November 24 , 2006: You Have Noise. I Am Mechanic.
This year will be known as the one of the three-day Thanksgiving. At least, I hope it is. That it is three, I mean, and doesn't crawl to four, or five or six. I've had to hold out too long for my stuffing, and I don't want to wait more than 3 days for it.
Let me explain. Yesterday was officially Thanksgiving -- the day when most Americans were eating turkey, watching football and trying to flip channels without chancing upon footage from the Macy's Parade (because, while none of us like parades, most of us know that once you are faced with images of floating monstrosities and waving celebrities, it's hard to change the channel).
Last night in my hotel room in Lilongwe, I watched clips from the Macy's day parade on a fuzzy transmission of CNN. The parade was cut with images from the "Breaking News" segment, which featured the coordinated bombings in Sadr City. Dead and injured people on the streets, burning cars, screaming men.
I had just come back from running -- such are my compulsions that I had spent the better part of a late afternoon hour driving around the capital city of Malawi trying to find a treadmill so I could run a speed workout. Eventually, I had succeeded, and had a great hour-long run, looking out a window at the sky as the sun went down. I have recently started training for the Two Oceans Marathon in Cape Town, and despite the incredible logistical obstacles to following a workout schedule here in Malawi, I have decided that steadfast (or perhaps "lunatic") commitment in the face of great odds is the only way to bring back a semblance of normalcy to the fitness element of my life, which, whether I like it or not, is simply an integral part of who I am.
So maybe because of the endorphins, or the fact that I am able to run, or maybe because I was glad to be in a place where I don't feel for my life every time I walk out on the street, I was feeling pretty thankful. In fact, in the way back to the hotel, I had been trying to do the Thanksgiving-day ritual of making a list of everything I was thankful for. It was tough initially, partly because I think it was the first Thanksgiving I had ever spent alone. In addition, I had just endured two days of long, arduous planning meetings with UNICEF and its partner organizations. In my opinion, the complexity of a UN strategic plan makes IRS tax guidelines look like My First ABCs, so I was feeling a little pummelled, as opposed to fulfilled.
But then I really started thinking. I thought about all the things that sound cheesy to put on a thanksgiving list but are really the ones that belong there: health, family, colleagues, friends, work, opportunity. I thought about all I am learning, and I thought about how I get paid every day to work on things I care about-- protecting children, educating through art, helping people improve their lives. Even when the disappointments and frustrations are many (and they are) at least I get to be engaged, to give my opinion, to be a part of what I hope is the good fight.
And then there was the food to look forward to. Because we had known that I would be in Lilongwe on Thursday, Jimmy and I had decided to postpone our celebration until Friday night. My mom had sent me a box of fixings -- stuffing, pumpkin pie filling, cranberries -- and I was thankul as hell that I was going to get to eat them Friday night. We had invited a couple of good friends to our house for dinner; it would be their first Thanksgiving supper, and I was excited about introducing them to the gluttony. I went to bed with thoughts of both sadness and thansgiving for our world.
This morning, I woke up early. I knew it would be a crazy morning, mostly because I was going to try to do more than 1 thing before I left town at midday. In Malawi, trying to do more than 1-2 things per day is just setting yourself up for extreme frustration -- if not disaster. I guess I was still a little wired from my run the evening before, but I was full of hope that I could overcome great odds to efficiency.
I will spare you the details of the morning, but it didn't go as planned. I spent most of my time driving around trying to meet up with my colleague, Shorai, who was in Lilongwe doing a Theatre for Development performance on prevention of mother-to-child transmission (hereforth annoyingly, but necessarily, known as PMTCT). Theatre for development is a drama technique that is very effective in rural African countries, especially those with rich oral traditions. It includes having performers research cultural beliefs, attitudes and traditions in an area and then develop a play about a specific issue (in this case, PMTCT). They then act out the play but actively involve the audience in proposing solutions to plot dillemas and conflicts. In this way, the actors can simultaneously do research on an issue and also educate. All while entertaining.
I am managing this PMTCT project right now, which includes research on 30 communities in Malawi, Theatre for Development performances, educational materials, community volunteerism, training community groups in drama, education for local chiefs, faith leaders and healthcare workers, and a radio campaign. The goal is to reach out to rural communities to educate them on the fact that HIV can be passed from mother to child and to what they can do about it. We are especially focusing on men, as men are usually completely uninvolved in issues related to pregnancy, childbirth, or family planning. In addition, large-scale resistance to getting tested for HIV (and fear by women that they will be left by their husbands if they do get tested) complicates the issues.
Anyway, back to Thanksgiving. In any case, I was excited to get to see a performance. I finally found Shorai and her team, and we headed to an urban township where they would do the play. We had to wait a while for the chief (who apparently was drunk at home) and for someone to find 2 chairs. But once it began, it was an amazing experience -- about 1,000 kids, women, men, grandmothers, chiefs, and healthcare workers were all crowded in a giant circle, or up in trees, watching wide-eyed as the play began.
The story was about a wife who is pregnant to a drunk abusive husband, sadly a common scenario, but one that the audience reacted to immediately. The woman wants to get tested for HIV, but the husband gets angry and tries to beat her up. She gets tested anyway (the crowd is amazed and awed by this), and finds out she is HIV positive. When the husband comes home, she confronts him, but he gets angry and they fight again.
Then the healthcare worker arrives --- the real PMTCT nurse from the local clinic. She convinces the husband to support his wife in accessing PMTCT services for the sake of his child, and a few months later, healthy twins are born (the crowd goes crazy when the wife comes onto the "stage" with two babies borrowed from the audience). In the last scene, the husband and wife are 20 years older, on ARVs, and the grown children show up. One of them has a cell phone and is a nurse; the other is wearing a suit coat and works for a cotton company. The crowd goes wild when they see the healthy, happy children who are HIV free (most don't know that a negative baby can be born to positive parents), and the play concludes with the village chief talking with the group about how the community will address testing and PMTCT in their village.
I was also heartbroken again -- by the poverty, by the children with other children on their backs, by the women living in a hell of sickness and fear of their husbands, by the lack of education and information. By the lack of anything in this place.
But I was also feeling thankful again. I was thankful for my work, for my colleagues, and for Thanksgiving Friday. I was happy to be heading home to Blantyre, where Jimmy was, maybe right this moment, cooking a chicken.
And I was driving our new car. One Jimmy and I bought from a friend of our mechanic a week earlier. It was used, but solid, and we needed a car that was built for Malawian roads. I headed out on the road from Lilongwe to Blantyre and turned on the radio. I was looking forward to the drive.
And then it happened. Suddenly the car started to lose power and began smoking from the engine. Black exhaust started coming from my tailpipe. I could see Thanksgiving evaporating into the air with it.
I turned around slowly and began lurching and creaking back the way I had come. The car sounded like the inside of an airplane engine just before takeoff. My sole goal was to get the car to a garage, which I had seen on the way out of town. As I turned in towards it, a man approached my driver's side window on the street. The car was moving so devastatingly slow that he could keep up with me; it was clear by the noise that the entire engine was just about to drop out of the car. He had a small spanner in his hand, and he said,
"Hello madam. You have noise. I am mechanic."
I almost laughed and cried and howled and hooted. I said something in response that was decidedly more measured than what I was feeling, and he responded:
"Driver's license? Yes, I have drivers license. You have noise. I am mechanic."
I made it home that night, in an airplane no less. The airplane left an hour late, and I sat in one of two seats that face backwards. Facing backwards during take-off is a bizarre sensation, but no more bizarre, I figure, than any of the other myriad experiences I had during this Thanksgiving holiday.
Happy holidays to all of you from Africa!