Sunday, February 21, 2010

Published Pieces

Check out the following links to read published pieces from my experience in Malawi's refugee camp!

The New Wine Press

The University of Manitoba - WISE Magazine

Posting long overdue

December 19, 2009 (again, February 21st 2010)

I delayed posting this entry because I have been searching for the right words to close my experience in Dzaleka. I hope this entry can help to better put my experience into perspective for many of you that have been following my writing. Let me also take this opportunity to thank you for following my experience and offering your comments. Many of you felt as though you were able to feel the experience as I was going through it but likewise for me, it felt as though others were with me every step of the way and that support is something I truly appreciated.


Thursday, December 2nd, 2009

The vehicle pulled up to beside JRS and everyone unloaded from the car. Before getting out I asked if I could have a few minutes with the SRP class before it began. This was the last time I would see them--at least until they find their way to Canada for post-secondary studies.

The students sat as astutely as I remember they had in the past. I asked for their attention and stood at the board writing my email address and contact phone number as a way to buy myself time to choke back the tears that were swelling. I told them I had to go, that there was a sudden change in the program, that I wasn’t aware the change would happen this way and that I’d only have a day to say goodbye. Holding back tears and stopping between sentences I avoided looking into their eyes as I knew I couldn’t possibly make it through if I had a moment to see who I’d be leaving behind. With a break in my voice I told them I’d be around camp for the day. I wished them luck encouraging them to complete their exams successfully and before I could crumble in front of them I quickly grabbed my things and walked out.

My next stop: delivering a Swahili dictionary to a primary school teacher...I never did get the chance to look through it. Still on JRS grounds, I encountered a couple women sitting under the shade. They extended their arms, greeted me with smiling faces in Chichewa and shook my hand with pleasure. I crouched beside them and listened to them speak without understanding their words. I suppose I can’t always have an interpreter with me but in this case I was glad. I was glad for the lack of words I could provide because I really couldn’t offer any that would be of comfort to them or myself. How do you tell someone you’re leaving when you know they’ll likely never get the chance to leave themselves? I spoke simply and said, “Me, Canada, plane. No more Dzaleka.” I don’t know how but they understood.

The look on their faces was the same look I’d end up seeing from many others during that last day at camp-- a look that transforms from pleasure upon greeting to let down and regret. They couldn’t understand why so soon and like them I also didn't understand. Usually people walk away from things they no longer need in life, things they no longer have interest for in their hearts. For me, this is what I wanted yet somehow I had to leave it behind. I suppose it’s fitting for the work I’m doing: refugees have been forced to flee their homes by no will of their own and like them, I am otherwise being forced to leave--the contract is up and my visa will expire in three days time.

We walked through the camp together stopping to chat with people I knew, people who hadn’t yet heard the news. Again and again the drop in people’s faces told me they couldn’t understand why I had to leave. The suddenness of it all hit harder as people had to digest the initial shock and then the understanding that we would not meet again after we departed. Exchanges of email and photographs was the only way to ignore the finality that weighed heavy in silences.

At the end of it all I left my belongings with Peter and walked to the Teacher Training course to have some last words. Dalisto closed up by honoring me with these words: I was leaving behind a legacy and the success of the program had a lot to do with my contributions from start to finish. I said one final goodbye to my students and wished them well in their studies. They believe I have not only helped with their learning but with their capacity to trust others in the camp. I offered another apology but found solace in their final words: "most of us you were interacting with remember or will remember you as someone with whom we could exchange your way of humbling yourself we had been always comfortable comparing to others who preceded . i am not vaunting you but i am telling you who really you were for us .if you hear from anyone else it will be the same." - student's written word.


The impact continues to feel the same even though it's been some time now that I haven't been with these people. I know I can't and wont ever want to forget them, they have touched my life in a way I will forever be grateful. They have taught me the finiteness of life, of what it truly means to be free and to have physical security in what I do and say. To them, I am my own free agent able to direct my life path and experience the successes and failures in my attempt to accomplish what I decide to pursue. The difference between myself and them is that I have the ability to chose.

Freedom as choice. Amartya Sen defines the good life in this way and in this context I have to agree with his claim. Refugees aren't given the choice on how to live but rather are defaulted to live with only that which is provided to them. Many will argue that what's provided is next to nothing but a place to rest their head and even that leaves many with a sense of insecurity.

