Monday, February 20, 2012

"Get Your Hair Did" - Malawi Style!

For women of the world such as myself, doing hair is always a serious affair. It involves the stresses of deciding:
  • Do I wear my hair naturally, permed straight, or get extensions?
  • Do I keep it in neutral tones of black and brown, or do I add a splash of color?
  • Do I use curly, straight, or wavy extensions?  
  • How much am I willing to pay, and where can I go that they provide good service?
  • Can someone just make me look good!?!

After six months in Malawi, and an equal number of hair salon visits, I was still struggling to find the "perfect" hair stylist. I'd tried washing and straightening my natural hair at a salon, which was disastrous. I tried getting a straight and sleek perm at an "exclusive" salon; it lasted for less than 24 hours. I'd even tried having my hair braided on multiple occasions; the braids were too big, or too tight, or too sloppy, or too expensive. And so, I took a leap of faith, and for the second time, plunged into Lilongwe's "Flea Market."

Late Saturday afternoon, after an interesting Black History Month screening of "Freedom Riders," I headed to the open-air market for Operation: "Get My Hair Did." I greeted my veggie vendor, crossed a 100-plus meter rickety wooden bridge, and weaved my way past the "kaunjika" (second-hand market) to the little shops in what is referred to as "Flea Market." I used my few words of Chichewa to ask where I could by "mesh" (extensions), looked at a few shops, and finally found the perfect color and style that I was able to negotiate down to 1400 kwacha (US$8.50). I asked the vendor if she knew who could do good "Senegalese twists" - she went and brought a friend - and after less than 2 minutes of negotiating, she gave me the price I wanted: $18, a 90% discount from my last hair appointment in Boston! 

The hairdresser was named Naomi, and she and her colleague Stella took turns skillfully twisting my hair while also attending to other customers. All was well until the sun went down, the rain started falling, and it was too late to catch a minibus home. Stella kindly offered to have her "cousin" take me home for the equivalent of a few dollars, and as the rain poured harder and harder, I gladly accepted. Unfortunately, by the time we left, the walkways of the market had become a muddy raging river and the stairs had become waterfalls; I held Stella's hand as she attempted to guide me - and my (no-longer) suede leather shoes - through the knee-deep mess!

The next day, I returned to the market to finish my hair, only to find that the 3 rickety wooden bridges no longer existed; they'd completely been demolished by the rain (which made me feel much safer about crossing it the day before). I spent half an hour walking around until I could find another way to cross, eventually weaving my way through the "Flea Market" to locate Naomi and Stella's shop once again. 

The remains of a collapsed bridge. Don't think I'll take that route
next time!
After a few hours, and some nitpicking on my part, my new head of hair was complete! I looked good, I felt good, and found my new hair dressers (who I give my best recommendation to thus far) here in Malawi. Operation: "Get My Hair Did" = success!

This is me today, a happy camper!

A little bit of my Malawi hair journey...

Half natural, half relaxed...
Looked okay for the pic but just couldn't get it to stay down!
(You should have seen the next picture...)


Thought I'd try it as a bob...didn't last in the rainy weather. 

My first hair expedition to the "Flea Market." Also a success!

Have a fun hair story to share? Leave a comment (or send a picture!).  

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

It's the Little Things: on"-isms" in International Development

After six months “in the field,” I was beginning to feel like I had nothing new to share. The program evaluation I’ve been working on is still on-going. My days still consist of nine-and-a-half hours in the office. My personal life continues to be less-than-exciting, which is more pronounced than usual on this particular day. So naturally (in my view, anyway) I stopped writing.

The truth is that the last few months have given me unique opportunities to reflect, and perhaps these thoughts, these "little things" that have come to mind, are worth sharing. I’ve thought a lot about nutrition, as you may have noticed from past food-based posts, but even more on my own personal struggles to live a healthy life in this setting. I’ve thought a lot about different organizations – governmental, non-governmental, for-profit, multilateral – and how they all contribute to improving health and development in countries like Malawi. But perhaps more controversially, I’ve thought a lot about the role of race and foreign aid in development work, and how this allows, or prevents, people like me – coming from the outside – to truly make a positive impact on the lives we seek to help.

My first experience with this while in Malawi was within my first month, when a Malawian male acquaintance and I were looking for seating in a public venue. I came in with the cultural expectation (as much as I hate to admit it) that as a female – and a well-educated, slightly senior, and foreign one at that – I would be offered the one remaining seat. Every -ism came to mind when I watched him take the seat and wondered: Is this because he doesn’t like or respect me? Is this a gender issue in a patriarchal society? Is this because I’m black? It’s possible, perhaps likely, that the explanation was simpler; maybe it never occurred to him, or maybe he was never taught any differently. If I were to ask him about the incident today, he probably wouldn’t even remember that such an exchange had occurred. Regardless of intent, the result of the interaction I didn’t quite understand was a hyper-awareness of my foreignness in this culture, and an even more heightened awareness of myself.

