Last weekend found me in town stocking up on peanut butter, milk powder, and American conversation. As a result I found myself rather weighed down as I boarded a bus home. Not only by the peanut butter, but also by the many important concepts that so frequently worm their way into volunteer conversation—what the heck are we doing here? What have we learned? How are we changing? Is it acceptable to learn more than we teach or does that make this just some selfish pursuit?
In addition to these endless questions I was troubled by the hail storm of negative attention I had drawn on my way to the depot. Usually it is acceptable for a woman to show her knees in town and I had depended on this lenience as most of my clothes were dirty. I had forgotten, however, that it was Sunday morning. There were no tourists about and though it could have been in my own mind, I felt I had been leered at all morning, so much so that I had decided to buy a new chitenje, having left mine at home. But even in this pursuit I felt attacked and singled-out. A man in a shop insistently tried to over charge me although I knew the rightful prices of vitenje and could say so in the vernacular. Exasperated, I had walked away to the man’s grumblings which tried my patience when he called me uzungu. Turning back, I had told him in Chitumbuka that uzungu was a rude word and then walked away, dismayed by the animosity. Seconds later however, I had heard the man’s shouts and turned to find him chasing me with my water bottle which I had left at his stand.
As I was mulling over my weekend and unsuccessfully trying to build myself up for another go at site, a well-dressed man climbed the stairs and smiled at me as he boarded the bus. He looked around, trying to find an empty seat but the conductor shook his head and pointed at the top step of the bus’ entrance. Without a word the man sat down on the dirty step. I tried to imagine an American businessman boarding a charter bus sitting contentedly on the floor when all the seats had filled. In my imagination the scene included a lot of shouting, some rude comments, a threat to call management. I looked at the man. His face bore no signs of anger or resentment. He could see as well as the next person that all the seats were full and he seemed happy to have a step to sit on.
With embarrassment I recalled the young man in the shop who was able to frustrate me simply by refusing to lower the price on his own wares. My embarrassment increased as I also remembered his willingness to forget the conflict only seconds later and inconvenience himself to bring me my water bottle. My mind wandered to the many times I had been accidentally rude to Malawians and the kind way they smiled or laughed; choosing to take my insolence as a mistake. I picked through more and more memories of American-Malawian interactions. How often we lost patience—telling staring children to leave us alone or snapping at passersby who advised us to wait in bus depots rather than attempt hitchhiking. But how many Malawians are able to hitch with success? We rely on our novelty status as muzungus yet refuse to accept any stereotypes that accompany the term. I was shocked by how many tedious disputes between volunteers and citizens came to my mind, and in each one I remembered it was the volunteer who grew defensive, angry, frustrated. In my experience it is beyond rare to rouse a Malawian to petty anger, most opt instead to laugh off small disagreements or misunderstandings.
As foreigners in a land with a culture so alien to our own, we volunteers are constantly attempting to unravel the differences. How are we different? Why are we different? Are our differences significant? Puzzling over these questions and the suddenly negative way I was viewing volunteer (including my own) behavior I felt compelled to extend some small courtesy in the manner I have so frequently seen Malawians employ.
“Excuse me?” I said to the man. He turned slowly and looked at me, raising his eyebrows.
“Would you like to sit on this?” I asked, holding out my folded chitenje.
He shook his head and said, “No thank you,” turning back toward the front. I felt immediately foolish. I probably looked like a stupid tourist, shocked a person would sit on the floor. A Malawian woman would have offered the chitenje saying, “Sit on this,” in the way that feels abrupt at first but actually eliminates the awkward tango of refusal and insistence we love so much in the States. I could not even be polite correctly. Just as I was about to dive back behind the cover of my book the man turned around again.
“You have really respected me,” he said looking me in the eye, “What is your name?”
I told him but before we had a chance to continue the conversation the doors opened to allow more passengers to board, forcing the man further back on the bus. Though I regretted the loss of the stranger’s conversation (a thing I would have seen little value in before I came here) it was just as well because my eyes had filled with tears. That, I thought, is the difference and what I have the opportunity to learn: true respect.
