Malawi: You can laugh. You can cry. But you cannot be indifferent.

On my last Sunday in Malawi, my friend Tom invited me to see his house and meet his family. Tom is a security guard at the compound where I live, and he also works as a tailor; we international volunteers have gotten to know him as we discuss designs of skirts and take measurements for pants made from chitenje material. He makes clothing as extra income to supplement his salary as a guard—with every new item we commission, he told me, he buys another iron sheet for the roof of his house.

In the heat of the afternoon, I met Tom at a fork in the main red dirt road of our neighbourhood. I spotted him easily: Tom is tall and lanky, and that day he was wearing his church outfit of a clean, pressed white shirt, a brightly patterned red tie, and black dress pants and shoes. He led me into what he called the “village,” though it’s still an urban area—through towering green stalks of shining maize and past small huts with happy children playing outside. Finally we reached his house, a light brown square with a bright blue door and a haphazard tin roof.

“My home!” he told me.

“Nyumba!” I replied. Home! One of the handful of nouns I know in Chichewa. We laughed and he invited me inside.

He offered me the one seat with a cushion and sank into another chair himself. His three children (and various neighbours’ children) paraded in and out of the room, kneeling beside me to shake my hand and pay their respects to the azungu who had ventured to a place where few foreigners are seen. I was introduced to Tom’s wife, Fanny, who went out to purchase Coke and cookies for the occasion.

Tom and his family
Tom and his family

Tom told me about building this house for his family, how he had saved and saved for the construction, how he was able to purchase the last sheets for the roof just in time for the rainy season. Tom has big dreams: he wants to connect his house to the electrical grid, which he estimates will cost him 35,000 kwacha. He wants to get a passport so that he can work in South Africa, where job prospects are better—though it costs 15,000 to apply for one. But it’s pretty difficult to save for these dreams, he told me, when his salary is only 13,000 kwacha a month—the equivalent of about $35.

With every struggle he described, he stretched his arms wide and then clapped his hands together, beaming a bright white smile at me and in the direction of his future. “Here in Malawi, it is hard,” he chuckled, “but if I work hard, and if God wills it, it can happen.”

Tom’s attitude–one of possibility and joy, even in the face of challenges–is present all over Malawi. On one occasion, my other Canadian friends and I decided that the slogan of the country could be Malawi: You can only laugh. We found ourselves laughing often, and so do Malawians. As I was told by the country director of WUSC Malawi when I first arrived, “Malawians are not as miserable as the BBC shows us to be.” The Malawians I met take great pleasure in happy music, sharing with their communities, and enjoying the beauty of their country.

We, too, decided that as visitors to Malawi, we could only laugh at the hilarity, the absurdity, and the joyfulness of the country. I could only laugh when my friends and I drove around a village for half an hour getting more and more lost because none of the Malawians we asked for directions wanted to disappoint us by telling us we were going the wrong way. I could only laugh when I waited forty-five minutes in line in the bank without even accomplishing my task. I could only laugh as we stood on the shores of Lake Malawi at night, stars shining brightly overhead and the lights of fishing boats twinkling on the horizon, reggae music and happy voices somewhere in the distance.

Yet sometimes it felt wholly inappropriate to laugh in the face of human struggle I came across there. Sometimes I thought to myself instead: Malawi: You can only cry.

I could only cry when I walked to the market nearest to my house one afternoon and purchased an avocado for ten cents from a girl who could not have been more than eight years old. The other children in my neighbourhood were full of life, with sparkling eyes and bright smiles like kids should have, but this little girl’s eyes were dull as she recited to me the prices of her wares. She had no sense of play or mischievousness; she was working, a child labourer like so many in Malawi who cannot go to school because they are needed to make an income for their family or themselves.

I could only cry when I spent an evening reading about fistula in Malawi, a preventable obstetric issue that occurs when pregnant women—especially girls—cannot access medical care during childbirth. Women suffer fistula when there are complications in labour, particularly when the mother’s body is not mature enough to give birth, and it is linked to poverty and early pregnancies. Fistula happens around Malawi, and as I read about it I thought about all the young girls with babies strapped to their backs that I saw every day in my neighbourhood. At first I thought: What helpful older sisters! And then I realized that no, these young girls were mothers, and much of the rest of their lives would be taken up by child-rearing and domestic work. I know that, statistically, their lives are likely to be much shorter than mine.

I could only cry after I hosted two refugee students for lunch in Blantyre and I reflected on what they had told me: how they needed to hide their status as refugees from their peers when attending a Malawian high school for fear of being shunned, or how the lack opportunities for young people living in the refugee camp makes life seem small and hopeless. I will always remember Amelie looking me straight in the eye and saying, with a gravity and weariness far beyond her 18 years, “I’m tired of being a refugee.”

And I could only cry after I returned from Tom’s house, knowing that as he spent precious funds to share Coke and cookies with me, the esteemed guest, I sat on the one cushioned chair in his home and had more than twice his monthly salary sitting in my bag beside me. I didn’t have his same faith that made it possible to laugh. I felt instead an overwhelming sense of guilt and disgust at what I have but don’t really need.

Since I’ve been back in Canada—only two weeks, though Malawi seems like a lifetime ago—so many people have asked me: “How was Malawi?” And it’s a difficult question, unless they have a long time to sit and listen to me explain, and maybe to hear me both laugh and cry. How do I tell them that while I was there, it was sometimes hard, but now I miss it so much it hurts? How do I make people understand that Malawi broke my heart and made it whole at the same time?

Malawi: You can laugh. You can cry. But you cannot be indifferent. I cannot be indifferent to what life is like in Malawi. And nor can you, dear reader. If you’re reading this in Canada and have never travelled to a country like Malawi, I can understand that these stories might seem far away and irrelevant to your daily life. But if you think that your world and the worlds of people like Tom and Amelie don’t intersect, then you’re not thinking about the labourers who pick your bananas, or the women who sew your cheap-but-stylish clothing, or the villagers who have been displaced by mining activities that produce the coltan in your cell phone. Because the thing is, it’s not “my world” and “their world”—we’re all part of the same world and the same global systems. People around the planet are connected, though some clearly benefit and others clearly suffer from those connections.

One of the last Malawian sunsets I saw
One of the last Malawian sunsets I saw

Sometimes I get pretty upset when I think about how messed up this world seems to be and how little I feel like I can do about it. Here’s the thought that keeps me going, though: people made the world this way, which means that people also have the power to recreate it into something equitable, beautiful, and just. I can only hope. We can only try.

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