Invisible Immigrant 

I wrote the following piece for The Black Expat (http://www.theblackexpat.com). This is perhaps the most personal writing I’ve written to date and I have to say it made me feel quite vulnerable revealing so much of myself. In the end though, writing this proved to be quite cathartic and revelatory, and I realized that this journey was extremely influential in shaping me and my future.

I moved to Scotland from Malawi as a baby when my father was accepted into a university in Glasgow. While my childhood was predominantly Scottish, my parents provided me and my sisters with scattered Malawian cultural knowledge. Admittedly my understanding of what it meant to be Malawian at the time was limited to eating different foods than classmates and speaking Chichewa at home while most of my friends were monolingual.

Throughout my childhood, there continued to be a disconnect between my Malawian household and my Scottish surroundings. I noticed early on that my parents were stricter than other Scottish parents and that I had to call my parents’ friends “auntie” and “uncle”, even if we were not related. Travel patterns in my household were also different from those around us; the few overseas trips we took were always to visit family in Malawi. However, in spite of the overt differences that I perceived, I did not experience the same depth of foreignness and homesickness that my parents must have felt.

While I had always held onto certain memories of the few times I’d visited Malawi—good memories of the lake, the food, nature, my family— for all intents and purposes, I was Scottish.

Malawi was a romanticized place, almost mythologized in my mind, a place that I could think of when I needed an escape from the unbelonging I’d begun to experience in Scotland, a feeling which crept in the older and more aware of the world that I became. What I didn’t take into account was that I didn’t truly know what it meant to be African. For that matter, I barely had any idea of what it meant to be black.

When I turned 11, my parents told my sisters and I that we were moving back to Malawi. At this point, I thought my cultural dissonance would align and that my latent identity crisis issues that stemmed from being one of three black children in a predominantly white school in a Scottish town (the other two black children being my sisters) would finally be at an end. I was sad to leave Scotland as I’d experienced all of my conscious life there and I called it home, but I felt that moving to Malawi might be a good thing as finally I’d be surrounded by people who looked like me. I was finally going to be a part of the majority.

My first day back in Malawi was one of the most memorable days of my life. I remember getting off the plane at what was then called Kamuzu International Airport, a reminder that a dictator was still in power, and having a large crowd of relatives there to welcome us, cheering us on from the airport lounge. Beginnings are often exciting and hopeful, and that will always be the most exciting and most hopeful beginning I will ever experience. It was special because we were welcomed back home, welcomed back into the family fold, and I felt protected. But I also fell for what I later realized was a false sense of security (or hope) that just because my surroundings reflected me, I would remain safe and happy.

A new place doesn’t reveal itself to you all at once.

Revelations are gradual and there were layers and layers of discoveries that I had to get through, things I felt I was already supposed to know but didn’t. Once I learned something, another thing surfaced. Language was one of the things that came across prominently and very quickly. I was grateful to my parents for having only spoken to me in Chichewa when I was growing up; at least we weren’t completely lost in the society.

But the Chichewa I was used to was the one spoken in the domestic sphere, often simplified and abbreviated for children who felt more at home in the English language. In fact, when my parents spoke to my sisters and I, we often responded either in English or in a Chichewa-English melange.

Growing up, my Chichewa conversations were often with family members or friends who knew me and my linguistic limits. But now I needed to interact with complete strangers who had no idea who I was or what I was. Even within the family, there was tension when those less sensitive people asked me why I spoke the language oddly.

It’s a strange feeling being at home yet not feeling at home. When you feel like an outsider but you were expecting to be an insider, there is always some confusion involved, and often some disappointment.

If I were a true Malawian, why did I feel like an imposter? I was an outsider who had no choice but to observe and try my best. This was a new environment to me, something others seemed to have forgotten. After all, they had something I didn’t have: the privilege of having been socialized in that place, of knowing exactly what to do and what not to do. I, on the other hand, had the subtle and not so subtle mannerisms of a girl who had been raised elsewhere; you could tell by the way I sat, the way I dressed, the way I occupied space, the way I expressed my emotions. Putting on a mask was the only way I could blend in. I learned a lot by observing, a trait that served me well. I had to navigate this new environment quickly since I wasn’t given much leniency; because I looked like them, I was one of them. I was an invisible immigrant.

In response to this cultural dissonance, I ended up clinging to my Scottish memories, my Scottish life, because that’s where I felt the most secure. I knew more about Scotland than I did about Malawi, and, when it came to Malawi, I had to learn so much from scratch. I ended up finding safety and stability in my faith, in my books, and in my love of music.