I have spoken before of the mistakes I made in my attitude when I moved to
. With time I learned the intentions behind the behaviors that frustrated me and learned to respect them. But what an idea—earning respect. From childhood we have this concept drummed into our skulls; you must earn respect and only grant respect when you have reason to do so. Here it is given freely. Respect is not some hoarded commodity to be purchased through acts or behavior. Had I lived by this mantra I never would have behaved poorly in Tennessee , I would never treat a stranger rudely, or speak harshly to a man in a shop. If I had only understood that respect does not lose value the more it is given, as we seem to believe in the States, I would have been an infinitely more pleasant person. Tennessee
Usually, when I realize some error of my ways it is with a rush of shame and a desire to apologize, change, amend. But somehow this was different. I did not feel abashed, I was exhilarated. That man in the shop was not angry with me, nor, probably, were most of the people I had been rude to here. This culture, from what I have experienced, is not one of chastisement and grudges. Small mistakes are ignored or laughed at, big ones are handled delicately and with ceremony. There is a respect for each person’s right to make mistakes. Furthermore, politeness is not a practiced etiquette, but genuine attempts to show respect. This means actually making a concerted effort to improve another person’s situation because we all make the same mistakes and suffer the same tragedies—bringing food or money to an aggrieved family, coming to sit with a sick person, offering a chitenje to sit on, these acts tell a person you understand, you wish to ease their suffering. Malawians may not apologize when their elbow brushes your sleeve as we do in the
but they seem more capable of recognizing and bestowing true respect. U.S.
Thinking again about the man who had been sitting on the step I tried to broaden the concept. For so long I have been bewildered by Malawians attitude toward calamity or discomfort. I couldn’t tell you the number of times I have climbed into a packed and sweaty mini-bus to find that although no one is able to sit completely upright or move their arm without a neighbor shifting over, most of the people are smiling and chatting. I have marveled at this behavior and tried to find the secret to such unfailing cheer. This one small instance with the man on the step seemed to make it so clear. What does it matter to sit on a step if those around you treat you with respect and kindness?
It took me a few months to figure out, but I have learned that Malawian culture is simply not a mean culture. My goodness, how often I was mean in
, and sadly still am—laughing at the expense of friends and strangers, relying so frequently on cruelly sarcastic jokes, judging people on their negative rather than positive attributes. We have no patience for mistakes. We seem to view each others’ shortcomings as personal insults, feeling it as somehow our right to correct each other. Here, in this place where respect is expected of and for everyone there is more humility. Who am I to tell another their behavior is wrong? I am only learning myself, perhaps I am wrong. And if that is the case do I wish others to sneer at my misstep? It makes so much more sense to spend our energy alleviating each other’s suffering, to show compassion rather than contempt. America
Of course these are generalizations and
, like everywhere, is made of individuals who each behave differently. But culture is powerful and it is difficult to grasp how strongly it influences us. I don’t think it ever once occurred to me in the States how ridiculous even mild discouragement or mockery is. Now I can’t understand why it wasn’t clear. Malawi
As is often the problem with this silly blog, I feel like I have written a sermon of sorts. A sermon full of obvious truths none the less. But I’m sure those of you reading will excuse my foolishness-- I, like everyone else, am simply learning here, you know, pochoko, pochoko and trying to share my discoveries, especially since some people (hem, Taylor) keep pestering me to post something and I’m not sure what else to write about. Anyway, sorry if it’s terribly obvious, I find most really important things are though. Another phenomenon I will have to puzzle over in my quickly dwindling time here in windy Luviri.
