Thursday, 19 September 2013

Capture the Colour

I was delighted to receive an invite from Colleen at the delightful Colleen Brynn Travels to enter the Capture the colour photography competition. Now, anyone who has met me knows I love photographs, I love taking them, looking back over them and I pester people constantly for pictures on nights out, at tourist sights or simply walking around town. However, again, as anyone who has met me knows, I hate being in pictures. I'm terribly unphotogenic and have the extreme fortune of being friends with some of the most photogenic people I have ever met. And so, I end up with lots of pictures of other people, pictures of scenery and sunsets (I do love a good sunset). Now to trawl through the couple of thousand of pictures I've taken over the last 3 years of travel.


This image of Malawian fishermen on Lake Malawi was taken when I holidayed in Cape MacClear in December 2012.

This is the desert oasis of Huacachina in Peru

Ok, I concede, this is more pink than red but it's one of my favourite pictures. Taken on an island on Lake Titicica Peru, the villagers had attempted to teach us their traditional dance and then the children danced and blew us away. 

An iconic image, the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpar

This was taken at the coastal town of Huanchaco in Northern Peru. I had spent some hours watching the fishermen fish from their reed boats and walked along the port to discover a delicious fish restaurant. The sunset was beautiful, framed by the boats.

I would like to nominate the following for entering: Melissa at No More Saying Someday, Nick at Beneath the African Sky, Kim at Pearl Grey Tea, Steven at A Backpacker's Tale and Amanda from A Dangerous Business.

Thursday, 12 September 2013

The bay that is Nkhata.

It would be terrible of me not to write an entry on the place I visit every second weekend, my home away from home, away from home. I cannot believe I have been here over a year and have not written about the legendary Nkhata Bay. It seems fitting that as this weekend marks 12 months since I took my first trip to Nkhata Bay, I write about this place. (How I remember it was this weekend is because it is All Ireland hurling final weekend).
View of the lake from Butterfly
Butterfly beach and deck

Jah family playing at Kaya Papaya

Nkhata Bay is a small fishing village on the shores of Lake Malawi about 45kms south east of Mzuzu that attracts a large number of independent travelers. Most travelers stop as one of their first stops in Malawi as Nkhata Bay is easily reached from Mzuzu (which is on the main a.k.a only road to Tanzania). You can travel between Mzuzu and the bay by mini bus(MK800) or share taxi (MK1,200) and takes a little under an hour once your vehicle fills up. As is the norm with most transport in Malawi, the bus/car does not depart until it is not just full but packed to the brim. The taxis drop you in the centre of town and you emerge into the hustle and bustle of a busy lakeside town.

The difference in altitude between Mzuzu and the bay makes Nkhata Bay a welcome change from the cold winter months in Mzuzu. The difference in temperature starts to hit after about 30mins into your trip from Mzuzu and once I step out of the car, I am constantly surprised by how much warmer it is lakeshore. During the hotter months, it is the lake itself that draws me to it. There is nothing quite like the first dip into the lake after a week of sweating in the office. And so it began my love affair with this town, a place where I have been so often that people know my name, even if I don't know theirs, where the rastas no longer bother me to buy their wooden carvings. A place where I cannot walk down the street without bumping into people I know and a place where I have formed special friendships, over many greens, MG&Ts and bottles of Gold Label while gazing out over the blue expanse of Lake Malawi.

Dining area at Butterfly
Bar at Butterfly
I always stay at Butterfly Space where the owners, Alice and Josie, have become firm friends. Butterfly Space is not just a backpackers hideaway but a community lodge with projects such as nursery schools, hosting a special needs club and helping womens groups. What the guys have achieved here is amazing and they host volunteers year round to help in their various projects. The lodge itself is perched on the lake shore overlooking Ilala Bay with a wide view over Lake Malawi where, on a clear day, you can make out the Mozambican coast. It has an unrivaled bar where you can challenge the local beach boys to a game of bao over a cold green, or where you can dance the night away at one of their parties. The next morning you can sit at their communal eating area and talk about the night before which may, or may not have ended with a trip to Izo Izo, an infamous night club that only closes when the last person leaves. The you can go to Aqua Africa, the local diving school, with, in my opinion the best view in Nkhata Bay, to drink coffee and fall asleep on their comfortable couches before hopping in a share taxi back to Mzuzu. Or make a trip to Chikale Beach for their famous Sunday parties with a DJ playing the best of African tunes while I like to lounge in the lake, the initial dip shaking off any hangover from the night before.

