“Basi,” in Chichewa, means finished – and I am. The end of my Malawi experience arrived sooner than anyone expected, and with an entirely unforeseen set of terminology and circumstances. In late November, I was granted Interrupted Service. And, with both sorrow and resolve, I chose it for myself.
On one hand, I’m reluctant to write about why this happened because it is heavy and unpleasant and I often sense that it makes people uncomfortable; on the other hand, I’m desperate to write about it. It has affected me deeply and continues to do so – “it” being partly the circumstances of my leaving, but mostly Malawi as this large abstract beautiful horrible hilarious absurd place that is so powerful and so grand and so ridiculous that it at times makes me forget to use commas, like right now. I will never be the same. And as a “normal” volunteer I would have had the chance to write one last thing, to tie up all the loose ends for myself and end the experience with closure and finality and reflection. I still want to do that. So I will.
Essentially, here it is: I was assaulted twice in the space between June and September. I convinced myself that I was fine after the first incident, swallowing any residual anxiety about it and throwing myself deeper into my work, only to see those symptoms worsen despite my best attempts to ignore them. When I opted to seek help, I was assaulted again on the way to my first counselor appointment. Rattled and worn down, I couldn’t deny the combined impact any longer. Malawi was not a good place for me to be. When offered the chance to medically evacuate for 45 days, I said yes.
I got a lot out of those 6 weeks (although, admittedly, a mixed bag): an unofficial diagnosis of PTSD; the comfort of my family, my childhood friends, my hometown, and a Midwestern autumn; and most of all, a huge, overwhelming sense of relief. For the first time in months, I relaxed. I had perspective. With distance, I saw the dysfunction. When I left Tanzania several years ago, it all felt so premature, and I was filled with a feeling of “Wait, no – I’m not done! I wasn’t done!” But when I left Malawi, the difference was stark – I was just so relieved, so tired, and quite frankly so bitter. Malawi sapped my reserves, and left me with a feeling that I could never give enough of my money, of my time, of my attention, or of my affection. The prospect of returning filled me with dread. And so, with sadness and decisiveness, I gave myself permission to be done.
But in many ways I am not done with Malawi – I can’t stop talking about it. A few weeks ago, I was doing just that and an old friend said, “From all the things you’ve said, I really have no idea what it was like.” And he is right – I’m not sure that even I know. It was laid thick with contrasts and contradictions. I met some of the kindest, cruelest people I’ve ever known, and got to know a bit of the kindness and cruelty in myself. Just as my Peace Corps experience should not and cannot be defined by the way it ended, Malawi cannot be defined by any one quality.
When I first started this blog, you may remember, I aimed to offer an alternative to the typical one-dimensional view of Africa: to counter the stereotypes of a continent defined by poverty, violence, and illness by presenting a picture dotted with “hope and comedy and a little sweetness, too.” I hope I have done that. But I also realize that isn’t quite right either.
Malawi was a strange in-between land, a place full of gorgeous, glittering moments of feeling very young and very free amid devastating poverty and corruption. It was layered in extremes: joy coexisted with sorrow, and tenderness resided among brutality. There was shocking generosity and utter callousness, chaos and disarray and dishonesty living amid beauty and love and simplicity. And there is so much that I will cling to: Mary’s friendship, George’s raucous presence, Reuben’s dry wit, Mrs. Mbowe’s sass and class, the misty mornings, the dusty afternoons, the students who maddened and amazed me, the scores of strangers who looked out for me with no expectation of anything in return, the small hands that slipped shyly into my palms, and the jumbled collection of people I came to admire, to adore, and to call my family.
We cannot control what happens to us, but we get to select the thematic arc. So I choose this one: Malawi allowed me to close the first quarter-century of my life with breathlessness and awe and growth and gratitude and a bit of reality, too. It was a time when I watched the space between my childhood dreams and my daily experience grow very small, and when I found myself chanting, so very often, “Remember this, remember this, remember this.” And I will.
Epilogue: A piece of Malawi is here with me now – actually, one of the best pieces of it. Thanks to some seriously above-and-beyond acts of friendship from Lauren and Allison and some possible insanity on my part, Chalo was flown from Malawi to America in early December. The journey was harrowing – it did not go as planned due to an airline mistake that will probably never be explained – but he is here and he is alive and he is adjusting beautifully. And I’m overjoyed to have him here, grateful to have a bit of Malawi to ease my own adjustment. He is lucky far beyond the limits of his canine brain, and continues to insist on holding hands with everyone he meets.