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

I want to tell authentic stories

Ask anyone who knows me – I like to talk. Specifically, I like to tell stories. I try to keep them honest, to recount them the way they actually happened as best as I can. Sometimes I tell it in a dramatic or funny way but I keep it real. And isn’t that what a storyteller is? Someone who relays the facts without distorting them but also without boring people?

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The thing is, stories are how we relate to people. It’s how we share bits of our lives, parts of who we are. It’s a way to see that we aren’t alone in the world, a way to let people in, a way to be vulnerable. Sure, sometimes telling my friends about my crazy professor or my long drawn out adventure across campus to get a form signed may not seem like a vulnerable thing but it’s all part of the continual process of letting people in, of learning to relate to others and of learning how to confidently portray who we are.

But what if I didn’t get to tell my own stories? What if they were always being told by observers who didn’t really understand me and who wanted the narrative to fit their own perception of who I am? They say that there are three sides to every story: your point of view, the other person’s point of view and the truth. What if the other person’s point of view was the only one to be told, always, in every circumstance? More importantly, what if their version of the story always portrayed you as weak, incompetent, destitute or worse?

That is the danger of a single story.

As many of you may know, this summer I will be interning in Malawi as part of pursuing my degree in International Development. I am so very excited to have gotten a position with Art and Global Health Centre Africa as a Youth Leadership Officer and I cannot wait to go and live and learn with people on the other side of the world, in a continent I have yet to visit. As part of the course uOttawa has associated with the internship program, I have to go through 30-50 hours of pre-departure training this semester. We usually meet on Saturday mornings and discuss how to ask yourself powerful questions about your internship, how to look at issues of power, privilege and intersectionality, what is means to build capacity in your host organization and other topics to help each of us make the most of this incredible experience while also being as respectful, helpful, humble and open-minded as possible. I am grateful to be part of a program that cares about the ethics behind working internationally in the Global South. And after a weekend of training with WUSC, CECI and Uniterra, I am also feeling pretty blessed and encouraged by the insightful, intelligent, passionate and thoughtful other interns who will be going to Malawi at the same time as me, as well as those who will be in other countries this summer. It is very inspiring to be in a room with people who share your passions.

A week ago we watched a video recorded at TEDGlobal in 2009 called “The Danger of a Single Story”. The official description is “our lives, our cultures, are composed of many overlapping stories. Novelist Chimamanda Adichie tells the story of how she found her authentic cultural voice — and warns that if we hear only a single story about another person or country, we risk a critical misunderstanding.”(see video below).  Basically, she talks about the pervasive international perception of “Africa” as a poor country in need of saving, and the importance of exposing oneself to multiple stories or perspectives of individual countries and people in order to relate to them, to celebrate difference while also seeing the threads that tie us all together. At least that is what I got from her message, although it is far from verbatim.

When I got home, I started searching for movies, TV shows, YouTube videos and books about Malawi and/or by Malawians. I found very, very few. Those I could find were mostly written from the perspective of foreigners.

And so I guess what I have been pondering is, how do I make sure that when I tell stories about my time in Malawi, I am not perpetuating the single story? How do I stay true to my own perspective and also accurately portray other people’s experiences? How do I avoid telling stories that are not mine to tell while also using my opportunity to learn from the Malawian people and share my thoughts, feelings and lessons learned with those here in Canada who do not have the same experience? I want my time in this nation to impactful, to build capacity in my host organization, to build capacity in myself and to share knowledge with those who I have influence over, whether through my relationships, my social media, or this blog.

I know that my stories will always carry bias. The biases of being white, of being a Christian, of being Canadian. Of speaking English as a first language, of being a student of international development, of being straight and of the quirks of my own personality. Even that fact that I identify storytelling as being part of who I am, influences the way I communicate, the way people listen and the opportunities I am given to be heard.

I want my storytelling of my time in Malawi to be authentic, honest and true to both me and the people I share my experiences with.

I don’t necessarily have answers, no promises of how I am going to make that happen. But I want you all to know that it is something I am thinking about and something I am going sincerely make effort towards.

So watch this space. I am filled with anticipation. I feel very privileged to get to pursue the things I am passionate about and to have experiences I have dreamed of for a very long time. And I am excited to share them with you. Adventures come in all sizes and types and I try to live everyday like an adventure. But I have to admit, some are a lot more grand than others and I suspect my time in Malawi will be one of the greatest yet.

Please watch the video below and think about the ways in which you can explore broadening the narratives you hear.

Thank you for listening to my stories. I am so grateful to each of you for making space in your lives for my words.

Until next time, Sam

Books and Bike Rides

I’m supposed to be studying Arabic. After a couple of weeks of stalling, my tutor has promised a vocabulary test on Tuesday. Instead, I am sitting on my back porch watching the streaky pink clouds created by the sunset. So much beauty in something ending eh?

