July 20, 2010

shopping elsewhere

why did the country bumpkin cross the road? to buy some eggs. the eggs were not symbolic, it wasn’t easter. it was winter, a coat and two scarfs armed acacia against the cold.

clean cars flew by, unsoiled by dust, unhindered by potholes, unobstructed by traffic police. this road was not a metaphor for life. would acacia get to the other side? there were no zebra crossings (that cheap paint, white, yellow, white, always needing another coat). there were no flyovers (dysfunctional eyesores, a thin pretext for more advert space). up the road by the traffic lights there was a little red man.

a massive silver button required a mighty smack of the palm. nothing happened, was it working? had ESCOM fried it, or rain flooded the wiring? a few more bangs on the button elicited a green man. the cars slowed and acacia ventured forth. but before clever parallels could be drawn to the crossing of oceans… suddenly the red guy was back, flashing, the cars revved, she skipped to the curb, just in time.

acacia walked into that universal shop ‘woolworths’ and marveled up and down the aisles, the indoors heating made her a little light-headed. there were no shoes or sensible underwear, no pick’n’mix or CDs, this was a food supermarket.

don’t think shoprite, no no no shoprite was a world away. white-skinned people pushed past as acacia stepped back to gaze at the shampoo range in all its glory. the bakery filled the horizon. five varieties of mandarins were lined up, beside midget avocados.

was a plain brown egg to be found amongst such technicolour? did the natural product of squawking chickens have any place in these double-packaged boxes? was the simple life being lost in modern development, which was the cause and which the effect? a refrigerated aisle cooled acacia’s forehead. the pursuit of eggs should not be confused with the hunt for happiness.

she asked a nice young chap for help. he overflowed with directions and the novelty of such excellent customer service gave her a warm fuzzy feeling. having reached the egg section - finally, and having dodged all poetic analogies – just about, acacia faced a real philosophical challenge...

the humble egg came in a number of varieties, depending on where the chickens lived. ‘caged’ or ‘free’, she reached for free wild birds flapping around the village, but was that ‘free range’ or ‘barn’? barn eggs sounded friendly, a homely compromise on ideals.

acacia opened a box to check if any of the 6 barn eggs were cracked. the yolks would be shocking orange, compared to the pale yellow of home. of course they were unbroken, all hopes intact. but there was a stamp with a best-before date… no time to waste in hatching the domestic dream.
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May 6, 2010

escaping tomatoes

Tomatoes. The frozen kind. Red hard cricket balls, expertly bowled towards me… as I carefully protect my wicket, dive desperately around the goal posts, keep my gloves up – swinging, guarding my face.

It was a nightmare. I’m not sure when I got scared of tomatoes, (or when I started using sports imagery). Did one bash me on the forehead, or was it more of a slow bombardment? Either way the tomatoes were terrifying. If one hit me; it might crack open a gaping weakness, burst into a horrible truth, the world might end or - god forbid - make me a bit uncomfortable.

To be called ‘emotional’ is an insult, your judgement is in question. ‘Feelings’ are female, inferior, weak, and not cool. So I dodged the emotional tomatoes; I dodged hard and I ducked fast. I developed ridiculous reflexes and a rubber spine. Yep, the barrage of cherry bullets whizzed past harmlessly, miles off target.

I learnt to evade emotions from some pretty good dodgers, escapologists of note. Keep manically busy. Watch mindless TV. Read trashy novels. Attend nights of prayer. Cook and clean obsessively. Work past 5. Party hard. Change the subject. Gossip about melodrama. Etc.

I even bought in extreme measures. Avoid the feeling by; researching it, write a report on it, talk about it. Elude any sensation by; taking a photo of it, blog post it, give it a scientific name.

Such surreal-ness couldn’t last forever and I was woken up by a big sloppy tomato smacking me in the face. I felt it. Juices dribbling down, wet and pungent. Another one hit me on the arm, a bright explosion of vitality, a burst of meaning. I bared my chest happily for the approaching bombshell.

'We live in deeds, not years' by Philip James Bailey > website link
'Walking Wounded' by Acacia, Nov 2008 > website link
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March 11, 2010

the ideal week (njira yatenga)

A crazy civil servant called for litter-bins in minibuses, if only clean streets were that easy. It was Monday morning; Acacia drank her coffee, listened to the radio and smirked at such naivety.

Admittedly, she had had a few crazy ideas of her own. There was a photo of a smiling younger woman holding a banner, protesting outside the houses of parliament in London. MPs were beseeched to act for one cause or another. Meaningful posters adorned the students’ kitchen. Prayers were said for soldiers in Iraq. Fair trade products were aggressively promoted. Even Wetherspoons had received an indignant letter with her signature.

Fortunately those fanciful days were over. Acacia sucked the last sip of the dregs and set off for her meeting, she would arrive exactly twenty minutes late to avoid waiting for latecomers.

A girlfriend called an emergency lunch on Tuesday; should she move in with her boyfriend, after all this time was he ever going to put a ring on it? The soup took quite a while to arrive, but they were used to that.

Wednesday was martyrs day, Acacia didn’t know much about Chilembwe. Dying for your principles seemed rather old-fashioned. She savoured the the lovely, luxurious time alone. Many old friends had left town and there wasn’t much point in making new ones just so they could leave as well. But she was content, she could happily keep the same job, live in the same house, and wear the same hairstyle for the rest of her days.

The boss called on Thursday, demanding to know why the grass wasn’t short. he raised his voice; Acacia rolled her eyes, which part of rainy season did he not understand? Why did these people bother?

Friday was pretty slow, Acacia just wasn’t in the mood. George emailed through his new project concept; vague objectives, blood donations – nothing new there. She couldn’t be bothered to type up her feedback (did starry-eyed do-gooders ever listen?). On skype-type Mr. K recalled how he had expressed his dissatisfaction to road traffic for issuing his license late (what on earth had he expected?). A face book friend asked her to sign a petition for computers in the national library (Manuel was such a dreamer).

With an invisible pat on the back, Acacia applauded her own pragmatism. Was there anyone else so realistic, so in touch with the challenges on the ground, so in tune with the cultural obstacles, so adept at predicting pitfalls and problems? Yet so flexible, so ready to find new ways to adapt and cope, endure and survive?!

Finally 4:30 came, she picked up both her phones (sometimes one network went down) and drove to the filling station (you never knew when there might be a national shortage). At the ATM, Acacia got enough cash to cover a police bribe in case she was stopped on her night out. She took her new route home, slightly longer but it avoided that dirt road with potholes. Someone chucked a crisp packet out of the window of the car in front.

Saturday brought no lights, no kettle, no electricity. According to the gardener, they were the only plot affected. Acacia set up camp in Capital Hotel, with weekend newspapers and ready cups of tea… while super-neighbour Nicola mercilessly harassed ESCOM faults.

The press detailed how a Malawian passport holder was accused of not being Malawian. In court another accused was denied bail to protect him from mob justice. Even Acacia could see the irony in a system that had no faith in itself… Yet more debate around the quota system; in the quest for the best stopgap solution, what happened to the bigger picture?!

Acacia got a good seat in church on Sunday, and put her handbag on the floor in front of her (where she could keep an eye on it). The pastor spoke solemnly about how a guy from the church had lost his way and got in trouble, he urged us all to pray for the poor chap. Acacia couldn’t understand why the pastor was so sad, he almost seemed crushed… surely this was not a surprise, the signs had been there all along.

What was a surprise, was that Acacia found herself jealous. She was jealous of the pastor’s strong emotions, his deep disappointment. When was the last time she had been gutted, or ecstatic? Being a smug know-it-all wasn’t that great really, oh very safe, but rather dull.

They were everywhere - these idealists, who didn’t accept life as it was but wondered how the world might be. They carried their ridiculous dreams, under a rising sun of possibilities. When they cried, they probably cried more than her; but when they laughed she knew they laughed harder.

At Joe’s pub that afternoon, Mtendy mentioned that in Nigeria once a week at a certain time everyone stops work, comes out of their offices and houses and picks up rubbish for an hour. This is enforced by the police and Lagos grinds to a halt, for the sake of clean streets.

Would that work in Malawi? Somewhere along the path she had lost hope. She hoped for nothing, she hoped in noone. She missed it.

NB: For a change, everything in this article is somehow true, except that George’s proposal was quite cool, and I don’t actually keep my tank full. Manuel’s petition was eventually successful. Watch this space for part 2: in which Acacia finds her way back to hope.
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February 18, 2010

the imperial gardener

I cower in bed. The banging on the door continues.

It is very early; my alarm clock hasn’t rung yet. Outside, my car is not the cleanest. Yes its true, plastic bags from yesterday’s lunch litter the seat, a few papers. But it is ok and it serves my purposes, and when it gets really bad I will make a plan.

The gardener disagrees. He seems to think the car interior needs cleaning every other day… or the world will come to an end. He is so sure of this that he is prepared to knock on my door at the crack of dawn to collect the keys.

I am stubborn. It is my keys, my car, and my door that he's thumping on. I do not think MY car needs to be cleaned, so I do not answer MY door.

