Homestay, Part 3: Reflections on Malawian Culture

This section is a mash of many different stories and teachable moments that I’ve discovered to be funny, interesting and ultimately revealing about Malawian culture:

Dancing and Music in Malawi

Malawians love to dance and sing! If you can put a message into a song and dance format, they will remember it much longer than if you just instruct them. They are absolutely enthralled and excited when one of us volunteers start dancing in the circles that happen to often form around us. When someone jumps in and starts losing it, the crowd (especially the children) just bust a gut laughing! They will dance too, but only for a short moment. They are, for some reason, either so afraid that people are laughing at them or because of the fear of failure. They will quickly dance then run and hide behind one of their friends. Dancing in Malawi is supposedly not seen as a sexual act. It is usual to see very young girls doing what in America would be very provocative dances. Yet, a female showing her knees is seen to be lewd and loose. . .

Babies Need Food Too

National Geographic may be a bit over the edge in the way that Africans are portrayed. Though there are traditional tribes out there, they aren’t as prevalent in Malawi. Child rearing is primarily the responsibility of the women. It is normal to be talking to a mother and mid-sentence she begins to breast feed her child. Volunteers generally have a weird time getting used to this. In America, breasts are very sexual areas of the female anatomy. In Malawi, they are just a means to an end. It is not a surprise anymore for me to see a few breasts pop out at church or at the super market in the big city.

Pit Latrines

I knew about this long before I came to Malawi. It is a Peace Corps rite of passage to do business into a hole in the ground. I’ve had plenty of practice camping and hiking back home but to some, the idea of doing this day -in-and-day-out just seems so archaic and unsanitary. Through the years, improved sanitations programs have been implemented in Malawi. Generally, pit latrines are clean and useful improvements over open-defecation, which is still the norm in many areas.

Washing Dishes

Doing dishes is a task that takes much more planning than when doing them in America (per the norm with pretty much any activity in Malawi). Water must be collected. Many pails must be cleaned and rinsed. The effort is usually accompanied by chickens, goats, and dogs looking for any scraps that may drop off the pots and pans. Dirt is used to clean the metal pots, the same dirt the animals walk and defecate on. The dishes are scrubbed with soap. The finished washing water is usually black and definitely not up to the sanitation conditions that many Americans would consider acceptable. I’ve learned that I am open to new norms since being here. I haven’t become sick – yet (tap on wood). The dishes are placed about five feet off the ground on dish racks made of wood where the hot sun is able to dry and (hopefully) disinfect them.

Animal Treatment

Animals are either a status symbol or treated as garbage in Malawi. In America, we raise livestock to sell, eat, and breed. The goal is to put food on the table and money in the pocket through effective management. A lot of money is put into keeping the livestock healthy. We also love our house pets. In Malawi, livestock is a sign of wealth. The more livestock the more wealthy one is perceived to be in the community. Occasionally a cow will be slaughtered for meat. A family (and extended family, too, since there are no preservation methods available) will eat well for a meal. The herd is usually managed by a paid cowboy who takes them to openly graze and at night are brought back to the stable for the livestock to be locked up for the evening to prevent against thieves and predators. Without going into much detail, the agriculture practices in Malawi are very different from those practiced in the states. Dogs, cats and basically any other animal are just seen as a nuisance to human existence. There is no concept of animal conservation and humane treatment. It is not uncommon to see a Malawian throwing rocks at animals with the intent of hurting them as a means to scare them away from a place habituated by humans. Kicking dogs is almost a sport. There are practical reasons for this (though I don’t think they are sound excuses): stray dogs can turn on someone and bite them, causing rabies transmission, a disease not easily treated in the very poor medical centers in Malawi. Also, the chickens and goats will not hesitate to get into human foodstuffs and demolish them quickly (like large sacks of corn flour).

The Strength of Malawian Women

I’m constantly amazed at the strength of Malawian women. They are an integral part of the community and family unit. There is no question that there are unreasonable and unequal gender role expectations in Malawi. At any moment, I try to empower the women here so that they may have a say in the outcomes of their lives. In many ways, women are viewed much like they were in America 60-70 years ago. It isn’t uncommon to find an amayi (Chewa for mother, women; sign of respect and term of endearment) cooking nsima (corn porridge, pronounced ‘see-ma’) with a baby on her back, a five gallon bucket of water on her head as she stokes the fire and spices relishes with the other hand. Their natural physical strength is incredible. They are fantastic.

