During my incredible adventure, volunteering in Malawi, I have come to the conclusion that here everything is pretty similar to back home in the UK. Well yeah, we are all humans and you are still on Earth, of course we're going to be similar. That may be true however the culture, food and simply the way of life isn't similar.
I cannot explain the pure, clear and glistening scene that is painted before me every night. Found in this vast, dark wilderness there are tiny specks of incredible brightness, created from millions of balls of burning gas. Burning years away. How strange this phrase is, ‘years away', because it takes light years for the bright light from the burning stars to reach the Earth. The stars. "Look at the stars, see how they shine for you, and everything you do". At home, in the UK, I love to lay and watch the same stars, altered by the different hemisphere we are in, not exactly the same but mostly. Watching the clear, bold, piercing stars here make me feel like I'm in a completely different world not simply a different part of our world. Like I'm not even as big as half a speck of sand. Like individually I am not important, but together we are important.
The different meanings/uses of the same words in different languages. Of course the two languages, English in England and Chitumbuka in Malawi (there's many other different languages also spoken throughout Malawi) are very different. But the subtle differences that I have found are the uses of certain words. For example, when I accidentally smashed my phone whilst trying to get it out my pocket and instead resulting in throwing it to the ground with surprising pressure, a few locals shouted "pepani" (sorry). Also, the first time (there has been many) I tripped over in my host home, the whole family said "Pepani". At home in the UK if a stranger dropped something you wouldn't apologise unless it was your fault and if they tripped, I don't know about you but I would just laugh. Also, in the UK we frequently say 'please' if we want something or just in general to be polite. However, in Chitumbuka the word please is translated to 'chonde', which isn't used the same. Instead it's usually used as a demand or to emphasise that you want/need something.
The attitudes and uses of different animals. Obviously the basic animals are the same. Chicken, used for their eggs and flesh. Cows for their flesh and milk, which they surprisingly actually produced for their own species not us. But let's not get into that, I could talk for England about cow's milk, but luckily for you I am in Malawi at the moment. Back in the UK dogs are pets, 'a man’s best friend', mostly living in the house with the family or even sleeping in their bed. They are part of the family. However, here in Malawi dogs are kept in the backyard, not petted or 'cooed over' but used as guard dogs. Every morning, bright and early me and my rommie leave our house to the farewell of 'tiwonanenge' (see you later) and "yewo" (thanks). Our old, hilarious and sandy guard dog joins us for our routine walk to the 'bus stop' following us to our usual meeting point. He scans the area, checking for danger/suspicious scents. Like a boomerang, he circles us and then returns to be by our side.
I have actually noticed subtle differences within people from England. New words and phrases. such as 'kmt' which one of my team mates declared when a local man scuffed his muddy/dusty shoes on her clean trousers. Having no idea what she meant I simply laughed hysterical, and so she explained it means 'kiss my teeth'. That explanation did nothing for me. Kiss my teeth is, apparently, the phrase used for the sort of tutting your teeth when you're annoyed/fed up.
One afternoon when me and my roomie were chatting after devouring a lovely nsima dinner, she said "shake my head". Again I simply laughed, having never heard this being said before. She explained that when you're in disbelief and you shake your head you can just say it instead.
One usual cramped, crazy bus ride to work I said, “This is bait”. One of my fellow UK volunteers looked at me with a puzzled look. So I had to explain the meaning behind the word 'bait'. And for those of you reading this who for some reason haven't heard of this phrase before, it's used in situations that are close to something bad or crazy happening.
On the other hand, there's countless similarities I have noticed while being here in Africa! Even though we are in Malawi and it is a less developed country than England, the roads are pretty similar. Some tarmacked and busy just like those at home. Mini-buses and taxis zooming past us on our walk to the office. The same sort of road rage we see in England when a mini-bus overtakes a taxi they honk their horn with anger.
Even though I know a lot of people in England presume that the weather here in Malawi is totally different from home, imagining it being beautiful and boiling hot 24/7. But let me tell you now, that is not true. Being here April - June we are in winter and believe me it rains, especially in Mzuzu!
One day I had to run back to the office hiding a brownie under my raincoat to protect it from the torrential rain, which the wind was forcing onto my face. Yes, here in Malawi the climate is generally hotter but it can be cold, windy and rainy!
Even though the traditional staple food here in Malawi is in fact nsima, which is very uncommon back in the UK, the food here is similar to the UK. For example, a typical breakfast in my host home will be a cup of tea or coffee with bread and butter. Typical dinner either rice/nsima/spaghetti with some veg (peas/carrots/beans, etc) and meat. Pretty much any food available at home in the UK is also available here in Mzuzu. I came on this placement imagining to have to go three months without mayo and chocolate. But in the local supermarket (Shoprite) you can buy all the food you could imagine. From hummus, to chocolate cake, to gravy, to cornflakes. Obviously we have access to more living in a bigger city (Mzuzu) compared to our friends in Rhumpi, Mzimba and Nkhata Bay.
To conclude, I have found most things here in Malawi are fairly similar to the UK. However, any differences found have been welcomed and enjoyed by the volunteers of Team Kulimbikiska. The different attitudes/ways the UK volunteers do things compared to the national volunteers haven’t caused a divide between us but have become a bonding experience, bringing us closer. Whether it is the national volunteers laughing at me putting on my chitenje wrong, as if I was a pregnant Malawian as it was above my belly button. Or the exchange of different foods, from eating nsima with our hands to showing the national volunteers how to make the best chip buddy.
This has been a massive learning experience for everyone and embracing the change and differences in cultures/attitudes have made this experience even better, from swapping slang to becoming pros at the local game bawo.
Written by ICS volunteer Elita Clarke