things I believe will be the most important.

Tuesday was Election Day here in Malawi. Because of the elections, most of the SAFI staff was out of town meaning that us interns had plenty of time to focus on our own projects, read, study for the GRE (A few of us need to take it sometime this fall), and relax. It also allowed for me to develop a game plan, which is exactly what I needed to do.

Wednesday I had my first run-in with what I am going to call “The Charitable Researcher” paradox. Here is what happened: I was taking some measurements on the carrots and tomatoes that I had out in the solar dehydrators. The vegetables had been drying for a few days and I was finally ready to pull them out, put them in plastic bags, and store them until I am ready to make various dried vegetable blend. As I was pulling them out of the dehydrator, a young boy appeared behind me. Curious as to what I was doing, he strained his neck to see around me as I worked. To test the saltiness of the carrots, I tossed a small, dehydrated carrot round into my mouth and after deciding I liked the flavor and texture, offered a small taste to my little African shadow. Shadow, as I am going to start calling him, quickly devoured the carrot piece and gave me a bright smile of approval. Apparently my shriveled carrot nibs gained his seal-of-approval. Seemingly seconds after this interaction with Shadow, I found myself surrounded by the hands of other children.

I do not know how so many people saw my little exchange with Shadow but I now found myself in a predicament. With at least a dozen children surrounding me, I was left with only two choices; tell them no so I can hold onto my materials for my project or give up my materials and have to recover for the loss in a few weeks. How do I tell all of these severely malnourished children that I need these vegetables for my research? How can I work on my projects if I end up feeding all my materials to the people I am doing the projects for? What is the more Christ-like thing to do, tell them no but have my data and materials to improve their lives, or sacrifice my data and materials in order to meet their needs right now?

I eventually decided that at that particular moment, I wasn’t going to literally take food out of the hands of children. I grabbed just enough of each treatment to take a water activity reading but then let the kids take the rest. Their hands furiously grabbed for little chucks of carrot and tomato in what I can only describe as a feeding frenzy. On multiple occasions, I had to stop the pushing and the fighting over the food and establish calm among the crowd. One cannot imagine the way a small mob of undernourished children will fight over the dried, shriveled remains of 10 carrots and 6 tomatoes. Once all the scraps were gone, the children stood around me hoping I would have something else to give them. I looked at them and said I couldn’t give them anything else except for knowledge. I can teach them and their parents how to do what I did because one 23-year old can’t feed a village dried carrots. I don’t know if they understood me but they quickly scattered. I couldn’t find Shadow anywhere. 

The paradox of “physically feed them now” versus “theoretically feed them more later” is something I will have to face many times this summer. I know that I cannot always allow my research to be consumed before I am done with it, but I felt like this time around, it was to teach me the importance of what I am doing here. As a Food Scientist, I want to make sure nobody goes hungry. A basic knowledge of food processing can save lives, improve nutrition, increase lifespan, and completely change a person’s quality of life. Watching the kids fight over the samples is now ingrained in my memory. The idea that what I am doing here can vastly increase the quality of life has sunk in and I can see that my work has meaning. If I can just improve the lives of just one family or just one person’s life while I am here, I will consider that I huge success. I probably will not see much of the fruits of my three months of labor here but I have faith that things can and will change for these families.

Change occurs on a person-to-person level. Language evolves as we use it to communicate, transportation evolves as use it to meet with other people, technology evolves as we use connect ourselves to others and the World. Everyone has the capacity to improve something in the lives of others by focusing on individuals as opposed to the whole. If my generation wants to change the world, we will have to do it one person at a time.  

I hope that I can resume my projects without any problems, but I am so grateful to be here in Malawi. Every day is a new adventure. Some days are easy and others can be harder but there is no better satisfaction than knowing that you are exactly where you need to be.

(Once again, pictures are coming later)

Friday, May 16, 2014

This is Africa: Solar Dehydrators, Showers, and Beaches

One of the NuSkin employees told us a story last week. He described an experience from his first trip to Malawi, where he was on a bus headed to Zambia. Visas for Americans expire after thirty days so it is often easier just to leave the country and then comeback rather than renew. On his trip, the bus was overbooked and there were about fifteen more people than seats. Like many other Third World countries, some of the hygiene of other passengers was offensive to his American sensibilities. The bus eventually overheated and broke down. A journey that should have taken eight hours ended up taking seventeen. He was frustrated and tired, but as he sat the woman sitting next to him slowly fell asleep on his shoulder. Another American intern also nodded off and rested her head on his other shoulder. He stopped and thought about everything occurring around him. There was a strange beauty around it. He changed his perspective of his current situation and firmly stated, “This is Africa.”