Children in Malawi vs. America

At some romantic point in time, America children worked at a young age (as they should). The responsibilities of a 12 year old in America and the responsibilities of a 12 year old in Malawi are on two totally different planes. There are many pros and cons of these arrangements and expectations. Without hesitation, a Malawian child can sweep, slash grass, herd cattle, work in the fields, construct roads, rig and drive ox carts and prepare their own meals. This is all before they walk 8 km to the nearest school in the morning. The work continues when they get back in the afternoon.

Communal Living

Village living in Malawi is communal and profoundly family based. One’s surname in the community plays a large role in how they’re perceived. Also, the work they do in the community is also important. For example, men that are leaders in the church are respected highly. There is always a willingness to share and help each other. When one is sick in Malawi, it is not strange for many in the community to come together to help that person become better, relatives or not. In America, we prefer to visit the doctor and be alone while we carry out the doctor’s orders until we are well. When it comes to field work and getting crops to market, it is very much a communal effort. Food at meals may be short but there always seems to be enough food for the neighbor kid to eat. No one keeps tabs and everything is done in love.

Personal Space

Personal space doesn’t exist in Malawi. It isn’t seen as a big deal here. Some will come very close to talk to you. They will hold your hand as they walk (it is not uncommon for straight men to be holding hands as they walk). They will sit very close to you (and nearly on you) on a minibus. They will put their hand around you. They will shake your hand many times over (Malawians have a distinct handshake). All these things have been hard for me to get used to. I generally don’t like people touching me, even if it is done sincerely and affectionately. Many Americans feel the same way and may feel the Malawians’ as “touchy feely” and lewd though it may be just a sign of endearment.

Malawian Time

“Malawian Time” is a thing. For many volunteers, it is a very real and frustrating thing. In America, we are used to schedules and routine, where things are regimented and controlled by time. In Malawi, time is much more lax and in many ways, slows to a cool and relaxed cadence. This is due to many factors. Many Malawians do not own a watch. Some are more busy taking care of actions that benefit their actual, every day living condition and survival. Some are not motivated. Some show up late because Malawians feel the need to say hello and converse with every person they see and meet along their journey path. It is not uncommon for a volunteer to call a meeting a week beforehand and everyone show up two or three hours late the day of the meeting. Church is scheduled for 9 a.m. in my village but service doesn’t usually start until 10:30 a.m.

American Popular Culture and Current Events

In America, I enjoyed using references to popular culture in jokes and everyday conversations. I may not enjoy or even approve of a current trend but I like being witty and staying sharp. I find that the many years of quoting dumb movie quotes and remembering ridiculous trivia is slowly slipping away. It’s difficult for me to name actors in movies, plots of TV shows, lyrics to songs, and nuances of American history. These ideas have taken a back seat in my mind to the new challenges that are pressing before me. This is a double edged sword — I enjoy a good laugh but this information is ultimately useless in the scheme of things. It’s a delicate balance between remembering what I can about American popular culture and learning a new culture. Being disconnected from a cell phone, internet, TV, and radio has been absolutely fine with me. At the same time, any time I can listen in on a BBC or Aljazeera World News broadcast, I don’t hesitate to stop and listen. Apparently a plane has disappeared somewhere with a lot people on it? Apparently the Ukraine is being invaded by Russia? Apparently Miley Cyrus is still being a total loon? I guess the more things change, the more they stay the same.


Men are to wear trousers and a button up shirt in order to have any respect from others in the villagers. A woman must not show their knees as this is a scandalous gesture and denotes one is a lewd and loose woman. Women wearing trousers in the village is taboo. Women must wear a chitenje, which is a piece of fabric that is wrapped around the waist over a skirt. Many of the lady volunteers resent this demand from the culture. It is hot to wear, they cannot exercise or play well in them, and riding a bike is made very difficult. Malawians in formal settings always dress to impress. The men will have very clean button up shirts, ironed trousers and shoes with an incredible luster. For teenagers in urban settings (and even some in the village), the styling is not so much different than in America. The current style seems to be the “skater” look: skinny jeans (many boys wear pants that were obviously intended for girls), skating style shoes, smaller t-shirt and flat-billed cap. For the girls, a short skirt and low cut tops (as much as they can get away with) are the norm. Clothes are not bought new. They are bought from thrift-style open markets where the clothes have obviously came from various developed nations. Many Malawians wear shirts where they obviously have no idea behind the meaning presented by its’ graphics. My favorites include, “Someone in Alaska loves me”, a male wearing a Britney Spears shirt that had, “Hit me baby one more time”, and finally, “Kiss me I’m blonde”. You know all the championship shirts of the teams that are not the lucky winners? They end up in Malawi. Also, those elaborate formal gowns young ladies wear to events in America? It’s not uncommon to find a girl wearing one for everyday wear. There are no boundaries regarding men wearing pink lace or obvious women clothing (except for skirts). Clothes are mostly practical, not intended to be a fashion statement.

