I decided to start with a Chitumbuka greeting since I’m gearing up to finally head back to the ‘Warm Heart of Africa.’ I imagine most of you won’t be surprised. After having spent three years in Zolokere; the people, their voices, the places and smells seem to have found a permanent residence inside my heart. Not a day goes by here in my American life that someone or something Malawian doesn’t cross my mind. What is more, development work with particular regard to Malawi has become the topic of most conversations when Malawi Jake is in the room to the delight of some and angst of others. Whatever the case, Malawi and Zolokere specifically have become my passion. To be frank, some days I can’t believe that I’m actually here in this country riding in my car or working off a ladder or watching a random television program when I could and/or should be in the village continuing to develop my projects, ideas and efforts. It is frustrating to realize (and impossible to explain) the excess and imbalance; that everything that I have in this life, within these borders, in my own house is much more than I actually need and just a fragment of it would make such a substantial difference there. With so much experience, intelligence and talent that exists just in the small pocket of the Hewe Valley where I lived, it would be a crime not to further explore the potential for improvement. Thus, some of the questions that remain are generally which projects are sustainable, relevant and/or feasible, at what capacity and at whose cost? (More on that later)
One of my friends whose passion for social justice equals or exceeds mine is artist and filmmaker Cy Kuckenbaker. He and I met in Jurmala, Latvia as part of Peace Corps Lithuania Group #9. He was the only guy who arrived in Eastern Europe without a jacket and I, perhaps, was the only one with an extra. He was also one of the only twenty-somethings whose hairline was receding like mine. This would become on ongoing joke (and concern) as two icy winters in Lithuania would see an island form at the top of our foreheads. Over those two years he and I would embark on a journey that would lend us the experience of teaching youths, discovering bitter truths about history and politics and surviving in a foreign place (a cold and dark one at that). At times it seemed like we were stranded on those islands between the stubborn follicles whose days were numbered. And other times we danced our last joyous days of youth and freedom obsessed with the idea of taking home a Lithuanian wife. (Neither of us did). Nonetheless, a rare bond between two passionate men was forged as the future waited to see what we had to offer.
When I decided to rejoin the Peace Corps in 2004, Cy was preocuppied with finishing film school, a Fulbright Scholarship in Lithuania and an accompanying thesis film. Halfway through the shooting and editing of that film, ‘The Orphans,’ he miracously found some extra money and a month to bring his creativity to the village of Zolokere. In May 2005 he found me tangled in a web of failed initial efforts, potential project ideas, village politics and general everyday life struggles. He and Gama got along from the go and Cy soon nicknamed him ‘Gama Sutra,’. He would replace that with, ‘G-Unit’ and cap it with ‘The Dalai Gama,’ the most fitting. Myself, Gama and his many names enjoyed Cy’s company. Once he started filming we made every effort to facilitate that process i.e. contacting people, setting up interviews, translating, bike taxiing him and his camera, cooking food and cracking jokes during his 24 hour skirmish with food poisoning. Our assistance coupled with Cy’s investigation and astute perspective on the local happenings resulted in ‘The Troubles in Zolokere,’ a short documentary that explores the relationship between culture, gender equality and the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Cy would give both Gama and myself Producer’s credits which leave me humbled and honored, especially because it is one of the only products left of my collaboration with the late Gama.
It is important to note that the other Producer, my long time friend, Tony Paul Pereira funded the production of the DVD’s and was responsible, through their sales, for generating more than a thousand dollars that were utilized for the Khutamaji Primary School building project. Tony’s efforts being the exception, Cy seemed disappointed with the interactive response and the overall sales of the film. That didn’t deter him nor his craft from coming to Zolokere a second time for an additional three months, in December of 2006, the very heart of the rainy season. This time Cy found me tangled but in a different web; a half-built school project and its maladies, soccer league controversies and the looming future of Malawi Jake after Peace Corps. Throughout those three months Cy and the camera’s eye would pivot themselves on Tony Bomber’s Football Club following their games and standings in the second football league we organized. (The team was dutifully named after their sponsor, Tony Pereira.) The first league which we called, ‘Hewe Unite,’ ironically ended with violence climaxing in a 1-0 victory by Tony Bomber’s with rains of half-bricks thrown by the opponents’ supporters. That event had soured my perspective and hardened my heart which manifested itself in my every day relationships, projects and at home. But after nine months of constant persuasion by the locals I grudgingly decided to sponsor a second league, ‘Hewe South,’ excluding 7 of the 14 teams that had participated in the first league. (The brick throwers were first on the blacklist.) The league commenced just in time for Cy’s arrival. From deep in the rainy villages of Hewe through the City of Mzuzu to the shores of Nkhata Bay on Lake Malawi Cy studied and filmed the team, witnessing their common struggles, issues and concerns which mirror those of most ordinary village-dwelling Malawians. Nonetheless, the resulting documentary film, ‘Bush League,’ and Cy are currently in Baghdad in post production. He’s ironing out what he can in between work shifts, dashes to the bomb shelter and phone calls from Malawi Jake with the same bad news about the status of the translations (A year has passed since the tapes were sent to Malawi for translation and we haven’t seen a single page.)
