Upon arrival we reported ourselves to the Malawian migration and claimed refugee protection. After a thorough screening process, we were transferred to a transit area in Karonga district to wait for our final relocation to Dzaleka, a refugee camp set up in Dowa, a small district located to the north of Lilongwe, the capital city of Malawi. The camp is about 40 to 50 km from Lilongwe, as close as any refugee camp gets to a major city; most are located in inhospitable, isolated, and barren spaces, unwanted remains of a country’s allotted space on the map–best to be left wild, out of sight, out of mind. However, Dzaleka’s relative nearness to the city is the only thing that makes it exceptional. Before being turned into a refugee camp, it had been “developed” for another purpose, not in spite of but because of its inhospitability: the facilities of Dzaleka had served as a prison for political opponents of Hastings Kamuzu Banda’s dictatorship.
Wild stories were told about Dzaleka, many involving detainees left out overnight to be punished by the ruthless winter chill. Most would be found dead the following morning. Those who survived were set free. To earn your freedom, you had to prove enough that you deserved it. Although we would never face such deliberate and calculated cruelty, time would prove that we refugees faced similar odds. Another story centered around an old abandoned meat grinder. Friends who had lived long enough to learn the grotesque history of Dzaleka explained to me that the device had been used to grind the flesh of prisoners before it was fed to crocodiles in the camp pond.
Then there were Lowa, evil spirits said to hover around the camp. In Chichewa, the Malawian language, “Lowa” means “to enter” and is generally used by the natives to welcome visitors. When you arrive at someone’s house, you would excuse yourself “odi” (hello there!) – to which the host would answer “lowani” (come in). The story goes that Lowa would visit residents’ homes at night and knock on people’s doors. If someone mistakenly answered “Lowani“, inviting the spirit in, that person would disappear into the night, carried off or perhaps consumed by their unwelcome guest.
My family and I went through long periods of interviews and assessment before we could move into the camp. We plead our case desperately, practically begging to stay in a place that hardly offered sufficient sustenance, let alone even the humblest comforts. I watched my fellow long-faced refugees cower with intimidation as they were forced to provide personal information to the bureaucratic elites, who were empowered to make life-changing decisions about those of us at their mercy. Oftentimes, they made these choices without a trace of empathy or compassion for the lives they could either uplift or destroy.
Once cleared for residence, we moved into a mud-brick and grass-thatched house amid a dense cluster of other homes just like it. The place seemed susceptible to every extreme: it heated up with almost supernatural speed during the hot season and froze just as suddenly in the winter. The roof was perpetually leaky, and I would help my grandfather fortify it over and over again throughout wet seasons.
Christian churches were and continue to be abundant in Dzaleka (last I checked, there were 77 active denominations), each populated by more pastors and deacons than followers. Many wanted to be pastors, deacons, choirmasters, presidents, or really leaders of any sort with a title to flaunt, so that they might wield some power over the affairs of their congregants. Thus, conflict over the misappropriation or brazen embezzlement of church funds became regular gossip in the camp. A simple dispute between two of Christ’s pious followers–perhaps a deacon and an ambitious choirmaster–meant the formation of an entirely new denomination the next day. There was also a mosque, of course, though the disputes between Shia and Sunni Muslims were too bitter and ideological for neighborly gossip; their conflict, as yet unresolved, is beyond reasoning for those outside their faith, whereas petty power grabs and hands in the Lord’s cookie jar at least seem harmless enough to most.
The Catholic priests at my church encouraged us to find beauty and happiness in the life we lived. He believed there was a “God” in control of history and that our lives would be mended one day. Alternatively, my grandpa always advised me to keep my expectations in check. “Life is hard and exhausting,” he’d say, constantly reminding me that, for people in our circumstances, us steeped in the ugliness of poverty, fear, and violence, finding beauty in life is easier said than done. So I grew up navigating the grey area between two versions of life, one defined by faith in the Almighty, the all-loving Father, and the other by an equally absurd “smiling despair”, a trauma hardening in the cracks of my being that I struggled each day to glaze over and hide from the world. My takeaway was that life could mean many things, dependent on where you find yourself in the world. It certainly isn’t perfect: Refugees learn this the hard way, and it becomes necessary for them to internalize these truths of the imperfection of life. The realities of life hit us each differently, and opportunities arise in many different forms. Someday life will get better, I would comfort myself.
Despite being encouraged to dream big, the lack of means to reach or even test my potential left me depressed, disillusioned, and at times hopeless. I was raised by Christians, baptized daily in their particular brand of certainty, indoctrinated by blind faith in the justice and balance of God’s green Earth, but there was no green now, only every shade of oppressive dusty beige spread in rows between glossy PVC tents like crops that will never grow, tents that reflects the life-giving sun skyward as if to say you have no place here. Where was this god now? Why did he spare me and take my neighbours? How did he expect me to find solace in the divine plan without a worldly place to call home? These questions, uttered skyward to a silent void which never ends, not in any direction, became one with their answers–silence to silence, mine and his, bound together only by my existence and his absence despite everything I was ever told to feel and believe.
I grew up into an outwardly happy teen, but feelings of emptiness dominated my inner world, hidden from my grandparents, teachers and friends. The mechanisms I built to conceal them, however tightly constructed and desperately held, fell away in every moment of solitude. I craved my old life with my mother, but I knew well enough that was just another fantasy inaccessible to a boy in my situation. At home with my grandparents, I was what many would consider reserved and soft-spoken. I was silent when community members visited and never opened my mouth to speak unless spoken to. If I had something important to say, I spoke quietly and with all the practiced composure I could muster, as if finding voice somewhere outside of myself where it wouldn’t filter through the pain that threatened to choke it. However, when surrounded with my peers at school or on the playground, sufficiently distracted from my suffering, I was the loudest. In class, my name appeared first on the list of noise makers. It’s strange to think how two such different people can be trapped within the body of one small boy. I think this speaks to the lengths your mind will go to protect you from what goes bump in the night.
In time, the residents of Dzaleka have adapted to the brutality and cruel history of the world around them. As I write to you, the camp resembles a growing city. It has become a multicultural society and even an excellent tourist destination for visitors (westerners for the most part) to the central region of Malawi, a testament to resilience in the most trying circumstances.