Did you know that Peace Corps celebrated its 56th birthday this week?! In commemoration, volunteers all over the world have been sharing stories relating to a central theme: highlighting hospitality.
While I’m sure that volunteers in other countries can identify with this theme, I have a hunch that it was specifically chosen for Malawi. The culture here exudes hospitality, evidenced by the assumption that visitors are welcome to stay whenever and for however long they wish, or by the soothing phrase, feel so free, which encourages guests to feel at home. For me, the most patent display of hospitality is seen within the food culture. Right now, as rainy season comes to an end and gardens are overflowing with greenery, it is impossible for me to go anywhere without receiving an armful of fresh maize, a just-picked pumpkin, a plate of okra, a bag of cow peas, or whatever else is available. The custom of imparting food upon your visitor is astonishing. Many families are just muddling through this year’s hunger season, yet they will eagerly give the white bwana whatever they can. If I just stop to chat with my neighbors for even a few minutes, I will walk away with roasted corn. If there are no more cobs on the fire to give, my neighbor will break off the piece she’s eating to share with me.
Although I have come to love the local foods, my favorite display of Malawian hospitality involves something slightly sweeter and more American. It occurred during my first few weeks at site, a time when I didn’t have strong language skills, friends, fire starting abilities, or even furniture to sit on. I loved the adventure, but I was lonely not having anyone in my community to connect with on a deeper level. One night, shortly after the sun set, I heard a voice outside. “Odi! Odi!” the voice called. I was apprehensive to open the door as I didn’t know who would be standing on my stoop in the dark. (If you didn’t know, PCV’s turn into pumpkins after 6:30pm and thereby never leave their houses at night). Anyway, I opened the door to find my supervisor holding out a tupperware of -believe it or not- ice cream!! I almost started crying, not only at the site of the creamy deliciousness in front of me, but at his immense thoughtfulness. John had purchased the ice cream in town and biked it nine miles to my house. He said he thought I must’ve been missing American food, but hoped that I was enjoying my time in Malawi. Thinking back on this, I am floored that he would buy such a frivolous, expensive item for me just to make me feel welcomed. Yet, this type of gratuitous hospitality, in which Malawians go above and beyond to make their guests feel welcome, is nothing special. I could tell you dozens of stories that exemplify just how welcoming my community members have been. I do live in The Warm Heart of Africa, after all.
Some of my favorite iwes cooking me pumpkin leaves on my front porch