As my trip back to Malawi approaches (only a couple more days!), I find myself reflecting on the time I spent there 7 years ago. Often I was asked by friends and family back home what my average day was like. I always hesitated to answer because it was not the kind of productivity we are used to in the US, but it was a constant stream of cultural stimulation. Despite not doing very much on a day-to-day basis, I felt and thought a lot and was more inspired to document those things. I miss that, so I suppose this is what I had always meant to write about my daily activities.
The roosters squawked well before the sun rose and I drifted in and out of consciousness before my alarm rang at 5:30 am after nine hours sleep. Despite not having a true need to get up and “go to work”– I arose early to give myself a routine to get through the long, drawn-out days of little activity and occasional work as a Peace Corps volunteer in a rural Malawian community.
As a Community Health Extension volunteer assigned to the Mkanda Health Center, my daily obligations were typically few and far between. Cumulatively over the two-year stint, I along with my Malawian colleagues, accomplished a lot (e.g. training workshops, awareness events, youth development, etc.), but day-to-day, without the typical American work schedule and the low-key and somewhat slow-moving nature of rural Malawi, I often found myself filling long spaces of free time.
Each day began with a run, if only to get me out of bed, a hard thing when each day brought new challenges of living in another culture. I slipped out of my mosquito net and groggily dressed in a t-shirt and sweatpants cut off below the knees because anything above that is immodest for women in Malawi. If I ran any later, I’d be trailed by 20+ kids in school uniforms, so I ran early. The unfailingly beautiful sunrises streaked pink and orange across the sky as I ran down the hard dirt road. Occasionally, acquaintances biked past asking, “Eliza, where are you running to?” “Nowhere, I’m just running,” I’d respond. Somewhat understanding, they’d note gesturing to their muscles “oooh, for physique!” “Yes, for physique.” Running for sport is not a normal activity in Malawi, especially for women. As subsistence farmers, Malawians build strength from daily farm work. Between that and the daily necessity to feed, clothe, and care for themselves and their many children, “physique” doesn’t matter. “Staying in shape” is an activity of privilege, but my community marveled at my runs – like all my activities – as novel and entertaining because everything I did was watched.
After returning from my run, Tomaida, my water girl showed up with two buckets of freshly retrieved water. I became grateful for this convenience, but I resisted any assistance with my daily chores, at first in an attempt to assert my independence in a foreign environment. I gave in after the main water source near my house, the bore hole, broke temporarily. To avoid the humiliation of a very public half-mile walk through the village with a heavy water bucket, I rationed myself with the water I had for two days. Needing water for eating, cleaning, and basic living, I eventually caved, but not without managing to dump the entire bucket all over myself in the process. Luckily, a friend nearby graciously assisted me and promptly instructed Tomaida to help me the following day, which she did until the day I left, for which I paid her. With a consistent water supply, I stuck to doing my other chores to maintain some sense of independence – cleaning the dirty dishes from the day before, sweeping, and dusting. With every household act I maintained a keen awareness of the value of water and the effort towards tasks we take for granted in the states, like turning a faucet to “hot” or “cold”. Completing the chores, I prepared for my bucket bath, a process involving a perfected formula of mixed room temperature water with a small portion of hot water. The baffa – bathing room – was a small, simple stall with nothing but a small window above eye-level and the bucket I used for bath water, located off the enclosed courtyard of my small, brick house. The wooden door swelled in the rainy season and grew so soft that I broke the inside handle off. The distended door usually saved me from locking myself in except for one day in the early dry season when I carelessly slammed the door behind me leaving me naked and trapped. After a panicked moment and 30 minutes of attempted resourcefulness I finally pried myself free, narrowly escaping the humiliation of yelling for my neighbor (the young, male, medical assistant) to save me. In Malawi, even bathing can be an adventure.
After a quick breakfast, I sipped my coffee on the front patio and read. Concealed behind a fence in a quieter part of the community, this spot was peaceful and secluded. From my invisible perch, I alternated between reading and observing the scenery and activities that took place outside my fence such as the local women gathering water at the bore hole close by. Over time, the cornfield beyond my fence gradually grew taller and greener in the early season, dry and yellow in the late growing season, and then burnt back down to the soil after harvest. Past the cornfields I looked onto the Zambian border. Without television, the scenery beyond my yard and the 100+ books I read over that time were enough entertainment to keep me occupied.
On days where work was limited, I visited the village market where I bought tomatoes and onions from Mrs. Nchama, my regular vendor and friend. On my way, I greeted passersby and chatted with friends. “Where are you going, Eliza?” they asked me in Chichewa, “To the market” I replied. This exchange repeated about 20 times during the one kilometer trip. Being extremely recognizable as the only white person in the community, it took much effort to find the desire to leave the house as all my actions were noticed. It took a surprising amount of energy to take this trip.
On special days, I bought a bag of chippies – street fries – and a luke warm bottle of coke (surprisingly refreshing). To drag the minutes out, I slowly sipped and munched as I chatted with others about the day. Some days, this stroll to the market was the only outing I had. In the life of a Peace Corps volunteer, projects like trainings and health outreach activities, ebbed and flowed based on community priorities. There were days with no schedule followed by a week of all-day trainings.
As the sun dipped towards the west and the heat slightly subsided, it was time for more porch-sitting. The evening sights and sounds differed from those of the morning. Distant thumping sounds followed by a boy delivering a sharp command signified a nearby pick-up soccer match. Sometimes, fans chattered and yelled directions at players. The faint smell of wood fire wafted from the homes as evening nsima (Malawian corn meal) cooked. As the sun lowered towards the horizon, people scattered to their homes to prepare and eat dinner and I continued to watch the sunset and read until dark.
With the darkness came dinner. Previously, my cooking knowledge was limited to basic stir fries and microwave burritos. Minus instant meals, I learned to cook by candlelight through the cookbook written and distributed by Malawi Peace Corps volunteers with recipes containing ingredients found in-country. Absent the typical American diversions of movies or restaurants, volunteer visits were often based around elaborate meals. I stocked up on special ingredients and mapped the cooking plans days in advance of a visit. Some meals ended in success – like the black bean burgers now my signature dish at BBQs – and some less so – like the chili that called for 4 tablespoons of chili powder instead of the appropriate 4 teaspoons.
With another long day complete in Malawi, I wrote – journal entries, letters, articles I would never submit – to process and reflect on my roller coaster of highs and lows. Despite the fact that my days in Malawi didn’t follow the fast-paced American ideal of productivity, I observed and felt new things to write about daily. Where daily chores and routine activities in America are mundane, in another culture those same actions were important lessons and extraordinary experiences. I learned to define accomplishments on basic interactions and cultural immersion milestones of language development and enhanced understanding of the community and customs, a practice embodying the most important part of Peace Corps, cultural exchange. In Malawi, the successes and failures of my day-to-day life were as important as the successes of my work. With those thoughts catalogued in my journal or letter home, I ended my day at 8:30pm, blowing out the candle, eager to sleep off all I had experienced that day making myself ready for new reflections and activities in whatever form they came in the next one.
More Scenes from Mkanda
Going through the photos is really fun, so I did my best not to pick too many and save more for later 🙂