HEY EVERYBODY!!!!! It’s been two months and I don’t even know where to start…My first impressions of Malawi are that even though it is small, its geography is diverse, beautiful and it is inhabited by some of the biggest smiles I’ve ever been graced to see. You’ll be walking past people with weathered looks and as soon as you wave and say hello their faces explode into smiles that would make you think that you had been mistaken for family. I take baths outside with the morning sun on my skin and frogs at my feet. I only recognize two plants that I’ve seen so far and none of the birds or insects; even the ladybugs look different. There always seems to be a cool breeze blowing and the sky and earth fill your vision in equal parts. As you move along the dirt roads in the company of bright busy patterned dresses that have a way of challenging the your awe of butterflies, small thatched roofed homes peak, like mushrooms from leafy debris, out of cultivated fields which run to meet the stacked shades of grey that the rows of forested mountains make in the background. I can’t get over how inadequate pictures really are.
As you turned my care over to the strangers of this country and its communities, know that they have exceeded your expectations of gracious kindness. I feel as though I already have family and friends to which I can turn to for support. I have already been gifted with huge sacs of potatoes, squash and peanuts all on separate occasions. My landlord is asking for no rent and because of the genuine interest and patience of people I am happy to say that i am speaking my first second language. I still can’t get over I can say something like ‘Mukufuna mbale kuti?’ (where do you want this plate) and get a answer.
My first breath off the plane was deep and with it I said, ‘I’m here, Africa’. It took me a full week to get over the jetlag and reset the internal clock. Since arriving it has been technical/medical/safety/language training everyday all day except Sundays. I fell as though today is the first real full down day I have had since arriving here in Feb. I’ve done a little hiking, which always produces astounding views and mirco scale discovery but primarily I’ve been wasting away under a pencil. The first week we spent at the college of wildlife and forestry in Dedza, which is startlingly small as it is where all the forest managers for the whole country are trained. The second week we were separated into language groups and put into communities were we spent a month learning language and technical skills.
The word culture shock comes to mind as I think of that day we were driven into Mzengereza to be given over to our host families. We stopped in front of the chief’s house were all our ‘families’ were gathered, singing to our arrival and as I hopped out of the vehicle we were riding in, safari style, I almost tripped for the shaking of my legs and hands. After a short few words of introduction they called my name, I dizzily stood and my Amayi/surrogate mother for the next month put her arm around me, took my bag and with not a word to be spoken between us, off we walked to a little compound at the base of Banda Mt. I instantly loved my new home. People here use their yards as an honest extension to their living space and they share it with the animals they raise, so chicken, doves and goats will be wandering around your feet as you do dishes. Because of this they sweep their yards, no grass (so my yard needs a lot of work). It’s striking how buildings here aren’t really sealed up like they are in the states. Churches will not have doors or glass on the windows and the roof doesn’t meet the walls. The weather permits everything to be really open. The best way to describe it is to say that the US feels sterile in comparison.
That first half hours was spent meeting the family, which tapped out the language skills I had at the time, followed by us looking at eachother from across the small table in the house that they had given to me sleep in. I can’t help but laugh now at how awkward it was. It didn’t last long though as my 3 new sisters Bena 16, Florence and Pempera (twins) 21 soon took me and taught me games. Pempera spoke a little English, but with much pointing and laughing we played something similar to ‘keep-away’ for the rest of the afternoon.
Over the following weeks I was taught how to wash my clothes by hand (I will never again take for granted a washing machine), cook nsima over a three stone fire (a crowning accomplishment) and how to sit in a guava tree eating fruit and enjoy the view. They also taught me how to wear a chitenge properly, which is harder than it sounds. It only became legal for women to wear pants some 15 yrs ago, so a lot of women wear dresses or 3 ft of cloth around their waists known as chitenges, especially in places outside the cities. In order for me to integrate better it means I wear one most of the time as well. They are pretty fun and aren’t a big problem except when your trying to ride a bike, board a bus or do anything that requires you to actually do anything other than walk.
I learned tons of games and really enjoyed the time I spent with playing with the kids. The dances here are also awesome though I have only been a part of impromptu too dance parties where the girls stand in a circle and start it sing and they one by one go in the middle to dance. I like to be believe I can hold my own though. I can only imagine what a legitimate full moon celebration will be like. We loved our little village set in the mounts with its rains (it’s the end of the rainy season now and things are already starting to dry out and remind me of home) and morning mist. I have already met some truly amazing people.
