From Malawi to New Zealand… Coming Home

When I began to write this I thought: no problem! However it has been quite a challenge. While this little introduction is at the beginning I wrote it last of all, for two reasons. 
  • There is an old saying: “Home is where the heart is”. Well, I realised as I wrote that part of my heart is still in Dzaleka Refugee Camp in Malawi and that it will take a bit of time to retrieve it. 
  • I am aware from conversations that the idea many people have of refugee camps is one of rows of tents on a barren waterless plain near a zone of destruction somewhere in the developing world. This is certainly true of emergency situations. However Dzaleka Refugee Camp in Malawi is more a refugee settlement and I would like to tell something about it as part of this article.
Dzaleka 
There are all sorts of refugee camps and settle-ments, mostly in the developing world. Dzaleka Refugee Camp in Malawi is quite small with roughly 15,000 residents and is the only refugee camp in Malawi. All asylum seekers arriving in Malawi are obliged to live there. Other countries like Pakistan and Kenya have some very large camps. One camp in Kenya has over 250,000 residents. 
 
Let me describe Dzaleka. First of all, the people. While there are 11 nationalities in the camp the three main groups are from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda and Burundi. The main language spoken is Swahili, although French, English and some local languages are also spoken. There are still a few people who have lived in Dzaleka since it opened in 1994. Dzaleka is 202 hectares in size and used to be a political prison. It is situated on a plateau 45 kilometres north east of Lilongwe, the capital city of Malawi. As it is an open camp there are no guards or fences as there are in some camps. However residents need a pass from the camp administrator to leave the camp. 
As you can see from the photos, people live in mud-brick shelters with thatched roofs. The floors are usually com-acted dirt. There are no paved roads. However, there is a main street with shacks selling the basic necessities of life. There are also bars and restaurants and, it is rumoured, other venues that offer less legal activities.
 
The umbrella body that is responsible for the camp is the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and is responsible for protection, resettle-ment, funding and overseeing the activities of implementing partners. 
 
In Dzaleka there are four implementing partners and two cooperating partners: 
The Malawi Ministry of Internal Affairs is responsible for administration of the camp this includes: camp security and the police post, allocation of plots for construction of shelters; and status determination, which means making a decision whether or not asylum seekers should be granted refugee status. Over 50% of the camp residents do not have refugee status. On rare and serious occasions refugee status can be revoked by the Government of Malawi in accordance with international refugee law. 
 
The Malawi Ministry of Health runs the camp clinic and maternity ward, makes referrals to other health services such as hospitals, optometrists, disability services and ensuring that children are vaccinated. In addition they are responsible for sanitation in the camp as well as construction of latrines and rubbish pits. Through the clinic additional food assistance is given to vulnerable people such as those living with AIDS, pregnant women, the elderly and the disabled. 
 
The Malawi Red Cross Society distributes the food rations provided by the World Food Programme (WFP), materials for construction and repair of shelters. They also do youth activities, family reunification, prison visiting and assistance when a refugee dies. 
The Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) is responsible for education of children and adults and trauma counselling services. 
Between May 2007 and January 2013 I worked as the Malawi Country Director for JRS. This was a challenging and amazing experience that I would not have missed for the world. Working for JRS was a privilege and I will always have a place in my heart for JRS and refugees. 
 
At the end of January I faced a new challenge – leaving my friends and colleagues in Malawi to come home to live in New Zealand after 20 years in Africa. The sadness of knowing I am leaving behind friends who have no choice but to stay and who do not know what or where their future will be. The awareness that I have done the best I can and that it is time to hand over to someone with new ideas and new energy. 
 
While in Malawi I was welcomed by the Medical Missionaries of Mary and I lived in community with them for five and a half years. Their generosity and kindness are truly sisterly. What could have been an experience of isolation was instead an experience of community and sharing. In 2012 the sisters made a pilgrimage to the north of Malawi to celebrate fifty years in the country and seventy-five years since the founding of their congregation by Sister Mary Martin. I was privileged to share this pilgrimage with them and to see how the people were delighted to receive them and the respect shown them. Stories were told of the founding of St John’s hospital in Mzuzu (the main city in the north) and the clinic in Nkata Bay and all the developments these initiatives have led to, such as the nurse training school and outreach programmes for orphans. 
 
Here I am in my home country feeling some grief for the loss of the rhythm of more than five years. The beautiful singing at the six a.m. mass, the travel to and from the camp in the van with the volunteers and staff, the laughter, and sometimes tears, shared. The importance of the seasons of nature; will the rains come or will hundreds die of starvation as they did a few years ago when the maize crop failed? Just before Christmas the mangoes will be ripe – happiness. Most of all, the memory of the refugees, those whose survival at times defies comprehension. Angelina whose scarred face and body testify to the horror of being hacked with a machete only to be left alive by the militia to care for two tiny children whose parents were beheaded by the same militia. All those who have travelled from the horrors of war, imprisonment, starvation, rape and mutilation to find peace in impoverished Malawi – you have my respect and admiration. 
 
What does it mean to come home? Over the last year in Malawi I felt more and more that it was time leave. I am discovering what it actually means to come home. That friends and family members have died and I was not here to mourn them. That new clothing is available in the shops, that it is colder than I have experienced for some years. People see the same Michelle who left New Zealand in 1991 but I am not the same person and neither are they. In the intervening years I have seen horror and misery that I can scarcely comprehend. I ask myself: why is it that the human race has such a drive to inflict suffering on fellow humans? What is wrong with kindness, compassion and tolerance? Some things that are a priority here seem to me to be relatively unimportant and other things that I long to share are of no interest to others. It is becoming increasingly clear to me that it will take time to reconnect and there is a small fear in me as to whether I can do it. 
 
Over the years many expatriate religious, including a few of our own sisters, have shared how when they return home it seems that no one is interested to hear about their life or mission and that this creates a sense of separateness and isolation. I find this very sad. Surely we can find some ways to celebrate each other. Those few who express interest in the Malawi Mission include other returned missionaries. In a few months I will do a course for returning missionaries and hopefully this will help me with the adjustment to life in beautiful New Zealand. 
 
Sister Michelle, Little Sister of the Assumption