Thursday, January 29, 2009


The year I turned 25, Bethany gave me a giant bowl of fresh red raspberries for my birthday. For someone born in snow, it was the ultimate luxury. Nevermind the fact that it was an imaginary bowl of raspberries; when she gave it to me over the dinner table at the Laird House with ripe and juicy descriptions, encouraging me to eat them all at once, no don’t freeze them for later, I could feel their weight in my cupped hands, and taste indelible summer crushed between my tongue and the roof of my mouth. In fact, I’ve eaten them again every birthday since!

At the time, B introduced the tradition as something African—Sudanese maybe? there were quite a few tall, strapping, Lost Boys reasons to have Sudan on your mind at the Laird House—though I’ve never been able to find mention of giving birthday wish presents anywhere since.

Sudan or no Sudan, African tradition or not, Nannou and I have made it ours and kept it alive these past years. This year she gave me:

“a luxurious swim in Waimanalo Bay in the summertime when the water is warm and blueblueblue. There would be no jetlag, and travel would be an instantaneous and free thing. You see, you'd have wormhole portals that were powered by a bicycle, and as your birthday present I'd ride the bike to power it so you could get here. And, you'd have a super chic bathing suit that made you feel like a million bucks. And then we'd all (everyone would be here of course with free instantaneous travel) go eat Indian food at Maharani and then have a second course down the street eating Thai food at Chiang Mai. And maybe take a hike in between.”

Did you hear that!?! She’d even ride the wormhole bike for me. Baby sister, boy howdy, I DO feel like a million bucks!

So here’s my shameless birthday request: would you leave me a birthday wish in my comments? If you don’t know me outside of blogdom, don’t be shy: just take a swing at it. I’m not picky about presents. ☺ It would totally make my day. Just for fun. (Am stopping now before you can call this begging.)

(photo by Robby Garbett via here.)

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Shutter Fly Scout

The ever lovely Scout has added photog to her list of precocious skills. A sampling below with captions by her parents.

Finn strapped in tight.

Mama in her Sunday best

"Sneakers" A Self Portrait

Finn with 4 days of fever and a big ball of wax.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Angels delivering angels

A happy birth story. (One of my own!) Can you hear too many of them? Nope. They're good for something deep and real inside you.

Go ahead. Read it here. (Turn to page 10, folks.)

(Still want more? Read my first take on the whole concept here (or here).)

Punks and Liars

It’s official: I’m official.

The first hour of Teen Club is mine, the hour while kids are still arriving and settling into cliques in the waiting room. Woohoo! It’s been awhile since I was in charge of a bunch of teenage girls in our Salt Lake City ward and I forgot how much I love those “punks and liars,” as Andy calls them.

From the scrappiest, dirtiest, quietest non-English speaking boy by himself on the bench, to the smartiest smart-aleck in a hoodie with earbuds in, pretending not to hear me, I love them.

This week they drew each other’s profiles. We snagged some paper from CC’s table (“I don’t go through it very fast because I just let the kids stay on their mother’s lap. Unless they’re really sick, and then I’m like, ‘Ok, I gotta feel that.’”) and taped it up on a couple doors in a dark area of the hall. One kid held the flashlight, one held the pencil and drew, and one tried to stand still and not smile. I asked them to write things they like about themselves and their families inside the profile. I think that mostly got translated to “What do you want to be when you grow up.”

I know I overuse the word “poignant,” both in my own head and on paper here, but I’ll say it once more: those shadowed profiles of beautiful children’s faces, dancing in front of a jittering flashlight: as poignant as all get out.

(I’d love to hear your ideas for art/craft/music/dance ideas to do with these kids for an hour or so…)

Monday, January 19, 2009

Little School

This year I’m resolved to making home patterns and schedules. In the afternoons (right after an attempt at Quiet Rest Time—any tips on making this quiet and/or restful appreciated) Scout and I are doing Little School.

It’s a current-generation rip on what my mum did with my older siblings; fun learning stuff at home with toddlers.

It’s taken a bit of ingenuity, as it’s difficult or impossible and expensive to find common art and crafting materials here, but that’s good too. Don’t you always find you come up with some of the best stuff when you have the most limitations? You’re forced to think more creatively.

We started by making books to add to the stash we brought with (and the delightful refill Amy brought at Christmas—thank you!), modeling them on our favourites. (So fun to be making books again!) Since Scout is in love with letters, we started with an alphabet book. She folded and helped cut the papers (scrap, so we wrote around the printing; she didn’t seem to mind) and helped cut a Rice Crispies box into a cover. She helped measure out and cut the string, though I did the two stiches it requires to sew the book together. That was boring for her.

