I arrived in Lilongwe nearly a week ago. The first week in any new place is usually pretty intense, but when you go from one of the richest to one of the poorest countries on the map, it takes some adjusting. In the first 24 hours, I jammed myself into 4 minibuses stuffed well over capacity, passed two police checkpoints (and one bribe), bought 60,000 kwacha in the parking lot behind a bank from a guy who would only take crisp fifties, bartered to get 30% off tomatoes, and discovered late one evening that bednets are surprisingly hard to set up.
It’s a quintessential African experience. But for every experience that brings me into Malawian culture, there seems to be something else that reinforces my difference.
I got picked up from the airport in an SUV with an NGO logo on the door, I drink bottled water, I take Malaria pills, I can take a taxi for the same price as the bus in Canada, I eat out at restaurants, I have a groundskeeper, two night guards, and sleep behind bars in a walled compound. The question that has plagued me for the past weeks rises above the clamour in my head: “What does it mean to identify with the people at the margins in Malawi?”
This hits home the most when walking around downtown. A mother, pushing her daughter in a wheelchair, asks for money. The pit in my stomach grows as I walk by in silence; she is the third to ask in five minutes. Pushing through the crowded market stalls to get the best deal on apples is exhilarating, but continuously refusing desperate vendors becomes exhausting.
For me, development has always been about identifying with the marginalised. Having a walled in house and being chauffeured around feels like a contradiction. But if I’m honest, I have to confess that I like it; taking warm showers and stopping in at expat heavy restaurants. Relating to average Malawians is difficult and uncomfortable, and most of the time I don’t feel like it.
How can I even hope to bridge the gap? I am officially here to promote empowerment and participation, but I feel like I am reinforcing hierarchy and exploitation.
I look back to leading Malawi scholar Harri Englund, who says that empowerment “is less to give a voice to the voiceless than to lend ears to the earless”. So as a start, I have been listening. I talk to all of the taxi drivers, to whoever sits next to me on the bus, to the man who serves tea at the office, to the night security guards. The summer I spent feeling useless teaching conversational English over the phone in Japan has become invaluable experience in engaging and connecting people through a language barrier. In those four months spent sitting at a desk, I learned how to listen well. I am now incredibly thankful for an experience I wrote off as a detour.
Tonight, I stopped to talk to the guards at our gate. I described how the leaves change colour on the trees in Canada and attempted to explain ice hockey to two guys who have only played soccer. I listened to stories about a girlfriend and a newly born son. As I left, one turned to me and said “You should come out and chat more often, as we can learn a lot from you, and you can learn a lot from us”.
It takes energy and humility to step out of my comfortable house and listen to people who are very different than me. But to quote a friend, I am slowly learning that listening well is almost indistinguishable from loving well. I don’t think there are any easy answers to the questions of power and privilege, but I am excited to be on a journey forward.