March 11, 2010

the ideal week (njira yatenga)

A crazy civil servant called for litter-bins in minibuses, if only clean streets were that easy. It was Monday morning; Acacia drank her coffee, listened to the radio and smirked at such naivety.

Admittedly, she had had a few crazy ideas of her own. There was a photo of a smiling younger woman holding a banner, protesting outside the houses of parliament in London. MPs were beseeched to act for one cause or another. Meaningful posters adorned the students’ kitchen. Prayers were said for soldiers in Iraq. Fair trade products were aggressively promoted. Even Wetherspoons had received an indignant letter with her signature.

Fortunately those fanciful days were over. Acacia sucked the last sip of the dregs and set off for her meeting, she would arrive exactly twenty minutes late to avoid waiting for latecomers.

A girlfriend called an emergency lunch on Tuesday; should she move in with her boyfriend, after all this time was he ever going to put a ring on it? The soup took quite a while to arrive, but they were used to that.

Wednesday was martyrs day, Acacia didn’t know much about Chilembwe. Dying for your principles seemed rather old-fashioned. She savoured the the lovely, luxurious time alone. Many old friends had left town and there wasn’t much point in making new ones just so they could leave as well. But she was content, she could happily keep the same job, live in the same house, and wear the same hairstyle for the rest of her days.

The boss called on Thursday, demanding to know why the grass wasn’t short. he raised his voice; Acacia rolled her eyes, which part of rainy season did he not understand? Why did these people bother?

Friday was pretty slow, Acacia just wasn’t in the mood. George emailed through his new project concept; vague objectives, blood donations – nothing new there. She couldn’t be bothered to type up her feedback (did starry-eyed do-gooders ever listen?). On skype-type Mr. K recalled how he had expressed his dissatisfaction to road traffic for issuing his license late (what on earth had he expected?). A face book friend asked her to sign a petition for computers in the national library (Manuel was such a dreamer).

With an invisible pat on the back, Acacia applauded her own pragmatism. Was there anyone else so realistic, so in touch with the challenges on the ground, so in tune with the cultural obstacles, so adept at predicting pitfalls and problems? Yet so flexible, so ready to find new ways to adapt and cope, endure and survive?!

Finally 4:30 came, she picked up both her phones (sometimes one network went down) and drove to the filling station (you never knew when there might be a national shortage). At the ATM, Acacia got enough cash to cover a police bribe in case she was stopped on her night out. She took her new route home, slightly longer but it avoided that dirt road with potholes. Someone chucked a crisp packet out of the window of the car in front.

Saturday brought no lights, no kettle, no electricity. According to the gardener, they were the only plot affected. Acacia set up camp in Capital Hotel, with weekend newspapers and ready cups of tea… while super-neighbour Nicola mercilessly harassed ESCOM faults.

The press detailed how a Malawian passport holder was accused of not being Malawian. In court another accused was denied bail to protect him from mob justice. Even Acacia could see the irony in a system that had no faith in itself… Yet more debate around the quota system; in the quest for the best stopgap solution, what happened to the bigger picture?!

Acacia got a good seat in church on Sunday, and put her handbag on the floor in front of her (where she could keep an eye on it). The pastor spoke solemnly about how a guy from the church had lost his way and got in trouble, he urged us all to pray for the poor chap. Acacia couldn’t understand why the pastor was so sad, he almost seemed crushed… surely this was not a surprise, the signs had been there all along.

What was a surprise, was that Acacia found herself jealous. She was jealous of the pastor’s strong emotions, his deep disappointment. When was the last time she had been gutted, or ecstatic? Being a smug know-it-all wasn’t that great really, oh very safe, but rather dull.

They were everywhere - these idealists, who didn’t accept life as it was but wondered how the world might be. They carried their ridiculous dreams, under a rising sun of possibilities. When they cried, they probably cried more than her; but when they laughed she knew they laughed harder.

At Joe’s pub that afternoon, Mtendy mentioned that in Nigeria once a week at a certain time everyone stops work, comes out of their offices and houses and picks up rubbish for an hour. This is enforced by the police and Lagos grinds to a halt, for the sake of clean streets.

Would that work in Malawi? Somewhere along the path she had lost hope. She hoped for nothing, she hoped in noone. She missed it.

NB: For a change, everything in this article is somehow true, except that George’s proposal was quite cool, and I don’t actually keep my tank full. Manuel’s petition was eventually successful. Watch this space for part 2: in which Acacia finds her way back to hope.


