By Malcolm Oglesby
Editor’s note: Students from Michigan State University and the Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources are exploring frugal market innovations in Malawi. This is one of their reports.
During my 21 years of living I was always directly and indirectly identified as African-American. What I mean by these terms is that although I self-identify as African-American, I wouldn’t have a choice since society would identify me as such. As the practicum got closer and closer, I wondered how the people in Malawi would view me.
As this was my first time traveling to Africa, I experienced something unexpected. While meeting my Malawian colleagues there weren’t any questions of what I identify myself with, or no labels attached to my identity. This surprised me, as I expected some type of exaggerated acceptance or rejection with a series of questions of ” who I was”.
While going to the markets, I received a similar experience. I rarely got any strange looks, or any glares in amazement. What was more surprising to the Malawians was that I couldn’t speak Chichewa (the native language in Malawi). During these times, they would ask me to speak Chichewa. As I attempted to speak Chichewa, the Malawians would burst in laughter. I’m not sure it was due to me struggling to speak Chichewa or my “accent”.
As these incident continue to reoccur, I realize that they might see me as Malawian. Out of extreme curiosity I asked my Malawian colleague ” do they see me as different?” And she answered ” no. People see you as Malawian”. This intrigue me even more to ask my other Malawian colleague ” is their such thing as race in Malawi?” He laughs and said ” no, we just see everyone as Malawian regardless of skin color”. These findings surprised me, as I expect my brown skin and American accent to cause me to become an outlier.
During the time of me being here, it felt great that I was recognized by my character and not by the color of my skin. I enjoyed how that I was in an area that didn’t see color, just humans. With this mindset, I was more comfortable, knowing that I wasn’t judged for something that I couldn’t control.