Lands of plenty [Commentary]

I sit here at my desk opening mail and chucking envelopes and unwanted fliers into the recycling bin. I have a computer at my fingertips, plus phones, a printer, scanner, cameras and lots of office supplies: pens, pencils, stapler, and scissors. It all makes doing a simple task like writing a thank you card (still done by me in the old fashioned way) so very, very easy. A few weeks ago, things were very different.

In Malawi, where my husband and I just completed a one-semester stint on a Fulbright grant, manufactured goods are scarce and expensive. Paper was precious and carefully doled out. A pen, borrowed to make a note or sign a document, was eagerly reclaimed by the lender. There was a computer, but Internet connectivity frequently failed. Electrical outages were regular.

Yet, we found the people resilient and cheerful. We miss the daily contact with many, many people we met on the street. Malawi is a country of walkers — there are streams of people on the move with produce, building supplies and babies on backs, and baskets on heads.

Here in the U.S., returning to life in the 'burbs, we find contact scarce. Most people we see are behind the wheels of vehicles, so not very available for a cheerful greeting. Of course, the vehicles here are comfortable and running well. There are no slowdowns because someone has engine trouble or has run out of gas. Strangely, we heard few horns on the streets of town. I guess everyone has experienced problems and so has patience. At least now there is gas available — expensive but available, unlike a few years back when buying a tank of gas required a full day in line at the station.

I visited a book store today. How beautiful were the shelves full of the latest books and a staff eager to help me find what I wanted. Books are scarce in Malawi. There are very few in the university library. The students have no textbooks and instructors have few. Many folks have no books in their homes. I saw two bookstores in the city where we lived. Prices were high — much higher than in the States — and the selection very limited. Some of those books we donate to thrift stores end up, like the clothing we donate, in Africa, where they are sold but beyond the means of most.

And then there are the schools. In Malawi elementary classes frequently have 100 or more children, and secondary classes are almost as large. Malawian elementary education is purported to be free and available to all. But resources are scarce or non-existent. The government schools I visited had very few desks and very little in the way of supplies. Most schools have no electricity, and classrooms are dark with children sitting long hours on the floor, often just dirt. Most teachers have no desks or even a chair to sit down, so it is seven hours on your feet. Still, learning goes on.

I was on my campus today in our gorgeous building with lovely furnishings and a wealth of equipment and supplies. Our students expect to be given individual attention; they deserve it and they get it. Most of my students in Africa, products of the government schools, were unaccustomed to being known by name by any instructor. They laughed at my efforts to pronounce their names but were delighted when, by the semester's end, I knew each one by name. And I was there, meeting classes on time and available for individual help. With lecturers' salaries incredibly low, many faculty hustle for additional income to support their families. Their time commitment to the university is minimal.

So we are adjusting again to land of plenty: plenty of convenience, plenty of entertainment and plenty of stuff. The supermarket is a wonder — so many high-quality, delicious foods. Need some distraction? There are the movies, concerts, plays, museums nearby. Getting things done is so easy — no waiting to pay the bill at a crowded bank. Have a problem? Make a call and a workman is on the way, maybe not on time but at least on the same day. There is postal delivery, something we older folks still depend on, but entirely missing in Malawi. And there are all the clothes in my closet to choose from, enough for a whole village, I think.

It is good to be home. We missed family and friends, hearing American English and complaining about our political system and the exploits of the Ravens and O's. But now I miss the slower pace and blue, blue skies of Malawi. We miss the flowers, seeing the rain clouds on the hill and even our neighborhood rooster and the mullah down the hill with his 5 a.m. call to prayer.

But most of all, I miss the kindness of a beautiful people in a land with plenty of smiles and plenty of handshakes and where so often a careworn face breaks into an incredible flashing smile occasioned by only a simple "Muli bwanji" (How are you?).

Roberta Evans Sabin is professor emerita in the Computer Science Department at Loyola University Maryland. Her email is

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