To mark my farewell from Sengabay and the Baptist Medical Clinic my housemates and I organised a goodbye party. We put some chairs out, prepared drinks and snacks, played a little music. Our first ‘guests’ brought stacks of plastic chairs with them: the small gathering of seats that we had set up extended to a circle of some forty chairs. A bit much I thought, but in the end every seat was filled. It was a warm evening: there was prayer, song and many words of thanks and praise.
Whenever my students saw me in the days leading up to my departure they would lay their hands upon their hearts, shake their head and tell me they were “vely vely sad” about my leaving. They were surprisingly vocal in their gratitude and diverse in their ways of expressing it. The men held little speeches in the last class, Nelly sang a song (“this is goodbye but not forever”), Chipi gave me a note and Chisale walked me home after work (those few hundred meters) and took great care to ask me if I could please not forget him? It was a big surprise when at the goodbye party I was showered with gifts. First the management, and then my students handed me a bag full of souvenirs, bought with the money they had collected. The necklace with a wooden heart I wear with pride, the key chain carved with my name (“Josophine”) dangles from my backpack.
I hadn’t expected these gifts, supposing my students and colleagues did not have money to spare. Truth be told, in my weeks in Malawi I had formed a picture of Malawians holding up their hand, expecting to be given things (a Malawian attitude nourished by a former government, donors and well-wishers handing out stuff as if it were Christmas year round). And although at least partly accurate, this impression may have made me overlook the fact that Malawians too want to share and give.
Looking back I can say it has been good to be in Sengabay. To talk and meet with Malawian colleagues, to exchange smiles and jokes, to see how I slowly but surely settled in. To be appreciated for the skills I could bring to the table. They wanted to learn more English, I could teach them. They wanted guidance in their thinking about the clinic’s future, I could be their consultant. True: it wasn’t always easy to lead life in a small, secluded place, working behind the computer many hours. It was a challenge to have to learn about the politics of the clinic’s government in the space of a few weeks. To try and understand the context and meaning of the staff’s thinking, complaints and ideas. But living in one place for a longer time enables you, by and by, to pick up on customs and beliefs of your environment. The world I glimpsed here is so different to my own that it gave me plenty food for thought. After I leave Malawi I’ll still be chewing on the new ideas it gave me about death, life, social interaction, poverty, aid, community, health, nature…