In 2015 I decided to take my first year-long backpacking trip to South America. Being from a small island at the other side of the globe, my nationality was always a good conversation starter. Over time, I realised there’s a formula to it and my replies became instinctive.
The routine was always the same: they’d ask me where I’m from and I’d say Malta. After a few seconds of them staring , I help them out by saying “Europe”. The face then lights up and confidently says , “Italy”. At this stage I tell them it’s a small, independent island just beneath Sicily. Some would get it.
Recently all of this changed. And now that I’ve left Malta once again, travelling through South America and Asia for more than two years, I have noticed a different reply. There are still those who never heard about us, but the ones that do know about Malta can only connect one particular event – the brutal murder of journalist Daphna Caruana Galizia.
It comes as a bit of a shock because the people who refer to Caruana Galizia’s murder are not necessarily among cities or communites that engage with international news. The latest was a taxi driving in Malaysia last January, at the time when thousands of people were protesting in the streets of Valletta leading to the resignation of former Prime Minister Joseph Muscat.
“I heard your Prime Minister did something very bad,” the taxi driver said before mentioning the Caruana Galizia’s assassination.
It was only one of the many instances when I found myself feeling shame because of what those in power did to a fellow journalist. I realised then that her assassination echoed far beyond the walls of Europe and the western world. This shocking event has managed to reach countries that would otherwise not even know Malta existed.
I knew how terribly damaging the news of a murdered journalist would be to Malta’s reputation and the anguish I felt on that particular day of the murder was the one last push I needed to leave this damaged country. But hearing about it from this distance, from people who have no connection or relation to Malta, caused me some serious discomfort.
Having a murdered journalist in a European country is hard to swallow. Every other European traveller I meet just stares in disbelief.
Another thing I learned is that when I distanced myself from my homeland was that nobody cared about how well the economy was doing or low unemployment statistics. The murder of a journalist dominates any other topic.
And now everyone thinks Malta is a tax haven and that citizens do their best to avoid paying taxes, although that may not be too far off the mark.
It’s sad. I used to be proud of my country and spoke to the people I met about the crystal-clear waters, a laid-back life and the hospitality of the Maltese. Now, I can’t say any of these words. All I feel is shame. Our reputation is down the drain.
Sometimes taking a step away from the subject helps get a better perspective. Looking at Malta from afar doesn’t paint a pretty picture.
The monstrosity of buildings and the decay of our natural beauty is still painful. Every day I get a reminder that while I’m living in a ‘third-world’ country, I’m probably still breathing cleaner air than in Malta. That while I live among a relatively poorer population, here they don’t get half as stressed as any Maltese citizen who drives through the morning traffic to get to work or have to absorb so much noise pollution from never-ending construction.
There are still individuals who make Malta proud and who, perhaps, manage to salvage our tarnished reputation. Throughout these last years I have met and lived in Maltese missions abroad including Peru, Bolivia and, here, in The Philippines. In contrast to power-hungry leeches of Malta’s governing administration, I have been lucky to meet people who have left everything to dedicate their lives to the needy, refusing to prioritise power and money.
These individuals offer hope. Perhaps our tiny island still manages to produce far better people than the ones who damaged its reputation so badly. It’s important to say that this Malta is not our Malta.