In a small brick church with a roof of straw and plastic bags a preacher speaks of heaven as being a country free from sickness and corruption. 200 metres down the road a woman sits for twelve hours in the same spot every day, hammering stones into chippings, which she sells to buy food for her grandchildren. Their parents died from AIDs, and her husband is long deceased. When I ask her what the biggest problem in her life is at the moment she says “Young people. They’re not as respectful as we were when I was young.”
In a local bar a government official’s son boasts about how expensive his car is. Later that night a white South African asks me whether I want to join his group, the “white people group”, because I might be “scared of all the blacks”.
In the market a dreadlocked man wearing an ‘Eat Pray Love’ t-shirt tells me that Irish people would make great Rastafarians. At a lodge a few miles away someone from England explains how he came here to volunteer organising soccer matches in an orphanage and was hired as the coach of the national football team, aged just 17.
At a public debate on corruption Victor Charles Banda from the Anti-Corruption Bureau proclaims “What I have seen is such that our government system is completely corrupt. When 10% of the population are getting richer abnormally and you are walking barefoot you should be worried.”
Mother’s Day in Malawi is a national holiday. 1 in 36 women die in childbirth here, compared with 1 in 8,100 in Ireland. A fourteen year old whose mother died in May tells me that poverty is the feeling of embarrassment when she’s talking to someone who has everything, and she hasn’t even got shoes.
When kind, tambourine-wielding Bishop E. I. Lazaro says “I hope we are of the same family because in heaven there is no skin colour”, I think it would be nice if everyone lived by those sentiments. It would be nice if the officials at the immigration office didn’t expect me to skip the queue, or if the bar down the road didn’t only turn on football matches for white people.
When I came to Malawi I brought a suitcase full of old leggings, runners, and large-sized men’s t-shirts, which I would like to believe says more about my prejudices than my terrible fashion sense. People make fun of Westerners in Africa for leaving all their good clothes at home and dressing like they’re going on safari. While packing I didn’t consider that I might end up dancing in a night club with beautiful girls in heels, or driving through Lilongwe in a convertible with a best-selling hip hop artist.
It’s hard to describe the things that exist and don’t exist in a developing country.
There isn’t an organised infrastructure. Complex improvement plans are in place, but there are several, they’re NGOs and they’re competing against each other. There isn’t transparency. It is estimated that 30% of the national budget is lost through fraud.
There really isn’t Malawian empowerment. Being foreign is a qualification, being Malawian a disadvantage, and I can’t help but feel that, while a lot of fantastic work is being done, some of the aid programmes that exist triumph the idea of Western superiority without recognising the repercussions that this can have.
But there are rich people, like poor people. There are nice hotels, and there is nice wine. There is kindness. In Malawi one may have hundreds of brothers and sisters. Every woman I have interviewed raises several children that aren’t her own.
At a Lilongwe dinner in the ‘Noble China’ last week, the international group I was with started joking about how everyone comes to Malawi by accident. An aid worker had placed Malawi as an afterthought, at the bottom of a long list of locations that began with Brazil. A Medecins Sans Frontieres doctor had applied for Rwanda, and only found out two weeks before departure that her destination had been changed. Even the British founder of the ‘City of Stars’ festival, Will Jameson, had originally wanted to go to Australia or New Zealand on his gap year, but found them all booked up.
In the dark in Nsanje, drinking coca-cola during a power cut, the director of a women’s organisation told me of a Malawian friend who had moved to America and quickly come back. For him the clincher came when he got sick. He assumed that someone would call over and look after him, but no one did. After he returned, people told him he was crazy. Didn’t he understand, the American dream meant that no one needed to call over, he could make a call on his telephone and a doctor would arrive. But he said that they didn’t understand. He wanted community. He wanted togetherness. He wanted that familiarity that exists here, and was impossible to recapture somewhere else. Heaven might be a country free of sickness and corruption, but for lots of people that country is still Malawi.
Sally is Tweeting about her trip at: @sallyhayd
You can view the full collection of Sally’s photos from her trip here.