No One Here But Us Bipeds
Leaving behind the context in which you understood yourself inevitably leads to new discoveries about who you really are. The things that are fundamentally important to you are more visible without the coating of things you enjoyed (mostly vices) and the lifestyle preferences that you had (vices and Buffy). Further, you encounter that which bring out your darkness, the ‘you’ that exists without the cytoplasm of control, the membrane which keeps you looking a normal shape with all the inside bits inside. You find out what makes you collapse on the bathroom floor and howl.
I feel threatened just by how visible I am here. There are very few white people and although nearly everyone is extravagantly kind and courteous, I do feel like I’ve accidentally gone out naked, or wearing Lyra’s bunny ears (again). Of course, when people get to know you, superficial differences recede, and I am happier just for having a few friends and knowing enough people to say hello to, in the gym, the local Superette, and around our little part of town called New Naperi. I made friends with an incredibly old lady called Doris, who had a sign in her garden saying she would like empty bottles to put her homemade beer in*. Her house is on the way to Lyra’s nursery, down a little loop of a road that cuts out the scary-no-pavement-highway, so we pass by most days. We met her when Lyra, Luka and I turned up with a wheelbarrow full of wine bottles, left by the previous residents. Apart from the fact that she now thinks I am an alcoholic, we get on very well, and I look forward to passing her gate and exchanging pleasantries with her every morning.
Another locus of familiarity was climbing Mount Soche yesterday, which was a refreshingly Yorkshire-like thing to do. Pottering up a hill with some shortcake biscuits and admiring the view, before retracing our steps and eating a massive Sunday lunch. Though the lunch was tasty-bok and rice rather than beef and puds.
It is not just by my appearance that makes me stand out here. Manners are culturally proscribed and subtly nuanced; classical anthropology would describe them as the outward performance of an internal knowledge system. For instance, picking up a passing child who is totally unknown to you and kissing him/her is normal in Malawi. It makes my heart stop every time someone does this to Lyra and she gets absolutely furious at the invasion of her personal space. I have now learnt the perfect Chichewa for “I’m really sorry my daughter bit you, would you like some Germolene for that?”. But the very notion of personal space is not universal, and nor is the expectation that a small child will have strong feelings about what it will permit; both of these things are singularly European, rooted in our reverence for the ‘individual’.
I have also discovered that being satirical because someone is blindly following a protocol, despite the ironic consequences of their actions, is really rude in Malawi. Though this is still obligatory in Hoxton. I know this because you can’t leave a shop here without having your receipt stamped. They don’t check your bags, they don’t look at the receipt, and they don’t have any in-store security, but you can’t leave without that stamp. So, after 45 minutes of trying to find some cream crackers, whilst your child is screaming because the lady behind us asked her if she was a fairy and it should be obvious to anyone that she is in fact a ‘pirate-fairy-baby-cat’, and just as you have remembered the essential thing that you came in for and it is now too late to go back and get, you have to stand in line to have a rubber stamp applied to your receipt, for absolutely no purpose. This causes a confused scrimmage at the exit through which the shoptlifters can blithely carry out crates of beer. I have failed to be anything other than sarcastic about this and every weekend I leave the store in the certain knowledge that I am a massive bitch.
Even the Malawian fauna is challengingly different. Thus, two nights ago I was sitting on the bathroom floor, clutching a can of Doom**, weeping uncontrollably and making that funny sound between mooing and screaming that only the truly terrified can create. I have always known that I’m a bit funny about things with more than eight legs. Up to and including eight is fine, I am the honorary Holberry Gardens ‘creature’ catcher, and have often chuckled smugly to myself whilst carrying a pretty spider on my arm out from Jaymi’s house, as she stood on a chair and gibbered. There is also the drunken ‘chasing the frog’ game that we play every August, when the neighbours pond spawn has hatched and the little slippery hoppers get into the front room. Here too, I’ll happily fence cockroaches the size of tuppeny bits with my fish slice, for the last of the pancake batter.
But not centipedes. Or millipedes. They were always dealt with by a swift trowel to the middle and then hastily buried with a vow never to dig there again. But in Sheffield, they were tiny and only in the garden. In Sheffield, they weren’t 8 inches long and in my bed. A whisper away from my face. I don’t know if they bite but my god, I have never, ever felt so physically afraid. In order to prove (to myself) that I am not a massive Jessie, may I put on record that I’ve jumped out of a plane, been chased through a rainforest by bandits with rifles, dealt with massive haemorrhages at homebirths, piloted solo a small leaky narrow boat down the Thames in flood, and faced a line of riot police whilst handcuffed to a man in a tiger suit. The latter was during my activist/Greenpeace days and not an advert for ‘New Militant Frosties!’.
None of these experiences even come close to how I felt on Saturday evening, sharing my pillow with so many legs. Jody well meaningly suggested we buy me a toy horrorpede in order to ‘get me used to them’. I, very unwellmeaningly, told him where to stuff his can of Doom.
*The local brew has the consistency and taste of porridge. Because it’s made from fermented porridge.
**Southern Africa’s favorite Pyrethroid.