Back to the Future

We had our first visitors in June. Fran, Jon’s mom, and Kris, Jon’s sister, spent time with us in Mzuzu and traveling a few of the country’s tourist attractions (i.e. Lake Malawi, safari in Liwonde National Park, etc). One of my favorite things is sharing our life with the people I love, so I was excited to have them see and experience everything from shopping at the markets, to visiting schools, to IT stuff with Jon at the University.

Over the two weeks, they heard many of our stories about the adventures of living and traveling in Malawi. What surprised me was that time and again, Fran wasn’t surprised. She was continually commenting that life in the States 30 or 40 years ago was much like the life we are living here in Malawi in 2006.

When we bought new tires for our car (this was after having our bald tires patched and re-patched several times) we had three options: used tires, tubes to line our current tires, or new tires. Needless to say, the used tires were worse than our own, and who has ever heard of tubes for car tires? I thought those were just for bicycles. To answer my own question, this is only news to people of my generation living in developed countries. According to Fran, tubes were a common, economical fix for Americans with worn tires half a century ago.

Other examples:

  • Cash is the only common currency as checks are rare and plastic is nearly obsolete.
  • Clothes are patched instead of tossed for new ones, socks are mended, bottles and plastic bags are always reused, shoes are taken to cobblers, etc. Actually, Malawi Gin is sold in cardboard containers which often crop up on peoples’ doorsteps and at tree nurseries as planters.
  • Everything is done by hand. Schools have full-time carpenters on staff to repair and make desks if there’s money to have desks.
  • There are no shopping malls, but every corner has a tailor or two.
  • When I wanted a rubber stamp made, I didn’t order online or from a catalog, but commissioned the man with his outdoor shop who hand-carves rubber stamps for everyone from store owners to the immigration office.
  • Everyone is a farmer! The majority are subsistence farmers, but even the elite have their gardens (garden = farm).
  • Water, electricity and phone bills must be paid at their main offices in town…that’s if you are fortunate enough to have these luxuries. Bills are sent by mail but usually arrive a month late, so if you don’t want your water shut off you learn to show up once a month regardless of whether you received a bill yet or not.
  • None of the houses have heating so we light a fire every night during the cold months and huddle up at its mouth for hours.
  • Life is lived according to the seasons…tangerine season just ended, but this week we were able to find cauliflower a the market, and we are eagerly anticipating mango season come November.
  • For people-meeting you don’t rely on cell phones, so it requires careful planning or often just serendipity.
  • You navigate by way of landmarks as streets aren’t often named and maps aren’t accurate.
  • Jon’s students write their computer programs out by hand waiting for their one chance a week to sit at a computer for an hour, punch in the code and see if it works. (Not that different from the original punch card system of computer programming).

Despite all of this, the future is creeping in faster than we are able to notice, given our very short time in Malawi. Aparently, only four years ago plastic bags weren’t available at the markets in Mzuzu, and it seems that widespread use of cell phones is not that far behind.

(P.S. these fabulous pictures are from Jon’s sister Kris.)