Camp GLOW 2014: “Lift as You Climb”

Annie Banda is a 17 year-old girl that lives in a small, rural village closely situated near a beautiful skyline of smoky blue mountains. Annie normally starts her day off at half-past 4 in the morning by fetching water from the borehole about a kilometer away so that she can then wash dishes, clean the house, and prepare breakfast from whatever food is available. In the past, she had gone to school and dreamt of the day when she would become a nurse. But things were different now. Her mother and father had passed away, and her grandmother (i.e. the only relative willing to adopt the girl) was old and perpetually ill. So Annie mostly had to fend for herself. With no education past the first two years of secondary school, her options were very limited. Annie married the chief’s nephew–a 34 year-old drunkard that was emotionally and physically abusive. Her grandmother suggested Annie do so after she realized her illness was fatal. “Be a good girl and always do what your husband says,” she told Annie right before she died. So Annie endured more abuse, more neglect, and more hardship. “How did I get here?” she wondered as she saw other women from her community working at the local clinic. She had recently gone in for her first antenatal visit and discovered that she was HIV positive.

​Annie’s story is similar to the majority of Malawian girls and women. According to The World Bank, 27% of Malawi’s girls are enrolled in secondary school. Of that, 13% will attend, and only 5% will pass the MSCE (Malawi School Certification Exam). Gender inequality is a ubiquitous problem here; leaving many women with limited access to income and personal choice. This often results in a shared sentiment of subordination and even subservience amongst women, which is exacerbated by another common issue: gender based violence. Women are more or less objectified–thought of as powerless things first and human beings second. So in a country that has one of the highest HIV/AIDs rates, females tend to be the most vulnerable population.

​Camp GLOW (Girls Leading Our World) is a Peace Corps sponsored camp that works to empower girls to address the issues mentioned above. This year 66 girls from rural villages all over Malawi attended. Throughout this week-long event the girls learned about different topics that revolved around leading healthy lives, leadership, self-esteem, having a positive identity, self-confidence, and gender equality. Thankfully I was selected to be a camp counselor and I was also allowed to lead a session on natural beauty; mainly concentrating on self-esteem related to hair beauty and healthy hair practices. There was also an emphasis on sustainability which was introduced to encourage attendees to create “girl clubs” in their home villages in order to teach others what they learned during camp.

​Now that Camp GLOW is over, I must say that out of my 5 months of living in Malawi, it has been the most incredible, life changing experience I’ve had thus far. I met some amazing young women with the most heart wrenching stories of loss and pain, but also inspirational stories of triumph in their most hapless moments. All of these girls have overtly and covertly been told that they cannot achieve their goals–that they cannot exist in their communities as important figures. Yet despite this, they have exceeded beyond the socially constructed expectations outlined for them. And our goal as PCVs was to inspire them to continue towards this positive, aberrant path. There was one nightly session where we all–campers, counselors, and coordinators–wrote down what we had been told we couldn’t achieve as women on a piece of paper. We then read it aloud, crumbled up the paper ball of negativity, and threw it into a monstrous bonfire. Oh, what a powerfully palpable moment!

​Throughout the rest of camp we all shared in many more emotionally charged moments. We cheered and sung as if no chant or song could be “played-out.” We laughed; especially during the session about masturbation. (“Let’s talk about what???…Sex!”). We danced awkwardly together–arms flailing, shoulders grooving, hips winding, and feet stomping. We even cried together. On the night before the last day, we sat solemnly in a large circle. The first person that spoke lit the candle she held, said what she had learned during Camp GLOW, and then proceeded to light the candle of the person sitting adjacent to her. The activity continued as so until the whole circle was shining bright by candlelight. Maybe deep down, we were all starting to realize that our magnificent journey together was slowly coming to a close because afterwards my group of girls wailed laments in Chichewa (the language I have yet to master). So because I could not find the words to assuage them, I had us all stand in one big circle, huddled together, and cry. And eventually those tears turned into open dialogue about their personal testimonies and the fears they had about going back to their villages. Back to realities that had not been as supportive and empowering as GLOW.

​Still, I’d like to think that Camp GLOW gave these girls a glimpse into what their realities could be–a life devoid of the issues that many women like Annie face in Malawi. I told my girls to remember the strong bonds and relationships they had built during camp. And I said this is what they should try to recreate back in their villages–open space where girls go to learn, grow together, and support each other in all their endeavors. I hope they realized that they aren’t objects in which man and the world are acting upon, but rather, they are individuals that have the power to act upon, and change, their surroundings. They have inspired me, just as much as I hope I have inspired them, and I thank God for the opportunity to do so. I have gained new, little sisters and I am excited to watch them grow and continue to help other girls in their communities. I will never forget them!

