Five or six articles ago, I argued that the improvisation culture was deeply rooted in Malawi. People find it too taxing to follow procedures and prefer to take shortcuts, instead. Many undertakings thrive on improvisations in Malawi.
One area where improvisations are commonplace is the naming of things. To try and stick to formal names is often regarded as boring or unimportant. To many people, for example, any beverage made by dissolving dried leaves or baked and grounded nuts in hot water is tea. Any other name is simply descriptive nomenclature. You can have tiyi wa khofi (tea of coffee) or tiyi wa koko (tea of cocoa).
Some people take any toothpaste to be that brand which was introduced to them long time ago. They will claim to be using that brand even though they may be using some other brand. They cannot be bothered to refer to toothpaste by its proper name.
What really sets my teeth on edge is when plastic is called paper. And far too many people for my comfort are culprits in this regard. Again the word plastic is often used as an adjective to qualify paper. Hence you hear of mapepala a pulasitiki (plastic paper). There is no such thing as plastic paper. Paper is paper and plastic is plastic.
Just because the two materials can be drawn into thin sheets or rolls does not make them the same. Plastic is a polymer made from synthetic (man-made) material. Paper, on the other hand, is made from plant material, mainly tree stems that get crushed into pulp. Paper can also be made from cotton or special grass (such as esparto) or even hemp.
Because it is made from vegetable matter, paper will easily decompose if left lying around. Plastic does not decompose. I am aware that attempts have been made to manufacture biodegradable plastic (plastic capable of decomposing by natural means), but by and large the plastic that factories churn out does not and cannot decompose. If you take a close look at a freshly excavated field or road in town, you will notice many plastic pieces sticking out, but you will hardly see any paper. The paper will have decomposed.
That is why plastic is an environmental hazard and paper is not. Plastic will forever stay in the soil without degrading and will, therefore, interfere with the natural cycles within the soil, but paper is benign in that regard.
Neither is a plastic bag a paper bag. Many shoppers in Malawi will ask for a paper bag when, in fact, what they want is a plastic bag. The confusion that people have regarding paper and plastic is transferred to the products of these materials, namely bags, tubes, sheets and others.
One other mistake people often make is calling any bag, plastic or paper, a jumbo. Many will comfortably say: “I will carry my items in a jumbo”, meaning in a paper bag or a plastic bag. There once was a company in Blantyre called Paper Converters. They used to manufacture all kinds of paper products, including paper bags. Their paper bags were branded. The biggest of them was branded ‘Jumbo’.
Originally, Jumbo was the name of a giant elephant that Arab hunters captured in East Africa in 1862. They sold it to a dealer of animals in Italy. It changed hands a few more times and ended up in London Geological Gardens. After living in London for 16 years, Jumbo was again sold and this time to an American circus owner, and was shipped to America in 1882. It tragically died in a rail accident in 1885. Because of Jumbo’s gigantic size, anything perceived to be a giant was given the name jumbo. Today, we talk of a jumbo jet—meaning a giant jet airliner. So Paper Converters were not wrong to brand their giant paper bag Jumbo, but we are wrong to call any bag made from paper or plastic a jumbo.
I would seriously urge everybody to search within the naming exercise of the things that surround us and discover which are the proper names and which ones are not. n