Zooming along the back of a bike taxi with the wind in my hair and the verdant countryside sprawled out in front of me, I was in bliss. Memories of my homestay family, who I had not seen in a year, permeated my mind. I was en route to their village to surprise them with an Easter visit from their long lost American daughter. The weekend prior, I was forced to cancel plans with them but today was the real deal. I planned to relish in the glory of being a “back home baller,” gleefully accepting heated bucket baths and fresh mandasis. I’d play with my brothers and sisters and give them the school supplies I’d brought as gifts. I would tell my amayi everything that I could about life in Salima with my improved Chichewa. A grin spread across my face as the long overdue reunion played out in my head.
As I neared Chisazima, people began to recognize me. Some waved and called out my name, while others just stared and quietly whispered my name in disbelief. Great excitement roiled inside me.
When I finally arrived in the village’s little trading center, I was ambushed. “Christina! Christina! Christina!” A woman flung her arms around me and gave me an awkward albeit loving hug. It was my Malawian friend Anne, who had lived next door to my host family. She eagerly grabbed one of my bags and led me towards my family while probing about lakeshore life. After chatting for a bit, I asked her about Tilifonia, my host mother.
“Alibe,” she said. “She’s not here.”
My heart sank. She’s not here? Maybe she’s out in the fields, I reasoned optimistically. As a gaggle of children led me into my family compound it became clear that not only Tilifonia, but my entire host family, was indeed absent. No sweet little Madalitso in her tattered peach dress. No playful Nduza dribbling around his homemade soccer ball. No amayi eagerly awaiting my arrival.
The house where I had stayed had changed too. Gone was the hand-washing station that my family built to appease Peace Corps, gone was the door on my bedroom and gone was the improved cook stove that they utilized during my stay. The house was dilapidated, its straw roofing sliding off and its paint weathered. I knew things would be different a year later, but everything felt so unapologetically cold.
Currently inhabiting the house were my amayi’s sister and two children, who I had met once or twice during homestay when they had come to visit from town. They were of course elated to see me and welcomed me into their home in true Malawian fashion. I was served tea and bread as we chatted shyly in Chichewa. It was then that they told me that my family had moved to another district months ago. My amayi was planning on taking a bus to Chisazima if I came to visit, they explained. However, the combination of my surprise and my sister currently being sick with malaria made it so she would not be able to come. A true sadness washed over me. While my vocabulary and Chichewa speaking skills had expanded considerably since PST, the conversations that we had were still only surface deep. I attempted to disguise my disquietude, explaining some of my projects and chiding the heat of Salima district, but many awkward silences ensued.
That night I was served an indomitable pile of nsima but to my disappointment, there was no mention of the fresh mandasis that I envisioned. While the little donut-like snacks are as prevalent as American flags on the Fourth of July, the act of cooking them with my amayi used to be one of my favorite pastimes. I cherished dearly the time spent around the fire with my Malawian family. We would do our best to make conversation, we would laugh at the inevitable miscommunications, and we would stare up at the night sky. Now, the mandasi-less night was only a poignant reminder of the year that had passed.
I retreated to bed shortly after finishing dinner. However, instead of retiring to my comfortable Peace Corps issued mattress and sturdy mosquito net, I was given a reed mat and a thin sheet to sleep with. Trying my best to fall asleep, I thought about the day’s events. There I was, sleeping in a near-stranger’s house in a tiny village somewhere in Africa surrounded by a language and culture strikingly different from my own. While it’s true that I have been living alone in a small village for over a year now, it seemed surreal to me. Perhaps because there was no real reason for me to be there. Yes, I lived in Chisazima last year with other volunteers and yes, I had found family there, but both were now gone. I didn’t have my American friends, the Peace Corps staff, my counterparts, my homestay family or anyone that even spoke English- let alone cell phone service. I felt vulnerable and small. A tiny speck on the Earth’s grand surface.
Yet, as I considered my delicate position, I realized that I wasn’t as alone as I seemed to be. That day, as word spread of my presence, more than a dozen people trickled in to welcome me back and say hello. Each person that came to greet me was effusive with joy, shaking my hand heartily as their eyes sparkled with excitement. The kids who I used to play with recited the Macarena that I had taught them a year ago and my host mother’s elderly parents joined us for a meal. The day was certainly spotted with awkwardness and uncomfortableness, but it served as a strong reminder of Malawian hospitality and notions of family. My kin had taken me in as one of their own, adjusting their schedule to make sure that I was fed, bathed, entertained, and housed properly. It didn’t matter that I showed up unannounced or that it was Easter- only that we were family.
The second thing that I reflected on that night was my recently acquired predilection for uncomfortable situations. While my tall & awkward highschool self wouldn’t buy it, I realized that awkward situations no longer fill me with consternation. Chatting amongst women with their boobs carelessly flopped out of their shirts? Simple. Sitting in silence in a neighbor’s home while everyone in the family stares at you? Cakewalk. Waiting for a meeting to commence in a classroom with two shy kids for an hour? Easy-peazy. Thinking back, I realized that a great proportion of my experiences here in Malawi have been uncomfortable and/or awkward. Yet, I’ve come to embrace them. While my visit to Chisazima wasn’t as romantic an adventure as say, climbing a new mountain with friends, I still considered it a valid undertaking. A small feat in exploring the unknown and stepping outside my comfort zone. Although I yearned for my amayi, the unique experience led me to once again appreciate Malawian families and embrace vulnerability.