More thoughts about Malawi

A new blog written December 2018

26 December 2018

It is more than 3 years ago that we moved to Malawi, and so far so good. We like living here, despite some set-backs and challenges we decided that we won’t go back to The Netherlands soon. 

Every day we learn new things about our new home country. Compared to our first year, our views have changed and we look at Malawi with different eyes, and it is an ongoing process. The Malawian culture differs a lot from our Dutch culture and we will always experience some frictions between the two.


Culture is learned through religion

Religion plays a very big role here. It gives people hope and purpose and one of the 1st questions one might ask after being introduced is what church you attend. We don’t go to any church and do not believe in deity, so we’ve had many discussions and had to answer many questions. I find it hard to deal with an institution like the church; it does not have the best reputation when we look at children’s rights for example. In Malawi the leaders of the church have a lot of power and some have a lot of money as well. When driving to Liwonde or the lake, there is a massive white house in the mountains just before the Machinga police roadblock. It almost looks like a village, but it is occupied by a man of god and I am wondering where that money comes from. Last year at Easter it would have been the perfect time to harvest the maize that was drying on the land. But people where in church for 5 days because of Easter, and on Easter Sunday the rain started and a lot of maize was mouldy by the time the people went to their fields to get their maize of the land. I respect people who are religious and will not judge anyone because of faith, but it does mean that we look at life in a different way.


Culture is learned through family

Family is important when talking about culture. Malawi is a collectivistic society; it’s all about the group, saving face and taking care of each other. Families live together with more generations and aunties and uncles who are not necessarily blood related. A salary of one person often feeds more than 20 people. Our guards or chefs do not just pay school fees for their own children, but also for brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews and other ‘family’ members. We always wondered why an employee would ask us for transport money to take a daughter to the hospital one day after receiving his or her salary.. but now we understand that the money is being distributed amongst the (extended) family the moment the employee gets home. The money is gone in a jiffy, divided between all family members and given to the people in their extended family who need it most.

The collectivistic society also means that the truth is more fluid here than in The Netherlands. Where I value honesty as one of the most important characteristics, Malawian people can lie straight to your face and stick to their lies even if you confront them with the truth. It has a lot to do with ‘saving face’. Admitting a mistake is not easily done here, where I have no problem saying I did something wrong and apologise for my mistake. In Malawi sometimes they lie not to embarrass you, the other. Or they lie not to embarrass themselves. It is not as extreme as Confucianism, a worldview in many Asian countries, but in Malawi it does happen that someone says yes while they don’t have a clue and point you in the wrong direction.

At uni I use an example about inviting people for dinner. A Dutch person will be on time, or even early; an Italian maybe 2 hours late; A Malawian can show up even later; but a Japanese person might not show at all. (S)He said ‘yes’ to safe face – they didn’t want to embarrass you by declining the invitation, but they think it is okay not show up after you have gone shopping and sweated in the kitchen for many hours. I would be livid, but that is something one cannot show in a collectivistic culture. You stay soft spoken, polite and do not show your emotions, while I can’t help but to raise my voice (it goes automatically) and show that I am pissed off. A girl I worked with at Sandfest had to deal with angry ‘azungu’ (white) people at the festival, and she said “they acted so white. Do you know what I mean?”. And I did know and felt embarrassed that not long before I had been very angry and raised my voice because a band that was booked, arrived late..


Culture is learned through state

Another important determinant for culture is the country where you grew up and lived most of your live. Our Dutch government is very transparent compared to the Malawian government. In The Netherlands we pay more than 38% income tax and I don’t mind, because we have nice roads, good schools and fantastic health care. It is not perfect, but public transport is well organised, education is in general very good and we do not need to die of curable diseases. And we do not die because of hunger! In Malawi we pay a lot of tax, but we want to be part of a better Malawi, so we pay our taxes but we don’t know what happens with it. What happens with our 1% tourism levy? Where does the PAYE go that is deducted from our salaries? There is not much transparency here and Malawi scores high on the corruption list.


