Before arriving in Malawi, I am ashamed to admit that the only thing I knew about Malawi was that Madonna adopted a child from here and that it was a very poor nation. In order that my friends and loved ones may avoid this ignorance, I’d like to share some facts about the “warm heart of Africa.”

It’s a skinny little country in south-eastern Africa surrounded by Tanzania to the north, Zambia and Zimbabwe to the west and Mozambique to the south and east. Its capital is Lilongwe, which is centrally located.  I am in Blantyre, which is in the south, and holds over 4 million people. The total population is about 14.3 million. AIDS is quite a problem, and to make the situation worse, there is only one doctor for every 50,000 people. In England, there is one doctor for about every 1,800 people…big difference. Not sure on the numbers in the U.S., but I’m guessing it’s even better than England. The country was founded by a Scottish missionary in 1859. In 1891, the Brits took over. In 1966, full independence was granted to the Republic of Malawi…not all that long ago.

Fast forward to 2010. About 80 percent of Malawians are Christian. The official languages are English and Chichewa. People gather water from pumps which can be several miles away from their homes. The women have the job of collecting water in buckets and carrying it home on their heads, often many miles, several times a day, without shoes. Most people walk or ride a bike because they cannot afford a car. The streets are mostly made of dirt. Homes range from cinder block structures with tin roofs and mud floors to mud, straw and bamboo structures in the more rural areas. Many areas of the city have electricity, but there is often not enough to power the whole city, especially around dinner time, so at about 6 or 6:30 every evening, the power turns off for several hours leaving the city in darkness. The latest it ever stays light until is 7 pm in the summer. Right now it gets dark by about 6. Candles are used to light the booths in the market. It is common to see little girls about 5 years old carrying their 1-year-old or 3-year-old sibling on their backs. The children are often left to fend for themselves during the days because their parents must work and cannot pay anyone to watch after them. Needless to say, they grow up pretty quickly.

In the more rural areas, you feel as if you have taken a ride in a time machine back to primitive times. The women gather at the streams to wash clothes; logs, buckets of water and bags of rice or maize are perched on top of people’s heads; the babies are carried on the women’s backs (chitenje or chitonga); chickens, goats and cows run freely in the streets often blocking the roads; carts are pulled by oxen; meals are cooked over open fire; men hammer away to create mud molds which will eventually be bricks; women sit on the ground and peel beans and husk maize; children sit in small bamboo huts to guard the farms against intruding cows that might try to disturb their maize. When we drive through, many of the children excitedly yell “azungu” (white people) and wave and chase our car until their little legs can’t run any further. When we arrive, we are greeted by a welcome committee and children singing songs of praise to God and welcome to us. I am humbled beyond belief and almost always have to fight back tears (so far I have failed in this respect).

The children are very creative. They create soccer balls out of plastic bags that are melted and scrunched together and play chengelegele (sp?) by rolling a circular object like a tire and chasing it or moving it along with a stick. They know little English, but the children and adults alike know more in urban areas than those in the rural areas who have even less exposure to education.

I have embarrassed myself trying to speak to the people in their language. Although I can only give simple greetings, the people smile broadly and clearly appreciate my efforts. Frank, our translator, now introduces me as their half-Malawian sister (haha). Chichewa words I have learned so far:

  • Zabo (hello)
  • Muli bwanji? (How are you?) *used anytime
  • Fine, and you? (Ndili bwino, kaya inu?)
  • Mwazudka bwanji? (How are you) *this is used as a ‘good morning;’ used before noon
  • Musuela bwanji? (How are you?) *this is said as a ‘good evening;’ used after noon
  • Shab shab (Okay) *this is said while giving the thumbs up sign
  • Ehya (yes), ayi (no)
  • Moni (hello/good morning)
  • Zikomo kwamgiri (Thank you very much)\
  • Takulandilani (Welcome)
  • Dkondwa (I’m happy [to meet you])
  • Puno (ears); liso (eyes); mano (teeth); sisi (hair)
  • Tako (butt)<-proof that little boys are ornery no matter what country you’re in
  • Muana (baby)
  • Kugongola (beautiful)
  • God Bless You (Mulungu Akodalitseni)

Despite the hardships that most Malawians face (98% unemployment), they are a friendly, faith-filled and resilient people. I have always felt completely safe and very welcomed. They constantly express their gratitude and offer whatever food they have as a sign of appreciation. They gather together in each other’s homes to sing, dance and praise God. They work hard each day to survive. I am in awe of their ways, and inspired by their strength. I am so glad I have had the chance to experience the warm heart of Africa, for its people are so true to its name.

Gathering water at the stream in Shire Valley