An occasional journal of pictures and words.

My Work View All

Links
Categories
The Warm Heart Enraged

Exiting Blantyre’s small, relaxed airport, a round-faced man emerged from the gathering of touts and drivers, “You need a taxi?” he asked confidently. The last of the twilight was fading as he slowly negotiated the road, weaving around pedestrians and minibus taxis.  From the street side markets, it was clear that paraffin lamps and candles were the common currency of luma here.

As taxi drivers are wont to do, he told me of the problems in Malawi.  Foremost were the chronic fuel shortages – which explained the leisurely pace we and all the other traffic drove at – every driver had learned to drive with a light, fearful foot on the accelerator.  The queues at the filling station we passed bore testament to the shortages, and I reckon Malawian drivers had grown weary of the excitement of driving on empty.

I had previously visited Malawi’s capital a couple of years ago, and while walking around the city saw that every fuel station had long queues of people with plastic jerrycans waiting to get fuel. Police with batons and rifles were there to quell unhappiness that might spill into unrest. It did not look great, and so I decided, as part of my contribution ease Malawi’s fuel problem to walk everywhere.

It was quite liberating – usually I choose to walk strange cities/towns as it gives me a chance to feel the place, but here I was kind of forced to walk, because even when I tired or felt I was running late for a presentation, taxis were impossible to find. Lilongwe is a larger city than one imagines – and has great natural areas interspersed with housing. Obviously, I soon got lost and thus met an elderly man – a farmer – whose truck bringing in his rice crop had run out of fuel some ten kilometers short of the city. He was in search of a friend to help him get enough diesel to get to the market. As we walked along hard-trodden dirt paths at a swift clip, we chatted about life, economics and agriculture. Despite pouring sweat, it was a fantastic, but certainly not efficient for a country trying to make its way.

On my latest visit – in late June, with the chatty taxi driver – Malawi’s largest city Blantyre seemed to move in slow motion, despite the energizing winter temperatures.  The driver turned out to be a Kwela musician, and he regularly toured overseas with the band his late uncle had started. Yes, he was forced to drive a taxi to make ends meet.  What to the casual observer is a city with a pleasantly laid back, slow motion feel to it is in reality the skin of an economy more in stagnation, and an exhausted population, worn down by decades of bad governance. Malawi is one of Africa’s poorest nations, and 75% of its people live on a dollar a day. The state is reliant on tobacco exports for what little forex it earns, and needs buckets of foreign aid to keep it afloat.

The taxi driver expected worse to come: the President Bingu wa Mutharika’s government had recently kicked the British ambassador out for criticizing the President’s authoritarianism and human rights record  (a cable leaked by Wikileaks to save the people of the world).  Bingu, as the papers here call him, had, additionally, proposed a zero deficit budget. You know, if there is no deficit, there is no need to be reliant on colonial bastards to top up the budget. The colonial bastards responded by suspending aid indefinitely. When I walked the streets and suburbs of Blantyre on this trip, I saw people on the edge of the precipice, just making do, each face showed desperation barely held in check. It was depressing.

Typically, as the financial situation has worsened for the people, the leadership has grown more restrictive of individual freedoms – for fear of the Egyptian disease of people power moving south. As a loose coalition of civic groups and opposition parties prepared to protest, the state began a campaign to suppress them, according to Malawian blogs.

Anyone with an ounce of sense feared the worst, and this week it happened – for the first time in Malawi’s post colonial history people took to the streets to protest against their government.. Years of rage at uncaring and incompetent governance poured out and Bingu sent in the army to quell the unrest, saying the protesters were driven by Satan. To date, some 18 lives have been confirmed lost, as Africa’s warm heart bleeds on her dusty streets.

pictures may be purchased at  http://gregmarinovich.photoshelter.com/gallery/Blantyre/G00002qsztYKGNQk

Blantyre, Malawi, June 2011. A nursery along a stream in Blantyre. The southern city of Blantyre is the commercial capital. Photo Greg MarinovichBlantyre, Malawi, June 2011. The taxi rank at the market, Blantyre, where second hand clothes, many donated from Europe and America, are cleaned up and sold in this extremely poor nation. Photo Greg MarinovichBlantyre, Malawi, June 2011. The market, Blantyre, where second hand clothes and shoes, many donated from Europe and America, are cleaned up and sold in this extremely poor nation. Photo Greg MarinovichMobile phone airtime is one of the few prospering commercial ventures.Blantyre, Malawi, June 2011.  The southern city of Blantyre's market for second hand clothing in the early morning. Photo Greg MarinovichA row of sewing machines waits for their owners to start the day in a main street in Blantyre, malawi. Photo Greg Marinovich

  • Marisca

    I was in Malawi 27-29 June 2011 and heard the same stories! I also saw the long queues for fuel and lack of forex – shops were empty. Friends and colleagues have been sending photos of the march and how things turned violent (first 4 dead, then 13, then 19…). We work with a local NGO in HIV Treatment Literacy especially in hard to reach places. Driving through the rural areas of Thyolo we heard many alarming stories… People are very, very careful what they say about President Bingu…

    What shocked me most of all is the apparent “acceptance” of gross human rights violation in this beautiful country. Women are treated terribly at the tea plantations and nobody says anyting because it is business as usual. Even though I found the country-side incredibly beautiful and “peaceful”, as the hours passed the air started feeling oppresive as so much of the “wealth” of Malawi is build on the silent suffering of women in particular. You hear/read about the corruption/poor governance, foreign aid being withdrawn, health care issues and HIV infection rate, but to witness it first hand, hearing people’s own stories…

    Hopefully this type of social action will open the eyes and hearts of the world, but especially Malawians who either turn a blind eye or for those to whom this is just the way life is.

%d bloggers like this: