Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Lava Bugs

I was staring at the ceiling reciting a sentence from the “opening prayer” I am memorizing for use on Sunday morning (in Chichewa, of course), when an ill-defined shape on the ceiling caught my attention. It looked somewhat like a balloon, maybe six to ten inches in diameter, somewhat ovoid, somewhat transparent with a fuzzy demarcation of its outer limits, and it “oozed” its way around the ceiling. As I watched several other blobs with ill-defined borders appeared and disappeared. Some moved faster than other, some even seeming to dart, while most seemed to slide or roll, “ooze” is the best way I can say it, around and around.

It rained today, very, very hard. And some of the stains on the ceiling are a little larger than they were this morning, so I thought maybe I was seeing bubbles easing through a reservoir on the other side of the sheetrock. But these shapes moved forward and back, and always in somewhat of a circle on the ceiling. I then began searching for the source of the circle, as I realized these were shadows, and saw the bright light in the middle of the circle criss-crossed by lines, with a somewhat lesser light fading away from the darker circle in which the shapes moved. I was looking at the projection of the lampshade on the ceiling.

We (Beth had joined my observations) have recently been invaded by little orange beetles with pearly blue-black wings, and with today’s rains they had renewed their efforts to take our house by storm. At least thirty of the pesky little critters ( their wings work, but their flight paths are not always in agreement with those of us who presume that we manage the house) were crawling all over the lampshade, and those who walked on the upper rim were well-illuminated against the ceiling, magnified many times.

The projection on the ceiling reminded of those “lava” lamps whose oil and water contents (or whatever it is) are in constant flux. But our lamp had no such features. Just little orange bugs, like most of the rest of our living room (including the computer screen, and keyboard, and the front of my shirt, and sometimes the back of my hand. They really look wild walking across the upper rim of my glasses. No, I don’t eat them—see our newsletter at We laughed about our immediate choice of entertainment, perhaps excusable what with a limited selection of books (though we haven’t read all at our fingertips), no movies (some are on the boat), and an extremely intermittent and slow-when-its-there internet. But do we really need an excuse for enjoying the “nature show” projected on the ceiling while we work on Chichewa. No, we’re not going crazy, just making do quite nicely with what we have while being encouraged to work on what we’re here for.

Tiwonana (see you later)

Nsima and Finger Bowls—An Inadvertent Compliment?

I noticed it first in the gas station. I’d gone in to buy water while adding a little diesel to the truck’s tank (yes, large bottles of potable water are sold in the gas station next to our favorite spot for doing internet), and the clerk stood up with an ear-to-ear grin to ask me in Chichewa if I wanted to buy water. Then at the airport the next afternoon, the agent at the fee booth rattled off a string of Chichewa phrases when I walked up to pay. In both cases I’d told them at a previous time that I was studying Chichewa and asked them to correct me if I made a mistake. I’d even carried on a considerable conversation at the fee booth at the airport, telling Joram (I remember his name after the third or fourth time) a little about my children, grandchildren and wife. Both had remembered me the next time I returned, and were taking me up on my implicit offer. I was studying Chichewa, and they were going to take their chance to teach me a thing or two. They both stretched me, and that was good. Thanks to the LAMP system devised by Dr. Betty Brewster of Fuller Theological Seminary, and her now deceased husband, the world is becoming my teacher, and the rest of them are enjoying it a little more than I am. But this is good.

The supreme compliment came at the airport restaurant, however, a place we’d also frequented to send an e-mail or two (no, we don’t have any internet access at our house). We’d also talked with the waitress a time or two, and she probably also remembered that I was studying Chichewa. I had ordered a vegetable curry with Nsima (a large patty of finely ground corn meal mush boiled down to a solid), while my friend had ordered the same curry with rice. When the two came, they didn’t look much alike at all. On his plate the curry was on a bed of rice which rose around the curry in a protective surrounding mound with cole slaw sprinkled around the outside. My vegetable curry came as a stew-like dish laid to one side of a normal dinner plate, with a relatively small amount of broth. On the other half of the plate were two slightly overlapping mattress-shaped patties of nsima. But the big surprise was that my friend had a fork and knife wrapped with a napkin, while I was brought only a rather large fingerbowl. I was expected to eat with my fingers.

Traditionally, nsima is eaten with the bare right hand, scraping off a small portion from the patty on one’s plate (or in the large central common bowl for the table) rolling it around the hand into the correct shape (or until it loses enough temperature to hold still, at least in my case), then opening a hollow in the ball with the thumb into which the vegetables and sauce of the curry are pushed before shepherding the whole mess to your mouth. Every three of four morsels it is necessary (for me) to rinse my hand in the bowl that is provided, or lick my fingers, though finger-licking is probably less acceptable in Malawi than in the US—I’ve never seen anyone else do it.

I’ve eaten nsima with a fork before, just last week at a banquet at a hotel was the last time, and I think all the others at the table ate it with their forks also. And while the airport restaurant is not quite as nice as that at the hotel where the banquet was held, “niceness” wasn’t the point. Nsima is a finger food, just like fried chicken is in the south and much of the rest of the U.S.A. So my waitress had assumed that if I wanted nsima that I would want to eat it the normal way, with my fingers.

We actually don’t eat that much nsima. This is only the third time I’ve had it since I’ve been here, which would say to most Malawians that I am extremely deficient somewhere, perhaps between the ears: nsima is eaten at every typical meal. Malawians often say, “Nsima is food. Whatever else you have is just relish." If you haven’t had nsima, you haven’t eaten.

