Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Mapalo Musungu Messiah Complex

{more journal thoughts on Mapalo. This post isn't about the majority, just some of the people I have bumped into}

He Wishes For The Cloths Of Heaven
"Had I the heavens' embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams. " - William Butler Yeats


"Hey Mzungu! How are you? You see when the rains come my house floods, wont you help me?"
"Mzungu, I want my kid in school! I want my kid in school! Help me, my kid in school!"
"Mzungu! I just need a little bit, I haven't eaten in days."

The voices of Mapalo were a varied sort and are impossible to structure into a homogeneous grouping of beliefs, values, and attitudes. However, one occasional trend in some of the voices I hear day in and day out resounds with the idea of the Mzungu Messiah.

High noon; the sun has reached its zenith and for the pale fleshed Mzungu this is the hottest time of day. Even in the Zambian cold season the sun is a cruel master and when I walk in the open fields I am in its domain. The intensity of the sun beaming down can, especially on a hot day, be exhausting. Walking through Mapalo towards the outskirts placed me at such a time and in such a place; it was high noon and I was in an open field. I decided to regroup after the morning long walk in the shade of a school house wall, and it was here that I met a small scale agricultural worker. He is a shorter man whose face and hands both bear the scars of years of the intense physical labour it takes to be a farmer; cheeks weathered by countless days spent under the sun working in the soil, and hands calloused and rough from hours using hand held shovels and ploughs. Working the soil on the outskirts of Mapalo for small yield crops was his trade. He had been a farmer for years and could tell me many things about cropping, irrigation, and raising livestock. And he did. But he told me "I am so glad that you, a Mzungu, would come and speak with me today for now I will learn many things and gain your wisdom, you will help my work so much". These words were troubling to me - why does this man think that me, an ignorant pale skinned Mzungu, would have any wisdom about agriculture to share? Any wisdom about life in Zambia in general?

It's late in the afternoon - the sun has began its final decent towards distant horizons. I'm walking home from a day of exploration through the winding pathways, rich in red dirt, of Mapalo. Walking through a woman approaches me, climbing over a few shrubs and past a toppled bicycle in disrepair, with a very determined look on her face. She has no sublety or grace in the way she bluntly accosts me: "Mzungu, I want my kid in school! I want my kid in school! Help me, my kid in school!". Her face bears no smile in her plea, her few remaining crooked teeth becoming visible between words, the scent of liqour heavy on her breath.


Wandering through Mapalo in the early morning is my favourite time to become a fly on the wall. The day has just begun and more and more Mapalo is becoming a hive of activity and energy - it is emerging from its slumber and greats the day with unbridled vigor. My companion on the walk continually tells me "Patrick, it would be so very good for you to share a picture of the lives of Mapalo when you return home" - I tell him that this is part of the JF program as well as matter of great personal importance. "Good, good" he says, "now many more Mzungu will journey here and our problems will be solved."

Speaking with people in Mapalo is a highlight for me - I get a glimpse into their world and can share a glimpse of mine too. I've made a few friends this way but also had some rather awkward situations. Walking through one of the larger roads in Mapalo I come to a clearing - a man is begging on the ground asking me for money. My companion grabs my arm and says "we should keep walking, do not listen to this man". I am in Mapalo to learn so I decide to hear what exactly it is this man is begging for - he says "Malaria medicine, it is too much to buy". I ask my companion what kind of networks are in place to get the poor medicines in Mapalo - before I get an answer another man walks up and with a loud and commanding voice - "Mzungu! Do not listen to this man, he is begging here everday. Malaria! HAH he doesn't have Malaria." We chat for a bit and quite the crowd is growing around - children fascinated by the Mzungu and many adults saying things to me in Bemba. I am later told that the people were thinking I am about to give the beggar something, just because I spoke with him, and are hoping to get help too. The man who informed me the beggar didn't have Malaria then begins to ask me for assistance with his house - it floods he says.


These are just a few examples of the 'Mzungu Mesiah Complex' I have observed in my travels in and around Mapalo. The image of the Mzungu is varied person to person, but it would seem that quite a few people, view the Mzungu as a person of wealth or wisdom. Immediately it is assumed that the Mzungu will have money to buy foods and medicines and have wisdom to solve any problem. This in many ways, in my opinion at least, is a crippling mind set. Is it previous interactions with whites, cultural myths, or just simple begging? This is a multi dimensional situation that really makes it hard for a Mzungu to integrate - but also puts an emotional toll of guilt on me as an individual. I want to help people, to empathize with people, and understand them - this is where my heart is. But, when people put such hope on you as a source of solutions to all their problems it is a heavy situation.

If I am to give that one woman money to send her kid to school what would I say to all the kids in Mapalo who didn't get money? How do I know this money would be used for her child? Instead of giving her money I refer her to the Teacher I was staying with, who charges a meager five thousand a term for schooling, or even gives it for free it it is unaffordable. She spoke with him, I do not know the result - I hope her child will go to school.


While sharing the Mapalo perspective with Canada was received with joy sharing with my guide the perspective I have on Mzungus in Zambia was something he was not so eager to hear. As best as I could I responded to his remark about more Canadians by asking him how he sees Mzungus helping the community? He just said "they'll help us". Taking a different approach I explained how I was staying in Mapalo to learn from the people since Mzungus come to Zambia completely ignorant about the realities of his community. I continued by remarking that since Mzungus are so blind to these realities how can he expect us to save his community? "Would you want a blind man to drive your mini bus?", "then why would you want a Mzungu, blinded by ignorance to steer the future of your community?" - We continued to discuss and decided that the role of the Mzungu isn't to solve problems but to share what they have so that together we can learn from one another and help the community solve its problems where we can - but that development of the community must be driven by the community.

