Learning from Challenges

When people write about their experiences abroad, I think they generally shy away from sharing what’s difficult. I could too—I could easily write about my fabulous weekend at Cape Maclear swimming in Lake Malawi, or the great morning I had last week planting trees with Malawian youth. But it’s important to talk about what’s challenging while volunteering in a developing country, especially since every challenge is an opportunity to learn.

Here’s a basic example: today I went grocery shopping, which can be a trial, especially since it usually involves a walk through the market and four minibuses, round trip. On my way back from the grocery store, as I climbed into a minibus, the minibus caller said what I’m pretty sure were unkind things about me in Chichewa. Other passengers around me laughed, and I blushed, unable to understand what was said. When I got off the bus with my heavy backpack full of groceries (including 5L of bottled water, because the tap water at my residence is a strange milky colour), it was pouring. And of course, a truck drove through a huge puddle by the side of the road and sprayed dirty water all over me and my favourite blouse. I sighed and trudged for fifteen minutes through the slippery mud to get home.

It wasn’t the best morning I’ve ever had. But what can I learn from it? I know now how uncomfortable it can be to be the only one who doesn’t understand, and if I ever see someone in Canada in a similar situation to me on the minibus, I’ll have the courage to stick up for them. I know I should probably give up wearing white in Malawi during the rainy season (And that clean clothes may sometimes be a vanity that you can’t afford.) I know that I am privileged enough to have the money to buy all the heavy groceries in my backpack, special foods that I don’t really need to survive like cheese and Nutella. Plus, the women walking past me through the mud with giant packages balanced precariously on their heads probably had loads heavier than me, and were probably going farther, too.

Generally, though, my most significant challenges are not about the lack of material comforts. I’m not bothered by eating rice five nights a week, or going without hot showers, or sleeping in a bunk bed, or sweeping bugs off the counter before starting dinner. The hardest things are a little deeper and a little more personal than that.

First, there are feelings of isolation and loneliness working and living alone at the compound where I’m staying. I was so curious to see what life is like in a place where everyone knows everyone’s business and there is a sense of community and collectivity stronger than there is at home, but when you live behind a gate and are clearly set apart from those in your neighbourhood, you are not part of that world. And because the organization I work for is operating with a skeleton staff, most of my work days are spent alone. But isolation and loneliness carry lessons, too. I know now that I need to look for a career with enough human interaction to keep me happy and sane, and here in Malawi, the desire to connect with people drives me to seek out human contact and makes me more extroverted when I am out in the world.

Second, I’m struggling to find the guidance and information I need to complete my projects at work. I knew that the pace of work in Malawi would be one of the biggest challenges for me—a determined workaholic who values efficiency above all—and it has been. Again, though, there are lessons here. When I am frustrated by my supervisor’s unavailability and I feel like I can’t move forward with my work, I’m learning resourcefulness, persistence, and patience as I adapt and find alternate ways to continue.

Taking hardships as challenges—issues to address, opportunities to learn—instead of just problems to complain about has really helped me feel positive about my internship so far. Things aren’t always easy here, but then again, I didn’t come to Malawi because it was going to be easy.

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(Lake Malawi is really beautiful, by the way)

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