Born in: Oxford, UK
Passports: USA & UK
Countries lived in: South Carolina, USA (Conway & Clemson): 1984-2001 & 2001-05; UK (Oxford): 2005-06, 2008-present; Malawi (Lilongwe): 2006-08.
Cyberspace coordinates: Aid Thoughts | Digesting the difficult decisions of development (currently on hiatus)
What made you leave your homeland in the first place?
I’m not sure I actually had much a homeland to begin with. Despite living in the American South for quite a long time, my parents — a well-traveled American father and an Anglo-American mother — kept me from completely identifying as a South Carolinian. Frequent trips to the United Kingdom to see my mother’s family made me very familiar with life there, although I don’t know that I managed to feel completely “normal” in either location.
This upbringing made it easier for me to leave the United States. While I felt very at home in South Carolina, it didn’t provide the best opportunities for the career I wanted to pursue, in development economics. Oxford did — plus it was familiar from previous visits.
Is anyone else in your immediate family “displaced”?
Both of my parents are “displaced.” My father spent a large hunk of his life in the Middle East and Europe. He ended up in England, where he met my mother. They returned to the US just after I was born. My mother, whose mother is English and father American, was born in the US but raised in the UK — the opposite of me.
Describe the moment when you felt most displaced.
My first few days in Malawi. I went there as a fellow with the Overseas Development Institute in the UK, which sends young economists off to developing countries on two-year stints to work as civil servants for the host government. (I’d been placed in Malawi’s Ministry of Finance.)
My connecting flight through Johannesburg was late, so I ended up tagging a long with an Asian Malawian man who got us onto a flight to Blantyre, Malawi’s commercial capital — which is reasonably far away from where I needed to be. I spent my first night in Malawi alone in a large, empty guest house, with a promise I’d be driven to Lilongwe the next day. I was young (22) and at that point possessed all the typical Western prejudices about African countries. Everything was unknown. What followed, though — a long, leisurely drive up the spine of the country — was an amazing and illuminating introduction.
Describe the moment when you felt least displaced.
It’s hard to pinpoint when you stop feeling displaced because you don’t really notice the absence of the feeling — you just feel comfortable.
The first time I started noticing how comfortable I felt in Malawi was during my first visit back to the UK. There was this sudden anxiety in realizing that there were things going on back in Malawi that I wouldn’t be around to observe. Your home is where you want to get back to, whether or not it is a physical place or a person, and I wanted to get back to Malawi, after having lived there for only eight months.
I suppose I felt least displaced after two years in Malawi, just as I was about to leave. I had never before felt sad about leaving a place, as my moves were always part of my personal trajectory — going to school, taking a new job, etc. Leaving Malawi was heart wrenching in a way I’d never experienced before.
You may bring one curiosity you’ve collected from each of your adopted countries into the Displaced Nation. What’s in your suitcase?
From the United Kingdom: British sweets — when I was young, I developed a major craving for fruit pastilles, wine gums and the like — and would horde them whenever my family visited the UK.
From South Carolina: Sand dollars and salt water taffy from Myrtle Beach, the beach town I used to live near. (The town is a little garish, but it’s incredibly relaxed in its tackiness.)
From Malawi: A small, simple scene constructed out of banana leaves, in a wooden frame. It’s of a small village in Malawi, with a striking blue sky — the sky takes up half the frame. I had it in my bedroom in Lilongwe, and it’s followed me wherever I’ve moved since. I think it does a good job of capturing the quiet, laid-back atmosphere of the country.
You’re invited to prepare one meal based on your travels for other Displaced Nation members. What’s on the menu?
This is difficult, as I’m not known for my cooking, but here we go:
For a starter, I’d serve an avocado and mango salad (both grown in Malawi).
For the main course, we’d have chambo curry (chambo is a fish from Lake Malawi, similar to tilapia) with nsima (ground maize meal) — preferably refried and spiced. Or if you’d prefer, I can replace the nsima with grits from South Carolina — they are practically the same thing. For good measure, let’s have fried okra from South Carolina on the side.
For drinks, I’d offer either iced tea (that South Carolina classic) or a bottle of Carlsberg Brown — technically Danish, but Malawi has had its own Carlsberg brewery for decades now, and it’s the only place that produces “Browns.”
For dessert, it’s hard to go wrong with apple crumble from the UK, a country that knows its desserts!
You may add one word or expression from the countries you’ve lived in to The Displaced Nation argot. What will you loan us?
From the US: Ain’t — it’s incredibly stereotypical, and I can’t say that I actually used it that often when I lived in South Carolina, but occasionally I’ve wanted to bust out with this in conversation in the UK, to enjoy the bewildered response it would inevitably elicit.
From the UK: Nip, or go quickly. I grew up using this, thanks to my parents. As it’s an extremely common expression in the UK, I always assumed it was known elsewhere. Halfway through my undergraduate degree, I announced I was nipping out to the toilet, when a friend leaned in and quietly said, “Matt, no one here knows what you are talking about.” It’s indicative of the slight difficulty of navigating two countries with a common language, but different vocabulary.
From Malawi: Zikomo (thank you!), short for zikomo kwanbiri (thank you very much). Very simple, very basic — yet it was the word I ended up using most often.
