Thursday, July 17, 2008

I Really Should Have Packed Some Sweaters and Sanity

To recap: I went into the field, but I found more questions than answers. A bad case of homesickness and the return of the biting ants had me doubting my future as an anthropologist.

I still miss home in a powerful way---both the comforts and the people. Although I'm rarely alone, I'm often lonely. The people around me---at the language center, at the house where I'm staying---are certainly welcoming. But I'm acutely aware that I'm just a visitor in their lives. They are friendly, rather than friends.

Language continues to be a challenge, both in my research and in my acculturation. Even for those Malawians who are fluent in English, Chichewa (or one of the other local languages) is the preferred language (although they frequently code switch between English and the local language). So they tend to lapse into Chichewa in most situations, often seeming to forget that I'm present. I'm beginning to be able to have short exchanges---mostly basic greetings and simple questions---in Chichewa, but I'm far from being able to follow extended conversations that involve multiple speakers, rapid speech, slang, and environmental distractions (such as a television or traffic). I try to tell myself that exposure to the language in such natural contexts will benefit me, even if I can't understand what is being said, but much of the time, I just feel isolated and frustrated. And sometimes very annoyed when a conversation that begins in English turns to Chichewa, leaving me sidelined.

Yet even as I feel very isolated, I also feel very exposed. As I've noted before, Zomba (and Malawi in general) has plenty of azungu (white people). I see them in the grocery stores and at Tasty Bites, a local restaurant that caters to Western appetites. But somehow I continually find myself in situations where I'm the only white face in the crowd and drawing much attention. One Saturday, I went with my host's brother---Amos---to a football (soccer) match at the community center to watch two local club teams. Not only was I the only mzungu in the crowd, but also one of only a few women attending the match. It didn't help matters that Amos chose to sit in a relatively empty section of the stands (not that I had any hope of blending into the crowd anyway). I enjoyed the match, but I was constantly aware that all my actions were being scrutinized. Then on that Sunday, a well-intentioned priest invited all visitors at the church to stand up for a welcome. Knowing full well that I was the only “visitor” in that church, I stayed firmly planted on the pew, while my face flamed red. Of course, not standing probably just drew more attention to me because, again, I was the only mzungu there and everyone's eyes went to me at the priest's invitation.

The tables turned, however, on Monday, when Amos and I walked to the top of Zomba Plateau. We both had Monday off from school for Malawi's Independence Day, and I decided to finally call Amos's bluff on walking to Ku Chawe. The walk is supposedly 7 km. I think someone needs to remeasure that road. We took nearly three hours to reach the top, walking nonstop at a slow but steady pace. We did stop briefly at Mulunguzi Dam and took a detour to the Trout Farm (which we didn't go into because it charged admission; I've since been told that I really ought to see it).

When we did finally reach the top, I suggested that we go to a hotel that was supposed to have spectacular views so that we could sit and have sodas with the peanut-butter sandwiches that I had packed. The hotel is on the high end for Malawi (although moderately priced by U.S. standards) and so the others on the veranda were all azungu like me. For once, I felt comfortable and confident, whereas Amos seemed a bit out of his element.

I felt a bit conflicted afterward about having chosen that spot to rest. The views were spectacular, and Amos and I both seemed to enjoy the afternoon. But I wondered if I had made Amos feel uncomfortable. At one point, he asked me how much the sodas were, and I very reluctantly revealed that they were K150 ( a little more than $1)---inexpensive by U.S. standards but very pricey by Malawian standards (I usually pay K50 at restaurants in town or K35 at the grocery store). We both noted that the sodas were expensive, but that I could afford them without problem.

And here begins more mental contortions: I'm very obviously not Malawian and very obviously don't share their standard of living. I try not to flaunt my relative wealth, but I can't hide the obvious differences in means between me and my Malawian counterparts. Neither my host family nor my peers have asked me for anything, but when I'm with a Malawian, the assumption is that I'll pay any expenses. I've had to dispel a few myths about the U.S. standard of living (we don't simply throw away our cars when we're bored with them; we don't all live in mansions), but overall I've had to agree that we are, overall, wealthier. But I often feel as though I'm living a dual identity: the anthropologist living in situ and the azungu carrying the privileges of her race and nationality. I think I perhaps felt more awkward than Amos did about blending those two identities by bringing my Malawian friend to an “azungu” hotel. Was I being selfish in (potentially) placing him in an awkward situation? Or am I racist/elitist by erecting walls between my identities as an anthropologist and an azungu? Without delving too deeply into my own navel, I'm wrestling with the uncomfortable implications of my own behavior.

