If you give a chief a Coke®

If you give a moose a muffin, he’ll always want some milk. That is… an obscure statement, but I think we can all remember it best as the title of a truly classic children’s book. It’s so silly, but then in its strangeness it serves as an especially useful example of the cause and effect that teaches kids how to maneuver through the unconventional torrents of life; through all those gray areas.
I have found myself as a Peace Corps volunteer in Malawi, very much again, lost in a child-like wonder; as a rediscovered patron of children book ideologies. Like a child of 8, I am wide-eyed to the new situations that unfold around me and I try diligently, as much as I can, to make sense of what is happening within a greater cultural context. The things that first look especially strange or obscure are, in the end, very relevant to the people I live with. From this perspective, I’ve come to believe very strongly that rational people do their very best to do rational things. In this blog post, I wanted to take something so extremely obscure and try my best to turn it into a thought that you could go out on a limb for and maybe even laugh about. This also happens to be the third goal of the Peace Corps headquarters’ global manifesto.
I encountered a spontaneous thought the other day; the breath of inspiration that would inspire a musician to write lyrics on a napkin. As if by providence, the creative process was instantaneously abridged in the presence of a friendly old chief, shrouding himself in cigarette smoke. I thought of a title…for something…profound.
If you give a chief a Coke®, he’ll always ask you to marry his daughter.
From the outset, it’s a funny juxtaposition of something archaic in culture (chieftainships) with something modern and commercial. It would probably die an early death as the basis of a television commercial for its gross political incorrectness, or as the progression of the film, The Gods must be Crazy. I found a personal resonance in the idea that this situation really could happen; I was flooded by the real life memories and experiences from my past few years of my service. The potential was palpable as I sat and considered my current situation: If I bought this friendly old chief a Coke® and another cigarette, and we continued our conversation, the way we were, about the price of peanuts, that this guy could really pop my bubble of western conformability and ask me to marry his daughter! I reveled in the obscurity, and released a deep chortling laugh, while the chief turned his head to talk with someone else. I have since set out, in the candle light of my solitary evenings like a pioneer philosopher. Like a storm chaser on the Kansas prairie; to find the elements of this perfect storm. I am trying to bring something so obscure, to its full and unabashed relevancy. These are the elements:
Respect Your Chief
Firstly; respect your chief(s). When I pass a chief in ‘town’, I step off my bike and greet him with the reverence of a first borne son. In this rural environment, it is important to appreciate that the chief is the beginning, middle, and end to everything consequential that will happen. Showing respect to your chief is akin to submission and humility as a villager, and in that exists a hierarchy of respect.
Chiefs can be paid or unpaid depending on who you ask, or the severity of corruption that exists and has trickled down through the government. Either way, the most supreme, yet reasonable, way for me to respect a chief is to buy him a Coke® on some unsuspecting hot afternoon. I wouldn’t see it as an obligation, or as an attempt of gaining political prowess, but that I am really entranced in my child-like wonder sitting next to my real, bona-fide African chief. I am still very awestruck in his presence, and so in my case it comes very natural to me: I respect my chief(s).
Of course there exists a harmonious disjuncture in language and culture between the chief and I, he has no idea how much of a novelty his title really is to me. He receives the Coke® graciously, and takes note of my overzealous display of respect. I’ve tickled his ego. And in the warm, gooey feelings of this culturally ambiguous moment, he first considers the availability of his unmarried daughter.
The cost and relevance of a Coke®.
A Coke® is costing around 130 Malawian Kwacha, which is roughly equivalent to about 30 cents. As the fiscal realities of sustenance farming dictate, the cost of a soft drink is prohibitively high at most times of the year, and is saved for the most special occasions, and rarely ever to be given to children. Coke® is to a villager, pure narcotic nectar, as it is the only source of processed sugary junk food available. Please use your imagination to combine ice cream, ice cream cake, chocolate milk, Starbursts®, Starbursts® jellybeans, etc all into one bottle, and then consider that you may only be able to afford this treat once per month; that’s a soft drink here. Real day-to-day sugar consumption in Malawi looks like a boy with missing teeth, gnawing on a stalk of sugar cane that he has taken from his families’ garden.
When I, as a white man, buy this chief a Coke®, he feels like a true dignitary, that this has morphed into an international affair, that his position of leadership upwardly exceeds the cost of the drink (30 cents). That this must represent a special time in our lives to be celebrating… something. And then he considers the solitary state of his unwed daughter.
Love is the name you’ve given your son.
I should be careful here not to make any sweeping statements (but I will and I’m sorry). I proposed to my counterpart, Paul, that romantic love in the village is a fallacy, that love is a word that is thrown around belligerently, misunderstood, and popular as the name of a boy/girl ie: Chikondi or Lovenessi. Paul then made a very impassioned speech about how much he has always truly loved his wife, “the first lady”, he says. Touché Paul, but then I would argue that he is part of only a small minority of Malawian couples that ever get married because they are actively ‘in love’, which we can suppose is quiet different for American couples. For the majority of American couples, love is a prerequisite.
Secondly; there is a certain pressure that exists for young Malawians to get married. Until you put a ring on it, you are publicly identified as being ‘just a boy’, or ‘just a girl’ within the community. Marriage certifies that your adult life has begun in earnest. The last point; marriage is a practical convention in the beginning; at its very core. People truly fall in love with the passing of time, growing in love while growing in age. And we should all halfway believe this to be a universal principle. A chief would agree with the latter statement; although, he may also denounce love altogether, citing the ceaseless petulant wreckage that accumulates out of maintaining two or more simultaneous marriages (not all chiefs are polygamists, but it’s not so uncommon either). For that chief, Love is the name he’s given his son, and is not something he would factor into any part of his unwed daughter’s marital future.
It doesn’t hurt to ask.
