Living conditions and volunteer lifestyles in Malawi
Few countries in the world ofer the level of mail service we consider normal in the US. If you bring with you expectations for U.S. standards for mail service, you will be in for much frustration. Mail takes a minimum of two to three weeks to arrive, often longer. Some mail may simply not arrive (fortunately this is not a frequent occurrence, but it does happen). We do not want to sound discouraging, but when we are thousands of miles from our families and friends, communication becomes a very sensitive issue. We want
Despite delays, we strongly encourage you to write to your family regularly (perhaps weekly or bi-weekly) and to number your letters. Family members will typically become worried when they do not hear from you, so please advise your parents, friends, and relatives that mail is sporadic and that they should not worry if they do not receive your letters regularly.
Peace Corps Volunteers
Your address during training will be:
“Your Name,” PCT
P. O. Box 208
Once you have become a Volunteer, you will have your mail sent directly to your new address at your site.
Do not expect e-mail or telephone access during training, though the training site does have telephones for emergency use. Generally, long-distance communication via telephone is available but very expensive. Note that calling cards (MCI, Sprint, and AT&T) do not work in Malawi. Alternatively, many Volunteers buy a cellphone locally (if you bring one from the U.S., be sure it can function in Malawi). These also have disadvantages, as there is still not coverage countrywide, and most Volunteers do not have the electricity needed to recharge a cellphone. While telephone communication is possible for Volunteers in Malawi, calling the United States is often a very frustrating experience. Volunteers are encouraged to establish a system of writing letters as the best method of regular communication with family and friends and to schedule periodic calls from family as a special treat.
Having a phone in your house as a Volunteer is very unlikely due to the rural location of Volunteer sites. The Volunteer respite houses in Blantyre and Mzuzu have phones where many Volunteers receive calls from family.
Computer, Internet, and E-mail Access
Personal computers/laptops are not needed or recommended, since only a few Volunteers have electricity in their homes. Computers with Word and Excel are available at the Peace Corps office and the two Volunteer respite houses. The three major cities also have Internet cafés.
Housing and Site Location
Volunteers in Malawi are posted from the far north in Chitipa to the far south in Nsanje. Volunteers are almost exclusively posted to rural areas—at health centers, community secondary schools, or in communities surrounding forest or game reserves. Site placement is made during the training period after the staff has had an opportunity to evaluate individual capabilities and strengths. Site placements are determined primarily by work-related needs.
Housing can vary from mud houses with either thatch or tin roofs to fired-brick houses with tin roofs. Most likely, a Volunteer’s house will be comparable to their co-worker’s dwelling. Housing will include basics such as a bed, table, and chairs, but possibly not much more. Each Volunteer will receive an allowance to purchase needed settling-in items. Housing is organized and provided by the hosting site, either by the school, health center, or community. Volunteers do not generally live with families during their two years of service following training, though this is a possibility.
Volunteers might be located anywhere from a half hour to three days from the capital city. Closeness to another Volunteer varies from site to site. Your nearest Volunteer neighbor may be a VSO (British) or JICA (Japanese) Volunteer.
Most Volunteers do not have electricity or running water. Water will likely come from a well, and your evenings will be spent reading by lantern and candlelight. Your flexibility and adaptability will be important as you adjust to these new conditions.
During the training period, trainees stay with a host family and share most meals with their host family. Homestay is considered one of the most important aspects of the training program and is required for this period. Generally, trainees will be placed in a village with three to four other trainees and one to two staff members.
Living Allowance and Money Management
As a Volunteer, you will receive a modest living allowance, paid in local currency, which allows you to live on par with your colleagues and co-workers. The amount for this allowance is based on regular surveys of Volunteers and costs of living in Malawi. The living allowance is paid quarterly into Volunteer bank accounts up-country, so the ability to manage funds wisely is important. Currently, the living allowance is equivalent to approximately $120 per month. Your living allowance is for your food, utilities, household supplies, clothing, recreation and entertainment, reading materials, and other incidentals. Included in the quarterly allowance is a travel allowance, which should be sufficient for necessary trips to and from Lilongwe from your site for official workshops, medical appointments, and so forth. Like Peace Corps Volunteers worldwide, those in Malawi are expected to live at a level commensurate with that of their Malawian co-workers. You may find that you will be receiving more remuneration than your counterpart or supervisor.
You will also receive a leave allowance (standard in all Peace Corps countries) of $24 per month. This allowance is paid in local currency along with your living allowance.
Volunteers suggest you bring traveler’s checks, cash, and credit cards for vacation travel. Note that it is now possible to access a U.S. bank account with a VISA card at some ATMs in major urban areas (you may draw only kwacha, not dollars). The amount of cash or traveler’s checks that you will need will depend on the amount of traveling you plan to do while serving in Malawi. Only a few local establishments accept credit cards, so they are mostly useful for travel to other countries.
The local currency is Malawi kwacha. The current exchange rate is approximately 135.465 kwacha to the U.S. dollar.
Food and Diet
The staple food in Malawi is maize (corn) prepared as a thick porridge called nsima and eaten with vegetables or beans. Many fruits and vegetables grow in Malawi, and with a little creativity, you can enjoy a widely varied diet. Most Volunteers prepare their own food, although after becoming more familiar with their site assignment, many Volunteers hire someone to help with household work, including cooking. Fruits and vegetables are available “in season,” which means some things will not be available at the market year round. Meat and dairy products are available in the towns, though they can be expensive.
Trainees and Volunteers who are vegetarians will be able to eat well in Malawi after becoming familiar with local food items and their preparation. Most Malawians do not understand vegetarianism and will not normally be prepared to serve a vegetarian meal if you are a guest in their home (even if they themselves do not regularly eat meat because of the expense). However, a sensitive explanation about your preferences will be accepted. Most vegetarian Volunteers have no difficulty once the initial adjustment is accomplished.
