Saturday, September 19, 2009

Dancing with Men

Before Jes and I embarked to Malawi it seemed that everyone had a bit of cultural advice. I consider myself a fairly easygoing person and have yet to be perturbed or embarrassed by a cultural idiosyncrasy, that is, until now. The 2nd most popular musician in Malawi was going to be playing at my favorite local bar. A night out is a rare thing in Malawi and Jes and I were very excited.

After dinner we peddled down to the bar on our banduka (bike with a seat in back), ignoring the nearly constant laughing and pointing of passersby. I am used to the constant gawking now, and have come to accept that I will likely be a source of amusement for Malawians up until my departure. It is my way of giving back. Jes and I on the bike have become such a quotidian source of amusement that people often look crestfallen when we walk past bikeless and will ask accusatory questions like, “Azungu, banduka lanu lili kuti? (Where is your banduka white man?)”

We arrived at half past six and I secretly hoped we would run into Vicky, the bar owner who, in addition to being a good conversationalist, buys Jes and I rounds for which, hard as I try, I am never able to reciprocate. To my delight, Vicky was there and a beer was quickly thrust into my hand; the night was starting out good. We played some pool and drank more beers as the opening bands started up. The first few bands were pretty atrocious. Some probably had potential, but any semblance of talent was drowned out by an overbearing synthesized backbeat. To my dismay, most Malawian music groups rely heavily on synthesizers, and although I am not universally opposed to this, I feel it detracts from the acoustic bands and choirs who often employ them.

Although the music was disappointing, the backup dancers were not. Nearly every musical performance in Malawi, no matter how small, has enthusiastic backup dancers. I suspect they aren’t always professionals, just groups of drunken guys who feel the ambiance to be incomplete without five to ten men in tight pants gyrating their hips and spiraling around the stage. The dancing, although not necessarily good, is always executed with intrepid panache, which in the opinion of this dancing-impaired blogger, is what really matters.

As the night progressed and the music got better, the dance floor started to fill and before long everyone was dancing. To make a blanket stereotype, it is true that Africans are better than average dancers. But what I find more remarkable is the sheer magnitude of participation. Poor dancing skills are no deterrent. Alongside the rhythmically talented are those with two left feet who, in the United States, would relegate themselves to standing in dark corners. This unbridled enthusiasm for dancing means that wherever there is a beat, people congregate to dance. Several nights ago while biking home from Maldeco, I had to swerve to avoid hitting a dance party (in the middle of the road) of young boys moving to the sonorous beat of a nearby Chibuku (shake-shake) bar. Once I was awoken at MCV by timid taps on my front door. After cursing quietly and putting on sufficient clothes to chastise someone without the loss of undue dignity, I opened the door to find a group of students, eyes timidly downcast, professing their belief that the night was perfect for a dance party and would I please, if it wasn’t too much trouble, set up the speakers and lend them my Ipod.

As a fairly remarkable dancer (by racial, not dancing criteria), I was quickly accosted by potential dancing partners at the bar. This would have been fine by me, if all the suitors had not been men. Although men and women do dance together in Malawi, man on man and woman on woman partnering is common. As far as women are concerned, the social norm is analogous to what it is in the United States. With men, however, the parallel quickly breaks down. The conventions of physical distance and masculine separation seem not to exist. The other day in class we had a shortage of chairs and a student came in late and found nowhere to sit. After scouring the room, the boy walked over to his best friend and sat on his lap. Very considerate of the friend, but certainly not something you would see at a high school in the United States.

Back at the bar, I first tried to politely decline the interested dance partners. But then persistent men started buying me drinks in the hopes I could be cajoled. Declining drinks is considered rude in Malawi and as the beers in front of me quickly multiplied, I began to weigh the consequences of my continued inaction. Jes of course thought the whole thing was hilarious and started goading me with a lecture on masculine insecurity. Eventually, I was coerced into action.

The actual dancing was interesting and can only be described as half dance off, half cock fight. Most normal dance moves were employed, grinding was no exception, but with the added confusion of rapid-role-reversals. The whole affair took on a competitive bent, where dancers jockeyed for position and challenges were rhythmically intense. Thankfully, expectations of me were quite low and I was rewarded for even the most modest efforts.

