zaterdag 8 september 2018

7 quick takes of happiness

Sometimes I am so happy that it feels as if my heart will burst. Other days I could do with a dose of happiness and I wish that I could have captured the overflow from other days to give a boost on the harder ones. If anyone knows how to do that, let me know. For now I have tried to capture a few of those very happy moments in writing, the closest I can get to capturing them.

1.  We sit at one of the tables in the open restaurant at our lodge. The girls 'help' me while I sew some bunting. Next to us are palm trees and a perfectly still blue lake. A fish eagle is soaring over the water, not very succesful in its attempts to catch something. My phone plays the soundtrack of the Sound of Music and the girls and I sing along on the top of our voices, giggling and perfectly happy.
2. We are in church, which is not more than a room because the actual church in under construction. There are no musical instruments but a choir of enthousiastic voices sing a song. I don't know the words but the tune is familiar and I hum along with tears in my eyes. It is so great to serve a God who connects people accross languages and cultures.
3. 6 am on the ferry. Sophie and I are awake and walk from the stuffy and packed lower deck where we slept in a windowless cabin to the near empty top deck where we walk in the first morning light. Mountains glide past and we are on our way to a place that we had never heard about a year ago but now feels like home. Next to the boat glide three kingfishers who scan the lake for some breakfast, in the distance are some fishermen in dug outs with the same goal in mind. Sophie's hand finds mine while we admire the view and share a moment of quiet happiness.
4. The kitchen is empty, we are awaiting a veg delivery but I manage to get all my creativity together. Evenings where much creativity is needed usually end with a curry meal. Curries are very forgiving when ingredients are missing and you can make it work with what you is available. The meal puts a smile on the customers faces; they tell me it's one of the best meals they had in a long time.
5. After arriving on our signal hill I connect my ohone to the internet. Messages stream in. One of them is a long voicenote from a friend. We have mostly done away with emails and the post is so slow that snail mail isn't really an option but voice notes are amazing. When I close my eyes I can image myself sitting at my friend's kitchen table, sharing life over a cup of tea. I love listening to the familiar voices while in the background I hear their kids play, their dog bark or their kettle whistle.
6. One of my favourite things here is snorkling in the dazzling blue water. We live at the deepest part of the lake and the drop in the water is very steep. I like to swim out a little and submerge myself. When you then turn around all you can see is blue water, rays of sunshine and schools of fish swiming past you. It's magical.
7. New guests walk in. We introduce ourselves and learn their names and where they are from. The guests tell they are from Finland/Italy/Chile/France/USA/New Zealand or any other country in the world. Sophie looks it up in her mapbook and during our communual dinner we learn about their country, culture and language. They tell stories about their travels and adventures and the girls soak it all up. We don't need to visit the world because the world comes to us!

donderdag 16 augustus 2018

7 quick takes...

