The Indirect Xenophobia in Malawi

By Jinny Salatieli

Malawi has been home to many refugees since 1995, when the government of Malawi made an agreement with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) that new refugee camps would be created. As more years passed, more refugees came, increasing in number. I arrived in Malawi in 2000, as a refugee from Congo, or the DRC. I was two years-old at the time, and I came to Malawi with my parents. The number of refugees kept increasing and we are now close to fifty-one thousand (51,000) residing in Dzaleka Refugee Camp, near Dowa, Malawi. There is a feeling that the number of refugees is going to increase more by the end of the year, since many conflicts are still happening in other countries.

The more refugees arrived in the camp, the more difficult it was to find food on a daily basis, especially for those of us with large families. It is still the same today. Many refugees arrive with skills like plumbing, gardening, farming, and entrepreneurship and find that it is unnecessary for them to stay in the refugee camp with these skills. My father is one of the refugees who decided to leave, and he took us with him to Lilongwe, Malawi’s capital. He opened a shop in Lilongwe, Chinsapo area, where we sold groceries and farming equipment. The business grew and we somehow integrated into the community after staying there for six years. Food and shelter were not a problem for our family.

When we first came to Dzaleka, twenty-three years ago, our family faced many challenges. My father—he is called Kalonda—needed to feed the whole family. He tried opening a small grocery inside the camp but the business didn’t work out. Due to this, he was unable to pay school fees for me and my siblings. Sometimes, we even had to sleep with an empty stomach, or my parents would sleep without eating anything, so that my siblings and I could have dinner. My father saw that it was very hard to survive in the camp, and that’s when he decided to move his small business to the city.

Many other refugees decided to go to the capital city and other places across Malawi to make a living. However, the agreement between the government and the UNHCR was that the refugees should stay in the camp—they are not allowed to move out. After we moved out anyway, this agreement was an obstacle for my family, as it was for other refugees. It could not be respected: refugees are like all other persons; we have the right to move freely. But anyone who decides to move out of the camp is given a document that expires in two days; after the two days, we’re supposed to be back in the refugee camp, otherwise we can be arrested. Even though the law didn’t allow us to move freely, we decided to take the risk. Skilled Dzaleka refugees scattered ourselves in different areas across the country. Most of the refugees opened up shops and some farm in rural areas.

My father had the necessary skills to take action and move from the camp and succeed in Lilongwe. His skills included entrepreneurship, farming, welding, and carpentry. When we moved he focused on doing business. Our family’s daily life improved due to the money that he was getting from his business. My father’s business was going so well that he never worried about anything during our time in Lilongwe. It reached a profit level where he wanted to invest his money in different fields due to how fast the shop business was growing. In 2021, he wanted to invest in the beverage company called “Nutrition & Beverage Limited” that sells Kombucha soft drink. However, he was unable to be approved because he had no papers allowing him to do business outside the refugee camp.

As Kalonda’s eldest daughter, I was always amazed by my father. He would not be happy nor sleep well if his family was passing through hard times. He always finds ways to sort things out. But I also feared him: he does not tolerate nonsense from children. If a child disobeys him, he makes sure the child gets punished. I remember once, in Lilongwe, I took 1000 Malawian kwacha from the shop without asking him. When I told him that evening, he was not happy with what I did. He told me that I was supposed to request—and not take, as if it was my own money. He then told me that I would spend two months without stepping foot in the shop. From that day, I never tried to take any of his money without his consent.

I remember that I was in school then; life was good and I had nothing to complain about at home. My siblings and I went to Chinsapo secondary school. I have a young brother and a little sister who is our last born. My brother is sixteen and my sister is ten. It was easy for me to make friends because I arrived in Malawi while I was young. I was fluent in the local language, Chichewa. That made it easier for me to integrate. I was used to the life where I could drink tea with bread every morning, but it’s no longer the same. Today I can say that I was living a soft life. My father hired a driver to take us to school. I don’t remember ever going to school by foot. If the driver would be late to come pick us, I would tell my dad that I will stay home that day. My father would get upset at the driver. My father would also provide us with pocket money to pay for treats during break time at school. If he would forget to give us the pocket money, we would remind him immediately before leaving.

Just a few months ago, the government of Malawi decided to take measures to return us to the refugee camp. It was like a nightmare to those of us who had made a life outside the camp. When the time came, the police, together with the immigration officers, dragged us out of the house that we rented, and they arrested us. After some days in jail, we were brought back to the refugee camp without any of our things. It was like starting from zero again. Others who were lucky could come back with their things, if they returned before the police caught them. They found my family in the house around three am. The police did not allow my father to pack his things in our car so that we could go back to Dzaleka. We slept at Maula prison for two days and then we were brought back to the refugee camp without anything. 

My father did not have peace of mind because there were so many things that we left where we rented. He went back to see if he could collect the things that we left behind. My father was shocked to find that the house door was broken and they stole our things. The worse thing is that there is no one who knows the thieves who robbed us. We are now back to square one and confused about how we are going to survive in this condition.

Recalling this story has reminded me of the life that we survived when I was a little girl. Remembering the bad life that our family had survived makes me feel bad again, and I lose some of my hope for a better future. The arrest and our forced return to Dzaleka made my father lose hope. There were some rumors that the money in the bank accounts of those returned to the camp will also be frozen. This made my father withdraw all the money that he had left in his national bank account and put it in standard bank (since it is an international bank and he can have access to his money as long as he has a visa card). However, he also kept some cash in the house, in case there is an emergency. On a certain night, my father talked about us leaving the country. I know I have made lots friends, but leaving the country is not a bad idea. We cannot survive in a country that does not allow us to move or work freely unless we want to die of hunger in the refugee camp.

Two months after being sent back to Dzaleka Refugee Camp, my father remains steadfast in his protecting the family from hardship, pursuing a better future through tireless efforts. With the few connections he has, he managed to go to Lusaka, Zambia. He is seeking opportunities to establish a new shop. The effort he is putting in, to find a stable life where we will not be chased again, fills my heart with both pride and anticipation. As we wait, we continue our daily routines in the camp, cherishing our memories, and hoping for a reunion. My father’s resilience and resourcefulness keep us grounded and determined to endure.

31 July, 2023