By Shayla Baumeler (Mount Allison)
Have you ever wondered what it would be like to live someone else’s life? I don’t think we can ever fully grasp what others are going through on a day-to-day basis, but gaining insight into other peoples lives is, without a doubt, a humbling experience.
We recently had the opportunity to visit another village, Bwanali, within the Chilanga region. Although our resident village of Makupo is vastly different from our Canadian homes and has already provided me with a fresh perspective, it is an extremely privileged community within the area and the Malawian context. The aim of our visit to Bwanali was to better understand the local standard of living.
We walked along the main road, with bicycles and cars whizzing past us in all directions. The hot sun pounded on my back, the heat penetrating through to my core. The journey began with a fifteen-minute walk along the main road before veering left onto a narrow unpaved pathway. We passed by small homes as the local children ran about. When we arrived at our destination, we were motioned to enter through an opening in a tall “fence” of woven grass. The resident family welcomed us with open arms as though they had known us a lifetime. We walked past two small structures on either side of us before reaching the pigpen. There were three or four stalls beside one another, each containing around a dozen pigs. Their meal had just been given to them and they stumbled over one another fighting for every bite, in anything but a graceful manner.
We soon noticed a large pile of dried maize resting on the ground. The local women, whose home we had been graciously invited into, picked up a corncob and began to demonstrate their practice. Each kernel is to be shed from the cob using nothing but your bare hands. The maize is then taken to the mill and used in many of the local dishes. We all asked if we could help them and they kindly accepted with a slight chuckle. I was passed a cob and hesitantly began to apply pressure to the end. I suddenly felt something give way and my first little bunch of kernels spewed all over the bamboo mat on which we were sitting. After a short amount of time, our host brought out a metal pot filled with a liquid substance called thobwa. The drink itself is made of maize and was described by a few members of our group as resembling crunched up corn chips in drink form. They make this drink by hand using their homegrown crops, as an alternative to expensive store bought drinks. It was far from a familiar taste, but was an experience nonetheless. After our taste test, we continued removing the kernels of corn from the cob. The friction between my thumb and the cob of corn produced a burning sensation that led to the formation of a blister. My hands and fingers began to fatigue after a short twenty minutes, while the locals often withstand hours on end of this type of vigorous work.
When I have opportunities to observe other lifestyles in action, I can’t help but compare them to my own. In many ways, I don’t think this comparison is fair. Cultural context is drastically different and the two contain few parallels, if any. Nonetheless, I find this involuntary comparison occurring.
Our lives in Canada, as well as the wider Western world, are often strictly centered around scheduling and time. On the contrary, in Malawi, in large part due to the manual nature of the labour performed, timing is much less constraining and punctuality less emphasized. I walked to this community instead of driving, as I would have at home. When I arrived I saw pigs as a locally grown source of food. At home, I would buy my food from the grocery store or in a restaurant and rarely consider the source of this food. The local people here work hard shucking corn and fetching pails of water from the well, whereas we pass the time watching television or consumed with our Iphones. Our hosts graciously accepted us into their home without hesitation, despite the fact that we were mere strangers. I couldn’t help but think that my hospitality would not even compare to their warm demeanor. It is not to say that one way of living is better than the other, it is only to say that they are vastly different.
So, as much as we wonder what others go through on a daily basis, I do not think we will ever fully understand. I will say, however, that experiences like this get us one step closer.