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.

Monday, May 12, 2014

“Azungu! Azungu! Azungu! AZUNGU!!!!”

Azungu means “white person” in Chichewa, the most commonly spoken native language in Malawi. Although I arrived here in Malawi on Friday, Sunday afternoon we finally arrived and the School of Agriculture for Family Independence, or SAFI, for short. Friday and Saturday were pretty easy, laid back days. We stayed at a really nice and fun hostel in Lilongwe, the capital of Malawi. We were able to meet some other Americans who are here on a mission trip and quite a few British families spending their holidays in Africa. It was easy to just sit back, explore Lilongwe, and feel mostly at home. We attended church at the local LDS branch in Lilongwe and it was beautiful. The people were so sincere and kind and the missionaries where really happy to see eight white girls… and me too. We had a nice lunch and then we headed for SAFI.

Our SAFI welcoming party
Arriving at SAFI has lead to the strangest mix of emotions. You want to throw me out of my element, just throw me in an environment full of children screaming out words I don’t understand in any language other than English or Spanish. It is not that I don’t like kids (my nephews and niece who is coming soon mean the world to me), but knowing that I am one of the first and only white people these kids have seen/will ever see makes me feel a little like a zoo animal. The song “One of these Things is not like the others” from Sesame Street keeps coming to mind.

Chichewa is a very complex and beautiful language and I can say some key phrases like “Muli Bwangi” (“How are you?”) and “Zikomo” (“Thank you”), but it took me essentially five years to speak Spanish (four years in school and then the entire first year I lived in Chile). Three months isn’t going to be near long enough to actually learn the language everyone speaks here. Luckily, all the staff here at SAFI speaks English and they can get me out of any translation problems I find myself in.

I guess I should explain SAFI a little. The SAFI is a school, funded by NuSkin, a company based out of Provo Utah. SAFI invites thirty families from villages around Malawi to come and learn better practices in many areas related to family independence including fishing, forestry, nutrition, agriculture, and livestock. After 10 months, the families return to their villages and teach the skills they learned to others. After a year, the families officially graduate. The hope is that by allowing the students to practice the skills here on campus, practice them in their homes, and teach others how to do them back in their villages, the families can be a source of change and improve the quality of life for themselves and those around them.

Students raise these chickens in class
My goal while here is to make sure that the students are getting the most out of the crops they grow. This is now starting to seem sort of daunting. Last year’s research, performed by some good friends of mine, revolved around the use of a solar dehydrator that a typical family or village could build. This work was really helpful in helping me plan a way to treat the vegetables grown by students here. Unfortunately, I arrived to find the large dehydrator very broken and the smaller, portable one, in a state that will require at least a day’s worth of work to prepare it for use. I have other ideas of preservation methods to use with the students but I need to actually sit down and discuss what they are currently doing to better understand how I can best fit their needs.  I am questioning if what I planned to do here is what the people here will actually need from me. I am looking for guidance from the other interns, from the staff, and I feel like I am constantly praying for inspiration… or to be struck by lightning. I guess both would be pretty welcome events right now.

A farmer learned how to increase his yields 10 fold
Some of the more fun and interesting adventures I had in the last twenty four hours include finding a frog in the toilet paper roll, teaching the children here how to “the Worm”, and washing nearly two weeks of laundry by hand. The children here play soccer and volleyball almost everyday and it is fun to jump in for a few minutes but I can’t tell if they are laughing because they are having fun or if I am just that white.

Most of this week is actually just to get our bearings here at SAFI. It is actually maize harvesting season so the classes that are normally taught at SAFI are put on hold so the families can harvest the corn, dry it, and move to the warehouse. Most of the interns and I are still just exploring the area and we will start some of our projects later this week once we are a little more familiar with the staff and know where we are most needed. Friday we will head to Lake Malawi and spend the day seeing the sights around there, then head to Lilongwe to spend the weekend there again. I am really excited. My first full day here really has been an adventure but I feel like I am learning more about myself and the amazing people of Malawi a little bit more every second.

