1). “Sorry, sorry, sorry.” Unlike Americans who might snicker at the site of their friends tripping over something or stay silent when they see a stranger stumble, Malawians are ingratiatingly apologetic. Anytime you lose your footing, drop something you’re carrying or publicly perform any other embarrassment, a Malawian will apologize to you. Sorry, sorry, sorry! (That I’m so clumsy?) I’m not sure what they are apologizing for, but it’s certainly comforting.
2&3). Meal time teamwork. The first thing I love about meal times is the ritual of washing hands. Anywhere you dine, (whether it be in a restaurant, on the porch of a friend’s house, around the table a wealthy neighbor’s house, etc.), you will find a pitcher of water set next to the meal. Prior to digging in, the host will gently pour water over your hands as you scrub them. Then as the process is reversed, it becomes your duty to pour as your host washes. This custom can be observed throughout all of Malawi before and after every meal. It’s simple, yet charmingly pleasant. (And also ensures that everyone who is sharing the same pile of nsima has washed!)
My second favorite, perhaps more barbaric-seeming custom is the act of helping your fellow diner to rip apart a chunk of meat. Because Malawians only eat with one hand (and no utensils) it can be quite arduous to pull meat off a chicken bone or to separate a large, fatty piece of goat. Therefore, when you need help tackling an unruly portion, you simply call on your neighbor to grab one half of the hunk while you yank on the other side. Slippery, sloppy, and social. Team work makes the dream work.
4). Amayi noises. Just as we have certain noises in the US to express disgust, surprise, disapproval, and happiness, etc., Malawians do too. Although their noises are better. And always perfectly in sync. (How do they do it??) For example, when someone cracks a joke, all amayis within a 20 meter radius will make a “wohhh….. WEEEE!” call at the same exact time. Similarly, when I’m biking in an area far from my home village and pass a group of women, I can hear the mothers harmonize an “uttt ahhhh” sound, wordlessly commenting on the fact that a white woman just biked by. The noises are theatrical and predictable, but I’ve come to love them. And incorporate them into my own speech…
5). Personal style.
I’ve seen men wearing sequined tank tops, women inadvertently sporting t-shirts with terribly rude slogans strewn across them, children in windbreakers from the 80’s, and agogos (grandmothers) wearing Miley Cyrus sweatshirts. Here in Malawi, no fashion seems to be off-limits. The more gaudy, the better. Some days, I patch together the strangest combination of clothing I can muster, just to see if anyone will comment. No one ever has. I love that I can wear pants that aren’t really the correct length, or showcase a huge bow in my hair that I would feel to self-conscious to wear back home. As long as your clothes are clean, you can “feel so free” to wear whatever the hell you want, and I love this.
A stylish Malawian showing off his style (Photo by my friend Amber)