Sunday, June 6, 2010

Lasting Impressions

 I need to start this post with an apology. I'm sorry it's been such a delay between my first post and this, between distance to Internet, unreliable connections and computer glitches I've had trouble getting my first post up. But now that I've bested this hurdle I hope to be much more frequent in my correspondence.

The most natural thing to do, upon arrival in Lilongwe, Malawi would be to put together a post of first impressions detailing the dazzling disorientation of markets, inflated prices, experiences with white privilege, new foods (including a great hot sauce!) or the strangely intense sun (though Google tells me that Toronto and Waterloo are both stifling in comparison to the temperature here in Malawi). I've heard people describe their first experience in Africa as completely alien, like being in a movie, completely overwhelming or any combination of the three. After a couple weeks I don't think that any of that accurately describes what Malawi really is, or really feels like (thought I obviously can't speak for the rest of the continent, but only assume the same). For this reason I don't want to write a post about my first impressions because they're not really that representative of or relevant to my experience. Instead in the following paragraphs I want to outline what, after these few weeks are things I think will be lasting impressions* of Malawi (at least the 4 cities in Malawi I've been to thus far).

Right from my arrival it's been extremely evident the effect decades of NGO and other humanitarian activities have had on this country, and it's people. I was extremely taken aback when, while visiting a very rural area just outside of Mpamba (where I'm living with a very nice family) a child ran up to me shouting, "Mzungu Mzungu!" This is not at all an uncommon experience, as any white person who's been to Africa will tell you (and thankfully warned me). However, nothing prepared me for the child, in town in Mpamba (the village I'm calling home) who ran up to me, screaming "Mzungu!" who then, when I turned around bent down on one knee, presented me his upturned palm and said in a surprisingly demanding voice, "give me money". I was completely taken aback, but once able to temporarily get my wits about me again, I responded, exasperated, "Andalamma, andalamma" (money, money). He apparently found this hilarious, and we had a short conversation in my very limited Chitonga as I discovered that he'd completely used up all the Chizungu (English) he knew. I will leave you, the reader to decide what significance of this is, and I wish I could say it was an isolated incident, but I have been met with upward palms on many other occasions, most recently through the window of the minibus I rode to submit this post.

Another clear opinion that many Malawians I have come across, particularly outside the bottle store (Bar or Pub) that Foster, my Malawian counterpart owns is that, because I am a Mzungu, I must be somebody's bwana (boss). Thus despite my age, the bewilderment I can often feel expressed on my face and the flip-flops and dusty jeans I'm usually wearing I've very often been asked,

"Mzungu! Hey, good to know you. Ah yes, I am good. And how is your family? Sure, sure. . . Listen, I am looking for a job, can you help me?"

So I reply, usually through the smell of some beer, or cane spirit, "Umm... probably not. What kind of work are you looking for?"

"Ah, anything, I can do anything."

Now, despite the obvious notion that that is one impressive CV tempting me to say Anything? Wow, you should run for president then! I can't help wondering what seems to be stopping so many Malawians (as I seem to go through this very similar exercise at least every other day) from securing dependable employment. Or is this just wishful farmers hoping they can get out of what is definitely a very laborious profession and make more working for an NGO?

I make this observation because, from what I have seen and heard from many others the non-profit sector in Malawi doesn't just deliver "aid" but is an industry in of itself, employing vast numbers of people. My first dinner in Malawi myself and half of the Southern Africa Junior Fellows had dinner with a family of three in Lilongwe (the capitol city). The mother in the family was an extension agent with an NGO which EWB is partnered with helping farmers access fertilizer (among other things attempting to improve Malawian food security). Of her two children, her son is an accountant for World Vision, and her daughter works at a local university as assistant to a professor researching the AIDS virus. As you can see, this whole household is completely dependent on an economy supported by donor funding. An interesting thought.

This is clear (though anecdotal) evidence of how dependent the Malawian economy is dependent on foreign aid, here development is an industry in the truest sense of the word. It makes one wonder if the Malawian economy will ever function independently, and in how long?

Well, that was a very pessimistic view of what some of my experience has been, but really it has not been bad at all. Despite a few surprises, people in Malawi have been warm and really happy to have conversations with me in mostly English we me throwing in words from my limited Chitonga, which usually just leads to confusion.

As well, the stars here have been astounding. I don't think we've had a night that wasn't clear yet, and living in the city back home I always forget the beauty of the night sky. Every now and then Aaron, one of Foster's nephews laughs when he finds me swaying from the conversation in the evening (which is mostly in Chitonga, as Foster and his niece Veronica are the only family members truly fluent in English) to stare at the sky.