Back into shallower waters: You may have noticed that I said that I was in church. Although I've become a lapsed Catholic at home, I've been attending services here to appease my host family---and everyone else I meet. Religion is huge in Malawi. Most people belong to a religious organization and attend every week. Public spaces---stores, offices---are littered with religious mottoes and symbols. Muslim prayers are called over loudspeakers in towns and villages (I hadn't noticed that on my previous stay in Balaka, but I'm not sure if I just didn't hear the call or if the Muslim population was too sparse to have a call). Politicians regularly invoke religious---particularly Biblical---references in their public rhetoric, and a coalition of clergy are acting as the mediators in a political standoff between the government and the main opposition party. And one of the first questions that I'm asked---after my name and nationality---is what church I attend. At first, I tried to explain that I don't attend church because I don't believe any one church is better than another and I really haven't found a religious organization that fully expresses my personal spirituality. But that answer hasn't satisfied most of the people I've encountered here. So after a couple weeks of being invited to attend services and being questioned why I'm not attending a service, I decided to tag along with Amos to the Catholic services. The service is in Chichewa (I'm much too lazy to make the 6.30 a.m. English service), but after thirty years of attending Catholic mass, I can follow along.

I specify that religion is huge in Malawi because I'm not sure how much that corresponds to actual faith or spirituality. Just as in the United States (and probably much of the rest of the world), religious affiliation doesn't necessarily correspond to personal practice. Sometimes the contrast is stark, such as polygamists who attend Catholic mass. Moreover, almost every Malawian whom I've met believes strongly in witchcraft. Even if they wouldn't practice it, they won't deny that it exists. (The belief in witchcraft in Malawi is so strong that the newspapers even report on it. One of my favorite stories from the newspaper has been one titled, “Witch Crashes to Death,” with the story of a woman whose “flying witchcraft” failed, causing her to fall onto the roof of a house and sustain fatal injuries. Interestingly, although the newspaper presented the story with the straightforward assumption that the woman was indeed a witch and had been flying, if she had lived, she would have been charged with “pretending to be a witch,” not with actually being a witch.)

So the church seems to fulfill as much a social need as a moral or spiritual need. One of my teachers explained that belonging to a church is important because it becomes the community on which you can rely in times of crisis. As he put it, those are the people who will attend your funeral, a function traditionally fulfilled by extended kin and clan members. Although religion isn't part of my current research project, I'm tucking away questions about religious identity---as well as other identities---and how identity formation is potentially shifted by modernity and changing social patterns.

To segue to my research project: I'm finally starting “official” (i.e., review board-approved) research on my topic. I've gotten a few interviews with volunteers, and I'm trying to line up some others. The more I transition from language classes---where I generally feel incompetent---to research---where I'm more in my element, the better I feel about being in Malawi. Of course, that feeling could have something to do with my interviews being largely with English speakers and (for now) mostly with other white Westerners. But I also think that I'm feeling re-energized by spending time on a topic that I'm interested in, and I feel like I have more of a purpose rather than being such an outsider.

I've got less than one month left to go, and I think I'll be a busy bee during that time. I have a long list of interviews that I want to arrange and places that I want to go. While I'm on the road, my Internet access will likely be a lot less regular than it has been up to now (I've definitely been spoiled by having almost daily access to a computer and the Internet), but I'll try to post another update soon.

Until next time . . .

ETA: So if you've known me for more than five minutes, you know that I have an unhealthy attachment to my dog. Probably the hardest part of coming to Malawi was leaving Rowen behind.

What you may not know about me is that I am a world champion in jumping to conclusions. So even though I left Rowen in the care of a responsible, trustworthy person, I began to worry when I didn't hear any news about her for several weeks. That worry grew to monumental proportions this past weekend, culminating in my being convinced that Rowen was dead and everyone I knew---friends and family---were part of a vast conspiracy to hide her death from me until I returned. I began to seriously consider getting on the next plane back to Madison, no matter what the cost, or calling the Madison police to have them check on Rowen (really).

