5 Normal Thoughts I’ve Had Here That Would Be Weird in the US:

“A warm coke would be so nice right now!”

“It’s only been four days; I’ll wash my hair another time.”

“How the hell did I sleep so late?” (*6:30am*)

“I have four full buckets of water and am the luckiest girl in the world!”

“Ten cents for three tomatoes? Ah way too expensive.”

3 Truths and 1 Lie. Below are four odd things things I’ve observed here. There are three true scenarios and one fabricated one. Can you guess which is which? (Answers at the end of this post).

1). Two ducks suspiciously waddling out of my outhouse together.

2). A woman carrying a handbag… on her head. (Meanwhile, the woman next to her was carrying a single comb in the same fashion).

3). A goat strapped to the back of a moving bike with another goat riding shotgun between the biker’s legs.

4). A raging fire directly outside of my straw fence that a group of amayis somehow managed to put out as I held my breath watching.

5 Malawian Behaviors I Didn’t Understand in Homestay But Have Since Adopted

Keeping weird/old/broken things around. Why? Because they might come in handy someday or already have a purpose. For example, there are two pieces of an old snack bag that are constantly floating between my fire pit and where I eat. Their purpose is to protect my fingers from burning when I pick up a pot on the fire to transfer inside. However, I’m sure they’d look like trash to a visitor. Another example comes from this morning when I saw a clear, thick plastic bag fall out of my trash and literally thought, “Wow, that’s a nice bag! I wonder why I threw it away.” (And then laughed at the absurdity). Anyway, re-purposing and saving potentially handy objects is 100% valid with the little resources that exist here. Plus, you get to use your creativity!

Putting all the dirty dinner dishes inside until the next morning. Living with my host family, I always questioned why they just didn’t get the dish washing over with at night. The reason, I learned? It’s dark, you’re exhausted from prepping food, starting a fire & cooking the food, and you can’t leave them outside because someone might snatch your favorite spoon during the night.

Putting oil and salt on EVERYTHING. In large quantities. Because most families haven’t built ovens, frying foods is a way of life. And possibly due to the low quality of the frying pans, using excessive amounts of oil is apparently the way to go. As for the salt, it’s the cheapest and easiest way to liven up your food here. Being in Malawi for almost three months, I too have adopted the oil/salt lifestyle. Embarrassingly, I even now put the combination on my salad! When you don’t have dressing, oil & salt will have to do.

Storing everything on the ground. Simply put, furniture is expensive. Additionally, it’s a pain to transport to your house since you will most likely have to hire a bike taxi, ox cart, or car. So yes, most of my things are still on the ground. (Including me when I’m not standing).

Getting dressed up to go into town. Whenever my homestay mom was traveling to the Boma (nearest city/trading area), she would put on her Sunday best- earrings, a nice chitenje, a head wrap and maybe even running shoes. I thought it was funny. Then, I realized I did the same exact thing the first time I went to my Boma. I brushed my hair (rare), picked out a slightly less conservative outfit,  cleaned off my shoes and even wore deodorant! I felt like a country bumpkin leaving for the big city. When I realized what I was doing, I again laughed at the absurdity. I was only traveling there to pick up a few groceries so why did I feel the need to get “dressed up?” So odd.

I hope you have found this post interesting and a bit different than my usual ramblings! I wish I could post more pictures, but they take eons to upload. Thank you to everyone who has commented here or sent me letters. Hearing from you all makes my day!

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My backyard on laundry day (rainbow organized of course).

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Swimming in the local river! The girl on the left in the school uniform comes to my house often and brought me here with her friends last week.

*Answers to 3 Truths and a Lie: Trick question. I have observed all of those things here.

Lessons Learned

Yesterday marked my fourth return return to this man’s house. He promised me three planks of wood cut to size and 18 nails. Instead, each time I returned, I found myself listening to a rambling assortment of excuses as flimsy as an old chitenje. Through his broken English, he’d tell me that returning another day was better. By yesterday afternoon, I was pissed. Sweaty, dusty and exhausted from a long bike ride to Salima that morning, I arrived at his house in a contentious mood.

“Are you ready to learn?” He asked in Chichewa. Before I could process his words and produce a response, he pointed towards a dilapitated toolbox and gestured for a saw. As I handed him the tool, I realized that my planks were sitting on his work bench. Uncut. My throat tightening as I felt my frustration grow. They were not even marked with the measurements that I had described days earlier. What had kept him so busy that he couldn’t make a few simple cuts? My stomach bluntly reminded me that I hadn’t ate lunch and all I wanted was to be back in my house with my planks, finally done with this man.

