Malawi: Reflections II

The second installment of some thoughts on my stay in Malawi.

May 16th, 2012 – May 29th, 2012

I. Golgotha

     The term is the Greek transcription of an old Aramaic name for the site right outside of Jerusalem where Christ was crucified. It just so happens that Lilongwe’s Area 23 has a section with the same name—Golgotha. The living conditions are harsh, like the rest of the area.

There are no paved roads. Roofs are lined with bricks to prevent them from being blown away by the wind. Beggars dot the roadside. Many of them are without arms and legs. Especially at night, the area, along with many other sections of Lilongwe outside of Old Town and City Centre, can be a harrowing place. I was introduced to Golgotha in what seemed like the most unusual of ways.

     Joined by two of my closest companions since arriving in the city—Sam Chibaya and Fatsani Gunya—I was riding in Sam’s car in Area 23, where both of them lived. They’re also both journalists for The Nation newspaper, and knew the city well. After about thirty minutes of just driving around, we came upon a dusty corner near the area’s market.

     Sam suddenly stepped hard on the brakes and we came to a stop. Something about the air and the atmosphere of this specific spot made me uneasy.

“This place is special,” said Sam, who turned the radio down several notches. Fatsani, who was sitting in the back, poked his head between the front seats and faced me.

“We are in Golgotha,” Fatsani said, “still in Area 23.”

“Okay, what does that mean?” I took out my notebook and asked for the spelling of the place.

“Golgotha, G-O-L-G-O-T-H-A,” Sam replied, “It’s named after the place where Christ was crucified.”

For a country with 80% of its population identifying as Christians, a name like Golgotha is certainly apt. But why here? Why associate this dusty little corner where no one came with the place where Christ met his demise?

The name had a sort of tragic somberness to it—Golgotha—and it matched the area’s somewhat lonesome tone. Like other parts of Lilongwe located away from its centres, the place was virtually devoid of non-blacks. I was the only “mzungu” around, despite my own “colouredness,” and the locals noticed. They also let me know that they noticed, so there was already a forbidding feeling that saturated the place.

Then, Sam gave me an unexpected explanation: “The place here is where they used to, years ago, take thieves.”


“They used to take thieves here and use a knife to cut open the criminal’s necks,” was Sam’s reply.

I felt a coldness go through my body.

“Some people took things into their own hands, and did that to thieves,” Sam continued, “They would not kill them though.”

“How can you not kill someone by doing that?”

“They would be careful not to cut open the trachea,” Fatsani said, “They would just let the blood flow out and when the wound healed, there would be a scar on their necks.”

“It’s for other people to know that they’re thieves,” Sam added while restarting the car.

Evidently, when no official bodies enforce the law, people enforce their own law. They doled out their own justice, their own punishment. In this case, it was a violent version of the scarlet letter—a form of physical pain combined with public shaming, which, though obsolete, gave Golgotha a piece of history that went well with the its present tragedies. Jesus would no doubt have understood.

We did a U-turn on the dusty road and drove away.

II. Desire

     If deprived of everyday comforts and ornaments, individuals become forced to confront the nature of their desires. Without the internet, television, and high-speed entertainment to fill the void within us, we then come face-to-face with the void itself, pushed to ponder the nature of our “state of want”. It’s not unusual in Malawi to find oneself without daily comforts: the hot water, the high-speed internet, the movies, the relatively organized public transportation, etc.

And so what does it mean to go without such things? Rumi in his famous Mathnawi alludes to the force of desire as a yearning of the individual to get back to his or her celestial source, like the sound of the reed flute mourning its separation from the instrument that sired it. According to this inherently religious perspective, the powerful forces of desire become perverted in such a pursuit by the seductive ornaments of the material world. Some begin to desire power, some wealth, some fame, while others want physical gratification. We’ve all experienced these states.

Sit in an empty room without any stimuli, and the modern (or post-modern if you like) individual becomes fidgety. The mind begins to wonder chaotically. Lying on a bed in an empty bedroom in Malawi and finding oneself without enough “air time” to buy “internet bundles”, and you get roughly the same thing. The physiological and psychological effects of modern material culture become evident, and one looks frantically around for some sort of stimulation.

A Palestinian friend who used to work as Yasser Arafat’s bodyguard once said to me that he never thought about taking up smoking until he ended up in an Israeli prison. Deprived of his family, friends, and comforts, the harshness and boredom of jail time killed him. When he was let out on a prisoner exchange deal after Oslo, he found himself unable to quit smoking. He couldn’t take in the world around him properly without at least a few cigarettes a day. He needed the tobacco in order to function at a very basic level.

