I’m not sure why I was surprised, but hardly anything had changed in Malawi since I left from my Peace Corps stint seven years ago. I remember Paul Theroux’s statement about Malawi in his overland trip through Africa, Dark Star Safari, as he passed through Malawi again reflectin on his time in Peace Corps decades prior. He was reassured that “nothing had changed: the simplest country I had ever known was still simple.” So it goes, less than a decade upon my return, nothing had changed.
Sure, a couple things have changed. The president in office while I was there had recently died of a heart attack after a gradual climb towards dictatorial-like rule and running the economy into the ground. His vacant seat was taken by his vice president, a woman, Joyce Banda, committed to improving the lives of Malawian women and whose prior popularity has since decreased because of the devaluation of the kwacha (incidentally, the first thing I noticed). Other than that, though, very little has changed.
Remembering Malawi through the Senses
From the sky, Malawi was as familiar as it was to me as a volunteer. As we descended into Lilongwe, we flew over thatch-roofed mud huts into a haze contributed by the annual maize field burning. Immediately as we stepped off the plane, I was hit with the familiar smells – wood fire (or I suppose field fire) and body odor. Not bad body odor, just Malawian body odor. My sister having visited me twice when I was in Peace Corps remarked after she got off the plane for the second trip that she remembered the body odor from before. Having lived there for a year and a half at that point, I didn’t know what she was talking about. But, it’s true, there is a distinct smell when you enter a country where everyday living is harsher and quite frankly, less sanitized than the one you came from. So, there it is, B.O.
We stayed with my friend, Molly, who is an Executive Director at a permaculture* organization the Kusamala Institute, whose offices (and her house as well) are in the “rural” part of the capital, Lilongwe (one might say suburbs if you’re thinking in American terms, but no suburb I know has dirt roads). Our first days there were amazingly familiar as we woke to the smell of wood fire, roosters crowing (before dawn of course), the sound of sweeping, and Chichewa (the local language). The familiarity made me giddy. Being constantly in the open air, the always dirty feet (constant dirt lines, not tan lines), I was transported to a time when television, phones and internet were accessed monthly and my distractions consisted of good books and writing letters. It was easy to get back in that mode, including the part where we go to bed at 8:30. I grew weary of the dirt, the sounds, and the slowness during my two years, but not being exposed to them in America in the same way, it was novelty again. No, not just novelty, but the distinct feeling of arriving again at your home away from home. Malawi wasn’t just another travel destination, it was my home.
The Anticipation of Returning to Mkanda
What goes along with returning home after a long break was nerves. Not unlike my nerves returning home to the U.S. after Peace Corps, I was anxious about my visit to my old site. I didn’t say anything to Molly and Cory (who joined me on the visit) about how I was feeling, but my stomach was churning and I was “this close” to biting the head off anyone who said anything that annoyed me (an unfortunate instinct I have when I’m nervous – my mom can tell you that) as we drove for the day trip to Mkanda. I kept the head-biting habit at bay, though, and I don’t think either of them noticed. As we drove west from Lilongwe towards the Mchinji district, the site of each familiar trading center eased my tension. We passed the trading center with the “Hangover Bar” that I used as a landmark indicating I was close to Lilongwe; Namitete, my good friend Rosanna’s first site; Guillame where I would take a bike taxi to Rosanna’s second site. I pointed all these landmarks out to Molly and Cory – and because they love me and probably knew I was just remembering outloud, they appropriately feigned interest. By the time we met Alex in Kamwendo, a few short miles from the Mchinji Boma (the district capital), I was relaxed and ready.
I had gotten in touch with Alex a couple months prior as a result of several letters that I sent to old friends at their old P.O. boxes with no guarantee they’d get them. I received two text message responses from the 6 letters, one from Alex and one from the wife of the postmaster who I became friends with through all my letter-writing (for the latter, sadly, her news was that Alick, the postmaster, had passed away a couple years ago). If I was going to get in touch with anyone, though, it would be Alex. Despite having some frustrations in working with him on occasion as a volunteer, the man can facilitate and he has built exceptional relationships with the community. Even though he isn’t in Mkanda anymore, as he works at the district hospital doing TB work, people in Mkanda still see Alex often and clearly respect and admire him.
When I worked with him, Alex was the head Health Surveillance Assistant (HSA) which are essentially the health outreach workers based at the local clinic. They do health promotion, education and bring vaccinations out to the more remote villages in the health center’s “catchment area”. They are the public health officers of rural Malawi. My former counterpart (a Peace Corps term for main work contact/partner), Frederick, was now the head HSA in Mkanda. And because of Alex, Frederick and folks in Mkanda actually knew we were coming (well, some folks).
Although my nerves had receded, I knew a warm up was in order and we stopped by my friend Helen’s house in Mchinji for lunch before the main event. Having met Helen within my first month in Mkanda in 2004, she quickly became like family to me. She runs a women’s advocacy organization – I was introduced to her by a community member, who does work in Mkanda for women. I’ve stayed overnight at their house before and spent a great deal of time eating nsima (the staple food made of maize meal similar to polenta, but less taste) with them during visits to Mchinji.
