In the total, utter, incomprehensible whirlwind of beginning our placements in Mzuzu, Malawi, we’ve hardly had a second to think of home! Between our 27-hour trip from Heathrow to Mzuzu (including a precarious 8-hour bus ride from Lilongwe to Mzuzu on what is generously called the M1), our in-country orientation, saying our goodbyes to the Sangilo group and meeting our host families and starting our projects, it feels like our feet have hardly touched the ground. At long last though, we’ve set aside the afternoon to update you all on some of our first impressions of Malawi!
It’s hard to know where to start really, simply because the first few days passed in such a blur that it’s hard to know exactly what happened. Our first weekend in Malawi was spent at Nyachenda Hotel, where we first met our Malawian colleagues, attended numerous briefings on negotiating cultural difference and the likelihood of getting Malaria (turns out, not so likely), performed awkward and poorly-rehearsed welcoming songs and ate chips for breakfast. During this time, we also made our acquaintance with Nsima (the ‘n’ is silent), the maize-flour paste which forms the basis of all meals in Malawi. Our amazingly patient Malawi volunteers had to spend their first dinner of orientation explaining how to ball up the nsima in your hands and use it to scoop up the other dishes, which most of us now do to certain degrees of success! Since then, they’ve patiently helped us to negotiate the trials of life in Malawi, ranging from stuffing nets under mattresses to mosquito-proof our beds (which, going by the bites on hands, feet and sometimes eyes, some of us obviously still struggle with!), tying the chitenje, the traditional printed fabric worn by women in the house and as a sign of respect, and teaching us the basics of Chitumbuka, the regional language. More than cultural fixers, however, they’ve become close friends and members of our new, Malawian families.
We got a chance to celebrate these friendships on our last night of orientation. After learning the do’s and don’t’s of life in Malawi and having our expectations of how much of an impact we could make checked pretty radically by Matt, the country coordinator, we got to toast our new friends and say goodbye to our Sangilo friends with a party so loud it rattled the windows. Christina and Lisa also made the painful discovery that compared to Regina, Ruth and Ellen, the quick-footed Malawian girls, we neither can, nor should we ever, dance!
Waking up early the next morning (days in Malawi usually start 5.30 – 6.30 and end at 9) and taking our usual cold bucket showers (which are surprisingly refreshing!), we waved off the Sangilo volunteers and Nat and made our way over to Mzuzu Youth Entertainment Hall, where the nervously anticipated the arrival of our host families and work colleagues. One by one, all of us were assigned to projects, one Malawian and one UK volunteer each (except Hillary, who is mastering the PACE theatre project all on his own), and one by one, we departed with our host families, all of whom except one are linked to the subsidiary projects of Mzuzu Youth Association which we will spend the next months working on.
While there is a large variation between the host families and homes in terms of facilities, number and age of family members, distance to town etc., their overriding similarity is that all have overwhelmed us with their hospitality. After several days of loose bowels, all of us were glad to see the western style toilets (with working flush – we’re looking at you Nyachenda) which gleamed invitingly in the houses! We were also particularly relieved to find out that water in Mzuzu is completely safe to drink, and although we were warned of a strong chlorine-taste so far it hasn’t been noticeable.
In certain respects, however, domestic life in Malawi is different to home. Meals are cooked on a small, portable burner which uses coals, wood, or paraffin and sits on the floor of the kitchen and hot water is only available if you boil it for yourself. Clothes are washed in a tub of cold water, much like humans, except outside and with a bar of greenish laundry soap that’ll take the skin off your fingers! The clothes themselves are scrubbed to within an inch of their lives and then hung up – and if necessary guarded from clothing-thieves – until dry. For most of us, access to milk and milk-products has also stopped as these are scarce and expensive – margarine is king.
The warm welcomes we received in our homes has certainly helped to make our placement seem a lot less daunting, and most of us set off for work on the first day (whether on foot, by car or on the ubiquitous and surprisingly comfortable bike taxi) feeling a lot more reassured and settled than we had the night before. For most of us, despite the differences in the projects we’re doing, the first day and those following have stood out above all as being slow-paced. For some of us, particularly Christina and Alex, the work-load has since picked up, but overall it seems that in Malawi things happen in their own time.
The spare time this slower pace leaves us with has not gone unused, however. Most of our afternoons are spent catching up at the Coffee Den, Mzuzu’s first café and prime tourist attraction, sipping the famous local coffee (or stuffing our faces with milkshakes and burgers when we want a break from nsima) and nattering away, or exploring the town which, despite “not being a town tourist would visit for its own sake” (according to the Malawi travel guide) has its own quirky, occasionally smelly, charm. Particularly the girls have loved the markets and the wide selection of chitenje and cheap used clothing they offer.
Our initial fears that we would run out of things to do by the weekend (the “city” isn’t exactly big) were quelled when Owen, one of the MYA project leaders, invited everybody to his house for a barbeque. It was our first chance to kick back, relax and enjoy a Malawian party after a week full of new impressions!
On Sunday, most volunteers joined their families at church. A big difference between England and Malawi has been the dominance of the church in Malawian culture. Everybody belongs to a church, from New Apostolic to Church of Christ, and a few of us have had the privilege of accompanying our families, trudging through pouring rain and deep mud, heads bowed (in devotion?), although some stayed in due to the rains. The girls all wore their chitenje and everyone wore Sunday best, long skirts or trousers, blouses or shirts – shoulders and legs covered, in contrast to everyday wear which is remarklably similar to England – jeans, tank tops, high heels and tight(ish) dresses are all a common sight here, with the slight difference that midriffs and thighs are never on display (unless you see tourists).
Overall, our second week has been far more settled than the first, although punctured with the highlights of a trip to Mzoozoozoo, the only backpackers’ hangout in town, Tionge’s birthday and an unexpected visit from the Sangilo group who’d had to take an emergency trip to Mzuzu central hospital for their stomach problems! It’s definitely been a great fortnight so far, and we’re looking forward to the challenges and continued cultural experiences the next eight weeks will bring!
In the meantime, over and out from Lisa and Christina!