This week, strange new waves of feelings have hit me. I’ve been hosting visitors for work and they are hilarious. One is a former beauty queen and one is a former major league baseball player. It’s hard not to smile as they react to commonplace things (look at the baby on that woman’s back!), or ask completely inane questions in very loud voices (what is the name of that brown bird? You know, the one with the tail?)
While they are both extraordinarily sweet people, they could not be more opposite from the development set. He has biceps as big as my thighs. She has more highlights than a sports reel. It’s hard not to be a bit jealous and frustrated with people who are so shiny and new, oblivious to their affluence. I want to tell them to tone it down. Take off the Rolex. Put the I-Phone away (or at least, crack the screen so it matches everyone else’s). But, it’s not their problem that they are out of context. I must look the same way to my Malawian colleagues. So I keep my mouth shut.
(Also, I can’t wait to get highlights).
Although I’ve been living in Malawi for nearly two years, I often wonder when this place will feel like “home”. Being with these ridiculously rich and carefully coiffed individuals makes me realize that, while not exactly a local, I have come to live here in my own way. No power? No problem. No petrol? No worries. We’ll make a plan.
As much as I complain about the hardships, these crazy experiences and power outages and frustrations have become a permanent part of my life’s landscape. I can snarl and rail and weep and gnash, but this place has railroaded me into acceptance (and even love) with the patience of having nothing better to do. Like a mother with a trying child, I am annoyed, but I love. Oh, how I love.
This is my home.
To share this space with someone new – especially someone so clearly out of their natural habitat and with whom I have little in common - makes me feel vulnerable. What if they don’t like jazz at Chameleon’s? What if they get sick? – I want them to understand their new context and join this crazy club. But that’s not going to happen in 10 days. So, I show them the “best” of what we’ve got, knowing that it’s not the “best” by any international standard, wanting them to know I know it’s not the “best” but that it’s still a good life. Most days I go home, feeling like a poor church mouse.
I don’t want to be that development person who makes others feel unworthy and uncomfortable because they haven’t lived in South Sudan for 10 years. This isn’t about “field experience” or “street cred”. It’s about being in the middle of two worlds and asked to be the cultural ambassador for both. I want people to know how hard the Malawians are trying; how eager they were to welcome visitors; how concerned they were when they home early because they are sick. I want Malawians to know that Americans are trying; we don’t all wear Rolexes; how much we really do want to help. No one should live without access to clean water and electricity (and education! And health care! And…and…and..)
These are the waves of emotions I’ve been rolling with all week.