Thank You Malawi 

We’ve been in the US for four weeks now and I’m delighted to report we kept to my carefully prepared US itinerary, which now has us on a one-way flight to Amsterdam.

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A Malibu wedding, a Depeche Mode concert in Santa Barbara, plenty of time with our nieces and nephews, a night out in Huntington Beach in my old local (Killarneys) with all our friends and Natalia’s birthday (30+10) weekend party/family camping trip (an absolute blast and a moment of realization for me; you don’t try to plan an event with Colombian in-laws, you just provide scheduling guidelines). I even managed to sneak in a couple of (approved) rounds of golf and a return trip to Killarneys to watch Manchester United (now at 7am).

Trying to catch-up on a year of socializing in 4 weeks took some doing (and Advil) and reminded us of everything we missed. Almost like speed dating but with relatives and friends. We got a lot of questions about our time in Malawi. But I don’t think we adequately conveyed how much we enjoyed it. I realized, after telling our stories a few times, that hardships (by US standards) and challenges are more memorable for others than hearing how much fun we had on a budget.

So, for the record, the fun was worth every minor inconvenience of Malawi life 10-times over and has us now questioning the excesses of our Western consumer-driven lifestyle. CostCo and the amount of food the US culture persuades us to buy was particularly uncomfortable for me, although the chronic over-catering of our camping event was due to my lack of meal planning.

I know traveling to unconventional locations isn’t everyone’s cup-of-tea and Natalia and I are extremely lucky to be able to do so. But don’t let the media misrepresent Malawi – it is a wonderful and safe country with the most gentle and welcoming people, and a gem of national monument; the Lake. Plus the surrounding countries are filled with incredible sights and experiences. 

I dedicated my previous post (Thank You SunnyMoney) to our wonderful colleagues in Malawi – how we miss these people. But our 1-year stay in Malawi was not just a great experience because of the personalities at SunnyMoney (and their drive to make a difference in a sustainable way) but also because of those we met during our numerous social outings, on our travels and/or who stayed with us. And because of the Malawian “warm-hearted” culture (it really isn’t just a catch phrase) – their focus on happiness through family helped me understand my army of Colombian-in-laws a bit more. Not completely obviously.

But my thanks to;

  • Isa – this is how we met but Isa was the inspiration for our field trips, specifically South Africa. Our first night in Cape Town says it all. A very talented Film Director too: check this out.
  • Lorraine – the super hero CFO of SolarAid who came to visit and had a true Malawi experience. Lorraine’s Visit.
  • Paola (fascinating and fun: read this), Emma and the team at the Mayamiko Foundation. SunnyMoney’s partner and friends. A shining example of an organization that truly makes a difference vs. the large, bloated, international NGOs.
  • Adrien (the Belgium) – who took such good care of us when we arrived. So many right decisions about living in Malawi were because of him. Never a dull day with him and we missed him when he left SunnyMoney.
  • Ronnie – such a friendly chap who sold us on visiting Uganda (much like Isa did on South Africa) and who hooked us up with his fascinating friend Jan who arranged our trip to the Gorillas and the Genocide memorial in Rwanda.
  • Juliana – our resupply visitor number two. Juliana is always up for an adventure – she even arranged a trip two weeks ago to California (from Trinidad) to see us while we were back.
  • Chisomo – our amazing Afropop dancer/friend featured in so many of our stories. Here’s the how it all started; Afropop.
  • Alan and Mem – two fun characters who have done and seen it all before on the international circuit. And Mem cooked the best meals we had in Malawi – I get hungry just thinking about her cooking now. We’ll see Alan in November when he flys into Gatwick to see his father and son (who lives 5 mins from my brother).
  • Violet and Adrian – we met the Malawian Gloria (Modern Family) one Jazz night and then both on one of many hiliarious nights out. Also, Violet was the second best United fan in Malawi.
  • Jeremy – the SolarAid chairman came to visit us in Malawi and the blogger became the blogged: Jeremy’s trip to East Africa .
  • Sally – our roommate for a couple of months, and an integral part of Team-Walton and a couple of Lake trips. Also introduced us to an exciting variation of the traditional banana bread recipe (replacing sugar with salt – obviously a Canadian thing).
  • Sam the Aussie – our passenger on our first trip to Nkhatabay, who popped up like an Australian leprechaun on our second epic trip for my birthday weekend. I plan to send him pictures of the RAV4 from time to time to give him nightmares. Super lad and another person we plan to find in the world again.
  • Mark Rutherford – a truly generous gentleman who became part of the story with his gift to the office of a Microwave.  Naty will be meeting Mark for the first time in November when we thank him face-to-face in Bologna.
  • Steve and Debbie – fellow escapees from the Corporate world. We met them in Dar es Salaam, Zanzibar and then again in Lilongwe and hope to find them again in the world one day.  Great people!
  • Wiseman – my personal RAV4 mechanic. Too many posts (unfortunately) to link. Just search blog for “repair”.
  • Martin “the IT Guy” – his two days setting up QuickBooks for multi-user was the biggest single step SunnyMoney made during our time. Smart and funny guy.
  • Catalina and Tim – met by Natalia via her Latinos of Lilongwe towards to end of our stay. Catalina is the arty Argentinan and Tim the English accountant who have seen the world. We wished we had more time to spend with them.
  • The entire SolarAid team for their humor and energy and the team at Accounting For International Development who placed us (and kept an eye on us).

