How to Cook Okra: Iwe-Style

Ichi!
Hop.
Icho!
Hop.
Ichi!
Hop.
Icho!
Hop.

Three little girls pranced through my yard, hoping from one tuft of greenery to the next like giant grasshoppers. Between each hop, they bent over and plucked out a small green plant. “This one!” They exclaimed, “That one! This one! That one!” The three girls were teaching me how to find okra. Only three or four inches high, the okra pods had not yet developed but the leaves were present. “Chiri, these leaves make a great relish,” they told me. “With nsima, it’s delicious.”

Upon collecting a few handfuls of the plants, we sat on my front porch. I fetched a bowl and we began removing the leaves from the stems. First, they said, you must take a clump and smack in on your palm to remove the dirt. Only then can you remove the leaves. When I started prepping my pile, one of the girls pulled out a piece and flapped it around in the air. “Chiri! This isn’t okra!” she burst out. The other girls giggled at my in ineptitude. I was amazed at their ability at such young ages (7 or 8 years) to differentiate between two plants which, to me, looked exactly the same.

The next step was cooking. Living without electricity means that I start multiple fires everyday, but yet again my skills were trumped by the girls. Using only one handful of grass, they successfully lit the fire and knew exactly when to fan it, how to blow on it with finesse, and when to just sit back and let it catch. (Since my okra lesson, I have attempted to emulate their fire techniques and have somewhat improved my game).

To cook the “relish” (side dish), they taught me to wait until the water reaches a certain warmness then add the leaves with baking soda. From then on, there was quite a bit of testing to see how it was cooking. One girl would scoop up some water and drip it into her eager friends’ outreached hands. They would then lap up the steaming water and almost every time, decide that the leaves needed more salt. Of course. Later, a minor squabble broke out over when the water should be drained, but after exhaustive testing, they reached a consensus.

We finally drained the green-stained water into another empty pot and let the okra leaves continue to sit over the fire for a few minutes. “Chiri!” One of the girls nudged me and placed into my hands the large pot of piping hot green liquid. “Now we can drink the water!” She said with zeal comparable to that of cheese-starved PCVs scarfing down a pizza. I shrugged and tipped the pot back. The water tasted like salt. Still, the kids loved it and passed around the pot like a bottle of cheap alcohol until it was finished. With my elementary chichewa, novice cooking skills and crude manners, I felt like a kid again. Just one of the iwes learning something new. And it was wonderful.

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My teachers. (With of course a handful of observers that snuck into the picture).

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Tiwonana 2015

What have I done the past month or so?

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Went to Zomba Plateau & Cape Mac to celebrate Christmas

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Was bitten by a monkey. (This one!)

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Celebrated a village birthday with my friend and her family (via a feast complete with cake & spaghetti)

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Hung out with Rajah

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Painted a little malaria mural in a tearoom with my leftover paint

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Experienced a few rainstorms & flooding #rainyseasonproblems

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And last but not least, collected a lot of cow poop for my garden.

Cheers to 2015, let’s see what 2016 has in store for me!

Love, sex & cultural imposition

Enrock’s eyes rose slowly from his clasped hands and a smile spread across his face as he began to speak. Enrock is a thirteen year old boy who attends my healthy lifestyles club called Modern Malawians. That day, we were discussing love and sex. Is there a difference? Can you have sex without love or love without sex? The conversation had turned to sexual impulses and a man’s “right” to sleep with a woman. Enrock explained his thinking with a confident smile, “If a woman isn’t covering her legs or somehow exposes her private parts, the man has the right to have sex with her. When he gets an errection, there is nothing else he can do. It is out of his control.” As soon as his words were spit into the air, my jaw dropped. Before the lesson, we were chatting innocently about his family and siblings. Now, he had transformed into a sexual offender disguised in a boy’s body. Still very much a child with not even a dusting of peach fuzz above his lip, Enrock’s beliefs towards sex were, in my mind, horribly corrupted. Yet, when I looked around the classroom, I noted that the other children shared his sentiments. Many were nodding and when I asked again if a short skirt meant guaranteed sex for a man, the kids all said yes. Furthermore, when I inquired whether there was a difference between love and sex, there was a resounding no. “Madame,” one child opined, “There’s no difference between love and sex. For example, if a woman does not want to have sex with her husband for fear of getting HIV, then she does not love him.”

Hearing such statements truly hurt my heart. I tried to persuade the students to think about love in a different manner by creating a list of all the ways you can show affection for someone without having sex. (Helping them at the farm, caring for them when they’re sick, making them laugh, etc). Still, I can’t definitively say that the message was received. Most people in my village marry at extremely young ages, often for monetary reasons. Was it possible that the kids just didn’t know what love is? Have they never seen a healthy relationship before? I had wanted to work with youth because I hypothesized that the unhealthy habits of their parents would not have trickled down to them yet, but my theory was disproved. Hearing the kids’ comments affirmed my decision to create such a club but disturbed me deeply. While the US isn’t perfect, I can’t imagine growing up in a society where the “uncontrollable” actions of a man are widely accepted and furthermore, blamed on how a woman presents herself.

Enrock’s opinions have since sparked discussions with friends about not only gender roles but cultural imposition. Yes, the majority of Americans probably believe that his stance is terrible (I hope!), but his stance is a manifestation of the culture that Enrock was raised in. For hundreds of years, his people have thought about sex in that manner. Now as Peace Corps volunteers, it’s our duty to come in and change those long-standing beliefs? Is it also our duty to change the traditional, quite submissive greeting that women give to men- deeply rooted in Malawian culture? Should we encourage farmers to plant a foreign crop that we have in some way deemed “better” than what they have always harvested and consumed? Where do we draw the line between development and cultural retention? While PCVs aim to work with local leaders to address community needs in a sustainable fashion, it is still easy to feel like a “white savior” who is helping the community to achieve Western-determined progress. I am confident that the lessons on healthy relationships and gender that I am teaching will help Malwian culture evolve in a positive way, but keeping in mind our delicate role as development workers in a foreign culture is greatly important.