I Thought Time Would Bring Clarity…

I thought time would bring clarity; that is what prevented me from writing this post the first time I walked down a street in Malawi, and the first time I was followed home by a group of kids and many other firsts, seconds, and thirds. The truth is the clarity that I was hoping for has alluded me; but I made a commitment to be as open and honest about my experience as possible so I am will try and capture a bit of what I am seeking clarity on in this post. I am trying to decipher or understand how I feel about being an azungu in Malawi.

I wrote a previous post that gave a quick insight into what it is like to be an azungu in Malawi in various situations. That post still holds; I still experience those same reactions today and respond with laughter, impatience, frustration, or wonder depending on the day. This post is about what is behind those reactions; why is it that people react the way they do when they see me and what does that mean for me? I thought for a long time about writing this post under the titles “Where do I belong?” or “Thank me later” and I hope that in the coming paragraphs I might be able to capture why.

In Chikwawa where I am living, there are very few white people, so few that I am likely the only white person many of the children in my village have ever seen. As such, I am of great interest to children and adults alike. I get that. Sitting on a minibus and seeing an elderly white lady a week ago I was struck with the same pangs of curiosity: What is she doing in Chikwawa? I wonder where she came from? How long she has been here? Does she speak the local language?… and the list goes on.

I didn’t speak with the lady. I didn’t want to be swayed by the curiosity that the colour of her skin evoked in me to believe that she was in any way more interesting than the 15 other people on the bus. Seeing that lady brought an ounce of the clarity I have been looking for. By experiencing that rush of curiosity at her mere presence I started to understand the depth of curiosity and interest I must evoke in the villagers around me. I also realized that what I felt is profoundly different than what I think some if not all of the villagers feel. I saw the lady as a person, one with white skin, but a person nonetheless like any other on the bus; I don’t think that is what native Chikwawians see when they see an azungu.

What Chikwawians see when they look at me I don’t know. At times it seems to be some combination of a guest, a bank, a celebrity, a godsend, a status symbol, entertainment, a link to an unfamiliar world and although I don’t see it likely many times a fool. Here are some pivotal experiences to consider for the remainder of the post:

Visits from Prominent Members of the Community

The Village Headman and Group Village Headman stopped by my home to greet me and thank me for coming to Mbederana Village within the first week of my stay. These men are very important and revered in their communities. They do not often make house calls; protocol is for the man of the house to visit the headman and request a meeting time when the interested parties might impose themselves on the headmen for advice, justice, counseling, etc.

A man in the community called me a “God”

Walking down the path with my host father, we were stopped by four of his friends. All graciously shook my hands, bowed their heads and thanked me for coming to Mbederana while I fervently reversed the thanks to them for welcoming me to their community. Each man took his turn to speak, the last called me a God, he looked up to the sky as he said this and thanked the Almighty God for blessing them by sending them a god from above. I wanted to cry, my language was too poor at this point that I was at a loss to express to him that I am a normal person who deserves no thanks for my mere presence.

A petrified child crying at the sight of me

In the village, children are overjoyed at my passing, calling out “Bo” (you reply “Bo” loudly with a big thumbs up and they all laugh, giggle and high five one another), “Maswera Banji” (How are you?) and “Laureene, Laureene” (I put my host family on duty to nip “Azungu, Azungu” in the butt early on and have been about 75% successful), all except one child. I have encountered him twice, at seeing me he begins wailing and tries to hide behind anything and anyone near him. I tried to approach him one day and show him I wasn’t scary but that made it significantly worse.

Children screaming “Give me money”

Although this is rare, it does happen and it makes me mad. It will only happen if I am alone or with another azungu as the children know it is rude.

The toned down version of this is the silent or near silent expectation that I have something for them. On my first day in Chikwawa, the only woman who could speak English asked me “Where the sweets were?” She thought I would have brought sweets for the children. Groups of children who I stop to speak with will ask for the sweets in my bag as if I always carry bags full of candy.

My host father strutting beside me

I am so lucky that relatively speaking, my family treats me as a regular member. I do chores, I buy food and soap, I eat the same food as them and my host father assures me that I am not a guest but part of the family and do not need to follow guest protocol in greetings, etc. Despite this, my host father likes to tour me around the community. After work we will take a winding way home through the market to pass many friends and just so people can see him strut (the strut was immediately noticed by a visiting friend) beside the azungu and tell everyone I live with him, etc.

