January 28, 2010

me, myself and us

If we’re talking… and some guy reaches for my leg… and eyes glaze over, I stop mid-sentence …shoot me! Remember the last time you were the third wheel. Were they fondling and fawning, playing with each others hair? Did they touch cheeks, stroke arms and distract each other from the conversation? A bit inconsiderate, a tad antisocial?

In Malawi we see public displays of affection all the time… in the club… by intoxicated prostitutes… picking up inebriated punters. That’s about it. We don’t see men and women holding hands. We never spot a loving touch in the supermarket. We do not get smoothing of backs in church (well not in mine). Husbands aren’t caught greeting wives with a peck. Over here we only see teenagers flirting with ice cream, a couple on a date act like any two friends, and the bride and groom sit 30 cm apart all day.

This total taboo on any public evidence of emotion goes even further than the realm of romance. When a policeman stops her car, my wonderfully expressive mother is liable to raise her voice or burst into tears. Onlookers stare in fascination, sometimes they laugh, and often the poor officer has no idea how to react. While far from repressive, people in Malawi do seem to discourage the INDIVIDUAL expression of emotion. Mother is a brave exception in an otherwise ‘peaceful nation’ where the only angry shouts, or distressed cries, come from the mad and the drunk.

Before you imagine passive, blank faces, look a little closer… there’s plenty of passion to be found. Try visiting Shoprite when the Flames have won at Kamuzu Stadium, or watch a mob catch a thief, go to a funeral, attend weddings… COLLECTIVE exuberance is easily observed.

This is consistent with a culture that values solidarity, getting along with each other, fitting in, and being the same. Other cultures are more individualistic, glorifying personal autonomy. It seems you cannot have your cake and eat it. Would you rather have great community cohesion or full individual expression?

Shall we make everyone feel included and equal, or shall I do what I want when I want? One person expressing extreme feelings stands out from the crowd. The couple necking in the bar separates themselves from the pack. In France, 2000 women wearing a cloth over their heads in public is considered a barrier to social integration. In Malawi, anything that stands out is a threat to a united community, and is not taught to our children.

When emotions never see the light of day, it raises a few concerns… Sons don’t have a clue what their father thinks of them. Husbands never learn how to show love to their wives. Employees vent their frustration through a go-slow. There’s a massive gap between what is said and what is thought. Simple actions are loaded with coded messages. Effective communication becomes a distant dream. Sound familiar?

Don’t forget the advantages... no one storms out of the boardroom, there are no accusations in the heat of the moment, no careless quick angry words, conflicts are never explosive. When immediate reactions are stifled, resolution becomes so much easier. Mediators are in their element, third-party advisors ever ready to bring about compromise and reconciliation. Hmm imagine a country without war, we don’t have to look far.

Just as wearing a burka makes you a great Muslim, that arm-around-shoulder makes you a great couple… but when it turns to kisses and cuddles, then it also makes you shit drinking buddies, awful dinner guests, and just not fun to be around (I mean the couple, not the Muslims). Inside I might be shouting ‘get a room’, but I’ll never tell you that because… drum roll… I don’t get overcome by the need to express every impulse, especially when it might make you uncomfortable.

When in the grip of passion,
it becomes a natural fashion
to wear your beloved all the time
blissfully unaware of your social crime.

Well John Legend wrote quite a good song
praising Brits in the park, getting it on.
Important to remember; cultures aren’t clear cut.
Your kisses make some people want to throw up.

In Malawi, couples are more discreet with desire,
we find furtive ways to feed the raging fire;
a quick glance, a short note, signifying the start
of a full-on obsessive affair of the heart.

Yes in matters of love, those who don’t have a lot,
are often the ones going over the top…
Plus it makes you look desperate, and a bit insecure.
Watch out behind you – a drooling voyeur!

On the bus – groping boob, eating face…
In church – stroking hair, squeezing waist.
In the bank – touching cheeks, joined hips…
At dinner - holding hands, pecking lips.

Is this what they meant by freedom of expression,
these rather inappropriate exhibitions?
Hmm I don’t know what’s acceptable to you or others,
but I’m sure there'll be PDAs as long as there’s lovers.

- Public Love by Ceri and Jess


  1. Printworld Malawi28 January, 2010 14:54

    So true. Whatever we do, we do it behind closed doors! And our smile may be a facade for what we really feel about you.

  2. Nice. Like it! Great poem too..title could be completely misinterpreted in Amsterdam.

  3. i knoooooooooooooooooooooooooow!!!!

  4. I was nodding my head in agreement throughout the whole piece - and the poem - amazing.... you writing is going from strength to strength...

