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.


3 thoughts on “Malawi: Reflections II

  1. nashdown says:

    Well said. It’s interesting what we Westerners describe as “poor.” True poverty and starvation are horrific, but I think if you have the essentials minus the extra consumer amenities, you cannot be called poor. People always come back from Africa feeling so guilty and feeling sorry for the “poor Africans,” but I think many Africans feel sorry for us, not for physical poverty, but spiritual poverty. There are miserable people in Africa, but no more than in the West. It’s just that we distract ourselves from our misery with pills and escapist technology. I love how slow life takes here, because it gives you so much time to think and reflect. I’m sure you’ve noticed that it’s massively helped you with your writing, as I can see above. Keep up with these great insights and wisdom!

    • SZhou says:

      I swear I’ve always written like this!!

      I couldn’t agree with you more though, esp. about the concept of “poorness”. People know themselves better here, and–at risk of sounding too general–treat each other better as well. There’s no need to fill whatever spiritual vacuum that’s created here in “developed countries”. And it DEF. helps with writing!

      • nashdown says:

        I don’t know if they treat each other any better or worse, but they are certainly more sincere. You can tell it in their intonation. They don’t say Hiiiiiii Steven, OMG how aaaaaaaaare you? And be wary of people accusing you of “romanticizing” a foreign culture. Respectfully seeking out the most positive characteristics of a culture is exactly what we should be doing. Some of the best travel literature is “romanticized.”

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