Homestay, Part 2: A Typical Day as a Trainee

The Pre-Service Training (PST) for Peace Corps Malawi is a two-month crash course into language, technical training, health and safety, cultural learning, and what is called the Global Core. Training is physically, emotionally, and mentally rugged. It is dynamic and fluid, well structured and well facilitated by Peace Corps Malawi staff.

Each day, trainees awake from their slumber at 5 o’clock a.m. Not to an alarm clock or a friendly phone call from the front desk but rather by rooster crow, the scraping of dirt by the younger children to “sweep” and keep “clean” the dirt yards, the friendly talking of neighbors as they exchange morning greetings as the men make their ways to the fields and the women to the boreholes to draw water for the morning, and finally, by the sun as it begins to warm the savanna.

Personally, I like to get a run in as the sun comes up. There are a couple reasons for this. The first is that it is a personal preference of mine to get in a run first thing in the morning. The sun coming up over the nearby Kasungu Mountain and the song birds chirping is reason enough. In addition, it is nice to meet with other runners in the cohort and chit-chat. The second reason is a cultural reason. Running for enjoyment is seen as taboo in the village. Villagers cannot fathom a reason to run. To them, this is energy that must be expended in the field and around the home for survival. I understand this and I get my run in early so as not to attract as much attention. Eventually though, the villagers recognize a pattern and this creates a teachable moment for them. I explain why I run and the benefits. Whether or not they understand is another thing. Malawi loves football (or in the States, soccer). If you relate running and football, they seem to understand better (especially if you participate in playing football during the week after school, which I love to do).

After a 40-minute run, I come back and prepare water to bathe. This means going to the near-by shallow dug well and filling an 8-gallon pale with water and carrying it on my head back a couple thousand meters to the house. The shallow dug well water is good for cleaning but not so much for drinking as it has some sediment in it that would need to be filtered. The closest borehole where “clean” water can be pumped from is a 40-minute walk round trip away plus however much time it takes to fill all the necessary pails. To safely drink this water, it must be boiled and filtered.

The water is heated over an open fire. Two pails are prepared for bathing. First, a larger pail is put in the baffa (bathing structure). A second smaller pail has water from the well in it. The heated water is poured in the larger pail and the smaller pail is put along side of it. Using a small pot, one takes the water from the smaller pail and adds it to the larger pail to cool the water down to a comfortable temperature. The smaller pot is used to rinse and wash. During this time, I find it easy to wash clothes. The water is already prepared so why not? I first clean my body then the soiled clothing. I hang everything on a string that runs the width of the baffa. At night, I hang my headlamp from the string so I can see. After I’m finished, I get clothed and carry all my freshly cleaned clothes back into the house to hang on strings I’ve strung about my room.

Next, I usually help prepare breakfast. This means setting the table, helping cook, and chopping firewood. Everyone has a duty in the morning. Amayi (mother) is usually cooking and doing food preparation. Abambo (father) is usually opening the barn door locks, letting out the goats and chickens, mending a bike tube tire, or out in the field. Sometimes he is preparing a big meeting with the church and will be dressed to the nines by 7 o’clock. The children are usually sweeping, helping with random chores, or getting prepared for school.

Mornings are typically really busy. The whole family does whatever it takes to get me to school as well. In many ways, I am the focus of attention: if I don’t make it to school on time, clean and full of food, than they feel they have failed. It is a pride thing and a genuine act of kindness and warmth. I appreciate the act of kindness but at the same time, I struggle with having freedom of my own to do these different tasks.

Breakfast is usually either fried bread with peanut butter and honey, a corn-bread like bread, fresh fruit, eggs, rice porridge, and/or coffee/tea. After a prayer, we eat and then there is the final rush of last preparations as I get ready to leave for school. I am the farthest away from the school hall at a 35-minute walk. Before we received our bikes, I had to plan my mornings and lunches accordingly. Now with bikes, I can do that same journey in 8-minutes flat. I had dreams for a week leading up to receiving our bikes, all of which were bike related. It was such a morale booster! The mountain bikes are nice and are an entry level bike back in the states (they were brought from America).

School (or training) begins at 8 a.m. and is six days a week, Monday through Saturday. Sundays are supposed to be a time for rest but for many with religious/active host families, this is a day to visit family and go to church, among other things. Personally, Sundays can be more tiresome than school days.

Trainees are heavily encouraged to wear trousers and a button up (for men) and a skirt and chitenje (an over skirt the ladies haven’t particularly cared for but is a respect to the culture to wear them) for the ladies. Malawians, in formal settings — no matter their socioeconomic status — are always dressed to impress. It is still a mystery to me how they are able to keep their white shirts so white and their trousers so well ironed. Their shoes are always buffed. At any given time you can use a Malawian’s dress shoes as a mirror. The Malawian facilitators are always looking rather dapper. There has been many instances where I have felt underdressed.