Being asked to speak at village meetings

I was invited to join a man from a local NGO on a number of “community mobilization meetings.” At these meetings women greeted me on their knees, I was given a chair while all the community sat on the ground, was asked to introduce myself to applause and most difficultly was expected to give words of encouragement at the end of the meeting to incite the communities to take on the project.

On the way to one of those meetings, the driver asked me what I was doing to raise funds in my community. I was confused, what did he mean. It seemed quite obvious to him that my presence precluded that I would be working on gathering funds to drill new boreholes in the area.

The Group Village Headman asking me why I thought the community was poor

After a meeting with the Group Village Headman to learn more about the village, he asked me two questions 1) When I go back to Canada, what will I do, 2) From the time I have spent in the community, what do I think keeps it poor. I am not sure if this question was motivated by interest at my naïve perception, curiosity at what I might say or a serious request for my perspective. In any case, the man responsible for governing and managing the community asked me what the faults in his community were that kept them from thriving.

Those experiences do not even capture the daily things: the daily thanks for coming to Mbederana, the increased attention, the greetings on bended knee, the honour of washing my hands and starting to eat first. Some of this behaviour is easily explained by the kind nature and open hospitality of Malawians, other parts are explained by interest in a newcomer, but the sum of these little encounters seem to point to the fact that I mean something to these people. Herein I have been searching for clarity on how I feel about meaning something that I don’t truly understand to people who don’t know truly me.

Outside of theoretical discussions on colonial influence and the impressions it has left, tangible actions have been taken which lead the Malawians I meet to have preconceived notions about who I am and what I have/do based on the colour of my skin. I recognize that these perceptions are based on a limited number of interactions due to the scarcity of white people in the area and scarily, that how I act will affect future perceptions.

When I walk down the street in Canada, I know that what I wear, how I walk, what I buy and how I carry myself will have a small to medium impact on how I am viewed. When I walk down the path in Chikwawa I know that what I wear, what I buy, what I say and how I carry myself will have a large impact on how an entire race is viewed. Each action I take I think about the ramifications. If I give one child a couple kwacha for a snack, what will the other children think and expect? How does that change the way Canadians are viewed in my community?

More than just my actions affecting the perceptions of me and Canadians, my actions affect the perception of my host family and those around me. I struggled for a long time with buying things in the market, particularly food for myself and how that changed people’s perceptions of me and also what that made them think of the family that I lived with. In the end I decided I was comfortable with buying food in the market for myself to stay happy and healthy and that I try and share nutritious foods with my family in the evenings and on weekends. It seems small and trivial, but when working in development things like this matter.

So here I am, still searching for understanding, empathy and clarity about the way I am perceived, how I feel about it and how my actions might change those perceptions. I’m learning what I can and trying as best I can to project that I am a normal person who does not deserve thanks for coming to their village but instead has all the thanks to give for having been so graciously welcomed into a wonderful country, community and home while being given the opportunity to work on a project I believe in.

As I try and walk a few steps in the shoes of a Malawian, I hope you will think about what it might be like to walk a few steps in my shoes and share with me your thoughts on how I am being perceived and responding. Most of all remember that I have to come to Malawi to work with individuals championing tangible projects that can positively influence the future of water infrastructure planning in their district and that thanks and praise are not warranted by the act of going to a developing country but in what you do there.


11 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Jenny Sandy on June 25, 2010 at 2:20 pm

    Hi Lauren,
    I look forward to receiving your well thought and written posts and I’ve been telling all sorts of people about your experiences in Malawi. Part of that is bragging about my niece but part of it is sharing with Canadians what the Malawi people and your life is about there. You have been thinking and writing about how you are perceived in Malawi and I can only think about your impact here in Canada. I’m not sure that you realize what a big impact your are having at home. We all read your posts and then head into our daily lives with a bit of insight into different aspects of our lives. In one post you wrote about how the women don’t get a “weekend” because they have to collect water everyday – their chores are the same everyday. Gosh I would find that hard. When I am grocery shopping I think of the variety and quality of the food we have access to here in Canada and I find myself hoping you are getting the nutrition you need and wondering if the quality and quantity of the food affects Malawian’s ability to grow and develop and function and flourish. So you bring information and perspective to those of us in Canada.

