Sitting M’Phala


When I was a girl I used to be afraid of the dark, and on my first night in Masedu those old fears came creeping back. I remember hanging my bed net in my living room, my house shadowy in the rapidly fading daylight. For a while I wandered the empty rooms of the house. Tracing my fingers along the grainy, freshly-plastered walls and wondering how a home with three rooms could feel so vacuous.

It felt like an intrusion, not a homecoming. Cobwebs hanging thick from the ceiling-thick bodied spiders scuttling away from the torchlight, my luggage wrapped in trash bags, scattered haphazardly across the concrete floor. Strange sounds from insects, birds, or maybe my imagination echoing about the place. Windows closed despite the heat, and still mosquitoes pricked my exposed skin. After a sad dinner of cold beans from a can I decided to end my first night at site early, with a sleeping pill and mattress on the floor before sunset.
Chanting woke me up some time later. I curled into a ball and closed my eyes doggedly. My doors were locked, I reasoned, and if I could go back to sleep I wouldn’t have to deal with the witchcraft or ritual or whatever was going on right outside my front door. I didn’t have the courage for curiosity that first night.

But the next night, still on the mattress on the floor, as I would be for many weeks, but with curtains over the windows and objects spaced strategically around the nyumba, I heard it again. With my solar light and phone exhausted I groped for the edge of my mosquito net and crept like a blind person to the window. Pulling the chitenje to the side, I saw a group of around eight people huddled around a small fire less than thirty feet from my front door.

A few of them seemed to be singing in low voices, but not consistently. Their song was interrupted by bits of enthusiastic sounding Chitonga and bursts of raucous laughter and the clatter of plates being passed. They seemed to be all men and they weren’t cooking on the fire, just sitting around it. I didn’t know what I was supposed to do or how I was supposed to feel about this, so I just went back to bed.

It went on more or less like this for close to a year. Eventually my nyumba grew into a home, with more furnishings and less arachnids, and I came to know the men who sat outside my window almost every night. Danford of course was a friendly figure, and so were the three to ten boys and teenagers who chattered like birds around the periphery of the flames.

But there were also Danford’s brothers, near strangers to me who spoke less English and were gone during the day, to their rice gardens or carpentry shop in Chinteche, or driving minibuses up and down lakeshore. There was also Dandord’s father, a man I simply knew as Agogo, who sat in the largest chair amongst his sons, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. They spoke in deep and swift Chitonga, letting their words meld into each other like chocolate melting on your tongue, in sentences I could hear perfectly from my pillow, but couldn’t understand.
Each night their fire was built from three thick stumps and kindling stacked between them. It burned tall and bright for just a moment, illuminating the faces of the men and boys leaning back in their wooden African chairs, and then smoldered in bloody embers for a few hours after. Smells of kondowle, fermented cassava nsima, and charred fish wafted through my bedroom window and I often drifted off to the effortlessly harmonized sounds of music. Living alone I rarely sleep well, lingering on the edge of consciousness for hours. Asleep but aware of my surroundings, soft drumming often punctuates my dreams.

It’s hard to explain exactly why they seemed so intimidating to me. These were men and boys whom I lived with. We shared a well, a family compound, even a last name. The smaller boys had become some of my closest friends, coming over to read my picture books, color on the floor, and play long games of partnered bao. Danford had become a trusted co-worker, friend, and cultural liaison. So why exactly I felt so daunted?

Part of it was that Peace Corps works to instill a fear of night into its volunteers. We’re supposed to be barricaded in our houses, equipped with deadbolts and burglar bars, after nightfall. Traveling at night is expressly prohibited, and walking alone as a mzungu is a risk. This, coupled with the lack of electricity, ensures that most volunteers are in bed by seven each night.
There’s also the overt masculinity of the ritual. Close to everything in Malawi is divided by gender. Church, funerals, meetings, and even school men and women sit on separate sides of the room. In M’phala men around the campfire and tell folklore, sing, and generally spend time as a family, all while eating the meal their wives and daughters have prepared for them. Meanwhile, I’m not exactly sure what the women do. But between collecting firewood, cooking, dishes, and caring for the girls and small children I assume it does not involve chatting or lounging.

In Malawi I straddle a unique line between gender norms. Being a mzungu (white person) affords me a considerable amount of privilege. Extension workers want to meet with me, I’m invited into stranger’s homes for nsima, small children shout my dog’s name at me as I walk to buy tomatoes in the trading center. These are courtesies that certainly wouldn’t be extended to a Malawian woman.

