Malawi - Warm Heart of Africa

June 29, 2018 | Samantha, Specialization - International Development and Globalization and Additional Minor - Arabic Language and Culture, Malawi, Uniterra, Art and Global Health Centre Africa, Youth Leadership Officer

I’ve been in Malawi for just under 6 weeks now and I cannot believe that it is already nearing the halfway point of my internship! Time is going by quickly and I know already that I will be sad to leave. Currently, I am sitting on the back porch of my office around lunch time, watching a couple of baboons chase each other through the trees and over the roof of a nearby house. Here in Zomba, Malawi, monkeys and baboons are a fairly regular sight to see but I’m not sure they will ever lose their novelty to me!

I am working with a small local organization called Art and Global Health Centre Africa, or “ArtGlo” for short. They aim to use participatory arts and creative leadership approaches to tackle health issues in Malawi. They have three main programs currently running: Umunthu which trains healthcare workers on LGBTQ issues and non-discrimination in accessing health care, Make Art, Stop Aids (MASA Youth) which uses theatre for development and other art forms to educate university and secondary school students on Sexual Reproductive Health issues, and lastly, Students with Dreams, which provides leadership training and funding to university students who want to implement creative development solutions in local communities.

I feel lucky that I get to work a bit with different teams at ArtGlo. Rather than being relegated to one department, I am working with various counterparts to fill in the gaps and build capacity by doing things with others rather than for them. Mainly, my work has consisted of analyzing data from this year’s SWD program to make recommendations for improvement, working on funding applications with the communications team and helping develop cohesive toolkits for MASA. One day, in my 3rd week, I got to go into the field and see a MASA festival in action. The secondary students had prepared dramas, dances, poems, drawings and more and the festival was attended by their families, police officers, health workers, and the chief of the village, among others. Because the idea is based on forum theatre, the actors in a drama would pause their skit and ask the audience for input on what a character should do or how he should react to, for example, his wife telling him she wants to get tested for HIV. It was really interesting to watch these conversations play out (even with the English/Chichewa language barrier, it wasn’t too difficult to tell who was positively or negatively reacting). These conversations are controversial and not always easy but it’s been fascinating to learn from my colleagues and the students we work with how the arts are actually a powerful force in generating dialogue about important issues.

Regular life here in Zomba is quiet, as it’s a fairly small town. I live in the back room of a cake shop so sometimes on the weekends I just sit and drink coffee and chat with whoever stops by! I’ve also been enjoying hiking the plateau that dominates the Zomba skyline and taking some weekend trips to explore this beautiful country such as going on a game drive or visiting the famous lake! The people here in Malawi are also incredibly warm and kind; the country is definitely living up to its name as the “Warm Heart of Africa”! I feel like I’ve lucked out in being here as I never have felt overwhelmed by culture shock, language barriers or safety concerns. Of course part of this is from taking precautions but overall I feel that I’ve settled in quite easily and I am so enjoying my time here!

One more thing before I go is that last weekend, I got to go to a traditional Malawian wedding! My landlord’s sister lives abroad and had come home to have her Malawian wedding and I was invited to attend. I got a dress made out of chitenge from the market and participated in a part of the wedding called perekani. Perekani is basically the bride and groom dancing while various groups of friends and family (i.e. all the aunties, all the siblings, all the friends etc) are called up to shower them with money. It is quite the sight to see and even more fun to take part in! People bring lots of small bills (in Malawi a 50 kwatcha bill is worth about 10 cents Canadian) and spend literally hours just dancing, eating and throwing money. It was a cultural experience I feel very lucky to have gotten!

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