Peace Corps Malawi: Pre-Service Training (pt 1)

Serving in the Peace Corps had been a dream of mine for years. When I first moved to Japan in 2013, I looked a little bit into it. However, I never thought that it could be something that I could actually do; I thought there were too many barriers for it to be a reasonable option for me. Plus, they only take the best: they’d never want someone like me with them, I thought.

Then I met a RPCV (Returned Peace Corps Volunteer) while living in Kushiro, Japan, and had a talk with him. He told me how PC will work with applicants to accommodate needs and interests so Volunteers can have a successful service. Flash forward to 2015: I was living in Tokyo, teaching English one-on-one to adults, and looking for alternatives to my job. I had just finished a mostly unhelpful chat with a career counselor who asked me what I’d want to do if money was no issue. At the time, I dreamed of being a diplomat with the US Department of State…. but I had taken the Foreign Service Officer Test two years prior, and I knew that it was very out of reach for me. So instead, 100% expecting it to be an immediate rejection, I opted to try for the next best thing: I sent in an application to the Peace Corps.

I was shocked when I received an interview request a month or two later… And overjoyed when I received an invitation to serve a mere 8 hours after that. They wanted me to teach English at a university in Ukraine. I began researching Ukraine and getting very excited about the opportunity.

Unfortunately, an invitation to serve in the Peace Corps is contingent upon successfully passing legal and medical clearance. I had had some significant medical-related events occur earlier in the year, so in November, I received a denial of clearance. I appealed, but it was also denied, with the recommendation of trying again in approximately 2-3 years, after a certain period of time had elapsed since the aforementioned events.

You can bet your bottom dollar that, less than an hour after midnight on the day that requirement was fulfilled, I submitted my application again.

This time, things were mostly smooth sailing. I had discovered over the two years waiting that I had a strong interest in doing HIV work in Sub-Saharan Africa, so this time, I applied for an HIV Coordinator position in South Africa. Again, however, medical history thwarted my plans, and SA wasn’t on my pre-approved list of countries where I can serve. Thus, my application got switched to Albania. Then a position for a Community Health Specialist in Malawi opened up, focusing on HIV prevention and support, especially among youth. After a day or two of deliberating, I knew I had to go for it, so I withdrew my application for Albania, amended my Statement of Purpose, and resubmitted it for Malawi.

3 weeks went by with no news, and then I received a confirmation email and an interview request. Another 6 weeks passed before I received an invitation. Let the clearance process begin.

I was extremely anxious about how this would end up. Even though I felt in my bones that it’s what I was meant to do, I didn’t know whether I would be cleared this time. I had multiple evaluation forms completed by health care professionals, I wrote several personal statements and action plans, and I had two friends write letters on my behalf. Then, PC Medical Office HQ had to contact PC Malawi for further information about their ability to provide certain kinds of support. The whole process was nerve-wracking and lasted about 2 or 3 months. Finally, one morning, I woke up to the best email I had received in a long time: I had medical clearance! I was moving to Malawi!!

(I may or may not have had Toto’s “Africa” playing on a loop for the next week or two. Classic song: listen to it here!)

Flash forward again to June 8, 2019. After literally years of anticipation and preparation, I met my cohort in Washington DC for Staging. This is a one-day event where new Trainees meet each other for the first time. We engaged in icebreakers, went over a few general policies, and did some minor mental/emotional prepping and last-minute paperwork. We signed on the dotted line and that was it: I was officially a Peace Corps Trainee!

The next day, we departed on a bus for the airport at around 5am. I had the responsibility for helping people check out of the hotel and check in to their flight correctly. We had a decent wait in the airport before take-off, then boarded a rather long flight to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

(Side story: I had actually visited Addis Ababa a couple of months prior and had a HORRIBLE experience resulting in a last-minute same-day flight fleeing the country for Dubai. I found it somewhat ironic that I had to pass through there again now.)

We arrived in Malawi at Kamuzu International Airport just north of the capital Lilongwe. Some staff and current Volunteers met us, and then we boarded some buses for a hotel. We stayed in the hotel for about 5 days, going over more PC policies, having interviews with staff, and starting to learn the basics of Chichewa, one of the official languages of Malawi (the other being English).

My cohort after a very long 24 hours or so of traveling! (Photo courtesy of Peace Corps Malawi):

Here is a view of the tiny village across the street from the hotel:

Some basic information about Malawi:

  • It’s a small, landlocked country in southeastern Africa, bordered by Tanzania, Zambia, and Mozambique.
  • One of its most famous natural features is Lake Malawi, the third-largest and second-deepest lake in Africa, and home to more species of fish than any other lake in the world.
  • It’s nickname is “The Warm Heart of Africa” due to the kindness and hospitality of its citizens.
  • It consistently ranks in the top 5 poorest countries in the world and is host to countless international and local NGOs and CBOs, focusing on development issues.

