Sunday Morning ~ Democratic Aspirations
Mfumu ya ndeu simanga mudzi. ~ A quarrelsome chief does not build a village.
~ Chewa proverb
February 9, 2020
I was organizing some storage spaces, wondering why I kept so much random stuff, and came across a folder full of letters I wrote each Sunday to my parents when I was Peace Corps volunteer in the late ’70’s. My mother had saved every one, written on a light blue airmail foldout which was letter and envelope combined. I made a cup of tea and sat to read them, ignoring the mess I’d made pulling things apart. I thought maybe I’d find some great writing, type them up, and have another book, but after reading the first three, I was bored out of my mind. When I wrote these I was newly married, off on a two and a half year adventure, ballistically idealistic, and …boring. I lost count of all the exclamation points I used on sentences that did not deserve an exclamation point. It was all rosy and everything was great! The letters didn’t really say anything. They seemed a fake expression of contentment and bliss. I was very disappointed in my twenty two year old self. I thought I wrote better than that. I wondered why my writing was so bland as my memories of that experience are quite exotic.
I got married just after graduating college and went off on a two month honeymoon cycling in Europe. When we returned, my new husband, Joe, and I walked into the Peace Corps office in Boston and flipped through a black binder labeled “Africa” with page after page of available positions for volunteers. There was a binder for each continent. At that time if you were a nurse you could go anywhere but we wanted Africa and found positions in Malawi that matched our skills. We’d never heard of Malawi, but it was in Africa and had jobs we wanted. We took our lengthy applications then went to the library and pulled out an Encyclopedia Brittanica with a gold N-M on it’s spine. We looked up Malawi and found two paragraphs. Under Government: it stated that Malawi had gained independence from Britain in 1964 and was a one party democracy. Hastings Kamuzu Banda was president for life. Under Economy: it said the cash crops were tea and tobacco. It had a few other facts about geographical location and average rainfall and something about David Livingstone. There wasn’t much. But it all sounded fine to us and we started the long application process and were selected for a “pre-invitational screening”. We flew to Chicago just before Christmas to find out what that was all about. Peace Corps had been asked to leave Malawi in the 1960’s after one of the volunteers, Paul Thoreau, wrote some unflattering things about Kamuzu Banda in an article called Tarzan was an Expatriate. After ten years or so, in 1978, the Malawian government decided to let Peace Corps send volunteers again with strict conditions. We could only work in health and agriculture, not in education. We had to comply with the repressive regulations regarding dress and public speaking. They didn’t want any young Americans filling the heads of Malawian youngsters with notions of free speech. It was illegal for women to wear pants, and skirts had to be below the knee. Men were not allowed to have facial hair, or wear collarless shirts. Birth control was illegal and was never to be promoted. No one was allowed to voice any criticism of the president. I asked naively, “Is president-for-life the same as dictator?” and was told that word was never to be used. If we couldn’t comply with all this, we couldn’t go. Somehow it was presented to us as respecting their culture, which, I guess it was. A repressive dictatorship culture.
A month later, in January 1979, we were on our way for our three months of in-country training. It was there that we were told to write home every Sunday to reassure our parents we were ok. This would prevent Peace Corps from having to field calls from worried family members when they didn’t hear from their kids. (That’s where all the writing on Sunday started for me.) We were also warned not to write anything critical of the government or indeed the country. Our letters were subject to being opened and read. And, good girl that I was, I complied. I wrote each week about how great everything was. It’s really creepy now when I read them. There was a severe drought when we were there. People starved. I never wrote about it. The president gave speech after speech about how no one was starving. We privately mocked this, but no one spoke out. No one.
We quickly learned who we could talk to. We talked to each other of course, and with other volunteers and expats, but we were very careful about what we said to Malawians. It was awkward when they would ask about the US. They were trying to figure out what was true. One man asked me if it were true that the US had gone to the moon. I said, “Yes! Yes, that is true!” Then he asked, “What was it like there?” as if I, myself, had gone. It took a while to explain that it was a special event and we all weren’t going back and forth, but it was stunning how confused they were about what was reality. We laughed about it. The news there was all blatantly censored. Big black lines went through headlines in news magazines and everyone just accepted it. Time magazine came to us via the diplomatic pouch uncensored however, and we had to make sure they never left our house. During the Iranian hostage crisis some of our Malawian friends were at our house visiting and they picked up one of the magazines and started thumbing through it. They looked at the photos and started showing each other excitedly. “Oh! Oh! Look! Look at this!” It was a photo of a protester carrying a sign that said KILL CARTER. They turned to us and asked, “You can do this? You can carry a sign like this in the US?” Then to each other, “Oh no. You wouldn’t get as far as the market here.” Another said laughing, “You wouldn’t get out your door! Your wife would stop you!” Everyone laughed. There was never any sentiment expressed that life would be any different there than it was then.
Women weren’t allowed in the bars. I accepted this and so did every other woman I knew there. I drank my beer and gin and tonics at home which was more comfortable anyway. But the male volunteers went to bars regularly. Joe didn’t go often, but occasionally he did. There were men known as “Special Branch” who would buy drinks for guys in the bars and see if they would drunkenly criticize the president. Joe told me once that a guy sat down with them with a round of beers and the Malawian he was with traced an S and a B on his arm with a finger. It was a warning to be careful and not drink too much. Everyone accepted this. The stories of the political prisons were famous and they were whispered regularly from ear to ear. I knew of no one who risked a visit to one of those.
We lived like that for two and a half years listening to speech after speech of the president telling everyone how great everything was. And I wrote that in my letters home. The Malawians lived with that for three decades before there was an actual presidential election. Last May there was another Malawian presidential election. The results were contested siting ballot counting irregularities in favor of the ruling party. When I was there in June I saw protest after protest calling for an investigation and recount. The protests forced a review by the electoral commission then the supreme court. The deliberations lasted for months. This past week the results were announced and the judges read the findings aloud for eight hours. I heard shops were closed as everyone was glued to their radios, listening. The judiciary nullified the election and called on the legislature to restructure the electoral process to be more representative.
Wow. What a difference forty years makes. I’m hoping someday we can be like Malawi.
Love to all,