Tag Archives: malawi

Through a Child’s Eyes

Right now I’m home-home… in Malawi for a family Christmas. I’m back in my old room, that repository of my childhood and coming-of-age, surrounded by the bric-a-brac of my life pre-London. There are old trophies, posters, bits of poetry and my diaries, including one that I wrote when I was 11. It has details of schoolwork, friendships, fights (girls love a good bust-up) and adventures, mostly on my bike.

But interspersed with updates on my baby brother’s progress (he’s sitting! He’s grown a tooth! He’s walking!) there is a thin sliver of my country’s story. On my list of things to look forward to in 1994 I had multiparty elections at the the top of my list. In passing, I mention an army strike, the President getting seriously ill, conceding the elections, and our first democratically elected president under a multiparty system. It’s all in the background, the backdrop to a breathless account of an 11 year-old’s life. I don’t remember all of the details, but I remember the tangible feeling of excitement in the air and the sense that voting was an amazing, transformative, special thing. It’s part of the reason that I always do.

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Points of Agreement

Apart from spending the day haunted by the smell of coconuts at random moments –  before realising it was my hair oil (actual thought I had during the day: “Am I being stalked by a coconut?”) – I found myself punching the air at various points as well, cheered by these three articles:

One Now I have to say this slowly because like the amazing Dan Hodges article a few weeks ago, I’m a little thrown, but anyway: Danny Finklestein wrote at once the most sensible and necessary article in the defence of human rights, and the Human Rights Act today. It’s in the Times so click here if have a subscription. That we need to have someone point out that human rights “are not a joke” and that it’s absolutely stark raving mad to want to pull up the drawbridge and pull away from common sense  shows what a sad state of affairs we’re in, and the fact that a “Conservative case” needs to be made, seeing as they are the ones squawking about doing it (while Labour looks on sweetly doing…well…nothing to protect one of their greatest legislative achievements) is rather unfortunate too, as this should really be beyond party politics. But at the same time, he hit all the right notes. Yay for human rights!

Two A wonderful interview with poet Benjamin Zephaniah on Britishness, including a rendition of one of his poems on the topic. All of this made my heart sing! (as so often with Zephaniah) Yes to mutable, broad Britishness!

“For me Britishness is being a part of these islands. I say that very carefully because I also respect Scottish people if they want to go separate. I’d be happy just to have England, and not have Britain actually. While we have this concept of Britishness, it’s being a part of these islands, and if you really want to be a part of these islands, I think by definition you have to accept multiculturalism. Not just diversity. Diversity can mean all kinds of things. Multiculturalism is what it says on the tin: Multi. Many cultures. Living together. As I alluded to before, the Celts, the Jutes, and all these people were different cultures. I come from Birmingham which was started by a tribe called the Beorma tribe, and they were seen as a very odd tribe, and they came and they settled they used to keep cows and bulls, and they had this place where they kept bulls, and that became The Bull Ring, and today it is a shopping centre.

That’s multiculturalism.

I don’t know if it’s still true now, but certainly a few years ago they were saying that the most popular food in Britain was an Indian curry. And some people thought it was a very British thing to have a curry. There are lots of other things which people think of as really British that came from somewhere. I mean what could be more British than living out in the countryside in a beautiful bungalow with a thatched roof? But where did the word ‘bungalow’ come from? Bengal, yeah. The English language also borrows from other cultures. So it’s being a part of that, that I think is Britishness. I actually think that in a very odd way, actually I don’t think it’s that odd at all, but when you hear racists saying “Britain is a white country”, I think that is anti-British. Because Britain has never been fixed. Britain is like its weather – you know it’s the weather but you don’t know where it is going from one time to another. We know we are British.”

Three A long, detailed, informative blog post by Mining in Malawi on oil prospecting on Lake Malawi, the main players and the risks as identified by UNESCO – and so much more. Finally, all the details in one place!

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Mother Courage

I read this profile of the new President of Central African Republic with a little disquiet.

It’s true; a crisis does often allow for a woman to take charge, but like so many women before her, the pressure of expectation can almost seem to set the stage for disappointment:

“Why did the CAR, where the level of early and forced marriage is above 60%, choose a woman to save it? “

I hope she does a good job and she sounds like a sound candidate. But she won’t do a good job just because she’s a woman; I hope she’s got the skills, nous and ability to steer a nation in crisis into calmer waters. She only has a year.

I remember another woman who received similar plaudits and admiration; as time went on the reports of dissatisfaction at home began to clash with glowing plaudits abroad, often more for what she said and signified than what she actually did (or, rather didn’t do – like stay put long enough to actually run the country.) And right now Malawi’s Joyce Banda is up to her neck in the cashgate scandal . She may yet pull through, but like so many, my high hopes were dashed when she disappointed, more through neglect of her duties and due diligence than the usual grand plots. But there’s still more to come on that.

We do female leaders no favours by not subjecting them to the scrutiny we would any man, or expecting gender-neutral attributes such as professionalism, dedication, skill and integrity.

As an African, I don’t want a “Mother” of the nation any more than I want a “Father”. I want a public servant, who is keenly aware of the second half of that word.

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The gender card

When I went home to Malawi recently, voter registration had just started in some districts. I read newspaper articles in which President Banda urged people to register to vote, to stake their claim in democracy. The headlines were good, the copy was full of donor-friendly pro-democracy soundbites.