    When one travels in a “third world” country you can tend to feel sorry for the folks who live there for a variety of reasons – access to food, shelter and jobs are huge problems – but that is such an ethnocentric view of the world – “we have it better than them”. In many ways I think some of these countries have things figured out better than western countries. I have noticed how strong their family structures and sense of communities are – I’m not sure everyone can say that about their lives in Canada – and I would say that we are the “poorer” for this. So I thought you hit the nail on the head when you expressed your gratitude at having been accepted into a family and a community. So I will leave you with a question – Do you think Malawians have a sense of pride in their family, community or country?


  2. Posted by Annette on June 25, 2010 at 2:55 pm

    Hey Lauren,

    I think anyone who has been in another culture where they’re visibly different for long enough has experienced some of the same frustrations as you. Your stories so vividly remind me of being frustrated that I can feel my stomach turn into knots as I read. Particularly when you speak of being called a God or receiving a special visit from the GVH.

    We do stand out and because we’re so different, our actions are tied to those who came before us who looked similarly (which was one of the most frustrating things for me), and we have to be so thoughtful in all of our actions. In Canada we can fly under the radar, I remember longing to return to “where I could be ignored” at some of the more tooth grinding moments.

    What often made me feel better was thinking about why something made me angry, and thinking about why someone else was acting the way they were. Why, for example, (other than obviously being annoying) does it annoy you when children ask you for money? and what are their reasons for singling you out?

    Loving your honesty and storytelling!



  3. Posted by rackattackmississauga on June 25, 2010 at 3:02 pm

    Hmmmm, good questions Lauren. I like that you give me (us) something to think about. The only time I can remember feeling anything like what you felt is when we went to a movie in Binghamton, New York as kids on vacation and sat in the non-white section. Walking out in a crowd as the minority for first time was eye-opening. Craig


  4. thans for great sharing


  5. Posted by Alex on June 25, 2010 at 11:22 pm


    Thanks for posting this, it’s so honest and i can feel your frustration at being singled out. I agree with Annette, it’s important to ask yourself why they think you’re special and why they expect things from you so you can respond accordingly.

    I think the fact that you are staying grounded and do not think you’re special despite how you’re being treated is good, it’s when you feel entitled to being treated specially is when you’re in trouble.

    I obviously don’t have any perspective on this issue, i can only joke that now you know what it’s like to be a ginger, a minority in your community!! lol.

    Mike and Dad say hi!



  6. Posted by Cathy Sandy on June 27, 2010 at 7:00 pm

    Things are not as simple as they appear at first. You certainly gave me something to think about.


  7. Posted by David McColl on June 29, 2010 at 3:26 am

    Being able to explore human differences and perceptions is a wonderful opportunity. I was in Toronto this weekend where G20 leaders held their summit. There were so many different perspectives and human differences that it was an incredible learning opportunity. For example, the police standing in formation appears threatening and violent. But at the same time, police are concerned for their own safety, and so give lots of warnings and intimidate protesters. The result of various facts and short reaction time frames results in tremendously different perspectives of their tactics.

    If I were in your shoes, I think my most challenging difference as you’ve touched upon here is economic status. For me, it is difficult to justify such extremes in economic opportunity. I understand your frustration in being a bank; I’d recommend enjoying that you aren’t getting the bad rap banks in USA are getting, or the violent treatment rich owners in China once faced. The people there realize you have made an extraordinary choice and I’m sure are giving a lot of respect just because of it.


  8. Hey Lauren!

    Great post! It’s definitely something that I’m sure all JFs are faced with.

    I’m finding it difficult to remain consciously aware of the fact that I’m potentially representing all of Canada (and sometimes North America, and Europe, and Australia..) at all times. It’s so easy to think that because you can speak some of the local language, and you’re eating the local food, you should now be treated as a local. By the other token, do you ever find you are used to being treated with privilege and so it’s weird when you’re treated like a Ghanaian (outside the family)? I remember one instance there was a younger girl sitting on a plastic chair and I was standing thinking “why isn’t she moving for me???” – then I realized what I was thinking and it was a pretty interesting reality check on what I’m used to.