Well, Rowen is fine. And I'm feeling more than a little ridiculous. But I'm very anxious to be home with her.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Twenty Questions (and then some)

To recap: I've found a nice place to live, started my Chichewa classes, and discovered that the “Warm Heart of Africa” isn't always so warm.

For my first two months, I'm focusing primarily on language lessons: six hours a day, five days a week. On the weekends, however, I'm starting to get out to the nearby villages to visit some development projects. I have a self-appointed “field assistant”---a young man who works for a Malawian wildlife conservation organization---whom I met on my second day in Zomba while eating lunch at a hotel near the language center. Although azungu (white foreigners) are hardly a novelty in Zomba, we are still a source of much curiosity, and a white woman, particularly one on her own, attracts quite a lot of (often unwanted) attention. I'm not sure I'll ever get used to the lack of anonymity and privacy that comes with being a white woman in Malawi. D., my field assistant, was actually one of my less intrusive encounters. He had come to the hotel to have lunch with his 1-year-old nephew for whom he is the primary caregiver (both parents have died). Like many Malawian children, the nephew looked at me with a mixture of wonder and fear. I smiled and tried a few Chichewa greetings, which only confused the child but impressed D., who was then curious about where I had learned Chichewa and why I was in Malawi. Remembering that I'm here as an anthropologist, I put aside my natural aversion to chatting with strangers. I explained that I had come to Malawi to study international volunteering and development. D. said that he knew some international volunteers in the area and offered to put me in touch with them. So we exchanged phone numbers.

I thought that he would simply pass on my number to the volunteers or give me their numbers, but when he contacted me, D. said that he had arranged some meetings and would take me to the volunteers himself. Well, D. hasn't exactly followed through on that plan (so far, I've only had a brief meeting with two volunteers). But he has been helpful in taking me to visit what he terms the “real” Malawi and to speak with villagers about current development efforts.

Over the past four weekends, I've visited about a half dozen villages in the wider Zomba area. Although these field trips haven't exactly pertained to my research project, I've been gathering some useful background information. As I write this, I'm struggling to summarize some of that information, both because my interviews have left me with more questions than answers and because I'm wary of making any generalizations based on just a handful of visits.

What has emerged for me is a rather messy knot of various strands of discourse (pardon the jargon) on development and poverty. The Malawian government, and its ruling party the DPP, are intent on promoting Malawi's success as a developing nation---particularly its move in the past three years from food-aid recipient to food exporter---and downplaying any problems. In the media, the government has been strongly countering claims of an impending famine, although it did acknowledge about two weeks ago that some Malawians still experience hunger. Still, the government claims that the famine “rumors” are being spread by its political opponents and by vendors who want to inflate the price the maize.

Most of the local villagers with whom I've been speaking, however, are adamant that they are on the verge of famine and that conditions are only going to get worse next year because of rising prices for food and fertilizer. Their rainy season harvest, during which they plant their largest fields and on which they rely for the bulk of their food for the coming year, was largely a failure because of heavy rains that swept away the fertilizer and soil. Moreover, they say that the much-tauted fertilizer subsidies, which have been given much of the credit in Western media for Malawi's turnaround, came too late in the planting season to be of any use. Interestingly, these villagers don't doubt that Malawi is producing plenty of food, but they say that the food isn't being distributed to those who need it.

Of course, just as the government has a vested interest in promoting its view of Malawi's development, these villagers have their own agendas in promoting their views. The cynical scholar in me constantly questions whether I'm getting a hyperbolic tale of hunger in hopes that I'll be moved to give money or whether some people have just become so accustomed to saying that they are poor and hungry that the narrative comes from rote (much like the moaning of the “poor” graduate student---pace my fellow grad students). But then, twisting myself into mental knots, I wonder whether my cynicism is the product of a neoconservative, neoliberal Western mentality that has seeped in against my will or a defensive mechanism from my guilt that I'm asking a lot of questions about development and poverty but not actually doing anything to solve the problems.

