Updated: Jan 21, 2020
Blantyre city, just after dusk - a family is gathered in the living room, around a television set. Two heterosexual working parents, 3 children aged between 2 and 7. One child, the eldest one is glued to the screen of an iPad, streaming Anime series; the other two play with toy lightsabers their mother bought for them following an enchantment of Star Wars movies. On the floor, all across the thick brown carpet are monster trucks, toy guns and dolls with blue eyes, lean bodies and blonde hair. The two parents, plates of nsima, masamba otendela and chambo in hand, are glued to the TV, oscillating between CNN and BBC, keeping abreast with punditry on the destruction brought about by Hurricane Michael, having torn through the state of Florida. They are ostensibly moved by the carnage, and they feel for the affected.
The dad is a civil engineer working in road construction. The mum is a nutrition expert and consultant firmly embedded in the Malawian Donor and NGO sector. The latter, the Donor sector, is Malawi’s third parallel political economy replete with its own life customs, and where real money is the Dollar or the Euro from which the real value of the Kwacha economy is determined. The other two political economies are the formal Kwacha economy (with traditional government dependent sectors in local commerce, industry, education, agriculture, health and indeed (road) construction), and the informal economy (where you find maids, gardeners, minibus call-boys, barbers, builders, plumbers and the other “tax-dodging riff-raff” like extended uncles, aunts and grandparents at the village).
Apart from the living room there are 8 other rooms in this house. Four of them self-contained bedrooms, and the rest, a dining room, a large kitchen, a study and a bar. In the kitchen are found two living souls, the periphery of the nuclear family: an orphaned niece and a “bastard” nephew. The niece’s parents died in a bus accident on their way back from a wedding at their village. Left without a guardian, this family took her in. The nephew is the son of a struggling single-mother, an older cousin of the civil engineer who fell pregnant in her last year of secondary school. Her lover, a boy from Lilongwe city, disappeared. Rumors are he might be somewhere in the Eastern Cape in South Africa, probably married to another woman and working as a bus mechanic. Unable to raise her son with neither a job nor a partner, she pleaded with her younger cousin.
There seems to be a linguistic barrier in the house as well. While both parents are mother tongue speakers of ChiChewa, fluent speakers of ChiYao (the man) and ChiTonga (the woman), their children - the 3 kids - only speak English with the oldest about to start taking French lessons, to the elation of his mother. The nephew and the niece who spend most of their time in the kitchen preparing food for their younger English-speaking cousins and cleaning up after them, predominantly speak urbanized ChiChewa and some semblance of English. When the food is ready, they say, “come eat.” When the bath water is ready they say, “go bath”. And when they seek to intervene during bad behavior, when the children are squabbling, they say: “No…. You! Stop!!” as a way of rebuking the naughty behavior of the antagonist. Otherwise, their interactions with their younger cousins occur in glum, impersonal, pragmatic sign language.
The household is characteristic of two worlds under the same roof. One world belongs to Malawian high culture replete with suppressed parental desire to be like those they were told were superior to them in a colonial past. The other, a low culture, which gives the native its “primitive” sensibilities, which supposedly fabricates African basic impulses and instincts. The bulwark holding back this dam of African backwards are the parents themselves who eat nsima and masamba otendela while feeding their children on macaroni and pasta, enchiladas and wraps, starters and desserts, even as they espouse English over Chewa, French over Tonga, Spanish over Yao. Parents whose resolve is to raise children who are nothing like themselves: children severed free of an insidious incivility.
The nephew has the job of tending to the yard outside, keeping the grass kempt, the hedges trimmed, and the flowers watered. He also sweeps the driveway and washes the cars of his uncle and aunt every morning before he sets off for public school by minibus. He thus spends a lot of time learning from the only older figure who has time for his repressed curiosity, the 47-year-old gardener. The niece cooks, washes clothes, and takes care of the interior of the house together with the 25-year-old maid who has become her confidant and solace.
Their uncle admonishes them sternly whenever they fail at these duties, reminding them that these skills were absolutely essential for his own survival. That her parents just like his own were dead; or that his single mother was jobless, in the village, struggling. That the least they could do was strive to do right by them. And so it was: local gender normativity for the nephew and niece, and west-centric gender normativity for the 3 kids inside, who on school mornings exited the house, shoes polished, uniforms crisp, and school bags full of learning gadgets, breaktime refreshments and other accoutrements, into any one of the 3 clean cars in which their father or mother ferried them to the private school across town. School fees? Just over $1000 per child per term.
