I am in a class that feels reminiscent of high school, except I am surrounded by colleagues instead of the kids I grew up with. The scene is the same though, half of us pay attention, a few participate; I think poorly of the instructor.
But suddenly I am awake and listening in Public Speaking 101.
A Malawian colleague asks what we say if someone asks a question after a presentation that we do not know the answer to.
“Just say you don’t know and you’ll have to check and get back to the person,” the instructor offers.
A look of horror fills faces.
“You can’t do that. You can’t say you don’t know. How can people believe you know what you’re talking about if you say you don’t know?”
“That’s true,” says another classmate. “You should just keep talking for awhile without answering the question.”
The Malawian heads in the room are nodding in agreement.
My mind tumbles back over the last two and a half years to all the the talking heads which seem to go on endlessly, to the times (I know of) that I have been lied to. It wasn’t a neo-colonialist attempt to fraud or please the mzungu, but rather a balking at admission of ignorance. How did I not know this? The three days I have spent listening to those around me discuss the merits of PowerPoint suddenly become worth it as I have one of those bizarre moments of cultural epiphany that makes sense of everything – at least for a moment.
These moments in my world of late are few and far between.
When I first came to Africa ten years ago, I spent the month of my arrival in a haze. There were herds of cows on the side of the urban highway, my housekeeper was always telling me I’d been lost when I came home late and people in the street called me mzungu. In the months following my emergence from the haze, things began to make sense.
That first stint, a new kind of logic came fast and furious. I learned how the line between urban and beyond is blurred. I discovered that in Swahili umepotea (you have been lost) is what you tell someone when you haven’t seen them in awhile. I accepted that I will always be mzungu. I became accustomed to jumping out the side of a matatu (minibus) on a Nairobi street corner, and ate -and liked!- Peptang instead of ketchup, and coveted the Sunday morning quiet when the rest of our houseful of people was in church. I made plans with friends ahead of time since the phone lines could never be trusted to work.
I fell in love over and over again: with savanna sunsets, with fish markets, with tiny pink bananas.
While my moments of confusion became farther between, there were always gaps. I never understood why, when I saw Bowfinger in a Nairobi cinema, everyone laughed at the scene where the Mexicans purposted corssing the border illegally are herded into the back of the film crew truck. Did the Kenyans know about Mexicans sneaking in the US? Was the scene intrinsically funny without the cultural context? Or were they laughing at some other connection I wasn’t aware of?
I learned more about cultural context in the time I lived with Kenyans in Nairobi than I have since then. Each country has its own idiosyncrasies but there are commonalities to be found in each region of Africa. Yet when I moved here from Congo, it was difficult to conceptualize how completely different a place Malawi is from where I had been.
Throughout m time in Africa, my sense of normalcy has remained in tact and the places I have lived have seemed for familiar to me than foreign, if only by virtue of being the places I have spent my time. Epiphanies about where I live don’t come so often: who marvels at the man selling bananas on the corner after passing him 4 times a days for months on end?
I have been in Malawi for nearly two and a half years now, longer than I have spent anywhere since I finished my education. There are things I understand from having lived and worked in the region before. Women don’t talk about their pregnancies, especially before they are showing. There are things I have learned since coming here. Malawians see the government as their parent. And there are things that I don’t even know I don’t understand.
In moments like the Public Speaking class, I am struck by how truly I am a stranger here.
I recently found myself in a village on the doorstep of a community health worker with two colleagues, a Malawian and an expat.
We found a woman and her two children in the house, the younger of whom was of indeterminate age, a sure sign of malnutrition and growth stunting. These children have an eerie look about them: a larger head with an older face upon a tiny wiry body. This child was 2 1/2 but probably weighted what most one-year olds do. We were told the child had been in and out of the nutritional rehabilitation program multiple times. The child was the last in a line of 7 or so children and the father had died the previous year. No, we were assured, the mother tested negative.
The community health worker believed the child had malaria. The nearest health center with drugs to offer was 15km or a two-hour walk away. There is no motorized transport in this tiny village, only a 20-minute drive from the main road. A bicycle taxi would have cost 500 Malawi kwacha or $3.50.
The mother opted to sit in the dark cool of the community health worker’s house.
My colleagues and I drove away.
Among us, the Malawian has what most of us would call a desk job, though make no mistake of how integral she is to all that we do. The expat is more of an old hand at what life and health looks like out in the bush. We sat in the car, rehashing the situation.
“If that were my child,” says the Malawian, “I wouldn’t care if it were a 2-hour walk. If my child needed care, I would go.”
“It’s not that simple,” says our bush-hand. “It looks as if that is a problem mother. Plus it’s not just the walk – she will have to carry the child there and back herself.” There are structural issues. What will it cost the mother to go, even if the medicine is free? Will she not be able to collect firewood for the evening? Will she have to bring her other children with her on the walk? Did the nurses yell at her for her stunted baby the last time she went?
