My village is a dusty part of a world tucked away in the outskirts of a city in the middle of a slowly painful and painfully slow expansion. As I begin writing this piece, I'm sitting in the middle of swirling smoke from the open fire that my cousin, Nelia, a dark girl with a Chewa lilt in her tongue, is tending to. We are unveiling a tombstone today of a family member who passed away a while ago. As typically happens in my family, our dead are buried without a tombstone. Most times for financial reasons, but sometimes, as my mother explained to me, because the dirt in which they are buried must sink into place before the stone is laid on top of it. I ask my mother if, perhaps, the burying is left incomplete so that the death must similarly sink into the hearts of the bereaved. She concurs.
Between stirring the pot of rice she is making, Nelia is talking my ear off about some cousin or another whose wedding is this same afternoon. It is a scandal of the sort that causes waves of gossip in the village, a mild abomination that celebration happen concurrently with commemoration of loss. Nelia narrates it with a tone sporting feigned outrage and blatant delight over gossip. Her dress is threadbare, her hair covered up in a faded doek.
Around us, a bustle of aunts, first and second and third cousins, once and twice and thrice removed. Shoeless, braless, smiling, laughing, stirring, chopping, casting furtive glances at me as I sit here with my cellphone, listening. I am self-conscious and perched, rather uncomfortably, on my knees on a Mkeka as I wait for a one of my cousin-aunts to finish off with the one knife we have in circulation so that I have a go at the pile of cabbages that sit fatly in the the flat basket in front of me. So, admittedly to escape the discomfort of being gazed-upon and discussed in hushed whispers- the ‘cousin from town’, whose cosmopolitan upbringing renders her useless in the domestic domain- I am writing this.
It's difficult for me to write this place, to put it to paper. Without feeling complicit to depicting only certain parts of Us- the parts that are systemically and socio-economically broken. Without confronting the disparity that has it so that I can for and of my cousins, most of whom could not write for and of themselves if afforded the chance.
On the one hand, they are dressed in threadbare clothes, those who are wearing shoes are wearing mended and re-mended shoes. But on the other hand, what does it matter, and to whom, and to what end, that they do not? I feel like paying none of this any mind- I feel the need to describe them not with what they do not have, but more with what they do. But this feels inorganic. It feels forced and untrue to speak of abundance when lack is the order of the day.
Contemplating class, then, becomes as strange an affair as there ever was. Strange because when I'm abroad, I have the most I've ever had in my life, but I feel poorest. The converse is true for home where, while by no means a part of the wealthy class, I FEEL the richest. My life is spent ping-ponging between different throngs of class. At the very top (within the bounds of my socio-economic world) on one end- conspicuously wealthier than my cousins in the village- and at the very bottom on the other- an international student on an almost full financial aid package in one of the most selective liberal arts colleges in America. The rest of the time is spent in between.
Am I socio-economically privileged? Where is the tipping point between being unfairly advantaged over someone else, and their being deprived of necessary capital; social, economic and otherwise? Do I have too much, or do they have too little? Does this capitalist, neocolonial world leave me endowed with more privilege than I should ideally have, or does it leave others inhumanely deprived? How much is enough? What is the threshold for wealth? At what point are we rich, at what point are we poor, and in what ways does the presence of the other define what group we are to belong to at any point?