Africa – huge continent, huge differences

Visa headingSetting off on a trip to Malawi and stopping in Ethiopia for a few days on the way back, I am startled at the differences in how each country is able to deal with visitors. Ethiopia has a slick on-one visa application system. Malawi’s is cumbersome, both in terms of what I need to do in advance and in the four-queue system I’ll meet on arrival – check form, pay, get receipt, get visa. These were the people whose website said that Irish citizens didn’t need a visa but they explained to me that this was not updated and ‘all the other Irish people’ knew they needed a visa, so why didn’t I?

The modern hotel into which I’ve booked in Addis Ababa, in spite of urgent and kind invitations to friends’ homes, operates a shuttle service from the airport and responds to my email about that within a couple of hours. That is helpful as even locals don’t think it’s safe for me to travel by taxi on my own from the airport there.

This is not the place for an analysis of why these two countries are so different, just noting it with regret because Malawi, like Ethiopia, needs visitors and tourists and needs to make it easier all round.

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To see ourselves as others see us

Clock tower on old churchThe arrival in my home of a colleague from Malawi has caused me to reflect on my life and surroundings. This is her first time out of Malawi and she is astonished by my washing machine, my dishwasher, the amount of food I eat and the size of my flat. That is all reasonably predictable. What surprised me more was her astonishment at the lateness of the start of our working day. That her lost luggage had no chance of being delivered before 9 am (when they promised ‘morning’) left her speechless. That lost luggage is very common was a surprise to her.

Time-keeping, is predictably, an issue. While Malawians start their day at 5 or 6 am, they don’t rush around very much thereafter. How we can get up so late but we are breakfasted, ready and heading to a meeting within an hour seems odd to them. But we don’t have to make a fire before we make tea, nor collect water, nor wash dishes. It’s easy for us to be on time!

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Taxi ride – a multi-faceted experience

After a five-and-a-half bus journey from Lilongwe, which should have taken six hours, had the driver been even half cautious of human life, I arrived in Mzuzu in the North of Malawi. Coming off the bus as one of the few white people, I was assailed by taxi drivers wanting to take my bag. Oh no you don’t – I’ll carry my own bag and negotiate a taxi fare when I am safely down these treacherous bus steps.

So, I agreed a reasonable fare very easily and my driver took my bags and put all three in the boot. He instructed me to sit in the front and then agreed a fare with a Malawian couple and they sat in the back. They needed a ride to a minibus as they were continuing onwards – brave people to do that in the dark on Malawian roads. The car only started by jump-starting. This was difficult in the crowded conditions of Mzuzu at that time. He got a push from folk nearby and from his male passenger. However, he then needed to stop for fuel. I should have got out to video that experience. The petrol station was jam-packed but the driver was able to jump-start it even in reverse in a tiny space, with help from passing people again. I was glad that my fare might go a bit towards fixing his starter motor or whatever was wrong. That bit of the experience took me back to my early driving days when you had to be able to jump start a car in order to use one in the country.

Once we have dropped off the lovely, brave, onward-going couple, we headed to my lodgings, which were not far (mercifully). On the way the driver asked what I was doing and where my husband was.

After a five-and-a-half bus journey, which should have taken six hours, had the driver been even half cautious of human life, I arrived in Mzuzu in the North of Malawi. Coming off the bus as one of the few white people, I was assailed by taxi drivers wanting to take my bag. Oh no you don’t – I’ll carry my own bag and negotiate a taxi fare when I am safely down these treacherous bus steps.

So, I agreed a reasonable fare very easily and my driver took my bags and put all three in the boot. He instructed me to sit in the front and then agreed a fare with a Malawian couple and they sat in the back. They needed a ride to a minibus as they were continuing onwards – brave people to do that in the dark on Malawian roads. The car only started by jump-starting. This was difficult in the crowded conditions of Mzuzu at that time. He got a push from folk nearby and from his male passenger. However, he then needed to stop for fuel. I should have got out to video that experience. The petrol station was jam-packed but the driver was able to jump-start it even in reverse in a tiny space, with help from passing people again. I was glad that my fare might go a bit towards fixing his starter motor or whatever was wrong. That bit of the experience took me back to my early driving days when you had to be able to jump start a car in order to use one in the country.

Once we have dropped off the lovely, brave, onward-going couple, we headed to my lodgings, which were not far (mercifully). On the way the driver asked what I was doing and where my husband was.

