I have been in Malawi for a week. The places I’ve explored, stories I’ve heard, and lessons I’ve learned in the thus far have caused me to reflect more than I usually do about life. I am not one to write in places other than my trusty grid-lined moleskin, but there is something special about archiving the experiences in a shareable platform. Bear with me in my attempts to articulate my experiences of traveling alone. Here we go…
There is this magical and grown-up-feeling about traveling alone for the first time. With my passport and boarding passes in hand, I felt like the world was at my fingertips. There has been more time than I thought possible to think about myself and my life than I anticipated. There has also been more time than I thought possible to learn about the world that happens outside my own bubble. I have been alone much of this trip, but never lonely. This trip has taken me to new airports, neighborhoods resembling nothing I’ve ever seen before, bustling hospitals, and beautifully humbling landscapes. This trip has fostered new friendships and given me faith in humanity. And it’s only been a week.
I’ve found that long layovers in the international terminal of a foreign airport is great for people watching and endless pondering. On the long haul of a flight from Washington to South Africa, I sat next to a woman from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Bibiche. We talked for about an hour and a half about conflict in the Congo, her strong faith, empowering other women, and legacies that we can leave behind with our work. I am not a religious person in the slightest but I felt connected to her – her kindness and openness were welcoming in the face of this new adventure. It was then that I had met the first wonderful person of this trip.
Upon arrival in Lilongwe, Malawi, I met some Americans in customs who were living in Cincinnati and were part of a trip to build a school via GE. Even half way across the world, Ohio remains a prevalent and strong force. I cleared customs, collected my bags, and headed out to meet my ride. While leaving, I heard a “Go Bucks!” from across the hall – again, it really is Ohio against the world. This group of Americans come back into my trip about a week later. I was met at the airport by a very tall and thin German epidemiologist, Steffen, and his daughter. She was six years old and had made me a handmade sign greeting me at the airport. I would soon learn that Steffen is a man of few words but when he does speak, his words hold much brevity. Steffen moved to Malawi about a year ago to work on epidemiology research full time. The work of him and his team impacts the public good of the community of Malawi. Steffen welcomed me to Malawi and set up as many learning experiences with his team as possible. I did not want to be a burden on the work of his team but he made sure that I would be hands on and contributing rather than just taking up space.
Throughout the last week, I have been shadowing public health workers from the Malawi Epidemiology Intervention Research Unit (MEIRU). With them, I’ve experienced poverty stricken neighborhoods and desolate hospitals. With them, I’ve also experienced the kindest people in these settings. Lawrence, one of the interviewers for house visits, showed me the ropes of the day-to-day life in these areas of Malawi and taught me about the culture and customs, as well as some Chichewa, the native tongue of central and southern Malawi. During my time shadowing, I had a brilliant conversation with a pastor named John about corruption in the government of Malawi and of the hope and happiness of the people here despite it. What stood out most to me is that even in the face of political and economic hardship, people here are still trying their best to share what they have and to welcome anyone with open arms. The world is full of wonderful people.
Aubrey, a researcher at MEIRU, gave me a tour of the Kamuzu Central Hospital, KCH. The conditions were unlike anything I had ever seen in the US healthcare system. I was taken aback and found myself wanting to make it better, or at least what I thought would make it better. These thoughts were ones that I had been having throughout my experiences of the past week and I had to continuously check myself and those thoughts. My culture may be different but that does not make it better. We each can learn from the other. One of the patients we interviewed at KCH for a study was a Rwandan refugee. She did not speak any English or Chichewa and had her granddaughter translating for her. I found that I admired this woman, despite our language barriers. Her strength and dedication to her family, safety, and prosperity in the face of a genocide were prevalent in the ways that her son and granddaughter respected and loved her. I do not know her name or the exact details of her story but I know she has left an impact on how I think about hardship. I can learn how to persevere from stories like hers.
Within Lilongwe, I have been staying in a hotel/hostel called Korea Garden Lodge. The staff are warm and welcoming and have become some of my good friends here in Malawi in the past week. I chat with them over meals and even went hiking with one over the weekend. The Lodge has a wide array of people coming in an out – older Europeans, traveling during their retirement; young Americans, post Peace Corps and other volunteering treks, hoping to leave an impact bigger than themselves; African families on holiday with their kids in beautiful Malawi. The group of Americans from GE that I met at the airport stayed at the Lodge on their last night in Malawi. I bonded immediately with them over Ohio State and mutual friends and stayed up late drinking and laughing with them. I am one to make friends wherever I go and thus I have heard some intriguing stories and had stimulating controversial conversations over meals with other travelers. The world is full of wonderful people.
The markets of Malawi are a hectic and bustling center of activity in each area. I couldn’t help but explore after shadowing one day. While bopping around town, I was approached by three Malawian men. I nervously said I was in a rush but they were kind and we were outside in public so I did not see the harm in chatting for a few. Many Malawians, especially kids, had been enthralled with me as a foreign visitor over the week, and I had quite enjoyed sharing stories from the States. As we chatted, the guys, named Mike, Respect, and Masias, shared stories from the northern district of Karonga, their home originally. They taught me how to play a very popular game within Malawi called the Bao game, and showed me their paintings.
After an hour of hanging out, I had to go home but not without playing one final round of the Bao game and buying a painting. I later was frustrated with myself that I had originally thought that any stranger who approached me was a threat. We grow up in the States thinking that it is me vs them and that everyone is out to get me. That simply isn’t true. Yes, there are some bad people in the world and it is good to be cautious. On the contrary, it is also true that the world is full of wonderful people, but only if you open your heart and mind and let them in.
The past week in Malawi has taught me a lot. I am sure the next three will teach me even more. Before coming here, I had a preconceived notion of what a less developed country and its people would be like. I was wrong. There is a tendency as members of the developed world to distance ourselves from “others”. But the fact of the matter is that we must see ourselves in one another. There is more that bridges our great divide than that which seemingly distances us. It is only through sharing that we begin to see ourselves in all stories, making the divide between our worlds seem less daunting. There are wonderful people all around, if we just choose to look outside of our biases and challenge what we are used to. Maybe my altruistic view that the world is not entirely bad is optimistic and naïve. I am incredibly aware that altruism will not save the world. But it might help make it better. And in the end, that’s what matters – leaving the world a little brighter than when you first arrived.
The world is full of wonderful people.