Malawi Nostalgia: First Observations

I think I got carpel tunnel in Peace Corps.  Ever since I’ve had weak wrists and I think it was all the writing by hand (but maybe it was the crocheting).  Either way, I did a lot of both, but writing wins.  I wrote hundreds of letters, I filled three journals, and I wrote essays for no one in particular.  Since blogs didn’t exist (or were not generally used) when I was in Peace Corps, I communicated to the “masses” through mass emails.  I’d compose the emails ahead of time by hand as I was planning my venture into the capital.

Through the process of relieving my parents of my old crap (photo albums, journals, letters, etc.), I have started reading my old journals from Peace Corps.  It is pretty amazing to read my 9 years younger self’s perspective and reflect on them from my lens today.  I have also come across the dozen or so mass emails I wrote.  I thought it would be fun to relive some of that experience through this blog by posting some reflections from my journals and mass emails.

So what I have for you today is an excerpt from my journal on my first night of homestay during Peace Corps training.  I was a 22 year-old recent(ish) college grad (about to turn 23, I’m sure past me would appreciate me saying).  We had been in-country for a little less than a week.  The first few days at training were spent at a Forestry College in Dedza, Malawi (an hour or so south of the capital, Lilongwe – see image below) where we got a basic Chichewa tutorial and got to know our group members.  Then we were sent to two separate villages for the remainder of training where we lived with host families and spent the days in language, cultural and technical training classes.

Dedza, Malawi is the dark red region

June 7, 2004, Tsetsani, Mtelera, Malawi

So this marks my first real “Oh shit!” moment in Malawi.  The last couple days have been like a trip to Camp Malawi.  I think staying at the dorms at the Forestry College for the first few days is an excellent idea.  First, we got to know the group better and the trainers, too.  Anyway, that all is in the past and here I am sitting in my little house in a town I can’t remember the name of with a family I can barely speak to.

I knew I was going to feel like this, but it’s still worth repeating, “Holy Shit!”  I think this is what RPCVs talk about when everyday you want to leave more, but you also want to be there more.  I’m so glad I’m here, but it’s so weird.

After a morning of training stuff, we hopped in the cars and they took us to the village where we will be for the next two months.  As the cars pulled up to the training center, a group of women, men and children were waiting to greet us.  It was honestly like a scene from a movie where the “fancy” westerners hop out of their nice vehicle to a crowd of waiting locals wanting to get a look at the white people…”mzungu” in Chichewa.

Then, the women (after going around greeting everyone) who are all our amayis (mothers) sang us a welcome song.  Then we were paired up with our mothers and we took our stuff to our new home.  This is certainly not like my homestay in Ecuador where we lived in a house similar to my own.  I am in a mud hut with a thatched roof, no electricity or running water.  I just relieved myself for the first time in a pit latrine.

Anyway, when I got here, my Amayi showed me the Chimbudzi (bath room – i.e. the pit latrine…or big hole in the ground), the Baffa (shower room) and my new home.  It is a part from the rest of the house.  The only thing in it were a couple of wood end tables.

I have to interject, because I love how I describe everything.  This is, quite literally, the first time I am experiencing anything like this.  This reminds me of that Radio Lab episode about Time where they describe (in a very entertaining science-y way) why time passes more slowly when we are first encountering an experience.  Our brains take that much more time to process the event as opposed to something not so new.  I remember that night like it was yesterday and it. would. never. end.  But then eventually these experiences (like relieving myself in a pit latrine) was not new anymore.  It makes me want to relish those moments where I’m experiencing something new that much more.  Okay, back to the excerpt…

After that, I watched my Amayi peel potatoes…then I helped a little.  Then, my Amayi left and her daughter (I also can’t remember her name) came and sat with me for like 2 hours.  It was really weird.  I didn’t know if I should get some reading material or what.  Regardless, this girl knows English and is very sweet, so we weren’t sitting there in complete silence the whole time.  Then, finally they brought food into us.  It was just me and her eating on the mat – I think everyone else was in the kitchen…which is also apart from the main house – which I haven’t seen the inside of yet.  It was very odd, but I expected it because L (the PCVoW – PCV of the Week) had them last year during training.  She gave me the lowdown.

Right before we ate, Cedric, Dyna, Grace and Luciano (all our trainers) came in to see how everything is going and to see if we had everything we were supposed to have.  I was so happy to hear Cedric’s voice outside and to see all of them here.  It was so comforting to know that they are here to support us and are only down the street.  That made everything a little less intimidating.  I was so sad when they left.

I’m almost jealous of J and L (the married couple) because they have each other.  It must be so comforting to have each other there.  I trust my ability to be independent, but it’d be a nice luxury to have someone there with you.

Now, I am planning on writing to mom and dad.  Man do I miss them.  It’s 7:22 and past my bedtime here.  I guess for a lot of PCVs, 8pm is a late bedtime.  We’ll see. 🙂

Don’t worry, things eventually (and pretty immediately, actually), got a lot better.  I learned the name of the village I was living in, I started eating with my family in the kitchen and Loniloi, the sister I mentioned, and I got pretty close.  She and my Amayi both came to my swearing in ceremony.  Eventually I went back to see them with my family and before I left the country.  Things got even better when I got to my site, though, when I had more independence.

What I love about reading my journal as opposed to the mass emails is that these thoughts were not meant for a wide audience, they were just for me.  They are more honest and truthful about the scariness of the situation.

Now that I’m preparing to head back to Malawi in 3 months, it’s fun to see where I started when I got there.  It’ll be even more interesting to compare where I am now to the environment that I left almost 8 years ago.  I suppose there’s nothing more important than a mental/emotional preparation.

Circa 2005.  My biological family visiting my Malawian host family in Mtelera, Malawi.
Circa 2005. My biological family visiting my Malawian host family in Mtelera, Malawi.

6 Comments Add yours

  1. toemailer says:

    We would love to post the bottom picture along with an excerpt of your text at toemail if you do not mind?

    1. Elizabeth D says:

      Sure! Go for it. Thanks!

      1. toemailer says:

        Thanks! We will let you know when it is posted 🙂

      2. Elizabeth D says:

        Excellent, thanks!

  2. toemailer says:

    It’s posted now. Thanks so much, we really appreciate it! 🙂

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