This isn’t a warning on the dangers of smoking so much as a way of understanding what effects the forces of material culture have on human nature. And since we become fully alive and present by being able to absorb the fullness of the world around us, then what does it mean to be numbed and desensitized by the treasures of the “developed world”? Malawi is a place plagued by what people living the good life know as “abject poverty”. Indeed, a ride through the slum-like areas of Lilongwe more than demonstrates what that means. There are no creature comforts in the form of ice-cream, Macbook Pros, Forever 21s, or even a clean bathroom.

One look and the foreigner is bound to think that Malawians are not living “the life”, let alone “the life to the fullest”. That type of thing requires money. After all, isn’t it true that one hasn’t lived until one has tried chocolate ice cream, or at least seen Titanic? “International development,” that vague and ubiquitous spectre always pervading the African air, then becomes the means of providing “the life” for the poor. Indeed, some Malawians I’ve come across have asked me personally to arrange trips for them to the Western world so they can “see what it’s like there.”

They want to see what it’s like to go to the Apple store, to shop at Eaton’s Centre, to watch a movie in Imax 3-D, or to walk through the city streets in the same way those liberated and fully alive beings of the first world do. Globalization couldn’t come fast enough. Their desires and yearnings become identical to those who travel to their country, who find themselves longing for their familiar first world pleasures.

So where does this lead us? Is it true after all that the poverty-stricken kid in Area 47 of Lilongwe, who’s never seen a movie theatre before, is actually more alive and human than the 19-year-old teenager who’s having her super birthday bash at some downtown club? Or is it necessary to own a wealth of possessions in order to fully experience life? After three weeks in a country markedly poorer than Canada, the former suggestion has never seemed more true to me.

Hamza Yusuf, the contemporary Muslim American scholar, spent seven years living in the unforgiving deserts of Mauritania. He studied in the “moving universities” operated by the desert Bedouin Muslims famous for their ability to memorize entire texts. Yusuf lived the way they lived, almost died of malaria, and learned what it meant to be poor—really, really poor. Looking back, he concluded that those seven years were perhaps the freest and most productive years of his life. He said he obtained his “real” education there.

When he first met Murabit al-Hajj, a pre-eminent Mauritanian scholar who would become one of his main teachers, Yusuf recalled surprisingly that he had “foreseen” the meeting in a dream. When the men came face-to-face, al-Hajj asked, to Yusuf’s complete surprise: “Was it like the dream?” Yusuf immediately broke down in tears. He said the aura of Murabit al-Hajj was that of a man who had emptied himself of himself; it belonged to a man at war with his nafs, the “irascible self”—that source of all earthly desires. Al-Hajj didn’t live in anything remotely close to luxury.

Years later, Yusuf was with another of his teachers, also from Mauritania—the pre-eminent Muslim jurist and scholar Abdullah bin-Bayyah. Unfamiliar with the concept of “homelessness,” bin-Bayyah asked Yusuf while both were in a first world country why there were so many people living in the streets. Yusuf explained the situation to his teacher.

Stunned, bin-Bayyah said, “But there’s so much here.”

Indeed, there is so much—in fact, so much that there’s nothing at all.

III. Geworfenheit

     Martin Heidegger coined the term, which literally translates into “thrownness”. We are “thrown” into the circumstances of our lives before we can utilize our agency. The initial forces that shape the fundamental existential blocs of our lives are not ones we choose. For example, humans do not get to choose who their parents are.

Sky (not his real name), the “office attendant” in a building near where I work, did not choose his mother or father. He’s my age, and the eldest of eight children. He was born in Malawi, and has never left the country. All in all, his life situation would be characterized by many in the English speaking world has “utterly hopeless”.

Sky’s father has two other wives, and fails to take care of his children (“He’s a womanizer, and has many children who he does no know.”). He hasn’t seen Sky in three years, leaving Sky—who hasn’t the time or money to pursue his education (education is not free in Malawi)—as the primary breadwinner in a house of nine people, seven of which are younger than him and look up to him.

“I even like it this way,” said Sky, who’s not the least bit discouraged. “It makes me a man.”

And so, the circumstances of Sky’s life is characterized by what most in the Western world would categorize as intense labour. He walks two-and-a-half hours both ways to and from work, five days a week. The title “office attendant” is a euphemism for “man slave”, as one of his tasks—aside from mopping the floor and trimming the garden—is to ask, twice a day, how everyone in the office would like their tea or coffee. Then, he gets to enjoy people telling him to go to the store/restaurant to fetch their favourite meals and drinks.

