Friday, March 12, 2010

Malawi Is

I left Malawi almost three months ago, after a frantic week of grading final exams, saying good bye to many people who I will never see again, and boarding a flight back to my other life that has been put on hold for the last year. My impressions are fading quickly, so I decided that it is time for one last essay. Consider this a summary of the pieces of an experience for which there is no substitute.

A person who visits Malawi for a few weeks is slapped in the face by poverty’s stereotype: the dirt, the garbage, the bare feet, the mud brick walls and collapsing roofs, the clothes torn and browned by continual use, and the millions of children scraggly, skinny, staring and calling out that universal greeting: “money!” But, a person who stays in Malawi for a bit longer begins to observe the details that fill the gaps of this gut-born reaction to a scene so different from the rest of the developed world. A truer picture develops, multi-dimensional, including sounds, smells, and social awareness, so that, after eleven months, I feel as if I can finally begin to describe Malawi.

Malawi is…
rural; its land undulates with agriculture. Every November, ridges ripple across the ground, coaxed forth by the steady rise and fall of hand-hewn hoes and curved backs of women and men tilling their fields. Seen from above, the cumulative effort of making the earth ready for planting from horizon to horizon is inconceivable. So quickly, the land is spread in patchy fields where slight offsets in width, angle, and ridge height draw distinct boundaries between each family’s land. By January, huts are hidden behind dense stalks of maize and the land turns a color green indescribable to one who has visited only during the dry months of July through October.

Malawi is… full of people. Generous people, greedy people, shy people, and obnoxiously loud, people. People who drink maize beer all weekend and people who sing loudly in church every Sunday. Men who sing in falsetto while strolling down the road, and old women who carry 6-foot bundles of wood on their heads. Mothers who converse loudly between the front porches of huts across the road from one another shouting their gossip where everyone else can hear it, and students who speak so softly that I must affix my ear to their lips in order to understand their words. Malawi’s main asset is people and its citizens are aware of this. To be a loner is not accepted. Upon observing that a particularly quiet girl did not associate with her classmates, several teachers talked with her, suggesting particular girls (the loudest, of course) with whom she ought to make friends. I was the only one not surprised when she did not take up their advice. Friends are the backbone of society, such that the most common form of address, even when calling to a stranger is “ayise”, “my friend”. For this reason, Malawi is a place where sharing is perfunctory, ignoring a knock on the door will not make it go away, and failing to greet a colleague in the morning is the epitome of rudeness. It is a place where a person walking on the road will always be asked by his friends, “Where are you going?”, and, if he happens to be carrying anything, will be asked to describe its contents. It took me several months of detailed explanations of my grocery shopping destinations to learn that the question was simple courtesy and that the answer of “just around” satisfactory.

Malawi is… racially uniform. This lack of diversity has led to a prejudiced view of all people who are not black. There is no cultural sensitivity because most Malawians have never had to think about how to interact with people whose backgrounds are so different from their own. For this reason, young children screaming, “white people!” at me from the side of the road have no idea why I might consider this offensive. At times it was frustrating to be in a position where I had to conform to all of Malawi’s cultural norms without there being any acknowledgement from the Malawian side that my customs were different and just as valid. And by the end I was sick of being targeted for higher prices and free hand-outs just because of the color of my skin.

Malawi is… not a culinary delight. The cuisine is basic: nsima, beans, boiled vegetables. This is what most people eat. There are two spices: salt and periperi pepper; the first is used abundantly and the second, rarely. All flavor comes from a combination of oil, tomato, onion, and garlic. Meat is eaten in random chunks, including intestines and cartilage because ‘butchering’ means a few quick hacks with a machete. Bread comes in two flavors: white and brown. Eating in Malawi means finding ants in your bread, weevils in your beans, and washing your rice three times to remove the stones. But, it also means sharing a meal with whoever is hungry. Our lunches in the teachers’ office were communal, with all of us standing around one big plastic tub full of nsima. If I happened to be wandering around the school during the lunch or dinner hour, students would call out to me, “kalipo!” meaning ‘come join us’, as they offered up a plate of food. In Malawi, food is for sharing- I can’t imagine someone going hungry when their neighbor has something to eat.

Malawi is… local. Most people grow their own food, or purchase the things they can’t grow from shop stalls no more than a kilometer or two away. In a place where public transportation for 20km costs a day’s wage and families are lucky to own a bicycle, most of the population gets around on their own two feet. Not surprisingly, this severely limits the range that most have traveled. None of my students had ever been to Liwonde National Park, only 50km away, or even traveled to an environment different than the one they grew up in. Without nature programs on television to inform them otherwise, they were astonished to learn that Baobab trees don’t grow in America.

