Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Don't wear white to a wedding

Last weekend I attended a wedding for Gift Manase, our day watchman at World Relief. He was married at Katerera, a village about 4K away from Salima Boma. Transport was again an issue as our fuel was down to our last few ounces (pictured above), so a couple of people from the village came with bicycles to taxi myself and Mr. Nyamulani all the way there. Unfortunately my driver was a bit old and a tad more frail than Nyamulani’s and as I hopped on the back of the bike with my heavy backpack he told me very frankly “I don’t think I’ll manage”.
“Um. Okay.” I said, then offered to cycle instead. So began another unbelievably interesting spectacle for everyone we passed to gawk at: White man on bicycle. For about 4 Kilometers I pumped us to Katerera. It was a tough workout having someone on the back, and I have newfound respect for the ‘Dampa’ bicycle taxi drivers here in Salima that do this every day. It was a bit of a chore to keep the balance, too with the added weight coupled with the fact that the bikes here have those curved handlebars that amplify every little jerk of the arms. As I tried to maintain balance my passenger let out little controlled utterances of fear. “Oh, oh my.” I could hear softly behind me as I tried to maintain control of the swerving bike. You know how when you’re working out with friends in a gym or something, they will spur you on, like: “Push it, man. Yeah, dude work it. Don’t stop.” Well, here it’s the opposite, at least for mzungus. Every few minutes the guy on the back would say “I think you are tired now, yes?” and every few minutes the bicycle behind us would pull up alongside us and just kind of watch me, laughing and saying “I think you are tired now, yes?” About 2K into the ride, sweating and tired I decided to ask, “How far is it?” “Another 5 Kilometers” they lied. “Good, ‘cause I won’t get tired for another 10” I lied back. Many of the jokes leveled at me involve location or distance. For instance, when walking to the grocery store they will tell me it’s farther than it really is then laugh when it’s not in the place they originally said. “Full of tricks” as Louis would say.

Anyway, after walking a few of the hills we finally arrived and I was given some water and gallons of Tobwa, a very popular traditional drink made from the excess cornmeal left over from making nsima. If you want to know what it tastes like, the next time you make cornbread, just pour some water in the excess cornmeal and let it sit for a day. Then drink it. A lot of it. Then force the white kid to drink it every five minutes. Although I professed to like Tobwa (which is half true, you get used to the grit after a few cups), I’m pretty sure no one believes me, precisely because I’m offered it to me so much. It’s kind of like “Oh yeah, white guy? Prove it.” Maybe they can sense that half of my enjoyment of Tobwa comes from the fact that I really really want to like something that is known to be unpalatable for whites. I had this idea that If I can stomach it I’m ‘in’. Instead I just get more Tobwa. This is a trend around the entire food spectrum. Every time I serve myself a fairly large portion of food by my standards I am stared down very pointedly and asked “Why have you taken only this?” It’s a tough question, since I usually don’t link the amount of food I give myself to any causal chain of stimuli. It’s just intuition, based I suppose on how hungry I am tempered. At first I would just say “Um…what?” and then give into their insistence that I take more. I’ve since learned that seconds are a requirement, often served to me against my will, so I have fallen into a pattern of resisting to take a lot on the first go-round so I can finish the seconds when they inevitably come. This is done usually by saying that my stomach feels bad, or just flatly saying “I cannot” which never works. It has been explained to me that Malawians tend to eat a lot in their meals because they don’t eat anything in between, and sometimes three meals a day are not promised. It makes sense. Take up now because the future is uncertain. I have also explained that my American stomach is not accustomed to eating so much in one sitting. “Oh, okay thank you very much” they say as they shovel nsima onto my plate. Meals are a funny game akin to bartering for prices. The cleverer the excuses I can make, the more likely they are to laugh and give in.

The wedding went similarly to the engagement ceremony I attended last month. After eating and talking for hours a huge throng of women and children follow the bride and groom as they and the other members of the wedding procession dance to a central place in the village where they sit stoically while people dance and give money. The money is counted. Then it’s over. It’s a good time all around. Needless to say I stuck out like a sore thumb (my mistake wearing white to a wedding, I’m white enough already). I danced a bit, talked, helped count the money and just enjoyed the atmosphere. I’ve included some pictures, but you just kinda’ have to be there.