Perhaps I should appreciate his initiative. Without any prompting or request, the gardener has identified a problem, my dirty car. He has decided, without any consultation or dialogue, how to solve the problem. He is keen to impose his solution. He thinks this will be good for me. He assumes that it is what I want. The gardener continues his drum beat.

I do appreciate his good intentions. I do not think this will be good for me. I think I’m in a better position to judge what will be good for me.

I do not answer the door, because I don’t want to explain that cleaning is unnecessary. I don’t want to explain because I don’t want to offend him. I don’t want to offend him because then he may stop opening the gates for me so nicely.

Knock, knock.

The last time I gave in and let him clean my car, he took ages and delayed me going to work. He would say that was because I give him the keys late. I would say that I’d rather be at work on time in a dirty car.

I wish I lived in England, where there are no gardeners trying to clean cars.

Eventually, when I am up and dressed, the banging grows so irritating that I go to the door, I have to tell him something.

He must be pretty pissed off about the delay but he doesn’t show it, he just smiles a greeting. I say 'let’s clean the car tomorrow'. He smiles his assent.

Cleaning the car constitutes a tip-able task. Maybe the gardener really needs the cash. Ah his motives are in question, ah ha there’s something in it for him.

But he doesn’t say anything. Like me, he doesn’t want to jeopardise a working relationship which has the potential to be mutually beneficial.

I have no intention of letting him clean my car tomorrow.

So the power struggle continues, the imposed solutions, the good-intentions, the mutual benefits, the lack of real communication, passive aggressive responses, delaying tactics...
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January 28, 2010

me, myself and us

If we’re talking… and some guy reaches for my leg… and eyes glaze over, I stop mid-sentence …shoot me! Remember the last time you were the third wheel. Were they fondling and fawning, playing with each others hair? Did they touch cheeks, stroke arms and distract each other from the conversation? A bit inconsiderate, a tad antisocial?

In Malawi we see public displays of affection all the time… in the club… by intoxicated prostitutes… picking up inebriated punters. That’s about it. We don’t see men and women holding hands. We never spot a loving touch in the supermarket. We do not get smoothing of backs in church (well not in mine). Husbands aren’t caught greeting wives with a peck. Over here we only see teenagers flirting with ice cream, a couple on a date act like any two friends, and the bride and groom sit 30 cm apart all day.

This total taboo on any public evidence of emotion goes even further than the realm of romance. When a policeman stops her car, my wonderfully expressive mother is liable to raise her voice or burst into tears. Onlookers stare in fascination, sometimes they laugh, and often the poor officer has no idea how to react. While far from repressive, people in Malawi do seem to discourage the INDIVIDUAL expression of emotion. Mother is a brave exception in an otherwise ‘peaceful nation’ where the only angry shouts, or distressed cries, come from the mad and the drunk.

Before you imagine passive, blank faces, look a little closer… there’s plenty of passion to be found. Try visiting Shoprite when the Flames have won at Kamuzu Stadium, or watch a mob catch a thief, go to a funeral, attend weddings… COLLECTIVE exuberance is easily observed.

This is consistent with a culture that values solidarity, getting along with each other, fitting in, and being the same. Other cultures are more individualistic, glorifying personal autonomy. It seems you cannot have your cake and eat it. Would you rather have great community cohesion or full individual expression?

Shall we make everyone feel included and equal, or shall I do what I want when I want? One person expressing extreme feelings stands out from the crowd. The couple necking in the bar separates themselves from the pack. In France, 2000 women wearing a cloth over their heads in public is considered a barrier to social integration. In Malawi, anything that stands out is a threat to a united community, and is not taught to our children.

When emotions never see the light of day, it raises a few concerns… Sons don’t have a clue what their father thinks of them. Husbands never learn how to show love to their wives. Employees vent their frustration through a go-slow. There’s a massive gap between what is said and what is thought. Simple actions are loaded with coded messages. Effective communication becomes a distant dream. Sound familiar?

Don’t forget the advantages... no one storms out of the boardroom, there are no accusations in the heat of the moment, no careless quick angry words, conflicts are never explosive. When immediate reactions are stifled, resolution becomes so much easier. Mediators are in their element, third-party advisors ever ready to bring about compromise and reconciliation. Hmm imagine a country without war, we don’t have to look far.

Just as wearing a burka makes you a great Muslim, that arm-around-shoulder makes you a great couple… but when it turns to kisses and cuddles, then it also makes you shit drinking buddies, awful dinner guests, and just not fun to be around (I mean the couple, not the Muslims). Inside I might be shouting ‘get a room’, but I’ll never tell you that because… drum roll… I don’t get overcome by the need to express every impulse, especially when it might make you uncomfortable.

When in the grip of passion,
it becomes a natural fashion
to wear your beloved all the time
blissfully unaware of your social crime.

Well John Legend wrote quite a good song
praising Brits in the park, getting it on.
Important to remember; cultures aren’t clear cut.
Your kisses make some people want to throw up.

In Malawi, couples are more discreet with desire,
we find furtive ways to feed the raging fire;
a quick glance, a short note, signifying the start
of a full-on obsessive affair of the heart.

Yes in matters of love, those who don’t have a lot,
are often the ones going over the top…
Plus it makes you look desperate, and a bit insecure.
Watch out behind you – a drooling voyeur!

On the bus – groping boob, eating face…
In church – stroking hair, squeezing waist.
In the bank – touching cheeks, joined hips…
At dinner - holding hands, pecking lips.

Is this what they meant by freedom of expression,
these rather inappropriate exhibitions?
Hmm I don’t know what’s acceptable to you or others,
but I’m sure there'll be PDAs as long as there’s lovers.

- Public Love by Ceri and Jess
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December 9, 2009

advocating art

I find myself a tiny bit skeptical about initiatives which ‘raise awareness’ about HIV / AIDS or ‘sensitise’ us on gender-based-violence. Maybe I’m unconvinced because I’ve read some pretty awful poetry recently… which begs the question...

What is the role of artists in tackling important social issues?

Actors, painters, singers, rappers, writers and poets… 'artists' are so called because of their special ability to present emotions and facts in original ways, which may shock, entertain, or inform. Whether they are good or bad is completely subjective, but what we can assess is whether they are successful.

Have you ever come to the end of a short-story in the newspaper, and puzzled over what the author was getting at? Have you ever been dazzled by a cryptic poem, too embarrassed to admit you had no idea what it was about? Successful, effective artists use their skills to communicate their intended message to their intended audience. At the end of the day they have done their job if the audience 'gets it'.

I think artists need to understand an issue, through experience or learning, so that they have something worthwhile to say. Then they can preach an important message in imaginative ways.

Unfortunately sometimes artists present clichés, simplistic fantasies, pure conjecture… social stigma is bad, beaten wives are miserable, orphans are sad. It must be hard to empathise with someone you know nothing about. Personally I find this uninformed art rather dull; it doesn’t engage me or add anything to my understanding. It doesn't ‘raise’ my ‘awareness’.

The victims of gender-based violence tend to be silent. It would seem that the people who rattle on about GBV have rarely seen it first hand (or laid a hand!). I’m not convinced they have any idea what they’re talking about, or what needs to change. On the other hand (!) it appears that many artists have direct experience of the condom on-or-off dilemma; ‘safe sex’ has been powerfully promoted through numerous tracks and tragic stories.

Of course doing something is always better than doing nothing... so any advocacy event must be applauded for taking initiative and making a start. I’d love to attend an event which facilitates the victims to find their own voice. I’d love to see 'artists' getting personal; honestly exposing their experiences or knowledgeably exploring underlying factors… in all their creative glory. But please spare us the pretty, rhyming, uninformed, theoretical clichés, which bring nothing new to the table.
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December 3, 2009

mtima tradeoffs

Mr. Mtima lived in a world of milk and honey and complete self-knowledge. In his world, everyone knew what they wanted and placed exactly the right amount of value on getting it. For example, he wanted a promotion, and day after day he jumped through hoops for his boss. He wanted a cup of tea but wasn’t prepared to leave his comfortable chair… Oh yes, Mr. Mtima made excellent ethical decisions all the time, there were no grey areas.

Unfortunately this made movies a little dull; he knew exactly how many people should die to save George Clooney’s life. He knew exactly how many people should be locked up to protect America’s freedom. And he knew exactly when the actors reached the tradeoff point that made it not worth it… when the price was too high to pay… when the ends stopped justifying the means.

You see Mr. Mtima valued his inner peace, more highly than anything else... and it had to be protected against looters. Oh yes, he had a built-in burglar alarm; it shrieked when his neighbour made kachasu out of ARVs, it screamed when his employer dodged MRA, it moaned when his worker sold fuel on the black-market and it wailed when his cousin bribed the police. These dodgy deals would certainly have stolen Mr. Mtima’s deep contentment, and he knew it wasn’t worth the tradeoff.

