March

Due to the novel Coronavirus pandemic, we were evacuated from Malawi on March 19 and, after 50 hours of traveling, I arrived back in Roseville, California late March 20.

I’m still trying to process my feelings about evacuating and leaving my teaching and the students and colleagues that I loved. Until I can better express those feelings, I wanted to share some of my photos from the last few months of living in Malawi:

A large moth.

A large spider.

A lesson about postpartum hemorrhage. The med students were practicing suturing B-lynch sutures with styrofoam block “uteruses.”

A selfie with Dr. Luis Gadama, the Department Head of the Obstetrics and Gynecology Department of of the College of Medicine of the University of Malawi.

Piles of hard candies for sale, gleaming in the sun.

The man and woman who were selling the candies insisted that I take their photo, too, when I asked to photograph their candies.

Housewares and loofahs for sale, piled high on a bicycle. I like to think of this as the Malawian equivalent of a Fuller Brush salesman.

During a video conference call on the evening of March 13, I was told to start packing for our eventual evacuation. Early the next morning, we took off for an already-planned day trip with our Peace Corps friends to Huntingdon House, which is a tea and coffee plantation about 1.5 hours south of Blantyre. Our trip was a bittersweet reminder of the beauty of the Malawian countryside that we were preparing to leave.

Tea bush starts, to be transplanted soon.
Coffee beans
Bamboo, grown on the plantation for its renewable wood (with Kathy Beach).
Huntingdon House grounds.
Tea fields.

Beautiful Malawi

A few days after we returned from our safari to my home in Blantyre, my daughter Jessica left us for the European leg (seeing friends in Rome and Amsterdam) of her Christmas vacation from college. My sister Sheryl and niece Cassandra had 10 more days to spend with me, so we set off to see some of the beautiful parts of Malawi.

Our first tourist trip was the Zomba Plateau, which is about an hour north of Blantyre. We spent a half day of hiking there amidst beautiful greenery and waterfalls. We also saw welcome signs of conservation – in areas that had previously been clear-cut, indigenous saplings are being planted to replenish the area.

Hiking on Zomba Plateau. Photo by Sheryl.
The view from the plateau.

Our guide pointed out orchids growing along the trail.

A few days later, a group of us traveled by minibus and then bike taxi to help our friend Cheyenne Polk celebrate her work at Development Initiative Network (DIN), where she is a volunteer.

Getting ready to ride the bike taxis in Chikwawa. Unfortunately, I don’t have the names of the taxi drivers, but our group was made up of (from left) Stewart Taylor (side view), Dallas Smith, Cheyenne Polk, Sheryl Ballard.
Cheyenne Polk at her presentation of livestock and money to support Development Initiative Network’s projects.

Cheyenne is volunteering with DIN in Chikwawa, a town about 1.5 hours bus ride south of Blantyre. As part of her work at DIN, she has raised money to help their support groups for people living with HIV/AIDS. The money she has raised has been used to improve the groups’ food security by supporting community organic farms and supplied piglets and goat kids for their livestock programs.

The money was also used to buy these new sewing machines for DIN’s tailor training program. Twelve women are now in the training program to become tailors, which will help them better support their families.

Leaving Chikwawa, I spotted this billboard. The condom crusade continues!

Sheryl and Cassandra needed to see Lake Malawi while they were here, so we traveled to the tourist-favorite town of Cape Maclear for a few days. Cheyenne took a break from her work and joined us. On recommendation of a friend, I booked a driver from the area to drive us to our lodge there. His price was great and I was happy for the savings, but we regretted it when it turned out that he had forgotten his driver’s license. Malawi roads have frequent police checkpoints, where they check for proper insurance papers and licensing, so every checkpoint turned into an extended break from driving while he “discussed the problem” with the police. The trip took more than six hours.

Sunset at the lake

Once we got to Cape Maclear, we booked a tour on a small boat and were treated to snorkeling and rock diving, a picnic of barbecued fish, and watching the local fish eagles dive for fish.

Fish eagle
Local fishermen

Lake Malawi is famous for its variety of cichlids and beautiful scenery.

Cheyenne snorkeling and the beautiful cichlids of Lake Malawi

Zanzibar

Dhows in the Stone Town harbor.

The last days of our safari were spent in Zanzibar. A booking snafu diverted us to a beach resort outside of Stone Town, but we all enjoyed the brief time on the beach and swimming in the Indian Ocean. During the last hours of our stay, we were given a hurried tour of the historic parts of Stone Town and we realized that we would have really enjoyed much more time just exploring Zanzibar.

You can supposedly get free WiFi and make free international calls here, but good luck getting up that pole to make the calls. I love a bargain, so of course I tried but sadly, I could not find the advertised Free WiFi network either.

A monument to the slave trade auction that was located here. It’s a sobering memorial and highlighted information about the human trafficking that continues globally today.

The picturesque open air market displays in Stone Town.

