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Malawi

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MalawiMalawi

A Series on Religion, Part 4: The J-Word

In high school, I learned my kind had a name: Cashews. We were that not-so-rare half-breed, part Catholic, part Jewish. I quibbled with the "sh" sound (shouldn't we really be Cajews?) but mostly embraced the label. In Malawi, however, I have made few attempts to explain that my parents come ... read more

Rebecca Jacobson

MalawiMalawi

When it becomes more than a photo

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Margaret Quilter

MalawiMalawi

A Series on Religion, Part 3: A Sunday at Church

“You haven’t been to church yet?” Yamikani asked. She looked at me with a mix of disbelief and horror. True, I said—I’d been in Malawi almost a year but hadn’t attended a single service. “Why not?” she asked. I shrugged. “This week,” she said, “you’re coming with me.” Yamikani at ... read more

Rebecca Jacobson

MalawiMalawi

A Series on Religion, Part 2: Sex and the Bible

Malawi’s population is overwhelmingly Christian, and conversation often turns to religion. I, unfortunately, seem unable to clamp my maw when talk swerves this way (see Part 1 of this series, in which I discuss my mother’s exit from the Catholic Church). Here is Exhibit B.     As part of ... read more

Rebecca Jacobson

MalawiMalawi

Culture/Shock/Waves

As I settle back into Malawi after a brief stint at home, I’ve been giving some thought to what surprised me about these few weeks in the United States. I don’t mean the soul-rocking stuff of true reverse culture shock, but the little things, the numerous tiny adjustments I had ... read more

Rebecca Jacobson

MalawiMalawi

A Series on Religion, Part 1: Of Exoticism and Guilt

From the beginning of my stay in Malawi, I knew religion would prove a sticking point. And indeed, in conversations with both Malawians and with expats, I have said many (many, many) foolish things. I try to tell myself to avoid the topic of religion, but I’ve often broken this ... read more

Rebecca Jacobson

MalawiMalawi

Tyra, I'm Ready for My Close-Up

Of all the entreaties my skin color provokes — mostly requests for marriage or money — I never thought my pallor might help me snag a modeling contract. Not that I sought one out. (Then again, neither do I ask for the marriage proposals.) But when a white male friend, ... read more

Rebecca Jacobson

MalawiMalawi

My Name is What? My Name is Who?

I have never been one for nicknames. As a child, I hated the name Becky, and after meeting a whole string of Beccas I disliked (sorry), that option was out as well. My elementary school soccer coach called me Beckers and my eight grade math teacher dubbed me Jake (because ... read more

Rebecca Jacobson

MalawiMalawi

Keeping Pace With The Porters

The World Cup might be the globe’s most sensational sporting event (and how I mourned its completion yesterday, though not as much as I’d bewailed Germany’s semifinal exit at the hands of — ok, header of — Carlos “Giving a Bad Name to Curly Haired People Everywhere” Puyol), but the ... read more

Rebecca Jacobson

MalawiMalawi

On the Passage of Time

I am unsure how to mark the passage of time in Malawi. I’ve just been spit out of 17 years of academia, with its easy dividing lines, its semesters and exam schedules and holiday vacations. Now I’m in this landlocked country, somewhere between southern and central Africa (Malawi can’t seem ... read more

Rebecca Jacobson

MalawiMalawi

An Island Paradise

Likoma Island is something of an impossible place. It's accessible only by private plane (I met a few South African men who'd flown in) or by the MV Ilala, a ferry that has run up and down Lake Malawi since 1957. This isolation lends the island a distinctive serenity, and ... read more

Rebecca Jacobson

MalawiMalawi

Pointing at Difference and Finding Inclusion

The four young women and I hop from rock to rock, avoiding the sewage that carves dirty channels in the dusty ground. Our narrow path cuts under mango and banana trees and behind mud-and-brick houses, through those in-between spaces where young siblings bathe even younger ones and their mothers chop ... read more

Rebecca Jacobson

MalawiMalawi

Six Countries in Six Photos (and a Bonus Video)

My passport received a great deal of ink over the past five weeks. As I mentioned in my last entry, I took off for an ambitious circuit of southern Africa, lasting 35 days and covering more than 4,200 miles (not including wrong turns and various detours). I didn’t enter a ... read more