Malawi is… a place where health awareness is gradually developing. In some areas the progress is admirable: Mothers take their children to be vaccinated at the popular ‘Under 5’s Clinics’ which are announced by large banners several weeks before the event. The national secondary biology curriculum is strongly health oriented, with the lessons on diseases and parasites focusing on prevention and treatment. Even AIDS is not invisible; the country knows what its scariest problem is, and this has worked to push its citizens to examine their cultural practices and societal views of sex. Hundreds of groups work to bring knowledge to those who don’t know and make care accessible to those who need. By now, every student knows that remaining alive and free of HIV is a prerequisite for their success in life.

But, AIDS awareness is only a tiny fraction of health awareness. Most Malawians are distressingly unaware of other important health facts. Take, for example, toxic chemicals. When I was a little girl, my mother marked all of the household cleaners and other undrinkables with an ugly green frowning sticker called Mr.Yuck. From Mr. Yuck I learned that there are certain things which a human is not meant to put into their body. Unfortunately, Mr. Yuck hasn’t managed to visit Malawi. I still cringe when I remember the time that I came across a man frying an egg in the oil of a chips stand. The frying egg wasn’t the problem; the problem was the thin blue plastic bag he was frying it in which was gradually dissolving into a stringy blue goop. How about a side order of carcinogens with your lunch sir? Or what about the time Mr. Sibande decided to boil his alcohol for a starch test using a paraffin cook stove inside the teachers’ room. I had to sit outside all day to escape from the fumes.

Water safety is another area where Malawi is gradually beginning to shine. Everyone knows that water must be treated or boiled to be safe to drink. However, after dumping some unmeasured quantity of WaterGuard (the subsidized chlorine-based water cleanser) in water to treat it, the water is immediately drunk with no thought to how those chemicals may treat the insides of a human body.

Malawi is… a country grasping towards development, yet still ruled by a tribal culture. It is a place where teachers jokingly refer to witchcraft as “rural science” and yet still hold up a newspaper article about a woman giving birth to a stone to ask me “do you believe this?” in a tone that clearly indicates that they do. A student calling a teacher a witch is suspended, and the most popular amateur theatrical performances are those featuring a visit to a slightly crazed witch-doctor. The land is governed by a hierarchical system of chiefs, born to their duties and unable to shirk these responsibilities, as we discovered when a young man we taught with was called home to claim the chieftainship (and get married) after his father died.

And yet, Malawians are proudly democratic. In May the country held its 4th ever presidential election with 78% voter turn-out, despite the fact that much of the country is barely reachable on dirt roads and the population has a literacy rate of 58%. Amazing to me was the attitude toward women in government. Several weeks before the election a national newspaper ran a huge article titled, “Voterani Amayi (Vote for Women)” showing the pictures of all of the women running for office in all of the districts around the country. It’s a good step forward, but after observing the situation of more typical women in villages, I hope the country will progress to viewing all women as men’s equals, and not just those who have the resources to become educated.

Malawi is… mechanically, but not artistically, creative. While in Malawi I never saw a true piece of original art or craft that was not made for the specific purpose of extracting money from tourists. Woven mats had no patterns. Baskets were not dyed. Wooden implements were not decoratively carved. Once I thought I had stumbled across a true cultural art form- lined up along the side of the road were mounds of soil decorated with different colors of mud and vertical sticks. Optimistically, I asked a fellow teacher about them only to learn that they were compost heaps. The only true creativity I witnessed in Malawi appeared in the ad-libbed song lyrics of the girls singing at night or when mechanics and tinkers attempted to rig up spare parts into a working whole. My favorite example is the toy push cars that young boys would wind out of spare bits of wire and bottle caps. One had decorated his with fresh flowers; another used his to transport mangos.

This seeming lack of creativity is apparent in discourse as well as the more visual arts. Malawian culture values communal sayings over original speech. There is a whole book full of Chichewa proverbs, many of which I heard people use on a regular basis, especially during hour-long speeches that serve as entertainment during school and public ceremonies. The more adages and canned phrases a speaker used, the happier the audience. But, I don’t believe this is because of some insensibility to the creative arts. Rather I think it is a reflection of a deeper cultural value. By repeating words that have been spoken thousands of time, the speaker and listener are drawn together by their common beliefs and experiences. Familiarity breeds community, and community is the support by which Malawians live.


  1. Jes - nice summary and it pulls together a lot of what we saw when we visited, but now can have a greater appreciation.

  2. Fascinating. Thanks for writing this, I feel like I have a window into your life there.