When Life gives you Lemonade

I’ve been swimming around in a big bowl of awesome, fulfilling and God-sent work. It has been wonderful. Nearly 3 years ago, a friend and I started supporting one girls school fees, today 3 of us are supporting 7 girls in secondary school. My counterpart and I are doing the work with the Go Girls program; engaging young people to think about their culture of male dominance and explore what that means for every individual. My friends and are also finding ways to feed the hungry in Malawi. It’s joyous and exciting working alongside and in the warm heart of Africa. This week I got some big old lemons thrown in my path.

The Peace Corps has decided it is in my best interest to return to the states for a medical evaluation of my back. I am angry, disappointed, fearful, in disbelief. I am trying to discover and understand God’s plan in this. “Why, what, now, and no”, I am too deep, too involved, on the right path. I have been given 45 days of medical leave to have an evaluation, do the treatment recommended and be cleared to return. It seems daunting and so unfair.

Yet, there are people in my life who are helping me slice and dice and squeeze those lemons one by one. My daughters are amazing and a support system like no other. My oldest in prayer with her missionary group and sending encouraging messages. My youngest working the healthcare system for all its worth and saying don’t give up.  We know you will go back to do the work that you are meant to do. A bright light is that we will be together for Christmas and they have even decided they will put up the Christmas tree since I will be there. Gotta love em.

I can take my friends and family for granted, knowing they are there, loving me and caring about me. But, when something comes up, I am profoundly reminded that there is no greater gift than family, old friends, and new friends. They surround me with love and hold me up. They encourage and offer whatever I need.  I am wrapped in a soft fuzzy blanket of their concern. They remind me of what we’ve already been through together; how we are together to go forward. And don’t despair, they are there for me, whatever the need. They are like an overflowing cup of sugar being stirred into the lemons.

And the people that just randomly pass through my life. Someone I met just this week heard my news. He said, “I was in America once. I see the words, “In God We Trust” on your dollar bills”. When you are in America, all you must do is look at the bill to be reminded. I met someone on the bus and we talked about school programs and he invited me to come to his school in a nearby town, to please bring the girls program to them. Don’t worry, they say, we can see that God has brought you to us.

And even as I am asking God the why, and what is going on, and crying out to him,  I am reminded to trust. To be faithful. To know the plan is not just good, but it will be awesome if I just stay the path with him. Since I have accepted Him into my life, even in the past tough times, only good things have come to pass. Walking through the fire is what makes us stronger. He is the one in charge of the lemonade. He will take the bits and pieces, add what is needed, stir it briskly. Before I know it,  I will be swimming in sweet lemonade and wondering what I was so concerned about

What does Hunger look like?

Victoria, a perky 4-year-old, walked through my kitchen with wide, wondering eyes as she was leaving with her mom, Ethel, who cleans my floors. I said something vague about so much food on my shelves.  Ethel said, maybe she could have a slice of bread?  Oh, my goodness, I am so blind! I wanted to give her the half loaf I had, but didn’t want to embarrass her. She left on her way home with two slices of plain white bread.

Ethel has come to me through the church where I was seeking someone to help me out two times a week with housework. She works tirelessly for two hours, two times a week. I pay her the local standard of 2000 Malawi kwatcha every two weeks. That is about $3 U.S.; with this she is trying to feed her 4 children. Her husband has a good job, but when he gets paid he goes directly to the bar and drinks it away. She is a lovely woman, with a positive attitude doing everything she can to take care of her family. She has admitted that sometimes her 3 school age children go to school without eating.

Tiamanda and Alice are in their sophomore year of what the U.S. calls high school. Tiamanda asked if I would show her how to bake a cake.  They came to my home after church on Sunday. I asked if they had lunch, “no”, they hadn’t stopped for lunch on the way. I dug around and found them both an apple to eat while the cake was baking. The cake finished baking on the mbeau, one-layer chocolate, no frosting. We sliced it on a plate, sending half of the cake home with Tiamanda, and the other half was split between the two girls. Soon, they were ready to leave and I noticed that Alice had not eaten either the apple or her portion of cake. I asked if she needed something to carry it in. I didn’t ask why; I knew she was carrying it home to her hungry family to share.

