It is hard to believe that I have been back in the states for nearly three weeks. For the past two years I’ve had the opportunity to join forty other volunteers in installing shallow water wells in remote villages in Malawi, Tanzania and Zambia, Africa.
America, the beautiful! So green and so clean! I do not have to breathe any dust-laden air or fight the mid day heat. There is always a place to put my trash, and I have electricity and hot, running water every day! I do not have to ride any buses or drive a jeep for twelve hours. Actually, riding in a car (or driving one; that skill must be instinctive after almost 50 years) was pure luxury. Although, I am rather embarrassed to find myself driving from one store to another across a large parking lot. In America, anything that I want, I am sure I can find, especially food.
Is America obsessed with food? In Malawi, it is rare to find a small “supermarket.” In our area, there seems to be one on every street corner, each with aisles and aisles stocked with goods. How many brands of cereal do we really need? I must admit, I did appreciate the variety; something different to eat everyday. My first taste of non-Malawi food was on the plane: sausage, yogurt, fruit, and a small pancake. What a treat! Airplane food and I loved it! How sad.
The thing that bothered me most about our food, however, was that we eat too much and we waste too much. I went to lunch one day, and I ordered my favorite meal – fish tacos. There was more meat on that one sandwich than I would eat in Malawi in a month. At another restaurant, I ordered a salad. It looked big enough to feed a family of six or eight. I could not even eat it all. That made me think of dirty little children, dressed in rags, who greeted me everywhere I went in Malawi, whose eyes lit up when I gave them a wave, shook their hand or gave them a cookie. Imagine if they had even a portion of this food? Even now, as I write this, I am thinking about pizza, steak, ice cream, even just a small bowl of raisin bran with milk. Food in Malawi is not very exciting, but then most people there eat to live, not live to eat.
It was nice being back in a place where I understood the language and could actually take part in real conversations. I am very grateful for my friends. However, I did notice quite a big difference in casual interactions between people in each country. In Malawi, when I went anywhere at all, people always stopped to greet me. This is their custom; it is not just because I am “mzungu.” They shook my hand, and asked about my day, my health, my family, my job, and about many other things which I still consider personal business. Then some will ask for a small handout (that is because I am “mzungu”). Sometimes these encounters are exhausting, but I have realized that they also made me feel less isolated in a place where I really am different and alone. In America, I do a lot of walking (for fun not necessity) and as I pass people, I would smile and say “hello” or “good day.” I was quite surprised by the number of people who avoided eye contact and walked by without saying a word. Are we so busy that we have forgotten how to be polite?
The essence of time is so different in Malawi. Many older folks don’t even know their age. There was time for tea at Francis’s house, both at the beginning of the work day and after a long hot day in remote villages.
Relationships and family are at the core of Malawian existence.
During my stay in Malawi, the workers asked me which country I liked better, Malawi or the United States. I told them that, of course, Malawi is a beautiful country. The people are very friendly and welcoming. However, America is my “home place” and I love my home. I was encouraged to hear Francis, the field officer, indicate that although he would love to visit the United States, Malawi was his home. Good for him.
I got back to Colorado in time to experience one of the most beautiful autumns that we have had in several years. The aspens are unbelievable. As before, it is impossible to relate my experiences in Malawi to my friends. You have to experience it to understand it. I am so appreciative to have visited over 100 villages and to have met so many beautiful people, even if it was for a few minutes.