(Please support our cause by checking out more pictures on the Camp GLOW Tumblr and sharing the video located on the page with your families and friends on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram…tell Oprah! Lol. Seriously we really want to get the word out about gender inequality here in Malawi so anything to help our cause will do. This camp occurs annually so if you would like to contribute please leave a comment and I will contact you with further information. Thanks in advance! 😊).

Campers, counselors, and coordinators after a session
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Me, during my presentation
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We danced!
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The girls from my group making menstrual pads from local materials. (Check out those “Shining Sisters” table toppers I made! ☺️)
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The bonfire! We roasted marshmallows too!
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Me and my group of girls! Loved them!!!
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“I need women’s empowerment because…” Why do you?
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Home, Sweet Home

Before permenantly settling down in Ngoniland, I was able to see the homes of 4 other volunteers and this made me so much more appreciative of my living situation. (Peace Corps rented a huge bus to ship 6 of us out to our permenant villages with all of our luggage and the other materials we had acquired while in training). And I’m not trying to talk down on anybody else’s house, but I definitely prefer mine to all the others I saw. The majority of us are placed in rural villages without electricity or running water. Some are very secluded–hours away from a cement road and/or another PCV–and we usually have NO privacy what-so-ever because the homes in many villages are grouped closely together in a disorganized fashion, or volunteers are placed on the compounds of the health centers, farms, or schools they work at in duplex style housing with their co-workers. (And trust me, privacy is huge! I know some volunteers complained that the “iwes” or kids near their homes would just walk in as if they owned them!). Although, I do not have running water or electricity, my house is relatively distant from the raucous part of town.

​My house is located in the middle of a corn/tobacco field, neatly situated aside two noticeably smaller homes. One is unoccupied and the agogo, my only neighbor, lives in the smallest of the three homes. Her home looks more like a brick shack–all black and dusty inside from the charcoal smoke. The agogo actually sleeps outside on the porch. Yes, outside on the porch. The mattress and mattress frame are just outside the doorway, and close enough to the house to still be protected by the metal roof. One time I asked her if she liked to sleep outside, and she laughed under her breathe and told me something, but of course my Chichewa isn’t that great (I speak it well but struggle hearing, and thus, understanding the native tongue), and of course she doesn’t speak a lick of English so maybe I’ll never know why she does it. All I was able to catch was “Ayiii, sindimakonda,” or “Nooo, I don’t like.” But I’ll talk more about the agogo in a later post. (She’s hilarious ya’ll).

​So I’m sure most of you all assumed that I’d be living in a mud hut with a grass roof and dirt floors (and some PCVs in other countries do live like this), but my house is “modern” for African village life. Its walls are made of bricks and cement and when you walk inside you can see the large wooden beams that support the tin roof. Now I feel the need to inform you that volunteers usually have a preference about roofs. Some volunteers will end up with thatch, or grass roofing, which is beneficial during the hot season because metal roofs insulate heat, turning a home into an oven. But I prefer the tin roof because if the thatch roof is not properly built, a volunteer is guarenteed to have leaks due to the heavy showers that occur during rainy season. Although rain does sound like thousands of little marbles thundering down on a tin roof, I’ll bear it. The house is made up of four spaces: two bedrooms, a living room, and a back room for storage/cooking/washing dishes. A house this size could accommodate a family of 5 to 7 in the village. But nope, it’s just little ol’ me.

​There are 3 other structures located in the backyard of the house: the kitchen, the “bafa,” and the “chimbutzi,” or colloquially “chim.” The kitchen is still being rennovated (i.e. there is no roof to protect me during rainy season and the door is barely holding onto the hinges). The bafa is where I bathe. Bricks were built around a 5 ft x 5 ft cement flooring, a wooden plank was situated on top to act as a shelf, and the walls are just high enough for someone a few inches over 6 feet tall to bathe without being fully exposed. The “chim” is the most notoriously discussed topic amongst volunteers; a place that’s often associated with our most vile memories: the toilet. I must emphasize that there is no running water, no roll of tissue hanging neatly from a metal bar, no white, porcelain structure to sit upon, no basket of magazines to breeze through while you “take your time.” Nope, none of that.