I really can’t say for sure whether the absence of a fork and knife had anything to do with my language learning, but I like to think it did, that as the others have appreciated my efforts, were willing to include me, to stretch me, this waitress was also willing to include me, to treat me “normally” to serve me nsima without a fork. I would eat with my hands just like her father, her brother, her husband, and her sons. Just like she would. And that in itself is a little encouragement (I’ll take it where I can get it) to get back out there and play the two year old in the community, stumbling over words and laughing with all the others at who-knows-what I’ve just said. And, God willing, it will come.

Tiwonana (See you later!)

Slammed by Technology--But Why???

With tele-medicine and the world wide web transforming the way business is done across the globe, including patient care, access to such marvels is of course of interest to us. Our own access to world-wide communications is multi-media: not really, it just seems that way. Actually, all our eggs are in one basket. It’s name is Zain, and for us it’s three cell phones.

One of the larger cell phone groups here in Malawi, advertised in a daunting hot pink color, offers a variety of services. First, the usual cell phone package. Though I’ve been told monthly contracts are available, almost everyone buys time as they go and adds it to their account via the self-same cell phone. The cost of a local call is not too bad, but calling the other end of the country can be costly, and calling the U.S., it’s prohibitive.

When I tried to call the States a few days ago, I went through most of my $10.00 allotment in just a very few minutes. We didn’t put a stop-watch to it, but we estimate the rate at $2.00 to $4.00 a minute. And when we called our colleague on the other end of the country (we’re talking about less distance than LA to San Fran.) the same sum disappeared in about 20 minutes. We were thus relieved to learn from that same colleague, Mark Thiesen and his wife Era, of a service in the US whose rates are about $0.27 per minute. I think we can live with that.

GlobalPhone pulls it off like this. You call on your phone to a US number and let it ring once, and only once, and then hang up. Detecting the “missed call”, the machinery on the States-side calls you back (at low-due-to-competition U.S. rates) and asks for the number you want, and then proceeds to connect you. They deduct up to a pre-authorized amount per month from your credit card at a fraction of the cost we’re now paying.

Zain, our current one for all, also sells modems which plug into your computer with a USB connection, but actually are their own little cell phones. When you connect to the internet you first plug in the modem and “activate” it via your computer, and voila! You’re connected! The neat thing is that it appears that the machine only counts units when you’re actively down-loading. So, connection is not a costly thing unless info-packets are actually coming down or up the wire. But you have to watch your account balance. Again, we buy about $10.00 worth of units (about 1,000 units) and “load” them via our computer. But they can run out. And the modems are decidedly not fast. (The estimate on downloading a printer driver for the printer, which was already here and driven by another computer e’er we got here—was 4 hours. No thank you. We’ll be talking about a disk with the next visitor, Jeremy.)

Needing to contact several of you whom we’ve invited to partner with us in our our project around transportation, and hearing of GlobalPhone, we fired off an application via internet, received a confirmation request asking for photocopies of identity documents to be faxed in. We got that all ready, ran down to the airport and sent those in last Saturday afternoon (at almost $10.00 per page, mind you!), and wondered when they’d get it up and going. Well, GlobalPhone apparently honors the Sabbath and Sunday too, because it wasn’t until sometime Monday that our e-mail came in with some important little access characters. We were in business, at least for a while.

So, we dashed off a test call of a very few seconds to our missions minister, and it worked! (Mark wasn’t sure that cell phones would handle it.) Then we called “one of you”, only to find you out to lunch, but coming back in 30 minutes. It’s bed-time here, mind you, but around noon where you are, but we’re going to get this communication thing worked out. We had some questions about our tax return, so we rang up the accountant and hashed through all that. Wonderful, though near the end of the call a pleasantly haunting voice chimed in: “You have only one minute remaining.” And then it got dicey.

I’d promised your assistant I’d call “you” back, and I’ve been trying to get in touch with you for weeks. We last talked three weeks ago, two weeks before I left the States, and we’ve played quite a bit of phone tag, so I didn’t want to be cut off in the middle of the call. Beth and I searched for the paperwork about the system. Somewhere it seemed I’d read something about security systems and “pro-rated rates of use”. Never found those explanatory papers, but did find an invitation to call a U.S. 800 number or fire off an e-mail if ever we needed a little more cash on our account. Now our internet modem is down to 37 units, about out of gas. We finally got into the new telephone account's information over the web. We’d spent four dollars of our fifty for the month, but we had only $0.31 available. (And only 3 units left of internet.) Security!!Call "you" and risk getting cut off . . . or call customer service for GlobalPhone. We chose the latter.

I heard the ring indicator sound on the other end and I hung up. About 10 seconds later the phone began to vibrate and ring. I answered, dialed the 800 number on prompt, and then that haunting, sweet voice: “You have less than one minute.” A menu is presented, another menu.Surely they won’t hang up while I’m asking them for access to a few more of the dollars I’ve already paid them! A voice comes on the line, “How can we help you?” overlapping at the end with the haunting lady: “You’re out of time. Click.”

Tomorrow I can run by the airport, literally, unless the driver brings the other key fob back in the morning. The keyless entry/security system on the pick-up has a dead battery. We got into the car, but can’t start it without a working “clicker”. (Now you see why we need transportation.) (As it turns out, though the keyless entry is weakening, I had left the lights on Sunday, draining the battery. Someone else is lamenting shared transportation.) At the airport I can pick up internet minutes and contact GlobalPhone, and maybe I can call “you” tomorrow night. Or maybe not. We’ll see. And we hear broadband is coming this year.

[We finally got in touch with "you", and you sent sent us $1500 toward the vehicle we will need. Thank you so much for your generosity, your patience, and your care for what we are doing. And, we've talked with folks who think they can reach us in six weeks or less with 1 megabyte/second internet speed at rates comparable to the U.S. Yes!]