I am posting this exactly one week since I flew back to Scotland from Malawi. We were warned by Project Trust that often reverse culture shock (‘a sense of unease in relation to a previously familiar environment’) can be more severe than initial culture shock you experience when you arrive in your new country for the first time. When I learned this on training, I whole-heartedly agreed. Surely when the aspects of your life that brought you comfort and security begin to feel alien, that’s when you will feel the most lost and confused. However, in the beginning, I thought that as I was so homesick, it would be fairly easy to go home as there was nothing that I wanted more.
I will confess now, that my first 4 months in Malawi were some of the hardest of my life. I look back on my blog posts from that time and feel a bit like I was deceiving my ‘audience’, trying to sound upbeat; like I was facing every problem with a positive attitude. That definitely wasn’t the case.
It took us well over 4 months before we found our niche at TST, as we were the first volunteers not to live on site with the children. Additionally, for the first couple of months, Nama Simba was our own personal hell on earth. On Sunday evenings we would be filled with anguish knowing that we would have to go there the next morning. Louise ended up buying a motivational poster in town to keep us going. This was when we only went to ‘teach’ there once a week and I still remember once when we were trying to cheer each other up after a horrible Monday by saying: ‘We only have to do that 50 more times!’ If you’d told me then that we’d end up going 2/3 times a week simply because we wanted to, I would have laughed in your face. This was another circumstance where we had to find our niche – and tell Mary that things had to change. We had tried to teach these kids, over and over, for months and we couldn’t do it. Our Chichewa wasn’t good enough, they had trained teachers who could do a much better job and the kids had absolutely no respect for us in order to listen to what we were saying. At first, Mary urged us not to give up and that she would make some changes. The first was to tell the kids to stop being violent towards us and to tell them to address us as ‘aphunzitsi’ (meaning teacher) rather than ‘azungu’. Even after this, and the promise than there would always be caregiver in the room when we were teaching, things did not improve. We decided that we would not teach anymore, it was pointless and no one was gaining anything from it. For the last 6 months or so, we simply interacted with the children; played with them, broke up fights and treated any cuts or bruises that occurred. As our Chichewa had greatly improved, we were able to communicate with the children, teach them the numbers, names of body parts and understand, to some degree, what the children said when they chattered away to us. While I don’t think we changed the world, we at least showed these kids some affection and care. I really grew close to them.
As for TST, we have achieved what we couldn’t have done after spending only a couple of weeks in Malawi; relationships with the children. As well as that, we have become proficient in one-to-one tutoring, mostly in Chichewa. I like to think the children didn’t see us as regular ‘azungu’, people with money, but as friends. When we were in Blantyre, kids who had ran away from TST and who were back living on the streets would seek us out, shouting ‘Louise! Catriona!’ and come over, not to ask for money, but just to have a chat. This was always sad for us, to see kids who have chosen street life over TST, their clothes dirty and ragged, their hair a mess, but I was always glad to see them.
Now, I’ve mentioned at times that living in Baluti can be hard. I would say that this was the hardest aspect of my year. We lived in a village where there were no other azungu around, especially not living like the locals like we are. This meant we were an extreme oddity and we were made to feel it. The village kids gave us a hard time, right up until the end. I feel pretty pathetic writing this, as I’m sure some people would say that they are only children. Well, these kids would siege us in our own home. Hammering on the doors and windows, yelling ’AZUNGU’ through the keyhole over and over and over. They would throw rocks, climb onto the roof, force sticks through the gaps in the windows and move the curtains back. I was always scared that one day one of the doors would give when three of them were throwing their weight against it or one of their stones would smash a window and we’d have to wait days for it to be repaired. When we had a guard that we could rely upon, at least we were comforted by the fact that when he arrived around 6pm, the kids would run away. However, we’ve had so much trouble with guards just not showing up and giving me outright lies when I asked them why they weren’t there the night before. Sometimes, we would come home to find around 30 kids waiting for us. Not with malicious intent, but they would be playing on the swings or the slide, and get very excited when we appeared. A lot of them knew our names by the end, so we’d get shouts of ‘Rueezi! Come and play with us!’ and they’d run at us, holding on to our arms and grabbing our hair and bags. This would be okay, but then we’d have to try to get in our door. All the kids would rush forward when they saw me put the key in the lock. Even kids who were perfectly nice to us when we passed them in the village would get caught up in the excitement and throw themselves at the door after Louise and I rushed in and tried to close it behind us. It took both me and Louise to hold the door shut so we can lock it. On a good day, the kids would bang and knock at the door for a couple of minutes before going back to playing on the climbing frame. However, on a bad day, they’d play a game of ‘Who Can Break into the Azungu’s House?’
By the end of the year, I’d say things definitely weren’t as bad as they used to be, but it always frustrated me that the kids continued to give us hassle. The lowest point was when, 8 months in, our house was graffitied. This was particularly demoralising, because we really thought we were making progress towards being accepted. It was the day we were out in the village with the TST kids as they were doing a drama about HIV/AIDS to educate the locals.
After this, a lot of the village kids followed us home, and when we got back from work, the walls were covered with letters and skulls and crossbones. I wouldn’t say it was malicious, but it infuriated me that no one else was getting their house graffitied, just the azungu.
The overall treatment of white folk in Blantyre is something I have not missed since coming home. I have mentioned before that most Malawian people, particularly men, see white people as walking ATMs and we were treated as such. People would often shout after us whenever we walk down a street, asking for our names, our hand in marriage, our money. Even children that we had walked past hundreds of times on our way to work still demanded money from us every time they saw us. Though we never gave them anything, it didn’t make a difference because the impression of white people as ‘the people who give’ was too strong in their heads.
I feel like I’ve spent my whole year going on about how people shouldn’t go into poor communities and just ‘give’, so I don’t feel like hammering on about it now. However, I will say that the negative treatment we received during our stay in Malawi is going to keep happening to foreigners – probably indefinitely – as azungu will continue to go to poor countries and throw money at less fortunate people. And though these people are only trying to help, I don’t think this is a great way to improve the lives of those in need.
I don’t claim to have all the answers, or to have spent a mere year in one of the poorest country in the world and become a development expert. I really wish there was an easy answer to the problems so many struggle with, but, to quote John Green, ‘the truth resists simplicity’.
Thank you to everyone who helped me fundraise and donated to get me to Malawi. I would not have gotten there without the generosity of so many people and the hard work of my family, so I am extremely grateful to everyone who helped me. I’ve had an incredible year and could not have done it without the support of my family and so many of my friends. Without my unfaltering Project Trust partner Louise, I would definitely not have made it to the end. I could not have done it without her. Thank you, Louise, for always being there.
So this is the last post on my Catriona in Malawi blog. Thank you to everyone who kept up with my life for the past year – it meant a lot to me. I don’t want to end on a low note – I am still very grateful to have been given this opportunity to experience such an amazing and different culture so intensely. I will always remember my time in Malawi and the people I became close with there. I will definitely go back - despite all the bad times, I feel like Blantyre has become a little home away from home. I’ve made some amazing friends this year and I feel like I’ve come home a better person. No regrets here.