Transport in Malawi

Anything goes in Malawi. You need to get five chickens and a goat to the next village over? Throw them into the minibus! The minibus already has 27 adults in it, six children wedged in any cracks, and the motor/clutch is on its last leg. Oh yeah, the driver maybe drunk so take a “breath test” before you board by getting within a couple feet of him and taking a whiff. If you need a lift, just stick out your hand on the side of the road (much like in the America, but a different hand motion). A vehicle will stop but you’ll have a better chance if you are white, female, pretty, and loaded with luggage. The lucky vehicle you board maybe an ox cart, a large truck bed (that maybe occupied by 50 others and their luggage), the trunk of a sedan where you use the trunk cover as your seatbelt, a bike taxi, or if you are lucky, a stuffy, large bus. Minibuses are used most often by volunteers for transport. The conductors fight over who will get the passengers at various bus depots along a route. Once the bus is packed (and I mean packed to the gills), it traverses over the less than par roadways, dodging bicyclists by mere inches and passing other vehicles while an 18-wheel trucking rig rounds the upcoming corner. Personal space does not exist on transport in Malawi. You will likely share a bench seat that is intended for three with a total of twice that, meaning you will be sitting sideways with your bag and your neighbor halfway on your lap. Along the route to your destination, passengers will get off and board. It is called “minibus magic” when you think the bus is packed and four people get off and at the last minute, six get back on. The laws of physics don’t apply within the four dilapidated walls of a minibus. Air flow may not exist making the rides hot. Many passengers may have glossed over their personal hygiene responsibilities on that day making the heat and stench unbearable. Safe journeys!


My first encounter with the markets in Malawi was an eye-opening experience. Usually a market day is set in a populated area where Malawians may bring their wares for sale. The market will have permanent structures where small shops sell staple items daily. The variety between one shop to another is nil. It is mind blowing that two stores right next to each other will sell the same exact items! On market days, a nearby field will act as the open market. At the open market, folks bring various items for living: pots and pans, shoes, clothes, flashlights and radios, and various fresh (and sometimes not so much) produce and meat, among other things. It is important to bargain, especially if you are a mzungu (read next passage) because they will artificially raise the price above what it should be because they assume you have money to spend. In time, I have realized what prices for things should be and if you get a price that is too high from one dealer, you can walk away and get a better deal from the seller right next to them! Since volunteers are not paid much, it is important to get the best deals. At no time is it appropriate to give money to anyone that is begging. Just walk away while being stern in the language.

Mzungu (pronounced meh-zoon-goo)

There is a Wikipedia article here on this term. It means ‘foreigner’ or ‘white person’ but has changed meaning to generally refer to any person that “behaves rich”, even host-country nationals that are successful. Generally, it is not said by adults but by children, often to gain attention. This word is also used in connection with children asking for money. They will say, “Mr. Money, give me money!” or, “Mzungu, give me money!”. This is due to the many years of ‘development’ from well intentioned NGOs and international aid programs. This failed model of development included giving money and direct aid to the people and their governments. The Peace Corps model focuses on sustainable development through capacity building and local asset-based solutions. I find myself ignoring and even avoiding children who scream this term every day. Í tend to be firm with them and explain to them that my name is Keith, not Mzungu. I explain to them that I live in the community with them as opposed to the folks at NGOs and other aid programs that live in nicely guarded dwellings in the more populated areas. They seem to appreciate and understand this. Over time, they begin to understand that you aren’t like the other azungus that have come through — that you are there to live and work with them, not just give them a handout.

The First Three Things A Malawian Will Ask You

After meeting a Malawian for the first time, they usually ask you the following three questions:

  1. What is your name?
    • Malawians want an indication of what tribe you are with. Last names in Malawi can indicate what family tribe one is a descendent from. Surnames carry weight.
  2. Where do you pray?
    • Approximately 85% of Malawians identify as being Christian. They assume you are a Christian and want to know what denomination you attend.
  3. Are you married/do you have kids?
    • By 23-25 years old, Malawians expect you to have been married and raising children. Many are surprised to hear volunteers aren’t (typically) married and (typically) do not have kids. Once they find out you are not married, they will ask you if you will marry them (this is more prevalent with the lady volunteers than the gentlemen), making for awkward moments. Some volunteers will wear a ring to indicate they are married when they are not just to bypass this awkward conversation.




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