Heather Hanson is a senior Humanities and International Studies major and French minor. She is interested in women's rights and agricultural justice, and hopes to expand her interests in development while working closely with a community during her experience abroad. In her spare time she enjoys reading, singing and making ja
"Malawi is not the Warm Heart of Africa. It used to be, but not anymore," my coworker Peter says sadly. Peter was born in Zambia and moved to Malawi with his parents when he was a child. He lives just outside of Lilongwe with his wife and 10-year-old daughter, and works as the manager of finances for Jesuit Refugee Service Malawi. It's Friday evening and we're celebrating another coworker's birthday at Harry's Bar in Area Four of Lilongwe. It seems that even in the most laid-back of circumstances, conversation inevitably lands on the sad state of Malawi's economy. Tourist companies still proudly push the Warm Heart of Africa slogan - citing the welcoming nature of the small, landlocked country's inhabitants. Since I arrived, I've also heard this welcoming quality described as "passive" and even "lazy," undoubtedly in frustration to the lack of uproar against the current administration's refusal to address the country's real needs (President Mutharika has overseen the building of a Chinese-donated five star hotel, a new parliament building, and a port on Lake Malawi that has been sitting unused since its completion in 2010).
Malawi's fuel crisis reached unmanageable heights over the summer, and since then has continued to worsen. Fuel is approximately $6.50 per gallon (and I've heard of folks spending up to $10 on the black market).Whenever a gas station receives a shipment of fuel it seems that every car in Lilongwe hears about it and throws itself in the mess to get some. The streets become parking lots. Some government agencies get priority, but buses, garbage trucks and (!) ambulances are left to wait in the queues with the rest of the city. Peter's lamentation about the state of his country was in reference to the fallout from the fuel crisis: Malawians have been forced to adapt their routines to when and where there will be the next shipment of petrol.
My work at Jesuit Refugee Service is largely separate from the situation in Malawi. With a few exceptions, all 14,000 of the refugees in Malawi live in Dzaleka refugee camp. JRS is in charge of Dzaleka's primary and secondary schools, vocational training, tertiary education and psychosocial support programs. Originally my work with them was going to be much more involved in the camp's women's centre - a recent development which provides women with income generating opportunities and conversation and counseling groups. I was going to be working on a community gardening project, which gives 20 former sex workers the opportunity to grow fruits and vegetables to sell in the camp's market. After my arrival, however, it became very clear that JRS' need was less in the community gardening project than it was in funding. I suggested that I could help with funding proposals and was immediately met with an "Oh my gosh that would be wonderful" from my supervisor. Less glamorous sounding than working in the community garden, but more needed. I have been driven to find a balance between being helpful to JRS and having a relationship-building experience with Malawi's refugees - not a difficult decision, it turns out.
Though drafting funding proposals has been my major task so far, I have been able to be helpful in other ways as well. I'm still working in the women's centre in camp - organizing an English conversation group with a volunteer from Canada, I helped with paying the salaries of JRS'100-odd refugee employees, I've helped out refugees in an online liberal studies program with writing papers, and I put together all of the contracts for the 2012 JRS employees. Though I've gotten to know several Malawians through my work at JRS, it still feels very removed from Malawi itself. I am staying in a large volunteer house with my own room and bathroom - a far cry from the way most Malawians live (nearly 90% are country-dwelling farmers). I ride the minibus to work and shop in the market, after which I return home to curl up on the couch with a book until bedtime. In yet another conversation about the dire state of Malawi's economy yesterday evening, someone brought up the recent revolutions in Libya and Egypt. "Who knows?" she said, "Maybe the fever will spread south. "Who knows. If conditions in Malawi don't improve, the Warm Heart of Africa may need to take on a new meaning.
There is no word for goodbye in the native language of Malawi. Instead, people say tionana, which translates to we will see each other again. As I prepare to leave, I am struck again and again with how final the goodbyes feel. As much as I miss home, I wish that returning to it did not come with the finality of leaving my routine and my friends here. It has been an experience dense with realizations about privilege, about the world, and about myself. I have had the opportunity to examine the ways in which I look at poverty: my knee-jerk reaction to suffering is to give. I see the world split into haves, have-nots, and have-nothings. I see my "surplus" reflected in their "lack," and I feel that I must do something to create a balance. I know, now, how much this way of viewing the world misses the point, and misses the real beauty of service. Because giving to create a balance is really giving for myself - to ease my guilt at having been born lucky, while so many others were born into suffering.
My presence here is not valuable because of my privileged position. It's valuable because I was able to know the people with whom I worked, to understand them, and to form relationships with them. On my last day in Dzaleka refugee camp, a Congolese man I've gotten to know invited me into his home and offered me a Coke. A Coke is worth about two days worth of food in camp, and as I sat, drinking it and talking with my friend, I felt as though I had been given the biggest gift he could give. It will be one of my favorite memories I take home with me. I expected Malawi to contain the answers to my questions about service, about NGOs and about cross-cultural communication. The few answers I've gotten shrink in comparison to the new and vastly more complicated questions with which I am returning home. I have begun a potentially life-long journey with my questions. Though Imay not see her green, rolling hills, her kind people or her thundering rainstorms again, my time here has given me growth that only Malawi could give. It has become part of me, and it is not a goodbye. Tionana, Malawi. We will see each other again.