As many of you know, I’m no longer in Africa. On the afternoon when I moved all my belongings out of my little house, my sweet neighbor was standing by, always watchful, and she stopped me and asked if I was leaving because of a “problem with Malawi.” I want to assure all of you, just as I assured her that day, that that is definitely not the case. I’ll start this post by saying the same thing I told her: I like Malawi. I like my Malawian family. But I want my American family. Now, I wasn’t able to go into further detail with her, because my Chichewa vocabulary is admittedly quite limited. However, I’d like to think my English vocabulary is a little more advanced. So, I’ll try to go into more detail now.
To fully explain the journey which eventually led to me hopping on an airplane bound for the States about 25 months earlier than planned, I need to rewind to about a year ago, to the day I received my invitation to serve with Peace Corps Malawi. I remember it with absolute clarity. I was in the backseat of a car with some of my best friends, and we were driving up to Michigan for the weekend. We were listening to Ed Sheeran’s song “Castle on the Hill,” which some of you have probably heard, and you can understand why I was feeling a little emotional. I had submitted my Peace Corps application a few weeks ago, had sat down for my Skype interview even more recently, and my mind was consumed with thoughts of Africa and the terrifyingly real possibility of moving there. An email notification from the Peace Corps popped up on my phone screen, and I barely even read the subject line, I just opened it breathlessly and then read the words that meant that, in one short year, I would be flying to Africa to spend two years teaching English in the tiny country of Malawi (which I hadn’t even heard of until a couple months before submitting my application). I was initially speechless. I just leaned forward to grip my best friend’s shoulder, and I practically whispered in her ear, “I got in.” Understandably, she had no idea as to what I was referring, so I clarified, “I got into the Peace Corps!” And as the tears started flowing, I realized that, although I definitely felt a lot of excitement, my overwhelming emotion was fear. I was afraid not only of telling my family and figuring out what on earth to pack for two years and all the scary diseases and parasites that I would surely succumb to, but mostly I was just scared of leaving. But I figured that was a natural response to hearing the news that you would be moving to the other side of the world for two years. And really, that’s how I viewed that invitation to serve. The Peace Corps gave me two days to respond and tell them whether I accepted the invitation or not, but I knew as soon as I read it that I was going to go. So, then it was time to start preparing.
I’m so incredibly grateful for the gift of perspective that came from accepting that invitation. I didn’t fully realize until I was lying on my mattress in my tiny nyumba in Malawi, sweating out a fever of 103.8 degrees, that one of the most important take-aways I got from this journey was an appreciation for all the little things in my life that I’m grateful for. I got to spend an entire year soaking up every moment with my family and friends. I cherished every holiday and birthday, every snowball fight and movie night, every hug from my mom and my kiddos at school, every bag of microwave popcorn and every ice cube. Every time I sat outside and listened to the crickets or rolled around on the floor in a fit of laughter that made it hard to breathe, the constant thought in the back of my mind was, “I’m going to miss this so much.” That was such a beautiful way of living, constantly picking out the precious moments, and I hope that I can continue to view my life with such a magical lens.
Now, life in Malawi was difficult. I won’t pretend that it was a walk in the park. That’s not fair to my story, and it’s not fair to the people who live there. Malawi is dry and dusty, and if you live there, chances are you, too, will be dry and dusty, as well as all of your clothes and belongings. My feet may never be truly clean again. Before arriving in Malawi, I was thoroughly warned about the dangers of diseases like malaria, HIV/AIDS, schistosomiasis, and many others, but I was not fully prepared to face the real and present danger of food poisoning. I got to experience the highest fever I’ve ever had in my life as well as discover the joys of being hooked up to an IV bag that was tied to a rafter in the back room of a small house in rural Malawi (honestly, I’m extremely grateful that fluids like that were available to me – I don’t know how I could’ve gone much longer without that). There are no washing machines, no showers, no refrigerators or microwaves or even gas or electric stoves or ovens. Amayis cook over fires in small kitchens full of black smoke, they walk back and forth to the local borehole multiple times a day, usually before the sun comes up, to fetch water for the entire family, they herd all the unruly goats back into their homes at the end of the day, and they do so many other thankless tasks for their families every single day. And they still dance and smile and laugh until they tip over. Life in Malawi is difficult, but it’s not bad. Any time I was feeling homesick (which was pretty often), all I would need to do would be to walk outside, and within seconds my little brother or sister would run up to me to play a new game, whether it was a version of Simon Says, a clapping game, or something akin to paper football. And without fail, I would be smiling and laughing and having fun again.
