You can only be so prepared when you journey to another country. My first experiences in Malawi are no exception. I had heard many stories from my mother, sister and brother about the people and the way of life; however, I really had to experience it myself.
When I arrived late Monday, after easy travels through Johannesburg and Lilongwe, my time in Malawi began. Knocking on the door was Willis, a friend of my family. After we were introduced, Willis asked if I would like to come visit his house. My sister and mother gave reassuring looks, so I accepted his invitation and we walked to his house together. As we sat in his small room, he asked many questions: what sports I played, the music I listened to and whether I had any musical talent. He promptly gathered a keyboard from his house and beckoned one of his younger siblings to play, who ended up being very talented. Before we left Willis’s, I met many more of his brothers and sisters. Family is important here.
Willis asked if it was okay if we ventured to the market so his brother, John, could buy some tomatoes. I saw no reason to refuse, so we walked for a few minutes to a market long after the sun had set, where we stopped to chat with a fish vendor. The vendor greeted me with kind spirit and a phrase I had heard before: “Welcome to the Warm Heart of Africa”. This proved to be a theme in Malawi - I felt very welcome and the country lived up to its nickname.
My sister woke me up at 6AM for a run. I was dead tired but I soon noticed just how gorgeous the scenery was. The sky seems to stretch on forever - I felt like I had never been able to see that far in my life.
After getting dressed, I walked to the St. Gabriel’s hospital with my sister, mother and Yiwen (a classmate of my sister who came to Malawi to work on a project that I will detail in further posts). There we toured the facilities and I encountered another common theme in Malawi - the practice of greeting one another.
Back home, it’s expected that you greet your friends. Here the same applies, but it extends to everyone. Just passing someone there’s a good chance they will stop to say “Hello!” and “How are you?”. I’m still getting the hang of Chichewa, the language of Malawi and many times today I sound foolish trying to talk with them. They answer my stumbles with a warm smile and a goodhearted laugh. This process of greeting really brings a smile to my face every time. You really feel welcome even though you know you’re out of place.
I did plenty of work today. The pharmacy always needs help counting pills - I put in some work today and became adept at counting and putting the pills (today: aspirin) into containers for distribution. After trial and error, I finally found the best method was to keep the pills in your hand and slide them into the container.
Later, I went to the ART (Antiretroviral Treatment - used for HIV/AIDS) Clinic to help out. There I met Alex, the head nurse at St. Gabriel’s who does Home Based Care, who works with FrontlineSMS (the project my brother works on) as well as in the clinic. Alex is a hilarious guy to hang out with and I really enjoyed working there even though our job was mundane. We put ourselves to work updating the ART “databases” (by databases I mean huge binders full of every patient’s visit history). It’s a lengthy process but somehow my sister, Yiwen and I had a good time doing so and chatting with Alex.
After work, we walked back to the house we are staying in and were promptly ambushed by a group of youngsters. I had heard so many things about this group of kids and it was amazing to finally see them in person. They wanted to play soccer with us, so we grabbed a ball from our house and headed to the field. I’ve never felt such joy playing soccer in my life. Playing on a dirt field with kids barefoot, screaming, laughing and smiling is an unforgettable feeling.
Walking around St. Gabriel’s and the surrounding area is astonishing. To see people in their day to day lives - collecting wood, starting fires, walking everywhere, and living in their humble homes puts me in a different world. A different world where bitterness is put aside and warm smiles greet each other. A different world where people walk miles to get to a hospital. A different world where kids wander around with each other waiting for their foreign friends finish working at the hospital so that they can play soccer. This different world also made part of a dream come true - as the sun dropped after what seemed like a long day, I stood beneath an orange sky. A beautiful, clear and inviting orange sky. I think I like this different world.