Monday, August 30, 2010

At Last, The Wedding

Back to a cheerier topic: the wedding.

So I had arrived---very late---on Thursday. Malawians take great pride in their reputation for friendliness and hospitality; no one should have to stay at a hotel unless by choice. Instead, everyone crams together in the homes of friends and family. Such was the case with the wedding. I was put up at the house of one of Jean’s friends, along with various nieces, nephews, friends, and others. We piled into beds and onto floor mats, even though few of us got much sleep.

The house itself was rather comfortable. Jean’s friend teaches at the nursing college in Mzuzu, and her home is a typical middle-class Malawian house: concrete walls (nicely painted) and floors (covered in area rugs), with a tile roof. It had three bedrooms, two and half baths (with hot water!), a comfortable living room, a dining room, and a small kitchen. She has most of the markers of middle-class life: nicely made, matching furniture; satellite television and DVD player; microwave; fridge/freezer. All in all, a very nice place to stay for a few days (and what I hope to find for my field site stay).

The next morning, after somehow managing to get everyone bathed and dressed despite limited facilities, we had a breakfast of sweet potatoes (the breakfast of Malawian champions!) and headed into town. Mzuzu, in the northern region, is actually quite large---larger than Zomba, although Zomba recently achieved “city” status and Mzuzu is still considered a town. The downtown area was crowded with cars and stores and people. I think the number of cars has trebled again from when I was here last---and then I was shocked by how many more cars there had been since I was first here in 2003. But used cars are increasingly available, the government is investing in road development, and the growing middle class increasingly wants cars for both mobility and status. (As an aside, Toyotas are the most popular because the spare parts are the easiest to obtain, but Mercedes Benz---or Mercs---are the most desired for status.)

But I digress---again. Joshua picked up Jean and I in his car (a Toyota), and then we picked up the flower girl and her mother, and we all dropped in town at the salon. I’m learning way more than I ever thought I would about African hair. Jean was getting a new weave for the wedding, while her flower girl was getting her hair steamed and a hair piece attached. Shortly after we got into town, Jean’s bridesmaid---Gloria---arrived from Lilongwe and joined us at the salon to get her current weave steamed and curled.

Jean’s weave would be an all day event, so in the meantime, I went with Gloria and two of her friends to run errands in town---going to the pharmacy, getting a new chitenji for me, picking up gifts, changing money into small bills for the reception (I’ll explain in a bit), and so on.

We wound up spending the whole day in town, with various friends and family circling through the salon and meeting up in the market. I spent the day mostly lost in translation; unless they were directly addressing me, everyone spoke Chichewa. So I went where I was told, with whom I was told to go, with very little idea of what was going on.

After a whole day in town, we went straight to the rehearsal. I was then supposed to go with Jean and Gloria to stay at Gloria’s sister-in-law’s mother’s house so that I could go with them to the traditional presentation to the groom’s family and be around for the pre-wedding preparations in the morning. At some point, either someone decided or someone misunderstood---but I wound up back as Ellemes’ house for the night. I was disappointed that I missed the presentation, although I will admit that I was also relieved to be able to stay at home that night. I still hadn’t really gotten over jetlag and now was exhausted from running around all day and trying to keep up with the conversation in a language I barely know.

Not that I got much rest. People were coming and going all through the night---turning on lights, having loud conversations, and generally interfering with any attempts at sleep.

The morning of the wedding came very early.

Perhaps guessing that many of the guests would be operating on “African time,” the wedding committee had told everyone to be at the church by 8:00 a.m. The service, however, was not set to begin until 9:00 a.m. So after another rushed morning and many concerns about transportation (none of us at the house had a car), we arrived at the church via Jean’s brother, Moses, with almost an hour to spare. Fortunately, we had two choirs to entertain us, and I was kept busy with greeting even more people whom I had met during my last stay, as well as meeting new family and friends.

The church service is very similar to Western weddings, with a little more music and dancing. The wedding parties enter and exit with well-choreographed routines. One major difference is that the services usually include more than one wedding party; individual services are available but can be expensive. We had one other wedding party at our service.

