After almost two weeks of living and working in Malawi as part of Team Masomphenya, we are busy settling into life in Nkhata Bay. However, it is difficult to ignore the inevitable cultural differences between two contrasting societies and even within our own team members, between national and UK volunteers. Of course this is all part of fitting in with the locals: making the embarrassing faux-pas is all part of the fun.
In my opinion, food is one of the cultural differences that jumped out to me when we first arrived. Portion size in Malawi to a UK volunteer is enormous! It is baffling to us that somebody could actually eat that much in just one sitting. To the national volunteers, it is perfectly reasonable to eat three mountains of rice and heaps of chicken topped off with a variety of unidentifiable vegetables. Malawians do not seem to snack and often do not even know when their next meal is coming, so they eat as much as possible when they can, which makes sense really.
Clothing is always a hot topic of discussion between UK and national volunteers, as well as being one of the most noticeable cultural differences initially experienced on placement. It is a big cultural no-no to show anything above the knee as it is thought this privilege belongs to a husband only. When I first heard this I wondered how I would be able to cope being so covered up in such heat. In reality, I have enjoyed the freedom that it brings; so often in the UK we worry about what we look like and how others perceive us. Staying covered up has actually felt quite empowering! Finally, the Malawian volunteers have got style, especially the girls! That is one thing we UK volunteers can only admire, especially in this heat.
As soon as we arrived in Malawi, I noticed how amazing the women are: not only can they strap a baby to their back with a bit of material (a chitenje), they can also balance all manners of objects on their heads. These can range from suitcases to buckets of fish and sacks of rice. It really is incredible. Most importantly, Malawi time is an actual thing! There is nothing you can do except embrace it and practise some card games while you wait - it is highly likely you will need them!
Nothing can truly prepare you for the cultural differences you will experience on an ICS placement. However, if you go in with an open mind and a smile you cannot go far wrong.
Written by ICS volunteer Chloё Britt