Alexandra is a Peace Corps volunteer in the next village. She asked her students to write an essay about why they come late to school. Among the various, silly, just cuz, type of reasons, was one from a student who said he was looking for food to eat  before he came to school in the mornings.  Alex and I talked this over and both of us decided we would keep food stocks in our houses for friends and students who needed a little help. Thank you to U.S. friends who are helping to make this a reality.

Alexandra and I were in the market this Wednesday, both of us buying the maize product that makes the local porridge. We don’t eat this, for me it is too hard to make and tastes like mashed potatoes without any seasoning, butter, or milk. While we were making our purchases, we both noticed 3 small boys in ragged, torn clothing, very dirty and barefoot. I could count every rib in their chest from 10 feet away. They were going through the market hoping to get some scraps or maybe snatch something from a pile when someone wasn’t looking. Before we had time to react, they were chased off by the locals. Also, probably not a great place to hand out food as it could start a riot.

My neighbors, the young man who works with me, my friends, they are all hungry. A young girl said to me, “I am not hungry when I am with you.” She meant it literally and figuratively. I can’t feed everyone, but thanks to friends we are feeding some. I will be able to keep more food in my house to share. We are also teaching people how to have food in their homes year-round. Meaning current, more efficient garden practices, how to make compost, how to save seeds, how to save water, and preserving what is currently available. I am supporting an effort at church to supply fertilizer to local farmers who will be expected to bring food back to the church after harvest.  Look for pictures soon about the Peace Corps Permagardening effort, we are training people to have a kitchen garden that will provide food year around for families.

I waited til after Thanksgiving to post this. Americans are known for the abundance of year-round, varietal, fresh food. We work hard, we have built the systems and we are more than welcome to what we have done. Living in Malawi has opened my eyes to the world food problem. I will probably never again say, “I’m starving, let’s get something to eat”. This is what real hunger looks like.

I moved to Africa


I sometimes wake in the darkness of night with the thought of, “where am I”? I am not a world traveler, but did travel around the U.S. a bit before settling in Steamboat Springs, Colorado for 8 years. Frustrations at work led me to believe I could be doing more, serving more, helping people more in some other job. The answer to this was applying to and being accepted for the Peace Corps. Now, that might not be the answer most people come up with when they are looking for a change, but it seems to be working for me so far.  When I wake up to the sound of strong gusty wind or loud rock music and I see the mosquito net surrounding my bed it comes to me.  Oh, yeah, I moved to Africa.

After training in a very rustic village for 3 months, I was moved to my site. My site is Mitundu, Malawi and I am assigned to the community hospital in Mitundu. The size of Mitundu is hard to describe, but it is possible there are about 15,000 people living in the village. The village itself comprised of 13 small villages. There is one tarmac road, or in the U.S. we would call it the paved road. It comes from the capital city of Lilongwe about 15 miles away. The blacktop was built specifically to deliver people to the large market in Mitundu on Wednesdays and Saturdays. The rest of the village is dirt, packed dirt paths, and packed dirt waterways that serve as paths.

My home is very large by Malawian standards. It is a brick and cement structure with a tin roof. To date there is no electricity in my home, although progress is maybe being made in that direction. The water tap is in the yard; it is rare to have running water in any home in Malawi. I have 4 bedrooms, a kitchen, a kitchen annex, and a large sitting room. There is a master bedroom and space for an on-suite. The master is a large room, the attached room for the bath has a dirt floor and no door. Again, promises are made for the future. But, as they say in Malawi, it is Malawi. . . I live in just three rooms in the house.

I can find almost anything I need in my village. I am becoming a vegetarian, not by choice. That means buying meat in the local market is frightening to say the least. So, I have come to enjoy my protein as eggs, soya pieces, peanut butter, tuna in cans, and protein bars. I can’t buy tuna or protein bars in the village.

When I told my nephew, just turned 13, that I used powered milk on my cereal, he said, “what is that?”. Quite delicious when that’s all you have, do wish it was cold not lukewarm. There is an abundance of tomatoes and onions on a regular basis. Then, seasonally fresh fruits and vegetables. It is currently mango season, love, love, love them and will make time to slice and dry as many as possible while in season.  Apples are usually around; they are imported from South Africa.