While I’m expected to conform to Malawian customs of modesty: wearing long skirts and dresses that cover my knees, covering my shoulders, and covering my head with a scarf at funerals, these customs are with regards to my body, not my behavior. I also break these customs by jogging in leggings layered with shorts, swimming in biking shorts and tank tops, and making direct eye contact while I shake hands with men. I show respect in a way that blurs cultural integration and feminism.
While I am exempt from some expectations for Malawian women, I also get subjected to both active and passive sexism. Being followed and harassed by men on the street; being groped on public transportation; being told that because I’m a woman I don’t know anything about fisheries or agriculture; being told that women are biologically less intelligent than men, and; near constant marriage proposals from total strangers.

My favorite pickup lines have been , “I already have one wife, but I’d like a white one too” closely followed by men shouting their phone number digits at my friend from a moving vehicle.

Passive sexism is less scary and more frustrating, especially when it comes from people I care about. Examples of this include my counterpart saying “you’re an excellent leader Megani, for a woman”, men asking my Malawian counterparts questions about me or my work while I am standing right there and can speak their language, when people refer to me as a man as a term of respect, and the fact that whenever a male Peace Corps volunteer visits my home my entire village absolutely fawns over him and ignores me.
So in my village I’m somewhere between a man and a woman. I have a man’s job, wear woman’s clothes, live alone like a bachelor, and keep my dog inside like a mzungu (white person). My status is most clearly defined by attending funerals.

Malawian funerals aren’t like American ones; the entire community is expected to attend. I’ve gone to roughly 50 in the last year and a half and haven’t known any of the deceased personally. People sit vigil, singing, wailing, and praying outside the house where the body rests from the time of death until burial the next day. Men sit on one side of the yard, silently resting or chatting quietly. Women sit on the other, pounding cassava flour, fetching water, cooking, and taking turns wailing on the ground. A funeral without several women screaming in grief is considered a dull affair.
At funerals I get to choose what gender I want to sit with. Most of the time that means I’m with my friends, the people who speak English, my co-workers, and the ones I have the most in common with: the men. But identifying myself as a man, or in other words-with the superior gender, is complicated. Maybe even a bit complicit.

Sitting cross legged in my chitenje skirt on the swept clay earth, listening to the effortless harmony of Chitonga hymns, surrounded by Malawian men donned in sun-bleached suits and being served food by women twice my age, makes me painfully aware of my privilege. Had I been born a Malawian I would be one of those women, 300% more likely to be married than in school at 18.

What differentiates me is nothing earned. It’s my skin, my citizenship, and my comparative wealth.
I tell myself that I utilize this privilege because it enables me to do my job better, that I can use my position of power to teach others and be a role model for girls in my community. But the truth is that I accept it because I’ve found my support system from the male community. It’s entirely selfish.

Men have had the education to be able to chat with me in English, I don’t have to calculate my sentences in Chitonga like I do with women. All of my co-workers are male. Boys have time to hike to the lake, climb trees, and play games with me while their sisters are busy doing chores.

I accept their acceptance, but I’m never sure when I’m going to overstep my bounds.
It took me close to a year to feel comfortable in my androgynous state. A year of working and playing with the men and boys in masedu during the day, but retreating into my home when they sat m’phala at night. Finally one day shortly after my 24th birthday I worked up the courage. Wrapping myself in my favorite chitenje, blue and patterned with black and white hens, I took the twenty or so steps outside my front door and approached the fire.
Ehhhhh, Megani! The little boys shouted, smiling. Sit here! Martin, seven years old, squeaked and offered up his stool. No sit by me, said another. Kalibu nsima (eat with us) they chattered like little songbirds, so I squeezed in between them and took turns pulling handfuls of kondowole from the communal children’s bowl and dipping it into relish of beans stewed with onions and tomato. We giggled and made faces at each other, teasing and playing little games until I heard a deep voice behind me speak in English.

“Look who has decided she is familiar?” I hadn’t seen Danford or his four brothers approach, their skin is so dark in the night that it’s hard to tell who is who until they lean in close to the flames.
“I decided I didn’t want to cook my own dinner tonight I responded, I hope it’s okay if I sit with all of you?”
T”akulondiani mvuwa wangu (you are so welcome little sister), feel so free to sit with us whenever you wish. It must be difficult cooking for yourself, not having a wife.”
“I’ve told you Danford, you need to find me a husband who will do the cooking and the cleaning for me.” To which the men, who all speak English, roared with laughter and the kids, who couldn’t, joined in too.