1.  It's funny how you can continue to work for a long time, until you know that a holiday is near. Then suddenly fatigue hits and all you really want is that holiday. Life here is not very stressful but the lodge, the staff and the happiness of the guests is a big responsibility that we constantly carry with us. At the end of the month we arw taking a shoet break and now that we know that the responsibility suddenly feels heavier and we cannot wait for our holiday. We will take the ferry overnight to Likoma Island, a beatiful, island close to the shore of Mozambique where we will stay with a South African guy who is building a beach lodge there. He has 3 kids and Sophie is very excited to join them in their 'home school', so much for a holiday for her 😜.
2. We really learn to depend on the kindness of others here. It's hard to buy food on Likoma so we have to bring all the food ourselves but that's a problem, because we cannot buy food here either (unless I want to live on a diet of bananas, tomatoes and dried fish) so I am making a grocery list that I will ship to Nkatha Bay so that other people can do our groceries. Hopefully it all works out and we will find a big bag of food when we pass Nkatha Bay onnour way to Likoma. Otherwise we will have to live on that dried fish, I have heard there is plenty of that available.
3. It is 'usipa season' and everybody is happy because it means that money can be made in a place with a very small economy. Usipa is a small sardine like fish that you can mainly catch between august en november and only when there is no moonlight. This was the case last week and they canoos filled with fish were brought to the shore. On the beach are lots of racks and they were all covered in shiny silvery little fish with a very typical salty smell. The ferry this weekend was full with people who were going to bring their fish to Nkatha Bay to sell. The smell of money obviously immediately attracts clever money makers and this week I saw something I never saw before in the village; a 'kaunjika market'. Kaunjika are second hand clothes that come in big bales. Merchants had set up a little shop on our otherwise empty market square where people where happily spending their freshly earned kwatchas.
4. Internet has been tragically slow since we came here but something has changed in the past week. First it did not work at all, which is not a nice discovery after you have just hiked 45 minutes to get there, but after a few days it was back on with lightning speed. Suddenly we could make whatsapp calls, download pictures and uploading on instagram took 30 seconds instead of 30 minutes. However, it only works on the one network (tnm), the other network service provider (airtel) is still completely down. And that's why we are now running into a different problem. Airtel used to be the fastest and that's why most people in the village use airtel and the shops sell loads of airtel credit and very little tnm credit. But now that tnm became the only working provider, the stock of tnm credit got quickly depleted. It's currently impossible to buy tnm in the village so now we have fast internet but no credit to access it. We are not sure if our local businesses have woken up to the changed market yet so we have just ordered some ourselves. It should come with the boat tomorrow and we can be connected again...
5. We share one room with the four of us where we live, sleep, eat and play so it has always been rather multi-purpose but lately it has gotten a new function. Every empty space is getting covered with educational posters and number bunting as our room is slowly turning into a classroom. The girls request school nearly every morning and we do numbers, basic mathematics, reading, writing and a ton of crafts. Sophie wants to learn reading and she is well on her way to do so. I did not expect her to want to learn that already so I was not very prepared and did not bring material for that. Now I find myself handwriting and drawing early reading books, worksheets and word posters. Soon I will have developed a complete bush-curriculum 😜
6. It's time to work again. Hartmut is busy with signs to help with directions on the lodge and he wants me to make sure they are all secured at the correct place. He has spend a lot of time making them. He planed the wood, chiseled out the letters and painted them all. They look amazing and it is great to see how things that don't cost much (because there is no extra money besides money for staff and food) can make a big change to the lodge's appearance.
7. Sophie is asking what I am doing and why I am writing. When she hears that I am writing a blog she says: "you must write that is very beautiful here and that Doris and I are best friends but if people come I can be friends with them too. And Doris and I made a treasure hunt where you must follow the fish and there is a treasure in the end. Do you think people will come?"