I ride my bike almost daily. This is when it comes to me that I am in Africa. No bike lanes here, take your life in your hands when you ride. The Peace Corps provides all of us with a bike helmet and expects us to wear it. But with most people walking, what could be the danger? Minibuses own the road, pulling in and out, backing up, and 3 point turns wherever they feel like it. Donkeys and oxen pulling carts are harmless, unless they start tossing their head about the time you decide to pass. Goats are so numerous and always run free and can dart across the road at any point. On the tarmac, I feel secure, but off on the side paths it is a bit crazy. Cars and carts driving down tiny little paths barely big enough for people. Ruts, ridges, deep, loose sand, large puddles of who knows what are in and on the paths for me to try and see and then avoid.

My postmaster is quite the comedian, except when it comes to his work. I am reminded of the U.S Postal system when dealing with him. I had to purchase a PO Box; but, there is no lock or keys for the box. When something is sent General Delivery he reminds me I have a box number.  But, “I can’t get mail from the box? No, but you must use the number and pick up here at the window”. They open at 9 am, close 2 hours for lunch and then are open until 4:30 Monday thru Friday.  This is also where you can pay your electric bill, if you are so lucky. And your water bill payment is accepted here. One stop shopping for the villagers.

I have a neighborhood, I have my church, and I have good friends. I am also blessed to have a site mate. Alexandra is a teacher for the Peace Corps in the nearby village of Mlomba. I have come to appreciate more and more her lovely presence and our chances to talk about ANYTHING when she visits. I have encouraged myself to sink in, to submerge, to melt into my surroundings. I see everyone, I acknowledge everyone. So, when the wind is gusting and the thunderstorms are rolling through, I know I am not in Kansas.  I am in Africa.

Girls staying in school

tiamandaI have shared in the past information about the school system in Malawi. I continue to explore why more girls aren’t staying in school and finishing to at least the high school level and passing their MSC, or final overall exam. I am not a teacher, just an observer and collector of facts. I have been working with a 24-year-old local Malawian that graduated from high school and was able to attend college for one semester before his funds ran out. It is intriguing to discuss and critically think about why girls don’t complete their education. This young man continues to come to the realization that there is a reason that we, an older woman and a younger man, will work together on girl empowerment or gender equality.

School starts here in standard one, the U.S. “first grade” at age 6. At this point there are an equal number of boys and girls in the classroom. The school day for Malawi is one of the shortest in the world, about 6 hours. You can start to see the difference in the percentage of boys versus girls in standards one through 8.  Gradually boys start to outnumber the girls; the trend continues to climb the closer you get to the final standard 8. There you see a noticeable number of boys outnumbering girls. Why, you might ask.

Girls are not less smart than boys. They enter on a fairly level playing field. But picture if you will that girls get out of bed (even at 6 years) and are expected to help with household work, such as fetching water, cooking meals, or cleaning. The boy in the same household will sleep in and rise in time to eat, dress and go to school. After school, girls are expected to continue to help with the same chores while boys are free to play or study. Girls might have time to do studies later. And don’t get me wrong, they usually have time to play, also. Malawi is still only 7% electrified, so it is possible that girls will study by candlelight or flashlight.

Teachers in Malawi aren’t expected to help students along. If they don’t get the material, it’s too bad for you. Why does this affect girls? Because if a boy needs help, most likely he will get it, after all, the culture thinks he will be the bread winner in the family. It is a culture in Malawi that the male is held in more esteem. One of the teachers I know shared a story about one of her young male students getting water at the pump (unusual to find a boy at the pump). He just took himself to the head of the line because as a male it is accepted. When she asked him about all the girls in line, he just shrugged his shoulders and said, “I can”. Boys can, girls can’t. They are less, they are helpers, they don’t need knowledge like boys do.

Another sad reason is that young girls get pregnant and/or married at young ages. They can be married as young as 13 in Malawi with permission from their parents. In America, we learned that even when girls are pregnant or have a child they should be able to attend school. I am old enough to remember when that wasn’t always the case. “Bad girls” should not be in class spreading that disease. In Malawi, girls are looked down upon if they have a child out of wedlock, they are ostracized and not allowed in school. I ask is the boy punished in this same way? Of course not, and what a silly question!


Often girls marry at a young age, sometimes because of an unexpected pregnancy or because she was caught alone with a young man in a private place. They can also bring a bride price to their family if they marry a wealthy person. Sound like buying a bride?  What choice would you make at 13 or 14 if your parents came to you and said, “we can’t afford to feed you anymore and are barely feeding the rest of the family”. If you marry we will have enough money to get through the next 2 years.