The programme officer at the next desk was so beautiful it took his breath away, her body called to him… she was innocent yet cunning, naïve but sensual. Mr. Mtima’s imagination quaked in desire, oh for an embrace. When she walked past he would sigh involuntarily, then smile, then look away, as his brain screamed expletives at his cowardice.

Mr. Mtima suspected that his precious peace contained his whole essence; he threw himself into feeding it, nurturing it. For him that meant a little bit of art, and lots of time with people he loved. He got thrills from talking to his two daughters, occasionally enjoyed the vicissitudes of football (arsenal), and often enjoyed extreme intimacy with his wife (that’s enough about that!). His pleasures were simple but ultimately satisfying.

The aforementioned police-bribing cousin was dear to his heart, but Mr. Mtima could not understand her… why she gambled her self-esteem on one little man, why she threw away her sense-of-self chasing a disinterested guy, why she lost her self-respect bending over backwards for a word of approval. He watched as a shared laugh, a private conversation, an email… formed a bond in the wrong context - without commitment, which grew stronger and more and more inappropriate, more risky. Mr. Mtima watched sadly when things fell apart and the spark in his friend’s soul was dampened.

He did not earn much, he was not clever or especially handsome, but Mr. Mtima knew the truth about what made him happy, what kept him peaceful, the things that made him calm and gentle... he was the most powerful person I’ve ever met.

Ref: 'Never offer your heart to someone who eats hearts' by Alice Walker
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November 12, 2009

no guts, no glory

I rallied the girls. A friend of a friend was launching his project somewhere in area three... should be good maybe interesting. First disappointment – no booze. Secondly, it was full of young, enthusiastic, teetotallers – us alcoholic grannies didn’t know anyone. Thirdly, since when was spirituality a requirement for humanitarian interest? We stood around, read a leaflet ten times. We dutifully listened to the intro, we dutifully watched the video...

In Malawi everyone is terribly miserable (lots of sad-eyes shots), there’s wars and bombs, fires and riot police, oh no that’s actually in the rest of Africa . Back to Malawi … there’s only huts, poor poor people, seems they just sit around and look glum. But don’t worry its all good… apparently there’s some kids in a village who we play football with, lots of football, lots of running (slow mo shots). There’s also some feeding going on (kids smiling), walking around villages, chats with women. Join us, lets make a change together (text on the screen), or something similar.

We’re giving each other side-ways glances, the video has made us into smug bitches… who do they think we are? We don’t buy this shit, we know better. Maybe this kind of thing goes down well in America – pulls a few heart-strings, but we see through it. We want objectives and action points. We want to know where they get their funding, how they spend it. Hey christians, the devil is in the details!

Ahhh well don’t knock them too hard, they’re doing a million times more than we are, yes that’s right cos we’re doing absolutely nothing. Ok that’s uncomfortable; don’t want to think about that. But anyway at least we came, and we saw, now where can we make our donation? Let’s get out of here; nearest pub ‘Mabuya’.

That’s when it gets REALLY uncomfortable…. they don’t want our money!!! What? What do you mean they don’t want money? It’s a project right, an orphan project or something. They need money to run, I’ve got a spare K500 note, I want to help poor kids. They don’t want my money?! Gimme a basket goddamnit. If they’re not fundraising, what the hell was this about. Now the smug bitches are pissed off, confused, was this a complete waste of time? We were the first to leave. By way of apology, I got the first round.

Like most new organisations in Malawi, the Chisomo Idea has areas that it can work on, strengthen and improve. What sets it apart from other would-be-do-gooders is that it’s a ‘movement’. This means that leader Noel doesn’t want your spare change, he wants your soul!! Ha-ha. No seriously, they’re looking for investments of the personal kind. Manpower, football skills, prayers, inspirational speaking… er actually they’re not really sure what they want from you… but they’ll be happy to use anything on offer to help their work in various villages. I’ve never come across a bunch of people so open and flexible, inclusive, so receptive to new ideas. Actions speak louder than any words, or strategies or annual reports.

I love Noel’s concept cos I get it. Just a little bit of personal investment leads to more interest, commitment, ongoing involvement, maybe even passion. No guts; no glory. No sweat; no sweet. As my life changes, so do the villagers’. This is in line with the ubuntu approach to true community (I am because we are), it ticks Gandhi’s box (be the change you seek), it’s consistent with humanitarian concern (love your neighbour as yourself), but it also emphasises the importance of the right motive (the lord looks at the heart). With the ultimate resource – people who actually care, I think the rest will fall into place, including funding.

There’s a catch. The road to hell is paved with good intentions. Involvement is a tough requirement, many fall by the wayside. Like me; months after expressing my willingness to help (few days after the launch, had a nice chat with Noel, discussed some options), all I’ve done is answer a few phone calls from the group. I think I was supposed to attend a meeting, maybe watch some kids play football, but ahem I’m a professional – sorry not available in working hours, weekends are also hectic etcetera etcetera. Is the Chisomo Idea more than just a nice idea? I imagined amazing possibilities, but I didn’t get stuck in and make them happen. Not so smug now bitch.

So far, I haven’t made the grade to join this movement of people hell-bent on loving their neighbours, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t…. check out what they do in the villages, see if you care enough to watch some football, hang out with the guys, find out what else is possible. I know that by ensuring personal commitment, the Chisomo Idea will achieve great things.

by Acacia, published on The Chisomo Idea > website link November 2009
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October 25, 2009

bimbo saves the world

I imagine that living and working in Lilongwe is very similar to living and working in London. I earn my salary, I go out on Friday nights, watch DVDs, and spend too much time on facebook.

Busy with my routine, I’ve grown blinkers to the fact that next door, down the road, over the hill, in Malawi, England and all over; other people, other humans, spend their days scraping together enough cash for dinner…

These are varied, unique individuals with names and stories; they are not necessarily starving or dying, they’re not necessarily unhappy or living a life of less quality than myself, they’re not necessarily less intelligent or less capable or less anything. Nevertheless, their current circumstances do limit their access to the opportunities and services that I enjoy.

Fortunately every now and again something rocks my comfortable world, dazzles the blind spots, cuts through callouses. I’ve already told some of you... I met Theophilus when he was six weeks old, a big beautiful healthy boy. Five days later he had symptoms of malaria and died.

Such reality checks scream for a response. This kid’s death was wrong, not ok, unacceptable. I’m educated enough to know how preventable it was. I reviewed my options...

What could little jess possibly have to offer? The disposable part of my income (minute), and my professional skills (meagre). No worries, I happen to believe in a drop in the ocean, five loaves and two fishes. With a bit of money and a few management tricks, I'm going to change the status quo.

Option 1: Throw money around.

At the very least I should do this, right. A donation here or there to help a good cause. Every little counts. Agreed.

Whether it’s a relative or a friend, a beggar or a massive organisation – these people could do with transport, medicine, school fees, food etc. You hope they are who they say they are. You hope they really do need what they say they do. You hand over the cash.

Its amazing and very admirable, community spirit at its best. You’ve successfully provided options they didn’t have before, you’ve created the potential to improve lives (their own or other’s). Now they may use your money to go to the hospital like they said they would, or they may buy airtime. They may feed orphans, or they may pay their car insurance. At least you gave them the chance.

This isn’t enough for me. I happen to believe in Gandhi's idea of ‘be the change you seek’. My handout, my cash donation, would represent no significant sacrifice on my part and no engagement with the issues at hand. I want to do more than lazily placate my guilty conscience...

Option 2: Sell soul to a good organisation.

So if giving money’s complicated how about offering my skills? I’ve got contacts in church and NGOs, I’m sure they have a few activities I could volunteer to help with. Maybe I could do some organisation development for them – design a few systems. Or maybe I should join one of these social clubs, no doubt Lilongwe Lions group could use my budgeting know-how.

The people who do this are admirable and amazing. I’ll never be one of them. The prospect just doesn’t get me excited. After a long day in the office the last thing I want to do is exactly the same sort of stuff. Realistically I won’t be offering my professional skills to Lions or any one else.

It might be exciting if it was something exotic that I didn’t do every day, let’s all go to Africa, and build a school. Let’s live in a village and teach English. Let’s paint a children’s hospital ward. Let’s visit an orphanage and hold babies. People want to be part of the process of making a difference; it makes them feel significant, warm and fuzzy. I’m more interested in results.

I happen to believe (like VSO, unlike Peacecorps) that if you’re not proffering hard-learned professional skills, you’re only as helpful as the next local labourer. I'm no builder! Manpower isn’t something developing countries lack. I’ll leave the fun fun fun projects to those more qualified.

Option 3: ??

And so, dear reader, you can see my (our?) quandary; I don’t want to offer my professional skills (dull) and I don’t want to offer my un-skilled manpower (no need). Do I care enough to engage over and above a knee-jerk cheque?

Hmmm will jess actually sit down and think critically about possible responses? Will I take the time to work out how I could meaningfully contribute to a solution? Theophilus’ death was a true tragedy, but am I that bothered?

Watch this space.
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October 11, 2009

neurotics are us

Once in a while we women go a bit cuckoo. Everyone knows its part of being female (and fertile).

