As I sat by the fire watching my host mom prepare dinner, I couldn’t help but look around. It wasn’t an overly critical eye. No, I was in a rural village in Malawi; of course, the amenities that I was accustomed to simply did not exist here. In Wimbe, latrines and sambas, or bucket baths, were a way of life. There was no running water or electricity, at least not for the average villager. As I gazed around the mud-walled kitchen, I focused on the simplicity of my host family’s life.
My mother was stirring nsima, a corn meal porridge. She dipped her hand-carved spoon into a bowl of water and then submerged it into the boiling pot. She shook her head, mumbling in Chichewa, her native language. I couldn’t understand her, but once she reached for another handful of flour, I realized it wasn’t thick enough. Nsima-making is an art form, requiring an expert touch. The absence of forks and napkins in Wimbe necessitates a delicate balance. As in life, nsima, like a person, needs to be malleable enough to tear and shape, but firm enough to hold what matters.
On March 26th, 2010 I left Philadelphia on buildOn’s Trek for Knowledge, a two-week service trip that allowed me to live in a rural village and participate in the construction of a school. Despite this amazing opportunity that lay ahead, a rather pessimistic person sat on the plane that day. I was often stressed about my schoolwork or future and tears were frequent. My negativity had the power to overwhelm me, making true happiness very difficult. Sometimes I was angry for no reason at all.
All of this changed in Malawi, where I witnessed true poverty. In the U.S., many complain if they do not have the newest and nicest sneakers. In Wimbe, a child is lucky if he or she owns a pair of shoes at all. Here, we fuss over what to make for dinner, complaining when it doesn’t satisfy. There, the choice does not exist. Tonight, my host-brother Elias and his family will eat nsima with pumpkin leaves- maybe some eggs, if they are lucky- like they did last night and the night before. The juxtaposition of these two cultures amazed me. Never before had I realized how blessed I was and how much I took for granted.
I was even more astonished at how content the villagers were! The fact that they walked barefoot every day, had a monotonous diet, and were at a constant risk for disease did not seem to bother them as I had expected it to. I had subconsciously assumed poverty would breed unhappiness, that the villagers would be utterly depressed. Instead, the people of Wimbe seemed to enjoy life more than I did.
This realization changed something deep inside of me. In the Western world, we are taught that wealth brings happiness, and as long as you receive a comprehensive education and find a high-paying job, life is automatically fulfilling. My trip revealed that this was not an absolute truth. People with extremely limited resources could find great happiness in their lives. Money could be a factor, for better or for worse, but could not solely determine anyone’s life.
The people of Wimbe taught me a life lesson: happiness comes from within. When we first arrived, the villagers welcomed us with the saying, “feel free”. I’ve tried to maintain this attitude and am now finding pleasure in even the smallest moments.
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