This is just an observation I’ve made after a few months living in Malaysia after nearly 2 decades in Malawi, and its based on my own personal opinions. Well, Malaysia is a country rich in culture. It has a majority Malay, Indian and Chinese people allowing for a rich and diversified populace with a shit ton of personality (the many uses of lah/can). In the beginning I thought that this was a Malaysia thing. It must be like this because its a melting pot of cultures, right? Well, I began to notice that other students had diverse cultures as well. I really noticed it during the Nowruz festival at my university, where the Central Asian student body converged to celebrate a popular holiday back in their countries. To some, it may have been a normal, almost boring occurrence, but for me it was a chance to see something new, and with my love of learning and the humanities, it intrigued me a great deal (and there was free food), but it also got me thinking. What did I really know about my own culture? Where were our festivals, cultural quirks and exciting oddities. Our many traditional foods, or street delicacies, and our tribal mysticism. I thought it odd that so many other countries, even our neighbours had such diverse cultures compared to Malawi’s. Such interesting histories and backstories. I almost felt ashamed that I could tell you more about the Aztecs and Egyptians than I could my own people.
This deep seated guilt found its way into my heart and greatly unsettled me. I tried to calm my heart by assuring myself that it was just a me thing. My knowledge of Chichewa is shaky, at best. It would be understandable that I barely knew anything about Chewa, or Malawian culture, but this did nothing to help. I am a history buff after all. So, I had to try and find answers, draw up theories and attempt to understand what my actual questions were, and what I know about Malawi. Maybe because Malawians are usually quaint to a fault, however my knowledge of any traditional…stuff falls to the Nyau culture, and even then only because of my Dad, the books he keeps, and my own personal experiences with them (don’t get me started.)
Remembering old conversations with my older sisters, I also realized that there are ab abundance of traditional stories and folklore, however people have simply seized to tell them, favouring perhaps the Christian stories from the Bible. A regrettable loss, in my opinion at least. After a lot of digging, I came closer to my final conclusion by realizing that the further down we go, the less people try to remember the things of the past. This is well documented in many places, but has occurred much too much in Malawi. Our traditional stories and history is replaced with Western stories and media. Is this a bad thing? No, but gradually forgetting your culture completely is terrible. So, and bear with me here, why is our culture so nonexistent? Well, one of the things I realized is that we’re poor as fuck (no shit Sherlock). And many people around me in Malaysia don’t know how poor we actually are, but Hells are we poor. The wage gap has to be so big right now that there is probably no middle class. Of the 15.9 million Malawians, about 12 million are living below the international poverty line ($1.25 a day) and the average student to teacher ratio for primary schools is 96:1. But how does this affect culture? Well, really, how can you be celebrating festivals, and basking in a prosperous and fortunate life when you’re so far in the gutter that you can’t see past your own hunger. With the state the country is in, even the wealthy experience a level of discomfort that ranges from irritating, to simply unbearable, whether it be water shortages, or electrical outages. There is nothing to celebrate really.
And when the celebrations roll in, they are usually the usual religious festivals that have taken root in whichever country you’re in, be it Christmas or Diwali. And most well to do families shy away from the traditional aspects of their culture, instead filling it with Western objects that indicate wealth and prosperity. When you walk into a Malawian house, apart from the food and the language being spoken, there is so little about it that is Malawian. And who can blame them really? Adopting a Western stance can give your children, and your family a better way to live, with things that can make their lives better in a country so abjectly poor. So our generation sticks with other festivals and traditions, shying away from our own, because any attempt to truly connect with our own, means embracing a culture of poverty, corruption, stupidity and sickness. And when it comes time for us to either come home from studying abroad, or find jobs, the torrent of despair and hopelessness drives us away, leaving Malawi with a Brain Drain that will affect us for decades to come until something drastic is done. Daliso Chaponda, who recently received the Golden buzzer is a British-Malawian comedian with some hilarious jokes. But there was a reason he was joking about UNICEF in the UK rather than at the French Cultural Center in Blantyre. He understands true poverty, and he’s seen it, and the difference between poor, and not so poor.. It’s a vicious cycle that keeps chipping away at our cultural and personal identities until it may become truly difficult to really truly call yourself Malawian. Do I have a solution? No, I’m just a critical and broke college student writing blogs in class instead of paying attention to my lecturers, but I write because it hurts more when I stand by idly.
So now, when someone asks me whether I can show them my culture I say “sure, as long as you don’t mind a culture of poverty.”