For three days I never left the complex in the capital of Malawi but on the fourth I had my baptism of fire. A two-minute meander took me and my fellow UK volunteers into a busy market. I could feel nearly every eye in this hub of activity on my party and never have I been so acutely aware of my every movement. It was my intention not to appear in any way disrespectful and not to appear overly amazed by my new surroundings. I thought, at the time, there was varying reactions from the people ranging from curiosity and surprise to animosity.
This was my first experience of being a minority and it is more than possible I was over sensitised to these reactions, but I felt on edge. At the foot of the market was the main road where we congregated. As we approached the main road, minibuses packed full of people pulled over and the traffic nearly came to a standstill with horns filling the air. I smiled like an idiot with no idea what people shouted to each other until I noticed a group of small children beside us with each child bursting with that wonderful delirious enthusiasm for life which ran unfiltered from their eyes.
The girls among us cooed and mirrored the warmth back while the guys, some more reserved shook hands and sent the youths into fits of laughter. These children did not carry IPads nor were they wearing shoes, but right there at the side of that road you would be hard pressed to find a happier group of children.
This happiness, coupled with my own feelings of anxiety and scepticism, filled my stomach with a kind of shame as I reflected thereafter.
The Summer cycle of volunteers at their induction training
Later that night, I went out for some fresh air at the lodge entrance and noticed an elderly night guard with a rather serious expression on his face. I approached him and said “Monile” (hello) and noted his expression soften. He then raised his hand with a flat palm for what I took as a ‘high five’ of some sort. I then placed my hand on his in greeting and watched as an enormous smile spread across his face and registered an instant connection. We were no longer strangers and our language barrier had been smashed.
The people here in Malawi are extremely friendly and if you make the effort to speak in the local language people are extremely grateful. What I had first mistaken for animosity in some cases was proven merely to be curiosity. Now as I walk to work every day, I try to say ‘Monile’ to the local people and from there I have gone on to conversations lasting several minutes and it feels like parting with a friend after such an interaction. I have learnt that whatever amount of effort you give in greeting a person here is given back in double by our brothers and sisters here.
Written by ICS volunteer Kieran Docherty