Suj in Canada

Recently back from Malawi after 3 months of working with WASH Catalyst. Currently missing those mandazis…

Month: August, 2015

There and Back Again…

We landed today. Especially in the midst of story sharing with my fellow JFs, Malawi already seems like a distant dream. Did that really happen?

At least I have the photos and WhatsApp messages to remind me that it was indeed very real.

But now that I’m back in Canada, I’m starting to afford an outsider’s look on my placement. What was my impact? Did I actually work with my stakeholders in mind? In what state did I leave my partner, the Chikwawa District Water Development Office?

Canada poses many questions of its own as well. This is the donor side of the world and I’m finding that I am questioning the coherence of the marketed work here with the actual work across the ocean. EWB certainly does not escape scrutiny.

But right now, I’m too jet lagged and haggard from the 24+ hours of travel from Lilongwe to Toronto to dig too deep into these systemic issues.

So until the next time…

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Oh Canada

I will remember you…

We numbered 7 in my send-off party. Since I only had 3 pieces of luggage plus a helmet, I really felt the love from my friends and family.

The 10 minute walk to the main road stretched into a ridiculous 15 as our rambunctious group paused and posed every so often for the unofficial village photographer – my host brother.

Nobody cried. We were all smiles. Yet it will remain in my heart as both the happiest and saddest moment of my short time in Chikwawa.

I already miss them all.

Before we left the house, I remember giving little Bridget the biggest hug – worrying that she’ll remember me and have abandonment issues, worrying that she’ll forget the brief encounter from her 6 year old mind.

In the morning, one of my newest friends gave me an ice cream cone that he had specially bought and kept from the day before. Just for me. I was touched and ecstatic that he knew me well enough to give me the perfect gift. I was also disappointed that it was not a gift I could keep to remember.

All these moments, the feels, the look, the smells, the sounds… I wish I could preserve them in a capsule forever because I’m so scared of the wear and tear that they’ll undergo with the passage of time.

In a global era, keeping in touch is possible. But what about when my friend doesn’t have a phone, an email account, or a home address?

Having to say goodbye for probably the last time to people who have become so special to me seemed to underline this particular development frustration that I have with Malawi. The lack of communication or information infrastructure to connect Malawi to the world.

But today isn’t the day for such musings. Today is a day for goodbyes.

So goodbye. I’ll miss you all.

**I realized after originally posting this that it sounds like none of my friends have phones. Most of them do and they use WhatsApp. My host parents do not and I have a few friends who are in their teens who do not yet have phones. The home address thing is pretty universal for my friends, however.**

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Host mom and bff/neighbour posing with my Osprey gear

On the Subject of Sanitation…

Disclaimer: Even though I am working in the WASH (Water and Sanitation and Hygiene) Sector in the Malawi, I know very little about the technical aspects since the project I am working on is about managing finances. Therefore, the most I can do is to pass on the personal knowledge that I’ve acquired from my firsthand experiences and in conversation with people.

(ODF) Open Defecation Free

This is a term I’ve heard around which means that a community is free of open defecation (aka people pooping in the bushes). Personally, I’ve never actually seen any human excrement anywhere other than in a latrine so I think everywhere I’ve been in Malawi have been ODF. Animal excrement is another story.

CLTS (Community Led Total Sanitation)

One of the places in Chikwawa where I have collected data is a place known for its CLTS. This means that the community has taken great initiative to have total sanitation. ODF is a given and they not only have latrines but may have upgraded latrines (the definition of which is contentious) among other sanitation achievements.

Hand Washing

Washing hands is a big thing here. Before every meal, people always wash their hands. But the thing is, culturally, people wash their hands with only water. This is an aspect that I’m still struggling with in my village life because I have a sensitive stomach. My host family uses soap for other things but only washes their hands with soap before a meal if I suggest it. From travelling around and talking to people I’ve realized that it is a pretty prevalent cultural norm despite knowledge of hand washing hygiene.

Today’s Culture Shock: Part of the process of helping a community become ODF involves the activity of “triggering.” It’s essentially a shaming activity whereby human defecation found in the village and some type of food are displayed for the community. Flies travelling from the poop to the food is supposed to help foster understanding that open defecation leads to the equivalent of “eating your own shit.” Regardless of how you feel about this shaming process, it does work, indisputably.

Safe Drinking Water

I drink tap water in Malawi. I don’t think I’ve yet been to a place where my only water source has been compromised. My untouched supply of aquatabs can attest to that. Some rural villages may have issues of salty borehole water but even salty water can be safe to drink if it is diluted enough. The only complaint I have is that water is available inconsistently because it is frequently turned off but that’s another issue.

Today’s Culture Shock: As the dry season is coming to an end in Malawi, the levels of the Shire River are getting lower. It also means hydro electricity is in a bit of jeopardy and so the rationing has begun. The country is exclusively reliant on hydro which means that power outages have been more frequent than usual. Also meaning our tap runs dry more often as well…

Becoming “white”

In Canada, I identify as being Asian. In order to not get lost in the multicultural rainbow of the Western world, I’ve clung onto that identifier for 18 years. I am first and foremost, Korean – somewhere lost between generations 1.5 and 2.0. More broadly, I am Asian – East Asian. Everywhere I go I am drawn to my fellow cultural mates. We speak similar languages at home, eat food that smells weird to others, and obsess over the same trends across the ocean. Although we have grown up in Canada, much of our experiences have been shaped by the culture and values brought over by our parents from the old country.