--With a week long cold I am running short on toilet paper. An item you cannot buy in most villages, I realize I simply cannot waste anymore blowing my nose. So, I resort to using newspaper as tissue, a somewhat uncomfortable alternative. Nevertheless, I am proud of my resourcefulness. That is until a visitor calls and stares at me oddly for several minutes before telling me my face has turned black. I have been here so long I don’t even rush inside to wash away the newsprint smudges, I just say it’s a good thing I’m about to bathe.
--I wave down a packed minibus. They stop but it is full (meaning the not only is every seat taken but people are also sitting on top of each other, on the ground, and attempting to stand, all in what is essentially a van. These minibuses are made to seat fourteen, or eighteen, if people sit four across. So far I have counted up to twenty four adults and two children. Then of course there are chickens, baskets of tomatoes, 50kg sacks of maize, and suitcases.) They slide open the back window and a small adolescent boy clambers out.
“Madam,” they say as they escort me to the back. They gesture at the window five feet off the ground then look at me expectantly, ‘Climb in,’ their faces say. So I do. In a long skirt and slip. Without exposing my knees.
“Matandala uli?” I say as I bounce into the seat. The bus erupts in smiles and laughter.
--I spend Sunday morning reading, writing, and drinking coffee. In the afternoon I wander over to the Magawa’s house. Mrs. Magawa and another teacher’s wife are shucking corn on the porch. I sit on the ground with them and join in their conversation. My Tumbuka is good enough now that I can hold a several minute chat with someone and almost follow conversation, but not quite yet. We chat and laugh until I get blisters on my thumbs. Then they give me fresh boiled maize to munch while they finish the chore.
When I amble home the girls follow me in a raucous parade and play on my porch until the sun gets low. I’ve had beans cooking all day so I spend sunset on my porch instead of in the kitchen. The sun dips below the hills leaving a blazing fuchsia horizon and a rosy sky. Just as I am about to retire into my little house I remember the moon is full.
I rush to the end of the porch and look in the opposite direction of the setting sun. The huge sepia moon is rising through the banana leaves. For a few moments I can do nothing but gape before I duck into the house to wrap a chitenje around my shoulders against the slight chill then head into my backyard for a better view of the brilliant moon. It has now risen fully over the horizon and is loosing its amber tinge. Though remnants of pink and orange are still visible in the western sky, the night is falling darker by the minute and with it the moon’s shocking luster grows.
I hear a faint “odi” so hurry to the front of my house to find Mrs. Magawa, plates in hand—she has brought me dinner. She cooked goat tonight and the family often shares their meat with me when they have it. After thanking her, I walk back into the yard, sit down in the grass under the trees and watch the moon as I eat my nsima and goat with my hands. I’ll eat the beans tomorrow with another moonrise.
--Frustrated by the continued antics and blatant disrespect of irregularly disciplined seventeen-year olds, I decide to go to class as a bad student, assuming the disruptive behaviors that my students practice.
Twenty minutes late, wearing flip flops and a tee-shirt I slam my books down on a desk then sit down, facing the students. Without acknowledging them I begin writing in my notebook, pausing only to send text messages. After a time I look up and say, “Good morning class.” Usually several students will remain seated while the rest stand to greet me. Today, they all stand. I stay seated. “Good morning, madam.”
I tell them to sit then give no more instructions as my phone beeps signaling a received text message. “Ah!” they say as I take the time to text back.
I look at the books, “You want your books?” I ask. “Take your books.”
Students scurry forward and distribute the books amongst themselves. They stare at me. Some whisper to each other.
“Next?” the class monitor ventures.
“Excuse me?” I bark back.
“What next, madam?” he asks.
“What story are we reading?” I ask, “I have forgotten.”
“Noorjehan,” all together.
“Oh yes. Ok. Open to Noorjehan. Someone should read.”
Flip-flip-flip the pages find the Noorjehan. The class struggles as they elect a reader. Inexplicably, they choose a boy with a severe speech impediment. He squeaks out the story to a temporarily silent room. I have brought one of the metal mathematics tins common to Malawian classrooms. I open it, rifle through, then close it and drop it on the concrete floor. “Ah!” the class exclaims at the eruption of noise. I smile at them serenely then receive another text. “Ah!” they exclaim.
