Malawi and Paris, Lack and Excess
I am transfixed by the vignettes of life unfolding on the parched dirt road in front of our simple brick home. The reed fencing around the house offers a small opening on a patch of road, and Malawian life, which is never hurried or particularly orderly, but so compelling and textured in the harsh African sunlight. Groups of children proudly drag or roll toys made out of packing crates or discarded bicycle tires, shouting and waving when they see me, leaning back to stay in the frame as long as possible, even popping back around the fence to yell “mzungu” at me, as if I didn’t know. Men ride by, dozens of scraggly live chickens lashed to the handlebars, occasionally a goat to the back rack. Our road leads to even more remote villages so bicycle taxis are rare, a luxury when mileage can be covered on foot and road conditions are poor. Cars are an occurrence which bring even me forwards wondering who is passing in such luxury. Chickens noisily enter the yard changing course erratically, while dogs slink through in the shadows and goats create their own inroads straight through the fencing.
But most often I find myself transfixed by passing groups of women laboring at all hours, simply but colorfully dressed, babies wrapped to their backs and goods piled on their heads; water, bricks, food. I hastily rush to start the greeting first, more confident in the early part of the exchange than the latter with my elementary Chichewa, often responding “and good evening to you” in the morning and vice versa, to gales of laughter. But it is the effort, and my concern to try which matters. And my interest in their unfolding lives which they find bemusing. The warmth and openness of Malawians to my efforts at Chichewa creates a bridge over the initial ask for money which is common, and creates the framework of a relationship. But this all comes at odds with the harsh realities of daily life which unfold when I venture beyond my small window through the fence.
I visit a series of clinics and hospitals, including Nkoma Hospital, high on the slopes of the majestic spire of Nkoma mountain. The Mission was founded over 103 years ago by Church of Central Africa Presbyterian (CCAP) and the hospital remains one of the cleanest and most professional we had see. After visiting the maternity wards, I am shown through pediatrics, the brightly painted 90 bed ward is mostly empty, as the rainy season’s onslaught of malaria and food shortages is yet to come. We approach three women surrounding a small bed and they roll over Edwin, a boy of two or three. Edwin’s malnutrition is so advanced that his upper lip and nose are gone, eroded by cancrum oris, a gangrenous infection, leaving the boy struggling for breath and life. Reeling, I am shown more children suffering from malnutrition, being fed small spoonfuls of peanut butter by mothers, other siblings nearby or on the other leg. Outside the ward a clean cheerful playground awaits the children when, if, then mend physically.
A good friend invites me to his work, the kitchen garden of a hotel the affluent foreigners. We tour the grounds of the beautiful western style lodge with the manager, a first for my friends and one whispers to me, “can this be Malawi?” The lodge is less than 10 kilometer from our village but economically worlds away. One night’s stay in a deluxe room cost about the annual income for a Malawian, but the lodge is not extravagant by western standards. Emerging from woods protected by the lodge’s ownership from being cut for firewood, we walked the dusty network of footpaths home, past smaller villages surrounding wells, donkey carts go by, and community members come out to greet us. I reflect that normal life in Malawi is essentially what westerners view as medieval living. With the exception of intermittent electricity, cell phone minutes when there is money and limited medical intervention we are centuries apart, just by the chance of birth.
As a mzungu, and an American at that, I am seen as a millionaire, and everyone from village elders, to children and doctors ask me directly for money. I struggle internally, as I believe in giving and aid, but I am overwhelmed by the onslaught and wonder how to intentionally approach such sweeping need.
And as a journalist, I try to express in my weak Chichewa that I aim to share stories more broadly to reach a greater audience than just myself. Getting into the ethics is way beyond my language skills, but in a few cases I find myself in deep conversations on the complexities. Upon understanding that my financial resources were finite, and that yes America was a land of great opportunity, but also of great cost, a male nurse in a clinic reflected to me, “If everyone wants to go to America eventually, why does the West come to places like Malawi and teach us that everything should be free?”
I fumble through the belief that the West owes a debt to many countries for colonial wrongdoings, and that those who have the ability to help should do so. But I lose the thread in the thorny point he really gets at, as I do not know the answer either. Within many I meet, I can see threads of an idea that America is a land of better health and wealth, and everything is free, thus I have endless money. And I am often at a loss on how to respond, I have encountered versions of this vision of America in my travels, but never this one. The severe appalling lack and the aid abutting so intensely and convolutedly. In Malawi, with more than 50 percent of the country’s general budget come from foreign aid, and many services are free or heavily subsidized, but this is also because Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world.
I leave Malawi for Paris and I transition from one extreme of my professional persona to the other on a red eye flight through Addis Abba, Ethiopia. After a hasty shower in Charles de Gaulle airport, I dress in black, apply makeup, and speak about apparel innovation strategies to an audience of at Premier Vision Paris. Premier Vision is a massive textile trade show for fashion brands, from the Chanel’s and Burberry’s, to JCrew’s and H&M’s to shop for their apparel design needs. Suppliers come by the thousands from textile mills, trim and packaging companies from around the globe.
I walk through the massive halls, each dedicated to a theme; accessories, different types of fabrics, leathers - full of endless rows of vendors. For each item, a dozen booths offer the same, fur pom-pom trims for purses, neon crocodile skins in the raw, every wash of denim imaginable, choice abounds. Each 15 by 15 booth represent a factory somewhere in the world, feeding our creative and consumptive imaginations.
Standing in an aisle, jostled by iphone wielding professionals from around the world, my thoughts fly back to a young woman sitting in a pre-maternity clinic in Kangoma Village. Like so many I met she wrapped her traditional Malawian chitenje over a second hand western T-shirt. I know this because I am sure the scared looking young mother to be had never been to Cancun, Mexico as her fuschia T-shirt proclaimed. Like the young girl who looked at me in blank confusion my first day in Malawi when I told her I loved the Minions, pointing at her leggings, the woman at the clinic likely had no idea of the meaning of what was on her shirt.
Dizzy, I sit down in front of an enormous flat screen displaying a runway show on loop by a pair of Parisian darlings of Caribbean descent. The models wore animal pool floaties on their heads, with trash bags sewn to their extravagant couture designs, apparently referencing the clash of their country of origin and European living. The bags look like the half burned plastic bags drifting across the largely clearcut Malawian landscape like so many leaves in autumn.
72 hours before I was sitting on the curb of a gas station in downtown Lilongwe surrounded by my bags, amid oppressive congestion; an overwhelming mass of people negotiating the noisy trash filled streets, buses blasting destinations over loudspeakers while cars, minivans and bikes all threaded through pedestrians. A vendor walked up to me holding up a pair of jeans by their waistband, “Madam, I have your perfect size.” When I shake my head, he moves on, holding up the same pair of used jeans and repeat his pitch to the next woman. My vision slides back to the austere hall of fashionable people strolling the aisles, working out the creation of most of the western world’s clothing for the next 3 years.
As a self-employed hybrid creative, I view myself as well removed from the 1%, but in the eyes of my Malawian community I am a millionaire. In Paris with my fellow global professionals, it is clear that in all of the ways that matter, the Malawians are not wrong. By the lottery of birth, we live in countries where water is potable, plumbing and flush toilets are standard, roads are passable, electricity is reliable, health care is generally effective and education is accessible. As a woman I am able to choose my life path; my profession, to earn an income, and decide what my family will look like. Regardless of my bank account, I am wealthy beyond measure.
And less tangible, but extremely valuable, I have the privilege to move back and forth between these worlds. Because of my skin color and my country of origin, I am afforded that freedom as well. And like all of these other luxuries which we possess without a second thought, sadly this also is not a two way street.