I’ve been thinking more about the issue of classism lately. Especially as a visiting Westerner, it’s easy to overlook this here in Malawi. Anytime I go outside in a rural area, people stop what they’re doing so that they can pay close attention to what I’m doing. If I enter a room where someone is busy (cooking food, for example), they immediately stop what they’re doing, and in what I think is a mixture of both nervousness and ingrained customs of being overly-respectful towards guests of certain races, they make a big gesture of giving me a wide berth and greeting me. When constantly dealing with this hyper-attention, one has a tendency to be ignorant towards the happenings in their absence.
Over time, the novelty of the mzungu’s presence wears off, and the mzungu can observe the regular ebb and flow of things. One begins to understand certain things that aren’t discussed in the Lonely Planet guide, things that aren’t seen along the tarmac road on the way to a weekend at the lake, and things that aren’t discussed at big NGO meetings in the cities. Compared to most visitors to Malawi, I think it is safe to say that I have relatively good insight into the good, the bad, and the ugly here. Over the years I’ve discussed many of these insights (at times foolishly you’ll notice if you read some of the early posts) but this new topic has been on my mind more lately. I think it’s because during this two-month trip I’ve been spending more time around people of higher socioeconomic status (SES) and observing how they treat those of lower SES. While here as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I spent the majority of my time living and working alongside the most populous social class in Malawi, the rural poor. Analyzing something familiar from a new angle often leads to new realizations. One of my favorite authors, Paul Theroux once wrote: “In countries where all the crooked politicians wear pin-striped suits, the best people are bare-assed.” I now agree more with this generalization than I did four years ago. Let me explain why.
My point is not to say that classism composes the ugly part of this society disproportionately more than any place else. While that may actually be true (requiring a longer discussion then I have the energy for today), my point is to say that this problem of classism is frequently overlooked with respect to discussions on development, aid, social justice, and even in everyday life. This holds true for both foreigners like me and for Malawians. Unless you’re a dirty Peace Corps Volunteer, a bankrupt diamond trader, or a Chinese criminal, most foreigners here immediately fall into the category of bourgeoisie. Most of them (us) are either here for enjoyment, business, or some sort of adventure to save the world. With the cost of travel and such, it’s not really possible for foreigners of lower SES to end up here. Consequently, the foreigners that Malawians interact with are disproportionately well off, and Malawians then have a very skewed view the distribution of social classes in developed countries (also think about how this works in the other direction, eg. Americans’ misperceptions of Africans). Putting aside the fact that foreigners here further deepen the valleys between the social classes of Malawi, as I described a little in the beginning, most visitors to Malawi simply don’t have the desire or time to think about classism within the local population. The ladder allowing folks to climb to higher SES is much more slippery here in Malawi than the ladder many complain about in the US. There is no question that this is intentional. In a place where the supply for all resources continues to fall behind a rapidly growing population, those at the top keep a tight hold on their position. Read the Wikipedia article on “Structural Violence” for an overview of how this is done. There are some that manage to break free from these ridged social structures (see my post “A Feel Good Story” from 2011--the story has only gotten better over the past few years), but for a long time here, the rich have been getting richer and the poor have been getting poorer. With this happening over generations now, and with criticisms to the situation either absent or silenced, I’ve seen that classism here is so ubiquitous that it’s easy to overlook and even easier to ignore.
Although this entire issue can’t be traced back to the legacy of colonialism, I think this has certainly been a big factor. Malawi is a former British colony. From what I’ve been able to gather, the two sides—the British and what are now called Malawians—had a fairly peaceful relationship. The British utilized the cheap local labor to get filthy rich farming things such as tea. Placated by small improvements in their quality of life (eg. from wearing loin cloths to a proper pair of trousers), the Malawians took decades to realize how thoroughly they were exploited. Nonetheless, during the time of British rule, it was made very clear who were the “haves” and who were the “have nots.” When Malawi gained its independence in the 1960s, there were suddenly many new “haves” from the local population. They were quick to adopt the power-concentrating and resource-hoarding practices of their former leaders. Over the years, these tendencies have become more prominent and acceptable in the society. As an American, I would be a big fat hypocrite to criticize any of this. I’m just spelling it out for you. Again, the presence of classism in a poor country like this is of no surprise. It’s the blatant ignoring of it that amazes me.