Fast forward several years and I’ve graduated from high school and I’m finally more or less comfortable in this new land. I eventually went from having a more or less “Scottish identity” to a, “What am I?” one. While I miss Scotland and still feel Scottish in some ways, particularly through my sense of individualism and my interests, I feel a lot more secure in my Malawian identity. My language skills have gotten better and I’m more knowledgeable about the country. I no longer worry about saying or doing the wrong thing, I feel accepted and am no longer the awkward invisible immigrant.

 

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Changes

When I started this blog, my plan was to solely use it for my Malawi art and history book research. However, the frequency that I have writing ideas that fall outside this topic means that I can’t possibly create a new blog for every writing project I have. While looking for work I was also asked to be prepared to send writing samples should I be shortlisted so I thought I’d change the theme of this blog from a Malawi history blog to a more general writing blog and highlight more of my writing. Since my Malawi history project is currently my largest project, I anticipate that the majority of my content will still cover this topic, but over the coming months you will most likely see more diversity in my posts.  I am currently working on a series of memoir-style essays and I hope to share some excerpts in the future. I also plan to do some art research so we shall see where that leads me.

When Research is Personal

It’s been a long while since I updated this blog. Life has been busy with graduation, life changes and such but I’ve now found the motivation I needed to jump back into my research.

I’ve been thinking a lot about feelings and emotions.  I had a conversation with a Chinese-Canadian who previously worked in the Vancouver archives and he told me about how difficult it was for him to do archival work on his own people for several reasons. It was clear from talking with him that research can be incredibly emotional and I’ve already found this to be so .This project is quite personal in many ways to me as I attempt to connect with my nation’s history, especially being so distant from place of origin. Recently I reread Toni Morrison’s “Song of Solomon”, and in that the male protagonist, Milkman, goes on a journey to discover his family’s history in an attempt to figure himself out too. Of course Milkman is looking at his family history while I’m looking at my nation’s history, but in a sense we’re looking for the same thing, and we realize that an understanding of the past is important in order to move forward and to situate oneself in the present.

This project is also personal because one of the people who supported me, my Uncle O., died almost a year ago. Although I don’t think he was really passionate about history, he knew how important this project was to me and he supported my aspirations, both with a listening ear and also with materials that could help me with my research. I’m so grateful to him and more than a little bit sad that he will never know how my final project turns out. He had faith in me and never questioned my abilities. Having someone to support one’s goals isn’t something we all have so I’m so grateful.

Beijing and Ruminations on History

How does China relate to Malawi, you might ask? Well, as most of you know, I was in China at the end of last year as part of my graduate programme. One of our course assignments was to create a technography with a research question we wished to answer. I chose to focus on identity, race and travel and it surprised me to note that a lot of my reflections made some reference to Malawi. I will be posting a few of these posts here. Enjoy!

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I don’t think anything could have prepared me for my trip to Tiananmen Square. Suddenly I was in a place I had seen only in pictures. The pictures I’d seen didn’t quite capture the mood there. The Square was definitely charged with something; a foreboding  presence that made sure that you behaved. And it worked. I was aware that not only was I surrounded by CCTV, I was also surrounded by armed soldiers and guards.

I thought about how history and culture are linked, and I noted the happy faces of the Chinese people taking pictures by the Chairman Mao portrait while wearing their Chairman Mao hats. They looked so thrilled to be there; it was obvious this was a big deal to them, definitely more personal than it was for me. I could see the pride in their faces in the evening when the flag lowering ceremony was taking place. It’s reputation precedes it and I am aware that my reaction to it is partly due to what I’ve heard about it.

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Showing a photocopy of my passport and visa to a guard in order to enter the Square reminded me of my 5 year old self when visiting Blantyre with her family and having to show a passport and Malawi Congress Party membership card to the Malawi Young Pioneers in order to get on a bus or similar. Although I didn’t live in Malawi during Banda’s rule, the effect of coming from a country with that sort of legacy, including having parents who were born and raised under that regime, was very evident in my life. Visiting the Square made me even more aware of that fact. The legend of Banda impacted me. I saw the resemblance between Banda Malawi and present-day Beijing in many ways. Portraits of Mao are all over China, just as portraits of Banda were all over Malawi. The only difference is as the authoritarian government in Malawi is long over, and Banda is long deceased, the portraits have all but vanished, and his likeness has been removed from the money and postage stamps, and although Mao predeceased Banda by a couple of decades, his image is still big business as is evidenced by the Mao memorabilia I saw all over the country.

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A question I asked myself was how do political regimes, especially authoritarian ones, affect identity? And how do dictators create a national identity?

