By Elise Brown-Dussault
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.
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.