Tag Archives: Elise

A Perpetual Shadow in History

By Elise Brown-Dussault

The view from the mountain

The view from the mountain

I imagine that the way an outsider would have observed our trek to Livingstonia—sweat dripping from our temples, hiking boots skidding on loose pebbles, dry coughs triggered by the heavy dust—hardly differed from how Livingstone and his comrades appeared when they were first led up the mountain by Malawians in the 19th century. Although the times and circumstances have changed, the essential has remained the same: that Westerners, in an attempt to understand and adapt, relied heavily on the locals to try and develop what they felt was a dire situation. I’ll wager that the Malawians who helped him establish his mountaintop city were amused, just like those who accompanied us on our hike; a slight smile splayed on their lips as they skipped nimbly up the path, while our eyes bulged in fear of the incredible altitude. There is no doubt in my mind that David Livingstone and his company would have perished without the local help they received—and yet their names are forgotten on Livingstonia’s relics and monuments. It seems terribly unfair, especially since the Malawians were the ones to carry the materials up the mountain to build the city in the first place, that they are denied of any credit.

This particular historical sequence is in no way unique. Most cases of colonialism include the thankless work of natives which had previously occupied the land, such as the case in most American colonies. But after the difficulties we encountered ascending to Livingstonia, the injustice seemed particularly prominent. I can’t even begin to understand how grueling it must have been to climb the steep 20 kilometers when even walking down left us winded.

Throughout our journey, we have almost always been treated as treasured guests—as friends. It makes me feel slightly uneasy to think that even after the azungus have freely altered the environmental, political and educational context of Malawi (with minimal consideration of those affected) that we are greeted as benefactors. Nevertheless, I do keep in mind that I’ve come here with only my best intentions and that it’s improper to continually expect contempt from our hosts. Instead, I focus on being merciful for this friendly reception. With each passing day and after every unfortunate incident (most of them including Old Breaky, our bus) I am floored with the kindness and concern we are granted.

A monument to Livingstone's men

A monument to Livingstone’s men

Livingstone, despite his shortcomings, was also full of benevolent intent. According to our guide, he chose to build his city atop the mountain because he’d observed a significantly lower malaria rate amongst those who lived there. His decision, although impractical, wasn’t completely illogical. Perhaps he dreamed of a better life for himself and the locals; one where the devastating illness wasn’t so prevalent. My only hope is that we, in this new generation of azungus, can continue to work in partnership with Malawians to develop their country but also remember to give credit where it is due.

I Don’t Think We’re in Kansas Anymore

By Elise Brown-Dussault

District church

District church

The scene opens in Makupo village. The date is Tuesday, June 11th, and the time is 8 am. The three explorers, their eyes bleary with sleep and sun, leave behind the community’s thatched houses and boisterous roosters and trudge across the road with their heavy equipment. It’s a short walk to the Reverend’s house. The two Canadian girls have seen it before—daunted by its incredible size and by the three satellite dishes decorating the roof—but they’ve never been inside. The Reverend, a young man of surprisingly short stature, leads them inside. The three adventurers are quickly swallowed up by the house’s colossal frame.

I don’t know where to look. I know I’m supposed to feel impressed, but I can’t help but think that the several stereo systems and 24-inch TV screen in the living room serve primarily as a means to intimidate rather than to entertain. Considering that a large majority of Malawians live without electricity or running water, it strikes me as largely excessive.

Whether or not to interview the local Reverend has called for a few days of debate. While we don’t want to display any kind of religious bias, we also want to show the region in its most natural context. As religion plays an important role for the greater part of the population, we are left with little choice but to concur that omitting the Reverend would leave a significant dearth in our footage.

After customary greetings and introductions, we get right down to business. The Reverend’s English is excellent, so Lonjezo can circumvent his usual tedious translation job and slips behind the camera. Roxy and I stand behind him, questions in hand, battle stance on.

His answers are concise and interesting, but I find it difficult to concentrate. My eyes shift from the tennis trophies to the crocheted covers on the couches. There are four of us, and six couches. I feel as if a whirlwind has carried us right out of Malawi and left us in the parlor of some ornery old American grandmother. It’s difficult for me not to think about the world we’ve just left behind—I’d gladly trade the Reverend’s luxuries for a single smile from the village toddlers, even if their toothy grins suggest that they’ve been eating dirt in their spare time.

“What life lessons do you wish to pass on to your children?” The interview is almost over, and this question has proven to be effective as a wrap-up. Lonjezo zooms onto his face, and a short pause hangs in the air.

“I want to teach them to fear God,” he finally answers, looking straight into the lens. “Children these days are severely lacking in direction—they have too much freedom, and they’re all over the place.”

A chill navigates through the room, and all of a sudden I wish I’d brought a sweater. Roxy and I meet eyes, but we don’t need words to assert that we’re thinking the same thing. Based on his country’s current situation, it was the last thing I had expected to hear.

The three adventurers are quiet as they walk out of the house into the balmy sunshine. They stand around and blink a bit, as whirlwind survivors are wont to do, but they recover quickly. The scene fades as they pick up their equipment and lug it back to the village, where genteel faces and modest houses feel most welcome.

If It Isn’t Working, Just Press ‘Escape’

By Elise Brown-Dussault

Women hard at work

Women hard at work

After a strenuous first week of work, the group was rewarded with a weekend expedition to a resort on the shores of Lake Malawi. The break was anything but unwelcome—I personally found that I was beginning to be especially cranky and exhausted by the time Thursday rolled around—but it also left me with a guilty after-taste. The amount of fun that I had swimming, spelunking and snorkeling is much more than could ever be considered reasonable; nevertheless, that nagging sensation followed me everywhere.

