In Part Three of a series of three excerpts from the book And Then I Came Here, Maria, an American woman, concludes her story of her life and work in Malawi.
I’m so thankful that at a very young age I found my calling. So many of my friends are still struggling with what they want to do in life, but early on I remember being fascinated with sexuality in general and about why it was such a big deal, and fascinated in particular that people were so negative about adolescent sexuality. I guess that was my big personal experience, being caught in two cultures – I grew up in New York City in a very fast-paced life, but I’m first-generation American and my family has a lot of the traditional values of where they came from. So my professional life is certainly a product of my personal life. Yeah, I’m my own case study – I think many professionals choose fields that mirror their personal lives.
And then coming to Malawi – whoa! – what personal life?! I was incredibly sexually active before I came here. I was in a two-year relationship until the time I got on the plane to come here. Before that, I had two other long-term relationships, and even in one I had an open relationship, and in between those I had casual relationships. And of course this is during a time when I’m studying sexuality and growing as a person, and I remember when HIV/AIDS wasn’t really an issue for the general population so things were different. But I’ve been in Malawi for nearly two years and I haven’t really dated anyone.
When I first came, it was all about work. That changed – I learnt that this project, this government, and the reduction of HIV are far beyond me as an individual. I definitely know my limits, and working twenty hours a day doesn’t change a whole lot at the end of it all, so why? And then this is a conservative society, and that’s also fed into my conservatism in my personal life – I know I’m under the microscope, not only because I’m here but also because of the work that I do. And there’s all this gossip and small-town mentality – everyone knows everybody and it’s a bit incestuous.
But largely it’s because there’s slim pickings here, right? There just aren’t many single, eligible, worthwhile people. That sounds awful! – but there’s nobody who’s crossed my path and I’ve thought, “Oh gosh, he’s good-looking and seems very intelligent and is not committed, maybe I should go for it”. Lilongwe is a small town when you think about who your potential partners are.
Certainly if I wanted to have sex with married men, I would have had lots of sex – there’s a lot of infidelity in the expatriate community. You know, most people think monogamy is the way to go, but there’s hardly any monogamy going on so let’s be real. For me, if people want to have open relationships, let them be honest with their partners, but that level of honesty isn’t there.
And if I was going to have a relationship with a Malawian man, he would have to have very specific attitudes towards women, me, and the kind of relationship I would want, and so many people are HIV positive, he’d have to have many HIV tests. So a relationship would have to be calculated and it would have to be serious. And status is so important here I’d have to choose very wisely or my credibility would be shot – like I’m not going to wind up with a waiter at the Capital Hotel, because it would reflect on me, and though I would like to be an example above and beyond all that, I think it’d hurt me more than it’d help me to cross that barrier. So he’d have to be very high level – and most of those guys are screwing around. It’s terrible to judge in general, but I’m at the workshops with these guys planning the country’s HIV strategy, and just speaking with them in the context of their work, they’re very clear.
So all of that has meant that I don’t look into it. And being surrounded by miserable circumstances has had an effect. I’ve seen so many people sick with HIV and dying of AIDS, it’s like, “Woo!”– it makes me think twice if not ten times about what I’m doing, who I’m doing it with and why! I would like to think that any thoughtful person comes to a place like Malawi and somehow takes that into their personal life.
So I’ve been on my own, which has been another interesting episode in the odyssey of my personal sexuality. It hasn’t been that difficult because I’m not letting it be difficult – I’m letting it work for me, and it is working for me. This time alone has been very healthy. I feel I’m much more mature because of it, and that my experiences in future will be much more aware – I don’t think I really appreciated each and every act as I will now. All I can say is, the next person I’m with is also going to appreciate it!
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