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My actual view at this exact moment! Yay for the back porch! Yay for blurry photos!
I’m thinking about what it is like to have a different kind of summer than the ones I am used to. I am used to morning dips and constantly having no voice from singing songs all day and watching kids thrive and succeed and being tired and happy constantly.

Now, I’m remembering how lovely and foreign it feels to have down time. I literally cannot think back to a time (probably grade 8?) when I wasn’t happily but exhaustingly overcommitted. It’s funny because my roommates joke “you’re never home!” and I feel like I’m home more than I have been in years.

I am remembering the joy of sitting in a public library and drinking in an entire novel in one night. I am making last minute plans to ride bikes along the canal or sit and chat in the park at dusk.

I am challenging myself. I wrote on my (very long, because I do love being busy) summer bucket list that I wanted to “learn a new skill….leaving camp doesn’t mean leaving behind that curious, inquisitive and eager to grow part of me” Every summer at Kitchi I chose one new skill to learn. Some of them I took to more than others – last year I really truly committed to improving my solo canoe skills. I didn’t want that to end this year. Surprisingly, I’ve realized that I really like rock climbing. Despite being unarguably terrible at it, there is something wonderful about having so much room to learn and improve.

I’ve also thrown myself head first into improving my outdoor skills. I’ve already gone on my first canoe trip to Algonquin park, assisted with teaching a beginner canoe course, and spent a day running a river in Quebec down big rapids, qualifying myself for the “white water list” at the Ottawa Canoe Camping Club; now I am able to go on more whitewater trips and continue to improve my eddy hopping and ability to “play” in rapids.

I’m remembering how to say no. To go to bed early and not feel like I’m missing out on my one and only chance to socialize. To be ok with not going climbing tonight because I paddled all day yesterday and not every day has to be crazy and full. I’m remembering that it’s ok to not have plans for a night, that sometimes reading on the porch and eating a good dinner and having a shower and going to bed is a perfect and wonderful and happy evening. I’m remembering how it feels to not have 20 things “to do” hanging over my head and how it feels to have plans that are flexible. I thrive being busy but I am also embracing quiet downtime (especially since I know it will disappear come September). This season of freedom and flexibility is rare.

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I’m meeting with an Arabic tutor and for the first time, I feel as though I can actually speak Arabic. Some days I leave our sessions wanting to sing and dance because I am so proud of myself and others I’m so frustrated with what feels like a lack of progress that I feel like I could cry. But I am learning. I am actually talking. I am listening to music and reading Arabic poetry and pinning cue cards with tricky words up in my office. I am pursuing language for the sake of it and I am finding more beauty and skill than I have in two years of classroom learning because I want to be able to excitedly explain to my tutor (who is such a gem of a human) that I saw Justin Trudeau at work rather than stressing about getting 62% on a midterm.

Speaking of work – holy cow, I am learning so much. Some days I come home and wonder why I am bothering to sit in a cubicle and reclassify files. But most of the time, I am overwhelmed by how much I am learning and how applicable it is to my studies. For those of you who don’t know (hi new friends!) I study International Development in university and this summer I am a Jr. International Development Officer with Global Affairs Canada #blessed. In my first week, I was tasked with assessing project proposals from Civil Society Organizations looking for funding for youth internships. In on of my classes last semester, I had to write a project proposal for the final assignment and 3 weeks later I was assessing REAL LIFE PROPOSALS. It was kind of surreal and has made me that much more excited to go back to class in the fall.

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On top of that, my team is full of welcoming people who are genuinely passionate about their jobs. I think it is easy to see the government as an faceless institution filled with paper pushers and people who just want to make money. However my experience at GAC thus far has been mostly that of meeting people who believe in the work they are doing and are passionate about Canada and the countries Global Affairs works in. Last week I had the chance to sit down with a manager from another team because I’m really interested in the field of food security and wanted to know some more about what that team does in our branch. The managers are busy all the time but this man took almost 1.5 hours to sit with me and discuss his career path and what he loves about his field and his job. He was so passionate! I left inspired and grateful for the opportunity I have to interact with people who are at the government not because it’s always fun (hello bureaucracy!) but because we need people who care about their work. And the actual team I work with on a daily basis are fantastic. They are always encouraging me to go to presentations, listen in on conversations and trainings and helping me to make the most of my time there. I don’t always love sitting in a cubicle and I miss the island, but I have no doubt that I am blessed to be exactly where I am meant to be this summer.

So that’s where I’m at this summer. I am waking up early to read my bible with my morning tea and riding my bike to work. I’m drinking wine on a Tuesday with a friend and having hours long conversations about compassion and justice with my roommates and making curry and playing with our (Nicole’s) cat. I’m out on the water as often as possible and I’m speaking Arabic as often as possible. I’m reading and watching Netflix and growing herbs on my windowsill. I am meeting new people and spending time with friends I lost track of through the year. I am both incredibly busy and  overwhelmed with free time.

I am learning to embrace change and challenge and sleeping in on Sundays. How is your summer going?

Until next time,

Sam

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