I share this story because “This is Africa” has become the motto of all of us interns. The water doesn’t always work, the internet (although surprisingly available in rural Africa) will crash, plans fall through, and miscommunication abounds. There would be a lot of things to be frustrated about if one had the wrong perspective. We knew that Africa wasn’t going to be like the United States when we decided to take this internship and there really isn’t any point in getting upset that it is different. 

Solar dehydrator
Everything that has happened since my last post has been great. We have been able to prepare the solar dehydrators for use in about a quarter of the time that I thought it would take. In case you aren’t a food scientist, a solar dehydrator concentrates heat from the sun (black spray paint is super good at this) and heats the air around a sample of food. As the hot, dry air flows over the food, it removes some of the moisture. Leave food in there for a few days and you’ll end up with some really tasty dried fruits and veggies. SAFI has three dehydrators and I was able to get them all prepped and ready to go for next week. All I need now are vegetables to start drying and students to teach. Also, the staff wants me to use the dehydrator to make rabbit jerky. I made a deal with them that I would make the rabbit jerky if they taught me how to skin and gut a rabbit (I’ll actually make it no matter what but I think it would be fun to prep the rabbit myself).

We actually play volleyball almost everyday. At first I didn't want to play because my inability to speak Chichewa has been frustrating me, but once we started playing, language really didn't matter. If there is anything that we can't figure out, at least the staff here can translate for us.

I now need to share my true, “This is Africa” moments from this week. The first includes some of the massive spiders here. The SAFI staff promises they aren’t poisonous but if I see anything eight-legged creature as big as my palm, I’m going to assume it doesn’t want to be my friend. I’ve seen them hanging around bathrooms pretty often but when I noticed one in my room, life got interesting. I had an inner debate. “Do I kill it? If so, how?” “Should I befriend it?” “Is it radioactive? Can I date Emma Stone if it bites me?” In the end, I grabbed a bottle of Raid and nearly emptied it on the poor guy. He barely lasted thirty seconds after I sprayed him, but as revenge for his death, he strategically landed directly on my flip-flops. This gave me a little panic attack, so I quickly grabbed my flip-flops, ground them together and crushed my little friend. Once I was convinced that he was thoroughly dead, I went to bed in peace.
One of my shower buddies
I am convinced that my eight-legged friend cursed me, leading to the second “This is Africa” moment. The next morning, I walked into one of the showers and closed the door behind me. I took a very normal shower but by the end, I noticed there was no handle on the door. I had locked myself in the shower. In the dorms at SAFI, nine-foot walls enclose the showers, leaving about a two and a half foot gap from the ceiling. I realized my only means of escape was by scaling the walls in nothing but my sandals and a towel wrapped tightly around my waist. I nearly made the trip over the wall when I realized I had left my shampoo and other toiletries inside so I jumped back down into the shower, threw the things over and started climbing again. The scaling of the wall wouldn’t have been so bad except for how close the ceiling was to the top of the wall. I ended up scraping both the back of my neck and my butt pretty hard on the top of that concrete wall. I made it out of the shower, still naked, but I felt more like a man.

Tropical Beach? In Malawi? Yeah, they exist
Friday, we enjoyed a trip to Lake Malawi. The tropical surroundings make you forget you are in Central Africa, and you feel like you are on a tropical beach. The water was mostly clear and cool. This led to quite a bit of beach fun. Probably the most entertaining thing was teaching our driver, Kelvin, how to snorkel. Using a snorkel seems so normal to us Americans but he found it to be the most incredible experience to see the lake through the goggles and be able to breath with his head underwater. It was so much fun, even when we found out that a light was left on and the car battery was dead. It took about an hour to find some one to jump our engine but we ended up getting to Lilongwe intact but exhausted.

Week one of my three-month adventure is already over. I am excited to keep working with the SAFI staff and students and hopefully, we can continue to have as much fun as we did this past week.