When I was still undergoing training in Kasungu in April 2015, an established PCV gave to me a note with the following quote:
“Adventure is a path. Real adventure – self-determined, self-motivated, often risky – forces you to have firsthand encounters with the world. The world the way it is, not the way you imagine it. Your body will collide with the earth and you will bear witness. In this way you will be compelled to grapple with the limitless kindness and bottomless cruelty of humankind – and perhaps realize that you yourself are capable of both. This will change you. Nothing will ever again be black-and-white.” -Mark Jenikins
I remember reading the quote and rendering it a bit too abstract, too verbose and airy for my liking. I jammed the note into my backpack and thought nothing of it for the following months. Now, almost a year in country, no string of sentences has been more true.
The quote begins describing adventure. It’s self-determined, it’s self-motivated and it’s risky. Reflecting on my own self-motivated adventure in Malawi, I can agree that it has indeed been a risk. Everyday I risk my sanity, my physical health, my future (was this the right choice?), and my long-distance friendships, among other things. Living alone in a community whose values are severely different from mine, (see post: Love, Sex, and Cultural Imposition), and not having anyone nearby to decompress with on a deeper level is a risk. Tending to multiple intractable but minor health issues that I’d never experience in the States is a risk. Running through tall fields of corn in the early morning is also a risk. Yet, as Jenkins writes, this life — albeit risky — allows me to encounter the world first-hand. If I didn’t shelter the elderly woman in my house when the grisly Gule Wamkulu passed by, I wouldn’t have absorbed her visceral fear. If I didn’t stop to watch the younger boys play soccer and dubiously attempt to chat on the sidelines, I wouldn’t have understood their routine struggle in finding materials to make a ball. Lastly, if I didn’t accept an invite to eat nsima with a stranger, I would never have become friends with someone who I now thoroughly trust. Only by making myself vulnerable and taking these risks have I been able to encounter the world up-close.
Furthermore, these self-determined risks have allowed me to see the world the “way it is, not the way [I] imagined it.” Africa is not a homogenous continent filled with starving, fly-covered children in barren landscapes as often depicted by the media. Some of my neighbors have electricity and text on blackberry phones while others sport converses and listen to Akon. My village is also not composed only of warm, generous and hardworking individuals striving for change. My neighbors chide their female children for continuing their education when they should be producing babies. Everyone locks up their homes when they leave for the farm in legitimate fear of thieves.
No, there is no black and white.
I have indeed been “compelled to grapple with the limitless kindness and bottomless cruelty of humankind.” I remember moving into my new house and a woman offering a whole basin of tomatoes to me. While the gesture was certainly appreciated at the time, I have since learned that this woman lives in one of the smallest huts in my village (smaller than my bedroom back home), and recently married off her daughter for monetary reasons. Yet, there she was, presenting me with her tomatoes that she could have been selling for profit. On the other hand, I’ve watched both next-door neighbors (to my left and right) brutally beat their children, repeatedly landing blows to their little munchkins’ heads with as much force as the women could have mustered. I’ve also talked to many men at local tearooms/restaurants who explained that they are were “running away” from their families because there was no food at the house and they wanted something to eat for themselves.
As Jenkins writes, this dichotomy between kindness and cruelty is not only observed externally, but may also be realized in yourself. I too, have been stretched to both ends of the spectrum. Some days, I am overcome with magnanimous love for my little friends who will most certainly live the same, difficult lives that their parents do. I flood them with the attention that they never receive — reading to them, helping them write letters and sounds in my notebook, and plopping stickers on their sweet faces. I give them pencils, let them play with my soccer ball and teach them songs. Sometimes I bake delicious goods and — although I know that the homey, comforting feeling that banana bread concocts for me is not recognized in Malawians — I share my coveted, idolized treats. On other days, this grand adventure transforms me into a cruel monster. In the beginning of my service, throngs of children would come to my house to look in my windows, scream my name, and mock me. During those days, I certainly had dark, execrable thoughts. I had to restrain myself to not use violence, (the only form of effective punishment that I’ve seen children respond to here), and instead communicate in vain with my severely limited Chichewa. On other bad days, I’ve exhibited my cruelty by insolently cruising by people trying to flag me down, rolling my eyes and cursing out loud at their irritating attempts to have a baseless conversation with the azungu just so they could brag to their friends. Yes, even as a spreader of peace, I have have taken the low road.
On this path of adventure, I have both bore witness to & exhibited myself bottomless cruelty and limitless kindness. I have truly encountered the world first-hand. This, according to Jenkins, will change me. Already, I’ve seen the world shift. My views are more complex. My understanding is more profound. I am more grateful. As my body continues to collide with the earth, and as I continue to follow this path of adventure, I await with eagerness the lessons that rest on the horizon in front of me.