    I think there’s a certain preconception that because you are white, you aren’t born in Ghana, and therefore have lived somewhere else in your life. As a result, you are seen to be knowledgeable because you have traveled and lived in different parts of the world and seen many different things. At least this is what my host brother told me. It’s ironic because I’ve definitely received more than I’ve given.

    Anyway, it sounds like you’re extremely self aware of this and I think that’s the most important thing. Denying those plastic chairs and eating with the family, sitting in the back of a tro tro because you bought your ticket late, working til your sweat is in the dirt of a farm – it all slowly breaks down those stereotypes and I’m sure the next azungu in Chikwawa will owe you some thanks.

    Great blog and cheers from Ghana!


  9. Thank you for all the replies! I am going to try and respond to each of the replies one at a time.

    Thank you so much for sharing my blog with your friends and colleagues. Throughout the whole experience of preparing to come to Malawi and being here I have been so thankful for all the support and participation of my family. It is not just you who is bragging about your niece – I brag all the time about the wonderful family I have back home.

    You mentioned nutrition. I feel ill qualified to comment on the status of nutrition and how that affects the growth of people here in Malawi as I am not part of the medical profession. With that in mind, here is what I have observed:

    People here are extremely short. I am easily a head and shoulders taller than the average person in my community (man or woman). Part of this may be genetics, being a tall person means you will likely have tall children and vice versa, but I would put a significant amount of money betting that it has a lot to do with nutrition.

    It is extremely difficult to tell the age of children because they are all very small and their language and educational ability do not coincide with what it would be in Canada. I recently found out my host siblings whom I thought were 5 and 6 are both 10. What I imagine as the body size or even body size range for a 10 year old make this really hard for me to believe.
    Children are served smaller and lower quality food than adults, I think because of the hierarchy of individuals in this culture where respecting your elders is of utmost importance.

    Well balanced diets are not endemic in my area. The staple food nsima or the alternative rice are served by the plateful with a saucer full of ndiwo (relish either a meat or a vegetable). This is in large part due to the cost of produce and meat in my area and the inability of farmers to afford those foods but also due to cultural norms. When going to the market my host family will purchase quantities of oil that would last me a couple of weeks for one meal. When I recently cooked 30 eggs (unheard of) for my family, I used 2 tablespoons of oil and spent at least 5 minutes arguing with the women who were watching me cook that this was not enough oil until eventually one conceded asking “This is how you cook in Canada…and it works?” The same goes for sugar. What has become apparent to me is that it is not as simple as being able to afford different foods; it is also being able to cook with them. To compound this women begin to learn to cook a certain way here in Malawi and will likely never stray from that unless influenced alternatively. Knowing that a balanced diet involves many food groups doesn’t ensure that engrained cooking practices will change. (That being said I make sure I eat as close to a balanced diet as I can so don’t worry about me)

    As to your question of whether Malawians have pride in their family, community and country I would say a resounding YES. The people I have encountered all want to hear what I think of their country – there is a genuine note of concern in people’s voices when they ask if I have been treated well and with kindness in Malawi. Malawi is termed the ‘Warm Heart of Africa’ and everyone who I have met takes this extremely seriously. Hearing that I have been treated well, Malawians always reply “Zicomo (thank you)” because they take so much pride in ensuring that guests to their country receive the utmost hospitality from their fellow countrymen.

    In addition, I have never heard a Malawian criticize their government; I actually tried to get some opinions in my community about the Group Village Headman governing system and no one would speak anything but praise. There is a culture of not disagreeing or putting down your superiors in Malawi that begets open criticism but watching the faces of the people I spoke with as I asked what they thought it was obvious they had great reverence for their GVH and pride in their community.

    It is an interesting thing to note that family and community mean very different things in Canada but in Malawi they are much more fluid. It is difficult to know who is biologically related to whom and this is because people move so fluidly from one house to the next that community and family almost become one. The relationships that are formed between neighbours have so much more depth than in Canada – my host family could not believe I have no idea what my neighbours’ names are. In the respect of getting to know, care for, help and be open with the people around you, I think the ‘western world’ is absolutely the poorer.

