Jayne and Sam in Malawi!

Wednesday, May 26, 2010


When I wrote last time, I was telling you about Sam and using him as an example of the cultural differences that exist between the UK and Malawi. It’s a subject I find myself coming back to time and time again – probably because it plays such a bit part in my day to day life here. When you’re trying to work with people and to build meaningful relationships with them, culture becomes a hugely significant issue – it feeds into everything that you do. When you live in the UK of course, you just don’t think about culture – mainly because you have no need to; our own culture is transparent to us and we live in it unconsciously. But when you come to live in a country like Malawi, it’s a very different story. For my own part, although I came here with an expectation of cultural differences, I honestly didn’t appreciate just how vast and how deep these differences would be and I completely underestimated how trying I would find them. I have come to understand that when people refer to ‘culture shock’, they are talking quite literally: it really is a shock to the system! It’s fair to say that at times, living in another culture is difficult, unpleasant and uncomfortable – it makes demands of you at every conceivable level. The business of Sam – of taking a dog for a walk – is obviously a light hearted example of how accustomed behaviour can be completely alien to the people around you. But even small, light hearted things like this, can create barriers and make it difficult to relate to others. Once you enter the realm of big differences, you can come face to face with some pretty testing stuff. I have certainly found this out over the last week when a story that I have been following in the press here came to ahead. This is an example of a difference in culture which has been anything but light hearted.

Events began a few months ago, when two gay men held what we in the UK, would call a Civil Partnership Ceremony. It was an extraordinary thing to do, given that homosexuality is illegal in Malawi. The ceremony was held in public and many people attended; it attracted enormous interest – so much so, that the story made the front pages of the national newspapers here. The response from the authorities was swift: within forty-eight hours, the men had been arrested. They were held in custody until last week, when their trail was held. They were both found guilty and sentenced to fourteen years in prison, with hard labour – the maximum sentence allowed under Malawian law. In his ruling, the Magistrate certainly didn’t mince his words; he dismissed the case for the defence and described the men as “attempting to corrupt the mind of the whole nation”.

As someone from the UK – a country with a completely different attitude to the issue of homosexuality – this case has evoked a range of feelings/emotions. Viewed through my western eyes, it seems like a shocking state of affairs – a lack of tolerance and compassion that will do Malawi no favours with respect to its global standing on human and minority rights issues. Over the past week, the ‘warm heart of Africa’ has seemed very hard and cold. Yet I have spoken to a number of Malawians about this case and their response has been quite different from my own; they have had absolutely no problems accepting the verdict and sentence. Some have even expressed the opinion that the men should have been sentanced to death. I have found this equally difficult to comprehend; it seems like such a harsh and disproportionate judgement – one which you’d think would evoke a measure of sympathy. Not so apparently. This incident has taken me back to a book I was reading before I came out here; it was a fascinating read. The book dealt with the subject of ethnic prejudice and documented wider research that had been carried out on the subject of difference; specifically what happens when people encounter difference – difference between themselves and another person. Regardless of the nature of the difference, people invariably attach a value to it - a negative value. What follows is a sense of superiority – a belief that one’s own behaviour is somehow better. Obviously this is not acceptable or helpful by any standards; if you’re trying to live and work in a foreign culture, it is potentially disastrous. What I’ve come to know, is that it’s amazing how you can read about something and be absolutely confident that you would never be guilty of it yourself. It’s equally amazing how easily you can be proved wrong! In my own case, feelings of national pride - something which I honestly thought I would never experience during my time here - have been alive and kicking over the past week!

I guess the point I’m trying to make is that day to day living here is incredibly difficult at times. Even when you come to a country with the best of intentions and with a genuine desire to help, it is still possible to be judgemental and to react to situations with prejudice. On the plus side however, these situations are opportunities to learn – a chance to see/consider things from an alternative point of view – a chance to grow. Being in Malawi is proving to be a fascinating journey of self discovery and I wouldn’t miss it for the world; you certainly can’t do this in your own back yard – something that makes all the difficulties and hardships completely worthwhile. It really is a privilege to be and to serve here.

A huge “thank you” for all your good wishes and prayers – they really make a difference.

Jayne and Sam

PS – Sam and I are still searching for a new place to live here in Kasungu and it is proving very hard to find anywhere suitable. We would really be grateful for your prayers on this issue. Thank you

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Happiness Is....