Soon murmurs break out in the room. They cannot understand the reader. They discuss who should replace him as he continues reading. The noise level raises. Once a replacement is chosen they bellow at the current reader to stop. Apparently there were multiple factions—two readers stand to replace the first. They begin reading over each other. The class responds as they might react to a foul in soccer. Several minutes tick away as they quiet themselves.
When order resumes I look up and smile. An alarm goes off on my phone. I answer the pretend call.
“Yes? Hello. Oh how are you? I’m fine. No, I’m not doing anything. Yes, I’ll see you this weekend.” I make no excuse. Every student stares at me.
“Does anyone have a question about the story?” I ask.
Several voices shout out at once. I look at them, confused. They quiet down and the monitor says, “Are you not going to explain the story?”
“That is not a question about the story. Who has a question about the story?”
“What are the themes?” the monitor ask.
I look at the ceiling. I look at my desk. “Ah,” I say, “I have forgotten. Keep reading.”
Several minutes of displeased noises and arguing ensue. They begin reading again. Another teacher arrives at the door and knocks.
“I want Rebecca. I need to borrow a pen.”
“Hello!” I exclaim, “How are you? Do you want blue or black?” I walk to the door and step just outside the room. We chat loudly for a minute or two. I return, sit down, and smile. They continue reading and talking while I continue writing notes and texting. Finally, I take a piece of chalk, write a star instead of my name on the board where students are supposed to sign out, throw the chalk across the room, and exit.
When I return I give the student a harsh lecture which they commence with an admission of guilt and an apology speech.
--A sudden knock on my door startles me—the last light is just disappearing; it’s late for a visitor. I open the door to two of my deputy head’s daughters, barefoot and breathless. Together they blurt out a Chitumbuka phrase I have never heard. Confused, I ask them to repeat. They do, with the same rapidity as before.
“Nhkumanya yayi,” I say. I don’t know.
They look at each other, “You are wanted,” they say.
“I am wanted?” they nod eagerly. “By who?”
“Bamama. Bamamawane.” My mother.
Seconds later I am trailing behind them toward the deputy’s house. Just as we are approaching their home the girls veer to the right through rows of beans. My confusion lasts only a moment before I see Mrs. Chirwa on a large mound ahead of me surrounded by her daughters and a hodgepodge of extraneous children.
“Rabeka!” she calls. And beckons me over. I scramble up the mound with the girls trying not to slip off into the ditches oneither side. On top of the large dirt mound is a dome made from grass, banana leaves, and sticks. A small boy with a pestle equal to him in height beats on the packed earth –boom-boom-boom.
Mrs. Chirwe reaches out to steady me then points down. At her feet is an opening in the grass dome where I can see that the dome is filled with translucent fluttering wings.
“Ah,” I say, “Mphalata.” Flying ants.
“Enya, kweni makora makora.” Yes, but be careful. She points at the ground, “Chiheni,” Bad.
Unable to see what is bad I shift my feet nervously on the slick grass.
“Makora!” Careful! Mrs. Chirwa says, grabbing my arm and pointing at the deep ditch just behind me.
I look into the break in the grass. The winged ants are swarming toward the exit but the Chirwes have buried a large clay pot in the earth. As the ants flit down the slope they fall into the trap, their long wings awkward and useless as they are quickly buried beneath each other.
“Aash!” a girl exclaims. She snatches an insect off her foot. The other children laugh. Mrs. Chirwa again points at a spot on the grass and says, “Chiheni.” This time I stoop down to see better—termites. The flying ants as we call them in English are actually termites. They emerge from the ground winged during rainy season (in the evening on a dry day after a particularly heavy rain). They fly into trees to mate then drop their wings and burrow back into the ground. I have woken to a shimmering lawn covered in insect wings. Anyway, the termites are a delicacy here but are protected by wingless biting termites.
