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.”


3 thoughts on “Malawi: Reflections

  1. Naeim Karimi says:

    Brother … You have an amazing way with words …
    Beautifully vivid writing … took me right there …
    I rode that taxi with you and felt every step of the way since … simply marvelous!!

  2. Sam says:

    Going through the article, the picture of the writer came into my mind, I could remember seeing you standing outside National Library in Lilongwe waiting for a new belt after you had snapped the first one because of growing fat due to eating rich African food. It’s a great piece and reminded me of the good says we spent together here in Malawi

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