Malawi to Maine

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I’m in western Maine looking out over a smooth slate blue lake reflecting the burnt autumn foliage of the mountains under stormy New England skies, even as in my mind I gaze back over the past few months. Exactly a month ago I sat high on a steep hill looking out over the vast cerulean blue of Lake Malawi, imagining Tanzania and Mozambique somewhere out of sight, trying to understand my weeks in country as I swatted the persistent flow of micro ants off my dress.

Malawi caught me off guard, I will admit. I have a tendency to tip myself into adventures by dealing with the logistics but ignoring certain glaring challenges until it’s too late, so I don’t miss out on a worthwhile adventure by overthinking it just because it’s hard. (My time living in India and Micronesia were textbook cases of this, cue mini panic the night before the flight.) 

Fresh off a project photographing African Spokes cycling trip in April and May, before I had even left the continent I was determined to get myself back as soon as possible. Africa has an air to it, something that is hard to define but deeply compelling, and harder still to try and frame without miring yourself in politically fraught western presumptions.

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 Students at Lilongwe Academy of Science

Students at Lilongwe Academy of Science

As always I sought to travel with a purpose and into a community, so I came to Malawi to work in Kangoma village on a documentary photography project with Lilongwe Academy of Science, helping the young founders of the Technology and Science Academy hone their brand for western business partners, donors and grants, while I documented the school in preparation to build their website.

Within hours I smacked into the fact that cycling through Zambia, Botswana and Namibia had been more of a fly over of the people and in the most rural of areas possible in pursuit of wildlife. I had known this while cycling, frustrated to not spend more than a few minutes with locals, but also had reveled in the wild riches we found along the way. I can’t imagine much in cycling matching the thrill of passing a herd of wild elephants as they periscope, you watching them and them watching you.

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But Malawi is densely populated with an overtaxed landscape, burdened by an agrarian society just barely getting by. As with much of the world, packaging and bags are rarer then in the west, as they are expensive, but trash is burned, and what does not dissipate blows across the landscape. There were no trash barrels because, I think, that implied it was going somewhere other than where it was, to the yard; our western denial is a lot greater. Most Malawians have never seen wild animals, and aside from two baboons crossing a road near a massive tree farm covering much of the northern regions, the only wildlife I saw was the skin of a bush baby on the roof of a hospital building. I had just exited the pediatric ward and seen desperate malnutrition in children the age of my young nephews, their eyes vacant, their mothers a mix of vacant  and hopeless, all I could do was hold sadness for both families and animals who are both trying desperately to survive.

While I was not prepared for the decimation of nature in Malawi, a visit to Cape Town many years ago gave me some context for the culture and intensity of life. Although an entirely different peoples and culture, just as in South Africa, I found Malawians warm and open, the language deeply challenging but beautiful, and the connection among communities vibrant, something often lacking in the west.

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It took a long time to convince the Mo and Eli that I would rather eat with them than alone, so in the first week, to respect their wishes, and mine, I often took my short stool to the porch and watched the world wake up as I ate. Breakfast was bread with peanut butter and chicory coffee, with milk if the store had any for me to buy the family. In truth I don’t really eat any of these things, bread, peanut butter or milk, but came to see what luxuries they were very quickly; in Malawi as is true in much of the world, enough food to be truly sustained is a luxury. 

Women walked by in groups, colorful chitenje wrapped around their waists, a baby wrapped to their back in another, huge buckets of water or bricks on their head. They would pause in their conversations as I practiced my greetings, generally messing up my second response the first few attempts of the day. But generally the village was amused and supportive of my efforts, and my many teachers found my ongoing struggle with the guttural throat sounds not found in English, like “Nkh,” delightful. I wish I wasn’t quite so poor at the language, but I also know my humility and earnest efforts did a lot to create something of a level field, even if for moments, so we could then have earnest conversations on other topics as equals.

And for me that is always the biggest privilege of travel, and documentary work, when people really open up their homes, stories and themselves to you. Although Malawi is a complex country facing many interconnected challenges, from food shortages, poverty, lack of education to overpopulation, the privilege of being accepted — people realizing you see them, see value in them and their story, remains as compelling as ever. And I think learning the nuances and flow of a totally different culture is simultaneously one of the most awkward and beautiful experiences, a sense of place coming together, the strands in your hand weaving into a culture as you walk within it.

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Near the end of my stay I shot a series about the “Entrepreneurs of Kangoma,” having walked the market street to the school over the weeks. Initially it had felt like a gauntlet to prove my ability to be Malawian, failing one notable time when my skirt showed my knees and it seemed to all the world my forehead wore a scarlet letter, but eventually it was a place where I greeted a growing number of familiar faces and friends. 

Although it wasn’t until I returned to the US that I could articulate fully why I had wanted to shoot the series, I knew the street with the wonderful hand painted signage upon buildings, basic stands with tattered coverings and bare bones stalls sometimes simply made of an overturned box beating heart of the community, on every day but Sunday. Once back in Boston, I realized that the village center is also something which we have largely lost in the US, for all that we have gained. We don’t know each other in this way, we don’t gather daily, often don’t even have a town center, and are largely separated from each other by the convenience of a life lived in cars. I am not glamorizing Malawian life, I know the residents of Kangoma would trade with Americans in a heartbeat for safe roads, cars and refrigerator stocked stores, for hospitals with western standards, plumbing and reliable electricity, and I want that for them as well. But I think it is vital to look beyond the poverty, and the assumption that the absence of money equals the absence of all things. There is a great deal of beauty and wealth in Kangoma, and I imagine in the millions of villages across Africa and the rest of the developing world. Riches that maybe we gave away in the west too easily for our comfort and luxury. I think that there is learning and aid which can go both ways, not just the one way.

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And inadvertently I was reminded that the act of capturing a story can change it, can show value in it to participants. Elton, one of the co-founders of Lilongwe Academy of Science wrote me 2 weeks ago that women from the village were asking after me. That I had been different from other Americans, had taken time with them. This is always so good to hear, that intentions align with the impact, but what made me most happy was to hear that they had asked him if he could teach entrepreneurship classes at the school to them. That some of the women selling tomatoes, usipa (the small salted fish from the Lake which are a staple protein) or donuts had not seen themselves as entrepreneurs until I asked them if I could include them in my story. That they had heard something in my awkward effort in mixed chichewa and english to express why I believe their contribution to the community is a valuable one, that Kangoma has something truly beautiful and the story is worth sharing.

Sometimes it is an impactful thing, to see yourself through another’s lens. It involves a great deal of trust but it is powerful. To see and be seen.

 
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If you are interested in seeing or publishing the “Entrepreneurs of Kangoma” photo essays from Malawi, please contact me.