Sunday, December 19, 2010


“Hey man, how’s it being back?” Or my personal favorite, “how was Africa?” Shit, I don’t know. Not exactly the response most people are expecting, especially not medical school interviewers, so I fabricated answers. As time went on I developed talking points that fit with what people expected; a nifty collection of stories and insights that portrayed a challenging but positive experience…blah, blah, blah. Not exactly prevarication, but not exactly candid. The truth is, I don’t know how to encapsulate the experiences of an entire year in a terse narrative. Ignoring this challenge, a larger obstacle remains: I'm not sure what aspect of my time in Malawi was meaningful. No doubt the experience felt impactful, but the stories I have been telling about power outages, matola rides, and cold showers are superficial. Day to day occurrences of this sort, though novel at first, have a way of fading into the background and becoming normal. Taking cold showers did not define my Malawi experience; it just makes easy conversational fodder.

In the five months since my return to the United States I have struggled to untangle the mess of experience and emotion which surrounds Malawi in my mind. I have tried to distill the elements of Malawian life which were meaningfully unique and which transcend the superficial descriptors to which travelers so often digress. It was, and is, a personal question, one which I hope to communicate here with as much clarity as my mind allows.

At many times throughout these blog post I have commented on the opportunity which Malawi afforded me to think and, in retrospect, this was one of the most meaningful parts of the past year. I didn’t fully appreciate this until I had been back in the United States for several months. Even without the help of a full time job I still managed to fill nearly every second of my day, be it constructively or otherwise. There is always a new book to read, a friend to see, an email to respond to, or some other industry of life. Malawi is a far less stimulating environment than the United States but more importantly it is a different environment. There are different ways to spend ones time and they were not endeavors to which I was accustomed. Given several years I expect that I would have filled my life with commitments analogous to those I have in the United States, but in just eleven month my time remained remarkably unrestrained. Mr. Mtemangombe, a fellow teacher, once commented that I had more time than him because I didn’t have a real life, an astute observation which he intended without judgment. When Mr. Mtemangombe returned home he had a business to run, a family to take care of, a house under construction, and an active role in his community. I had none of these things. For the first few month of college I had noticed a similar phenomena; a plethora of free time arising from the fact that I had not yet chosen where and how to exert myself. Since life in Malawi represented an even larger departure from normality than beginning college, my idle time was even more abundant. Remove, family, friends, Gmail, television, and facebook from your life and you save a prodigious amount of time. Just as the novelty of Malawi was affording me an idleness I had never before experienced, it was also presenting me with a cornucopia of challenging and thought provoking ideas. Although the majority of my time in Malawi quickly became “ordinary,” with uncanny frequency Malawi’s many idiosyncratic quirks would emerge from the mundane and leave me scratching my head. The result was a year of engaging philosophical thought and learning that differed markedly from the type I had experienced during my formal education. Without the accountability of a teacher or an assignment I could take the time to allow questions to appear, rather than forcing them to do so. I could spend an hour entertaining an idea in the hammock; take the time to read several book on a topic; write down my thoughts and ideas without the need for a conclusion or the exigency of a deadline. The blogs provided an outlet for some of what I was thinking, but for every page posted online there are countless pages on my hard drive written without purpose or intent. It was learning for the sake of curiosity with a lack of deliberateness in which I had never before had the pleasure to indulge. It changed my day to day experiences in a way that remained novel, even as the more superficial parts of Malawian life faded into the background. These periods of introspection and contemplation defined my time in Malawi in a way that is personally meaningful up to this day.

I left Malawi with grand aspirations to continue this new found intellectual diligence. In most ways, I have failed. It is no coincidence that this blog post comes more than 5 months since my return to the United States and more than 6 months since my previous post. I kept telling myself that I wanted to give my feelings from Malawi time to “sink in” before I put them down on paper. In reality, continuing the introspection and contemplation I valued in Malawi has been much more difficult than I expected.

I am realizing how important the novelty in Malawi was to sparking my thinking. Since Malawi, I first felt compelled to write a blog post after I began temping in the seedy world of Chicago construction. Although quite different than Malawi (well, the corruption is a striking parallel), I was once again operating in a foreign environment and interacting with people from entirely different backgrounds. Just as in Malawi, an offhand comment by a coworker would give me something to ponder for the rest of the day. There was nothing inherently stimulating about Malawi; except in the sense that it utterly ravaged my autopilot and forced a clean break from the regimen of routine. This opportunity allowed for a change in perspective that was very stimulating and, I think, enabled the presence of mind I enjoyed in Malawi.

Retaining my Malawian mentality was also mired by the manner in which I returned to the United States. For better or worse, I didn’t have time to transition from Malawi to America. Literally days after arriving home I began a marathon of stressful medical school interviews. Nothing fosters genuine reflection less than the combination of severe jet lag, coffee jitters, and a medical school administrator asking you to summarize the most meaningful aspect of an entire year in Africa in one minute or less. Now that the dust has settled, my year in Malawi feels dislocated in my memory. It is as if my brain compartmentalized itself into American life and Malawian life. This made my transition back to the United States almost too effortless, since I essentially left much of my Malawian persona behind and slipped back into the person I was a year before. I became involved with friends and family, and also the daily distracters such as email, computer games, television, and facebook. With the benefit of hindsight, I now recognize that when I left Malawi I also left behind a part of myself, a part that I hope to, with time and due diligence, incorporate back into my life.

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