Azungu, Azungu: Being white in Malawi

I think about race a lot at home—how a person’s race affects their socioeconomic status in Canada, or how we as a society hold assumptions and beliefs about people based on the colour of their skin. I know it can be an uncomfortable topic, but racism is a real thing in Canada; in fact, I think it’s embedded in our systems and societal beliefs.

But usually when we think about race, the “colour” in question is not my own; we don’t think a lot about whiteness. It’s something I learned about in a race politics course I took: in Canada, whiteness is the norm. The “default setting,” if you will. So we don’t think about it, don’t see it, and don’t have to justify it in the same way. Here’s an example to think about: if you are white and live in Canada, have you ever been asked where you are really from? I never have to answer that question, even though my grandparents and great-grandparents immigrated from different European countries. Someone who is of Chinese origin, on the other hand, may face that question often even if their family has been in Canada for generations. The norm for what we think of as “Canadian” is—well, white.

Here in Malawi, even having been here just a week, I am more aware of the colour of my skin than I have ever been in my life. I feel entirely visible—my whiteness is the most noticeable, apparent thing about me when I am out in public. Yesterday I walked with a fellow volunteer, Anna, down a dusty red dirt road in the neighbourhood where we work and volunteer. Youth playing soccer stopped their game and talked about us in Chichewa as we walked by; the only word I caught was azungu, meaning “white person” or “white people.” Toddlers stopped playing in the dirt and looked at us with open mouths and wide eyes. Little girls on the side of the road called out “Hello, how are you!” and waved as we passed, and when we said hello and waved back, they giggled and a few ran away.

Catching the bus home today was another reminder of how we stand out here. A minibus “caller,” the person who announces the route at the bus stop and tries to get people to fill the bus, saw Anna and me. Calling us azungu, he showed us to the bus, grabbing our arms along the way, even as we told him, “Don’t touch me!” Unwanted touching is also sometimes part of being azungu here, as far as I can tell.

Don’t get me wrong: I understand that being a white Canadian affords me more power and privilege in the world than most of the people I interact with here, thanks to hundreds of years of colonial history and ideas of racial hierarchy in which “white” has been placed at the top. In my life, I will be wealthier than most Malawians, I will have more opportunities to travel the world, and I will not face the same health problems (or if I do, I will have access to superior health care). Statistically, I will not be at the same risk of sexualized violence. In my life, people will probably be more likely to listen to what I have to say and respect my opinion because of the colour of my skin. However messed up that is—and it’s well and truly messed up—it’s reality.

Something else I should clarify: I don’t feel terribly unsafe or vulnerable as a white person here—I just feel conspicuous. All of the Malawians I have actually met in a personal or professional context have been incredibly kind, welcoming, and warm, and those who make me feel uncomfortable are simply a few individuals, not representative of a whole group of people.

These are my thoughts on being white in Malawi after a week in this country; I don’t know if they’ll change as one week stretches into four, eight, twelve. Mostly right now it feels utterly strange, but you and I both probably could have predicted that.

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2 thoughts on “Azungu, Azungu: Being white in Malawi

  1. Sash! Very interesting post! I have some thoughts about the common terminology that I think might affect how we look at things.

    By using the words “black” and “white” we make it very much… black and white! Whereas, as in most cases in life, it isn’t. We tend to be everything between pink to dark brown (maybe you’ll find someone white/transperant in Finland).

    And, by using the word “race” as you do in the English language you make the assumption that there are different human races, which isn’t the case (we’re too genetically similar to be divided into races). “Etnicity” or “nationality” would make our view less… black and white, I think.

  2. Great points, Linn. I use these words to write for a general audience but you’re exactly right–things are far more nuanced than black and white. And I agree with you in that the word “race” can be misleading. “Ethnicity” now seems to be the more correct term, and it’s one I generally prefer to use–as you said, there is only one human race.

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