Hi-Ho the Dairy-Oh, the Guard Takes a Wife

My Heart in Africa

This week brought new meaning to the words of that old children’s song. In my western cultural understanding of marriage, when the Farmer TAKES his wife, it isn’t so much that he actually “takes” her as that he selects one to marry. And in the game that goes with the selection process of the song, the boy designated as the farmer, chooses a wife from the girls in the class. She, then, subsequently, choses a son/daughter from the remaining students. We use the word “takes” in the song, but even in our elementary understandings, we know that the farmer doesn’t just “take” his wife any more than the wife “takes” children to become her own.

Now, however, after my experiences this week, I wonder how the song would translate into Malawian culture. Unlike in my Canadian context, whereby all social/economic status groups tend to still follow the same progressive code of maturation: high school/post secondary/marriage/house/children/minivan/dog etc, Malawi has a few different social orders, dependent upon economic status.

If you are from the village, and happen to be female, it is still not a necessity nor an expectation that you attend school at all. You are married off at age fifteen to the sum of a few goats or chickens. Your husband may or may not be a part of your life, and your value is determined by the amount of children you produce; especially sons!
Those living in the city are seen as progressive and education for women is becoming more common. However, that does not mean that her expectations to marry and produce children is delayed. It just means that if she can manage both, she is entitled to do both.

My guard, I am learning, comes from the village way of life. He lives in the city, for work purposes, but continues to live by the code of rural areas. Last winter (early 2012), his second wife passed away suddenly from pneumonia. His first wife, the mother of his adult children, had passed away several years earlier. I believe that it was after her passing (the original wife) that he moved to Lilongwe for work. His children, stayed in the south. He sees them rarely.

On Monday I came home from having gone to the shops with Jake and Jenn one last time. They were heading out for America later in the week and there were still a few things we hadn’t gone over, and finalized. We got home earlier than I do on a regular work day, so Sarah, our housekeeper was still there. She informed us that Waliko had gone to town to pick up his wife.

She said it so casually that I wondered if I misheard her.

His wife? Since when does he have a wife?

Today. He is going to get her today.

But where did he meet her?

He is meeting her today.

Where will she live? Where is she from?

She will live with him. She is from somewhere else.

What about his family member who was already staying here with him.

Oh, she left yesterday.

And that was that! Sarah was not surprised by this new development and certainly didn’t feel the need to explain the situation anymore!

We didn’t see Waliko bring her home, but a few hours later, Jake was called to the back yard to meet the new Madam. Jake returned to the house shaking his head, like he was trying to grasp what he just experienced.

Waliko introduced her as “Madam” so we still don’t know her name. She is young. Maybe early twenties. She has a daughter with her who is two, and a son that she has left in the village back home. This is all we know.

I had to wait until Sarah came back the next day to find out more, but even in that, she does not pry. I sure would! But I don’t speak Chichewa. Sarah calls her Madam also and doesn’t bother to find out her real name.

The first few nights were rough. The little girl cried and cried, and true to what I have experienced so far here in Malawi, no one rushes to comfort or aid crying children. They just let them cry.
The dog doesn’t like crying babies in his back yard, so he whines.
Together they make an awful racket.

Combine that with the fact that the wife has brought along a chicken, whose mere presence causes Brown – the dog – to nearly tear off his chain in frustration, the noise of 5am on Tuesday morning was enough to drive me batty. Thankfully, my day begins at 5am, so I was already awake. The barking, clucking and screaming did not wake me, but instead just grated on my pre-caffeinated nerves. Jake and Jenn on the other hand had the luxury of trying to sleep in for two more hours with all the blatant commotion.

Needless to say, it has been an interesting adjustment.

Its been almost a week now since the new Madame has come to our yard. I’ve said maybe fifteen words to her. First, I can’t speak her language enough to communicate past “Hello, how are you?” and to ask her daughter “What is your name?” (Maria)

But she also does not seem interested in interacting. I wonder how she feels. I cannot imagine arriving at a strangers place, and realizing that his washroom size home is now going to be your shared accommodations for yourself, your daughter, and him - your new, old enough to be your father, husband!

Sometimes, despite all that I am learning, experiencing and enjoying about Africa, there are days where I am very grateful to be from a country where I have the right to choice in marriage.
Granted, that right and choice haven’t really been favorable to me – I realize that.

But I do prefer being single at almost 35, to being married to a stranger twice my age at less than 20.

Originally posted to My Heart in Africa