I also write for mostlyfilm.com , Europe’s best website. I’m up today, on Nigerian movies, none of which I’ve actually managed to sit through.
They know their audience; you have to say that for them. The induction bumph sent by the school to prospective new teachers was, in hindsight, a masterful piece of propaganda, which played perfectly to the inherent prejudices of its readership. You see, there are a wide variety of people who end up teaching in Africa: usually classified as mercenaries, missionaries and misfits (to which we must add my own classification, mistakes), but they all have one thing in common. They all think there’s something pretty cool about going to Africa. They are all, for want of a better word (arseholes?), travellers. If you ever want to witness a long, reductive and soul destroying example of smug one-upmanship (and why wouldn’t you?) then ask a group of ex-pat teachers about railway journeys or pubs or food poisoning and see how long it takes someone to reminisce about the Trans-Siberian railway, a bar in far Bombay or the time they got dysentery in Antarctica. It won’t be long. The new teacher’s handbook we were sent understood this tendency very well, and subtly played on it to whet the travel-snob appetites of the prospective employees. For example, Blantyre was described as “not a beautiful city, but one with a certain charm” Now seriously, who wants a beautiful city? A beautiful city is one where tourists arrive on coaches to stare slack jawed at churches before eating overpriced pastiches of local cuisine in Disneyfied restaurants. These are not places that people who really travel go to. A certain charm, though, sounds ideal; you imagine a bustling, exciting, alien place where one can immerse oneself in the local culture and have experiences that one can bore other traveller types with in future pub gardens. What you get, in Blantyre at least, is a place with all the charm of Swindon, albeit Swindon after a nuclear holocaust. “A certain charm” is a clever way of putting it, though, as, in the same way that the Simpsons taught us that “zero is a percentage” so no charm is a certain amount of charm.
One of the subtle, dog-whistle style passages in the handbook was referring to clothes and shopping. There are very few opportunities to buy clothes and shoes of a western quality, the handbook truthfully states, but many people instead find it agreeable to have clothes made by a tailor. Indeed, the school has a tailor on retainer for just this purpose. This, to a travel-snob audience, instantly brings to mind the extensive and marvellous tailoring opportunities of South-east Asia, and Thailand and Vietnam in particular. (Not to me, mind, I haven’t been. Too many tourists. I went to Belarus instead. Got cholera. It was awesome.) The reality is a little different. The school does indeed have a tailor on retainer, or at least there’s a man who lives in a cupboard on the site who calls himself a tailor. He doesn’t have a sewing machine, though, which is a bit of a problem. There are other tailors around, though, and we use one called Lawrence. Lawrence is, and I’ve thought about this, so don’t accuse me of hyperbole, the oddest man I’ve ever met. For a start, he won’t come inside. He comes into the flat, but then immediately asks if he can go outside to the garden, as he’s hot. It’s always hot, and it’s cooler in the flat, but Lawrence must go outside. I wondered if he were merely indulging in some heavy forelock-tugging style behaviour. After all, he, like many Malawians, insists on calling me “master,” and that maybe he was uncomfortable inside the house of the mzungus, but if so, he might not be so forceful about it. He certainly wouldn’t insist on us standing in the garden to be measured, in full view of the neighbours. That also doesn’t explain his bizarre habit of ululating loudly in noun’s face, to his utter bemusement; nor his insistence on making any customer try on any work he’s done for them immediately, and then applauding when it fits. The one occasion where he didn’t applaud was when he was particularly pleased with a skirt he’d made for Sarah, and broke into an impromptu jig when he saw her in it. The main issue, though, is that he is utterly incomprehensible. He spent a long time trying to get us to commission him to make throw pillows, only we spent several weeks being unsure what it was we were being offered. His pronunciation of pillow was mangled so much that we thought he was offering to make us tin openers. I cannot possibly, in writing, explain how “pillow” can become “tin openers” but you’ll have to take my word for it that it did. We were baffled as to why a tailor would make tin openers, or why anyone would want a handcrafted tin opener, or why the construction of a tin opener would require him to buy zips and materials. We didn’t want a tin opener, but that was ok, because we didn’t want throw pillows either.
So, having things made for you in Malawi is not the enjoyable, quasi-glamorous affair I’m led to believe it is in Bangkok; but even that isn’t the real problem. No, the real problem is, as usual, the fact that there is nothing to buy here. An example, in case you think I am exaggerating, for Christmas this year Sarah bought me a cook book (I don’t cook much) and a cheese grater (there is no cheese in Malawi.) I bought her a Pot Noodle (a real one, it cost an absolute bloody fortune) and a chitenge. The chitenge is the sarong-like wrap worn by Malawian women. Under Banda (the first one, not the sainted Joyce) there were legal restrictions on the dress of the citizens and women had to wear a full skirt in public. Skirts are expensive, Malawians are poor and the chitenge is the most efficient way not to get arrested. The habit has stuck, and though Malawian women no longer risk incarceration for showing their knees (nor Malawian men for not shaving) the chitenge has become a sort of national dress. The patterns on them are remarkable: some beautiful, some baffling; some with adverts, some with politician’s faces. You can buy chitenges with patterns for specific occasions like Mother’s day. The one I got for Sarah at Christmas is green and yellow, and covered in hammers. It looks like someone with colour blindness had tried to re-create the Brick in the Wall video from memory. She got Lawrence to turn it into a skirt, he danced, everyone was happy. Merry Christmas.
The problem came when she attempted to return the favour. I have a pair of trousers that I have worn almost to the point of destruction. They aren’t especially fetching, but they are comfortable. I think they came from ASDA. They are three quarter length cut offs, with combat pockets, in khaki. I love them, and wear them a lot. This is in part because I moved to live in a foreign country bringing with me exactly four pairs of leg coverings. We brought approximately half a ton of stuff with us; all of it for the baby. That said, I wore them a fair bit in the summer in Britain as well, so they are favourites. She decided to have them recreated for me, and so she and Lawrence went to Lambat’s, the Indian run fabric shop, to choose some material. My existing trousers are, as I said, made of plain khaki material, so Sarah decided to buy plain material for the replacements. Unfortunately, the choice was not huge. She bought three sets of fabric, each plain, all polyester. The first, and least offensive were a dark brown colour. If you were forced to describe it, you’d describe it in exactly the way you’re thinking of describing a dark brown colour. As if someone has been eating a lot of fibre. The next, and second most awful, are the pale blue. This would be best described as coming from the dress uniforms of the Air Force of a particularly effete country. And then the green, oh God, the green, this shiny polyester is the colour of the suit a leprechaun might wear to a court summons in 1978. What makes the trousers worse is the fact that Lawrence has removed any details from them that might have made them look like combats – there are no thigh pockets, nor a drawstring; rather they each look like a pair of hideous suit trousers that have, inexplicably, had the lower third of their legs removed. I’ll get some photos of them, and the hammer skirt, and put them up, but for now, simply enjoy the mental images.