“I am the anti-Midas”/Picking up the pieces

A long, long time ago, Midas was a king who had the ability to turn everything he touched into gold. The moral of the story proved to be very disheartening but that isn’t what this post is about. This post is about how I’ve become the anti-Midas. Everything that I touch becomes ruined.

One of the common JF frustrations that I’ve heard about is harbouring expectations of how they will contribute only to realize that they cannot contribute meaningfully in the short amount of time their placements last. I had thought that since I had no expectations from myself for this JF placement than the bare minimum, I was effectively shielding my ego and mind from potential disappointment.

I’ve now realized that a new problem has arisen with that kind of thinking. I’ve set the bar so low for myself that I’m supremely disappointed – and even ashamed – of my personal efforts.

Upon the realization that I’ve been in this country for a month already, I’ve compiled a list of things that struck me as the results of inadequate effort on my part (in that I really could’ve tried harder and these are not affected by externalities)

  1. My Chichewa sucks. For having been immersed in the language for a month, I think it should be better than what it is and I know that I haven’t been trying as much as I could.
  2. Progress on work has been underwhelmingly stellar. I really didn’t have much expectations for myself but I thought that we’d be beyond JUST a plan by now. A plan that we wrote up in the first week that I was here. And I KNOW that there are more ways that I could’ve pushed progress if I hadn’t been such a scaredy cat.
  3. Sometimes talking to people is like bashing my head against the wall. I’m realizing the limits of my communication skills. I simply do not have enough patience sometimes or the tact to diplomatically broach sensitive topics and navigate the politically charged waters.
  4. Laziness is a chronic illness. Lately I’ve just been so demotivated. And I have no legitimate reason as to why I’m not trying my best every day.

In other words… I suck.

The disparaging content above was actually written a week ago.
Things have changed since then. Most importantly, my perception has changed.

The great thing about the EWB venture (WASH Catalyst + WASH Coordination) team in Malawi is the unbelievable support. And so when I was feeling so very low, I had people to help me pick up the pieces and move forward.

I still have some reservations about work. Communication at home and at the office is still difficult. Self-motivation is still a daily challenge but the important thing is that I can accept the good days with the not-so-good days in stride. One of my fellow Malawian JFs, Brett, gave me a great tip in counting at least one win every day. So I’ve started to do that.

Today is similarly a disappointing kind of day but I can count at least one win.

Today’s Win:  I have data from my field outing on Friday that can be analysed. 

Some of the WASH team support network plus myself

Quick post about everything Malawian that is also Korean

– Squatting on the toilet sometimes
– Using respectful pronouns
– Prevalence of traditional gender roles
– Homophobia
– Using both hands to shake
– Using both hands to give and receive money
– Everything and anything can be bought at the market
– Paying for highschool
– TB
– (Almost) everybody goes to church
– Food is sold on the road to passing cars
– So. Much. Street. Food.
– #formercolonyrepresent

Today’s culture shock: There is a kind of internal brain drain in the country in that the NGOs pay so much better than the government and therefore attract more talent. The result is a very different power landscape than Canada.


I’ve been at the village for a full week now. And I really love it.

Maybe it’s because I know that the minor inconveniences are temporary… They don’t bother me that much.

Every day after work, I look forward to coming home. Even though I can’t communicate well with my host family, they’ve been so welcoming. Yesterday, when my host brother dangled a dead mouse in my face and laughed at me, I really felt like part of the family (not a sarcastic comment).

Even though there aren’t any lights save for phone torches after 17:00, there is still so much to do. I think I’ve learnt three different hand games, 2 songs, and watched people dance and laugh. And the stars… So many stars…

People here are truly open and genuine. Village life is difficult – I’ve seen more than one child running around with a stomach bloated from hunger. But people never fail to greet you with a warm smile and laughter despite not having much money. Although I don’t actually know if that is indicative of a positive mindset.. Yet it inspires me to be a better person nevertheless.

Today’s culture shock: Long fingernails are a fashion statement for both men and women.

Picture of our shared yard from the house

Minibus adventures

There are many ways to travel between districts in Malawi. Road transport by bus seem to be pretty popular. Someone in Balaka also told me about a train – a ghost train that I’ve never seen but whose whistle I keep hearing. There are two kinds of buses that one can take. The biggest is basically a greyhound-esque bus. I’ve never actually been on one but it looks nice from the outside.

The second option – and the only one I’ve experienced – is the minibus. It’s always bigger on the inside.

The most people I’ve travelled with at a time has been 31, including the children and babies. So probably more like 23 people.

As you can imagine, the first time I travelled by minibus, it was overwhelming. My personal bubble was effectively popped and never given a chance to recover.

But since that first time, I’ve learnt a few things:

1. Malawians are creative.

The minibus culture fills a niche in transportation that is both affordable and flexible. If you’re a farmer without a vehicle and you want to transport a bag of seeds, the minibus seems to be a cost efficient and viable option. You can also catch a minibus anywhere as long as you are on the side of a road so it is quite convenient.

2. Malawians are organized…

… In a chaotic sort of way. Minibuses have predetermined routes and it seems that you can be dropped off anywhere along that route. And if you enter a bus depot, you only need to say your destination and you somehow end up on the right bus.

Transfers to a new bus along the route or onto a different route are also straightforward in my experience. If you just go where they tell you to go, you end up at your destination eventually. And drivers pay each other when you transfer so you only pay once per route.

3. Time is a relative thing.

The time you leave and the time you arrive is a mystery. By accommodating so many stops and pickups, and waiting around at a stop for the bus to fill up, the day goes by in the blink of an eye.

4. People are really friendly here

Despite being squished in like sardines, from what I’ve seen so far, nobody gets territorial about his or her space. And whenever somebody needs help, people cooperate and accommodate – be it passing around a baby or playing musical chairs on the bus. The mood is never hostile. There was an incident when a baby was crying and people seemed to make jokes and laugh about it for the most part.

I think my fellow WASH Cat Anita summed up the minibus culture in the best way, “it’s not about a different concept of personal space. It seems that people are willing to give up their own space.”

Balaka has the best minibus system. They line up by routes and fill up one at a time.

Today’s culture shock: There’s a lot of Indian people here. I don’t know why. I just know that you can find decent Indian food in Malawi and Indian bread at the grocery store.

This is it.

My coach left yesterday. I’m really all on my own now. Starting tonight I’ll be sleeping at the same compound as my host family Mr. Banda, his wife Mary, and son Happy. Their village seems friendly and nice and I am grateful that my host family is willing to let a stranger share their home for 3 months.

But I still have anxieties and slept fretfully. I’m on my own without Gabe to translate and I’ll have to figure out how to get by on my own. I’m essentially going to do a village stay for 3 months and while that seems like such a short time, I’ve only just begun to adjust to Malawi in general. My mental health is really being pushed to constantly handle more and it is exhausting.

I want to end on a positive note because that’s what this whole experience has been teaching me so far – looking to the bright side always. Monique (our LTF) has been telling me that “you can always control how you react.” It’s become an unconscious mantra for the past few days. So today is the first day and it will be a good day. 🙂 Wish me luck!