Mzuzu

Malawi has made a great first impression, although it is obvious people are poor. Everyone I’ve met has been genuinely lovely, although short enough to make you wonder about childhood malnutrition. Everyone is shorter than me, apparently I’ve ‘got American height.’

A sign saying "Pay your city rates for a better Mzuzu. My city, my responsibility.

I love dilapidated modernist buildings that aren’t as functional as the architect hoped, so I was a fan right from the ATM-free airport. We had to wash our hands in 95% chlorine and fill in a form asking if we’d been to China recently, but otherwise no one seemed that bothered about whether we met the requirements to receive a visa.

The charity, Temwa, sent Blessings the taxi driver to meet me and a college from Bristol who is out for a few weeks. Equipped with Malawian SIM cards, phone credit and, of course, his taxi, Blessings was chosen as he is a safe driver and unrelated to the staff team.  The CEO’s brother and the husband of a woman in the finance department drive taxis but rather touchingly it was felt sending one of them to get us would be verging on corruption.

I thought Malawi looked surprisingly like northern Cuba, although with significantly more coffin shops. We passed through Jenda, where Blessings explained the border with Zambia runs right through the houses. He has visited all of Malawi’s next-door-neighbours and was interested to see the ways they’re similar to Malawi and the things they do differently. He says it is clear that they’re all more developed, but that what he loves best about Malawi is that the people are peaceful. He says that the people disagree with each other, but when it is clear that they can’t win the looser just gives up rather than making a fight. We also passed Kasungu, my brother’s local town when he spent summers coaching football in Malawi.

After about seven hours, thick fog, a giant pothole even Blessings couldn’t save us from, and a lorry that had lost two wheels and spun across the road almost blocking it, we arrived in Mzuzu. We were met at our guesthouse-cum-office by Peter, a Londoner who spends chunks of his retirement helping Temwa Malawi with whatever it is finance departments do. He’d cooked for us and stocked the fridge with ‘greens’ – Carlsberg beer, earning our eternal gratitude in the process.

Although Peter only had one full day left before flying home he took us out for lunch and dinner and showed us some local necessities. Our CEO nominated himself to take us past all the bars ‘so people would see us with him and know to react appropriately to us.’ This crash course introduction to Mzuzu was particularly welcome as after only two nights in our new beds we were off to our project office in remote Usisya. None the less Mzuzu feels surprisingly like home for a town I’ve barely seen.

Icelandic trees and elections

Autumn is pretty much over, which is a shame because it was nice while it lasted. When I’m working out of the Breðholt office my commute takes me through Elliðárdalur Park, home of Reykjavik’s salmon river, complete with waterfalls, and lots of feral bunnies with attendant carrot wielding Icelandic children. I’ve enjoyed watching the poplar trees go from mainly green to pretty much bare over my time here.

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It’s not Waterloo Bridge, but it has it’s charms

Both Man Bun and his boss, who I’m told was a TV journalist my parents would be excited by if they were Icelandic, have told me that whether poplars in particular and afforestation in general are good or not is THE the generational divide. They told me this separately, and must be 30 years apart in age. Man Bun is too reasonable to really lay into the tree haters, but TV journo left me unsure of his commitment to impartiality. Apparently poplars grow too tall & destroy the lines of the landscape, obscure the view, precipitate neighbours’ disputes, and are non-native anyway.

It’s illegal to cut down trees older than 30 years old, making forestry a rare area where youth are overcoming the status quo. The city planting is mainly rowan, which I love, but I’m either underestimating how passionate people are about poplars or Man Bun & TV Journo are in denial about Iceland’s biggest social cleavage; the election is on Saturday.

The government fell when it emerged the Prime Minister and head of The Independence Party, which has governed off but mainly on since Iceland split from Denmark, had tried to cover up the fact his father had written a letter to ‘restore the honour’ of an unrepentant convicted paedophile. Bright Futures left the ruling right-wing coalition, and new elections were called a year and a day after the previous ones. These had been held because the Panama Papers’ revelations about the then PM collapsed the old coalition, headed by the other right-wing party, the so-called Progressive Party.

The current prime minister was implicated in both the Ashley Madison scandal and the Panama Papers. Everyone I know hates him, but his campaign video of him making a cake is the most liked in Icelandic political history. The old PM is also back with a new party, complete with acidic new logo, and is polling very respectably despite the circles I role in finding people liking him incomprehensible.

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If you google ‘horse vector’ this little pony is the first thing that comes up. 