But a special thank you to two couples;

  • Stewart and Diana (my sister-in-law and husband) – our base camp and support group in Temecula, providing vital supplies ranging from iPhone cables and battery packs to underpants. We missed them and their kids the most of all during our travels.
  • Marc and Jenni for helping us get around the globe. This time we’ve flown to see them in Amsterdam to surprise Jenni on a milestone birthday after her surprise European cruise.

Here’s a video of the moment we sprung the trap; Surprising Jenni
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So signing out from Amsterdam for now.

Thank you Malawi. But, How Big Is Your Lake?

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Thank You SunnyMoney

13 days ago we left Malawi after exactly one year living in the capital city of Lilongwe and working at SunnyMoney, the African operations subsidiary of SolarAid. Although we have returned to close friends and family, and consumer luxuries of the US, there has not been a day we haven’t missed Malawi and our friends in Africa.

I’ve a few posts left in me before I wrap-up this blog. I’ve been thinking long and hard about the impact of this year on Natalia and me. I don’t have a sense of revelation or introspection but more a confirmation that the best experiences in life are when you meet people while traveling and, in this case, working abroad. 

I believed in SolarAid/SunnyMoney before I set foot in Malawi – an organization to enable local entrepreneurs to make money from reselling solar lights (thus providing green energy for children to read). I’m an unashamed capitalist who believes society should provide a safety net that’s isn’t too comfortable. But I wondered if that might change after seeing the poverty and struggles in Malawi. It hasn’t – Malawi need industries to be successful to improve the future for their people. And after a year, maybe my only surprise was just how progressive, dedicated and determined the SolarAid/SunnyMoney team is to build a solar industry.

Natalia and I wanted to help this objective and I believe we did. And, like the sustainable objectives of SolarAid/SunnyMoney, we wanted to do this is a way that didn’t generate dependence on us and with results that would last. I feel proud saying our greatest achievement was to leave an organization that didn’t need us anymore and to see a team in play that any CEO would be proud of.

When driving past the Hollywood sign in Los Angeles this weekend I was inspired to share the credits for our year-long adventure at SunnyMoney.

  • Brave Mhonie – now the General Manager of SunnyMoney Malawi and source of energy and inspiration for all those around him. Life is less bright without Brave in it. My Malawian brother. Every day he walked into the office was a great day.

  • Carys Foote (aka Mrs. Mhonie) – Chief Whip and the company compass, and a perfect foil to Brave’s unfettered exuberance.  And, quietly and without fuss, one of most generous and thoughtful persons we’ve ever met.

  • Fishani Msiska – a real talent who earned his stripes over a tumultuous year.  And, my word, we laughed and laughed even during the toughest times. I feel a little cruel saying this but this post was my favorite Malawi story (and there were so many with Fishani) – oh, the look on his face…priceless.

