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Suffering injustices in Chad

Malawi, like most countries in the world, has football as their number one sport. They are not bad at football and have quite a good track record for a country of their size. When I lived as a child in Malawi they twice won the East and Central Africa Challenge Cup.

This weekend they stood on the edge of qualification for the Africa Cup of Nations tournament next year. All they had to do in their final qualification game was defeat a poor Chad squad away from home. In the earlier game in Blantyre, Malawi had won 6-2.

Unfortunately, although already out of qualification, Chad were not the best of hosts.

Upon arrival in Chad Malawi’s international football team were allocated an extremely poor mosquito infested ‘hotel’ in a swamp. Well, that is as far as I understand the reports.

Other parts of the story include no English speaking interpreter being offered to the team and a sub-standard surface being allocated for the players to train on before the big crunch match. Again, as I understand it they had to share the training pitch with local children.

I did read that Malawi refused to enter the dodgy hotel and instead checked themselves into a more respectable establishment. Still, the impression I was left with was that they were hardly allowed the best of preparations.

With only a few minutes of the game to go yesterday I had the impression that all would be well in the end with Malawi 1-0 up. Checking my iPhone again a few minutes later I was surprised and disappointed to see a final score of 2-2. Elsewhere in their qualification group Tunisia defeated Togo 2-0 and Tunisia progress on to the finals instead of Malawi. A win would have been enough for Malawi.

Malawi are the Warm Heart of Africa. On the evidence of this weekend they are hardly likely to find that deserved status being snatched from their grasp by Chad.


Why Westerners Criticise Malawians

I don’t mean, so much, western governments, NGOs, do-gooders and other politicised outsiders. I am talking about westerners who live or visit here – often short term.

Someone I was at school with in Malawi said to me that the difference between westerners in Malawi now, and when we were children, is that there are more short term expats and fewer long term expats now. You can tell where I am going with this post… Actually, there are some very good short / medium term people here who understand and appreciate the country quite well.

My blog, as regular readers may have been able to detect, is fairly pro-Malawi. If you don’t agree that it is ‘fairly’ pro-Malawi, then I suspect you would at least agree that it is pro-Malawi.

Having grown up in Malawi but then moved back to Scotland / UK / the west when eleven one of my most formative experiences was trying to make sense of what passes for normal in Britain when coming from a different country, culture and society (Malawi). So, I see my own country of Scotland through the eyes of someone who spent his early childhood in a more normal society. One thing I did notice about Britain is that people there (as in most societies I suppose) view their own way of doing things as either the only way of doing things or as the only comprehensible or sensible way of doing things. This affects everything, from the big things to the little things.

Over time, thinking about how societies work, this makes some kind of sense. A society will only ‘work’ if there are shared assumptions about what is done in various different sets of situations and circumstances. I don’t believe that all societies are equal and just different. I think that all societies work, to some extent, and all are flawed to different degrees and in different ways. Some are better than others.

Adjusting to life in Britain when I was 11, 12, 13…actually, the truth is I never fully adjusted to life in Britain – was very hard for me personally. I am not saying that it would be for everyone, as everyone is different. One of the reasons it was so difficult for me was that it happened to me when I was about to become a teenager / adolescent. That is not the easiest age for a lot of people anyway. One affect it did have on me however, was to think very hard about society…in Britain.

I am now going to say something arrogant – I am pleased to say. People who have spent all their lives in one country and one culture and one society are not the best ones to comment on life in a new and unfamiliar country. However, being human, and therefore proud, they like the sound of their own opinions and are thoroughly convinced by their own arguments, observations and insights. I have noticed that many people are particularly impressed by their own ability to instantly analyse and asses a situation using their intuition. Generally, the less people know the more confidence they place in a single opinion, viewpoint or explanation.

One other point about societies. Societies are complex and individual aspects within a society are not unrelated to other things going on elsewhere within a society. While, as I say, no society is perfect and all have internal flaws, there is a rationale and logic, after a fashion, for the way things are done. I noticed when in eastern Europe that things were ‘different’. However, I also noticed that if I went back to the UK and attempted to describe certain differences; if I talked about one aspect or one difference then it would result in a misleading impression. Why? Because I could only describe, and I think people could only comprehend, what I would be describing as if it was going on within a wider more familiar society. So I could say – “It’s like this, xyz.” and the reaction could be “Wow, that’s is incredible and must mean tuv.” However, that is not right – that ‘therefore tuv’ would only be true if ‘xyz’ went on in the context of our own society. In a different society ‘tuv’ does not necessarily follow. It’s only abc.

This is when my article / blog post gets a bit more understandable. I am going to write simple stuff now.

So, why do westerners criticise Malawians?

My general reactions, by the way, to criticisms of Malawian society, are 1/ to dislike hearing criticisms of Malawi because I like Malawi and 2/ to listen and think about what is said because I am interested in Malawi. I am biased but not so biased that I don’t know what Malawi’s problems (or many of them) are.