​Not all chims are the same; there are “levels” to chim cleanliness. Most are made by first digging a very large pit. (I think about 7 feet high and 6 feet in length and width, but don’t quote me. There is a size recommended by the Malawi Ministry of Health). Most people use wooden planks, or tree bark, to cover the pit, and then they add a layer of cement or mud flooring to build walls and a roof around. And they also leave a hole in the floor that is large enough for someone to accurately aim their excrements into. People can “update” their chim by buying an already constructed cement tile that conventiently includes raised cement footprints and a hole outlined in the shape of a bicycle seat, which are meant to increase someone’s accuracy. Another update involves ventilating the chim by fixing a tube that leads from the pit to the roof. This provides an alternate route for the odor and flies–that often get trapped inside the pit after the hole is covered–to escape; increasing the cleanliness and smell of the inside structure. But of course these updates are usually too expensive for rural villagers; many don’t even have a basic chim and so they go in the fields or the lake. But I’ll discuss sanitation issues in a later post.

​Let’s talk more about my love/hate relationship with the chim (although I don’t know if love is even remotely appropriate in this context). So my chim is currently not one of the updated models that I mentioned. It has mud flooring, a hole that seems to be caving in, and a wooden cover (i.e.a flat rectangular piece of wood attached to a stick) that is supposed to conceal the hole, but it cannot do so because it is chipped and the hole is caving in causing the ground to be unlevel. I did not mind the chim at my homestay parents’ house because it seemed relatively clean for an outhouse. (Except for that one time someone went #2 and missed the hole completely. That was gross. Oooo, or that one time I had to go #2 but there was a frog jumping around in the chim, and I had no other option but to try and coerce it out with the wooden cover. But I unfortunately caught it in mid-jump and it fell down the hole. My bad. It was either that, or I was going to become a “real volunteer”*). But the chim at my permenant site is infested with all sorts of creatures: lizards, spiders that don’t seem to understand that they shouldn’t build their webs right in front of the entrance, moths, and these huge, flying cockroaches that only seem to come out at night. So I use my pee pucket at night. Yes, pee bucket. We were advised to purchase one before heading to stay with our host families and I must say it’s been THE most valuable item I’ve bought since being in-country. Go ahead, judge me if you must! But let’s see what you would do at 1 o’clock in the morning when you wake up in an extreme tight (and I mean you have to go BAD), but you still have to fight your way out of your mosquito net (in the dark), find your headlamp (in the dark), and put on your shoes, only to run about 10 yards outside in the cold to a chim infested with flying cockroaches!!! You’d choose the bucket too!

​But with time I have adjusted to the chim and all its malodorousness (i.e. I hold my breathe). Us volunteers often joke about our ever-developing talents in “chimnastics”. What is chimnastics you ask? Let me explain. Going to the restroom without the commodity of a toilet requires both stamina and skill. We have to build up our hamstring and glute muscles. (Because depending if you have to go #1 or #2, you may be squatting for some time). We have to perfect our aim, which requires special techniques related to form and muscle control. (It’s all about those abs and kegel muscles!). Oh and let’s not forget the myriad of unwanted guests flying out and around the hole while you’re trying to do your business! I’m usually flapping my hands erracticly around the hole and my bottom just to make sure nothing flies anywhere it doesn’t need to be! (Yep, that’s right, your girl can “DO WITH NO HANDS!” *cues music*). But seriously, one volunteer was using the chim during PST and a bat flew out of the hole and slapped him on his bottom. True story. The hands are important. But I guess I’ve grossed you all out enough so I’ll move on.

​And for any future PCV that may be reading this blog, don’t worry. I ‘ve obviously exaggerated some points. (Not really, but I swear you’ll get used to this lifestyle. It’s really not as bad as it sounds.) And if there is something that you cannot live without (e.g. running water, electricity, toilet, etc.), Peace Corps is very good at working with volunteers to place them in the most suitable environment. I don’t have electricity or running water, but I also did not emphasize wanting either. I did ask that I be placed in a village that didn’t require me to travel 2 hours to get to the nearest market, and mine is only a 10 minute walk. And thankfully, there is another volunteer that is about 15 km away from my site, so she’s only a 1 hr -1 1/2 hr bike ride or a 20 minute mini-bus ride away! (And she also happens to be from Texas so shout out to all my down-south, cowboy boot wearin’, slow-talkin’, football watchin’, Cowboy-fan cheerin’ [because we all know the Texans are irrelevant], BBQ eatin’ Texans back home!) I also requested that I be placed in a home with a fence so that I could walk outside my house and read a book on my porch without being bombarded by children all the time! (I really tried to drive that point home; my quiet time keeps sane.) I wanted peace and that’s exactly what I got (for the most part).

