I want to use this post to share with you different cultural things that I have observed and learned while living in Africa. Since there are so many, I will just name 10 of the cultural differences that I find to be most important to know if you are planning to spend time in Malawi.
1. Greet everyone: When in Malawi, it is best to act as if you are in the Southern region of the United States. Everyone, even though they may be a stranger to you, should be treated as a good friend. Always acknowledge someone you pass by. When seeing a friend about a bit of business, it is important to greet them and ask them about their family and their work. You should never get right to business. Take your time getting to the point.
2. Physical affection: It is not common for Malawians to hug or kiss each other in public (even married couples). For women, when greeting a friend, a slight bow or hand shake (with your opposite hand supporting your elbow) is acceptable. Men will shake hands but not with an up and down motion like in America. Think of it as a secret handshake, one you can only learn once experiencing it with a Malawian. It is not unusual to see people of the same sex holding hands. You will often see men holding each others hands while walking down the street. It is a warm sign of affection and means nothing else.
3. Keep quiet: Do not speak bluntly about personal things. Pregnancies are not to be discussed, even if the woman is obviously showing. If a husband speaks of his wife's pregnancy, it is believed that the baby might be cursed and could die before it is born because of the husband's bragging. (we learned this last year when Dan and I openly spoke about our pregnancy...thankfully, our gracious friends at ABC educated us on this subject before we offended anyone).
4. Don't say "NO": It is rude to outright reject someone, even if they are asking for money. Excuses or even delayed reactions are best. When asked for money, simply say "sorry" or "don't have, maybe next time". If you are offered food that you cannot eat (or may not want to eat), it is best to explain why you are unable to eat instead of saying "no thank you". In every possible situation, eat what is given even if you feel it is Fear Factor material.
5. Always take it: Gifts are to be accepted with one hand out and the other supporting the elbow. Without this posture, you are seen as greedy for just taking the item from the giver. Always accept gifts, even if you suspect the giver cannot afford to give such a gift. Rejecting a gift is very rude and will communicate that the gift was not good enough for you.
6. Keep hats off and hands out of your pockets when speaking to an elder. It is considered rude to stand this way.
7. Seated separately: When visiting a Malawian church, you will notice the men and women are separated. However, as an expat visitor, it is okay to sit with your spouse and family.
8. Move it: When in church, it is normal to dance during worship. Also, do not be alarmed if people start moving around the chapel during worship. Think of it as doing the "train" dance and join in. It is also common for groups of people to randomly start up in song. Make sure to stop and enjoy what you hear.
9. Family first: Always be prepared to stay longer than you are used to when visiting a Malawian's home. It is customary to have a meal or at least tea if you have visited their home, even if it was an unexpected visit and you were hoping to just drop something off or do a bit of business. Malawians are very welcoming and will treat you like family. Likewise, always be ready to serve food or drinks (and no-water does not count as a drink) to someone who might unexpectedly stop by your home. It is not unusual for a Malawian to surprise you with a 2 hour visit to your home on any given day.
10. Be flexible: Malawians are often late to any given scheduled appointment or meeting because of number 9. Family and relationships always come first. Malawians will stop what they are doing to assist another person, even if it means missing their own appointment. Be flexible and ready to call off any plans you may have had in case your friend doesn't show up.