In one of my first blog posts from pre-departure in Toronto I wrote about privilege and oppression. I was thinking about questions from one of our sessions: is an equal relationship between the ‘Global North’ and ‘Global South’ possible? If a relationship exists where one partner has more power than the other, is that a bad relationship? What is the bigger problem, power or powerlessness?
Before leaving for Malawi I had all sorts of angsty privilege rants and feelings. How ridiculous is it that I, a university student, get to waltz on in to another country FOR FREE, do a bit of work and aim to be as long-lasting as possible, but still leave and go home to a cushy city where I can go to school, have the support of my mother and a job waiting for me. In addition, I know that I can always be employed whenever I want (whether or not it is a job that I love, I know that I will always be able to gain some sort of employment). Whose opportunity or employment am I taking by being in Malawi? Whose voices am I silencing when I write, and later, back in Vancouver, speak about my experiences? I had a lot of concerns, and assumptions, despite my best intentions to enter the country with a clean slate. I thought that I would be wracked with guilt and second-guessing every interaction.
Now that I am actually living in Liwonde, privilege becomes a more difficult term to define. I am not constantly battling guilt, though there are specific moments which often remind me. Sometimes it comes at me as a scream, like when a random man escorted me through the first three steps of getting a malaria test and tried to get me to skip the line (I didn’t). Sometimes it’s more of a quiet shout, like when my wonderful hostmom started handwashing my underwear that I had been trying to hide under a sweater while soaking (I basically had to push her to stop and have since started washing them while I bathe in the mornings), or when a man working at the restaurant took my bike from me and lifted it up the stairs for me even though I am definitely capable. Sometimes it’s a whisper, like when all the men working at the bus depot immediately ask me where I’m going and get me on the quickest-to-leave minibus. These men are eager to help every traveller because they may get a little commission from the conductor or driver, but they also make an extra effort with me as an azungu woman (also a lot of them want to date me which is good for me to get on the fastest minibus). Privilege silently when a waiter gives me an extra egg, even when I only paid for one, as a ‘gift’ or when the women in my host community make me sit on a stool and not on the dirt.
Is it simply a sign of Malawi’s friendly culture and respectful attitude towards guests? Is it because I am useless at most things in the village and that people think my clothes won’t be clean after I wash them because I’m so weak? Is the extra care given to me because I am a young, single woman? Or is it just because I am white? In Canada I often am the beneficiary of strangers’ kindness and generosity, due to my age, looks, and friendliness mostly, but also because I am white* and a female. In Malawi I have similar privilege due to the colour of my skin.
I’ve had a hard time writing about privilege since arriving.
I honestly think that at least a large portion of my special treatment comes from the genuine warm heart of Africa, though it is still hard to tell. From my short time here, I have seen that Malawians are truly concerned about the well being of their guests and also treat each other with a friendly, jocular respect. The vibe is all about sharing laughs and “feeling free”. As much as I feel guilty about how well my host family and host community treats me (I still have to force them to let me do dishes), I think that there is a lot of pride in making sure I am cared for. [Actually I shouldn’t assume this, which is me exercising that privilege, isn’t it? As a side note, I’ll try to ask a friend outside of my village about this one day.] Another Jf in South-Western Uganda said that his hostparents don’t want him to help too much with the chores because it will look bad on them in the village, like they are putting him to work.
At the same time, when I think about privilege, I wonder how much having these conversations or concerns actually disempowers people. I think the question about whether or not there can be an equal relationship between the ‘Global North’ and ‘Global South’ grossly underestimates people in the ‘Global South’ (I put quotes because I don’t think there is a satisfactory term to create a binary between the world and I also am unsure if it’s disrespectful or if it’s necessary). I think we should be aware of exploitative relationships and unequal policies that benefit only certain countries, but also should acknowledge the power, strength, hard work, and possibility that lies within the countries of the ‘Global South’. If we assume there can never be an equal relationship, then I feel like we are discounting and ignoring the value of more than half the world. We are saying that one side will always have more power over the other.
For example, in the very beginning of our time in Malawi we visited some district offices in Mchinji because we could not start working ourselves until after election results were released. We were supposed to go with some extension workers in the Environmental Health Office to a rural village where they were doing ante-natal and post-natal health care and vaccinations. I think most of us, us being the Malawian Jfs, were feeling really weird about the whole situation. We were a bunch of mazungus with absolutely no purpose to being there, no ties to Mchinji or even health care, barging in on a group of women and children. They asked us to go inside the actual clinic while they were giving out shots and we refused. We felt like we were spectators and intruding on the women.
Despite the uncomfortableness, I was also wondering if these feelings and concerns takes away from the autonomy of the women we were so worried about offending. Does my assumption that it would be seen as weird for us to be there completely put words and feelings into people’s mouths with whom I could hardly communicate? What arrogance am I exercising by even thinking that my presence would have an effect? The women were interested and maybe a little curious/bothered? to see us there, but they also welcomed us and we spent a good amount of time laughing and learning Chichewa. If I assume I was exercising privilege by showing up and just as unexpectedly leaving, with no plans to return, am I also assuming that my presence even had an impact, and if so, what right do I have to make these types of assumptions?
I felt similiarly when I was taking pictures of my cellphone. People seemed to think it was very high-tech and fancy, which it is, and asked how much it is. It was free because they came out with a new model, but I still wondered if I was showing off my Canadian technology and blatantly shoving my wealth into people’s faces. However, does this mean that I am assuming people are jealous of my phone, that they wished they had something similar? Am I assuming that my phone is better? That’s where my uncertainty around privilege comes in. By worrying about exercising privilege am I making assumptions that state that people are jealous or want what I have, when I have absolutely no basis to make those types of assumptions. Does questioning privilege lead to any assumptions that one party is better than the other?
I just don’t know. I am also a white student who can leave whenever she wants, and is living in Malawi with other people’s money, so maybe I don’t have any right to make any of these questions…
*I know we like to think that there is no racism and that our multicultural policy is working in Canada, but I do get at least some privileges, whether I know it or not, for being a white woman.