Suj in Canada

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

Tag: Today’s Culture Shock

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

Useless Talents are, Nevertheless, Talents

There have been countless times in Malawi that I’ve been grateful to my lucky stars for the bag of useless talents I’ve managed to acquire during my 22 years. Case in point: I cooked impromptu pasta yesterday. Translation: I boiled some linguine and made sauce using cans of whole tomato and whatever vegetables I could find seasoned with curry powder. It was delicious. My host family now thinks I’m a cooking guru. I owe my thanks to the cooking lifestyle belonging to University student poverty.

The following is a list of my other skills, similarly useless but rather useful in Malawi:

– Awkward turtling like nobody’s business
– Having grown up with a love, and thereby immunity, of questionable street food
– The ability to hold my hands in an awkward, vertical stretch, behind my back
– Knowing the partial choreography of a handful of Kpop songs
– A short stature
– Being able to have a superior sense of balance
– And having a superior ability to stretch in every which way
– Knowing how to pretend I’m Japanese
– I can do the cup song
– Having hands that move like an eel despite a body that fails to imitate
– Spinning like a ballerina
– Remembering the ONE set of Irish footwork Ariana taught me in grade 9
– The ability to spin any long, straight object like a kungfu master
– Likewise, I can spin my pen like a true Asian
– Watching too many Korean dramas
– Asking obnoxious questions
– Knowing how to braid my hair
– Ability to eat corn cleanly off the cob in rows
– Remembering how to do laundry using the stomping method
– Keeper of the magical 9 times table finger secret
– Speaking (a bit) of French

***Disclaimer***
Upon my return to Canada, I will NOT be able to demonstrate any of these useless abilities by request

Today’s Culture Shock: Many people wash their hands all the time… Without soap. It isn’t necessarily a matter of being able to afford soap. Everybody I know bathe every single day and you need soap for that. And people know that you should wash with soap. Restaurants generally have tons of soap by the sink. But especially in the villages, washing hands with only water is a cultural thing. And it’s difficult to break people’s habits.

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The pasta I made with my useless skills

Living in the Temporary

Canada has been permeating my thoughts quite frequently these days. Something about the combination of post-MPR fever and knowing that my placement is over in a month causes me to dream of that taste bud burning Korean food that I’ll have as soon as I can get near Bloor street again.

Yet I know that when the time comes, I’ll miss Malawi very much. My experience here has been memorable and the connections I’ve made are hopefully lifelong.

EWB is currently hiring LTFs and seeing all those postings is making me realize that if I had the chance, I think I’d like to come back again and work for a longer period of time. Like a year. Which is crazy because 3 months had seemed so long in the beginning.

But then again, do I actually want to come back for that long?

I’m wondering if the safety cushion of knowing I only have a month left, of imagining and looking forward to all the Canadian things I miss, is actually the thing that lets me think I can handle more when I can’t. At least at this moment.

Timing really does make a difference. The closer the expiry date of my time in Malawi draws near, the more the days seem to move like molasses. I doubt I’d be counting the days if I were to leave a year from now.

That’s why starting tomorrow I avow to stop counting the days. It’s all relative anyways and before I know it, I’ll be on the flight back. So I’m going to try harder to be in the present. In the now with the people I may not meet ever again.

Today’s Culture Shock: I can’t quite remember the last time I’ve seen my face. Mirrors are such a rarity around here. Especially anything bigger than a hand mirror. Which is why I’m reluctant to wear my new dress out in public. I don’t actually know if it looks as good on my body as it does when laid flat.

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I spend too much time taking pictures of our yard

A List of Things I Miss in Canada

We’ve reached the halfway mark and as much as I love Malawi, “There’s no place like home” really does resonate more and more. So here’s a list of all the beautiful things I miss about Canada (mostly food).

– A real Canadian breakfast. Eggs, beans, back bacon/breakfast sausages, hash – all doused in glorious maple syrup.

– Sidewalks. Paved roads. The lack of sand in my shoes.

– Washing machines. Dryers. Even if I have to walk outside of my building to use one.

– Drinking on the patio with friends on a warm summer evening. Or just drinking in public and not being misunderstood for it.

– Spicy food. Specifically Korean food.

– SUSHI.

– Pasta. Creamy pasta. Creamy pasta that I make with seafood and white wine.

– Cooking. Knowing how to use the stove and where to buy groceries so that I can cook for myself.

– A fridge. And cold water.

– Large windows. And my open concept house filled with light.

…. I’ll think of more later. But those are the ones that occupy most of the space in my mind. 🙂

Today’s Culture Shock: Most everyone I’ve met generally don’t believe poverty exists in Canada. To which I explain and show pictures of homeless people (who only really exist in the big cities in Malawi) and everyone is always appalled.

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Bricks used to build houses in Malawi

Village Savings and Loans – Banki Pam Jigo

In Malawi, villages are responsible for raising funds and maintaining their own water points. Sometimes, if funds are scarce, a borehole like this can be out of service for 18 months.

