Back to the Warm Heart of Africa
February 4, 1998
-Carl Haley, RPCV Malawi
Most RPCVs wonder how life at their site has changed since they left. I’ve often dreamed of returning to Malawi where I was a volunteer. The dream came true last October 11 when I once again set foot on Malawi soil. Although Malawi has a new multi-party government, I was pleased to see that the citizens are still the same friendly, outgoing and warm-hearted people I knew seven years ago.
By the time our plane landed, I was very excited. Prior to my departure, I decided I would bring some scientific calculators for my old school. After mentioning this to some friends, they encouraged me to send a letter to my family and friends asking if they wanted to donate money or items for the school. By the time I left I collected over $2700, which translated to 134 solar scientific calculators, 9 graphic calculators, 13 soccer/volleyballs, a microscope, text books, protractors, compasses and a variety of office supplies.
The Blantyre airport had no other planes on the ground. So we pulled right in front of the terminal where I could see about 200 spectators on the “observation” roof of the building. As I walked down the stairs from the plane, I looked for familiar faces but in all the excitement, I couldn’t see anyone.
The first Malawian I greeted with a “Mulibwanji” (How are you?) was the passport control officer. He looked up with a big smile when I greeted him in Chichewa and responded “Ndilibwino, kayainu?” (I am fine and you?). Next I picked my bags off the luggage carts and quickly chose the customs agent who looked the youngest and the friendliest. Once again I started with “Mulibwanji?” He replied in English with a formal “I am fine. How much do you wish to declare?”
I had written the value of my luggage as $200. I explained that everything was donated for Thyolo Secondary School where I used to teach. He said that I owed him 5000 kwatcha ($280) in customs fees. So I started in on my story, hoping that he would wear down first. And he did. I got everything into the country without paying any excess charges! That meant that 100% of the money donated would go toward school supplies.
As I left customs, the first face I saw was my good friend, Francis, a fellow teacher from Thyolo. The first thing he said was “Ah, you are so fat!” This is Malawian for “you look good.”
I weighed only 130 lbs. when I left Malawi, so indeed I had gained some weight. Francis, like many Malawians, had not aged in the least. He was the same skinny friend with a big smile I had missed for over seven years.
We picked up the Avis rental car and I turned the wrong direction out of the airport. I had forgotten the way to town. I was very glad to have Francis with me. I had thought so often about returning to Malawi one day and here I was actually living it. I cannot describe how wonderful it felt to be home again.
Thyolo Secondary School, my old school, had been painted recently, so it looked better than I remember. The familiar sight of students hanging out on their day off brought back many memories. We first went to Francis’ house where I greeted his wife Grace and son Yamakani, who was only two years old when I had last seen him. I also met their two daughters, Chikonde and Chrissie, for the first time. We spent a good part of the afternoon talking about our lives for the past seven years.
Soon the other teachers began to come by to say hello. About a third of the teachers I had worked with were still there. It was great to see everyone again and meet the new teachers. That evening after a wonderful meal of nsima, chicken and vegetables, we went to the staff room to meet the other teachers and the headmaster. I was pleased to see that the staff room still had signs and posters that I had made seven years ago.
I spent a week at the school talking to classes, visiting old friends and enjoying the school life. Leah, the current Peace Corps teacher at the school, is also a good friend of Francis and Grace and their family, and we had lots of fun comparing stories. The school’s population had grown considerably from 500 to 800 students without any extra facilities or teachers. Class size of most classes had grown from 45 to 75. The new government has said more students need to be educated so they have filled the classrooms to the brim.
When I was a volunteer, most of my PCV friends knew I was gay. I had been warned by the Malawian trainers against coming out to the Malawian teachers at my school. Culturally, homosexuality is not accepted and is invisible. As a result I never came out to any Malawians. I’ve grown up a lot since those years. I now have a lover of seven years. I sing in the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles. My closet door is WIDE open. But what would happen now when I went back to Malawi.
Although I talked with Francis about my lover, Terry, I never felt comfortable explaining that we were more than just friends. Even all these years later, there is no gay community in Malawi. It’s still hard to be gay there. The decency laws have recently been changed and women can now wear pants. So I guess gay rights will take some time. As I traveled around the country and met other volunteers, I found it easy to come out and speak openly about my life. I was surprised that no one knew of any “out” volunteers.
Education is still the key to Malawians’ future. More educated people mean a more productive society. One of the greatest rewards for me was visiting my former students who have now become teachers. Walking into their classrooms and seeing them sharing their knowledge with others showed me how life moves on and grows.
I still value my time in Malawi as some of the best years of my life. Part of me will always be in Malawi. Who knows if I’ll ever come out to any of my Malawian friends? Even if I don’t, I will still treasure their friendship and look forward to seeing them again.•
Carl Haley, was a math teacher in Malawi from 1988 – 90. You can contact the author at email@example.com.