I’ve been asked, or more importantly volunteered, to write a blog for YONECO (Youth Net and Counselling) in association with Progressio ICS on whatever topic I wish, so long as it’s based on my time here in Malawi. Well, if there’s one thing which struck me immediately, and something I’ve wanted to put into words since I arrived, is the massive understatement (or at least for me,) concerning our cultural differences.
Having spent more than a week in Malawi, there have been many things that I’ve found shocking, surprising and fascinating about Malawi culture, and the more I digest the local customs, attitudes, principles and practices, the more I notice large gaps within our own society back on the little islands of the United Kingdom.
I’ll take this opportunity to discuss these aspects that I think have been lost in the culture of the UK, either due to our efficiency, technology or general progress. More importantly, what we as self-professed first worlders can learn from Malawian culture, opposed to the aspects Malawian’s can learn from our progress.
First of all, I wish to tackle the term progress and what we think of when we talk about progress. I think, having experienced just a little of an alien culture, that the UK’s attitude to progress is extremely limited in vision and scope, and in some aspects have been reversed. We should no longer consider progress as a linear path in which we subconsciously seek an attainable goal. For instance, we think of our development and progress through our technology, through our infrastructure and predominately through our material possessions. However, for all our laptops, tall buildings, weapons and smart phones, we remain in a state of perpetual unhappiness. Constantly seeking gratification and accumulating wealth because we are taught that these things make us happy. All the while Malawian culture is peaceful and happy. What is the UK doing wrong?
Having spent the last few days living with the most welcoming of host homes, there appears to be a feeling of bliss here. Everyone is happy! On the surface it might come across as a simple life, but they truly are welcoming, friendly and warming to different people, and to each other.
Even in their language they possess a rigorous introduction process that if you fail to adhere to, you will be told and corrected. Eye contact is a must and at all times! Politeness and respect is a necessity and something I think the UK is losing in our communities, workplace and cities. What I mean by this is where the UK, in rules and laws, tell people to treat each other with respect, Malawians already understand this, and it is deeply ingrained within their culture. This respect and time for each other has hope within the working class communities of the UK, but as more people move to major urban centres such as London, Birmingham and Manchester, they don’t have the time for such introductions, respect or care, which I’ve discovered here in Malawi. I don’t know if it’s to do with being a cynical sort of people in general, or to do with the high speed lifestyle we have become accustomed. Either way we have a lot to learn about how we interact with our family, friends and strangers in the street.
We are all too busy, too bored or too distracted for each other.
Time is an essential resource that infects everything the UK does. We worry that we’re late, we worry that we have enough time for breaks, Facebook and shopping. We worry about time almost all the time, and why?
In Malawi it is much simpler, or maybe simple is the wrong word. Maybe Malawian’s just realise that respecting people and what other people have to say, what they do and how they feel is far greater than material possession or wealth - things which demonstrably don’t make us happy when we get home and our feet up. In Malawi there is little thought given to time and keeping time. You can say we have a meeting at 9:30 and they will arrive at 10:30 unaware of the little frustrated UK faces, which welcome them on their eventual arrival. To Malawian’s it’s part of life, to us UK volunteers to turn up an hour late for a meeting will almost certainly land you in the office of your boss, where you’re on your knees begging to let them keep you employed. Well, maybe not that bad, but it definitely gets noticed and usually results in a lot of ‘sorrys’. Here, it’s all loosy goosy.
There’s an enviable ‘go with the flow’ attitude you wish you could just in brace with open arms, but unfortunately, my British culture demands that my hairs on the back of my neck jolt upright and the eyes start to twitch uncontrollably. Damn you structured public schools with your strict timetables!
Now, don’t mistake me when I talk about these differences and come across as quite negative toward the UK system of doing things. There is nothing wrong with punctuality, but our attitudes and the way we perceive ourselves has, in my opinion, become so self-indulgent and superior that it’s blinded us to the possibilities of community solidarity and unity, especially now in the time of Brexit, which we all observed how easy it was to divide a Western nation. What exactly makes us superior to Malawian culture? I mean our goals in life are the same as theirs. We are both human and seek happiness and a sustainable, bright future. Although, it seems in our race for a successful and sustainable future we have given ourselves more expectation, more effort and less time resulting in our perpetual unhappiness, boredom and work. Most of us really do live to work and not work to live. Malawi is different, here someone is happy just to cook your food, speak to you and even host a foreign national for 10 weeks. They care little for universal health care, public school and Lady Gaga. Things we have begun to take for granted. Malawians want to know you and actually take the time to achieve this.
Now, I hope I’m not guilty of caricaturing such a generous culture, this is not my intention. These are just my thoughts that illustrate what I’ve observed from my time here. These differences which reveal massive issues within the UK and its society. We are losing that special soul, if you will, that is still prevalent in Malawi communities from the household, to the office and even when you walk past people in the street.
I feel we have a lot to reveal to Malawi when it comes to a sustainable opportunistic future, but in contrast Malawi has a lot to reveal to the UK in how we perceive our progress, ourselves and what we take for granted. The reality is certainly not as binary as we like to think between developed and undeveloped communities, it certainly is a spectrum of factors which make up progress and human societies. The more time I spend here the more Malawi helps me understand and question my culture and nation, as much as we are here to help Malawian’s understand and question theirs.
Written by ICS volunteer Calum Mewett