Keep your hypothetical war. We have enough threatened destruction of our own on the horizon and are no longer under coercion by colonial occupation.
By Michelle Chikaonda
My home country of Malawi was a protectorate of the United Kingdom—then known as Nyasaland—until July 1964. Our neighboring countries of Kenya, Zambia, and Zimbabwe were also British territories—known as British East Africa, Northern Rhodesia, and Southern Rhodesia, respectively. Until the end of World War I, Tanzania was a German territory known as German East Africa, and Namibia was known as German West Africa, after which they were redistributed to other colonial powers. Whenever Britain was at war with Germany, then, by implication it meant that Malawi was necessarily at war with Tanzania, Zimbabwe at war with Namibia, and all at war with parts of the world whose real names they didn’t even know.
For the most part, World Wars I and II never actually reached most of our physical lands. But men from our nations were nonetheless taken as army conscripts for the various occupying powers to the locations where there was fighting, as of course for the purposes of war these men were not considered “Malawian” or “Tanzanian,” but “British” and “German.” My maternal grandfather and paternal great-grandfather both fought in World War II, for example, in a unit known as the King’s African Rifles. Solely due to global-scale colonial occupation, then, was the entire world considered to be at war in World Wars I and II; with the reality of colonialism in play at the very same time that nomenclature was, technically, the truth.
But 60+ years after Africa’s independence era—early 1950s to late 1960s—the world looks very different. Malawi has been its own self-ruling country since 1964, and the majority of countries once occupied by various Western nations in the mid-20th century no longer are. At least not in explicit form—Malawi and many other former colonies like it are now mired in crushing debt to the same G8 countries that once colonized our lands, and trade deals favorable to those same countries with terms far less favorable to us continue to be secured with little resistance on our governments’ parts, fearing the suspension of future aid; current forms of occupation, under new names and management.
Still—we began taking back and renaming them in our own images barely a decade after the ending of the Second World War; our leaders are now elected by our own people, rather than appointed by occupiers; we speak our own languages, and rely on our own cultural and political histories to tell us how to build our futures. Thus the hypothetical notion of a Third World War that arose in the aftermath of the United States’ government’s recent assassination of the head of Iran’s armed forces is problematically expansive given today’s actual geopolitical realities. What people are casually calling the beginning of World War III is decidedly not that, but rather the latest in a series of US-initiated international conflicts with potentially catastrophic consequences for the rest of the world, whether that rest of the world are directly involved or not.
To be clear, most of us will not be involved. For example, it is not likely that Malawi will send soldiers to fight on any kind of front in whatever conflict ensues from this. On the other hand, if the world ends up in a nuclear winter because the conflicting nations decided to undertake, quite literally, the nuclear option—then yes, certainly, the war will have been brought to our doors. But that would fundamentally not be our fight, and not only that—we are already actively navigating many real and life-threatening struggles of our own.
Like the rain—it has been heavier than it has ever been even for Malawi’s November-February rainy season, resulting in over 1500 people being displaced from their homes this past January in the capital city of Lilongwe alone. Field after field of our staple crop, maize, has been flooded, meaning we will likely experience another year of mass starvation. We all know without need of proof that something has altered in our meteorology, and thus we don’t know when the rains will finally stop, as they should already have stopped by now. This will mean more displacements, more crop destruction, and an inevitable death toll from both flooding and starvation.
Our other immediate struggle, politically, is our Supreme Court’s imminent verdict regarding whether or not Malawi’s elections last May were rigged by the ruling party. Rioting and violence are expected to flare up no matter the result, especially as the country has already been in a slow but steady burn since the election results were first announced back in May 2019. The national divides are not just by political party but by region and by ethnic group, and people keep making jokes, only half-humorously, about which ethnic group needs to have its travel documents the most prepared for when the court ruling is released. The judges for the case have been relocated to undisclosed locations, witnesses have been assigned heavy security detail, and the lives of folks involved with the prosecution have become both difficult and dangerous.
Despite these things my family, for now, remains overwhelmingly fine. My mother’s house in Malawi is still standing strong despite the rain. My family will still be able to eat—as we have the privileges of money and access to insulate us from most environmental catastrophes—and we will help relatives and community members who will not be so fortunate, as we have always done in years of food insecurity. In my American life, I am not in the American armed forces, am not at risk of being in any possible conflict’s direct line of fire, and made it back to Philadelphia with no travel issues after the holidays.
A lot of other people, though, will be directly impacted. A lot of people will have no say and no choice as to the eye of the storm of conflict they may find themselves at the center of. Most of the deaths that will arise from this latest international act of aggression by the American government will be people of color with skin only a few shades lighter than mine, whose weekly day of rest and worship is Friday. None of those deaths will take place on American soil, except for the kind of smaller-scale domestic xenophobic violence that has been on an unfortunately steady rise since 2016. And most American deaths, if any, will be of soldiers who, due to declining or absent opportunities in their home communities, had few post-secondary career options except to join the armed forces.
Because of how geographically distant this conflict is from the U.S., the notion of World War III will remain theoretical to most; to many, it was little more than a social media meme. But my people live in a country called Malawi—no longer a British protectorate called Nyasaland. To assert that what the U.S. has triggered of its own accord must then necessarily imply a global-scale conflict is to condescendingly dismiss the realities of the majority of the world for whom that particular international conflict bears no relevance to our current foreign policy concerns; and, furthermore, rides dangerously close to the same obliterating colonial attitudes about our nations that the European occupiers arrived with nearly 150 years ago.
The plausible downstream effects of such a conflict are certainly worthy of our consideration, but not of our necessary adoption as our own national interest. Keep your hypothetical war, in other words—we have enough threatened destruction of our own on the horizon and are no longer under coercion by colonial occupation to add yours to our mantles. At colonialism’s origin, our own lives and realities were rendered invisible in the face of the European expansionist project: we are invisible no more. We have our own real wars to fight.
Michelle Chikaonda (she/her/hers) is a narrative nonfiction and essay writer from Blantyre, Malawi, currently living in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She has won the Archie D. and Bertha H. Walker Scholarship for writers of color from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown and The Seventh Wave’s Rhinebeck Residency. She is a VONA fellow, a Tin House Summer Workshop alumna, and a Pushcart prize nominee. She is currently published at The Globe and Mail, Catapult, Modern Loss, Hobart, and the Kalahari Review, among others. You can follow her on Twitter at @machikaonda.