When I ask the villagers what they need to prevent famine and to improve their lives, almost all of them tell me the same two things: fertilizer and access to markets (or training on how to access markets). Although I don't doubt that fertilizer and access to markets are important for rural development, I'm intrigued that so many people have given identical answers and I wonder what is shaping their ideas. Which then leads me along another set of strands in the knot: the development agencies and their program agendas.

Many of the villages that I've visited have implemented irrigation projects. (I don't have a sense of how widespread irrigation is; irrigation seems to be a pet interest of D.'s and he has been steering me toward these villages.) The irrigation projects usually center around agricultural “clubs” that have been formed and trained by either the Malawian government or the European Union's development program. The projects seem to be succeeding in at least bridging the gap between rainy seasons (although I've gotten opposing answers to whether the irrigation plots are sufficient to make up for the poor harvest this year, and the plots are generally too small to produce enough for both consumption and sale). Several of the projects have maize (chimanga) that will be ready to harvest in July or August (as well as various vegetables---but only maize is considered “food”), and most of the farmers I spoke to planned to do another planting right away to get another harvest just before planting for the rainy season.

The irrigation projects seem promising, but again, I'm led to more questions: Is this a location-specific solution? (As I noted in the previous post, Zomba has plenty of water from mountain streams, but other areas are much further from reliable water sources.) Can it be implemented on a larger scale or would that lead to diminishing returns (i.e., if more people tapped into the streams for irrigation, would the distribution of water become too small to sustain the projects)? What are the effects of irrigation on water supply for other household needs? How will local communities negotiate water rights in a large-scale irrigation system?

I'll allow myself one generalization from these visits: The more I visit various development projects, the more I realize that achieving small-scale, short-term improvement in rural development is relatively easy: take a village, provide some basic agricultural inputs (fertilizer, irrigation, hybrid seeds), and voila! But as one economist I spoke to argues, none of these projects are succeeding in really moving people out of poverty. The people in that village will have enough to eat so long as they receive free or subsidized inputs, but they still aren't able to generate the income needed to participate in the market or to achieve economic independence and mobility. And they are still very vulnerable to even small shocks---heavy rains, drought, pests---that threaten to push them from survival to famine. Furthermore, the development of that village does not benefit anyone outside of the village; localized projects don't have spillover effects.

The ever-vexing, billion-dollar question remains: How do we raise income levels across a substantial portion of the population so that people in Malawi, as well as other developing nations, are able not just to survive but to thrive? How do achieve large-scale, long-term economic development, rather than small-scale, short-term humanitarian interventions?

Despite Jeffrey Sachs' grand proclamations, I don't think we've found an answer yet.

This post really took a much more depressing turn than I had intended. And I have to admit that my gloomy outlook on economic development might be colored more than a little by my current gloomy mood. Nearly five weeks in (almost half way!), I'm having another bad case of homesickness and really wondering how I'll cope with a full year in the field. The biting ants have returned several more times---each time in greater number---and they are being joined by grasshoppers and cockroaches seeking shelter from the cold. And the little, everyday inconveniences and annoyances are building up: not having enough hot water for a really decent bath; not being able to get my hair really and truly clean; not getting a decent night's sleep because I'm worrying about ants coming in the windows or lizards falling from the ceiling (yes, one did) or the monkeys are being loud; eating the same horrid foods day after day---and not really having much choice in the matter (although on the plus side, I'm losing weight!); not having any truly clean clothes; and so on and so forth. And I know that these are really petty complaints and that as an anthropologist, I'm supposed to be living like a Malawian and embracing the social and cultural differences---trying understand how these differences in lifestyles shape and are shaped by differences in perspectives, attitudes, beliefs. But much of the time, I'm just counting the days until I get home to hot showers, snuggles with my dog, vast supermarkets, reliable communication networks, cable television, a washing machine, and a strict division between me and the insects.

And, so, in addition to my research questions, I'm struggling with some personal ones: Is anthropology the right field for me? If not, then what? Should I find a new research topic? Can I still pursue this one but in a different way? (I am really excited about my research topic---I'm just not thrilled with spending a year in Malawi to do the research.) Am I a bad anthropologist or just human?