I keep telling people that I liked it in Malawi. I think that might be confusing, because people aren’t sure why I came home if I liked it there. But it’s true! I loved my little brother’s smile and my sister’s spunk. I loved looking up at Venus every night in that vast ocean of stardust to put me in my place and riding my bike downhill all the way home, heading into the sunset that painted the entire sky. I loved laughing with my friends and stumbling through Chichewa lessons and talking about the trips we would take, the mountains we would climb, the sights we would see. I miss all of those things so much it sometimes hurts. But even while I was having fun and growing and learning, I was constantly missing home. I missed my mom’s hugs and my best friend’s laugh. I missed singing in the car with the windows down and wandering through the supermarket. I missed lightning bugs and crickets and summer thunderstorms. I just missed home. I looked around at my new home and realized that, as much as I loved a million little things about it, I didn’t want to live there for two years. I loved getting the chance to go there and live with a family for a summer, but no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t see myself doing it for two entire years. I practiced teaching English to high school students and was struck by the immense difference between them and my adorable little first graders that I was used to teaching. I wanted so badly to get used to this new life. I wanted to enjoy teaching students who were basically adults and become more present in my day-to-day life instead of constantly thinking about home, and I wanted to be comfortable with participating in the required conversations with every single person you met on the street. But I finally gave in to the truth that I had known for a while but hadn’t allowed myself to fully accept: Malawi was not the place for me. I wanted it to be, and I tried to force it for weeks, but it wasn’t. I know some of you might be thinking that seven weeks is not nearly enough time to get used to a place; that maybe I didn’t give it enough time. I can’t necessarily change your mind about that or offer you any sort of concrete proof, but I can say that in my experience, time in Malawi moved differently. My fellow trainees will all agree that weeks felt like years. Maybe it was the sheer amount of experiences and information that saturated the days, or maybe it was because our brains were trying to adjust not only to the time difference but also to an entirely new culture and way of life. I don’t know what the reason was, I just know that seven weeks did not feel like a short time.
The most common response from my friends and family members, when I told them that I was thinking about coming home, was “Don’t you think you’ll regret it?” I gave that question a lot of thought, because the last thing I wanted was to spend the rest of my life in regret, always wondering “What if?” and wishing that I had stuck it out a little longer until I could make it to the point where I would fall in love with it all. But after lots of thought and lots of list writing and lots of talks with people both in Malawi and the States and lots and lots and lots of tears, I decided that it didn’t matter how much time I gave it – I felt like I needed to be at home. I realized that I had gone to the other side of the world because I felt the need to do something grand and bold and noble to make a difference, but you don’t need to take giant steps to make a difference. I thought back to the classroom full of first graders that I taught last Fall, and I felt like I was making a difference then. That was the best job I’ve ever had, and it was right down the road from home. I craved adventure in far-off places, and I still do, but I think I’m better equipped to take those adventures in smaller bursts, like weeks or months even, instead of years. A friend of mine pointed out that, as a teacher, I have summers off that I can use to travel to different countries and teach for a month or two at a time, which makes me super excited to think about! I’m not sure what the future holds for me, and for the first time, I’m actually okay with that. But I know that, at least for the time being, I’m right where I’m supposed to be. I believe I was supposed to be in Malawi for a time, too. I don’t regret that in the slightest, but I also don’t regret coming home. My time in Malawi, and even my time leading up to Malawi, served a purpose, and I’m thankful that I had the opportunity to experience that roller coaster of a journey. I’m positive that I haven’t fully processed it all yet, but I’m working on it. And for now, that’s the best I can do.
So, I’m going to apply for teaching jobs near me, try not to over-water my new succulent, pop some popcorn in my microwave, and sit down at my kitchen table every Thursday night with my mom, my granny, and my best friend for a game of Rummikub. But Malawi will never be far from my thoughts. I left part of my heart behind. I think often of my friends there, and I miss them terribly, but I’m so proud of them and so excited to see what they’ll do there. They have big dreams and big plans, and they will inspire change. Who knows what the next few years will bring, but I can’t wait to see them again down the road when we all have new stories to tell. Because it’s not “Goodbye,” it’s “See you later,” or as Malawians say, “Tiwonana.”
amayi: woman; mother
Tiwonana: See you later