“Besides,” I say, “I don’t think the child has malaria.” It’s dry season and we are high above the lakeshore. In fact, many studies have shown that only 1 of every 2 people treated for malaria in sub-Saharan Africa actually test positive for the parasite. Malaria is a catch-all for any unexplained fever.
“I would still take my child,” insists the Malawian. “In my village [where her family is from; she grew up in town], the community would organize men to go with her, to carry the baby.”
I listen to my colleague carefully.
There are two truths before me: 1. My colleague and I have a more common perspective than she shares with a villager, despite their nationality; and 2. Structural issues, lack of malaria and all, if it were my baby, I would walk too.
Filed under: roads
In this corner of the world, about a month of annual leave seems to be the norm. I just got back from mine to discover that apparently humans aren’t the only ones who need to take a rest to keep up their job function.
I recently discovered that the breathalyzers the police department uses in their Friday and Saturday night checkpoints have gone for recalibration – more or less all at the same time and for not less than a month.
For those of you familiar with the traffic patterns in Lilongwe, the Saturday morning cars in the ditches or run up on the middle of round-abouts aren’t surprising, they blend with the mid-morning sun, awaiting their now-babalas owners to retrieve what is left for the salvage yard.
Rumor has it that when the breathalyzers were donated by some unsuspecting donors, Members of Parliament removed them from the streets, finding the issue a bit too close to home – but this is mostly heresy. Mostly.
Now we are used to the post-last-call texts that go out, leading friends away from the checkpoints lurking in the dark.
Which brings me to my question: If life with breathalyzers in Lilongwe involved more than the occasional weekend bang-up, what will happen while the breathalyzers are on leave? Will their be a larger roadside rubble pile to start the weekend off right? Or were the checkpoint warning networks so effective that not much will change?
All I can say is that the last checkpoint I went through caught a nice snapshot of my sober friends pulled over for a minor traffic infringement by some very not-sober cops. Breathalyzer, anyone?
When the guide tells me there are more Bengal tigers in South African than South Asia*, I almost fall out of the safari truck.
I can’t quite explain why I was looking at a Bengal tiger in a cage in South Africa. I was staying at a game farm for a workshop and thought the Saturday morning “game drive” seemed like a reasonable way to kill a few hours. But I was wrong.
There wasn’t much that I found “reasonable” about the so-called game drive which consisted of a tour of predators’ cages and a few free-range antelope. The adolescent Bengal tigers cried against the chain-linked fence of their cage smaller than my living room. Apparently two Bengal tigers were introduced to the “wild” on another South African game farm but were re-caged after going on a kudu killing spree their first night out. No one else has release plans anytime soon.
The leopard wouldn’t come out of his sleeping hut. We’re told he had to be separated from the female because he kept killing the cubs. I couldn’t help thinking it was a mercy killing.
The lions were white Kalahari lions, bred as novelty animals. They sat in pairs in their cages and roared all night. They had forgotten what it is like to creep through the night in search of a kill. Or perhaps they have never known.
The contrast to the following Saturday couldn’t have been more vivid.
Sundown in Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park. An adolescent male climbs down from a weeping tree and crosses a meadow to join the pride of 5 females and adolescents. I saw him as a cub last July, creeping through the brush on his mama’s footsteps in the early evening. Today, he greets the pride silently as his compatriots loll sleepily in the grass, poking playfully at one another.
Day turns to dusk and then to night quickly in this part of the world, and it’s not long before the pride is up and streching, before they are loping silently through the darkness. We struggle to see them moving through the bush in front of us. The split up and fall into hunting formation. As the dark deepens, they become almost invisible except for the slightest slip of movement in the nighttime.
They lie in formation, in wait for some time, each with his or her eyes and nose pointed uniformly in one direction. There is hardly a sound until the warning cry of another antelope who has spotted the group through the darkness.
The hunt is off; the lions lope off together in unspoken unison, waiting for safari trucks and antelopes to sleep so they can hunt in peace.
*I can’t verify if this is true.
After watching Congo’s elections three years ago, I can’t say I was too excited when Malawi’s election day rolled around (except getting to stay home from work, of course). But Malawi’s history of peace seems to be prevailing just as Congo’s history of violence lived up to its reputation.
That being said, lines at the polling stations are 4+ hours long and I give much credit to those willing to wait through such lines to have their voices heard – my beloved at the top of that list.
The Malawi Electoral Commission plans to post the polling station tallies as they come in so watch this space. Unlike when I voted in last year’s US presidential elections, Malawians can actually check the MEC website to ensure their voter registration details are correct and that their ballot was forwarded on for official counting!
And if you’re looking for a visual, check out fellow blogger Gwyneth’s polling station snaps and stay tuned for election results as the end of the week!
I was in South Africa recently, preparing for a site visit to a school for disadvantaged children. We were warned ahead of time that the school was heart-breaking. The group going to the site was from across Africa with a few Asians thrown in for good measure.
