“You’ll Have an Easier Time”: Reflections on Being Black and American in Malawi

Balaka, Malawi

“Mwadzuka bwanji!”
“Good morning!”

Besides learning how to say thank you in Chichewa, zikomo kwambiri, I figured learning how to say good morning, and the appropriate response, would be a good way to break the ice with my Malawian office mates. As the intern sent here to perform an organizational assessment of the field offices, it’s important that I’m friendly with the staff since there’s some unspoken anxiety about why I am here. The idea that I am here to help and not to be a spy, has to be emphasized during each meeting.

“Mwadzuka bwanji!”, however, has taken on new meaning outside of just making nice at work. Whether I am on my morning run, which more often than not ends up just being a walk— a terrible reality that doesn’t make the fact that I’ve already registered for the 2014 Detroit Free Press Half Marathon in October seem like a good idea— or on my way to the store or to lunch, I am greeted with “Mwadzuka bwanji!” or other versions of it wherever I go. Even more often, the men and boys who ride these bicycle taxis ring their horns, look at me and say, “ Madame….” and continue to converse with me in Chichewa. Assuming they’re asking if I want I ride, I motion “No” and they easily continue on their way.

It’s been a few days of this now and I’ve finally realized that people are assuming that I’m Malawian.

On the surface, being a black skinned foreigner has its perks. When I walk down the road, people don’t pay any attention to me. Children don’t follow me or come up to me to practice their English. Going to the busy markets is a breeze. I don’t get followed or aggressively solicited by vendors. I’m a foreigner hiding in plain sight. Even when they do find out that I’m from the States, people seem to be open with me, ask me a lot of questions about my experiences and are even more curious about my Jamaican background. Most importantly, I always get charged the local price. (This is a far cry from my shopping experiences in the States, where I am approached regularly by fellow customers who assume that I am an employee.)

Women in the lodges allow me in their kitchens to chat, make my tea or roast the peanuts I purchase at the market. I’ve been invited on weekend errands in the local markets. Zabi, the woman who owns the restaurant where I have lunch everyday, invited me to stay at her home in Blantyre for the weekend, cook local food for me and show me around.

Zabi told me that the 15 year old waiter, who had been serving me lunch all week, said to her, “Ma, there’s a woman who keeps coming here and she doesn’t speak Chichewa! How is that possible?” He was totally perplexed. It’s like he wasn’t able to fathom that I could be black and American and traveling to his district all at the same time.

Digging deeper, my ability to “blend in” here has a tragic underbelly— Malawians’ limited exposure to black Westerners. (Perhaps this is also true with other African countries, but because I haven’t experienced this firsthand, I cannot make this generalization.) There are grave inequalities stratified across race and class in the United States. This may present a structural limitation on the ability for people of color to travel to remote places in the Global South. It may also be possible that first or second generation immigrants of color travel to their familial origins instead of other places. Perhaps it’s this idea that our parents have already migrated from the Global South, why voluntarily return to the dirt roads and cold water bucket baths? Why aren’t there more black Westerners traveling to the Global South? This is a complex question with layers of complex answers.

Prior to my departure for Malawi, a peer commented to me that because I am black, I would have “an easier time”. I didn’t think much about this comment, particularly since I myself had been mulling over how my complexion would impact my experience. I just filed it in the back of my head under the heading, “Think about this later.”

Well, I’ve thought about it and here are my conclusions:

This assumption that the color of your skin can make your time in another country ‘easier’ or ‘harder’ completely undermines the practiced skill of connecting with others across difference. In the case of my “blackness”, it also assumes that blackness is homogenous and in its homogeneity creates an identity strong enough to unite ALL black people, despite different experiences and understandings of race specifically, and a different cultural experience in life overall. This assumption also highlights how “blackness” is othered in the United States. That it’s something that stands out. That it must be named. Categorized separately. The Black Church. The Black Community. The Black Experience. Black History Month. And while on the subject of history, why is it that American history textbooks have separate chapters, and more often just paragraphs, about the histories of and contributions from black, latino, asian and native american people? Because whiteness is invisible. It is people of color who must be named.

In Malawi, blackness… well, blackness just is.

Surely, I have experienced a lot of access here but it is unfair and plainly inaccurate to say this is solely due to my skin color. There are more plausible factors like friendliness, curiosity about people and open to deeper discussions, or having patience for conversing with someone who struggles with English. Perhaps it is that I am a young woman traveling alone, which makes it easier to have extended conversations with strangers. Maybe it could be my fierce independence and my discomfort with having people wait on me. Perhaps it’s the part of me that rejects my Americanness and the presumption that American women can’t do anything on their own— “No Mercy (the lodge cook), I will scrub my own clothes in the bucket and hang them on the line, thank you.” Perhaps there’s something about performing some of those chores manually that remind me of the stories my mother tells me about her own childhood. Maybe my doing them changes how others engage with me here. Perhaps, for just once, my race doesn’t matter as much as we’ve been taught in the States that it should.

In Malawi, foreigners are referred to as “mzungu”, which directly translates to “white person”. What do you call me? What do you call a black person? Munthu. In Malawi, I am referred to as a “munthu”, which directly translates to “person”. That’s it. No special qualifiers. No special classification. No hyphenations. I’m just a person.

To be called a “person,” a whole person, is not only historically significant, but frees me to just be Jodi-Ann. A person who has interests, ideas, and contributions that have nothing to do with the color of her skin. In Malawi, my blackness becomes invisible. Now, this isn’t to say that “blackness” is a burden, per se. While it is important to me, I must also recognize that race is indeed a social construct and its importance is part of that socialization.

This also isn’t tit-for-tat. My black skin privilege in Malawi isn’t some kind of “ha ha ha, in your face” thing or revenge for my inability to access white skin privilege in the States.

This is, however, my attempt to locate my racial experiences in Malawi within the broader context of my everyday life in the States.

This is me.

This is me taking refuge in the fleeting breath, this small window of opportunity for the color of my skin to not be the only thing people see.

This is me, holding on to the quick snap of the fingers of the story of my life where my “blackness” isn’t the most captivating thing about me.

This is me, reveling in the chance to explore who I am for myself and have others experience who I am without the cloak my “blackness” blocking their ability to see me. To really see me.

Where will my thoughts go now that I don’t need to wonder why the city buses in Ann Arbor fill up every morning save the one empty seat next to me?

I’m really not sure, but I’m excited to find out.