Just before Christmas 2015, I spent three months in Malawi working as a volunteer for the charity Progressio. I was mainly working on improving the income of smallholder farmers with a group of British and Malawian volunteers, while living with a Malawian family.

As you would expect, I came across many challenges that I had to overcome during this time that ultimately changed my perspective and the way I view certain topics. I discovered major differences between Western and Malawian cultures and found that my opinion was frequently challenged. 

Upon first meeting my new ‘family’, I was immediately asked what church I attend. Informing them that I only go at Christmas and Easter launched a two-hour discussion on religion, faith and God … not the most ideal situation you want to find yourself in after a 12-hour bus journey with jet lag. Needless to say that first night passed in a blur. Over time I grew to recognise the bluntness of their questions as simply their honest nature. I would often hear what I supposed was a full-bodied argument or discussion, which would actually be about something as trivial as whether or not to buy eggs - I loved their different and passionate way of life. 

I lived with a wonderful woman and her two nieces. As her adoptive child, I called her Amama (mother in the local language), and she was queen bee of the household. Amama was plump, short and had a warm personality - her motto was always 'feel free'. She had a job at the local hospital as head caterer. Mostly she’d be up by 5am and back from work at 6pm, but sometimes, when government cuts meant that food at the hospital was scarce, she couldn’t go into work and would instead visit schools and local halls asking for food for the hospital patients. 

A trait I found particularly prominent and a key defining feature of Malawian culture was the ability to remain positive in the face of tragedy and the strength to recover after misfortune. I talked to an inspiring woman who had withstood the sudden death of her husband, leaving her with five very young children as well as no income or house as the husband’s family had reclaimed it. At this time, she started working full-time in the city, leaving her children with a relative. From the money she saved in those long city hours and time spent away from her children, she rebuilt her life and provided a future for her family. In Malawi, family is key and the people are more resilient because of their grounded attitudes and stable beliefs. I encountered this positive outlook in the villages I visited and felt it throughout the country. It was very apparent that all this stemmed from the support network of the local communities and ultimately the church. The predominant religion in Malawi is Christianity and the faith of the people defines who they are. The church offers people a society with morals, structure and support, which is reliable and stable and is essential for a life in which there is so much chaos, uncertainty and poverty. However, in my opinion, the church may also be restricting the country economically as there was a prominent view that working hard doesn’t earn you money, instead it is up to God or fate or luck whether or not you get paid for your work. Of course this attitude may naturally come from the fact that in such a poor country people that work hard don’t see the rewards of their hard work, while others may come into money through good connections or a corrupt system. 

However, I did hear of stories of Christian morals being challenged - such as two maids losing their jobs on religious grounds because one had an abortion and the other divorced her abusive husband. Is Christianity offering the morals that are needed to bring a country out of poverty or is it restricting Malawi’s growth as a society?

Religion has shaped Malawian culture and the attitudes of the Malawian people in unchangeable ways. Experiencing a new culture of people has been exciting, informative and has been a turning point for me.

Written by ICS Alumni Bronwen Brakspear (October - December 2015, Rumphi, Malawi)