To finalize the experience many refugees feel is their reality, life is nothing but an encampment, a shield of invisible bars restricting free movement and the ability to work to make something of oneself. It is nothing but a place where many educated people lose their sense of dignity and hope and often their minds. It is a place where you fight for your place in line for water and wait your turn to receive a food ration that will never be enough. It is a place where many struggle not only with disease but with the challenge of accessing proper health care to treat their illnesses. It is the ultimate test of patience because each day is simply another day that flows into the next and if one is strong enough with patience and faith he can find some sense of normalcy in a place which is everything but normal. It is a place where most people live and die as the last hope for resettlement is one which can be fulfilled only by the selected few. As a friend of mine always used to say, this is the life.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

At a close

When I look at the date I last posted it reminds me that so much has changed since then. I have packed my bags and left the country and am currently residing in Zambia where I will be spending the Christmas season with my Zambian family whom I met two years ago during a practicum placement with Mennonite Central Committee. Though it is great to be back I can't help but feel that so much of my work and friendships in Dzaleka have been left to adjust to my quick departure.

I wasn't aware I would be leaving Malawi so soon but before I knew it I was on a bus heading west to the Zambian border where I spent an unexpected overnight in Chipata. Having spent an overnight in the stationary bus parked in the depot parking lot all evening long, myself and two Zambian women I befriended stepped off the bus for a few minutes to use the facilities before departing. Before we knew it we were left in the dust and the bus was somewhere on route to Lusaka. The three of us quickly jumped in a cab and raced to catch up to the bus. And we did.

Let me say that the week leading up to that particular day as well as the many days that followed had been truly marked a stream of bad days I can't begin to conceive of having happened. To date I have never experienced a stream of negative events as I did during that time. I feel back in a state of equilibrium at this point but am still having difficulty coming to terms with the fact that I will be heading home sooner than anticipated.

That said, I am definitely looking forward to sharing stories with family and friends and am actually anticipating the snow and whatever remains of the Chrismas cheer. Somehow Christmas without snow just doesnt feel like Christmas at all. Then again, the more I continue to hear Carol of the Bells the more Christmas-like it feels on this side of the world. Nine days to go. Merry Christmas everyone!!!

Friday, November 13, 2009

UNHCR Verification Process

We were supposed to meet all verification staff at the Red Cross hall at 10:00am to begin training for the verification but due to a number of dilemmas we didn’t begin the orientation until after 11:30am.

Over 100 people gathered into the hall. Malawi government representatives, Red Cross personnel, JRS staff, translators, verification officers, photographers and others sat scattered among the benches set up before the head UNHCR field officer. With two translators, English, Swahili and Burundi speakers became fully aware of the verification task that will soon be implemented starting Monday, November 16th. Despite the fact that three tents still have yet to erect around the Red Cross property, and that computers and cameras had not been set up, we managed to do a semi quick simulation of how the tents will be organized.

Verification will require refugees to bring forth their ration cards, their status papers if possible, and their story about where they have come from, the number of people in a family, the reason for fleeing their country, etc. Each refugee will be given 5 minutes with a verification officer who will verify the accuracy of information provided by a refugee according to what already exists in the database.

The first three stations will be of utmost importance. Police officers will be present at station 1. This is the entrance to the first of three tents. The entrance receiver will check each refugee for their papers, will identify refugees that have already gone through verification by assessing their fingers for black ink marks which they receive at the end of the process and, police will provide security in the event there is disorganized chaos or be available to arrest if forged refugee status papers are identified during verification.

Station 2 will receive the refugees and briefly review the required documents and ensure the correct number of people from each household are present.

Station 3 will consist of three guides/runners; I will be one of the three keeping order at this station. We will be taking the assessed documents from station two and leading individuals and families to different verification officers. We are not to hand over any documents to anyone but the verification officers who will go through the refugees claim with them. There will be backlog at this station due to the time required to process refugee statements so we will be under pressure to move people through as quickly as possible but maintain patience and order of those waiting their turn.

The process will begin at 8am sharp and continue until 12:30pm without breaks. We will have a half hour lunch and then continue until 5:00pm. The whole process has been calculated to take two weeks which means there is no time for breaks or for slow processing. There will be a high level of stress for all people involved but it is necessary to verify claimant information of 12,000 people in order to understand the protection needs as well as any changes in family units for the purpose of receiving adequate food rations provided by the world food program.

Here’s to the next couple of high-pressure, intense work weeks with UNHCR!

Friday, November 6, 2009

Rain rain come again...

This is the first time I've seen the rain fall in Malawi-- it's glorious. The temperature has cooled down tremendously and the air is crisp and fresh. I anticipate and look forward to more frequent rains but I admit once again, I am afraid of the potential hazardous health and environmental conditions we will all face in the camp. When the gutters and loose dirt marked with animal feces and the like fill and mix with water the rate of sickness in the camp will rise and other diseases like cholera, yellow fever and malaria will likely become more common. We shall await the rains and see.

