Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Visiting a village

I guess we’ve been quiet for a bit. We did enjoy our weekend not going anywhere, though on Sunday we made a trip to the village. There is a resident at Dave’s hospital who offered to take the students to his village to see life there. Well, it didn’t work out to go there, but he ended up taking us with another hospital staff person to her village. We borrowed a vehicle from the hospital, so we only had to pay the fuel and driver (which for Dave and I was about $25, still a lot for a day trip). It was about an hour on a main road (through Zomba, for those who know Malawi) and about an hour (20km) on a dirt road. It was slightly more interior than my village in Kenya (which is about 18 km), but the area was much less densely populated, so the services and goods available were much less. In that respect, it was more remote than my village.

As we got into the village, all the kids and a few adults started singing a welcome song and running/dancing alongside the car. They even pushed a bit from behind when it started getting stuck in the mud! To me it felt very funny, but it was also good to have this kind of experience, which other people talk about when visiting villages for a day.

When we got to Jane’s (I think, it sounded like gin) house in the village, they had set out chairs on the porch for us. We sat down and were introduced to several people in her family as well as to the chief. The children were all gathered around and the students decided it would be a good time to give them the candy, pencils and pens that we (actually, they) had brought. So with the help of the school teacher, all the kids lined up. It was a very nice line until they started passing things out. I told the teacher to tell them that there was no hurry – there was plenty for everyone.

I guess there was no harm in giving them the candy, and especially the pencils, which will help them in school, but I’m really not sure what to think of going to the village to see and give stuff away. This has been a difference in opinion between me and some of the other students. I see the possible unintended consequences and they see making a child happy for a day. After rethinking whether I was just being hard hearted or whether I had valid concerns, I decided that I held to my position that introducing things like that can make people dependent, make them feel like white people are superior, give them cavities (there aren’t always toothbrushes) and give them a taste for things from outside that aren’t locally available. But they did make me think through it again. I think going to the village and developing at least a bit of a relationship is better than just giving things to a random kid that you happen to pass on the street. Still, I felt a bit uncomfortable with the whole thing. (By the way, I wish you could hear about this all from the students’ perspective too – it would be a bit different and more animated.)

We were given a tour of the village, by the WHOLE village. I think they intended to take us in small groups, but the excitement of having so many visitors to the village was too much and it was more like a parade through the village. They showed us the well, some houses, the crops and the river. The bridge over the river had been washed away the previous day, and some of the men were working to rebuild it. There were also a couple boats pushed by poles that would take people across. The price varies from 20 to 50 kwacha depending on how big the river is at the time. For 100, they took several of us across and back so we could experience the boats. It was fun. I think Dave was too far from the bank to get a chance to go across, but he did have my camera, so he was able to take some nice pictures.

From the river, we went to the chief’s compound. They had a couple benches set up for us to sit on, but I asked the resident (Nedson) if I went and sat with the women. He told me it was fine, so I very happily sat with the women. I hate having special attention and would always prefer being with ordinary people. I also remembered all the times that I’ve heard that even though people give you a special seat, either as a white person or just as a visitor, they always love it when you ignore the seat and just sit with them. It’s expected that you be given honor, but it’s not always preferred. The chief said a few things to the group and the representative of the larger area also welcomed us. Nedson said that he was sure we would like to say something too, but asked us to wait until later. That really made me laugh inside because although Africans often all want to get up and make a speech on occasions like this, Americans almost never do.

We then had a chance to sit and discuss with the chief, the lady from the wider area and 3 older women about life in the village. We asked them questions and they asked us questions. They told us that the 3 older women were there because in the village in Malawi “mother is supreme.” The women do everything. If a child’s father dies but the mother is still alive, the child is not considered an orphan, because the mother can take care of him or her. A child is considered an orphan only when the mother dies. When a man gets married, he moves to his wife’s village. Their children belong to the mother and her family. If the wife dies, the husband goes back to his home because there is nothing left for him there.

Except for women doing everything (which is true all around the world), all of this was the complete opposite of what I’ve seen in Kenya. In Kenya, an orphan is a child whose father has died. Women go to live with their husband’s family, and if he dies, God help her. He also has very much power over her because she has come to live with his family. I wonder how much it is a different culture with different traditions and how much it is economic. In the village that we saw, there is virtually no cash income (I asked about this). The main source of money comes from family members who are outside. People rely primarily on subsistence agriculture. While most people in the village in Kenya are farmers as well, there are definitely other ways to get money. There are some jobs in the village, people have shops, they keep animals and sell milk (livestock were notably absent in the Malawian village), they sell vegetables. So in Kenya, a child without a father is hard pressed because without a father, it is very difficult to get money. But in the Malawian village, a father can’t do much to earn money, so a child without a father is almost the same (economically) as a child with a father. But a child without a mother is much worse off in terms of food, clothes, water, everything. Anyone with more experience in Malawi have any insights?

After discussing with the chief, the children and a group of women both danced traditional dances for us. They would have done more, but it was raining. A group also did a play about the importance of sending children to school. It was very nice. Dave and I did have a bit of a conversation with the older women sitting by us, through another villager who knew a lot of English. Someone told him that he could have a few wives (I think perhaps as a compliment) and I told them that no, he could only have 1. Just me. He agreed that he didn’t want anyone else but me. They all thought he was a little crazy (why would a man want only 1 wife!?), but I think they appreciated it.

We had also brought some gifts to give to people in the village – flour, sugar, oil, salt, clothes, some dishes. They chose 8 families so that each student could give a bag of grocery items to one family. Most of them were the families of elderly people, who would probably need the help more than some others. In the car on the way home, one of the girls said that she was surprised by the way they had done it. She had expected that people would come and scoop bits of all the things we’d brought so that everyone could have some. I’m sure glad we didn’t do that. That sounds to me like a food relief line. It really think that the way we did it was okay. People typically seem to be okay with representation. If representatives of the village were given a gift, then the village as a whole was given a gift (especially if the ones given the food are usually supported by the rest of the community). But I’m sure there were still some people who felt left out and/or jealous. There’s no good way to do something like that.

Finally, we had a traditional lunch of nsima (maize porridge – a lot like grits, but no salt or butter), greens cooked with peanut flour, and beans. It was very tasty. We also tried a traditional maize drink, which was better than other things I’ve had, but which none of us cared for too much.

All in all it was an interesting day. We didn’t have any transportation troubles this time (a first!) unless you count 13 people smushed into a vehicle designed for 10.

This weekend, we’re hiring a vehicle and driving to Lake Malawi. It will just be Dave and I and I will be the driver. I don’t think I would trust Dave to stay on the left yet. He still panics every now and then to see cars on the “wrong” side of the road. I’ve been here long enough, though, that I’m used to being on the left, plus I’ve already driven a bit and am getting used to changing gears on the left side instead of the right. So, you can look forward to a report about the lake next week. I’ll keep working on Dave to write about his experiences at the hospital and you may even hear something from Dave’s parents, who are arriving Sunday (hurray!)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi Sarah,

Your observations about the role of women in the village were interesting. I think that most of their views stem from the fact that in southern Malawi they have a matrilineal land right system, so that men move to the village of the woman that they marry. In contrast, in in Northern Malawi land rights are patrilineal and I bet that their views on women, and what constitutes an orphan, would be more similar to Kenya.