Tales of a
21st Century Gypsy

March 1, 2006. The Colonial Experience

My colleague Rachel and I went to a dinner party last night. It was very nice, but somehow very alien. We were invited to by Elspeth, an English woman whom I had met at a meeting of the Wildlife and Environmental Society of Malawi, WESM.

I think the dinner party is a formal ritual, the kind anthropologists study and write about. Which is funny, because I’d joked with Elspeth earlier about writing up the Big Shindig as an anthropological description of a ritual event.

Instead of which it’s her dinner party that I see that way. Most unfairly, too – I don’t mean it as a criticism, and it was an interesting and enjoyable evening. And I’m sure no one else there saw it as a ritual.

But it was. First step: Elspeth asked her friends Jon and Carrie to pick us up at our hotel, since we have no transportation. The visiting guests, who are being invited to dinner partly to give them a break from their hotel, partly to provide novelty to the small community of folks already accustomed to each other, must be brought to diner.

Then there’s the ritual of identifying people you don’t know. That’s easy. Rachel and I were sitting conspicuously on the hotel steps. Jon and Carrie were the first white couple to drive up. It’s usually easy to identify people you don’t know; they are the ones who look like they are looking for someone they don’t know. A bit perplexed, a bit vulnerable.

In the car we did our introductions and then launched into the obvious topic for strangers – so what brings you to Malawi? After the initial explanations, Carrie took the floor. She’d had a particularly bad week at work, running an HIV/AIDS program fro Save the Children, so she vented her frustration. And of course we talked about the weather, a reliable fallback. In fact, a fabulous rainstorm had hit downtown Blantyre a few hours earlier, so it was actually an exciting topic. Rachel and I had watched the street turn into a river outside our office; Carrie had seen sheets of water hit her fifth floor windows a block away. But on the other side of town, Jon said it had barely rained.

Arrived at Elspeth and Mike’s, we did another round of introductions, since Rachel hadn’t met them yet. Mike offered drinks – and we settled in the living room for the next portion of the ritual. Rachel and I talked to Jon about his work introducing new agricultural practices on a farm up past Mangochi, while Elspeth and Mike heard about Carrie’s trials at work. In a few minutes Carrie’s work took over, since her troubles were in

some sense our fault. Her project is funded by USAID, and on a whim someone congressman wanted to know how much money the government was spending to send people to conferences and meetings. The desire of one man in Washington to argue that US tax dollars were being wasted on what had to be useless travel suddenly led people all over the world into a mad search for five years of data on anyone who had ever gone to a meeting with more than two other people, and how much it had cost them to go. Carrie was furious at the waste of her staff time; we were outraged with her.

From there the conversation moved to a sudden White House pronouncement that only fifty people could travel to the next global conference on HIV/AIDS on US funding. This is an event that brings some fifty thousand people together each year to discuss research, public education, failed strategies, and lessons learned. Carrie already had funding and authorization to send nine people from her project alone, but someone in the White House who knows nothing about it had decided it must be a waste of money. The US government has HIV/AIDS projects throughout the world, not to mention the armies of researchers working back home on federal funds; but surely fifty people worldwide could represent all of that, no?

From there Carrie moved to the lastest edict, that after twenty years of work to destigmatize prostitution, the term “sex workers” was no longer permitted, and the women had to be called prostitutes.

Sometimes it’s embarrassing to be an American. I suppose we’re lucky the White House didn’t mandate that they be called whores.

At the right moment, Elspeth intervened to ask if the last bits of dinner should be prepared at once, were we all hungry? We assured her that we were, and she slipped off to the kitchen to confer with her cook - in Malawi everyone has a cook. Mike offered more drinks. That’s part of the ritual too; men handle alcohol, women handle food. More and more, I felt like a character in an English novel, though in this case a Rosamund Pilcher novel rather than anyone more erudite.

In the living room we talked about Derbyshire, where Jon and Carrie live when they are home in England. I ruefully admitted that my knowledge of England outside of London has been formed largely from Jane Austen. I think Pemberly really stands surrounded by its glorious grounds, and the views that Eliza Bennet and her aunt enjoyed are still there. In fact, it turns out that they are. Derbyshire was declared a national park in the 1950s, and its vllages, estates, and open spaces have been preserved much as they were in Eliza Bennet’s – or Jane Austen’s – day.

