I’ve been thinking a lot lately about good intentions, development practices, and that famous article about the Acirema people, with all their unfathomable body-related habits, their tile-lined altars to hygiene, and their masochistic, horror-inspiring beautification rituals. (Spoiler alert, if you never took an Intro to Anthropology class: the Acirema are us, and we are weird.)
I say this because my village imposes two competing yet somehow coexistent roles on me: one as “hapless, naïve outsider who must be looked after and taken care of,” the other as “encyclopedic expert on all things in the universe.” You would think these roles would be mutually exclusive, but somehow they are not. At the beginning of rainy season, when bizarre thatched oval pods started cropping up in inconspicuous gullies and side-paths around my village, I hypothesized about their possible uses (e.g. mushroom growing nursery, compost storage area, wilderness chicken coop, or sexy rendezvous meeting place for two humans lying really close). And we all laughed when I learned how wrong I was, and how obvious the answer would be to a Malawian. They were traps for catching flying ants. Duh.
But a few Sundays ago, when a package from Canada arrived at one of the churches in my village, I was thrust into the opposing role. The box was filled with toys and trinkets, sent with the best of intentions, and expected to bring some small joy to children imagined to have very little. But in reality, the gifts ushered in confusion more than anything else. No one (not even the teachers I work with, many of whom own laptops and televisions and are comparatively worldly) had any idea what these items were or what they were for.
And so, over the course of several days, dozens of people approached me with these Acireman artifacts. First they skirted around the issue with the elaborate greeting ritual – a string of how-are-yous, how-did-you-wakes, and how-is-home that circled around the central topic and approached it politely from the side, following the Malawian concept of courtesy by way of circuitousness. (As opposed to the American concept of courtesy by way of efficiency.) Then and only then would they show me their item: a canister of play-dough, a yo-yo, a bottle of mouthwash. And I would laugh each time – not at them, but at the serendipity of seeing an ordinary item from home and realizing that it is the first one I’ve seen in almost a year. I now react the same way to airplanes. (Or rather, airplane. I’ve seen one in the past twelve months.)
I found myself being presented items from my culture and explaining their uses in simple language, while kind of enjoying the Malawian interpretations even more. The most common questions: “What does it do?” followed by “So, you do not eat it?”
Chance, one of my Form 1 students, called me over at one point. “Madam, can you identify this one?” She did not have the item, but rather a rough sketch of it, which she narrated in faltering English. “It is a long instrument, with ujeni [whatsit]…different colors and…I don’t know, it is what, Madam?”
I had no idea what she was talking about, and after several wrong guesses, I asked her to just bring it the next day.
When she pulled a deck of watercolors out of her bag the following morning, I laughed again – in part because I hadn’t seen art supplies for such a long time, and in part because all of her descriptions were so far from the actual reality of a watercolor set. The artifacts of Acirema culture are totally inscrutable through the eyes of the outsider, even when they are reflected back upon an Acireman.
I demonstrated the basic idea of watercolors on a piece of paper, a crowd gathered.
“Ohhhhh, we thought it was for this,” one girl said, sweeping the paintbrush over her eyelids.
And as they admired the cat I had painted, a boy asked for clarification: “So, Madam, it is not for eating?”
“No Paul, it is not for eating.”
“It is for ujeni,” said Chance, “for beauty pictures.”