  • Isabel(la) Chirambo – a constant source of entertainment with a lighthearted and uplifting personality. A beautiful person, great friend and the glue that makes any team better. I hope she gets an opportunity to see the world as the world will be better for it.

  • Lucy Mathemba – such strength of character to rebound and flourish after such traumatic events (link). Just the sweetest lady with a most radiant smile, who found my very dormant sensitive side.

  • Donnex Muva – the ultimate Malawian sales professional. A whirlwind of energy and passion that requires a willing Redbull fueled supporting cast to maintain. Just like every salesperson should! Voice like an angel (link) too.

  • Ericho Mhango – he knows how high a complement this is when I say he’s the ultimate United fan. The final piece to the jigsaw for the Lilongwe office –  quietly smart and resourceful and on a path to great things at SunnyMoney and beyond.

  • Mercy Ghambi – “Hello, this is SunnyMoney”, caller; “Who/what/huh?”. Mercy; “SUNNYMONEY!!!”. 20 times a day. I still laugh thinking about it. Mercy is close to my heart as I could see she was not happy in her original role but, when given a new opportunity, she blossomed under Carys’ management, becoming the official smiling face of the company.

  • Sam Ngoma – one day Sam will realize how much everyone likes him. And no-one looks better in the SunnyMoney t-shirt.
  • Saidi Kandulu – Mr. Incognito. Someone will eventually invent a communications device that can make contact with Saidi in the field. Saidi – I expect great things from your talent. Make me proud!!!

  • Joseph Mumbwa – Joseph will be the VP of Sales at a big company. At that point he might thank me for pushing him hard. I only push potential and Joseph has tonnes of it. 
  • Ivy Nkhambule – any capitalist needs some people around them with a social conscience. Ivy was that to me – experienced and very polished, and someone who taught me a lot more that she realized.

  • Martin Mangani – a very unusual salesperson in that he listens to advice and applies it! It’s been fun watching Martin develop his own personal recipe to success. Martin represents the trust and customer service SunnyMoney prides itself on.

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  • Kingsley Msewa – Mr. Cool. He has a career choice of Solar salesperson or jet fighter pilot. Completely unflappable and a true gentlemen. The girls dig him too.

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  • Luke Mhonie – two people responsible for keeping the RAV4 on the road. Wiseman and Luke. No-one better with duct-tape and glue. 

The best team, the best people.
We are forever SunnyMoney.

Phil and Natalia.

SolarMen Do Afropop: The Lost Tapes

Real men do Afropop. 

Especially nice to see Ruben joining in at the end.

We’re on our way home after the to-be-expected panics (new export regulations on wood products when we have suitcases full of them), stresses (trying to sell our luxury car, differing packing strategies on Team-Walton) and the sadness of leaving our friends behind.

We still had time for one more dinner with our friends (and one more United game at Breeze).


And Brave has has now earned the position of the official chairman of the Malawi Manchester United Supporters club (sporting my Killarney’s Bar – Huntington Beach, CA – hat).


And the General Manager of SunnyMoney (SolarAid Malawi). Congratulations buddy – throughly deserved.

I will try to do this experience justice and celebrate all those involved in my next post. That’s a post I really want to think about.

SolarMen at the Goodbye Party

There was a lot of talk about the men of SunnyMoney showing the ladies how Afropop is done but bravado can only get you so far.  Time for dancing.

With time running out we decided our Goodbye party would be the ideal opportunity to spend some time with Chisomo, our friend and Afropop instructor, and put on our show in between two games of English footie (first Liverpool and watching Isabel suffer, and then the important game). Mix with a BBQ, lots of drinks and DJ Brave and you have a great recipe for a Saturday party.

Natalia had taken the day off Friday to clean the house, prepare pots of beans and chickpeas and marinate the meat with Mem’s help (smart as she’s the best cook in Malawi). This cooking marathon spilled into Saturday morning but by 1pm, when Brave, Carys, Isabel and Ericho, and Fishani, Florence and Sam (who was a trooper – he had Malaria) arrived, we were ready.