Almost three hours later, I left Malecki’s home with a full stomach, a new friend, and a better understanding and appreciation of a certain aspect of Malawian culture. I ascertained through a mixture of English and Chichewa that instead of solely selling me the planks, Malecki had wanted to help me build my shelves. He didn’t want to just pass off three raw planks, but wished to help me create three uniformly cut, planed and in his words, “beautiful” pieces of wood. Malecki taught me how to cut with a saw, use a “plank knife” to chip away unevenness, and smooth the wood with a plane. He also wanted to add an element of design to the shelves and help me put it all together, but I insisted that he had done enough.

After we finished our work, he eagerly invited me into his modest home for a meal of nsima and beans. It was in these walls, with his youngest child on his lap, that Malecki told me about his life. Unlike most Malawians, Malecki completed both primary and secondary school- a seemingly unattainable achievement for most youth here. (Only 11% of children attend secondary school, let alone finish). Malecki then expounded on his passion for carpentry which was evident in the way in which he had moved around his workshop, giving attention to minor details in the wood. He had attended carpentry school in the capital but ultimately resigned to return to Maganga in order to support his parents. “My family is poor. And now I am a poor man too,” he told me. Although he smiled when he said this, his eyes seemed to be full of lament, possibly considering what his life could have been like if he did not have to support his parents and other family members. He had worked harder than most in school, had acquired the skills necessary for a successful carpentry business, yet remained in a mud and thatch roof no bigger than my American bedroom.

My conversation with Malecki that day truly made me stop and think. First, about how I had mistaken his desire to befriend me & teach me his trade, with his inability to run a business. What I perceived as laziness was actually a cultural difference. While in the U.S. business transpires quickly and efficiently, Malawians live life at a much slower pace, entrusting higher value on the formation of relationships. Even though this pace has been frustrating at times, I’m starting to appreciate its importance. Talking to and working with Malecki was so much more valuable to me than simply exchanging goods. I felt lucky to forge a new friendship and listen to his story.

The second, less uplifting topic I thought about yesterday was the overwhelming, crushing weight of poverty. Of course, I see malnourished mothers, children with protruding bellies and men dressed in rags everyday, but as with most issues, (at least for me), listening to personal stories makes it all so much more real. My conversation with Malecki about his vain struggle to break the cycle of poverty in his family made me look hard at the landscape around me and consider the great difficulties of development work. While initially reflecting upon my day, everything seemed to be related back to income. I asked myself: how can Malecki make a better life for his children if he must simultaneously provide for his parents? How can a Malawian youth get an education if their family can’t afford the school fees? How can I teach families to boil their water to prevent diarrhea if they don’t have funds to spend on extra firewood? All of these questions circulated in my head as I began to comprehend just how difficult my work here might be. There seemed to be countless ways in which a person’s financial status could dictate their health, education, livelihood, etc. Clearly, Malecki is a hardworking, intelligent man but his family’s history with poverty has held him back from advancement.

While yesterday I spent brooding over the great hardship and unfairness that is life in Malawi, today I have been more positive, reminding myself that every effort made towards change counts. As one of our trainers in Kasungu reminded us as we prepared to leave for site, “every little achievement is still an achievement.” Pang’ono pang’ono. While our work is not meant to target the economic landscapes of our villages, I’m hoping that the skills and knowledge that we transfer to our community members will have an effect, whether small or large. If we can empower individuals with knowledge and build capacity, we can make a change.

Fighting with Fire

I have officially arrived at site in Maganga, Salima! On Friday morning, I embarked from Kasungu with six other volunteers and all of our gear in a jam-packed bus. After dropping off three other people at their respective sites, we arrived at my humble abode. Because daylight was dwindling, my belongings were promptly transfered to my porch, quick hugs were administered, and the bus pulled away. I was left there in awe, reminding myself that the bus would not in fact be returning tomorrow and that this would be my home for the next two years. Since that moment (precisely four days ago), I’ve been busy unpacking, decorating, beginning a compost pile, digging a garden, building a dish rack, etc. Although I feel like I have so many anecdotes about my initial struggles here, I thought I’d share just one story about my first encounter with fire.

SUNDAY.

I woke up at 6:00am and decided that after a full day at site of eating only bread and peanut butter, it was time to delve into the world of cooking over a fire. For some reason, I decided to begin with pumpkin- a food that I had bought on impulse the day before and had no idea how to cook. After consulting a friend who suggested that I try to steam it, I cut the pumpkin into chunks, poured some water in a pot and went to put it over the fire. Realizing that I hadn’t even started a fire, I went behind my house to gather some wood and returned to a fat toad sitting in the frying pan that I was planning on utilizing as a lid. After shooing him away, it was time to get serious. The stove that I would be using was a clay pot with a small hole near the bottom for air intake and three notches on top to rest a pot. These “baulas” had been provided to us by the PC. Surprisingly, the fire caught on only my second try. “Yay!” I thought. “I’ll put the pumpkin on the fire and leave it to steam while I go bathe.” I soon realized, however, that this was not the case. Instead, what ensued was the creation of a billowing smoke signal and me running around the fire in circles (sometimes with my eyes closed to avoid the smoke), trying to get the best angle to blow/fan the fire. It felt like any way that I tried to position the wood was not going to work. The fire must have gone out at least 10 times. There was a lot of cursing. I wasn’t happy. To add insult to injury, at one point during the chaos with a half burnt stick in one hand and the frying pan in the other, I spotted that fat toad, hopping through my door and into my house.