This is the very practical assumption that we [the chief and I] are two people seeking our own needs, and that there exists the possibility that those needs are overlapping. At this point, this chief (our hypothetical chief) has been respected over zealously, intoxicated by processed sugars, and showered with my unfaltering attention. He has become 40% sure that I am interested in his daughter and this 40% constitutes a burden of proof, proof beyond a reasonable doubt. It won’t hurt to ask because in Malawi it also doesn’t hurt to say ‘no’. This is another noteworthy cultural difference worth highlighting. In American culture, saying, ‘no’ to someone can be a paralysis of the tongue, heart, and the will. Saying ‘no’ in Malawi to a common request, is merely a natural avenue of conversation. In this culture, you could ask for something flat-out outrageous, like a 0% interest loan for some crazy amount of money. As the question recipient, your response is a simple ‘no’, but then you laugh together about the silliness of the request. This constitutes only the third time you’ve ever met each other and you’ve forgotten his name. No hard feelings or animosity can arise on either side, as you reinforce your declining position. It turns out that this guy was practicing a method of communication called, ‘just chatting’.
Just chatting: refers to a conversation that is free of commitments and is light hearted in nature.
If this chief is of the ephemeral imaginings that you have entered into his life as a potential white chocolate son-in-law, that you have some inexhaustible source of financial means somewhere back in Europe, then it becomes very feasible and painless to simply ask. He looks at you as a sturdy boy with a bright future; that you will morph into a strong man, which is mostly his assumption and projection of your white privilege. He thinks that whatever you’re doing in the government forestry office is not so much that you couldn’t manage to take for yourself a second wife: an African one. This chief has no notions about the difficulties you’ve endured in kindling the flames of a long-distance relationship, that you’ve really set your whole self on being with that one, right girl from back home (Bethany Morris). For him, embedded in a polygamy neutral culture, the struggles you are facing are meaningless and the answer is simple: take another wife. This chief reasons to himself that, “Love is the name I’ve given my son, it won’t hurt to ask, and that ‘this one’ is a very clever European.”
Europeans are experts at everything.
I would even agree with that statement, but I can’t take credit for being either a European or an expert. Very commonly, I am introduced as a European, which is commonly a gross inaccuracy in basic geography that supposes that the United States is part of the European continent. I can never let this slide, however, and I use these moments to exercise Peace Corps goal two, which has been known to say…
“Hey you! ‘Merica ain’t got not part in Europe; ain’t never was, ain’t never will be neither: period.”
Another misconception that binds me to Europe is the idea that Americans have integrated so ethnically well, and that there are no longer any purely white Americans left in the United States. I find this to be especially interesting, but it’s also a very rational thought, considering that the average Malawian is only ever visually exposed to Americans like President Barack Obama and Beyonce. Many Peace Corps volunteers, including myself, are considered European by way of racial extinction. Chiefs, in particularly, are from the era of a post-British, protectorate government. They are fully blossomed in their years. They are stubborn old men; simple monomaniacs that look at my skin and won’t believe my indifference to the Queen. To their old, untrained eyes, I look more like Her Majesty than I look like President Obama. And again, this is not irrational thinking, but perceptions that have been left to run their course for decades, resultant from a sheer lack of exposure from virtually any other non-sub-Saharan ethnic groups.
I may be a highly appealing catch for this chief’s daughter, until the chief learns how to read the English off of my resume where he will find: I have a nearly inadequate bachelor’s degree from an unremarkable state college in the Mid-West. I have no real practical experience in agriculture or forestry (the lifeblood of my position); that I’m what the Peace Corps has targeted and termed a ‘generalist volunteer’. That is all fine and well by me, but these are definitely not the credentials that this chief has in mind, and so I am also not an expert. My forestry counterpart is un-fooled, however, he publicly refers to me in public as, “you, boy”, which I embrace fully and even solicit from others. I fight the title of ‘expert’, or ‘boss’ with every passing day.
Time is endless.
It has now been two years and some months, which means that very soon I will be leaving the Peace Corps and my home in Chinthankhwa village. That amount of time means a lot to me, but to a chief, it’s only a drop in the bucket of time. He has not been made privy to any details of my contract. He thinks that I have just arrived, and he still chuckles when I mutter basic sentences in Chichewa. This chief has watched me transition into the community, establish friendships, and grow corn like a local, but he is anxiously waiting for me to release the plans for my real project; my commercial sugarcane farm.
“He’s gonna do sugarcane..like one’ve them farms those Europeans (South Africans) got down there in Dwangwa”, the chiefs say agreeingly under their designated shade tree.
This chief is imagining his daughter married to the big boss from Europe. He is on his sugar high, thinking about his leisurely retirement, the luxury house that will be bought for him through the profits of mechanized farming, and his mini-fridge full of chilled Cokes®. He can not conceive of any reason why a European would live in a village for two years if they weren’t, themselves, hell bent on exploiting cheap lands and making buckoo bucks off of the unregulated cheap labor; that’s economics? But that is just what his most relevant experiences would suggest.
I could tell this chief the date of my departure, and he would acknowledge my statement gracefully, but without any real contextual cues for understanding when April 19th will occur. For all he knows, that could be tomorrow, or six months from now. For my departure to be effectual, I would really need to send a message that is both seasonal and poetic ie: “Afumu [chief], when the Southern wind is blowing throughout the night, and you are harvesting your maize in the daylight hours, I will be forever gone from your presence!”
That would bring finality; that would usher in my proximate, quasi-death. And in a last ditch effort to marry-off his daughter, this chief would inquire about the requirements for obtaining a green card from the American Embassy in Lilongwe, and he would hope with passive desperation that his daughter might still have the opportunity to be a second wife in America to a European man, to be the real African daughter of President Obama. He would finish his Coke® with a final gulp and ask the question…
“Ajepholy, can you marry my daughter?”