​I remember being back in high school and my uncle telling me that one day he and my aunt wanted to move far away from the city and settle down in the country when they got older and grey. I thought he was crazy. But then again, my only experience with “the country” involved me being dragged to our annual family reunions every year to a plained, po-dunk town outside of Dallas. And everytime I was always eager to return back to the city; back to my usual comforts. But now I think I understand my uncle’s sentiment. There’s no TV here, no lightning fast internet connection, no mega-greedy, overstocked supermarket chain down the street, nothing. It’s just me, my thoughts, my humble abode, and this beautiful view of smoky-blue hills in my backyard that I get up every morning and thank God for the opportunity to admire in person…and I love it.

* Don’t know what “real volunteer” means??? You should refer back to a previous, short post of mine: “Such is Life”

My House

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(From left to right): kitchen, bafa, chimbutzi (all the way in the back)
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Panoramic of my living room
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My bedroom (definite upgrade from homestay)
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The dreaded chimbutzi
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The view walking up to my house from the main, dirt road
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The hills from my backyard view
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Ngoniland (en-gōn-ee-land)

I began living alone on May 9, 2014. This date was suprisingly met with extreme indifference. After two months I was finally becoming comfortable with my homestay family: my abambo and I were very close, and I looked foward to our nightly conversations during dinner; my amayi cooked my meals and warmed my bath water everyday; my achemwene (brothers) were always eager to repeatedly teach me the same 10 words in Chichewa every day, which was a huge improvement from only receiving bashful stares and responses; and my mchemwali’s (sister’s) babyish jargon and laughter seemed to always turn my frown upside down. Life was easy. But with comfort came a continuous lack of privacy and monotony. Village life is simple, and with the addition of training everyday, me and my fellow trainees became increasingly anxious for a permanent break. PST was like a snapshot of my collegiate experience. The first month (i.e. freshman and solphmore years) was filled with excitement because you’re away from home and you’re ready to learn and experience new things. And by the second month (i.e. junior and senior years) you’re impatiently ready to cross the finish line, yet somewhat fearful of having to use the knowledge you’ve gained to create success in some capacity.

​So around weeks 6 and 7 tensions were high because my fellow PCTs and I knew the end was near. During this time we learned the location of our permanent sites and would also spend a week at our sites as a sort of “test trial” to living alone. Peace Corps came up with a pretty creative way to reveal our sites to us. I won’t give it away completely just in case a future PCV reads my blog, but I will say that it involved a spectacular visual piece and blindfolds. So as I’m standing there blindfolded, many thoughts were going through my head: Would I like the people in my new village? Would I have a close site mate (that I liked) or would I be on the top of a mountain somewhere, hours away from the next volunteer? Oh and please don’t let them put me in a district with hot weather!

​ I also reflected back to one of the first sessions we had during Week 0 of training in which we learned the history of Malawi’s indigenous tribes. The first, and still most prominent tribe, is the Chewa (i.e. where we get the country’s national language, Chichewa). These people mainly populate the central and southern regions but can also be found in other areas under different tribal names. One fun fact about this tribe is that they follow a matrineal lineage. So “chiefdome” is actually passed down through the mothers blood line, and sometimes men will even live with their wives’ families after the couples marry. The PC staff joked that the women also dominate the men. The women make the decisions because they run the home. The men just appear to be authoratative because they represent the family publicly during important functions, but they’re actually stating the womens’ opinions and not their own. I’m not sure of how true this is but most of the staff eyed each other childlishly and roared in laughter after the statement was made, so I mostly took it with a grain of salt.

​Another prominent tribe are the Ngoni. They are said to have a warrior background, and this fact contributed to their migration to Malawi from South Africa after losing a battle. They traveled from the south to the north of Malawi, marrying women from other tribes along the way. This eventually lead to a loss of the Ngoni language because, according to traditional gender roles, the women stayed at home and raised the children in their native tongue. The Ngoni also have some pretty interesting cultural practices. If you mention the tribe to a Malawian they will usually drop their heads, chortling and then respond, “The Ngoni are known for 3 things: their love of alcohol, their love of meat, and their love of women!” The chortling then explodes into full out laughter. But some take a more modest approach in describing this tribe and swap the Ngoni’s love for women for their distinct burial practices. The Ngoni bury their dead in very short caskets because people are placed in a crouching position, with their hands cupped around their faces, their heads resting in the palms of their hands, their arms slightly parrallel, and elbows resting on the highest parts of their thighs, just below the knee. This way the warrior always sees his enemy coming, even in death.

