Is Malawi dangerous (for me)?

I’ve been updating here somewhat less since I’m now mostly out at my project’s field site, at a trading center in rural TA Mwambo. There in particular, and in Africa and Malawi in general, people worry about my safety. It’s basically taken for granted that Africa is a scary and dangerous place where I am likely to die. There’s some evidence for this view – I’m aware of a several cases of robbery against azungu researchers in Malawi, some of them extremely violent. And as I pointed out before, the death rate is much higher here than in the US.

But I’m not so readily convinced – that’s an unconditional mortality rate, and it’s dominated by, if not exclusively for, native-born Africans. Very few of the factors that raise the death rate for Africans have any bearing on me, just because I come here: I don’t face the same level of poverty or early-childhood malnutrition and disease, and even the limited health system is less of an issue for someone who carries mandatory MedEvac insurance. I do face the overall disease burden, but I’m fairly fastidious about HIV and malaria prevention.

What about crime and violence? Am I more likely to be the victim of a crime here? I noted above that there are lots of examples of horrific and violent burglaries here. But I’ve been robbed repeatedly in the US as well; at one pointing my house in a not-so-great part of San Francisco was robbed three times in a week, once when we were home. I also know about awful home invasions in America, some worse than I’ve heard of here. The counterargument is that my knowledge of Malawi goes back maybe 10 years (via hearsay and stories I’ve heard firsthand), as opposed to nearly 30 in the US. There’s no questioning that the US has tons of violence, though: twice in the past two weeks, crazy assholes have gotten powerful small arms and murdered tons of people for no reason there. That sort of thing basically doesn’t happen in Malawi, although there are parts of Africa where it does.

On balance, I’m not sold on this being a vastly less safe place than the US. Sure, I could still be killed by a snake or an elephant, but those are actually a lot rarer in Africa than National Geographic would have you believe. I did, however, experience the small joy of a live frog hopping under the door and into my rest house room. As a child I was pretty obsessed with frogs and never had much chance to find them, so this was pretty awesome, but the poor little guy was terrified, probably had poisonous skin, and had lots of claws and spines, so scooting him out of my room to safety was kind of nerve-wracking.

3 thoughts on “Is Malawi dangerous (for me)?”

  1. Glad that you are OK, Jase. And yeah, the US is becoming increasingly violent in terms of random murderous acts and attacks, or so it seems.

    Be safe, Pal.

  2. I love TA Mwambo. So awesome your work is there!

    As for security, I’ve been rather concerned about safety in Zomba — though I think Old Naisi (or anywhere there are lots of Azungu) is probably much worse than elsewhere. Still, I’ve had (Malawian) friends living in Chinamwali get burglarized. There are certainly ways to not make yourself a target (not being a jerk, not sharing your address with random guys in town, not flashing/changing money in town, etc.) — all things I’m sure you know with your years of experience traveling on the continent. When I lived there, I had a rather vicious dog that everyone was scared of (but me). It managed to bite someone and everyone in my house said we had to give it back. My Malawian friends begged me for her — they saw the biting incident as proof that she was an excellent guard dog. I could not convince the Azungu I lived with that she was essential for our safety. A year after I left that house and returned to the states, there was a terrible robbery. That was part of a spree of robberies in 2009-2010. Coincidentally, it happened during the hunger season.

    Our recent survey showed a lot of Malawians (particularly in Lilongwe district, not Zomba) are concerned with security in the country. There’s also been a lot of reporting about it and talk of it among opposition party folks. I’m not sure there’s been an increase in crime (particularly among the small expat community) or if this is all just one way for the opposition to attack Joyce Banda.

    I just hope you keep your wits about you and stay safe. In Mwambo and elsewhere, not just Malawi. In the end, I’m more concerned about my safety on the road when I’m in Malawi…

    1. I didn’t want to directly bring up the Big Brother house robbery out of respect for those involved, since I only know about it second-hand. It’s truly horrific, and on par with the most senseless crimes I’ve heard about anywhere. But partly for context and partly to reassure my mom, many of those awful things happened in the US, to people I know. There are terrible assholes everywhere.

      I agree 100% about the roads. Fortunately the partly-finished road to Mulanje is barely used at all (since it doesn’t go much of anywhere) and very high-quality. So during my project I’m probably safer than I was hanging out in Zomba or especially Lilongwe.

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