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Malawi may be famous as the home of superstar Madonna’s children, but off the major M1 highway and away from the cameras is a community of refugees who live in camp Dzaleka. For them, life is a mix of normalcy, monotony, and struggle. Because of the sensitivity of the subject, people’s names in the article have been changed.
Text and photos by: Margaret Godoy
Country: Malawi

n Dzaleka, the days begin regularly enough. One young resident says, “I wake up between 7 and 8 a.m. Only when I was teaching, I woke up at 6 a.m. to prepare for school.” They end as one might expect: listening to the radio, prayer, and then bed, usually between 9 and 11 p.m. The days are full of normal activities that take place in homes across the world. Meals are prepared, people chat with friends or play basketball, and watch TV. However, it’s impossible to escape the context in which these daily events occur, since Dzaleka is a refugee camp located in the Dowa District of Malawi.

If you follow celebrity gossip, there’s a good chance that you’ve heard of Malawi. After all, it’s the country from which Madonna, the Queen of Pop, chose to adopt her two youngest children, Mercy and David. You probably also know all about Madonna’s philanthropic project, called Raising Malawi, and how she pledged $15 million to build a girl’s academy, half an hour north of the nation’s capital, Lilongwe. But for those of you who regularly skip over the entertainment section of your daily newspaper, here is a very basic introduction to Malawi.

The Republic of Malawi, also known as “The Warm Heart of Africa,” is a landlocked country located in southeast Africa bordering Tanzania, Zambia, and Mozambique. Until 1964, it was a British colony, and because of that influence, English remains the official language of commerce, government, and higher education, although Chichewa is the native language spoken by the majority of the rural demographic. It’s a tiny country, just 118,480 square kilometers, with a population of 15 million. However, Malawi suffers from devastating rates of HIV/AIDS, and about 11 percent of the population is estimated to live with the disease. This, of course, contributes to the extreme poverty that the majority of the population lives in, surviving on less than USD$1 a day.

Despite their hardships, Malawians are famous for their friendliness and warmth as a people. Within the backpacker community, it has earned the nickname of “Africa for beginners” and is an increasingly popular tourist destination. The tourists come to visit the national parks, to go on safaris, and of course, to swim in the country’s jewel: Lake Malawi. While the country is still considered to be developing, basic infrastructure allows for comfortable travel and is constantly improving, especially with the recent increase in investments from China that are paving roads and constructing buildings all over Malawi.

The M1 highway is one of these nicely paved roads, and it acts as the country’s main north/south transportation route. Tourists use it all the time to get from the rolling plains of central Malawi to the mountainous plateaus in the north, and so did Madonna’s entourage in October 2009 when they held the groundbreaking ceremony for her girls’ academy. What remains largely unnoticed, however, is the non-descript turn-off that exists along the M1 less than an hour north of the Raising Malawi project’s proposed site. The turn-off is a dusty road that runs for several bumpy miles east of the M1 and at the end of the turn off, out of sight from the M1, lives approximately 10,000 refugees: this is Dzaleka.

As David, a former Dzaleka resident, notes “Malawi is …one of the peaceful sub-Saharan countries on the African continent,” and its relative nonviolence means that The Warm Heart of Africa has hosted refugees for decades. In the 1970s the refugees came from neighboring Mozambique, but today… “they are mostly from Somalia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, Ethiopia, and Rwanda,” David says.

The camp is unique in that it allows for permanent residences to be built, and so, to the unsuspecting observer, Dzaleka Refugee Camp could be mistaken for any regular village. In amongst the rows of houses, there is a community center, a primary and secondary school. There is a vocational center for adults, an internet café, churches of all denominations, a computer lab, tailors, sports fields, restaurants, bars, bakeries, and convenience stores that sell just about anything you need, including talk-time for your cellphone.

In this light, there is really nothing unremarkable about the way Christopher, a young student, describes his typical day. “During the day, I stayed home [after finishing secondary school], doing household chores, maintaining the house, and taking care of my little sister since my mum was at work. In the evenings I used to hang out with friends … and sometimes I just stayed home with my family. Mostly I liked chatting with my mum in the kitchen when she was cooking dinner.”

Yet, a strong feeling of restlessness and desperation hangs over the camp. Again, David explains: “Although UNHCR and other non-governmental organizations work with tireless effort to provide basic needs to these refugees, their lives are still full of misery because of a lack of basic needs, and psychological misery as a result of the loss of their brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers and relatives and also through living a hopeless life.”

This sense of hopelessness is impossible to escape. There are a few jobs provided by the various non-governmental organizations that work within the camp, including positions as translators and teachers, however, for the majority of refugees it is nearly impossible to find work. This is because though the Government of Malawi does its best to accommodate the refugees that cross its borders, they restrict the rights of these refugees by not allowing freedom of movement within the country and access to the Malawian economy through work. Malawi is just too poor a country to withstand the competition for jobs that the refugees would present.

And so, not permitted to build a life in Malawi and unable to return to their war-torn homes, the refugees of Dzaleka live in an odd state of limbo. The day-to-day carries on relentlessly, always within the strict parameters set by the camp administrators. While there are schools to attend, Christopher points out that because they are not permitted to legally seek employment or pursue higher education in Malawi, “most young people in the camp usually have nothing to do after they finish high school.”

Life as a refugee may be best illustrated by Paul, another former resident of Dzaleka. “You wake up without any plan,” says Paul, “because the refugees are not supposed to go out of the camp without permission or authority, or to work outside of it. People live in the present, with no plan for tomorrow unless there is someone to help you out of that life.”

David agrees, saying “… some have no other choice apart from spending their daily life arguing or chatting within the refugee camp even though some of them are professionals. They have no choice as their liberty is limited.”

Dzaleka is out of sight from the tourist-ridden M1, and unfortunately this also means that for the most part their daily struggles and suffering are out of mind. There are, however, signs of hope from within the camp, as can be seen in this message from David: “All in all, I wish to encourage my fellow human beings in Dzaleka refugee camp and in all refugee camps to have hope for positive change in their lives. The war might have destroyed your home and your past, but your future is still there.”

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