My boss left this morning, on his way back to Lilongwe for a meeting before returning to Nairobi. He elected to fly back to Lilongwe which makes me feel better about the bus ride we shared to Blantyre. I like knowing that he hated it as much as I did. You ride one of those buses and everyone else on board seems to be taking it all in stride, like it’s enjoyable. Your first thought is something like “these people are crazy,” but with each smile you see and normal conversation you hear, a very different thought starts to creep into your conscious, “maybe I’m insane for thinking this is bad.” My boss choosing to fly back proves that he hated it as much as I did and it makes me feel like I might still be normal, not just some whiny bitch. I’ll be here for one more week to continue meeting with distributors and NGOs that buy our pumps. Today, I’m on my way to a small town about 25km from Blantyre where I want to meet with a guy that works directly with farmers as an extension agent for an NGO. But first, I’m on my way to a meeting with Amin, one of Nikhil’s employees who is taking me over to another NGO within Blantyre.
The meeting is pretty short because this NGO just happens to be funding the projects that are using the pumps. There are two other NGOs that are responsible for implementation, and it’s those two organizations I’ll have to talk with to get anything close to what I’m looking for. I write down the names and phone numbers of a couple of additional contacts that I plan on calling this afternoon. The means by which these pumps actually reach farmers continues to get increasingly complicated, but I’ve found that I like the work involved in trying to understand the process. It’s like an unsolved mystery with an outcome that includes a hard to find farmer and a blue pump.
I decided to check out of the hotel I was staying in the past two nights because the only room they have available is more than I’m willing to pay. After the meeting, I have Amin drive me to Hostellerie de France which I found on Trip Advisor, listed as the second best option for hotels in Blantyre. Most of the reviews on Trip Advisor were pretty good, but there was this doozy which was either intriguing or scary depending on your personality:
Salvador-Dali lookalike proprietor has not heard of personal space and insists on touching his guests, photographing them (without permission) and imagining that all guests are captivated by his charisma. I wasn't. The room was depressing if clean, fan fell to pieces, nylon cover circa 1970 on the bed, and towels of same vintage. Fierce and intimidating dogs in the car park. Long trip to airport. OK for one night if you can avoid Monsieur's clutches.
I decide to take my chances. The hotel is a five minute drive outside of town, set on a large hill with nice views of the valley and city. The French woman that greets us speaks halting English, but we’re able to pretty easily negotiate that I’m looking for a room and would like to see it before deciding whether or not to stay. Hotels around here aren’t anything like their cookie cutter cousins in the states. You’re never really sure what you’re going to get and the rooms can vary to a great degree even within the same hotel. It’s best to see and check everything before committing. She waddles over to the room and shows me inside. I’m an easy customer and am quickly sold. The room is completely adequate, even if it features a shower wand device like Lusaka Hotel’s rather than a full shower. We agree with head nods and before I can say any different, she sends for someone to carry my small bag, explaining with a phrase that makes me laugh. “Me call boy.” Monsieur is currently no where to be found.
After settling in and wishing a good day to Amin, I head out, finally on my way to Llunzu to meet with a field worker. Right outside the hotel, I’m able to flag down a mini-bus that takes me into the Blantyre bus market which is quite a bit nicer than Lilongwe’s but as equally confusing. Situated on both sides of a busy street, there are hundreds of mini-buses all parked or moving in an unorganized snarl. I ask someone for help and he very easily points me in the right direction. I board a white mini-bus that’s nearly full with passengers, has a sticker on the front windshield that says “Fear God,” a wooden sign with the name “Llunzu” by the steering wheel, and looks like it’s held together by two staples and three paper clips. My bus companions shoot me frightened and suspicious stares while the bus driver revs the engine and slowly exits the market, yelling out the window “Llunzu, Llunzu, Llunzu!” We’re off.
The bus trip feels longer than 25km should, but I make it easily and safely. Llunzu is about 1km long with concrete shops on either side of the highway. There are wooden shacks selling tomatoes and onions and forty or fifty “shops” that are more or less plastic tarps laid on the ground with second hand shoes, shirts, and pants displayed on top. I go into a restaurant and call Victor, the field worker I’m meeting. He knows exactly where I am and says he’s riding into town on his motorbike now.
