Sunday, October 9, 2011

Questions of Culture and Gender

You frequently hear the term ‘culture shock’ when referring to Westerners settling in far away places and facing traditions, attitudes and behaviours that conflict with their own values and ways of thinking and being. I am clearly not immune to these feelings, but I try to understand and respect where other people are coming from, while still trying to ease in the human rights and gender equality parts where I can.

Roadside view of vendors
Knowing that Malawi is a deeply, almost fundamentally Christian-dominated society with only about 13 percent Muslim and 7 percent traditional religions, I was quite surprised to see how polygamy is widely accepted and practiced in the northern region of the country. The Church, working within these confines of tribe, recognizes only one wife. The Executive Director even joked, half seriously, about taking a much younger second wife in the near future. But, I spoke with a colleague who is about my age and he seemed to say that young people are, for the most part, breaking from this tradition.

The Yao, who live along Lake Malawi, are the main practitioners of the traditional religion gule wankulu. As far as I know, they incorporate particular dances and elaborate masks to make a connection with their ancestors, and rely on beliefs passed down orally from generation to generation.

Shot of a young girl in a chitenge taken while heading
 through the countryside back to Blantyre
Another cultural practice is an agreement between a couple who are unable to conceive a child where another man, a fisi  - literally translated as ‘hyena’ – sleeps with the wife so the couple can still have a child and appear “normal” within the community. And if a husband dies, his brother “inherits” the widowed wife. At least women can wear pants now, which until recently were not culturally allowed.

At least women are assuming the role of traditional leaders in some villages. However, while the national HIV rate is fairly constant at 12 percent, more than 60 percent of those are young women.

Borrie, who is Youjong's new kitten,  decides it's nap time.
Youjoung is an AYISE volunteer from Korea.
Female empowerment overall is pretty low, in the streets on weekends, the overwhelming majority of people hanging out and goofing around are men. In both organizations I work with, less than 20 percent of staff members are women. At AYISE, at least they are attempting to “empower” their only two female staff members by enrolling them in driving school 3 mornings per week. And I can tell you that driving in Malawi is not easy! But at least the fact that AYISE is making a small effort is a start.

However, as far as I can tell, gender equality is still at its beginnings stages here and while I am not shocked to hear and see so many examples of it, I am secretly glad that azungu do not have to follow all the local customs.

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