By Michelle Alipao Chikaonda
A few weeks ago I had just arrived at a formal lunch organized for my department a few blocks away from my office building, and had gone to a nearby bathroom to change from my walking shoes into my nicer indoor shoes. I would be catching a flight out of the city later in the afternoon for a long weekend with college friends, directly after the event, and so had taken my small carry-on suitcase with me so I wouldn’t have to go back to my office. It was out of this suitcase that I pulled my slightly worn but still solid black patent-leather wedges, repacking my tattered Converses into the space where my nice shoes had just been, and straightened myself up for the two hour lunch.
My mother taught me, many years ago when I first left Malawi for school in the UK, to always pack a chitenje in my carry-on bag whenever I travel. For the non-Malawians reading right now, this is a large, often colorful rectangle of wax print cloth that is always worn by women, most typically wound around the waist and legs as a type of coverall, but can be deployed to multiple other uses as well. Because the chitenje can be so many things—wrap skirt, halter dress, headscarf (a large one but still), blanket, towel, even a thin sleeping mat if one’s situation were truly dire—she insisted it was a travel essential, and regularly chastised me if she found out I had left for the airport without one packed. I do have to admit that my travel chitenje has saved not only me but various friends journeying with me on several occasions, and so packing one when I travel is now something I do mostly without thinking, as routine as brushing my teeth or putting on shoes before leaving my house for the day.
As I opened my carry-on suitcase in the bathroom that afternoon, one of the event’s catering staff happened to walk by, towards the sinks behind us. Spotting my chitenje at the top of my suitcase as she passed me, she pointed and grinned.
“I like your lappa,” she said.
“Lappa?” I replied, unsure what she meant.
“Yes, your lappa,” she repeated, and pointed to my chitenje. Understanding dawning in my eyes I thanked her, telling her that it had been a gift from one of my cousins, and then we chatted for a bit. She told me she was from Liberia, I told her I was from Malawi; we mused for a short while about the similarities between our cultures despite our countries’ geographical distances from each other, and then we said goodbye and went our separate ways. I had to get seated at my table with my coworkers, and she had to get back to managing the event tables alongside hers.
As I walked back to my table, though, I kept mulling over the word, “lappa.” It didn’t seem like a real word. I know, for example, that in Kenya they say kitenge instead of chitenje; but lappa didn’t seem to have an obvious etymological root in any African languages that I knew of, and I found myself, strangely, beginning to feel annoyed at the use of what seemed to be a non-word for something that was such a cornerstone element of the African experience. But then, suddenly, it clicked: I had just finished Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “Americanah,” and recalled that the word the author used for what we would understand in Malawi to be a chitenje is “wrapper,” quite literally something wrapped around oneself.
Wrapper. Lappa. Wrapper. Lappa.
Suddenly I felt transported back to my secondary school years at Kamuzu Academy; specifically, the moment when someone was reading a book or announcement aloud in English and broke a word. Not merely stumbling over it, but loudly and proudly saying it completely wrong. “With vigor,” as one of the girls from the popular clique used to say. There would typically be a brief half-second of silence following the break; then, depending on the severity of the breakage, people would either zuma the person for a small mix-up (polysyllabics from our IGCSE literature texts got this treatment), or burst into a coordinated explosion of laughter for a word that the observing audience decided the speaker should definitely know better than to break (think “runch” instead of “lunch.”). Going from wrapper to lappa would have fully counted as the latter, and as the keynote speaker at the work lunch continued trundling through her talk I nearly spat out my iced tea from the effort of trying not to laugh. Especially being in a place, at that moment, for which no one would understand what I thought was particularly funny about lappa.
Later, though, as I was waiting at the airport to board my plane, I began to think harder about the darker currents running underneath the reflex to laugh at someone’s failures at English pronunciation, an analysis I had never taken up the challenge of while I was still a student at KA. I wonder if part of why I never questioned it is because I arrived at school in Form 3 and not Form 1 like most of my classmates, and thus being two years behind my peers in learning the rules that governed social life at KA, I couldn’t very well waste even more time trying to understand the rules when I needed to simply and quickly make it clear I could follow most of them. I already had a significant stack of rules that I had decided to ignore—girls shouldn’t be seen eating as much food as boys; always ask someone to walk with you to the Tuck Shop; nobody wears high tops with pencil skirts, and for that matter girls from families like mine should dress better than I did. I could at least learn and accept the rule of immediate raucous laughter following broken English.