All days vary as to what sessions will be held. Sessions are typically an hour and a half long. Typically, the day will start with a language and cultural class. This class will reflect a theme that is being focused on for the week such as a trip to the local market, HIV/AIDs, or malaria. The class is small with four trainees total. They are interactive and focused (for the most part).

After, we break for a half hour for tea (though no tea is actually served, trainees are encouraged to prepare a snack). This is a time of catching up on the latest “bush radio” (or gossip) in the village. This gossip is not ill-hearted but rather just a fun outlet to tell fun stories of our experiences in the evening with our respective host families.

After break, we go into another session. For instance, the PC medical officer will come and talk to us all about waterborne diseases or HIV/AIDs or how to treat common PC health issues like burns and diarrhea. Seemingly, the point of this session (and the PCMO’s mission) is to scare us all into not swimming in water, not having sex (or doing it safely), to always use a mosquito net, to not drink, and to not pet the lions. I would learn later that their stories are true and that they are not being facetious but rather just speaking frankly from experience. Unfortunately, volunteers do get waterborne and sexually transmitted diseases, some don’t take their malaria prophylaxis and contract malaria, some have unsafe and risky sex and others will not treat a small cut and get medevacced to South Africa (speaking from experience myself. . . ).

After the two morning sessions, we all wrap up for lunch to reconvene an hour and half later. I go home and food is usually prepared already. This meal is usually nsima or rice with a relish or two. Nsima is a staple food in Malawi and is comprised of corn flour and water stirred over a fire until it makes a thick porridge that in some ways resembles mashed potatoes (but has none of the same tasty qualities). It is a very bland food. To make it palatable, Malawians roll the nsima in their hands and scoop up a relish, usually a meat (but not often in poorer villages), and a vegetable-based/green relish. Pumpkin leaves and local tree leaves are mixed with a very small amount of spices to produce a green relish, for example. The meal is carbohydrate rich (as are all meals in Malawi) which doesn’t make me mad because of the amount of running I do and how much energy is used to just live and study.

Coming back from lunch, we will have two more sessions. The first will be a Global Core session. This is a session that Peace Corps Trainees around the world have to do. It is the baseline for our service. It teaches how Peace Corps operates, the ways of sustainable development and capacity building, as well as a lot of administrative chatter. This is followed by another tea break.

Then finally, the last session of the day: technical. Technical, for me as an environment volunteer, includes learning about Malawian agriculture and forestry techniques, meeting with Department of Forestry officials, learning about conservation agriculture in the Malawian context, planning trees, and starting beehives. (among many things). This is probably the most exciting part of training. It is hands on and very relevant.

School finishes promptly at 5 o’clock p.m. We are permitted to meet at the nearby football field for unwinding. This is done by doing exercise, talking and chatting, football, ultimate Frisbee, studying, or just taking a catnap. This is a fun part of the day when we all can let loose and change into shorts (at least for the males though the females push the cultural norms as much as possible — I encourage them) and let some nerves out. The local kids usually gather here too so we have a ball singing and dancing with them and otherwise being happy. Some of my best memories of PST are during these times with the kids and others in the cohort.

For now, in PST, we are all on a regiment. The times are strict and the demands high. We must be back to our homes by dark. This structure is welcomed (though we all resist it from time to time). PC does a superb job of easing us into life in Malawi.

Often, during a morning run or just while I’m sitting in class, I think to myself, “Wow. You’re in Africa, Mr. Maskell. Enjoy it.” Thus far, I have. It is a real privilege to be doing the work I am.

After dinner, I am able to play guitar (which my homestay family and neighbors enjoy immensely!) or if I like to be more quite, I can escape to my bed (which is a mere mat on the floor, a pillow, two blankets and a mosquito net) and read/write/study.

The nights are typically still and very black. I often go outside at midnight to use the chim and spend 15-minutes or so just staring up at the sky. How beautiful is the sky with no electric lights to drown it all out with! Malawians find it strange that we stare at nature in amazement. To them, nature is nature — a means to an end. The Milky Way is absolutely brilliant! I can easily spot Orion’s Belt.

There are many in the cohort that have adjusted well and others who have struggled to adapt to village living. Though on a positive note, no trainees have dropped (this is almost rare, GO TEAM!) and all seem passionate to get to site and start work, implementing what has been learned in PST. Godspeed!

I hope you have enjoyed this insight into daily living during PST! Please don’t hesitate with any questions and thanks for all the fish!

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