After my freshman year of college, I traveled to Zambia through my school, Gonzaga University. I studied the psychology of chimpanzees and the biology of birds and plants in the Copper Belt region of Zambia, about an hour away from a town called Chingola. Malawi shares part of its western border with Zambia, and both were part of the British colony Rhodesia, so the two countries are very similar, as they were both heavily influenced by the British, but Malawians do not speak English as widely as in Zambia. I can’t help but compare my experience in Malawi to my first time outside the USA when I went to Zambia six (!) years ago.
My living conditions and experiences in Zambia were very different from Malawi. In Zambia, we stayed in a camp that was part of Chimfunshi Wildlife Orphanage, so our group was the only group in the compound, and the families of the chimpanzee caretakers lived about a half mile down the road. Beyond that, we were a solid hour away from a town or any other people. Our group cooked our own meals, cleaned and washed our own clothes. We had two outdoor toilets that were glorified holes in the ground. It was rustic but we kept very busy throughout the day. Here in Phalombe, Malawi, the group has a staff of 3-4 people who cook, clean, and wash clothes for us. It’s extremely kind, and we are helping to provide some extra income for these people, but it’s just different from the last experience I had. I hesitate to compare since they are two different programs with different end goals in mind. Additionally, the U of M students are teaching classes 4-5 days a week for most of the day, while the GU students were taking classes for most of the day.
Another difference is that we interacted with the people in Phalombe on a whole other level. I was able to speak with kids in school, teachers at the schools and people in the community about their lives, their aspirations and their struggles. I have experienced what life it like in a rural African country, unlike in Zambia where we were mostly cut off from other people. The town of Phalombe reminds me of an African version of a small town you’d drive through on a road trip in the U.S. It has everything that’s absolutely necessary to survive: clothes, a market, a bicycle repair shop, people selling fresh produce on the side of the road. But people travel to Blantyre to get higher quality products or to find a proper car mechanic.
It was surprisingly easy to fall back into the pattern of adjusted living that comes with staying in southern Africa. I got used to wearing no makeup, not doing my hair and constantly smelling like bug spray much faster than I did when I first traveled to Zambia. Maybe it’s because Zambia was the first country outside of North America that I had been to, and I have traveled quite a lot since then. Or maybe it’s because I’ve already experienced the adjustment, and have missed the adjusted lifestyle. I don’t want to say it’s carefree, because it takes a surprising amount of preparation to be sure you aren’t missing anything when you go out the door. But it’s completely different than the things I need when I leave my house in the states. I absolutely loved daily life in Malawi, despite the occasional water shortage, electricity blackout, or worrying about malaria. I also made some new friends from other places in the USA that I would have otherwise never met. I already miss it!
More to come soon on our trip to Lake Malawi and a safari at Liwonde National Park, where I had a very different interaction with elephants than Amanda did. 🙂