It’s all about the people around you

Everyone has those moments. The ones where you connect with another person. You reveal your hopes, your dreams, and even, your biggest fears. Well one thing my closest friends know about me is that my biggest fear is sudden change. In just one hour, one minute, or even one second, someone or something can alter your life, forever.  Tragedy, unfortunately, can be beyond our control as human beings.

But this is also true in reverse.

In just one moment, life’s hardships can suddenly not seem as bad as they did in the moment prior.

The second of stepped off the plane and my feet touched Malawian soil just over one week ago, my life’s complexities changed.

My life had never felt so out of control before coming to Africa. And for many reasons. In short, I was living on my own caring for my dog Tilley, trying to graduate university and stay on top of school, all while getting fairly ill. I didn’t think I was going to pull off graduating by April. Dropping a course and taking summer school crossed my mind on multiple occasions. But I did it. After many all-nighters in the month of April and a copious amount of energy drinks, I handed in my last and final essay on April 18, 2012. From that day onward, I had nine days to sell all of my major belongings, pack up my apartment in Ottawa, leave my dog with her sitter, and jump on a plane to Malawi. Exhaustion became the only word in my vocabulary.

At 8 a.m. on April 27, 2012 I jumped on a plane to London. In London, I had a 24-hour layover that I spent catching up with a dear friend I met in Uganda, Africa four years ago. Because he lives in London, it was the first we had seen each other since we met. Then, after two more plane rides out of London, I finally arrived in Malawi on April 29 at about mid day. I passed out that afternoon utterly exhausted, and woke up the next day to what has since felt like a new world.

Ironically, this sense of a “new world” didn’t hit me over the head right away. Many people describe this sense of “culture shock” when arriving to Africa.

But I think this happened to me in reverse.

My initial observations of Lilongwe were of all the parallels between Malawi and Canada. For instance, everywhere you turn there are nice cars. Toyota’s are everywhere. Toyota trucks here are called “Hilux’s” but are in better condition than many I see at home. There are also BMW’s, Nissans, and yep, even Fords. The main shopping area here around area three of Lilongwe is filled with things I did not anticipate as well: a pizza place, ice cream parlor, grocery stores (multiple ones) and a store called “Game.” Game is owned by Walmart. It resembles North American Walmart’s, but on a somewhat smaller scale. The other day I bought Heinz ketchup and clothes hangers from Game… all while Adele played in the background. Who knew this was all possible in Malawi?

But the differences between North American and African lifestyles have obviously begun to present themselves. And it is the difference I LOVE! No culture shock here. The one so predominately making me feel like Lilongwe is a “new world” in all the best ways for me is simply, the lifestyle. Life moves at a difference pace here, and it is great. Meeting at 10 a.m. could actually mean 11, 12, 1, or maybe even tomorrow. But the speed at which life moves is just one minor aspect to the lifestyle.

What is important is that people prioritize human interaction. Sitting down for dinner, or even a drink, is quite common. And, people even socialize throughout the week! In North America, it’s “what are you doing this weekend?” Here, it’s “what are you doing right now?”

I think human interaction is prioritized for two reasons. Firstly, it is largely apparent that Malawian people are just naturally social, welcoming, and kind. But that aside, I think they are so social because of the way their society is structured. You need human interaction here to survive.

Banking exemplifies this perfectly. Everyone needs a “black market friend” in Malawi. The local currency here is the kwacha. But, the bank’s exchange rate here is so poor that a “black market” has formed. You get literally double the money exchanging foreign currencies with locals , as opposed to going to the bank. So, when I need to exchange some money, I call up my friend Max. Max calls a friend, then that friend calls another friend. Multiple exchanges of social interaction later, I exchange my US dollars into kwacha. For $US 400 American dollars, I was given about 110,000 Kwacha. I have never held so many bills in my life.

But, I have started to realize this isn’t the way in North America. The way our society is structured is in such a way we can survive individually.

We email and text over calling or seeing each other in person. We go to ATM’s instead of bank tellers. We order our food over a speaker at a drive-thru and then allow a five second “hello” at the pickup window. I have started to realize how evil drive-thrus are (even though I have craved Tim Hortons every single day). Drive-thrus, I would argue, have made the North American lifestyle move at a rapid pace. We, North Americans, eat and drink on the go all the time, and all day long. I will likely protest drive-thrus upon my arrival back to Canada! And yes, you have probably guessed it, drive-thrus do not exist in Malawi.

