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Welcome to the Warm Heart of Africa

Not many travelers have heard of Malawi, a small, land-locked Africa country tucked between Mozambique, Tanzania, and Zambia. Before I learned I’d be going there, I had no idea where Malawi was or what it was like. But Malawi, nicknamed “The Warm Heart of Africa,” stands as an important source of light and warmth to thousands of victims experiencing the cold consequences of corruption, discrimination, and misfortune.

After a 14-hour flight from New York City to Nairobi, a 24 -hour layover, and another 5-hour flight to Lilongwe, my humanitarian team and I trudged, exhausted, into the passport screening office at the airport. But our enthusiasm returned when we were warmly welcomed through the airport. The passport agents were uncommonly (compared to other passport agencies) friendly to us. And I was pleasantly surprised again when we met our trip’s coordinator, a young adult Malawi native.

After spending 45 minutes with my new friend, I felt like we had known each other all our lives. My exhaustion from traveling to a new country was quickly replaced with the ease and comfort of being welcomed home to Malawi. This fast feeling of ease gives credit to Malawi’s culture of familiarity and my new friend’s ability to fulfill that culture. I quickly learned to expect this warmth from all the friends I made in Malawi.

What confuses outsiders about Malawi’s hospitality is that Malawi’s economy ranks among the lowest in the world. Jobs are scarce, and the jobs that do exist are not idyllic: business opportunities are limited to tourism, retail, and produce at the local markets. Malawi’s exports are restricted to relatively small amounts of produce—sugar, tobacco, tea, and some nuts.

Yet, even with their limited economy, Malawi accepts more refugees than any other neighboring country. Because of this, Malawi’s population and culture are far more diverse than you’d expect from such a small country. Dzaleka Refugee Camp epitomizes that phenomenal diversity as well as Malawi’s welcoming warmth.

Dzaleka Refugee Camp, which sits just outside Lilongwe, Malawi’s capitol city, currently houses nearly 50,000 refugees, about five times more than the camp is built for. People seek refuge here from political and economic strife in the Congo, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, and South Africa. The refugees come for political asylum and personal safety. Most didn’t tell us specifically why they came—and we didn’t ask—but each believes that a refugee life is safer than life at home.

The refugees are never allowed to leave the camp to work, and but can rarely leave for entertainment. Thus, the camp has scraped out its own community and culture. Athletes and coaches come together for basketball and soccer leagues; teachers volunteer their time in free elementary schools; churches of various denominations meet for worship and scripture study; neighbors work together to build each other’s homes; scouts of all ages meet for troop meetings; in the public square, spontaneous dancing breaks out to the beat of buckets and water pails. The African cultures together in the camp synergize into a community of individuals stronger together than they’d be alone! Though none of these people would have picked to live in a refugee camp, they have turned Dzaleka into a home.

Much more can be written about travelling to Malawi. I didn’t begin to touch on its beautiful landscapes, including mountains, plains, rivers, and a lake as blue as the Caribbean. I didn’t dive into Malawi’s safari adventures or rich heritage and legendary traditions. The sunrises, sunsets, and night skies are all equally unforgettable. But the light and warmth of all Malawians is what will bring you and all visitors back to “The Warm Heart of Africa.”

Translated into English, Malawi means “Flames of Fire.” A fitting name, as the culture of Malawi is like a hearth. Each of the 50,000 refugees gathering around the fire came from broken lives. Malawi provided a noticeable warmth in my life I hadn’t realized I was missing: a warmth of familiarity and brotherhood I never want to leave. Malawians unyieldingly welcome anyone who comes seeking that warmth. And Dzaleka? Out of the ashes of broken lives, tragedy, horror, and despair, a new flame of life and hope slowly begins to grow.

Caleb Hintze