This is a fairly common line of conversation here. When I confessed to not having a husband (note to self: don’t make that mistake again), he got very excited, introduced himself as Abdul and shared that he didn’t have a wife. He then asked if I would marry him and was very insistent that I should. When I demurred, as you would, he strongly requested my phone number. I gave him a wrong phone number which he promptly dialled, getting an innocent bystander, of course. He was quite dumped that I was not accepting him. Fortunately, we were then at my lodgings and I could escape his earnest attentions. How does this man keep any customers? Maybe they are not single women. Why can we women not be more direct in responding to outrageous attentions like this?

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Changes and sameness in Malawi in 7 years

Traffic jam – Malawi 2015

It’s seven years since I’ve been in Malawi – just the start of my blogging ‘career’. You can see those early posts from here. So what is different? Well, some things but it is very startling how much is the same.

There have been recent catastrophic floods, mainly in the south of the country. Floods are normal in the Lower Shire Valley but these have devastated whole areas and resulted in almost 200 deaths at the time of writing. While I was based in Mzuzu, in the north, the floods impacted on our electricity supply. The power is the whole country has been affected by trees and other debris (people’s houses!) in the rivers which cause problems in the power stations. So we had regular long power outages, longer and more frequent than normal. Electricity ‘outage’, then, is much the same as it was seven years ago but people are less tolerant of it now. They consider it to be caused by government incompetence whereas, seven years ago, they just accepted it as how things were.

One big difference is that people no longer accept that things have to be how they are. Malawians are now vocally critical of their government, at local and national levels. This is a sign of greater democracy, or at least the sense of it. People are no longer fearful for their safety and that of their families if they comment on the actions of the government and/or its members. It might still not do you any favours to be on the ‘wrong’ side but you don’t risk your life by expressing a view. I overheard an interesting conversation about why President Joyce Banda did not win the last election. Ideas suggested included that people did not think that ‘a lady could lead us’ and that she did not select her team carefully enough to ensure she was not ‘betrayed’. This public conversation would not have happened 7 years ago when there was virtually a one-party state.

There is lots more motorised traffic. I have even been in a couple of traffic jams. There are still hordes of cyclists and pedestrians and the roads are just as hazardous because there is only room for either cyclists/pedestrians or motor vehicles, but not both.

Note the satellite dish in background

Internet communication is a lot more common and easier now. Having said that, we need electricity for the internet to work on any other channel than a 2G/3G phone one. Even if there is electricity, the internet can be down across the country for a week at a time. Blame the floods. I don’t see how the floods affect the internet but this seems to be the case. It is easy to get internet on a local sim card. Well, easy when you know how and understand the system. I found a helpful shop, since the usual sim card stall sellers had no idea what I was talking about. They sell sim cards and time, not advice or technical support. Fair enough. Most people have phones so I have not seen any tables selling the opportunity to make phone calls, something that was very common seven years ago.

The poverty doesn’t seem to have changed, nor the level of begging. The level of hassle seems a bit worse and I encountered one piece of very unpleasant verbal hassle from a young man in a passing minibus. I resolved that next time I would take a photo of him and report it, but walking on the other side of that particular bit of road literally and figuratively sidestepped the problem.

It is nice to see the development of pre-school education. I saw several nurseries and heard of pre-school work being done in villages. The commitment of parents to the education of their children is as strong here as in Scotland.

My trip was a productive one for the Mamie Martin Fund about the impact of which I gathered lots of information. One lovely outcome of my visit was the hugely increased engagement on our Facebook page – that came largely from young Malawians. One particular post has reached a staggering 621 people! 

(function(d, s, id) { var js, fjs = d.getElementsByTagName(s)[0]; if (d.getElementById(id)) return; js = d.createElement(s); js.id = id; js.src = “//connect.facebook.net/en_GB/all.js#xfbml=1”; fjs.parentNode.insertBefore(js, fjs);}(document, ‘script’, ‘facebook-jssdk’));

What a lovely unexpected outcome! Thanks to everyone who liked and shared and made this happen 🙂

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Buying bananas

It has been a real challenge to find snack food in Mzuzu.
Indeed food has been a challenge generally and I am particularly grateful for
the invitations to people’s homes that I have had as that presented a welcome
change from the (small) chicken and (huge) rice that is my standard dinner at
the guesthouse. 
Bananas offer a solution to the snack issue and the problem of
too-little fruit and veg in my diet here. Banana sellers buy from trucks that
come in from Nkhata Bay, origin of the very best bananas, and sell them on the
street, from their head baskets or from the pavement. 
So as not to be charged
double or treble the price, I agreed a deal with my young Malawian colleague.
On our way home from having a coffee or lunch, she goes ahead of me, separating
before we are within sight of the banana-selling spot. She then negotiates and
buys me a big bunch at a good price. I split it with her, as the bunches are
too big for one person anyway, and we all win. Yum!
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Cinderella at school in Malawi

