By Dr. Christopher Darius Stonebanks
During my latest stay on mount Livingstonia, I had the chance to spend some quiet time and do things I otherwise have never been able to do during my last five (or is it six?) times at the magnificent Lukwe Lodge. In many ways, this chapter of Praxis Malawi represents many firsts for me. This was the first time I did not climb Mount Kasugu with the students, nor did I go to curios with them either, or even walk up to the top of Livingstonia to see the town. That crazy town at the top of a mountain that, to me, has always represented the madness of colonialism as I try and imagine Dr. Laws convincing the Malawians that building a mission at the top of the mountain is a sound idea. I get the escaping mosquitoes and malaria in the higher altitude and all that, but I still would have loved to be there when the local Malawians turned to each other and said, “Is he serious? Did he just say we’re hauling all the materials up the mountain??”
In any case, at this point there’s been enough of a relationship built with community that these sorts of excursions, like the hike up Mount Livingstonia, essentially run themselves and risks have been minimized through the experiences of trial and error. So, this time I hung back and had the time to do things I otherwise never have the chance to do; like take a nap in the sun, read a book, look at the landscape, observe some amazingly colourful butterflies, and investigate the workings of the compostable toilets. Okay, the last part was not that wonderful, but it was informative to the planning of our Campus. I don’t often get the time to read in Malawi. The first few trips usually involved packing a quantity of books that only made sense if my destination was for a conference on “coffee connoisseurs and speed reading”. Add to that my choice of books; not a single piece of fiction, but a stack of academic writings that I was sure to catch up on and revisit, but never do. Sure, who wouldn’t want to ruin a beautiful Malawian sunset while slogging your way through the uncooperative translation of Max Weber? Perhaps the original German writing is more enjoyable, despite the fact I don’t understand German, eh? Nowadays, I have learned to put a bunch of books on kindle so as to save luggage space on all the books I am guaranteed not to read.
There aren’t really many of those deep reading periods for someone coordinating a trip like this. You don’t get to have many quiet moments where you simply get “to be”. There’s always something that needs to be organized, someone who needs to be reminded of coursework objectives, community meetings to attend (or reschedule and reschedule and reschedule…), finances to be reorganized so we have enough fuel to get the bus back to the airport, and a million questions to field. On this morning, however, the students went up the mountain with a for-real-certified guide, and I was alone to reread Frantz Fanon’s (1961), The Wretched of the Earth.
It’s been many years since I had first read Fanon’s book; in fact, it was probably at the end of my undergraduate years and more than likely a book that I picked up to have the appearances of being interesting when I sat around a campus café or bar. “Can I have a large cappuccino to go along with my book that clearly shows how smart and deep I am? Can you see what I’m reading?” I do remember it coincided with Gulf War One, and Fanon’s analysis of the oppressed Arabs of North Africa was particularly pertinent to me in those days. Even then, I wondered how such an influential book failed to make any kind of connections in any social justice circles in regard to action to a growing human tragedy, beyond the giant papier-mâché manikins of a distorted President Bush (senior), blowing whistles and banging drums at anti-war protests. Years later and Fanon’s book is still relevant … but what has changed? Frustrated, I put Fanon’s book down and ordered a cup of coffee, once again looking over the lush, green valley and trying to capture some of the peaceful moments I had lost when I decided to reread the book. And there “he” was on the cover of Fanon’s 2001 version of The Wretched of the Earth. Wearing old, worn and tattered clothes, emaciated “he” sits on the floor in some common outdoor space, looking away and simply waiting in anguish. I don’t know him, but I realize “he” is still everywhere in Malawi and, again, nothing has really changed.
On this trip of firsts, I try and remember “him”, and as we drive from Livingstonia and back to Kasungu, I see “him” everywhere. Of course, I haven’t just seen “him” through the window of a moving vehicle; I have met “him” as well. We have sat, and talked in brief exchanges, but “he” knows more about me, because this isn’t a first encounter for “him” either. “He” knows I will go somewhere else, perhaps somewhere on the side of a lush, green mountain and take the time to order a coffee and ponder over “his” picture. Even when we look for optimism and, I see “him”. The Chilanga community has already started moulding bricks as part of their “fair labour” contribution to the Campus, with the faith that this effort can turn into hope for their children, and it appears that there “he” is again. I want to believe this time I am mistaken in my recognition of “him”, and for the first time in my years in this area, things are starting to change.