  5. awesome poem!!

    yes... certain times and places, PDA is acceptable, other times not so...

    the repression of the expression of emotions would be a terrible thing, but our country on a whole, has a culture where we are not encouraged to publicly display affection, not because we are 'not allowed', just out of tradition and other reasons which I dont even fully understand.

    so when outsiders come and do the whole 'PDA thing', in time it is accepted, but not embraced by us, or it is ignored, and often the couple themselves will be excluded from social settings, not getting invites and being excluded from settings where their over the top public affections are not considered acceptable by the majority.

  6. yesterday's nation - big article on fanatical kissing! good writing. x

  7. Wow Jess another amazing piece of writing, this one i particularly I like.
    I'd like to see more public displays of affection in malawi. I'd like to see more husbands and wifes, holding hands, greeting each other with a hug & kiss. It shows love and happiness and caring!!!
    Through many years i've taught my self to not loose my temper,to control and keep my emotions private, to take time to think about something before i react.
    Its a good and bad thing to learn.
    Its great because i almost never have angry outbursts and say things i'll regret and have to apologise for but can never really be unsaid. Work wise its fantastic, I don't need to react emotionally just proffesionally.
    But sometimes i feel i may just have taken it a little far and reactions should be kept normal and we shouldn't curb them because they are our individual splash of colour.
    Now the older i get i think more about if & when i have a family how would i like my family to be and i want a family that shows love openly and can be open with each other. And yes i'll probably be the annoying couple who just can't keep their hands off each other and make everyone uncomfortable.
    Life is for living and not in half measures, or in a subdued way. I want to learn to be constantly present and take the most out of every experience and i try to keep the controlling of my emotions to a minimum, and in general just be a whole lot more affectionate.
    So thank you for such beautiful writing, so so true!

  8. To play devils advocate...someone has to! I most def agree wonderful piece of writing - I hope you collecting these for a future anthology....but I hate PDAs - they are selfish, oblivious, exaggerated, crude, pretentious acts - when you love someone, you love someone is it important to show the whole world?!!!!!!

  9. Really like your writing style.

    But is your gripe less with public displays of affection and more with displays of affection within small private groups?

  10. hehe very true... showing emotion or saying i love u in malawian society is frowned upon... i think tho, it doesn't take away from the fact they u know the person does/cares... in fact sometimes i think the 'west' throws around 'i love u' blah blah blah too much and it cheapens things a little... personally i dont really like to show my own emotions, so the status quo suits me fine.... hehehehe (tho i am not averse to snogging in pulic)

  11. Must say I am guilty as charged though in all fairness I submit I was forced 'against' my will, obligation and want, to be a good demure Malawian.

    On may points I acknowledge the kernel of what is being expressed BUT the passions you point out exist by necessity, innate if you were. It is human to mourn a loss and fume at inexcusable wrong doing or threat, Chimpanzes, Lions and all manner of wildlife express these passions because they are natural in the same way that 'public' expressions of love are. Penguins, Blue whales, Chimps and Birds display these affections without a care in the world though all within observable cultures that are rich with meaning, ritual and actually brutally conservative and restrictive.

    I think people in Malawi suppress expression because the cohesion born of conformity has value only because it shields individuals from the ills of the mob and the ill will of those with power over them. Bigotry and hatred only have real consequence when sanctioned by the group as is the case in Malawi. Good people in large numbers can be very inhumanely cruel as can one man with more power than you. This unspoken threat is real and is expressed in many ways and exists largely to reinforce power relations.

    I was having a drink with a banker one evening and I was told of the practice of never appearing to have more than your superiors, more knowledge, more money, more status, better looks. Countless examples suggest a genuine fear in Malawi that is real and consequential. Our laws and scum of the earth lawyers (Not all of them) are no where near where they should be in order to protect us from this kind of discrimination. We have deep seeded ideas about peoples rightful place in the Malawi.

    Otherwise a very good read.

  12. hmmm... trying to be objective here... but its kinda hard to play devils advocate when I think PDA is just sooo wrong!! Well actually, come to think of it, I don't think its outright wrong all the time, I guess it depends on time/place/setting. The sad part is that we see public displays of anger much more than affection. There has to be something wrong there...

    Interesting read Jess...

  13. Hey Jess, Thanks for sharing this, it's actually been on my mind quite a bit recently, how Malawi handles personal emotions, collective emotions, and most interestingly for me at the moment, personal conflict... compared to other parts of the world.

