Over the past week and a half I have been thinking about the things that I took for granted at home. I’ve compiled a list with the help of some others to express a couple things that I would be able to live without, but still pop into my mind every once in a while.
Porcelain: I recently had a little bout of food poisoning (don’t worry mum, I am very okay now) and there were many hours that I wished to feel the smooth cool of a familiar toilet as I lived through cement and a plastic seat. An honor mention to this is flushing. This flushing is in opposition to the general abyss that is our compost toilet.
Tap Water: The drinking water is definitely sufficient, but I have actually dreamt about drinking tap water and never feeling satisfied. There’s something about sticking my head under the faucet that gives me fond memories.
Clean feet: No matter how hard I try there is always red dirt on my feet. Even when I’m wearing socks. I have even given up on dumping out my shoes too often.
Couches: I have this thing where I just love couches. We have a lot of common space, and we totally do not need a couch, but the inner potato in me would love to lounge and make lesson plans. I have discovered that if you push some of our table chairs together you can get a couch like feel, while napping under the table. This is not favorable when people want to be productive at the table.
Useful Junk: It’s so often that we are told ‘one man’s junk is another man’s treasure’, but there isn’t even scraps that are up for grabs. Materials aren’t always in abundance so it gives our term ‘resourceful’ a different meaning.
Google: We have it so lucky. I now understand why people bought encyclopedias.
Blissful Ignorance: This one travels with anyone who has been exposed to any sort of difficult knowledge. Once naïve thoughts are so easily crushed as we face the challenges of self-expansion and worldly understanding. Every day we are challenged with many new things, and ultimately we will grow and prosper.
Something close to my heart is the affect learning about religion and education has had on me. Two things that are now incredibly important to me and make my life more worthwhile. In secondary school I didn’t apply myself to learning, I find it hard to regret it as at that time it was what I wanted to do and I think I didn’t have enough real life experiences to understand it was important. Moving to college though, whether I became better at listening or started caring less I can’t be certain. But seeing the affect one story has on you about a patient, as a nurse is profound. Both on what you’ve learned from it and how to apply it to the clinical field, and how it makes you feel spiritually.
However, little I got out of my education in school I learned in college education is the essence of a person, the beginning of being human and being it to the full (or so it is in my case anyway). Learning to think critically, to be objective and learning to not put something down just because you can is something I’ve come to feel, and not just have an awareness of. Presently I have never been more grateful for having an understanding of people I meet both as a nurse and as a stranger. Their own opinions and why they do what they do could be wrong to everybody but I have an ability to take aspects such as context into consideration and see both sides of it.
That’s why when we held a meeting for parents with intellectually and physically disabled children it really saddened me when one parent spoke of her young daughter who commenced school and was discriminated against by other pupils and was left on her own. Eventually she stopped going. I asked myself do we still live in that age?
If someone has a child with a disability in the region of Kasungu, neighbours in the village look down not only on the child, but also on the family. A child with a disability is seen as negative and a burden to the village. If the child is brought to church on Sunday here, other people in the village are afraid of, in the parent’s words, ‘getting the disability’. If a child with a disability starts school they can be subject to all types of abuse like emotional, mental and social abuse. Do we still live in this age in 2015?
I’m sad to say we’ve all been a part of this. I spoke to an elementary school teacher after the meeting with my friend. He declared that we all have disabilities and likewise we all have abilities, and we are all different. I was happy that the teacher had the same mindset my friend and I had.
I recall Martin Luther King Jr. stated something to the effect of – the one who turns their back on what they see is wrong is the same as the person doing wrong. Both as a student and a 20-year old girl who has faith, I get caught in what I should say to keep everything peaceful or what I can do to make things right. I can either learn from this or be ignorant.
On this journey and from this experience of meeting these parents I can ignore what society thinks or be a weaver of society.
Being surrounded by the luxury of the hostel, I can definitely feel the isolation from the reality outside the ‘bubble’. A wonderful chef feeds us, there are a couple of women who do our dishes and laundry, and the hostel is constantly being cleaned. I try to be very helpful by fetching bath water (and showering cold!), doing my delicate laundries and some small dishes. I find myself being very careful not to do too much that it seems like I am taking their jobs away. The women here use the word ‘assist’ instead of help. They want to assist us and want our assistance; we all learn better that way.
Because of early nights and early mornings, my dreams lately have been very vivid. Walking out of campus is like snapping out of one. Almost like a sudden feeling of falling, or a slap in the face. When outside, the living conditions of many villagers are bittersweet to see. Even though most villagers I’ve passed have sincere painted smiles on their faces, nearly everyone had no proper footwear, ripped clothes, and drippy noses. Already coming from where poverty is very saturated, I try to accept what I see. Using a model that describes the five stages of culture shock (Pederson, 1995), I find myself struggling back and forth between the Honeymoon stage and Disintegration stage (anger at self). Sometimes it’s blissful and sometimes I get snapped back to the horrifying truth about life of many who are living right at our doorsteps.
