Cultural Faux Pas – uhh yup, guilty
Saturday was easily the best day I have had in Malawi. I learned how to play the bou game, not well but I learned and I drummed with some rasta guys. We chilled all afternoon, there was lots of time to sit and chat about life and freedoms. I brought the guys some homemade chocolate chip cookies and made a deal with Freckles (yea, we’ve actually nicknamed the wives-tale guy Freckles and everyone has agreed to start calling him that) he’s going to teach me to play a bongo properly and hook me up with my own before I leave in exchange for some more cookies.
When the day was winding down we started making plans to meet up later for some dancing. We didn’t know where we would end up but we exchanged numbers then him and Max headed off. Kelly and I ended up leaving the craft market with John and Gift, easily two of my favourite Malawians and the friends I’ve had the longest. We had meant to do some shopping earlier but time crept up on us so we headed for the only important errand on Saturday’s list which was Malawi Gin.
The football match was just ending and the streets were rocky waves of blue and red jerseys and scarfs. I guess the stadium was not too far away. Gift asked one of the guys waiting to cross the street with us “who won?” and the guy just hugged him and said it was a tie game so everyone was happy!
As if I could not possibly have understood how awesome this tie game was, Gift turned to me as joyful as a kid who was just told he was going to his first live match, and said this was going to be a great night and everyone was so happy. We noticed how drunk and distracted everyone was around the same time we saw our opening in traffic from the side of the curb.
Gift grabbed my hand as we were crossing the road and I was thankful to have someone making sure I was not run down by a drunken mini-bus driver waving a scarf out the window. I held on and we crossed 5 lanes of people, bicycles, cars and flatbed trucks – loaded with happy drunks.
When we finished crossing the major intersections in Old Town I “let go” of the hand holding but my new friend did not. At first I thought nothing of it, I honestly love holding hands and I think Gift meant no harm… you see men of all ages holding each others hands here as a sign of friendship and respect all the time.
Gift’s fingers were laced in mine and he was walking at a good pace for a Malawian. We were heading toward the vegetable market and the path was packed with people. It was also loaded with deep holes and the occasional stick of rebar and plenty of uprooted chunks of cement; it was really hard to watch where you were going and not run into anyone without rolling an ankle or getting struck by a bus or bike.
I had only been walking for maybe a minute, when it became apparent people weren’t just looking at us, they were gawking. People were giving themselves whip lash and putting pedestrians in danger for all their double-takes. I was causing a spectacle. Gift and I were holding hands and it was bigger news than the edge-of-you-seat football game.
Some women were giving me the dagger death glare that lets you know if looks could kill, you would die a thousand painful deaths right then and there on the street. Men were hanging, full torso twisted looking back two or three at a time, out of vehicle windows to make sure their eyes did not deceive them. I am realizing all this now… at the time I was in a bizarre daze.
I was looking at people from behind my sunglasses, but I wasn’t really seeing them and I certainly wasn’t turning back to get a better look. I wasn’t sure if this was just a strange sight or if this was something madly taboo. What if laced fingers meant something different than the regular palm to palm hand holding? Did a pinky link mean the same as other fingers intertwined? Is it because I’m white chick? Is it simply because I’m a woman? Wait… was this? This wasn’t – oh no is this PDA and not friendship? Wait though… waaaiiiiittt…
I am feeling fine about what is happening, the hand holding in a large crowd and having someone who deters others from grabbing my bag. But it is all happening so fast. Most of the foot traffic is coming towards us and I know people are noticing but he doesn’t seem bothered at all and no one is really confronting us about anything. Holding his hand doesn’t bother me. Everything is fine… but we might as well be parading an elephant down the road with us.
I learned from my roommate later that guys were jabbering on to John about it in Chichewa clearly blown away, almost in a proud sort of sense.
There were far less women than men the closer we got to the market and the walk was not more than 4 minutes total before I was away from the crowd.
We cut through a windy path turning right into the market between some shacks. Their happy hour spot was this large dugout ‘hut’. It overlooked the little river valley that was very green. Skinny benches lined the perimeter of the shack which had half-walls made from salvaged materials. About 8 people were inside enjoying the local beer Chibuku which comes in a small milk type carton.
Gift let go of my hand when we got there. He got some chibuku and gin and I sat down. Ken, a tailor who I bought my handbag from, was in there happily intoxicated and friendly.
The night carried on as if we were in the craft market, well with the addition of doing shots of gin and continuously being on a mission for gin. There was great conversation, not a lot of hand holding. I have to admit it was nice to be outside after 5:30pm and while maybe some people might have said it was unsafe, I had a great time chilling with my local friends experiencing life as locals would, well at least as the boys would.
When the sun set and the first bottle of gin and carton of chibuku was gone happy hour was over. It was still kind of light out and there was still lots of people on the streets. We walked back up towards area 3 where I live and Gift told us we could get packets of gin at this mini market close to our office, and then suggested we go to Mabuya camp.
It all sounded like a good plan… we were again lead down a path between rickety shops (in a different, smaller market) and stopped at a candle lit stall. John and Kelly were ahead of us but we stopped for the gin and I was slightly satisfied that I wasn’t the only one who got bad ‘service’ when I wanted to buy something.
After standing behind two guys in this crowded tight alley we moved around to the corner of the shack and Gift leaned over with his money and “Hey-I-Say”ed himself some service. With 1,000 kwacha we bought 6 packets (probably 2 oz. each) of gin and had change.
From there we had a great time at Mabuya, met up with some other friends, played some pool and the night was said and done by 9:30 where I returned home to no power, large bugs and taking contact lenses out in the dark with no running water to wash your hands.