But by and large, the people I spoke to were unhappy about food prices, inflation, a weak currency, loadshedding and blackouts….and corruption. It would be foolish to pretend that President Banda doesn’t face misogyny as one of Africa’s few women leaders, but one of the criticisms I heard levelled against her most frequently is that she was absent.

In the beginning, when she took over following the death of President Bingu wa’Mutharika, foreign visits were an essential part of restoring donor confidence and the aid taps that had been turned off in response to his recalcitrant rule.  But they continued. She is gone for weeks at a time, often jetting in for a short time before taking off again. The day I left a frustrated newspaper editorial lamented the fact that she hadn’t had a press conference since June – and it was an ill tempered one at that. Whispers of incompetence swirl in the vacuum she leaves behind. And apparently, corruption has flourished, summed up in Jimmy Kainja’s hard hitting editorial: The loot and plunder at Capital Hill is a symptom of a rotten Malawi nation | Malawi Nyasa Times – Malawi breaking news in Malawi Her first press conference since her long absence following the UN General Assembly in New York and the cashgate scandal, though, left much to be desired.

To be fair, corruption isn’t new, but like her predecessor, President Banda refuses to declare her assets, hiding behind claims of misogyny. I’m not alone in feeling dismayed:

She has since been warned by the EU about corruption (a rare acknowledgement of her shortcomings by her foreign friends) and sacked her Cabinet, but steadfastly refuses to lead on this and so many other issues. Perhaps this will be a watershed moment, though, as even foreign headlines turn against her.

I want President Banda to succeed, but despite the fact that her opponents in the next election carry a lot of political baggage, she appears to be squandering her opportunity to lead Malawi in a new direction and to win a mandate at the next election.

Do better, Madame President – or we may not get another one. Now there’s some gender politics.

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Not so Fast

Earlier this week I heard rumblings of a spat between the Malawian President and Madonna. At first, it just seemed that Madonna was displeased at being made to queue with the general public at the airport in the capital, Lilongwe, instead of being whisked to a VIP lounge. I must admit I felt a little stab of schadenfreude and thought nothing more of it. Every time Madonna visits Malawi it’s a media circus and I do find it irritating that the only time my country makes the news is when Madonna is there. Plus, I am deeply ambivalent about the way she was allowed to sidestep the country’s child protection laws in order to adopt her two children, Mercy and David.

But that was under the last President. I’m not sure what happened between Madonna and President Joyce Banda to occasion such a war of words, but soon my Twitter timeline was awash with excited tweets celebrating my President giving Madonna a dressing down, accusing her of exxagerating her charity work and being a bully. Some asked if this was the end of paternalistic celebrity charity work in Africa, others high fived Banda’s assertiveness. As the Guardian put it:

It’s funny, but it’s also a classic takedown of the astonishing entitlement of white savior types and their puffed-up pretensions.

Not so fast.

The 11-point statement reads a like a long, furious stream of consciousness rant. The President may well have some points about Madonna’s attitude and the media circus she stirs up around her charity work, which is up for debate: the last time I was home, I saw the site of one of her schools and it was a razed plot of land. Banda accuses Madonna of exaggerating her school building programme, which may well be right, given reports of mismanagement at her charity, Raising Malawi. I am uneasy about the way Madonna has gone about her charity work and there are reports of her sidestepping the government to do her own thing when she perceives bureaucracy as getting in the way of her plans. And that’s just the thing, her plans. There is a sense that Raising Malawi is her project and legacy and that there is no local consultation, no partnering with grassroots organisations – just a top-down paternalistic development model that is all too prevalent in Africa.


I have to admit feeling more than a little alarmed at the tone of the statement, which smacks of personal offence rather than a purely principled objection to Madonna’s behaviour. The President also defends her sister, who worked for Raising Malawi and apparently left under a cloud. That may just be a coincidence but even more reason to be circumspect about using the Office of the President to launch a vituperative attack.

State House has noted these claims and misgivings. State House has followed the debate incidental to these claims with keen interest, and would wish to respond as follows to put the record straight:

Why is the State House training its beady eye on Madonna’s every move and utterance with the laser focus of a gossip magazine? With inflation soaring, a food crisis and the economy struggling, a shortage of drugs in hospital…I’d argue that the State House has more important things to worry about.  Yes, it’s possible to do both, but the way to deal with Madonna is using our secret weapon: bureaucracy. If the Malawi government doesn’t like her charity’s work, don’t give them planning permission. You’re the government! You could even deny her a visa if it came to it. I don’t recommend it, but my point is, there are so many other weapons in the arsenal to deploy against Madonna – a hysterical statement, even if it (eventually) makes a good point or two, is not it.

The fury is personal. And that’s worrying coming soon after a man was arrested for “insulting the President”.

The statement is tone deaf. A little like throwing a celebration one year into your Presidency, which came about after the death of the previous incumbent and in a time of immense hardship for the people whose wages have not risen with inflation  – in a country that’s already very poor. (Tip: the IMF came calling and praised the currency devaluation. Suffice to say that if they’re happy, someone somewhere is suffering)

More than anything, I’m worried at the character that the statement betrays. It’s impulsive, emotional, thin-skinned, sarcastic and, yes, a little arrogant. And that’s not to side with Madonna.

I want my President to succeed; for my country and for African women. Her role is imbued with symbolism. She has done a number of great things, including restoring donor relations, selling the Presidential Jet and taking a 30% pay cut. She is leading from the front. But, don’t use a hammer to crack a nut. Be a stateswoman, Madame President.

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