  1. You're right, having hope is essential to keeping a healthy outlook on life... just not so easy when everything seems to be going wrong and life is like climbing a steep uphill.

  2. enjoyed the reading last night, looking forward to part 2

  3. "...these idealists, who didn’t accept life as it was but wondered how the world might be..." LOL... I liked that.

  4. I recently came across a term 'obscurantist mysticism' - and I thought it was a perfect way to describe Malawi/malawians , and even though its meaning is quite far removed from what i ascribe it to I think its apt nonetheless..

    Hilarious piece of writing jessie... I was in stitches... thanks ...

    I have 'faith' that you'll find 'hope'... (soon!)

  5. Dannie Grant Phiri11 March, 2010 12:28

    As usual, 'unputdownable' if that can be applied to reading on a computer monitor.

  6. lol... do people in Nigeria really do that. I have a feeling Malawians would not comply, even though there's not much life in our cities anyway. Can you imagine Blantyre coming to a standstill? No different that Blantyre when its active if you ask me. I love the subtle sarcasm though. i could read for hours!

  7. I can identify a bit too much! I must admit I'm shocked the petition was successful. Well put, as always. Now what to do about those flying crisp packets...

  8. lovey, this veered a bit off track as I was writing it, and is not directly to the point anymore – apologies.

    ok so what's the problem. We'd all like clean streets, stocked libraries, decent laws, effective aid programs, freedoms, rights. So why are you and I so snarky about people who pursue these aims, in particular (or perhaps exclusively) about those people who are (gasp) idealists?

    Just to define terms, I think of an idealist as a person who earnestly pursues either unrealistic goals, or pursues realistic goals in an unrealistic way. This is at least my definition, and it probably excludes some people who actually consider themselves idealists; I might call these people activists, but not idealists. (Just wanting life to be better doesn't make you an idealist.)

    There are many kinds of idealism, but the big three that come to mind:

    Self-indulgent idealism. This is the rich college-educated east coast ivys trying to feel good. These are the people who congratulate themselves on driving hybrid cars and eating local produce and then spend $4000 to fly to Nepal for a volunteer vacation which they photograph artsily with a foot-long lens. This is all harmless enough, but it is aggravating because its practitioners feel virtuous despite being absolutely ineffective.

    Blind idealism, which seems like much of what you describe, obscurant mysticism, expectations stubbornly out of line with experience, etc.

    Heroic idealism, which I kind of like. This one involves stuff like self-immolation, hunger strikes, grand public gestures with significant risk to one's physical integrity. This is my favorite because it's hard, it hurts, and it means you really fucking care. The idealism – the reality-flouting part of it – is I guess just that you think it might work. Sometimes this does work (e.g., civil rights movement in this country), sometimes it doesn't work (most other examples).

    The defining feature of an idealist, defined even in the word itself, is a disregard for the constraints of reality. But it is possible to care, it's possible to do good, without being an idealist. Is your resentment of idealists because you no longer care? Or that you care, but you feel hopeless? Idealism is an especially perverse sort of hope, but they both thrive in the fog and I think your vision is too clear.

    The other problem I detect here is a conflation of cynicism and maturity. You think it was a young, dumb, bright-eyed Jessie who wrote letters and protested and drank expensive coffee. You think you are not as youthful now; now you have more realist expectations of both what the world is and what you can do to change it. The realist's perspective is sour, because it concludes that the world sucks and what you can do is very little. So of course you feel sour and hopeless and snipe at those innocents who thinking food might come on time, or licenses be issued properly, those who just haven't discovered the truth yet.

    The mistake lies in thinking that cynicism is the only response to enlightenment. This mistake is why you are surprised when your pastor – who, in his office if not in his person – you expect to be wise, is still capable of disappointment and dismay. Somehow he can be both realistic and hopeful – how does he do it? I think that is the path we should be seeking instead of cynicism, those little chinks of light around cynicism that we can still believe in. I think there is a way to balance realism with caring, mostly by looking at the level of the individual. So fixing trash on the streets? Probably not. Changing laws? Need a lot of people to help out. Helping a friend? That one we can do. I'm convinced it is possible to be hopeful without lying to ourselves, but admittedly I'm still a little idealistic about exactly how... looking forward to your part 2.

  9. nice piece jess... i must say if i ever had any idealism it was quite shortlived and reality has most definitely set in, taken over, and holds on tightly...

  10. mmh...this post sounds quite familiar....waiting for part 2 which I hope will be filled with optimism, hope, happiness, laughter, cheer, love and all the good stuff!


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