Pondering Expat Life

This weekend I went camping on the plateau in the town I’m living in (Zomba, Malawi) and seriously FROZE…winter in Africa is not a joke y’all. Three layers of clothes and I was still so cold at night! Still, I LOVE camping and it was nice to do something that really makes me feel like my regular self, to really feel “in my element” for a weekend. Anyway, that was a side note.

The camping trip was with a group of expats in Zomba and it was mainly a goodbye trip as the coming months are a huge turnover in people “going home” or moving onto to new jobs in different countries. People who have been in Zomba for years are moving on and getting ready to start life over. For those that are staying, there has been a lot of moaning about having to make all new friends. And the people moving on are saying much the same! It’s one of the things I’ve been thinking a lot about expat life. Constant changes in friends and colleagues. Far from the rough roads, bugs, blackouts, slow pace of life and lack of access to activities and products I can get easily in Canada, the things I think I would struggle with the most is being far from home and having a constantly shifting support system in country.

It’s been making me question a bit if it’s something I actually can or want to do long term. I have aways maintained that after getting my degree I want to live and work in the Global South, for the majority, if not all, of my career. And in fact, this internship was partly to make sure it’s something I can actually handle. I’m pretty easy going and adaptable so I wasn’t too concerned but better to try it for three months before I’ve signed a one or two year contract and suddenly realize I can’t deal with xyz, whatever that may be.

And to be honest, I am really, really enjoying it and have gotten to the point where I want to hit pause as time is going by too quickly (less than 5 weeks left, whattttt). 3 months just isn’t long enough! But how much time would be too long? It’s easy to deal when I’ll be back in Ottawa in a few short weeks, back with my friends, back to my hobbies, my church community, back to doing things other than work, reading and going out to eat with friends once a week. After 2 years or 5 years or 10 years would I still be okay away from the people I love the most? Would I get bored without my hobbies and extracurriculars? Would I be okay with leaving my life in Canada behind permanently?

Yesterday as we walked down the mountain I fell into step with a guy who has just arrived in Zomba to work with an INGO. I had only met him once before this weekend and so we had the typical conversation here: how long are you here, where were you before, what do you do, where are you from, etc. Eventually somehow we ended up on the topic of pros and cons of living abroad. He said it frustrated him when people live in the developing world for a short time and decide it’s not “convenient” for them, i.e. the things like the blackouts or the rough roads or eating the same foods again and again make them leave. On the other hand, he talked about his desire to return home to the states permanently in the next year or so, after 7+ years of living abroad in the developing world. His reasoning was two-fold: he wants to be closer to friends and family, to be truly “home” and secondly, to have a life beyond work which is the reason he is here and the thing his life mostly revolves around. He talked about feeling like he gave up more than convenience to live in Africa, he gave up his hobbies like theatre and certain outdoor adventures as well as “regular” face to face relationships with friends and family. To be fair, I think he has really enjoyed and continues to enjoy his life here. I’m just relaying this conversation because it’s stuck with me and has me thinking. It’s true that here (from what I have seen), life is basically work and then some socializing but it’s less full than back home, where personally, I am involved in many different things. I like to live diversely and energetically and I have a lot going on at any given time. Here, that is not really possible (although it would maybe be different in  the capital or a bigger city).

Maybe these are selfish things to worry about. Maybe it’s just a different type of convenience I’m desiring. But this conversation, and others like it with the many friends who are heading truly home and those who will be in Zomba longer have had me considering the actual implications of pursing long term work abroad. It would mean giving up a lot of things I genuinely love. Not just my ability to easily go for all you can eat sushi but things that I define myself by, things that truly give me life. This summer for example I have so missed my yearly canoe trips…its’ just not a thing here and it’s something that usually consumes my summer evenings and weekends. It’s something that is part of my identity.  Living abroad would also mean long stretches between seeing my family and my dearest friends. It might be mean lots of friends in my life for short seasons and maybe moving every few years. This summer back home there have been weddings and babies being born and friends graduating and the FOMO has been real.

I’m not saying all this has turned me off living abroad long term. It hasn’t. It’s just had me thinking about it seriously and being honest with myself about what it could look like. Beyond my career goals and the excitement that comes with living abroad, what do I value in life and what do I want my life to look like? What am I willing to sacrifice? What are the things I truly need to live a life I love? Can I get those things while working in the Global South? Where? For how long? What type of city or geographical situation would set me up for success living abroad for long periods?

I don’t have all the answers but I think they are important questions to be asking myself.

Wishing each of you all the best from chilly Malawi,

Sam

P.s. Enjoy the random collection of photos from the last coupe of weeks below!

Malawi Musings

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Daily commute

It’s wild to think that I have been in Malawi for nearly a month now. I’m going to renew my visa tomorrow and I can’t believe it’s that time already! So much has happened and yet at the same time, life is quiet here. I’ve settled into a routine and so as much as it’s adventure to adjust to a new country and culture, at the end of the day, I still go to work Monday to Friday. The day to day is too boring for Instagram I’m afraid! Still, there has been a lot of beauty to be seen so I’ll try to give an update on the most major things without dragging on too long.

