Diversity and cross-cultural issues in Malawi

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In fulfilling the Peace Corps’ mandate to share the face of America with our host countries, we are making special efforts to see that all of America’s richness is reflected in the Volunteer corps. More Americans of color are serving in today’s Peace Corps than at any time in recent years. Differences in race, ethnic background, age, religion, and sexual orientation are expected and welcomed among our Volunteers. Part of the Peace Corps’ mission is to help dispel any notion that Americans are all of one origin or race, and to establish that each of us is as thoroughly American as the other, despite our many differences. Our diversity helps us accomplish that goal.

In other ways, however, our diversity poses challenges. In Malawi, as in other Peace Corps host countries, Volunteers’ behavior, lifestyles, background, and beliefs will be judged in a cultural context very different from our own. Certain personal perspectives or characteristics considered familiar and commonly accepted in the United States may be quite uncommon, unacceptable, or even repressed.

Outside of Malawi’s capital, residents of rural communities have had relatively little direct exposure to other cultures, races, religions, and lifestyles. What is advertised as “typical” cultural behavior or norms may also be a narrow and selective interpretation, such as the perception in some countries that all Americans are rich and have blond hair and blue eyes. The people of Malawi are justly known for their generous hospitality to foreigners; however, members of the community in which you will live may display a range of reactions to differences that you present. We will ask you to be supportive of one another.

In order to ease the transition and adapt to life in Malawi, you may need to make some temporary, yet fundamental compromises with who you are as an American and as an individual. For example, female trainees and Volunteers may not be able to exercise the independence available to them in the United States; political discussions will need to be handled with great care; and some of your personal beliefs may best remain undisclosed. You will need to develop techniques and personal strategies for coping with these and other limits. The Peace Corps staff will lead diversity and sensitivity discussions during your pre-service training and will be on call to provide support, but the challenge ultimately will be the your own.

Overview of Diversity in Malawi

The Peace Corps staff in Malawi recognizes adjustment issues that come with diversity and will endeavor to provide support and guidance. During pre-service training, several sessions will be held to discuss diversity and coping mechanisms. We look forward to having male and female Volunteers from a variety of cultures, backgrounds, religions, ethnic groups, and ages and hope that you will become part of a diverse group of Americans who will take pride in supporting each other and demonstrating the richness of America

What Might A Volunteer Face?

Possible Issues for Female Volunteers

The view of equality between the sexes does not exist in Malawi. Distinct roles and responsibilities are expected to be fulfilled by men and women in Malawian culture. Female Volunteers may often meet extremely conservative attitudes regarding gender equality. Likewise, the behavior of female Volunteers is more often scrutinized and criticized than that of their male peers. Although the Peace Corps emphasizes understanding and sensitivity of other cultures, it will be necessary to occasionally explain and defend why you believe something or behave a certain way. Women and men in Malawi are not considered adults until they marry and have children. This being the case, female Volunteers should expect curiosity from host country friends regarding their marital status and whether or not they have children.

Possible Issues for Volunteers of Color

The average Malawian has never had the opportunity to interact with people from diverse backgrounds. If you are black, you are called African. If you are Asian, you are called either Chinese or Japanese. If you are South Asian, you are called Indian. If you are white, you are called British or American. If you are Hispanic, you are called Mexican. The possibility of another ethnicity simply does not occur to Malawians you will meet in the villages. Be prepared to tolerate and repeatedly explain that some terms used in Malawi are considered derogatory in America (e.g., “colored,” “half caste,” or “Chinaman”). It is also important to be aware of the long-standing influence of South Africa. Malawi was one of the only countries to deal openly with the old South African apartheid government, and some of the racial perceptions from that era have influenced Malawian reactions to people of color.

Possible Issues for Senior Volunteers

Age also affects how you will be treated. While Malawians traditionally have a reverence for age, Malawi’s legal retirement age is 55. Hence, older Volunteers may be respected for their wisdom, but may find difficulty in being accepted at the workplace. Malawians are especially curious about older female Volunteers. They are puzzled as to why they have no spouse or children, even if they have the pictures to prove otherwise.

Possible Issues for Gay, Lesbian, or Bisexual Volunteers

Gay, lesbian, and bisexual Volunteers must know that Malawi is still a very conservative society. Many Malawians are in denial that homosexuality actually exists in their culture, and it is technically illegal. Thus any display of your sexuality will be severely frowned upon. Previous Volunteers have decided to serve their time in Malawi under the cloak of silence. It has been expressed by some gay, lesbian, and bisexual Volunteers that if they were to display their sexual orientation, it would have adverse effects on their relationships with their community and co-workers.

See also: Articles about Malawi on the National Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual Peace Corps Alumni Association website at http://www.lgbrpcv.org/articles.htm

Possible Religious Issues for Volunteers

Whether you practice a religion or not, you will probably find the Malawian practice of religion different than that in the United States. You will notice how deeply religion is ingrained into the culture just by walking down a city street where signs with religious messages punctuate the front of every third store. Malawians enjoy conversing, and they enjoy religion, so it makes sense that they love conversing about religion. Be prepared to tolerate views very different from your own.

Possible Issues for Volunteers with Disabilities

Malawians with physical disabilities are treated no differently than any other Malawian. They are expected to complete the same work, but perhaps not through the same methods. Ironically, many Malawians consider the fact that you are a Westerner a serious disability to doing any manual work. They do not believe that Americans are capable of strenuous physical labor.

There is little of the infrastructure to accommodate individuals with disabilities that has been developed in the United States. That being said, as part of the medical clearance process, the Peace Corps Office of Medical Services determined that you were physically and emotionally capable, with or without reasonable accommodation, to perform a full tour of Volunteer service in Malawi without unreasonable risk of harm to yourself or interruption of service. The Peace Corps/Malawi staff will work with disabled Volunteers to make reasonable accommodations for them in their training, housing, job sites, or in other areas, to enable them to serve safely and effectively.