Again, this is my interpretation of a fictional situation, although all of the elements that I’ve discussed have been informed by my real life experiences here as a white chocolate Malawian. I wanted also to emphasis that chiefs are really human beings at the end of the day, and that they represent a complete spectrum of beliefs, character traits, and cultural competencies. Please don’t be mislead into putting all of the chiefs in your life in a box. If you give a chief a Coke®, he’ll always ask you to marry his daughter, is just a creative construct that I’ve written for effect. It is in no way my attempt at writing the formula for a logical argument. In my catchment area there are several female chiefs, happily married monogamous chiefs. I’ve met ultra-conservative Roman Catholic chiefs; the true believers in the virtue of love. There are also Ron Paul chiefs, ruling the forested hillsides, who severely doubt the actors of local government and myself, as a foreigner, and they absolutely should. I love these Libertarian chiefs the most, and I hope to write more about them in the future.
A concluding thought and a final impression.
If you give a moose a muffin; If you give a chief a Coke®. It’s all really the same can of worms. I hope that just in the same way as the author of a children’s book, I’ve given you the perspective and/or cultural competency to navigate through another one of life’s gray areas. Open your cans of worms with confidence!
If living in the middle of Africa has left me with one strong impression it is that, we live in a crazy world, but with time and perspective it will all still somehow make sense.


About jeff G.

I am a Peace Corps Volunteer serving in Malawi. I work as a forestry advisor near Nyenje Forest Reserve in the district of Nkhotakota. I like reading, chatting with friends,biking, farming, and eating nsima, at least that's all I do anymore.

2 responses to “If you give a chief a Coke®

  1. Another in a series of epic posts from our white chocolate brother in Africa. I always enjoy the feel that you provide in the context of your experience, and the optimism in your writing. Your two years of service in Malawi will be reaped exponentially as you return to the fertile fields and congested byways of the Midwest. Your experiences in life and simple wisdom will always serve you well. And we will be waiting anxiously for the return of our white chocolate European son of a chief to return in glory to our midst, older and wiser by decades it seams. Love you Jeff, thanks for sharing so much of yourself.

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