Farming. This is something I should really learn a lot more about. Through my new friend in Mapalo I was able to - and he wanted wisdom so I shared with him the only wisdom I had. If he expects a Mzungu who has never lived on a farm to give his new wisdom and solutions than he is waiting for rains in the dry season. Some Azunga might know how to farm well in Canada, or even in Zambia, but to assume that we are all wise is not helping him. I spent all afternoon, under the scorching sun, helping him with his work. Speaking with him, asking questions, and fetching lots of water to irrigate. I was able to share the Canadian perspective and was able to learn from his Zambian one - but at the end of the day he still asked me for answers, "Now that you have seen and worked on the farm maybe you know how to make it better?". I told him I would have to think long and hard. Sure I had some half baked ideas about how to make his irrigation work easier, or ideas about pursuing different markets for his cash crops and so on - but this is a man's livelihood. I can't just start sharing ideas with him, especially after he has expressed that he sees Mzungu wisdom as infallible, so I am thinking long and hard. Every time I see him we speak, laugh, and share but at the end he still sees me as a wiseman when my actions have not reflected such.


Instead of trust being based on merit it is based on skin colour. In this community, which is composed of so many vulnerable households, I am beginning to understand why some things or people are perceived as symbols of hope and why this is so profound for a household. Be it the beggars in the streets to the mothers who want their children in school a certain amount of people in the community see a Mzungu and immediately think "Here is a solution to all our problems." One man followed me around for an hour the whole time telling me about his life, he kept motioning to his stomach the whole time. Eventually he left - was I just seen as a free meal?

Morally is it right to feed one man? To perpetuate this Mzungu Messiah Complex? To feed one when many need food? To send one child to school? How do I pick who? I am torn between helping with the immediate problems and showing people that the white man isn't the solution to their problems - they are.

A very good friend of mine who is a tailor assures me the path I have taken is the right one - "You see, my friend, in Zambia we have this idea that since there are no jobs we cannot work. Since we cannot work we cannot feed ourselves or send our childs to school. When the whiteman pities us with his petty cash he only perpetuates these problems - these social problems. What you do is just okay - share with them your perspective not your prosperity". He takes a breath and looks me in the eyes with an intense stare - "as I have said before, my friend, I have not succumbed to poverty. When my job was lost I made myself a business making clothes. I do not give up and I have never taken a hand out from anyone. If more Zambians did this our problems would disappear. If you cannot make money, make clothes make something! But sinking into despair, my friend, is a problem so many have. If you give them your petty cash they sink further." This conversation gave me some level of vindication for my actions - but I still feel immense guilt about betraying the faith and hope people have placed in me. Even if it is shallow begging or this romanticized idea of the Mzungu being a fountain of wisdom - when someone begs you for help with an intense fire in their eyes, even if you have rationalized it out that for the long term "Awe - no" is the better response the guilt is still over whelming.

Another man I met, under the shade of a bar roof around a table with cups of shake-shake, was seemingly drunk but also had an interesting perspective. He told me of his agriculture and how he really needs help. I asked him what kind of help he wanted and he said he needs more man power to market his crops to middle scale hotels and restaurants. Someone who has business knowledge and a nice shirt to make a good impression. I told him that I thought it was a brilliant idea - he asked me to help. I told him about my work with AFMAC and he told me to stick to that and be sure to share his story with my friends. I told him that HE can be the one to make such connections.

I feel the action I took with the woman and her child was one of the few things I have done right in this short time in Zambia - I didn't make any promises, I explained to her how unfair it is to other children if I pay for her, and I recommended her to pursue a solution in the community. I wanted to make it clear that I cannot solve her problems anymore than I can make it rain or cause earthquakes and I wanted her to take action on her own beyond the begging. I hope she took personal action to meet with a school teacher and get her child to school through that. Maybe she didn't have a kid to send to school, maybe she just wanted some cash off me? Maybe she was so drunk that she had no idea what was going on (her breath was scented with an intense mixture of listerine and whiskey)? Next time I see the school teacher I shall see. Is this the kind of wisdom as a Mzungu I can offer? To not wait for the rain but to seek it out for yourself?


So this social problem, as my friend calls it, may not be afflicting everyone - but in my short time here I have seen it often enough to think that, like my friend tells me, it is a social problem that I CANNOT contribute too. But still, the guilt of having so much hope placed on you is immense. As I said in my last blog entry about Mapalo - the simple act of staying in Mapalo home was seen by Teacher as the swan song of poverty - things will start to change. In Zambia you can really realize how powerless you are to send kids to school, give people jobs, assist people's health, and all in all positively impact the community - yet people still ask you to do as much. It's crushing.

The weight is crushing in two ways - one is that true friendships and profound relationships are that much harder to foster when people see you as a wallet or miracle worker. Another, as I have said before and am probably pumping a dry well here (or going on like a broken record) is that being the one who is making faith/hope unrequited is painful, even if you do not have the means and have rationalized your actions. To me it is heart wrenching to be unable to help people in a tangible way. Is this me being selfish?



Next blog post: my thoughts on how NGOs, volunteers, and aid organizations contribute to the continuation of the Mzungu Mesiah Complex through their actions, their words, and how they view themselves in Zambia.

1 comment:

  1. This was fascinating and so well-written. Alright, so it played a little like a broken record, but one with lots to say! Buck up Patrick, it sounds like at the very least you're thinking everything through, which is a lot more than most are capable of doing in the same situation.
    Best, Leilani

    ReplyDelete