Awkward in Malawi

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By Maniza Naqvi

I spot a café, called, “99% God's Plan.” It is on the side of the road which goes straight from Lilongwe, the Capital, passed the sprawling Monsanto complex, passed the tobacco auction facility, passed the gigantic silos of the national granary—passed churches and more churches and missions and mosques, passed the vendors selling trees burned down into charcoal and ending two hours later at the gates of the Livingstonia Sunbird Resort, in the district of Salima on the shores of Lake Malawi. I joke that at least there is some recognition, that there is one percent chance that it isn't.

And that's exactly what seems to be the scheme of things in Malawi—Where 99% of the people are made to rely on God's plan and prayer while the 1% of people made up of foreigners seem to own everything: land, missions and businesses. How did this happen? There are more churches here then there are schools, or health posts or hospitals or shops or maize and other grain storages or water bore holes in villages. Jomo Kenyatta, the first Prime Minister and President of independent Kenya said: When the Missionaries arrived, the Africans had the land and the Missionaries had the Bible. They taught us how to pray with our eyes closed. When we opened them, they had the land and we had the Bible.”

Awkward is the word Malawians, I've met, use to say very politely: very bad, or awful.

Here, there is a surplus crop of missionaries: churches of every possible denomination and mosques everywhere. Roman Catholic, Anglican Presbyterian, Evangelist, Jehovah's Witnesses, United Methodists, Baptists, Seventh Day Adventists, Pentecostal…the list runs into the dozens (here) and mosques too. About fifteen percent of the country is Muslim (here), while seventy percent are Christian and another fifteen percent still practice animist traditions. “You know these Muslim”, A guy tells me—”They just keep having children.” He's Roman Catholic I learn. As we pass by a town it seems as though the entire town is out for a walk. “Look” I joke, “A small Muslim family out for a morning stroll!” We laugh.

IMG_6062We stop our big four wheel drive alongside the road in the Shire Highlands, to take pictures of someone who is identified for us as being a witch doctor—Apparently the Government now requires that they need to be certified and registered. In the villages—which comprise over 80 percent of Malawi, and in the cities of Lilongwe, Blantyre and Mzuzu, people have faith, for example, in the belief system of Chipembedzo Chamakolo where a prophetic person referred to as the Bimbi is possessed by the spirit of the ancestors and can harness the power of nature to work for good and ba—awkwardness.

Here there are big blue skies with puffy pretty clouds, unobstructed endless landscape of emerald green forested mountains and fields of maize and tobacco and red earth as far as the eye can see. And everything, the trees, the leaves, the grass, the clouds glisten and shimmer in the sunlight especially at this time of the year at the tail end of the rainy season. Avocados, this big, the size of melons! I'm in a very small country—the very beautiful Malawi. Who knew? Huge plump acacia trees bloom with an abundance of bunches of fat yellow blossoms. Seated on the shores of Lake Malawi (more about this later) or on a mountain top in Zomba I am stunned by the natural beauty around me and have a sense of unease. We have been lodged in luxury, for the workshop and the meetings on poverty reduction, secured by barbed wire and high walls, gates and security guards. Outside these walls people are very poor.

Visiting Zomba Plateau: By Jack Mapanje

Could I have come back to you to wince

Under the blur of your negatives,

To sit before braziers without the glow

Of charcoal, to cringe at your rivers

That without their hippos and crocs

Merely trickle gratingly, down, to watch

Dragon flies that no longer fascinate and

Puff adders that have lost their puff?

Where is your charming hyena tail-

Praying mantis who cared for prayers once?

Where is the spirit that touched the hearts

Lightly—chameleon colours of home?

Where is your creation myth? Have I come

To witness, the carving and jingling of

Your bloated images and piddling mirrors?

Here there is increasing food insecurity in the country. Poverty is rising in the rural areas where a majority of Malawians live, depending on agriculture for their livelihood. No surprise really, where almost all the land is in the hands of foreigners for cash crops and resorts. Poverty despite huge amounts of development donor financing,( which seems to mainly go to fertilizer subsidies and the bureaucracy) is on the rise. Many Malawians, especially in Mangochi district around the lake resorts at Monkey Bay and all the churches nearby, are landless or have little access to land or water or work opportunities. They go over to South Africa to earn a living as daily wage laborers in mines.

