Thursday, April 2, 2009

Dry Sex and Malawian Hospitality

For the last week I have had the pleasure of getting to know, Florence, Phiri, and Catharine. These three women comprise the field team of MCV, and can often be seen barreling down the road in the back of a pickup truck dispensing knowledge and assistance to local villagers. Being a teacher, my work is centered at the main MCV campus, and as such, I am detached from the village based work which comprises a significant portion of MCV operations. When I asked if I could join them I was warmly ushered into the truck. After a journey down a road that looked like the set of a truck commercial whose purpose was to emphasize how tough a truck is, we arrived at a one room brick building with a metal roof which I was told was the chief’s house. A blue and white sitting mat was promptly produced and I was made aware of the fact that it was machine made (a mark of quality and affluence in Malawi). As the village woman began to arrive we were offered grilled chimanga (maize (corn)). The corn here is rather dry and starchy, much better suited for milling; however, it has a mouth feel that is strangely addicting.
Women from the village began to appear and everyone came by and graciously welcomed me to the village. After greeting the woman, my work was done. Most of the meeting would be conducted in local dialects and everyone understood, myself included, that the only thing I would bring to the gathering is novelty. The turnout to the meeting was good, and for a moment I allow myself to think that the cause was my novelty. Then I noticed clothes being handed out in exchange for attendance and I accepted that I was completely superfluous. I have come to realize that outside the small domain of school, my usefulness in Malawian affairs is effectively nil. I think it is important to be honest about my position as a volunteer; namely that I will likely receive far more than I can give.
As the meeting progressed I was treated to three very entertaining health presentations. Austin, our driver, is a friend of mine and graciously offered to translate. This is commendable, since I am not an easy person to translate for. I continuously get excited when I understand small snippets of the language. These periods of linguistic “understanding” inevitably lead to lengthy grammar lessons from Austin where he explains to me how I really don’t understand. With Austin translating I am able to follow along with the presentations. In an area where many superstitions still exist about disease, education really is the most effective treatment. A good portion of the meeting is devoted to HIV/AIDS. Southern Malawi is particularly vulnerable to HIV or several reasons. The single largest factor is poverty. Without the education and sanitation which accompany a more affluent society, the very foundations of healthcare are absent. Combine this with sexual promiscuity and men’s preference for dry sex (sex where the vagina is dried with a rag or absorbent before sex), and you get HIV/AIDS infection rates which are among the highest in the world. To their credit, Florence, Phiri, and Catharine leave no stone unturned. The woman are extremely frank about sex, describing in detail how the abrasive nature of dry sex causes cuts that promote viral exchange, and how allowing a husband to sleep around puts the wife at risk.
At this point in the presentation I notice a peculiarity. A quick survey of the audience reveals 40 or so attentive woman accompanied by three men. This count includes Austin and I, and although we are displaying rapt attention, we are highly educated men in monogamous relationship and thus not the presentation’s “target” audience. I ask Austin whether the men receive the same presentation. He replies that they do, but I have my doubts. To my knowledge the three ladies giving the presentation are MCV’s only field team, and I doubt whether a presentation of this nature could be delivered by three women to a male audience in rural Malawi.
As the presentation was finishing up, Austin invited Jes and I to his house. I was told to never decline an invite from a Malawian and quickly accepted. I told Austin I would talk to Jes to see if the weekend was free. On Friday night, after a week in which I had not seen or talked to Austin, a man appeared on our door step and said, “Austin will be by for you at 11am tomorrow.” The man then quickly walked away as I stood there dumbfounded. Why was Austin coming by? The previous week’s conversation long forgotten, I racked my brain trying to think if I had inadvertently made plans. Jes gave me a look that said, “You did it again!?”
In America, all arrangements are soft until a confirmation cell phone call 5 minutes prior to said arrangement. Not so in Malawi. A comment as noncommittal as, “Hey, we should hang out some time,” is interpreted as, “lets meet in the very near future, don’t worry about the time, just show up.” This had already happened to me several times. After playing Frisbee with some of the boarding students I had mentioned that I thought we should play again sometime. The next evening during dinner a throng of students materialized outside our window wondering why we are not “playing again.” Ironically, the inability of Americans, especially the 15 to 25 demographic, to make concrete plans is something that has always bothered me. In Malawi I am the one who is aloof.
