I’m writing this from Migori, Kenya, a small town near the border with Tanzania. I am here to do some preliminary work in preparation for a small project I’ll be carrying out here next year with a few colleagues. (more on this later)
If I’m really honest with myself, I have to admit that I have been more comfortable in Kenya, even in this small, remote town, than I have ever been in Malawi.
I have been trying and trying to put my finger on why, but I haven’t yet. What I do know is that is has something to do with not being as different here as I always am in Malawi. Maybe that’s because Kenyans are richer, more educated, less isolated, have a real, modern city for a capital, or maybe it’s because there are more white and more middle class Kenyans than Malawians. I don’t know. I just know that people don’t look at me, I’m not as conspicuous, and even if they inevitably notice me, no one gives two shits about who I am or where I come from. Foreigners are constatnly talking about how friendly Malawians are, but I guess for me that friendliness and curiosity is tiresome. I just want to be seen as a person, and not a white person, or a bank, or a novelty to be pointed at. And more importantly, I want to not be seen, something that seems possible here. This afternoon I had a liesurely lunch on a balcony and read the paper. People were all around, but it was like I wasn’t there. And that, more than anything anyone could have said or done, made me feel welcome in this place.
To say all this feels like a betrayal of a country and a people that I’ve come to feel very attached to. Like I’m somehow “cheating” on Malawi. I still find myself walking around Kenya, constructing sentences in my head in Chichewa. I feel a pang in my gut when I remember that I won’t be speaking that tongue anytime soon.
Malawi was never really very easy for me. There were times that were some of the most amazing of my life, and I made real friends that will stand the test of time and distance. But a lot of the time there was hard, in a way that it’s easier for me to see now that I am gone. Somehow, being in Kenya has clarified for me some of my feelings about Malawi. In the past, I’ve always gone straight back to Europe or the US, at which point the comforts of the West and the familiarity of home coincided with leaving Malawi and Africa, such that I couldn’t sort out what it felt like to be gone independently from being really happy to be home. But being in Kenya, in what feels like a middle place between those two worlds, I see much more clearly what an alien I was in Malawi. I could never fit in there, never be seen beyond my appearance, except for by a few. And right now, that feels very devastating to realize.
I had a lot of stories I wanted to tell you all, like how I got the best haircut of my life from a flamboyanlty gay Kenyan man in Nairobi or how the only white guy I’ve seen since leaving Nairobi (in the really small border town of Isebania) was some random Spanish guy I had met over a year ago in an equally small town in Malawi. But right now I’m just mourning my time in Malawi, both missing it and feeling relief that I am not there right now.
Despite the sadness I feel at admitting that Malawi was not easy, I also feel like I could never love Kenya the way I do Malawi, particuarly because of that difficulty. It’s how all things in life are, no? Easy things are boring. I told me friend (whom I met in Malawi) this the other day, and she laughed, but this is the best analogy I can come up with: being in Malawi is like camping. Your days are simpler in that you have many less tasks at hand, but days are more complicated by the fact that they few tasks for the day – eating, washing, etc. – become much more complicated to achieve. Things are uncomfortable in many ways, from your bowels to your bed, but that serves to make you appreciate the small comforts only that much more. Just like with camping, each day is challenging and brings the unexpected, and even on the days when you are reduced to tears at some point, you know you will look back with hindsight on that disaster as an adventure. But, at the end of the day, no one wants to camp forever. And it was time for me to leave Malawi.