Monday, November 1, 2010

Lake of Stars and Final Interviews

What an incredible couple weeks….every October a lodge on Lake Malawi hosts the epic Lake of Stars Music Festival, which brings together bands from all over southern Africa and the U.K. for a weekend of pure awesomeness right on the beach. This was the only big trip I had planned before the holidays, so obviously I was especially excited. And seeing a new country is always interesting. On Wednesday of last week I went over to the Grassroot soccer house for the night…we were leaving at 5:00 am on a bus to Chipata, a small town in the eastern part of the country. There I met Doug, another GRS intern working in Losotho who would be joining us. Our entire group was about 12-13 people and included most of the Lusaka GRS interns and one of my Zambian friends, Chileshe. We decided to stay up Wednesday night, assuming it was pointless to try and sleep when we had to be up at 3:30. We got to the station relatively early, and packed onto a crowded, slightly smelly bus, and most of us immediately feel asleep. I woke up with a stiff neck a couple hours later, realizing that the bus was pulled over on the side of the road. It had broken down…more or less right outside of Lusaka. It wasn’t the best start to the trip. We had been warned about the buses breaking down, but I somehow thought we would be exempt from this misfortune. No dice. We sat for about two hours (which seemed like 5 on that hot, crowded bus). Luckily, the bus company dispatched mechanics and found a way to fix the bus. So we continued on our way. I tried my best to sleep, but the bus was just so darned hot and the seats were absurdly uncomfortable. Not to mention I was packed in like a sardine with my heavy backpack in my lap.

We drove for about 8 hours through rural Zambia, and finally arrived in Chipata at about midday. As soon as we got off the bus we were accosted by guys trying to sell us Malawian Kwacha. We traded in some money assuming it was legitimate, later finding out that most of it was counterfeit. Oh well…then it was on to the border. We hired two taxis which drove us to the border of Zambia and Malawi, where we met some of our other friends that were traveling separately. We had some complications at the border because one of our friends accidently brought with him his old, expired passport. Luckily we got over in about an hour, and took another taxi to the town nearby, where we would hopefully catch a minibus to Lilongwe, the capital of Malawi. Since there were about 15 of us at this point, we more or less hired our own minibus. The drive through Malawi was very interesting. The country’s terrain is very similar to Zambia’s…dry, open grasslands, low-lying vegetation and occasional collections of trees. However, as we drove deeper into the country I began to notice some very visible differences. There were rolling hills, rough, jagged mountains, browinish-red mud and brick huts. I later learned that Malawi (the “warm heart of Africa”) and Zambia consider themselves to be sister countries. Both share similar colonial histories, speak similar languages, and rely on similar means of subsistence. Malawi is arguably poorer than Zambia, but both seem to have similarly warm, peaceful, and welcoming people. The driver was on a mission….going an average of about 130 km/hr the entire way, and refusing to break for children or animals in the road. Every time we heard the shrill beep of the horn we knew there was something in the road ahead. It was only a matter of time before we hit someone or something. About an hour from Lilongwe we heard the by now familiar beep, and suddenly there was a soft bump underneath us. Shocked and terrified that we had killed someone, we turned around that saw a goat spinning in the middle of the road. The driver didn’t even think about slowing down (we later learned that villagers can get violent when this happens, since goats are a symbol of wealth in the rural areas….even though legally speaking the owners of the goat would be responsible). Somehow we made it to Lilongwe in one piece and met up with Wes and Bryan (a native Malawian), two Grassroot Soccer interns working in Malawi. Lilongwe is a sleepy city that actually reminded me of some of the residential areas of Lusaka. We were to crash at his place for the night before setting out for the lake the next day. Everyone decided to go out that night, but I was struggling to stay awake and crashed at about 8 pm.

We woke up pretty early on Friday and drove out to the bus station to catch a minibus to the Mangochi, the town on the lake that was hosting the concert. We were very, very lucky to have Bryan and Wes there…they arranged the tickets for us, coordinated transportation, and just made everything so much easier. The drive out to the lake took about three hours, and as soon as I saw the enormous body of water with mountains and hills surrounding it, I felt a overwhelming wave of relief. It’s been such a long time since I’ve seen the ocean, and viewing Lake Malawi felt like a touch of home.