Eventually, I connect the nice man at the door to the conversation with Austin the previous week. It is lucky I remembered, since at 11am sharp the next morning I hear a sharp knock at the door. Austin is on his bike, but we take a matola (see earlier post) to the nearby town. The matola was particularly hot and sweaty. Matolas usually are, but matolas are scarce on the weekends and are thus packed so full nearly everyone is standing. The shear number of people translated into an inordinate number of stops. As we arrive in Namias we are met by Austin, who has managed to arrive at the same time despite the fact that we were in an automobile and he was on a bike.
After a journey through meandering cornfields we come upon a tidy house with a metal roof. Inside there is a table, several chairs, a wicker couch, and a boom box. I am perplexed by the boom box since Austin told me that he does not have electricity. Then my attention is drawn to a large car battery which supplies Austin’s house with power. He takes it on the back of his bike into town, where, for a small fee, he can charge it at a charging station. He says that between the radio (which is currently blaring music) and a light bulb he usually get two weeks of power before it dies. Alas, the car battery provides Austin with more consistent power than the Malawi Power Company is able to provide us.
Soon we move into the back yard to meet Austin’s family. His wife is busy in the kitchen, a small shack removed from the main house. The kitchen has room for two stooping individuals and resembles a dark cavern, one permeated by the aromas of wood smoke and cooking oil. Since most Malawians still cook with wood fires, the kitchen is usually a drafty room outside. To the left of a smoldering fire is a pile of feathers and naked looking chicken which I soon learn is about to become lunch. My back is starting to hurt and the smoke is making my eyes water so we soon retire to the backyard. The packed dirt yard is lined on all sides by corn fields, which to Austin’s credit, are some of the healthiest I have seen. Also in the yard is a mango tree, which to Jes and I’s immense disappointment is as barren as every other mango tree in Malawi. Mangos are now out of season, and since the fruit import business is nonexistent in Malawia, I have had to transition to sugarcane. I never got a good look at Austin’s youngest child, who for the duration of our visit could be found hiding endearingly behind the legs of his father. When children in Malawi see Jes or myself one of two things happen, either they scream with glee while toddling quickly towards us clapping their hands, or they toddle quickly away and take refuge behind mom. Austin’s older son was bolder, and upon meeting us, quickly produced a Bow board. Bow is a game resembling moncola, except that there are twice as many spaces and the rules are far more confusing. Bow is the game of choice in Malawi and it is hard to walk 20 paces and not see someone playing. I have no doubt that given time to practice I would no longer be an embarrassment when playing Bow. However, given than my total playtime to this point equaled 20 minutes, and the boy’s total play time equaled playing most of every day for his entire life, I was quickly beaten. It doesn’t help that every time I play Bow the rules seem to change. Either there are thousands of variations or I am being taken; I haven’t decided which possibility is more likely. To my reassurance, defeat is handed to Jes and quickly as it was bestowed upon me. Since in Bow the winner continues playing and the loser does not, Jes and I mostly watch for the next hour as neighbor children materialize to insure I never get another chance.
When the chicken is ready, Austin, Jes, and I return to the table inside. I keep expecting Austin’s wife and children to join us but am told that they will be eating outside. This seems strange to me but is apparently is the way entertaining is done in rural Malawi. At the table we are presented with a heaping platter of rice and a succulent chicken. I am worried at first that none will be saved for the rest of the family, but I am later relieved to see that the wife and kids did indeed get some, although not the quality cuts Jes and I had received. On the chicken patter was the heart, which I am told is traditionally offered to guests. Austin said that “if someone cooks you a chicken but does not offer you the heart, the chicken is not really for you.” The heart is chewy, but satisfying. I can’t be sure, but the heart may be important because it signifies that the chicken was slaughtered particularly for your arrival, since store bought chickens often come without the heart. I am later told by a teacher that the slaughtering of a chicken is the highest welcome you can receive in Malawi; Austin really pulled out all the stops.
I am continually impressed by the hospitality of Malawians. The next week we were invited to a fellow teacher’s house. We were greeted by the teacher’s mother (people often live with their entire families in Malawi) who ran up to us and promptly gave us both big hugs. I at times feel guilty that so much effort is taken on my behalf, however I also get the impression that it would be inappropriate to decline. Thus I have adopted a new strategy: pass it on. Last week we invited our neighbor over for dinner, we all had a great time.
On another note, Jes and I have an Easter Break coming up and we will be backpacking on Mount Mulanje. There are forest service huts that you can rent for a small fee and it is supposed to be spectacular. I also hear they sell Bow boards so my play may soon improve. I will write more when we return.

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