    It is funny that you should ask why I would be annoyed because there is the deep side (I am annoyed by the way that western people are viewed and particularly what this means for a Malawian child’s self worth when they treat me with outlandish respect) and also the shallow side (leave me the F alone!).
    Walking down the street and being greeted a ton of times is dually one of my favourite and least favourite things in Malawi. I’ve been thinking of why and I think it boils down to the fact that I love being part of a community – love being greeted with kindness and excitement – love that it is not only me who is greeted by everyone but that all people are treated this way, I am just treated this way to a larger and louder extent. But I hate that I can’t escape it. When I walk down the road on my way home, I am happy to stop and chat and I am so thankful for all my friends along the way. When I am walking somewhere in an important phone call and making the signs that in Canada signal “don’t want to be bothered” and am still swarmed I get annoyed – I get mad when I ask politely for them to leave me alone while I am on the phone and they do not. Selfish but true.

    Thinking about the reasons behind their actions does give me empathy and normally a bit more patience. When all else fails, I walk a little faster so I can get home to my family who are happy to see me for no reason other than to hear about my day and my tension (usually) immediately melts away.

    You bring up such a great point about being a visible minority. I am so thankful that I am living in Malawi while I am away from family and friends. I think about myself in Canada – if a stranger came to live in our house and couldn’t speak the language or cook our food or anything familiar how long would my patience last? I am totally rethinking the way I treat students on exchange or new immigrants to Canada. For me it is more than just being a visible minority – it is about being a visible minority in a culture where although a lot of the perceptions around me are distorted I am treated with almost unending patience and kindness.

    What an interesting perspective! I general look at cops with disdain for the general inconveniences they cause me on campus and Richmond Row but totally appreciate their presence but you are right I don’t think I consider enough how scared they may feel when trying to hold back a rowdy group of people.

    As far as being seen as a bank I think I may have miscommunicated – I in no way act as a bank – I have not given a single person money but I know that people look at me and immediately think that I am rich. You bring up an interesting point about feeling guilty about the economic disparity and for that I am going to refer you to a brilliant post that Helen wrote in her time in Zambia called Do you suffer from Western Guilt?: http://www.uwo.ewb.ca/helen/

    I totally know what you mean! I immediately notice when I am not treated as some sort of royalty at a place. It is funny too because my reaction will range anywhere from confusion to a desire to give them a high five or a hug. Glad to hear you are noticing it as well!


  10. Posted by john on July 28, 2010 at 2:03 am

    Hey lauren,

    Im a Nigerian Canadian (Nigeria is just 2 countries away from Ghana) as well as an engineering student at UWO. Your experiences remind me of what happens to me on a somewhat daily basis to me at the university.

    In your case they are extremely warm to you treating you a pseudo-god. However in Canada, Im often treated like a second class citizen in that I feel like regardless of my actions people have pre convinced notions about me that are extremely difficult to break down. The worst part is the people try to deny that they dont think/treat me any differently. I guess that comes with the territory of being such a small minority in a predominantly white school.

    The one difference between your case and mine is that black culture is not uncommon and Canada and black people are somewhat common in the GTA- however people still have misconceptions about my views and intelligence. I dont think its so much the fact that you’re new in predominately black country but the fact that there are strongly cemented views about white people in Ghamaover time due to colonialism or what not.

    What do you think?
    Also im really interested in bringing the EWB program to Lagos, Nigeria. I think it would be a great experience for both the volunteer and the city. I was wondering if you had any idea as to how I could do that??

    P.s I really enjoy reading your blog! Keep it up!


  11. Hi John,

    Thanks for your frank comments. It shows how unaware I am of some of these issues back home. I always tell Malawians here that if they were to walk down the street in Canad that no one would even blink an eye because Canada is very multicultural. Although I do tell them that in some places there are predominances in race and as a result stereotypes affiliated with race and that racism among individuals still exists, people pay less attention on the whole to an individual’ race.

    I forget that it is easy for me to make a statement like that because I am part of a majority. Thank you for reminding me to open my eyes more to the situation back home.

    If you are interested in having EWB volunteers in Nigeria you would need to speak with our national office, they can be contacted through http://www.ewb.ca but I would say that the chances of that occuring are extremely slim at the moment as our programs are concentrated in Zambia, Malawi, Ghana and Burkina Faso and I think that expansion is unlikely when we are working across four countries in multiple sectors already.

    There are however many ways to get involved at UWO with the chapter there. Stay in touch in the fall and look out for signs for our meetings and we can continue this conversation in person!



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