Philately as Inspiration

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The more I dig through aspects of my life the more I realize I have been preparing to do something like this forever. I look at my stack of notebooks, newspaper clippings, stamps, and so on and think about how odd that a Malawian person living in Malawi (at the time) would have kept all I did. In retrospect , I had to, to try to understand where I fit in the world, to understand my culture, to understand the things that regular Malawians already knew but that were new to me. Now I’m going back over old things and feeling inspired. Archive fever has truly gotten ahold of me!

I found my old stamp collection recently. I started collecting stamps at age 13. Whenever someone received a letter, they would tear around the stamp, then I would soak the torn piece of envelope in some cold water until the paper loosened and came off. Finally I would dry the stamp and put it into my stamp album. It was always fun trying to figure out which country was which (Ajman State, anyone?), figuring out the currencies, being in awe at the half penny stamps, the stamps with crazy shapes, and stamps from former kingdoms, such as Katanga. It always amazed me to see how often Queen Elizabeth II appeared on stamps. Some of my Malawi stamps bear Malaysian post marks due to being misdirected, a very common issue.

The draw of stamps to me, apart from their aesthetic value, is that as well as being little pieces of artwork, they are also pieces of history; country names have changed, colonialism is over, currencies have devalued (some very drastically), and stamps keep track of this.

Looking at my stamps of Malawi, I see the popularity of nature there. I see the commemorative stamps, presidents, achievements that were considered important too.

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On the above picture, you can see a stamp of David Livingstone, who is quite beloved in Malawi. Malawi also seems to have had a history of ships dating back to over a century ago. Kamuzu International Airport has been renamed Lilongwe International Airport (and now I’m curious about how people referred to KIA back in the day seeing as mentioning the former dictator’s name was a no-no). Kamuzu Academy is still in existence and I often regret not having studied there and therefore missing a golden opportunity to learn Latin and Ancient Greek!

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The bird on the K2 stamp (Silvery Cheeked Hornbill) was always perched on the Kachere tree in my garden. It always gave me the heebie jeebies. I was told the bird features in myths.

Malawi has been called a botanist’s paradise and I can well believe that!

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Lake Malawi is famous for its famous cichlids, many of which are endemic to the lake. Very cool things happened during Malawi’s evolutionary history! The Vancouver Aquarium and the Toronto Zoo both have Great Lake Malawi cichlid exhibits.

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I was excited to find these old stamps of Dr. Kamuzu Banda in my collection. They dated back from 1966. As my sister said, Dr. Banda looks slightly creepy in those stamps. I was also excited to find a stamp commemorating John Chilembwe’s 1915 uprising. To me, Chilembwe is a bit like the Malawian Robert the Bruce, he is definitely a national hero.

Some Thoughts on Malawian Ethnic Groups

The other day I was contemplating the ancestors and  national character as it were. While reading a Ph.D thesis on the Yao people, I read that the Yao, the ethnic group that my maternal grandfather belonged to were warriors and were prided for their intellect. I’m keen to learn about the other tribes in Malaŵi, and about what their characteristics are. Could those characteristics have been passed down over the ages?

Issues around ethnic groups are often complex, to my understanding. Three ethnic groups are featured among my parents; Yao, Lomwe and Sena. How do I decide which one I am? Some of the tribes in Malaŵi are matrilineal, others patrilineal, so it’s not always easy to determine whether one should follow their father’s or parent’s side.

Interesting site that talks about the main tribes of Malaŵi. I know there are more but this is a good start: http://www.wawamalawi.com/cultures/sena.php

Current Task: Writing Book Proposal

This hasn’t been an easy task, although I knew it wouldn’t be! It has made me realize the importance of knowing one’s subject matter in some detail at least before deciding to write a book. Having a strong foundation is a must and will definitely help me in the long run.

The first step of the book proposal, that I completed a couple of weeks ago, is a basic book outline with chapter names. The second step entails fleshing out the chapters with a summary paragraph of what the chapter will cover. That is proving hard to do on the research I’ve currently done. I read a lot but I realize I have so much more to read. The process has been exciting though, illuminating even. I’m definitely excited about the prospect of doing more in-depth research, to really open my eyes.

A difficult task for me was deciding who my target audience should be. I wondered, would Malawians be interested in reading my book? Malawians in Malawi, or elsewhere in Africa? Malawians in the West? Or non-Malawians everywhere?

This proposal needs to be as stellar as possible. Now I’m onto my third draft and I’m still not fully satisfied. I honestly have L.H. to thank for my proposal being as good as it currently is; her insight and comments have been absolutely priceless.