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Firstly, I’ve been learning to live without instant access to electricity. I really don’t want to whine or go on too long about this but it has been a significant adjustment to not always be able to flick a switch and have light. Malawi deals with power load shedding which sometimes follows a schedule and sometimes does not. This means for a certain number of hours each day, each area of the city gets the electricity cut off. The sun sets here at around 5:30pm so not having lights at night means a lot of hours of walking around with a flashlight or lighting candles. I also live by myself so for the first couple weeks I absolutely hating coming home at night knowing I’d be alone in the dark for hours…I’ve gotten  a lot more sleep by going to bed at 8pm some nights! The schedule seems to have mellowed out though (less nights in a row without power) and my place got a gas stove so I can cook even when the power is out which I am super grateful for. I’ve also just gotten more used to it…I always complained about not being allowed to have candles in residence so I am certainly making up for it now haha! I even did a co-op interview by candle light this week.

The general pace of life here is much slower as well. Living in Zomba rather than a bigger city like Lilongwe (the capital) or Blantyre (the economic and business hub), means that nights are quiet and there is not much to do…I am used to running around every night of the week with multiple commitments so it’s been a change to come home, cook dinner, read and go to sleep! On the flip side, it is incredibly beautiful here. I love walking to work looking up at the plateau and I am always surrounded by greenery which of course makes this outdoorsy human happy. I don’t think I will ever get used to being in a meeting on the back porch and getting distracted by watching the monkeys and baboons play beside the office!

 

 

Speaking of the office, I am really enjoying my work here. It’s been so cool to finally get to work with people in the field and see interventions taking place in real time. A couple of weeks ago I got to go to a drama festival for ArtGlo’s Make Art, Stop Aids program. Along with learning that field work sometimes comes with delays, challenges and broken down cars, I also got to watch Malawian youth use art to be catalysts for conversations about sexual reproductive health in their communities. It was inspiring. On the more regular days, I am in the office (or out on the porch) helping with curriculum, funding research, program review and whatever else I can pitch in with. I love moving seats each day and getting to know my co-workers better all the time. They are quite amused by my weak Chichewa attempts.

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Some colleagues and Students With Dreams mentors at their end of year graduation!

I’ve also gotten to start exploring Malawi a bit on the weekends (and I am looking forward to hopefully doing a lot more of that!) My very first weekend in the country I went to Lake Malawi, at Cape Maclear. I hadn’t been feeling well during that trip but even so, I had a great time. Boat rides, a fish fry on the beach, snorkelling, reading and taking in that I was actually, finally, in Africa for the first time was a pretty good way to spend the weekend!

 

My second weekend I hung around Zomba and started getting to know it a little bit better. I visited the market with my landlord/friend Esnatt and she introduced me to her vegetable man, potato lady, and banana stand of choice. The market here in Zomba is not nearly as overwhelming as the one Nick and I visited in Guatemala, or even the others in Malawi I have seen. I also hung up my hammock between two mango trees, ate cake at MaiPai (where I live), read a lot and called friends from home. I also went to church with Esela (Esnatt’s sister…there is also Emela) which was interesting…mostly because it wasn’t much different from home! The English service wasn’t, anyway. Apparently the Chichewa services are more lively.

 

My third weekend was filled with plans that ended up changing. In the end, five of the girls who I flew over from Canada with (the other WUSC interns) came to visit from Lilongwe and we went hiking up on the Plateau that dominates the Zomba views. It was my first trip up and I can promise that it won’t be the last. As I said, my outdoorsy heart is pretty happy here surrounded by all the green. We had a fancy lunch at a hotel on the top with a beautiful view and hiked to a waterfall. Myself and Val even went swimming!

 

Last weekend, the fourth in Malawi, I happened to find myself back at Cape Maclear…I hadn’t been sure I would make it back at all, let alone so soon! This time I was with a group of other expats from Zomba and it was really a fun weekend. We stayed at a lodge down the beach from where I had been the first time and I read a whole book while laying in the sun, taking swim breaks and chatting with new friends. We did a boat cruise as well, at sunset, and danced to fun songs in the evening. It was nice to get to know some people living here and to feel like I am making friends!

 

I hate when I let myself fall away from blogging….it always means that when I get back to it, we end up with these long winded catch-up posts that don’t have a particular topic. I think one of the reasons I have been so hesitant to share my time here is that I am trying to be mindful of jumping to assumptions or sharing things I don’t actually know much about. Honestly, I just don’t want to appear whiney either, or ungrateful for the opportunity to be here, or like I can’t handle development work because I am lonely and don’t like not having electricity. And the truth is, I really have been fine, even when I miss Ottawa or wish I was eating a meal that doesn’t involve rice. 1528050334609

I still haven’t found quite comfortably how to be honest about my experiences and share them but also not being dramatic or making things out to be different than they actually are. Where is the line between being critical and being condescending? How do I allow myself to be curious and process my lack of knowledge without spreading ignorance?

Over the next couple weeks (once Skype interviews for co-op are over, fingers crossed!) I’m hoping to write some more specific posts, about things I’ve done or things I am learning. I would love to know what people want to hear more about. Are you interested in more development minded posts, analyzing things are the same or different from what I have been taught in school? Or in more travel focused posts, about my weekend adventures and the beauty and culture of the country? Or stories about my life here, like my show down with the rat who has decided to share my room? Something else? Let me know!

Until next time, Sam

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Beautiful view from the boat