A mosque and a church – peaceful neighbors. Our guide felt it was the most symbolic photo of Stone Town we should take. Most of the people of Zanzibar are Muslim.

Freddie Mercury was born in Zanzibar and spent the early part of his life there. No tour of Stone Town is complete without seeing the Freddie Mercury House (now the Tembo House Hotel).

Serengeti National Park

There is no easy way to get from Chobe National Park in Botswana to our next stop, the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania. It took us two and a half days with overnights in Johannesburg, South Africa and Arusha, Tanzania.

The final drive from Arusha to the Serengeti National Park is about six hours long, and we could have prolonged it even more if I were allowed to stop at all the roadside attractions that interested me.

This is the monument built at the archaeological site where the first species hominid Zinjanthropus boiesei skull was discovered by Dr. Mary Leakey in 1959, in Olduvai Gorge, part of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. Our driver wasn’t interested in stopping.

We did stop for a few minutes to admire the view at an overlook of the beautifully lush Ngorongoro Crater. At the overlook is a monument to the people who have died while working to protect wildlife in the area. Their cause of death was listed; some of them died in accidents, but a few died from interactions with (presumedly angry) wildlife, and for some, the cause of death was listed as poachers.

These friendly-looking animals are hyrax. They mingled with the tourists at our picnic site, looking for lunch leftovers.

Hyenas tend to hide, making them difficult photography subjects.

A tree full of the majestic Malibu storks.

These cheetahs spent several minutes posing for us along the side of the road.

We were at the Serengeti National Park over the holidays and spent New Years Eve at our campsite near the center of the Park. To celebrate that night, we admired the night sky and all the stars we could see without any light pollution. Then we went to bed early so we could start 2020 with an early-morning game drive. But since it was the holidays, it was also high tourist season and we were all trying to see the same animals. This was a typical “traffic jam” near a lion sighting.

The lions seemed to be very comfortable with all of the human attention.

A warthog family.

During the day, the hippos stay in water to stay cool. They would come up for air for a short time and then submerge again, so you can only photograph a few of a large herd at a time.

The great migration deserves a video but even then it’s hard to capture the power of all the wildebeests and zebras moving across the Serengeti.

Chobe National Park, Botswana

On December 26, we said goodbye to the Stanley Lodge in Livingstone, which had been our very comfortable temporary home for four days, and set off for Botswana and Chobe National Park. The border crossing from Zambia to Botswana is soon to be possible by bridge, but for now, everything has to come across the Chobe River by ferry. After a 1.5 hours drive, we were loaded onto that ferry and sent across the river to Botswana and its immigration office. The Botswana immigration office featured a rack advertising free condoms and information about HIV/AIDS. The Public Health advocate part of my brain rejoiced! However, the cynic in me noted that display rack for the advertised free condoms and brochures was empty.

But once we got to our rooms at our new lodge, I was very pleased to find condoms at each of our bedsides, with the Botswana logo prominently featured! (In case you are wondering, my interest in these condoms was purely academic.)

At Chobe National Park, the riverfront is one of the best places to see the wildlife, so we split our time between riverboat ride safaris and the traditional open SUV-type vehicles on the dirt roads.

A Cape buffalo

Jessica developed a way to take photos with her iPhone by shooting through the binocular lens, which resulted in some really nice photos. You can see more details in this photo of the male lion, above, taken through the binoculars. Below is my photo of the same lion, using only my iPhone camera.

The cute monkeys are very aggressive at the picnic area of Chobe. I was standing by the truck after an early morning game drive, with a scone in one hand and a cup of tea in the other. A mother monkey jumped up, grabbed the scone right out of my hand and ran away with it! (Photo taken by Jessica.)

A dung beetle and his ball of dung! Both are larger than you would think.

Went to a crocodile farm and took the opportunity to pose with a baby crocodile.

Malibu Storks
Elephants

Christmas in Livingstone

We started out our safari vacation by flying to Livingstone, Zambia (1,332 kms away overland) to visit Victoria Falls and the Mosi-Oa-Tunya Wildlife Park. Flying there involves two layovers and over nine hours traveling. When you go, ask for the visa that allows you to visit both the Zambian and Zimbabwean sides of the Falls, since the Zambezi River makes up part of the border between the two countries and your visit to the Falls involves talking with immigration officers in both countries both ways.

The guards who protect the rhinos at Mosi-Oa-Tunya allow you to get fairly close to the rhinos. The rhinos don’t seem to care and napped throughout our visit.

Christmas Eve at Victoria Falls. The water level was improved since my prior visit in October and the falls on the Zambian side had more flow. Much of the water from the Zambezi river on the Zambian side is diverted for hydroelectric power and so low or no flow is common during the dry months.

Warthogs on the park path at Victoria Falls.

Sunset above Victoria Falls, Christmas night. The rising mist from the Falls was the reason that the original local name for Victoria Falls translates to “smoke that thunders.” The mist / “smoke” can be seem from miles away.

