By Michelle Alipao Chikaonda
My favorite teacher when I was in Standard Six at Lilongwe Private School was a white South African woman named Mrs. Warwick. She was our English teacher, and she was tall, with eyes the color of a late afternoon sky and a smile that seemed to beam brighter than sunshine; she wore long, loose cotton dresses in pastel shades and dark Birkenstock sandals, and she would pace the front of the classroom slowly as she taught each lesson, as though to catch the whole room in her momentum. Except, that is, when she was teaching us the literature on our syllabus—for those classes, she would pull up a chair in front of the classroom and plonk down in it, lean her broad shoulders toward the class, and grin at us as though letting us in on a book-sized secret. She would then read aloud to us the books for each syllabus section, chapter by chapter for each lesson, and then have us write about each day’s chapter for our homework. How I adored the way she read to us—she would go slowly, carefully attentive to each word, savoring its sound and meaning; she would read in different voices for each of the different characters in a story, changing her enunciation and pitch depending on each character’s personality. Even I, a fairly serious child otherwise, would giggle my way through those lessons along with everyone else, as she drew us inside each book and then walked alongside us through its pages.
Mrs. Warwick read us many books that year—The Secret Garden, A Little Princess, and The Big Friendly Giant are some of the titles I recall. But the one I remember the most, the one that profoundly shaped the way my child-mind thought about personal ambition from then on, was a book called Matilda by a British author named Roald Dahl (who also wrote the aforementioned The Big Friendly Giant, as well as a book I would later discover in the school library and come to love for many years afterward called Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.). The book centers on the life of a schoolgirl named Matilda who is extraordinarily gifted, but is resented horribly by her family for it; Matilda, through a series of delightful accidents and magical adventures, eventually escapes the clutches of her mean, vindictive family by learning how to control the execution of her intellectual powers (this grotesquely understates the happenings in the book; it is best read to be completely understood!), and then goes on, we assume, to live happily ever after, through expressing the courage to be her best self in every moment.
Now, my family was nothing like Matilda’s family. My father had been an active academic in the US and Canada until we moved back to Malawi when I was ten years old, initially as a graduate student and then later as a professor in finance. So I grew up, quite opposed to Matilda’s home life, surrounded by books; I could read and write before I started kindergarten, asked for book sets of series like Baby Sitter’s Club, Goosebumps, and Nancy Drew for Christmas presents, and began keeping a journal when I was eight years old. My parents encouraged my love of reading and writing, buying me spiral-ring notebooks to fill with my story ideas, and hardcover journals with locks and keys for my more personal thoughts. Every time they went away on business trips my parents returned to Malawi with new books for me to read; they always chose books that were slightly above my reading level, and in doing this they helped me develop my abilities without outright stating that this was their project. I loved these challenges, and I felt proud of having succeeded at each one when I was done.
Outside of my home, however, the poison of resentment became one of my earliest life lessons.
The last night of Standard Six was Prize Night, when the school awarded academic and service prizes to its top students. I took home both the top academic prize and the top service prize; my parents still display that service plaque on the mantelpiece in our living room, though it’s been over twenty years since that night, and my last name is actually improperly spelled on its engraving—with an ‘e’ at the end instead of an ‘a’—and so I actually find it moderately annoying to look at each time I do. The day after Prize Night my class all returned to school one last time, for an end-of-year party and to clean out our desks; it was a happy, even exciting day, as the following year we would all be advancing to the upper school to start Form One, and we felt a particular kind of grown up, about to change our uniforms, change our expectations of ourselves, change our standings in the school and, we believed, our lives.
At the end of the afternoon invitations were being passed around for a friend’s birthday party a couple of weeks later. When I got mine, however, I discovered that someone had written an unknown word—in Chichewa, which I could not yet speak—in small letters right below my name. It began with a c and ended with a u; I will not write it here, but those of you who are Chichewa speakers will know exactly the word I mean, and those of you who do not speak Chichewa only need to understand that it is a nasty word, that should never be used by or directed toward a child. When I took the invitation home and showed it to my mother, asking her what the word was, she visibly recoiled upon seeing it. Despite asking her several times she adamantly refused to translate it for me, not beyond telling me that it was a “bad word.” Her face, however, told me everything I needed to know about the meaning of the word. That was the first time I understood that achievement could bring a price with it.
