Part of Engineers Without Borders’ guiding philosophy for their overseas volunteers is to integrate yourself as much as possible into the community in which you are living. “Integration” means many different things to each of us. It may be eating local food at a nearby restaurant or at home, maybe even learning to cook some of it. It may be learning the local language. It may be living with a family and trying to understand their reality, relationships and community, or it may be living on your own, an experience fraught with its own challenges and learning. It may be going to church or joining a soccer team. It may be making friends in the community, along your daily commute and at work. It may be adjusting your dress to fit local customs.
“Integrating” is a fuzzy term we use to catch all of this and much more. It is the sum of the experience of learning as much as possible as fast as possible to better understand and appreciate a new place. It’s about building a life for yourself in a new place, of fitting in, but more importantly, of belonging. On top of that, it’s just pretty awesome.
But as I am slowly discovering, reverse-integration (for lack of a better word) is evident as well. People I meet are as interested to learn about life and culture in Canada as I am to learn about Malawi. In fact, I didn’t know I knew so much about Canada… or that I didn’t know and have hence had to do some research! I am asked about our politics, corruption and democracy. I am asked about diseases, medical care and care for senior citizens; about family, relationships, dating and marriage. I am questioned on our geography (I have never used a map of Canada as frequently as I have in the past 2 weeks), about the great lakes, our seasons and the prevalence of snow and ice. I am asked how we travel in a land of such changing seasons, how we grow our food, how we shop. I have been asked how we dress, how we talk, what we eat… to which I have to reply that we are fortunate to have people from all nations, all cultures and all walks of life who have brought their local traditions with them and then created a few of their own. We are a nation of diversity and complexity, but also one of acceptance. In fact, I didn’t realize (or appreciate) how diverse, complex and accepting we can be until I have to describe what life is like in Canada, and find that my answers are always in vague and conditional terms of “it depends.”
Certainly, Canada has its fair share of issues. I am not trying to idolize our situation. And certainly, as Canadians, I think we need to step-up and take action on a number of tough (and sometimes uncomfortable) issues, both at home and abroad.
I find myself comparing situations, experiences and opportunities between Malawi and Canada. I try not to, since in some ways to compare is out of context. But having lived for over 20 years in Canada, it is my basic frame of reference, and this comparison has often provided very interesting thoughts, discussions and heated debates about why things are the way they are and how to move forward.
But on a lighter more simplistic level, integration works both ways. Here are some examples.
I love to eat. In particular, I love the variety and endless possibilities, the flavours and textures on top that very satisfying feeling of fullness that a good meal offers.
I also love to cook. In fact, the thing I missed the most as soon as I arrived and spent the first month in various rest-houses was the ability to cook for myself. I would go to the market and see all these different foods, different beans and vegetables, fruits like mangoes, pineapples, bananas and peaches that were being grown locally and my mind would start to wander. Then I would walk past the fish market or a butcher and immediately I would start to plan meals, imagining it so vividly I could taste it. I would be tempted to reach out to buy something, only to realize that my culinary fantasy couldn’t happen because I had no kitchen (let alone utensils) to create it.
I usually eat and enjoy the local dishes of Malwian rice (which is delicious!) or nsima served with one or more relish choices (and contrary to what I first thought and experienced, there are MANY relish choices). On top of being convenient and satisfying, this has taught me a lot about cooking, markets, prices and availability.
I moved into a house with both an outdoor and indoor kitchen, fully equipped and bustling with activity. I also moved into a house with a very good cook. (Brenda’s cooking is delicious and certainly some of the most varied I’ve had here.) Furthermore, as chance or fate would have it, I moved into a house of people willing to learn and try new things. Most women want to (and Brenda does) teach me to cook some of the local dishes. We go to the market together and pick out what we need and then go home to prepare it. And while I enjoy it, my mind still wanders off on tangents of possibility.
So occasionally, I burst out with a “Oh, did you know you could cook [this item] like this? Here, let me show you / Can I try!?” And if that’s not possible at that time, I usually describe the dish and the way of cooking it in detail. Sometimes I think it’s a good thing Brenda is patient and has a good sense of humour.
