We have been in Malawi for six months! Long before coming here, I knew this first six months would be crucial and it would not be easy. I knew reaching this milestone would be very important for both myself and my daughter — to finally put 2017, the year of two intercontinental moves, three countries on three continents, two jobs plus training, two schools, two nannies, one childcare center, and so much more behind us. So often colleagues told me (warned me?) that it would take at least six months to be comfortable in the new job and country. In my previous government assignments in Jakarta, Ciudad Juarez, and Shanghai, it did not take me so long to acclimate; I felt comfortable within three months. That did not happen here. Not even close.
In the Foreign Service we seem to have an uncanny ability to forget how incredibly difficult it is to move each and every time, how difficult it is to arrive at a new place and wait weeks, if not months, before making the new house a home. It is a defense mechanism. If we remembered, perhaps we could not keep doing it. We arrived in mid-August. Amazingly, just 12 days later our Unaccompanied Baggage (UAB) arrived. Even more incredible is my Household Effects (HHE) arrived from Shanghai, via a storage facility in Europe, in mid-September. It was not until November that my supplemental HHE from the U.S. arrived after its epic journey from my apartment in Arlington, VA to the port at Baltimore, MD, then by boat to Beira, Mozambique, where it was loaded onto a truck and driven to Lilongwe. Every day that passed C and I became more comfortable with our lives in Malawi, with the school, with work, with the grocery stores, with the ways to get around town. The first time I drove to C’s school she guided me based on what she had seen out the school bus window. The first time I figured out the other way to the supermarket was like winning the lottery.
It was slow going. New job. New position. New country. New continent. New colleagues. New car. New house.
In the Foreign Service, at the vast majority of posts, where you will live is mostly out of your hands. We do fill out a housing survey to help direct the Housing Board in making their decision — but this is my fourth move with the government and every survey I have completed was fairly basic: your name, position, rank, family size, and maybe an area for few requests (near the school? shorter commute? pool or no?). The Housing Board will do its best to assign you but are limited by when you arrive and what houses are available at that time. At some posts, like Malawi, the pool of houses is tight, so there may only be one or two available when you roll into town and you are probably not the only person showing up then either. And the houses available in each place is only as good as the local construction allows — in many countries/cultures built in closets may be non-existent or hall closets a luxury. A bathtub might be really hard to get. Or medicine cabinets or outlets in the bathroom. Storage space may be plentiful or nowhere to be found.
Building codes or shoddy construction practices or local preference may present you with some fairly interesting housing designs. In Jakarta I had a room in the middle of my house. Yes, right in the middle. Four walls, no windows. In Juarez there was no insulation in my bedroom floor, which sat right above the garage. In the winter the floors were like walking on ice. I had a patio but the cemented part of the patio was reached via a rock garden where scorpions lay hidden. In Shanghai there were no hall closets to hang coats and all our bedroom closet doors were made of leather. Yes, leather doors. My cats liked those. I did not so much like paying the $200 for damages and the inventive plastic cover I had custom made to protect them.
Our home in Malawi certainly has its quirks. There are no outlets in the bathrooms. So I plug my hair dryer in an outlet next to my bed where if I stretch out the cord I can check myself from a distance in the bathroom mirror. The kitchen cabinets appear not to have been updated since the house was built, probably in the 70s, the off-white paint with wooden trim makes me think of wood paneled station wagons of the time period. I hate them. And they either do not close or they close so well I have to use all my strength to yank them open. There is no hall closet anywhere near the front door though there is a nice built in wooden cabinet where I can store shoes and other random items — though when you look inside it seems about half of the back of the cabinet has been eaten away. Luckily, I expect no one will ever look inside but me. There is an odd bench-thing that divides my living room from the dining room. I puzzle over its purpose and how I feel about it. For C’s birthday party I used it to place some food and drinks but with kids it just seemed like I was asking for an accident. Usually C uses it as a play platform — it can be the savanna in the Lion Guard or the forest for princesses or a surface to launch off cars. We have a non-functioning fire place in the living room as well. And our corrugated roofs… during hard rain the sound is so deafening we cannot hear each other speak and when the large ubiquitous black and white pied crows scamper around on top they sound like pterodactyls.
Our bedrooms are small-ish and boxy. And there is little wall space to hang pictures or artwork. One side is all closet and a built in desk with mirror, one side is all window, and one side has to fit the bed with large frame to hang the mosquito net. It is the same configuration in all three bedrooms. I lose the fourth wall in the master bedroom to the dresser, the built in mirror, the door to the bathroom, and the door to the room. There is only one small space to hang anything. I know, why should I complain? I have a built in desk and mirror. I have LOADS of closet space. And I have three bedrooms for two people. I am honestly not complaining — just giving the facts, ma’am.
As is usual for Foreign Service homes we have bars on all our windows. We have bug netting attached to all our windows, which I assume is par the course for mosquito prone countries. And like most homes in the Foreign Service we have the same old tried and true, and much maligned Drexel Heritage furniture. Although I did not have this furniture in Shanghai (as we had furniture provided by the apartment complex), I have had this same furniture in Jakarta, Juarez, and now Malawi. In one way it is comforting to know exactly what the dressers, dining room tables, side tables, china cabinets, sideboards, desks, chairs, sofas and more will look like. Although I have little to no idea how my house might really look until I arrive, the furniture is not a mystery. I plan decor around the furniture.
However, it can be really hard for friends and family to understand this lifestyle. I have never picked out my own home. Although some people paint, I have never done so and just use my wall art to change things up (you have to paint it back white before you leave). With the exception of a few accent pieces, I do not bring or choose my furniture. Sometimes we might be able to give some pieces back or exchange, but at some posts you cannot. See exhibit A: the “between room.” Another quirk of this house is this random room. It is located between the living room and the room I have designated as C’s play room. It has only two walls; it has no doors. It has two cute, but strangely located windows. It had the same boring but functional beige curtains found all over our house, in every single government provided housing I have had (again with that Shanghai exception). It has an odd cut out in one wall and a built in shelf in the stucco of one of the walls. It has plastic wiring covers snaking across the walls and a few oddly placed spot lights. It’s weird. I know. But it is the house I have to live in for a few years and I must make the most of it. But the picture I posted on my Facebook drew the ire of friends and family. It is ugly! Get rid of ALL that furniture! Get a rug! Throw away the curtains! The lamps and spotlights are dumb — get rid of those too! People did not understand that A. I had changed out that sofa. Initially it had been brown. The same exact not-so-fetching brown as the sofas in the living room. I thought this mustard an improvement. In fact, knowing what was available in the warehouse, I had requested it! and B. the photo represented my completed attempt at decoration and not a plea for help and design tips.
But, here we are at last. Six months, one quarter of the way, into my two year tour in Malawi. Just now we are beginning to feel settled — in no small part because we have finally made our quirky, randomly assigned house into our home. There is much to love about it. From the wonderful enclosed but open air porch or konde where in the morning I sit quietly meditating and hear the sweet chirps and tweets and caws of no less than ten types of bird song and where I have had many a satisfying afternoon nap in my hammock. To our high ceilings, pitched in the living room. My daughter loves her Moana-inspired bedroom and does not care about the curtains or the carpet or the lack of wall space. She and her friends love the play room (and let’s be honest the living room too — do not let that photo fool you, normally it is covered with toys). No one else has to love it, just C and I. And we know we are lucky to call this house and Malawi our home.