The volunteers for the project I launched on Wednesday are optimistic the Left-Greens will finally overtake the Independence Party, who drop their share of the vote at every election, as the largest party. The office is doubtful, and don’t think they are left enough or green enough anyway. One of the volunteers, who comes across as completely reasonable and not in any way a conspiracy nut job, said it doesn’t matter if the Independence Party fails to get a single vote, all the judges and police chiefs are party members.

The Establishment certainly manages to protect its own when it comes to sex crimes, this is not the first controversial ‘restoration of honour’ for powerful men convicted of rape and pedophilia. Meanwhile an Icelandic newspaper has been banned from publishing on the current PM’s financial dealings in the run up to the collapse by the Reykjavik District Commissioner. This is controversial as the election will have happened by the time the courts examine the injunction, and the Commissioner is a member of the same party as the PM.

The flip side of Iceland’s low professional standards is how can-do almost everyone is, and how easy it is to get involved in things. My other boss H is standing for Bright Futures, the guy who shares our Breðholt office is on the list for the Pirates, someone who volunteers on our refugee hikes represented first the Social Democrats and then Bright Future in the Alþing before deciding he’d done his time, and pretty much everyone seems to have run for president. Working at an NGO does self-select for an interest in current affairs, but people are personally invested to a greater degree than at home.  

Everyone in my office has suddenly started working more effectively to create more time to sit around chatting politics. Man Bun & The Pirate in particular have been absolute babes about doing it in English, I think partly out of gratitude for the amount of what is more properly their work that I’m doing. It all pretty cosy when we rock up, which is nice as we arrive just as the sun rises, the park is now icy and its dark again at six thirty so you really need to enjoy the not quite winter days. 

Stalking

When I brought a ten trip pass to Reykjavik’s climbing wall I was surprised when the guy on the desk asked if I knew my kennitala, the Icelandic equivalent of a national insurance number, had been processed.

The kennitala is the first thing we enter into our database when we are adding a new volunteer. This is connected to the national registry, saving me the tedious task of entering their name and address but blowing my mind.

I tried processing someone with bad handwriting and, no matter what numbers I used, I kept on getting a ‘kennitala doesnt exist error’ message with no way to proceed.

I asked my boss Þ, who I will now refer to as Man Bun, what to do. He said it was no biggy, he’d find the actual kennitala through his internet banking. He logged in and discovered the are are three people with the same name as this woman in Iceland, but you also get a handy link to their house on Google Street View and only one of them lived in Greater Reykjavik, so it was easy to work out which one it was. Man Bun said she had a nice house, but I was too busy looking at him like he was the representative of a freakishly freaky society of freaks to really notice.

It was very obvious that he didn’t think using online banking to find the names, addresses and national insurance numbers of compleat strangers was odd, but I asked anyway. He said he had maybe taken a small risk and explained a record is kept of people who look up a kennitala, so if any money or anything goes missing the police know where to look. I asked about stalking, he said they have a law against that now. I asked about other sex crimes, he pointed out the majority are committed by people the victim knows. I asked about identity theft, he conceded that this is probably easier if you can find out everything about someone through your banking, but it didnt seem to be an issue. We looked at each other in a way that said ‘what’s your problem,’ we got back to work. 

Once you’ve found someone’s kennitala you can do all sorts of enjoyable things, like find how much tax they pay or how (not if, if you’re both Icelandic) you are related. Unwilling to let anyone  miss out on the fun, midwives issue your kennitala the day you’re born. The first six digits are your date of birth. Man Bun tried to find out how midwives come up with the next four numbers. I gather everyone thought he should focus on the birth of his second child, but he thinks the midwives are issued random number generators.

Despite Icelandic post people being able to look at your house through the banking app of their choice they won’t drop your letters off unless your name is on your door. I don’t know why they won’t take someone living in a building on trust, but they won’t. We didn’t realise this till after the post office had tried and failed to deliver our kennitalas, so it’s been pretty convenient that people have been able to fish them out of their banking so we can buy swimming passes and things.

Man Bun did say that all though he is completely fine with all this emotionally, intellectually he can see it is strange if you aren’t used to it. None the less he is as interested in my surprise as I am by his acceptance. He claims that one-third of Icelanders’ willingness to hand over their DNA to deCODE’s project synthesising the nation and cross referencing it to genealogical records is unrelated to their blasé attitude to privacy and is instead all about the t-shirt you get as a thank you. I don’t belive him, and got him on the defensive when he admitted vague privacy concerns had stopped him contributing his own genome. He rallied, and said it was only inertia and his inability to focus that stopped him overcoming his his worries about privacy. Of course deCODE’s research is really the best advert for a laid back approach to privacy around, I just dont share it.   