Malawian Cinderella

In my Mamie Martin Fund (MMF) Trustee role here in North Malawi,
I visited a girls’ secondary school. There is much to write about that visit
but I like these blog posts to be brief enough for you to read to the end so I
will just give you an account of a key happening. 
To say that this school is in a poor area is not news – most
of Malawi is shockingly poor. The legacy of Aids is a huge number of orphans
and child-headed families in the country so school fees are often an insurmountable
barrier to secondary education, especially for girls. The Mamie Martin Fund
pays the fees of 10% of the girls in this school. When the girls were informed
that I, a MMF Trustee, would be visiting they put together a welcome ceremony,
comprising a couple of poems, a song and a drama. They did all of this on the
afternoon before my visit.
Favouring the older sister
Their drama was enacted out of doors, of course. They had created
the script themselves. They did not have to use much imagination because it was
about the lived experience of so many Malawian children. The story was of a
girl who gets a place in that school but her mother dies. She is taken in by
her father’s other wife, where there is an older sister. The condition of her
having a home there is that she cleans and serves the family, especially the
older sister. That sister also gets a place at this school and the step-mother
(pity poor step mothers the world over – they get such a bad press) decrees
that there is only money for school fees for the older girl. Our heroine goes
to school but when sent home a couple of weeks later, as is normal, for the
balance of the fees, she is not given them by her father or step-mother. The
school then phones the step-mother (the girls had surreptitiously approached
the watching teachers to borrow phones for this scene), offers an MMF bursary,
our heroine continues her schooling and eventually qualifies as a doctor.
Audience engagement

The engagement of the audience was wonderful to observe.
They are keenly aware of the injustice of this far-too-common situation, which
is no fiction. The acting was heart-felt and the performance, created in half a
day, would do justice to any theatre anywhere in the world. If some of these
girls are able to come to Scotland later in the year, for which trip a funding application
is in progress, I look forward to a repeat of this wonderful play, complete
with Scottish pupils to fill in some roles.  
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Crocodile but no giraffe

Lake Malawi

On a well-earned break from my intense work, I spent the
weekend with friends by the lakeshore. It was lovely to go to Chinteche Inn for
dinner. There we discussed the crocodile sightings. Crocodiles are not normally
seen along this stretch of shore as they tend to hang out near the mouth of
rivers. But one had been sighted at the exclusive Chinteche Inn beach, making
it even more exclusive, of course. Each time the ranger came to shoot it, it
was nowhere to be seen. I protested at the idea of shooting a croc but was firmly
informed that eating tourists, or even locals, was not good and could not be
tolerated. It seems that this is their egg-laying season (the crocs, not the
tourists) and they lay eggs on the beach, thereafter guarding them carefully,
of course. Woe betide the human who would wander into the vicinity. 
The next day we went to Sambani Lodge, a place of lovely
memories for me. This is a bit up the lake shore and they had not seen any sign
of Mrs Crocodile (we assume a married lady croc because of the egg-laying
habit). I was advised to swim in the open and not by the rocks as the crocs
like to impersonate the rocks and I was safer in the open. There were three
other tourists there and none had disappeared when swimming (yet) so it was
judged perfectly safe. I had a lovely swim in the warm fresh water. Delicious.
No sign of any croc, married or single.

The giraffe story is that I have taken a notion that the
entrance to my flat in Edinburgh needs a wooden giraffe. I am going home with
one suitcase, instead of the two I had when arriving. Checked the airline
baggage details and it seems fine to bring a properly package giraffe. I
thought it would be easy to find one. I stopped at the craft market at Nkhata
Bay but only tiny giraffes were available.  I could have had the head and neck of a
biggish giraffe but it just doesn’t have the same panache. Of course it took
half an hour to walk through all the stalls, so that I was fair to each and to
haggle for a couple of small items. I then set the driver the challenge of
finding me a four-foot (at least) giraffe with not too thin a neck (easy to
break in transit) but he had no success either. I will pursue my enquiries in
Lilongwe tomorrow. There will be the small matter of discussing the price but I
will cross that bridge when I get to it.
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The ‘local’ bus from Lilongwe to Mzuzu

