In Part Two of a series of three excerpts from the book And Then I Came Here, Maria, an American woman, continues her story of her life and work in Malawi.
For anyone who’s in a helping profession, there has to be a degree of separation from your work or you’d have a nervous breakdown. You see so many young women selling vegetables by the side of the road here, and if you took the time to ask, you’d hear the same stories – “I was in school and my teacher used to ask me to come and clean his house, and he started having sex with me and then I got pregnant. I got kicked out of school and now I’m sitting here selling vegetables by the side of the road with my baby.” And then their life is finished – they feel like it is, society tells them it is – and there aren’t really opportunities for them to pull themselves out unless they’re incredibly motivated and have support systems.
And one stroll through Lilongwe Central Hospital is enough to make you cry – the conditions that people have to work and live in. Imagine you have a job to do, but even if you’re motivated to do your job, you don’t have the tools – it sets up this horrible, horrible situation for the Malawians trying to manage people who have Aids. And I mean, in most of the developed world, we’d say, “Yeah, go get yourself tested for HIV. If you know you’re HIV positive, you can eat better and stay healthier, and you won’t infect anybody else.” And there are all these great services and support groups and counselling. There’s close to none of that here.
But the worst for me is the overwhelming feeling of hopelessness among the youth here. We do these questionnaires where we try to assess their knowledge and attitudes, and the last few questions go around their self-esteem and decision-making skills and their hopes for the future. We ask, “Where do you see yourself in five years? Ten years? What is your dream in life?” Youth the world over are so energetic and idealistic by nature and have so much hope, and they usually say, “Oh yes, I want to be president. I want to be a doctor. I want to do this.” In Malawi, most of them will say, “I think I’ll be dead in five years. I have no idea what I want to do in the future.” It’s really telling and very alarming. I’ve never been so impressed by a segment of society anywhere that feels so down and out.
So it’s sad, but I don’t let myself get consumed by the sadness. I try to let it motivate me to promote change, and just be incredibly grateful for my own life, my own family, and my own spirituality and belief in what I can contribute. So many of my professional experiences have made me grateful for my life.
And I do believe there’s a God, and that provides me with strength. I was raised Greek Orthodox, but I like to pick and choose and borrow from other religions or spiritual philosophies. The basic truths are the same, and what transcends particular passages of the Bible is the overall message that we should live our own lives with a clear conscience and not judge one another, and that what goes around comes around.
Also I believe that no one rises to low expectations. I mean, if you see all the muck and the filth and the ugliness of life, and you let that penetrate you, then there is no motivation, there is no creativity, there is no moving out of that, and you become part and parcel of it. So although I’m forced into situations where I’m surrounded by misery, I like to look up, literally look up, to the light, to nature, to the beauty that is around us, even amongst the filth and poverty and muck and grime and disease – and this is a gorgeous country geographically.
So it’s striking balances and trying to aspire, and asking other people to aspire, to something beyond themselves, because we all have so much potential that’s unrealized, in every aspect of our lives – and certainly in our sexual life! I’m in this field for many reasons, and I love it and I wish more people in the world could be open and honest about sexuality – I’m sure the world would be a better place for it. I’m constantly inspired by what I do.
And Then I Came Here documents the overseas experiences of twenty-six expatriate women who were living in Lilongwe, Malawi, at the end of the 1990s. The individual voices combine to create a multi-faceted account of the joys and frustrations of the women’s lives in Malawi, the contrasts with their experiences elsewhere, and the rewards, challenges and effect on themselves of a nomadic existence.
Paperback, 226 pages
Publisher: Cirrus Books