But I guess truth is not always horrifying. When a colleague of mine was feeling guilty about the help she was receiving from the villagers, a Malawian lady said to us that they are so proud to ‘assist’ us. As long as we do our parts, it will all add up in the end. She also told us that people here have no choice but to be happy, because they know that life is short, and that they have no time to sit down and feel sad about the unfairness of luck. If people can choose where they want to live, some places may even be deserted. Being alive is enough push to keep people striving. ‘We can’t be sad forever because we know that life is going to end one day’. That kind of attitude is what I imagine stage four, Autonomy (acceptance) will be like. I think I am on my way.
I set foot in a foreign village and I am greeted with nothing but smiles. The villagers come up to me, shake my hand and welcome me into their community as they direct me to where we can sit and chat. They then disappear into their homes for a moment to get me a chair or a small bench to sit on, the reason being that we often hold our discussions outside. They motion me to sit as they, themselves, take a seat on the hard dusty ground. I thank them for the kind gesture, displace the chair and join them in the sand, explaining to them that I would much prefer being seated with them.
This mentality, that I should be given a chair or a stool to sit on, whilst they sit on the ground, is hard to comprehend. What have I done to deserve such special treatment? I realize that I am a guest in their homes but is this really necessary? I must say that I have felt very uncomfortable when put in such situations. I get the sense that they see me as being superior to them, possibly because I am “Asungu” (white). Maybe this isn’t the case, maybe it’s just part of their culture, but as we have seen thus far, our skin color often plays a role in how the local people treat us here in Malawi. To be quite honest, all I want is for them to see me as just another being, without associating me to certain things because I am of light skin.
The motive behind my visits to the different villages that make up the Chilanga region of Kasungu, is to get a better sense of what it is to live in Malawi as well as to better understand their living conditions. The kind of relationship that I wish to develop when discussing with the local people is one of equality, trust and mutual understanding/learning. I wish to establish relationships in which stories and ideas can be shared. For a relationship like that to be successful, I believe that it is important for them to not see me as a threat. I want them to know and realize that I am there to share (knowledge) and discuss with them. I am there to learn and understand rather than to impose my ideas and beliefs and in order to do so, it is important for them to see me as just another human being.
The hospitality they display is beyond anything I have ever experienced before. They welcome us with warm hearts and open arms, hence where Malawi gets the name “the warm heart of Africa”. They give us their time and are willing to share their stories and their lives with us, not questioning the motives behind us asking such personal questions. They kindly accept to show me their homes when I ask. I admire how much of a proud people they are.
After having visited several villages during my stay here in Malawi, I find myself being able to better assess the level of poverty of each village. There are times where I walk into a community and instantly know that the people living there are less fortunate than individuals from other villages. Just by observing how they are clothed, how dirty they are, if they are barefoot and by looking at the children and assessing the severity of their swollen bellies, as a result of malnutrition. Furthermore, in less wealthy villages, the homes are often made of a mixture of soil and water that has hardened rather than being made of brick. They are often quite small and do not have windows or doors, just a cloth covering the entrance. The rooms inside the homes are usually nearly empty and the people barely have any possessions.
The first home I ever visited was in Chimbwangandu, a small village in the Chilanga region of Kasungu (in my opinion, one of the poorest villages of Chilanga). There were six people in that family, both parents and their four children. The home was quite small. The walls, as well as the foundation, were made of a mixture of soil and water that had been packed down and hardened and the roof was made of straw. The door was non-existent, just a hole on the front side of the building where a door would normally be located. I had to duck my head when walking into the house. There were two rooms, the first was an entryway, used for a number of purposes such as greeting and hosting guests. It only took me four steps to reach the opposite end of the room. In the far right corner were a few pots that I assume were used for cooking, bathing and collecting water. There was a doorway in the far left corner of the room, once again, no door. I entered the second room, the space was even smaller than the first. It was dark and rather cold. The only belongings in the room were a single bed, a bag of clothes and a small pot-like dish next to the bed that could be used to light a small fire for when the nights got cold. The mattress on the bed was quite thin, forget about support and comfort and the bed was covered with only a single blanket, no pillows. The hardest thing to take in was when the mother told me that she, the father and her youngest child shared the single bed while her three other children slept on the cold hard floor, by the entrance, in the first room.
There are no words that can describe the thoughts that were running through my head as the mom kindly showed me her home. No words to describe what I was feeling. How could someone live like this? How can this be the reality of so many people? Had I never asked to see her home, I would have never been able to imagine the severity of the poverty here in Malawi, not to mention, understand, on any level, what it’s like to live in such degrading living conditions. Even so, I will never be able to fully grasp the kind of life that these individuals live every day.
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.