Most of all, I do not identify as being “white.” In fact, the label of “white” in immigrant communities displaces the other identity and all the values and cultural nuances that come with it. In my experience, to be “white” is to reject your family’s culture. To embrace being “white” is to be ashamed of the other identity. As long as I am fully ethnically Korean, I can be Korean-Canadian but not Korean and white. The colour of my skin demands a choice.

As an Asian in Canada, I am part of the minority even though by sheer number alone, certain “minority” races may be a majority. And being a minority means suffering the disadvantages of not being the majority. So we are taught to work hard. Work hard for your parents, work hard for yourself because no matter how hard you work, the colour of your skin may work to your disadvantage. You have to get as far ahead as possible so the net result works in your favour.

But in Malawi, I am white.

Mzungu means “white person.” Everywhere I go, it’s what children and adults call me when they don’t know me by name. The connotations are bigger than skin colour because in conversation, generalisations about “white people” seem to include everybody who is not a dark coloured race.

Exhibit A: “You white people have so much knowledge that we, the Africans, do not.”
Exhibit B: “White people rig the system so that we are always dependent on you.”

But even if I dispute that my skin colour is not as “white” as someone of European descent, I guess I am still “white” compared to the average Malawian.

Fast forward 3 months later, I’ve gotten used to being called “white.” The kid who calls out “mzungu!” as I pass by on a bicycle ultimately has no malicious intent. But I hated it the first time. Because I’m not white. To claim that identity had too many negative connotations for me as someone who grew up in an Asian immigrant community in Canada. Furthermore, I didn’t want to be associated with the history of “white people” in Malawi, in Africa. My ancestors didn’t pillage and purge the cultures of their colonies on this continent. My ancestors weren’t even colonisers. We were the colonised.

Except in the end, colonial history really doesn’t matter in this context and I was the one who was ultimately afraid of the negative connotations to my newfound identity as a “white girl.” In fact, most foreigners who come to Malawi probably don’t even have direct ancestors who were colonisers. And even if they did, it’s not as if they should carry the sins of their ancestors. It was unfair of me to guilt a group of people under a generalised label just because of their skin colour (even if I only did it in my mind). Especially when I am clearly unsettled at being the subject of such generalisations (ie. Mzungu).

However, carrying the “white girl” card is certainly a special thing here in Malawi and the associated privilege should not be taken lightly. I can claim the most comfortable seat on the minibus while everybody else is squished 5,6,7 to a seat meant for 3. I can also walk into almost any government office in my district for a chat with people who are far more qualified and busy than me. There has not been a single day that I have not been reminded of this privilege whenever somebody called out “mzungu!” However, it is privilege that I realized I needed to challenge and claim as my own. As much as it belongs to the identity of a “white person,” it also belongs to me since “mzungu” is what I am to everyone else. The two identities are one and the same and I’ve finally accepted that.

In a world of labels and categories, the names that other people call me don’t necessarily have to be the ones with which I identify, personally. In fact, adhering to labels at all – whether given by others or by myself – is limiting. I can be so much more when my potential isn’t confined to a box because the inside of a box, no matter how big, is such a finite space. But what Malawi has taught me is that it is also important to be aware and reflect on labels that are seemingly foisted onto me by others. Yes, I can be more than my labels, but I do not exist in isolation of them.

As EWB would say, it is all a part of a system. ^_^

In conclusion: I spent 3 months in Malawi as a white girl. I’ll be returning to Canada in a couple weeks with a severe identity disorder but I’m sure it’ll all sort itself out in the end.

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I've actually gotten quite tan in Malawi

Today’s Culture Shock: Mostly in the cities, there’s a fair number of Chinese businessmen and Japanese aid workers (JICA). So sometimes I also get called “China!” or end up being greeted in Japanese.

Muyende bwino!

On my way to Lilongwe for the JF huddle this weekend, I stopped in Blantyre for a night.

After being the only mzungu (white person) in Chikwawa for a while, it was an interesting experience to be surrounded by other non-Malawians at the guesthouse.

I stayed at Doogles, which is known for being an expat location and true to its reputation, it was teeming with mostly development workers from the UK, America, Japan…

Talking with some of the other lodgers, it occurred to me that even though EWB’s work in Malawi is facilitation and not as a donor or implementer, I was essentially the same as so many of the peers I met that night. University students spending a few months between studies at a developing country. Working in the international development field. All of our projects sounded so innovative and hopeful. But isn’t it always like that on the surface level? What kinds of ripple effects are we actually leaving behind? Or rather a tidal wave since there are so many of us?

I actually felt a bit out of place being in such a Western setting again and spent most of my time speaking to the Zimbabwean bartender rather than to try to be social with the other azungu (mzungu plural). Perhaps this is what reintegration is going to be like? I don’t know if I’ve ever believed in reverse culture shock before but yesterday made me wonder… Maybe it is so very real.

Anyways. I’m at the bus terminal to board the coach to Lilongwe. These were just some thoughts that were running through my head last night.

Today’s Culture Shock: Rastas (Rastafarians) smoke weed. Some people also smoke weed and chamba. Chewing chamba is also a thing. The guard at my office snorts Tobacco. Some men smoke tobacco. Women usually snort tobacco rather than smoking it apparently. Chewing tobacco is not really a thing. And nobody seems to understand when I ask them about getting “high.”

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Random unrelated monkey picture from Salima