But I also believe, having grown up in Canada with English as my first language, that the prospect of breaking English was one of the few things at Kamuzu Academy that decidedly did not cause me anxiety; put a different way, it was a rule that was almost too easy for me to follow. Not that I never broke when reading or speaking aloud—I did, and more frequently than even I would have predicted. But when I did break, I confidently knew—as did everyone else, even while the class simultaneously laughed at my breaking—that this breakage was a distinct anomaly for me, rather than the possible rule that it suggested about other people who broke, a possible rule implying the existence of a fatally chimidzi mindset lurking beneath the fancy uniforms and society parents who had nice cars and big houses.
Because that’s the truth about the laughter: it was never just about the English. It was about the suggestion, even if in apparent jest, that you weren’t actually as cultured or educated as you seemed or claimed to be, which in turn suggested that there was a place you needed to go back to that was decidedly lesser than the Roman arches and vine-tressed pergolas of the Kamuzu Academy campus. Government school, maybe, where they ate nsima and beans for dinner seven days a week and their uniforms didn’t include ties and boater hats for special occasions, but not KA. If you were at KA then you should have known, long before passing through its great wrought-iron gates for the first time, that the English alphabet has two separate letters for the closely related but nonetheless distinct sounds of l and r; the two may occasionally meet—look at those girls, whirling in pearls—but they should never be haphazardly crushed into each other as though one didn’t understand the difference. That’s for villagers.
That laughter, then, was at its core not just about language, but about class. And this is what eventually made me so uncomfortable about my encounter with the catering staffer who called a cloth wrapper a lappa: despite being nearly 18 years removed from Kamuzu Academy, many times more educated in social justice issues, and now living in a society that has no patience for that kind of humor (at least not in public spheres)—my first impulse was still to chortle. Even after Googling “lappa” and finding out that it is, in fact, the commonly accepted term for that kind of cloth wrapper in Liberia, which is to say that even people who would have attended KA’s peer schools in Liberia use the word—the fact of the seeming bastardization of the English word wrapper still struck the same locus inside my mind. The place that regards butchered English not as an understandable by-product of second language English speech, but rather as reflective of an inferiority of education and refinement on the part of said speaker, and which further suggests, strangely, that this is fully the butcherer’s own fault.
I could blame Malawi’s colonial legacy for this, certainly and with facility. I could even blame the more recent reality of Kamuzu Academy’s own troubling pedagogical heritage, in which students were punished for speaking Chichewa outside of the hostels, and the majority of our teachers and administrators were white and British (on explicit orders from the founder himself, Malawi’s first post-independence President.). But I believe the truth really lies inside how our society determines the categories of better and worse, and how those determinations manifest culturally—cities are better than villages, private schools are better than all but a few government schools; and speaking English is better than speaking Chichewa, or at least strikes a higher register in the social order than Chichewa could or ever will.
Of course there are lines that may be drawn from our colonial legacy directly into this cultural phenomenon. But this far down the road from colonialism’s demise, I would argue that it has long been our society’s mandate and responsibility to actively, consciously, decide ourselves what our values as a nation are to be, and then insistently live by those values. And I would suggest that with nearly 90 percent of Malawians being Chichewa-speaking rural dwellers with limited government-school educations, a value set that aggressively prioritizes English-speaking, private school-educated city dwellers is one that, in a really problematic way, has precious little to do with Malawians at all.
I still break my speech sometimes; each time I do, I instinctively find myself looking self-consciously around the room to see if anyone noticed, until I snap out of the throwback and remind myself that I am not at KA anymore: nobody is going to zuma me here. Sometimes, if my brother or sister break while speaking I’ll immediately snort and giggle at them, as they still do when I break. But I’m going to call that a sibling dynamic rather than an indicator that I haven’t grown up or learned anything since driving away from the Ornamental Lake, Kamuzu Academy’s reservoir, for the very last time. These days, I’m not riding so high on my English literacy, because I live now in a country where English is the first language, and in countries where English is the first language the true literacy is cultural, a space in which I am unremediably uneducated. Movies watched and music listened to while growing up; places visited in childhood as part of the Family Summer Vacation Repertoire; slang and signifiers that are often several historical levels deep; foods and flavors that are cornerstones of this cultural experience. A few years ago at happy hour with some work friends, for example, while discussing the Fruity Pebbles-like taste of a particular ale, my coworkers nearly fell out of their chairs laughing when I raised my hand and asked what Fruity Pebbles were (it is a cereal akin to sugary Rice Krispies, for anyone for whom this is also a burning question). And I have finally learned to take it in stride, rather than submitting to the despairing feeling of being hopelessly lost, as I used to over a decade ago when I still tried so hard, mostly in vain, to figure it all out. After a certain point one can never really catch up. But I intimately know, now, the feeling of trying desperately hard to appear literate in a language that isn’t mine and never fully will be. And, sometimes, that doesn’t quite feel like a joke at all.