Cultural Differences: Women

Some days I just want to wear shorts! Nope. It’s not allowed for me, I am Amayibusa.

I must fit into this role in this culture and wear only skirts and dresses, past my knees. As I have gotten more comfortable here, I have ventured into town wearing Capri pants. Still for church activities, I stick with the chitenge (wrap) or skirt.

Growing up I was very athletic. I participated in many activities and played several different sports— dance, gymnastics, soccer, softball, and basketball (Mom and Dad were there others too?). I spent summers at sports camps and on the beach. In fifth grade, I was the tallest girl in my class. I was fast, flexible and strong. I only wore skirts and dresses when I had to. I enjoyed the fact that I could wear shorts and swing upside-down on the jungle bars at recess. I also did a trick where I could put both feet behind my head, now I can only do one foot with difficulty. Of course, as I have become an adult I have become more accustomed to wearing skirts and dresses and am happy to wear them enjoying the cool breeze on a warm day. Still, I feel most comfortable in a pair of denim pants, a t-shirt, and rainbow sandals.

In America, the Women’s Movement was before my time. I didn’t have to fight societal norms to cast a vote, wear pants, or play sports in high school. I have however, seen the role of woman expand. I have seen her take on both home responsibilities and provider roles as the culture has shifted. David and I have talked at length about how family structures have changed and therefore affected children today. He covered this in a Church and Culture Sunday School class at La Jolla Presbyterian Church this past summer.

The segregation that I wrote about in my post Alendo is a reality I have yet to understand. Many places here, the men and women are just separate. Recently the CCAP has accepted women to be ordained as elders and deacons. Still, as with many changes, this hasn’t been widely implemented throughout each and every church. One by one, churches are incorporating women. It will take time though. My hope and my prayer is that women here would find the courage and motivation to step into these leadership roles, which have been kept from them for so long.

There was a prayer meeting at manse #2 five weeks ago. In the beginning of the night, I was so confused because men were arriving in the front of the house. They sat and chatted on the benches. I thought, where were the women? As I usually do when people come over for a bible study, I pulled all of the chairs in the house to form a circle in the main sitting room. Then as six o’clock neared, the men started coming into the house from the front door. Then from the back door, I noticed the women! They entered there, bringing with them a mat and proceeded to sit on it on the floor! A few women sat on some of the chairs, seemingly of the higher class or elderly? A few minutes into the program, a young woman and her daughter entered (again through the back) and sat on the floor. The girl was coughing a bit, so Mrs. Masina got her a glass of water. Still I thought, why is it okay for a sick child to be sitting on the floor?

Recently, we attended a funeral. Here, funerals often take place in the home of the one who passed away. Therefore, we entered through the front gate and I went with Amayibusa Zembeni inside the house where we proceeded to sit on the floor. The men went outside and sat on a couch that had been temporarily removed from the house. Once again, the women were on the floor. We continued to sit there, for an hour and a half, singing hymns in Chichewa. Besides the fact that my butt was hurting, I was quite uncomfortable that the men got to sit in chairs while we were all on the ground. After the first two hours of mainly sitting on the floor and singing hymns that I didn’t understand, we went to eat nsima and meat; again on a mat on the grass, we all ate with our hands. Returning inside the house, there was a viewing. I sat on the floor, just behind the coffin, so that if I looked up, I could see the people who were viewing it. We went outside to again, sit on the ground. I was more concerned with the ants crawling on me than I was about hearing any of the funeral service. It took be a few weeks to recover from the experience. What bothers me the most is how separate and unfair the whole situation was. After first entering the house, I didn’t see David until I was shown outside to sit on the ground amid the dirt, grass and bugs. We asked Mr. Masina about the situation and he said that in the villages, everyone sits on the ground, but in the city, some people (the important ones) sit in chairs, while others sit on the ground. He said the villagers would look down upon what had transpired that day at the funeral. It was comforting to me that this doesn’t happen everywhere.

I struggle with the inequality that exists here. It is something that I have never really dealt with and my heart hurts for those who live in it daily. It seems that because it is so a part of this culture, that many of the more traditionalists don’t even see anything wrong (including the women). A promising thing is that the younger generation is more relaxed and seems to question cultural norms here. The more I ask questions and get into conversations, the more that I see people are wrestling with the inequality that exists. What I must remember is that there is nothing I can do to hurry the process of taking on new ideas. This is simply a different culture and place. I can spark discussions and remain open with the people here. And I will. I will also continue to pray for all the needs here: hunger, health, shelter, education, and that the message of Christ would be preached, heard and accepted. The fact is, no matter the culture, inequality does exist. Close your eyes to it and you will avoid seeing. But it is there. Do you sit in a chair while others sit on the ground? Where is there inequality in your life? Is it economic status? Gender? Racial? Class? Age? ___?

Christ calls us to love.

The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” –Mark 12:29-31


For a little history of Malawi:



Filed under adventures, faith, Malawi

7 responses to “Cultural Differences: Women

  1. Sarah

    Wow, thanks for sharing Hailey! All I kept thinking as I read this is that this experience must be teaching you extreme patience! I admire your patience and heart for these people. Love and miss you.

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