This should be subtitled ‘the toilet’ but so many of my blog
posts are about toilets on my travels. 
View from bus at Lilongwe
Having been delayed by a day while my luggage caught up with
me, I took a morning bus north to Mzuzu from Lilongwe. I was advised that one
chooses the bus company by the condition of the bus on the morning. The ‘de
luxe’ (that’s what it said on the ticket) AXA bus was my choice, the fancy one
not being available till later in the day. The padded seats and curtains are, I
suppose, what makes this bus ‘de luxe’. I have seen more uncomfortable ways of
travelling for 6 hours but not often.
Waiting to leave
The leaving time was hard to pin down. It left at 8 am and I
think it was always going to leave at 8, whether it was full or not. However,
on the phone the company said 7 am and the people at the bus the previous day
said 7.30. I was pleased to get there and get a seat at 6.45. It was fairly
full when we left. We immediately stopped for fuel and then headed off on the
very good road. Well, if it was not shared by pedestrians, cyclists and
occasional animals, it would feel a lot safer.
Not dirty just basic
 We made a stop after a few hours and I had been told by
other travellers that the stop was very short and the bus would leave without
you if you were not back. After sitting in the heat for nearly four hours, my
brain was not responding particularly quickly so it took me a while to get off
the bus, decide I did need a toilet and to find one. It is a private one,
costing 50 Kwacha (7 pence). I paid, got change and then just had to take some
pictures. All of this ticked away the minutes, of course. I heard a bus
sounding its horn and, as I emerged, after washing my hands!, a young man found
me and urgently told me my bus was leaving. Luckily I was the only white person
on the bus, indeed in the whole bus station, so my neighbour in the seat
noticed and kindly shouted that I was not back and I was then easy to track. I
was reprimanded for holding them up and off we went – for another 3 or 4 hours.
 

Now wash your hands

It was quite fascinating how the bus connected communities.
It stopped for people to get on and off but also stopped to allow someone to
get a package or some money from those waiting for that purpose. Each time we
stopped for a checkpoint or at a bus stop, people offered vegetables, fruit,
drinks, sweets and other food. Negotiations took place through the bus windows.
The lady in front of me (shame she reclined her seat the whole way, I had
little enough space) was either indecisive or knew the price came down as the
bus drove off. At least twice she decided on something at the last minute, took
it as the bus moved away and threw the (paper) money out the window. 
It got a whole lot fuller

It took ages for my swollen feet to return to normal size
but the ‘street cred’ that I earned from travelling on the ordinary bus was
worth it. It also allows me to have conversations with people about how hard it
is. I keep meeting people who travel far longer journeys in far more cramped
conditions. I am hoping to get the fancy bus on the way back, though I don’t
expect too much difference in space or comfort, but it is a little faster
because it is direct (‘express’). It also, I understand, has an on-board
toilet.
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New Adventure – Malawi and all those zeros!

I am honoured to have been asked to visit Malawi for the Mamie Martin Fund, an important organisation which supports girls’ secondary education in Malawi. I am here to support the work at this end and review our ways of working together.

Anyone coming to Africa will be laden down with gifts for people and supplies of one sort or another. I am no exception and thought it quite comical to have two check-in bags, ones of 20 Kgs. They almost didn’t make the connection in Heathrow and the airline would not have taken me without them. But they arrived in the nick of time. I changed flights again in Addis Ababa, with plenty of time for the luggage to catch up with me but it didn’t arrive in Malawi. Nothing to be done but wait for the flight the next day.

Chambo! Chambo!

Meanwhile I have my first glimpse of Malawi and it is startling even though this is not my first time here. The walking and cycling is a surprise to the Western eye, so used to few pedestrians on roads other than city centre streets. One man and woman were particularly striking. She carried the baby on her back, a load on her head and something in her hands. He, in a pristine white shirt (wonder who washed and ironed that?) carried the umbrella. The elegance of the ladies who walk in their  traditional outfits with anything and everything on their heads is visually very striking.

I am pleased to be staying in the no-nonsense, local, Kiboko Hotel, again. Luckily they can keep me for one more day while I wait for my luggage. After changing money and a sleep, I wandered out to have dinner. I found the charming Fantasia Korean restaurant where I had two embarrassing incidents. The first was when the waiter took away my plate, after I had eaten all (I thought) of the lovely ‘Chambo’ fish. ‘Would you like it to take away?’ he asked. Ouch! Clearly he would have eaten a great deal more of it. The second problem was when I confidently put the required number of 1000 Kwatcha notes on the bill, only to be followed out by the waitress who pointed out what one of them was a 50. That is worth about 8 pence, not £1.50. Double ouch!

I had a lovely taxi driver (booked through the hotel) from the airport who helped me with changing money – just as well to have someone competent on the job, with all those zeros. I introduced him to the idea of someone (like me) who ‘shouldn’t be let out on her own’. I don’t think that cultural sharing worked. Better luck with the next attempt. He is taking me back to the airport tomorrow to retrieve, we hope, my luggage.

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