Picking aspects of Malawian culture that are superior to the American equivalent has been surprisingly hard. This isn’t because I’m afraid to judge one culture versus another – I’m more than happy to do that, in a serious and thoughtful way. If there’s an opposite for “cultural relativist”, that’s me. If comparing cultures with an eye toward improvement isn’t the definition of development, it’s definitely integral to the concept. As Dr. Robert Siegel pointed out when I was first training to be an HIV educator, “we [HIV prevention campaigners] are here to change culture.” If it didn’t need changing, we wouldn’t be around.
It’s also not that Malawi has no advantages over America. But I wanted to stay away from the bullshit platitudes that usually plague any description of a foreign culture. The worst offender is “hospitality”, which I’ve heard applied to virtually every country. I recently read a piece on foreign tourists’ perceptions of the US which focused on their surprise at our hospitable and welcoming nature. Hospitality is a big thing in all cultures, but it’s shown in different ways so I suppose people always find it striking to see those variations. It’s also usually a bigger deal to welcome a foreigner into your home, versus some guy from down the street.
I’ve also been thinking about stuff the US could actually learn from – I find Malawi’s popular music catchier than America’s, but that’s not particularly actionable. A big one that I think Americans could get on board with is the level of freedom and self-monitoring afforded to the kids here. When school is not in session (which is right now, incidentally) kids in the villages are allowed to just run around and amuse themselves, without a parent constantly hovering over them, not confined to one of those weird playgrounds with the signs that ban childless adults since apparently I am likely to be a child molester. I did a good bit of running unmonitored around my block/neighborhood as a kid, getting dirty, catching bugs, finding cats, and generally having a blast, but that experience is increasingly unheard of in the US; parents there now feel obligated to constantly hover over their children.
Now, mortality is pretty high here, and that is even more true for kids, but the reasons for those excess deaths are largely unrelated to kids running around unsupervised. For reasons that I am very interested in, but cannot explain satisfactorily (yet), people here are pretty unconcerned about what might happen if their kid goes and plays on his or her own. As best I can tell the main risks are snakebites and getting hit by cars driven along crappy roads by stressed-out American grad students – both are rare, but the risk is probably bigger than it would be in the US. Yet Malawian parents are less concerned than American ones, and their kids are probably better-adjusted for it.
My self-interest, by the way, actually runs in the other direction – I kind of wish the parents were doing more hovering here. Since the schools are currently on summer break or something, anytime I park my project’s minibus I attract a small crowd of local kids, who stare at me in terror and usually don’t say anything. I’ve had limited success getting them to play with me, since a) I don’t yet know any games that I can explain in Chichewa and b) more important, they’re often too scared to respond to me. To make matters worse, I often need to do paperwork to get the next batch of surveys ready, in which case I really need them to stay out of the way (and not get bored and start getting in trouble, which is what tends to happen). Today, though, I was just waiting for stuff to wrap up and got a bunch of kids to start imitating my movements, which was a blast. Imagine that happening in America: parents letting their kids go play with some stranger who is driving around the neighborhood in a van? It’s like a textbook kidnapping urban legend.