Departure and arrival
After all our preparations and anticipations, it was great to see some familiar faces – and some new ones – at the airport. Everyone is mixed with feelings of apprehension and excitement at what’s coming and it’s great to feel the kinetic energy hovering around us.
We arrived in the airport of Lilongwe to be met by Godwin (Progressio’s logistics officer and fantastic warm hearted new colleague to us). For most of us it was easy to hop onto the bus and go on our way. It wasn’t as easy for Rob; he had to experience the gutting situation of having money robbed from his bag. In an unfamiliar country with different protocols and rules, there wasn’t much we could do about it but he dealt with it very well and didn’t let it affect his positive outlook.
The energy of Malawi
The first thing that hit me when I stepped out of the airport through my haze of exhaustion was the energy of the place; the heat, the people, the smells, the sounds, many things on top of the unexpected rain pouring down on us. It’s that amazing feeling when you know your senses and ideas of normality are going to be shaken up and thrown about at every step of the way. We were certainly unused to the stares from the many people around us.
After a lunch at Santa Plaza we went to our new accommodation. The first thing we did was walk out of our gate and into the church grounds where in a slow trickle the local children gathered around us. It was a strange feeling to be looked upon as the rich “muzungus” (white people) and we felt something big was expected of us. Jack brought a football and some soft balls and the bubble was broken. Then, as children do, the uncertainties were thrown to the side as we enjoyed playing for hours together despite our exhaustion. Most of them didn’t have shoes and were wearing an array of tattered clothing but the smiles on their faces and the caring way they looked out for each other was beautiful. These kids had captured our hearts by the end of the day and I will be sad to leave them.
Learning the lingo
Over the next week our language and culture lessons began. Speaking just a little of the language has moved us one step closer to the locals. Our language teacher Austin was such a fantastic man and put us all at ease. It was our first chance to work together as a group and we click very well.
We have learned a lot of very important aspects of the culture; a trip to the market was one way to really feel what life is like here. I always love going to local markets and wanted to explore every corner. An array of strange (and mainly unpleasant!) smells floated from all over and we were assailed from every direction by people selling their wares. We kept our wits about us and us girls all bought ‘Chitengas’ (colourful wraps) which all the local women wear. Other people bought various things ranging from skipping ropes to machetes! One section of the market was for food; basically loads and loads of dried fish and crickets which Dan and I plan to try next time, and fruit and veg.
A visit to a local village was a fantastic day for us. We were welcomed by the chief’s wife into her home and while the men went off drinking and socialising us women helped with the preparation and cooking of the food. We learned to make nsima; their staple food, and learned a lot about how the community works as a whole. The people were so keen and showed us how to wrap tobacco leaves, where they grew their corn, and how to carry water on our heads. It was fantastic to get down to the real stuff and I wish we had had longer to stay there.
One of the challenges we came across was the submission of the women and children to the men and us. When we were sat down in the living room the daughter of the chief knelt down to shake hands with us all. It was so bizarre to have her feel that we were so above her, I would have felt more comfortable doing it to her as I was entering her home and space. I was also asked to go around everyone before eating and kneel before them as they rinsed their hands over a bowl with water from a tub which Lorelle carried. That was a new experience and if it wasn’t for the embarrassment of my fellow volunteers I would not have been able to do it.
Living amidst poverty
Most prominent in Malawi, to my eyes, has been the drop in wealth from any place I’ve ever seen. Even their capital city seems a broken down town to me. The main structure is a long row of crumbling shops along the main road. But although there is a definite lack of material things, the ability people have to make the best of what they’ve got is humbling. We have seen some desperate looking people and the constant begging is tiring and saddening. It can become stressful when I think about trying to make a difference but we have to be focused on what we are here for and give what we can.
By Progressio ICS volunteer Ruby Katz. Photo: A woman preparing food in a village in Malawi. This photo was taken by a previous team of Progressio ICS volunteers - Ruby could not get a good enough internet connection to send us pictures with her blog.