We got out of the van, paid the drivers, and checked in with the Sunbird Lodge, the host of the concert. We had decided to camp, and we saw dozens and dozens of tents scattered about the park and beach. We chose a nice spot right on the sand and began setting up our tents, right next to an enormous chitenge and bamboo structure that we later learned was the temporary home of a group of Engineers without Borders. The lake really is a touch of paradise…white sands, clear water, mountains in the distance, and palm trees dotting the shores. Lake Malawi is the most prominent landmark in the country…it runs more or less the entire length of the country, and has one of the most diverse populations of tropical fish in the world. For some reason crocs and hippos are rare, at least in the area we were in. The weather was absurdly hot, so most of us decided to take a swim, gambling with bilharzias, a parasite that lives in many large bodies of water in Africa. Honestly, I wasn’t thinking about this. It was just nice to be swimming in a large body of water again. When the sun began to set, painting the sky in a soft blue-orange glow, I had my first moment of disbelief at how lucky I was to be there.

We walked over to the concert, which was literally right on the beach, and began to explore the area. Outside of the gates there were rows of craft stalls and many local children asking for (or demanding) money of the streams of tourists making their way to the shows. This was a sad reminder that most of the country’s poor citizens were cut off from the spectacular concert that brings so many people to their country every year. There was one huge stage—the main stage--, rows of food stands, and a smaller stage down the beach where lesser-know artists and djs were scheduled to play. Lake of Stars seemed to be the one time when every traveler and expat living in southern Africa comes together. I met people from France, South Africa, and Ireland, peace corps volunteers, backpackers, musicians, and on and on. It was almost overwhelming how many amazingly interesting people were at this concert. I even ran into some of Mary Reid’s friends who were working on a health project in Zimbabwe, including one girl who is good friends with one of my friends from Bowdoin. Crazy.

On Friday we saw Oliver Mtukudzi, the legendary artist from Zimbabwe, who absolutely rocked it. We also saw other more traditional African bands, and my favorite artist form the festival, Tinache---a Zimbabwe born guitar player (sort of like the Jason Mraz of Africa) who was touring with his goofy British drummer. It was an awesome introduction to the festival.

On Saturday everyone woke up at about 8:00 am (by that time the sun was too oppressively hot to sleep). We spent the day relaxing by the beach and the pool, swimming, and meeting new people. I saw some cool local acts on the smaller stage. What’s great about Lake of Stars is that the organizers of the festival try to involve the local community as much as possible, so there were some bands playing from local schools. A lot of the artists also spent time in local communities at orphanages and schools. I suppose it would have been better to let native Malawians into the show for free or at a discounted rate, bit I guess this was asking too much. Saturday was an epic day and night…the Noisettes, an Indie/rock/jazz band from England with an unbelievably talented singer from Zimbabwe were playing, and they put on an incredible show. The singer was sort of a spectacle….apparently she has been doing her thing long before Lady Gaga was popular. I even tried to crowd surf (and failed miserably). Later in the night the dj on the smaller stage came on, and I ended up staying up until sunrise.

Sunday was another relaxing day by the beach and the pool. We met this really interesting girl from England who was getting paid by Trident to go to 30 music festivals in 30 weeks. She told us that out of the 20 or so she had been to so far that this was her favorite one. She even interviewed me and two of my friends for a video (check it out on my facebook wall!). Later in the afternoon Tinache was playing an acoustic set. We sat there as the sun was beginning to set, listening to some awesome music, and I again couldn’t believe how lucky I was. After the show Tinache’s drummer even let me play his bizarre plug in acoustic box drum thingy, and we had the chance to meet Tinache himself. Later in the night the Noisettes were playing an acoustic show on the smaller stage, which was just unbelievably awesome. They brought up a group of local kids onto the stage, and you could see the shock and joy in their faces. Sunday night was another fun night…we danced to artist after artist on the main stage, and I also somehow convinced the security guards to let in some Malawian teenagers who had been coming every year but had never seen the concert before.

We left on Monday. I was exhausted and drained, but so happy and grateful for the weekend. Definitely one of the most memorable of my life. Two University of Cape Town grad students (Caps, from France, and Darla, from Rwanda) joined us for the ride back to Lilongwe. We took a different route back to the capital, snaking around rolling hills, traveling down in and out of valleys, and seeing some stunning views of this very beautiful country. Unfortunately I got a bit sick on the way home (took a malaria pill on an empty stomach), but luckily the driver pulled over for me. We got back to Lilongwe by late afternoon, went out for Indian food, and then passed out early.