After a dry and lengthy lesson on conjunctions, I took 10 minutes to ask each one of the students what it is they like about living in Dzaleka refugee camp. I know it’s easy for people to describe what they dislike or more accurately, what they hate, so I wanted to encourage them to find the positive aspects of their life here. I am happy to list the student’s responses:

  • Peace
  • English
  • Togetherness
  • Hope
  • Learning about our culture and country from discussing with others
  • Relationships with others
  • Language and independence
  • Protection
  • Culture
  • Social interaction with people you’d never otherwise have the chance to know in your country of origin
  • Tolerance of others and peace
  • Free food
  • Hopefulness

After each student had responded I was asked the same question in return. My initial response was this: I LOVE, not like, LOVE, coming to school to see the students and to learn and teach with them. I am happy here because I have had a wonderful opportunity to foster relationships with people and I also feel good knowing that for the most part people are honest. I appreciate honesty and told them it is all of this and so much more that makes me smile at the end of each and every day.

As I headed to my teacher training course I thought longer and harder about how I feel here. Upon further reflection—and as I suspected—my thoughts go far deeper than the initial response I provided.

I am touched by people’s generosity. Although one may have little to offer he is still willing to give you want he can or extend a hand.

I am encouraged by the curiosity that inspires critical thinking and questions. I am astounded by their interest in culture, including mine, as well as each others—friend and foe alike.

I am taken back by the smiling faces that will always greet you on the road, in the classroom, in the market or anywhere; though there is much suffering here people express their kindness through the simplicity of a smile and shake of a hand.

I feel understood by those who have taken the time to know me here and the sweet exchanges that take place with many is something I feel is life giving; I’d give anything to feel a genuine sense of togetherness

I am honoured with the generous invitations to people’s homes for dinner, drinks, biscuits, tea and the like, it helps to reinforce their sense of dignity and I believe that is something which should be fostered in each and every one of us.

I feel comforted that I never feel alone wherever I go; there is always someone with nothing but patience and time determined to extend along their love even if only for a moment.

I appreciate the little boy who is no older than 12 years old who calls my name when he sees me walk by his family’s shop in the market and who calls to me from a distance to simply say hello and inform me how he is. Though his tattered clothes hang loosely on his small frame and he’s eaten only chips for lunch, his energy for me is gracious.

Lastly, I love how greetings are exchanged here, how uninhibited and free people feel to say hello and ask how one another is doing. I’ve always been attracted to this act of’s a feeling of respect that I wish could be instilled in the North American context .

I know that I am nowhere near ready to leave what I’ve come to love and am sure I will suffer from the longing to share life with people I’ve come to know as well as the many others I might never speak with face to face but whom I know fight to exist within the boundaries of this camp.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Past days...

Thursday October 29, 2009

Yesterday afternoon I found my way to the primary school to find a book on basic Swahili. I found one that’s for beginners without the English translation. This may be difficult for me but most people here do speak Swahili so it should be no problem to learn, right? I hope.

Around 3:30pm I met with one of my ESL students/friends and he took me on a tour of the camps borders. We walked to the highest elevation and took pictures overlooking the was incredible to see the number of grass thatched huts all clustered together. When you walk through it doesn’t seem so crowded but from a birds eye view it most definitely is. We walked for about an hour, met a few of his relatives, ran into a few elders and talked to a number of excited children along the way.

He dropped me around 4:50 so Margaret and I could head to a friend of ours for dinner and drinks. Turns out he lives very close to us which was very convenient. We ended up in the company of 4 refugee friends with grilled goat, and roasted banana’s, Fanta, coke and beers served before us. It was delicious! The banana’s had the distinct taste of sweet potato that I remember well from Zambia, and the goat, though a little tough at times, was just as succulent as I recall.

We all had a few drinks passing the night away. We took out my Swahili book and attempted to go through vocabulary, we laughed and talked about their hopes and fears of moving to Canada, and we informed them about cultural approaches to dating and relationships. We assured them we would be there for them when they come and I think they also hope that they will be chosen to live close to such friendly Canadian’s like us.

Monday, October-26-09

For some reason I can hardly get myself out of bed in the mornings at camp. I’ve decided that it’s likely the weather here versus Lilongwe-- windy and cold. The temperature at night is just so in Lilongwe that you only need a light blanket whereas here I snuggle into the warmth of the fleece cover sheet and fall into a deep sleep. When the alarm rings I avoid getting up to avoid the cool air against my skin. If my theory is correct then I can expect to have long weeks at the camp feeling overly tired and exhausted. Only until we find ourselves in Lilongwe will I be rested.

