Before I even get my first glimpse at the sprawling, coltish city of Lilongwe, I’m knee-deep in the roiling complexities of Malawian politics. Golden Matonga and Josephine Chinele, my driver and fixer respectively, both journalists, are rehashing the difficulties of reporting one of the troubled country’s most publicised scandals while I acclimatise to the vivid chartreuse-and-vermilion landscape and 29 degree heat.
Josephine Chinele and Golden Matonga
The focus of this impassioned, engrossing oration? One of the city’s many public hospitals, which had just passed into our view and which was where President Bingu wa Mutharika was brought in the days after his “death”. Mutharika died in office in 2012, an event that triggered a private scramble to conceal his death and prevent the then-Vice President Joyce Banda assuming his position.
The poor who had gone to the hospital, despite their often appalling conditions, were evacuated, as nurses hooked up a dead president to life support and an insecure political party gripped onto power for a few more days.
All the while, journalists across newsrooms in Malawi were confirming the news from officials who wouldn’t go on the record, Golden included. It was the perfect summation of Malawi’s political turmoil, a climate that breeds off of corruption, misinformation and the delicate power dynamics between social classes.
It doesn’t take long to find poverty, and the corruption that most often causes it, in Lilongwe. Despite being a “young” country at just 54 years old, the city centre swirls with the dust from dirt roads, electricity frequently cuts out and local markets are held in crumbling alleyways and rickety wooden stands. In contrast, the Four Seasons centre, nestled close to the parliamentary buildings, is a lush and cosmopolitan haven, where expats and diplomats – mostly white – can sip Coke to the sounds of gentle waterfalls or buy linen clothing and beaded jewellery from South Africa.
The verdant, cloistered paradise of the Four Seasons Centre
Just 20 minutes outside of the city centre, gated homes turn to dilapidated structures made of brick or earth, with thatched roofs held in place with bricks. Murky water is pulled from wells by mothers breastfeeding babies or by children, without shoes. When the rains come, falling suddenly and closely like a shimmering blanket, boys selling fish on the roadside stand stoically in place, clothes now plastered to their small bodies. Young children pass the weekend hours away, playing in Lilongwe River. Even in the wealthier parts of the city, palatial complexes sprawl away from roads gouged by rain and cars, the kind that send you bouncing from one side of your car to the other, seatbelt be damned.
“Malawi is not young”, Josephine and Golden would say. “It should act like it.”
Malawi lacks the kind of natural resources and industrial environment that has catapulted neighbouring South Africa or Ethiopia, further north, into greater wealth and onto the “travel” Pinterest pages of intrepid tourists the world over. Its earth is incredibly fertile, and roads are lined with field after field of sprouting maize and tobacco plants. The streets throng with poorer people selling bananas, pineapples, peaches and any other produce they can coax from the earth. On one trip up through the mountains of nearby Salima, we even passed fruit sellers at the highest peak, balancing baskets on their heads and walking through the clouds.
A typical street in Salima
The third poorest country in the world as ranked by the International Monetary Fund, Malawi is also an exceedingly young country: the latest consensus, released while I was there, showed that 51% of the country’s population of 17.2 million is below 18 years of age.
It is for this reason that reproductive and sexual health is of vital importance here, where young women are one of the most at-risk groups when it comes to HIV, STIs and sexual violence and where sexual debuts come much earlier than in Ireland, with 15% of young women and 18% of young men (aged 15-24) reporting having sex before the age of 15. It is consequently devastating to see how governmental corruption and mismanagement of finances are hindering efforts to suppress the spread of HIV.
It was at this point that I stumbled upon one of the greatest mistakes a newcomer to Malawi – to poorer countries, in general – can make: rushing to find links between their life and the lives of the locals they meet.
As Josephine and Golden shared stories of corruption – such as the government official who attempted to murder a colleague working on a budget, only for him to bribe the court and walk the streets, a free “convict” – or of violence towards women – such as the woman who survived a horrific machete attack from her husband – I would offer stories of Irish corruption and violence, the abuses toward those in direct provision or by the Catholic Church, or the overwhelming homelessness crisis. Josephine and Golden would sit quietly and nod. And then Josephine told me about the public hospitals.
Fish sellers on the road
Chronically understaffed to the point that there will be a handful of doctors that rotate from one public hospital to the other trying to treat as many patients as possible, and with increasingly scarce resources, busy public hospitals are grim places. A woman suffering from cancer may present with abdominal pains only to be sent home with panadol. Nurses, driven to the brink of patience, will often berate patients. And then there’s the birthing stories.
“When a woman goes to a public hospital to give birth”, Josephine told me over lunch one day, “she is asked to bring four things: a razor, a black plastic sheet, a thread to tie the umbilical cord with and a candle” – should the power cut out and her child be delivered by candle light.
There’s culture shock, there’s the struggle to understand the minute details of a country’s character and people and then there are differences so profound, so unthinkable back home that all you can do is listen. We have troubles in Ireland, valid ones and ones that need addressing, but we don’t know trouble like this.
It’s understandable, therefore, that many poorer men and women will avoid hospitals for these reasons. Non-governmental organisations ideally plug this gag, allowing people to access healthcare and family planning resources safely and confidentially, but this is one instance of the harm caused by the Mexico City Policy, or “global gag rule” – the US policy that restricts funding to NGOs that provide family planning services, signed into effect by President Donald Trump in 2017.
Societal factors such as misconceptions and stigma about contraceptives – specifically that should a woman suggest using a condom it will likely lead her husband to assume she’s been unfaithful, or that she’s accusing him of infidelity – exacerbate this. Only 25% of married females and 30% of sexually active unmarried young females report using any form of modern contraception.
The unexpected pleasure here, though, is the freedom with which men and women speak about reproductive issues, all the way from sex and dating to the grisly details of birth and antenatal care. While out for dinner one night, Josephine and Mercy, Golden’s wife, spoke at length about going into labour and the experience of childbirth. My Irish sensibilities were in such automatic revolt that I almost – nonsensically – covered my eyes listening to them. But it was a joy to hear women talk about their health so freely, so knowledgeably.
I’m uncertain as to whether this candour is simply because my little group of journalists and friends-and-spouses-of-journalists is naturally more vocal and accustomed to speaking about these matters, but perhaps part of the reason may lie in the high stakes of reproductive health in Malawi. There can be little room for coyness when the line between life and death can come down to where you can find some condoms.
And as so often happens when a country pits its more vulnerable communities against one another to safeguard the wealthy, it falls to the journalists to hold those powers to account. Unsurprisingly, this is not without its own battles. Greeting Josephine and myself at our hotel one morning, Golden announced he’d scooped a story – a big one. By lunchtime, he had a first draft completed, having made phone calls while sitting in traffic and calling government officials for comment between jetting me around Lilongwe. The calls offering him money if he killed the story started coming soon after.
Golden wasn’t fazed anyway: his excellently reported story ran the following day and he moved onto the next one without too much fire or fury. This is reporting in Malawi, where the very institutions you work for can try and try again to buckle your work. Watching Josephine and Golden reminisce, commiserate, banter and show me their country, I was awed at their unyielding determination, a rabid drive to get the stories out there, their relentless energy and bottomless well of fervor. All this, while giving an Irish girl the warmest welcome she’s ever gotten in any place.
Charlotte Ryan, Salima, Malawi