GEF blog: Greetings in MalawiJuly 5, 2019 • Erin Reitz • No Comments
The Global Engagement Fellowship (GEF) supports UNC Chapel Hill students conducting international social-justice oriented summer projects. The following blog was written by GEF recipient Emma Miner, a rising sophomore studying Health Policy & Management and Women’s and Gender Studies. She is spending six weeks in Malawi, helping to conduct research on HIV and volunteering with local organizations.
Following Malawi’s independence from Britain in 1964, the nation has experienced drought, food shortages, political corruption, extreme poverty, and a widespread HIV/AIDS epidemic. In fact, 10% of its population lives with HIV/AIDS, making it the 10th most infected country worldwide. Despite these overwhelming challenges and catastrophic issues, Malawi is known as the “warm heart of Africa” for its inclusive and welcoming culture.
Thanks to UNC’s Chichewa class, I was taught how to match this warm Malawian spirit through greetings. Greetings are essential to Malawians’ kindness, and every encounter here involves a warm welcome and inquiry about someone’s well-being. While I thought I understood this lesson before arriving in Malawi, I was most definitely wrong. Nothing could have prepared me for the overwhelming warmth that I have experienced. While I have met many incredible people from around the world, in my eyes, Malawian’s genuine love and concern for others is unparalleled. I am certain that my writing cannot do their kindness justice, but I hope that by sharing a few greetings, I can portray some of this warmth for you.
“Tell your mom that you now have a second mom here”
JOYCE CHIULIKA CHAGWADA
To say that I was overwhelmed when arriving in Lilongwe is an incredible understatement; I have never felt so excited yet terrified at the same time. For the first time, I am not only on my own in a new country, but this trip also marks the first real time that I am living independently. I was fortunate to have supremely involved parents growing up, so simple things like buying a phone plan, shopping for groceries, and cooking things besides pasta have been new adventures for me. These menial tasks, combined with the very real challenge of adapting to living in a new country, were immense, and for the first time in a while I missed being at home.
In the midst of this panic, I was fortunate to meet Joyce. Joyce began managing the UNC Project Malawi guesthouse in 2007, and since then has touched every visitors’ life with her welcoming and loving spirit. I think she could sense that I was homesick, and promptly told me that many lodgers call her “Auntie Joyce” and that I should “tell [my] mom that [I] now have a second mom here.” She made Malawi begin to feel like home.
“I think maybe I should invite you to dinner at my home next week”
The warmth that I experienced my first day in Malawi was continuously compounded over the next few days. At work I couldn’t walk more than 10 feet without being greeted by someone new who was genuinely eager to meet me and hear about my experience so far. One kind individual, Obrex, even offered the honor of joining his family for dinner at his home. This request occurred a mere thirty seconds after being introduced to him. Since then, I have received a total of six invitations from Malawians excited to learn more about me over nsima.
I have grown so accustomed to Americans’ hesitation towards strangers’ invitations that I admit, these prepositions caught me off guard at first. In the States, if I was invited to someone’s home for dinner without knowing anything about them besides their name, I would never consider answering yes. Yet here, I found myself accepting these opportunities (although, I did wait until I knew them a bit more). It is refreshing to be immersed in a culture that seems to see the best in many people.
Similar to back home, the children that I have met here undoubtedly see the very best in every individual. On my trips outside of Lilongwe and into the more rural areas of Malawi, I am greeted by enthusiastic thumbs ups, some of the largest smiles that I have ever seen, and chants of “Boh Boh!” from the young children in the villages.
On one site visit with World Connect to a project in a particularly underserved community outside of Lilongwe, I met some of the most curious and energetic children that I have ever encountered. While I was in the community to talk with teenage girls, the young boys and girls soon found me and were eager to show me all of their tricks. While I was listening to the teenagers share their experiences, the young children snuck their way into the school house and were eagerly peeking into the classroom that we were talking in. When sighted, they shrieked with excitement and ran outside to a window next to our classroom. From there, they enthusiastically jumped, cartwheeled, and waved to get my attention. When I returned these greetings with a smile and thumbs up to each of them, their excitement only grew. Their happiness was infectious.
In that States we sometimes forget how far a simple smile and greeting can go; we get lost in moving from one place to another. I hope that these stories of Malawians’ warmth, generosity, and love for others inspire you to reach out and build connections with a smile and a hello.