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Ladies who articulate

Balloons shaped like condoms and lectures on bedwork - in the first of two reports, Elspeth Mackay describes the colourful world of teacher training in Malawi

Even for Malawi, this is quite an unusual scene. Two ladies, immaculately dressed in Malawian national wear, puffy-sleeved blouses and matching skirts, are simulating sex with each other on the floor; around the side are other ladies either cheering them on with shouts of "More fire!" or placidly crocheting baby bonnets.

Specialising in the teaching of children with learning difficulties, this group of women have inevitably become known as the Special Ladies.

This is the night before graduation. The women are preparing to return home to their husbands and families after nine months of living it up here at college. The agenda for the evening, all 14 items of it, is to remind them that they still have duties as wives and mothers in addition to their new status as certified special needs teachers.

Items covered on the agenda are extensive, ranging from communication between husband, wife, children and dependants, gossiping and jealousy, budgeting (including how to buy items, for example, a sofa set) and choosing a partner. I have a feeling that we are now covering home management: bedwork.

The evening is the usual happy Malawian combination of formality and chaos.

The tiny entrance hall of the ladies hostel is the setting for this event and lots of effort has been made to decorate it. Plastic flowers are draped behind the fire extinguishers and balloons hang from the ceiling.

The balloons are a strange, beige colour with an unusual ribbed effect. I look more closely. They are not balloons: they are condoms. Muriel, Jan and I, the three azungus (strangers), are the guests of honour, so we get special chairs right at the front, while the ladies squash together on the floor.

Our master of ceremonies is Ruth, a stately lady with big round glasses which in no way diminish the power of her imperious squint. We start with an opening prayer, followed by lengthy and impassioned preaching from Mercy, a tall, worried-looking lady with large floppy ears bowed down by the weight of her traditional duku.

Mrs G Banda kicks off with advice about how to welcome visitors from the man's side. As she speaks in Chichewa I have only the vaguest idea of what she is saying, but nearly every pronouncement is met with vigorous nodding, shouts of approval and clapping.

When she comes to the end I imagine we will move on. But no, Ruth is determined that we should follow everything and so takes it on herself to translate Mrs Banda's wise words into English for us. So we start again, and I learn that a visitor should not know if there is an argument between a man and a wife; we should wait until the visitor leaves and then we can what? Start again.

We proceed to personal hygiene: glooming (the Malawian attitude to l and r is cavalier). Our speaker, Aretha, a tall, gorgeous woman in a dreadful wig, takes the floor and reminds us that our husband is our first-born.

We have to choose matching clothes for him - he should not go out looking as a Christmas tree, putting on a blue trouser, a green shirt and a red shoe. The world should know he has a what? A wife.

At this key word, the women leap to their feet and mob Aretha, fanning her and pretending to mop her brow with their handkerchiefs.

Ruth summarises, though the summary is actually longer than the original and, carried away by her own wisdom, she frequently lapses into Chichewa.

All the women agree whole-heartedly with everything that is said.

I am quite tempted to stand up and say something totally contradicting the previous speaker, just to see what they would do.

Then: bedwork. To start with, we really are talking about beds; it is apparently important to shift the bed around in the bedroom so that your husband will feel stimulated by the new environment. We prepared the first child this way, let us prepare the second child like this.

A heated argument breaks out over hospital corners and positioning of the sheets. The right side should face up, pronounces Ruth with authority.

There is no dissent.

Then Gertrude, a meek-looking woman with bad skin, wearing a modest blue suit and white blouse, takes to the floor and, in a tantalising mixture of Chichewa and English, starts speaking. I get about one word in every 10: Vaseline I penis I a bucket with a good lid I special cloth I wiping after the deed I Lifebuoy soap I clean his armpits and shave his hair.

Muriel, who has just started a relationship with a Malawian boy, is looking more and more appalled. I can't wait for Ruth's translation, but she lets me down, enlarging on Gertrude's speech in Chichewa alone.

Finally, though, she flings herself to the floor. We should not just lie there like this, she yells, spreading her ample arms and legs, because we have what? An unambiguous rotation of the hips - ARTICULATION.

And at this word a riot breaks out. The ladies start ululating with delight, gyrating their hips and dancing with each other. Victoria dashes to the stereo and Shaggy blasts out at full volume, the room throbbing with frenzied dancing and rolling pelvises. Most of the women are very large but are amazingly sinuous, graceful dancers. They are quite overwhelmingly sexy. I feel awkward and angular and for the first time in my life I worry that my bum isn't big enough.

Eventually Ruth manages to establish order again and the evening continues.

We hear about income-generating activities and one widow is applauded for having generated 42,000 MWK (pound;212) from an initial outlay of "almost 3,460 MWK"(pound;17), through the selling of freezes (ice lollies).

Malawian inheritance laws leave her with nothing after the death of her husband.

We move on through thorny issues of professional upgrading, jealousy and gossiping (remember, every woman is another man's what? wife), awareness of HIV I but things start to fall apart. Ruth seems to be losing interest and has abandoned her translation duties. She lolls in her chair, shouting a perfunctory "Next!" when each speaker finishes and is busy ticking things off on her list.

Little groups are engrossed in their own conversations and nobody pays much attention to Phebe's earnest advice on conserving your salary. Trays of biscuits and popcorn are circulating with plastic cups of soft drinks, but I soon have a suspicion that some of the women are on something stronger than Coco Pina.

Aretha is by this time draped over a chair, wig askew and eyes rolling.

Lincy is sprawled, giggling, across the lap of Mayi, her dress gaping, and DJ Victoria is under pressure to switch the music on more and more often to let the ladies "shake their bodies".

Several women have removed their tops and bras and are keenly examining their own and each other's breasts after a no doubt useful discussion on self-examining. The electricity keeps cutting out, the decorative condoms bob wildly by candlelight and the crocheting continues. But at certain key words - husband, wife, special - the women respond as one, with great shouts, singing and jumping to their feet to dance with each other.

These women, all experienced, qualified teachers with this additional professional qualification, are the face of the new, meritocratic Malawi, where men and women can in theory meet as equals in the workplace.

I am surprised to see them embracing their domestic role with such pride; something somewhere must give. How can they be fragrant sex goddesses, responding to the whims of infantile and helpless husbands, while simultaneously holding down demanding, full-time jobs?

The evening ends at about 2.30am after some sound advice about choosing a partner. I learn that the most important issues to consider are age, personality and tribe and not to be seduced by good looks for, as we all know, there are some men who are handsome but their behaviour is not good.

We are invited to give some closing words. It wouldn't really matter what we say by this time but we are applauded raucously and rapturously, and as I stagger out of the executive hostel, my head reeling, I can hear the singing and stamping continuing.

The next night, at the graduation party, I meet the women again on the dance floor. They are dancing with their fellow male students, but what a difference: eyes cast demurely down, feet and bodies barely moving.

I spot Ruth and move over to her. I catch her eye and mouth to her "Articulation?" She twitches her hips with just a hint of last night's abandon and then doubles up laughing.

Elspeth Mackay is working through Voluntary Services Overseas as a primary teacher trainer at one of Malawi's six teacher training colleges.

She writes here in a personal capacity.Next week: exam invigilation Malawi-style

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