Unwanted Elitism: Reflections on my first two weeks in Malawi


I walk down the beaten shoulder of the nearby two-lane highway, kicking up dust as I dodge rocks, jump gutters, and avoid getting hit by minibuses. On my way to Four Seasons—a high end shopping complex—a man rides up to me on his bicycle. With a smile and firm handshake, he explains that he is unemployed and asks me for a job. A beat later, a group of children chase me with their hands open and eyes wide, begging for my spare kwacha. When I arrive at the café, I am greeted by a sea of foreign faces paying international prices for imported food and Western flavors. I get my bill for Kw 5000 and carefully count out five 1000 Kwacha bills—each equating to $1.41 USD (the largest bill in this currency)—from my bulging wallet. I elect to walk the 15 minutes home instead of calling one of the many drivers at my disposal, and am greeted at my door by two guards, who salute me as I walk through the metal, barbed-wire gate.
In a nation dubbed as “the poorest country in the world,” the average GDP per capita in Malawi is a little over $225 USD. In the capital city, Lilongwe, water and electricity is rationed—with scheduled blackouts and water shortages. But in the country as a whole, only 7% of people have electricity. A girl is 500 times more likely to have a child before the age of 18 than go to college. And bad rains this year are projected to leave over 8 million people without food.
But as I navigate my new environment, I am constantly preoccupied with my inherent privilege. In 17 short days, I have joined an elite class of this society. I run in different circles than most Malawians—frequenting different restaurants, living in a different neighborhood, driving different cars, and working in different parts of town. It is as if I am a mere shadow in this city, observing the lives of others without really experiencing what it’s like to live here. My skin color automatically betrays my wealth. My plane ticket alone is more than many Malawians will earn in a decade. And for that, I am afforded every luxury this city has to offer.
Being here, in Lilongwe, is so different from any international experience I’ve had before. Perhaps I went to bigger cities with more infrastructure. Or perhaps my biracial features allowed me to escape more unnoticed in Asia than in Africa. Or maybe I haven’t visited places with such deep-rooted colonialism. But I can’t shake the feeling that this is somehow wrong. Why am I afforded 7 guards on my property and have a fleet of trained soldiers available 24/7 should I need them? Why is it expected for expats to employ one Malawian (who work as nannies, cooks, drivers, and gardeners for a monthly salary of less than I spend on a single night out) per member of their household? Why is this place so overrun by foreign well-wishers, here to provide services—albeit that are well needed—for a few years before going back to their home countries? And why is there such a clear class barrier between races?
There is nothing I have done to deserve this elevated treatment more than being born with white skin in an affluent country. I am no more talented or driven than the young leaders I’ve met in Malawi. But for some reason, I can travel over 10,000 miles from my home just because I want to, while others cannot. I see the appeal of the expat life: it’s comfortable. But am I really, truly learning as much as I can by sitting in my well-lit apartment with imported furniture, high-speed wifi, and hot showers? Is just being aware of privilege enough? Or am I betraying my own values by melding into this easy, upper-class life?

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