Bribes are common, people put public money in their pockets and there is an ‘allowance culture’. If you organise a meeting, whether it is with extremely poor women in a rural area, village chiefs, students, teachers, or well-paid staff – they will not attend a meeting if they don’t get an allowance. Fair enough, your expenses should be paid. If you go on a school trip, attend a conference or stay in another town for training, you should not have to pay for your expenses. But if you are a well-paid manager and you have to go elsewhere for a meeting, there is no need to receive 3 to 10x more money than the money that you actually spend. School teachers refuse to go on a school trip if they don’t get paid an allowance; village chiefs complain and might not show up if you don’t give them enough money just to attend; and highly paid people deliberately plan meetings at external locations because they extra pay.


Surely there is corruption in Europe, and despotism – in The Netherlands we also had ministers who hired their nephew for a big job. And not long ago politicians would accept presents, but that is no longer allowed. In a country where people are starving, only 11% finishes secondary education and where income is less than $0.95 per day, it would be nice to have less corruption. We have elections next year and we hear many promises. One of the main things we need is jobs. Without a good education system and daily blackouts because of (planned) load shedding, who will invest in this country? Who wants to build a factory in a country where every day you have no power for 6 hours? Where education is not very good because there is no money to pay teachers and the classes are too big (officially no more than 65 pupils in a class, but 90 to even 200 is not uncommon) and almost 90% doesn’t even get a secondary school diploma. We need businesses and jobs, so there will be more tax money for the government to spend on education, health and job creation.


To start a business here is not easy though. On top of the taxes – which are not much different than at home in The Netherlands – and licenses (also not much different), we have to get a working permit or a business permit. To get one you need to provide evidence that you will invest $250,000 in Malawi. We don’t have that kind of money and we don’t think that people with amount of cash will choose Malawi to start a business. One of our dreams is to have solar power for our lodge, but at the border the custom tax will be 100%. So even a gift from friends in The Netherlands will cost us as much as if we would buy solar power here, and at the moment we cannot afford that.


We are lucky though!! We might not easily get a business permit but with our Dutch passports we can travel to Malawi. Okay, it costs $75 for a tourist, but as long as we pay, we get in. A Malawian will have more trouble trying to get a visa for The Netherlands or England. Chances are they don’t get the visa because our European governments are scared an African might want to stay.


The biggest challenge are the institutions that try to get more money out of us because we are foreigners. I guess the same might happen to foreigners in The Netherlands, but here we get fined left right and centre for things that do not seem to make sense and often are not true. So we fight and we most of the times we win, because we do try to play by the rules.


The hardest thing for me running a business is human resource management, looking after our staff. Working with Malawians is nice, because they are very friendly. It is the warm heart of Africa. At the same time they might lie to save face (see above) but they also expect you to help them. Usually this means giving them extra money. Money for fertiliser when it is time to sow their maize; and money for the seeds to plant; money for funerals either for transport to attend a funeral or for the coffin if it is close family; money because their wives have a bad tooth and need to go to the hospital; money for themselves because they are sick. Of course we always try to help!! However, we have 20 people working for us and they all depend on us if something goes wrong. And we do help. Always, but we try to find solutions with advances and loans. We want to treat all our 20 staff members equally, so we have rules in our staff manuals explaining how much and for what circumstances we can give advances and loans. Sometimes we give a little extra, when we can.


After a good month in July, we could give everybody a bag of fertiliser. We were happy we could give that to all staff members. In Malawi people all grow their own food (subsistence farming), they all have maize (corn) in their garden. Most of them have a mixed crop, maize with ground nuts and pumpkins or beans. Nowadays people only have small pieces of land, 0.6 hectares per person (it used be 4 hectares per person) and they no longer can rest their land. So they have to plant on the same small piece of land every year, which is why fertiliser is needed otherwise people would starve.


