Being or Having?

As a long-time Malawi dweller I should not have made this mistake. But I did. In Malawi petrol pumps are not self-service. Attendants put fuel in the car and are happy to check oil, clean windscreen etc. Just a few days after I returned to the country I arrived at a petrol station in a rather flustered and distracted state as I was getting everything ready for a journey. No doubt I was still in my Western frame of mind. “Full tank, please,” was my opening statement to the attendant. He looked at me with a gentle smile, “Of course, sir. But first – how are you?” 

In a most charming way, I was reminded of a cardinal principle of human interaction in Malawian culture. The first thing is to acknowledge that two people are meeting and to ask about one another’s welfare. Only then is it appropriate to discuss any transaction that might be in view. 

At one level this is just a matter of courtesy. And nothing wrong with that! But I wonder if it also broaches a deeper question about our human life? Is it defined by being or by having? Everyday interaction in Malawi conveys the conviction that being comes before having.

In consumer society, by contrast, you are defined by what you have. Interactions with others are transactional and any acknowledgement of common humanity is incidental. Your fundamental orientation is acquisitive rather than relational. In Malawi it is the other way round. This, I suspect, is one reason why many Westerners find that they discover a different dimension of life when they visit Malawi.

The Chichewa language reflects a particular attitude to possessions. Where in English you say, “I have a car,” in Chichewa you say, if we translate literally, “I am with a car.” A subtle but important difference! The language reflects a less grasping and possessive attitude, an awareness that “having” is a second-order matter. 

Have the market economy and the consumer society got us thinking the wrong way round? After all, our preoccupation with “having” has put the whole earth in jeopardy. Maybe we need to recover the wisdom that Malawi sustains in its culture and language. Being before having!

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