Family is a word with a variety of different meanings. Defined it is ‘a group consisting of parents and children living together in a household’, however this is not always the case. Families differ greatly in terms of economic, cultural, social and many other facets. Family members are often close and feel they can depend on each other for caring guidance and support but what’s most important is the love or common interests that bind them together.

In Malawi you can expect the family structure in a household to be very traditional. Head of the house is the father (Ada) who has the responsibility of being the main provider for his family in terms of basic needs and money. The mother (Ama) may also work but is also expected to maintain the house in terms of preparing and cooking meals, cleaning, washing and maintenance. She will be supported by the children, especially the girls. In the UK this is where a traditional family setup would end, in Malawi in can often be just the beginning! Siblings or cousins of the parents is common, sometimes even grandparents, all living under the same roof.

As Progressio ICS volunteers living and working in the beautiful fishing village of Nkhata Bay for twelve weeks, we have bravely immersed ourselves into new surroundings, a new culture, and quite uniquely, new families. Since being in Malawi, I have often been asked the question, “so what’s it like living in a host home?”. Unable to respond with a short, sharp, summative statement, I decided to ask my team of young volunteers to help me definitively respond by breaking that killer question down into more manageable bites.

What does a host home look like? What are the living conditions?

Of course every home varies, but think basic. No carpet or wooden flooring, unpainted walls and little decoration. In all our host homes the majority of the cooking is done outside using an imbaula (a metal bowl in which you put charcoal). Bedrooms tend to be small and used simply for sleeping unlike the UK where you may also use them to study, watch TV or play video games. Despite the occasional blackout we do have electricity and running water but never the luxury of a hot bath or shower! We’ll also often be joined by visitors in our host homes and not always human. Chickens, geckos, ants, mosquitos all very common!

What do you eat?

The staple food of Malawi is Nsima, a dish made from maize flour and water. This is eaten for lunch and dinner the majority of the time, sometimes rice instead. Complimenting this will be a side consisting of either beans, fish, chicken, beef and fried green vegetables or pumpkin leaves. Egg and chips is a common breakfast here, however it could just simply be bread with tea or rice porridge. Sometimes I even get doughnuts (my host mum makes them)!

How do you spend time with your host family?

Most meals are eaten together with host parents and older siblings sparking good conversations, but it is the TV that dominates each household. Religious channels, Nigerian movies and football tend to dominate. In one host home, the family all get together to watch a soap opera called Beyoncé and Ciara, it has easily replaced EastEnders! Time is also spent playing card games or the popular and painfully addictive traditional board game of Bao. Host brothers and sisters are very helpful in assisting you to do tasks likes hand washing and sweeping as well.

What’s it like living in such a religious environment?

In Malawi everyone has faith, religion is not an option and dominates daily life. Like the majority of Malawi, our host families are Christians. Most will attend church at least once a week and pray before meals. With a mix of faiths and beliefs amongst us as volunteers we have all found the religious aspect interesting and overwhelmingly positive. Music and singing echo around the Bay on Sunday mornings, everyone dressed up smartly. One of the host father’s even has a special gold suit that he whips out on special occasions! The sense of community and togetherness brought about my being a member of a certain faith or church has to be admired. Despite being a strong atheist, by attending church with my host family for the first few weeks of my time in Nkhata Bay I felt welcomed and introduced into the community. At church I met many warm-hearted people who would go on to be my friends or look out for me. 

What do the Malawian host families get from the experience?

Our lovely host families also gain a lot from the unique experience of hosting young volunteers from the UK. They themselves are interested in learning about different cultures and ways of living. We can get involved in cooking and preparing meals, introducing new dishes to our host families such as chilli con carne, guacamole and the traditional English breakfast. It’s also very beneficial for the host home children who will naturally increase their understanding and speaking ability of English.

Why is living with a host family such a good idea?

Living in a host home in a real community immerses you into the true Malawian culture. Something you simply couldn’t access by staying in a lodge or shared house. It also avoids you being isolated and gives you a support network. The best memories of our host families all centre on togetherness and feeling truly at home. Whether it be cooking together, sharing skills, cheering on a football team or getting into hysterics with your siblings playing games or looking at photographs!

So what’s it like living in a host home? The next time someone asks me that question I will simply smile and think of all the above. It is something we all as Progressio ICS volunteers will be forever thankful for. A unique experience allowing us to learn and give back simultaneously. A host home is a family, a host family is love, simple as that.

Written by ICS Team Leader Tom Greenidge, in Malawi