donderdag 2 augustus 2018

7 quick takes


1. Good morning! It's been a while since I wrote. In Cape Town I had a good rhythm and I wrote nearly every Monday morning but here, where days and dates have little meaning, it's hard to keep that up. But that should not be an excuse, I write to store the memories for later (I cannot trust my scatterbrain to do that in a reliable way) and around here there is enough that happens that I want to remember when the girls are big and Malawi days a distant memory.
2. A few weeks ago there was a happy excitment tangible in the village. Chinese boats would come and every person would receive 50 kilograms of rice from the Chinese government because our region and food security was heavily affected by both droughts and flooding in the past years. The boat came, the bags were big and heavy and people got months worth of food. The excitement didn't last long. Soon stories made their rounds of the poisonous rice that would make people sick. The rice looks very different than local rice and it tastes different too. Even the mice and rats won't eat it. Now people say you need to wash it 2 times with hot water and rince it once with cold water before you can cook it. People eat it but they will all be happy when it is finished.
3. A quick rustling, swaying of grass in a different direction than what the wind would cause and sometimes a quickly disappearing tail. When we walk on the narrow path to the village or along the lake shore it is hard to miss the fact that we share our space with many reptiles. Most of the times it's a small lizard, sometimes a big monitor lizard and every now and then a snake. Sophie and I were on our way to our house when we saw a green something cutting to the short grass in front of our feet. We followed the thin small snake with our eyes until he dissapeared in the woods. We later learned that it was the completely harmless herald snake. What a fascinating place to live!
4. "Some guests are on their way!" The local people are much quicker on the rocky uneven paths than most tourists are and approaching walking guests never go unnoticed. When people are hiking to our lodge they never come as a surprise, even if they did not book because there is always a fast walking Malawian who quickly comes to tell us his observation. We may not have cell phone reception here but the local communication network is impressive. It is not always fail proof though. Last weekend some guests were going to take the ferry back to Nkatha Bay. In order to catch the ferry you must first go 20 minutes in a small rowing boat to the place where the ferry stops. They were halfway when someone from the shore told them that they better return as the ferry wasn't seen yet and would not come for at least another 3 hours. They turned around, joined us for a swim in the lake and just as they got in the water the ferry appeared around the corner. They had to rush back, get dressed in the boat while our staff was frantically rowing and we all learned that we must never trust every messenger.
5. Last week we had an impromptu Christmas in July party. Mary, a dear friend and ex colleague from Cape Town had to travel to Malawi for work a few weeks earlier and she and Sharday (another great friend) had put some things together to spoil us and the girls. She dropped it in Lilongwe, a local friend brought it from Lilongwe to Nkatha Bay and our staffmember there who does buys our groceries and helps with guests put it on the boat. The girls were already sleeping when the boat with groceries and our packages arrived so Hartmut and I enjoyed the gifts twice. Once when we got to unpack the chocolate, the biscuits and a usb stick filled with magazines, books and audiobooks and again the next morning when the girls woke up to new puzzles, books and sweet treats. What a spoil!
6. One of the concerns of living here is the always looming threat of malaria. We have to protect ourselves well but taking malaria medication constantly is not great for your body so we agreed that we would stop after a few months, once we had established where and how we could get treatment. The girls were on lariam, a drug that is know to be very effective but some of the most common side effects are psychological. We started noticing that Sophie started to become more angry and aggressive than she was before. We were not sure where it came from. Maybe it was a development stage, an effect of the big changes in her life or, and this is what I was hoping, maybe it was a side effect of the lariam when their pills were finished the girls stopped their treatment and slowly most of the screaming and anger dissapeared. I concluded that it must have been the lariam and was happy to have my old Sophie back. Sophie also noticed that she was feeling more stable but had a differemt conclusion. We were sitting on the deck watching the evening sky when she came to be with a beaming face. "I sat in the tree and was thinking a little bit and suddenly I became very emotional. For a while I was often very angry and upset but I don't feel like that anymore because I asked Jesus if he wants to make my heart happy again. Now my heart is full of love and happiness and I don't get so angry anymore. I feel so grateful!" I just gave my sensitive girl a big hug and told her that she should never change.
7. If you follow me on instagram you have probably seen that my oven is finished and it is definitely adding to our quality of life here. It did not take long to figure out how to make a fire that perfectly heats up the clay walls so that they get sufficiently saturated with the heat to bake bread, cakes and muffins. It is great to have fresh crispy crusts, whole wheat muffins and cookies to decorate and we are all loving it!

vrijdag 20 juli 2018

On turning 31...

Today I am 31. Last year was the big 3-0 and I threw a nice party for my friends. 30 did not feel old, definitely not any different than 29. Today is different. Maybe because their won't be a big party because all my friends are far away. Maybe because here, without a celebration to plan and groceries to buy,  I have more time to think and reflect. 31 feels different, but not in an unpleasant way.

I look in the mirror. I don't wear make up. I never wore a lot but I have totally given up on it here in the humid Malawian heat. It would just clog my pores and usually I sweat so much that it would all be gone by 9 am anyway. My hair is tied back in a top knot. A few perky strands do their own little dance around my ears and forehead. I would love to be the kind of girl who treats her tresses with love and attention. In my imagination my brown soft hair comes down in supple waves, shiny and healthy. But well, that's only imagination.

I smile at my reflection. I look content, I know I am. I try to see myself as others see me. I still get surprised looks when I say that I am a mom. People tell me I look like I come just out of school, too young to be a mom. I don't see that. My smile makes the creases around my eyes and mouth deeper. When I stop smiling, the lines are still there. Not deep, but still visible. That's new. I put some cream on but it doesn't help, the lines stay and I know they will never go away. A decade of African sun has not been kind to my skin.

