As I sit late at night in the airport in South Africa, heading back from Malawi I wanted to write some thoughts whilst they are fresh in my mind to see if can capture what I have witnessed.
It has been an interesting experience coming back to Malawi for my third visit, but first since 2014. So much has changed in this country since I was last here and yet at the same time, nothing has changed…if anything the economic situation, especially for the rural villagers is worse than ever, the power cuts that everyone is experiencing in the cities and elsewhere are more frequent and last longer than before and the droughts of the past few years have impacted so badly on the population and infrastructure that many communities are struggling to survive. Interestingly, when I was here before the impression I got in the cities was that fuel poverty and hunger was mainly a rural problem but with the daily power cuts in the cities happening all the time, this feeling has spread across the whole nation (Also bear in mind that only 1% of the rural population has electrification – less than almost anywhere on the planet.)
I don’t recall in previous trips, seeing the frequency of people begging for food and money to save their families from starvation which I have seen on this visit – not a moment passes when we are out of the compound when we are not approached, for money or food...what can you do in that situation when you see the fear and hopelessness in the people’s eyes.?
On a slightly more positive note...we visited the Energy Kiosk in Dzenje, near the Mozambique border (this was the second time I have visited Dzenje), to meet with the Management team, the committee who oversee the kiosk and to meet with existing and potential customers. Although still lots of work to do in order to get the kiosk to the point of being fully sustainable we have a concrete plan, a competent and committed management team and committee and a clear determination to better themselves as a community, which is fantastic. We spent a whole day really working hard both physically (organising welding, roofing repairs, painting and also recruited an electrician to replace some inverters and battery packs which had died) and operationally, working the management team to resolve any day to day issues. In saying all of that, it is worth mentioning that the average salary of someone in Dzenje is around 30,000 MK (Currently 880 MK = £1), which is equivalent to around £35, so that kind of puts things into perspective. Even if we could help the community increase their income to 50,000 MK , this would make an amazing tangible difference...makes you think doesn’t it, when we can easily spend £5 in Costa at least 2 or 3 times a week and view this as a necessity?
Our second kiosk is in Bvumbwe, and is a place I have visited on a number of occasions before and I was looking forward to visiting this kiosk once more. The village TA (Chief) who I had met before, sadly passed away last year and there is a new TA in place. There has been a lot of challenges in this community with the kiosk over the past 2 years in terms of technology not working, disagreements between the Kiosk Managers and the committee and general apathy for a number of reasons. We spent a frustrating (but hopefully very productive two days in the end) negotiating between both sides, agreeing a plan to move forward over the next 18 months. All in all an exhausting couple of days. Upon leaving I was approached by the Head Master of the school who remembered me from my previous visits – he wouldn’t let go of my hand as he told me how much the community valued the work that we are doing and the fact that we are not losing interest or patience with them and he pleaded with me to continue the support – that was a bit of (near) tear jerker I have to be honest but greatly appreciated!!
A simple fact that Overseas Aid accounts for up to 40% of the entire Government budget for the year (the largest percentage of any country in the world) really gets you to think as even with this funding there are still millions of Malawians who can’t afford to put food on the table (the equally sad fact is that for most, they don’t even possess a table). In most UN indexes at present, Malawi is ranked 4th poorest country on the planet.
Having said everything that I have said, this is still a country that has touched my heart in many ways. The people are kind and gentle and the country is beautiful in many parts at the same time. I have found a mixture of cynicism and hope from meeting with and talking to the remote, rural communities, which has once again slightly messed with my head!! On the one hand the population is tired, exhausted and fed up of year after year, hearing lots of stores of new opportunities and new beginnings and when these opportunities don’t materialise into increased income, provision of electricity and clean drinking water they often get disillusioned with life (and I don’t blame them). I visited Shoprite, which is essentially the only supermarket in Malawi, which confused me even more! The prices were even more expensive than the UK and yet the quality of the food was limited to say the least. Some of the meat smelt “off” which given the issues with electricity and ESCOM isn’t actually a surprise. But what it did make me think was just how unsustainable the purchase of every day food must be for 80% + of the Malawian population, given their average salaries...proper head messing up time this visit was!
Yet there are little signs of hope. A small number of innovative and energetic entrepreneurs, have ideas, concepts and plans to help themselves develop a better future for their families and communities. These are the signs of hope and encouragement that I have been holding onto these last 11 days or so and I will take these back with me to Scotland, to develop our plans for the remaining 15 months of our project to see if we can make even a little bit of a difference.
So, I am now heading home after an exhausting 12 days, tired, weary, in some ways pessimistic but deep down hopeful and inspired by some of the things I have seen.
These pictures are also available on Flickr.
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