Sunday, 20 July 2014

How was it? Marking 2 years since I left for the Warm Heart of Africa.

My first African sunset
"Was it completely different?" "What was it like?" These are all questions that I have been asked repeatedly over the last 3 months since I moved home from Malawi. To be honest, I really have no idea how to answer them. Every answer I give seems hollow, like I am doing my time there a disservice. How can I sum up my experience in a few sentences? How can I give people a glimpse into my life there without boring them to tears with minute details? How can I do this wonderful country justice?

Some of my students

Even now sitting with my laptop I am wondering how to say the things I want without turning into one of those preachy 'My life changed' type person. But it would not be an exaggeration to say that Malawi changed me. It challenged me in ways I could not imagine and could not even to begin to describe and did truly change me in ways, I learnt loads about myself and my comforts and had a crash course in development, aid and public health. My attitude towards aid and charities changed seeing small NGOs with small budgets achieving so much at grassroots level, while the bigger NGOs have CEOs on huge salaries with huge shiny landrovers. Organisations such as Butterfly SpaceTemwaPhunzira and Determined to Develop are achieving so much with a fraction of the budget of bigger NGOs with an emphasis on sustainability in the areas they work in. I also saw the aspect of working for a big international organisation whose intentions were brilliant but often ended up spreading themselves thin trying to cover all aspects at once as opposed to perfecting one aspect.

First up a little background about the Warm Heart of Africa. Malawi is a small landlocked country in South Eastern Africa that has made the news most recently regarding their presidential election that was, most definitely, fixed. It often makes it's way into the 'poorest countries in the world' lists and last year made international headlines when a dispute with Tanzania over Lake Malawi and a potential oil find, could have led to war (if you were to believe the papers). Lake Malawi is the third largest and second deepest lake in Africa and the ninth largest in the world and is a huge reserve for the country. It draws tourists to it's shores to snorkel and dive among the, more than 1000, species of cichlids and it provides a life, and an income, to thousands of people who live on it's crystal clear shores. I moved to this beautiful country having accepted a job at the Malawi School of Optometry programme (see What I do for more information) and having to actually google the country to see where it was! I spent 18 months in this country and made memories, and friendships, that will hopefully last a lifetime.
Sunset over Lake Malawi
How could you not want to jump
into those waters?

How do I explain the little things in me that changed? That I could bathe myself using a bucket and a cup, heating the water on my stove if the mains water had been shut off. That I read by candle light on the frequent Sundays without power, that awaking on a Sunday morning involved me straining to hear my cistern or fridge, if I heard neither then there was no point in getting up, that forward thinking involved me making coffee on a Saturday night and having iced coffee on a Sunday morning when there was no power. How can explain my daily life that involved shopping in markets, kicking up the dusty red earth as I went, and jumping into a shared taxi that looks like it is held together with sticky tape and the prayers of it's owner to go home. The hopping into a 12 seater minibus with 25 people, a goat, some chickens and about 50 kilos of dried fish that became normal to me as did eating with my hands and eating parts of chicken I had never eaten before (neck, gizzards and feet anyone?) . It's the little day to day things that are hardest to verbalise.

My bedroom
Bucket Bath

My lovely house

First night in Mzuzu, ending in the hotel
Mmmmm Double Punch
And then there are the people I met. I am not exaggerating when I say the people in Malawi are special. Both natives and expats. The friends I met in this country will hopefully be with me for years. The people I danced to P-Square with, the friends who crowded into my house to watch Sister Act 2 on a tiny laptop, the friends who greeted me with a hug and a cold green when I arrived in their bar, the friends I shared Gold Label and boozy coffees with on Chikale Beach and the friends who were always at the end of the phone for a quick drink and chat or numerous mugs of tea,  the people I played slapshots with. I'm not sure what I expected when I moved to Mzuzu but I sure didn't expect to meet the range of kind hearted, amazing people I was fortunate to spend time with. The people who are making their lives in Malawi, the people who are there working to help Malawi in various ways, the people I am proud to call friends. From my first night in Malawi I was welcomed into this amazing group of people, where, like many Friday nights to follow, we drank greens at the Zoo, celebrated the arrival of Hassan with numerous whisky shots and danced until the wee hours in the Hotel, to my last few weeks in Mzuzu that involved lots of dinners, numerous afternoon beers and many tears, and like many before me, I bade Mzuzu a fond farewell. (See here for some amazing people who left before me). I of course cannot forget the amazing friends on the lake, my 2 other Desperate Housewives of Nkhata Bay (TM), my Izo Izo dancing buddies and my swimming friends at Butterfly who welcomed me into their families and their lives with open arms.

I mean look at these cuties
The first 12 pubs of Mzuzu

I did truly fall in love with the country, with the people I met and indeed with one special person, a person who, in his own special way, changed me and the way I look at life and for that I will forever be grateful. A person, I could have happily spent the rest of my life with, someone who I talked about this with and someone I was willing to go back to Malawi to be with. However that person also taught me what it was like to experience true betrayal and intense heartbreak, things I was not prepared for and that knocked me for six. Picking up the pieces of my life and moving on was one of the toughest things I have done. Another lesson learnt, another chapter in the story of life.

People have asked me a lot would I go back. And the answer, "In a heartbeat". Even though things have fallen apart with my relationship and my work, Malawi is a very special place that has wormed it's way into my heart. I took me into it's grasp and continues to draw me to it. I am proud of the little things I achieved in Malawi; I saw the first ever optometrists graduate, I taught students who will provide a much needed service to Malawi, we did vision screenings that involved thousands of people who might never have had their eyes tested, I made friendships that I value, I saw animals and places I never imagined, I camped all over Sub Saharan Africa, I had experiences I had previously only imagined. And while I have regrets about how things ended, I am glad I got to give a little back to this fantastic country that gave, and continues to give me so much.
A baby monkey visited me in my house!
                    Hundreds of school children waiting to have
              their eyes tested

Quote for the Day: "I went to sleep dreaming of Malawi, and all the things made possible when your dreams are powered by your heart" - William Kamkwamba, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind

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