By Suzanna Weedle (Trinity)
Our home here is in Makupo village, in the district of Kasungu. For our first trip away, we travelled to Livingstonia. We stayed in chalets and tents in Lukwe Lodge, a tranquil, peaceful and breathtaking lodge halfway up Mount Livingstonia.
Embarking on a little vacation away from Makupo made me feel very uncomfortable. I desperately wanted to just keep working on the project. I couldn’t dispel this feeling of guilt that was festering within. Why should I get to enjoy the magnificent beauty of Livingstonia when so many of the Malawians couldn’t afford to do so? My thoughts drifted back to Roxy’s blog post, where she articulated this very same feeling. I understood it with much more clarity now as I experienced the persistent subdued unease, which rested beneath all the joy of the trip.
When we hiked the mountain, we had our bags on our backs, our cameras at hand and our sunglasses perched on our heads. These symbols re-contextualized us as tourists. Children would run and chant ”azungu, azungu” (white person, white person) whenever they got a glimpse of the white skinned creatures who had ventured into their land. Combine this with pointing, staring and laughing and you begin to become aware of your status as the minority. This undoubtedly perpetuated intense discomfort, as my skin seemed to beam white beneath the African sun. As an intellectual disability nursing student, I strive to understand what it feels like to be on the margins of society, with the goal of having a deeper sense of empathy for those in my care. I don’t think I will ever fully know what it is like to be marginalized, but I can only hope that experiences like this bring me one step closer to understanding the sheer power of labels and categories. It doesn’t matter whether there is malice in the use of the label or not, the very act of being isolated from the majority is enough to impact anyone’s self-perception.
Africa has endured centuries of extreme violence and oppression and everything we do is steeped in this recent history. Goffman, in his book ‘Stigma‘, propounds that an individual’s identity is largely defined by the nature of their affiliation with their group. What intrigues me is what being a white ‘azungu’ says about my identity here. What do I represent? Colonial oppression? A source of money? A naive tourist? An outsider? Welcome and exciting diversity? An unwelcome intruder?
I had never paid much heed to the colour of my skin in Makupo. When we returned, the consensus from the group was “It’s good to be home!”. This country and culture couldn’t be more different to my home life. The blazing African sun versus the pouring Irish rain, the crisp brown sand versus the moist green grass, the vibrant chichenji versus the dull raincoats and the vast vacant sky versus the Irish, grey laden, sky. In fact, as I sit here writing, goats and chickens are quarrelling outside my window, certainly not an everyday occurrence for me at home! It’s strange how you can be removed from everything familiar, every reference point of your reality and still feel right at home. I guess home really is where the heart is. Maybe it’s the incredibly wonderful, fun and intelligent group of people I’m here with or maybe it’s the extremely warm and welcoming Makupo community but every morning I wake up so grateful to be here and happily chirp “Madzuka bwanji” to the ladies in the kitchen.
Despite the huge contrasts between our cultures there are always moments when the similarities shine through. As I observe the Malawians greet almost everyone they see with a smile and a friendly inquiry of how they are doing, I reflect on how alike Malawians and Irish really are. The Irish “What’s the craic?” seamlessly transforms into the Chichewa “Muli bwanji?”. We share a history of British colonization and although in Ireland we now predominantly speak English, we too have a native language like the Malawian Chichewa and I’ve immensely enjoyed teaching the people here to greet me as Gaeilge.
As Dr.Stonebanks jokes “We put the asungu in Kasungu”, and perhaps we will always be azungu to the people here. This doesn’t mean we can’t change what being an azungu stands for. Perhaps Praxis Malawi will be successful in proffering the concept that some white people are here to empower, collaborate and listen, not oppress, dictate and ignore. In the meantime, I suppose I shall have to get used to the “azungu” chants and hope that, at least sometimes, these are chants of excitement about the possibilities that a shared knowledge base, sustainability and empowerment can bring.