​There are also the Yao Yaos, which mainly populate the southeast region near Lake Malawi. Because of their geographical location, they are said to be the first to interact with the Arabs that sailed down the lake from the north. This close relationship lead to an eventual control of the lake as a means of establishing businesses and the Yaos also adopted the foreigners’ Islamic practices. Many currently practice poligamy, although I wouldn’t immediately associate their religion to this practice. (My agogo, or grandfather, at homestay had two wives and they were Roman Catholics.) The Yaos are also known for a tradition in which young boys, ages 8 to 12 year-old, are circumcised during a large, public event. The PC staff emphasized that the people dance up and down their villages, singing loudly, while men ferociously beat their drums in celebration. This commotion also helps to conceal the screams of the boys as they’re being circumcised.

​There are more tribes, such as the Lomwe, Timbuka, and Tonga. The Lomwe populate most of the southern region and the Timbuka and Tonga can be found in the north. (Remember I said some people learned Chitimbuka and Chitonga in a previous post?? Those people could also assume that they would be placed in villages located in the north. FYI for any future Malawi PCVs that may read this blog). I’m not sure of the exact number of tribes located here, but the ones I’ve mentioned seem to be pretty prominent.

​ So eventually the blindfolds came off during PC’s oh-so-clever presentation, and I finally learned that I was heading to a district in the southern most part of the central region that’s known for it’s temperate climate, low-cost/high availability of food all-year-round, and its high concentration of Ngoni! Whenever I told one of my “relatives” at homestay or one of the Malawian staff members where I was going they usually exclaimed, “Ohh! That’s very good. Food is very cheap and they have batata” (i.e. potatoes and pronounced “bah-tah-tah”). Then they’d start listing off like Bubba from Forest Gump, “Irish batata, sweet batata…” And of course if they were feeling funny they’d usually say gleefully, “You know what the Ngoni are known for right?” And even though I already knew the answer I’d respond cluelessly, and they’d always list the “non-modest” characteristics of the Ngoni, and I’d muster up enough of a fake laugh as if I hadn’t heard the notorious joke already.

​At any rate, I have come to realize that the Ngoni description is somewhat accurate. People here do drink heavily, from sunrise to sunset. While taking a mini-bus (i.e. the most common mode of transportation here) to visit my site, I remember the driver honking the horn to alert pedestrians walking closely alongside the road that the vehicle was approaching. And then an agogo, or older woman, that was walking up ahead stopped, turn around, and waved at us with the largest, happiest, snaggle-tooth grin I’ve ever seen. My site supervisor and I were crammed together in the front seat of the vehicle and I turned to him to address how friendly the agogo was. He then leaned over with a serious look of disgust and said softly, “My dear, she’s drunk.” I wasn’t exepcting that. Especially at 1 o’clock in the afternoon. And even more especially because it was a woman. (Women here don’t drink in the village unless they’re some sort of prostitute. It is more common/normal to see women in the larger cities drinking where the culture is a little more progressive). But since being at site I’ve seen men passed out in the middle of the road, people drunk while working, and even little kids drinking sneakily behind houses! However, it is important to note that not everybody drinks. My supervisor, counter-part, and numerous others that I’ve met thus far in my village do not drink. Usually because of religious reasons, but I’ll go more in-depth about alcohol in a later post.

​They also do love their meat! As you walk down the main dirt road that emerges from my catchment area’s bus depot and cuts through numerous villages, leading to a well-known river, you’ll see numerous wooden stands with fresh, raw meat hanging from their roofs. The men that occupy these stands sell either chicken, goat meat, or pork everyday. I was not exposed to this at my homestay village and that may be because my permanent site is considered a major trading center. So there are many shops that sale basic goods and on “market days” people come from surrounding areas to sell clothes, crops, cotton, tobacco, fish, and other miscellaneous items.

​I cannot comment too much on the Ngoni’s love for women, but I have heard that men here do have multiple wives. And because this is a trading center, men come from other districts to sell and buy tobacco or cotton. These workers usually rent available living quarters, and during their stay, the men may become involved with some of the local women. This leads to an increase of STDs, HIV/AIDs cases, and unwanted pregnancies. I’ve even heard that some men will marry local women even if they already have wives back in their home villages.

​In any event, this is where I will spend the rest of my two years. In a place that I refer to as “Ngoniland.” During the next three to fourth months I will be closely observing my surroundings in order to learn more about the culture and major problems within my catchment area; which consists of about 20-something villages and it is estimated to have a population of around 28,000-31,000. Like I’ve mentioned before, this will not be an easy job, both professionally and emotionally. And I also understand that, as one person, I cannot help everyone. But my plan is to just integrate within my community as best as possible, and to try and create projects that will sustain long after I’m gone. Good or bad, right?