    You raise an interesting point that "conflicts are never explosive" in Malawi. No, instead they fester internally and are far uglier. When someone is upset and doesn't express themselves directly, there's usually an uglier passive-agressive dynamic going on that lasts far longer than two people talking out a conflict and moving on. The upset party holds dearly to remembering the wrong-doing, usually gossips, and quietly tries to tear down the other person, bit by bit. Individuals collect names and grudges, and eventually it becomes a community with deep seated grudges against others, unable to move in a positive direction because they are buried by the weight of negativity. But, a passer-by would never notice this as everything on the surface looks peaceful and kind. Beneath are festering wounds and a concentration on the wrongdoings, since the conflict was never resolved. This is one of the ironies of Malawi's "peaceful history," but more on that later.

    Perhaps I'm over-reacting to this, but I do believe that in some circumstances, jealousy and grudges hold back an individual's ability to succeed...as well as a community or nation.

  14. kissing in public? yes, all the time, when i get the chance that it is! lol! i make a joke!

  15. kissing in public? Y not? On the cheek, dat is... lol!

  16. Mmmm jess... if the top stinks the most wat do u expect @ d bottom??? this issue of PDA emanates frm parents, siblings... this current mindset is due 2 the upbringing in a malawi set up where it is rather silent 2 talk about PDA. if am exposed 2 it @ an early stage i wud realy find it absurd & not worth talkin about. I, on a lighter note think its fyn considerin d fact dat generations r re-generatin with d dynamism in pple's minds takin centre stage.

  17. Do people hate PDAs because they are inherently wrong? What wrong do they have? The fact they exclude others? Many activities are like that so what? 2 people will have a public argument and people wont look at it with as much disdain as PDAs I wonder why? Is love the new taboo? You cant box love and its expression to behind closed doors. Love and relationships have private and public aspects.

    Sometimes PDAs have symbolic purposes. Just like animal colours may signal welcome or danger. Sometimes PDAs are territorial markings. Its a cruel dog-eat-dog world, where humans act without heart many times and have to be reminded of boundaries, so that they can keep off other people's portions.

    Some would argue that if a relationships needs that kind of external symbolism then its not strong. Do we frown upon PDAs becoz we feel "its flaky or not lasting or not real?". Maybe the love wont last maybe its not as deep but in that moment of expression and enjoyment it cud be as real an experience as any other. Symbolism doesnt just symbolise to those who see, it also reinforces messages in those who do the PDAs.

    Like someone said, PDAs occur even in the animal kingdom. They can be hated, they can be ostracized but I m sure they wont go away. And its a good thing. The world needs love, and it needs to see and hear love. However brief or long lasting.

    That is not to say its kosher to have a *****fest in the meats section of Shoprite.

  18. ...but then you'll see 2 camoflage-clad police men holding hands... now THAT'S trip for an American in an era battling out the issue of gays in the military!

    Was THAT why everyone laughed when I screamed at (yet another) minibus conductor and grabbed his wad of money when he wouldn't give me the correct change? (My road rage, Malawi-style) Needless to say, I've noticed that no one on the Likuni route messes with me anymore!

    Very interesting, informative, causes me to pause and think...

  19. mmm yes, was just re-reading this actually... loving all the comments still

  20. I loved your post as it is based on an observation about this place called Malawi which has very sure ideas about itself which I find amusing, infuriating and interesting so I wanted to detail my objection and agreement.

    If you believe as I do that ‘culture’ is a body of moral and ethical principles placed around the individual to keep at bay the dark heart that lies just under the skin of every member within it… then you would agree that Malawi’s culture ‘imposes’, restricts not just this dark heart but implies consequence to those who turn their backs on it?

    Some cultures are restrictive, oppressive and limiting while others are open and liberate the individual from any constraints of the group. Our culture, while expressive in certain areas is a painfully narrow modality of life…. I HATE with a passion our extreme illogical conservatism. I would hope we are guided by an imperative which drives us to divine Law and laws that define and enforce what best serves ‘everybody’ in society, wouldn't you agree?

    Reading your post I could not help but feel the darker powers of Malawian culture fuse your objectivity with much of its undesirable sneaking influence.

    If PDA’s are against our nature as Malawians, somehow against the constraints of tradition, individuals will find themselves cast into a world of disaffection and alienation in aspiration towards a more expressive love only to find themselves accorded the lowest rank and status within both their groups and relations. I think this is precisely because it excludes the group, keeps them out of the details of your personal business. You know how people LOVE to own your personal business; it gives folks a sense of social rank i guess.

  21. You got Malawians spot on. Laughed the hell out. For Malawians PDA stands for Private Displays of Affection... emotionally conservative, that is just the way it is there. Your writing is simply amazing by the way... enjoy reading it a lot.


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