Protests over alleged election-rigging in Malawi are turning into a wider campaign for equality in a country where 15 million people survive on less than £150 a year, writes Susan Dalgety.
The plumes of black smoke swirled like tornadoes across Lake Malawi’s distant horizon.
“What’s on fire?” I asked our host, Maria, an Argentinian doctor who has lived in Malawi for nearly 50 years.
She laughed, “That is not smoke, that is nkhungu, they are tiny flies. There will be billions of them in one cloud. Let’s hope they go north, to Karonga, because if they come on shore here, they will engulf us. They can suffocate fishermen ... another piece of onion tart?”
The rest of the lunch passed peacefully, and I forgot about Malawi’s midgies until earlier this week when we woke to find the outside walls and windows of our lakeside cottage covered in the remains of thousands of dead insects.
“Nkhungu?” I asked Chimwaza, who looks after the cottage for Maria and her husband Frank when they are in their Blantyre home, seven hours drive away.
“Ah, you know them,” he said in perfect English, honed by years of working in South Africa and for ex-pats. “Yes, nkhungu. Not too many this time,” he laughed.
“Is it true people eat them?” I ask. “Of course,” he answers. “You can catch them and eat them raw, but the women roast them, or dry them and make them into cakes. They smell like fish when they cook, and they taste like fish too. They are good served with nsima.”
“But be careful if you see them coming,” he warned. “Go inside and don’t let them come in.” Suddenly, the west of Scotland midgies which had ruined many a childhood holiday seemed benign, almost friendly.
READ MORE: Susan Dalgety’s weekly Letter from Malawi
The nkhungu – or lake flies – are an entomological wonder. Their larvae live on the bottom of the lake, and when they form pupae, they rise to the top, struggling free from their cases to form those tornado-like swarms, and a tasty lunch for birds. If they avoid getting eaten, they come onshore, where they die after only 24 hours of life.
“They come when the moon is getting big,” says Chimwaza. “Every month, so watch for them.”
Midgies apart, life at the lakeshore is very peaceful. A few yards from our home, local boys spend their days swimming in the clear, warm lake, occasionally taking to the water in one of the dugout canoes parked along the sand.
Women wash the family’s laundry in the lake’s fresh water, laying it out on smooth, ancient rocks, to dry in the hot, summer sun. Only an occasional herd of cows passing by disturbs the idyllic scene.
Unlike Malawi’s cities, which are on fire – or at least a police vehicle was, earlier this week. The country remains in thrall to the demonstrations that have been a frequent feature of city life since the elections in May.
The two main opposition parties, the MCP and the UTM, dispute the result which saw the DPP and its leader, 79-year-old President Peter Mutharika, returned to power with a narrow majority.
Their concerns about vote rigging are supported by some civil society organisations, which say they will take to the streets until the chair of Malawi’s Electoral Commission, one Dr Jane Ansah, resigns.
The protests are largely peaceful, but occasionally a few hotheads lose control and set a police vehicle on fire, or loot shops, as happened this week in the capital, Lilongwe.
And it seems, from reports circulating on social media and picked up by the national press, that the Minister of Information’s office was vandalised too, though some cynics suggest it was a put-up job to discredit the protestors.
Meanwhile, Malawi’s constitutional court has started its deliberations on the opposition’s claims of vote-rigging, with their verdict due within a month.
Everson Mapayani is one of the activists who took to the streets on Tuesday. The father of two, who lives in a village near the southern shores of Lake Malawi, is no hothead, but he is angry.
“I joined the demos to exercise my rights as a concerned citizen,” he tells me by WhatsApp, Malawians’ favourite form of communication.
“We want the current era to change. We are fed up of the looting of public funds, these are the taxes of the poor people.
“There are no medicines in our public hospitals, our education standards are bad, and there is a big economic gap between rich and poor.”
Over the past few weeks, it seems the message coming from the protestors has changed. Their initial rage over alleged vote rigging has hardened into a colder anger over the structural inequality that has characterised Malawi society since colonial times.
The overwhelming majority of the population – 15 million out of 17.5 million people – live in rural poverty, most surviving on an income of less than £150 a year (official Malawi government figures), while an urban elite – politicians, business leaders and ex-pats – enjoy what little wealth the country generates.
Until now, this divide was treated with a shrug. “It is life,” said the long-suffering villagers. “What can we do, our country is poor,” shrugged the elite.
But a progressive ideology, long missing from Malawi’s politics, is emerging, like the nkhungu from their pupae, with social media as its launch pad.
Writing on Facebook, activist Thandie wa Pulimuheya echoes Everson’s views. “These demos are not about Jane Ansah,” she argues. “She has just become the symbol of a struggle that has been bubbling on like volcanic lava without release.
“It’s a struggle for a livelihood, for jobs, for food, for better governance, for justice, for equality, for a sense of identity ... this is a struggle for Malawi’s very soul.”
And she defends the anger that has revealed itself in looting. “You cannot tell these people to stop breaking things that mean nothing to them ... These are the people who won’t get treatment in hospital, who will be locked up for years without trial, and whose kids will be given trees for classrooms.
“The ferocity of these demos should surprise no-one. When government after government takes care of less than one per cent of the people and treats them like royalty, while treating the rest like garbage, they end up brewing an angry 99 per cent ... The poor have had enough.”
No-one yet knows if this nascent political awakening will, like the nkhungu, flare up in righteous anger, then just as quickly fade away.
But just perhaps, this time Malawi’s 15 million poor really have had enough.