Saturday, October 24, 2009

Common Entertainment

Gracious Secondary students may not be the countries’ most academically talented students, but they are truly enthusiastic performers. Throughout the school year there have been numerous events during which the students can show off their creative prowess to their peers and parents. In addition to weekly assemblies every Monday morning, we have had an Open Day for parents and the Gracious Graduation and MANEB Exams Dedication (prayers for the students’ success on upcoming national exams).

During each of these events, the sheer number of students vying to perform astonished me. Whenever there is a school function, the one hour reserved for student performances consistently stretches to 2-3 times that length. No one other than Jesse’s and my growling stomachs seemed to mind the delayed program though. Entertainment, regardless of the quality, is a valued commodity and no one is anxious for it to end.

Most of the performances are groups of students singing religious songs. Foremost and favorite amongst the student body and myself are the Chronicles, who write remarkably creative gospel/rap songs in English and Chichewa, with vocal stylings reminiscent of a middle-school boy band. The Anglican Choir usually makes several appearances, singing choral favorites like Lowani, The Blood of Jesus, and Yende Pita Patsogola. The choir has an absolutely heart-warming and cohesive sound, but I always have to laugh a little to myself at the image of Allen Makwinja (a form three student) towering two-feet over the other 15 young men and women who sing the back-up to his booming bass. SCOM (the Christian students group of Malawi) also often sings, but the best part of their performances is the semi-synchronized overly-enthusiastic dancing that accompanies each rafter-rattling song. The Muslim Students Association also usually contributes a piece, though the nasally modulated Arabic lyrics are underappreciated by the audience, especially when following directly after the gospel enthusiasm of the Christian groups.

In addition to a multitude of singing groups, Gracious also has it own theatre troupe, The Malambe (Baobab) Drama Group. The themes of their plays never stray from the merits of being a good student and dangers of boyfriends, alcohol, marijuana, etc, and the group loves to include taboos, such as witch doctor telling a father that he is supposed to have sex with his daughter to cure his money problems. Regardless, or probably because of this, the student body always welcomes any drama offering with loud cheers, which grow loudest whenever drugs, alcohol, or sex are mentioned. As for myself, I usually find the plots tedious and the two skits presented during the graduation ceremony made me slink down in my chair with embarrassment for the students onstage who had obviously neglected to rehearse even once. However, when the students actually rehearse, the performance can be quite good. The group presented one play during Open Day which began with a funeral and then traveled back through time to the events which had led to the funeral (which of course was back to the usual theme of good student/bad student). It was so well performed that parents would run up on stage in the middle of the play to give the actors money to show their appreciation, which led to loud cheers drowning out the dialogue of the play. But, audience participation was all part of the entertainment.

In addition to the singing and acting, the other main component of student performances is dancing. A dance is called a ‘gule’ in Chichewa and dancing is a hefty part of Malawian culture. The first dance I saw was during the Open Day performance and began with two young men rapidly beating wood-and-hide drums as the girls slowly came singing, stamping and clapping out toward the audience in a line. The girls knelt in a semi circle as one girl took her place in the center and began to cock her hips from side to side to the rapid beat. At this point the roar of the audience crescendoed and mothers came dancing out to present the dancers with money. The dance dissolved into a melee of running shouting and laughing to the asyncopated and rapidly deteriorating drum rhythm before the emcee finally called a halt and proceeded with the next performance.

The second dance I observed was not of the formal cultural variety, but a teenage disco thrown for the students following the graduation ceremony. Jesse helped set up the speakers, Peter (the computer studies teacher) DJed, and I wandered the room searching for and confiscating sachets of alcohol. Aside from the ear-splitting music echoing in a confined space and the giggly boy-girl dramatics, the scene could have come from any high school in the United States. Well, perhaps more boys were out in the middle of the dance floor rather than huddled around the sides. For me it was fun to see the girls free from their uniform blue and all decked out in their most colorful fashions. Even though each girl probably owned only one nice outfit, they all shared and swapped clothes around, mixing and (not-quite)-matching, until each girl had a sexy and unique outfit to wear to the dance. Their excitement was adorable and just goes to prove that teenage girls are teenage girls everywhere.

Malawi has a great fondness for dancing. Children dance, grandmothers dance, everyone dances: in the villages, in discos, in school, and even in the middle of the road at night. If I were to make an out-sider’s culturally-ignorant guess, I would say it stems from a time when the only entertainment to be had was the kind people could produce with their own voices and drums. Unlike most developed nations, that time does not exist only in nostalgia. In rural Malawi, when the electricity goes out and the sun sets, people still pass the dark hours before sleep in song and dance.

Since we arrived at the hut at MCV, the electricity has gone out from 6pm-7pm approximately 4 nights every week, sometimes more, sometimes less. We joke that it’s because that’s when the day-shift workers at the electrical plant change over to the night-shift, but probably has more to do with redistributing the power so the Blantyre never goes without. On most nights that the power goes out, the girls who board at MCV sit outside the hostel (just 40 meters from our hut) and sing. About a month ago, I finally went over to investigate.