I don’t think dancing with other men is something I will ever be entirely comfortable with. Sometimes it is impossible to completely step into another culture; the homegrown expectations and thinking patterns are simply too engrained. That doesn’t mean, however, that one cannot overcome some social and culture barriers. I can now hold hands as nonchalantly as a Malawian native and I am thoroughly looking forward to freaking people out on my return home.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Reduce, reuse, recycle, REPAIR

Malawi is truly the handyman’s dream. The nascent economy produces (or at least imports) most modern machines, but unlike a more consumer-driven economy, there is a lack of choice. There are often only a few iterations per product category. For example, there are only 4 types of soda, several colors of paint, and 1 common doorknob in the Mangochi area. The simplicity is quite nice; not only is shopping straightforward, but next time you need to touch up that chipped paint on the bathroom wall you don’t need to agonize over a color match. Yet, the chief advantage of such a parsimonious system is the ubiquity of spare parts and the resultant opportunities for the do-it-your-selfer. I count myself as a proud member of this demographic, and thankfully, Jes does not. Fortunately Jes doesn’t hog repair jobs or usurp my position as head tinkerer. .

I am not nearly as ambitious when it comes to jury-rigging as some of my Malawian counterparts. The other day I saw a man securing an engine block to his car with the remains of an old tire. I do, however, welcome the occasional weekend project; so imagine my delight when, while reading in bed, I began to smell the unmistakable stench of burning electronics. I jumped up to find that the plug of our electric water kettle had melted into a clump of mangled plastics and wires. Luckily, a plug in Malawi is a huge contraption equipped with screws for easy repair. I suspect that the inconsistent electricity in Malawi has spawned a demand for repairable and replaceable plugs. After a quick trip to the hardware market and I was the proud owner of a new, rather expensive, electrical plug.

The hardware market-men, as I call them, are notorious sharks who will charge ridiculous prices for simple items. I was once quoted a dollar for a rusted used 1/16in bolt that was worth a few cents. I usually try to patronize the larger established hardware stores that have fixed prices; however, I entered Mangochi around 1pm, meaning most large businesses were closed for their 2+ hour lunch break.

With plug in hand I returned home and prepped the wires from the dysfunctional kettle. Three wires protruded from the sheath: red, blue, and yellow/green. ‘Well, this doesn’t take a genius,’ I thought, ‘no sane person would make red the ground wire.’ This left me with a fifty-fifty chance of correctly guessing the proper arrangement of wires in the plug. After a moment of vacillation, I finally settled on blue as the most likely candidate for the ground line, and chose red and green as the live wires. For anyone who would rebuke me for picking blue over green, let me state in my defense that a later investigation revealed my choice to be irrelevant. Someone “intelligently” choose red as the ground line for reasons I cannot begin to fathom.

I gingerly plugged my kettle into the socket and…ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ… OUCH!! What’s wrong Jesse,” Jes called from the bedroom. Jes walked into the room just in time to see me try to unplug the kettle…ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ… *@#!!$%. “It shocked me again,” I said accusatorily. Jes started laughing, much to my annoyance. However, her amusement was short lived as she nonchalantly rested her elbow on the refrigerator and…OUCH…WHAT THE #%$@. “The refrigerator shocked me!” Jes exclaimed - now eyeing the refrigerator as if the once harmless appliance had acquired a nefarious agenda. These weren’t paltry shocks either, mind you; they were body-spasm-inducing, make your-arm-hurt-all-night, shocks. The rest of the night was punctuated by outbursts of curses as we were shocked by various electrical appliances throughout the house.

I finally managed to unplug the kettle using a long wooden stick while standing on a plastic beer crate, a stroke of brilliance to which I still refer. I am not sure exactly what happened, but I think I managed to electrify the ground line of the house when I improperly wired the kettle’s plug. The end result was that everything plugged into an electrical outlet had its chassi electrified with unbridled Malawian power. When Jes or I touched one of the electrified objects, our bodies provided a seductive electric conduit to the well grounded cement floor. This theory should only work, however, if the ground line of our house was affixed to an object with less grounding potential than yours truly (I actually suspect the outlets in the house were interconnected but never grounded to anything). This would not surprise me in the least, seeing as many Malawians view ground lines as an irritating waste of time. Many appliances and dwellings are frequently mis-wired, and I am constantly receiving low-level shocks from ovens and refrigerators that are not probably grounded. Through trial and error, I was able to construe the correct arraignment of wires for our plug. Don’t tell Jes, but as I was sweeping the next day I found the small instruction card that had fluttered, unnoticed, out of the plug and onto the floor. Jes and I have now been enjoying piping hot shock-free water for over a month. My next project is the stove, which inexplicably has only one functional burner. Wish me luck.

Ps. If anyone with more electronics knowledge has insights or theories about what happened with the ground line, please send them my way.