Here are some experiences that I have had pertaining to all this. I’m currently working on a sanitation project at a seminary school in Malawi. The priests have been gracious enough to host me while I’m around for a few days managing the purchases for the project and monitoring the progress. They’ve provided me with good local food, a nice place to sleep, and transport to and from the school, all free of charge. In this rural environment, compared to most of the population in the area these priests live a very comfortable lifestyle. Most religious leaders in the US, at least where I’m from in the Midwest, have relatively modest lifestyles. Although the circumstances are much different here in one of the top five poorest countries in the world, religious leaders in Malawi hold much higher social status—both in terms of respect given to them and relative lifestyle and comfort. All that being said, I’ve been closely observing how the priests interact with the ground labors and helpers at the school. There’s definitely a air of authority that the priests walk around with. They routinely scold our cook about the food he cooks. He either picks the wrong food to cook or he picks the right food but doesn’t cook it properly. There’s always something wrong. The other night I tried to suggest that it was silly for us to be so fussy about the food when our friends in the nearby villages were barely getting one meal per day. I didn’t hear any response to this.
At the hospital I was working for six weeks, there was an interesting dynamic between the healthcare providers (eg. doctors, nurses, and other mid-level providers) and the patients, who were mostly poor subsistence farmers from the nearby area. There’s a huge gap in the SES of the providers and patients at the hospital. This holds true at most healthcare facilities in the country, but I think the difference is especially striking at this hospital that is relatively well funded (and therefore able to hire better educated staff—who, it almost goes without saying, are of higher SES) but also serves a mostly rural population. Who am I to judge, but I did find the staff to be regularly condescending to the patients and their caregivers. Seeing the staff shouting at these people was not uncommon. When interviewing patients about the history of their illness, they would often falsely shorten the timeframe. When I enquired the reason behind this, I was told that it was because they’re scolded by staff for delaying to seek care. The patients therefore lie about how long they’ve been sick in order to avoid being yelled at. Someone even informed me that women in labor were often slapped and ridiculed by staff when they weren’t pushing hard enough. A visiting American doctor mentioned to me briefly that he believes this issue of pervasive classism is a largely overlooked issue in discussion about improving healthcare in developing countries like Malawi. It was this little discussion that actually got me thinking more and more about this topic and eventually writing all this. His concern is that higher status providers simply don’t care enough about their lower status patients. The unexpected death of a well to do nurse’s child is a tragedy, but the death of a poor farmer’s child is very common and not much cause for concern. The farmer should have done a better job raising the child anyway.
Growing up in sort of suburban America, I never really experienced having servants or workers. But here in Malawi, as a consequence of some of the history here that I’ve already described and also a huge amount of low-skilled labor, the “haves” often have multiple people working for them in their homes: cooks, gardeners, maids, nannies, guards, etc. Often these people are desperate and grateful for the work. The “haves” get by paying these people very low wages (it’s the market price, after all), and as masters of their domain, they can show their dominance over their staff by scolding, micromanaging, and complaining about them. From what I can tell from reading books and watching too much TV, I suppose this type of master-servant relationship is nothing new in the context of world history. Maybe it’s just ignorant, middle-class dudes from the Midwest like me who are surprised by it all.
I regularly listen to the BBC, and the other morning they had a program about the death of the middle class in developed countries (not to be confused with “developING" countries like Malawi). They mentioned that the main reason for this is that more and more jobs are being taken over by machines and computers. I don’t know how they measure this, but they also stated that for the first time in the history of the United States, this year less than half of the US population is in the “middle class.” To overgeneralize and oversimplify (which my English teachers in college would never allow me to do, but this is my blog and I don’t have to listen to them anymore), I think a strong middle class is a major solution to this issue of classism. As we continue to struggle with so many other “-ism’s” in the US, I wonder if the issue of classism will continue to grow in the Land of the Free.