Safety v. familiarity

I knew I wanted to do a post on the differences between South Africa and Malawi, but I hadn’t gotten motivated to start writing until last weekend, when I received a blog update from my friend Nate in Cape Town.  Here’s the short version of the story:  he was mugged.  Now, he didn’t make the most intelligent of moves (sorry, Nate), but his story made me think a lot about the differences in safety and familiarity in Malawi and South Africa.

I should preface this by saying that I felt safer traveling in South Africa than I feel in Lilongwe.  Not that I feel particularly unsafe in Lilongwe, but my spidey sense is usually pretty attuned to my surroundings, because everything in Lilongwe is unfamiliar.  In contrast, the urbanized parts of South Africa I visited were much more similar to the United States than to Malawi. There was a visible police presence, lots of people walking on the streets, working streetlights and stoplights, and (relatively) clear signage.  (And yes, having information makes me feel safer – but that is the subject for another post.)

The irony, of course, is that I imagine Malawi has a much lower crime rate than South Africa.  I tried to find some statistics on this, but only managed to determine that crime rates are convoluted, and, at least in a developing country, probably not a very reliable measure of crimes actually committed.  Certainly, crimes in Malawi are less violent than crimes in South Africa; most assailants have panga knives rather than guns, and most crimes are property-driven.

But cities in South Africa feel like cities in the US, and there is a sense of safety in familiarity.  In Cape Town and Durban, there’s a great deal of inequality, there are places that tourists go and places that townies go, there are places that are clearly sketchy and places that are (clearly) safe.  Lilongwe is more like a series of villages than a city, and there’s far less visible police presence (except the aforementioned traffic cops, of course).  Some places are more sketchy than others, but the division between safe and unsafe – if there is one – is not so clear.  While I wouldn’t, say, carry valuables around the market here, I also wouldn’t expect for anyone to come at me with a knife.  (On the other hand, there were certainly places in DC where I wouldn’t have been surprised by the appearance of weapons.  Needless to say, I did not frequent them often or after dark.)

My neighborhood in Lilongwe is probably statistically safer than my neighborhood was in DC; it probably has a lower crime rate than the places I stayed in South Africa.  But the other places feel safer because they are more familiar:  there are streetlights, sidewalks, other people on the street.  For example, I don’t walk in my Lilongwe neighborhood after dark; I’m not sure if it’s unsafe, but no one else walks at night here, either.  (What’s worse than walking in the dark?  Walking ALONE in the dark.)

They also feel safer because it’s easier to blend in.

Since Malawi was only a British protectorate (or, more to the point, since it didn’t have significant natural resources for colonialists to exploit), it never had a large non-African population during the colonial period.  In South Africa, white families have been present for decades.  In Malawi, most white families are aid workers or volunteers; people who have permanently relocated here are far less common and generally have only been here since after independence.  As my friend Nate remarked, “In Malawi, if you’re white, you’re a stranger.  And you have money.  In South Africa, if you’re white, you’re the enemy.  And you have money.”

This has interesting implications for how one is treated on the street.  I was, for example, hassled for cash far less in South Africa than I would be for a similar period of time spend on the streets of Lilongwe.  Even if I remained a target of unwanted attention because I was white, there were more white people to target.  Anecdotally, however, it seems that whites are the target of violent crimes in South Africa, while in Malawi, whites are merely targets for property crimes.  And, honestly, the South Africa I experienced was sanitized for tourists, and segregation – by economics if not by law – remains in full force there.

I had heard lots about South Africa’s crime rate before I visited, and I was honestly expecting to feel less safe than I did.  Other than having my Leatherman stolen from my luggage (yes, I am still whining about that), I had no incidences worth mentioning.  Of course, I am a relatively cautious person, and try not to put myself in stupid places.  But it came as a revelation to me:  safety is, in large part, familiarity with my surroundings and ability to read them.


2 Responses to “Safety v. familiarity”

  1. O que vender Says:

    Good post. I learn something new and challenging on blogs
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  2. Garth Says:

    Interesting article! I have wanted to go to Malawi for a long time and hope to do so quite soon.

    I see that your blog was posted in 2009; I believe that you would find a visit to Malawi and SA now quite different. I suspect that one would feel safer now in Malawi than SA. The SA crime has really worsened, but from what I understand from a website i visited, Malawi still struggles too. (

    Just one point to correct….white families have been in South Africa for Centuries, not Decades. That is the one main difference between SA and ANY other African country: white people in SA were not Colonists in the general sense, but Settlers (they settled and stayed) – many fled their mother countries due to persecution and other reasons…..and seldom if ever returned – neither them nor their descendants. The French Huguenots are a case in point; some Dutch settlers were also persecuted for their faith in Holland and so fled to SA. There were Germans that also did the same. Probably of all “settlers” the British are the group who had return rate to speak of – since they only really arrived in significant numbers in the 1880’s when the British started taking an interest in SA’s mineral wealth (which led to the Anglo-Boer war and a second wave of British colonists). The first group (in 1820) mostly didn’t return to England, but the second wave were less permanent.

    Most white families in SA (with Dutch, German or French origins) can trace back their ancestors in South Africa for over two hundred years. A significant number can trace back over 350 years. White SA’s really have nowhere else to go – Africa is their home. Contrast this to the British, German and French colonists in the surrounding African countries: seldom did they get to 2 generations in those countries….and most left when Independence came to those countries.

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