The Moments I Remember I am From Another Culture

There are times in Malawi when I feel completely at home and even forget that some of the things I am doing are strange compared to what I would do at home in Canada. For me this is a part of integrating into a new culture. Before coming overseas, all of the volunteers coming with EWB are asked to think about the importance of integration. Although integration looks a little bit different for everyone, the overall goal is for our volunteers to develop a little bit of understanding and empathy for the lives of the people we are trying to help.

For me, successful integration meant finding my life in Malawi – where I could feel happy and healthy while still gaining an understanding of the lifestyle of a rural Malawian. I have been happy with my integration thus far although have made a few sacrifices along the way like supplementing my diet. Despite this, there are still moments when I remember I am from another culture.

One of these moments occurred late last week as I was washing the morning dishes. Every morning I share the dish washing with my host sister Zoene – I do the main dishes, she usually does the pots. This week Zoene was sick with Malaria so I had been doing all the dishes myself. This particular morning I was running a bit behind schedule and had a large stack of pots to scrub (to scrub a pot you wet the sides, pick up sand from the ground and scrape it using your hand across the sides of a pot until all the char and grease is removed). As I began, a man rode up beside me on a bicycle. We exchanged the usual greetings:

“Muli bwanji” (How are you)

“Ndili bwino, kaya inu” (I am fine how are you)

“Ndili bwino”

I returned to my scrubbing thinking the man would move on. After a couple of seconds, he asked me:

“Do you know me?”

I stood up; a little surprised he was still there and pushed my hair out of my face with my wrist to prevent spreading the grease all over my face.

“I’m sorry, I don’t remember you. You will have to remind me who you are”

“You should know who I am”

Should was said with significance. I tried to remember where I would have seen the man but was getting annoyed and wanted to finish the pots in time.

“Pepani (sorry), I meet so many people you will have to remind me who you are”

“I am the Group Village Headman”

“Oh, pepani, we met at night, I did not recognize you in the day. I will remember you know” I said with surprise.

“Yes, of course you should know me”

“Pepani, pepani, I will remember you know”

“I think you will remember me now so you won’t forget the next time we next meet.”

“I won’t forget, pepani, have a good day”

I returned to scrubbing the pots as the Group Village Headman rode away on his bike. I was irritated, although I had outwardly expressed many sorries at not remembering the man, I couldn’t muster the reverence to justify his arrogant behaviour. In rural Malawi, Group Village Headmen are cultural, judicial and governmental leaders. They are revered highly in the community and I should have felt honoured that the Group Village Headman would stoop to visit me while I was scrubbing pots in the morning.

Although I knew that a Malawian would have known they should know the Group Village Headman and would not have thought anything of his tone; to me he was just another man; a man not helping his wife and children with the chores at 6:30 in the morning.

At times like these, when differences that I cannot bring myself to understand are brought to the front I feel as though I am living a world away from home. A world where I might never be able to truly empathize or understand the culture.

I finished the pots, walked back to the kitchen and exclaimed in surprise when I saw that Zoene was up and walking around. She giggled and greeted me. I realized then how happy I was to see her getting better, that I cared for her like my own family and it struck me that although I may feel like I am living in a culture a world apart from my own at times there are things like love and happiness that will always bring us back together.

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2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Craig Sandy on August 7, 2010 at 7:30 am

    As always, Lauren, A joy to read. Makes me think of the Elvis costello song, “What’s so funny about peace, love and understanding>”

    Reply

  2. Nicely put. It brings me back to my time in Malawi. I can totally relate.
    C

    Reply

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