Monsters and Dust

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I am collecting information the night before I leave and watching Madonna's Malawi video, I Am Because We Are, in my Brooklyn apartment. I am going to be in Malawi in the midst of her second adoption attempt.

— Postcard for Mom & Dad (this will never arrive)
— $1.00 = K143.59 (Kwacha)
— K1.00= $0.007
— Capital: Lilongwe, approx. 500,000 residents
— Population: 12 million, Orphans: 1 million, 2nd poorest country in the world

I pack my things in a green canvas carry-on, forgoing my all-purpose global converter for just one plug that the Internet tells me will be suitable. It won't be. The Internet doesn't know that much about Malawi.

Day 1

Dawn over Namibia. I awake with a sentence from my dream: “A hill higher than a wall.” The sunrise radiates orange-red. Breakfast over Botswana. Johannesburg's Terminal A is an Outback Steakhouse of African kitsch. I'm in and out and onto Air Malawi. The flight in shows a brown-green land pinstriped by red dirt roads that link otherwise isolated villages, kilometers from anywhere.

Arrival in Lilongwe. At the airport, the line is long, and I exchange $60 for a giant bundle of K9,000. I later learn at the hotel that you're only allowed K2,000 to take out with you—they literally can't afford to print more money.

Toby, an ex-cop from London, meets me at the airport. He is a driver for the tour company that's hired to take us around on this press trip — I am a guest of NuSkin, a beauty company that is doing some incredible charity work here. I arrive with a group of strangers, who by the end of the journey won't seem nearly as strange. Toby drives us down roads with wide vistas, fields where there were once trees that the lumber and farming industries have since decimated. (That's why the zebras have left.) If you see a clump of forest somehow spared in the savanna, that’s because it's a cemetery.

I try the radio, Toby tells me it's all government controlled, save for maybe one independent station. Later I listen to a CD made by a band consisting of Malawian Parliament members who make their political views heard on self-released albums. The president's photo is everywhere, including on the large billboards that flank the main roads and warn against corruption, guns, HIV, and avian flu (pictured with chickens). His photo greets us in the lobby of the Sunbird Capital Hotel.