But then we wrote a letter on every page and it was fun again. Next we came up with a word to draw that started with the letter.

Finally, a few weeks later, we went through and hid Waldo on every page.

Inspired by this mention of a book about children’s book illustrators, we also made our own Brown Bear Brown Bear, except it was Black Puppy Black Puppy. And even though it has yet to be bound (this one originated as a sit-still help while eating out—Ethiopian food), she has loved reading it as a bedtime book, maybe more than the original.

Little School starts with a song. It’s all I could think of and not terribly inspired: “Here we are together together together, oh here we are together in our Little School. There’s Scout and mama and mama and Scout”…you get it. But just like our scrap paper and cereal box books, it doesn’t seem to matter much the quality of the material, but that we’re doing something novel and together.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Morning Suprise

Yesterday, I met a 6 week old infant who comes from a home with a universal story. At four months into the pregnancy, the father left the mother and four other children.

Now the mom has nothing, including no breast milk and no way to get formula. (A month's supply of formula is about $50. The average Malawian makes much less.)

I didn't notice, but apparently the baby also had no clothes. She was wrapped only in a chintenje, best described as a colorful utility blanket. First thing this morning, I caught our translators organizing a baby shower for the mom complete with a collection of their own children's clothes. Simply wonderful.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Another face at the clinic

(Photo is of the kids meeting TV star of Big Brother Africa at the Christmas talent show during once-monthly Teen Club.)

***FYI, this is another kind of depressing post. We'll try to be better about posting the joyful things in Malawi too.***

Walked in to clinic last week with my beautifully fat baby on my hip, feeling as conspicuous as I would with a fat diamond on my finger. His head was tucked in, miserable with a fever, so we were there for malaria smear #2 of this round of fevers. CC, one of Andy’s colleagues, was in the little phlebotomy room talking to a young woman, probably 14 or so, seated in a chair against the wall. Like most people, her head was mostly shaved, to about half an inch, but she wasn’t wearing any fancy extensions or a wig. Her face was puffy. Her eyes were wary. CC was giving her directions for making sure all her labwork was done. “You’ve met T, right?” she said to Andy, “Non-Hodgkin lymphoma?”

“Yeah, I saw you last week, right?” he says to T. “I think it’s grown since last week,” he says to CC, and to T he asks, “Is your face bigger this week than it was last week?” She nods kind of.

Suddenly I get it.

Andy’s holding Finn while he gets his finger stuck to get blood for his smear, and I step out to make some space in the cramped room. When Finn starts wailing, I go in again, ready to nurse. CC is finishing up. “We’re going to keep on with chemo,” she tells T as she hands her a couple papers to hold onto. “I just hate cancer!” she says looking at me, mock punching T’s cheek as she walks out.

The forced cheerfulness, the casualness undoes me. I walk to the corner with my back to Andy, the visiting resident, T, and pretend I’m arranging things in my bag while I regain composure. “Don’t put your bag on that counter, that’s where they put the blood,” Andy says.

I meet CC in the hall later. “You ok?” she asks. “It’s so crazy. She’s just this normal teenager, and she’s really smart. I can hold it together here pretty well, but sometimes at night I just go home and cry.” (We both are again by now.)

They’ve used a large guage prick to stick Finn, and his little finger won’t stop bleeding, so while Andy goes to look for some tape, I try to hold a cotton ball to his finger and nurse in an empty room.

“Are we going to treat him?” I ask Andy when he comes back in. Even though fever with no other cold symptoms is usually what you need to suspect malaria, Andy’s holding back. “By now he’s only had a fever for 24 hours, and both smears have been negative. And he just doesn’t seem that sick. I think we should keep watching him for a while.” How should sick should he be if he does have malaria? Andy showed me to a room on our way out and told me to peek in. A small girl is quiet on the bed, either sleeping or unconcious, and her mother is sitting beside her. “That’s malaria,” Andy says, “probably.”

***update for Finn’s fans***
Fever broke after four days, no malaria. Yay.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Sunday in Lilongwe

For the first time in her life, Scout finally ate. I found her in Primary happily munching on a bowl of noodles and singing "I Love to Read the Holy Scriptures" today. Scout was not the intended diner of these noodles; not that she noticed. They were the daily meal of a 6-year-old Harare transplant who arrived in Lilongwe last week after a several day journey in the back of a pick up. She walked two hours to church today.

