Rebecca Jacobson
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I Will Never Be Able To Shake My Rear End Like That

November 9, 2009 @ 2:13 AM | Permalink

Triza beamed at me with the pride of a fairy godmother. “You’re a real Malawian woman now,” she said, “a real African lady.” She had just bound my chitenje, the traditional fabric wrapper worn by Malawian women. I had yet to purchase my own, but Triza had an extra. It was red and black and featured large, realistically rendered elephants. I wore madras shorts underneath. I looked down at my feet and the glaringly white crisscross of my sandal tan. I felt far from a Malawian woman, far from an African lady.

After a few weeks, I had finally worked up the courage to participate in the dance rehearsals I’d been observing. As part of my fellowship project, I’m learning traditional Malawian dances from Blantyre-based troupes. Once I realized that I would look ridiculous no matter how long I waited to join, I tossed my dignity aside and decided to dance. My inaugural rehearsal was with Dance Unit, a group that pools dancers from various troupes. (The group’s name may actually be Dance Unity — I’ve heard both labels, though this may be due to the Malawian tendency to tack on vowels to the end of English words. A while ago, a young woman complimented my panties. I was halfway to tugging up my belt before I realized she wasn’t talking about my unmentionables.) I chose a few women to watch: compact, athletic Triza; lithe, exuberant Joyce; graceful, expressive Debora.

I first attempted chioda, a joyful women’s dance. The intricate footwork gave me pause, but let the record stand that I excelled at running around in a circle and clapping.



Chisamba, a women’s dance that celebrates the first-born child, proved my next test. Here, Triza commended my footwork, and I even pivoted in time with the drums. Once, however, the women fell to their knees and continued the hip and shoulder convulsions, I grew less confident. (Watch the thrusts in the video, and now imagine the women kneeling.) But I felt grateful for our al fresco rehearsal space, a concrete stage under big-leafed trees — and without mirrors.

Meanwhile, I silently cursed all those past dance instructors who had pushed in my tailbone, repeating their mantra: “tuck in your butt, tuck in your butt.” That’s the last thing these Malawian dancers expected. I could see the way their eyes fell to my waist and hips. Now, my mother did endow me with something to shake (and I thank her for that), but I was neither a child of music videos nor a pioneer on the middle school freak dancing circuit. The hip isolation exercises from my modern dance classes were one thing. These gyrations were another. The dancers laughed. I laughed back.

Laughter has become a constant at these rehearsals, and I’ve appreciated the lighthearted welcome of the dancers. They’ve been quick, too, to induct me into their circle. They clench my arm and pull me onto the stage if I hesitate. In addition to the dances, they have taught me Chichewa proverbs (learn from the other man, but do not let him steal your eyes). They share their cheese puffs and pink nail polish. They let me play with their children, including one little girl named Rebecca, who has a tendency to smear her half-chewed cookies all over her face. This attracts flies, which settle on her nose to feast on the crumbs. I swat the flies away.

Last Friday, at a marathon seven-hour rehearsal, the dancers and I ate lunch together, the Malawian staple nsima (a stiff, sticky maize porridge) with usipa (tiny, salty fish, their tails torn off).

“Umadya nsima?” they asked, disbelievingly, as I rolled the mush between my fingers and scooped up a tomato. “You eat nsima?” I responded in the affirmative. One group member, Hussein, snapped a photo of me with his cell phone. I offered a title for the shot: “Azungu ndi nsima,” “white person with nsima.” The dancers hooted.

I’d hoped the Malawian meal would provide the springboard for instantaneous progress. I’m not so sure this came about, but I like to convince myself I’m improving. There’s an arts festival in Blantyre next weekend, and the dancers have been prodding me to participate. I think I might accept the offer. Wish me luck.


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Rebecca: I love the ending and I LOVE the second picture with the bright blue guy and the sepia tobacco. Angela

Angela Allen on Trafficking in Tobacco 2009-09-29

Thanks Angela! The second photo is my favorite as well.

Rebecca Jacobson on Trafficking in Tobacco 2009-09-30

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