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.