As my eyes adjusted to the sheer dark, I found about half of the girls seated in a semi-circle and the others up and dancing. One girl was leading the song, the others singing along while two played drums. The girls did not remain in their places for long, sometimes one would jump up and start a new dance, and other would go sit back down or pull another less-enthusiastic girls up to participate. Frequently one girl would start leading a new song in the middle of another one and everyone would just join in on the new song, leaving a brief moment when both melodies hung clashing before one was absorbed into the other. Songs would break in the middle as one drummer would impatiently tell the other to switch rhythms (no, do it like, bum bum bah buh), but it didn’t matter because this was not a performance. It was for pleasure and not perfection.

Most of the songs seemed to follow a pattern that every girl automatically knew by heart, but individual lyrics seemed highly ad-libbed by the one leading the song. She would mention individuals by name and extol the virtues of boarding students over day-scholars. Sometimes she would even switch to English if there was a lyric she wanted me to hear. One song, sung entirely in English, repeated the chorus, “Choose-a, choose-a, the best of all…” and then went on to list names of students and teachers.

Many of the songs had specific ways of dancing that went along with them. One of which was about ‘katundu’ meaning luggage or load. The girls bobbed around to the beat of the drum singing a catchy and repetitive lyric while giggling and passing a bundle from head to head. Only after a few minutes into the song when I too had wiggled my butt around the circle while clasping the bundle to the top of my head, did one of the girls come up and tell me that the song was saying that I had lots of sins on my head and had to pass them off. Evidently ‘katundu’ also means sins.

The sheer number of songs that the girls knew was astonishing to me. But, perhaps it is not quite so remarkable considering that they have been surrounded by these songs since they were born. Music and dancing are simply a fact of living in Malawi in the same way that supermarkets are an inescapable fact of living in America. It will be a little sad to leave Malawi where entertainment is performed by everyone and return to the West where we leave our amusement in the hands of professionals.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Just Another Death

A student died yesterday and this morning in the staff room there was a large debate: to attend the funeral or not. This is Malawi where people die all the time, and yet the custom is to go to any funeral to which you are even remotely connected. Traditionally, even if you do not know the person, if there is a funeral nearby, you go anyways. There should have been no question; the entire school should have attended the funeral.

There were, however, a few minor complications. First, the girl had left school early in the year due to illness. She was admitted into a hospital in Blantyre and had been there for the entire school year. Recently it came to the attention of the school that she was pregnant. School policy is to expel any pregnant students (male or female, as it states in the official school rules) until after the child is born. However, since the girl had left school because she was sick, before it became evident that she was pregnant, there was never any formal expulsion. Hence the dilemma. Was she a Gracious student for whose funeral the entire school should arrive in uniform, or was she an expelled student to whom the school owes no formal obligation?

One teacher argued- if there was no formal expulsion, then she is still our student and we should go to her funeral. The principal countered, yes, but do we want to associate out school with this? Last year when a student died we took all of our students in uniform to the funeral. Do we do the same for this girl? Do we really want to form such a large visible presence at the funeral of a girl who died due to complications from pregnancy? At this, all of the teachers cringed and laughed. In the US, the general attitude is that teens will have sex no matter what you do and the result is that some of them will end up pregnant. It’s not the fault of the school if a girl gets knocked-up. Here the attitude is a bit different and schools are loathe to admit that any of their students ever get pregnant for fear that parents will not send their students to the offending school.

The school eventually decided to send a small delegation of two teachers along with a few students and the condolences (money) they had collected from their classmates. For the whole school to attend would have been inappropriate, but the school cared about the girl and wanted to show some support for her family.

Perhaps my discussion of a student’s death seems too emotionless. Shouldn’t there be students weeping on each others shoulders in classrooms and an emotionally charged day as the school mourns its loss? Perhaps. But, death happens. Here more than anywhere else. Each person deals with it individually and those who knew the girl personally I am sure mourned her in their own way. In a place where death is common, society treats it as such and carries out its well-practiced customs with little surprise. However, amazingly to me, even in the face of such frequency, communities still manage to keep an individual from becoming just another death.

The notations of death are everywhere- in a funeral procession singing loudly down the road and the in the subdued faces of returned students who have been missing for a week.
Earlier this year, the Anglican choir popularized a beautifully catchy tune called Lowani, a song which is traditionally sung at a burial as the body is lowered into the grave. It is morbidly humorous to me that I frequently hear the students merrily singing this song in the corridors and classrooms throughout the day.