Mayonnaise in the Mid-Atlantic

The first processed food available in Iceland was Gunnar’s mayonnaise, first produced in 1960. As recipes in Icelandic cookbooks said you could make mayo with clean paraffin if you were out of cooking oil I feel confident saying it was a vast improvement despite having yet to try the stuff, and Iceland went wild for it. My boss says it was in everything, and that mayonnaise cake was particularly popular at confirmations. I gather mayonnaise cake is a giant club sandwich, filled with mayo & salad, covered in mayo ‘icing’ which then has piped mayo decorations on top.

I’d describe myself as wildly pro mayonnaise, but this is too much. I think my face betrayed my feelings, because my boss pointed out he wasn’t even born until 1989.

Gunnar, apparently, thought it would be nice to have some international recognition, and decided to break the world record for biggest mayonnaise jar. He commissioned a giant tub, but was very surprised to get a letter from the Guinness Book of World Records, saying that it didn’t count unless he actually put mayonnaise in it. Gunnar thought this was extremely wasteful, and that being big in Iceland was enough after all.

Apparently the mayo jar that could have been the biggest in the world is on a roundabout in Hafnarfjörður, my boss’s home town. I’m considerably more impressed than he is.

Neither ice cold, nor in Alex

We arranged to collect our Lybian visas from the consulate in Alexandria. The paperwork was processed in Tripoli, and inevatably took longer to come through than it should. We quite enjoyed not doing much and hanging out in art deco cafes. Llwelyn, instead of feeling that not having read the Alexandria quatet diminished his enjoyment of the experiance, was so taken by the atmospheare he decided he could write his own book about the city. Slightly after we got board our paperwork came through and we skipped of to the consulate, like lambs gamboling en rout to the abatour. much to our suprise the conulate told us to fill in some forms and come back next week.
Our visa service provider assured us the wasnt anything to worry about so we hopped on a bus to Siwa, an oasis anoyingly close to Lybia, where we cycled around looking at ruins qnd cooling of in guide-book-blue springs.
Prehaps you can see where this is going; the consulate said Tripoli had revoked our visas. We spoke to our visa providers in Tripoli, who confermed everything was OK. Over the last week, which we spent in Alex waving forms outside the consulate, we have hered every single plausable exscuse for them not stamping our 400 doller visas into our passports. weve had a good range of totaly unbelivable reasons as well.

After six days of consulate fun we were overcome by rightious anger, bordam induced mania and the realisation that we couldnt imagine life without daily consulate bothering. Obviosly we needed to escape, so booked flights to Tunisia. I was worried about how quickly Id become compleatly ok with boardom and routien. Then as we booked our flights we noticed the meal options included a bland food option. If the are people out there who find a standad airoplane meal too exciting I have a long way to go before turning into a total drone.

Tunis seems strange after Egypt. Somehow by seeming so European its very forign. Things seem to shut at night; people drink alchool in the streets, the ice cream is kick ass. But then when we returned to our hostel after a spot of shisha in the old city a weding was underway in the hostals commen room. We escaped it into a Gaza solidarity thing where we were molested by drunks. It seems like Tunis has multipal personality disorder; but it could be that anything other than the Lybian cosulate is too confusing for me to deal with.

Sorry about the spellng and punctuation. This keyboards been compiled by someone who values originality in key placement, the keys stick, the punctuation marks are disguised as other kinds of punctation marks and the spell checker is in French.

Egypt Vs Syria. 3 differences.

Egypt finds American wrestling hypnotic. I never saw a Syrian cafe with wrestling on TV.

Syria doesn’t have the idea that one can where flip flops outdoors. This is reflected in the language, they call them slippers. Syria is as surprised to see ‘slippers’ in the street as we would be to see some one whereing their pink, fluffy numbers on a bus. The only person in Egypt not wearing flip flops is Llwyelyn, who says he’s traveling so lightweight he can’t take any.

In Syria women were everywhere. Even in early June one saw rich girls in posh cafes and students flirting with each other, despite the revolution turning into a war. Cairo has women. Aswan and Luxor have children or mothers, nothing in between. Hear in Alex their are trendy young things, but even so womens hair surprises us in a way it didn’t in Damascus.

