Southern Stars

A world of difference

In which Rebecca interacts with azungus

Written 2 years ago with further reflections added

This post has taken me a long time to write. I mull it over weekly but it is hard to explain my interactions with other white people in Nkhata Bay and how they affect me.

Nkhata Bay is a hub for backpackers drawn by the lake and the beautiful scenery. This has its advantages. First my Internet is amazing and I think this is partly because there is such a demand from these transient visitors. Second I see a mzungu (white person) everyday and it is a great reminder of how weird I look. This helps me to understand and be patient with kids yelling azungu. I would probably yell at me too. Living in a tourist hub also has it’s disadvantages. Everyday I have to fight to establish that I am not a transient tourist who dresses, speaks and acts inappropriately. This has however motivated me to buy a lot of traditional wear, learn the language and customs quickly so even this can be a positive. Nonetheless it is still unnerving to run into tourists and realize all that they symbolize. This strangeness is compounded by the relatively minimal amounts of immigration that happens in Malawi.

To give you a bit of background on my relationship with tourists it started with my mum (who grew up on PEI whose population doubles with flocks of tourists each summer) who called them trorists said with a lovely island accent meant to impart all the annoyance of this status. When I travel with my family we are often visitors staying with friends or family for an extended time, eating and shopping as local as possible.

Here, in Nkhata Bay, I struggle. I know that tourism has helped Nkhata Bay economically. An increase in tourism would inevitably mean an increase in jobs and standard of life for many people here. On the other hand it’s hard to see the flaunting of relative wealth in the face of relative poverty.

I struggle with my own self-importance in this conversation with myself. I am no better than a tourist maybe I’m just an extended tourist. I am still white, enjoying the lake, totally unaware of how this culture really works and no one would call me fluent.

At the bottom of all these emotions rests this simple thought “What are you doing here?” in this question there is both curiosity and criticism. The answers are sometimes obvious, like the flipflop wearing back packers that stroll through town in board shorts, and other times not, like the medical student who showed up at church and is doing an internship at the hospital. Sometimes I make assumptions and they turn out wrong, this is a reminder to remain patient both with my mistakes and with others when they make assumptions about me.

Two years later I returned to Nkhata Bay this time as a visitor. I wasn’t really a transient tourist as I was staying two weeks with my family but I also wasn’t working. This left me a mystery to many people and trying to explain what I was doing was often unsuccessful. In this visitor state we traveled into Mzuzu three times in 2 weeks (extremely excessive from a Malawian perspective) and tootled around town during the day looking like the wanders that we were. My relationships with people were changed; some treating me more like a tourist than before because of my short stay.

At the end of the day I think that in our increasingly connected world there will be more azungus in Malawi and I hope one day more Malawians in Edmonton. As we interact more we will continue to learn from one another, make mistakes and change.

I don’t know where this post leaves us dear reader but I thought it would be an interesting read.

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One comment on “A world of difference

  1. saradmitri
    May 24, 2015

    Rebecca, Im not really sure what to say – but I enjoyed reading your thoughts!

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This entry was posted on May 24, 2015 by .
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