When we arrived at the site, we were stunned. We found ourselves at a rural school, K through 9, occupying an old house. There were a few containers for overflow classes, and literate but unqualified teachers. The children were fed lunch each day and sat for their national exams at the end of the school year.
Heart-break? We looked at one another. The children before us all wore shoes, there were no distended bellies or hair singed orange from lack of nutrients.
We shrugged. This school looked no worse than what we saw in the places we had come from – even those from outside of the continent.
As I looked at the school children who walked a dusty hour to school in the cold South African winter and probably had little at home to keep them warm, I wondered if our collection definition of heartbreak had become so inured to hardship. We were a group of development workers who considered hardship and marginalization to be the norm.
Two days later, we drove through Mamelodi, Pretoria – a township for poor blacks in the apartheid era, now a mixture of up-and-coming neighborhoods mixed in with shantytowns that stood blatantly in the face of economic development.
On the left, the road was lined with small sturdy middle class homes, clothes lines hung heavy in the morning sun. Garages and staff quarters behind, paved driveways leading behind their modest brick compound walls.
On the right, clothes dried against the tin walls of shacks that looked as though they would survive a serious wind gust but for the shack next door propping each one up like a line of dominoes. Only there weren’t lines, there were muddles of shacks built illegally on the dry South African dust.
The Gini Index ranks South Africa as one of the most disparate countries in the world and it isn’t hard to see the contrast for yourself. The South African malls peddle designer clothes, shiny housewares and bold cinemas just 20 minutes from landfills where shantytown residents comb their neighbors’ trash, looking for anything that might be worth a few rand.
It is still difficult for me to call that rural school heartbreaking. There are reasons that school had children from Malawi and Zim and other countries throughout the region: South Africa has an economy which trundles along fairly well in comparison to its neighbors; and that is why people come to SA. To find opportunity which eludes them in their homelands. Despite South Africa’s race riots last year, the influx continues.
What I find heartbreaking is that native South Africans live in dust and squalor across the road from their compatriots with a house, a car and a holiday once a year.
Perhaps us development workers aren’t as jaded as we think – but it’s not so much an absolute that rattles us – rather it’s the contrast of desperation in a middle income country where the tax-collecting government promises so much more than it delivers.
Filed under: culture, development, elections, Malawi, malawian culture, politics
The Afrobarometer has just released some new data on how Malawians see themselves, their government, the state of the country and their political system and it’s pretty telling.
A quick peek at the new survey data shows that Malawians overwhelmingly see government as their parent – not their employee, that over 70% of those surveyed believe the government has the right to close a newspaper, that 74% claim to have voted in the last presidential election and that food supply is the biggest problem Malawians think is facing the country. And if you want a sneak preview of May’s elections, most say that if the elections were tomorrow, they’d support the incumbent, Bingu wa Mutharika. They’ve even given him an 83% approval rating.
Having lived here for some time, I am not too surprised by these survey results but they do seem to highlight the influence of the early direction a young democracy takes in its development.
Kamuzu Banda, Malawi’s first post-independence leader, did his best to set the stage for many of these beliefs. A 1964 Time article on the fledgling leader, just 9 weeks into his thirty-odd year term as President for Life and Ngwazi (Great Lion), alludes to a ban of public meetings (remember when I mentioned this as the reason that Lilongwe is so spread out?), Banda’s invention of himself as a father-figure to the country, and his autocratic leadership style. Let us not forget: this is the man who banned television.
After an entire generation and then some grew up with these beliefs, it is any wonder that 73% of Malawians believe that the government shouldn’t allow contrary views to its own?
With the elections scheduled less than two months off, it’s worth taking a breath to ask how democracy shapes itself. The root of support for the current president isn’t much of a secret. Malawians list food shortages as their biggest concern; Mutharika started a fertilizer subsidy program that has kept Malawi stocked in maize, the main staple, with enough to left over to keep the export market going and a healthy stream of forex coming. Most people believe the elections will be reasonably free and fair which leads one to believe that Malawians will get the president the majority of them elect.
While support for a politician across regional and tribal lines may be something relatively new around here, it doesn’t mean that a maturing African democracy will look much like what we see in the Northern Hemisphere. Fifteen years into a multi-party democracy doesn’t provide a lot of history to stand on and many Malawians are still displeased by the way primaries were set up for parliamentary and local elections. This year’s presidential race aside, over 70% of Malawian believe it’s difficult to have their voices heard outside of an election year (though I would guess most Americans would say the same).
What’s telling is that 30% of Malawians believe that the country should try another form of government. Banda may have fought hard to keep China out of Malawi, but today’s government has welcomed the Chinese with open arms and coffers. In the post-Cold War era, the lines drawn in the sand between friend and foe look are a different shade entirely.
Chances are, Malawi will continue down the road with some form of democracy -hopefully guided by Malawians themselves- though this Westerner struggles to understand how a democracy with a populace that doesn’t believe in freedom of thought will achieve what its citizens strives for: food security, a water supply, an end to poverty and economic development.