“Poverty” is such an ugly word. “Poverty” in the West is unconsciously synonymous with sad children who have flies buzzing around their saucer-like eyes. Yes, poverty exists in Malawi. If poverty is defined as living below a certain monetary line of income or not having enough to eat sometimes (or all the time), it is a reality for many people. However, “poverty” can also be a smiling toddler with a swollen belly. “Poverty” is also the respected elder in the village church who may also be a landlord. “Poverty” is hungry, angry, and cast out from society but can also laugh under the stars surrounded by family. “Poverty” doesn’t have a single story and I feel that the word has come to carry many negative connotations that it is not a dignified enough word for the people of this country – of any country.
Instead of “poverty,” I embrace the “absence of opportunity.” I’ve realized that in Canada, I am so very lucky. Growing up as an immigrant, I was very aware in all the ways that I was more disadvantaged than somebody who had been born in Canada. For someone who was not a visible minority. So I worked harder to make up for my handicaps. But the fact is that even if my parents couldn’t afford to put me through 4 years of University, a combination of government loans, scholarships, and part-time jobs makes it possible for me to attain a degree. Social mobility. I can achieve social mobility in Canada with a bit of luck and hard work. Although unemployment is a problem, I am confident that I can at least find a job to achieve the bare minimum of feeding myself. Or I can get another degree. The point is, I have options.
Many people in Malawi don’t seem to have so many options. Some of the most privilege shattering experiences I’ve had were conversations about the future with bright, hard-working individuals brimming with potential. They’ve settled their hopes and dreams to what are affordable – casting aside any luxury of dreaming for more. And I sit there with them in silence because I can’t contribute to the conversation. To offer encouragement to dream bigger seems like a mockery whereas sympathy for the situation would only further add to the sense of defeat. This is a land where for many people, sometimes working hard can only get you so far.
For me, every conversation has been a heartfelt reminder of why development work exists. It’s a curious realization. The discouraging landscape of NGOs and development work in Malawi is now, in my mind, juxtaposed with very obvious reasons why development work is still needed. For the first time, I truly understand the concept of “an absence of opportunity” with my heart and it angers me.
Today’s Culture Shock: Most of the schooling in Malawi is taught in English. At some point from either Standard 6 or Standard 7 (Grades 6 & 7), all the subjects in school are taught in English except for Chichewa. It’s curious because even though all of their school notes are in English, most kids at that age have great difficulty at speaking or understanding the language.