Pre-performance

A great start (Liverpool were stuffed) and, right on schedule, Chisomo appeared. Patio cleared, music set-up, our SunnyMoney outfits on (except Ericho was wearing his colors) and Brave, Fishani, Ericho and me were ready. The rest of our guests (Fishani and Florence, Violet and Adrian, Mem and Alan, Olivia and Nick, Luke and his buddy) arrived on cue and we had our audience (and medical staff). Our Gardener and Night Guard (Ruben and Dickson) looked on in horror.

Chisomo is not just an incredibly talented dancer but a patient and motivating instructor. She starts each song with a simple move that makes you think “I can do that”. She then adds an additional step, wiggle or jump and before you know it you have a full-on Afropop routine. If you have any rhythm. I tried my best but judge for yourself;

The party raged on and our favorite IT guy, Martin, two of Natalia’s new Latinas in Lilongwe friends (Marcia and Luis) and Emma from Mayamiko.

A great night and much more to tell. But I have a bit of a head cold today.

 

Medieval Night (and NGO Escapism)

A few weeks ago our friend Mem had mentioned there was to be a costume party at the Kumbali Country Lodge on Saturday night. Our first excuse – “we don’t have any costumes” – was shot down as Mem has wardrobes of costumes; she is very arty and has made a hobby of making costumes and hosting/attending parties around the world.

I’m not a fan of costume parties and for non-paid volunteers this was going to be expensive; each ticket was MK20k ($30) but at least this would include food and drinks. What tipped the decision was the opportunity meet Guy and Maureen again (who were so gracious when they had invited us to dinner to their house) and see the Kumbali lodge one last time.

The wheels started to come off this plan the week before when we heard the location for this party was not going to be at the Kumbali lodge but at The Shack, a Sports Bar with sand volley ball courts, where my only prior visit gave me food poisoning from a badly cooked burger (before a long drive to Nkhatabay). And my greatest crime of all was not researching the football schedule before agreeing to this event as it was to be held at the same time as the Manchester United game.

Pictures of the stage being constructed where circulated via WhatsApp during the preceding week and clearly a lot of work was going into a putting on an extravagant Medieval night. To make matters a little more interesting I had obviously eaten something that disagreed with me Friday night and woke up Saturday with fish hooks in my stomach that was emitting gurgling noises like Frankenstein’s Lab. Or maybe it was just the thought of returning to the Shack.

I think you can see where this is going. I wasn’t in the best frame of mind to be going to this event which made my choice outfit especially fitting.

Confused Grim Reaper

The Grim Reaper/Emperor from Star Wars. Either suited my mood. At least the tunic provided easy access to the toilet.  This was the fun part of the evening, meeting up with Mem and Alan, and their son Darren (who was celebrating a great set of O-level results).

I returned the ax to Darren, who was an Executioner, although Mem wanted it for her outfit too: she had been very creative and was a fearsome female warrior. Natalia was a court princess (how appropriate) meanwhile Alan’s costume was confusing; a mix of Julius Caesar and a french impressionist painter.

The group picture was outside the Shack and it was difficult not to be impressed with the amount of work that had been put into preparing for this event. It was a full-on medieval set-up, complete with archery, maypole (for the girls to dance around) and a central court yard for pillow fighting, chariot races and a sanitized form of jousting. With a court jester as the master of ceremonies;

Medieval Festival and Court Jester

Drinks weren’t included (you had to buy a drinks ticket) and with only premium drinks available. Good job I wasn’t fit enough for drinking (yes, I was that sick).

It was at this point I realized there was only white faces in the audience. This was a NGO crowd; a bunch of highly intellectual westerners earning western salaries in a country with a low cost of living. I don’t begrudge them for wanting to escape from their work lives – it can be tough living here and frustrating dealing the local bureaucracies. But it all felt a little elitist, especially knowing the tickets were slightly almost equal to the month salaries of our gardener and night guard. This didn’t sit well with me.

During an intermission in the entertainment, we lined up for the food. Suckling pig that apparently been roasted for hours. But it was cold and suspiciously pink.

Sunday was spent in bed and later on the sofa.

