Raising the Dust Chapter Reflections
Chapter Ten: The State of the Biosphere ‒ Part III
In this article, I reflect further on the insights and observations of some of the changes and challenges I observed during fieldwork. My area of study is a changing place and like all rapidly changing contexts, this brings both dangers and opportunity. As I observed these changes, I felt these tensions. The longer I stayed in the field, the more I felt a part of the process. This is a predictable and expected aspect of naturalistic research and it is the researcher’s task to integrate their experiences in their analysis of the data they find in the field.
Food for Peace
Relating back to one of the texts I relied on early on in my literature review, I noted how Our Common Future (World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED), 1987[i]) outlines the blueprint for a more peaceful and prosperous co-existence between nations. As I walked around the mountain during fieldwork, I noted signs and symbols that told another story. They communicate messages of a “World Vision”, of “Hope” of “Care” and of “saving the children”. Decades on from the Brundtland Report gatherings in Norway, they are a symbol of Malawi’s ongoing international dependencies. The people of Malawi are accustomed to receiving food and basic agricultural products via subsidised sources and the World Food Program[ii] operates around the mountain. There are signs indicating the presence of many other food and agricultural programs in the area. For example, not far from the Mulanje Boma, a metal sign advertising the presence of a “Food for Peace” program stands out the front of a large warehouse. It was not clear why it was empty at the time, but food had supposedly been stored in the warehouse at some point. The sign read that the American government was exchanging ‘Food for Peace’ (see Image 1 below).
At the time I asked myself;
“has there ever been anything but peace between America and Malawi?”
I wondered what could possibly happen to threaten the peace between Malawi, a small, poor, landlocked agricultural country in southern Africa and America, one of the wealthiest and most powerful nations on earth (Fieldwork diary, 20 June 2012)
On a field trip further north however, I noticed that many of these metal signs had been scratched out. What did this mean, I wondered? Was there no food here? Was there no peace, vision or care? Alternatively, was there less tolerance for ‘Food for Peace’ and other development programs in communities further north (Fieldwork diary, 24 July 2012)?
Someone like you
As noted in previous articles, throughout fieldwork, I noticed that anything local, whether it be an idea, an initiative or a simple product was not valued highly by the people I was speaking with yet anything imported, foreign and hybrid was favoured, admired and desired. In particular, the privileging of the foreign over the local has had a significant impact on the minds of young people in my area of study. As a counsellor and healer myself, I was struck by a gifted young man who came into the research office one day. On hearing about my research he spontaneously enacted the snapshot of a (my) life story that encompassed the brutal, the tragic and the triumphant, in such a way that the audience laughed in appreciation for his obvious talent. The insight it brought was but a brief indication of his potential as a facilitator and healer. He said it was his “dream” to become a counsellor one day, but insisted it would never happen in Mulanje. I asked what was stopping him from teaming up with others to form an association of like-minded therapists. He insisted that it just would not happen and that he had no way of following his dreams without the support of “someone like you”, which I took to mean a westerner, a white person, an umzungu.[iii]
Another young man said he had submitted many community proposals but that without the interests of “someone like you”, they had come to nothing. Based on his lack of success in the past, he said without outside endorsement, “they will not materialise, they will not even be listened to, they will just be disregarded or ignored”. The young man described the “attitude” of local people and I related this to what I knew of Malawi as being “The Warm Heart of Africa” but also the jealousy capital of the world. Even prior to commencing fieldwork, I had heard about this phenomenon from a number of people who had spent time in Malawi. In Malawi, it is referred to as “the jealousy,”[iv] since it is used to describe both a mental/emotional state, and a social phenomenon. In the context of the above conversations, the term seemed to relate to the manner in which people sabotage the potential success of others. I made a note in my fieldwork diary that when an individual succeeds in Malawi, “they face resentment and (passive) obstruction from others” (Fieldwork Diary, 13 July 2012). Based on my observations, I also wrote that doing so helps people to feel “a little less over-powered, threatened and powerless”.
I felt sad for these young men; that their abilities were not being recognised or encouraged within their communities. This social jealousy was described as an “attitude” of resistance by some locals I encountered and as an act of passive resistance by many foreigners I met but it can best be understood from the perspective of what it might mean when a person is seen to achieve something that might give them leverage over others in a place where most of the population must survive on less than two dollars a day. Furthermore, the wife of a key research contact explained the lack of collaboration between people by saying that after decades of one-party rule, people are not outspoken in their personal and political actions because fear still dominates the public arena. She said people are scared to speak out or act against authority, or openly challenge the status quo because, in the past, the population lived with the fear that “even the walls might be listening” to private conversations and this may have consequences.
In Malawi, traditional healers have come under sustained criticism for exploiting this ‘jealousy’ phenomenon as well as people’s fears and vulnerabilities. Many see their practices as endorsing the idea of jealousy and ‘bewitchment’ for their own personal gain. Since the cause of illness is often seen to be the breakdown in social networks, traditional medical practitioners are believed to benefit from these disturbances. As Morris (1986:372[v]) points out, in Malawi spiritual healers do actually articulate “the conflicts and tensions within a community” and that “these give rise to the ‘enmity’ and ‘jealousy’ which, in turn finds its expression in the act of sorcery”. It is easy to link traditional healing practices to the broader social context but while this link may be obvious, the role of traditional medicine in local contexts is much more complex and layered and requires a much more considered analysis. This is why I chose to understand the link between human and ecological health through the lens of African traditional medicine as it provides us with a view of the interrelationship of life, as lived on an everyday level of experience, with an awareness of these interconnected realities.
In this article, I have explored some of the local attitudes I encountered during fieldwork as an “inside outsider”. I found myself in a position where I was a “someone-like-you/foreigner”, yet I was developing a strong personal attachment to the mountain and to the people. In next month’s article I will explore these challenging research experiences further and what they meant for my research. In the meantime, if you’d like further information about any aspect of my research, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Dr Theresa Jones (PhD) is an intuitive counsellor, incorporating holistic principles and energy healing in her practice, Inner Sense Intuitive Counselling Services. You can contact her on 0458268605
[i] World Commission on Environment and Development. (1987). Our Common Future. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
[iii] Umzungu is a colloquial term for a white person. An informant explained that depending on the tone with which it is used it can have either a neutral or a derogatory meaning.
[iv] Many people, both inside and outside of Malawi spoke to me about “the jealousy problem” but given the complex sociocultural associations behind the term, it is not easy to define.
[v] Morris, B. (1986). Herbalism and Divination in Southern Malawi. Social Sciences and Medicine, 23(4), 367-377.