Letters & Poems
Date: June 1995
Hello this is Steve calling from Malawi, Africa - just thought I would write you and let you know how I am getting on here. I actually made it, and am now working as a VSO volunteer for Data Processing Department in Blantyre. What does that mean? Well, read on...
Here I am in 1995, a resident of Malawi. I actually made it, and am now working as a VSO volunteer for Data Processing Department in Blantyre. I live with Rachel in a large 2-bed flat. The sunny location, and large barbecue-friendly garden make this my plushest-ever home (in the poorest of countries - some irony). The great relief of leaving England is behind me - the stress of endless packing, of sorting financial affairs, of perpetual goodbyes - leaving only exciting prospects for the next two years.
I've been here for some months and now feel comfortable with my environment: whether this means my six kilometre cycle ride to work, at 7am; or a Saturday jaunt to Blantyre market, in search of 'discounts'; or the weekly visit to a bottle store, to guzzle Greens and dance Kwasa-Kwasa; or any number of events that spell out my new life in Malawi.
Despite our volunteer status - we are paid the equivalent of a teachers pay, at £70 per month; pay no tax and live rent-free - we are still relatively wealthy. We can afford so-called luxuries like bread, rice, jam, biscuits, porridge (very costly), and of course alcohol (mostly a variety of Carlsberg - Green or Brown, lager or not-quite lager). I know these are basic foodstuffs to you or I, but with inflation heading for 100%, most must manage with less. Admittedly, there are wealthy Malawians - any country has its rich - and a variety of ex-patriots, whose income would match most in the UK. But, Malawi is poor - and we, with our fair skins and western education, are seen as rich. (We do have a few real-luxury items with us, a laptop computer being one of them - my hand-writing is so appalling, I just couldn't inflict it on you!)
Work-wise, I have settled in to my job quite well and adjusted to the different regime. In Malawi, I am a computer trainer - teaching skills that are generally scarce (UNIX, to the technically minded). What this means on a day-to-day basis, is preparation of course notes and slides - lengthy process. The first one week course is due at the end of July - I should be ready by then.
Although I haven't taught as yet, I am gradually feeling part of the DPD lecturers' family. In the half-hour tea-breaks we have twice- daily, I am beginning to get to know my colleagues, both their pleasures and pains! Also, I was instrumental in the production of this years course brochure - a vital means of course advertisement; it was months overdue. (This was more due to the lack of initiative shown by my colleagues than any special skills on my behalf.)
The Malawian attitude in the workplace is an interesting one, actually. People are put first, which I applaud; but 'per-diems' (allowances) are earned at any opportunity - these sometimes couple together, to the detriment of achieving anything tangible.
So, there is a mutual support at work I can only marvel at: soon-to- be-marrieds are counselled on the rights and wrongs of married life; home-life problems are openly discussed, and resolved; and always, always - humour.
Work-days, however, are often missed by colleagues- be it in search of yet more Kwacha for attending a training course (relevant or not); or the needless (and expensive) away-day journeys. (The fact that AIDS is ravaging the country, and funerals are more common than birthdays, does not help the attendance figures either.) Still, I try to influence as well as be influenced.
And what of leisure? Well, I play football for a Malawian 'social' team called Royal Insurance, which I enjoy despite the knocks. (Participating with other nationalities in a football match has always been a great ambition of mine, and they love the game as much as I do.) I read novels; I keep fit; I have Chichewa lessons (language spoken in the south of Malawi); I generally just relax - a marked difference to life in England
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Date: August 1995
Dear (Generic Person)Thank you so much for writing back to me
- I'm pleased you liked my letter in April, and glad you didn't mind my playful reminder that you hadn't written to me since then.
So... we've been here over five months. We've both settled in to work (Rachel at a Rehabilitation centre - now with an interesting array of patients; and me at Data Processing Department or DPD, preparing course material). We've both made friends - a mixture of VSOs, other volunteer-types, ex-pats and a few Malawians. We've travelled a little around Malawi - mostly great walking weekends (Malawi has some of the finest mountain walks in all of Africa). We've partied a little. And we've furnished our house with locally made Batiks and wooden curios.
Also, we've discovered that the VSO allowance (equivalent to a tax-free, rent-free £70 per month) is proving difficult to live on. (As for hiring of workers - we are blase about it, now. It's the culture of the country, and as long as you respect the people working for you, it provides work. Period. It really troubled me at the time, though, that's why I wanted to write about it.)
What's strange, though (or is it just inevitable?) is how our attitudes to Malawi-life have changed. You become used to the environment, the friendliness, the work ethic; but other things start to bother you, and become less tolerated. For example, it was novel (once) to be stared at wherever you go, but now it feels like the worst repression of fame. I hate it.
Here are some five-month thoughts for you to ponder...