The events of this morning spawned an interesting conversation with Mr. Hawonga, Mr. Piyo, and Mr. Chisale about life-expectancies here in Malawi. The teachers were under the impression that the life expectancy in Malawi used to be 45 years (including infant mortality), but has recently dropped to 33 since the AIDS epidemic. Although I am convinced that this is fairly exaggerated, it is interesting to hear what they perceive to be the average length of time a Malawian lives. From life expectancy the conversation moved naturally on to retirement age- 65 for a teacher or 20 years of service, which the teachers all thought was far too old considering that statistics predicted they would be long-dead by that time. And from there to the salaries of teachers in the US- very low I assured them, to which they decided that unappreciated teachers are a problem worldwide.

It was an interesting morning. Teen pregnancy, retirement, death. We even talked about adoption for a while. But, even as two starkly different nations, I think it is better to talk about these common problems we face, rather than hide our superiority be ashamed to admit inferiority. Because, by discussing together the things we find most troublesome to discuss amongst ourselves, we discover our common humanity.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Blood Drives and Name Games

When I return to the United States after being in Africa for a year, I will not be allowed to donate blood for some jail-sentence worthy length of time. The Blood Bank of America is worried that I may have picked up one of sub-Saharan Africa’s many parasites that travel from bloodstream to bloodstream via mosquitoes, flies, and snails. My blood is possibly contaminated. No need to bother donating (even though all blood is, of course, screened). Today I sat under Gracious Secondary Schools’ central Baobab tree listening to a guest from the Blood Bank of Malawi urge our students to donate blood and save a life. The irony of my situation was not lost on me.

This is the second such blood drive that has happened at Gracious since I began teaching in January. In a country where our major district hospital runs out of antibiotics and has a total of three doctors, I was impressed to learn that there is an organization which collects and provides blood. Usually a patient needing a blood transfusion must wait for a relative to come give them blood; however, the Blood Bank collects blood for emergency patients who cannot afford to wait for a relative. With the AIDS epidemic, it is becoming more difficult to collect safe blood. The Blood Bank has recently begun hitting up secondary schools with the hope of obtaining “cleaner” blood, the rationale being that students are less likely to participate in risky behaviors and therefore less likely to contract the dreaded HIV.

But HIV is only one of a multitude of hitchhikers possibly inhabiting the bloodstreams of those of us who live in Africa. What does the Blood Bank do about Schistosomiasis or Malaria? Two things. First they ask, “Are you sick?” If so, then no blood donation for you today. That takes care of most malaria. Second, they screen the blood for diseases, just like we do in the United States. Is this safe? The representative today seemed to think so. Nevertheless, the US won’t be taking my blood when I return.

Aside from lectures on blood donation, Gracious has also recently had visits from the police, lecturing on road safety. It felt like I was back at an assembly in elementary school with the model of the yellow school bus with flashing red lights. ‘Okay kids- which side of the road do you walk on?’ Though, other than the general swapping of left and right that comes from living in a country where cars drive on the left, there were some differences. Instead of being told to “wear your helmet” students were told “do not ride in open vehicles” (that’s the back of pickup trucks, not convertible cars). And pedestrians definitely do not have the right of way in Malawi.

In addition to attending public safety lectures, I have been spending my free time slowly expanding my Chichewa vocabulary. After ten months, my stack of word cards has grown to fill four rubber bands and in addition to paging through the dictionary for humorous cultural insights and words that I will probably never use, I am now beginning to analyze the names of my Malawian colleagues and students. When searching for the perfect name for their child, American parents search baby name books for pretty-sounding (but still conventional) syllables whose vague definitions, far removed from their root tongue, proclaim general virtues like “strength” or “purity”. Not wanting their dreams for their child to go unnoticed, Malawians give their children unmistakably literal names. Upon first arriving in Malawi, I only noticed this fact amongst those students whose parents had decided to give their child an English name such as, “Wishes, Trouble, Innocent, Danger, Witness (his last name is Mine), Blessings, and … Fraction”. But now that my Chichewa is a little better, I have been having fun dissecting the names of those around me.

Most commonly, there is ‘Thokozani. -thokoza means ‘thank’ and ‘-ni’ is the suffix which makes the verb imperative. In others words, Thokozani means “give thanks”. My favorite so far is Mutisunge, mu- means ‘you’, -ti- means ‘us’, and –sunge means “keep”. So the translation becomes “you keep us” where I assume the subject of this request is God. I recently worked out a translation of our deputy principle’s name, Kambalame, though I am debating between two possible interpretations. Kambalame quite literally means ‘Tsetse fly’; however, the word mbalame means ‘bird’ and the prefix ka- is a diminutive conjugation which makes ‘kambalame’ mean “little bird”. Three of my form four students (2 girls and 1 boy) are named Chikondi, meaning ‘love’.

I often wonder whether Chichewa conversations are often confused by the preponderance of names which have meanings which refers to objects other than the person being talked about. I then imagine what conversations in America would be like if people started giving their children such literal names… “Give Thanks said that Hope told him that Gift saw Love yesterday.”… and I think, wouldn’t that be nice.