By the end of my first battle with fire, I was covered in ash, had tears running down my face from the smoke, and was completely out of wood. BUT I had a (semi-cooked) pumpkin and fully cooked rice. Bon appetite?

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*Note: Since this post was written, I have successfully made fire that did not go out until I wanted it to. There is hope after all! I think it’s just a matter of getting used to the baula. We shall see.

Homestay Overview

5/5/15:

As homestay wraps up (holy guacamoly where has the time gone?), I thought that writing a post with future volunteers in mind would be useful. I know that I perused countless PCV blogs for a glimpse of what the first few months were like, so here’s my two cents if there are any future volunteers reading this.

Most useful/nicest thing I had at homestay:

Trail mix

Cocoa almonds

Granola bars

Multivitamins & probiotics

Drink mixes

Long skirts (chitenjes get old fast)

Solar charger

Music player & speakers

Super absorbent little towel

Pens

Worst parts of homestay:

If you can’t tell by the food items on the previous list, I found the worst part of homestay to be the food. Or rather, lack of nutritious food. Although some families can afford to feed their PCT a slightly more varied diet, a lot of volunteers are served nsima (a dish made with corn flour and water) and some type of protein. Luckily, my amayi cooks rice for me often, but eating rice/nsima + eggs/soy pieces/chicken doesn’t cut it. Not getting enough fruit and veggies has definitely taken a toll on my body; I feel much weaker and have less energy. So pack multivitamins! They’ve helped a bit.

Another major challenge has been a lack of privacy/personal space. My family is great about respecting my room as a private spot, but once I leave, I feel like I am always in the spotlight and can’t step out of it. There are literally children EVERYWHERE. You can’t escape them. The “iwes” (kids) run rampant here and are apparently too interested in us to sacrifice leaving us alone for even a minute. I like children, but it’d be nice to sit under a tree and read a book without someone reading it over my shoulder or without someone announcing to the other children every time I take a drink from my water bottle…

The last part of PST (Pre-Service Training) that I’ll complain about is a complete lack of time we seem to have. It’s improved slightly since site visits but during the first month and a half, we had such busy schedules with countless sector sessions, group activities and language lessons. After school we then needed to bathe, eat, chat with our families and sometimes do homework. By the time 8:00 rolled around, I was more than ready for bed. Although I anticipated having free time for reading, practicing guitar, or drawing, that extraneous time did not exist. If I did happen to have some spare time, I always felt like I should have been spending it with my family or socializing with other PCTs. Looking back however, the memories I made with others was much more important than reading a book or improving on the guitar.

And now… BEST PARTS OF HOMESTAY:

The #1 spot goes to cooking mandasi under the stars with my host family. For some reason, everyone is always in such a silly mood during mandasi time, which makes it easier for me to try to make jokes in Chichewa. Although they’re probably laughing at me, (and not at my jokes), I love seeing my amayi and siblings crack up. They’re a great audience because they will literally laugh at anything. Another perk: my amayi lets me eat one or two of the hot, fresh mandasis before storing them and they are DELICIOUS. I once ate 5. (After eating dinner too).

Another thing I love about homestay is that everyone here knows my name. (#Celebstatus). Although the iwes can be overbearing at times, hearing them shout “Chri-tee-na!” in their cute little accents as they run towards me never fails to improve my mood. Being greeted by other amayis in the community, who I don’t even recognize, has made me feel like even more welcomed here.

The last thing I’ll mention is simply getting to know my host family. It amazes me that when I arrived, we spoke two completely different languages. However, I now know them on a personal level. I feel connected. They’ve let me into their lives, taken a great interest in mine, and shared with me what little they had. It’s really hard to put this experience into words, but I guess that the sensation of truly connecting with people who have grown up in a completely different culture on the opposite side of the world, is what’s so special. It’s been wonderful.

All in all, living in Chisazima has been great and I really don’t want to leave my family and the community I’ve grown to love. Tomorrow is Village Appreciation where we’ll thank the village (and perform a choreographed dance to Thriller!) and then Thursday is our Swearing-In Ceremony in Lilongwe. I was chosen to give a short speech in Chichewa so I’ve been practicing my pronunciation and trying to make the speech as fluid as possible. The ceremony takes place at the Ambassador’s house, which is pretty exciting! Finally, on Friday we head to our respective sites. Ahh! How did this happen? Its completely overwhelming and so sad to leave the awesome friends I’ve made, but on to the next chapter of this journey I guess?

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Playing uno with the fam