…..Sam’s new best friend! We have a new house girl at the house; her name is Happiness. As you know, I have been trying to find someone who can be at the house during the day – not just to give some help with the cleaning etc, but to keep an eye on Sam and to add some security to the place in my absence. Finding the right person has proved difficult though – and it’s all Sam’s fault! He seems to scare people; I honestly don’t know why. It doesn't help that he bounces such a lot though! Malawian dogs don’t bounce. They pace and roam – usually in a leisurely, but quite menacing fashion! Of course dogs here are generally kept for the purpose of guarding property. They fill a very functional role and their owners don’t really have what we would call ‘a relationship’ with them. Obviously in the UK, we are hugely sentimental about our pets; we see them as part of our families - say that to a Malawian and he/she will look at you as if you are crazy! When people see me out with Sam, they simply cannot understand how I treat him – patting and stroking him, talking to him etc. This is one of the best examples I can give you of the vast cultural differences that exist here; so many things that are part and parcel of life in the UK, are completely alien here – and vice versa of course.

However, because of the nature of their role – which is ultimately to be aggressive - many people here are actually quite fearful when they see a dog. So it isn’t really Sam’s fault that most people are very nervous of him. However, it has meant that my search for someone to look after him has been a big challenge. Finding Happiness, has been a wonderful blessing; not only is she unafraid of dogs, but she actually likes them. Amazing. She gets on really well with Sam and sees him for what he is – a dog with his own unique character and personality – a scruffy little boy who just wants to be loved and who wants to give love. It makes the most wonderful difference knowing that there is someone at the house during the day who can keep the place secure and who can give Sam some companionship. It is a huge step forward.

Unfortunately, my house hunting has been less successful; as I write, nothing has turned up. It is amazing how quickly the time is slipping away – I can’t believe that we are in the middle of May already; gosh, it will soon be Christmas! Before then of course, it will be the World Cup and the momentum is really building here. Football is huge in Malawi and many people support British teams. For instance, McDonald – my Deputy Manager - supports Chelsea and was over the moon when they won the League title last week. Ironically, some of my most enjoyable conversations here have been on the subject of football – something I care very little about. There will be enormous interest here in the England squad during the World Cup, although I keep telling people – expert football pundit that I am - that they have absolutely zero chance of actually winning it. I was thinking that if I were home at the moment, such a comment would - more likely than not - be met with enthusiastic agreement. In fact, I was trying to explain this subject to MacDonald recently – i.e. the very special relationship that exists between England and Scotland when it comes to issue of football. He couldn’t understand it and quite frankly, neither can I really. Why is it that English and Scottish football fans – who are after all, part of the same country – cannot bring themselves to support one another when their teams are playing in tournaments? For example, a friend of mine – who is Scottish and a passionate supporter of Celtic – has already emailed me to say that he has got his ‘Any Team But England’ T Shirt prepared for wearing throughout the World Cup competition! On the face of it, this sounds very comical, but I know full well that he is deadly serious. Friendly rivalry between the two teams? Not on your life. There are some deep felt and very nasty emotions/feelings floating around. It’s a real shame. If England were to win, I suspect that the fall out would be enormous; it’s probably a very good thing that the squad is full of players who are more interested in their hair and their appearance than in the business of being professional sportsmen.

On the subject of individuals who are pre-occupied with their hair and their appearance, I am doing just fine thank you! Fortunately, my hair has always grown quite quickly and so I’m hoping that things will be back to normal by the end of June – the end of July at the latest. I still look pretty awful, but at least I can look in the mirror without wincing too much now. That’s real progress believe me.

I’m hoping that when I next write, I will be reporting that I have found Sam and I somewhere new to live. In the mean time, we would be very grateful for your prayers on this issue; they can move mountains! Thank you.

God Bless

Jayne and Sam

Monday, May 3, 2010

Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow!

In my last blog entry, I was telling you about how it sometimes feels as if we're moving one step forward – only to move two steps back! At the time I was talking within a business context, but I have been finding out that it also applies within a personal context as well.