Rebecca Jacobson

MalawiMalawi

Where the Orphans Practice Meditation and Learn Kung Fu

The man wears a wide, bark-strip hat, a long gray robe, and simple pair of sandals. He clutches a mango in one hand and crouches among a group of boys. They chat and laugh together. The man? A practicing Buddhist. The boys? Malawian orphans. Their shared language? Chinese. China is ... read more

Rebecca Jacobson

MalawiMalawi

How I Survived My First (and Second) Malawian Wedding

Malawian weddings are marathon affairs. Numerous parties lead up to the day, and smaller celebrations follow the main event. But prior to Saturday, I had only heard about the revelry (and literally heard — the wedding parades honk their way through town, a train of cars parceled up in white ... read more

Rebecca Jacobson

MalawiMalawi

Planning Families After They’ve Already Begun

An oversized spiral-bound book in her hands, Yamikani circles the dilapidated schoolroom. She shows an illustration to each of the young women, 14- to 25-year-olds seated in flimsy plastic lawn chairs. Giggles develop into hoots as the women glimpse the image. They slap each other’s arms. Yamikani joins in the ... read more

Rebecca Jacobson

MalawiMalawi

I Will Never Be Able To Shake My Rear End Like That

Triza beamed at me with the pride of a fairy godmother. “You’re a real Malawian woman now,” she said, “a real African lady.” She had just bound my chitenje, the traditional fabric wrapper worn by Malawian women. I had yet to purchase my own, but Triza had an extra. It ... read more

Rebecca Jacobson

MalawiMalawi

And To Think The Burning Piles Of Trash Once Attracted My Attention

Five weeks into my yearlong stay in Malawi, I’ve been reflecting on those aspects of life I thought would remain forever foreign but have already become familiar. When my plane landed, I peered out the window and found myself overwhelmed with how tremendously different it all was — the tarmac ... read more

Rebecca Jacobson

MalawiMalawi

Gettin’ Down With Nigel, My Eight-Year-Old Zimbabwean Neighbor

After three years in the dorms and one year in a house of 10 women (if you dated any of us, we knew everything about you), living on my own in Malawi has been a surprisingly welcome change. Hold on, who am I kidding? I hardly live alone. There’s the ... read more

Rebecca Jacobson

MalawiMalawi

Why You Do Not Tell Your Mother About Your Mode of Transportation

“They say no vehicle in Malawi is ever full,” a friend told me last week. Indeed — commuting in Malawi has been a most intimate experience. Though the omnipresent minibuses are designed for 10 or 12 passengers, they typically carry upwards of 16 or 17 folks, not including infants, gargantuan ... read more

Rebecca Jacobson

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Books

A feast for hungry bookworms

Rebecca Jacobson

24 Nov 2009

Malawi

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Rebecca Jacobson

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Bibliophiles in Blantyre should head straight to Mandala House. The Society of Malawi boasts an impressive library here, which visitors can browse freely. Categories include transportation, anthropology, history, botany, cookery, art — the list goes on. Read about blood-sucking flies or peruse a hydrographic survey of Malawi. If that’s not really your style, pick up any colonial-era travelogue for a wildly racist account of this "dark continent." The library also has a decent selection of Malawian literature — try Jack Mapanje’s poetry or Steve Chimombo’s plays. Serious researchers can study the Society’s collection of archives. After boning up on local history or folklore, head downstairs to the café for a cup of coffee and a slab of cake.

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Getting Around

Pedestrians: partner up and be patient

Rebecca Jacobson

09 Nov 2009

Malawi

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Rebecca Jacobson

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Though roads sometimes have crosswalks, drivers rarely pay attention to pedestrians (or to traffic lights, signs, or laws). You may stand at a street corner for eons before a chance to cross the road appears. I’ve taken to teaming up with other pedestrians, preferably assertive Malawians, and standing beside them as they budge into oncoming traffic. This is especially helpful at the many roundabouts — Malawians drive on the left, and cars seem to come from every direction. If you can’t find a fellow perambulator, practice patience. You’ll make it across eventually.