18 months.

That’s a year and a half.

I think I use about two buckets worth of water every day at the moment. One bucket for bathing and another bucket for all those miscellaneous things like washing my face, brushing my teeth, laundry, washing my hands before meals…

If the tap in our immediate area broke down, I’d have to carry two buckets of water every day for an extra 10 minutes each (because I’m not that strong) at a borehole that will probably be congested because everyone else will be doing the same (which means waiting around for my turn).

And mine would be a minor convenience of time. The extreme end of the spectrum of a broken water point could be more than year of using a compromised source of water. I don’t think I need to explain the potential risks to health for using contaminated water.

The District Water Office in Chikwawa has an innovation to potentially mitigate such problems. And it’s why I’m here. To help move the project forward.

We’re currently working on implementing Village Savings and Loans (VSL) concepts for water points. It is a community level bank that has been implemented in many villages around Malawi. The difference in implementing it for the water point is that the water point itself will be a member who can lend and borrow money from this village bank. With time, the original pool of funds contributed by the community to maintain the water point can grow with interest. And even if there aren’t enough funds to cover an immediate repair, the water point can borrow the difference and repay it like any other member.

I had the privilege of going to the field and conducting some preliminary research on communities who have already been trained to use this VSL concept for their water points. The results were overwhelmingly encouraging. All the villages I visited had grown their funds in some way and the opportunity to borrow funds has allowed small businesses to grow in their communities. Economic empowerment. Interviewing them was something like a development dream realized.

But the most exciting part of all of this is how much agency this project gives to the people of Malawi. I’m aiding a government led innovation – supported but not dictated by an NGO – which means that there is a greater chance for long term sustainability and follow-up support to these communities. The end result of the program also gives communities greater financial agency as a group and as individuals. Isn’t this what development is supposed to be all about? Helping people to eventually reach a point where they can help themselves?

Today’s Culture Shock: Malawi has some of the most expensive and slow internet on the entire continent. Other JFs in Ghana and Zambia can skype home. Running video is just not an option here. There’s a lot of reasons… government tariffs, private company interests… etc.

An added dimension of economic empowerment and innovation: Borehole irrigated community gardens.

Glass Half-Full

This past weekend was the Mid-Placement Retreat. It officially marked my halfway point in Malawi. Has it really been that long?

The last few days filled me up with so many ideas, dear memories, and now I feel myself overflowing with inspiration and motivation.

Their sources are each and every individual with whom I had the privilege to interact, chat, and share a good laugh. Especially the Long Term Fellows (LTFs). Not that they were especially more awesome than everyone else.

The JFs inspire me as peers. They motivate me to do my best in my current capacity. The venture leaders inspire me in their level of commitment and capacity to manage people at heights that I couldn’t even dream of reaching at this moment. People who did not fit into any of the categories inspire me to be accepting and more adventurous in my efforts to connect with people.

But the LTFs… To me they are the people who I aspire to become more like in the future. The near future as I wrap up my Bachelor’s in the coming school year. They are incredible – commitment only surpassed by the passion that fuels their work ethics. At the same time, I can still relate to them. Recent graduates. Young professionals. The difference is in their choices after University. The experiences that fashioned them at this same time of my life.

When I first came to Malawi, I was looking for some answers. “Is development work what I really want to pursue? Can it be more to me than just a degree?”

The cosmos haven’t sent me a sign and as far as I know, my tea leaves mean little more than compost. And that’s okay.

Because the path to the supreme awesomeness that is an LTF seems to begin with what I am doing here in Malawi. And continuously fuelling that growth by reaching more and more outside my comfort zone. And maybe one day, hopefully someday, I will emerge into the light of a new day as a beautiful butterfly!  (I just built it up so much that I didn’t know where to go afterwards…)

But seriously. Halfway point. I’m still growing. And I’m glad to be here. ^_^

Today’s Culture Shock: People complain less here. They still complain about politicians and how the government should do more but when it comes to minor inconveniences like standing on the bus for 4 hours, people don’t really make a fuss (or they do and I just don’t understand it).

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Salima. Lake Malawi. MPR. At sunset.

About Poverty

“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.

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My favourite spot in Chikwawa overlooking the Shire River

Quick post about everything Malawian that is also Korean

– Squatting on the toilet sometimes
– Using respectful pronouns
– Prevalence of traditional gender roles
– Homophobia
– Using both hands to shake
– Using both hands to give and receive money
– Everything and anything can be bought at the market
– Paying for highschool
– TB
– (Almost) everybody goes to church
– Food is sold on the road to passing cars
– So. Much. Street. Food.
– #formercolonyrepresent

Today’s culture shock: There is a kind of internal brain drain in the country in that the NGOs pay so much better than the government and therefore attract more talent. The result is a very different power landscape than Canada.