These kids have never seen the inside of a minibus, never heard the rattle of loose pieces of metal and plastics, which their cousins must go through every day, with an exercise book in hand, a pencil and some rugged shoes, come rain or sunshine. They have never seen the inside of a public hospital either, nor the insides of other government premises which clumsily provide various public services. As primary beneficiaries of the core family, the spending power of their parents purchases for them what should be public goods from the exorbitant private market: transportation, education, health, housing, security, playgrounds, libraries, and so on.
The duality of temperament too is quite befuddling. The interactions between the caretaken and their caretakers are defined and limited. When they occur, they are steeped in expectations of cultural decorum (such as leaving the room when one of them enters, or slouching forward to convey respect), and characterized by the issuing of instructions for different chores, or the berating of inappropriate behavior. However, when with their 3 children, their demeanor remarkably changes, filled with playfulness, warmth and joy. Whilst stern instructions are levied on the nephew and niece, patient dialogue and mutual courtesy are practiced with their own children, with care always taken to obviate emotional distress. Occasionally, birthday cakes are bought for the muted celebrations of their — the niece and nephews’ — birthdays: situations in which conviviality succumbs to awkwardness.
In my view, Malawian high culture is a training course aimed at instilling in children a propensity for the world beyond Malawian mundaneness via the requisite emotional, psychological, and attitudinal dispositions compatible with an eventual “superior” Western life. Or, to put it forcefully, to teach children how to operate in a more glorified White world found beyond unspoken cultural frontiers within the Malawian nation, or beyond the boundaries of nation itself and its continent, via the negation of self as it pertains to functional Malawian day-to-day culture.
The two parents identify this inadequacy in themselves everyday as they navigate their professional spaces, dealing with Portuguese contractors in the transportation sector, and British and American agencies in the development sector. Moreover, they both grew up during a time when the president of the newly formed Republic of Malawi, Hastings Kamuzu Banda, the opponent-in-chief himself of British rule and empire, sparingly spoke in local languages through his 30-year presidency. He only spoke…(wait for it)...English and went around stupefyingly in the summer heat in a three-piece Englishman’s suit, with a translator on hand, to transform his English into the commoners’ vernacular.
The civil engineer and the nutrition expert see in their nephew and niece no capacity to cope with these fraught working spaces and so train them to survive in the subaltern realm of raw Malawian blackness, which only understands the translated English of commands, whose reciprocating vernacular vocabulary is of veneration and obeisance. But as for their 3 kids — and perhaps a 4th one on the way — an alternative is possible, provided they are groomed from their formative years to be competent in reciprocating or performing west-centric Whiteness. They are safeguarded from acquiring the pollution of Malawian blackness brought about, in particular, by tongues fluent in any Bantu language. The distinction between the 3 kids and their cousins is that the latter are expected to require translation and expected to display deference, while the former need no translation for they function with the fluidity and ease of an object’s shadow.
The niece and the nephew master the life of the commanded. That of the “garden boy” and the “house girl” with whom they eat and work and get scolded together and from whom they learn love, laughter, humor, warmth, acquire a sense of commonality and achieve unconditional acceptance. They understand their blood relatedness to their 3 cousins whose language they do not speak and whose world is different from their own. Not just because they are constituted differently, but mostly because the building blocks by which one is expected to form themselves into one type or another member of the wider society are so fundamentally different, and so divergent in terms of the life trajectories into which those building blocks intend to send them.
The modern Malawian family is thus a crucial site of the dual reproduction of social and cultural life. It is where the Western hemisphere lands through television and the internet with the substance of distinct aspirations. It is also where the loudest echoes of a colonial past and its subsequent independence-era patron reverberate, and it is where the newest converts for so-called high culture, aided by well-meaning mothers and fathers, are granted candidacy for the life of being a “sophisticated” White shadow.
It is where divergent tastes are distributed, divergent dreams administered, divergent hopes cemented. It is where some find the opportunity to overturn local gender hierarchies even as they are themselves protected by patriarchs and matriarchs, to embrace Western ones, conveyed through toy guns, monster trucks, and blonde-haired, blue-eyed, slender white dolls. Gender binaries and gender ascriptions too have a hierarchy. There is the dichotomy of high culture genderedness and low culture genderedness where, again, the former is deemed superior to the latter.
Thus, in my view, culture is subjected into two formats. First, it becomes malleable to pave way for the candidates of high culture’s sophisticated shadows. Second, it is reinforced to straitjacket those designated to only hear by translation and to abide as instructed. And all of this carries on quietly, without so much as a ripple occasioned by someone attempting to break rank, much like a silent but immensely pow
erful, deep river meandering towards the sea day after day after day.
The modern Malawian family, with all its unassuming politics, its demeanor of harmonious, coordinated coexistence, dare I say, can be frightfully reminiscent of the punctilious treachery of a colony, in which order and hierarchy disguise severe uprootedness and wanton negation.