Despite fertiliser, Malawi is looking at 6 million who will go hungry between February and April/May. One of our guards had a very bad harvest last year because of bad rain. He ate his last maize in July and has been hungry since. We have little money that friends & family gave to us, so we give him extra work so he can earn extra money to buy maize. We also have been lucky that there are always people in The Netherlands who want to help a little; my sisters sponsor a very bright lovely and motivated girl to go to Nursing college. A guest who visited our lodge last year gave money for a christmas dinner for a school two years in a row and from the money she gave us, our staff have made their much desired uniforms. Another friend who recently visited us got her friends to transfer money for a little clinic in the north that had no paracetamol to give to their patients. When a guest heard about this, she also donated money towards medication for this clinic. We invited 15 orphans to eat at Pakachere while they were in Zomba on a trip, and we managed to give all our employees a chicken, rice, oil and salt after our team building party.


It is not easy to decide whether it is good to give or not. We want to share our wealth but we do not want to create expectations that we always give when asked for. We care about the people and it is difficult to see many poor and hungry people around us. We just don’t know if giving helps? Do we create dependency? Do we turn children into beggars when we give them something? We ‘azungu’ are rich, maybe not in the country where we originally come from, but compared to Malawians we are rich.


With the cultural differences and the big differences in financial means, it is hard to make friends in Malawi. It is true they are very friendly people but also quite closed. We only have a few Malawian friends and we mainly hang with other ‘azungu’. Very often when they welcome you into their house, they expect something in return. They are not shy to ask for a telephone, money or to pay for their education. We don’t know if that is because they are used to white people handing out stuff or whether it comes from their collectivistic society where sharing is normal.


We can’t help everybody, even if we wanted to because we cannot afford it. We decided we focus on our employees; we look after their welfare and treat them fair and with respect. We run our lodge as a social business; we shop in town, buy from local vendors, we try to recycle/re-use as much as possible, are active members of our community, pay our taxes, and our staff are looked after through decent salaries (although still very low), continuing professional development (training courses & certificates), fair treatment and space for fun.


We lived in local areas twice now; 3 months in Nkhata Bay and just over a year in Matawale. The idea was nice, but we never managed to become friends with our neighbours. The language barrier was too big (our fault for not speaking the language better), but also the culture (we did not go to the same church) was too different and the money gap too wide (they would ask if they could clean our house or do our laundry). What I pay for a beer, they earn in a day IF they have job. Because the people who do earn 1 dollar a day are rich compared to their neighbours who don’t have a job, and 85% is unemployed. So we never got much further than friendly greetings and children who would wave at us and shout ‘azungu bo!’ which is cute but doesn’t make you part of the community.


We are foreigners, azungu and immigrants; we have different lifestyles, other norms & values and we look at the world through our Dutch glasses. We were raised in a different way, went to different schools and had the chance to go to university, but we all want to be loved. We all want peace on earth, we want to be healthy and we care about the people who are close to us. We are all people and it doesn’t matter if you are black or white, rich or poor, religious or not, we all want a good life for ourselves and our loved ones. Nobody likes war and nobody likes to see other people go hungry.


We all want respect and we all want to be loved! The people here might not have had all the (educational) toys we had when they were young and a different education system where children repeat what the teacher says, but they are not stupid; they look at life in a different way, from a Malawian perspective. One with more modesty and less need for change, openness or time control. And the farmers are not stupid to grow maize on the same plot of land every year; maize is a good crop for this country and most of them have mixed crops anyway. They don’t have much land so they have no choice, so fertiliser is used to get the best yield of the little piece land they have.


The population of Malawi keeps growing, so the pieces of land will become even smaller, more houses need to be build and more mouths need to be fed so more trees will be cut for building and firewood. Once The Netherlands had forests and wild animals, but that is all gone except for some small national parks like De Veluwe. Both countries are very densely populated and a growing population means more trees will be cut so there will even be less space to grow maize and deforestation also results in less rainfall which affects not only the crops but also electricity generation. Not a very good perspective for the future.


We love living in Malawi. The differences make it interesting and the similarities make it nice. I am learning a lot every day. The people really are friendly and the country is beautiful. We have mountains, beaches, wildlife and a really nice immigrant/expat community. We are privileged; lucky that we were born in The Netherlands, lucky that we could go to university and that we have a passport that allows us to travel almost everywhere in the world. Lucky that we could settle in this beautiful country that we now call home. Lucky to have 2 homes, because both The Netherlands and Malawi feel like home.