Thursday, September 5, 2019

A word from our new volunteer Steven!


Hi there! My name is Steven Duong, I’m from San Diego, California, and I’m a volunteer here at the Maru Research Center. I’m a recent graduate of Grinnell College (English and American Studies) and I’ve been in Kande for about a month so far, helping with the Maru’s monitoring projects on the lake and the nearby fishing village, as well conducting part of my own year-long project as a Thomas J. Watson Fellow. This writing project, titled “Freshwater Fish and the Poetry of Containment,” will take me to four different countries, Malawi included, that happen to be the countries of origin of four freshwater aquarium fish I kept in my fish tank growing up. I am working on both fiction and poetry manuscripts that explore the idea of containment and movement across borders, in every sense of those words, using the fish tank and its four glass walls as a sort of working metaphor. Maybe a bit head-in-the-clouds in a pretentious literary way, sure, but the project and its framework have given me a unique way to understand the people and places I’ve met so far in context with my own life.

The funny thing is, though I have no background in the sciences, I’ve found that so many other aspects of my learning and my experiences and identities have helped me here. As Justin likes to say, 50% of the Maru’s mission is about the science—conservation, research, understanding the living things swimming around in the water—and half is about the place—Kande, its people, its food, its values, its languages, its cultural imaginations. You can apply the scientific methodologies learned here anywhere, but it’s being here that makes the experience unique. And that’s what I’ve found.

Most of my interactions begins with me greeting people enthusiastically in their own language, and then going on to explain the actual details of my work here, both with the Maru and with my writing. I’ve made genuine connections with such curious and interesting and wonderful people. I went to Chintheche with Alfred, a young man I met at the fishing village who is attending college at Livingstonia University—we bonded over our very different but also surprisingly similar college experiences, and he invited me to a service at his church, where I was introduced to the whole community there. I met Chudi, a beach vendor and aspiring mechanic, and helped him load firewood onto his friend’s massive truck to bring it back home to cook dinner for his family. Just yesterday, I ran into Ruben and some older men from the village at the local bar, and had a fascinating conversation about family values and religion and English literature in Malawi.

Perhaps most significantly, im Mzuzu, I had some of my preconceived notions tested in an interaction with some men on the street. While I was walking toward a shop, three auto-parts shop owners drinking on the side of the road yelled “ni hao” and “China” at me, having decided I was Chinese. I stopped and greeted them, clarifying that I was actually learning Chitonga. Then, I gave them a smiley “mwatandala uli.” They were enthusiastic to hear I was taking the effort to pick up one of the local languages, though they were Tombuka, and we ended up sitting together there and talking for more than an hour about language and culture in Malawi. I told them that I was actually an American, and my parents were Vietnamese, and that while I know they meant no harm, it gets a little jarring to hear people yell at you randomly in Chinese when you don’t speak it. I told them that if they had come to America and I saw them and greeted them in Swahili just because they looked African to me, they might not have taken it well. The guys totally understood where I was coming from, offered me some of their brandy as a peace offering, and we hung out all afternoon. I ended up learning so much about the lives of these guys, Sam and Joseph and Duncan. They told me I had to include them in my book and send it to them if I ever got it published. We’ll see if that happens.

Ultimately, I’ve come to learn, over the past few weeks, that the identities and experiences that define me—my race, my ethnicity, my social status, my upbringing in the states, my college education—both contain me and free me. The way I appear and the fact that I studied English and not biology, for example, have limited me in some ways. My appearance restricts the way many Malawians view me to an initial stereotype, and my lack of a science background makes it harder to pick up certain concepts and methodologies necessary to do work at the Maru. However, if I had a different set of identities, if I wasn’t a special kind of umusungu, if I didn’t get ni-hao’d randomly on the street, I wouldn’t be challenged to the point where I put myself into situations where I was able to come to a greater understanding of the people around me. If I was already well-versed in scientific fieldwork, I wouldn’t have put the extra effort into the learning I’m doing here, and I wouldn’t have stepped out of my comfort zone enough to grow as a student and a writer.

Walls can keep us trapped, but they also encourage us to improvise, to make do, to bend the rules as far as we can. This is what the stanza structure of a sonnet does, or the walls of a fish tank, or the shores of a lake, or the borders of a nation, or the barriers of a language. If you have a handful of Chitonga phrases and your friend has a limited English vocabulary, you work around it, using hand signals, comparisons, and other workarounds. If the mbuna rockfish of Lake Malawi weren’t isolated to their underwater rock patches, which they seldom stray from, the lake would not be nearly as biodiverse, and Kande Island wouldn’t have its own endemic species, the Pseudotropheus elongatus variety I love and look out for every time I dive. If Shakespeare said “screw the sonnet” and decided to write thousand line poems without any rhyme or meter or structure, they probably would have been interesting, but they also probably would have sucked.

To cut a long-winded blog post slightly shorter, let me say this. Though the cichlids of Lake Malawi are endlessly fascinating to me, as an aquarist and a writer and a lover of wildlife, it is the people I meet that I am learning the most from. The relationships I am building with people demonstrate and model and reinvent the ideas I want to write about more so than anything else. Maybe this is a little anthropocentric but the stories of these fish matter to me because they are tied to the stories of people. This is what metaphor is—taking two very different things and bringing them together, forcing them to have conversation with one another until they are one, synonymous and inseparable. I know I’m maybe an unconventional intern for a science research center like this, but I really do see both science and art as tools for building bridges and making connections, and I hope to continue that work for the next month I’m here in Kande. If you’re interested in reading my writing or following my project more closely, here’s my website: stevenduongwrites.com.


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