Two weeks ago we finished our MST (Mid-Service Training) in Lilongwe. It was an excellent time to reflect where I was when I started compared to where I am right now. And with “where” I mean mentally, physically, emotionally, politically, culturally, and spiritually.
I wrote my last blog post on March 25th 2018, the day I turned 50. This is almost 7 months ago and I am wondering what made me stop writing, what made me stop sharing my deeper thoughts. I have to say “sharing my deeper thoughts”, because I still have been posting pictures and anecdotes on my fb page. My life here in Malawi is very full of stories, experiences, people, and village children. I have my work and my routine, and on some level, my life has become “normal” although differently than it was “normal” back in Utah. Living in the village has challenges, and joys, and the same is true for being part of the Peace Corps Malawi family. I personally have grown beyond words, and this might be exactly the reason why I stopped writing blog entries; there are too many changes in my life to count, there is so much depth, so much reflection, and there are so many “firsts” that I lost track.
But what is the take-away from our MST? Some of the things we did were simply “bodily maintenance”. We all had dentist appointments and physical exams. And we had another language test. If you remember, learning Chichewa was difficult for me in the first place, but learning Chitonga as another local language seemed impossible at times. However, it is surprising how many things one can pick up in a language if forced to communicate with young children beleaguering one’s house
or wanting to have a conversation with the very friendly agogos (grandmothers) in one’s village.
MST was also a time to catch up with the other volunteers who live in far away parts of the country. I was surprised and sad to learn that at that point we had lost about 1/3 of our original cohort for various reasons that included but were not limited to medical concerns, adjustment problems, security issues, and also and unfortunately bad behavior. However, whoever remained was even more committed than ever despite the problems we all had faced. One year in a foreign land under difficult conditions and a common goal had leveled the playing field for us. If we had discrepancies in the beginning of our service due to our educational and cultural backgrounds, life experiences and age, during MST we all seemed to be closer, tied together by friendship, support, understanding, and respect. For that I am more grateful than I will ever be able to express, because with 50 one doesn’t often have the chance to work under these conditions.
During our training sessions we also reflected on our completed projects, and our next goals for the remaining time before COS (close of service). 27 months of service have always seemed long, but in light of the work we do it seems nowhere to be enough time. Many of us are contemplating to extend our service for another year either at our current sites or at different positions around the country. MST was a reminder that time flies. We need to stay focused, but also start thinking about our time beyond. At the moment this is a very stressful thought. There is nothing more constant than change, but making the actual change is never easy. Some of us have a very clear plan. The PC experience will lead us into graduate school and/ or a career that will build upon our experience here in the developing world. For others, all of our plans have changed or ended, because we have changed, or life phases have ended.
One thing is for sure, none of us gets out of here unaltered. People say that we don’t really change over time, but this is not true. We do change in fundamental ways. We have opportunities to reevaluate long-held believes and base knowledge, we change our ways to respond to different situations, we develop more tolerance when faced with different believes and world views, we adapt to different styles of prayer and worship, we lose our fear of spiders and snakes, and we develop a seventh sense called gratitude. As a foreigner in a strange land, with a recognizably different skin color, and inability to adequately express our thoughts intelligently or coherently due to our lack of language skill, we learn to be grateful for others to be friendly towards us. We learn to be grateful for people who not stare at us even so we stick out of a crowd like a sore thumb. We are grateful for people patiently translating for us or putting effort into speaking our language even so we are the ones clearly failing to speak the local tongue. We are grateful for people inviting us for dinner, teaching us how to cook with the ingredients locally grown and available, and escorting us home in the dark so we can feel safe from possibly unfriendly citizens. We begin to be grateful that our constant mishaps and accidentally impolite behavior is recognized as such and forgiven. We are grateful for children to be allowed by their parents to come to our homes and hold our hands or sit on our laps. And we are grateful that our physical weakness is not judged and we are helped with difficult household chores like carrying water and fire wood, digging trash pits, removing bats from our living spaces, transporting heavy items like tables, or bed frames etc.
I have 9 months left in this beautiful country. And I am curious about how much more I will change.