The Malawian food is something I'll not soon forget after leaving Malawi I am sure. Eating nsima (pronounced sima, or shima depending on where you are in Malawi) is truly a hands-on experience, and I'm still working on developing enough toughness on my right hand to pick up the maize, or cassava based ball of starch. I am quite certain though, that after only a few weeks I've exhausted the limited repertoire of Malawian cuisine and tasted every option there is to taste. Just the other night I fell asleep after being stuffed with maize nsima, completely full but fore some unexplained reason, intensely craving cinnamon. I suspect this is because, when it comes to spices salt is the only one any Malawian I have meet favours... and do they ever favour it! I am truly enjoying Malawian food, and am hoping to put together a collection or recipes... perhaps as a tab in this blog. If you think that would be something you'd like to see, leave a comment!


*Please feel free to argue in the comments whether even this is a better representation of Malawi, as I am definitely not thoroughly convinced myself


  1. Hey Dan,

    Thanks for the blog post. I'd definitely want to hear from you more... (and if possible more often) but I'm glad you've been busy - means you're working and learning hard!

    The problem you've identified with respect to Malawi being so dependent on development aid is quite prominent. It seems a lot of people focus on "foreign aid is bad because when you donate 100 blankets the local blanket-maker is now unemployed... they will expect blankets every year, etc etc... dependence" but even foreign aid in the sense of capacity building is too creating a dependence of the locals on foreign investment (time, $, jobs). I'm wondering if you've seen any more positive examples where there isn't that dependence created. (I know it's hard to isolate individual organizations when the entire region feels like what you said).

    Also, I'm curious if you've met any other development workers in the area and had a chance to talk to them about development work in Malawi. If so what are their perspectives? I'm sure we can all learn a lot from them.

    Lastly, please do make a recipe book. That's and knowing where to find ingredients are the only thing stopping me from experiencing Malawian food.

    Miss you lots,


  2. How am I supposed to top Julia's comment now?
    I enjoyed the post and one part of it even made me laugh, but I forget which one...
    If there are recipes, I can make them, but eating them would require some convincing. I don't know how you do it; trying all that new scary food. I guess that's what it means to have an adventurous spirit.
    be safe,
    miss you,

  3. Hey Dan! Great to hear what you're thinking about :) It's also interesting to see how many jobs are related to foreign aid because they're with NGOs. In Canada, working for a charity definitely isn't seen as the "best" job. How is that different in Malawi?

    Looking forward to hearing more about your work and Foster!

    And good luck with all that nsima :P

  4. Hey Dan!
    'Bout time you shared some thoughts! I was beginning to think we' never hear from you.
    Thanks for sharing. Be sure to keep us updated when new experiences modify your current impressions, as I'm sure that will happen.
    And please with the recipes. I'm getting bored of cooking spaghetti.
    Take care.

  5. Hey Dan!

    Good to hear from you! Related to people asking you for money - in Ghana I haven't been getting this in my community, except from the extremely poor. I've also seen the extremely poor asking an 'average' Ghanaian for money or food, and they usually respond by tossing them a coin, even if they also can't really afford it (5 pesewas, equal to about 6 cents CDN). Also, I've received many gifts when I've stayed in several villages (guinea fowl, money, eggs, etc.) but I limit how much I GIVE.

    I'd love to hear your thoughts on this: As a western person trying to accomplish sustainable 'development', we try not to give anything out for many reasons.. but how do you think THAT is viewed? Selfish? Given the generous nature of Malawians (am I right on this? Ghana may be different), are we avoiding this integral part of the culture?


  6. I just want to comment on the food section: I always had a stash of good chocolate in my things that I would escape to when depressed with the food. I really hated the fish from Lake Malawi though... I was fine with everything else... but could never get over that awful fish (especially the little ones! Usipa... ugh nasty). So I'd just eat one or two then sneak chocolate in my room before I went to sleep... definitely not honest... but it helped with the cravings for more flavour!!

  7. Dan it is so awesome to hear from you! Sorry we got cut off on the phone the other day :( Your experiences so far are completely amazing! I envy you for having the chance to experience this new culture and learn so much from it!Please keep posting as often as you can. I miss you bestest friend!


  8. I'm glad you're all right. Seems like you're a
    having an AMAZING time. Try to write more often. I'm so curious as to what you're up to half way across the world. I'll be watching :)
    Yours forever,

  9. Hey Dan,

    Just rereading your blog and thought I would let you know. :D Hope you're better at managing that nsima! Did any of the practice in Canada help? I went to the G(irls)20 Summit on Wednesday and met the delegate, Laura, from Malawi - an incredible individual - I hope you are meeting some equally inspiring Malawians on your hop across the pond.