Afterwards I was invited to eat some of the men’s food, fried chambo and greens cooked with groundnut flour, and listen in to their stories. With Martin curled in my lap we sat around the fire as it burned low and listened to the Tonga creation story, about a chameleon who builds a house on stilts in Lake Malawi and releases a talking fish from his trap who grows legs and becomes man.

How enchanting it all felt that first night. The milky way so clear on in a moonless sky, the gentle meandering story told in harmonic Chitonga syllables. Vowel followed by consonant followed by vowel. Pronouns as prefix, three syllable verbs shortened to one, tense as suffix. Subject before adjective. Tonal sounds possessive. Never fully understanding the story, piecing it together bit by bit, word by word, becoming clearer the longer I listen like an impressionist painting.

When the fire burned low the children fetched kindling and laid it across the coals of thick logs, casting sparks skyward that faded away in the low hanging branches of the mango trees. After a wife had collected the dinner dishes and the story was done, Danford stretched his back and addressed me in English.
“Do you know what m’phala is Megan? He asked. It is how us men retain our culture. We sit around the fire and keep traditions alive like our families have always done. Men taking food together, we are the ones who preserve Tonga heritage. Women are not allowed.”

“Am I not a woman? “I ask.

“Of course not! He laughs, you are so welcome here. We are happy that you have decided to join is. It shows that you have become most familiar to our family. You should be joining us whenever we sit m’phala so you can practice your Chitonga and learn. To the children you are their sister and you are our daughter so of course you should be here with us.”
And so I am there with them. Almost every other night I sit m’phala with my adopted Malawian brothers. When I’m hungry I hunch over the children’s bowl, preferring their cassava nsima and eggs or beans to the men’s corn and usipa (sardine-like fish). We eat with our right hands, squishing the nsima into balls and scooping the relish with it. We play Miss Mary Mac, double-double, and make farting noises with our armpits.

The boys play a game where they close their eyes, and one of the group hits him hard on top the head and then he tries to guess who hit him. When the adults come to take their meal things quiet down. Sometimes there are stories, sometimes song. But most times they just chat about their days as they eat, and then lean back in their cross stools and take in the night.

I’ve learned so much in these nocturnal hours. We speak mostly in Chitonga, but the men clarify when I’m lost. I’ve learned the names of the stars and African constellations, which ones Tonga slaves followed when the escaped from the Arab traders in Mozambique. I learned that the rains have single-word names that mean sentences. January showers mean the rains which clear the yellow petals from the flowers that grow in cassava fields and flow into the river.

We talk about witchcraft and which of our neighbors fly to south Africa and back in the night and how our last chief has been reincarnated into a hippopotamus in the Luweya River. Yellow is the same word as the birds that migrate through for a week in September. Our neighbor three doors over brews spirits out of corn so powerful a man went blind from drinking it.
In the 1970s lions and elephants roamed in the forests bordering our home, but the colonists killed them all. Danford’s father was involved in the independence movement and his cousin was one of the martyrs killed by white colonists in Nkhata Bay Boma during the revolution. Dr. Banda the first president was at once loved and feared by his people. He was the best leader Malawi has ever had, but he killed a lot of people. Everyone has problems, Danford says.

If our family had had money when they were young, all seven of the brothers would have gone to South Africa for work. But because they were poor there wasn’t enough food to eat, and that’s why everyone is under 5’6” tall.

These things are explained to me without emotion, it’s simply part of their collective history. I feel so privileged to know the things I now know.
The men I’ve come to consider family haven’t had easy lives, and neither has my experience coming to know them. But there is an understated beauty in these simple interactions. In sharing food and telling stories. In playing clapping games and holding the little ones in my lap. Y

ears from now, when I’m old and living half a world away, I’ll remember Malawi through the nights I sat m’phala. I’ll remember the time it took to learn to sit with ease. I’ll remember the smelled of fried fish and burning wood. The heat on my hands as I flex them over the fire and the prick of mosquitoes on my arms and neck.

Even when I forget the Chitonga words I’ll remember the gentle melody of its sound, the cricket chirps of kids laughing and the fond chuckles of the adults when I mime out the words I can’t say. I’ll remember how lucky I was to be accepted in this ritual. Not as a woman or an American, but as family. Together in the village, huddled around a small bright flame beneath the mango trees, partaking in ritual as old as time.


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