By Ashwini Manohar
Malawi from the air is barren — red earth stretching for miles, shrubs, trees and occasionally a collection of huts. My first impression of Malawi was buoyed by intense curiosity, and I’m ashamed to say, filtered through the distorting lens of my camera.
Despite never being interested in documenting my life with pictures, the moment the chartered bus started moving from the parking lot of the airport, I whipped out my phone, went to the video feature and started recording. Soon enough, we left the relatively wealthy Lilongwe and headed towards Kasungu.
Poverty was ubiquitous. And I was mindlessly snapping, driven by some obscene desire to capture what was streaming by my window. Twenty minutes into the bus ride, realization struck: what was I doing? Why was I consuming poverty in this way? None of the people I’d snapped had given me explicit permission to take pictures of them. I put my phone away, ashamed and angry with myself.
I don’t really know how to put into words what I felt after that, as I gazed out the window. Mostly I felt numb, I think, not connecting the shanty huts with the fact that people lived in them. Occasionally we’d pass a busy business district, run-down stores selling everything from coffins to salon services. Sometimes music blasted from an unseen speaker.
We turned right on to a bumpy dirt road after a while. “We’re two minutes away,” Kassie said when I asked if we were close. The bus slowed to a crawling pace. As we rounded a corner, the TPM campus came into view. I immediately got anxious. Amber was almost jumping off her seat with excitement at seeing all the ladies she’d formed deep relationships with last year. Coming out of the bus in the midst of her squealing and hugging (oh Amber) was a bit overwhelming, but the kind and incredibly warm welcome I received put me at ease. I was happy and secure.
That feeling has remained the last three days as I acclimated (and still am) to life in Malawi. The sun rises before 6 and sets by about 7 in the evening. Roosters call and dogs howl during the night, and sunsets are breathtaking. You get one pail of hot water to shower, along with a cup; the two showers are conjoined in a small concrete building with wooden pellets and doors that don’t lock from the inside. The kitchen is outdoors — a cement structure with a partitioned pantry in the back, and most of the cooking is done with a charcoal fire in a mbaula: a clay pot handcrafted by women who poke holes in the bottom, which is then encircled by concrete and attached to a metal bottom that collects the ash from the burning charcoal. I recognized it from my childhood in Singapore. In preparation for Diwali, my grandmother would use it to fry her murukus (circular lentil biscuits) in a wok full of oil. I learned that a small mbaula costs about 1500 kwacha, or about $3 Canadian, and a bigger one costs about 2000 or 2500 kwacha, or about $4 or $5 Canadian. Almost every household has at least one.
All of Sunday I spent with Unna and Chimwemwe (which means Happiness in Chechewa, the language spoken in these parts of Malawi), who cook our meals, clean our hostel and haul water for us to clean ourselves and drink. Sunday was honestly the happiest I’ve felt this year. I learned how to make nsima and mpilu (green leaves that look like lettuce) and beans. Unna told me about life in Malawi — how women in Malawi relate to each other, the political system, what she feels about the political system, her husband and her two kids. I told her and Chimwemwe that the children in the field were making fun of my hairy arms, and they laughed at them too and said women in Malawi don’t really grow hair anywhere! (It’s true. I’m jealous.) We shared stories and laughed and had a really good time.
Though I am cocooned in a haze of happiness and contentment (Stage 1: Honeymoon Phase), confusion about my role in TPM and what TPM does still lingered. I was starting to get anxiety attacks because I didn’t want my experience for the next 5 weeks to be one of me floundering around for direction and for everything I do with the community here to be useless.
So on Saturday, I plucked up my courage and went to the professors’ house to ask Dr. Stonebanks and Melanie some questions. It was a good talk — I learned about the political structure of TPM, and of the nearby villages, and where the development committee fit in, which is what Amber and I were going to work on with the women in TPM.
I haven’t strayed beyond the protective boundaries of the campus, and want very much to walk through the villages. I’m sure that will happen in the coming weeks.
Tio nana (See you later).