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Festivals & Events

Dance in the sand till sunrise

Rebecca Jacobson

27 Oct 2009

Malawi

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Rebecca Jacobson

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Arguably the biggest event of the year, Lake of Stars is a multi-day music festival held on the shores of Lake Malawi every September or October. Though ticket prices have grown somewhat ludicrous (a full pass in 2009 cost about $85, a third of the average Malawian’s yearly income), and the beach looks as if someone detonated an expat bomb, the blend of international and local music acts makes it worth the splurge. And that’s not to mention the remarkable setting – there’s nothing quite like floating on your back in the lake and feeling the vibrations of the music reverberate through the water.

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Culture Shock

Hubby hunters, you're in luck

Rebecca Jacobson

02 Nov 2009

Malawi

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Rebecca Jacobson

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As a foreign woman, get used to hearing the question “Muli pabanja?” This literally translates to “Do you have a family?” but functions more like a marriage proposal. Such propositions can come daily in Malawi. A recent conversation of mine with a stranger in an oversized pinstriped suit ran like this: “Where are you walking?” (Home.) “What are you doing in Malawi?” (Research.) “Are you married?” (No.) “That makes me happy; let’s discuss.” I appreciated his matter-of-fact approach but declined further negotiation. Though unmarried travelers could create fictitious spouses or wear wedding bands to deflect such questions, laughter and a smile will usually do the job.

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Must Do

Take in the tobacco auctions

Rebecca Jacobson

28 Nov 2009

Malawi

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Rebecca Jacobson

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If you’re in Malawi between March and September, do not miss the tobacco auctions in Lilongwe or Blantyre. Tobacco is Malawi’s primary cash crop, responsible for 70 to 80 percent of the country’s export earnings —and for employing, directly or indirectly, an equivalent percentage of the population. On the auction floors, massive rooms double the size of aircraft hangars, the proceedings move at mesmerizing speed. A 100-kilo bale sells in two to three seconds, with up to 10,000 bales sold per day. Keep your eyes on the auctioneers, the undisputed stars of the show. Each has a distinct, lilting refrain — some ululate, some croon, some shout, others nearly yodel. Call to arrange a free tour or simply stake out a spot on the viewing platform.

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Etiquette

Everyone is fine, but you'd better ask anyway

Rebecca Jacobson

19 Oct 2009

Malawi

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Rebecca Jacobson

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“How are you?” “Fine, and you?” “Fine, and you?” Circular, yes. Optional, no. No matter how rushed you feel, do not omit the simple salutation. The greeting is perfunctory to most Malawians, who may repeat it multiple times during a single conversation or answer the question even if it is not posed (“Hi,” you say. “Fine, and you?” the Malawian responds). Whether passing on the street, chatting on the phone, entering an office, or bartering at the market, ask (and answer) away: how are you, how are you, how are you?

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Food

Ditch the fork: it’s all finger food here

Rebecca Jacobson

30 Nov 2009

Malawi

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Rebecca Jacobson

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No, your host did not forget the silverware. Malawians tend to eat with their hands, regardless of what’s on the menu. This can feel awkward when there’s rice on your plate, but it’s really the only way to eat nsima, the Malawian dietary staple. Nsima is a stiff, sticky maize porridge, carefully molded into oblong blobs. It’s next to tasteless, but comforting in that mushy, warm, I-don’t-need-to-chew kind of a way. Unless there’s nsima in the meal, many Malawians say, you haven’t eaten. Ball some porridge between your fingers, scoop up a generous quantity of relish, and stuff it all into your mouth. Try to keep one hand clean, or else you’ll end the meal with ten gluey fingers.

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Film

Madonna does Malawi

Rebecca Jacobson

18 Jan 2010

Malawi

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Rebecca Jacobson

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No matter your opinion on the Material Girl, Madonna’s documentary “I Am Because We Are” is one of few films you’ll find about Malawi. The documentary examines HIV/AIDS in Malawi, focusing on the country’s one million orphans. Though hampered by a meandering focus and Madonna’s melodramatic narration (sample line: “People always ask me why I chose Malawi. I didn’t. It chose me.”), the film offers a decent introduction to the epidemic. Big names such as Bill Clinton, Desmond Tutu, and Paul Farmer provide commentary, and high-quality footage and a handful of stirring scenes make it worth the 90-minute investment. Even better, you can screen the film for free on Hulu or YouTube.

