Ever Shifting Perspectives

Before I moved here, I considered Malawi to be a relatively unassuming country. It doesn’t come up very often in world news. Apart from a few Madonna-related stories and controversies, Malawi maintains a relatively low profile globally. When I found out I was moving here for my GHC fellowship, knowing next to nothing about the country, I did what comes reflexively to me – I googled “Malawi.” After clicking on the first search result, Wikipedia informed me that it is one of the least developed countries in the world.

I was surprised when, upon first arriving in Blantyre, I found many of the creature comforts I was used to back home in Washington DC. Wireless internet, data service on my phone, potable running water – these I had access to easily and effortlessly in Blantyre. Perusing the grocery store aisles, I recognized some of the brands I knew from the US. In the streets, the women wore sharp, modern outfits and beautiful, trendy heels; really, these were works of art they were stomping around in. There is a mall within walking distance of where I live, and a KFC. Things were obviously different here; I had moved to another country on another continent after all. Still, what I saw and experienced in Blantyre didn’t seem so unfamiliar or alien. Having not lived in a developing country in my adult life, I began to reconsider and adjust my conceptualization of poverty. Maybe things weren’t as bad as I’d imagined. I thought, naively as it turns out, that my narrow perspective somehow trumped the statistics and indexes, all the history and facts.

Soon after my arrival, I made the relatively short journey from the city to a nearby rural community. GENET, the organization that I work for, was facilitating a forum for young girls, giving them the opportunity to voice the legions of challenges they face in their own words and on their own terms. As we drove away from the city, the smooth tidy roads gave way to bumpy, unpaved ones. Peering out my window, I could see that the women wore traditional chitenges, a sarong type garment, but not the more fashionable (and more expensive) wears of their urban counterparts. I spotted wells and children lining up to pump water and then carry them back to their houses, most of them barefoot. When we got to the village, I noticed that there was no electricity anywhere – all the houses were dark and shadowy. I didn’t see a single restaurant or grocery store. The odds that the girls we met that day would pursue university degrees were very low – school drop-outs, child marriage, and early pregnancy were prevalent. More emphasis is placed on child-rearing than on education. In that village, nothing felt or looked familiar – and we were barely an hour outside of the city.

A young girl in her rural community, already well practiced in child care.

Another time, on our way to a rural area, we passed an older woman holding a young girl’s limp hand. They were walking along on the side of the copper dirt road and the child was visibly unwell. We stopped the car and offered them a ride. The girl, barely twelve but much younger looking, was HIV-positive and her symptoms had taken a turn for the worse. That morning, she had made the long walk to the hospital in the hot sun with her grandmother to see if the doctors could adjust her medication. They couldn’t. Sitting on her grandmother’s lap, her face tear-stained, it hit me that this is what all the statistics and data and rates were about.

Since that first journey outside of my Blantyre bubble, I’ve come to realize that my city experience is not typical or representative of the rest of the country. And indeed, even here the poverty is evident. I can no longer be blasé about it.

Malawi is many things besides a country where half the population lives under the poverty line. It is culturally rich and has delicious food and local produce (I’m partial to the chicken and fish dishes and I pop the bananas like delicious candy). I haven’t had a chance to visit its storied and beautiful sites like Lake Malawi, but I very much look forward to taking them in. Nevertheless, poverty is also part of the picture, a big part. It was short-sighted and counter-productive of me to take my initial impression as the whole truth. I think with a more accurate and complete idea of the challenges that this community faces, I can hopefully have a more positive impact in my year as a GHC fellow.