The main food staple here is nsmina, which is corn flour boiled to the consistency of mash potatoes. Breakfast is a plate of pumpkin, bread (still haven’t gotten used to being offered a half loaf of white bread of breakfast) or potatoes. Lunch and dinner are pretty much the same consisting of nsima, greens be it pumpkin, rape or cassava leaves and then depending on what people can afford beans, meat or no third dish. I am proud to say that I have had fried parabungu (yes, caterpillars and they have a metallic taste) and live termites with wings, which don’t taste much like anything.
Shopping at the markets take a bit of getting used to are a bit of shock. They are what we in the US would consider super sketchy, but here is just the way things are here. Just kind of run down and nothings packaged and well…it’s a market. Grocery stores that are more what I’m used to do exist in the bigger bomas (city centers), but I am starting to get used to the market environment and don’t perceive it as intimidating anymore. I kind actually find a lot more things here than I thought at least in the big cities, the difference is that it is not available in anywhere near the quality. In a lot of cases walmart products look classy in comparison. Or novelty items are just really expensive, for example a bar of heresy’s chocolate is 500K and I will receive around 150.00$ a month, which equals 21,000 k. 6 tomatoes cost 30K. I am rather excited to get to my site and start cooking for my self to get some variety in there.
I guess I can finally tell you about the site were I’ll actually be living. I visited it for a few days when shadowing other volunteers in my area. I’ve been placed in a little village East of Kasungu along the M18 called Msulira. If you want to be even more specific I technically live in an even smaller village/compound called Mpezi after the family that occupies the area. People have a tendency not to settle very far from where they were born so villages are really just collections of families. Each village has a chief or headmen/women which is then over saw by a group village headmen then a Senior group village headman then a traditional authority ect. Authority tends to follow family lines and it is very common for the people in the village to be related to their chief.
I am in the biggest tobacco (they call it Fodya, which translates to not food) growing region, lots of rolling hills and mountains off in the distance. Amphuma (chief) Mphezi, who is my neighbor, has got a huge tobacco farm and reminds me a lot of my grandfather, in that he’s a kind, older gentlemen who oversees the running of his farm and family. I will have an extreme wet season and extreme dry season which is coming up, but thankfully there is a swell covered in sedge and grass sprinkled with trees near my house that will keep water through that time. Though the central and southern regions are rather forested, (this is not the case for the northern region) there are a cluster of trees around my village and there are also tons of MANGO, avocado, guava and papaya trees everywhere!!!!
There is a bore hole about 50 m from my house where I will go to draw my water from. My actual house is in a row of small houses, it has two rooms, a thatched roof, mud floor and plastered walls. The kitchen, bafa (bath) and chim (outhouse) are buildings of their own outside. They were also kind enough to build me a privacy fence even though it’s a really bizarre concept to them and no one ever builds them. My main mode of transport will be bike, bus or hitching, which is really common due to the low availability of transport here. Needless to say getting around is actually bit tedious. I’ve already discovered it can take up to two hours for a bus to fill and it won’t leave until it’s full.
I will be ‘swearing-in’ in two days, which means that I will go form being a trainee to an actual volunteer. This also means that I will finally be dropped off for good at my site where I will be required to stay for the next three months. That time will be for settling in and deciding on what projects I will want to work on in my community. In coming to a country that is filled with life-line farmers I was shocked to find that a lot of the farming practices are less than sustainable (hell who am I kidding, US farming isn’t sustainable) and don’t take full advantage of the lands production capability. I’ll not be working with people from square one but square negative one, though I have to say that this is not necessarily the case for every farm I’ve seen. From what I’ve been trained in and what I’ve seen so far I anticipate teaching/working with small groups or with individuals in improving health though varying the diet, improve farming practices, teaching composting, doing bee keeping, fish ponds, irrigation projects, tree planting, HIV awareness and in general just whatever people feel they want to do to better their community. The community is excited and motivated, my bosses are innovated and inspiring and the whole program sets you up to succeed.
What I miss most about the states…dairy products, fridgeration in general, being able to wear shorts, sidewalks, a good cup of coffee. I love you and miss you!!!!
PS. If you want to send me stuff, it sounds like a flat rate box is going to be the way to go. Here are some ideas:
Novel spices: nutritional yeast, seasoning packets, curry, garlic
Pictures of you
Things to keep me entertained
Anything in the candy aisle
Locks of your hair