Send Me Goodies!

I hope you have enjoyed my blog thus far! If you’d like to send me a care package, then do as the locals say here and “Feel Free.” But please keep in mind that if there is no food in the package, you really don’t love me. Actually anything you send me would be awesome…but think F.O.O.D! The address is listed below. Just keep in mind that a package will usually take a month or so to arrive depending on the speed used. And from what I can tell USPS seems to be the cheapest option. They have flat rate prices that are dependent on weight. Oh and it would also be smart to write some sort of religious statement on the outside of the box, like “Jesus Loves You” or “Jesus Saves”…be creative. My mom sent me two boxes without writing and they both arrived but I would HIGHLY recommend it.

You can send packages to:

Attn: Simone Collier, PCV
Peace Corps
PO Box 208
Lilongwe, Malawi

What I miss:

Beef Jerky (jalapeño or peppered)
Batteries (AAA or AA, preferably rechargeable)
Cliff Bars (white chocolate, oatmeal, or brownie flavors preferred)
Trail mix (any dried fruit and nut mixes…almonds are my fave!)
Kettle Chips (salt & vinegar, BBQ, or jalapeño)
Gum!
Candy! (Starburst jellybeans, sour patch kids, chewy lemonheads)
Velveeta
Seasonings (garlic powder, oregano, tahini, basil, cumin, paprika, black pepper, etc)
Anything that smells good! (Lotions or body sprays)
Wine (long shot?)

Thanks in advance! 😁😁😁

Such is Life

There’s a popular saying amongst Peace Corps staff and volunteers: “Sh*t happens.” I apologize for the vulgarity of the phrase but there isn’t any other way to put it. I first heard this expression during a medical presentation. Which brings me to another popular phrase: “You’re not a real volunteer until you’ve sh*t yourself.” Again, I apologize for the vulgarity, but it’s the truth! Apparently every volunteer will have a severe case of diarrhea. The sanitary conditions here aren’t that great, so contamination of food and water is likely if we’re not careful. During our PST a good number of my fellow trainees had pretty bad experiences. I know two volunteers that had food poisoning, and subsequently, had fluids coming out of both ends.

​But this phrase is about more than just bodily fluids. Volunteers are expected to hit rock bottom at some point, if not multiple times, during their service because of an accumalation of things. We’ll struggle with learning the local language, our projects will fail, we’ll get severely sick, miss friends and family back home, and our valuables could break, or even be stolen. I’ve experienced a few bumps and bruises of my own. It took us about 20 hours worth of travel to even arrive in country. Unfortunately, my hiking bag did not arrive from our last stop in South Africa. It did come the next day, but the hip strap (i.e. the most essential part of a bag meant to carry 50lbs+) was ripped off!!! And the same night I got my bag back, I almost electricuted myself while trying to charge a few of my electronics. Being peed on multiple times by my homestay little sister wasn’t a pleasant experience either, especially since she always seemed to do it right after I had finished “bafa-ing,” or bathing. And during the first week at my permenant site, my bike caught a flat tire about 3 miles away from my house and I had to push it all the way back home. Unfortunately, I have not become a “real volunteer” yet, but I’ll keep you posted.

​So what do we do as volunteers? How do we cope? How do we manage to stay safe in a foreign country? The textbook answer would be that Peace Corps trains us to be aware of our surroundings and they give us protocol to follow in case of a medical emergency, political emergency, or any other sort of emergency. We also know how to blow off steam. (I told you PCVs like to party, right?) But it’s true. Peace Corps does inform us of potential dangers, and they do teach us different techniques to stay as safe as possible. However, some of us will still receive unwanted attention.
​But I’d like to think that these same events could occur if I was still in America. I may even be safer in Malawi. At least gun violence isn’t so much of an issue here. It’s extremely rare to hear of any killings in general. Although I wouldn’t want to be on the receiving end of “mob justice”. Malawi has a police force, but regular civilians are known to take matters into their own hands. Wrong doers have been beaten or even stoned to death. But I digress…The point is that “sh*t happens” in America too. People steal, rape, and kill. Someone walking in an unwelcoming neighborhood at night, wearing baggy clothes and a hoodie, may be subject to “mob justice.” But this “wrongdoer” doesn’t have to have actually commited a crime. And we seem to support this type of “American mob justice” because we continually allow regular civilians to get off with murdering relatively innocent individuals. I’m not saying it happens everyday, but acts of racial or unneccessary violence do occur: the Oklahoma bombing, Jordan Davis, 9/11, the numerous accounts of in-school, gun violence, the Boston Marathon massacre…some sh*t has happened! I guess I’m bringing this up because I remember countless instances where my friends or family expressed concern for my saftey here in Africa, which is totally understandable. And now that I’ve spent 3 months here, I would say there is no need to worry about my safety. I know what I should and shouldn’t be doing while I’m out here. I think my chances of having something stolen or having a near death experience in Malawi is about the same if I was in America.

