Malawi — Student VolunteeringUniterra
I’ve been in Malawi for a month now and it’s finally starting to feel like home. Every morning I wake up at sunrise and head to work with the locals, flagging down minibuses and walking through town. Before leaving Canada I was strongly encouraged to immerse myself into the local culture.
However, what separates me most from the majority of the local population is not my skin colour but privilege. Drivers will keep overcharging and street vendors approaching me because they see me as someone with privilege and money. Although it’s for my own safety I often feel guilty riding in a tuk tuk or taxi past people carrying heavy loads on their heads. Yet, I also catch myself at times complaining about luxuries I take for granted such as access to power and internet.
During field visits in the rural areas I see an even starker dichotomy between the rich and poor. When we visit these rural villages we give each participant a piece of bread and a pop as refreshments. This struck me as something you wouldn’t see in Canada. Yet in Malawi everyone accepts the bread gratefully. Even though the communities I’ve visited so far did not have much they all welcomed us warmly and many even invited us to eat afterwards. Despite the warm welcomes my privilege was even more apparent here, so I tried harder to live and eat like a local and became self-conscious about enjoying any sort of luxury. Although the more I tried to live like a local the more homesick I felt and the less Malawi felt like home.
It wasn’t until I began accepting my privilege when that Malawi began to feel like home. Small things such as buying imported comfort foods (noodles) or going out to eat at a restaurant has helped me feel less homesick. From this experience, I’ve learned that immersion does not mean assimilation. I do not have to try to live exactly like a local Malawian to become immersed in their culture. Immersing myself is trying to learn the local language, participating in the community, and forming relationships with locals. While it’s important to recognize some things as luxuries you do not need to feel guilty about being able to afford them.