Coming to this tiny country, I didn't know what to expect, really. I spent a lot of time explaining where Malawi is, how big it is, and that it isn't one of the Hawaiian islands. Reading about Malawi, I learned about a poor country, with depressing statistics about nearly everything and a government economic scandal that's undermining its current administration.
Visiting Malawi paints a very different picture - it is a beautiful place. Many of the people here tell me that Malawi is called, "the warm heart of Africa," because its people so friendly. Everywhere you go, you are greeted by everyone you meet.
"Ndiri bwinu, kaya inu?"
Before you ever attend to business, you ask how people are doing. Relationships always come first here. This culture of welcoming has been a complete reversal from everything I've been used to in the past, where time is of the essence and work must be done immediately. Here, in spite of being so far from home, I am never stressed and never hurried, and I am hoping to bring this calm with me when I come back to the US.
The streets rarely have signs or traffic lights. Vegetable vendors are on every corner. It is common to see children herding their family's cows or goats down the side of the road, or to see them tending a maize field behind a shopping center. The minibuses are rickety, but they'll always get you where you need to go. I've even gotten used to the differences in how food is made here. But in this simpler living, the adjustment to a new country has been much easier. Our Malawian office assistant sat me down and taught me how to eat nsima, the corn-based dough that accompanies every Malawian meal - no forks allowed. She then told me I could be a true Malawian, since I would eat anything; it's comforting to fit in so easily.
Walking through Malawi and through the refugee camp where I work is often a conflict of stereotypes, expectations, and reality. Yes, there is a lot of poverty in the camp and these people are facing difficult living conditions, but at the same time, they greet me with smiles and ask how I am, welcoming me to Dzaleka and asking me how my day is. If there is anything I'm learning about development work, it's that you have to learn about the people involved before making any snap judgments or assumptions.
Right now, I'm working on monitoring and evaluation for the higher education program in the camp - gathering information about what the students have been doing after graduation and compiling data. The program gives them a year of Jesuit education through various American universities, but it is difficult to follow up with students after they have left the program, especially when considering the size of the camp and the random frequency of refugee resettlement. My work involves creating a system for monitoring and evaluation, as well as learning what monitoring and evaluation even really is. I've been conducting interviews with our diploma students, which has allowed me to get to know many of the people here. It's challenging, being patient with myself, with language barriers, and with perceptions of time, but it's becoming something I'm learning from.
As I rode in a tiny boat down the Shire river last weekend, weaving between families of hippos, I found myself enjoying the quiet time to reflect and appreciate what was happening around me - I think that is really what life here is going to teach me.
As I woke up this morning, I realized that it was eerily quiet. Where was the rooster? I looked outside, confused at the silence, and saw the normal group of chickens pecking at the garden. Then it struck me. I've finally stopped being able to hear the roosters - I've finally gotten used to the noise.
Lilongwe is beginning to feel like home. I'm starting to know where things are, and how things work. I've stopped feeling uncomfortable with the newness of everything, and instead been able to feel like I have ownership over the little things in my life. A month ago, everything felt artificial, like I was just passing through. But it's starting to feel normal.
Simultaneously, everything at work has picked up. I've found myself with my hands in a lot of different pots, rapidly learning how to do a lot of different things, and simultaneously having to learn so much patience. Things in the NGO world move slowly, and things in Malawi move even slower - as I finish my work, I've found myself anxious for more and confused when there is none.|
But I am also learning that in development work, you have to pick your battles. There are seemingly insurmountable challenges. But we can make small changes, like providing more education and empowering students to solve problems within the camp - or even smaller changes, like making little kids laugh as the tall mzungu stops to try and speak Chichewa with them.
In a whirlwind of work at JC:HEM, I have found myself running workshops and leading discussion groups. I'm also working with community members to begin proposing Community Service Learning Tracks to JRS, developing courses that would provide refugees with skills to address community needs. In a few weeks, I have learned how to write lesson plans, develop proposals and conduct interviews.
I cannot believe how quickly the time here has passed, and how I now must prepare myself to leave this amazing place. I have learned how to do so much in this short time, but still feel like I have so much to do. So many things about Malawi just make me stop and smile, reflecting on how lucky I am to have traveled here and experienced some of this country.
This past weekend, we climbed Zomba Plateau, about 2500 feet above tiny Zomba Town below us. After four hours of hiking, we came across a remote dam, where we stood on the edge of the water and yelled out towards the fog. There was nobody to hear us as we laughed by the water, and I felt calm as I looked out on the empty, beautiful landscape only Malawi can offer, thankful to have this experience. It will be hard to leave this place in a few weeks, but I'm so glad that I came.