Volunteers’ primary mode of transport is public buses and matolas, usually small pickup trucks loaded with people and goods. Buses and mini-buses travel among towns on irregular schedules (i.e., when full), so travel in Malawi is never a timed affair.
Many Volunteers receive a mountain bike to facilitate their ability to do their work. If you ride a bicycle, helmets are required (and provided by the Peace Corps). The bikes we issue are usually men’s-style bikes that can be difficult for females to ride wearing a skirt. Many females wear shorts under their skirt to solve this problem.
Volunteers are not allowed to drive and/or operate motor vehicles or motorcycles (two- or three-wheeled).
Geography and Climate
Malawi is south of the equator, so the seasons will be opposite of those in the United States. In June, July, and August the temperatures will range from 35 degrees Fahrenheit (F) in the higher elevations to 60 to 70 degrees F near the shore of Lake Malawi. The hottest months are October, November, and December. Temperatures will range from 70 degrees F in the high elevations to around 90 to 95 degrees F in the lower elevations. In the cool season, sweaters or jackets are practical. In the hot season, loose-fitting cotton clothes are best. The rainy season starts in November or December and lasts through April. The rest of the year is quite dry, although rain showers are possible throughout the year. At certain times of the year, temperatures can drop to a chilly low.
The geography of Malawi is dominated by Lake Malawi, which stretches down most of the eastern side of the country. The lake is a beautiful setting for many activities and also provides approximately 85 percent of the fresh-water tropical aquarium fish in the world.
Malawi’s first television station began broadcasting relatively recently, and it now offers a few local news segments and programming from South Africa and Europe. There are several radio stations, some of which play popular music. Many Volunteers bring shortwave radios so that they can listen to international broadcasts (BBC, Voice of America, Radio Deuschewella, etc.). Malawi has no cinemas.
The most common form of entertainment is social interactions among friends and neighbors. Some Volunteers visit other Volunteers on weekends and during holidays. We encourage Volunteers to remain at their sites in order to develop relationships with their community, but we also recognize that an occasional trip to the capital and to visit friends is needed as well.
Professionalism, Dress, and Behavior
Malawians value appearance, and norms for dress here are much more conservative than in the United States. In the United States, we view our clothes as a reflection of our individuality. In Malawi, your dress is seen as a sign of your respect to those around you. Clothes that are dirty, have holes in them, or are “too revealing” are not appreciated by Malawians. Wearing them will reduce the amount of respect given to you and your effectiveness. If you need to choose between T-shirts and blouses, choose blouses. Pants and shorts for women, while now legal, are not appropriate at work or in public. Men also prefer to wear nicer pants, shirts, and even neckties for teaching school or working in an office.
One of the difficulties of finding your place as a Peace Corps Volunteer is fitting into the local culture while maintaining your own identity and acting like a professional all at the same time. It is not an easy thing to resolve, and we can only provide you with guidelines. You will be working as a representative of a government ministry, and as such you are expected to dress and behave accordingly. While some of your counterparts may dress in seemingly worn or shabby clothes, this will be due to economics rather than choice. The likelihood is that they are wearing their “best.” A foreigner wearing ragged, unmended clothing is likely to be considered an affront.
Adhering to appropriate dress is important in Malawi, and if you have reservations about your ability or willingness to do so, you should evaluate your decision to become a Peace Corps Volunteer. Volunteering to work effectively in another culture requires a certain level of sacrifice and flexibility that can be difficult for some people. We expect you to behave in a manner that will foster respect within your community and reflect well on the Peace Corps. You need to be aware that because certain behavior may jeopardize the Peace Corps program and your personal safety, it cannot be tolerated, and could lead to administrative separation, a decision by the Peace Corps to terminate your service.
Rewards and Frustrations
Although the potential for job satisfaction is very high, like all Volunteers, you will encounter numerous frustrations. Perceptions of time are very different from the United States, the lack of basic infrastructure can become very tiring, the host agencies do not always provide expected support in a timely manner, and Malawians generally perceive all Americans as very rich. These are all very common frustrations that Malawi Volunteers experience. The Peace Corps experience is often described as an intense series of emotional peaks and valleys that occur while you adapt to the new culture.
As a Volunteer, you will be given a great deal of responsibility and independence in your work—perhaps more than in any other job you will ever have. Often you will need to motivate yourself and others with little guidance. You may work for months with little visible impact and without receiving feedback on your work. Development is a s-l-o-w process. You must possess the self-confidence, patience, and vision to continue working toward long-term goals without seeing immediate results.
To approach and overcome these difficulties, you will need maturity, flexibility, open-mindedness, and resourcefulness. Judging by the experience of former Volunteers, the peaks are well worth the difficult times, and most Volunteers leave Malawi feeling they have gained more than they sacrificed during their service. If you are able to make the commitment to integrate into your community and work hard, your service could be a truly life-altering experience.
More information about the Peace Corps’ approach to safety is outlined in the Health Care and Safety chapter, but it is an important issue and cannot be over-emphasized. As stated in the Volunteer Handbook, becoming a Peace Corps Volunteer entails certain safety risks. Living and traveling in an unfamiliar environment (oftentimes alone), having a limited understanding of local language and culture, and being perceived as well-off are some of the factors that can put a Volunteer at risk. Many Volunteers experience varying degrees of unwanted attention and harassment. Petty thefts and burglaries are not uncommon, and incidents of physical and sexual assault do occur, although many Volunteers complete their two years of service without personal safety problems. The Peace Corps has established procedures and policies designed to help Volunteers reduce their risks and enhance their safety and security. These procedures and policies, in addition to safety training, will be provided once you arrive in Malawi. At the same time, you are expected to take responsibility for your safety and well-being.