In some ways, Jean’s wedding departed from the Malawian norm. She had a small wedding party---just one bridesmaid and one flower girl, with a best man and a “stick boy” (about the equivalent of a ring bearer). Often, Malawian weddings are large affairs, with multiple bridesmaids, junior brides, and flower girls, along with their male counterparts. A wedding party can easily approach two dozen people.

Jean also had her wedding in the middle of the month. For reasons that will become apparent when I describe the reception, weddings are usually held at the beginning or end of the month---when people have money.

In any case, Jean was a beautiful bride and the ceremony was lovely---even if I couldn’t understand most of it---and I took loads of pictures with which to bore you when I return. For those who care about such things (like me), her gown was sleeveless---with just simple lace straps, a beaded bodice, and a modest train, worn with a short-sleeve, cropped jacket and elbow-length gloves for the church service. Her colors were green and white.

After the service, the wedding party went off in a decorated car to a house near the reception site for an arranged lunch, while the rest of us returned to various homes for our own lunches and some rest (or attempted rest---impossible, again, due to the number of people coming and going).

Then we went to the reception---and this is where the Malawian wedding is very different. Jean’s reception was held in a tent on the grounds of the Hotel Mzuzu, a rather upscale and expensive hotel. The bridal party once again performed a choreographed dance routine to enter the tent and process up to a raised stage at the front. The attendees then sit in rows of chairs, like an audience, facing the stage. The master of ceremonies then calls up various parts of the audience---bride’s side, groom’s side, friends of the bride, people who came from Zomba, and so forth. Those who are called then go up in front of the stage to dance while throwing money at the couple, into baskets, into the air, and onto the floor. Cashiers then follow behind to pick up the money and count it. To maximize one’s time “dancing,” people use 20-kwacha notes (the smallest paper bill; hence stopping for change the day before). They also take part in various games and events designed to elicit more money. For example, the bride and groom hand out apples to their friends, who are then called up to the front to “buy” their apples for 500 kwacha. The wedding cakes (they have a series of small ones) are auctioned off for more money. The whole point of the reception is to raise funds to pay for the wedding. And for my fellow anthropologists, it has the feeling of a potlatch to it, with its public displays of wealth and the way in which the money was carelessly, almost destructively, thrown on the floor.

At the end of the reception, some drinks and a small treat were handed out to guests (although somehow my section was overlooked; because you don’t need to RSVP to a Malawian reception, getting a guest count can be difficult). Then it was back to Ellemes’ house for dinner and sleep.

The next day was supposed to be a lazy day at home, but after lunch, Jean came by to get me for an impromptu trip to the lake with her, Joshua, some of her relatives, including her brother Moses, who lives in Zambia and hadn’t been back to Malawi in ten years (Jean hadn’t even met two of her nieces!). We drank beers on the beach, talked, laughed a lot, ate dinner, and generally had a wonderful time, sharing pictures and family stories.

From there, it was back to Lilongwe for two days’ rest and some unfinished business at the embassy, then off to Zomba.

Next up: Fear and Loathing in Zomba

Friday, August 27, 2010

Darkest Africa

This update is brought to you by the Malawi Electric Company.

My only light sources at the moment are the computer screen and a rapidly dying mini-lantern. Apparently none of the previous occupants of the house thought to stockpile candles and matches. Or, if they did, they took their supplies with them. I tried sending the caretaker’s wife for batteries for the larger lantern, but the grocery nearby was out of stock and she didn’t want to range too far with her infant with her. I’m hoping that the caretaker will return soon to save me.

To jump ahead a little, I’m now in Zomba, in the southern region of the country, at the house that I’ve rented for a month. It’s a rather large, old colonial house in the center of town. It’s well-maintained, if not particularly well appointed. The owner just installed a fridge and freezer before I moved in; the cooker is just a two-burner gas range (and currently the gas tank is empty). The linens are threadbare, the furniture is sparse, but I have hot water and a sort of a shower (a handheld shower head that doesn’t extend high enough to stand, so to wash my hair, I have to sort of crouch in the tub).

I’m here by myself at the moment. I was supposed to share the house with another graduate student, but she flaked out on our agreement after finding a better housing situation. I should have known that I couldn’t trust her---she’s in political science, after all. (I can’t say I entirely blame her; I probably would have bailed also if I hadn’t already paid the month’s rent up front.)

