Homestay, Part 1: Introduction

Homestay is winding to an end. Pretty soon I will be sworn in as a Peace Corps Volunteer. I’m writing blind here. Back at homestay, I have carefully planned notes, pre-written journal entries, and blog idea prompts to give you the brightest light on my experience thus far. Unfortunately, I’m in Pretoria, South Africa on medevac due to an injury to my right hand and have none of these personal effects. I’ll get to that injury later. For now, I will try to recall everything about homestay since the beginning. Once I find time to revamp the following with notes in hand, I’ll make revisions.

Travels to Kasungu/Opening Ceremony

The night before was exhausting. I had wrote the last blog post after I had finished packing. I had started pretty early because PC insisted that we pack one bag only for our homestay experience. For many this was endeavor considering the different bags we had all used as luggage and such. I decided to go very light to homestay. My 20-liter day bag seemed sufficient for everything PC said was important to have at homestay. I went for it.

Consolidating everything you will need to live on for two months down into 20-liters seemed quite the challenge. I’m happy that I packed that light. There will be ample time in the future to retrieve items that you have packed in other bags. The other bags, as I would find out, would be locked in a shipping container at the Peace Corps headquarters in Kasungu Boma, about 10 km away from the villages we would be staying at (a ‘boma’ is Chichewa for ‘government’ or ‘city’ center, where large groups of people meet for trade as well as buy from well known chain stores like People’s Trading Center).

After staying up all night and making sure everything was packed nicely and efficiently, we left early in the morning to head to homestay. The cohort would live in Kasungu district in two villages named Chinkhombwe (Environment sector) and Dombolera (Health sector). These two villages would converge on a central school hall that had recently been built for our cohort. This hall is where we would go to school for the next two months. It would be made of locally made bricks and has a thatched roof. It is very simple.

We loaded up the PC trucks with our luggage. They are large, white Land Rovers with the racks on the top — I thought this was very “African cliché” for some reason. I would later find out that there is a very practical reason for this type of vehicle.

And like a herd of turtles, we were off for homestay. What a crazy feeling at the time! “Will my host family like me?” “Will they be too weird for me?” “Will I like them?”

We traveled down the M1, which is the main road in Malawi that runs north and south the entire length of the country (though in one spot, I’ll find out later, does not have 20 km paved – yet). We turned off the M1 after an hour and a half of driving. The M1, as I said, is a main road in Malawi but nothing of what you would expect a main road in the US to be. It is closer to a very narrow and shoddy highway in the States, with potholes, minibuses, and bicycles included. The ride we would have on the dirt road leading into Kasungu National Park where our villages are would be compared to a backwoods two tracker with the same potholes, minibuses, and bicycles as the M1. To this day I can’t get over the thrill/fear of going down one of these roads at 60kph. And this is why the PC has the transport vehicles they do.

Homestay Ceremony, Family, and Settling In

We arrived at the end of a field where there were dancing women in large circle, singing in Chichewa and looking genuinely as terrified as we were but not showing it — rather, reconciling it with a smile and a quick dance move to break the ice. The men of the villages watched from a short distanced gathered and looking generally interested and amused. The village headmen and Traditional Authority were seated in the shade.

After the dancing had settled down (about an hour and twenty minutes, pictures coming later), we had a welcoming ceremony where the tribal leaders invited us to their villages graciously and optimistically. It was very real and moving experience — was I really now in Africa? As a cohort, we still ask ourselves this but is slowly wearing off: by now, it is very real. The language is very real. The way of life and culture is very real. The safety concerns are very real. The poverty and need is very real. Everything. Is. Real.

There was a time when everyone was matched with their host family. My host family is headed by Daniel and Mercy Chintona. I will learn that I have three brothers and one sister who will live with me (though the Chintona’s have many more children already moved out of the house). The parents are both in their mid-forties. My siblings (me being the oldest) are Matraywah (sister, 22, nickname: Moty), Thokozoni (in Chewa, this means ‘Thank You’, brother, 18), Ezekiel (brother, 17, adopted by the Chintonas as his father had abandoned him), and lastly, Gracious (brother, 12).

untitled

A toilet, or chimbudzi, from the outside. The bathroom, or baffa, looks very similar.

My name will be changed to Big Gracious Chintona, a name that I have wore proudly since I received it. Many in the cohort call me this from time to time and I can’t help but smile in appreciation. My little brother now became Little Gracious. That kid has a smile that would make a dentist happy and a whole crowd of biddies swoon! He’s a good kid. Ezekiel is quite and does his daily chores promptly. I really believe that because he isn’t a biological child that he feels it necessary to give thanks by being a generally good kid and doing chores that aren’t asked of him just so that he can say thanks. Thoko is the oldest boy and is cool. I’ve connected with him. He is an electric whiz-kid (my family is one of very few that has a solar panel for electricity). Thoko installed our house’s system. Moty is a beautiful Malawian sister and attends a private school with her fees paid by CARE Africa. She is very grateful and smart, speaking English very well. Mercy (or Amayi, which means mother) is a machine, a very caring and smart machine. She is a Malawian women and perhaps at another time I will expand on this idea. Just know she is a wonderful and caring person. And the best for last, Daniel (or Abambo, father in Chewa). He is a church leader at the local Roman Catholic church/school. He works in the fields and is a very righteous and smart man. He speaks English very well.

The house I live in for homestay is larger and more well polished than many of my cohorts’ families. It has electricity, couches, table and chairs, an entertainment center with two TVs and a surround sound radio. The house has four bedrooms. The kitchen, baffa (bathroom), and chim (the pit lavitory) are all off the back of the house. Around front, the house has a small barn. Off in the adjacent fields are where the animal pens are (my father has many head of cattle, approximately 45, a large sign of wealth amongst the villagers). He also has goats and pigs.

You may have questions on why the toilet, bathroom, and kitchen are all separate structures. This may be no surprise but they all serve their purpose. The toilet is actually no toilet at all but rather just a hole in the ground where excrement drops and is eventually covered over by ash and carbon based biomass. It is covered and usually mud brick constructed. The kitchen is outside because cooking is done over a fire, using what is called a ‘three-brick method’. The outdoor design allows the smoke to escape (though not well, which is what one of my projects will focus on: improved cookstoves). Finally, the bathroom is outside in a structure similar as the chimbudzi (or toilet room). To bath, you either leave water in a bucket to warm up in the sun during the day or you use a deep pan to bring it to temperature on the fire. I use a small plastic container to shower with. It is all done very intentionally. Everything is planned and eventually becomes routine.

In many ways, the Malawians enjoy a very intentional life — something I feel is sadly lacking in the lives of many of my fellow Americans.

Chim hole

A typical toilet, or chimbudzi. This is where you practice ‘”chimnastics”.

More in part 2 here.

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