Saturday, February 12, 2011

The trouble(s) with being a bwana

So i was buying some kampango (african catfish) this morning on the
beach and the fisherman called me "bwana" which means "boss."he had
several kampango with him but i only wanted to buy one because a. Id
never eaten the fish and wasnt sure id like it and b. Our fridge is
almost full already. In half-jest the fisherman replied "youre a bwana
now, why dont you buy the rest of my fish for your employees?" i
replied that i am not a/their bwana yet. This is technically true
since all the legalities regarding our business havent been finalized.
But the encounter made me uncomfortable. The special status that
whites are accorded in africa has always bothered me. Whether we like
it or not, take advantage of it or not, or are victimized because of
it or not, all white (and likely non-white) foreigners in most parts
africa have to figure out how to deal with being a "bwana" to some
extent or another. After living for a few years in various african
countries i still struggle with this. Now that i am (will shortly be)
a business owner with malawian employees learning how to manage them
effectively and in a way that is sensitive to their cultural and
ethical norms is going to be a challenge. In some ways many of the
african cultures that i have encountered, including malawian, are more
authoritarian and hierarchical than i am comfortable with. I just
finished reading tony wood's article entitled "capitaos and chiefs:
oral tradition and colonial society in malawi." in it he discusses how
the "capitaos," native farm managers on foreign owned estates, were
often remembered to have been more brutal than the actual foreign
owners. Yesterday i spoke with an australian who is volunteer teaching
at a malawian primary school. She remarked how she was uncomfortable
with her students calling her "madame" and how she had convinced them
to call her by her first name instead. I sympathized with this but at
the same time wonder how much her students understand why a "bwana"
would insist on being so informal with them be cont.

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