Coping With a New Normal

As I sit down to write this blog, there seems to be an overabundance of short stories I could share. At the same time, I feel like I have nothing to say. Perhaps after eight months of living here, things are starting to feel normal. I no longer cringe at the sight of goat meat sizzling in a puddle of oil on the side of the road, I don’t erupt into laughter when I see a pig strapped to the back of a bike, and cooking every meal without electricity is not a laborious chore but an everyday task. There are probably dozens of amusing moments and odd observations throughout my days that might come as a surprise or shock to my readers back in America, but I now find myself conditioned. Is the way in which the children aggressively jockey ox carts that striking? Is taking a bucket bath next to my chicken and puppy uncommon? Don’t most kids help their parents brew moonshine?

                Reaching this state of acclimation has been quite long and at certain points, quite difficult. While I myself have adapted to life in Malawi, my neighbors seem less adjusted to my presence. Every time I leave my house, I am bombarded with a thousand greetings. A crowd forms anytime I do something that strays from what Malawians consider normal (like a white person using a hoe) and if I sit on my front porch, twenty children will be at my side in less than five minutes. To avoid even more attention than what I’m describing, my identity must lamentably be compromised. I can’t openly reveal that I don’t attend church, I must refer to my boyfriend as my husband to avoid judgmental comments, and I can only eat luxury foods like peanut butter in private for fear of being perceived as “bwana” (rich). I originally tried my best to conform, but recently I have been introducing fragments of American culture and my past life into my routine in order to stay sane. Below are three things I’ve done to improve my mental health, which I’d also suggest to future volunteers:

1). Bought a puppy! (For a total of one dollar). Living with my new best friend, Rajah, has been one of the best decisions I’ve made here. He loves me unconditionally, I love him unconditionally, and he brings great joy to my neighbors who have never seen such a relationship. They ­keel over in laughter each time I kiss him, stop & stare if I ever carry him around like a baby, and inform me of his midday wanderings when I return home from work. Having someone who is so incredibly excited to see you every day is incredibly comforting.

2). Started to run again! For the first five months at site, I had a mental block when it came to running in the village. Fortunately, I have since overcome my fear of crazed iwes chasing me and have started to exercise again. Running beside a nearby river as the sun rises is beautiful, peaceful and gives me a chance to be alone outside of my house. I even have a running buddy- Rajah!

3). Visited the lake. While most Malawians only utilize the lake to fish or bathe, I have recently been using it to cool off and relax. I recently discovered that it only takes about 35 minutes to bike to a beautiful resort on the beach that has a pool, delicious Indian food, and cold drinks. While I definitely can’t afford to stay there or even frequent the restaurant often, it has been an oasis when I need a break from village life.

The past month has definitely been the most difficult thus far. As reality sets in and I realize that indeed, I have lived in Africa for eight months and indeed, I will be here for eighteen more, it has become important to critically consider how I can make my life here sustainable. What can I do for myself that is not viewed as too outrageous, but will still provide me with joy? How can I assimilate yet retain my autonomy? I love my role as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I love my counterpart, and I love my bucolic life, but there are some truly rough days. While integration is certainly important, I have come to realize that doing my own thing (no matter how strange I seem to my neighbors), is vital.

Baby Rajah! And my new cornrows:

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