Despite the frustration of an inconsistent phone connection, from Baghdad to New Jersey Cy and I continue to provoke each other’s thoughts concerning our roles and our relationship to the developed and undeveloped world. Through these conversations we search for solutions to the problems that plague our friends in Zolokere. We scrutinize the efforts of the Malawian government and their approach that offers a system comparable to indentured servitude as farmers are subsidized to grow tobacco and maize that earns the government and companies millions while pennies trickle down into the calloused hands of the farmer. We are infuriated by the fact that a truck can reach the Hewe Valley once a week to deliver Coca-Cola’s sugar water but HIV/AIDS patients have to spend a month’s income for transport to town in order to take life-saving ARV treatments. We question the policies of our own government (among others) and their responsibility in developmental assistance like why a certain percentage of President Bush’s HIV/AIDS assistance is ear-marked for abstinence programs when its condoms that are saving lives. We examine the current practices, relevancy and potency of the projects of well-established development organizations leaving us wondering why, after 40 or 50 years and billions of dollars of investment, we see a regression rather than the opposite. Is it solely due to ineffective governance and corruption or are donor countries in the shadow of the blame? We speculate the impact of mobile technology and how Internet can change the lives of our village friends. How might some of the information on the web be designed and customized to benefit a small-hold farmer? While the questions are many, the issues are complex and the solutions are few and far between. Still more, we are as obstinate as we are passionate, some might say naive others impractical but we persevere. Thus, we have decided to begin a collaboration that we hope will stimulate the support for the project ideas that our discussions and experiences have instigated. We will start small on Cy’s current blog (cysfilm.com) and proceed in the direction that our hearts and minds take us.
The journey to Malawi on which I am about to embark is a concrete example of what our conversations have precipitated. In addition to revisiting old friends and an old life in the village I will be making ethnographic recordings of church choirs, cultural celebrations, funerals, Vimbuza (a traditional Tumbuka healing dance), soccer chants, drinking circle rhythms and whatever else might capture the vitality and spirit of the people. That spirit I will carry home for you as well as anyone else interested in supporting our development initiatives in Malawi. When I return in November the music will be mastered and produced but at this point, details are vague as to how it will be distributed. We are exploring the ‘Radiohead’ route, asking the audience to pay us what they think it is worth. People could buy songs in exchange for a donation. Perhaps CD’s will be offered in local organizations, churches or businesses. Revenue would be used to sponsor small grass-roots projects in Zolokere. With time, decisions will be made and details made clear. I am initiating this project as a result of Cy’s vision. He had posted some of the video of Zolokere’s Presbyterian Youth Choir on Youtube that generated some audience and interest. I immediately thought it was something I should explore when returning to Malawi which I had been saving and planning for already. Over time and more encouragement I realized that the project, both financially and logistically, was viable. By April I had booked a ticket and began acquiring the necessary equipment for recording (some of which I already had.) On September 3rd I’ll board the plan with as much electronic equipment as the Hewe Valley has ever seen. When they see the extent of what I have they might actually think Madonna is on her way. She may not but Cy will join me there in October with plans to shoot an epilogue for ‘Bush League.’ I envision warm evenings beneath the mango trees in my backyard in an air of wood smoke and words between friends of the incredible impressions and how they will weave their way into our futures.
As I seek more clarity on many of these issues and subjects, my time in Malawi will at least provide a fresh perspective. I’m looking for new paints for the easel, so to speak. While the recordings will require many hours of tedious work and management, I will also be initiating some other small projects that, at the core, will establish a connection between my Malawian friends and acquaintances with people here in the States. These include a potential microlending initiative and a pen-pal exchange program with a local high school. I will also be visiting Khutamaji Primary School to assess the status of the school, its pupils and the community around it. I’ll be delighted to catch a few Tony Bomber’s soccer matches and gather with the team. I just hope that I’m not persuaded to participate in a practice! And finally, on a more solemn note, we have intentions to visit Mulanje in Malawi’s southern region, the homeland of the late Epton Gama where we will offer our condolences to his family and enough cement to build him a respectable gravestone.
So I’m inviting all of you to join us; to follow this blog, our ideas, experiences and our journeys. I invite you to think, live and journey with us. Enjoy the pictures, videos, letters and whatever else you might find. Hopefully they evoke the sounds, smells, spirit and struggles of the friends we wish to assist. Join us as we progress. We dig the footings now knowing that someday soon we’ll start pouring the cement. When we do I hope that you will be part of that process, as well as our progression.
Best to All,
Still Malawi Jake