Something that is often emphasized in the interviews Roxy and I are conducting is just how hard-working most people are here. When we interviewed Lucia, a woman easily in her late sixties, she informed us that she had been in the fields since 5AM—and, nine hours later, she’d been too busy to eat yet. The women in the village described a typical day’s task, and there was no time to rest between cooking, cleaning, fetching firewood and taking care of their offsprings. Sunshine or rain, it seems that most Malawi dwellers are always at work. Even on Sundays, when most choose to take a breather, one cannot overlook the crops or ignore the children. Case in point, reality doesn’t come equipped with a stop button in most cases.

Yes, we have all been working arduously. However, we are privileged with an escape, an opportunity to momentarily disregard the poverty we’re being submerged in. It’s difficult for me to imagine the village women lying on the sand in revealing swimsuits, or hopping from rock to rock while chasing after lizards. So although I feel lucky, I also feel like a cheat. Didn’t everybody’s mother teach them that one can’t simply quit when the going got rough?

Despite my inhibitions, I also realize that these breaks are just what young adults need when undergoing culture shock. After a crazy 72 hours (elongated by the 6-hour wait by the side of the road when our bus broke down) the first day back at work was a smashing success. I only hope that this cycle of hiatus-productivity continues to take effect!

The Perks of Spontaneous Teleportation

By Elise Brown-Dussault

Drifting away

Drifting away

Whilst on my first humanitarian trip in Guatemala, I found inexplicable joy in pruning citrus trees on a farm. The branches were thick with thorns and my arms were burning with the effort of wielding the giant shears; regardless, two years after the fact, it is one of my fondest memories.

When I returned home, I began to experience an odd form of flashback. On hot sunny days, when the sun shone down on my bare forearms, I would close my eyes and momentarily be transported back to that day on the farm, where the combination of toil and sun had resulted in pure exaltation. As someone who has a rather short concentration span, very little is necessary to transport me elsewhere.

The shock factor is twofold, I’ve found, when traveling abroad. Last week, for instance, I decided to engulf myself in Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand. Situated in suburban England, the novel’s setting could not have been more diverse to mine. After devouring pages of lush descriptions of sea-swept cottages, first-world melodrama and pretty flower gardens, I was surprised to look up and find myself sitting on an old sofa in rural Africa. When I audited a first-grade math class last week, I was immediately brought back to my own childhood, wherein my seven year-old self struggled to understand basic concepts in a school where she didn’t speak the language. When we snorkeled in the depths of Lake Malawi with the cichlids on Saturday, I imagined myself swimming in my best friend’s old aquarium (I seem to slip out of my own skin with alarming ease).

The shock of the return to reality is unfailing, but each one brings an ever-expanding awareness of my surroundings. The fact that it keeps happening might suggest that it’s taking me a long time to situate myself in Malawi, even if I’ve already been here for two weeks.

Grounded or not, I feel much like a sponge—every day, I absorb an enormous amount of events and ideas. A lot of the things I’m seeing and living are sticking with me. I feel completely floored at the amount of things we’ve done in two weeks.

In loving memory

In loving memory

As was the case with my first trip abroad, the reverse phenomenon will most certainly occur upon my return. I’ll be driving down a dirt road and find myself in the backseat of our infamous Toyota Apex bus. I’ll listen to “Who Let the Dogs Out” and hear the hilarious rendition performed by the children in Cape Maclear, whose chorus varied to include chickens and ‘azungus’ (white people). Of this I am glad—this way, I get to carry these experiences with me wherever I am.

A Safe Place Between Marvel and Home-Sickness

By Elise Brown-Dussault

A memorable hike

A memorable hike

It was the third day of their journey and the temperature was -29˚C. The three Malawians gritted their teeth and suppressed violent shivers, but nevertheless managed to pull on their woolen hats and five sweaters with great gusto. After all, they were in Canada now, and Canadians did this all the time.

They rode in a Mazda. They had asked to travel by snowshoe—like they’d heard “real Canadians” did—but their request had been met by a puzzled stare from their host. Regardless, they felt quite pleased with the view as they stared eagerly out the window.

“So many trees!” exalted the first.

“Wow,” agreed the second.

“I think I just saw a deer!” exclaimed the third with tremendous excitement. Instantaneously, they pressed their noses against the window pane to catch a glimpse, ooh-ing and aah-ing accordingly as the creature disappeared in the bend of the road.

The host pulled into the Tim Hortons parking lot. He led his guests into the restaurant rather quickly, which didn’t save them from the assaulting temperature discrepancy between the host country and their own.

Once at the counter, met with doughnuts and bagels in a display case, their faces broke into grins.

“Great food! Can’t wait to eat!” said the first.

“Yeah! I’m so excited to eat here every day for the next month!” said his friend in an unfaltering winning smile, all the while reflecting privately on his desire for beans and nsima.

“…Yeah…” said the third, for he was an agreeable sort of fellow.

Later that night, after a day spent hugging and tickling strangers’ children, despairing over the misery of call center workers, and being frightened by a spider in the shower, the guests felt tired.

“Imagine if you had to live like this everyday,” said the first. “I guess you would adapt.”

The second laughed. “I don’t think my friends at home would last a day.”

Some days are less awesome

Some days are less awesome

“It’s different,” said the third, “but I think I like it. There’s something special about this place.”

The three friends fell into a comfortable silence. They contented themselves with gazing dreamily at the night sky, hushed by the sight of the stars, their minds wandering to those who awaited their tales in a homeland that seemed at once far away and ever-present.