Mary wants to be a Doctor

It has almost been two weeks since I moved to Malosa. I am still trying to find my way around this new life of mine and explore a little bit of my new environment every day. I go to the market, walk through the village, and greet all the new strangers that suddenly populate my life. Sometimes it gets overwhelming and I hide in my new little place where it is easy to hide, because it is very beautiful and serene. But every time I walk outside my door and give myself a push to be brave something unexpected and wonderful happens. Sometimes it is just a gorgeous hike up the mountain with unexpected views, sometimes it is a conversation and connection between two people that happens despite the language barrier, and sometimes it is a magical journey into the belly of rural Malawi.


But let me back up a little. One of my future fellow teachers has made it her job to introduce me to much of my new life around here. Her name is Chimwemwe and she teaches Math. A few days ago she took me to a village to meet some people from her church group who cannot attend anymore either because of sickness or age. One of her students accompanied us on the long walk and we got to know each other a little bit. Her name is Mary, she will be in 12th grade starting September 18th, and she is determined to become a doctor. Of course I am thinking: “Poor girl, the odds are stacked against you.”, because it is still hard for girls to go on after Secondary School, and because she attends a CDSS (Community Day Secondary School), the very lowest ranking kind of schools in Malawi with the least resources and the least chances for students to move up. But little did I know about her determination, her life, her attitude. And of course, this is how it always is. We make snap judgments based on our own experiences without knowing more about a person.


And so it goes, the education of an ignorant azungu (white person), who comes from a rich land and knows nothing about life….well, I know a little, just enough to know that I don’t know much…

I had told Chimwemwe about my Peace Corps assignment to conduct some sort of community mapping, meaning I should find out about y area and document the findings on a map. I had asked her to help me get acquainted with my new home and she took it to heart. Yesterday she had set Mary and myself up to walk together so Mary could show me a different area. I was asked to bring water, since I have to treat my drinking water as not to get sick. It was indicated that it might be a long walk, but in my experience Malawians walk very slowly and I assumed that “far” meant far only because we would walk a while…. So we set out, me wearing a village appropriate chintenje and Chaco sandals and Mary her Sunday Best, a professional dress with black jacket and flats.

We started walking up the tarmac a bit, then turned right onto a dirt road. Dutifully, she pointed out landmarks like big trees, a small river and where it will connect to another, larger river, a community/ conference building, the names of villages (yes villages, as in several) we passed. We walked through a large estate with remnants of old, colonial glory, passed a Primary School and Roman Catholic church, the chief’s house whom we were supposed to meet, but who was not home. Later I found out that the chief was her uncle. All along we documented our journey by sketching a small map in my little book. Everywhere we went people greeted us and yes, also stared. I think Mary received an education as well of what it means to walk through native villages as a white person and how much (unwanted) attention one draws. She now took on the role of my protector from all the little children that follow and surround me everywhere I go.

After a long time the dirt road led into just foot paths through dry maize fields and I could tell we were nearing an area that Mary was known in. Friends of hers greeted us and families called out her name. We stopped at every house to say our greetings and introduce me as the new teacher at Mary’s school. Up to now I had no idea we were actually going to visit her family in the mountains. But as soon as it dawned on me we already passed groups of people eating nsima (the national food), laughing, and pointing. As soon as we turned around the next corner we heard laughter, happiness, exuberance, and many hands stretched out to greet me. I knew we had arrived wherever we were going. This was her family, her mom, her siblings, cousins, uncles, aunts, grandma, grandpa, and father. The family lives in buildings that were organized in some sort of rectangle forming an open courtyard with a covered area on one side that reminded me of a stage of some sorts. A bamboo mat was laid out for us to sit on, and family members trickled in and out introducing themselves, greeting me. All the while household chores continued. Unceremoniously I was included in the shelling of peanuts, cutting of masamba (green leaves eaten with the nsima), boiling water. The grandmother took me by the hand and led me down another path to show me her own house, crops, animals and her husband who proudly chatted with me in a very polite British English.


The family made it their business to teach me how to cook nsima and how to serve and eat the food. As a sign of respect Mary and I had our food laid out in a small separate room with a table, beautiful plates, and perhaps the only chair in the entire village.


We chatted some more while dishes were done, and everybody wanted to see the pictures on my phone that I took of them, then my pets in America, my children and videos from Gule Wamkulu dancers back in Kasungu.

Then it was time to go and we received gifts in form of peanuts and cassava roots which were freshly dug up. I was also shown how to eat them.

We said our good buys and started walking back. It is customary in Malawi to escort a guest for some of the way, so various people walked with us for different lengths of the way. The grandfather had changed for this purpose in freshly washed cloths and shoes. He walked with us until we reached his son’s house, the house of the village chief. In Malawi strangers are always greeted by the chief, because it is the chief’s business to know about everything that goes on in his or her village.

The chief asked me about my purpose of living in Malawi, and not understanding the mission of Peace Corps, told me that his village needs a maize mill and a borehole. Malawians always assume when they meet a white person, that we come with lots of money and build much needed infrastructure. However, this is for another blog post.

Reaching the tarmac close to my home I had to shake the feeling that we just stepped in and out of a time loop. The life in the rural villages in Malawi seems like life from many thousand years ago. The contrast is stark even within the country.

We were gone for almost nine hours, the one-way walk being almost two hours. This is the way Mary has been walking to and from school every day for the past 3 years. This year will be her final year and she is looking for a place to live closer to school since his is her important examination year. Everything about her future will be decided with the results of this year. And she is anxious, because she has big dreams. Her family is proud of her, because she is the first one in her family to even finish secondary school and they want her to succeed. Her family’s love and laughter, and care surrounds her and gives her strength. Yes, the odds are stacked against her, but I learned something about her determination and about the difficulties she has already overcome to be where she is right now. She has been walking 4 hours each day for the past 3 years just to get to her school, a school that has no resources. Some of the classrooms don’t even have chairs or desks. There is no blackboard, so the wall has been painted with blackboard paint.


The library is not usable in the sense we use one, there is no laboratory for science instruction, but the exam requirements don’t make any allowances for the severe lack of resources. Exam requirements and standards in Malawi are high. Mary studies throughout the summer to stay ahead and has been voted in as the Head girl in her grade level. She studies in the dark with a candle or flashlight after all the chores are done. She wants to be a doctor and she has great expectations for me to help her in English, in science, to provide opportunities for her that, in her opinion, only white people can provide. She and her uncle, the chief, asked me if I can build a laboratory for the school, a library, create a scholarship fund…..and I feel like I will fail them, because I cannot provide any of these things. At this point I don’t even know if I can manage to teach a class of 60 freshmen in a room that does not have chairs or desks or a blackboard, in a school that only provides one copy of a book per classroom. As Peace Corps volunteers we don’t come with money, we come to integrate, we come with knowledge to share, maybe with some opportunities in form of scholarships.

But today I wish I had money. I wish I could make the dreams of this girl, who is so determined against all the odds, come true.

Instead, I will be a teacher to many, I will be a mentor, an “encourager”. I will pass on any opportunity that will come across my desk and hope that Mary will make it, that she will become a doctor and connect the worlds of her ancient village and the modern day Malawi. She is determined, she has dreams, she works hard, she already has come far. The odds are against her, but the odds are just odds…..