You may be mr. skeptical… it’s just a scam to get attention and confectionary, a fudged excuse to be moody. You may be a modern man… tell me tell me, I want to understand, I’ll read up on the biology and plot your cycle by the stars. Or you may be joe blogs… don’t really have a clue, but happy to let it remain part of the general mystery of women... You’re probably sympathetic, and you’re likely to read this article to the end.

Everyone's heard the complaints, woe is us, every month we walk the PMS gauntlet; a new hormonal ambush at every step, emotions leaping out from dark corners, aches clinging to your back, self-doubt squashing your mind.

BUT you may not have caught the proud undertones; I am a woman, I am different to you; I am sensitive, emotional and very very fertile; I’d like your attention and I need you… to rub my back.

So hear our wingeing for what it is. Don’t you think by now we’d have learned how to manage this? As clever as women are, of course we have. The first trick is to;

Identify the monthly neurosis as soon as possible.

Out of the blue I’ll start sending frequent texts, catching up with all those old buddies I have nothing to say to… waiting for my phone to ring, wondering why its not. Let’s see who’s on gtalk today, lets see who’s been reading my blog. Beware – this is the first warning.

Next I’ll be queuing in Shoprite and I’ll develop a fascination with the chocolate bars… since when did they stock Twix? Why is it more expensive than snickers? Its just a biscuit, snickers has nuts, hmm it’s been a while since I had a snickers...

By now any bimbo would realize something isn’t right. Sneaking suspicions... maybe... relief !! All those tense moments I’ve had recently are easily excused away, there’s a valid explanation for why I’ve been feeling so tired / hyper / hungry / (insert any word) for the last few days. I am not a freak, I’m a woman. Now I just have to stick to the fool-proof strategy;

Walk out of the room at the first sign of conflict. As a temporary emotional-wreck I’m liable to inflict lasting damage on those hard-earned professional relationships, by making mountains out of details (you think its ok not to show up at devotions?) and shouting at my boss (that is not my job!!). While I’m slamming doors behind me, I remember that;

Now may not be the best time to re-assess my life. Even though the big picture seems to be the only thing that matters (Is my life on track, body clock ticking, when am I going to buy a house, does he love me, what’s for dinner etc etc). Issues I haven’t given a second thought to all month, become pressing problems. Perspective goes on holiday, I might as well;

Wave au revoir to self-confidence. I know I’m a grumpy bitch, but do you think I’m a nice person? Do you? What did she mean when she said that, I should have said… no sorry, what I meant was… until I’m a quivering stress bag. Amidst the apologies and disclaimers some people give me the benefit of the doubt, but others get a look in their eye; has she always been this weird? At which point I resolve to;

Overdose on ibuprofen. Hold on do I feel heaviness, is it a dull ache, yes I think that’s an ache. Quick double dose, and again in two hours, and again. Raid the pharmacy (easier for some), stock up for the weekend. On this drug-induced high;

Listen to songs that include the word beautiful. Its amazing how many there are (starting with U2). It distracts me from looking at ugly Betty in the mirror. NOTHING looks good; not my new top (it was fab last weekend ??), not even my fall-back white t-shirt. I rationalize myself out the door and walk around denying that I feel like shit. Its safe to conclude;

The less out-doors the better. My personal favourite management strategy; go low profile, disappear for a few days. Turn off my phone, who'd phone someone as horrible as me (but in case they do, TNM have just started a voicemail service). Introspective diary entries are permissible but not beneficial, ideally plug-in to a never-ending DVD series (nothing too happy and American). When it gets really bad I;

Cry as often as possible. And;

Indulge in short bursts of eccentricity. The chemicals in my brain aren't functioning normally, I’m no longer rational. My comments range from odd to random to completely off-the-wall - resist from quoting me later. My emails will be pitched too intense, too casual. What’s the name for that disease where you can see what you’re doing but you can’t stop it? Well whatever happens;

Don’t apologise. As a physiological victim, I have absolutely nothing to be ashamed of. Help me weather this storm with displays of sympathy and expressions of devotion. I’ll accept anything in the spirit of pampering because this is the time to;

Treat myself. Absolutely anything my little heart desires; I’ve earned it just by surviving this ordeal. Self-control can wait for the other three weeks in the month, I deserve this. While I wolf down pots of cottage cheese I;

Enjoy the sensitive days. The flood of emotions from my vulnerable heart includes extreme appreciation of all the people I love, the amazing blessing of friends. There’s also an extraordinary awareness of the terrible things, the bereavements of people around me and their hard lives. I notice Lilongwe's stunning jacarandas. Watch out - it might get soppy.

And that, dear reader, is why I’d rather be a girl than a boy. Because life throws up some awful things, but despite all our coping strategies, our hardening of hearts, our career-suit armour and bullet-proof self-reliance… despite it all, every month my hormones remind me how to feel.
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October 9, 2009

abandoned by the tide

‘A kind of pleasure accompanies most of our appetites: we are enjoying either the memory of a past experience, or the expectation of a future one.’

All that was left of that September day was a photo.

Two people lying on a beach. Bright blue sky. Sand in his hair, the breeze in hers. Tangled arms. Her fingernails painted. His eyes half closed. Red wine teeth. Skin on skin.

There were some things she could remember quite well, the wet grit crunching under her hand. The warmth through the wind. How they had laughed in smug satisfaction with themselves. She could clearly invoke the phrases spoken, the exact angles of their contortions. The elaborate picnic and his pile of newspapers. A t-shirt for a pillow.

Suddenly there was a rush of white bubbling coldness. He was drenched. She jumped up to save the camera… or the phone? He lay there as the wave receded.

That was the problem, she said to herself, it’s easy to describe WHAT happened on the beach, but it’s impossible to remember HOW it felt. She couldn’t quite summon up the taste of that food. She couldn’t recall what it felt like to be next to him.

‘Many important realities are not easily reduced to what can be seen: love, meaning, joy, grief, justice, to name but a few. [An empiricist] must define them in terms of their observable evidence. But in so doing, he finds that the very reality he describes slips through his fingers.’

Even as it’s happening, the experience of someone’s physical presence is quite hard to articulate. In September she had occasionally noted that being around him added a twist to the mundane, an edge to routine, a different view on the same landscape.

Of course she had read theories about two souls merging into a new entity, and ideas about the whole being greater than the sum of its parts (bla bla bla).

But she'd have liked to be able to remember the feeling of being with him.

Memory lane must be a weird and wonderful world where details move and change, she thought. Obviously perfect recall would wash in a tsunami of sensations and emotions. Long-term memory is probably carefully screened; the unpleasant and the unnecessary dumped to save valuable gigabytes for more practical information.

Rather unfair really, that you had no control over your own memory-making process. She might have traded her knowledge of how-to-fry-an-egg for recollection of a scratchy beard. Or his face... (sigh)... she could never quite conjure up those familiar-yet-elusive features. In fact, the desktop image of that beach never ceased to surprise.

She tried to evoke the weight of an arm round her shoulder, the adrenalin of deep debates (sometimes he had pre-empted her points). The solid solidarity of private jokes. A stirring sense of potential. Walking alongside, pervading calm.

Smiling, she put the kettle on and made a mental note to ask about the camera, next time he phoned. Or maybe she'd call tonight.

The gaping spaces in togetherness were unbearable, deliciously unbearable. They’d be together soon. They’d share a tea bag and the taste would be perfect (peppermint). She relished the prospect, the possibilities; memories infusing desire.

'One must accept [relationships] for what they are here and now, within their limits - islands, surrounded and interrupted by the sea, and continually visited and abandoned by the tides.’

Larry Crabb
Anne Morrow Lindbergh
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August 11, 2009

hooks to hang me on

Large women’s eyes never welcome me as a fellow fatty. I don’t hear ‘English’ and think that’s me! I never get ‘we girlfriends gotta look out for each other’. Old ladies don’t see me as a comrade-in-arms. No one says ‘us Malawians’.

Calm down, don’t worry, this is not another boring rant about the evil habit of pigeon-holing people > face value. But I am slightly concerned by society’s apparent failure to squeeze me into a lovely cosy box of solidarity. What’s the criteria again? Perhaps if I tell you about myself, together we can find one suitable.

‘True friendship can afford true knowledge.
It does not depend on darkness and ignorance.’

Firstly, what you see first; my skin. Well I’d write about that… but even acacia would fail to pitch a sensory organ as a fascinating topic; I’d stifle sniggers at attempts to inscribe it with messages of history and hierarchy. And if I did manage to award my melanin (or lack thereof) a role in my identity, you’d be able to tell it was a mere exaggeration of something I usually think about when I’m on the beach.

I’ve lived in Malawi most of my life… but I don’t have an ancestral village here, or a whole other language of customs. Whenever I land at KIA I don’t kiss the soil or feel a mystical affinity with the immigration officer (as he stamps yet another tourist visa). Yet years of greetings and kwachas disqualify me from stringing together an insightful description of the country. I don’t have the fresh eyes of outsiders with other standards. I don’t know what living anywhere else in August 2009 feels like. I don’t know what hospital wards without guardians look like.

