Sunday, April 15, 2012

Of cakes, brides, and dead presidents

The cake is a lie. This post has very little to do with cake.

The cake is the product of several days tribulation at the end of March, wherein a storm took out our power for about 24 hours and forced the relocation of my cream cheese to the neighbour's fridge (about 20m away, but on a different transformer). Weekend cake became Tuesday night cake.    

Tuesday night cake was delicious, nevertheless. (Recipe here! Icing is standard cream cheese icing.)

Normally the rainy season would have tapered off by end of March, but the first week of April brought with it several days of rain. On Monday the 2nd, it alternated between drizzling and torrential rain all day. With Dan's car stuck in park due to the fuel shortage, our usual lunches at Mbambavu restaurant were on hold. 
My progress to Summer Park restaurant was stymied by a veritable river of water flowing down the alleyway, and I was forced to loop around past MUSCCO where I ended up hopping into a car and heading for lunch at the golf club with Dan, Fumbani (head of accounting), and Kingsley (head of internal audit and risk). While the golf club grounds were lovely, the restaurant was quiet. We discovered why when our food took over an hour to arrive (and we all ordered the 'lunch special')!

We made it back to the office around 2:30, and the rain started pouring again. Dan deadpans that Malawi is such a small country, with a population starting to outgrow its resources, and the population would quadruple with the number of people staying inside today with nothing to do but make babies.

Last week, I also had the chance to attend a Malawian bridal shower and wedding: the little sister of one of Katrina's friends was getting married Easter Monday. The bridal shower happened a week earlier. How did it compare to Canadian bridal showers? Well, I might not be the one to ask, as I've only attended one bridal shower before this one, but I'll take a crack at it.

First off, it was more formal than I expected - an agenda was printed up and everything. The event took place in the garden, and the bride was seated in the front of an array of chairs. Women took turns going up and giving speeches on everything from "Christianity in the Home" to nutrition and etiquette. Only a few of the speeches were in English, but those that were seemed to include a fair amount of general well-wishing and "we're so proud of you!" - so really, not much different than bridal showers back home, I think. 
The big difference was the "perekani perekani" - to explain, I'm just going to quote another website
Perekani Perekani is an African tradition of bestowing gifts upon a newlywed bride and groom. The way this is done is what makes it so unique.
At the wedding reception the bride and groom are seated before the guests. A basket is placed before the bride and groom and traditional music is played. Guests are expected to drop small bills into the basket until the music stops. Whenever a new song begins, a new round of Perekani Perekani begins. Often, special rounds will be designated to groups of guests (ie. friends of the groom, family of the bride, and so on).

Except in this case, it was pop songs, not traditional music, and the bills were kind of tossed around, not only into the basket (see picture below). At the bridal shower, this ritual happened between each speech, maybe 8-10 times total. At the wedding reception, this happened at every possible opportunity: introduce the bride's parents, perekani perekani, introduce the groom's parents, perekani perekani, cut the cake, perekani perekani, hand out the cake, perekani perekani, call all the bride's friends up, perekani perekani, and so on. In the two hours we were there, they must have done at least 20 rounds. I'll never begrudge people's gift registries again!

Insider tip for perekani perekani: go get your money changed into smaller bills before showing up. This works especially well with kwacha, where a K500 bill (~3$) can break down into 10 K50s or 25 K20s. Plenty to carpet the ground with! In fact, you don't even need to do this beforehand - they had a change table at the back of the wedding reception! 

Myself, I went up for only one round of perekani perekani at each event. At the reception, I was afraid to do more - as one of two white people in a crowd of 200+ guests, there was no way I was going to anonymously sidle up there and drop off some money, and I'm way too introverted to own a moment like that sober (oh, yeah, no alcohol at the reception - this was an Adventist wedding).

Last but not least... the big news of the month (of the year!). On Thursday afternoon, news flew around the office that, apparently, the president was dead. There was a giddy nervousness in the air now: the president hasn't been very well-liked in his second term, accused (among many other things) of arresting political opponents and chasing off donors (whose aid formed 40% of Malawi's budget in the past few years). 

With no antenna to receive local TV and no radio handy, I ended up following the whole affair on Twitter. Let me say, Twitter is nerve-wracking. Every 5 seconds, new tweets would pop up, convincing me that either the issue was resolved, or civil war was about to break out, or the president was alive after all. Here's a brief timeline:

Thursday afternoon - Rumours swirl: the president is dead!
Thursday evening - Government statement: the president isn't dead, he's being flown to South Africa for treatment.
Friday morning - Foreign dignitaries pay their respects to Malawi on the presidents' death. Local media is silent. 
Friday afternoon - US state department expresses "concerns about the delay in the transfer of power". (I go into town to stock up on groceries, just in case.)
Friday evening - The 8 o'clock news concludes with not one single mention of the president. 
Saturday morning - Government statement: the president has, in fact, been dead all along. VP Joyce Banda to assume presidency.
Saturday afternoon - Her Excellency Joyce Banda becomes Malawi's first female president! (I can hear the 21 gun salute from my seat at home)

With all the rumours of coups, it's fortunate that the situation resolved peacefully. Kudos to Malawi (which has only had a democracy for 18 years) on the smooth transition of power. Here's hoping Banda can help turn things around for the country. From the sounds of it, she's making a great effort already, cleaning house and reopening talks with the UK, US, and IMF.