Over the course of three weeks in January 2015, my site had transformed from a dry, hot, and dusty stereotypical African village to a flooded, muddy mess. Machinga district — and the whole Southern Region of Malawi — was declared a “disaster zone” by president Peter Mutharika and for good reason. About 45 people died, and the intense flooding left about 23,000 displaced. Brick and mud houses in my village crumbled, and those who lost their homes took refuge in the local primary school. In the slew of things I never expected to go through in my Peace Corps service (and life in general), being temporarily evacuated from my house for fear that my walls might collapse tops the list. A year ago when I arrived in Malawi in 2014, such a reality would never have crossed my mind. I thought I knew it all—that there was a whole season named after ‘The Rains—so I packed an umbrella and a rain coat and bought a pair of rain boots in my nearest boma (city). I called myself prepared. Even in retrospect I realize that is all I could have done. I never could have anticipated that I would be in Malawi during a national natural disaster. In times like these, the unexpected moments in life, all you can do is make do.
Just before the torrential Rains started, I asked my neighbor Wyson what he would take out of his house if it were to go up in flames. He looked at me in astonishment and laughed, as if I had just asked him if grass is green or if nsima is the national food of Malawi.
“Anna, serious? Of course I would have to take the chimanga (maize). It is what I rely on every day.”
I felt so stupid for expecting a sentimental answer. Life in Malawi is practical, and people live day-by-day, usually relying on their crops to see them to tomorrow. Of course Wyson would protect his maize, his family’s livelihood. But from my privileged standpoint, I had the unrealistic expectation that he would answer the way I would—a family photo, letter from a grandparent, etc. I would never think to answer with ‘diploma’ or ‘credit card’ or any of the things that come closest to guaranteeing my own livelihood. But then again, the sources of my livelihood are backed up somewhere in the universe with technology I am fortunate enough to have.
I have been in Malawi for almost two years now, and that moment sticks out as the most powerful and humbling of my service. Like all visitors to a new place, I had done my research on Malawi. On paper, Malawi’s statistics and development indicators are typical of a Sub-Saharan African developing country: reliant on agriculture, densely and increasingly populated, and aid-dependent. Malawi is also the world’s eight-poorest country, is plagued with corruption and malaria, and is struggling to manage some of the highest rates of maternal mortality and HIV/AIDS across the globe. I used to find comfort in stats and data—quantifiable depictions of distant realities. But when a country’s statistics form the context where you live and work, it changes their meaning completely. Data stops being figures and becomes the often harsh realities that impact every facet of daily life. Though it might ease a transition, no amount of studying can prepare one for the change of mindset and lifestyle that will accompany life in a new country. Poverty is visible every day, and the cultural, social, and economic realities that impact my community in turn impact me. Their joys and challenges become mine. I am not separate from them as I once was.
So maybe it was precisely because I had an impractical answer to my own question that made Wyson’s response such a profound moment. Wyson put in to perspective what I have been experiencing all around me. I was struck with feelings of guilt, compassion, and gratitude. In a web of complex and often challenging realities, life in a Malawian village goes on simply and practically. There is little thought or preparation given to next week, next year, 10 years down the road and so on. Of course this is a double-edged sword, and I could go on for pages about how I both love and despise this attitude. But it is such a contrast from the life I had created for myself in America, and I am learning every day how to embrace the present and accept the unexpected. As travelers, we are always told to “expect the unexpected”, so we are not (as) surprised when the unexpected inevitably arises. But then there is a critical juncture, a place where we either resist or embrace a new reality. Only by accepting the unexpected, the unfortunate, and the misunderstood can we begin to understand our surroundings and color our own experiences within their bounds.
One of the most memorable moments in all of my travels involved a beach in Thailand, the sun setting over the Andaman Sea, and sand in crevasses where sand should never be. No, it’s not what you are thinking…
A gust of wind had just passed through, and the sand danced in the breeze before settling atop the OtterBox. This was the OtterBox, the case of the century, and my friend Zach had not been able to stop touting its praises since we had arrived the week earlier. It was waterproof, shockproof, dustproof, lifeproof. But sand was a game changer, and Zach panicked. In his attempt to protect the phone from the elements and keep the OtterBox looking immaculate, he removed the impermeable case. But sand knows no boundaries and sure enough, more sand accumulated, this time on the unarmored phone. Zach grew more and more flustered with the situation at hand. I was simultaneously impressed and embarrassed (for him) by his unfettered determination to keep the OtterBox clean and the phone protected without its magical encasement. Eventually, he gave up and put the case back on. The phone still worked.
You—and mostly Zach—may be wondering what relevance this story has to life in Malawi. As 2015 has come and gone and I am now in the midst of finishing my Peace Corps service, I have reflected on my time in the Warm Heart of Africa. My simple conclusion is that nothing could have prepared me for this journey. My quick-dry, ‘business casual’ clothes are too tight, too nice to ruin in the village, and the colors are not friendly to copious amounts of sweat. The 5 pounds of laundry detergent I packed should really have been powdered cheese. My raincoat will not protect me if my house comes tumbling down and reading about the centrality of maize in Malawian village economies can never encompass the intricacies of village life. I have adapted new norms, expanded my worldview, and been resilient in the face of the unexpected. I did these things not always because I wanted to, but because I’ve had to in order to make it through the hard days.
My expectations are continuously changing with the curveballs Malawi has thrown my way. I can’t protect myself from these unexpected realities, just as trying to keep my expectations met will prove futile. Essentially, life’s tough situations always get in places we don’t want them. We try and try to keep our fortresses up and expectations cemented, but we, like the OtterBox, are not lifeproof. Sometimes we scramble to remain untarnished, but ultimately we accept new realities and allow them to give strength and character to our selves. And just like the fragile phone within the OtterBox, we survive.
About the author:
Anna Mansfield’s passion is to explore the world. Traveling to Australia in her youth sparked Anna’s interest in experiencing different cultures. She loves nothing more than planning her next adventure, and is currently wrapping up her time as a Peace Crops volunteer in Malawi, Africa.