Surely having an English birth certificate is fertile ground for exploration … but I can’t remember the speed at which days pass in England, I don't know how to drive down the M1 or how cold the snow is. I can't remember the sound of the underground, or how it felt to be 10 years old (let alone the feeling of being born!). Last time I landed at Heathrow I didn’t kiss the soil or feel a mystical affinity with the luggage belt.

So maybe I should use my thousand words to sketch an outline of my physical presence, maybe that is me… well my face is not classically beautiful, no angular cheekbones, no big eyes. It is not typically ugly either, no bulging features, no awkward teeth. I am not thin - no jutting bony ribs. I am not fat, no stomach rolls (well no big ones). Which adjectives portray average curves?

Would it be worth delving into the common fate of ‘girlfriends’?... fortunately I'm not single enough to be hunting for prey or kissing around. Also fortunately I'm not couple-y enough to be holding hands with my man in the club, or arguing with him in the car park. I don’t compete with the premier league for his attention or look for recipes to spice up his evening. We're as together as much as we're alone. No hooks to hang an identity on there.

I’d love to provide an enlightening perspective on being 27… if it wasn’t an age perfectly poised between young and old. The mature end of music taste and drinking habits. The immature end of life lessons and wisdom. The skin on my hands is not smooth and tight, not rough and wrinkled.

I suppose the fact that I PRAY might encourage a logical-but-passionate monologue (the less clichés the better)…. except that I do not qualify for the title of ‘christian’ by many people’s definition, and persist in following God on paths far from the tracks worn by most church-goers.

I am not rich, I am not poor. I am not glamorous, I am not scruffy. There must be something. Education. Presumably most people can identify with one education system. Well I have MSCE and A-levels. I have a bachelors from Belfast, and a nearly-masters from Blantyre.

Even my surname has no story or accurate way of spelling... its' dubious origins give nothing away.

This is getting a little long, sorry I can’t package myself nicely in a few key phrases. Now maybe you start to see how absolutely impossible it is to communicate even a small part of me through the labels that you understand. Perhaps when they are all boiled away, I am a 'woman'... but even my experience of that may not be anything like yours.

Truthfully honestly I don’t know what most of these labels mean. I have friends who call themselves ‘African’, and we all saw what happened next link > african on thursday. I know ‘Malawians’ who are like chalk and cheese. I have met blond geniuses! I have met virgin sexologists (but that’s another story).

Suffice to say, my every first encounter is a slow-motion frantic flailing of arms; avoiding assumptions and desperately dodging expectations.

'Kinder the enemy who must malign us /
Than the smug friend who will define us'

Of course I find it hard when people gather a few misperceptions and decide I am different. They distance themselves. I clamber to associate, continually prove we’re together in this, scrape the barrel of belonging. Sometimes, from the outside, your box of solidarity seems snug and cosy.

But I find it equally difficult when people spot one or two similarities and think they are exactly the same. Suddenly I launch a relentless quest for disassociation, fired by the need to stand alone as a unique individual. Sometimes our little box can get unbearably claustrophobic.

So, dear reader, that is as much as can be said about Jess.
Criticise me, praise me, but please please see me.

‘The greatest gift I can conceive of having from anyone is to be seen by them, heard by them, to be understood and touched by them.’

Henry David Thoreau
Anna Wickman
Virginia Satir
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July 7, 2009

the happy lie

Dear Boyfriend,

You mean the world to me. I’ll shout it from the rooftops, I’ll put it on my blog!

So when you walked out abruptly last night, I thought I should write to explain myself…

While I was single, I’d meet the girls for lunch and they’d tell me how it was going with their men. I was as dull as chips without chicken. I didn’t have any juicy details of hot dates, no anecdotes from romantic get-aways. The girls felt sorry for me, and brainstormed for available men who could make me happy.

My mum thought I was single because I was f.a.t. Of course she didn't say it, she made subtle suggestions about which outfits were flattering. Her intentions were good, she wanted me to have a boyfriend. So I pounded the treadmill twice a week with her encouragement ringing through the headphones in my ears. She said my dad made her happy.

I stayed in every night, looking in the mirror at boring, fat, unlovable me. Hmm kind of depresssing... BUT THEN...

You asked me to be your girlfriend. And everything changed.

I discovered I was exciting when you took me on holiday. The girls looked at the photos wide eyed, I told them about the airhostess and other funny stories from my adventurous life.

I realised I was beautiful when you checked out my ass and threw me a compliment or two. Now when I look in the mirror I like my curves, those gyming days are over.

Sometimes I sound like a broken record - why didn’t you answer your phone, do you still like me? Don't worry, you know I wouldn't be able to live without you!

Thanks for being my boyfriend, and for making me so happy.

I tried to say this last night, but you walked out when I forgot your name.

Yours, A

'This above all: to thine own self be true / And it must follow, as the night the day / Thou canst not then be false to any man.' Shakespeare
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June 15, 2009

how to be alone

there's a fine line between being a self-assured stand-alone individual and being a sad lonely old bat.

I have found it. jess' ways to be alone:
1. don’t answer your phone if you don’t feel like it.
2. move to new city.
3. break up with your boyfriend.
4. get your own place, make it beautiful, white walls and low lighting.
5. stock up on very good books.

6. accept all invitations, give every person you meet a chance.
7. intend to go to the gym. a lot.
8. phone tried and tested friends. email the distant ones. forget the rest.
9. build up an amazing online identity.
10. consider buying a vibrator.

11. call your ex a few times to prove you are friends.
12. take your time thinking about what you’ll eat next. then overeat.
13. leave the toilet door open.
14. leave every social occasion exactly when you want to.
15. don’t drink at home. the alcohol is for when you have guests.

16. invest in a friendship with someone attractive but far away (a nice buzz and nothing will come of it)
17. commit to regular random activities (eg. lilongwe writers circle)
18. find local carpenter to tackle your every furniture fantasy.
19. never let your friends housesit, they’ll use your bed for things you don’t.
20. discover bbc worldservice.

21. use endearments on attractive friend, honey, sweetie, cupcake.
22. encourage visitors.
23. be creative.
24. hug often, kiss, handshake, touch people for emphasis.
25. take long baths. with candles. and three refills.

26. talk on the phone for hours to attractive friend.
27. buy lots of plants, water them regularly, wonder whether they are dying.
28. think hard thoughts. start a blog!
29. learn about the concept of boundaries, which protects your aloneness.
30. take lots of photos of all the good times.

31. visit attractive friend. explain your aloneness and explore his.
32. visit closest family regularly.
33. limit movie watching for a braindead weekend of series seasons.
34. pray sometimes.
35. find out that your attractive friend likes the same food as you.

36. read newspapers and establish your own political opinions.
37. spend ridiculous amounts of time painting your nails.
38. realise that attractive friend is your best friend.
39. be peaceful and hear the still small voice in the silence.
40. party. very hard. every Friday.

41. steal best friend’s music collection.
42. learn that there is more to life than being rational.
43. discover that you and your best friend would like to be alone. together.
44. travel across the world to make it happen.

We live, in fact, in a world starved for solitude, silence, and private: and therefore starved for meditation and true friendship. c. s. lewis
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June 4, 2009

naked truth

i suppose, one morning, she decided not to get dressed. i suppose she drank her coffee naked, locked her front door-naked, closed the gate naked and then walked down the road, resplendently, terribly naked.

i was standing impatiently waiting for a minibus. i looked like any other stereotypical young professional man, wannabe, funky glasses, cheap suit, enthusiastic. it was later than usual. i hated to be late. i craned left, nothing in sight. then i saw her.

she walked towards me, unhurried, with high heels clicking and her handbag over one shoulder. her features came into focus, everything began to feel rather surreal. at the minibus stage she stood and faced the road, oblivious to me.

i acted as if i stood next to naked ladies every day, but out of the corner of my eye – i sneaked looks at her, up and down. there were definitely strengths, but possibly more curves than i would have wanted from a fantasy.

the minibus swung in, nearly running over my toes and shocking me back to clothed normality. it was half full, i got in first and took a seat towards the back. she followed. apparently the driver hadn’t noticed, he pulled out as he did every morning, at every stop.

from where i sat i had a good view of her profile, and the ripples of astonishment that were running through the minibus. soon everyone was gaping.

a chitenje was passed forward. the girl nodded her thanks and left it on her lap. it had come from an old lady at the back; obviously horrified, loudly complaining, and spitting disgust… probably the type of woman who hates the new fashions, where young girls bare too much flesh, perhaps she considered complete nakedness only a little worse. some things were supposed to be covered up.

unfortunately sitting on her left i saw a teenager, openly staring. he reached across and stroked one breast. when she didn’t react he grabbed it more forcefully, with a smug smile. the teenager spoke over his shoulder to me, ‘see she likes it’, as if to justify this outrageous behaviour. she shrugged him off.