All this for a whopping $37 USD a month (Malawians get paid at the end of each month). The local currency was just devalued from approximately MWK168 to about MWK266 on the dollar, causing inflated commodity prices.

It’s important here to note that this doesn’t mean those who work in the office disrespect Sky, quite the contrary. Although everyone jokes around with him and likes him, they also accept the helplessness of his situation as a necessary part of the office structure. In other words, it’s just life.

Only later, through a friend, did I realize that the “office attendant” phenomenon is especially acute in the levels of government, where commoners are employed to act as servants to their employers for peanuts every month.

Just recently, an office trip took place where half of the people working “with” Sky had to go to a nearby city. Like many Malawian work functions, everybody going to the trip got an allowance for the trip—about 3000 kwacha (not too meagre a sum for the average Malawian). Just to make it fair, it was decided that everyone who stayed behind in the office got the same amount as well (an interesting manifestation of Malawian egalitarianism).

Of course, that is, everyone except for Sky, who made the least out of everyone and did the most menial tasks. It’s a stark symptom of the economic rigidity of a developing country like Malawi, where, to be born poor is a curse. But it’s an old story.

IV. Paradise

     The night sky in Malawi is a brilliant collection of mesmerizing celestial constellations. Clusters of bright dots are scattered seemingly at random on a backdrop of cosmological darkness. But taken in as a whole, every star seems to have been fixed in place—no more, no less—exhibiting in its formations a pulsing rhythm whose secrets are known to nature exclusively.

And if so, then what are the secrets that nature has hidden beneath the painfully satisfying beauty of Lake Malawi? Accessed from the town of Salima (about an hour and a half drive from Lilongwe), one is confronted with the marble-blue waters and pale beaches that unite in a perfect coastal arrangement. High-end hotels have turned many sections of this 540km coastal strip into resorts inaccessible to the average Malawian. The beauty is unaltered, however, and even the businessmen know that Lake Malawi makes money fastest when it’s allowed to be itself.

One could take a thousand photographs and videos of the lake and still fail to convey its natural reality. Some things are not meant to be taken in through the screen or any two dimensional plane. Lake Malawi, southern Africa’s largest lake, is indistinguishable from an ocean when viewed in “real life” by the naked eye. Its pale blueness eventually meets the edge of the sky as both stretches out into utter oblivion—the edge of doom it seems. There’s really not much else to be said.

One has to see it to believe it.


Malawi: Reflections

An initial series of reflections on my stay in Malawi. 

Arrival: May 6th, 2012 in Lilongwe, Malawi

I. Foreign

The first thing one notices is the brightness. It reflects off of the surfaces of every object. It gives everything an edge. The trees, the landscape, and the people; everything seems to exhibit an unabashed glow to the sleepy-eyed traveler.

The brightness makes everything more alive. It emphasizes like a highlighter those stark differences between the traveler pedantic land of departure, and this new, foreign landscape.

Then, one is struck by the gaze.

It seems to grow out of every glistening, black face under the bright sun. It seems to probe one’s entire body. “I’m sizing you up because you shouldn’t be figuring into my day,” it seems to say. This gaze unnerves as much as the brightness un-arms.

Lilongwe, Malawi is therefore a place which, upon first approximation, makes one feel naked and at mercy of one’s surroundings. The heavy, enveloping atmosphere is dominated by an indigenous “slowness”. Slow, that is, compared to the schedule-oriented ways of a Western country like Canada. The pace seems just right for the locals, who could care less about what a foreigner wants to achieve in their country.

“Time does not ride on the wings of pursuit,” is what Muhammad Asad, the 20th century Muslim intellectual, would have said about this place. The phrase rang in my head while I waited, and waited at the airport.

“So what if you’ve waited thirty minutes for a ride,” the country seems to say back to me, “this is Malawi, and everyone’s been waiting longer than you have.”

One quickly learns to appreciate this. It forces patience into the character of a foreigner—at least temporarily. There’s no choice but to wait: to wait for one’s ride to arrive, to wait for the driver to change his flat tire, and to wait—with increasing impatience—for the ride to the hotel to end.

And what an unbearable ride it was. The taxi driver bought the dilapidated Toyota Camry off of someone. Its seats were bursting open at the seams, and the foamy innards were on display. The inside of the car smelled of gasoline, as if the vehicle was leaking.