We took the 6:00 am direct bus from Lilongwe to Lusaka, which actually ended up being relatively easy. I sat next to a Malawian woman with a baby (who somehow only cried twice the entire ten hour trip). Toward the end of the trip we were talking about Malawi and Zambia, and she told me all about her family in Lusaka, about how similar the two countries were, and about the kinship citizens felt for each other. We finally arrived back in Lusaka at 7 pm.

Again, it was just an all around spectacular trip. I traveled with an amazing group of people, met some great people along the way, listened to some incredible music on one of the most beautiful lakes in the world. I have to admit that it was a bit tough getting back to work, especially after missing four days of it.

Work has been exceptionally busy since being back (hence why I have been behind with my blog). We are right in the middle of the final round of our application process, which means we have been interviewing 14 student finalists with their families. The survey that I helped develop is pretty extensive…it asks a lot of the student, including comments on leadership, problems in their communities, challenges they have faced, and more. It also demands a lot from the parents/guardians. Over last weekend and week I completed a total of 11 interviews, three with my director, five with our finance officer, and three with our programs officer. The interviews are often exhausting….they usually last about an hour, and they require us to pry a bit into the lives of each applicant.

It was very interesting for me to see which questions students understood and which ones they didn’t. The one that I figured would be the simplest (and most important) was the most difficult for almost every applicant. The last question we asked of the students was, more or less: “Why should we pick you?” And almost every student interpreted it as: “What reasons should KF have for picking you?” So they would answer by saying: “so I can go to school,” or “because it would really help my parents.” Sometimes it took 20 minutes of rephrasing the question to get at what we were really looking for.

It would be impossible to describe every detail of these interviews, but I think it’s worth giving some highlights. Some candidates were not ideal for the program…they didn’t give us thorough answers, and some did not seem as vulnerable as the others. But then there were some students who seemed to possess an unbelievable level of confidence and maturity for their age. One girl, who blew me and our finance officer away, gave us a detailed description of how corruption is bringing Zambia down. This same girl later told us that she thought that she had the courage to believe that she could become something great in her life. She was living with her uncle, who is no longer working and is supporting 12 people on money made on side jobs. This includes 5 orphaned children. He claimed that his biggest worry is that if he doesn’t find help with her school fees he may have to send his niece back to live with her parents, who are very poor and might marry her off. At 12 years old.

Then there was a boy who lives with his family in a tiny house in one of the compounds in the city…his father sells scrap metal for a living, and income is, obviously, unpredictable. The boy’s father seemed so genuine and hardworking. He told us how he felt like he failed his kids because he has been unable to provide them with certain things. He used to want to be an engineer, and has a passion for tinkering with gadgets. We figured that our pretty quickly when we walked in and noticed the used car battery the family was using to produce electricity for the household. That same father later told us that if his son was picked, he would always remind him to remember where he came from and to give back to your family and community whenever he had the chance to do so.

Every family seemed to have a similar story…they were working too hard, for not enough money, and trying to support too many people. And every student we interviewed was intelligent, hardworking, and a great source of pride to their parents and guardians. Most of them had no idea how they would send their kids to secondary school. We interviewed 14 students and families in total, and we can only pick 5. Any one of them would be a real asset to the program. But we are limited in what we can do, and that’s really difficult to come to terms with. Lake of Stars was phenomenal, but jumping right back into the heart of KF’s application process, and meeting these promising kids and their resilient families,, brought me back down to earth almost immediately.


  1. Hi Jaime! Sounds like Lake of Stars was pretty awesome. I really liked the stories you had from interviews. It shows the kinds of problems people suffer across Africa and how these children can be so inspiring offers hope for the generations to come. Keep up the great work!

  2. Hello Jamie--
    You are doing a great job with your blog. I guarantee you will never regret the time you took to write about your experiences this year. Here's a favorite quote: "Do not trust your memory; it is a net full of holes; the most beautiful prizes slip through it." [Georges Duhamel] Keep writing!
    Rosalind Flynn