Whenever I thought about college, I always dreamt about studying abroad. However, due to my course schedule and financial situation, I couldn’t afford to for a full semester. During my sophomore year, one of my professors at my alma mater, Aquinas College, Dr. Swithinia Mboko, helped organize a program to study abroad in a country called Malawi. I knew nothing about Malawi, but she was one of my favorite professors so I applied. Not only was I accepted into the program, one of my best friends in college, Rae, was also accepted. I got to travel to a new country with her.
Where is Malawi?
Malawi is a landlocked country in the southeastern region of Africa. It borders Tanzania, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique. It was previously a British colony until 1963. Malawi is often called “The Warm Heart of Africa” because of its friendliness.
One of the poorest countries in the world
According to WorldAtlas, Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world. Malawi’s economy is reliant on agriculture. There is a sharp contrast between the developed areas of the country and the rural areas. The country itself is relatively new, but the area has a rich history that dates back to B.C.
About the program
Our program had 9 females. It wasn’t on purpose. It was by chance that we ended up as an all-female group. We left in May 2012, a week after the spring semester concluded. Once a week in class, we learnt about Malawi and plan out our trip. We were aggressively conducting research about travelling to Malawi. After the trip, we presented our results in a final paper and some in-person meetings. During this time, we also collected donations, arranged travel accommodations through the study-abroad program, and met with locals that had experience with Malawi. We were also fortunate to plan this trip with the help of an Aquinas College alumnus: Clement Chiwaya. He is a native of Malawi and sits on Malawi’s Parliament.
The trip itself
After three red-eye flights, we arrived in Malawi. Our main objective was to see how a local non-profit, The Malawi Connection, could best allocate their monetary resources. This was not a volunteering trip. It’s a chance to learn how to help the people of Malawi by providing them with the resources they needed to prosper without too much foreign aid or interference. Each student picked a specific area to focus on: healthcare, education, politics, intercultural communication, etc.. We got to observe an orphanage, different schools (both public and private), a hospital, and a couple of villages in the rural areas of the country. We even met with members of the US embassy in Malawi to discuss the welfare within Malawi. Keep in mind, we managed to pack these activities in over the course of two and a weeks!
One example was our visit to St. Monica’s School, an all-girl boarding school for high-school girls. We got to visit one of the classrooms and hear from the girls themselves and what they aspired to be. It was a bit heartbreaking to hear that they wanted to leave Malawi and not come back. While I can relate to wanting to leave for a better place and better opportunity, our mission was to find ways to help Malawi become the best it could be and have people stay in their country to make it better. We ended up funding a few full-ride scholarships for a few students. I heard there is now a scholarship program to help continue this program.
The biggest shock for me while in Malawi was seeing the sharp contrast between the cities and the rural areas. You would go into the cities and see gas stations, grocery stores, etc. Then you travel not even a mile outside of city limits and see nothing. There was a lot of trash on the side of the road. In Malawi, they’re not in as much of a rush compared to the United States. So we had to wait for things like food, exchanging money, etc…for what felt like an obscene amount of time. Towards the end of the trip, I was starting to get homesick. Most of my family and friends didn’t hear from us until our flight back because communication was rather difficult.
Being a tourist
Now, it wasn’t all work while we were there. We got to enjoy the country with a few excursions. Shopping in the local markets, visiting the Kigonwe Cultural Center, and of course, a safari tour! While we were there, we had to be respectful of their culture. Malawi is predominately Christian, but it has a large Muslim minority. In Malawi, it’s frowned upon to show skin above your knees, so we mostly wore pants and long skirts/dresses to respect their traditions.
After the trip
When I returned, I felt both inspired and jet-lagged. I was happy to be back in the United States to see my loved ones. It was joyful to finally get back some first-world things like air-conditioning, easier access to drinking water, not dealing with random power outages, etc. However, there was a part of me that now appreciate the chance to be unplugged while I was in Malawi. I took the time to truly focus on my experience there. The students that were not graduating seniors, including myself, spent the next school year presenting our experience to several classes. We talked about our experience with Malawi Connection, and even coordinating a cultural festival focused on countries in Africa.
Reflecting on my time in Malawi
My experience in Malawi taught me that no country is 100% perfect. There were aspects I wanted to bring with me from Malawi to the US, and vice versa. In the US, everyone is very focused on themselves. On the contrary, in Malawi, there is more sense of doing things for the community. I’m not saying that Americans aren’t giving or don’t care about their community members, but our way of thinking is much more individualistic. As an American, I’ve learned that my voice counts in elections and I try to use my voice to not only help myself, but help others that need my voice to help advocate with them.