We had some guests at the lodge. They were born in 1998 and I thought that they were really young and brave to be traveling through africa. I remember when it was 1998 and when you are born in that year you cannot possibly be old enough to be traveling without parental supervision. It turned out that they were 19 and 20 and perfectly capable of taking care of themselves. It made me feel old. But after observing them I realised that I did not feel old in an unhappy, yearning way. I don't want to be 20 anymore. I like who I am now. I like what the lessons of the past decade have thaught me. I feel more at peace, have less fomo, more satisfaction. The starting wrinkles are here to stay, and so are the stretchmarks that two pregnancies caused. But despite that I feel more confident about my body than ever before. Maybe because I feel more confident about myself. I know who I am and I have learned to embrace that person. I know more about my talents, but I have also been confronted with my shortcomings and learned that I will stumble through life if I try to do it on my own. The biggest lesson I have learned is about God and His grace. Living in that grace means that I can extend it to others but also to myself. I don't have to be so hard on myself, I don't have to try to please others for acceptance and I do not have to proof anything because I am loved by the creator of the universe.

No, I also don't want to be 40. Not yet. Because 40 is properly old (just kidding.). But I am not scared of getting older. I like where I was, am grateful where I am now but I am also really hopeful for the future.  I thought that growing older was about  letting go and accepting. Letting go of that youthful skin and accepting that you will never look the way you did when you were 20. Letting go of energy and accepting that a late night takes longer to recover from. But instead, I am learning that getting older is about growth and finding peace. Knowing who you are, being content in that and doing what you are supposed to be doing gives a peace and joy that I did not possess 10 years ago. So bring on the next year with more love, more grace, more adventures and more wrinkles caused by joyous laughter!

vrijdag 6 juli 2018

7 quick takes from Hartmut

7 quick takes.
1. A couple from Australia was volunteering with the local NGO a couple of weeks ago and stayed with us. It is their first time with us on our signal hill and they, like everyone else, look for a spot with a great view over the lake and with a more or less comfortable rock to sit on. We are eagerly waiting for the whatsapp messages to load. Internet is particularly slow today but we have learned to be excited for every new batch of messages. Unexpectedly, the volunteers walk over to us and graciously asks us if there is any particular spot on the hill with superior internet reception or if the fastest here is simply the "Emergency signal". I pause for a while regarding the 2nd question about the "Emergency signal" and then it suddenly dawns on me and I need to force myself not to laugh out loud. "No", I answer, "it does not really matter where you sit as long as see the reception tower far down south at the lake shore." And yes, the "E" signal showing on top of your phone screen is the fastest you will get, but it stands for EDGE and not Emergency. So funny how one forgets the old internet carrier signals in time of 3G and 4G/LTE (and I guess soon 5G, if its not there yet).
2. So after our dear friend Philippa, who is co-running the NGO in our village, stayed the past months in the luxury chalet dubbed the "Stone house" (it  is not really luxurious at this stage as the roof was disintegrating by the day, hence poor Philippa was rather "forced" to live there). Anyway, now that she left for 3 months to the UK, immediate maintenance is required. I prepared our maintenance manager weeks in advance of her departure that we need to get cracking on the roof the day she moves out.

Fast forward 4 weeks, we managed to remove the grass roof, burn it and clean the house (1 days work) and cut 4 poles (half a day of work). I assume, the rest of 28 days or so were needed to thoroughly plan the work, do thorough risk assesssments, organise the work space and ask the ants and termites to please vacate their homes or they would be destroyed along side them? Don't get me wrong, I really enjoy our staff and have tremendous respect for them, I guess I just have a different concept of "hitting the ground running" and ASAP :).
3. I am sitting with Doris in front of our house while Sophie is frantically running in and out the house fetching all kind of toys. She is the "Oster Hase" (easter bunny) and hides them and we need to search for them once she is ready. It intrigues me how patient Doris is. She patiently sits for minutes on end (as the search is repeated multiple times) waiting for Sophie to give the signal that she is ready. In between the waiting, Doris looks up at me with he deep blue eyes and says "we can only look when Sophie tells us she is ready" and shouts "are you ready Sophie?". I am a little envious at her patience as I could do with some of it, but more profoundly I realise how privileged I am being able to witness my kids play every day and be able to spend so much time with them. In fact 24 x 7 for more than 3 months now. (Only Anneke has been 1 night away from the kids so far.)

