… or “privileged” living conditions in one of the poorest countries in the world.
After sharing our first month in Malawi in the previous chapter. This time we will briefly share with you the experiences of the last two months, in which we have been discovering what it is like to live “privileged” in one of the poorest countries in the world. Our impressions in Malawi still have that unique and special first time flavour, but every time less and less! So here we come with some stories, before that taste dissolves.
Blantyre and its bubbles
The search for home meant one more way to get to know the reality of Malawi in depth. As we “strolled” through some neighbourhoods of Blantyre, we discovered the existence of different sub-worlds or bubbles of society coexisting in this city. On the one hand, the local native population, most of them with low purchasing power and a minority with medium and high resources. On the other hand, the Malawian population descending from India, families that migrated at the end of the XVIII century and which little by little installed their businesses in this country. Although they represent less than 1% of the population, this bubble has a lot of economic influence in the country and they live their original culture. Similarly, foreigners (here called Azungu) descendants from outside Africa, who come to work here temporarily (like us) and others who decided to stay. These four bubbles coexist in the city, but they have superficial or no relationship with each other.
Our house is located right on the border between two bubbles, the one of foreigners and the one of low-income Malawians. Our neighbours are 18 families who cook with firewood, live in 15m2 houses, have access to water from a well, wash their clothes by hand and have a small vegetable stall, where we often shop. Since these people speak mainly Chichewa, the second official language in Malawi after English, our contact with them is in their language, something that has connected us and the opportunity to achieve our great desire, to deeply know their culture and learn from them, to build a community relationship where money does not play a primary role.
Learning to manage household staff
The biggest challenge of our adaptation process in Malawi has undoubtedly been to understand the employee-employer dynamic. When we found the house we now live in, the predecessor family asked us, if we could continue to offer work to the 7 people they had employed for years (4 guards, 1 cleaning assistant, 1 gardener, 1 nanny). This overwhelmed us at first, because on the one hand we knew how important it was for these people to keep their jobs in the economic reality of one of the poorest countries in the world. On the other hand, we were not going to have the option to start meeting people little by little and offer employment adapted to our family situation or just do everything ourselves.
One of the key factors, moreover, is that in Malawi it is still a reality for employees to live with their employers. Small houses (Servant Quarters) are built next to the main house for employees and their families to live in. In general, employees expect their employers to play a paternalistic role, literally a role of mom and dad. This makes sense, as the official minimum wage in Malawi – which is what these types of jobs generally receive – is 50,000 Malawian Kwacha (USD 50) per month, or USD 2.5 for 8 hours of work. That is the reality for most people here, and so they expect employers to pay for food, transportation, children’s school, funerals, etc.
These are definitely colonial structures steeped in a reality that is difficult to change, which increases the feeling of dependency and low motivation at work. This challenge cost us a lot of energy and time, but fortunately we have been able to learn from it, to reconcile it with our reality and, to the extent of our economic possibilities, to offer more humane working conditions. Discovering the local working culture remains a challenge.
Another challenge, less tiring but no less important, has been security. We have been confused. On the one hand, and most of the time, we feel peace, goodwill, and that evil has little room here. On the other hand, we realise that there are many security measures, for example, security guards are seen everywhere, the houses we visited during the house search had an extra metal security door before the bedrooms, something very rare for us. Some people warn us that when there is a hunger crisis, it is very dangerous, no wonder.
When we walk on the streets, we are the focus of attention, we still do not know if it is because of our skin color or if it is because we are almost the only foreigners who walk or ride a bike, the others always move by car. In spite of feeling observed, the street feels safe and vivid, of course, as long as the sun goes down, it is better to go home. We don’t see the absolute need to have surveillance at home all day, but we do at night. We have already had two people who entered the property to steal and fled when they were discovered by the security guard. It is the price of living in privilege.
Malawi, Blantyre, The falling wall, 2022
Privilege in quotes
This second momentum in Malawi boils down to how to consciously manage the fact of living “privileged” in one of the poorest countries in the world. Being an employer from privilege, living in a house that is normal for us, but gigantic and unaffordable for our neighbours. Accepting that surveillance is necessary for the house and accepting that there will still be people trying to steal. “Privilege” in quotes because we are confronted to daily limitations on basic necessities such as water and electricity, as well as modern basics such as internet.
We have decided not to have a car. We want to move around by bike or on foot. Even though the structure is not adequate, it is how the vast majority of people live here! Despite being a real privileged decision, it is what keeps us attentive to living the local reality. In addition, it helps us to realize that having a car does not always mean being privileged. Walking or cycling for reasonable distances does much more for the body and the planet. Unconscious use and dependence on the car, as well as extreme comfort are not signs of development. Facts mostly forgotten in industrialised societies.
A car not being priviledge is even more evident now that Malawi is going through a petrol crisis, where long queues of cars have become a normality. In Malawi there is still a great opportunity to develop awareness towards greener and healthier mobility.
In the end, rather than condemning privilege, it is important to be aware of it. Once this step is taken, the range of action is diverse. Paths full of light open up, starting with true gratitude that opens the way to generosity and empathy. What really gives us moments of happiness and satisfaction is sharing. And the real privilege is to be able to share more.