Conversations with the Tribe

“The gardener is Luke. He’s wonderful, he’s from Malawi.”

I follow Bronwen’s elegant pointer finger to the smiling man on the lawn. His grin splits his face into deep lines.

“How are youu?” he calls.

“Don’t worry about making friends,” Amanda says.  “We’re not as cliquey with foreigners as we are with each other.”

In another house, Mark welcomed and introduced us. “This is the house keeper Erick. We’ve had him for years, he’s from Malawi.”

Erick dipped his head and smiled shyly.

“Hi Erick!” we said.

“You must hose down the patio, Erick,” Mark said.  “We want it nice and clean for them.”

“I got the grant,” Amanda shrugged, “but only half of the normal allocation since I’m white.”

In another house, it happens again as an old man invites us in. “This is John,” he says.  “He’s from Malawi.”

John is wearing fashionable jeans and a faded band t-shirt. He looks up from a window he’s washing and smiles but says nothing.

“He comes for our windows—sometimes our guests walk right into them when he’s done! He’s great.”

We’re hurried along before we can tell John our names.

“No, I lost my wedding ring,” Amanda says. “Ethel is great, but our previous nanny may have taken it, or it could have fallen between the floorboards. It was such an old house.”

When I ask her about Malawi, she says,”I’ll tell you the stereotype. It’s just that people think that Black South Africans are going to be lazier and more demanding. People from Malawi have a great reputation.”

Malawi has a transformative power. The distance it offers makes the ancient relationship exotic, covers it with a patina of modern professionalism, separates in their consciences what was then and what is now. It is not okay to castigate insolence because the justice gnaws at them. Malawi is a sidestep with the assurance of harder work, they believe, and just enough of a variation on the old hegemony to keep their teeth from rattling in fear.

3 Comments

  • I thought it was interesting that being white ensured less money for a grant, implying black preference and yet, the servants are black.

  • gaydtla says:

    One of Malawi’s best exports is its friendly people.

  • April H. says:

    I especially love the title of this piece–I interpreted it as a way for you to refuse to separate people, to force a unity when there isn’t one in fact. As newcomers, you have to learn the stereotypes before you can start categorizing–if you even end up doing so. These people are all part of your tribe.

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