Monday, June 9, 2014

The Lunch Dilemma: A Reflection on Space and Difference

Week 2
by Jodi-Ann Burey
Lilongwe, Malawi

Patio at "La Dolce Vita"
In the office in Lilongwe, it is customary for the staff to close the office and head home for lunch. Since I’m staying at a guest lodge and haven’t been able to pack a lunch to bring to work, the same question gets asked everyday, “What is Jodi-Ann going to do for lunch?” 

The first day, a coworker brought me to  “La Dolce Vita”, which is an Italian/American kind of restaurant where all the diplomats and expatriates go. I told her, don’t bring me here again! I don’t want burgers and fries. I can get that in the States!” She laughed and said that when Malawians go out to restaurants, they don’t eat Malawian food since they eat that at home already. With that, we ordered our chicken burgers with french fries and enjoyed a robust conversation about the limited opportunities for girls in the villages, reasons for distrust in the health system and foreign medications and the education system in Malawi— you know, typical light lunchtime conversation. 

The more I reflect on that moment, the more embarrassed I feel. It’s as though I said “Hey! I’m an American! Show me your cultural food!” How ignorant is that? It reminds me of the men who staff the entertainment at all inclusive resorts in Jamaica, who put on those hats with the long fake dreadlocks that stretches down to their sides, beating a steel drum shouting “Ire!” and “No problem, mon!” to tourists as they pass by. It’s embarrassing, but not in the sense of watching my culture being simplified and cheapened at these resorts, but I feel embarrassed on behalf of the American tourists, who either directly or indirectly demand such a performance of cultural difference— a commodification and subjugation of cultural differences. For me, it came from a different place of not wanting my Americanness to be catered to or creating an inconvenience for others. Regardless of the intent, I feel it is important to put moments like these in a greater context.

This moment prompted me to wonder whether we, as Westerners, expect “developing countries” to be just that. Always “developing”?  It’s like they’re buffering, trying to reach to the next step but never quite getting there. In some ways, does it also assume that the current state of their culture is where it has always been and the fact that french fries (or chips, depending on which side of the ocean) is now widely available somehow taints the purity of the culture? This difference? Western influence has been impacting Africa and African cultures way before the arrival of burgers and french fries [Insert long discussion here about the history of colonialism linking it to the rising global obesity epidemic].

Towards the end of the week, this lunch dilemma had been relatively solved. While on a few errands with the organization’s driver, I was taken to a hole-in-the-wall restaurant (which made me even more nostalgic for New York City) where I can get a full plate of food for K750 (About $1.75 USD). It's so much food, I can actually have it for lunch that day, dinner that night and lunch again tomorrow. 

This tastes just like a Jamaican dish my mother prepares: Rice and Stew Peas with Callaloo.

Near the restaurant, I saw these cargo containers that have been converted into stores and restaurants:

Woman walking near shop
Cargo container shops in Lilongwe

It’s interesting to me that these same ideas are promoted in the US as being either 1) trendy and hip (Brooklyn pop up flea markets), 

2) stylish minimalist homes (Seattle-based Cargotecture),

or 3) as a solution to help revitalize the bankrupt city of Detroit. 

These shipping containers illustrate the connections between physical space, but there are similarities in metaphorical spaces as well. The expatriates who live here have created a community for themselves- restaurants, bars, recreational spaces. This mirrors what many immigrant communities do when they migrate to the States, i.e. Chinatown, Little Italy, Frankenmuth in Michigan and so on. People create space.  Though the historical power dynamics between the two situations don't make it directly comparable, I think there's something to be said about this practice and how it impacts the community within and beyond.

Malawian band performs at Kumbali Country Lodge. This room is in the village center, a recreational space frequented by expatriates.

What an International Band! People from Malawi, neighboring countries and expats making music together. This is a great example of the power music has to create spaces for people to gather across differences.

Shadow of me and Nunga, the owner of the lodge were I'm staying. We went on a walk at 6am and bonded over everything between international politics, lessons we want to teach our children and how to encourage our parents to be healthier.

Sometimes we travel around the world, looking for difference, and if we’re open, we’ll find more similarities than anything else. This isn't as simple as that children's book “Everyone Poops”. This is a call to stop overexaggerating differences or oversimplifying similarities. Instead, I hope that myself and others learn to recognize our shared humanity and make spaces for the intersectionality between our differences and similarities. It is a critical balance.

Girls Walking to School. Reminds me of the film I saw recently, Girl Rising.


Malawi at 6:30am, I love this picture because it depicts Malawians starting out their day, as we all do around the world.


  1. Great pics! Interesting coincidence about your posting on shipping containers' innovative applications! Here's another use of those containers:
    Just received the link from Jessica, another WDI Fellow who's now in Thailand.

    Anyone else encounter other innovative uses of shipping containers where you are?

  2. Thanks for the link! I think this is a really interesting idea that can not only help underresourced areas in the Global South, but also has great applicability in the States, both in low income neighborhoods as well as more affluent areas.

  3. Another lovely post! I do enjoy reading your writing, seeing your photography and soaking up your insight. I'd also be remiss if I did not mention how your Frankenmuth shoutout warmed my heart!

    Missing you as always,