Body in Motion


Epiphany
December 5, 2009, 6:39 pm
Filed under: africa, culture, home, kenya, Malawi, malawian culture

I am in a class that feels reminiscent of high school, except I am surrounded by colleagues instead of the kids I grew up with. The scene is the same though, half of us pay attention, a few participate; I think poorly of the instructor.

But suddenly I am awake and listening in Public Speaking 101.

A Malawian colleague asks what we say if someone asks a question after a presentation that we do not know the answer to.

“Just say you don’t know and you’ll have to check and get back to the person,” the instructor offers.

A look of horror fills faces.

“You can’t do that. You can’t say you don’t know. How can people believe you know what you’re talking about if you say you don’t know?”

“That’s true,” says another classmate. “You should just keep talking for awhile without answering the question.”

The Malawian heads in the room are nodding in agreement.

My mind tumbles back over the last two and a half years to all the the talking heads which seem to go on endlessly, to the times (I know of) that I have been lied to. It wasn’t a neo-colonialist attempt to fraud or please the mzungu, but rather a balking at admission of ignorance. How did I not know this? The three days I have spent listening to those around me discuss the merits of PowerPoint suddenly become worth it as I have one of those bizarre moments of cultural epiphany that makes sense of everything – at least for a moment.

These moments in my world of late are few and far between.

When I first came to Africa ten years ago, I spent the month of my arrival in a haze. There were herds of cows on the side of the urban highway, my housekeeper was always telling me I’d been lost when I came home late and people in the street called me mzungu. In the months following my emergence from the haze, things began to make sense.

That first stint, a new kind of logic came fast and furious. I learned how the line between urban and beyond is blurred. I discovered that in Swahili umepotea (you have been lost) is what you tell someone when you haven’t seen them in awhile. I accepted that I will always be mzungu. I became accustomed to jumping out the side of a matatu (minibus) on a Nairobi street corner, and ate -and liked!- Peptang instead of ketchup, and coveted the Sunday morning quiet when the rest of our houseful of people was in church. I made plans with friends ahead of time since the phone lines could never be trusted to work.

I fell in love over and over again: with savanna sunsets, with fish markets, with tiny pink bananas.

While my moments of confusion became farther between, there were always gaps. I never understood why, when I saw Bowfinger in a Nairobi cinema, everyone laughed at the scene where the Mexicans purposted corssing the border illegally are herded into the back of the film crew truck. Did the Kenyans know about Mexicans sneaking in the US? Was the scene intrinsically funny without the cultural context? Or were they laughing at some other connection I wasn’t aware of?

I learned more about cultural context in the time I lived with Kenyans in Nairobi than I have since then. Each country has its own idiosyncrasies but there are commonalities to be found in each region of Africa. Yet when I moved here from Congo, it was difficult to conceptualize how completely different a place Malawi is from where I had been.

Throughout m time in Africa, my sense of normalcy has remained in tact and the places I have lived have seemed for familiar to me than foreign, if only by virtue of being the places I have spent my time. Epiphanies about where I live don’t come so often: who marvels at the man selling bananas on the corner after passing him 4 times a days for months on end?

I have been in Malawi for nearly two and a half years now, longer than I have spent anywhere since I finished my education. There are things I understand from having lived and worked in the region before. Women don’t talk about their pregnancies, especially before they are showing. There are things I have learned since coming here. Malawians see the government as their parent. And there are things that I don’t even know I don’t understand.

In moments like the Public Speaking class, I am struck by how truly I am a stranger here.

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Malawi Annals
March 30, 2009, 6:32 pm
Filed under: culture, development, elections, Malawi, malawian culture, politics

The Afrobarometer has just released some new data on how Malawians see themselves, their government, the state of the country and their political system and it’s pretty telling.

A quick peek at the new survey data shows that Malawians overwhelmingly see government as their parent – not their employee, that over 70% of those surveyed believe the government has the right to close a newspaper, that 74% claim to have voted in the last presidential election and that food supply is the biggest problem Malawians think is facing the country. And if you want a sneak preview of May’s elections, most say that if the elections were tomorrow, they’d support the incumbent, Bingu wa Mutharika. They’ve even given him an 83% approval rating.

Having lived here for some time, I am not too surprised by these survey results but they do seem to highlight the influence of the early direction a young democracy takes in its development.

Kamuzu Banda, Malawi’s first post-independence leader, did his best to set the stage for many of these beliefs. A 1964 Time article on the fledgling leader, just 9 weeks into his thirty-odd year term as President for Life and Ngwazi (Great Lion), alludes to a ban of public meetings (remember when I mentioned this as the reason that Lilongwe is so spread out?), Banda’s invention of himself as a father-figure to the country, and his autocratic leadership style. Let us not forget: this is the man who banned television.

After an entire generation and then some grew up with these beliefs, it is any wonder that 73% of Malawians believe that the government shouldn’t allow contrary views to its own?

With the elections scheduled less than two months off, it’s worth taking a breath to ask how democracy shapes itself. The root of support for the current president isn’t much of a secret. Malawians list food shortages as their biggest concern; Mutharika started a fertilizer subsidy program that has kept Malawi stocked in maize, the main staple, with enough to left over to keep the export market going and a healthy stream of forex coming. Most people believe the elections will be reasonably free and fair which leads one to believe that Malawians will get the president the majority of them elect.

While support for a politician across regional and tribal lines may be something relatively new around here, it doesn’t mean that a maturing African democracy will look much like what we see in the Northern Hemisphere. Fifteen years into a multi-party democracy doesn’t provide a lot of history to stand on and many Malawians are still displeased by the way primaries were set up for parliamentary and local elections. This year’s presidential race aside, over 70% of Malawian believe it’s difficult to have their voices heard outside of an election year (though I would guess most Americans would say the same).

What’s telling is that 30% of Malawians believe that the country should try another form of government. Banda may have fought hard to keep China out of Malawi, but today’s government has welcomed the Chinese with open arms and coffers. In the post-Cold War era, the lines drawn in the sand between friend and foe look are a different shade entirely.

Chances are, Malawi will continue down the road with some form of democracy -hopefully guided by Malawians themselves- though this Westerner struggles to understand how a democracy with a populace that doesn’t believe in freedom of thought will achieve what its citizens strives for: food security, a water supply, an end to poverty and economic development.



Initiation
November 19, 2007, 9:33 pm
Filed under: malawian culture

We got shipped out last week to get culturized. It’s like Malawi boot camp: same food at every meal, village kids everywhere, hotter than hell. We spent 10 hours a day in class learning about Malawian culture, beliefs and rites. We all have rites, from christenings and bar mitzvahs to fraternity hazing to last rites; we are a species who use the traditional to contextualize, to add meaning.

Malawi, along with neighbors Zambia and Mozambique, have male secret societies called the Gule Wamkulu. It is the members of these secret societies that dress in costume, unknown men inside, to attend rites representing Mother Earth, the British Colonialist, and…the fire dancer?

We were told at our course that the fire dancer, Maninja, attends initiation rites demonstrating the dangers of playing with fire, i.e. HIV but somehow I think there was some prior meaning.

Gule Wamkulu

(courtesy of Amy Gottlieb)

We were told that in Malawi, between colonization, Westernization, and urbanization, these rites aren’t practiced so much anyone. But not three days later, driving through the Zambia bush, we saw the fire dancer running along the side of the road to a ceremony.