​We, as human beings, are all going to perpetually become frustrated, angry, sad, and then happy. If something bad is meant to happen it will happen. Such is life. So I think I’ll take my chances with the Peace Corps, because I seemed to have learned and grown the most as a person from my tougest experiences. Plus, I’m still young (although not by Malawian standards of course), I’m unattached (although everyone seems to think I’ll find my African prince here in Malawi), I have no kids (thank you Jesus), and I’m still trying to figure out who I want to be. So why not take two years to learn about development in a beautiful African country, and fight to save the world one person at a time? Good or bad, I’m ready.

Swear-In and Village Appreciation

I officially became a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) on May 7th, 2014. Me and 37 other volunteers swore in at the U.S. Ambassador’s house in Malawi. Ambassador Jeanine Jackson, Malawi’s Minister of Health and Minister of Agriculture (or Forestry, Agroforestry, whatever…), PC Staff, and many other special guests were present. It was a great moment. Five volunteers made speeches in Chichewa, Chitimbuka, Chitonga, Chilambia, and English. There was dancing. The Natational Malawi Dance Team (don’t quote me on their name) performed during the ceremony and reception that occurred afterwards. Some of the PC staff members joined them, so that was pretty funny.

​But the best part of the event had to be the food. Seriously though. PCVs don’t know how to act around free, non-village-like food. We survive off of an extreme amount of semi-nutritional carbs, little veggies, and little meat. So when the announcement was made that “refreshments” were being served, we all (or maybe it was just me) immediately rushed to the reception area, where there were no rules and there was no such thing as “too much.” One male volunteer told me he followed the server that was carrying the sausage rolls around during the entire reception. There was a seemingly never-ending supply of samosas filled with vegetables and meat, chunky pieces of sausage wrapped in crispy,buttered crossiants, meatballs, cookies, muffins, cake, and soft drinks. A Peace Corps volunteer’s heaven.

​We then had a celebration in our homestay villages the following day. Peace Corps erected three or four large tents on the village’s futbol grounds. The women and children from each village had prepared traditional dances, and we, PCVs, managed to put together a little dance performance to the “Cha Cha Slide.” Which was DJ-ed by yours truly, me! The largest performance was lead by a group of “Gule Wamkulu” dancers. Malawians believe that the gule wamkulu come from the grave, and so they evoke a mythical spirit that allows them to perform. Some even regard them as evil, sacrilegious, or dangerous. I had a twenty year old female tell me she was afraid of these “creatures”…seriously. But the gule wamkulu are really a group of men that dress up in elaborate costumes and perform traditional dances indigenous to the Chewa tribe. All in all, it was awesome to get to see them perform and to see the villagers gawk at their every move.

Our parents also received certificates (and receiving certificates is huge here) for hosting us. I’m sure my abambo has that certificate hanging somewhere in the house or its safely stacked in the bag that holds all their important, family pictures. We had to dance infront of all of the villagers in attendance (around 150-200) in order to receive it, and I remember my amayi had informed me of this a couple of weeks leading up to the event. She said that we–my abambo, her, and myself–would practice during the days leading up to the event (which of course never happened). As the date got closer, my abambo continuously asked me if I would dance to receive the certificate. I told him I would and then I would ask him the same question and he would respond by saying yes, he would dance. Then maybe a couple days before the event my abambo asked me the same question again and I gave him the same response. But this time he said, “Ahh no. I have too much shy. I only dance when I…” he then proceeded to tilt back his head and raise one hand towards his mouth in a cupped position, shaking back and forth. “Drinking takes away the shy,” he said. So I told him we didn’t have to dance if he didn’t want to, but my amayi wasn’t having it. She said we would dance and that was that.

(See pics below. I do have videos as well but the network in the villages is too slow to upload them.)