Thus I came to identify with Matilda. Now, catching flak for being smart, or, more specifically, caring a lot about school, is not a reality unique to growing up in Malawi. Many of my friends in the United States, both men and women, have told me that they went through very similar experiences when they were in school. I believe, however, that in Malawi the costs of giving in to the social pressure for women to back off of one’s ambition are significantly higher than for my American peers. It makes me angry now to think about just how many Malawian women’s lives have been unnecessarily derailed from their intended courses, not for lack of opportunity, but because their very own communities contributed to destroying those women’s dreams. One doesn’t even have to have been at the top of one’s classes, as I was, in order to still hit walls as far as the acceptance of ambition in Malawian girls—in Malawi, the second that a woman makes plans for her life that someone else didn’t make for her, she will find herself meeting the first of many frontiers of resistance as she tries to build her life in an image she desires.
Thus is the predicament of girls and women in Malawi. We are supposed to take care of and honor our friends, partners and communities; we are not supposed to think of ourselves and our dreams, what we want, how we want it, and then pursue this to the exclusion of all else. We are supposed to cook, and clean, and wash, and launder, and listen to people’s problems, give advice, take care of children whether these be ours or not, be insistently pleasant company no matter our circumstances, place ourselves second in service to our families, religious groups, and societies. Yet in order to fully realize the life one wants for oneself one must by definition think of oneself, at least a little; one must pause the momentum of one’s life and devote real time to imagining one’s wants and then laying out plans for getting there. Yet if, as a woman, you insist upon creating this space for yourself, this will quickly solicit the active spite of one’s society, as though to imagine a different life than what others wanted for you were an indictment-worthy heresy.
Since my adolescence and then well into my adulthood I’ve been accused, on numerous occasions, of being too mannish. I was told that I didn’t clearly understand my eventual place in society; I was told that no man would want me, because I would be too intimidating with my successes, achievements, and future plans; I was told I was “too ambitious,” not merely for the purposes of keeping a man, but in general. And I’ve seen many women in Malawi eventually give in to the resistance they meet. At some point continuing to push back becomes too hard; sometimes it feels easier to submit to being crushed by the multitude of forces squeezing all around, that seem to be as unassailable as gravity. However among the many lessons that Roald Dahl’s Matilda taught me the following was paramount: that deciding to be mediocre when one has the capacity to be extraordinary is a total betrayal of the gift and promise of one’s life. And, however seductive in moments of distress and solitude, this should be steered far, far away from—at least if one genuinely wishes to see the best of their dreams realized, and to be able to find happiness in the match between the world inside of oneself and the outside world that manifests around this self.
The prize for placing at the top of my class, that final night of Standard Six, was a book called Little Women, by an American author named Louisa May Alcott. It tells the story of four sisters in mid-19th Century United States, and it is loosely based upon the author’s own life. The second-born sister, Jo, is a fiery, independent girl who later moves to New York to become a writer. After finishing the book and then later watching the movie of the book, I realized that Jo was definitively who I most strongly identified with in the story: Jo, the writer and independent woman, was who I wanted most to emulate when I grew up. Perhaps Mrs. Warwick, when deciding on the book that would later be awarded to me, secretly hoped I would internalize Jo’s fire and struggle; Jo, too, faced phenomenal opposition to her becoming herself, and Jo persevered through all the resistance she met, until her dreams and words finally came to life. I like to imagine that Mrs. Warwick though that one day I could be like Jo, too, and find my way in time from literary aspirations to literary achievements of my own.
I still love both Matilda and Little Women, and still go back to read both books regularly, even though I am now over three times my Standard Six age. I am also now, though, an award-winning writer who once lived in New York. More important than that: I am a Malawian woman who abjectly refused give in to the pressure to be less than I could be in my pursuit of the vision I had for my life. I would like to think I have mostly succeeded in permanently eluding the clutches of that pressure, though occasionally—especially in my currently unmarried state—it still manages to rear back into my life from time to time. Honestly speaking, I must admit to now having occasional bouts of resentment of my own: not of the people further along in their careers than me, but of those people in my past who worked so hard to try and take away from my pride in my work. I don’t let myself dwell on that feeling for too long, though; instead, whenever I do feel it, I flip the feeling over and change it into gratitude, as clichéd as this might sound, for the people who were always there, the people insistent upon letting me know it was just fine to be me when so many seemed set upon anything but this. It really does work. It is these people who deserve my focus; not the others. And this goes, especially, for all of the Mrs. Warwicks who have shown up in various forms along my journey: teachers and mentors who illuminated new ways of seeing my world so I could use those templates to later shape my own, people I admired who had grown up past the place I was then in, and who could thus show me in the examples of their lives that one day my life would be, and should be, fully my own to write.