It’s quiet, which I like, but lonely. Despite assurances from the locals that this area is safe, I don’t feel particularly comfortable with going out after dark, so I’m basically trapped inside from about 5:30 in the evening. With no television, no radio, no Internet, no housemates, and the occasional blackout---I think I’ll go stir crazy within a fortnight.

I am so not cut out for this anthropology stuff. Not two weeks have gone by---most of which I’ve spent in rather comfortable digs (the guest house and a middle-class house)---and I’m already pining for the comforts of home. And I’m supposed to move out to the village in a few weeks?!

In the meantime, I’m still in clearance limbo. Every time I think I’ve submitted all the paperwork I need, someone decides that I need something else. I had planned to be out in the village in a few weeks, but I may still be here in Zomba, chasing down approvals.

I’m sorry this is such a downer of an update. I’m sure once I start the actual research, time will go quickly, and I’ll have more interesting and exciting things to write about. At the moment, my days are a series of frustrations and annoyances (such as flaky grad students bailing on me; institutions creating new and fun hurdles for me to jump through) and my nights are endless hours of solitude, which I’ve chosen to fill with a series of pity parties.

How did I get into this?

How do I get out of it?

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Malawi: African Time

And so I arrived---alive and well and with all my luggage---and was properly oriented to the dangers of darkest Africa. Still jetlagged, I departed once again---this time for Mzuzu (in the north of Malawi) and my friend Jean’s wedding. Getting there was an experience in “African time.”

I should state here that I know plenty of Malawians (and people of other African nationalities) who are perfectly capable of telling time and keeping to a schedule. So I generally think that “African time” is bunk. But . . . I also can’t deny that time and schedules have a different meaning here, and even the most well-educated, professional, Westernized Malawians can have a rather elastic interpretation of time.

And so, on that Thursday, I was to be picked up by an embassy driver at 7.30 am so that I could cash a check before I departed. The driver did not arrive until 9.30---and only after several calls to my contact to check on his progress. I had intended to leave for the bus depot at 10.00; that got pushed back to 11.00. At least the driver for the guest house arrived on time to pick me up to go to the bus depot. Then he dropped me in the wrong place for the bus. Fortunately, someone who was also going to Mzuzu got me to the right place. Unfortunately, by the time I figured out that I was in the wrong place and got to the right place, the bus that I wanted was full---not even standing room. So my new traveling companion and I went in search of another bus.

A note about buses in Malawi: In recent years, Malawi has expanded its options for public transportation. When I first came to Malawi in 2003, coach buses were few and far between and had limited runs, usually overnight. We mostly traveled by minibus. Now, Malawi has two large bus companies---the National bus and the Axa bus---that run more or less on time (i.e., the buses generally depart within an hour of their scheduled time). In addition, a number of other companies run what are known as “local” buses---coach buses that depart when they are full and make more stops than the National or Axa bus. Then, there are the minibuses, although my impression is that most people only use those for short distances anymore.

Because we had missed the Axa bus, we boarded one of the local buses. And waited. And waited. And waited. And waited. We finally began to move around 2.30 pm, but only went from one end of the bus depot to the other, where we waited some more as the conductor tried to push a few more passengers onto a filled-to-capacity bus. After much protesting by the other passengers, the bus finally departed the depot---and went about 2k to the petrol station. Apparently, there was a problem with the tire. For whatever reason, they couldn’t resolve the problem at the first petrol station, so we went to another. And then another. We didn’t actually leave Lilongwe until after 3.00 in the afternoon---which was about the time I had hoped to arrive in Mzuzu.

I've decided that Malawi's naional motto needs to be changed from "The Warm Heart of Africa" to "The Place Where You Wait."

We finally get on the road. I had been told by several people that the trip to Mzuzu would take four, maybe five, hours. These people must only travel by car. We didn’t arrive until about 9.30 that night. Mind you, I was still very jetlagged and now hungry, filthy, and very annoyed---and very sticky. At one of the stops along the way---the Kasungu depot---I gave into hunger and thirst and bought a Coke and some peanuts. I then promptly spilled the soda all over me---my tote bag, my pants, my fleece jacket. Thank goodness that chitenjis are very absorbent! (And that I was carrying mine with me.)

