By Megan Blair (Bishop’s)
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.