Some things I learned in Malawi…

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I’ve spent the last week in Malawi with my company, onebillion, registering children in a new school for our Masamu maths programme. Here are a few of the things I’ve learned from my experiences in Malawi…

  1. How to get by with about 20 words of Chichewa:

For those of you who, like me, think you have to be C2 standard in a language for it to be worthwhile, you’d be surprised how much difference a few words can make. When you’re in Malawi, be sure to greet everyone with ‘mwadzuga bwanji’ (good morning) or even better, ‘muli bwanji?’ (how are you?) which is almost an obsession amongst Malawians, who constantly ask you how you are, and get offended if you forget to do so in return. Reply with ‘ndiri bwino’ (I’m fine).

It also helps to be able to use a few basic words and phrases with the kids (‘zinanda?’ or ‘dzina lanu?’ for ‘what’s your name?’ were a lifesaver), or telling them not to do something with the handy construction ‘osa(panga) x’ (don’t (do) x). (Osagwira – don’t touch – is a useful one!) A few numbers, colours and simple objects don’t go amiss either. No matter how bad your Chichewa, very simple one or 2 word commands seem to get through to kids there.

Saying ‘inde’ or ‘eya’ for yes and ‘ayi’ for no is pretty useful too.
Finally, being polite is very important to Malawians, so knowing zikomo (thanks), chonde (please) and pepani (sorry) is nice, as well as greeting with muli bwanji and saying something like ‘tiwonana’ (see you later) when you leave, is a good idea.

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  1. How to blend in (ish) with Malawi culture:

Ok, the likelihood of me blending in with my somewhat mozzarella-coloured skin is unlikely! But observing a few customs is important so as to be polite and respectful. Make sure you greet people politely as I said above. And make sure you dress correctly. Women should wear long skirts and cover up their chest and shoulders, generally speaking. Long, colourful skirts and dresses are very popular and look really nice. In schools, teachers tend to dress smartly as a sign of status, so it’s best to follow their example and wear a long skirt and plain shirt (for females) or shirt and tie for men. Sensible shoes are also best.
Dealing with Malawian toilets was an, errr, interesting experience for us. At Ngwenya school, they consist of a VERY small hole in a dark little cupboard room. Trying to, ahem, aim in that small and dark space is a challenge to say the least. I strongly recommend carrying wipes and hand sanitiser around with you, as sinks and especially soap are uncommon!

Also be aware of certain cultural differences. Men and women don’t hold hands, but two men might. Avoid PDAs and revealing outfits. Politeness is very important and people are very friendly and hospitable. Be friendly back! It’s also normal to discipline kids quite harshly – they are kept under control by teachers with sticks, and even some kids are given sticks to beat unruly classmates.

People seem to get quite angry if you try to take photos of them or their shops etc without asking, so perhaps avoid that or at least ask very politely. Or take a photo from the car and run, haha (probably not recommended). Kids on the other hand, go mental when they see a camera and followed me around endlessly shouting ‘tajambula, tajambula’ (take a picture), or ‘chinganso’ (one more) every time they saw me with my camera. Best to tell them ‘ayi’ (no) and walk away when they get too over-excited.

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  1. Appreciation for what we have:

Yes it sounds like a clichee. I don’t really go in for a lot of ‘write down a list of things you’re grateful for’ stuff, but going to a third world country like that does make you think. People in Lilongwe are not starving or unhealthy – in fact they seem healthy and happy, but they do have much, much less than even the poorest of us in the UK. Having a few days without your creature comforts of wifi, electricity, drinking water from a tap, running water to wash with and proper toilets and showers is a useful learning experience. I certainly appreciate a hot shower, flushing loo and readily-available charger for my iphone a lot more now.

That said, it also teaches you to think about what really matters. Perfect hair and make-up don’t matter in Malawi. No one cares if your iphone is (gasp) only a 4. Most people have never used a computer, ipad or iphone, so they simply don’t miss stuff like that. So they spend time out and about, with friends and relatives, actually talking, visiting places and people face to face and working or studying using whatever they do have.

When you realise after a day or two that no one notices that you haven’t straightened your hair, you’re completely make-up free and you haven’t shaved (sorry for the info), it’s strangely liberating. In Malawi, no one is judging your (read my) slightly messy hair, bad skin or old clothes at all. Actually they are judging your manners and personality for a change! I loved this. I don’t particularly follow fashion and my beauty regime is pretty woeful, but I’d be lying if I said I don’t care at all about my appearance or put any effort into it. I’m not saying we should all start walking around totally scruffy, but it puts society’s obsession with perfectly straightened hair and caked-on makeup into perspective. Ok, so someone sees your real face for a change – so what? Maybe we could start putting more effort into the things that matter to Malawians – working hard, providing for your family, caring for your relatives and having fun with your friends face to face. I’m certainly all for that, although my Facebook and iPhone habits might die a hard death.

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  1. Some interesting quirks about Chichewa language:

Finally, a few little tidbits about Chichewa that I find pretty cool.

  • You pluralise most words by putting ‘ma’ on the front. So ‘keke’ (cake) becomes ‘makeke’ (cakes), duwa (flower) becomes ‘maluwa’ (flowers) and ‘dzira’ (egg) becomes ‘madzira’ (eggs). This doesn’t apply to quite all nouns, as some like ‘chule’ (frog) or ‘mpaka’ (cat) take just an ‘a’ prefix (achule, amphaka…)
  • You can make anything into the negative or ‘don’t form, by adding ‘osa’ to the front. ‘Osagwira’ (don’t touch), ‘osapanga’ (don’t do x) or ‘osagona’ (don’t sleep) for example.
  • You can say something ‘again’ by adding ‘anso’ to the end. Hence ‘-gwira’ (touch) becomes ‘-gwiranso’ (touch it again), ‘panga’ (do) becomes ‘panganso’, ‘-yesera’ (try) becomes ‘-yesanso’ and ‘tawona’ (look) becomes ‘tawonanso’. I find this one pretty neat.
  • Pronoun markers are pretty cool. You add ‘ndi’ to the front of a word for ‘I’ or ‘mu’ for you. Hence ‘ndikupita’ (I go) and ‘mukupita’ (you go).

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