Tuesday, May 15, 2012


I have been trying to write this since International Women's Day in March.

I have abandoned this post many times for fear of saying the wrong thing or offending someone. I keep coming back to it and have decided just to go ahead and put it up.

Before I go any further, I must say that my reflections will carry the bias of a 20-something, white Canadian woman. I'm not an expert on Malawi or women's issues and have no authority to speak on either. My intention is to share my observations and learn through feedback. As always, corrections, dissenting opinions, comments and dialogue are welcomed.

As a woman and a feminist, I very much support activities that work to promote the empowerment of girls and women. I believe that there are horrific problems facing women and girls throughout the world and salute individuals and initiatives that work to chip away at this myriad of issues.

Living in Malawi, I am constantly confronted with the gross gendered disparities that exist here. For example, of the 38% of Malawians who are illiterate, 64% are women. Malawian women make up 52% of the population and 67% of them live below the poverty line. Sexual violence against women and girls is far too common, and HIV prevalence is much higher among women.

I have heard countless horror stories and resolved many times to write about the injustices faced by Malawian women. Every time I start to write, a funny thing happens. It feels inauthentic and exploitative and I abandon whatever I start.

I realized that the problems is that I've been trying to regurgitate the perception of 'the African woman' (as if there were only one) that I had somehow forged into my psyche when I was young.

Some long-ago, media endorsed Western perception of 'Her' wanted to perpetuate itself out of my pen. To take out dimensions of personality, circumstance and culture and put forth a simplified summary of who 'she' is. Tell a heart-wrenching sob-story of how marginalized she is and how hard she works.

It is true that many women here are marginalized and that many are very hardworking. While I have oftentimes found myself angered by the injustices that oftentimes come along with being a woman here, I realized that I don't see the Malawian women (only) in that way. There is so much more - heaps of beauty, intelligence, resilience, colour, personality, abundance...

Needless to say, I've been feeling a bit stuck - how can I talk about the 'bad stuff', without generalizing a huge demographic? How can I share my observations without dehumanizing and further marginalizing a group of people?

I don't have any answers, but from the ruins of my efforts to write about 'Her', this is what I came up with:


I've spent a long time trying to write about what happened to Her,
Thinking about why I can't find the words to tell you about Her
and I've come to this:

I am not the purple-blue shadows that were once forced onto my skin by the hands of a male partner who wanted to control me
or the self-imposed starvation that devoured my tweens as I tried to fit an imposed ideal of beauty
I don't define myself by the struggles I have faced in my experience as a woman

So why would I define her by hers?

I can't tell of a one-dimensional Woman
With all the tabloid-style sensationalism
That so many in the West too often hear


and it is not my right to tell you about her
but a sacred privilege bestowed upon me

So I can no longer paint her picture as the
face on many a development agency website
try to stuff my words
into the false mold of the single-African story -
the plight of the poor Malawian woman
told by us without Her

If I told you she was raped
If I told you she is malnourished
If I told you that she wakes up at 4am to fetch water

I would be raping her of her humanness
Starving her of her dignity and
Drowning her with who the world thinks she is

If I didn't also tell you that her favourite subjects in school were math and science
and that her favourite chitenge is the one with the Manchester United logo on it
and that she could kick your ass any day at netball!

She wants to be a nurse
and adores the colour turquoise
and named her baby 'Chikondi' because of the love that she has for him

Indeed I would be doing us all a gross injustice
If I flattened her into one easily palatable dimension -
using certain parts of her story to selectively cast darkness
on all that she is


Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Malawian English

As is oftentimes the case when speaking a language that is not your mother tongue, Malawian English has some wonderful eccentricities.

Let me start by saying that the English spoken here is phenomenal. The vocabulary is varied and incredibly formal, oftentimes poetic. I am amazed at the ability of my friends and colleagues to express
themselves verbally and orally in their second, third or fourth language. I can't even seem to figure out how to express myself in French, let alone Chichewa.

Chichewa is the national language of Malawi, although there are many other languages from different ethnic groups. Chi-chewa is the language of the Chewa peoples', Chi-yao is 'the language of the Yao
peoples', you also have Chi-tonga, Chi-tambuka... you get the picture. English is called 'Chi-zungu' (azungu are foreigners).

A major feature of Chichewa is that a sound is not complete if it does not end in a vowel. This means that English words that have a hard consonant at the end oftentimes take an 'ee' sound in Chichewa tradition.

My friend Neev became Neev-y, a meeting is oftentimes a meeting-y, people don't think – rather they 'think-y', etc.