This month we are looking into “philanthropic displacement” — when people travel or become expats on behalf of helping others less fortunate than themselves. Do you have a role model you look up to when engaged in this kind of travel — whose words of advice you remember when you find yourself in a difficult situation?
“Philanthropic displacement” is a difficult concept — one I’m not wholly comfortable with. It’s very difficult to travel to a completely new place and effectively help. Assistance requires familiarity, knowledge, and humility, so I think the most successful philanthropists will be those who make this choice independent of their decision to become displaced.
That said, I think the kind of displacement that comes from actually living in a country is a necessary condition for effective assistance. Many Americans are paralyzed at the thought of going to live overseas, especially in “exotic” and distant, developing countries. In that sense, my father was my greatest inspiration. He felt that you needed to travel to understand the world — and that you need to understand the world before you can aim to make it a better place. This was in stark contrast to most of the people I encountered in South Carolina, who rarely considered leaving the state.
My father also instilled in me an interest in human development, and so I suppose if you combine the two — overseas travel and human development — you have a good motivation to get into a field like development economics, and go jetting off to Africa to see what life is like there.
Voluntourism is said to be the fastest growing segment of the travel industry (itself one of the world’s fastest growing industries). Do you think this kind of travel can help the uninitiated understand the problems our planet is facing?
The difficulty I have with voluntourism is that is supply, not demand, driven. Citizens of developed countries feel the need to go learn about and assist people in developing countries, but often they are doing very basic tasks, such as building schools, which could easily be performed by local people. A fundamental question we should ask ourselves for these small-scale voluntourism initiatives is: “If we gave the village the money that we spent on the project, would they still pay for our plane tickets over?”
What’s more, I suspect most Westerners could gain the same or similar insights from straight-up tourism. You can, for example, go on slum tours in Nairobi. And, while I find “slum tourism” to be a bit strange, it at least isn’t trying to justify itself. There are also plenty of longer-term volunteer opportunities that can yield more insights than a one-week visit to build a school can.
So I suppose my answer is: don’t be afraid to make visiting a developing country a regular vacation — tourism dollars also help, and you can stretch your boundaries a little bit more. By the same token, don’t be afraid to take a leap and go to one of these countries for six months — just as long as you don’t go under the presumption that in half a year, you’ll be able to improve things. This takes time.
Readers — yay or nay for letting Matt Collin into The Displaced Nation? Tell us your reasons. (Note: It’s fine to vote “nay” as long as you couch your reasoning in terms we all — including Matt — find amusing.)
img: Matt Collin on a rock near Domwe Island, Lake Malawi (New Year’s Eve, 2006).
STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s installment from our displaced fictional heroine, Libby, who, following a freak snowstorm in New England, has moved out of her house to avoid being turned into a popsicle. (What, not keeping up with Libby? Read the first three episodes of her expat adventures.)
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Terrific interview, as always. I’m smitten with Matt’s line, “What followed, though — a long, leisurely drive up the spine of the country — was an amazing and illuminating introduction.”
Thanks, Kristin. I liked that line of Matt’s, too! (Matt, you’re not an economist — you’re a poet!)
Zikomo for this interview!
I’m inclined to vote “yay” just because, when working on this post, I had trouble figuring out who exactly was English or half-English — your mum, your dad, yourself, all or none of the above. And that was before I got to the part about how you’d managed to grow up in South Carolina without realizing that “nipping out” was a British English expression.
I’m relieved you finally found a home in Oxford!
I’m also curious about the chambo curry — for a start because I like the sound of “chambo curry” (the alliteration). But I’m also wondering about the chambo — I presume it’s a freshwater fish, so does that mean it’s boney? (While in Japan, I learned to favor ocean fish over freshwater for that reason…)
Lastly, I have a question, which is also a question in fact for last week’s Random Nomad, Vilma Ilic. Both of you grew up not having a strong sense of “home,” and both said you felt least displaced in Africa. Why is that? What is it about Africa? Having never been there myself, I can’t quite grasp it…
Yes – there be bones in the chambo – it’s a freshwater cichlid. Often served whole, which is a bit much for me, but I prefer it thrown into a curry.
It’s hard to describe what life was like in Malawi (and I’m not sure it applies elsewhere in the continent, I certainly don’t feel the same way when I’m in Dar es Salaam) – but life there was frustrating, but also very simple. The problems of life were just as intractable, but they were clearer.
What a brilliant story, thanks Matt and Displaced Nation for the interview. I’m intrigued to hear more about the arguments for and against volunteerism in developing countries. When I lived in Fiji as a child we noticed a number of anomalies between what the first word thought was happening and what we actually saw happening on the ground. I vote yay because I really would like to hear more from Matt, and because (importantly) I love curry!
I also vote yay. However, apple crumble just isn’t enough to convince me that the UK is “a country that knows its desserts” 😉
@ML: the next time you are itching to escape your current locale, head to Africa and stay for a few weeks or months, if possible. Or, you may find yourself there for a few years. Maybe the clarity will come with time.
Ha! But couldn’t it also say something about you — people who are attracted to Africa have a major travel itch and an attraction to the “exotic”?