I am sitting in Addis Ababa airport late on a Friday night with nothing much else to do for the next few hours so I thought I would use some of my time efficiently and let you know my thoughts on my visit to Malawi which will hopefully provide a wider context and perspective on the kiosk project going forward.
The trip has really opened my eyes to the challenges the communities (and RENAMA) face in a country such as Malawi. I suppose up until now I occasionally got frustrated during the running of the project when I expect things “just to happen” like they do here in the UK, and have often wondered when things haven’t happened as we would have liked, which was very unfair of me. What I can say without a shred of doubt is that Maxi and RENAMA are doing an amazing job in the circumstances they face.
I don’t think you can get a true sense of the challenges that anyone faces in Malawi until you experience it first hand. All of the things I have experienced should not really have come as a surprise (and they didn’t to be fair) but the true scale of the problems are really hard to comprehend until you face it first hand.
The poverty I saw is beyond anything I have ever seen before, kids at school with no shoes, some without any uniforms, the school with barely any windows, barely any chairs or desks, 18 teachers to teach 1,200 kids!
You wouldn’t have thought that though when you arrived outside the school to meet hundreds of the most smiling, happy and cheery children I have ever seen in my life (you certainly wouldn’t see kids having fun like this in a school in the UK, as they would be too preoccupied with their phones, iPod’s etc).
No roads in the village that we would recognise as roads, families surviving on 10,000 kwachas (£20) per month, no lights (other than unhealthy and expensive paraffin lamps or charcoal wood) in the houses or the community which affects reading and writing for the children as when it gets dark they can’t see a thing and it is a security risk, not to mention a health hazard and an economic hardship. Thursday was a perfect example of how Malawi works (or doesn’t work!!). Left Blantyre to go to Lilongwe which should take 5 hours. We had a government official in the car with us as well!! Car broke down in the middle of nowhere for 4 hours, so the journey took 10 hours in total!!!. Anyway, the problems are cars are second hand, at best and when they break down it is a nightmare trying to find someone / something to fix it. Also, the country essentially ran out of petrol, diesel a few weeks back and regularly petrol stations are empty which poses another problem. The outcome of this break down was that the phone calls I was meant to do re the container and the freight company couldn’t happen as for the 4 hours we were stuck it was in an area with zero mobile phone reception, so all these calls needed to be done on Friday morning further delaying things. Even the process of printing of your boarding passes to go home (a simple task you would have thought?!) Well, printers seem to be broken everywhere in Malawi – hotels, lodges, offices, airports etc! That was yet another challenge! All in a day’s work in Malawi!
The village people think nothing of getting up at 5am to walk 3 hours into town to work and walk another 3 hours home along the side of the roads in the pitch black. They have no cars, no bikes so they don’t have a choice, otherwise they can’t find work and in many cases there is no work to find. Instances of people being hit by cars are very regular.
Nutritionally, you can see that lots of the kids have bloated tummies, and are most definitely not in the best of health. There is some knowledge of nutrition and health and hygiene although maybe not as much as you would have imagined in some villages although more advanced in others. Nsima is the staple diet in the villages, which the villagers eat breakfast, lunch and dinner.
There is a missing generation – I don’t think I met anyone in a village who was aged between 50 and 65 as this age group have all died of aids or other diseases. Orphans run the streets looking for scraps of food, clothes and so on.
RENAMA is doing a monumental job in the circumstances although they too face challenges that we wouldn’t face over here. Inflation is running at 25%, power cuts happen 2 or 3 times a day. Printers break down, cell phone coverage is patchy, phone’s run out of charge and then can’t be recharged for a while, the computer equipment they have is old and breaks down, people don’t turn up to meetings etc. Maxi’s staff are great but they have huge limitations too, partly down to lack of experience but also due to the way things are done. A perfect example was on Thursday morning when Maxi, Thomson and I were about to sit down and go over budgets and reporting schedules, when the power went out. Within an hour all the computers had run out of power, phones were losing charge and generally it became challenging to do the work that was needed to be done. In this instance we were able to do it all because we had my laptop but in normal circumstances this wouldn’t have been possible. Maxi is under immense pressure but is doing a more than admirable job and should we decide setting up IRRI Malawi is the way forward I would have no hesitation in getting her to help set things up for us.
Everything takes so long in Malawi. Every community meeting is preceded by a set of prayers and everyone in the room goes around introducing themselves, followed by a speech by each and every village leader. This takes a long time, but we must respect that this is a very important part of Malawian culture, and if it isn’t done, then the chances of the community buying into what we are trying to do is nil. Custom is a big part of life over here and any NGO’s who are trying to help must accept that things are done in a certain way, whilst trying to help change and overcome some of the pressing challenges that everyone faces.
The economy is goosed in a big way. The new president is taking austerity to a level which would make George Osborne proud, but link that with the rate of inflation and people just can’t afford the basics of life. The currency devaluation is taking its toll, with the exchange rate to the GBP rising on a daily basis, with prices rising accordingly. Financial incompetence is rife, receipts aren’t give out as standard when buying equipment, being offered “a cheaper rate” if you don’t take a receipt etc etc. I should stress that Maxi and Thomson are both extremely diligent when it comes to accounting for expenditure which is great. All expenditure is scanned with receipts in the drop box and is all accounted for at this side of the project
Just when you start to question, “Why are we trying to do what we are trying to do in Malawi, is it worth it ...", "can we really make a difference given all of the challenges?”, you meet hundreds of smiling kids who look like the happiest kids I have ever met, yet they have nothing, absolutely nothing. The community leaders and members are so grateful for any help we are able to provide, and welcome you into their homes like you are royalty (made me very humble and embarrassed in a way, given the fact that their resources are so scarce.). They were pleading with us to get the kiosks up and running as quickly as possible as this would make a tangible difference to their lives as families and as a community.
These pictures are also available on Flickr.
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