In a week, I will be flying across the ocean to return to the comforts of Waterford, Virginia. My bags will have become lighter: many of the things we brought will have been left as gifts to our friends. The other day I gave one of my polos to Matthews for his birthday. His gratitude and joy was a wonder to experience. I have given gifts and will return with more for my friends and family; however, I will not be just be bringing back items, but a little bit of Malawi. Among the pieces of Malawi that will travel with me is a redefined sense of greeting, a gesture with a different meaning, a phrase, a Malawian attitude and renewed appreciation of the power of a smile.
I’ve spoken about the difference in greeting here: if you are walking and you pass a group of people, you extend your greeting to each individual. I’ve found that it helps to forge a connection with every person you meet. The importance of the style of greeting here in Malawi is two-fold: not only are you paying respect to every individual, but the frequency of greeting those who pass you by is exponentially higher than at home. When passing another male, it is common to say “Wowa”, essentially meaning “Hey man, what’s up?”. The word is often accompanied by a thumbs up. The gesture is not a sign of approval, but of greeting. I can’t get enough of it and neither can the older men who receive a thumbs of from me. Hopefully, I can bring back a little bit of Malawian style to greeting people in the States.
Last weekend my sister and I ventured into the craft market again in order to buy some gifts for people back home. This time we armed ourselves with the Spanish language, using it communicate what we liked and didn’t like at each of the vendors. Normally, the vendors would pick up what we wanted to buy when we spoke English and would hassle us to buy something. The Spanish greatly confused them – they were unable to decipher our comments about “la cosa de la madre y el hijo”, or “the thing of the mother and child” – making the shopping an event of great success. The vendors were not the only ones exposed to new vernacular: a man we met introduced me to a new phrase that I plan on using. After the man read the words on my shirt (Lifetime Fitness), we began to chat and I asked him how he was, receiving a response of “extra super”. Next time someone asks me how I am, they will occasionally get a bit of Malawian vernacular when I respond, “Extra super!”.
His response is typical of many Malawians, who espouse an attitude of optimism and hope. A commonly heard word around here is “Chabwino”, meaning “it’s all good, no worries, whatever” all rolled into one. In the month I’ve been here, I have yet to see a single Malawian show signs of stress in an environment that places many demands on the people here. The other day I passed a young boy, maybe five years old, expertly wielding a hoe in the family garden. The women here are strong – many are open with their HIV status and work hard to get their children tested. This attitude of no worries must be ingrained in their culture as everyone hopes for tomorrow. Last night, I asked a Malawian man why he thought his people were like this. He offered an enlightened response: “We do not view our problems and struggles as burdens, only as something we must get through. In the end, we know that tomorrow is a gift. Tomorrow is a blessing and it is tomorrow that we can always look to.” These words, spilling from the mouth of a smiling Malawian on a beautiful night filled with stars that shine the brightest I’ve seen, struck me as poetic and a testimony of Malawians and the human spirit in general.
Young girl moves with purpose through the woods
When my sister first came back from Malawi, she remarked on the nature of a smile here and found a pertinent quote:
“A smile costs nothing but gives much. It enriches those who receive without making poorer those who give. It takes but a moment, but the memory of it sometimes lasts forever. None is so rich or mighty that he cannot get along without it and none is so poor that he cannot be made rich by it. Yet a smile cannot be bought, begged, borrowed, or stolen, for it is something that is of no value to anyone until it is given away. Some people are too tired to give you a smile. Give them one of yours, as none needs a smile so much as he who has no more to give.”
Smiles here are plentiful. Whether it be from a young child as he or she screams “Azungu!” in delight, or a mother who smiles at her child’s fear of an azungu, smiles decorate the red landscape wherever you travel. Never again will I underestimate the power of a smile.
A few smiles:
Malifa, Grace, and Rodrick
Those are among the many things I want to bring back from Malawi. Mwina (maybe, in Chechewa), being here for this long has taught me to dance half as well as the Malawians…
Dancing at the technical college