I later caught Scout in the branch president's office eating his son's lunch. When I told Scout to stop, the president thought it was because I was afraid of what she was eating. He told me not to worry--that is was just homemade corn bread. People make it all the time with cornmeal and water when they don't have enough money to buy real bread.

President Natholawa often understands the awkwardness and paradox of our presence in the branch. But his eyes could not hide the injury when I suggested that Scout shouldn't be eating the other children's food because she has never known hunger. I quickly learned that children will be children and charity knows no bounds.

Friday, January 9, 2009

New Members of the Family

After lots of soul searching, we adopted 2 dogs. Everyone here has dogs, and everyone says we need dogs.

They are part of the security system. First we have an 8 foot high brick wall. Second our wall is topped by razor wire. Third we have two guards every night coked up on black tea and the threat of termination if caught sleeping. (We make them text us every hour to prove they are awake while we sleep.) Fourth are the new dogs to wake the guards who probably sleep anyway. And finally if all else fails, we have panic alarms that send in pickup trucks full of machete wielding security guards who roam the streets at night daring the burglars to attempt something silly. This isn't Johannesburg but we do take precautions.

Meet the new members of our family-Sarah and Claire-two fly bitten Malawi muts who, importantly, are very mild tempered despite their constant barking. The perfect watch dogs for a Malawi ex-pat family.

Note to mothers and potential visitors: It is actually very safe here. Almost no violent crime. But security is a case where you have to keep up with the Jones. If everyone else is doing it, we don't want to be the runt on our street.

Mad Skillz

I told Matilda that even though we weren’t willing to give she and Mohammad the big loan they asked for, I would still love to help her in some long term way that would help even after we’ve left. I asked if she could think of anything I might know that she doesn’t that I could teach her. I know she wants to be a police woman, but she has also told me that she has no special skills to use to make money. (She also wondered if I would ask Scout’s Daddy about getting a job cleaning at the hospital when we leave.)

My ideas:

Tutor her in some subject; I know she wants to go back to school to get her highschool certificate. (Her answer, sure, how about math, the one subject she didn’t pass. And shoot, the one subject I probably couldn’t be of any use in.)

Sewing: When I had a borrowed sewing machine, we worked on that for a day, learning how to thread it and wind a bobbin and sew straight lines to make bags. I couldn’t tell if she was sewing because I asked her if she wanted to, or if she really had an interest in learning. (Her answer: that would be good, there’s lots of need in the village for sewing.) However, I don’t actually own a sewing machine here, and you can only borrow for so long.

Driving: Learning to drive would theoretically be helpful, but knowing that alone wouldn’t make her competitive; she doesn’t have a car, and there are lots of experienced drivers looking for work. Also, Mohammad has been paying for lessons on the weekend and at lunch hours hoping to up his chances of us letting him become somewhat of a driver for us, improving his resume and diversifying his skill set and increasing his employability. So he’ll get first dibs on the driving edumacation.

Using a computer: I could teach her to type, use some software, use the internet. But practicing etc, at internet cafes is so expensive, I’m not sure how she’d ever be able to keep doing it. (Her answer: yes, it’s important, because all the jobs for newspapers require that you have experience with computers). This one is at least within reach.

So I’m hoping to pick your brains. Can you think of anything I could teach? I feel stumped. What good is a liberal education?! I/she/we need things we can DO, not just know.

Hey, it's you again!

Just wanted to let you know we've missed you, and even though there's something about our Google access here that very rarely lets us respond to your comments (we can read them--when we can access email--because we forward them to our email), we sure love reading them. FYI, we're working with our internet company on the Google thing. I mean, how can you live without Google?

Happy New Year!

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Fat Some Day Soon

For the past two days, I've been struggling with a sick child. His medical problems are no more complex than many others-prolonged fever, severe malnutrition, untreated HIV-but deciding how to manage it has been much harder. He is 6 months old and only 3 kg. We would usually admit him to the hospital for feeding therapy. But admitting a child to the hospital means admitting his mother as well. Hospitals are so crowded that nurses are limited in the care they can provide, and mothers are enlisted as nursing assistants for their children.

My patient has two brothers--one six and one three--and no father. He left once he learned the mother was positive. Of course, he refused to be tested and has gone on to find another wife. The mom is left cleaning up the mess as he potentially destroys another home.

And so for the past two days she has carried her baby to the clinic because we can't admit him to the hospital. Despite the struggle, moms always find a way. What is amazing is that many of these sickest children get better. As my translator told the mom, he will be fat some day soon.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Christmas in Malawi

We've uploaded some pictures from our Christmas Vacation. We went on a safari in Zambia and spent New Year's on Lake Malawi. Here is the link: