Step by Step: Learning to Dance in Malawi

IMG 6597 600x450 Step by Step: Learning to Dance in Malawi

I arrived in Malawi—hard as it is to believe— nearly two months ago to begin my summer practicum with CARE. One thing you should know about me right off the bat is that I’m a terrible dancer. Coordination is not my greatest gift, which is why I’m a runner—I can get one foot in front of the other most of the time, but please don’t ask me to try anything more complicated than that. I hadn’t been in Malawi very long, however, before I realized that dance is an integral part of the culture here. Every village I’ve visited has greeted us with songs and dances common to the area. A youth group I met with uses song and dance to spread messages about HIV, family planning, and gender equality. In a gender training I helped with, government and NGO staff used dance to communicate stories of empowerment and self-reliance. Dimakonda kuvina—“I like to dance”—was one of the earliest phrases I learned in Chichewa.


One of my first projects with Pathways was to help with the data collection and analysis for their semiannual gender monitoring. What this involves is going to target communities to talk to the men and women about changes they are making in their daily lives and in how they relate to one another. Sure enough, the groups we visited welcomed us to their villages with clapping, singing, and dancing and I was thrilled to have the opportunity to listen and watch. However, when one of our focus groups wrapped up early and my partner and I waited for the driver to return, the attention suddenly turned to me: the women were welcoming me to join them in their dance. Uh oh, I thought, I’m a week into the job and I’m about to embarrass myself publically. It certainly wasn’t pretty, but the women and I laughed with each other despite the language barrier as they attempted to show me how to use my two left feet to follow along in their dance. Little by little, I learned one step and then another.


Like the slow process of learning an unfamiliar dance, making progress on gender-related behavior change can be tricky. In our monitoring exercise, we found that—just as I am sometimes hesitant to face embarrassment in front of friends or coworkers—some men and women in our target communities are reluctant to adopt new behaviors for fear of being laughed at or ridiculed. Some men told us that they were more inclined to make changes inside the home than they were to do things like collecting firewood—traditionally a woman’s chore—where their neighbors could see them.


Behavior change is extremely difficult; how we act and think is drilled into us our whole lives. Some changes are fairly easy to make: men and women are working together in almost all of their crop fields in our target villages in Malawi, many women are making small household purchases independently, and many men are discussing issues of children’s welfare with their wives. However, just as I can manage a two-step but haven’t advanced to some of the more complicated moves, there are other changes that are much harder for individuals to adopt. Many women still don’t speak out about issues of gender-based violence, out of respect for their husbands and fear of further victimization. In some places, men continue to require their wives to work first on the high-income yielding tobacco and maize crops before tending to their own fields and many are not open with their wives about income from crop sales. Changes are taking place, but it’s not always linear or overnight.


Just like my excellent dance instructors, communities reported progress when they had guidance. Many men and women said they learned a great deal from Pathways’ gender lessons and made changes—like being more open about finances—because of these sessions. Others said that influential leaders and peer role models helped show them the way to make changes in their lives. When some men began walking publically with their wives on the way to meetings or church, others began to adopt these behaviors as well.


Despite challenges and the sometimes slow pace of change, it is remarkable to hear firsthand about stories of change. These changes mean a great deal to the individuals they impact: they can reduce the work burden on women, increase household income, and enhance intimacy between husbands and wives. One step at a time, Pathways is helping Malawian men and women work together to find greater happiness, well-being, and harmony.


Contributed by: Amelia Conrad