the conductor took her money along with everyone else’s. he didn’t care, passengers were passengers, and as long as they paid he wasn’t fussy. in fact he thought this one might be mentally ill, but he’d had really sick people on board and made sure they paid in full. his lecherous looks were more inclined towards a small little girl towards the front, whose mysterious unseen breasts might fit perfectly in his palm, who might surprise him with even lighter skin somewhere.

the minibus slowed to pick up more people. an elderly man on her right was looking out of the window but as he turned to face front his eye was drawn to womanly hands on smooth thighs. he looked at them intensely for a while and then moved upwards across a nicely curving stomach, a nicely curving bosom and her neutral face. maybe he was so old he couldn’t remember the last time he saw a naked woman. now he was looking in front smiling, perhaps with fond memories on his mind.

i took it all in; her sensitive eyes, her bare shoulders, her loose arms. her body told the story of her 27 years; her father’s nose, her excesses in her curves, her hygiene habits, her pain in her scars.

i felt my watch buckle dig in to my wrist, my shoulder pads felt heavy, my shirt too tight, my socks too small.

she seemed noble, sitting there as if nothing was amiss, unperturbed amongst these shocked gaping people… unconscious of their reactions, unashamed of her secrets.

if i show you everything, will you be scared and disgusted, or will you love the truth?
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April 23, 2009

madam tortoise

once upon a time madam tortoise took a walk with monsieur hare. afterwards it was hard to tell whether the tortoise had lagged or the hare rushed. who had more haste who had more speed? who was the wise man and who the fool?

their walk, the step by step process of getting closer relied on equal strides forward; a matching pace, constantly adjusted. yes, it was difficult to know how exactly monsieur managed to get so far ahead.

the world goes round and we make our interpretations. our perceptions are so biased and subjective, guesses and assumptions, flawed analysis. a friend switches her phone off, does it mean she doesn’t want to talk to you, or that her battery’s run out? inaccurate interpretations result in inappropriate emotions, which in turn motivate actions.

madam tortoise kept her head half in her shell, half-concealing academic eyes. her cold-blooded reptile heart felt very suitable emotions, as she took self-controlled steps. moving so slowly, safely and carefully, thus far she had managed to avoid the risk of surprises.

monseiur hare carried high hopes, they were heavy, they made it hard for him to think about anything except the end of the walk, anticipating the relief. he stuck his neck out and took big steps, bigger, bounding strides.

I forgot to mention that the bounding hare loved the steady tortoise, and so it wasn’t too long before his hurried emotions started to feel inappropriate, uncomfortable, inconsistent. he pulled up short, something was wrong….

shock, horror, alarm bells, madam tortoise was no longer beside him!! this new perspective, this more accurate way of interpreting events, brought her back into focus, far behind and looking a little forlorn.

pause. here we join monsieur hare looking back down the path, with hands full of spare attachment, and a surplus of expectations.

what happens next? should he…

1. rush the tortoise to catch up, quick come! He could email her a good argument for all the things they have in common, life being too short, the dishonesty of unexpressed feelings. ‘hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life’.

2. admit defeat in this three-legged race, after all its such a long way back, plenty more tortoises in the sea. (turtles?!)

3. drop his hopes like they’re hot and make his sheepish way back. a retreat of sorts, emotional withdrawal back to madam’s established boundaries. wise men say only fools rush in. ‘Whoever has no rule over his own spirit is like a city broken down, without walls.’

I don’t know what should happen or what will happen, but I do know the finish line wouldn’t be any fun without you.
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April 19, 2009

questions in my eyes

do you see the questions, the many question in my eyes? in my hesitant hand, reaching for yours? in my open invitations, in my cooking, in the telling of secrets?

if I ask you, will you answer?

of course I’d only approach someone whose opinion i respect, whose life I admire, someone qualified to answer. someone who knows what they’re talking about, who knows me, knows whats up.

…so I thought you’d be a good choice. you’re tall with long eyelashes, you have a job and a car, you’re cool and when we're in bed... what can I say, its off the chain.

will you answer my questions?

of course you’re not that old, not much life experience. and you’ve only known me a few weeks. and you have a ton of baggage. but our time together has been amazing, you’re the best thing that ever happened to me, I’ve never felt like this before. I think about you all the time, you’re special, I miss you, I love you.

so i have a few questions, some pretty big questions actually. am I cool, do I look ok, are my jokes funny, my thoughts intelligent? do I do a good job, am I nice person?

I see your answers. when you call me, come to lilongwe to visit me. when you pour my drinks, change my flat tyre, listen to my stories, tell me how your day was, kiss me when I’m asleep, show interest in my theories and comment on my blog.

I see your answers. when you don’t pick up your phone, look distracted while I’m talking, don’t have time to meet, don’t introduce me to your mum. when you don’t touch me, roll over in bed.

I see your answers every time I look in the mirror, look down in the shower, look at my phone. prove my worst suspicions, confirm my wildest dreams.

maybe I am asking the wrong person, maybe there is no right person. maybe I should take my big questions to the big man upstairs.
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March 31, 2009

read in restaurants

No one else has your set of genes. No one else has lived your life. No one else thinks your thoughts. Unique. Alone.

You know those adverts, groups of smiling people, the rosy ideals of forever friends, soul mates and family reunions – togetherness sells. We phone people and drink with people, pray with people, watch football with people and shag people to stay plugged in to our togetherness. ‘…no soul can live an isolated life. It is not only that it cannot get along without the assistance of others; it is in direct conflict with its essence to be something apart.’

This weekend party girls went to the lake, home girls were rained in, the family was far away, and my phone was quiet. I was alone. ESCOM followed the trend and abandoned area 47, leaving me in the rain with a few candles spreading little circles on white walls. I seriously don’t think I’ve ever been THAT alone in my whole life.

Times this abandonment by ten. Remember the last time someone you loved, got too busy / moved away / died, feel it for a minute, remember amongst all those emotions, the terror… an implosion deep down in your gut, a gaping void of nothingness. Alone. For a few moments a future of no one looms….

People will walk past you at church, you’ll buy one concert ticket, you’ll make your own birthday cakes, you will sit by yourself at the bar and read books in restaurants, and when you die it will take them days to discover your cold body. hmm.

I get it, we’re social creatures - I am because we are, and feeling alone is not natural. But why is the prospect so deeply scary?

Carrie: When did being alone become the modern-day equivalent of being a leper?

This fear, how much is it responsible for; marriages, kids? how is the terror expressed; excessive patriotism, over achieving, escapism? What does living in fear do to us? ‘When loneliness drives our search for love, kissing easily leads to biting, caressing to hitting, looking tenderly to looking suspiciously, listening to over-hearing. Clinging to one another in loneliness is suffocating and eventually becomes destructive.’

The alternative is solitude. Much has been said on the subject, even by myself. A lifelong struggle of conscious choices about who to spend time with, what to study, how to pray, when to ask for advice, how to enjoy the next quiet weekend.

We come into this world alone, we leave it alone, and we answer to God alone. The question is whether we let our aloneness become loneliness or whether we allow it to lead us into solitude.

‘It's an interesting combination: Having a great fear of being alone, and having a desperate need for the solitary experience. That's always been a tug of war for me.’

Carrie, Sex in the City
Henry Nouwen
Jodie Foster
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March 16, 2009

temporary roses

you could stick 12 red roses in a jar of water for a few days until they wilt. or you could tie the bouquet with silk, carefully suspend the stems until they dry, preserve their delicate beauty for years to come.

i’ve been trying to live in a permanent world for a while. i buy big books that never end, and watch series with many seasons. i keep friendships on life support machines and always always make my house a home.

i’ve just about convinced myself; nothing changes. i’m shocked when my car battery goes flat and my brake pads disappear. i’m amazed when shoes wear out, astonished when knickers tear and taken aback by tired t-shirts.

nothing finishes, there are no endings. a well defined comfort zone, an iron clad status quo. smell the security, feel 'the universal human yearning for something permanent, enduring, without shadow of change'.

my toaster will never break. my boyfriend will always find me desirable. my employer will eternally need me. it’s an illusion, a boring predictable fantasy. i've stopped drying roses.

buddah, nietzche and jesus all agree that pursuing happiness in transient things is futile. buddah suggests removing the desire for temporary things and we’ll all be happy - nirvana. jesus warns against getting attached to things that pass, ‘the grass withers and the flowers fall’.

