On Saturday, September 6th, Mr. Green — a fellow sitemate — came back from a personal vacation in the United States. I hadn’t seen him for a month or so. We knocked off to the local watering hole. I needed respite from the toils of preparing for my trip to Lilongwe for In-Service Training (IST). I would travel early the next morning.
To prepare for such a trip is to plan and work for many days leading up to the day of travel — more so than one would back home in the States: laundry had to be done which took the better part of a day, the house needed to be put into order, I packed and repacked, organized affairs for my animals which included finishing the chicken coop (I’ll post pictures of that soon) and biking forty kilograms of milled maize from the boma (trading center) for feed. The animals will be watched and fed by my landlord’s family.
Sorting travel logistics turned into an endeavor. I made arrangements for a minibus to pick me up at my house at four o’clock in the morning. I thought I was pretty clear about the directions to the minibus driver.
Apparently not — the minibus never came to pick me up.
I didn’t get much sleep but was able to have my wits about me when I rolled out of bed, tossed on my forty pound backpack and walked the four kilometers to the boma to catch a minibus. Usually I would do this trip to Lilongwe with a night in Blantyre (a colonial-era style big city and major commercial center) but decided it was best to attend a meeting on Saturday afternoon that had been postponed four times prior.
The minibus took me north, winding through the Shire River Valley and stopping in trading centers en route to unload and reload. A ‘minibus’ is not a bus but a van with four rows of bench seats that get packed with way more people, chickens, goats, luggage, babies and sacks of produce and maize than is reasonably appropriate.
We skated up the Shire Valley plateau towards the Shire Highlands in low gear, passing tractor trailer rigs that grinded and hissed as we overtook them on the straightaways between hairpin turns sans railing.
My tall frame is not sufficiently accommodated in a minibus to begin with but then add my large, heavy pack to the mix (which sat on my lap) — suffice to say I was a tired crank by the time I got to Blantyre.
I caught a big bus in Blantyre. We pulled out of the depot with more people standing in the aisle than were seated. It is customary for a traveling pastor to start the journey with a song, message and prayer.
I can’t emphasize how packed the bus was. I basically had a grandma sitting on my lap by the end of the trip. I did make friends with the lady sitting next to me. We navigated conversation slowly in Chichewa. We shared food and smiles. The ones standing did so for the duration of the whole trip — an astonishing six hours. The crazy thing is that they don’t get a reduced ticket price — they pay the same price as someone sitting!
Twelve hours from my morning departure, I finally made it to Lilongwe, the capitol. I caught a taxi out to the Natural Resource College and reunited with my cohort. How I missed them!
The two weeks spent in Lilongwe for IST was structured. We had breakfast at 7, class started at 8, lunch at noon then class again until we knocked off at 5. There was a short break until dinner which was served at 6:30. After dinner we had the rest of the evening to unwind.
The first week was sessions for the Volunteers only. The second week were joint sessions with our counterparts. Our counterparts are formal relationships assigned by Peace Corps in cooperation with the Malawian government but they can also be informal relationships formed with passionate people at site in the village.
After much debate weighing the pros and cons, I decided to have my informal counterpart come to Lilongwe rather than the government counterpart assigned to me. It was purely an objective decision. Mr. Gama, my landlord and good friend, is who I decided to have come to Lilongwe.
Classes covered a wide range of topics. We spent considerable time on Behavior Change Communication (BCC) theory, gender based violence (GBV) issues, HIV/AIDS programming, funding sources and grants, small animal husbandry, community assessment tools, project design and management (PDM), bee keeping, conservation agriculture/permaculture, tree nurseries and agroforestry, fruit tree grafting and budding/orchard establishment (the first picture is of a grafted mango sapling) and finally, business management and Income Generating Activities (IGAs).
For the business management and IGAs session, I was asked to give a presentation which seemed well received by both staff and fellow Volunteers. I was asked back to teach the next cohort of incoming Trainees that arrive in April (I do believe?).
We went on field trips to permaculture gardens and demonstration plots. The hands-on component of IST was the most informative (and fun).
IST was a mixed bag for me. Ultimately though, it was a positive experience.
Stayed tuned for a write up on Lake of Stars, the premier music and arts festival of Malawi (and perhaps east Africa!).