In Lilongwe, life is all about the people around you. In Canada, the things I most often surround myself with are my IPhone and MacBook. This, I realize, is just sad. Life is meant to be lived, and Africans most certainly have this figured out.

For the mind easily intrigued…Here are some other minor differences between my Canada and my Malawi. All of which I find rather intriguing!

Beer: I am Canadian. I have no shame in admitting my first observation was, of course, the beer. For the most part, Carlsberg is the only beer you can find in Lilongwe. There are two options, the “special brew” or the “green label”. So you quite literally go up to a bar tender here and say “may I have a green please?” and you get a Carlsberg in return. Because it is so popular, it is priced extremely cheap in comparison to its price elsewhere. I find this rather intriguing because I am a server back home at an Irish Pub. There, a Carlsberg off tap goes for $8.25 Canadian. Here, a bottle of green is 300 kwacha at a pub. This is about a buck fifty in Canada.

Meat: Eating meat off of a grill is a social event in Malawi. My first night here I went to a local hot spot called “Big T’s”with my friend Max. I was amazed to see that at not only Big T’s, but every other bar we went to, everyone stood outside around a grill eating meat. At Big T’s, we shared the most amazing steak I have ever had. At Chez, it was sausage. At the last bar we went to by the end of the night which I still to this day can’t remember the name of (it’s near Orient Club) it was pig’s feet. Max had a solid attempt in trying to get me to eat pig’s feet. But I am sad to admit I am not yet Malawian enough for this…

Kilometres: The other day I was hanging out with my friend Max. I asked him how far Salima is from Lilongwe.

“About 100 kilometres I would say,” Max responded.

But if Max asked me the distance between Salima and Lilongwe I would say: “Um, about an hour and a half.”

North Americans asses distance by the hour.  For Malawians, it’s by the kilometre.

When I asked Max why this is the case, he laughed.

“There are so many fuel shortages in Malawi, most of us drive at 40 kilometres per hour to save fuel. And, we need to know how many kilometres we are travelling so we don’t run of gas.”

The things you notice when you’re in a new place.


 “Miss call me”: Phone plans don’t really exist in Malawi. Instead, you buy airtime and upload it to your phone. When it runs out, you buy more. So, if you need to make a call but are almost out of airtime you just call someone and hang up. There have been many times at home I have been over my airtime and have never thought to do this!

Proposals: I would argue (even though it could get me in trouble) that almost every North America girl has at one point in time enjoyed watching a cliché chick flick: A man falls in love with a woman, plans an extravagant proposal, gets down on one knee… and the rest is history. That doesn’t really happen here. In Malawi, the unity between and man and a women is often discussed between uncles. The woman’s uncles meet with the man’s uncles to have an honest discussion about whether the two to be wed are well-suited. What a cool tradition, huh?

The Sounds: There is never a quiet moment in Malawi. At about 5 a.m. you hear the Islamic call to prayer coming from the mosque. This happens again about five more times throughout the day. At about 5:30 a.m. you’re woken up by the roosters. They are persistent little buggers. You will hear them throughout the day as well. And then, there are the owls. At least I think they are owls. Their “hoo” is in this repetitive beat that I have heard my roommate whistle along to a couple of times now without even noticing he is doing it. This “hoo” is in such a rhythmic manner it can honestly get stuck in your head each morning. Then, at about 10, you hear soccer. This usually has to be on a day with a match, but I am telling you, if there is a match on… you will hear it! The stadium is about a kilometre from my house and all day I felt as though I was standing right in the stadium. It was a rather cool experience. And then, of course, there are the typical daily noises we hear in all parts of the world. The traffic, the honking, people shouting. But what I have experienced at night time is what has gotten me! At about 8 or 9 each night, ALL of the dogs in the neighbourhood start to bark. In each of these moments, I feel like I am watching Lady and the Tramp, or something!

Thanks for reading!


One thought on “It’s all about the people around you

  1. Jess this is such a good read! Loving it girl. Could the ‘hoo; you’re hearing be mourning doves? I can’t wiat to sit and read some more….I can sooo relate to your appreciation of time when you’re in Africa…..wish I was there with you 🙂

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