The Saturday after arriving, we departed for a small village in Kasungu District, where we met our host families with whom we would live for the remainder of our 10 weeks of Pre-Service Training (PST).

Here is a picture of my host family’s house. My room is on the left, and the main living area plus host parents’ bedroom on the right. The floor of the house is dark because it’s made of mud:

Here is our kitchen and dish area:

Here is our bafa, or bathing area, in the backyard. We have neither electricity nor running water, so we boil water over a cook fire, pour it into a basin, then mix it with cooler water to take a bucket bath every day:

And here is our chimbudzi, or “chim” as we azungus (foreigners) like to say. It’s a pit latrine toilet. It also doubles as a trash pit when there’s something to throw away that we don’t want people to find (because children regularly rifle through the actual trash pit). Fun fact: squatting is uncomfortable.

Every morning, I wake up around dawn to sweep part of the dirt yard free of leaves, twigs, goat poop, and other debris. This is the section I’m responsible for:

I also wash all my clothes by hand now. While some people prefer to do this at home, I like to do it right next to the borehole from which we pump our water. That way, I don’t have to worry about running out of water as I rinse the soap from my clothes. Here is the area for washing clothes:

And here is the aforementioned borehole. I pump two buckets of water and carry them back home, maybe 300 meters, every morning. Women carry the buckets on their head: respect!

My host cousin is a tailor! He regularly makes shirts, dresses, bags, and more for people in the village. The main fabric is called chitenje and is typically brightly-colored with interesting patterns. Women will typically use it for multiple purposes, including carrying babies on their back or hanging up as curtains, but most typically simply wrapping one around their waist like a sarong. Here is my cousin’s shop:

And here is a shirt I had him make out of a chitenje for me:

Families typically live in compounds with members of the extended families. Here is our compound one evening. Our house is behind the fence in the middle; my host grandparents’ house is on the left, with my tailor cousin’s shop on the right. His house with his parents and siblings are behind his shop:

It’s a tradition in PC Malawi for new female Trainees to buzz-cut their hair. Women in Malawi, especially in rural areas, typically have buzzed hair, so Trainees often do it for solidarity. It also cuts down on washing and styling! (Photo courtesy of PC Malawi):

One Saturday, PC took us to Kasungu market for banking and shopping. Here are pictures of the market:

In Malawi, death is an unfortunate frequent occurrence. Health care is a struggle for most people, and malaria and HIV is a very common killer. As such, coffin-makers abound:

The candy itself wasn’t so great, but it was worth it for the wrapper:

Bicycle taxis are a very common mode of transportation for people here!

Peace Corps has repurposed many churches in our village to use as classrooms during the weekdays. Here is the church that my host family and I typically attend (more on church services next time):

This is the church where my health sector technical training takes place:

And here is the view from the back of the church where all of the big group sessions are held:

On the Fourth of July, Peace Corps held a celebration for us. Our amayis (host mothers) brought our lunches to the main education hall, where we had a potluck. One of my fellow Trainees gave a speech about America, and we sang the national anthem. Then, as a pleasant surprise, the Malawian staff (mostly comprised as teachers for language and technical training) sang the Malawian national anthem! It was all surprisingly moving and a lot of fun!

Every morning, after doing my chores of sweeping the dirt, fetching water, etc., I have two+ hours of Chichewa training. One day, our teacher told us we’d play a game: Spin The Bottle! My classmates and I were mortified…. until we learned that the Malawian version is merely spinning a bottle to land on a paper containing a Chichewa word, then making a sentence with that word. Phew!!!

An example of written Chichewa. It’s a dialogue of a general self-introduction: name, age, country of origin, work, etc.:

Malawi is also home to many terrifying insects and wildlife. I almost walked smack dab into this not-so-little guy one night while walking to the chim. He was probably about 2.5 inches in length:

Such is life for my first six or so weeks kuno ku Malawi (here in Malawi). Coming soon: evangelical church services, site announcements, Peace Corps Prom, and more!

One thought on “Peace Corps Malawi: Pre-Service Training (pt 1)

  1. Interesting and enjoyable morning reading for Dad and I to share. An amazing story! It is fun to learn more about Malawi and the culture through your eyes. We are proud of you and what you are doing. You make a difference! ❤️ Mom and Dad

    Like

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