(The driver’s seat is on the right side of the car since all vehicles drove on the left side of the street.)

All of this is wrapped up in the pervasive Malawian heat.

Every person the taxi passed by on the empty roads near the airport displayed the same unnerving gaze. To a fresh traveler still reeling from two days of flying, this look represented an annoyance, as if to say, “Oh God, not another one.”

But another had arrived. Another foreigner—another non-black, non-African, supposed do-gooder has landed. He went through local airport customs without having his bags checked, and along with the new Scottish friend that he met on the plane, bypassed a string of Africans waiting patiently to get into the country—all of us guests under the African sun.

II. Ghettos

     The next thing I knew, there’s a knock on my hotel door. I had passed out, and it was already morning. 8:12am local time. I opened my eyes, and the white mosquito net hung above my head like some apparition. My luggage lay on the hotel floor. I got up, opened the door, and came face-to-face with the receptionist.



“Someone for you in the front.”

I brushed my teeth, took a shower, and got dressed at lightning speed.

The “someone” was Pauline from Farm Radio Malawi, the host organization where I’m interning for two months. When I saw Pauline, I didn’t suspect that she was the one picking me up. She was casually on the phone and made no gesture to indicate that she was waiting for me. It was that everyday, worry-about-it-later attitude on display.

She took her time with the call while I sort of just stood around for a few minutes. She then shook my hand and took me to her car.

We drove mostly in silence, and I was to discover that my new co-workers weren’t a loud and chatty bunch. This wasn’t out of some intrinsic dullness, but is rather part-and-parcel of that same laidback attitude underpinning the city. Everyone seemed to have a certain ease with one another, and would rather get things done a little later than pull each other’s hair out.

Farm Radio Malawi concerns itself with the small time farmers who make up most of the country’s population. Agriculture accounts for the majority of Malawi’s economy, exports, and employment. Most people farm their own food to survive. Farm Radio works with local radio stations to communicate the latest agricultural research and news to farmers, who generally don’t read newspapers, and are too poor to on televisions. It’s a noble mandate, but the wheels of change turn slowly.

The local office has about ten staff members and is located in City Centre, a rather dull consortium of office spaces and stores in the middle of town.

As Malawi’s capital, Lilongwe is a weird place. It’s divided into separate geographical “areas”, a system adopted by South African civil planners who worked on the city. Some sections are poorer than others. The areas are numbered in no particular order, and the city is basically a collection of “villages”. The affluent areas like Area 14 (where I currently live) are full of residents who own dogs to scare away unruly locals, while poorer sections like Area 23 have homes that can go without a roof on a windy day.

The latter style of living dominates the city, and much of Malawi. It’s precisely this prevalence of poverty that makes a place like City Centre so seemingly out of touch. Who’s going to use the five star hotel that’s being built by the Chinese? Who’s going to visit the newly constructed parliament buildings (also built by the Chinese)? Farmers?

The Chinese didn’t build these larger-than-life structures for the average Malawian. The giant hotel is to be used for the African Union conference (where the corrupt dictators and politicians come to play) coming up this July. It’s to show how Malawi is ready—oh, SO ready—to join the rest of the “globalized” world—if it’s just given half a chance to show its economic potential.

It doesn’t take long for a visitor to realize what the centres of power in Malawi (that is, the government, and the offices of international lenders like the World Bank) plan for the country’s future. Malawi is dependent on money from institutions like the International Monetary Fund, as well as relief agencies that branch off of other countries—like the UK’s Department for International Development. The money that come in through these organizations do not come without strings attached.

After years of receiving donations (Malawi gained its independence in 1964), the country still lacks basic infrastructure. The amount of sickly beggars and street children is indicative of the lack of hospitals and schools in Lilongwe. Some blame local political corruption, while others blame international negligence. Still, others say it’s a mixture of both.

Whatever the reasons, despite the foreign donations and the government’s bland optimism, Area 23 is just a ten-minute taxi ride away from City Centre’s luxurious Golden Peacock Hotel.

III. Forward

     Unlike its neighbor Mozambique, which proudly features the handy Kalashnikov rifle in its national flag, Malawi’s history has been relatively peaceful. And if the imprint of human refuse, violence, and war marks a country’s coming of age, then one would hope for Malawi to stay forever young. There’s a quiet pristine-ness about the place—the way its distant trees weave a grey-orange twilight every night to make the landscape look endless.

