• SIA Team

What’s in a smile?

The bright, sun-flooded room was filled with community members. They were excited to welcome us as visitors from the US to their rural village in northern Malawi. They sang; a guy played the keyboard and another a makeshift drum set. And then there sat the local traditional leaders of Manyamula Village. All looking bored and disaffected. I was introduced as the representative of Spirit in Action, which has helped fund the Manyamula COMSIP Cooperative, whose members sat before me. I smiled and waved. Then Canaan Gondwe, leader of the Cooperative, introduced the traditional leaders. They barely blinked their eyes in acknowledgement of the appreciation of their presence.


Julius and Mestina in front of their new home, without smiling.


Later, I mentioned this stone-faced reaction to Boyd, my husband and fellow visitor. He suggested that perhaps it was the custom to let the respectful words fall on unmoved faces.

The next morning we went to visit a number of families who had received Spirit in Action’s Small Business Fund $150 grants. We heard and saw the evidence of the change in the lives of these families – people had been able to save and build houses with tin roofs and cement floors. Mestina Tembo told us about her successful donut and scone business. She sells at three markets a week, traveling as far as 32km to sell her baked goods. Through this and a little income from renting out their old house, they have been able to build a new house and invest in pigs. The new house, which has plastered walls on the inside, was described by our guides as, “not something a villager would have.” In other words, Mestina and Julius Tembo were thriving as a result of their business and the investment by SIA and the Manyamula COMSIP Cooperative.

Mestina told us this amazing story of success without cracking a smile. I realized that the lack of a smile made me question if the positive change was something to be endured rather than an achievement to be proud of.


Mestina with Tanya. Showing off the family’s new kitchenware, with a smile.


As we moved from her house to see the pigs out back, I mentioned this realization to our local interpreter, Winkly Mahowe. I told him that I noticed few people smiling as they told their stories and posed for pictures and that in the US we are always telling each other to smile; that we like to see smiles. Around the world, Americans are known for (and sometimes chided for) our excessive smiling.

We went back inside to take more photos of Mestina and Julius in their lovely home, and just before we took the “snap” (the word for photo in Manyamula), Winkly interupped and said something to the effect of, “oh yea, these crazy Americans said they like to see people smile in photos. Would you mind?” Everyone laughed and the couple obliged, showing all their teeth as they smiled for the camera.


Fikire and her daughter Iris, posing in front of their house-in-progress.


I immediately noticed a shift in my perception of Spirit in Action’s impact on this family. The smile – even though I knew they had been asked to do it – signaled to me that their business and pigs were big accomplishments; that there was a feeling of pride and joy in the household.

After noticing the difference in myself when I listened to an unsmiling versus a smiling person, I kept that cultural touchstone in my mind. I realized that I hadn’t yet learned the full cultural significance of the smile/not smile in Manyamula.


A boy laughs as he jumps into Boyd’s photo of a sack of maize.


It’s not that people don’t smile in general in Manyamula. There were plenty of jokes and laughter – teasing about World Cup team picks, about how people used to live before things started to look up – among friends and family members. The stern look seemed to be especially reserved for important stories and photos.

Winkly told more people that day to smile for the camera. And I continued to smile during the rest of the visits, as fit my nature and my joy that day. But looking back through the photos of that visit, I noticed that Boyd had picked up his cue from the local traditional leaders. In the group photo with community members, he stared unsmilingly at the camera. Such is the cultural give and take of a site visit.


Boyd and Tanya with members of the Manyamula COMSIP Cooperative. Pictured with the unsmiling traditional leaders.


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