View from Aqua Africa
Beer, beach and bao. An afternoon
 on Chikale
Party on Chikale
What makes Nkhata Bay special? The town has an undeniable draw, it is a place where you can easily get "stuck". I have met many people who have planned a day or two and 2 weeks later they are still there. It differs from other lake shore resorts where the lodges are away from towns, here you have numerous options for food and drinks, lots of people who are here long term to socialise with (which is a welcome addition in a country where people are constantly leaving) and it's proximity to Mzuzu makes it perfect for a day trip or a weekend trip. I am loathe to write about it in too much detail as it's relative "isolation" from the main overland travelers itinerary means that very often, you can have the beach to yourself, but this is a place that captures the heart, the people who live there, Malawians and expats, are friendly and fun, it is a place where you can relax or party hard, a jumping point to explore the lake shore via the Ilala ferry, or visit the islands (Likoma and Chizimulu), Usisya or Ruarwe. I fear I am doing this town a terrible injustice with my descriptions but is really is a place that you have to visit to truly appreciate it.

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

What I do

Following my trip home it seems like not a lot of people are sure about what I actually do (apart from sit at the lake and drink Carlsberg which is what my photos show). In short I teach optometry at Mzuzu University and have done for the past 12 months. To answer some of the most common questions, No, I am not volunteering (I'm heartless, I like money) I am employed by the university as a lecturer, Yes, I have running water AND electricity (a big plus here), I have my own house on the university campus, which I do not have to pay for and Yes, it is completely different (and yet sometimes very similar) to Ireland.

So, if you have no interest in the mundane aspects of my working life, I would suggest you skip this post as it will deal with very basic (aka boring) information.

Let me start with a little background on the Malawi education system as I know it (NOTE: I am no expert and the information I give could very well be completely wrong). As far as I am aware, kids sit exams at the end of primary school. These exams have quite an impact on their education as if they do well, they may get a scholarship to a private secondary school. However, if they do not do well and/or their parents do not have the means to pay for a private secondary school, they end in a public secondary in classes of 60+ with little or no resources and often one book per class. (On a side not, a good friend of mine recently managed to supply 10 schools with 750 books see more HERE) At the end of secondary school they sit their MSCE which determines whether they will get into university or not. Pause for a moment and think how hard it would be to study English literature if you cannot read the books you will be examined on, how can you study Physical Sciences if you have never conducted a practical experiment or how can you understand the complexities of trigonometry if you have never seen a calculator or table book. I may be over exaggerating things but in reality, kids are up against it here. University is a privilege open to few, a thing I took for granted in Ireland where it was expected I would attend university.

Our students are, as a result, students who have done extremely well in their MSCE. We have an intake of 10 students per year (limited by our classrooms and clinical teaching space) and in third year we provide an opportunity for "upgrading students" where we increase the class size to 12. Currently in our upgrading students category we have and ophthalmic clinical officer from Malawi, two people with diplomas in optometry from Tanzania and a refractionist from Sierra Leone. In first year they take general science course and an introduction to Optometry course and then from second year onwards they receive lectures exclusively from our department (with exceptions for Research Methodology).

On a vision screening day at the local primary school
As for what I teach, a bit of everything. We leave the diseases courses to our ODs but so far I have thought subjects that include: Ocular Motility and Binocular Vision, Occupational Optometry, Practical in Ophthalmic Workshop, Basic Contact lenses etc etc. In addition to theoretical classes, we run practicals in most subjects and supervise clinics in the hospital eye department. We are also in the process of trying to get a vision centre, the first of it's kind in Africa, up and running.

As with every job in life, there are challenges encountered everyday. Little things that make life slightly more difficult, that make my work day just that bit more, well, work. Things that I won't go into here. I like lecturing, I like using my brain and realising I remember more from DIT than I thought I did. I have also realised that students are the same everywhere. My students do the exact same things I did in university, they try to predict what will come up in exams, they try to get away with mild plagiarism (which I did not do), they try to convince us that the due date for the assignment is a week away when really it was today but overall they are a good bunch.

Our most recent graduates
Celebrating with the graduates
We recently graduated our second cohort of optometrists which more than doubled the Malawian trained optometrists who will work in the public sector and provide a service that was solely lacking previously. This was a special occasion for me as I actually taught this group. I spent time in classroom and clinics with them and I supervised their research projects. They made me proud and I hope that they continue to do so in the future as they venture out into the big bad world.

Where do I see myself in the future? To be honest I don't know. I cannot imagine staying in Malawi long term. I really like this country but there are so many things that you are up against when working here. It feels like you are constantly banging your head against a wall.
Will I return to Ireland? Eventually. Ireland is, and will always be, my home. How soon I return there is another question.
Where to next? Who knows. I have said I will stay here another year, we'll see how that goes and make a decision from there.
Our students really like "crazy photos"