You know when you watch the news and the weather reporter points at the green screen behind her to a mass of swirling, chaotic colours that represent an incoming storm system?
Well, that green screen is my brain. A cerebral vortex, if you will.
Today’s day 3 in Malawi, and so far the most consistent emotion I’ve felt during my trip has been, in a word, “overwhelmed.” A delayed flight from Toronto meant that I missed my connection in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to Lilongwe, Malawi. (It also meant I spent the 12 hour flight in restless sleep worrying about what would happen in Addis when we missed our connection.) Ethiopian Airlines, in fact, put us in a lovely hotel for the day and night in Addis until we flew out a day later. My travel partner Yanara and I explored the city, and that’s where the storm in my brain began to brew.
In the marketplace: a pathway made up rubble and garbage. A trio of schoolboys, maybe six or seven, asking us, “One money?” with big smiles. Ladies calling at us from their stalls to come in. Men offering to find us anything we needed. Later, driving down a crowded street, our driving telling us to lock our doors. The same driver pulling a U-turn and creating a space for his truck where previously there was none.
Upon our arrival in Malawi, Yanara and I have had the kindest welcome from the WUSC Malawi staff and other volunteers here in Lilongwe. A volunteer who has been here for four months, Katie, showed us around the city yesterday: we went to church, to an outdoor pool, to her house for dinner, to a jazz concert, and to another volunteer’s house to play board games—a typical Sunday in the life of a Lilongwe expat?
Today we had orientation with WUSC, and highlights included an introduction to Chichewa (the main language spoken in Malawi), riding a minibus (a claustrophobic, hilarious experience to be recounted at a later date), and walking through the marketplace (which included a venture across a terrifyingly rickety bridge over a river).
So much to take in, so much to process. At the sensory and practical levels: What exactly is that smell, and when will the power come back on? How do I walk on sidewalks with gaping holes, or cross the street by manoeuvering between cars? How do I beat jet lag quickly and take all the necessary precautions against malaria? At the intellectual level: what are the stories of the people I’m meeting? How well are development projects working for people here? What do I think is the appropriate role or conduct of an “expat” or volunteer in Malawi? How do I deal with the stark difference between my life and the lives of many I will meet? All I have are questions right now.
In Addis, Yanara and I spent time with another Canadian student, John-Luke, delayed due to a missed connection to Johannesburg. John-Luke had previously worked in Ghana and Burkina Faso for some time. Upon hearing it was our first time in Africa, he said to us, “You’ll never see the world the same way again.”
Already, I believe him.