Dutch expat Lonneke van Zutphen
shares her experiences in Africa
I have noticed that it can be difficult for Dutch people, who are so liberal, to encounter cultures where people are very conservative, and where women are not seen as equal to men. We were aware of the culture we were moving to before we left the Netherlands but in real life, it sinks in. In Malawi, people on the street never address me directly. They always talk to my partner, Jan Willem. He is the big ‘bwana’ (boss) to all the people around us, while in our relationship he is not. (Honestly, I am usually the one taking decisions.) In our small bubble, we are very Dutch and have our ways of dealing with things but when we go out, this always shifts. It’s not only difficult for me, but also for Jan Willem.
Other aspects of the conservative culture also make me feel strange. Whenever I leave the house wearing trousers or step into the car on the driver’s side, the local ladies gasp at me. I do try to adjust to Malawian culture, but without losing my own. The balance can be difficult to find. Malawian people have no knowledge of other cultures and they think the whole world acts the same way they do.
Don’t worry, be happy
I guess it won’t be a surprise that we experience difficulties from being honest and direct. Even when we think we are being very polite and gentle, people tell us to calm down and be polite. That frustrates us. We never argue with people because we know that most Africans won’t accept criticism and everything has to be fun all the time. However, we always have a purpose and want to get things done. That often does not work in Malawi. People are so much more laid back. We could learn from that!
Something I didn’t anticipate was all the visitors that came our way. So many friends and family members came to visit. It was great fun, but at times so much hassle. In an undeveloped country like Malawi, visitors need a lot of guidance before and during their trip. We felt responsible for our guests and it absorbed a lot of time. We have our own lives here, but we always felt there was no room for that when we had people visiting. That really slowed down our progress in Malawi.
Humour can be dangerous
Another thing that can be difficult is being funny. People all over the world expect Dutch people to be fluent in English. We often are but we need a little more time to translate in our heads — and we have noticed that is exactly the amount of time you need to be funny. We can’t seem to get the timing right for good jokes. We want to translate funny Dutch jokes into English but it doesn’t work. We always tell our English friends in Malawi that we are very funny people in the Netherlands. They don’t believe us. Our English friends get our sarcastic and ironic jokes, but not a lot of other people do. We have to be careful not to upset or even scare people with sarcastic comments or jokes.
Friends who understand you are precious
There are not many Western people in Malawi, so all the European, American and Australian people know each other. We are all open-minded people and make connections easily. Because we are only a small group, we understand how important friendships are. We try not to argue or gossip, and not to be picky about one another. We don’t have the luxury to dislike people, and in a way this works really well for us. The friends we have are good friends, and sometimes it feels like we’ve known them for years and years.
One last thing, you don’t need to worry about missing food from the Netherlands. I think we ate more drop in the last two years in Malawi then we did in Holland. Everybody sends us drop and hagelslag!
Lonneke van Zutphen
Lonneke van Zutphen lives in Malawi and runs Chimwemwe Malawi, a charitable foundation, with her partner, Jan Willem van Hasselt.