Living in a foreign culture is a little like trying to force size 5 feet into size 4 1/2 shoes. They almost fit, you can just about squeeze yourself in, but they give you shocking blisters.
It’s just not always that comfortable.
We are all so defined by our own culture. I never felt British until I left Britain. People used to say, ‘You don’t seem very English’ mostly I suspect, because I am louder, and rather less refined than the average perception of a Brit, and because I have an annoying habit of picking up other accents, which then seem to leave traces of themselves attached to my speech like a tattoo after laser treatment. A smudge, as apposed to a defined picture.
I am so British. I like queues. I like good manners. I like drinking a lot of tea, and it makes no difference to me if it is 40 degree heat outside, I like it hot, with milk. And don’t try to fob me off with any of that fruit or herbal stuff. That’s not tea.
In the past year, as I have embraced my British-ness, I am unashamed to say that I have developed a love of bunting. No-one bunts like the British, and God forbid my husband reads this, but I quite like the Queen as well.
However, I have realized, during my various seasons of living this unconventional existence in foreign lands, that we British have an awful lot to answer for.
Yesterday I went to meet a lady called Rose. Rose will be coming to work for our family when we move into our new home in two weeks time.
Before I go any further, lets just lay this one on the table okay?
Ex-patriates in Africa, have staff. There. Said it.
I feel I need to just say it out loud, otherwise I might spend the next year tip-toeing around the subject, because, well frankly, I’ve noticed that people in the West have opinions about such things. It makes some folk adopt a slightly ‘pinched’ expression and behave like they can have an opinion, even though most of them have never been out of Europe or America.
We employ people, because people here are desperate for employment, so that they can feed their families and send their kids to school. We employ people because quite often the school run is a 30 KM round trip which takes time and effort, and going to the bank can take an hour or more, and we have to visit four different grocery stores to be able to get everything we need, not to mention sitting for hours in fuel queues, so at the end of the day, it is nice to walk into the house and know things are taken care of. We employ people so that there is a slight less likelihood of gangs of men coming to our homes in the night with machete’s to rob us. We employ people because we can afford to and because it makes our lives more comfortable, and because we internationals are very rich, and frankly most Africans are very poor. It’s really that simple people. But try to put all of that into a context of Africa and remember that the problems here are anything but simple.
Right. Now I can go on. It’s always so good to get something off your chest. I just hate tiptoeing around subjects, no matter what they are.
I will properly introduce you to Rose when I have properly got to know her a little, but yesterday this is how I was introduced to her.
“Rose, this is Mrs bailey, and she is going to be the new Madam in this house.”
I want to remind you, at this point that, this is not an episode from Downton Abbey. This is my life.
I don’t remember much about the next thirty seconds. I was transported away to a place of deep mortification and embarrassment, where words failed me completely, but I do remember that Rose did not look me in the eye. Not until I took her hand, found my tongue and told her how pleased I was that she would be working with my family. I know that, her not looking me in the eye, was a mark of respect, but it really bothered me. It really bothered me because, between Rose and I, are nearly ¾ of a century of British colonialism and rule. Between Rose and I there is 73 years of history which still today dictates social rules and expectations in Malawi.
People here complain that their workers have no initiative. Perhaps that is because the British stole their right to have initiative with 73 years of dictation and disempowerment. People complain that their workers have no common sense. That’s a Western common sense, right? Because obviously the very word ‘common’ has connotations of ‘sharing’, of having stuff in common. But really, am I kidding myself that I have a whole lot in common with someone who lives off a dollar a day in the local township? Lets get something straight. Common sense is learned, infact, I don’t even think it exists, everything is education. Everything is relative.
Gosh I’m gobby today.
Anyway, back to the whole ‘New madam in this house thing’. At the end of the day, its just language. It is true, I will be the new boss in that house, who sets the rules. A different set of words for the same thing. Not my choice of words, but just words all the same.
But in the same way that I would choose different words, I also have a responsibility to choose a different attitude.
