The Menfolk

It turns out that my concerns about security in Lilongwe are not unfounded:  another friend of mine, who lives not far from my house, was robbed over the weekend.  (This makes four households I know that have been hit.)  Needless to say, we’re beefing up security around our house, too.  But on to the subject of today’s post:  Malawi’s Men.

While this is a topic I have privately complained about to many of you, I decided it was time for a public posting.  Let’s start with a little story.

Yesterday I took my car to the mechanic (yes, again – that is another blog post).  Since I left my car at the garage, I needed a ride back to my house.  The head mechanic assigned someone lower on the totem pole to deliver me back across town.  In the 15 minute ride, this mechanic managed to spill his Fanta Orange all over me (and the passenger seat), asked a series of questions about why I was in Malawi, if I had a boyfriend (the answer, in these cases, is always yes), if the boyfriend was in Malawi, if I liked beer and if I had been out to the nightclubs.  Unsurprisingly, this conversation ended with him asserting (not asking, mind you) that he should take me out this weekend to Chez Ntimba [a Lilongwe establishment that only really gets going around 3 AM].  I told him that wouldn’t be necessary, and fortunately he dropped me at my house without pressing the issue.

I think it’s really a testament to how much I’ve adapted to Malawi that this little exchange didn’t even phase me.  This is the sort of thing that happens all the time in Malawi, and when I first arrived, it really freaked me out.  (I’m from the midwest, where people who DO love each other rarely say it aloud.)  Instantaneous declarations of love and men who persist despite one’s clearly stated disinterest are basically outside the realm of my previous experience.  While I’ve gotten used to this behavior, though, it is also illustrative of how (little) women are respected here.

Needless to say, Malawian cultural norms surrounding “dating” are different.  Yes, I’ve had men I’ve only just met declare their undying love for me.  I’ve given out my contact information for professional purposes and then received phone calls at all hours of the day and night (which I don’t answer), and opened emails with a variety of terrible, stolen-from-Xanga poems.  Frequently, short conversations end with a request for my phone number.  In the event that I give it out (rarely), I am likely to be “flashed” (whereby my would-be suitor calls and hangs up, because he has no prepaid phone credit) incessantly for at least the next few days.

Note that I have never expressed interest in ANY of these suitors.  Though, like any good feminist with a liberal arts education, I have lobbed critiques of subjectification and objectification at American pop culture, I have never felt more like an object than I do in Malawi.

The fact that I “have a boyfriend” seems not to phase anyone, even though they always ask.  If anything, a boyfriend on another continent only increases the challenge.  (Perhaps it would do me well to come up with a few burly friends here in Lilongwe.)  Having polled my other female friends here, this sort of treatment is widespread.  And it’s not just us:  it’s a reflection of greater cultural forces.  For example, while I’m sure that some people here believe in monogamy, there is certainly a culture of infidelity; this is one of the biggest factors in the spread of HIV/AIDs here.  (An acquaintance, Mike, has an informative post here on a study of inhabitants in Likoma Island in Lake Malawi (population: 10,000), which found that 65% of the 1,000 people interviewed were connected in a giant sexual network.)

Women are generally not empowered, economically or culturally, to leave their husbands, though it’s perfectly acceptable for husbands to leave their wives if SHE is unfaithful.   And women are disempowered more generally, in their everyday lives.  Women work side-by-side with their husbands in the fields, and yet it’s also a commonly accepted practice for men to take the tobacco crop to market, sell it, and then disappear into a resthouse for a month of booze and prostitutes.  He goes home when the money is gone.  (And people wonder why there is perpetual poverty here.)  Many of the NGOs I’ve interviewed try to target their projects toward women for this very reason, but because of the aforementioned norms surrounding financial control, they are met with limited success.

While sexism certainly exists in the US, it is largely invisible.  Overtly sexist treatment of women is, at the very least, politically incorrect.  Here, it is overt, rampant, and something I experience everyday.  While it’s impossible, or at least unhealthy, to be angry all the time, I’m not sure if I should be happy that it doesn’t bother me so much anymore, or unhappy that I’ve become so complacent.  A college friend of mine used to have a bumper sticker that said, “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.”  I’m paying attention; I’m just not sure what my outrage can do when it’s up against such solidly built cultural norms.

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4 Responses to “The Menfolk”

  1. jess Says:

    thanks for tackling an important issue.

  2. Nancy M Says:

    Your blogs have opened my eyes to a wide variety of aspects of African culture. Thanks for sharing–even the less than ideal parts of your experiences in Malawi.

  3. Rachel Says:

    I was once asked to go to Africa with a man after a brief conversation with him. He wanted me to become his wife. So I am not shocked by the treatment of women over there. Just be careful though.

  4. Joseph Says:

    I came across this blog a couple of days ago. I must say that while I agree with a number of things that have been highlighted I feel duty bound to clarify others which are in most cases blown out of proportion.
    During the one party era, we were told to be nice to visitors. It was a deliberate policy to attract more tourists to the warm heart of Africa. In the 1980s you rarely heard of whites being harassed by the locals. Today, things have really gone bad. The generosity that was once there almost going. Its true insecurity is there. Its true that some Malawian men would want to take advantage of white ladies. But its wrong to say all Malawian men are like that. There are really nice Malawian men who are also gentle.
    There are so many reasons why some Malawian men would want to date a white lady. To some its a visa to the land of milk and honey. To some its just a question of pride and so on and so forth. These are realities in a developing countries. In my town we have a small community of whites from Italy, the US etc. we hang out together and there are no cases of Malawians asking the white ladies out on a date. We respect each other and we know our limits.
    Dating is a serious issue. You dont just wake up and ask Amy out. You really need to take time to know someone before you do that. The problem I see here is that some Malawian men think you can just ask a white lady out and permission will be granted.
    You mentioned that Malawian women are not economically and culturally empowered. When you say culturally empowered I do not know what you really mean but I agree that a good number of them are not economically empowered. The poverty levels are high here. And not all men will drink all their money after selling their tobacco at the auction floors. There are cases of drunks who lose their heads when they earn a few dollars but largely responsible ones will find their way to their wives to plan for the next growing season. Stereotyping can mislead people.
    All in all Malawi is a beautiful place to live in and I hope you won’t bump into more opportunists who will ask to take you out to Chez Ntemba. Enjoy your stay now.

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