One of our team recently spent some time in the district of Kasungu in the Central Region of Malawi. Here is a little bit about why she was there and what she discovered …
I’m tagging along on my son’s trip (he’s here to gain some volunteer experience in a District Hospital), and although I’m playing second fiddle/PA/hand-washer of clothes/the one with the dollars, I hope to discover something new for myself too.
This is my third trip to the Warm Heart of Africa and I know that the differences between it and my homeland are manifold – some are very obvious while others are so subtle that you only discern them in a drip, drip, drip way much later on.
My guide for the week is Innocent, second son of our friend, Fitta “the Fixer” Chipeta. Fitta knows everyone, and everyone knows Fitta (pronounced Feeta). It is he who has managed to secure my son this placement.
I want to learn more beyond the bare facts that Malawi remains one of the poorest countries in the world with about 50% of the population living below the poverty line and 25% living in extreme poverty. I’d like to hear stories, get to know individuals, gain impressions, understand how we are similar.
It’s true that stories of hardship are writ deep in the earth of this beautiful land. And yet smiles grace the faces of everyone we meet. Including the very engaging Fazili Gama (aka F Man), whom you may have already met via Instagram. He tells us of the ups and downs of his own story – including a recent personal tragedy – and explains his forbearance with reference to the Malawian mindset: “Things happen; we accept them; and we move on.”
Innocent shows me a country rich in bananas, cassava, tomatoes, onions, sugar cane, pumpkins, potatoes, maize, rice and a huge variety of pulses (a potential superfood in times of unpredictable rainfall due to climate change – particularly the so-called ‘Poor Man’s Pulse’, the drought-resistant Bambara groundnut).
I see them growing in the soil and then at the market – a busy, noisy, fast-paced labyrinth of tiny alleys which lead every which way to sell every which thing: to the fish quarter where silver catch from Lake Malawi (usipa) shine in neat piles; to the place where craftsmen hammer new pots and pans to add to their stock; and to stalls where bowls of bead-like pulses sit side by side with roundly stacked tomatoes and onions. And I hear the mellifluous calls of the women vendors as they spill colourful beans through their hands.
This vibrancy is matched by a deep love of life. Our friends (old and new) want to make time for my son and me, and visit us daily to sit, laugh and talk. We see people gathered in groups wherever we go, and I ask Innocent what they are doing. He answers: “They are chatting (kucheza), spending time together. It’s important.”
Back at the hotel the tired furnishings and vacant rooms speak of tough times. And when the power cuts occur (frequently), the generator chugs on only briefly in an effort to ration fuel.
Necessity engenders resourcefulness in all sorts of ways. The green bar of soap in our bathroom has been cut into half, with the other half probably in our neighbour’s room. One waiter says that nothing is wasted and everything is stretched to its maximum use. I learn that any leftovers we leave on our plates at mealtimes will find good homes with the kitchen staff. My son and I decide to over-order from then on …
On the medical side, people are no less inspiring. Each evening after work, clinician Tablin Mwambase drives an hour to a far-off village to assess the progress of a sick patient with serious wounds. He cleans and redresses them, then drives another hour home. When I tell him he is a very good man, he replies quite simply, “Every life matters.”
Richness in humanity … but the reality is that Malawi’s poverty can be crippling. We see it at the hospital, on the streets, at schools and in homes. It affects everything: health and growth, education and aspirations. Our contact at the hospital remarks that my son is very fortunate to be able to realise his ambition to become a medic. Countless families are unable to pay for their children’s secondary education. And although primary school is free, drop-out rates are high (children may be needed on their family smallholdings; basic school equipment is unaffordable; girls fail to attend when they are menstruating due to poor sanitation at school; etc).
One hotel worker asks me if I think Malawi has changed since my first visit in 2012. I answer that – yes, my sense is that times are harder now than then. He agrees, saying that Malawi is beset by corruption at the top. He is doubtful that the unpopular president will be ousted anytime soon, although a court case is seeking to establish the truth behind claims of wrongdoing in the popularly named ‘Tipp-Ex Election’ earlier this year.
Worst of all, the waiter worries that the ‘Warmth’ has gone from this ‘Warm Heart of Africa’.
I don’t want to believe that’s true.
So what have I discovered? That Malawi is a beautiful and complicated place.
Everyone has a story that makes you think and … I realise that I want to hear more – there is a great deal further to learn from these friendly, open and incredibly resilient people, and their deeply captivating land.