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Jaime Johnson | 02.21.2019

I recently moved with my husband and two children from the volcanic islands of Hawaii to the “warm heart of Africa.” If you don’t know where that is, no worries. I’m willing to bet most people have never heard that phrase, or even the country it refers to: Malawi.

And so we moved from the island chain that’s probably one of the most well-known in the world to a small little-known country in the middle of Africa, a continent that too many people also refer to as a country.

(Guys, it’s not. Africa is a massive continent with 54 countries and quadruple the languages.)

In many ways, Malawi and Hawaii can easily be seen as tropical opposites. Hawaii is the home to some of the most expensive housing, gas, and maple syrup prices in the United States, and Malawi is considered one of the 10 poorest countries in the entire world, with the average Malawian making $480 a year.

Indeed, there’s been a lot to get used to: new foods, limited electricity and water at times, traffic lights at intersections that apparently are actually optional, the absence of holidays my kids adored—simple things that continually identify me and my family as culturally different. I wouldn’t say I’ve experienced culture shock, but I am constantly aware that I come from a different culture with different norms, and that as a socially mobile white American, I possess an inordinate amount of privilege.

Perhaps one of the hardest parts of living abroad with my family is simply that feeling of not sharing a culture with 99% of the people around us. And what’s more, for the first time ever, my family is the 1%.

But this isn’t a story about wealth disparity, or foreign aid and development, or even race. This is a story about commonality. This is a story about a shared culture. Not a culture made of political boundaries, language, religion, money, or any of the other typical signifiers that establish one’s culture.

This is a story about a culture I had once known and then lost for a decade, a culture I had left behind in the sandstone cliffs of Kentucky only to find again in the metamorphic rocks of Malawi.

 

Malawi is at the end of the Great Rift Valley, and bouldering opportunities abound. Tyler Algeo.

A friend of a friend of a friend of mine told me about a newly arrived Canadian, Tyler Algeo, whose wife Clare is a doctor at a local clinic. He had set up a large bouldering wall in his backyard and was opening it up to the public for climbing sessions twice a week.

Ten years ago I was a regular climber, but having lived in Hawaii before moving to Malawi, coupled with popping out two kids, it was safe to say I was really out of climbing shape. That’s not me being modest. I knew I would suck, and my ego was a little worried about rekindling an old hobby without my former body. Nonetheless, I tentatively made my way to a bouldering session one Wednesday evening a few months ago.

It was immediately clear that I was more than “definitely out of shape,” and my forearms were so pumped after the two-hour session that I wondered how many days it would be before I could comfortably raise my arms to brush my hair or even grip a pencil.

And yet, there was something about the physically painful session that was so mentally rewarding. For the first time since moving to Lilongwe, my identity wasn’t of “otherness.” I was simply another climber—albeit a very mediocre one. I wasn’t a white American, mid-thirties expat living in a foreign land, mother of two crazy youngsters. The bouldering session wasn’t just one more activity in Lilongwe where I would be self-conscious of my foreignness and also aware of my intense privilege as an American living abroad.

Instead, everyone at the session simply saw me as another climber (even if a bit shaky). We talked routes, we cheered for one other, we challenged one other, and we gave fist bumps when we finally solved a problem according to our abilities. The climbing culture was alive and well, and it didn’t matter how well you spoke English (if at all), how much money you made, if you could afford to make a donation for the session, the color of your skin, or where or when you had learned to climb. And why would it?

After all, climbing culture is based on one thing: the love of climbing. I was amazed at how quickly it felt like I was home at the bouldering wall, even as I had virtually nothing else in common with many of the climbers that day.

 

Climb Malawi began on the backyard wall that Tyler Algeo built amid dense jungle foliage. Tyler Algeo.

Bouldering in Malawi has brought some unlikely people together, but I think most sports enthusiasts can say the same thing about their activity. I noticed this when I worked as a raft guide in 2010 on the Nile River in Uganda, for example.

Initially it seemed I had little in common with the Ugandan river guides and kayakers, but what we did share was one massive passion for whitewater, and that was enough to keep us talking for hours into the night. We shared a culture, and that gave us the foundation to build rapport with one another and learn more about the cultures we didn’t share with one another.

And sooner or later, we realized we actually shared quite a bit more than it would initially seem. We could talk about more than simply surfing Hell’s Hole solo without a paddle, the perfect CFS for dumping guests at 50/50 rapid, the poor Indian customer who lost his skivvies on Silverback rapid with another 15 kilometers to go before fresh shorts could be retrieved, or our sadness that all of those rapids would be gone within two years once the Italian hydroelectric dam was completed.

Sure, we probably could have talked non-stop about all of those things, but after a while, we also could talk about our own childhood embarrassments, who we were rooting for in the World Cup, or our first heartbreak. The river was the culture that brought us together, but in doing so, all the various cultures that make me who I am seemed to expand and grow, and I had new windows into different parts of a single, massively huge community: humanity.

Far from the white waters of my twenties and now in Malawi, I’ve rediscovered that same sense of commonality that joins diverse individuals and brings strangers together. On Wednesday evenings, I boulder with local gardeners who work at the clinic where Clare is a doctor. These guys are really good, and they’ve only just begun! I cannot imagine what crazy stuff they’ll be doing in another year.

I also boulder with lawyers from England. I boulder with 10 year-old boys who have too much energy and zero fear and will probably one day be on the cover of some climbing magazine free-soloing Mount Mulanje’s vertical walls in southern Malawi. I boulder with individuals who have never bouldered before and individuals who have a bouldering coach (that might just be Tyler—he’s really good).

What Tyler did is pretty awesome—he recognized that bouldering is fun, no matter where you’re from. He created a hodgepodge community with a newly shared culture, and I’m excited to see this community grow in Malawi and to be a part of it as it does.

 

The expression of joy created at Climb Malawi. Tyler Algeo.

Huge shout out to individuals, corporations, and climbing centers around the world for their continued support of Climb Malawi’s vision in making climbing a truly inclusive culture open to all. So often outdoor pursuits can be cost prohibitive, making such recreational activities inaccessible to many. In Malawi, this could not be more glaringly evident, where my shoes alone cost more than one month of work for some of the other climbers.

Donations made to Climb Malawi not only help with maintenance of the wall, they also make it so anyone in Malawi is able to use quality climbing shoes, chalk, and have a free ride to the bouldering wall, as mini-buses can often cost half a day’s wage for many of the climbers. More importantly, donations help Climb Malawi achieve its larger vision, including:

  • The construction of a larger climbing facility;
  • Providing frequent introductory classes in Chichewa, the local language;
  • Offering a free shuttle service during peak hours;
  • Facilitating outdoor climbing opportunities in the nearby mountains for locals.

For more information about how you can help support the efforts to establish an inclusive climbing community in Malawi, visit www.climbmalawi.com.

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