‘when we are unhurried and wise, we perceive that only great and worthy things have any permanent and absolute existence and that petty fears and petty pleasures are but the shadow of the reality’

what is it in me that craves something without shadow of change? that writes a post about permanence? is it just a control freak trying to feel safe and secure. or is it a desperate search for something great and worthy, consistent, steadfast, unchanging... TRUE.

so what does stand the test of time? 'behind the constantly changing bustle of modern culture, feel the assurance of God’s created order and a permanence that will not pass away.' the grass always withers and the flowers always fall, and that underlying order is my enduring truth.

there are two types of people in this world. some dry their roses; string up the stems, lynch the bunch – strangled dead flowers, faded and brittle forever. others display the bouquet where their vivid beauty will surprise every glance, where petals will drop - red reminders of what doesn’t last, and what does.

willa cather
henry thoreau

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March 11, 2009

goodbye traitors

when my sister told me that she hated her teacher, i was like yeah yeah. when my sister told me she imagined holding up a gun, pulling the trigger, the mess the teacher’s head would make on the blackboard, i was like oh shit... how can we be so different? i think i’m a peaceable sort of person.

lilongwe writers' circle posited the theme of revenge but i was uninspired. i’ve been happily brainwashed into the christian ideals of forgiving. the day i caught my housemate wearing my knickers i frowned and walked away, she apologised profusely. i’d even subscribe to the cliché of ‘what goes around comes around’; the guy who made my job hell got caught adding a zero on a cheque, the guy who cheated on me got his next girlfriend unexpectedly preggers.

well peaceable or not, everyone has their limits. for most women the danger areas are money and men. you can imagine all sorts of unforgivable possibilities. cross the line and we become vindictive bitches...
mess with these areas and even your closest girls will drop you like you’re hot.

then there’s the other unforgivable sin, leaving. we all know how it goes; meet someone – click - hear all gossip - tell life stories - establish telepathic connection – drink the same drinks - become official wingman - read the same books - predict moods - socialise like siamese twins - phone compulsively - synchronise opinions - borrow clothes - suspect they are one of the few people who really ‘gets’ you - wave goodbye.

you jump on a plane and fly off to another world full of opportunities and excitement, while i drive home with an empty passenger seat and the prospect of friday night without a drinking buddy. betrayal, its unforgivable. you better believe it, i’ll drop you like its hot.

first i become mercenary, what are you worth? all those things i used to compliment could be mine! then my stories get very very short, no more gory details or juicy speculation, nah no more intimate confidences from over here.
your lack of loyalty leaves my anger thinly veiled; how dare you not invite me to that leaving lunch, i don’t care if i’ve already been to your other three leaving parties! i couldn’t be less interested in where you’re going; i don’t care what you’ll eat first or what you’re planning to watch in the cinema. but i would like to talk about the string of birthdays, club nights and lake trips that are happening – oh i’m sorry – the weekend after you’ve gone.

just in case you start thinking that i’m the bad guy (and forget that you are the traitor), i shall lie through my teeth that i’ll visit you soon and pen a sickly sweet letter full of nostalgia and best wishes for the future. masquerading as a supportive friend, i may even throw in a malawian gift, something less obvious – only for the discerning eye.

ah now you’re getting the point, don’t bother trying to ease your conscience – nothing will placate me, not your toiletries safe in my bathroom, your books beautifully lined up on my shelf, or your remaining kwachas in my purse. i don’t want to know about your layovers and i’ve never heard of the person picking you up. i stab the knife in; dry eyes at the airport, and then i twist it; delete from phone.

perhaps i’m more like my sister than i thought. you can wear my knickers, have my money, here take my man… but don’t you dare leave.

“one imagines all of us on this shore fading for them as they journey ahead towards whatever new shore may await them; but it is as if they carry something of us on their way as we assuredly carry something of them on ours.” frederick buechner

“the most beautiful discovery true friends make is that they can grow separately without growing apart.” elisabeth foley
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February 9, 2009

every morning

damn that snooze button. the alarm goes off and my first thought of the day is sneaky – what can i get away with? an extra 5 minutes, i roll over smugly. eventually the white walls of my bedroom come in to focus. got to get up... why do you get out of bed every morning?

morning after morning, why do you lift your head from that pillow? so that you can go to work to make a difference. ok that was cool until you realised its just a job description, anyone qualified could do it. so now you do it for the money because maybe you want what everyone else wants, are you sure? or do you energetically throw off the blankets just so that you can hook mr. raison d’etre, turn him into your identity, and fulfil your hearts desire?

do you scrub your armpits in the shower and thoroughly brush your teeth so that you can take no pride in your appearance, so that you can make more resolutions to work out and eat lettuce.
do you carefully choose an outfit to look good while you swallow your opinions? do you drink coffee to be fresh as you invest and expect return, love for security, friendship for favours? do you turn the key, unlock the front door get into the car, so that you can forget how your mother screamed when you were born? forget that theres a path and a purpose?

hey hey its all good, you’re cool, no really you’re fine because… you read blogs. you sit here in the eye of the storm, as life’s whirlwind whirls you slowly ponder the questions… perhaps if you ask them in different ways, consider all angles, explore the options, use long words, you might be on the way to the answers.

whos kidding who. you know the answer. i know the answer. the peace that passes understanding. the pastor preaching on exactly what you’ve been thinking about. tears for no apparent reason. fatima gets a job a week after she mentioned she was looking. the friend who came from nowhere. that near-death so slightly averted. the double take when you remember to look at the sky. no clichés necessary you get the point, you know your moments better than i do... those glimpses of harmony prove there is an alternative perspective, a different approach.

you get out of bed, you go to work, you meet your mates, you’re relevant, you’re cool, you talk the lingo, you drink the drink. you are whoever they want you to be, you bend over backwards to fit in, comfort, safety, security… did you actually wake up or is this a nightmare?

remember those dreams don’t you? that taste of rawness, an edge, where people hate you and hug you, laugh loud and swear louder. danger, adrenalin, passion! where you fully inhabit your skin, where you say exactly whats on your mind. where theres no time to surf the net. where you stand for something, behaviour, faith, principles. glorious intolerance.

roll over, press snooze again and again, until you know why you desperately need to get out of bed.
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January 11, 2009

shooting from the hip

ok so we’re all spinning around in the world, bumping into people, bouncing off each other. and life is coming up fast seconds minutes seconds years racing past with usain bolt. theres not much time to think, choices decisions more choices, quick no time to aim, we’re shooting from the hip. i’ll stay in malawi. i’ll marry her. i'll take the job. trigger-happy.

BUT this is all we got, these hurried moments and fleeting ideas. every day is a fork in the road, left or right? no going back, no time, the road keeps coming FAST. and these snap choices (left or right?) affect the. rest. of. your. life. to be fair, in that precious millisecond of weighing it up, people do do their best - we work with what we have. mostly what we have is each other, parents, mentors, siblings, pastors, cousins, colleagues and friends, above all friends.

this goes out to all you ‘friends’... if you’re close enough to someone that they’ve given you the right to speak into their choices, then use it – engage – give your perspective – ask the right questions – tell it how it is. i’ll tell it how it is; smiling and waving while someone takes a wrong turn is safe and lazy, kind of selfish. who’s making sure you’re on track? who’s checking you’ve thought it through?

i need my friends to give a shit, to be honest, to get off their ass and put in their two cents – i need all the help I can get to wisely make my next move. in this whirlwind of years, as I pull the trigger i need you to hold my hand.
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December 26, 2008

murky depths

do you kind of admire that guy whose phone is off the hook? or secretly respect those who open a full inbox every day? when you hear an sms beep, do you check if its yours, feel a hint of disappointment when its not?

‘in proportion as our inward life fails, we go more constantly and desperately to the post office. you may depend on it, that the poor fellow who walks away with the greatest number of letters proud of his extensive correspondence has not heard from himself this long while.’

I guess the logic is that in order to feel less alone we should be more together. hence frantic friendships, pointless phone calls and rushed liaisons! maybe you won’t feel alone if you have enough people around you. er what do you call ten lonely people in a small room? lonely.

nevertheless we chatter on; the latest opinion read online, the scandals from last night. ‘when our life ceases to be inward and private, conversation degenerates into mere gossip. we rarely meet a man who can tell us any news which he has not read in a newspaper, or been told by his neighbour. the only difference between us and our fellow is that he has seen the newspaper, or been out to tea, and we have not.’

hi how was your christmas, how are you? yes I know the sun is glittering on the water, cheerful ripples and a few excited waves. but whats going on down there in the murky depths, any idea?

I was offered a new job the other day, the surprise completely threw me. I anxiously solicited advice from all respected sources and the best advisors tried to find out what was in my heart – a difficult task since I myself didn’t have a clue. I signed the year contract and resolved to get back in touch with jess.

before you tut and shake your head, how good are you at being alone?! when was the last time you switched off your phone (god forbid!) and took time to remember why you like yourself? ‘what is going on in your innermost being is worthy of your whole love.’.

optional methods to investigate your inner mystery:
1. exposure to different environments, travel (michael)
2. conscious introspection (of the finding yourself hippie variety)
3. inner exploration with grace and faith (st. augustine)
4. other people’s opinions (karen) [corrected: maybe not a method]
5. extreme situations e.g. eat your friend or starve (yiwo)
6. behaviour, actions, reactions (mwai, gus) ‘you shall know them by their fruits’
7. commune with your own heart upon your bed, and be still (david)
8. watch what you say (luke) ‘out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks'
9. reflection amongst friends (georgia)

the chattering folk flap like fish out of water, they are not comfortable with themselves, and they are definitely not restful to be around. when our life ceases to be inward and private…, ‘when we do not protect with great care our own inner mystery, we will never be able to form community. It is this inner mystery that attracts us to each other and allows us to establish friendship and develop lasting relationships of love.’, ‘It is in deep solitude that I find the gentleness with which I can truly love my brothers. the more solitary I am, the more affection I have for them.’