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Packing

Make sure you're ready to see in the dark

Rebecca Jacobson

19 Oct 2009

Malawi

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Rebecca Jacobson

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Power cuts can occur daily in Malawi, and much of the country isn’t even on the grid. Unless you’ve got remarkable night vision, toss a headlamp into your suitcase. Flashlights work, too, but headlamps will free up your hands during those inevitable blackouts. Plus, reading by headlamp underneath your mosquito net (that romantic, ethereal canopy) is delightfully cozy — and makes you feel a bit like a stealthy kid hiding under the covers.

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Religion

This stranger wants to know if you believe in God

Rebecca Jacobson

10 Feb 2010

Malawi

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Rebecca Jacobson

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Most Malawians are Christian, and many will ask about your religious convictions. I tend to answer honestly, explaining that I don’t belong to any congregation (though I try not to explain how my German Catholic mother and my American Jewish father patched together a mix of secular traditions). But to keep it brief, I sometimes pick a random denomination or pretend I’ve forgotten the name of my church. Be ready for more probing questions as well—strangers have asked me if I believe in God. Committed atheists would probably do well to mute this belief, but adherents to other faiths need not disguise themselves. I've found Malawians tolerant of other religions, and a Muslim friend of mine was even asked by her organization to lead a prayer.

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Politics

A complicated legacy

Rebecca Jacobson

05 Feb 2010

Malawi

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Rebecca Jacobson

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Malawi gained independence from Britain in 1964, and the country was led by Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda until 1994. Newcomers to Malawian political history will likely view Banda as a repressive dictator — he made himself Life President, jailed political opponents, and imposed widespread censorship. He even banned the Simon & Garfunkel song “Cecilia,” the name of his mistress. But Banda’s legacy proves a complicated one. As the first leader of a post-colonial Malawi, many Malawians credit him with independence. The country also achieved relative stability and safety under Banda (though these gains were no doubt due to his repressive rule), and a current of nostalgia still runs through modern Malawi.

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Music

Listen locally

Rebecca Jacobson

20 Jan 2010

Malawi

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Malawi has a wealth of local musical talent, and the small scale of the scene means it’s easy to see top-notch acts for cheap. For an introduction, check out the Black Missionaries’ upbeat reggae, silky-voiced Lucius Banda, rapper Tay Grin, international act The Very Best, or the versatile Ben Mankhamba (in photo). All can be found on YouTube. In cities, keep an eye out for posters advertising upcoming shows. Every September or October, both Malawian and international musicians converge on the shores of Lake Malawi for the annual Lake of Stars festival. This is a prime – though overwhelming – opportunity to see some of the country’s best acts.

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Sports

Catch the football fever

Rebecca Jacobson

30 Nov 2009

Malawi

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Rebecca Jacobson

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Soccer is Malawi’s sport of choice. If you have the chance, attend a game at Blantyre’s Kamuzu Stadium. Local matches draw small crowds, but if the Malawi Flames are in town, expect a massive turnout. Fans drape themselves in the Malawian flag or don quirkier costumes (at a World Cup qualifier against Cote d’Ivoire, I saw Flames supporters clad in wedding gowns and full academic regalia). The noise within the stadium is deafening, with the fervent cheers and the vuvuzelas, the ear-splitting South African horns. Venture to the more raucous benches if you love fervent embraces from strangers, sprays of water and beer, and the occasional airborne rock. Regardless of where you sit, watch your possessions — this is prime pickpocket territory.

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TV

"Big Brother" is watching you...or you're watching it.

Rebecca Jacobson

28 Nov 2009

Malawi

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Malawi has little local programming, but the pan-African series “Big Brother” has become a national phenomenon. The show takes representatives from across the continent, locks them in a house, and turns on the cameras. But this isn’t “The Real World,” with its carefully edited footage—just as the show’s contestants have cameras trained on them non-stop, so too can viewers watch 24/7. A constant stream of text messages scrolls across the bottom of the screen, of the “OMG WE LUV YOU KEVIN!” variety. Sorry, voyeurs—after last season's morning shower hour resulted in tardiness across Africa (people stayed home to watch the sudsy scenes and arrived late to work), this segment has been cut. For maximum drama, tune in for the Sunday evictions.

