On Privilege: Lessons from Malawi

Two months have now passed since I moved 32 km from a rural Malawian village to my current home in Mangochi—a town distinguished by its district hospital, Anglican church, small (but thriving) expat community, potential for hot water showers, and TNM phone company store. Yesterday, for the first time since my big move, I brought my close friend Sydney out for a visit. Born and raised in the villages, Sydney has been to Mangochi only once before in his life when he travelled the 32 km to take a national exam.

As we walk into my new residence (a one-story brick building that might pass for an old summer camp dorm somewhere out in rural Iowa), “Ach!” Sydney exclaims, “Very well built! Now I see why you are not coming to Lungwena more often”.

Unlike many people I have known in the villages, Sydney has never asked me for anything (other than that time he told me I had to give him a picture of us together before I leave). His life goal is to build a well-built house for his mother, by which he means fired mud-brick walls and a sheet-metal roof. He delights in carrying my bag whenever we go walking together. He has an amazing arm for throwing rocks at trees to get me the best and ripest out-of-reach fruit (added incentive to spend time together during mango season!). He doesn’t have a phone, or access to email. He will probably spend his life living within 15 km of where he was born. And for some reason we just click.Sydney

Looking at the hostel through Sydney’s eyes, it strikes me how rapidly I have adjusted. In Lungwena where houses are predominantly hard-packed mud and thatch, my little village room with its cement floors and sheet-metal roof seemed luxurious. Here in Mangochi my room just is what it is: a bed, an outlet for my computer, an electric kettle, a fan, and even a light fixture in the ceiling. Everything I need is here and rent is cheap at about $60 a month (give or take a few depending on the current exchange rate). Sydney is shocked to hear what my rent is. It makes sense—he is struggling to find a way to pay the $10 it costs for him to attend high school every semester.

As we sit down to lunch with another hostel mate—a Dutch girl—Sydney barely gets two words out. He says he is feeling shy—a complete change from the laughing, talkative boy I know in the village.  In Sydney’s home, he was the one showing me around. He knew the villages and spoke the language. He took me on long walks through the mountains, on runs through the baobab trees winding through rows of sogum and cassava. He took me down to the lake to see the hippos, grilled me fresh maize, and showed me the best birding spots.  I look at him again and notice a hole in his collared shirt. I realize he must have dressed up for this trip. In the villages our lives didn’t seem so far apart, but here in Mangochi, they seem impossibly different.

I find myself feeling almost angry at Sydney. I don’t want to feel guilty for my tiled floor and being able to afford $3 to spend on my dinner. But here he is, taking a bite out of the first apple he’s ever tasted and telling me it’s, “very sugar.” He brought me baobab fruit from the village as a gift and I find myself feeling so ashamed of my relative prosperity that I can hardly bear to have him here.

Sydney has an uncle named Shaibu, the younger brother of Sydney’s deceased father. When I lived in Lungwena, I shared a house with Shaibu, one of his wives, and their baby daughter, Ambumulire. We did not work well together. Perhaps the challenges of being a young woman in charge of a project were exacerbated by carrying out the project in Yao culture where women are at the bottom of the hierarchical totem pole.

Considering my relationship with Shaibu, I worry again about Sydney. I know that while I was paying Shaibu, Shaibu had been taking care of Sydney’s school fees. But Shaibu also has three wives to support, four children, and his own lifestyle to maintain. When I stop my work with Shaibu am I indirectly condemning Sydney to life as a fisherman? Compared to the other students in his class, Sydney is outstanding. Always first in his class, Sydney has truly fantastic English and a love of biology and learning that helped foster our initial relationship. However, he’s in a village school. On the national examinations there is no way he can compete with students from town, where they have access to better teachers, actual laboratories and books, and don’t have to knock off all the time for planting and harvesting seasons.

This year is perhaps the first time in my life I have truly been confronted with the privilege of my birth. Spending my days with 14-year-old girls with no education, no parents, and who are pregnant with their second child can easily make me feel like I have won some kind of geographic lottery. So—as I do when I need most of my questions answered—I type my question into Google, “How can I handle the burden of privilege?” And Google provides a dissertation from the University of Minnesota focusing on the “weighty expectations” placed on those who carry this burden of privilege. So! While I read that and get back to you…any thoughts?

Claire Donnelly (Yale University)

31_Very Exciting Lizard!A native of Berkeley, CA, Claire has always had many interests and passions–people being one of them. She grew up juggling and unicycling, riding horses, waterskiing, and roaming the hills and beaches of the Bay Area. One auspicious summer, Claire discovered molecular biology and has never looked back. She received her degree in the subject from Yale in 2014, and is now spending a year researching malaria in pregnancy in a tiny village in northern Malawi. Claire is new to Humanism, but hopes to use her love of people and stories to expand her thinking, especially through her work with this blog. Claire loves to receive emails, especially regarding thoughts about her writing and other stories.

One response to “On Privilege: Lessons from Malawi

  1. I grew up in the 50’s and that was a “charmed” time in America when, for some, everything was very, very good. For those of us fortunate to be raised in that decade, life really was “Happy Days.”

    The small towns in America were sleepy, and to quote from the Fantastiks, “life was slow and oh so mellow.” The suburbs combined the best of city and country life where jobs were plentiful, the roles of men and women were what was expected and pretty much the same throughout the country. Families only needed one breadwinner, and mom ran the household, the kids, and her share of the neighborhood. The cities were, for the most part safe and kids could disappear on their bikes at 8:00 a.m. and were expected back at 5:00, just in time for dinner. And nobody worried about them unless they were late.

    There was grade school where different grades had either a teacher who was considered “great” who taught you what was expected, and teachers who were “feared” because they insisted on your best and were trying to make you “great.” Kids failed. But a parent would never talk back to a teacher or threaten them with lawsuits or seek damages from a school for a broken arm or leg, or a tooth that was missing after a fall from the “jungle gym.”

    High School had its punks, greasers, brains and jocks and for the girls there were pep squads, cheerleaders, biker chicks, geeks, brains and mean girls.

    For all of that, the 50’s were a charmed decade and while we didn’t think those days were anything special as we lived them, they truly were special.

    How could we have emerged from that charmed time without viewing our lives as privileged?

    From today’s perspective, sixty years later, that privilege was a springboard from which we expected to soar. And most of us did. College was just what was expected of us, and that springboarded us into a whole new level of privilege. And when we graduated, the world still had jobs, career tracks, retirement packages and gold watches.

    We were special and we knew it; and we expected that life was predictable and that was how life was going to be from then on.

    But then JFK was assassinated and everything, everything changed; and we were not privileged any more.


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