‘a man or woman who has developed this solitude of heart is no longer pulled apart by the most divergent stimuli of the surrounding world but is able to perceive and understand this world for a quiet inner centre.’ ‘centeredness is what makes people seem powerful, and its absence is what makes people perceive themselves and be perceived by others as ineffective and even impotent… centeredness is the source of authentic faith, belief and realistic self-confidence.’

‘I want to beg you as much as I can…. to be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves… do not now seek answers which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. and the point is to love everything. live the questions now. perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer…’

Henry Thoreau - Walden and Other Writings 1932
Rainer Maria Rilke - Letters to a young poet 1954
Henri Nouwen - Reaching Out 1966
Thomas Merton - Diary 1950
Peter Koestenbaum - The Heart of Business
David, Luke - The bible
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November 4, 2008

walking wounded

The panga knife cuts deep, rips your skin, tears muscles, cracks bone. Mangled flesh, red blood, screaming pain. ‘I am feeble and utterly crushed; I groan in anguish of heart.'

‘And if we are strong enough / to be weak enough / we are given a wound / that never heals. / It is the gift / that keeps the heart open.'

‘Broken relationships, broken promises, broken expectations… broken with psychological wounds, physical limitations, and emotional needs… Our brokenness is so visible and tangible, so concrete and specific. You are a broken man. I am a broken man.’

OK life’s a bitch, so what? ‘We can’t control the world, but we can control our reactions to it.’

Reaction. Run away from pain; avoid it, ignore it, deny it. Grit your teeth. Bandage it up, cover it up, no one can see it. Take painkillers, kill the pain, don’t feel it. Don’t look at it, forget it. Life goes on, back to work... no big deal, nothing happened. Forgotten and untended, infection sets in. And maybe much later, an ugly, twisted scar.

Reaction. Step towards the pain; embrace and befriend it. Look at the bleeding gash, get to know it. Shocked, weak, cry, ask for help. Friends apply antiseptic that stings. Take advice; keep it clean, leave it open to the fresh air. Take leave days, take time to rest. Tell your story and gradually accept the pain, and learn how to live with a gaping wound.

‘Your pain is deep, and it won't just go away... Our sufferings and pains touch us in our uniqueness and our most intimate individuality.’ ‘I want to know if you have touched the centre of your own sorrow / if you have been opened by life’s betrayals / or have become shrivelled and closed / from fear of further pain.’

‘Whenever you find tears in your eyes, especially unexpected tears, it is well to pay the closest attention. They are not only telling the secret of who you are, but more often than not of the mystery of where you have come from and are summoning you to where you should go next.’

Actually ‘hurt’ is always a reminder of your essential human vulnerability and helplessness… so it reveals the truth about yourself. Loosing your illusions isn't loss at all. ‘Brokenness is the attitude that helps me to see myself in truth rather than in the false images that have made me feel secure...’ ‘Behold thou desirest truth in the inward parts: and in the hidden part thou shalt make me to know wisdom.’

‘Your call is to bring that pain home. Yes, you have to incorporate your pain into yourself and let it bear fruit in your heart and in the hearts of others… Take up your cross.... first of all, befriending your wounds and letting them reveal to you your own truth.’

No doubt easier said than done, and when you’ve become best friends with your wounds, where’s God? 'God seeps through the cracks.’ ‘How can we live that brokenness without becoming bitter and resentful except by returning again and again to God's faithful presence in our lives?’ ‘He is afflicted in their afflictions, and knows their souls in adversity.’

Perhaps here we start to get a hint of meaning. 'Before God can use a man greatly, He must wound him deeply'. ‘He woundeth thee that thou mayest seek him… there is love in every blow, and grace in every stripe…’ Plough the field before the harvest. Crush the grapes to make wine. ‘Hardened steel is brittle. It cracks under pressure. To make it stronger, it must be tempered in a furnace. Just as steel, we must undergo a certain degree of softening in the crucible of life for us to be strengthened.’

Brokenness is 'a way of being human in this world, which is the way to wholeness.’ '[His] power is made perfect in weakness. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weakness, in insults, in hardships, persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong’.

And if your wounds are allowed to be gifts that keep your heart open... ‘intimacy is the fruit that grows through touching one another's wounds, community is the fruit born through shared brokenness’. So perhaps, 'The freest person in the world is one with an open heart, a broken spirit, and a new direction in which to travel.’

Oriah - The Invitation, Dreams of Desire 1995
Psalms, The Bible
Henry Nouwen - Life of the Beloved 1992
Susan Jeffers - Feel the Fear… And Do It Anyway
Frederick Buechner - Whistling in the Dark
Joel Klepac - Broken and Poured Out 2001
Henry Nouwen - The Inner Voice of Love 1998
Matthew Henry
P.E.P. de Leon
Oswald Chambers
Rev. C. H. Spurgeon - Healing for the Wounded Sermon 1855
Paul - 2 Corinthians, The Bible
Gordon McDonald - Rebuilding Your Broken World
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September 22, 2008

face value

describe yourself in three words. choose the characteristic that is most prominent. there you have it, your new identity... look no further, ignore all other qualities, traits and features... the characteristic you picked now represents your ENTIRE personality. fat. clever. male. black. rich. young. what are your favourite boxes? ‘our take on others becomes a simple act of reductionism. bill gates is a computer geek, mother theresa a saint, the waitress a function.’

generalisations, summaries; be simplistic and it’s a short step to feeling different. many writers have explored how the self defines itself according to the ‘other’; defined by our differences. ‘differences, whether of race, ethnicity or gender, are always socially constituted, and they always have a dimension of power.’

who are those other people, who are “they”? people out there, washed or unwashed, great or not great, but always other people. are “they” mostly poor, to you? mostly stupid, or, at least, mostly not quite as bright and intelligent as you. mostly not quite as attuned to what is going on as you are. are “they” slow? are “they” thick? what do “they” want? do “they” even know what they want, or do they lie to themselves, lie to other people, and lie in the polling booths? can you believe a word that “they” say? who are “they”?

think about it; are we african or are “they” african. ‘the unschooled mind, inclined to rational reduction, to pigeonholing and simplification, readily pushes everything african into a single bag and is content with facile stereotypes.’ but in actual fact ‘the continent is too large to describe. it is a veritable ocean, a separate planed, a varied, immensely rich cosmos. only with the greatest simplification, for the sake of convenience, can we say ‘africa’. in reality, except as a geographical appellation, africa does not exist.’

yiwonda asserts there is no such thing as racism. she means that your ideas about a collective group of people never affect the way you relate to individuals. as soon as you connect, as soon as “they” step out of the collective blur and in to focus, the person proves your assumptions wrong and you often have to start from scratch. i’ve found that people like yiwo - who don’t fit into the usual boxes – are usually the most open-minded, most ready to take you at face value. we’re all humans, all children of god right? ‘here there is no greek or jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, scythian, slave or free, but Christ in all, and is in all’.

great, but is an open-minded blank slate enough to see people as they are? ‘you fight your superficiality so as to try to come at people without unreal expectations, without an overload of bias or hope or arrogance… you come at them unmenacingly on your own ten toes, take them on with an open mind, as equals… and yet you never fail to get them wrong. you get them wrong before you meet them; you get them wrong while you’re with them; and then you go home to tell somebody else about the meeting and you get them all wrong again. since the same generally goes for them with you, the whole thing is really a dazzling illusion empty of all perception, an astonishing farce of mis-perception… so ill-equipped are we all to envision another’s interior workings and invisible aims.’

‘we don’t see things as they really are, we see things as WE really are’. ‘knowledge of the self is the mother of all knowledge.’ hmm could my lack of knowledge about myself possibly determine the way i experience other people? ‘the other is consistently being fashioned out of our own discomfort and dis-ease with our selves’. ‘wrong thinking about God and people often begins with a debased image of ourselves. as we continue to confuse our perception of ourselves with the mystery that we really are, self-rejection is inevitable.’

‘the divisions that pervade our daily life and cause destruction and violence are interior as well as exterior: the divisions among our most intimate emotions and the divisions among the most widespread social groupings. the division between gladness and sadness within me or the division between the races, religions and cultures around me…’

no worries, heres the magic answer; knock down the divisions, become whole, see others as they really are. haha how? i reckon it might take a bit more than will-power. ‘the spirit that calls us the beloved is the spirit that makes whole. unification, healing, restoration and reconciliation. wherever the spirit works, divisions vanish and inner as well as outer unity manifests itself.’

Philip Roth ‘American Pastoral’ 1998
Paul ‘Colossians’
Brennan Manning ‘Ruthless Trust’ 2002
C. Hall ‘Introduction: thinking the postcolonial, thinking the empire.’ 2000
Stella Orakwue ‘We live the Revolution!’ 2008
Kahlil Gibran
Henry J.M Nouwen ‘Life of the Beloved’ 1992
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