I could go on and on with stories and instances that have left me questioning why I was treated one way when I’ve seen someone treated differently in the store, at the bus stop, when seeking community service activities outside of work. And while initially my instinct was to place the blame on myself (“I’m not being culturally-sensitive enough” or “I’m not being assertive enough”) and then on others (“They are purposely treating me different than they would treat someone else in my shoes.”), my thought has evolved.

I recently read an article on How Matters about “Race, power, and international aid,” where a white donor describes her experience of witnessing people in a development setting treated differently based on the color of their skin. And while I leave comments about the article itself aside, it validated my feelings that there may be some truth to how we look and act, and our role in any culture or society, particularly in the world of development. If I wore a suit and high heels every day, would people be more inclined to listen to the suggestions I have in health and development? Or if I always wore “Harvard alumni” gear, would that make what I have to say more valid? And since I will never be a man, and will never be able to change the color of my skin, will that continually push me towards the periphery of the change I hope to make?

My answer right now is that I don’t know. And just because we choose not to talk about it doesn't mean that it doesn't exist. So I’ll choose to believe, as the article describes, that if I push myself to ask “What can I do with you” instead of “What can I do for you,” whether in the international world or back home in the U.S., I can find my place in making the change I am driven to make.

I welcome any feedback, comments, and further discussion. 

(And stay tuned for another post next week!)

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Zanzibar Part 3: a Foodie's Paradise

Every foodie can sense when something good is coming your way. A trip to Italy, for example, would tell you that great pasta, wine, and fresh veggies are coming. A trip to Nigeria (personal bias) means freshly pounded yam, rich vegetable stews, and all the sweet fried plantains you can stomach. But a trip to Zanzibar? A trip to Zanzibar means plentiful seafood, a variety of spices, and unique flavors galore. Aside from the good fun and great company, my favorite part of the holidays was eating my way through the island!! 

A 15 minute Christmas Dinner at a bus stop along the way

Pilau (delciously seasoned rice), cabbage,
and stir-fried vegetables.

My first meal on the island!

Roasted kingfish with white rice and coconut curry from
Coco de Mer Hotel

Stone Town Food market and a new friend Loti: my nightly entertainment. Home to a variety of seafood and meat kebobs, octopus, lobster, fried sweet bananas, roasted breadfruit, coco bread, stuffed crepe pizzas, giant falafel, and freshly pressed sugar cane juice with a hint of lie and ginger. Yum!!! The best part: you get to test out your bargaining skills!

Loti's stand. 

Success! Coco bread, salad, and barracuda kebabs.

Freshly-pressed cane juice with ginger and lime. 


Breakfast at Hotel Kiponda, a definite culinary highlight. Delicious granola and freshly made yogurt, ripe seasonal fruits like mango and pineapple, made-to-order Spanish omelets, and my personal favorite - fresh juice of the day, complete with picturesque views.

This is rabavan, or bungu fruit. Makes one of the most delicious
juices in the world. Also had avacado juice - yum!!!

Date (the fruit) stands.

One of the most interesting parts of the tour was the trip through Estella Market, named after a former Minister's wife.

Outside Estella Market. 

Fresh fish anyone?

Inside the market. 

Octopus! Yum!

Shark fin? I'll pass...

Yellow fin tuna really does have yellow fins!

This is the meat market. 

Zanzibar spices!! 

And more spices...

I bought several of these packets!

And more spices!

How many different varieties of bananas can you
count? (Clue: it's more than 1)

Fruits and spices. 

Some of the biggest pineapples I've ever seen!

Dried octopus and crayfish. Hmm...

A coastal fruit. 

"Zanzibar apple." I tried it and I think I'll stick with MacIntosh.

The chicken market. 

Once we left Stone Town, I tried a variety of restaurants and eateries along the coast. I don't remember having a bad meal...

Seafood burger with "chips" and salad. YUM!!

Possibly the best meal I've ever eaten .Seriously.

You should've seen my smile after the meal! :) 

Tomato basil soup for starters. 

An amazing tuna steak with secret flavors, spiced Zanzibar
potatoes, and mixed vegetables. The BEST meal EVER!

I only left the lime...

A taste of Lobster for New Year's Eve...

Lobster and fish curry, rice, spinach, and chapiti. A traditional
start to the New Year.

Lobster is the way to ring in the New Year.

Rock Lobster on New Year's Day. 

Not one lobster, but three!

Dar Es Salaam has some yummy food too!

Fish, veggies, rice, and beans!

Final meal in Tanzania. Roasted matoke (green plantain)
and roast goat. Mmmm.