At the next right moment we were ushered to the table. Not quite “leading you into dinner” but much the same on a more modest scale. Elspeth seated near the kitchen door, Jon at one end between Rachel and Elspeth, me at the other end between Carrie and Mike. I was glad of the seating arrangement. I had heard about Carrie and Jon’s work, and I know a bit about Elspeth, but I had barely spoken to Mike. But my query about his work quickly turned into shop talk between him and Carrie. Turns out they are in related fields and know many people in common. Well, everyone knows everyone in the expat

Photo of Pemberley from the BBC's version of Pride and Prejudice (actually Lyme Hall) from here.

community in Blantyre – but between them it was even more so. So they gossiped about Mike’s colleague who had just accepted a job 900 kilometers to the north in a small and inaccessible village, apparently without consulting with his wife, or considering that there are no schools for their three children outside Blantyre.

Except for the green beans and sweet corn, the meal was utterly English. Roast beef, roasted potatoes, even Yorkshire pudding with a rich brown gravy. Carrie told me of eating bread and gravy when she was a child in England, how no one ate that any more and even her husband found it strange that she and her sister still ate it as a comforting treat. I suddenly remembered the hot lunches at the private school I attended as a child, with small triangles of buttered bread with gravy poured over them. I hadn’t thought of that since; I wonder if my school was feeding English meals to classes of Jewish children in New York?

While Carrie and Mike continued their discussion of AIDS research and funding, I listened across them to Elspeth telling Rachel about the expat life in Blantyre; the English schools, the Blantyre sports club where teen-aged couples smooch in the ladies changing room by the pool, the Wildlife and Environment Society, the Mulanje Mountain Club, the Hash House Harriers, all the overlapping groups and network that form a foreign English community in a former colony. She described the sports clubs in Thyolo and Mulanje, founded to serve the social needs of the tea plantation managers and their families; the billiard rooms with their full-sized slate tables, and the card rooms, now covered with dust and almost forgotten with disuse. When she moved on to tell of the fabulous lodge at one of the tea estates in Thyolo, with its marble-floored ballroom, her husband dropped the shop talk to chime in. The place is no longer used, but almost untouched. Except that the Italian company that founded that estates was bought out by an Asian one, and now Islamic inscriptions hang in all the rooms.

The fascination with the remnants and trappings of colonial life is palpable here. I feel it myself. For the Anglophones in Malawi – the whites – history is not the history of Africa and the Malawian people, it is the history of English and Scottish colonialism. The Ryalls Hotel is decorated throughout with photos and news clippings about 19th and 20th century expatriate life in Blantyre; the building of the railroad, the parties at Christmas, the opening of the hotel by the Mrs. Ryalls, the growth of settler buildings and colonial culture. The oldest building still standing Blantyre is Mandala House, a two-story structure surrounded by verandas and gardens that now it houses the Society of Malawi, a white-run historical society that maintains a small library of dusty old volumes telling of missionary attempts to civilize the barbarians. The Society holds talks from time to time; I’d like to hear what they talk about, and even more how they talk about it. Downstairs, Mandala House is home to a small restaurant selling fancy coffees to white people relaxing in the garden and running into friends with whom they chat about holiday trips back to South Africa or England or Australia. Upstairs, the Society boardroom is lit by a crystal chandelier, one wall sporting crossed rifles from some long-ago hunt or military campaign, while on the opposite wall was an early map of Blantyre.

To me it’s all strange – my existence in Africa, but even more the lives of the expats who live in a world apart from the black Malawians – or as I can’t help thinking, the “real” Malawians. Some of the expats have been here for generations, though few are actually Malawian citizens. Their world is intriguing, but to me it would be profoundly uncomfortable. They are an upper class that operates in a separate economy, as a result of which they have far more money and access to resources than the rest of Malawi; English schools, trips home every year, sending the children back to England (or South Africa, or Australia) for university. Then they reap the economic reward that follows from a good education not available in Malawian schools; jobs at European pay scales, with which to perpetuate their separate existence.

In Africa, English colonialism created a small upper class, once the foreign government ruling class, now just an economic and academic elite. In America, in contrast, the colonists pretty much

wiped out the natives. That wasn’t acceptable either, but at least the society it created was one of relative equity. The foreigners keep coming, and in time they assimilate. In Africa, there’s only a small clique of foreigners, perched precariously on top of the local society, always with one foot in and one foot out, with options elsewhere if the local society decides they’ve had enough, as they did in Uganda and Zimbabwe. Kicking out the white elite doesn’t solve the problems of the rest of the society, but I understand why it happens, simply out of a desire no longer to be confronted with that small group living at east with resources from abroad that no one else can access.

It’s a strange world. And I suppose it’s fitting that I should hear about it at a ritually English dinner party.

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