 

Tithandizane Women Group (Lucy IV)

Today we visited the Tithandizane Women Group in Ziyenda village, just outside of Lilongwe, and donated SM100 solar lights paid for by five readers on this blog after hearing about our favorite SunnyMoney employee, Lucy (here’s the background; LucyLucy II and Lucy III).

I never expected to receive these donations and the amount sent was incredibly generous, beyond what Lucy needed to get back on her feet. After much discussion, including with Lucy, we ensured Lucy was able to start a new life away from her attacker and then funded an Employee Welfare Fund to support any future employee crises. And the balance we would give to a local charity that support women who have been through the same ordeal as Lucy.

It’s harder than you think finding such a group but Lucy did; the Tithandizane women care for the elderly, orphans, disabled and all those in need in their community. Lucy had proposed this group to Fishani, the chairperson of the Employee Welfare Fund, and he had the bright idea to convert these remaining funds into (discounted) solar lights. Fishani arranged a date and time and the three of us and 40 solar lights headed off for a 1pm ‘meeting’.

Although 15 minutes outside of Lilongwe, the capital city of Malawi, this village (like 99% of the rural villages) is accessed by a potholed dusty road and is off the electricity grid with no power or lights. We turned into the community central area we realized this wasn’t going to be an informal meeting. The whole village seemed to have shown up to greet us – the chairperson, Ellen Kholoua, had even had prepared an agenda.

Agenda

The women launched into a welcome song(s) and we were treated like guests of honor. Very touching and luckily captured on video – you have to watch this; Tithandizane women ITithandizane women II and Tithandizane women (with a jig from Fishani) with some nice shots of Lucy and Fishani.

Ellen explained the role of this group in their community; they collect savings from those able to care for themselves and use to buy soap, salt and battery torches for those they care for. Top marks Fishani; these toxic torches are the scourge of Malawi as they only last for a few weeks in an environment bathed in wonderful and endless solar light. So our lights were a big hit.

The Chief of Ziyenda village also gave a short and sincere speech, even showing his official ‘Chief ID’ card. Ellen translated for me when she could and Fishani gave the speech on behalf of SunnyMoney, explaining the events resulting in the donated lights. The kids seemed fascinated by the RAV4 which is now covered with small dusty hand prints.

Then the singing and dancing continued and we asked Ellen to video a ‘thank you’ to 4 of the 5 donors (I’m under oath to keep the 5th’s anonymity); Sloane White, Juliana Fermin  and Alma Boutin-Martinez and ‘a friend of Mark Rutherford’ (sorry about that – the cameraman was hopeless).

Just a wonderful feeling to help direct the generosity of others in a way that so clearly will make a direct and significant impact on people’s lives.  Sloane, Juliana, Alma, Mark’s Friend and Mystery Man #5: Lucy, the employees of SunnyMoney and the women of Tithandizane all thank you.

In fact, this experience so perfectly crystallized the reason for SunnyMoney/SolarAid’s existence we decided we will maintain a supporting role to this group. We’re trying to bring solar to the whole of Malawi but we’re also going to take a much more active role in the work of the Tithandizane Women’s group.

Ellen was so charismatic and a joy to be around.

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We drove off to more songs and the kids running down the street behind the RAV4. An amazing experience.

A few people have asked how they can help Lucy and other women in need in Malawi. We’re going to direct any future donations to this group. For those who would like to help please type “Tithandizane” in the ‘Please Tell Us Why You’re Supporting the Solar Revolution‘ in the Donate Now form and we’ll make sure this is used for more solar lights for this wonderful group of women.

Solar Afropop

The girls in the office don’t believe Brave, Fishani and I will ever record our Afropop routine – once Brave is back we will do this although the window of opportunity is getting a little tight. But this will be a one-off fund raising event.

But Natalia and Isabel have forged ahead with the own scheme, using tonight’s Afropop class as showcase for SunnyMoney products. Meanwhile, after I delivered the ladies and Fishani and I helped setup the lights, we quickly made our escape (before we got recruited into the class) and went for a beer at a local bar.

