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.


At 8:28 AM , Blogger artemisia said...

There is so much here it makes my head spin. I can hardly imagine what this all must be like for YOU.

I am so glad Rowen is fine. I absolutely understand your worry and your deciding to come home. I would have been the exact same way if I thought something was wrong with one of my pups. Oh, I do understand! She is going to be SO. HAPPY. to see you.


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