From Volunteer to Staff

By Brandalyn Bickner
June 14, 2017

During my first month at site, if you would have told me that I would end up staying in Malawi much longer than my twenty-seven month service, I would have bet my life against it. 

Being dropped off in a village without another American to lean on was truly intimidating. I struggled to wash my clothes by hand, burned myself starting fires, and gingerly peaked into my pit latrine, scanning for cockroaches, snakes, and other critters I didn’t particularly want to share that space with. 

More than the physical discomforts, the beginning of my service was rather lonely. My language skills were okay, but I felt embarrassed to use them. I was in a community where I didn’t know anyone, and I wondered if I would make any friends at all. It was during those first few weeks that I made a giant calendar and hung it on my wall. It showed every day for the next two and a half years and looking at it was overwhelming. How could I possibly have signed up for this? How would I survive for two years in a village with no running water, no electricity, and no other Americans? I’ll admit, I’d look at that calendar in horror, wondering what in the world I had gotten myself into. 

Bucket bath in Malawi
Bucket baths took some getting used to

Time has a funny way of moving in Malawi; quickly and slowly at the same time. Days turned into weeks, which turned into months. Someone stopped me on the side of the road and told me they were happy I had come to live in their community. Local children started to remember my name and would come running up to me for hugs any time they saw me. I spent an entire bus ride chatting with a woman in the local language and made the entire bus laugh. The vendors in my market realized I was not just visiting and finally started giving me local prices. I carried a bucket of water on my head and only spilled half of it down my shirt instead of all of it.

Slowly, the calendar on my wall didn’t look so big. As time went on, projects were started, students were taught, friends were made. Not having running water or electricity became normal and I became an expert at starting fires. At one point I even got a buzz cut to make bathing in a bucket easier (my community members thought this was both hilarious and bizarre).

I went to funerals and weddings, traveled inside of Malawi and out, visited my friends at other sites, and spent many evenings on my porch reading to the neighborhood kids or chatting with my students about what snow, Halloween, and airplanes are like. Instead of looking at my calendar and counting down how much time I had left, I started wondering where the time was going. By the end of my service, I felt truly at home in Malawi and desperately sad that I was leaving.

As I was getting ready to go back home to the United States, a surprising opportunity presented itself. A new staff position was created, and I was lucky enough to land the job. After a month and a half visiting family and friends in the U.S., I hopped on a plane back to Malawi and started my second journey in the Warm Heart of Africa.  

Peace Corps Malawi Staff and Volunteers
At the Peace Corps office in the capital

Working as a member of Peace Corps staff after being a Volunteer is a strange experience. Not only am I living in a city with access to luxuries like a couch, sinks, and cheese, I’m also surrounded by more Americans than I have been for the past two and a half years. It's as if I’ve turned 18 all over again; many of the rules I had to follow as a Volunteer are gone. I can drive a car if I want to and I don’t have to ask for permission to go away on a weekend. Being exposed to the “back-end” of how our post works means I understand why the office functions the way it does. I now have an even greater appreciation for how hard my supervisors worked to make my service productive, happy, healthy, and safe.  

I miss my rural community very much, and the slower way of life I experienced there. Some days I feel nostalgic for my time in the village, but I love my current job in the capital. Here, I’ve been able to experience a different and exciting side of Malawi and come to know the best Peace Corps staff in the world. I couldn’t have predicted that my path would take me into a position like this when I began this journey three years ago, but I know that I am right where I belong.   

Brandalyn Bickner