On Wednesday, 15 October, Malawi celebrated Mother’s Day. Schools and businesses, in deference to the national holiday, were closed. Many middle class people residing in Lilongwe chose to go to Senga Bay for the day, the closest beach to the capital city. They piled into mini buses and coach buses, stopping en route at the local craft market to buy wide-brimmed woven straw hats that are iconic of tourists in Salima district. On the front grill of each bus, the driver carefully tacked a length of local chitenje fabric proclaiming “Happy Mother’s Day” over a picture of a smiling mother and baby. The buses sped by on the dusty roads, the people inside wearing identical straw hats and singing, passing around beer bottles of Carlsberg and packets of spirits. Many stopped at a local lodge that had hired a deejay and had a bar overlooking the beach. This too, was our final destination after visiting a nearby crocodile farm.
We arrived at around 12pm, and the beach party was pretty tame at this point. A group of rastas with dreadlocks sat at a nearby table drinking Fanta, two small girls in clean dresses ate crisps on chairs overlooking the beach, and a group of men sat around the bar chatting amicably. The deejay had a tent halfway between the veranda and the beach, and down on the beach people were wading in the water. At one point, I requested that the deejay play something by Mampi, a female Zambian artist that is also popular in Malawi. One of the little girls immediately began singing along quietly to the song, clearly sharing my taste in music. We were enjoying sitting by the beach, drinking beers, and talking about something besides work, when the mood of the party began to shift. A bare chested man refused the car park, and drove straight onto the beach in his two wheel drive sedan. The deep sand trapped the wheels, spinning uselessly. Some small boys futilely tried to dig around the wheels with their hands. The driver wobbled around his car, directing the crowd to help push as he chugged alcohol. More busloads of people from the city pulled up into the small lakeside village, and people were wearing less and less clothing and increasingly inebriated. The men stumbled along the surf with bottles in hand, many failing to stay vertical. Bodies crowded in the lake taking refuge from the hot sun, many of whom were unsteady even on dry land. There were no lifeguards on duty and little regard to water safety, despite the fact that many of the people in the lake could not swim. Women wore only their bras and shorts or mini skirts. With their scanty clothing and dancing, they emulated the music videos of African pop musicians, who in turn are influenced by Western musicians. The scene on the beach was anachronistic; elsewhere in the village women dressed modestly, wearing traditional chitenje cloth skimming their lower calves. But there, playing out on the beach that day, was a clash between traditional and Western.
The hard partying during the week was for Mother’s Day, but the true meaning was lost. Two women drowned on Senga Bay that day, which would not have happened without the help of alcohol. These women were daughters, sisters, wives, mothers. In a day celebrating the givers of life, lives were taken needlessly. Last Mother’s Day, three people drowned on the bay.
Last week, there was a funeral for a young man living near the football pitch. I drove by in mid morning, carefully avoiding the tree branches the mourners had placed in the road to slow the passing traffic, amazed by the number of people in attendance. The mourners stood in throngs by the house of the deceased, singing religious songs. Inside the house, the body was laid out, attended by wailing older women. This procedure would go on for hours, until the homemade casket was carried to either the Muslim or Christian cemetery for burial.
In the communal society of rural Malawi, you are expected to attend every funeral in your village, even if you never knew the deceased in life. By attending funerals, you ensure that there will be mourners when your own life ends. In this most recent funeral, the brothers of the deceased were too busy cultivating their farms to attend funerals. So when it came time to bury the brother, the villagers sought payback. They attended the funeral, but when it came time to bury the body, no one would help with the arduous task of digging the hole by hand. The brothers were forced to labor alone to bury their own brother.
|The highlight from the crocodile farm is that it is possible to buy crocodile meat for $3.50/kg there.|