Friday, May 9, 2014

"The Climb"

Le Chatau de Chillon
I should quickly mention that the last few days I was in Europe were great. My family took the time to travel around Switzerland where we toured a chocolate factory and a cheese factory just up the street from each other. We explored Geneva and its old city center. We explored the Roman ruins just below street level and once again bought chocolate. We explored not one, but two ancient castles, and walked the streets in Medieval Bern. Also, as a nice little break, we stop by the Bern Switzerland Temple of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, because, let’s face it, when you are LDS (Mormon), traveling abroad, that is just what you do.

Bern Switzerland LDS Temple
I needed to take that second to remember all the fun I had just a few days ago because the last 24 hours have not been so glamorous. Don’t get me wrong; I do not regret deciding to do this internship/study abroad/tour in Africa, but sometimes, traveling just sucks. This sort of traveling isn’t what the great poet, Miley Cyrus, describe as “The Climb” where you are somehow expected to learn something. Save the learning for anywhere except for the airport. This sort of travel is the hot and sticky, “I haven’t bathed or brushed my teeth in over 60 hours”, just get this over kind of traveling. I am that type of guy who gets to the airport with plenty of time to spare because airports and buses stress me out. This stress isn’t necessarily a bad thing because I am always aware of where I am and what is going on, but I do tend to gnaw on my fingernails to the point that they start bleeding. Maybe I should stop that… anyway, here is everything that happened.

Swiss Chocolate!!!
Thursday May 9, my mom and I drove our rental car from Geneva to Paris (about a 6 hour drive) to make it to Charles-de-Gaulle International before our flights left (my mom is taking a few days London, because, let’s be real, she wanted to, and she does what she wants). After we returned our rental car, we realized that we would have about a 20-minute walk just to check in. That would be fine, except when you are carrying almost 80 extra pounds. After lugging everything to check-in and dropping off my bags, the security line was beautifully short, BUT I happened to be randomly selected for a more “extensive” security check. Basically, I had the delightful experience of being felt-up by a 5’2” man of Indian descent.

At this point, I still had my happy travel smile on. I had about and hour and a half or so before my plane boarded, so I sat down and I read (I’m reading Cloud Atlas, I highly recommend it). I was able to enjoy my book for about 30 minutes before two different couples (one Spanish and the other appeared to be Korean) sat on either side of me. Before long, they are not just kissing but full on, body-on-body, thrusting, grunting, slurping, and many other things I would rather not mention. I looked around the terminal and an older couple sitting a few rows away gave me the “for you own good, Get Out Now!” look. I quickly headed to the bathroom to wash away the not-so-dry sex I just witnessed in the middle on an airport terminal.

My flight to Amsterdam boarded without any other major incidents but it was clear that the light rain would delay our flight. Our fifteen-minute delay didn’t seem like much but then before landing, we were informed that we would have to circle around Amsterdam for about 20 minutes and taxi for at least 15, my one and a half hour layover quickly became significantly shorter. Just as a side note, you know you are in trouble when the captain actually tells passengers to run to their next flight. I had to cross what seemed to be the entire airport, cursing at every turn to find a new security line or sign telling me my gate was just around the next turn (when you’re late, nothing is ever just around the corner).

 I boarded the plane headed to Nairobi to find it only two-thirds full, which was great because I needed to relax. The flight start out okay, an eight-hour flight is child’s play. Then, suddenly, the entertainment system cut out. All the sudden, everyone on board was forced to talk to each other. I normally wouldn’t complain about this except in the seat across the aisle from me were two very talkative people very close to my age. I will share a secret and admit that I dislike people my age. I associate with them often. From a distance they are great, but eight-hours is a long to listen to a very loud German young adult and a very sweet, innocent, “progressive” girl from Georgia discuss American politics. Thankfully, I found a way to sleep through about 3 of the 8 hours but burying my nose in my book is really the only way I survived the moments I could force myself into a slumber. It also appeared that they are planning to “multiply and replenish the Earth” (that means they also want to “knock boots”, “Prego her Eggo”, etc.) during their stay in Kenya. I mean, they have now known each other for 8 hours so that is totally kosher, right? It is funny that the vast majority of my travel today has emphasized how much I don’t understand about the way other people approach relationships. Anyway, that will have to be a different post.