God, Syria, Freedom

Imagine Monday night in Damascus. Someone’s playing gitare on the balcony. I’m crushing garlic and dancing like a loon with the guy cutting the onions, our arak is on the side. The head chef is requesting a malbrour light and changing the music. We haven’t had cooking gas for almost three weeks and we’re happy to be hanging out together. Inevitably over the food the conversation turns to politics. My Arab friends don’t have time for any news other than their own, and we’re arguing if it’s just the Middle East that’s going to hell in a hand cart.

‘Mate,’ I say. ‘Half of Spain’s under twenty fives are unemployed.’

‘Yeah, well that’s just economics. It’s only us that are doomed, cus only we have too much religion.’

Just then the chanting in the street started. ‘Allahwakbar, Alalahwakbar.’

 

We’re all tripping over each other running out on to find out what’s happening. The protesters change to ‘something something Syria, something Freedom,’ which rhymes in Arabic. We can’t see anything, but it sounds like maybe 50 people shouting. The Syrians over that night are both vaguely pro government, but even they look excited. On of the Iraqis was practically joining in. Our neighbours all either went out on to the balcony, or slammed the shutters down. Less than two minutes later it’s over. Since it became obvious that the regime had no compulsion about gunning down unarmed masses protesters have hit one street for a very short amount of time, then dispersed and reassembled somewhere else before anyone can phone security. There’s nothing new, except that we live 5 minutes away from the president.

DnnaDnnaDnna Dnna CATMAN

If you can think of anything stupider than living on the edge of a war
zone with to kittens, it’s doing it with an additional rabbit. My
flatmates been away, and cat man wanted to organise a surprise for her
to come home to.
‘Do you think I should buy her a rabbit,’ cat man asked. We only talk
in Arabic, so it wasn’t until he’d hopped around my living room that
I could say to him, ‘verily I do not think that is a good idea.’ he
looked up at me, twitched his little nose and let his arm ears droop.
‘Why?’ he asked soulfully.
‘Because we cannot take a rabbit when we run away from Syria, and the
finding it a new home will be difficult and we already have cats,’ I
said.

I forgot about our conversation until cat man appeared on our
doorstep with a paper bag. In it was an adorable little bunny. ‘I have
a rabbit,’ he said. ‘I see,’ I replied trying to look stern as my
heart melted. ‘Did you ask the Iraqi about it?’ ‘Fuck him,’ said
catman in English with feeling, disappearing into my absent flatmates
room. Shortly afterwards there was a high pitch squeal, and cat man was
back, bunny in one hand, potato in the other. ‘Can you look after the
rabbit,’ he said, looking a bit crestfallen. ‘The cats don’t
understand he is their brother.’

Personally, I saw that one coming, and I wasn’t at all surprised that
the Iraqi wasn’t pleased to come home to a rabbit. I was surprised to
see him shriek and leap onto the sofa like a madam aunt confronted
with a mouse though. Apparently in Iraq it’s well known that if a
rabbit digs a hole it represents the grave of its owner. His
grandfather brought a rabbit to eat, but it dug a hole and outlived
its buyer, so that proves it. We’ve pointed out that as we live in a
flat and have no intention of purchasing the rabbit one of those
drills for digging up roads it won’t be making any holes. He’s now
campaigning to pierce its ears.

As a present the rabbit was a bit of a disappointment, and it ate a
fair few cables before its new human returned and brought a cage, cat
man just having brought the cheap and cute part of the present.

Clearly the bunny wasn’t a bright idea. He may have raised the average
IQ of the flat though.

The romantic entanglements of my Iraqi roommate

Springs pretty much over here, the gap between too cold and too hot lasts about two weeks here. None the less love is in the air and my flatmate is suffering. When I went to Lebanon to see some family he was chasing a completely unsuitable Syrian girl. not only was she crazily jealous (not wanting him to live with women, or go out without her) she was also uninterested in him and uninteresting in of herself.

While I was gone he got us two kittens. They’re incredibly cute but hardly a good thing to have in a country which we’d all leave within the lifespan of an average cat even if it wasn’t for the war. His Iraqi friends all say he’s done it to get girls, needless to say the girls he’s already got do all the work associated with pet ownership. His whole attitude towards them is different to ours – he wants to remove their claws, we say its bad for them, he thinks they need washing, we assure him, with partial success, that they don’t. Our different perception of the kittens, their role in our lives and place in society has come to a head.

