Malawi

Living Conditions

Communications

Mail

Mail takes a minimum of three to four weeks to arrive and packages take six to nine weeks. Advise your family and friends to number their letters and to include “Air Mail” on the envelopes. Your address during training will be: 

“Your Name,” PCT
Peace Corps 
P. O. Box 208
Lilongwe, Malawi.

Once you have become a Volunteer, you will be able to get a box in your nearest city, town, or large trading center. If you live in a more populated area, you may be able to get your mail sent to your site. Many Volunteers share boxes in order to keep costs down and to alert one another as to when mail has arrived. 

Telephones

All Volunteers are encouraged to bring smart phones from the U.S. that are already unlocked and can function abroad. It is very difficult (perhaps impossible) to get them unlocked once in Malawi. 

Before leaving the U.S., Volunteers find it useful to download applications that will make communicating easier. WhatsApp is the primary way in which Volunteers text and call each other in Malawi.  Many Volunteer sites have decent enough service to receive and reply to WhatsApp messages or emails, but service may be spotty or you might only have service in certain rooms of your house or outside.  

During pre-service training, Volunteers should not expect consistent or good access to emails, messages, or phone calls. Before leaving for your permanent site, Peace Corps will give you some local currency in order to buy a local phone. 

Internet

All Volunteers must complete quarterly reports for the Peace Corps office. Although laptops are not required, they do make doing these reports, writing grants and lesson plans, or blogging and keeping track of media much easier. However, please note that you will most likely need to travel to your nearest town or city in order to access the internet on your laptop. Most places in Malawi do not have wifi. In order to access the internet on a computer, you can hot spot off of your smart phone in an area that has excellent service, use a computer in an internet café, or buy units of internet at upscale hotels or restaurants in your nearest city.  

Most Volunteers would suggest bringing a laptop that is lightweight and expendable, as conditions in Malawi can be rough on electronics. If you already have a nice computer and do not want to buy a cheaper one, consider getting your computer insured.

Housing and Site Location

During pre-service training, trainees stay with host families. Homestay is considered one of the most important aspects of the training program and is required for this period. During homestay, trainees will have language and cross-culture facilitators and technical trainers staying with them in the same villages.

Following training, Volunteers are almost exclusively posted to rural areas—at health centers, community day secondary schools, or in communities surrounding forest or game reserves or other protected areas. Site placement is made during the training period after the staff has had an opportunity to evaluate individual capabilities, strengths, and medical needs. Housing can vary from mud houses with thatch roofs to fired-brick houses with tin roofs. Some homes have electricity and/or water taps, but most do not. It is important to remain flexible and open to having very basic living conditions at your new site. 

The electric current in Malawi runs 220-240 volts, 50 cycles when it is on. You can buy a British-style converter/adapter before you leave the U.S., but they are also available to purchase in the city.

Each Volunteer will receive an allowance to purchase items needed for their new home. You may be replacing a Volunteer who is closing their service, or you may be at a new site. Proximity to another Volunteer varies from site to site. 

Living Allowance and Money Management

Volunteers receive a monthly allowance in kwacha, the local currency, that is sufficient to live at the level of the local people. The allowance covers food, housing, household supplies, clothing, transportation to and from work, utilities, recreation and entertainment, and incidental expenses. The living allowance is paid monthly into local bank accounts that Peace Corps sets up for you. Peace Corps Volunteers are expected to live at a level that is comparable with that of their host country counterparts. The Peace Corps discourages Volunteers from supplementing their living allowance with funds from home. However, Volunteers often wish to bring additional money for vacation travel to other countries. For this, credit cards, debit cards, and traveler's checks are preferable to cash. The amount of money you bring depends on the amount of traveling you plan to do and where. 

It is possible to access a U.S. bank account with a major debit card at most ATMs in urban areas. You can only take out kwacha from an ATM, not dollars, although it is possible to exchange money in the city. In Malawi, only a few upscale places accept payment by card. Make sure your cards do not expire while you will be away from home and that you alert your bank to your travel plans. 

Volunteers are encouraged to add a trusted family member or friend to their bank accounts or grant them power of attorney. Handling banking issues from Malawi can be extremely difficult and sometimes impossible. It is not uncommon for banks to shut off your debit or credit cards due to your “unusual activity” (of traveling in Malawi and other countries) or for cards to be stolen or lost. Having a second party attached to your finances can make your life much easier when these things happen. 