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Malawians were not allowed to own land or businesses even under their first President for forty years Dr. Hastings Banda, whose image is on the thousand Kwacha note. The five hundred Kwacha note in a golden hue carries the image of Reverend John Chilembwe, the revolutionary figure who studied in the U.S and returned home as a missionary and resisted colonialism in Nyasaland and the injustice of land rights which allowed only foreign colonizers to own land. He resisted the African servant and European master paradigm and led an uprising against the colonizers. He and his fellow revolutionaries were killed by the colonizers (here). Contemporary poems by Jack Mapanje echo these sentiments (here). In 1987, while he was the head of the University of Malawi's English department, Mapanje, was arrested and imprisoned for nearly four years on the orders of Dr. Hastings Banda (here). Here is Jack Mapanje speaking about Development at the LSE Literary festival panel in 2010: The Fiction of Development (here at minute 32.34): Then he sets the context of his poem and reads it:

“First of all– whose fiction? Whose development? For what type of human knowledge and on whose terms? I am going to give a short illustration: An African Government which is not blessed with diamonds or gold or other minerals has a beautiful lake with golden sandy beaches. To get foreign exchange it is encouraged to develop tourism. It sells its beaches to Bank managers, executive officers, company directors, ambassadors, and high commissioners and others. Some, have come from the Developed world. Ordinary mortals who occupy the beaches are persuaded to move higher up. The developers will offer them Bore holes for clean water, they will build schools for them and clinics, and then they will be offered land which they can turn into farms, which they can buy fertilizers in order to grow much better food, or more of it. Meanwhile the executives, ambassadors, directors and others invite their friends from abroad, some of them: to visit them. They should not worry about staying in in the country's hotels. They will stay in their cottages for free! Each cottage has its own beach, some fenced from intruding locals. The locals who have been meanwhile prohibited from bathing or washing their clothes at the beaches of their lake and they must go elsewhere. You can imagine what happens. You have a Government you have developers and the people have been moved out. I have given you a scenario or a context for the following poem. These people have been told that there is development coming. The women have been protesting for being thrown away from their lands and one of the things they've been doing is picking Baobab fruit. So this poem is called Baobab Fruit Picking or Development in Monkey Bay. What I am trying to do is to find out what the developers would do if they read a poem like this, if they really cared about reading fiction or a poetry or so on. Because, the trouble with them is that, most of them don't care. Or they want to go there with their own views of development. And they have a mindset. And it is that mindset is dangerous: So there's a woman here who says.”

“We fought before. But this is worse than rape. In the same Sahara October haze, the raw jokes of Balamanja women are remarkable. The vision we revere in has sent their husbands to the mines of Jo-burg, to buyers of large farms. She insists. But here, wives survive by their wits. And sweat. Shoving dead cassava stalks into rocks. Catching fish. With tied tijenje cloth, with kids. Picking Baobab fruit and whoring. The bark from the Baobab trunk they strip into strings for their rigged water, the fruit they crack, scoop out the white, mix with goat milk: That's porridge today, children. The shell is a drinking gourd or firewood split. They used to grate the hard cores into girl's initiation oil once. But you imported the borers, who visited our chiefs at dawn, promising bore holes. These pine cottages on the beach have happened instead, some with barbed wire fences fifty yards into the lake! What a cheek! Now each weekend the blighted tomato thighs in reeking lion clothes, come bolting, grinning at the Balboab fruit picking. My house was right here! Whoever dares, check those Balamanja dreamers.”

