On the morning of our first full day in Malawi we started an intensive day of training with three speakers: Medical Officer Evelyn Chibwana, Language and Culture Officer Chrissie Kabaghe and Safety and Security Officer Hector Banda.
I’m learning the national language, Chichewa! Because greetings are so important in Malawian culture, we learned the following phrase first off, and it’s incredible how many times a day I’ve already been able to use it:
Muli bwangi? (You are how?)
Ndili bwino, kaya inu? (I am fine, don’t know you?)
Ndili bwinoso, zikomo. (I am fine also, thank you.)
Zikomo, tiwonana! (Thank you, see you!)
Tiwonana! (See you!)
After our safety and security lecture with Hector we were put to the test – we went to one of the Old Town outdoor markets in Lilongwe, with the objective of walking through without getting pickpocketed. (Half joking.) Hector either walked in front of us or behind us to observe.
We were immediately the centre of attention. I felt like Emma Stone in that scene from Easy A.
I learned another new Chichewa word pretty quick – “mzungu” which means foreigner, or effectively, white person. For the most part, people don’t shout “mzungu” in a mean way; it comes across as more of a call to attention. Most of the locals I’ve met so far have been really friendly and welcoming, true to the country’s “Warm Heart of Africa” tagline. The few times that I have been the target of scowls or catcalls it’s only motivated me to prove my use at the Daily Times when I start on the 23rd even more.
The periphery of the market was wide open, with young Malawian men hawking random items ranging from peanuts to pants alongside the road. The centre of the market was buzzing with activity, with vendors’ stalls squished together in close quarters. The mud path through the stalls zig-zagged and forked, with the occasional block of wood acting as a makeshift bridge over the puddles that had collected as a result of the morning rain. The vendors in the centre of the market were more passive than the hawkers, sitting behind the counters of their stalls, many of them listening to a soccer game that was enthusiastically being broadcast over portable radios.
We emerged out the other side of the market and Omega helped me haggle with a hawker to buy a local cell. Unfortunately I’m going to be hard-pressed to avoid paying “mzungu prices” – typically four to five times the kwacha a local Malawian would be charged for the same product.
After hitting a strip mall shopping centre and happily discovering that most of our favourite North American products will be readily available to us throughout our six month placement, Omega treated us to a celebratory “girls night out” dinner at Buchannan’s Grill. But even with the white tablecloths and gourmet breadsticks it would have been impossible to forget even for a moment why we are here. At a neighbouring table in my line of vision an old white man who had to be over 50 sat across from a young black girl in high heels and a strapless black dress. She couldn’t have been over 18. Omega said the girl was probably a higher-end prostitute, and that it was a common thing to see.
After dinner Omega drove us to the division of area 47 where prostitutes can be found “waiting for the men to finish drinking.” One of the girls in our jeep made a fake cat call, but all I could think of was a Field Notes post by previous JHR trainer Paul Carlucci, Takoradi’s lost daughters, and made a mental note that I could maybe come back here to talk to the girls if I take on a story dealing with the pervasive issue.