And England? I do think of that place - the strangeness of my past life. An endless work-pressure; drudgery; the effort of socialising. Here, little of that remains; replaced instead, by simple pleasures. Working days that challenge, without the threat of urgency. A.....few.....caring.....friends. These ample ingredients all lovingly folded, inside a sunny clime.
So yes, I'm enjoying my life here - the here-and-now here.
A July week that started with fever and frantic darts to the toilet, ended fever-free but with the smallest of rooms, permanently engaged. Of my fever, it was the usual burning inside - shivering outside; with a measured temperature of 101'F. Gosh! Of my diarrhoea, it was unpleasant - much more than a lurid account could ever convey; I will spare you that unpleasantness. I think I have recovered, but if I suddenly dash off...
It was an honour to be invited. And his family did seem excited at my arrival: a collection of nippers with embarrassed smiles; older brothers who stuttered English to me; and his kindly mother - all made my welcome genuine.
His mother met my mother - through my photographs. She smiled, she talked; her dignity never phased by the presence of this wealthy visitor. (She had a pride in her family, a guardian affection, that rivalled that of my own mother - the highest compliment I can pay!)
And Levitico's shared room - just like any other teenagers: walls covered with football heroes, and that other juvenile favourite - the semi-naked woman, ghastly posing! A small darkened room, there was no bed; but a teenage sanctuary nonetheless. We drank tea, and talked!
I know Levitico's family are poor - he tells me as such - their father without work, they are poorer than most. We have given fruit and bread so far, and Levitico has washed in our bathroom (another township water shortage). We are struggling, though, at how much help we can give: will our money make any difference, long-term? Will friendship be sacrificed to our role of provider? Will his friends seek their financial solace too? (Was I shown his impoverished home solely to engender pity in me - a pity that would then bestow food, money, whatever, upon them?) I just don't know.
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"Roll up! Roll up! Come to the show! We - have - a - special - event! (It's not a 2-headed snake nor the man that swallows a rake!) WE ... HAVE... A... ZUNGU! ...all the way from London, England Bring the family, bring the young ones too! Come get your Kwacha here! "MARVEL at his clothes, with no holes; his shoes, he's never used! TOUCH his pale skin, (his knees, and sexy thigh) You can prod him! You can tease him! (You can even squeeze him!) And this one speaks Chichewa too ...all the way from London, England Roll up! Roll up! Come to the show! Come see the Zungu here!"
Come see the Zungu here Come see the Zungu Here comes the Zunguuuu A young man from England he came A-z-u-u-n-g-u his Christian name He was really called Steve but no one believed So continued the 'zuungu refrain Zungu! Zungu! Zun-gu! A-Zuungu! Zungu! Zungu! Zun-gu! A-Zuunguuuu! Once was a guy from nowhere In the village he would cause a stir A curious fame A pointed exclaim All cos of his white skin and straight hair You've got straight hair! You've got strange hair! Straight hair! Strange hairrrr! Pied Piper used to visit each day The villagers sang songs, and danced gay But his magical spell soon became hell And now he stays home in dismay
Note: I have received the odd complaint about the above poem (from Malawians). Funnily enough, when I explained I wasn't white, one complainant thought it was then okay to write the above.
To labour the point a little bit more: my experience of the word Azungu (chi-zungu etc.) given to all the whites/foreigners in Malawi and most of Africa, is the same experience I have when someone calls me nigger.
I don't like either word, and I have a right to complain about its use (ignorance or no ignorance).
And I would be justified in writing the above poem whatever my skin colour (in my opinion). The fact that I am non-white, mulatto, mixed race, just made the whole azungu thing more poignant. (I do know of some 'blacks' that were also called Azungu. At the end of my stay I was called Chi-neasy by some; i.e. chinese - closer, but I stil prefer Steve!)
(What's also funny is that never, and I mean never, have I lived anywhere where there were so many light-skinned mixed race people like me as in Malawi. Still even these 'coloureds' thought of me as azungu. Bloody weird.)
Anyway... Writing the poem really helped me cope with the oppression that I felt whenever I heard that lovely word Azungu (plenty of times, even from some of the staff I worked with at Data Processing). If the poem offends you, apologies, but the word azungu offends me!
Steve Nash, Dec. 2004
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Date: 23 November 1995
Dear Malcolm. Hello, and how are you? Just thought I'd send a bit of Christmas blurb to go with the tasteful Christmas card. Hope all is well with you. Are you looking forward to Christmas, and to resting from work? I think I am...
This is my first Christmas away from home (a childhood visit to Scarborough hardly counts!). It's my first Christmas without the bombardment of advertisements, without hordes of mingled shoppers, and without Christmas Muzak. No Queens speech. No frozen Satsumas. And no James Bond repeats.
