On the azungu effect – Aaron

The subject of this piece will come as little surprise to most, particularly those fortunate enough to be accorded the opportunity to travel to different parts of the world. The “azungu” effect is something I’ve observed and experienced in different settings. It essentially refers to the feeling of being an outsider, and, in certain instances, being treated differently because of this perception or fact.

Without a doubt, this feeling is fairly pronounced for me at present due to my physical appearance. But it has cause me to consider a number of things. For instance, how often does this take place in less obvious settings? How does a lone female hockey player feel when she is on a team otherwise composed solely of males?How is she treated, and how does this compare to how she would like to be treated? What about a mature student in an university classroom? I must consider not only how I feel when placed in such situations – that is, when I and those around me are conscious of a perceived difference in that setting – but also how I act when I am part of the majority.

Surely, this is an important consideration in the field of community development and social justice. After all, those operating within these realms of activity are often striving to amplify the voices of those found in society’s margins, those who are perceived as different. Although I fear now that I am off on a tangent, it is an important one to explore.

Contrary to this societal marginalization, I have become uncomfortably aware that this effect is reversed when referring to a white male in a Malawian context. I have come to realize that, unlike other places I’ve had the opportunity to visit – albeit in different, more recreational capacities – this context is fairly unique. Although I’ve limited my explorations and errand-running to a certain district of Kasungu (a town of approximately 70,000 that I often frequent), it is fairly apparent that the numbers of “azungus” are fairly limited.

While I am conscious of this reality when I am walking through town, or indeed, through the rural community where I work and live, it is not something that bothers me. Of course, the odd comment might sound strange. Some statements give me pause, as I consider where they might have arisen from. Oftentimes, one can recognize them as a product of the neo-colonial framework that has cast its shadow over Malawi for several decades.

I felt and experienced the full force of this effect on a couple of occasions this past weekend. I had the real pleasure and privilege of attending a wedding that was taking place in a neighbouring village to where I am living. An invitation had been extended to a close colleague – in fact, the ceremony was being held in her home village – and I had the chance to tag along as her plus one. I had little idea what to expect, but was excited. I’ve often been told that weddings are fantastic ways to learn about the context in which they take place. Please allow me a moment to recount this experience, as it has been on my mind a great deal.

When we arrived, parading in on bicycle taxis, it was apparent that this would differ greatly from the few weddings I’d had the opportunity to frequent in Canada. It was being held on a soccer field (a fantastic use of a communal space!), and consisted of a fenced in area, wherein the bride and groom were sitting under a lean-to canopy, surrounded by groomsmen and bridesmaids. Opposite them, there was a similar structure, under which there were a number of plastic chairs, arranged in rows.

As my colleague and I made our way through the outer crowds – primarily composed of fairly intoxicated men – we were spotted by one of the women who was a member of a cooperative operating largely on the campus. She was a member of the “organizing committee” for the event, and we were quickly ushered through the crowd and to a pair of vacant plastic chairs.

This is where the azungu effect began to precipitate. We were seated in the front row of this viewing area, well shaded and in plain view. A master of ceremonies, somehow bearing the heat while wearing a predominantly wool suit, was doing a great deal of talking, and although I was able to catch a few familiar Chichewa words, much of it was lost on me.

I soon learned from my colleague that a great deal of the ceremony would surround the giving of “gifts” to the newlyweds. In fact, she should have said that this was to be the entirety of the event. For three hours, various groups with associations to the bride and groom were called forward into the centre of the fenced-in region, as wedding organizers would present plastic bins. The DJ, whose amazing name I unfortunately cannot recall, would play a song, and those in the middle would begin tossing money – mostly 20, 50, and 100 kwacha bills – into the bins. Some who do this modestly, others would take the “make-it-rain” approach. Still others made a distinct effort to demonstrate that this somewhat forced donation was essentially a non-event – this was reserved largely for the wealthier members of the guest list. These periods would last indefinite periods of time, often based upon the size of the group, although sometimes “goals” were set.

At one point, I was asked by a gentleman to my left what my name was, and I was instantly aware of what this meant. Sure enough, following a group of out-of-townees, the emcee called up the azungu group. I was alone on this one, and the target was jokingly set at 18,000 kwacha. I did my best impression of the dancing that had taken place throughout the entire ceremony, while I tossed 20s and 50s into the bin extended towards me. The song the DJ had chosen was “Loyal” by Chris Brown (featuring Lil’ Wayne and Tyga, lest you forget). To my relief, some others came to my side, and the session was ended.

As I returned to my seat, I could not bring myself to look at the bride and groom. Who was this jackass, they must have thought. Or at least, this was my thoughts. While it was an absolutely amusing experience, I couldn’t help but feel like a wedding crasher. I felt terrible for potentially diminishing what was surely an exciting and wonderful day for this couple. My colleague assured me that this was all in good fun…

A second instance of this effect took place the following day, although this one featured a decidedly lower dosage of Messrs. Brown, Wayne, and Tyga. I attended a service at the local presbyterian church, as I had done the previous two Sundays, in the hopes of familiarizing myself with various members of the community. Towards the end of the service, I was invited to the front of the church, introduced, and asked to briefly address the congregation. Once again feeling out of place, I mentioned something about community, coming together, and not understanding most of the service.

Admittedly, this was a very pleasant experience when contrasted with that which had taken place the day before.

IMG_0116
My view from outside during one fundraising mosh pit

In all, these happenings have made me all the more conscious of how I comport myself. It is all the more essential that positive personal values are solidified, and these are used as guides for actions and intentions. Simultaneously, as I began to unpack earlier, this has made me more aware of those who are unwillingly cast into the spotlight – be it due to gender, age, ability, experience, or any other way of being. Alongside these, we find those who have perhaps never felt the glow of said spotlight.

These are those who may possess the assets, knowledge, and experiences that can help guide a process of positive social change. In large part, they will be the beneficiaries of said change. They are, in a way, the embodiment of asset-based, citizen- and community-driven development. It is these individuals and groups, maybe, who I should seek to unpack the azungu effect with – among many other things. They would, undoubtedly, have interesting things to say about it.

Equally important, I must bring these learnings out of the personal sphere, and cast them upon the beautifully complex tapestry that is the Chilanga community and the community campus initiative that I’ve sought to incorporate myself into. As I was reminded by a fellow fellow (the brilliant Rachel Garbary, whose blog entry I encourage all to read and reflect upon), how does my own positionality – as an azungu, as a young man, as a fellow – fit into this context? How can this position bring positive change? Does it foster participation, ownership, and sustainability, or squander it? These questions and more will be essential considerations as I continue to move through and operate within this space.

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