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