However, it’s a bit hard to roar in Malawi if you’re a woman.
I’ve been thinking about all of the things I wanted to say about being a woman in Malawi.
Though I know how to tell everyone who I am (dzina langa dine Emily), but this culture is patriarchal. I’m not so much myself now, as Sean’s wife; even John, who knew me first as Emily, now calls me Mrs. Sean. It’s an interesting experience, having been here once already as an individual, but now I’m one half of a whole, the wife, the woman, the Mrs. Sean.
On one hand, I’m inordinately pleased and amused to be called Mrs. Sean; from John it doesn’t bother me much partially because I know how much he likes Sean’s name (it’s the Irish version of John). I’m proud to be married to my husband; being Mrs. Mark is wonderful.
On the other hand, I’m still me. Not being called by my name is a little disconcerting, though it isn’t everyone who does that. Some simply accept me as Emily, and are excited that I’m here. And while I’m an American, I’m also a woman in Malawi, which means playing by a different set of rules. I can choose to be culturally respectful, or to be rude and ignore customs. However, sometimes it isn’t up to me.
I’m expected to wear a long skirt and dress somewhat modestly at all times; no pants, and no low-cut shirts. Men and women aren’t supposed to touch in public, so even though we’re married I can’t hold my husband’s hand.
When I was at the big market recently with Kaitlin and Amelia (from Komai) I experienced how aggressive some of the market sellers can be. Generally I go with Sean, and the presence of a man seems to keep everyone at bay. A woman is fair game, though. It’s a little unnerving because I experience the market one way with him, but that isn’t guaranteed to be the same when I’m on my own.
I still have privilege, of course. If I got sick I would be easily taken to the African Bible College hospital and treated. We have international travel insurance, and access to transportation. This isn’t the case for everyone, though. When Sean and I were at Liwera school this week, he was told how important it was to have a nearby clinic. Last week a woman died giving birth, and they couldn’t get her to the hospital. Yesterday in Mchezi, a woman who works with one of the community health organizations lost her five year old child from unknown causes. Leaves were placed on the road, indicating a funeral. Sean and I will have a child within the next few years, and my sister-in-law just had a lovely baby boy a few months ago. Both of these stories strike so close to home, and I can’t imagine how I would feel, if I was living in a village, faced with little to no prenatal care and no access to emergency help.
Sometimes being a woman is a benefit: women are much more open with me, and sometimes our exchanges are really wonderful. They also seem to enjoy greeting me in the street, and are delighted when they find that they’ve got an azungu woman who can speak a little Chichewa.
Men seem to respond well when I ask them to organize a meeting or to answer my questions. My research might be helped, though I can’t say that it isn’t hurt either. Am I entirely respected? Probably not. Am I seen as a capable, independent researcher? I can’t say that either. Does it help that I’m a White woman? Well… I can’t tell, either. Maybe a Malawian woman would be more accepted because she spoke Chichewa and knew the customs. But being an azungu woman means that I have foreign authority.
Being married also helps. It keeps away the creepers and the guys trying to gauge whether or not I’m free to date. I haven’t had anyone offer anything to Sean for me yet, but I’ve had a few guys seem disappointed when they found out we were together. I even had one say that I needed a Malawian husband instead. No, thanks. I like mine.
It’s definitely interesting, being a woman in Malawi.