Every meeting here seems to begin with a long prayer. Someone is asked to volunteer and someone always does. As I listen to a prayer offering at an official meeting I look around me at the bowed heads over clasped hands, tightly shut eyes, poses of deep concentration, I wonder what would happen if one day someone volunteered to lead everyone in prayer and just went on and on–“Oh lord, hi, it's me, again,–I know you must be so busy, what with so many people asking for your attention to do things for them, so today I'm saying that we plan to actually earn our daily bread which we get every day in the name of the poor—please help people to remain on their lands, help us to help them do that, how about if these resorts were jointly owned by the people on whose lands they've been built—and instead of encouraging loans and credit how about if we focus on grants to the poorest of the poor to be able to increase their chances for improving their livelihoods, like for storage bins for maize, maize mills, and irrigation channels and I was thinking Lord how about we stop using the red bricks for which so many trees are cut down to bake the bricks and instead we use cement blocks or even how about using clay and straw mixed together? And how about solar panels and solar stoves, Lord, that would be a good thing too? And lord, how about a Citizens Wealth Fund for all the revenues instead of concessions for foreign companies— you know, like the ones they''ve got in Alaska or Norway? That would be a great thing for every single Malawian to be an equal owner and benefit from the wealth of their land. How about that?” What if the person just went on and on and took up the whole meeting with a prayer—would anyone stop her? Would it be awkward?

It's very quiet here, not much going on if you don't hike, swim, purchase tobacco wholesale at the auction, grow it, dry it, sell it, or grow maize, work for a ministry, church and government, own a retail shop or cafe, or a tea estate, or pick leaves in one of them, play squash, or soccer, or fish, or go to church or start one. Or struggle with getting anti-viral medicine for the HIV Aids virus to try to stay alive.

My vision clears with the early morning mist rising over the mountains, though my eye is almost swollen shut from the spider bite on my eyelid. I got bit by this tiny insect while I was sleeping and my head rested on my soft pillow in a beautiful resort hotel. Through my shrinking vision in the following days, I see the landscape around me, the cotton and tobacco fields, the tea estates owned by foreigners. An imprint of a woman picking tea leaves graces the ten Kwacha coin.

The holiday resorts on mountain tops and on the shores of Malawi lake are all owned by foreigners, some so private that no one knows who jets in and out—there over 30 airfields around Malawi including the airports at Lilongwe and Blantyre.

A Government official working in social welfare notes astutely that, the rural poor produce locally and consume locally, those in the cities, the well and better-off, produce nothing and consume imports. Any morning or evening in Lilongwe brings with it the spectacle of four wheel drive large cars stuck in one long polite line on the beautifully appointed and tree lined, main road which leads to and from Government ministries. The tobacco leaf harvest is in progress and the tobacco auction too has started at the large sprawling auction house on the outskirts of Lilongwe. Foreign firms are in town to purchase the tobacco leaf. Perhaps coincidently, but perhaps because of the purchasing activity, the Malawi Kawacha has been falling steadily against the dollar ever since the auction has begun. The buyers will get a good deal.

The massive maize granary graces the outskirts of Lilongwe, and the green hued Malawi thousand Kwacha bill (about US$2.5) but tobacco is the largest crop and the largest export and foreign currency earner for the country. Tobacco leaves do not appear in a place of pride on any of the newly minted bank notes that I have with me. An image of a fish, which I presume to represent the Chiclids, does appear on every note. A majority of the country's budget is financed by donors and is spent on importing fertilizer and fuel, in the name of the poor. The remaining budget goes to Government salaries, the fuel they consume and their vehicles.

And the poet David Rubadiri too writes powerfully of similar things (here):

Begging Aid

Whilst our children
Become smaller than guns,
Elders become big
Circus Lions
Away from home.

Whilst the manes age
In the Zoos
That now our homelands
Have become,
Markets of leftovers,
Guns are taller
Than our children.

In the beggarhood
Of a Circus
That now is home,
The whip of the Ringmaster
Cracks with a snap
That eats through
The backs of our being.

Hands stretching
In a prayer
Of submission
In a beggarhood
Of Elders delicately
Performing the tightrope
To amuse the Gate
For Tips
That will bring home
Toys of death.

The Pentecostals, are gaining ground here, and why not? They provide a good gig—part animist part missionary—an aerobic workout and the chance for everyone to get into the act—be the One. They like to sing and dance a lot and they believe that the spirit of Jesus resides in the heart of the worshippers and everyone is moved by that spirit and therefore everyone is a parishioner and a pastor within themselves—feeling the spirit and speaking it in whatever vocabulary—tongues—they want to—which can be interpreted by someone witnessing the person who is being moved by the spirit—Yes, they are big here—and why not? They seem to follow a self-help formula love yourself, God loves you no matter what and you know it—Yes you—he's talking to you—through you. Its powerful stuff here—where hope and courage in one's self is the most accessible medicine and where even Aspirin or Panadol is in short supply and where upto 12 percent of the population has HIV-Aids and where there was a time not too long ago where upto twenty colleagues, friends and relatives were dying each day.

