Letting Go of Living Without: Malawi Has Everything You Need

Volunteer Erica and their counterpart bend over a hole to plant a tree sapling.
By Erica Scribner
May 3, 2018
On a day exactly like all the other days endlessly chained together during pre-service training – a literal lifetime ago – I found myself innocuously sitting in the grass near the football grounds in our training village.

I had sat in that spot, give or take a few feet, on several weekend afternoons doing the same thing, taking a well-earned break from day-in-day-out trainings and the rigors of village life. I was sitting among other trainees, some were studying language, others were reading, chatting, stretching out with some yoga, or playing ultimate frisbee out on the pitch. I was thinking about our next market trip. What did I need? Toilet paper, some processed junk food snacks, honey. I paused in my deliberations at that moment and asked the question again; What do I need?

As a point of pride, I’m happy to say that I stepped off the plane into Malawi with one of the smallest luggage loads of the 2017 newbies. Three bags, no suitcases. I remember my mother saying almost tearfully to my father as I squared up to head into the airport, “Honey, we raised a spartan.” They told us that we should bring a few essentials of our own, but that pretty much anything else we needed we’d be able to find in-country. I took them at their word.

And there I was, sitting in the yellow grass and realizing, really getting for the first time, that it was true. Yeah, I needed toilet paper, and honey for sure, though snacks I could probably live without. But those were all things that I could get. It might seem ridiculous but I truly advise any incoming volunteers to check their packing lists again before coming here and strike out anything that resembles ‘a two-year supply of’. Q-tips, shampoo, toothbrushes, baby wipes, hand sanitizer etc. I’m probably clashing with the opinion of plenty of other Peace Corps Malawi volunters but this has been my experience: Malawi has everything you need. And material things are the least of it.

There on the edge of that field I had so much more that a grocery list. I was surrounded by people who have slowly but surely become a second family (somewhat out of necessity but what you gunna do?), a font of knowledge, stories, expertise and experience, and endless entertainment. I was breathing fresh air. I was cared for by a family who took me in without a second thought and put up with my atrocious Chichewa. Every day that I woke up before sunrise I did so with the knowledge that I was doing something meaningful. Food, shelter, water, air, purpose, and people, these are the six ingredients needed to grow a Peace Corps volunteer. No matter how taxing the training was, I had those six things in abundance. I had everything I needed.

If you are really stressed about paring down your list to the things you just can’t live without, then ask around. You’ll find that someone here probably has what you need, knows where to get it, or has found a substitute. Our biggest resource here is people, those we come with and those we come to, and those we leave behind (never underestimate the value of a care package from home). Whether you are a prospective volunteer, already in country, an RPCV or anyone else, this an important realization. We need to let go of the idea that Peace Corps is an exercise in deprivation.

Exhausting, emotionally draining, sometimes isolating, deeply frustrating, endlessly challenging. Just for a start. Each day is a roller coaster of emotional highs and lows and at some point you will ask yourself ‘Is this right for me?’ I hope the answer is and remains an emphatic Yes.

If you’re worrying more about what you won’t have, not considering everything that you will gain, I’m here to tell you that there are better uses for your time. There a lot of things I miss; the Rocky Mountains, a cold craft beer, the gym. But I could never characterize the life I’m living here as living without. There are daily challenges, to be sure, some of which have more to do with each person’s location than anything else. But I still have those six ingredients, and I’m still growing.

Volunteer Erica and their counterpart bend over a hole to plant a tree sapling.