New arrivals in Malawi are not so different from me

This piece originally appeared in full at “The Enterprise.”

The first few days and weeks in Malawi can be overwhelming. The 20-hour flight seems endless, and with hardly any sleep it’s easy to get flustered. Reading any of the hundreds of books about this continent can never be a match for learning about Africa when living here. Years ago in grade school we were taught about Africa as a continent three times as large as the United States. Among its 54 countries is the nation of Malawi, a landlocked strip in the southeast corner of the continent. Before I arrived, I often heard, “Malawi, um … and where is that?”

The airport with its single runway could pass for some regional airfield north of Boston. With only three flights a day, finding the only gate and terminal is never a problem. When I arrived here with my group of fellow PCVs two years ago, most of our initial feelings were clouded with wondering how it would ever be possible to learn all about Malawi, its people, culture and customs.

During those first few days everything seemed different. As forty total strangers we were joined together for this Malawi Peace Corps mission and there was no place to hide for comfort or escape. That time seems ages ago.

Recently I got to meet the newest arrivals to Malawi. It was like looking at a reflection of ourselves in March 2012. Getting anyone ready for Malawi life is a monumental task. The first few days for this new group included more medical shots to prevent whatever diseases are common here. They listened to the same warning we’d heard about theft and the potential danger of Mozambique villains hiding in cornstalks waiting to jump out and assault us. And they heard warnings about the endless dangers of bad water and struggled to put together their five-liter water filters.

The trainings are helpful and necessary but some of it is like standing in waist-deep water waiting for the next ten foot wave to crash overhead. How much can be can be poured into a full glass of water? But we got through it and this new group of Peace Corps workers will, too.

It wasn’t the lectures or demonstrations along with language and cultural classes that triggered my memory of our time two years ago; it was the informal gathering in the lobby with about 20 new PCVs who had questions about everything.

What’s hard for them to see now is that if they first listen to their own hearts and draw upon their own experiences, eventually everything else falls into place. We were too busy looking outside ourselves to learn about living and surviving here. This new group is no different.

It is so easy now to reflect back on the same things we asked two years ago. What do I need to know to survive? Two years later I still have some of those basic questions, but I’ve learned that I’ve been at my best in Malawi when I listen more to my own feelings and rely on my own life experiences. That lesson helped get me through.

I’ve found Malawi to be a place where being yourself is well received by most people. The ability to laugh at your own shortcomings and limitations is an open invitation for all to see that I am comfortable being in Malawi.

It takes a while to appreciate that we can’t fix what more talented and gifted individuals have been unable to. This comes with the understanding that having Malawians listen to short-term visitors is not the optimal solution. Change here has to be driven by Malawians themselves if it is to be sustainable beyond our presence and service.

Maybe the real lesson is understanding that Malawi has a unique way of teaching us about who we are.  If we can be ourselves we will grow and Malawi will be better for the time we spend here.

Much of PC training focuses on helping us become integrated into the community. Passing all the requirements to arrive here is a tribute to each of the new arrivals. Them setting foot on Malawi’s soil to serve is testament to their determination and character. The more they let that determination and character become part of their everyday experiences, the better people and workers they will become.

Malawi may remain the same, but the lives of each of these new arrivals will forever be changed.

Charles Fiske has served as a Volunteer in Malawi since March 2012.