It may sound weird, but it is true. Many women in Malawi have beards.
I noticed quite a few of them after just three days of my one-week stay, but elected to hold my horses lest my curiosity lead me to make a misleading and offending pronouncement.
Then I spotted a few more and many others as I continued interacting with my hosts.
I traversed the entire breadth of Malawi, from Salima on the shores of Lake Malawi in the east to Mchinji at the foot of the hills bordering Zambia.
It was the same trend. Yes, it is true that many women here have beards, confirmed my taxi driver, Jacob, with a chuckle.
I asked many people about this curious fact.
After all, I had never heard or read about the phenomenon, yet scholars and scientists should everywhere be scouting for such thought-provoking trends.
So what could be the cause of the Malawian women’s beard?
An opportunity for an interview with the Gender Ministry permanent secretary, Dr Mary Shawa, could not have come at a more opportune moment.
As the holder of a position of authority and a scholar (she is a nutritionist), she would surely provide an appropriate answer.
Dr Shawa confirmed that indeed the number of Malawi women with beards was higher than average.
However, she had no straight explanation for the phenomenon.
Could it be as a result of genetics, nutritional trends, cosmetics, pollution, or and the use of contraceptives?
Take genetics, for instance.
Malawians are largely from Bantu stock, not much different from most of the populations in the rest of southern, eastern, and central Africa.
They include the majority Chewa, the Tumbuka, Lomwe, Nyanja, Sena Tonga, and Ngonde.
The Ngoni, the Yao, and Nyakyusa, also found in Tanzania, are Malawi’s other communities.
Indeed, according to historical accounts, the forefathers of the Malawians were the migrating Bantu groups that settled on the land, displacing and assimilating the indigenous hunter-gatherer communities.
Nutrition? Nothing sets the Malawians apart. Though their cuisine is diverse, nsima or the Kenyan ugali, is their staple food.
It is served with meat and vegetables and can be eaten for lunch and dinner.
Contraceptives? Not quite. Malawi ranks among the world’s poorest countries, with high illiteracy rates, which explains low rates of awareness about birth control and family planning.
Pollution? Restricted urbanisation and industrialisation makes this unlikely.
Malawi has few industries and cars, and its railway system is dysfunctional.
Agriculture is largely unmechanised and around 85 per cent of the country’s population lives in the rural areas.
According to Wikipedia, some women often grow enough facial hair that could pass for a distinct beard.
The reasons for this are varied but include hormonal imbalance, usually higher-than-normal levels of androgen.
Beards in women could also be caused by the rare genetic disorder, hypertrichosis.
Cultural pressure leads most to remove it, but there could be exceptions such as the famous bearded women of the circus sideshows of the 19th and early 20th centuries.
So, why so many bearded Malawian women? Over to you, researchers!