Food and Diet

The staple food in Malawi is maize (corn), prepared as a thick porridge called nsima and eaten with vegetables or beans. Many fruits and vegetables grow in Malawi and, with a little creativity, you can enjoy a widely varied diet. Most Volunteers prepare their own food, although after becoming more familiar with their site assignment, some eat with neighbors or hire someone to help with household work, including cooking. Fruits and vegetables are available in-season, which means some things will not be available at the market year round. Meat and dairy products are available in the towns, though they can be expensive. 

Volunteers who are vegetarians will be able to eat well in Malawi after becoming familiar with local food items and their preparation. Most Malawians do not understand vegetarianism and will not normally be prepared to serve a vegetarian meal if you are a guest in their home. It is common for Malawians to share meat with a guest as a sign of respect because meat is expensive and usually eaten only on special occasions. For this reason, make sure to let your host family, neighbors, and co-workers know as soon as possible about your eating habits. They will think it is a bit odd, but will be accepting and may ask lots of questions.. Most vegetarian Volunteers have no difficulty after their initial adjustment.

Transportation

Volunteers’ primary modes of transport are public mini-buses, bike taxis, biking, or walking.. Big buses and mini-buses travel among towns on irregular schedules (i.e., they leave when they are full), so travel in Malawi is never a timed affair. All Volunteers receive a mountain bike to facilitate their work. Whenever you ride a bicycle, it is mandatory to wear a helmet that is provided by the Peace Corps. The bikes issued are usually men’s bikes that can be difficult to ride wearing a skirt. Many women wear shorts or leggings under their skirts to solve this problem. Volunteers are not allowed to drive and/or operate motor vehicles or motorcycles (two- or three-wheeled), except under special circumstances.

Social Activities

The most common form of entertainment is social interaction among friends and neighbors. Malawians love to chat, sing, dance, and be together. If you enjoy soccer or netball, playing with locals will earn you many friends—regardless of your skill level. 

Volunteers are encouraged to remain at their sites in order to integrate and develop relationships with their community, but during holiday time, Malawi offers many outdoor activities. We have excellent and varied hiking, several diverse beaches, plenty of game reserves, and sprawling tea estates. Volunteers also like to visit one another at site during vacation time or when working on projects together. Trips to the city in order to re-stock or complete work via the internet will be coordinated with the programming staff.

Malawi has a limited number of television stations, which offer a few local news segments and programming from South Africa and Europe. There are several FM radio stations, some of which play popular music. Many Volunteers bring or buy short-wave radios so that they can listen to international broadcasts (BBC, Voice of America, Radio Deuschewella, etc.). 

Professionalism, Dress, and Behavior

Alcohol consumption in Malawi can carry negative connotations, especially for women, and host communities may consider it disrespectful. For that reason, drinking is not allowed at all during pre-service Training. Throughout the rest of their service, Volunteers are strongly discouraged from drinking at their permanent site or in their village. In cities, social drinking is more accepted.

Malawians value appearance so the norms for dress here are much more conservative than in the United States.  Americans may view their clothing as a reflection of their individuality. In Malawi, your dress is seen as a sign of your respect to those around you. Clothes that are dirty, have holes in them, or are “too revealing” are not appreciated by Malawians. Wearing them will reduce the level of respect shown to you and your effectiveness. 

In the village, it is very rare for women to wear trousers. If you are a female and wish to wear trousers at your site, make sure to get a feel for how your community members or co-workers would feel about it before you do it. Some villages are very conservative and would take great offense if you showed up to work in trousers. Other villages have no problem with it. In the city, many women wear trousers, Malawian and expats alike. When you are in the village, it is always a safe bet to wear a skirt that hits below your knees. Showing part of your thigh or even the top of your knee will be considered inappropriate. 

Shorts or mini-skirts are not appropriate, even in the city. The only place where shorts are accepted are in areas that have large amounts of tourism, such as at the beach or at a resort. Even so, it is always good to carry a towel or sarong with you in case you are getting unwanted attention. 

Men are expected to wear nicer pants, shirts, and even neckties for teaching school or working in an office. You will be working as a representative of a government ministry and, as such, you are expected to dress and behave accordingly. While some of your counterparts may dress in seemingly worn or shabby clothes, this will be due to economics rather than choice. The likelihood is that they are wearing their “best.” A foreigner wearing ragged, dirty, or torn clothing at work is likely to be considered an affront. 

Volunteers report that their neighbors and friends react very positively when they see the Volunteer wearing traditional Malawian clothing. In America, this might be seen as offensive, but communities often appreciate that the Volunteer is attempting to fit in and look like a local.