On my way to the airport my Malawian taxi driver asked me what kind of music I listen to. He added, cheerily, “My favourite type of music is blues music… Like Westlife!” Then he pulled out his Coast to Coast CD. After we ruminated over the chances of the band staging a reunion some day, I asked him whether, given their huge following, they had ever played a concert here. “Of course not,” he said. “Malawi is too poor for Westlife.”
Malawi is a country of over 16 million people. The official languages are English and Chichewa. The average life expectancy is 54 for women, 52 for men. Formerly called Nyasaland, next year Malawi will celebrate 50 years of independence. One in seven Malawians have HIV or AIDS, though very few people talk about it.
There are no Twitter trends for Malawi. Neither are there, less surprisingly, for North Korea, though let’s not get sidetracked. When you enter Malawi into the Twitter trend search engine, it will ask you whether you meant Lusaka.
Malawians have a positive but somewhat cynical sense of humour. In some parts of the country ‘Osama bread’ has been renamed ‘Obama bread’. Kupinga ndale, the Chichewa for ‘practicing politics’, translates directly as ‘to throw an obstacle in the path that your fellow may stumble’. My taxi driver told me that this is representative of the fact that African politics is largely smoke and mirrors.
Some common Malawian names include Gift, Blessings, and Precious. Less common but still in circulation are Limited, Funny, and Omnipotent. Whilst on a tour of his factory last week, I discussed acute malnutrition with a man called Happy.
The colours in Malawi are red-tinged. The roads are dusty. Many times I thought I was getting a tan, only to have it wash off. The sounds when you’re falling asleep are of insects, howling dogs, and distant voices.
Malawians don’t eat out. A friend called Elias told me “In Malawian culture if you want to try Indian food you find an Indian woman and get her to invite you to her house”. Several people spoke to me of poverty with the same breath they used to offer me food.
Expats in Malawi talk about how difficult they find returning to their “real lives” abroad. Their friends complain about low wages, or hospital queues, or a single power cut. They find that actively forcing themselves to empathise with people’s complaints creates a disconnect, a situation where they begin to resent their home countries, and the people who live in them.
I told Malawian friends that Irish people often get depressed. “But why?” they asked. “Maybe it’s the weather”, I said, and tried to explain a month of grey skies.
I’ve learnt a lot about poverty on this trip, but I still can’t comprehend it. Poverty isn’t tangible, it’s a series of omissions. It’s a lack of security, a lack of entertainment, a lack of opportunity. It’s a lady who has sat on her porch every day for two years because she broke her leg and her local hospital couldn’t fix it.
Poverty leads to a huge appreciation of ways to escape it. Malawians revere education. From making women feel that they can stand up to their husbands, to helping people understand when their businesses are making a profit or a loss, education is seen as a basic necessity, and a necessity that is lacking.
In a place where so little goes so far, being in Malawi has made me question the extent of my personal responsibility.
Philosopher Peter Singer has a test of global moral obligation. He asks whether, if we happen to walk past a child drowning in a shallow pond, we have a duty to rescue them. If, as he expects, the general consensus is yes, then he extends the question. Would it make any difference if the child were far away, in another country perhaps, but similarly in danger of death, and similarly within your means to save?
Whatever your response is, there’s more to the problem than that.
On my last day in Malawi a HIV positive teenager told me about the idea of self-discrimination. He said self-discrimination means that when you hear something about yourself for a long time you internalise it, you start to believe it, and you start to live it. He said that this is how stigma perpetuates, because it means that those being stigmatised stop questioning the accusations being made against them, and stop speaking out to disprove peoples’ beliefs.
I’ve asked myself whether we in the West we can sometimes be guilty of encouraging self-discrimination within African countries. We have this idea of giving a man fish versus teaching him to fish, but we, the non-development workers, never speak about the transition that needs to be made after that. We never ask how we can help the man take charge of the world in which he fishes. How we can help him write those fishing policies, or encourage him to set his own chambo market prices.
Coming to Malawi didn’t teach me to answer those questions, but it taught me to ask them. It taught me that the answers are murky and complex, but that that shouldn’t stop us from trying to comprehend.
That I could go from playing Boggle in Ireland to playing bao in Malawi signifies that we’re all the same. That the predominant topic of conversation among groups of guys here was girls, and among older ladies was the behaviour of the youth shows that little changes between countries or continents. It’s only our circumstances that differentiate us.
I have been very impressed by lots of the work that Irish people are doing with Malawians in Malawi. From Irish Aid cutting malaria death rates in children under five by 95% over the last three years, to GOAL being one of the few charities that operates in the southern region of Nsanje; from attending an Irish Rule of Law police training workshop where great work is being done in developing restorative justice, to finding out that the skimmed milk in many of the therapeutic foods provided to malnourished children comes from the Irish Dairy Board, who have advanced credit to make production possible.
With that I’d like to say a huge thanks to Irish Aid, the Simon Cumbers Media Fund, and the Irish Times for giving me this opportunity, and to everyone I met in Malawi for their help and hospitality. I have had the most amazing and eye-opening time in what is a fantastic country, and really appreciate everyone who went out of their way to make this experience so rewarding. Zikomo.
You can follow Sally on Twiiter at: @sallyhayd