My little cabin until Sunday!
I have never been so grateful for a crappy airport. The air conditioning worked and I could enjoy not being forced to talk to people, which I guess is all that really matters in life. My last flight took me to Malawi (finally). I was actually really surprised when I landed. I knew that I would have to wait for the planes with the other people to arrive but while I waited, the people were so incredibly kind and loving. Even after I turned down a taxi driver’s persistent asking if I needed I ride, we just sat and talked about our cultures. We stopped by the grocery store and picked up some food.  It was fun just to walk up and down the aisle and explore. This definitely feels like where I need to be right now. The journey wasn’t some metaphorical ascension to some deeper knowledge about life, but I think my time here in Malawi might just serve that purpose.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

France and Switzerland

Well, I didn't quite stick to my plan of posting something every 3 days I'm sure y'all can forgive me. If you follow my Instragram (@tofumcneil) you already got a chance to see a handful of pictures but I have quite documented my experiences on here yet. 
So, Phase One of this 4 month adventure is over. The week we spent in Paris was your very typical touristy trip to Paris. We saw all the major sites (the Arc du Triomphe, the Eiffel Tower, Versailles (not technically in Paris but who's keeping track), Musee d' Orsay, the Louvre, the Opera, and pretty much all the other standard fare). It was incredible. Paris itself is an amazing, living city. The entire city itself, people included, is a museum. There is so much you can learn and experiencing while just wandering the streets. I would go back in a heartbeat if I could, especially because a week is not long enough to really see everything. The one thing that I wish I had done was bring a friend who speaks French. I might be fluent in Spanish but grumbling to myself in a combination of english, spanish, and what little french I know can really only get you so far. My brother and my sister-in-law tried to learn as much as they could but we often had to keep our fingers crossed that the people we were speaking to knew enough english to make up for our complete inability to communicate in the native language. 

What made this trip even more interesting was traveling with my 2 year old nephew, Luke (I should probably state that the reason why I am here is because I am helping my brother and his wife move to Geneva while my brother does and internship with the World Health Organization). He has travelled so much for only being 2 years old and he now has the entire routine down. He still struggles occasionally (especially during meals) but as long as he is moving, he is just sort of going along for the ride. He loves running up and down stairs and climbing on things. I'm convinced that I worry more about him hurting himself that his parents do. He is a good little guy and has been put into situations that other kids wont experience until they are teenagers. 

So, we are now in Phase Two, which is helping my brother get settled in Geneva, Switzerland. The apartment he is renting for these two months is actually just on the French side of the border because it is way less expensive but will be traveling to the W.H.O. every day. The days now consist of errands in the morning and sightseeing in the evening. It has actually become more work than play now (which is good because I have no idea how my brother and his wife would be able to get everything finished that they need to without us).Yesterday we had the chance to wander around the old city center of Geneva and learn a lot about the history of this part of Europe. We then (after grocery shopping), drove to Chamonix, France where the first Winter Olympics took place. The Alps are incredibly gorgeous and we had one of the top 5 best meals of my entire life. 

This trip really has been incredible so far but I am most excited to be heading to Malawi in just a few days. I mostly feel blessed that I have these opportunities to travel. It can be a little hard at times, especially because it just dawned on me that I absolutely wont be home until August, but the experiences are worth every difficult moment. The world is a big place and I believe that everybody needs to have the chance to explore exotic, new frontiers, but only if it is done with a sense of discovery. The sense of discovery can be turned outward to a degree but it needs to be turned inward if you are truly going to learn anything. The purpose of this sense is to discover who you are and to do things you never imagined were possible before. Yeah, some days will be tough but there will always be something worth learning if you just keep your eyes and mind open.