Malawi has problems, but they are different to the problems I am all too familiar with in Britain. Therefore when I think of Malawi’s problems I don’t feel oppressed or depressed about them. It is refreshing simply to be away from Britain-ish problems. The other point (not worth going into here) is that British society is decaying.

The first reason why outsiders, generally when talking amongst themselves, and not to Malawian, criticise Malawi is that there are things to be critical of. No one is perfect. No society is perfect. Malawi has huge problems and even if many of Malawi’s problems are not the fault of Malawians or Malawian society – even Malawians, like every other human, are not perfect. Also, even though there are reasons why certain things happen if Malawian society, the whys of which may not be obvious to an outsider at first, people do implement the rules of their own society very imperfectly.

It is easier to see the speck in someone else’s eye than the plank in your own eye.

It is natural to offer to take the speck out of your neighbours eye while not noticing the plank in your own eye. This applies to individuals but I think it applies more widely also. We tend to be more understanding of flaws and vices in others if we share those same flaws and vices. You see that often between the two sinful sexes. I cannot help noticing that men and women are a lot more sympathetic and understanding of flaws that are typical of their own sex compared with ones that are more typical of the opposite sex. That is not a absolute rule. I know plenty of women who are as understanding, or even more understanding, of typical male flaws, than other men may be. However, in general, women (and men) are less sympathetic to typically male (or female) flaws and feel more solidarity (or, ‘I know what you are going through mate’) when observing the difficulties and vices of their own.

It is not just between sexes but in many ways. Someone said to me yesterday that they don’t at all condemn Amy Winehouse for her addictions are they themselves have different addictions and can understand to some extent, the situation. I’ve also often heard people condemning, in the most scathing fashion, the sins and crimes of others, but who are in no position to understand what that other person has been going through.

No knowledge of the history of Malawi.

If outsiders knew the history of Malawi and what has changed in a very short period of time (as far as nations, civilisations and societies are concerned) then I think many would marvel in awe struck wonder rather than carp and criticise with a ‘know it all’ attitude. One hundered and twenty years is a very short space of time and if people had a basic grasp of before, what changed and why, and after, then I think a lot of critics would find a plug in their mouth.

A failure to understand their own society.

The frog died in boiling water because the temperature was raised very very slowly. When things are going wrong in your own society it is easy to get used to it and to rationalise or dismiss what is happening.

Being ‘green’ in the country and meeting all the wrong people.

If a rich person arrives in a poor country and a willing helper offers to be a middle-man in all kinds of situations what kind of person does he expect to have self selected? A respectable middle class professional? Is someone from that 99% of the population that gets on with minding their own business and attempting to pursue an honest trade the one that you expect to introduce themselves as your ‘honest broker’?

I’ve written enough here. It is a negative subject and it involves criticising, even if just in a general way. Being in Malawi has given me the opportunity to be positive, optimistic, see the glass as half full etc.

The Cape Maclear Road

For miles around you see nothing but hills like this

When we were on our way to Cape Maclear we observed something which appears to contradict economic theory.

Cape Maclear is on Lake Malawi. It is at the end of a large peninsula towards the southern end of the Lake. It is also the place where there was the first settlement by Scottish missionaries in Malawi. The first missionaries after David Livingstone chose Cape Maclear as it has a natural harbour caused by the shape of the islands at the end of the peninsula. They had brought a ‘self assembly’ steam boat at Millwall in London and assembled this boat at the mouth of the Zambezi River on the Indian Ocean after being dropped off by a larger ship.

They steamed up the Zambezi and then up the Shire River until they reached the waterfalls where they had to unassemble the boat and hire a large number of people to help them carry the boat a long way up river. Again they assembled it and proceeded up the Upper Shire through Lake Malombe and then into what is now Lake Malawi (previously named Lake Nyasa by Livingstone).

Now Cape Maclear is ‘backpacker-central’ in Malawi and most of those traveling through probably know nothing of it’s history. As well as seeing the start of modern medicine and education in Malawi Cape Maclear has had a varied history. It was once a playground for expats during colonial time and there was even a direct flight from London to Cape Maclear in the 1950’s – in a flying boat. Now there are no direct flights between the UK and Malawi at all. The BBC team who were doing a documentary on David Livingstone were gobsmacked when I told them of the London-Cape Maclear flying boat service.

...Cape Maclear is at the northern end of the peninsula in the middleThese days getting to Cape Maclear involves an approximately 10 mile journey along a lonely dirt road through the peninsula after turning off the main road near Monkey Bay. You are surrounded by hills, rocks and vegetation on all sides and have the feeling that you are far from human settlement. The road itself is a bit rough. It is not that there are huge holes or deep gulleys – instead there are small regular ruts lying at right angles to your direction of travel. So your car, you and your engine and being rattled.

While driving along in the middle of this we passed two young guys who enthusiastically waved us down to stop. I could see a bucket and (wet?) earth with which they seemed to be fixing the road. We quickly concluded that they were either fixing the road on their own initiative and hoping to be paid by the occasional grateful motorist – it is not an area with heavy traffic… – or they were pretending to fix the road and were tricking motorists into coughing up some cash.

Map of Cape Maclear and Lake Malawi National Park

At first we were suspicious but thought that they were probably genuine. It looked genuine.

On the way back a few days later we met the same people and this time were far more convinced that they really were fixing the road. We made a small contribution – but they were very happy. I asked if all / most / some / few drivers contribute to their work and they seemed to be saying that almost all drivers contribute something.

I regret not taking a photograph of them – we were in a rush to get on. All I have is a photo of some of the tops of the hills in that area.

The route not taken by either steamer or flying boat

I thought it was interesting because in economics work that is done which benefits anyone around and which cannot be restricted only to those who pay – is not supposed to work. The classic example is the lighthouse. The lighthouse cannot charge ships for using it’s service as everyone who is at sea can see the lighthouse and there is no way that the lighthouse keepers can compel the ships to pay for the service. Therefore, the theory goes that the shipping companies will not pay for the lighthouse service, because they can all be ‘free-riders’ on someone else’s work. Therefore the lighthouse has to be paid for by the government and cannot survive in the private sector.

So, it seems as those these enterprising road-fixers have not read their economic textbooks. They should have been pessimistic about the prospects of being paid. Instead they seemed to be doing quite well, if their mood and enthusiasm was anything to go by.

So how come this private business works if economic theory says that it should not? Well, firstly there has to be some degree of trust – the motorists have to trust that these guys are genuine – in some societies I am sure that there would be some doubt about this. Certainly I was a bit suspicious at first. Second there has to be some goodwill or some feeling that one would like to contribute a fair price to a service that one is receiving – even though the motorist is under no compulsion to do so. Perhaps the motorist feels some social or moral obligation or perhaps because the voluntary donation is small compared with the means of anyone who can afford to drive a car means that there is a desire to contribute.

A funny story

People like me find it difficult to take seriously the idea that Malawi or Malawians are dangerous. Malawi is a land of peace. It is one of the most peaceful places in Africa – it has a history of decades of peace. Malawians are not aggressive people – in fact there is a distinct shortage of aggression in this country.

I tend to think that there is always a sector of the population that is over fearful of crime. There is crime in Malawi but violent crime is rare. Or perhaps I should say that while there are break-ins and robbery and burglary this is rarely associated with actual physical violence against the victim – although I do know of an exception.

In general however a lot of ‘Malawi people’ tend to find it hard to imagine violence from such a gentle population.

One place that people tend to speak of in hushed tones however is Ndirande. It is a heavily populated township in Blantyre next to Blantyre Mission. It does not really worry me (perhaps I should be careful – if I am a victim of crime after all of this I may have egg on my face).

Anyway, an Australian friend related a story of a drive that he was on through Ndirande in a nice big expensive car. Someone jumped out into the road in front of him and started jumping around in an aggressive and crazed fashion. He then picked up a brick…

The Aussie told me that he wound down the window and offered money to some by-standers to get this guy out of the way. I might have had the same idea myself minus offering money. The by-standers refused to tackle him and instead suggested giving the money to the man with the brick. This was tried and worked.

The problem was that there was a necessary return journey back along the same road…and the same thing happened again with the same character. This time the man was given 100 Kwacha (two 50 k notes). The aggression stopped but he indicated that 100 was too much and handed back one of the 50 k notes (worth about 17p (UK) or 25 cents (US).


It is great that most Malawians are open, friendly, patient and helpful. The ‘Azungu’ (Europeans / Westerners) are generally very helpful to newcomers also. Everyone seems to welcome the curious new strangers and the advice and help you need is out there.

Google has it’s limits and local knowledge here fills in the details. In Malawi man does not live by google alone.

When you come to Malawi you must be plugged in to the ‘bush telegraph’. Although familiar with the term I decided that the urban dictionary is the reliable reference point for such terms and if I remember correctly ‘bush telegraph’ is an Australian term. Well, the Bush Telegraph is a great phrase in Malawi also.  

I noticed a stark difference with Britain in dealing with officialdom or the individuals representing a large organisation. How many times in the UK have I tried to get some rough idea beyond the bland and unhelpful official and limited lines to follow that so many customer facing staff give you.

Asking for anything helpful like an opinion or an approximation even after you have already told them that you are only looking for ‘some sort of idea’ is usually met with “I can’t comment on that” or “It’s your decision” or some other repeated blocking phrase to take you back to the official line.

In Malawi it can be refreshingly different. The details and options of the private health insurance are an area where it is worth thinking about what to do quite carefully. I didn’t think that it was very obvious what options to go for but given the complexity you find yourself asking questions about costs and likelihoods etc etc that in Britain would be met with “It’s your decision.” blah blah. Here, the representative was willing to state helpful opinions and give me and my wife some idea beyond just the marketing or legal blurb (helpful as the brochures themselves were – they can do with having some flesh put on them).

It is a similar story in numerous other areas also – cars, schools, money, FX, and everything else you can imagine on the practical side.

Of course the value of local knowledge is important anywhere. Here in Malawi it is perhaps all the more important. It helps that people are nice.