Me walking towards the ambassador20140611-065045.jpg

Me shaking the U.S. Ambassador’s hand 20140611-063543.jpg

Health PCVs 201420140611-064435.jpg

We danced!20140611-070441.jpg

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Malawians usually don’t smile for pics…20140611-070750.jpg

…but they did here! 🙂 (my amayi and abambo)20140611-070616.jpg

Pre-Service Training and Homestay

Pre-Service Training (PST) was a 2-month long process where me and my fellow (then) Peace Corps Trainees (PCTs) learned about Malawian history, culture, issues in regards to the environment and health, and most importantly, language. I’m not sure of how many languages are spoken here, but we all learned either Chichewa, Chitimbuka, Chitonga, or Chilambia. Sessions also included medical, administrative, technical, saftey and security topics.

​The first few days in Malawi were spent at the Malawian Institute of Management (don’t quote me on that name), but the majority of our training took place in a rural, village setting. That means NO running water, NO electricity, and very tiny living quarters. All trainees were posted with their own “homestay family” which provided shelter, food, and much needed cultural integration. The typical homestay family had an “abambo,” or father, “amayi,” or mother, but there were some households without a father. And the family sizes seemed to have varied from three to seven. I had an abambo and an amayi, Clements and Olipa Samalani; two achemwene, or brothers, Gift and Chadrick (both 8- and 5-years old respectively); and one mchemwali, or sister, Eneless (5 months). My parents were in their early thirties, so they were more like my older sister and brother. And a couple trainees actually had parents younger than them. But my family and I built a legit bond and they even had me take “family pictures” with them. I’m hoping to go back and visit them within the next two years.

​They were extremely appreciative when I gave them all going away presents. I gave the little girl a small, stuffed animal (shout out to Rhea Fluker!!!). I gave the two little boys a soccer ball (known as futbol here) and two little motorcycles. I gave my amayi a fancy “chitenje,” or fabric that most women tie around themselves as skirts. And I gave my abambo 5,000 kwacha, which is around $12.50 USD depending on the exchange rate. After giving him the kwacha, he explained that he had wanted to purchase a female goat the day before, but he didn’t have enough to buy it. But with the money I had given him, he could now go and purchase the goat. He said that he would not eat it, but keep it in order to remember me! I told him he should name it Simone ;).

​Looking back at that day makes me think of the first day that I had arrived at the village. I couldn’t even communicate with my homestay family at the time. I remember when I met my abambo’s amayi, my agogo, or grandparent. I was sitting inside the home of my homestay family and other close relatives were coming over to “examine” their new American visitor. (When Peace Corps says volunteers live in a fishbowl, they mean it.) So I’m sitting there, basically in the dark because the sun is going down at this point, and I’m stumbling over basic Chichewa greetings and phrases, when an older lady that resembles Harriet Tubman mixed with the skeleton from “Tales from the Krypt” comes in yelling, “No English! No English!” Then she starts poking herself in the chest with her thumb finger screaming, “Chichewa! Chi-che-WAH!” She then proceeds to give me a stern knod with her head and grumbles a little underneath her breath, and then turns to exit out of the back door. Now at the time, I didn’t know if she was telling me this because she hates Americans or if she wants to make it clear that she doesn’t speak English. Either way, everyone else in the room was dying laughing while I forced a smile on my obviously frightened face.

​From then on I was always nervous to be around her. She made it a point to correct, or rather judge, everything I did. From how I ate nsima (the staple food here) to how I pronouced any word in Chichewa. One night, we had to have spent at least 5-10 minutes going back and forth about how to say “dowe” (pronounced “dough-wey”), or cooked corn on the cob. I would say “dowe” and she would respond by shaking her head and repeating over and over, “doh-weh. DOHHH-WEH!” But little by little, I became more comfortable with the Malawian customs, I learned how to hold a basic conversation in Chichewa, and before you know it my agogo had started to refer to me as “Simone Samalani” :).

I still cannot believe how fast those two months went by. I learned so much during PST and I truely enjoyed every awkward moment that occured during homestay. From the time that I broke my family’s wire clothes line on laundry day to the time I flooded my entire room with water. It was all worth it though because I learned so much from the Peace Corps staff and people in my village, and I’d like to think that they learned a little something from me as well. I’ll never forget the end of a conversation me and my abambo had the night before I was leaving to go to my permanent site. He said, “Because of you, I am sure that God exist. I’ll never forget you. Never forget!”

Chadrick and Gift20140610-082201.jpg

Eneress20140610-082253.jpg

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Agogo Anga (My grandparents)20140610-083257.jpgMy Family’s home (very big for village standards)

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My room 20140610-083420.jpg

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Me and some of the “iwes” (children) in my village20140610-085528.jpg

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The nightly sunset20140610-083654.jpg