In Part One of a series of three excerpts from the book And Then I Came Here, Maria, an American woman, talks about her life and work in Malawi.
I’m a pretty confident person. I didn’t have a lot of anxiety about packing up my life and going to a place where I knew nobody and just starting up by myself. And then one month into being here, I was robbed at gunpoint and handcuffed to my housekeeper in the toilet. I’m a tough New York City woman but I’ve never been victimized there.
It was seven in the morning and the housekeeper knocked on my door so I went to open it… and there were two guys behind him with guns. It was surreal. It was like, “Oh, am I really being robbed? Am I really handcuffed?” But the whole time I had this incredible calmness, and up to now I’ve never cried or got worried over it.
I believe that I was and am protected. And I compartmentalized it in my mind, and I tried not to let it affect how I feel about Malawians, because I know they’re not all like that. And I didn’t tell my parents – my mom would have made me get on the next plane home. And when I came, I was so committed to my job, I was like, “They can try to hold me down, they can do whatever they want. I will prevail! I’m still going to work hard and get this job done!” That’s what got me through.
And friends and colleagues were very supportive, and the Greek community here insisted that I stay at one of their houses for a few days. Yeah, I didn’t think it was such a big deal but everyone kept saying, “Wow, you’re so calm!” It was certainly another lesson in my own strength, boy. I was like, “Whoa, good for me!”
I’ve been working as an adviser on a family-life education programme for out-of-school youth. The ultimate goal is to reduce teen pregnancy and HIV. It’s exciting to be a sexologist and doing this kind of work. You’re trying to come to people’s sexuality from a positive perspective and say, “OK, reality is we all have these feelings, and young people are quite normal in wanting to explore such feelings and desires, but how do we manage them in a realistic way?”
So, as you can imagine, my work is incredibly challenging, in this country and in others. Religion takes a large role anywhere in what I can do and how I can do it. And here I’m constantly battling with public versus private attitudes. I mean, it’s the very same fifty-year-old men, married with children and grandchildren, who are saying to the youth, “Oh no, we can’t discuss these things,” but who are sugar daddies themselves and running around with schoolgirls.
It’s hard to be completely non-judgemental – we all have our own values and attitudes and opinions and beliefs, and it’s completely impossible to remove those from one’s work. However, the challenge is to know one’s values and attitudes, and share them in a balanced way that’s not completely tilting or skewing the message you’re trying to get across.
So I will never say that I’m not judgemental about the gender roles in this country or the status of women and how they’re treated in so many aspects of life, and as a woman I can freely discuss that. On the other hand, I can appreciate that it’s hard for whoever’s in power – whether it’s men, whether it’s white people, or whoever – to give up that power… and power is a big dynamic in the work I do.
Clearly through my work I’m getting to the most intimate matters of different cultures. But this experience in Malawi was my longest overseas, and it really had me appreciate the deeper contrasts of a different culture in terms of personal values, attitudes to family life… work ethic too.
Nobody gets fired here because there’s this unwritten belief – Don’t fire somebody or one day somebody might fire you. I have full-fledged alcoholics on my staff who can’t sit through an hour’s meeting without leaving for a sip. Everyone knows the situation but no one’s going to do anything about it… And there’s so much jealousy among Malawians. If they’re going to be stuck down there, they’d rather bring people down with them. There’s this passive resistance, passive aggressiveness. I would rather someone come out to my face and say, “I don’t like this and this and this” – I’m more used to that open communication than hiding the letter of invitation to that meeting or something.
And then the regular salary of government officers is a joke, and the only way they can supplement it is by pinching money here and there, like trying to get overtime or an extra night’s allowance – and the donors have fostered that. So now my accountant doesn’t want to work Monday through Friday – he wants to work on Saturday so that he can get extra pay. There’s a lot of that going on, and I don’t see it as a healthy work ethic. But you know what – I’m not financially desperate and they are.
There are different levels of desperation and poverty but who can blame this small band of middle-class people? Why shouldn’t they have a telephone? Why shouldn’t they save enough money to buy a VCR? I’ve got those things. Here I am living a nice lifestyle, making more money than I did back home, so I wrestle with the whole thing. You’re asking people to see beyond themselves to a larger picture, but they’re too concerned on survival for themselves and their family – and so many Malawians are supporting a large extended family. So I understand it but it doesn’t make my life easier. I’m often the bad guy, and that’s something I never felt comfortable with before. It’s not nice to have to say no all the time, but I’m glad I’ve had this experience – it’ll make me a better manager in the future. Life is not a personality contest, I’m learning.
And Then I Came Here documents the overseas experiences of twenty-six expatriate women who were living in Lilongwe, Malawi, at the end of the 1990s. The individual voices combine to create a multi-faceted account of the joys and frustrations of the women’s lives in Malawi, the contrasts with their experiences elsewhere, and the rewards, challenges and effect on themselves of a nomadic existence.
Paperback, 226 pages
Publisher: Cirrus Books