Girls are tired, they don’t always get to study, they are not expected to succeed, there is no encouragement or help from a sad, old culture. As girls take the end of year exams and fail they make a decision whether to return to school or not. It is rare to be encouraged by a teacher or by a parent. It is true, there are parents that know it is important for their children to attend and make them go to school. You can find a teacher that will see a bright student and inspire them to come back, try again.  This is the work we are trying to do in Malawi and other third world countries where girls don’t finish school.

Chifunliro and I talk about our programs; he has grown in his understanding of why girls don’t stay in school. It went from maybe girls aren’t smart, to an awareness of other reasons. Now he knows that boys and young men should be asking their female counterparts why they aren’t in class. I suggest to people that if only half the population is educated, you have lost half of your work force, your development force, the new generation of the educated.

A wise man once said to me, you cannot change accepted behavior until the opposing side also accepts that a change needs to happen. Chifunliro and I will work from this principle as we address why girls don’t stay in school and if boys can help make a difference.

Teen Club, not for the weak of heart

My counterpart and I were asked to attend a meeting of the local teen club on Saturday morning to provide encouragement and instruction. Chifuniro and I showed up at 8 am forgetting about “Malawi time”. Actually he remembered, but came along when I showed up on time. At 9am we were introduced to the local youth who attend the meetings because they are HIV positive. There were little ones from the age of 6 up to the age of 15. They meet on Saturdays when there is more privacy and confidentiality to provide room for questions and discussions; and a bit of fun.

The lesson plans are provided by Baylor University. Baylor has a large sustained presence in Malawi working with young people affected by HIV/AIDS. Their curriculum covers such things as how to take your medicine at school or away from home, what the disease is about, good nutrition, and etc. The lessons are facilitated by volunteers from the hospital who have promised their personal time to be mentors and guidance for these young people. The kids were quite excited that my counterpart and I came to their meeting and paid close attention to the presented lessons and the input and suggestions we provided.

The current volunteers pool their money on a monthly basis to provide a small bar of soap to each attendee. Thanks to the support of friends in the U.S. I will also be providing toys and games at their meetings. I can’t wait to see their smiles when I bring out the stickers.

And yet, I know they wouldn’t care if I brought anything. That someone would care enough about them to share their time is enough reason for them. Moms have expressed that they will always make sure their kids attend because they know how important these lessons are for their children to stay healthy. Some walk a long distance to attend, some giving up household or gardening work to bring their children.

So many times in situations I try to put myself in the shoes of those I meet and interact with; such as children born with HIV. Through no fault of their own they have a lifetime of disease to contend with. Mothers who love their children and live in fear for their health. Just currently there are medication programs that are helping to prevent the transmission of HIV from mothers to babies. but in the past this was still experimental. Now, Malawi and other nations are testing every pregnant woman who comes to the prenatal clinic for HIV. Some will be surprised by the diagnosis they receive, not knowing they have been infected by an unfaithful partner. It is difficult to lay blame in the layers of this culture. All I know is it is important to take care of those who have been affected.

At the end, my counterpart asked to speak; he did something that would be quite unacceptable in the United States. He talked to them about prayer. You could have heard a pin drop as they leaned in to hear if he thought God really cared about them. We closed with prayer and many happy smiles.

It is a small thing, just a few hours on Saturday morning. Yet, for me it will be a place to lift up my spirits. Because again and again I am reminded that my life is easy compared to this. My life has been blessed and my children are also living in a comfortable way. Please picture their joy as they are with their peers and people who care about them. Add in a jump rope and stickers, it’s going to be awesome.

Nutrition rehabilitation, its not about obesity

The Nutritional Rehabilitation Unit at the hospital is a one-story rectangular cement block building. The inside is built in an American/European style with divisions of half-walls, each with a metal baby bed and green plastic foam mattress. It was very quiet the day I first came in at 8:30. I asked Annie, the in-charge nurse, if there were any babies admitted to the unit. Yes, there were 3. In true Malawian style they were not laying in the metal beds, but instead sleeping and staying with their mothers in the next-door dormitory. That makes perfect sense to me, why wouldn’t the babe be with the warm snuggles of mom? A nutritional unit isn’t something I have ever seen in an American hospital, and something that I hope will outgrow it’s need soon.