When I first arrived in Malawi, I knew that living and working here would – in some sort of way - change me. Seeing and experiencing the kind of poverty that Malawi suffers from affects your thinking and your attitude towards certain things - your outlook changes and your priorities are re-evaluated. Things that you once regarded as being important, suddenly seem trivial; you begin to see things in a completely new way. It makes you so much more appreciative of things – things that maybe before, you never thought too much about. The danger of course, is that as you work through this process of change, you can begin to sound a tad self righteous. Worse still, is that in dismissing your old ways of thinking and behaving, it is easy to start feeling somewhat superior – a little bit smug no less! Which is why it’s healthy - from time to time - to be brought down a peg or two; we all need to be reminded of our shortcomings! In my case, it happened when I went to have my monthly haircut – one of the few things which to date, has been remarkably straightforward and uneventful. Not so this time though!

Do you remember when I told you how clothes and appearance are of far less importance here? Well it’s true and I honestly thought I'd let go of superficial considerations such as these – after all, what does it really matter what you look like - it’s what’s inside that counts, isn’t it? Of course, that sounds great and oh so simple to subscribe to - in theory - but what happens when you actually find yourself dealing with the reality of such a statement? Well, what I have come to understand over the last couple of weeks, is that it is far harder to shake off old values than I had led myself to believe; old habits die very hard!

My barber James - who has been doing a really great job cutting my hair – must have been having a very bad day (a bad hair day?) when I turned up to have my usual 65p trim. He effectively scalped me. Now my hair has always been on the short side, but at least you could actually see it. At the moment, you have to look very closely to see the remnants of my hair and what you can see, looks absolutely terrible. Did you ever see Demi Moore in the film GI Jane? Well at the moment, I definitely feel and look like GI Jayne! I now have to wait for my hair to grow to a length where it can be cut back into some sort of style. Unfortunately as it begins to grow, it's looking even worse than it did when it was initially cut – my appearance is definitely going to get a lot worse before it gets better!

So here I am, banging on about how insignificant things like appearance actually are and on the other, feeling completely mortified by the fact that I am walking about Kasungu with a very dodgy haircut. Here I am waxing lyrical about the need to be able to laugh at yourself and yet finding little humour in my butchered locks. Here I am experiencing vanity in its most basic form – and it really isn’t good. However, on the plus side, this experience has been a very useful reminder to me of how easy it is to say one thing and yet do something totally different; of how easy it is to fall into the hypocrisy trap. It’s something that we all need to be on our guard against.

So in some strange way, I’m actually glad that James was having a bad day when he cut my hair. A couple of weeks later, I am beginning to see the funny side of the situation and the irony of it. Up to now, having very short hair would have helped me with the heat. Unfortunately, the weather has just changed and the Malawian winter has begun. The temperature has dropped significantly and believe it or not, it’s actually really cold here at times. Obviously I have nothing to keep the heat in at the moment - having just lost all my insulation - so I’m on the look out for a really good hat; with all the money I’m saving on shampoo just now, I’ll probably be able to afford two!

On the subject of cutting hair, I am becoming a bit of dab hand at the dog grooming business. Strangely enough, there isn’t a dog groomer in Kasungu and so I’ve had to resort to buying my own set of clippers and to cutting Sam’s coat myself. The clippers took a bit of getting used to and poor Sam has had his own dodgy haircuts to put up with over the last nine months. However, I am now much better and can cut his entire coat without leaving any bald patches! Quite an achievement. I can’t help feeling though that when Sam looks at me at the moment, he is secretly laughing his paws off – it’s sweet revenge for all the times his own hair has been attacked with the dreaded clippers.

So as you can see, life in Malawi is chugging forward. Our work at TLH continues – we are diversifying our services and have just begun selling refreshments, stationery and CDs in our efforts to make a bit more money here. I will let you know how our sales are going next time.

As always, a big “thank you” for your support, emails, prayers and good wishes.

Jayne and Sam

PS - Did anyone else feel just a little bit sympathy for Gordon Brown when he made his extraordinary microphone gaffe last week? I've been following the election campaigns very closely on the Internet over the last few weeks and I do think the reaction to his comments were classic 'holier than thou'. Now I've never had much time for Mr Brown - personally or politically - but I have certainly been feeling sorry for him in the wake of so much hypocrisy. What ever your thinking, it's certainly been a fascinating battle; I would love to be sitting in front of the telly on Thursday evening watching Peter Snow and his wonderful swingometer. Enjoy - I will be thinking of you!