Helen has a huge presence. She’s quick to bring people into her world and, like people in my family, has no problem speaking her mind. I love it. I love her. She particularly bonded with my mom when my family visited in 2005. I suppose there’s something that draws me to strong women. It was gratifying to see both of them find common ground – both leading organizations in their respective countries.
Although Helen has more access to modern conveniences than folks in Mkanda (i.e. she has an email address and regular cell phone access), we had lost touch until a month or so before the visit. Knowing how Malawi works, I asked Alex if he knew her and could track her down and let her know I wanted to get in touch. A couple weeks later, after thinking Alex had forgotten or couldn’t find her, I received a couple mysterious phone calls from a Malawi number. Thinking it was the postmaster’s wife, I didn’t answer (a defense mechanism from being the only American in a Malawian community which always comes with the risk that someone will ask you for something – it’s socially acceptable to call over and over because they’ll “flash” or “beep” you expecting a call back because they don’t have phone credit). Luckily, it was Helen and she left a message thus re-establishing contact.
Seeing Helen and her husband was like being with long-lost family. Our lives are very different, but familiarity and mutual love and respect makes it so easy to re-connect. Since 2006, the organization Helen was running, Women’s Voice, had lost its funding, so she started a new organization, Women’s Hope for Change where it doesn’t sound like she’s receiving a salary, but still doing good work. I’m actually not sure where they’re getting money, as her husband, who claims he is “self-employed”, doesn’t have regular work either, but they seem to be doing fine as they just built a new house. We chatted for awhile, had the requisite photo shoot and then headed to Mkanda. Each moment felt too short.
The Return to Mkanda
Although previously I said nothing had changed, one thing had for sure – the road between Mchinji and Mkanda had been paved. Well, two-thirds of the road. Rosanna on her trip to Malawi over Christmas heard mention of that, now I could see it for myself. No more long, bumpy, dusty dirt road. This was a road where the minibuses and matolas (trucks) would have a longer life. Alex claims it was funded by Madonna as her first adopted son from Malawi was from the region.
Despite the smoother ride than I remember, everything else was familiar and unchanged. The Mchinji Forest, the small village and trading centers along the way. It made me recall the first trip I took out there which I catalogued in my journal:
The road just before Mkanda is surrounded by trees and mountains – at least on the right side. By this point, my mood had changed. I had one of those spontaneous spiritual moments. I couldn’t believe that this was me. I was riding on the back of a truck in Southeastern Africa – by myself…the fear had left me and I was so excited and so proud of myself. Now, if only I could learn the freaking language.
Almost exactly 9 years before this very trip, I was feeling that mix of emotions. Here I was experiencing a similar mix of emotions for very different reasons (and minus the public transport as we took Molly’s car). It’s good to know that paved or not, that Mkanda road can have a calming effect.
As we arrived, the market was quiet, but steady as it usually was on non-market days. We drove by the spot where I made a habit of getting my daily cokes (at least in my first year before I realized it plus my daily dose of chippies, or street fries, was making me gain weight which delighted Malawians – “Eliza, you are getting so fat!”). Alex told me that Mkanda is now on the grid – although since most houses aren’t wired for electricity, it doesn’t make too much of a difference. But it’s a welcome modern convenience for many, I’m sure. Past the trading center towards the health center, we passed a huge cell phone tower right off the main road. A fascinating juxtaposition of modern technology and rural African life. Despite how little money people make, cell phones are everywhere now. We got cell service in my last few months and it opened up a new world for everyone – including myself who felt a bit cut off for the 1 ½ years prior.
Pulling up to the health center was surreal. It could have been seven years ago. I immediately caught a whiff of bat poop – a smell I became quite familiar with because of the time a large quantity of it had broken through the false ceiling in the HSA office on the spot I had moments before been standing. Thus, the smell will forever be ingrained in my memory. Remembering the event aloud later, Frederick tells me, “we still have that problem.”
Frederick walked up as we emerged from the car and we greeted each other warmly. It’s like the seven years hadn’t passed and I was just coming back from a long vacation. We began our whirlwind tour of Mkanda as they took us through the health center, past the patients and through the new building that would be dedicated by the Malawian VP the following weekend.
As we traveled towards Mkanda earlier, Alex and I spoke about changes that had gone on with health center activities since we had both left. He tells me that the improvements they had seen previously were no longer. “There is not as much motivation,” he notes. A few months before I left Peace Corps, a five-year maternal and child health project from UNFPA (United Nations Population Fund) ended. When I had arrived and throughout my service, Alex and other HSAs were constantly busy with education and awareness events from the funding. They also created a training program for Traditional Birth Attendants (TBAs) who were the quickest line of care for delivering mothers in the more remote villages. As the funding term was closing out, UNFPA used the remaining money to renovate the health center and health center houses (complete with solar electricity and running water – an exciting luxury my last few months!). That said, since the funding has gone, so has all that programming and Mkanda is back where they were with the basic resources provided by the Ministry of Health. This contrast was a clear example of the lack of sustainability that the three- to five-year funding cycles from development organizations. It was a realization I had early on in my service and became more and more frustrated with throughout the two years. It is what led me not to get involved in international development (I felt it futile) and to the career I’ve chosen today educating students about social justice issues locally and internationally. I wasn’t surprised, but it was depressing a bit. Regardless, Mkanda pushes on and still is lucky to have motivated and capable people like Frederick and the other colleagues I have still living and working in Mkanda.