The is this girl. She’s the one. They got talking at a western coffee chain, and he showed her pictures of our kittens. Now, we think luring girls back to the house with the power of furry creatures is ok. He thinks that’s rushing things a bit. Clearly she does to, as she asked him to take the kittens to the coffee shop.

My other flatmate got a phone call. She was pretty pissed off about the way her help was demanded, and she said no, on the grounds that a girl silly enough to want a small kitten transported on a rattily old servicee to a packed coffee shop is too silly to be worth it. While he implied he wouldn’t do it, he did. The girl hasn’t called.

….

Politically we have all the fun of elections. I wouldn’t buy a used car from any of em, nor would I buy a single – most of them look like Arab pop stars, slightly greasy and entirely untrustworthy. One of my friends said he’s planning on monitoring them. I was so proud of his commitment to civic society, although admittedly worried about his naivety, until he told me he was getting paid 2000L for doing it.

Smashed heads and Blackouts.

Musy, an Iraqi friend, is homesick. We don’t really know what to do to cheer him up, we tried wearing fake moustaches, but it only worked temporarily. We think it’s all the killing that’s making him miss Bagdad, but it might have been footage from the Arab league. He’s spending an unhealthy amount of time curled up on the sofa in front of Ash Shaksia, an Iraqi TV station, listening to his native dialect.

‘What are you watching, Musy?’

‘Umm, in Iraq you only get electricity for a maximum of 12 hours a day. All the neighbourhoods have massive generators, that can supply you with electricity when the government electricity’s off, but its expensive, maybe 40$ a month. They are poor people, and the channel is asking them stupid questions. The winner gets 24hr a day electricity for 3 months.’

‘Kinda like who wants to be a millionaire, but for electricity?’

‘Yeah. The private electricity used to be really, crazily expensive, but now the government won’t let them charge more than a certain price and sells them cheap petrol.’

We watch together in silence.

‘You know, Baghdadi is incomprehensible.’

‘Yep. Oh, that is a hard question. Who started wearing wristwatches first, the British, Italians or the French?’

Ash Shaksia broadcasts other programs that are grotesquely distorted by Iraq’s social reality. They take home makeovers a bit more seriously, instead of varnishing the floorboards they knock down small, illegally and dangerously built houses belonging to poor people and replace them with safer, more structurally sound buildings. They don’t do a weight loss show, but they do go round poor neighbourhoods asking how much people weigh. If the contestant knows their weight, within five kilograms either way, they get the same amount of dollars. Instead of ‘I slept with my wife’s brother,’ shows they use DNA testing to try and find people lost in the invasion or under Saddam. Musy says the soaps are really good, but he has shitty taste in movies. We often watch their news broadcasts.

Musy is also a bit of a hero at the moment. Tuesday was the 5 month anniversary of the protest at the private universities. The guy who organised the one at Musies’ has been missing ever since, and on Tuesday the anti students stood in silence to honour him. The 10 percent of students that support the regime apparently started screaming ‘Allah, Syria and Bashar.’ The protesters started chanting ‘freedom’ and the pros shut the doors, phoned the Shabiha and attacked. As 40 percent of the students want change violence wasn’t going to get Assad’s supporters very far and the university security could handle things. Until the Shabiha arrived. According to Musy administration and security both assured the Shabiha they had everything under control, but the Shabiha don’t negotiate. Some pro students let them in, and they indiscriminately lashed out at people with clubs and rifle-butts.

Musy ended up at our house with blood all over his shirt; if it was from a nosebleed then he’s an elephant. His eyes had the glazed look I associate with too much exercise. We fed him tea and beer and he told us what happened. After the Shabiha started ‘smashing’ people as many anti students as possible rushed to the busses that take the students to the university, miles out of town on the Dera highway. Inside the building their was blood everywhere, Musy carried people who’d fainted from the gore and watching people being smashed out to the clinic as well as injured students. Happily the universities impressive facilities include a good clinic, only the most seriously injured protesters needed ambulances. Pro students started directing the violence, telling the Shabiha which of their class mates were anti, and the Shabiha really beat them. ‘How did it end?’ I asked.’

‘The beasts arrested all the antis they could get. They weren’t soldiers, they were animals. They were enjoying it, the smashing. They really hated the anti students. I’m an Iraqi, I’ve seen violence, I’ve seen al-Qaeda, I’ve had to shoot someone, but I’ve never seen anything like that, that much hatred. They weren’t people. They were beasts.’