Sea to summit

The beautiful massif of Mt. Mulanje - photo credit: Leah Karels

The beautiful massif of Mt. Mulanje – photo credit: Leah Karels because my phone no es trabajando

Sometimes my blog posts aren’t entirely representative of the topic or theme I’m trying to write about, and at no time is this more apparent than when something contrives to keep me from properly documenting a vacation. In this case, it was rain, rain, more rain, and a faulty kayak. Jiminy Cricket, I didn’t know it was physically possible for it to rain that much. Me and water, we don’t get along so well. So this is my excuse for why I only have pictures from two separate hours of my 312-hour trip.

In lieu of copious notes and gigabytes of photos, none of which I now have because of inclement weather and technological difficulties, here, have a list instead:

23 – different buses and taxis that I squeezed my wet behind into

28 – times we started to try to speak to someone in Bemba, then got blank stares and asked if they spoke English instead

15 – times they did indeed speak English

16,000 – total elevation gained, lost, skidded, tripped, and fallen over the course of four days on Mt. Mulanje

Heading to our first night's camp after a three-hour climb up a slippery staircase

Heading to our first night’s camp after a three-hour climb up a slippery staircase

4 – different distances we received when asking fellow busgoers how far away the next town was

0 – number of fellow busgoers who were right

5 – times that my buddy Sam and I accidentally flipped our kayak

1 – Sea to Summit dry bag that ended up being not quite as dry as advertised

3 – phones lost to water damage

1 – kilograms of rice bought in a futile attempt to remove water from said phones

37 – photos taken of spectacular sunsets at Cape Maclear

I mean, come on, the fact that places can even look like this isn't fair

I mean, come on, the fact that places can even look like this isn’t fair

11 – samosas bought from street vendors

8 – times I asked street vendors selling memory cards, shoes, yogurt, sodas, and candy if they also sold meatballs

0 – actual meatballs bought from street vendors

113,000 – Malawian kwacha spent on what I can now only surmise must have been mostly street food

1 – place we had to wade through a river because the road that was supposed to be there…wasn’t

43 – people I now know it is possible to cram into the back of a small canter truck with the bedspace of a Toyota Tundra

9 – funny signs I saw and photographed intending to start a “funny signs in Africa” series

1 – picture I have remaining of funny signs

Just one of several amusing signs/names I spotted in Malawi

Just one of several amusing signs/names I spotted in Malawi



Fun with glow sticks

Last week, ten volunteers organized and hosted a 5-day GLOW (Girls Leading Our World) camp in Mansa for 14 students and 7 adult mentors from communities throughout Luapula Province. The camp was a smashing success and great fun was had by all as we raved with glow sticks, made s’mores, and taught a delighted pack of pre-teen girls how to do the Wobble in between actual educational sessions on topics such as assertiveness, reproductive health, income-generating activities, HIV/AIDS sensitization, and gender equality.

On the second-to-last day of camp, a British expat working with a local NGO came to assist with a sanitary pad workshop and mentioned that a girls’ group in a district further north in the province was doing a similar project, to great success. These girls were teaching and promoting the use of sanitary pads to classmates in their free time, away from school, because school policy forbade them from coming to class when they were on their periods. The really neat part though, she told us, was that evidently the leaders of the group, two young girls barely of menstruating age themselves and one older woman on the local PTA, had all learned how to make these sanitary pads at a camp which a Peace Corps volunteer had brought them to the year prior.

The first thing that came to mind was wow, that unsuspecting volunteer hit a sustainable development success story gold mine! I wonder who it is? Then it dawned on me: hey, the mentor I brought to last year’s Camp GLOW was a member of the PTA. I asked the woman what the name of the community was, and she told me that the group was in Nshinda. I swallowed. I live in Nshinda. That unsuspecting volunteer was me.

I should have been happy. Proud, even. But instead, all I could feel was embarrassment — I’d had absolutely no idea that this was going on at all. All of my attempts to start a GLOW group at the school with the teachers following the previous year’s GLOW camp had sputtered and died like a lawnmower running over an old shoe. I felt guilty for receiving accolades for something I didn’t do, ignorant for being completely oblivious that this was going on in my community without my knowing, and a little miffed that nobody who did know had told me about it.