Greedy landlords and the increasingly frequent power cuts are a problem for the dance instructor, Chisomo. This week she arranged the class at Ntonya Primary school in Area 47 but, of course, the power was off. Area 47 doesn’t house many government officials so this Area suffers most.

Of course, this means Isabel and Natalia saved the day with our lights and they were able to complete all the moves (“pull your pants up”, “check your watch”, “drive your car”, “put on your jacket”), including “stand and chat” below, bathed in glorious SunnyMoney light.

Solar Afropop III

Now, you may have spotted a fella in this picture. That’s Nick, a super nice chap, who does yoga and saw the class in the local WhatsApp chat group and thought he would give it a shot. Oh boy, this has caused problems.

After months enforcing a division of labor (girls do Afropop, boys sit on the sofa and watch Sky sports) I fear this domestic issue will only be solved by me attending the class next week.  I need to have a quiet chat with Nick.

Natalia also met Olivia who has just arrived in Lilongwe, with her husband Ted coming to Malawi to work for Peace Corps the exact day we leave. Damn shame, as they seem a lot of fun and would be great additions to the gang. They need a car too and are interested in the RAV4, which is running perfectly and just in need of some minor work. But to ensure I can sell the car with a clean conscience I’m off to Wiseman Saturday to get a clean bill of health…

 

 

 

 

Where is Brave?!

Over the last few months, I have felt a growing sense of optimism in Malawi. When we arrived in September 2016, it was hot and dry, with daily water and power cuts. There was a slight air of desperation in the country- there had been 2-years of droughts and then floods with severe consequences on the food supply. Many people in the rural communities were starving and the country was dependent on foreign aid.

This year Malawi has had a bumper harvest. So good in fact, the Malawi government has lifted the ban on exporting maize, the staple food. The cash this year’s crop has generated is starting to filter through the economy. There is more traffic in the markets, with more household items being purchased rather than just food. And of course, the bars have been getting a little busier.

Therefore, this weekend some field research. Coincidentally, it was the English Premier League season kick off too, with the important game Sunday night. After assessing the various options we settled for our old favorite, The Breeze Bar (in Area 47).  I’m so used to the Brave/Violet/Phil fan club I was even discussing the pre-match details with Brave when we wasn’t there.

Brave - missing in action

So where was he? How could Brave not be front and central at The Breeze? The title picture is Brave in Guernsey visiting the in-laws with Carys, although I might have blown his “I’m just stepping out for some milk” cover story. Sorry Brave – but we miss you.

But I sought solace in a few Greens and experienced the joy all over again of being in a country inflicted with football fever. What a great atmosphere in the bar – I just can’t believe my luck that I see every game with my United-certified buddies and then I can talk smack with the non-believers after:

How Do Like Them Apples

That was Isabel, our office Liverpool fan, demonstrating something called sportsmanship. As the world’s worst loser her generous nature is lost on me and she grumbled this morning that we didn’t invited her (a Liverpool  fan to a United game?). I almost felt guilty. So we’re now planning a Game 2 (both the United and then the Liverpool game) party rolling to Fishani’s house for next Saturday. Brave will be there in spirit.

But is was so good to see a small slice of the country enjoying itself after a torrid 2-years. Natalia and I had almost completely forgotten the water and power issues of last year.

We returned home this evening to a dark house – the power cuts have officially started again.

 Small Apes

We’re going through our list of things to do before we leave. Today, on the way back from some grocery shopping, the Vervet Monkeys were waiting for us. I was asked to pull over, with the urgency as if I had struck a baby deer, and we spent 20 minutes posing with the monkeys of Lilongwe.

The police were lining the road –  a sure indicator the President was due to make a drive through – so I was in no mood to hang around. But monkey-trumps-Phil (and then President) in our house so we pulled over.

I’m very protective of our groceries. And I’m not a fan of celery. So when asked by Natalia to find something to feed the monkeys I gave her a couple of sticks of celery.

Natalia broke the celery into pieces and threw them into the grass. I’m no primatologist but the monkey looked at her, then me, with the look of “I’m not eating that shit”.

So I gave Natalia an apple which she bit into chunks to share with her friends. Discovery channel stuff. The moment captured on video: Goodbye To The Monkeys