26 October 2009

2009-10-26: Annie's application


I somehow managed to sleep late despite the deafening sound of the workmen chiselling away the tile floor right outside my room. No time for Makoka today - I had to finish a draft of an application for the Annie's Homegrown Sustainable Agriculture Scholarship. I went to Tasty Bites and worked on the application all day, sent it off in the evening, returned home to a power outage, went to sleep early, but woke up again. Although my accomplishments for today were OK, my schedule was not so great!

Main text:

I awoke when my phone rang at eight-thirty. The workmen had started chipping away the old floor right outside my room about an hour ago, but I was so tired, the noise had only awoken me momentarily. I'm not sure how I managed that; the chisels right outside my door were so loud, even a phone conversation was difficult, let alone slumber. Crazy jet lag.

My plans for the day were to finish a draft of my Annie's scholarship application; I'd told my recommenders that I would send them a draft by today. Hopefully it would only take a couple of hours and then I could go to Makoka, but it would take as long as it takes.

I should probably end this blog entry here. Who wants to hear about a day spent writing an scholarship application? I'm in Africa, shouldn't I have some exciting tales about nearly being stampeded by hippoes?

* * * * *

In fact, despite the ear-splitting clangs of the chisels, I did go back to sleep for an hour, until my phone rang again. The caller ID said "Mwafongo."

"I came from Lilongwe yesterday," he said, "and I have brought the data sheets from the MZ12 Gliricidia pruning. I left them for you at the nursery. You will find them there with Steve Gomomba."

"Thank you so much," I said. I hoped he couldn't tell I had been asleep, since it was ten o'clock, and he had probably been up since six.

All right, no more lazing around. Even though I wouldn't have time to go to Makoka today, at least I could do a decent job on this application. As a treat, I would go and work at Tasty Bites instead of working at home. That way I could be sure not to fall asleep again. (And the water had stopped working again, which made me even less inclined to spend the day at home!)

* * * * *

Who is this "Annie" to whom I am applying for a scholarship? I should explain. Annie's Homegrown is an organic foods company based in California; they are best known for their macaroni and cheese. Their company mascot is a grey-and-white rabbit, and their pasta is usually made in the shape of little rabbits.

Being an environmentally conscious company, each year they give out a handful of scholarships for undergraduate and graduate students working on sustainable agriculture. Each year one graduate student wins a grant of $10,000, and several others win grants of $2,500. I applied last year, and had high hopes of winning, but after six months had elapsed, I got a boilerplate rejection e-mail.

Later I learned that this is actually a highly competitive scholarship (which explains the outstanding qualifications of previous years' winners). Everyone wants to be sponsored by a bunny rabbit who makes organic pasta! Rejection always hurts, but I told myself not to feel too bad, and to try again.

* * * * *

I was at Tasty Bites by 10:45, and ordered my usual egg and chips before the lunchtime rush. Another mzungu woman my age, who I hadn't seen before, was also there working on her laptop. I was curious to ask her what she was doing in Zomba, but I don't think race alone is a sufficient reason to approach someone. Goodness knows I find it annoying when people rush up and claim they want to be my best friend (knowing nothing about me other than my skin colour). Probably I'll run into her in a more interactive context - at a party, at volleyball, or something.

Uh-oh, I'm letting my thoughts wander to volleyball. I am supposed to be thinking about sustainable agriculture.

I spent the first several hours rewriting my "Academic Experience" and "Work Experience" statements. Under the former heading, applicants are supposed to list their extracurricular activities. I find this rather amusing. Since when do PhD students have extracurricular activities? I did, however, finally come up with one sentence to add to last year's draft:

I wish I had time for another career as a botanical artist, but my
drawings and paintings of flora are for fun rather than profit.

The "Work Experience" essay dragged on into the afternoon, even though I already had a complete draft from last year. Obviously, it hadn't been good enough last year. I rewrote it from top to bottom, polishing every word, and concluded thus:

Once I finish my Ph.D., I intend to seek an academic job that lets me combine all three of these approaches Ð field research, policy advising, and teaching. I see each of these as being equally important to my goal of furthering human and environmental sustainability. IÕve never wanted to be an ivory-tower academic, and my mentors have shown me that academia is as real-world as you make it. An up-to-the-elbows-in-mud academic, thatÕs me.

Whew, now I had earned some refreshment. I ordered chocolate cake and black tea. Hopefully that would get me through a draft of the Personal Statement.

* * * * *

Last year's Personal Statement I had written in quite a hurry, and although I think it provided a good narrative about my dissertation project, it didn't directly address all the points they wanted, such as "Your vision of what the phrase 'sustainable agriculture' means." I would rather have talked about my fieldwork - who needs another definition of "sustainable agriculture"! - but I guess it is best not to argue with the instructions of the scholarship committee.

As I chopped my Personal Statement apart and started slowly weaving the bits together, I realised there was no way I'd be able to finish a near-final draft by the time the Internet cafe closed. The essay probably needed at least another half-day's work. Oh well, at least it wasn't actually due until Saturday. My recommenders could make do with whatever I put together by five o'clock.

To get me through the final push, at four o'clock I ordered a chapati and another cup of tea with milk. Alas, these didn't arrive until 4:45, and the tea turned out to be instant coffee, without milk. I pointed out to the waiter that tea and coffee are not in fact interchangeable, and he said the mixup was due to the lack of milk, which had caused my order to be confused with someone else's. All right, I said, but the coffee was too strong for me, and I couldn't drink it (I'd only managed a few sips).

You'd have thought the coffee would be taken off my bill, right? You'd be wrong. For all Malawi's charms, the restaurant service here is... er... rather hit-or-miss. (Tasty Bites is actually pretty good in a relative sense.)

* * * * *

I uneventfully sent off my draft application to my recommenders, and saw with interest that I had a new email from Festus in my inbox. It was a detailed reply to the questions I'd sent on Saturday about the seedling experiment. Skimming it through, I could see he disagreed with my approach for measuring root biomass. I downloaded the message to my flash drive to study later. It is incredibly helpful to have a supervisor who replies so promptly and thoroughly, even to a two-page-long email.

Six o'clock was nigh - closing time - and I was just finishing a final email when the Internet cafe plunged into blackness. The power cut had come early tonight. But at least my application draft, or rather the ones and zeroes representing it, had safely winged its way across the globe.

* * * * *

At home, I followed the usual routine: greet housemates, light candle, put together a meal that doesn't require cooking (in this case, coconut biscuits with peanut butter), work on computer, wait for power to return. At least the water was back on - that was something to be glad for, anyway! Eight o'clock came and went; eight-thirty approached. Now my computer battery was nearly finished. This was an unfairly long power outage.

But it was a good excuse to curl up with the iPod and listen to a Sherlock Holmes story, "The Great Gandolfo." Half an hour later, although the murder had been solved, the power was still out. Well, now I had no recourse but to go to sleep.

I awoke again a bit before 9:30. The power had finally returned, and my phone was beeping to announce a text message. One of my neighbours had invited me over for homemade potato soup. I love her potato soup, but I was feeling too groggy to go anywhere (even if it was just walking up the stairs in my stocking feet). I told myself I should go back to sleep so I could get an early start tomorrow.

Well - that would have been a good idea. I actually stayed up another few hours, had another snack (since peanut butter and biscuits isn't much of a dinner), wrote a blog entry, and finally went to bed feeling a mixture of pleasure at accomplishing the day's goals (almost) and disappointment for doing it on such a nonsensical schedule.

Chichewa word of the day: mwana = child; ana = children


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