He’s a few years older than I and has a real hard time understanding my accent. I try to talk more slowly but usually have to repeat myself and notice a few times that he’s just nodding yes, not really understanding me. He suggests we go to his “office” which also serves as his home. I get on the back of his motorcycle (looks like a dirtbike) and hold tight while he drives away from the highway, down several different dirt paths/roads that are surrounded by corn fields and a few crudely constructed houses with either tin or thatch roofs. Just a few turns off the highway and it feels very, very rural. Everyone we pass does a very clear double take to get a look at the white guy riding on the back of Victor’s motorcycle, holding on for dear life. His house is a very modest concrete rectangle, painted white, with what appears to be a new tin roof. He has three kids and his brother, who lives next door, has three of his own. All six of them are playing in front of the house when we arrive and they follow us into the front room which for its size, holds too many pieces of furniture. There are two couches that you might find on an Ann Arbor curb, a large side table in the middle of the room, a dining table and three chairs pushed against the wall, a larger than expected TV in the corner, a bookcase with a stereo and speakers, and some sort of wardrobe next to the front “window.” I make myself at home on one of the couches while Victor makes each kid come up to me to shake my hand. None of them dare utter a word to me and I’m tempted to yell “boo” a couple of times but hold my tongue and just smile.
It’s been almost three weeks since my trip began and only now am I meeting with someone that works directly with the farmers that are using our pumps. Victor, and the many other NGO field workers, are the keepers of all the data and information I need, and I’m excited to finally talk to someone who knows where the pumps are and who is using them. Victor has distributed around 80 pumps in the past two years, so I start by asking how he keeps track of the farmers’ names and locations. Easy enough, he writes them down. When I ask them if he can show me how/where he captures all this info, he heads over to his bookcase, shuffles around a few piles of paper, grabs two plastic shopping bags full of loose paper and notebooks, and brings them both back over to the couch. Five minutes later, with papers thrown about the couch and floor, he finds what I’m looking for – a small notebook with a bunch of chicken scratch and farmer names scribbled throughout. So this is what I’m trying to track down! A crumpled notebook that sits at the bottom of a plastic shopping bag, resting on a bookcase amid other loose paper, in a concrete house with no running water that’s owned by a worker who has trouble understanding my English and is an hour away from the nearest city and four hours away from the capital, in one of the poorest countries in the world. I don’t like my odds, but I like the challenge.
I also like Victor and have learned a lot of valuable info for my project, so we spend the rest of the afternoon at his house celebrating by watching Malawian music videos. They are something like watching the homemade Spanish music videos made in 1997 for Senora Jackson’s class assignment...except the Malawian versions are lower quality. Victor translates for me and writes down a number of Chichewa phrases that are either useful or come up during the music, so by the time we leave his house I can say “how are you” “do not cry” “problems” “I love you” “don’t fool me” and “feeling sweet/crazy” in Chichewa. We take off on his motorcycle, back through the village, and he drops me off right at the mini-bus that returns me to Blantyre. I know it’s the right bus by the “Fear God” sticker, the same sticker I saw on my bus out of town.
I get back to the hotel and am greeted by a French man who I suspect is “Monsieur.” He speaks slightly better English than the woman who greeted me earlier and though it’s unclear whether or not they are a husband and wife team, it’s quite clear that they both use the same color of hair dye – something between black and purple and looks a little goofy on his Rolly Fingers mustache. After he gets my business card and uses my shoulder to support himself while stepping up on a chair to tack the card next to all the other cards wallpapering the reception room, he generally lets me be. I head back to my room, happy to have successfully avoided the assault on personal space and unwanted pictures I was warned about on Trip Advisor. Safe in my room, I feel pretty good about what I learned today despite discovering the long odds at tracking down the necessary data. I go to sleep practicing my Chichewa. Tseketseke. "I’m feeling sweet/crazy."