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Diary of a Volunteer

Letters & Poems

So you want to read my letters and poems.

Boy, you are brave! Lol.

Actually, my letters and poems are pretty harmless and they add to the insight into life in Malawi. Hope you enjoy reading them as much as I enjoyed writing (and experiencing) them!

Letter from Malawi

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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Letter from Malawi

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...

Every day
I cycle past African scenes, face warmed by the sun. Scenes of school-children, sweeping away the playground dust; of street sellers as they pitch their wares; of Pick-Ups that taxi their dangerous load - people pretending to be sardines; of workers as they wind their way home. Inside my head, I hear the soothing sounds of Massive Attack - Better Things.

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.

But it aint all rosie with cider. In general, my health has been worse than in UK - from a tropical skin disease on both feet to severe respiratory problems (I could hardly move, such was my inability to breathe). And of course, I've had diarrhoea:

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...

The cycle of early mornings, a long work day, an evening together - cooking or talking or writing - continues. Quiet times in Malawi, I suppose. Every now and then the pattern changes - we have visitors. Sometimes it's other volunteers, and sometimes its folk from UK - a quick catch-up on Coronation Street is then essential. The blip of welcome disturbance soon smoothes over, though. And even parties appear like short stabs of colour, inside a monochrome month.
Often, our energies are just sapped from the day's work, from a life inside another culture. Otherwise, our daily disposition is just agreeable to us, I guess.

A Malawian friend
I visited Levitico's home in Ndirande. Levitico is a boyish fifteen year old who has befriended us. Ndirande is a township very near to our house. What would I find? "Ramshackle", "unclean", "cramped" were just some of the words that prejudiced my thoughts.

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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A Zungu (POEM)

 "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 

In dismay, I would go to town Try hard to smile and not frown But wherever I'd be Your word would SEE ME! "Azungu!" 's your only noun ...I could live here a hundred year and still get no near, nearer to being like you liked by you, for being just me Am I a freak unique ? Or is it just your song hum instinctively along Then why do you rap that word in hate? Why do I make your baby cry? Why is my name not far from its tongue? And is it my name? or your word to the wise; your word of respect I haven't earned your respect I'm no wiser than you And my name's Steve (How are you, too!?) But... look at my face my sloping smile Can you not see, that you GRIEVE me !? So I grieve for you (but I'm angry too!) ...Don't call me Nigger! or"Trigger! Trigger! Trigger!" Trig-gers my bitter! Azzungu's no better! Az-zungu foreign! Az-zungu white! Azungu igno-rant! (Igno-wrong not igno-rite!) Wheth-er - white - or - black we're in-di-vid-uals! Judge - us - by - our - merits and - call - us - by - our - name ! Call - us - by - our - name! Call Us By Our NAME!

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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Letter from Malawi

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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Letter from Malawi

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:

  • Work is still enjoyable. From 7.30am to 5pm, Monday to Friday, I manage my own time either preparing for or teaching a one week computer class, or developing another course. I'm always tapping away at the computer in my office, which I know is deathly dull to many but it suits me pretty well. The whole of this year is already mapped out - I teach 6 or 7 more times, and I'm meant to develop another 3 or 4 courses. Professionally, I am growing and I am happy.
    As far as the VSO values go, however - skill-sharing, and other noble ideas - this first year has not been successful. Communication between my fellow trainers and myself is poor; I have not integrated at all with them. I am an outsider whose presence is begrudgingly accepted. Maybe we don't understand each other's situation. Or maybe I expect too much from one year. When staff still get your name wrong; when you are still not included in conversations, for the most part; when some are almost hostile towards you - when that happens you start to question your reasons for being here

  • Despite the fact that people are either arriving in or leaving from this country, after one year I have made some good friends, and plenty of acquaintances. There are always people looking to have fun, one way or another, and you just take advantage. I still go bopping every month or so. I get out of Blantyre once or twice a month too - a visit to the lake (read sea), or a visit to a rural area and other volunteers. It's almost a holiday, but you work long hours and don't have enough money to do everything you'd like to do (eating out, going away every weekend, eating good food in...).

    Good friends are scarce, however: it's a good-time place, where sorrow or hard times are not allowed. Also, where I live is a little isolated; during the week if I want to go out I either set off before it gets dark (6pm), or I arrange for someone to pick me up in a vehicle (using the not-so-reliable means of telephone). The lack of good friendship is hard sometimes, but I just don't have enough money to go out that often - I brought lots of books, and my favourite toy (laptop) to while away those evening hours that remain once cooking duties are over (no convenience foods here!).

  • What still remains beautiful? Perhaps beautiful is too strong a word, but the warm and sincere response you get from strangers to even the briefest of friendly gestures - that is special. It is so easy to be friendly to people; I like being friendly - it makes me feel good.
    The landscape, the radiance of the flowers and the birds and the insects, the warm glow of evening, the clearest of night skies - now they're pretty much beautiful!

  • What immensely irritates? This is not too strong! Wherever you go, and whoever you're with - people always stare at you, or beg from you, or want to be your best friend - immediately. The words: "Azungu" are never far away, either. After a year, believe me, it becomes oppressive. The probably innocent - probably! - word "Azungu" meaning white or foreigner to me takes on the meaning of Paki or Nigger or something just as bad. It's racist! And everybody needs to live a little part of their life without being constantly harangued. Right now - some of these friendly people of Malawi are very near to receiving unpleasant hand gestures, or worse!

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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