Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Malaise in Malawi

I’m learning to love alliterative blog-titles, even if they are completely inappropriate and don’t really mean much. Both apply here.

Anyway, I read with interest a new BBC article regarding Malawi’s President Bingu regarding foreign donors who are, according to him, plotting to have him overthrown.

It is difficult as an outsider to gauge exactly the threat that Bingu is for the Malawian people. He arrived in the post-Banda era of a new-found multi-party politics as a talented civil servant, educated in India and Los Angeles who quickly advanced through the ranks to be elected President in 2004 before his successful handling of the economy had him reelected in a landslide in 2009.

He inherited a nation ravaged by AIDS with over 50% below the poverty line and fast fuel and food shortages despite growth in neighbouring Zambia and Tanzania. Bingu was and still is keen on his relationship with Western powers and still is a capable economic technician. Whilst aid has declined over the last few years, the situation in Malawi in terms of fighting HIV, food supplies and fuel shortages has drastically improved.

Sadly, Bingu’s technocratic micro-management of the economy is often reflected in his social views. Homosexuality was made illegal in 2010 but despite describing it is ‘bad in the eyes of God’, the Malawian government promised to review the law in December 2011.  Discrimination against homosexuals is par for the course in certain parts of the world, which is a cheap shot to make, but I only bring it up because it was asked of me by a Malawian native when I visited last July.

Actually, a lot this post is going to be based on things people said to me, but for someone who visited only once and drew from that everything that I know about the country I have little else to go on.

Malawi is a nation stretched around the vast Lake Malawi. It provides a major route for resources being transported through East Africa and forces a strange sort of local town planning. Unlike much of South-East Africa where towns are clumped and easily discernible, in Malawi settlements stretch along the road side intermittently, a few shacks here, a couple of houses there, slowly building into a larger settlement. People string the roadside too, mainly children. Life expectancy here is low and the lack of adults means that a good amount of these kids are orphans, many of whom have formed their own social strata and town life.

Most of the tourist attractions are to be found round Lake Malawi, an awe inspiring stretch of freshwater with a lot of tourist destinations attached to educational missions. Khandi beach in particular is attached to a lively town, obsessed with soccer like most of Africa and home to a number of educational establishments and clinics.
Khandi beach is also the home of Chibuku festival, a yearly dance party that brings European and global DJs together to dance on the lakeshore. The name is taken from a product incongruous to the country, the wheat beer Chibuku, a disgusting but strangely moorish local drink.

I was at Khandi beach when the president himself arrived, motorcade in tow for a supporters rally. Despite his calls for youth-league members to crack down on protest, local Malawians were vocal in their disliking of the man.

“He is just stupid,” said one, “He promised much when we re-elected him, but he has not done these things.”

I asked whether they thought things had got better under Bingu, “Yes,” they said. Credit where credit is due I suppose, but there was a caveat. “He has done some good things, but not enough. He does not like how little we care about him.”

That lack of care became apparent rather fast. I do not know what numbers the president expected to turn out for his rally, but most people were happy to simply get on with their day once the motorcade had gone past. The rally was televised I am told by locals, with crowd noise added.

There are two points to be made at this stage: Malawi did elect Bingu, and from an outsider’s perspective at least, his leadership has done a lot of good things in Malawi. He is worrying autocratic, but has delivered a surplus in food supplies and increased attempts to fight HIV. Moreover, it is not always clear that Western tactics of decreasing aid and in the case of the UK, pulling out diplomats are working. Malawi’s national identity is only just establishing itself and it would not do necessarily to encourage anti-UK nationalism when there lives a sizable minority of Europeans and Indians in the country. Also, for all his bluster, the president seems keen to keep his allies sweet in order to get Malawi growing again. The capital shows signs of growth, complete with a lively affluent shopping centre, bookshops, gyms and a Nando’s though naturally these are way out of the reach of many citizens still.

If this is sounding too much of a ‘I saw things on my Gap Yah’ then feel free to tell me. I’m not trying to impose my opinion on the situation, I’m just telling it how I saw it at the time and for the most part what I saw was this: Malawians are relatively optimistic about their future but with major caveats. There did not seem to be much rebellious sentiment about their current government, more a healthy opposition and from many, complete ambivalence. Of course for people in power, to be ignored is often a worse crime than outright hostility and the current president must be watched.

Malawi is a beautiful place and like any number of curious, sometimes disruptive and sometimes observant western explorers before me, I was bewitched by the place.

I can only hope that something good will happen.

NB Photos to follow.

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