But as I said, my family is pretty open to trying new things, so occasionally, I get to whet my appetite on Canadian style food. We have sandwiches with avocados, tomatoes, lettuce (I found lettuce here!!), chicken and cucumber or egg-salad sandwiches on bread that I toasted in a pan. Usually, it’s just Brenda and Tears who join me in this, while the kids eat normal Malawian food, which has sometimes left me feeling like rather than helping I’ve actually created more work.
This Sunday though, I had a breakthrough cooking experience with the kids. I found/was given spaghetti earlier that afternoon, and we happened to have bought lettuce and green pepper the day before. (I should point out that all three of those ingredients are rather rare.) My mind instantly turned to my all-time favourite comfort meal of pasta and salad. I was pretty excited, and Brenda agreed to let me cook dinner. I started washing and breaking the lettuce as Johns walked into the kitchen. After watching for a minute, he came over and started to help. I turned to cut tomatoes; he watched for a minute then found a stool and extended his hand for the knife so he could do it. The same went for the sauce, with me instructing a bit, giving some encouragement and stepping back as he happily cut up everything. The same for the pasta. So by the end of it, I knew he was going to want to try some. (Johns has already shown an interest in doing/going/eating/talking whatever or wherever I do/go/eat/say). What I did not expect was that the whole house was going to be interested to try it. Even little Akuzike declined her nsima to eat some pasta when she saw us eating it.
This mixture of cultures and unexpected help left me feeling pretty excited and satisfied. Tears was shocked that Johns was cooking. Brenda was amused and accepting. The kids were content. When asked, John’s rationale, beyond wanting to do what I do, was that if anything happened to the family, he’d be able to feed Akuzike. It was my turn to be shocked as that’s pretty astute and insightful for a 10 year old.
I mentioned that one of the easier ways to better understand anything is to learn the language. Living with children is probably the best way and motivator to do so. While I’ve been rather slack in this area, occasionally I get Brenda or Tears or various people I meet to help teach me.
However, Brenda has just gone back to school. She came home the other day, confused and head hurting from science class. I asked to see what she was learning, and realized that I could probably help. I have spent a fair amount of time going to school and studying engineering. So now, Brenda is teaching me Chichewa, and I’m teaching her atomic structure and matrices.
The same thing goes for African style, where the mixing and meshing of cultures is at once normal and shocking.
Most people in Malawi wear western style clothing, although the women wear a chitenge wrapped around their skirt and sometimes have blouses, skirts and dresses made from the local material. I figured that since I was living and working in Malawi, it was time for me to have a suit made. I found some lovely Chitenge material (which actually reminds me a lot of Canada since it is white with red leaves and gold and black detailing) and went with Brenda to find a decent tailor to get something made. After a few deep breaths (as far as I can tell, what you end up with is never quite what you asked for… an experience echoed by every lady I talk to), a fair amount of negotiation and some trial and error (I really wish I had hips as small as that tailor seems to think I have!) I received a beautiful suit. Two skirts and a top, sewn with a little creative licence, but looking good none-the-less.
Happy and feeling good, I went to work. I thought I’d fit right in, like any good Malawian lady. As usual I was wrong! I have NEVER received so much attention as I did that day. Ladies on the street stopped me to complement my dress. Women I walk by daily called out to me and introduced themselves. Conversations about fabric and tailors ensued. Men nodded in approval. My female colleagues gave me two thumbs up. As I walked home, the neighbours greeted me a bit more than usual, waved and stared. A girl, probably 14, walked past and in halting English quietly said “Madame, you have a beautiful dress.” I made it home, closed the door and looked around in wonder… so much for fitting in!
Being home didn’t last for long since I still needed to go out and get some bread and peanut butter for the next mornings’ breakfast. The kids were home and decided to accompany/escort me. Akuzike, being the princess she is, hates getting dirty, but had left her shoes somewhere. Johns was carrying her, but was struggling, so I went back and got a chitenge so that I could carry her on my back. This was happening in the middle of the street, so some kind ladies came by to help, laughing all the while. Then off we went, getting even more stares as people had NO idea what to do with the white lady wearing a tailored Malawian suit, carrying a baby on her back with a chitenge, escorted by two boys and trudging up the hill.
It didn’t stop there because later that night Brenda told me that she had been approached her whole walk home by the same ladies who told her they had seen her sister (me) walking by in my Malawian dress, that I was looking good and for Brenda to keep up the good work.
This is my experience with integration.