Another common pronunciation is interchanging Rs and Ls which I understand can be a hard distinction for many non native English speakers (in the same way I have trouble shoving 2 consonants together
to pronounce words like Nsima, Nkhota, Mzungu, etc).  My name frequently becomes ResRey, RasRai or RestRies, or some variation thereof. On one occasion I was buying a bus ticket and was asked for
my name for the ticket. When the ticket was issued to RAISRAI.

I rarely hear these linguistic nuances discussed by Malawians, but today was a very surprising exception.

I sat in on a very detail oriented 3 hour meeting this morning (on planning an HIV advocacy event, nothing to do with linguistics or English). By the end, all of the participants seemed tired and ready to be finished.

When asked for any final remarks, a man put up his hand and said: 'I do not claim to be an expert in the Queen's language. However, as a Malawian and a former English teacher, I must emphasize that the word is pronounced CONFIRM and not CONFILM. In the same way, it is a BIRD not a BILD. When I and R are together in a sentence, it makes anIIIRRRR sound, not ILL. In addition, it is called the Ministry of Health, not the Ministry of Health-y.'

The room erupted into laughter. To the right of me, my colleagues were practicing saying HEALTTTHHH without an 'EE' sound at the end. To the left, a colleague who jokingly mispronounces my name was saying 'Did you hear that Rastries?!'

The meeting chair then thanked the former English teacher for his addition, conFIRMED that there weren't any further comments, and closed the meeting.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Finding Hope

During my time in Malawi I’ve done a lot of questioning.

I’ve often wondered if I have imposed myself by coming here to work in development, a field that I know little about.

I’ve been questioning systems and structures of development and watching my optimism dissolve into a realization that they aren’t always all that they’re cracked up to be.

I’ve found out that the type of development that we imagine is happening is oftentimes broken and that we can’t expect that our best efforts will always translate into a full stomach or a sustainable solution.

I’ve discovered that we (myself and similar minded individuals) can’t possibly believe that the way that WE think development should work is absolutely right.  I’ve learned that the ‘dollars = higher moral ground’ equation deserves some serious questioning.

At times I have felt hopeless and helpless and have left the country twice during leave time to take a break.

One of these times I had the privilege of going to Ethiopia.
I will put details about my Ethiopia trip in another post, save for this.

I was sitting in a hostel in North Western Ethiopia when I met a man whose name I fail to remember but whose words are entrenched in my being.

He was Ethiopian, working as a professor in international affairs and development at a nearby University.
I asked him questions on certain aspects of development, curious to hear his thoughts and desperate to gain some perspective.

After answering my questions, he asked me what I thought.

I admitted to having little development knowledge or background.  
Admitted that I, like so many other well-wishers had hoped to ally and support my Malawian counterparts in their development work.
Admitted that I didn’t know anymore if I believed that international development can actually work

Why?’ he asked.

I found myself searching exasperated for an answer.
I finally sputtered ‘it is more difficult than I ever imagined…. the problems with development work are so BIG, the issues we are fighting are so BIG, the challenges are so BIG

We sat silently in the wake of my awkward admission. When I raised my eyes to meet his, he held my gaze and offered me one of the most profound gifts I have received in the form of a seven single syllabled words. 

That is why you need BIG hope’.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Software of the Mind - Part 5: Ideals of Beauty & Being Called FAT

I was recently out of town for work and sharing a room with a colleague. In addition to being a lovely woman, she is also a beautiful ‘big Malawian Mama’ (very round in stature).

Every evening when I put on my pajamas (a fitted t-shirt and yoga pants), she would tell me that I was getting fatter in Malawi. She would say something like ‘Malawi is making you soooooo FAT’ or ‘Every day you are looking FATTER and FATTTERR’….

So what does a 26 year old, weight sensitive, Canadian woman do when she is repeatedly called fat in Malawi?

Well, she does what many of my demographic do best - act passive aggressive. I would try to laugh it off and ask her ‘do you really think so?’ to confirm that she meant it. 

After confirmation I would then crawl into bed, choking back tears and feeling wounded. I would silently vow that tomorrow, I would eat less nsima, find time to do some exercise, stop myself from morphing further into the hideous, fat beast of a woman that I had become (sarcasm).

After the 3rd day of hearing about my apparently exponential expansion, I couldn’t take it anymore.

I told her, in as much gentleness and restraint as I could muster, that in my culture, telling someone how fat they are is done to tell them they have a problem or in order to hurt their feelings.

She looked stunned and worried before explaining to me that she was paying me a compliment based on African ideals of beauty. 

I breathed deeply, let go of my stupid western fat-phobic conditioning, and thanked her for calling me fat.