Friday, May 15, 2009


The markets of Lilongwe were a dry brush whipping away the chalk board lines of perceptions in my mind. No matter how much preparation I underwent, no matter how many articles I read in the early hours of the morning in the EWB house, no matter how many other volunteers I spoke with nothing could have prepared me for the sensory overload that was day one of in country training.

Day one: the market. The task? Scavenger hunt/on the ground on your feet learning.

The streets of Lilongwe are animated and lively; the city has a very organic feeling to it. Activity abounds on every street corner and every side street contains a rich narrative to learn from. The lesson that I learned? I am extremely out of place. I do not understand Lilongwe but I feel that Lilongwe understand me. She has seen my kind before - the wide eyed North American White Boy who walks her streets as a deer gazed by the headlights of its executioner. I stick out like a sore thumb in the way that I conduct myself and each interaction is full of mistakes – mistakes I hope to learn from! My knowledge of the local language is a mere trick bag, a few phrases and words that cannot sustain a conversation. But Lilongwe is happy to speak with me; those who walk her streets speak English and are willing to overlook my lapses in their language (Chichewa) and are in fact quite helpful. I hope that in my interactions I am as happy to listen as she is to speak. When exploring a clinic Vicki (U of R, IDE in Zambia), Colleen (U of S, District Assembly in Malawi) and I were approached by an extremely outgoing Malawian who insisted he teach us not only about Chichewa but also about Canada! He told us a story of how Christopher Columbus discovered Canada and the natives called the land "Kanada" and that it meant "our land". It may not be the most adept understanding of the history of Canada's discovery or its name but it was interesting to hear about home from a new friend.

Navigating the market became fairly easy but understanding it remained difficult. An immense network of human activity - deals, sales, shouting, laughing.... living! - abounded. Who are all these people? What are their stories? Where are they from? Stalls outside of more formalized shops make up the main street - fabric stores, tailors, food stores, wholesalers, currency changers, cell phone stores, and a massive mosque are just a few of the buildings you may see on the street. The "ZAIN" cell phone network signs are everywhere... mainly shops and buildings are painted bright paint. The ZAIN insignia boldly highlighting the building's pink paint job. But it was time to enter the real market; an interlocking framework of wooden shacks with vendors selling everything from chips (fried potatoes) to pirated DVDs. This market sprawls around the river - complete with its own set of twenty kwacha "private bridges". There was a plethora of produce too - bananas, tomatoes, avocado.... Crafts like necklaces were found around too. On the other side of the river was more of a flea market. Vendors carried items such as cell phone covers, cigarettes, towels, shirts (some of which had value village tags on them! - second hand clothes from North America are a common commodity brought over in bails), and practically anything else you could imagine were laid out on cardboard mats or on cloth sheets or under wooden roofs. Another experience was when my friend Colleen tripped - the near by woman laughed and told me to "look after" my wife.

Understanding the city of Lilongwe isn’t something I can accomplish in two days, or even three months. Learning the language isn’t something that can be done in a day. Integrating and living the local life is something I will be hard pressed to do in my three and a half month placement. I am now awake to the idea that there is no room for comfort zones and that for me to truly understand, learn, and grow I need to constantly challenge myself and push my boundaries. This awakening was a warm up – the pump has been primed. I hope to continue my cultural learning and to learn from my mistakes each day. I have arrived in Malawi and will soon be heading to Zambia with a heart full of a genuine desire to learn and to understand.

Until next time,


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