The teacher training program started today. I was the "teacher" that started them off on their first day: Basic phonetics. Fun. Haha, it actually wasn't too bad. As for my ESL conversation classes I have conducted differently the past two days. I have given over the teaching authority to the students so they can facilitate their own learning.

Women and Men, this was a topic chosen from a “creative conversations” book I have borrowed from the National Library in Lilongwe. The questions pertain to roles of men and woman and whether or not women can do similar jobs as men; if women should have the same sexual freedom as men and whether young girls should have the same independence as young boys. These types of questions generated a lot of discussion but the opinions expressed were many that I hadn’t anticipated.

The class is always 98% men so the variation in answers was limited. On the whole I can say that most men hold the following values:

  • Women can’t do construction or housing improvements because they are weaker than men
  • Women should not have the same sexual freedom as men because they should submit to their husbands
  • Young girls must not be given the same independence as boys because they will be disobedient, they can be taken advantage of and they will seem less marriageable if they have a freer mind
  • The husband should also manage the finances in the household because he does more work than his wife does; he earns the money so he should use it as he pleases.

Of course there are many students who believe women and men have equal rights and that the answers to the above should be answered as opposites. But it’s difficult to accept some of the traditional values when I come from a culture that weighs women and men, in most cases, on a balanced scale. Furthermore, as one student commented, their answers are based largely on scripture which is where our arguments differ. I’m not sure how to comment on this.

The major point of this entry is a reminder to myself that I am actually faced with cultural differences everyday whereas my experience in Zambia simply wasn’t so. Perhaps I wasn’t as aware as I am now but regardless, I want this to be a reminder that there were moments here when I felt out of my element and misunderstood. Thank goodness our differences have not divided us, some days I fear it might.

Tuesday, October-27-09

Witch craft

There was a knock at my door around 3:30 this afternoon. Who could this be I wonder. I opened the door and found a middle aged man standing alone.“Madame, can you help me for few minutes, I need to speak with you.” I replied with, I’m busy, I have company right now can it not be another time? He responded with urgency and said that it would only take a little while. I welcomed the discussion.

He said he is a Malawian from Mzuzu and is in need of something to help his legs heal. I could see that his feet were covered with scares from sores from the past but his legs I wasn’t sure about. He said that in order for him to be cured he needed a piece of my hair...a few strands, about 3 inches long and the thickness of a few strands of straw. I didn’t understand how this could help him. I thought maybe this was some kind of traditional practice that could cure him in some way (or to his belief anyway). I’m used to people asking me for things so I really didn’t think much of it, though I did think it was a very strange request.

He pulled out a black container from his bag and opened it to expose a pink cream he claimed was medication. I told him to wait a minute, shut the door and consulted the three girl friends I had visiting. They were shocked and persistent in saying NO, YOU CAN’T! Apparently, he would have taken my hair to a medicine man and arranged to do some bad things to me or try to get me to fall in love with him or something of an odd sort. “This is what they call magic here in Africa. Tell him that you wont and that you’re Christian, this will protect you,” they said.

And I did. I told him I would not but that if he needed something else perhaps I could help him with that but not with this. He inquired as to why but I just insisted that “I’m sorry, I simply cannot. As k someone else for their hair, someone else can help you but I cannot.” He stared at me in disbelief and annoyance and finally said, ok. Fine. Fine. I said I’m sorry and shut the door.

Everyone whom I spoke to regarding this agreed that this man would have used my hair for witchcraft or black magic and that it would not be safe for me to give it to him. They all felt relieved knowing the girls were here with me at that time because if they hadn’t been I would have cut my precious locks and given it to him. To me it’s difficult to say why someone would want it, there are many things about culture that differ from my own so who am I to really question it. At the end of the day, it’s just hair right? What really would have been the harm? To a non believer in Witchcraft, nothing.


Oh mother! Yes, we have just seen a TARANTULA sitting outside of our door at the camp. There is no question about that that’s for sure. Perfect opportunity for a photograph let me tell you, wow.

Margaret is officially my hero though. She stepped up to the plate and did the unthinkable: she killed it with a brick! I’m telling you, she’s got guts that girl. I just stood there, hands over my mouth trying to keep a squeal from escaping. She flat out dropped a brick on it saving us all, including the mouse we found in the kitchen from death.

Of course I can’t help but let my curious, imaginative mind entertain the possibility that this spider was a symbol, an bad oman one might say, or warnning from the man who’d been here earlier looking to use my hair for medicinal purposes. I mustn’t entertain this idea though. I’m told it’s dangerous to believe in Witchcraft and that it’s better I simply don’t allow myself to drift away with thoughts about evil intentions against me. But how is it that EVERYONE I’ve ever met from this continent claims to be a true believer? I have yet to meet ONE person who does not.