Stepping into Lilongwe, Malawi, for the first time was simultaneously one of the most exciting and nerve wracking experiences of my life. Our first few days here brought with them a tidal wave of learning, as we immersed ourselves in the culture and began studying the language Chitumbuka.

There were a few moments during this initial process that really stood out to me. While studying Chitumbuka, we learned that if someone were to ask you about your country of origin, you would typically respond with, ‘____ is our home’.

Not my home, ‘ours’. I asked our teacher why and she explained that it’s because your country doesn’t belong to just you, but to your brothers, sisters and entire family tree, of which you are a simple leaf.

For me this subtle difference in language cracked open a window of understanding into the way Malawians view the world. Humility is deeply ingrained in their culture, alongside a love for family and community.

But language isn’t the only way we communicate. Little things like how long you shake someone’s hand, and whether or not you make eye contact while doing so (avoiding eye contact while shaking hands in Malawi is a sign of respect), are significantly different between our cultures. During our session, it was explained to us that Malawian handshakes are longer, because they believe ‘we carry the love in our hands’. One can imagine this being confronting to foreigners, who are used to getting their hands back rather quickly. But as we learn and grow together, we find ourselves better able to appreciate their love as they hand it to us.

While speaking to our teacher, she described learning languages as ‘the tip of the communication iceberg’, and with every passing day I understand this a little more clearly. There is only so far our cluttered notebooks and fractured conversations can take us on our ICS journey. After all, in my eyes, pushing ourselves out of our comfort zones so we could better understand and serve our communities, is exactly what ICS is all about.

Written by ICS volunteer Ingrid Johnson