Yesterday in the grocery store I saw a lady, who was of a different culture (not British) hand her worker a bag of fresh produce and say ‘weigh’. Like you would tell a dog to ‘sit’. I was upset, offended on his behalf, but then I realized that the lady in question was also from a land that we, the British, colonized. You see? This is what we did. We came in and told people that our way was better, we lorded it over them, and told them to sit like dogs. Now, all over the world are cultures who are doing it the ‘British way’, basking in the glory of the good old days, enjoying the precedence that we set.
So Bails and I sometimes feel quite ashamed of being British.
I was talking to the head of the world food program a few weeks ago. A very nice man from Mali. I asked him what he considered to be Malawi’s biggest stumbling block in terms of getting on its feet and one day coming out from under the security blanket of foreign Aid. I told him that I have noticed that Malawi is rich in natural resources. The land is relatively fertile, and the climate is perfect. I don’t understand why people are not successfully growing their own food, and aren’t able to feed their families from the land. We discussed our mutual experience of West Africa and how we both understood, in Mali and Burkina Faso, why people are hungry. It’s a dessert. It is arid and the land is incompatible to successful food growth. The climate is brutal. But I look at Malawi and I am confused. He told me that the problems are very complex, but that one part of the problem is this.
When the British colonized we introduced maize as the local staple. Well actually the Portugese introduced it first in Africa, in the 16th century, but as we colonised Malawi not the Portugese, I can hardly blame them… We told everyone to grow maize. To eat maize. So for hundreds of years the people of East and southern Africa have been growing and eating maize. But here’s the thing. Maize is not a hardy crop, it needs very specific rainfall at very specific times in its growth cycle. Unless you have the privilege of irrigation, you are entirely dependent on mother nature, and lets face it, she is becoming less and less reliable. A regular African fact of life is that periodic drought regularly causes maize crop failure and consequent famine. There are other crops that are more reliable, more hardy, but food diversity is still a foreign concept. For hundreds of years the people of Malawi have believed that Maize is the only appropriate staple food to eat. They might serve up potatoes and cabbage, but if its not got a helping of Nshima (Maize porridge) on the side its not a meal. They prioritize the planting of maize over other crops that might well save their children’s lives.
A hundred years ago maize probably worked. The land was not being stripped of its nutrients by over farming, de-forestation was not an issue and climate change probably meant taking a three week boat trip across the Med for a change of scene.
I am not arguing that the introduction of maize was such a crime. What I am saying is that when we colonized, we took away peoples rights and responsibility to think for themselves. We stripped them of their initiative, and taught them ‘not to think outside of the box’ We said that our way was the right way and that they weren’t to question it. That they were to submit to our decisions. Even if our decisions were poppy-cock.
So, as I embark on this new season and take up my role as ‘madam’ or whatever it is I am, I need to approach it with great humility. I need to have wisdom and compassion. I know there will be times when I feel frustrated, where I misunderstand, when I feel impatient, but I must choose humility and I must serve my workers, as they serve me. I must find that balance between seeing them as ‘equals’ despite the truth that they will not see me as such, and yet being their boss. And I must never ever abuse the privilege I have been given.
Dear Emily – just wanted to let you knowI enjoy reading these blogs… congrats, seriously well done! I miss you guys, miss Rich and our exchanges on aid and trade, miss our casual talks and you and Inge’s talks. That’s also expat life, a next topic? Kiss and love! Yours, Willem
I am with you Emily! I still find it hard to get my head around having someone wash and clean for us when we are in Africa to serve, not to be served. But like you say – things take so much longer here, I wouldn’t do anything else otherwise so there’d be little point in being here. Love to you all xx
I’m with you Emily! I don’t think I’ll ever really get my head around having someone wash and clean for us when we are in Africa to serve, not to be served. But like you say – it takes so long to get anything done that I wouldn’t do much else otherwise and then there’d be little point in being here. Love to you all xx
Dear Em, I really enjoyed reading your blog. It helps me to imagine what your life in Malawi is like. Until one has visited it is always more difficult to imagine. Keep up the good work. Each of us wherever we are can make a difference to another life, just in the way we deal with, and speak to another human being. That means here in the UK too! love Mum
I am jumping up and down, in love with you sister. Love your words, your eyes, your ears, your heart. xxxx
…its my bed time really but i can’t stop reading your blogs. Pascal told me about them today and Juliet put a link up right now…. do they not have kasava in malawi?