Before the Festivities, Exams

The week of December 16 -20 was the final exam week for the second rotation of fourth- and fifth-year medical students at the University of Malawi College of Medicine. Then the students had two weeks off for what Malawians call The Festive Season and then they return for a week of Integrated Exams on January 6 (the exams that determine whether they will move up/graduate or need to repeat the year).

Here are some of the fourth-year students waiting outside the classroom, studying the last few minutes before taking the exam. A sight familiar to students everywhere!

Some of the medical students stopped by my office for selfies with me after their Ob/Gyn exams, before leaving on their holidays.

My sister Sheryl Ballard and niece Cassandra Ballard arrived December 19. My daughter Jessica flew in after her final exams at CSU-Long Beach on December 20. Two days later, we would start our very busy safari vacation. But first, we enjoyed Blantyre and posed for a selfie.

From left: me, Jessica, Sheryl, Cassandra

Game Haven

About a 30-minute drive from Blantyre is a small private game reserve/country club/lodge called Game Haven. Our group went there December 7-8 and found it to be a nice respite from the city. We enjoyed a wildlife walk on Saturday and a bird walk on Sunday, although I am now struggling to remember the names of all the birds and animals. Some of our group also took a bike ride around the park Sunday afternoon, but I had exam questions to write, so I sat outside under the trees and enjoyed my temporary workspace. We did not golf, but did enjoy the pool, the food, live music, and the open spaces.

Game Haven also a popular place for meetings and conferences. In fact, Chris Beach and I were sitting on a couch in the lobby, disheveled and sweating profusely after our bird walk, when a beautiful bride in a puffy princess dress sat down between us and used the mzungus (white people) as props for her wedding album photos!

Apologies again for my less-than-expert photography, but these are my best photos from there:

How to protect your saplings from the giraffes and wildlife.
Zebras allowed us to approach. There aren’t predators in this reserve, so the animals seemed more relaxed.
But not this mother and her days-old foal.
The giraffe was also unafraid.
Wildebeests
Nyalas
Zebras and Wildebeests
A beautiful locust.

November

Sorry for this late post, as it is nearly mid-December. It was an eventful month, but I am an unreliable photographer and I didn’t take as many good photos as I would have liked. Here are some that I did get:

We visited Zomba’s Botanical Gardens the first weekend in November. It was a nice park, but I liked the watching the monkeys more.

The next weekend, we traveled to Mua, which has a Catholic mission church and the associated Chamare Museum nearby. The museum features an amazing collection of masks and Malawi cultural artifacts, but you are not allowed to take photos in those rooms (some of the masks are considered sacred). This was the entrance area to the museum, which hints at the depth of its collection. It is a wonderful museum and I look forward to visiting again and sharing it with my family when they come for their holiday visit.

The first cake.
Chris and Kathy Beach brought a cake to dinner.
More cake the next day!

As usual, I embraced my birthday. To celebrate, I passed out chocolates at handover in the morning, then we had cake and tea in the registrars office afterwards. I had ordered a cake to share that day, but Dr. Gladys Gadama had planned to surprise me with a cake also. (We ate hers the next day.) That night, we went out for dinner and Kathy and Chris Beach surprised me with another cake. I don’t think I’ve ever had three birthday cakes in one day before!

A rare sight at the hospital: an empty ward. I don’t want to take revealing photos of the patients, but this gives you an idea of what the wards look like. Some days the hospital is so crowded that there are mattresses on the floor between the beds for the patients.

After almost six years living in Malawi and seven years living in Kenya, my friends Will and Shirley Stones decided to move back to their home in Nevis (in the Caribbean). They stayed with me their last few days here, and since they were packing up, I inherited some left-over bottles of condiments and spices, as well as some household items. We went out to dinner the night before they left. Will plans on returning in February, to continue his work with the Centre for Reproductive Health, and will continue to visit Malawi frequently. Shirley is looking forward to staying at her beautiful island home.

Lake Malawi

The Association of Obstetricians and Gynecologists of Malawi (AOGM) had their annual conference October 25-27 at a resort on the shores of Lake Malawi, near Mangochi. I was excited to see Lake Malawi, which is widely regarded as a national treasure and has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

If you are interested in learning more about the lake: http://justfunfacts.com/interesting-facts-about-lake-malawi/

The convention also gave me a chance to meet some of the other Ob/Gyn physicians who live in other parts of Malawi. Many of them gave presentations about their work during the AOGM convention. Here are some of my female colleagues, posing at the pool Saturday afternoon, after the work of the convention was done.

A small frog that showed up on my wall. I have geckos on my walls in Blantyre and was delighted to see a frog here.

Professor William Stones (far right) drove me and Kathy and Chris Beach back to Blantyre from the resort after the convention. To break up the drive, we stopped for lunch at ArtHouse, a restaurant run by an American ex-pat. The food was delicious!