Babies are referred from the children’s outpatient clinic if it is suspected they are malnourished. They come to the unit and are weighed, their upper arm circumference is measured, they are checked for edema starting in their feet and up, and their height is determined. This is all plotted on a graph and a “Z” score is found for the babe. “0” is normal, “-1” is a small amount, “-2” is moderate, and “-3” is an admission to the unit. The first day I saw a baby completely undressed and put in the scale, I immediately teared up. It took all of my strength to not just break down in tears. These babies look like little old men and women. They have no muscle mass to speak of, just bones covered by thin, peeling skin. Their heads covered in gray hair and large for the body. Yes, a baby with grizzled gray hair.

When the nurse and I had a chance to talk I asked her the causes of malnutrition in babies in Malawi. Annie has worked in the unit for over 10 years and simply said, “poverty, illiteracy, and no family planning”. It was easy to deduce what the first two meant, but I struggled with what family planning had to do with malnutrition. She went on to explain that babies are breast fed in Malawi (and many other countries) until they are two years old. This is the best and most available nutrition for children. If women get pregnant before the two years is over, they stop breast feeding and then need to find another way to give the child nutritious food. And quite often there is no nutritious food for the child.

Babies are admitted to the unit and given a specific baby formula with a spoon. When they are able to keep this formula down the mixture is changed to a phase two formula. If babies are old enough, over 6 months, a peanut butter mixture is also given. The feedings are every 3 hours around the clock. They also receive several medications to cover infections, parasites, etc. They are tested for HIV and Malaria. An average length of stay is 4-6 weeks. When discharged they are placed in a weekly outpatient program for continued weighing and measuring. When they come in they are sent home with supplemental feedings to continue to bolster the calorie intake. They can then graduate to the next phase and come in every 2 weeks, again getting supplements as needed.

I admire Annie and her commitment to helping moms keep their babies healthy. She works under difficult circumstances. She is supposed to teach them hygiene for themselves and the babies, yet there is often no soap or running water in the unit. She teaches them about mixing the formula with equipment that is kept as clean as possible. This is also hard to teach when you don’t have the right resources. The tools of her trade are a glass measuring cup, a large coffee maker for boiling water and assorted plastic pouring cups. The large disposable syringes for measuring the formula are rinsed and reused several times.

A 4 month old that weighs 5 pounds, a 2-year-old that weighs 15 pounds. Holding one of these little ones is like holding a feather. Their moms are so proud when they take their feeding, it is an accomplishment that leads them closer to being home with family. Annie takes care that they go home weighing enough to survive and hopefully thrive.

Tina Fey Epiphany

Shakira and Origin visit me about 3 times a week. They are beautiful young women of 11 & 12 bright and full of questions. We usually talk about their day, what is going on in their families, what is happening at school. They are always exploring the few things I have scattered around my house. Shakira picked up a book I am going to read, Steig Larssen’s, “Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest” and started reading. After a couple of minutes, I said, “maybe that is not a good book for you”, and she immediately put it down. Today, Origin picked up Tina Fey’s “Bossy Pants”. I thought, no harm in that. In a few minutes she uttered a lovely sound of surprise. She showed us there on a chapter heading, “Origin Story”. We all smiled thinking Tina Fey might have written Origin’s story in her book.

I realized as we were working on a simple cross word puzzle, these girls are hungry for words, hungry to read, hungry to know. What do they have to read? Nothing as far as I can tell. There is no town library or school library.

Growing up Mom and Dad took turns fussing over how much I read. “Why didn’t I go out and run around like the other kids, turn off that light its past your bedtime, and don’t you have anything else to do besides read?” So there was the epiphany, I don’t know what I would have done without the school and city library. To this day, I fill my spare time with reading. there is not a huge amount of reading materials in Malawi. It is difficult to find writing paper somedays, let alone a book.

The girls have been trying to figure out my Kindle, I was thinking it was just curiosity about the techno magic that held 160 books. The realization that they were looking for something to read, slammed into me full force. What an assumption I had been making about these two. I thought they just wanted to check out the American’s stuff and all along they were starving. And not looking for simple food, looking for nourishment for their brains and souls.

I found out I can get a free box of books for young people from Dorian’s book aid because I am a Peace Corps volunteer. I have signed up to receive the shipment. I also have money set aside from various donations for education and have determined I will use some of that cash for books. It is exciting to be able to provide this simple pleasure for youngsters, something that made such a huge difference in my life.

And those of you who are thinking about sending a care package, how about throwing in one of your favorite books?