For a dad who has previously been working long and hard hours in the corporate world and who also enjoyed going to work, the idea of a "full time dad" sounds amazing but in practice it is a massive adjustment and cannot be taken thoughtlessly. Fortunately, I did anticipate this drastic change and with lots of grace from Anneke and my kids, I think I found my sweet spot and really enjoy being together literally all the time.
4. Before we moved out here into the remoteness, one of our main concerns was of course what we do in an medical emergency. Friends wanted me to buy a satellite phone, build an airstrip or take out a comprehensive international medical plan. We decided to move without them in place and have numerous reasons, the main being that the unknown dangers are always more perceived than  the day to day dangers you have adapted to. (It is insane to come to terms how many people we know have died in car accidents in Namibia and South Africa the past months). 3 months fast forward, we still do not have any of them in place, but I still think loads about how to get us out here as fast as possible and we are in a much better position to judge what we can afford and what is practical.

So rather than spending all of our savings on an international evacuation scheme, we are looking into storing our own fuel for in case we need to hire a boat to get us out and fuel has run out in the village (which does happen...) and building relationships with people who will assist us without hesitation in such cases (in real life I think everyone here in our village would immediately assist as I have seldom come across such selfless people).
5. A broken solar panel, a broken charge controller, numerous damaged batteries some unmarked and complicated wiring and a complete sophisticated still-standing pico hydro system...the ugly and unfortunately very common face of development work in Africa.

Fortunately, this picture does not overshadow the local NGO in our village as it is running well and is mostly self governed. The library, youth club and nursery school is working well and the newly installed maize mill is also running.

As electrical engineers are supposed to know everything about electrical house installations (whereas in fact electricians are trained to do so) I have been asked to look at the electrical system and experienced yet again the aftermath of the selfish and obstructive western saviour complex. The pico hydro installation is ma perfect example. The system is immensely complex, build on the wrong spot, no drawings or spare parts are left behind and little to no training was done by the installers to allow it to run for an extended period of time. Only after completion of the project did the NGO realise that the installers were inexperienced final year students who were literally butchering around. Develoment work is great, but it needs to be done the right way and it needs to happen slowly, very slowly indeed, usually way too slow for most western money to be justifyable.

My aim will be to simplify the installation and to see if some spare parts can be sourced. Let's see how far we get.
6. You might be asking yourself what I keep myself busy with the entire day. Besides spending very good time with Sophie and Doris, I mainly keep myself busy with maintenance work. Most things in the lodge need some care and if I don't organise the team, I keep myself busy with cutting and trimming of trees, building an oven, cleaning flower beds and repair window frames or painting. And since you cannot buy much here in northern Malawi and the freight via boat is a logistical nightmare, everything is full on DIY. Furthermore, the generator broke when we arrived and so I have been forced to learn woodwork without any power tools. A skill that is almost redundant in our age but such a blessing to be able to still learn it and see it being done everyday here in the villages. I am really enjoying the learning curve and it is very satisfying.

7. The other evening Anneke suddenly tells me that the soccer world cup must have started or is about to start. How and what happened that I missed such a grand moment in my calender? The answer of course is that Zulunkhuni happened to me. The quietness, the peace, the remoteness, the lack of urgency in life and detachment from the daily internet has taken its toll and I am more and more convinced that it is not a bad thing. I have been telling Anneke for years now that I must stop being so involved in supporting my national team and I think I am getting there slowly but surely. So far I only watched a single game and thanks to God he only allowed me to watch till the 82nd minute against Korea when the electricity went off so that I would only here the bitter result the next day via word of mouth. Now at least Anneke and I are on the same page and are supporting the "red devils".
Lots of time with the girls

Always something to build or maintain.
Where we got to watch the soccer.

The oven is nearly finished.