I had specifically requested to go by my old house – one of the health center homes currently occupied by the ambulance driver. In America it’s not quite acceptable to walk up to a stranger’s house saying, “I used to live here, can I take a look around?” Not so in Malawi. Of course, with Frederick and Alex with their rapport and charm, it helps a bit.
The house my predecessor, Ruth, had furnished to be reminiscent of American decor and comfort – which I expanded upon with my own conveniences – had been effectively Malawianized. Meaning, overstuffed with furniture and little natural light. It resembled my house in layout only as the yard I used to let grass grow and where Ruth had planted a couple fruit trees, was now hard-packed dirt kept grass-free through tedious sweeping – a practice many an environmentalist is trying to teach Malawians (or Africans in general for that matter) to stop to prevent erosion and flooding and promote growth of grasses and native species. But, alas old habits die hard, especially in a place like Malawi where change comes slowly.
From there we did a tour of homes of people I requested to see. Mr. Mbalani, the Primary Education Advisor (PEA), with whom I had done a great deal of work, was there and overjoyed to see me. The Nkhukuzalira family – friends with whom I had spent a great deal of meals and laughs despite the language barrier – were also still there. With each visit, an excited yell of “Ah, Eliza!” and a firm and warm handshake (from the men) and an awkward, but amazingly warm hug (from the women). Each one remarking how if they knew I was coming, they would’ve gotten me something (Mrs. Nkhukuzalira said this while stuffing a bag of biscuits covertly in my purse). Mrs. Nchama, the woman from whom I bought all of my tomatoes screamed, ran to hug me and then began stuffing tomatoes and onions from her market stall in a bag for me to take home. Despite having little, Malawians have an infinite amount of generosity.
At Frederick’s house, we sat around a tray of Fanta and biscuits exchanging kind words. Frederick’s two children – his eldest I named after my mom – were paraded through the room. Alex asked everyone (which included a couple other HSAs who I had known during my service) to go around the circle and say a few words. Impromptu “speeches” were a practice I became accustomed to in Malawi. Alex, Frederick and the others noted their “pride” in having me return. It’s funny, I always had a feeling of guilt around Mkanda during service and again after. Although I did a lot of work at site and was there a great deal, I felt guilty I wasn’t doing enough or wasn’t there enough. When I returned, I felt guilty for not keeping in touch and always had a feeling I could’ve done more. It’s the practice of almost every volunteer to compare themselves with the other, more hardcore, volunteers, and that never went away. This time, although I felt a sense of guilt for only staying for a couple hours, I realized that I was the only one burdened by that expectation. The amazing people of Mkanda felt pride in having a volunteer, and now having them come back. Sure, I could’ve stayed longer, but coming at all was better than avoiding it altogether.
We drove Alex back to his home (about an hours drive from Mkanda) with one last meal of nsima and photos with the family. As darkness began to fall, Alex and I stood by the road saying the same things we had been saying all day – “we are so proud to have you come back Eliza” and “I am so glad to be back and thank you for everything, Alex”. I don’t know when or if I’ll see Alex and the others again. I hope I’ll see them again, as Molly will be living in Malawi for three more years and it gives me another tangible excuse to come back. But having returned this one time, it has satisfied a curiosity I’ve had since I had left.
Reflections on Change
As we drove back in the dark dodging bikes with loads of firewood and overstuffed bags of who-knows-what, I reflected on the day. I had been nervous for months leading up to that moment, now in an instant, it was over. I thought about how I could have stayed longer by spending the night in Mchinji. However, in the end, I admitted to myself, it was perfect. I was nervous about the uncertainty and the unknown, but what I went back to was the same place I left seven years ago. Some people have come and gone. A couple have died, but essentially it is the same.
I’m not sure if the lack of change is a good or bad thing. Of course, the lack of progress has hindered the ability to promote health and well-being in the community. But culturally, why is change such an important thing? What I hope doesn’t change is the generosity and friendliness of the people I knew and loved. Not one person asked me for something during this visit – all they wanted was to reconnect. I’m not saying that Malawians don’t deserve to be in the modern world, but there are some aspects of culture that are best left unchanged and hopefully if Malawi has the opportunity to move forward economically, they keep the cultural elements that gave them the title “The Warm Heart of Africa.”
*As the Kusamala Institute (Molly’s organiation) defines permaculture: “Permaculture is a design system based on ethics and principles that can be used to guide individuals, households and communities towards a sustainable future. Permaculture includes all aspects of life, including but not limited to agriculture, water management, waste management, green building and efficient use of energy.”