But the trip did have two bright spots: My friend Jean was at the depot to greet me when I arrived, and I found that one of Jean’s nieces---whom I had known when I was in Zomba two years ago---was on the same bus (we were on the same bus for more than seven hours and only realized that we knew each other when we reached the depot!). So at least I didn’t have to wait alone at a dark bus depot.

I was thrilled to see Jean again---we hadn’t seen each other for two years---and to meet her husband-to-be, Joshua.

Joshua drove Jean, Ethel, and I to the house of Jean’s friend, Ellemes, where we would spend the night---and I would spend the rest of the weekend. Also staying at the house was another of Jean’s nieces, Gwen, who I knew from my previous stay. (Among others---it was a very full house for the weekend.) We had tea, caught up, shared photos, ate a late dinner, and finally fell into bed.

The next day was the beginning of the wedding festivities . . .

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Malawi: The Arrival

So I’ve made it through my first week in Malawi. My travel here was as painless as two days of traveling can be. I did almost have a minor heart attack at the airport in Baltimore: the ticketing agent mistakenly put “international visa required” on my boarding passes, and security wouldn’t let me through without the visa (which I didn’t actually need). Eventually the security folks decided that I could pass through for the flight to Atlanta and could sort of the South African leg at the gate. And, indeed, at the gate, the agent confirmed that I did not need a visa for a stay of less than 24 hours. (When I passed through South Africa’s passport control, they didn’t even ask how long I was staying---they just issued me a temporary visa).

I had another small bump in the road when I checked in for the flight from Johannesburg to Lilongwe. South African Air weighs all your bags---carry on and checked---before letting you up to the ticket counter. My carry-on bag was about 5 kilos too heavy, and my baggage, which was well within the weight limits for international flights from the United States, was a smidge overweight.* I did some last-minute shifting, and eventually they let me through just to get me out of the way.

All of my luggage arrived in tact in Lilongwe, and I was greeted by a representative from the U.S. Embassy, who escorted me to the guest house that had been arranged for me. I felt very official! The guest house is lovely---very comfortable---with hot showers and high-speed Internet and satellite television. The only downside is that I’m the only one here. It’s only recently opened, and the proprietor is counting on word of mouth to find guests. I feel a bit colonial, having this nice house with a full staff all to myself.

My first day was full of meetings and errands to get set up. I have an official embassy badge! Which generally won’t do me much good as I’ll be several hours from the minibus for most of my stay.

Part of the first day was a security briefing, which was interesting if not terribly useful. The gist of the briefing was that Malawi is a dark and dangerous place, filled with desperate people who cannot be trusted.** We, however, can lift them out of their desperation and civilize them by employing them in menial labor.

I also got a glimpse of how the other---ex-patriot---half lives. The others at the security briefing were all foreign service officers and their families, who live in embassy housing, with full staffs and “safe haven” rooms and cars and such. Part of me is rather judgmental of their lifestyle; it seems a bit excessive in one of the poorest countries of the world. It’s no wonder that they are targeted for home invasions and carjackings and such. A more sympathetic part of me thinks, I only have to endure deprivation for 10 months. This is their life; they will be here for several years; most of them have come from positions in other poor nations; many of them will go on to similar positions after this. In the meantime, I’ll return to my comfortable home in the States.

Still, I failed to be terribly sympathetic when I ran into two of them today as they discussed the difficulties of bringing in trampolines and household supplies. (Um, perhaps go to the market to buy your household items so you can support the local economy rather than spending a fortune in government dollars to ship things from the States.)

So this update is going very long. And I still have to tell you about my adventures with “African Time” and the wedding weekend. But I think I’ll end here and post the rest in a day or two.

* Despite some last-minute packing panic, I did an admirable job of packing for 10 months. I did wind up with two checked bags, but one was only 40 lbs and the other about 25 lbs. Of course, I’m already regretting some of the things that I left behind, as well as some of the things that I brought (note to self: check that the elastic in one’s skirts has not gone before packing).

** For what it’s worth, I’ve yet to have any security problems in Malawi. I’ve occasionally been unnerved when I get caught out after dark or a drunk and/or crazy person targets me for his attentions. But I’ve more generally found that Malawians are as friendly, helpful, and trustworthy as people anywhere, and that someone will invariably come to the rescue of a lone, white woman who looks as lost as she feels.