Only later, after some conversations with more clear-headed volunteers, was I eventually made to understand that my not knowing about the girls’ group was not an indictment of my failure at community integration. Not only do the girls not speak English and I not know the words for period, menstruation, blood, or sanitary pad in Icibemba, but it wouldn’t matter even if we were best pals who chatted it up in homeroom every Wednesday morning, because talking about menstrual cycles and female genitalia in public is taboo in Zambian culture (and probably no less so if you’ve got a conspicuous foreign male in your midst). One friend reminded me gently that in America, most 7th and 8th grade girls would rather die than discuss their periods with their cute young male teacher. The only way that this group could have been a safe place for pre-teen and teenaged female students to learn and ask questions about periods and sanitary pads was if I were not involved at all.

Slightly mollified but still feeling like a bad volunteer, I resumed working on the slideshow that I was compiling for presentation the following day at the end of camp. But looking through the images captured during the week and then watching the campers’ sparkling eyes the next morning as they watched raptly and giggled every time they or their friends made an appearance on screen, I began to realize that it didn’t matter that I was in the dark about this. The fact that these girls and this mentor had the initiative and drive and leadership to create this project entirely on their own speaks volumes to the core of true development that it is building, a foundation that will remain long after the lines in a Peace Corps volunteer’s resume have eroded away. I realized that this camp is for these girls and women, not for me. It doesn’t matter what I try to do with it, it only matters what they choose to do with it. With this newfound knowledge and experience, these girls are carrying back with them seeds of inspiration that have the potential to grow and change some small but important part of their community, in their small but important part of our world.

And if they can do that, then I’ll be fine never seeing a sanitary pad or hearing about menstrual cycles. Because, I mean, really? That’s gross.


I just returned from a two-week road trip through Namibia. It’s a pretty amazing place. Where else in the world can you go to Oktoberfest with a crowd of transplanted lederhosen-wearing Germans, drive a few hours and go on a self-guided game drive where you nearly get your Toyota Corolla trampled by an elephant, drive another few hours and eat oysters and sip champagne while watching whales, then drive a few hours more and spot wild cheetahs while on your way to climbing the highest sand dune on the planet? Seven other volunteers and I logged over 2,519 kilometers in two subcompact cars, spent 87 hours in buses, slogged several miles through sand, and I didn’t do laundry once. Sorry, guys.

The emperor’s new groove

I used to collect butterflies and moths as a kid. I’d spend hours running around our farm in California’s Central Valley, chasing after painted ladies and tiger swallowtails and cabbage butterflies. I’d spend even more (and decidedly less fruitful) hours watching grossly swollen tomato hornworms that I’d placed into mason jars, waiting for them to turn into sphinx moths. But what I liked most of all was poring over websites online where you could select exotic species from around the world and get them delivered, shriveled and dried, to your doorstep. For a price, you could acquire magnificent specimens from all corners of the globe: iridescent morpho butterflies from South America, gigantic golden birdwings from Southeast Asia, and regal emperor moths from Africa.

I though that these mail-order lepidopterans were the closest I would ever get to these far-away places. Then I moved to Zambia 15 years later and discovered that the larval stage of one of these species is a major source of protein for people in my host country during the rainy season. Meet Gonimbrasia belina, whose caterpillar is the tasty snack known locally as ifishimu. More commonly, this winged giant is known as the emperor moth.

Burn notice


Right now Zambia is in the midst of the burn season. The air is crisp and dry, the grasses and brush are brittle and yellowed, and the winds blow relentlessly, so of course this is the best possible time to strike a match and send a wall of flame roaring toward your house. (A house which, I might add, is covered with more of that same dried grass. How convenient.)


Although accidental brush fires do cause a lot of damage to fields and even communities when they spread out of control, most burning is planned. As any novice forester/agriculturalist can tell you, this annual purging is necessary for clearing out clutter and thereby preventing larger, more damaging fires from occurring later, as well as for adding nutrients back to the soil to increase fertility for the next cycle of crops.

And on a less technical note, burn season also means lots of small-hand-and-feet-warming stations throughout the village to prevent against the early morning chill, a surreal pink haze lazily blanketing the landscape and coating your lungs throughout the day, and spectacular light displays in the late evenings.