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Fashion

Try a tailor on for size

Rebecca Jacobson

24 Nov 2009

Malawi

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If you arrive in Malawi and find yourself despairing at your wardrobe, fear not. Either hit up the market (‘80s-era tees any Goodwill-prowling hipster would love) or set off for the tailor. You supply the cloth — Tanzanian textiles are nicer than Malawian fabrics and run $2 or $3 per yard — and the tailor will do the rest. Choose from a set design or supply your own (my friends have had great success with hand-drawn sketches) and the tailor will take your measurements on the spot. Cut a hard bargain and you can get a full outfit made for $10 or less. Now the tough decision: what to order? A boldly patterned tube top? Or perhaps a full suit emblazoned with Obama’s face? (Oh yes, even his visage graces fabrics here.) Anything is possible.

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Dating

Keep your PDA under wraps

Rebecca Jacobson

05 Feb 2010

Malawi

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Displays of affection are common in Malawi, but you’re more likely to see them among members of the same sex than between men and women. Men hold hands while walking down the street or strolling through the market. Women are demonstrative as well, exchanging high fives, braiding a friend’s hair, and slapping each other’s shoulders genially while laughing. Do not, however, misinterpret these displays — homosexuality is illegal in Malawi and punishable by a maximum 14 years in prison. Men and women who hold hands or kiss in public won’t meet penalty, but such behavior is unusual and probably best to avoid.

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Health

Carry your bathroom accoutrements with you

Rebecca Jacobson

09 Nov 2009

Malawi

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Sanitary conditions in Malawi leave much to be desired — particularly when nature calls. Though you can usually find a flush toilet in urban areas (in rural settings, expect to squat on your haunches over a hole in the ground), bathrooms often lack toilet paper, soap, or sinks. I now carry wet wipes and toilet paper with me (Charmin’ To Go is particularly handy). Some expats scoff at hand sanitizer, but after your fingers are sticky with mango pulp or grubby after handling tattered, dusty money bills, you might find yourself grateful for that bottle of Purel.

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Slang

Texas is in Malawi

Rebecca Jacobson

03 Nov 2009

Malawi

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To travel like a local, forget the names listed on the map. The capital Lilongwe is known colloquially as “Ls” and Blantyre, Malawi’s largest city, is “BT.” These epithets make sense. But a more peculiar moniker belongs to Zomba, which Malawians call “Texas.” No, Zomba is not enormous or fiercely independent or inhabited by large numbers of cowboys on horseback. But as the colonial-era capital, Zomba had a disproportionately white population. Never mind that those whites were British — apparently nothing evokes visions of whiteness like Texas, and thus the designation.

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Nightlife

Is this a nightclub or a carnival sideshow?

Rebecca Jacobson

16 Nov 2009

Malawi

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After 3 a.m., when everything in Blantyre has closed, there’s one place to go: Chez Ntemba. Though entry tickets call it an “international dancing club,” the establishment is more carnival funhouse than discotheque. From the warped checkerboard floor to the wildly distorting mirrors covering all the walls, you’ll think you’re a few deep even if you haven’t had a sip. The miniskirt ban was lifted in 1994, but it seems they’re still rebelling here. From the upper level, you can watch dancers watching themselves in the mirror — very meta. Down below, in a room with one narrow door and no windows (read: the city’s worst fire hazard), you can dance to Baja Men, 50 Cent, and Malawian reggae until the sun comes up. Not that you'll see it rise.

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Being an American

This friend request ain't on Facebook

Rebecca Jacobson

01 Feb 2010

Malawi

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As a foreigner in Malawi, locals will be eager to chat with you. Amusing and even enlightening conversations often result, but you can also expect a number of unusual or uncomfortable requests. “I want you to be my friend” is one particularly common appeal. Though some Malawians may harbor a genuine interest in you, such requests are often entreaties for money, food, or use of your cell phone. Others may assume you can finagle American visas for them, or even ask you for a job (not having one myself, this is an easy question to deflect). Rather than cutting off the conversation or outright rejecting calls for friendship, be friendly and firm. Don’t feel guilty about changing the topic, and remember, laughter does wonders.

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