Malawian cuisine, cosmopolitanism, and mental colonization
When Alexander Hotels Limited launched their 'Malawi Night' event at the Shire Highlands Hotel in Blantyre on Friday, January 27, the earliest news reports on the occasion focused on the late arrival of the Minister of Information and Tourism, Hon. Patricia Kaliati, rather than on the issue of why the menus in Malawian hotels and restaurants look more British than Malawian. The Nation newspaper titled its report "Kaliati delays Malawi night," giving details of how the minister, who was guest of honor, kept patrons waiting for two hours, and how she later went table to table apologizing. Only towards the very end of the article does the reporter, Edward Nyirenda, describe the traditional Malawian foods that were on the menu.
Four days later, the Friday February 4 edition of the newspaper published Edward Nyirenda's feature article providing more details on what for me was the more important news of the night. Titled "A pure magic that was Malawi night," Nyirenda puts the event in a more elaborate perspective, starting with how the idea of a Malawi night came about, providing views of some of the Malawians who patronized the event, ending with how successful the event was.
For me, news of the event came when just the week before I had mentioned to a friend that the extent to which most of us Malawians are still mentally colonized can be seen in the stark differences between the foods we eat at home and the foods we serve in our restaurants and hotels. In our homes, we eat foods such as nsima, beans, mfutso, masamba otendera, nsomba, among many others, while in our hotels and restaurants we serve mostly rice, beef, chicken, spaghetti, and other foods mainly guided by Western tourist tastes. Alisa Makawa, the managing director for Alexander Hotels Limited, noticed this discrepancy, which triggered her mind into motion, leading to the Malawi Night.
Most of the patrons quoted in the report spoke about how wonderful the food tasted, and how the Malawian traditional music in the background made the occasion even more graceful and meaningful.
On the Malawi Internet discussion listservs Nyasanet and Malawitalk, the news was all about the minister's late arrival, and not one posting made mention of the significance of the event in the context of Malawian identity and heritage. To give credit to the two listservs, the topic of tourism has dominated discussion since the event, homing in to critical questions of how a British historian and researcher of Malawi, David Stuart-Mogg, ended up owning a skull of Mlozi, described by some historians as a 19th century half-caste Arab slave trader who ruled the area now known as Karonga, on the northern end of Lake Malawi. Mr. Stuart-Mogg himself made the revelation of his prized possession in a posting to both Nyasanet and Malawitalk on August 18, 2005, but nobody paid attention, until Bright Malopa raised the issue yesterday in the current Tourism debate.
Several Malawians are asking Mr. Mogg to explain how he ended up with the skull, issues that I would like to address in another posting. For now my main point is to congratulate Ms. Alisa Makawa and her Alexander Hotels Ltd for bringing up the idea of a Malawi Night and successfully pulling it off, putting onto the national agenda the question of how our tendency to copy everything Western inhibits our capacity to come up with original ideas in solving some of our problems.
I am talking about issues of Malawian identity and heritage here with the full understanding of the idea that no culture is pure, and that to view cultures in that way is to be narrow-minded and unaware of the influences cultures have on each other. This happens to be the message in Kwame Anthony Appiah's new book titled Cosmopolitanism: Ethic in a World of Strangers. While I agree with Professor Appiah's argument about the importance of recognizing what he calls the "contamination" that makes no culture pure, I also agree with those who have pointed out to the brilliant philosopher that the reality of globalization is such that rich and powerful nations and their multinational corporations bulldoze their will and way onto weaker nations, an idea that Professor Appiah does not appear to have been addressed in his book. Nor does he seem to have addressed the issue of how it is in fact Western societies with their insistence on the terms “Western,” “free world,” “universal,” etc, that need a lesson on what a cosmopolitan world we live in.
The recognition of how Malawian restaurants and hotels tend to offer Western menus and little traditional Malawian foods is a necessary step in understanding why Professor Appiah's idea of cosmopolitanism, while excellent, needs to be taken in context, and with caution.