Being immersed into a new culture is one of the most challenging, awkward, and gratifying experiences. Everything about it is uncomfortable yet profound. The reality that you are in one of the most rural places in the world, experiencing the rarest of moments that very few will ever know or imagine. I was humbled and gained mad respect to traditional Peace Corps Volunteers (PCV) who weather this life for 2 years. I was merely here for a glimpse of time; 4 nights and 5 days to be exact versus a PCV logging nearly 730 days. It was an incredible experience that I will never forget.
Peace Corps mission is to promote sustainability and have volunteers culturally immersed into the population they are working with. We were the first cohort of GHSP to be hosted in a “rural homestay”. What exactly does that mean? We were placed in a rural village in Malawi and lived with a family for four nights and five days. Rural meaning- living off the grid. Similar to 80% of the Malawian population. So indeed, we were living amongst the majority of how Malawians actually live and thrive. Off the grid further defined as no electricity or power of any sorts, no running water and simply living purely off the land. Which further translates to bathing in bucket showers, toileting in squatting potty’s, cooking in outdoor kitchen’s (i.e.: a small fire outside their house), and fetching water from the local well on daily basis. This was our visit and their way of life.
Some may cringe at the thought of sleeping on a matt with rodents scurrying around the walls and bathing in a hut with bucket showers. Learning very quickly how good your aim is while attempting to use the bathroom in the smallest holes in the ground I have ever seen. Even though it all seem so foreign and venturing back in time centuries ago. Strangely, life managed to work out just fine. The creativity and engineering of things such as a make shift sink made from a bucket, cup and a bar of soap dangling. To having the chickens- live partially in the house at night to prevent the hyenas from eating them (talk about true free range). It was all just a fascinating, humbling experience.
The initial encounter with the family is usually filled with long uncomfortable stares, awkward smiles and a lot of deep breaths. Before you know it, a game of charades begins as you try to communicate and sign out different questions or discussions. The discomfort either overwhelms you or if you are anything like me, you just find humor and start laughing at yourself and eventually break the ice.
Life’s uncomfortable moments are endless. Your brain is completely overwhelmed and new form of exhaustion sets in. It was only 7pm and felt as if it were 1 am. My head was practically nodding as if I had narcolepsy.
Nonetheless, after a good night sleep and a moment to process things, it always fascinates me how quickly the body and mind adjust. The ability to take a deep breath, exhale all the tension, anxieties and powerlessness is instrumental. It’s funny how just being able to breath and calm the mind you’re able to just embrace these moments for what they are. Once you push through the awkward, uncomfortable, terrifying moments you are able to stop, be present and absorb everything around you.
My life has always been around intense, uncomfortable moments. My coping mechanism when I find my anxieties and body start to tense, is to take a deep breath and find humor in it. Because life is to damn short to take everything so seriously. Once you are able to laugh at yourself, people start to laugh, too. It’s a universal contagious reaction. Kind of like a smile, laughing is filled with positive associations and happens to be one of my favorite things to do. My experience has been once you filter through your uncomfortable vulnerabilities and break the ice with humility, you are able to make a step in the right direction. Before you know it, two people who barely speak any of the other language are able to communicate. You point and learn new words. You are engaged with every single mannerism, nonverbal cue to gauge if words match up with gestures. You suddenly feel like a two-year-old. But somehow it just works, you both are communicating.
Once breaking exterior layer, you are able to embrace the deeper layer. You’re able to appreciate the beauty. We all have imperfections, but enjoying the beauty is some of my favorite aspects in life.
Now, to be honest, it wasn’t all happy memories filled with sunshine and butterflies. I was staying in a rural village in one of the poorest countries in the world. Famine is projected to be on the horizon as this will be one of the most devastating years to account for in Malawi. We were briefed pretty sternly on this reality and I am confident this has not been the first.
The disparities were tangible and palpable. One of the exercises we participated in was a community needs assessment with the people in the village along with our facilitator. The focus, A day in the life of a Malawian during harvest season. The transparency was gut wrenching. The reality of working to literally survive rang more truth than anything I could’ve imagined or related to. Chills overwhelm you to your core. These communities work long, hard, strenuous days to provide enough food to feed their family and themselves. Anything else they have, they are lucky.
To hear their stories of rationing food and consolidating to only one meal a day was unfathomable. When asked what time of day they chose to eat, the mothers responded “At dinner time”. The rationale was because of something they heard from the radio, studies reported if the children are able to sleep well, they will do better in school. Other basic necessities such as clothes to stay warm and dry are always last on the list, let alone a mattress for the kids to sleep on. So when the chilly nights arrived the families often woke up early and huddled around a fire to keep warm. This happened one of the last nights I was there.
Your heart aches, mind is blown and stomach upset that this is the reality for so many Malawians. This IS the majority of their population. This is how people live on a daily basis. You look up at them and feel ashamed you complain about life at all. At the same time, you somehow find a way to muster through your guilt. You find solace in the fact they smile often and in the gentlest way. They laugh boldly, love deeply and are grateful. They share their homes with open arms. They have pride. They have a strong sense of community. They sing and dance with so much soul and life. They find joy.
Through my rose-colored glasses, I seek moments as still shots in my head. Blame it on my love for photography but I want to hold onto moments and remember what I felt in that glimpse of time. I want snapshots to flood my mind with the kid’s laughter and tiny voices playing into the dark of the night. I want to remember the women hollering and running fiercely up and down the netball court- exuding pride, power and a whole lot of sass. I want to be still- drink the wild air and revel in the majestic sky as the orange glow welcomed the dark starry night. It was magic that truly spoke to your soul. You had an awakening that I am literally in the Warm Heart of Africa.
This changes you. This leaves an imprint on your soul. This makes you want to do more, be more and live more intently. These were raw human experiences.
Be well. Be Kind. Stay Curious