I've noticed, people waiting for meetings to start, or in a doctor's office, or sitting down for a meal alone, are reading self-improvement books—like The One Minute Manager—and Seven Steps to Success. A cab driver, tells me that he has a “passion for excellence”, he keeps saying this, turning around to talk to me—and letting go off the steering wheel as he claps along with this declaration- “I have a passion for excellence, I have a passion for excellence!”

On any given day, or at least the day I was on it, the plane coming into Lilongwe, disgorged from its metal belly, a cargo of motley characters—everyone of us on a mission: Young American missionaries, wearing T-Shirts emblazoned with: Mission Malawi and Rescue Malawi—Here, there is an abundant crop of young foreigners working at missionary international NGOs. I've seen samplings of them at the lake side resort, nicely tanned–frolicking in the pool playing water volley ball, and drinking and eating as young people should when they party at Spring break— and then when its daytime in the US Skyping home, in a monotone martyr's voice reserved for parents, that speaks volumes of being a good sport and bearing the hardships “Yeah, I'm not eating well because if you could see what we have to eat—please send me money so I can go get a hamburger or something. And know that I love you.”

I've been told Malawi attracts a lot of young hitch hikers, there's great weed to be had up north that grows wild. And apparently snakes: an adder that spits right into your eyes and can blind you. So a t-shirt with eyes on it could really be a hot selling item here—I think about this during a tree pose at sunset. And, fresh off the same plane Chinese traders with backpacks, Gujrati traders with brief cases, unruly beards, shalwars raised above their ankles and family members in burqas and hijabs, two or three American military men, and the piece de resistance for me: a big guy a Hemingway look like American, ruddy–red faced—mane of white hair–white moustache, white shirt and khaki pants , self- proclaimed billionaire—commodity markets—done good in Afghanistan– and friend of General Petraeus and the new Malawian President. I learn all this on the tarmac as we wait to identify our luggage and he is introduced to me through his assistant, while he looks away into the middle distance and declares that he has arrived to do good here. Well, we all had. Poor– oh so green— so polite, so beautiful —warm heart of Africa: Malawi.

Uranium has been discovered in the North and the Australians are mining it. There is the real possibility of oil being found in Lake Malawi, an oil man says that there is oil all along the Rift valley from Lake Malawi through Somalia and Ethiopia. That explains many things: every trick in the book will be used to take land away from the people. And here, suddenly there is a dispute flaring up between Tanzania and Malawi over the lake. There's Monsanto, and missionaries and soon, militaries?

And the Chinese have arrived here too. They've built the huge Parliament building whose image graces the blue toned two hundred Kwacha note. They've built the huge conference center and its hotel, which was recently used for an African Union summit. And they have built a shopping mall full of Chinese made toys and shoes. All this they've done in astonishingly and a worryingly short period of time in an earthquake zone, just like elsewhere in Africa, and they are about to get started on building roads.

