As someone who is quite introverted, flying to Malawi and interacting with people from such a different culture to our English ways was always going to be a challenge of mine. When socialising within the UK, I convey an air of confidence about myself in an attempt to mask the awkward, self-doubting and insecure notches of my character. "What a stupid thing to say, that wasn't funny in the slightest", I'd think to myself; digging away at whatever seed of self-assurance I had planted and nurtured within my psyche.
I knew that attempting to shake this mentality would be tough, but I promised myself to dive head first into the social depths of the Warm Heart of Africa.
From landing in the capital city of Lilongwe, to arriving at our host homes within Mzuzu, it was clear that Malawians were anything but quiet and shy. Whilst sparking a conversation with a stranger on the London Underground may lead to your demise at the stake for being a heretic, here in Malawi it appears to be common courtesy to ask someone their name, where they come from and how they are doing.
I've found myself on many bus rides speaking with the locals of Mzuzu, in broken English, about what myself and my fellow volunteers are doing in Malawi. Walk down a street and you will be overwhelmed by friendly greetings and chit chat - sure, the majority of such is a kindness displayed in exchange for your potential business, however, it's still a much appreciated, amiable presence. A presence sorely missed on the streets of London and the majority of the UK.
Despite such a welcoming to Malawi, I still dreaded speaking with a national volunteer, as one to one, casual conversation has never been a strength of mine. "What shall I say next?", "Should I cover a topic?", "Am I being boring?". Such questions rattled my brain as I spoke to the national volunteers for the first time. I'd utter my name, ask how they were doing, proceed to laugh awkwardly (and sweat profusely) as a thick, smog-like silence enveloped the atmosphere. Of course, conversing with national volunteers was never actually this dramatic - it was all in my head. At the end of the day, we're here on the ICS programme to form new relationships and learn from one and other; I just had to first escape the silent fortress of my mind before I knew I truly had something to say.
When dealing with anxiety, low self-esteem issues or insecurity, it can be hard to find the right words to voice - especially when placed in unfamiliar territory. However, once you do find them, it's never too late to make new connections.
I'm now three weeks into my placement and I can safely say that I've never felt more included by the people of Malawi.
Written by ICS volunteer Nathaniel Antonio