As you probably know by now I loved being in Malawi last summer. During my last week in Mtogolo Village I plotted about 134 ways to just stay. Maybe this is an exaggeration, but I honestly thought about it a lot.
I have been wondering about my feelings ever since. What touched me so deeply? It couldn’t have been the poverty I could see every day, nor the lack of sanitation, electricity, running water, kitchens, washing machines, not the classrooms with 100 students and no supplies, not the lack of transportation etc. You get the point.
And I know I didn’t just want to stay because I thought I could help the people so much. I mean, how much can I really help? I wouldn’t even know where to start. And who am I to presume that Malawi particularly needs me or my expertise to be better off?
No, it was the other way around. Life in Malawi provided me with something I desperately needed. It was good for me. My travel companion mentioned more than one time that she had never seen me happier. I suddenly received something I didn’t even know I was missing. So, what was it?
After I returned home I was violently thrown back into my old, stressful, unhealthy life. I started reading books about Americans who lived in Africa for a while and came across “Nine Hills to Nambonkaha” by Sarah Erdman, a former Peace Corps volunteer. One single paragraph in the middle of her book explained everything:
“…. And in the end, that’s ok with me. I’m realizing that I am a development worker who’s not completely sold on development. Maybe I am just disillusioned with where all the newfangledness of Western life has gotten us. Maybe I see here what we lack: simplicity, community, a non-commercialized, revered culture. I can’t dismiss tradition. I can’t dismiss respect for elders. I can’t dismiss sorcery. I can’t accept the shriek of the corn mill replacing the tok tok of the pestle, because pounding is social, communal, reciprocal, and the mill just means waiting in line.
Community in Africa still works. The village is arguably the most stable and cohesive unit in West African society. Modern Africans might scoff at their village cousins, who produce a bumper crop of yams one year and give half of them away to relatives and friends instead of reaping the profits. But that’s the beauty of Africa, that’s the glue in the face of catastrophes like AIDS and ethnic unrest. In the village, no one falls through the cracks. Knowing how much I esteem their diligence, their adaptability, their strength, I will allow myself to be a bit presumptuous. I don’t want to watch rituals crumble. I don’t want to see children’s games replaced by insipid images on a TV screen. I want no hand in Westernizing this village.”
She goes on to describe a sudden emergency in the village where lots of funds were needed quickly to maintain the clinic. A sum so large that no villager could even imagine it…and that was where her expertise in fundraising and her connection to richer parts of the world proofed to be lifesaving.
And this is the essence for me. I think I have much to learn from village life in Malawi. I want to discover and be part of their source of happiness and hope that some of it will rub off on me. But I also want to, in return, share my Western knowledge, skills, and my connections in hopes that I can make a tiny and careful contribution to what might help in alleviating some of the hardships Malawians are faced with today.
Malawi Sketch Book 1 (my journey in sketching)