Yes. This is my first Christmas in the warm climate of Malawi, rather than the chill will-it won't-it weather of England. I'm still going to spend it with my family - they're coming out for a Warm Christmas - but the difference will be the experience of a less materialistic culture . Another difference will be the prospect of a Christmas by the lake (for lake, read sea-side bathed in scorching sun), or by the mountain top of Zomba.
Not everything is different, though. Christmas is still a time for mulled thoughts - a time of tranquil (or hangover, or bloated state, or call it what you will), when you inspect life; when you reconcile what you've done with what you could've done.
So for me - after 9 months in Malawi - what I've done is to settle into a new life, with its differences of culture, and language, and opportunities - both personal and professional; I've made friends with Malawians; and I enjoy work.. (Of course, a horribly abridged version of my first 9 months.)
What I haven't done is deal with my Azungu skin-colour (with its association of wealth, and the irresistible urge of people to beg, borrow or steal from you). Ironically, I also find my own poverty a tiresome, perhaps even unnecessary, shackle. Other negatives are non-integration, poor facilities, and the 'Handout' mentality that exists in Malawi...
And I still find Malawi a complex place where warmth and friendship rest uneasily with an ignorant racism; where a need for help is more important than the need to help themselves; where beauty abounds, as do ugly scars in the road.
So, I have a few things to think about in '96. I also want to get to know my colleagues, to travel abroad, and perhaps to start a correspondence course.
So what's new for you? I look forward to hearing tales of Chatham & Essex Girl (?)
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Date: March 1996
Dear Alison - I've been here 1 year
It's a sunny Saturday afternoon. I'm sitting on the Khonde (veranda), gently shaded and cool, listening to a Clash song. A perfect time to begin a letter and just enjoy the passing of the day. This is my 'I've been here 1 year' letter, sent to all those who haven't kept their Christmas promises to write in the new year - all! ("Daddy was a bankrobber", apparently!)
So please forgive me for writing to you yet again. If you can excuse my impatience - I just like writing letters, what can I say! - then I can excuse your not-quite-getting-round-to-it! How are you? How is life in Bristol, not too cold I hope. And life as a hairdresser-cum-gossip? (Who's doin' who, please?). There isn't even a Glastonbury this year - how will you cope?
Don't be fooled by the glowing description of the weather. Firstly, I only include it as I know how important the weather is to we Brits; secondly, this warm glory is the first day it hasn't been overcast and raining in weeks - the cold season seems to have started about 3 months early!!! Pretty soon I'll be in bed wrapped up in all the blankets in the house. I'll be shivering inside my thickest jumper. And my colleagues at work will be huddled round one of those 2-bar electric heaters. (The work ethic is quickly surrendered to the the instinct of survival!)
As I said before - I've been here for one whole year! Yes time does fly - I mean it will soon be April '96! I have a year of Malawi experiences to look back on and to reflect! I can reflect on the progress I've made at work; the friends I've made; what still remains beautiful; what immensely irritates; what this country called Malawi is all about. So, here is a selection of 1-year thoughts:
My thoughts on Malawi as a developing country are over-simplified, of course. They are based on recent observations of people's education, and their ability to problem-solve. I work with people who are educated at secondary school - the top 4% of this country. I work with the elite of this country, and yet none seems at all motivated to develop skills, to learn from others, to do anything that doesn't involve being paid extra. All have 'made it' to their relatively rich position of office worker or whatever, and all are happy to stay exactly like this until they die. Admittedly, the last president (Banda) in his twenty-odd year of 'life-presidency' severely punished individuals showing kind of initiative.
I have been teaching a fifteen year old Maths. Now I know that maths is not everyone's favourite subject, but still I was appalled at his lack of problem-solving skills. Quite literally the question, 'if 4 bunches of bananas cost K40 then how much does 1 bunch cost?' left him blank. Other pretty simple questions could not be answered because he just couldn't begin to see the steps involved in solving the problem. At my work, I see an advanced kind of ineptness in trying to resolve problems. So, no initiative, and poor problem-solving skills - these are good reasons why this country is and will always be a developing country. (Other reasons obviously include poverty, over-reliance on an unpredictable climate, and a far too-willing tendency to let someone else 'fix' the problem - borrowing money, receiving donated goods,...)
As I said earlier, this is not just a country with problems, there are lots of lifestyle attitudes that I can learn from. I am enjoying my time here, but the more you see and hear of the disorganisation that exists in Malawi (and the corruptions and greed of its politicians) the more you are forced to try and think of solutions, and then you are forced to realise that - for now - things are just not going to get better. People are going to continue to die, and people are going to turn increasingly more towards crime.
What a cheery way to end a letter (there's more!). Hope I haven't bored you. I've been here a year and I thought I would share some of my thoughts with you. And that next idle moment you get - put down that magazine, with all those impossibly-shaped women and put pen to paper. Sounds good to me.
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© Steve Nash 1995-