Sure, there’s a big, ugly, hotel here and there, but if one looks a little higher and a little further, blue skies and rugged terrain still envelope “civilization”. You can’t get this sort of supra-expansive—almost emotional—feeling of the infinite in bigger cities. There’s a sense that construction workers haven’t plowed over Malawi yet.

It’s this observation of Malawi’s untouched qualities that makes one’s anticipation of the future so acute.

When I moved out of the Garden lodge Hotel and into a house in Area 14, I found myself the tenant of Francesco, a tanned and wiry white Malawian (“Born and bred,” he would tell you). He met his wife Carmen, a Canadian, when she moved to Malawi eight years ago to work for an NGO. They have two young children, one of whom is adopted.

Francesco, who owns a construction company, enunciated for me the first fatalistic vision of his native country I would hear.

“You can only help the people here move forward into the future,” he said when I told him that I was adjusting to the country’s slow pace, “I mean, a car comes whizzing by on the streets and the people here don’t even bother to move—that’s Malawi for you.”

He’s frustrated by the slow pace of work and life the locals he employed were accustomed to. Still, he’s glad that the locals would rather work for a fellow Malawian than the Chinese, whose apparently different outlook on work threatens key aspects of the “Malawian way”.

“But nothing’s gonna change,” Francesco continued, “I see people riled up sometimes [political instability and riots shook the country just months before] and angry or frustrated at the way things are, but so what? What happens? Nothing.”

Moving the country forward, a wonderfully vague phrase, means for people like Francesco turning Lilongwe into Nairobi (“What do we have here in Lilongwe? Two ten-story buildings?”). This means more work for his crew, and more money. Devaluation of the kwacha has made prices go up by roughly 300% in the past eight years (the kwacha floats as a currency integrated into the international economic systems), and Francesco’s buying power is dwindling.

If he’s right, and the inevitable forces of capital have their way with the “Warm Heart of Africa,” then Malawi will probably look very different five years from now. Of course, the process is already beginning. One has to squint and look beyond the roads and concrete buildings for a glimpse of natural beauty in Lilongwe. It’s not the other way around.

IV. “White Man”

     I met Sam Chibaya at a meeting concerning Malawi’s potential for agriculture. He’s a full time journalist for The Nation, one of two Malawian dailies (The Daily Times being the other). He knows the city better than most, and lives in Area 23.

We decided to drive around the city during the weekend. I left my notebook and camera in my boss’s car, but Sam’s explanations of the city sufficed. We came to Area 23, to his home. Sam is in his early thirties and is married with two daughters.

“I don’t like this place,” he said of his newly occupied home, “I’m thinking about moving out.” He explained off-hand how he didn’t like parking the car too close to the front yard for fear of having his stereo or car battery stolen. It was hard to see how parking it outside the neighbourhood gate was any better.

We watched DVDs of Malawian music videos in his living room (“Lucius Banda! He’s one of Africa’s biggest artists and producers!”), a bizarre experience that probably can’t be replicated elsewhere. One gets the feeling that these videos are more entertaining when accompanied with recreational drugs. I was ready to leave.

“So, should we take the car or walk?” Sam asked. I wanted to see Area 23 in detail, but it was getting dark and I didn’t want to, say, die, so I opted to be driven.

We drove somewhat aimlessly and chatted. Finally, I asked Sam a serious question.

“Sam, so what do you think about these other countries doing all this work in Malawi?”

“Yes, my friend, it’s happening, isn’t it?” a typically Malawian non-answer answer. But he continued: “But it will help Malawi develop.”

What does that mean though?

“Malawi will attract more foreign investment, and more business, it’ll get bigger,” he answered.

But will that help the average Malawian?

“No, of course not, look around you. The white man will never allow us to be self-dependent. The Congo is one of the richest places on earth in terms of natural resources, but looks at it now.”

Suffice it to say I hadn’t expected this blunt assertion.

“The IMF, World Bank, they’re all here to offer their ‘help’, but there are conditions,” Sam said. “These people don’t like to negotiate, and we have to build things that the average person here can’t even use or access.”

We passed by rows of houses lined with bricks on their rooftops. Women walked along the side of the road with naked babies hoisted onto their backs, kept close to their bodies by cheap-looking pieces of cloth. The market consisted of men sitting on the streets selling electric cables, tomatoes, and fake leather belts.

We arrived at a soccer field, if one could call it that. A snotty-nosed kid in tattered clothes looked my way. He pointed directly at my face. I waved.

He waved back, smiled, and yelled “mzungu!!” to the collective delight of his friends.

“What does that mean, Sam—mzungu?”

“It means white man.”