So I've been Googling Malawi a lot (here) and I've learned: First, I've learned that Madonna is visiting as well, and going around looking at school blocks just like I am doing. Second, it's probably a very good idea to use a net to sleep under and stay indoors after the sun goes down because of mosquitos and to bring along an antihistamine and spray your bed and yourself with an anti insect spray just in case there are tiny spiders or something. And third those tiny colorful fish in your aquarium, if you have one, chances are they originated from Lake Malawi. They are called Chiclids (here) and, fourth, David Livingstone arrived in 1859 at the shores of Lake Nyassa, where the Chiclids thrive and where oil is about to be discovered, and where it's not clear whether there are crocodiles or not. That, explains, the Anglican and Presbyterian and Roman Catholic churches, and the Gymkhana in Zomba as well as the name on the shower caps in the hotel and the talk about the tea estate still being owned by the British Royal family. I mean, Dr. Livingstone, not the crocodiles, explains a lot around here. I presume, he, David Livingstone, liked these Shire Highlands a lot, the people not so much. The area probably reminded him of Scotland, these green misty hills, valleys, meadows, rivers, lakes forests and landscape—only far more beautiful and with a lovely climate than what they've got going for themselves in Scotland. I haven't been to Scotland, so I can't say. Naturally, as was his way, he claimed all of this, and the people, for God and country, and thought the Shire Highlands south of the lake and in the Shire River basin perfect for the colonizers to settle down. From then on it was the usual story, missionaries followed and then of course there was the Company. Here it was called the African Lakes Company Limited and was established in 1878 for trading and of course transport. The Portuguese were around too or nearby in Mozambique and there was of course the usual intrigue to keep them out. The British established a Protectorate in all of what is today Malawi and called it the British Central Africa Protectorate then later it became Nyasaland in 1891 and I have learned that the colonial government was run by ten British civilians, two military officers and seventy Sikhs brought over from the British Raj—and they ran the show across 94,000 kilometers and 2 million people. Then the British merged it with Northern Rhodesia and called it Central African Federation and then in 1964 it became an independent country called Malawi when Dr. Hastings Banda a Doctor by profession and a lover of all things Scottish became its President and absolute ruler for the next 40 years till 1994. So the way the British drew the borders around here are awkward, the lake runs along the eastern flank of Malawi and belongs to Malawi, even though the western end is all Mozambique—then there's Tanzania on the north of the lake. So now that there might be more then Chiclids in there—you can see how the warm heart of Africa might start getting a bit cold and hot soon. The US military in the form of trainers have arrived. Awkward?

And here's Madonna striking a missionary pose (here, here, here, here, here): The oldest trick in the book in new packaging of a saviour, Madonna no less, with her “Raising Malawi” project which has apparently gone awry. Her presence and her apparent misrepresentation of her deeds here seem to irritate Malawians and the President (here). The newspapers are full of articles reporting that she has lied about her building ten schools, she has only built a few classrooms in existing schools which have been built by the Government. An image of a teachers' training college graces the lavender hued twenty Kwacha note. There are also reports of her misspelled letter to the President of the country seeking an audience which has not been granted. Every time we drive by a huge tract of land near Lilongwe airport, the drivers are sure to bring it up—”See over there that was the land Madonna bought. See she bought hundreds of acres of land for building a boarding school for girls. The people who were farming the land before she arrived, were chased off, and were rendered homeless and landless. No way to earn a livelihood. The Government gave the land to Madonna but didn't compensate the farmers immediately. But now that Madonna has reneged on her promise to build the boarding school, claiming that the current President's sister whom she had hired to run the place was corrupt. At that time the President wasn't the President. Awkward. The good thing is, though, the farmers have all returned to farm their land”.

The Kumbali Lodge (here), with its rustic architecture of thatched roofs and caste iron chandeliers, wooden floors and verandahs opening on to manicured lawns; lovely paintings of Africans by a Utah based artist; its crate and barrel and pottery barn aesthetic “Out of Africa” motif furniture, is a stone's throw away from the Presidential palace on a hill. The lodge has been, with its own dairy farm and “real” village for guests to visit and immerse themselves in village life, closed off to anyone else while Madonna and her children are staying there.

I've squeezed out with a tweezer the white pimply bits which seem to be marching along the curvature of my eyebrow making their way down to my cheekbone…I dab the squeezed out spots with the antibiotic wipes I've got with me. The march of the white spots seems to have been arrested. But the eye keeps swelling up. The nearest medical opinion is at the reproductive health post in the district center. Could be worse, it could be inside my eye…and laying eggs I hope the spider isn't reproducing on me. I joke. The nurse is unimpressed. Does it hurt? She asks. I say: Well it's awkward. She gives me a cortisone cream to make it better: “Praise God. Bless you my sister.”

The spider bite, feels and looks like a punch in the eye: as if something ignored, barred from entry, muzzled or gagged, has hit back, the only way it can.

More writings by Maniza Naqvi (here)

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