Malawi: Is She a Girl or is She a Woman?
November 4, 2002
-Abby Stamm, RPCV, Malawi
I have had little trouble as a woman in Malawi. At school the teachers treat me as an equal, and most students treat me as they would a male teacher. The exceptions are the boys who pretend they do not understand English when I give them an order. Usually I ask another student to translate to Chichewa or Chiyao, the two local languages, because these boys cannot understand simple English. That makes the whole class laugh and tease them. The students almost always obey then.
Many people in my village ask me the same two questions. First, “Are you married?” I ask if it matters and why. I have never heard a good reason. Second, “Do you have children?” I am usually honest, and again ask why. “No, I don’t want any.” A former volunteer at my site told me that because she did not want any children, the villagers assumed she was barren. If they think the same of me, that’s fine.
My neighbor often teaches me about Malawian culture. Once he described his cousin, whom he started to call a man. Then he changed his mind and called him a boy. I asked what the difference was. He said boys are not married. I asked if that made me a girl, since I am not married and don’t want to be. “No,” he said, “you are an exception.” I asked why, but he never told me. Maybe it’s because I am educated, or because I am a foreigner. Some days later, he and I were walking back from church (we are both Catholics) when he asked me, “Why don’t you become a nun?” I did not want to say that I was not that devout, so I replied that it was for the same reason I had told him I do not want to marry. I do not want to be tied to a convent any more than I want to be tied to a man. That answer worked.
Only twice have I been harassed. The first time, I had just moved to my site. A stranger followed me uninvited into my fenced-in backyard. In Malawi, that is taboo. I was polite, asked what he wanted, and told him to go away. He said he wanted to meet the new white woman. He left after I ordered him to for the tenth time and I have not seen him since. I told my neighbors and I think they knew him and told him to stay away from me.
The second time was after several months at my work site. I was in a crowded part of my village market. Out of nowhere, a man deliberately grabbed my breast. He let go and vanished back into the crowd before I had time to react. I was angrier that I was unable to retaliate than that he had grabbed me.
I teach Life Skills in Form 3 (11th grade). The class encompasses everything from AIDS to democracy to self-esteem building. In short, I can do anything in it. One day, we were discussing culture (I can’t “teach” in that class since I do not know any of the material) and one of the students asked me about differences between Malawian and American cultures. I chose clothing, mostly because it was the only “safe” topic I could think of. I said in America, I could teach wearing trousers and go to the “market” in shorts.
They told me that if I wore trousers to their class I would be seen as immature and in shorts, I would be called a prostitute. I only wear skirts and dresses in my village, since it is a conservative, predominantly Muslim area and so hot most of time that nothing else is comfortable anyway.
Abby Stamm can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.