As the sun leaves off providing even lingering light one of the girls brings a battery operated desk lamp from the house. I shine the light above the pot to attract the insects. Now I can see that the ground is covered in biting termites beneath the wings.
“Aash!” the same girl exclaims, pulling a particularly large termite off her foot.
“Aash!” I think, snatching a termite off my own foot.
“Makora!” Mrs. Chriwa warns again, pulling me closer. The girls produce two plastic bags. They secure one onto Mrs. Chirwa’s hand like a glove. The other we hold as she reaches into the pot to scoop out the mphalata. The bag fills quickly and the stream of insects slows.
“Zamala. They are finished,” Mrs. Chirwa says. We form a line and make our way down the side of the mound toward the house. The children start running and jumping toward the kitchen.
A roaring fire awaits us in the small kitchen house. Mrs. Chirwa passes me a wooden footstool to sit on. We crouch around the fire as the children crowd in the doorway. Mrs. Chirwa shoos them away then pours the harvest into a large tin pot which she places on the fire.
Her movements are quick and precise. She takes a large wooden spoon and stirs the ants. She finds a winnowing basket and beats the remaining flour out of it. She tastes a termite, adjusts the pot on the fire, and continues stirring. She chats as she works. Her husband’s sister-in-law is visiting and they chat back and forth in Chitumbuka, smiling and laughing. The children inch back in the door and when they are sure their mother is distracted they tumble into the kitchen filling the spaces between myself and the two women. Selena, the littlest, rests a tiny arm on my leg and gazes back and forth from the fire to my face.
Mrs. Chirwa tastes another, appears satisfied, and pours them into a winnowing basket. She picks them up in handfuls and rubs them gently between her palms, breaking the wings off onto the ground. When she has broken all the wings she takes the winnowing basket and flips the termites up, shaking the basket, readjusting. She winnows the broken wings into a ring on the ground without spilling even a single insect from the basket.
The children recognize that the time has come for tasting and are positively jumping and squealing. Mrs. Chirwa passes a small cupful of termites to me first, and every eye enviously follows its progress into my hand. I drop several into Selena’s cupped hands then taste a few. Warm, crisp, and fatty--it is the closest thing to bacon I have had since I left the States.
--On my way into town today I catch a hitch in a flatbed semi. When we arrive at the roadblock the driver is stopped, as usual, by the police. After asking him to demonstrate his windshield wipers, emergency flashers, and reversing skills, they ask him to get out of the truck and start harrassing him for having an unauthorized passenger (me). They also point out that his fire extinguisher does not work and I hear them mention 5,000mk. As the minutes tick by I grom nervous that I have landed this kind man into trouble. Two of the officers come to the door and greet me in Chitumbuka, ask where I am from and where I am going. Just as I consider climbing down from the cab and attempting to help the driver somehow he climbs back into his seat. An officer walks to the side of the road, picks up a bag containing two Fantas and passes it to me. "One for you, ok?" he says, then tips his hat.
And now, for your viewing pleasure, my favorite student mistakes thus far (instructions are italicized):
Turn the statements into questions.
Please call me later.
I don’t want to call you okay?
We like to play God.
Write a sentence using two conjunctions.
Dog eat nsima while sleep since 2011. (The student labeled while and since adjectives)
Flutter is a thing that looks nice such as plastic paper.
(At the end of a term exam)
The end! Good Lucky! God Bless Me.
A coward is a baby that is doing things like an adult.
He has the love affairs.
Everyday I was go to the road but she does Lion in this way.
He said that his Tomas is a mud hut.
Curious is the word that spoken write now.
Fill in the blank:
A ___________ is specific. A __________ is very broad, not specific.
(The answers are topic and subject. We had been studying them for some time.)
A man is specific. A woman is very broad, not specific.
I prosperate all studies in class.
He was tremendous girl.
Mr. Phiri felt stifle by his head teacher because he told him to eat drink beer although he was young.