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The Homestay Initiative in Malawi: Appreciating Local Culture

  • Alice Tilton
  • 23 February 2015

The Responsible Safari Company (RSC) and Youth for Development and Productivity (YODEP) are in the process of designing a Homestay Initiative through which guests can experience authentic village life in Malawi. The hope is that through guests experiencing day-to-day life and taking part in traditional customs, local people will appreciate the importance of safeguarding their cultural practices and traditions, despite the speed with which the world is changing around them. It will also be an income-generating activity for YODEP, sponsored by RSC. At the same time, guests will learn about Malawi in a totally unobstructed and authentic way.

Alice Tilton with her Malawian ‘agogo’

Alice Tilton with her Malawian ‘agogo’ (grandmother), the leader of the family. Photo courtesy of The Responsible Safari Co.

With that in mind, and to see what I could learn in anticipation of how we would promote homestays to travellers, in early November 2014, I decided to experience a homestay in Malawi myself in the village where the YODEP headquarters are, 10 minutes outside of Zomba town in the south of the country.

A Few Important Homestay Lessons

I arrived at YODEP around lunchtime and was given my briefing by McBlessings, the manager of YODEP. He talked me through what to expect and then Wilfred, a programme officer, took me to meet my family and make introductions. It was quite overwhelming trying to remember – and pronounce – everyone’s names and who was related to whom! Lesson number one: In the future we will provide this information to the guests in advance so they can make a start on learning it without the pressure of having everyone there.

We then moved outside and sat on a mat to make disjointed conversation with a lot of pointing and laughing. Apparently my Chichewa accent is very funny. One of the ladies came by and sat her baby on my lap, and from then on the children played around me, edging closer and closer, except when I stretched to tickle them. The absolute hilarity of this helped to break the thin layer of ice that having a muzungu (white person) in the compound had created. Just as I felt out of my comfort zone, I’m sure they did too, but it really didn’t take long for me to feel at home and welcome.

Alice Tilton sits with homestay hosts in Malawi

Alice Tilton swaps stories and drinks tea in a village in Malawi. The locals were very interested to learn about Alice’s family at home, look at photos and hear how different life is in the UK. Photo courtesy of The Responsible Safari Co.

We ate lunch – nsima (a maize-flour porridge that is a staple food in Malawi) with beans and dried fish. It was tasty, although it wasn’t the first time I’ve had this. I expect if it had been I might not have felt so comfortable with it. Lesson number two: Try nsima and other local Malawian food before going to a homestay. I think joining in and eating with my hosts helped them feel more comfortable with me there.

We spent the afternoon getting to know each other. One of the girls, Victoria, was 14 and had a reasonable level of English. She took me under her wing and introduced me to her friends. I think I made a bit of an idiot of myself trying to do their extreme version of skipping, but it got a few laughs! Lesson number three: Malawian children can skip. Really well.

In the evening, I went with Victoria to buy the maize flour that goes into the nsima. We bought a big bag of it and she took great pleasure in watching me try to walk with it on my head – unsurprisingly it is very difficult! I could manage about 10 steps per minute but Victoria was hungry, so luckily she took over. Back at the compound, we sat and cooked together on the outdoor fire. We ate the nsima with more beans and “animal” (I’m pretty sure it was goat), followed by a banana for pudding, outside on the mat. I was quite surprised how nice the food was, as it was something I was quite worried about beforehand. Lesson number four: Try everything once!

A Day in the Life

The next morning life started around 5am. We got up, dressed and someone had boiled me some water for a wash. That made me feel a lot better, as 5am is early whatever time you go to bed. I helped Victoria sweep the compound of the twigs and rubbish that had collected over the previous day and night. Then we did some ploughing in the field next to their houses, getting it ready to plant maize as soon as the rains come. It was hard work and, even though it was still relatively cool, I worked up a good sweat. And to think that Victoria does all of this before she goes to school!

Alice Tilton helps in the fields of her homestay in Malawi

Alice Tilton helped Victoria in the morning to prepare some land for maize. The seeds will be planted just after the first rains come to Malawi, normally around November/December. Photo courtesy of The Responsible Safari Co.

We had buttered bread and tea or breakfast whilst Victoria and I sat with her brother, Andrew, listening to Dolly Parton. It was a very surreal moment. Then another course of rice with tomato and egg appeared out of nowhere. I definitely wasn’t expecting to eat so much!

I spent the rest of the morning playing with the children and babies. Later, Victoria and Andrew tried to teach me Chichewa by writing the words in the mud. I felt at the time that I was learning a lot, but a few days later I can’t remember anything!

Saying goodbye was quite emotional. In just 24 hours I had been welcomed into this family’s life and treated like one of their own. I felt really privileged to be able to share this day with them and see into their daily lives. I’ll definitely be back over for tea soon!

No Easy Journey

To get to the stage of spending a homestay day and night in the village had taken approximately three months. Whilst everyone had been excited at the prospect since the very beginning, we had to be very careful to act sensitively, collaboratively and in the best interests of the local community, hopefully ensuring the long-term success of the project.

After all, bringing foreigners into a totally new setting such as a Malawian village throws up numerous challenges and potential problems, not the least of which is introducing a new culture to the village that could totally undermine the emphasis placed on local traditions. For this reason before we committed ourselves to the project, we undertook this project in a very slow, controlled and collaborative manner. For example, before even beginning this work, we conducted a thorough desk-based social-impact assessment to identify as many potential problems as possible.

Kids in Malawi jumping rope

Children in Malawi skip rope very well… with two ropes. Alice Tilton did her best to keep up, but ended in a tangle, much to the entertainment of her family! Photo courtesy of The Responsible Safari Co.

Between RSC and YODEP, we covered a lot of ground, everything from genuine concerns to the truly fantastical. We reviewed numerous scenarios, including the likely increase of litter, wastewater and even begging. We then talked about how we could mitigate against or drastically reduce the risks associated with these challenges. For instance, regarding the potential increase in begging, we decided that there would be zero tolerance for families asking for donations of any kind. Money from the Homestay Initiative will go to YODEP, who will pay the families for their hospitality and cover their expenses for hosting; anything extra will be distributed according to YODEP’s established practices, which have proven to be successful and fair over the six years we have worked with them. To do otherwise would undermine YODEP’s reputation and belief in community empowerment, sustainable development and independence.

YODEP then conducted six rounds of community feedback research. Results from this showed that local villagers were most worried about their standard of living and how outsiders new to it would cope. It was decided that RSC would provide YODEP with a “business starter pack” financed through our Payment for Ecosystems fund. This money will be used to purchase mattresses, mosquito nets and bedding for the guests; the maintenance and replacement of these materials will then be the responsibility of YODEP.

The feedback also more generally confirmed the need for in-depth and extensive pre-stay communication with both the guests and hosts to ensure that they both know what to expect. Whilst we hope that guests and hosts keep an open mind and adopt a “muck in” attitude, managing general expectations has been found to be very significant for both sides.

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Alice Tilton

Alice Tilton is based in Malawi and works for The Responsible Safari Co. She collaborates with community partners to design, create and market itineraries for corporate and educational groups, the latest of which is the Homestay Initiative.
Alice Tilton
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Africa, Eastern Africa, local knowledge, Malawi, personal experience, poverty, voluntourism, whl.travel,

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