Govati’s face faded from the screen. “I don’t have enough bandwidth,” he said, before cutting our video call short. “Let’s talk on the phone,” I shouted, as if I could cover the 5,000 miles that separated us by the power of my lungs.
Our interrupted meeting, part business, mostly friendship, will be familiar to thousands of Scots, who now spend their work day glued to a screen as Zoom meeting after Zoom meeting rolls past their weary eyes.
We are all becoming adept at maintaining our work patterns and sustaining our friendships via laptops and smartphones, but there is something slightly soulless about technology.
You can’t reach out and give someone a quick hug if their voice starts to falter or stare down a bully who is dominating a conversation. And jokes tend to fall flat during the interminable 10-second delay. But I still marvel at the fact that Govati and I, friends for 15 years, can chat to each other as easily as I do with my mother, he in Lilongwe, the capital of Malawi, me on the edge of Edinburgh.
We met through work, at the start of the formal partnership between our two governments in November 2005, instituted by First Minister Jack McConnell.
We hit it off immediately, his deep, calming voice a contrast to my more excitable tones, and over the years we have worked together on several projects. He is the first interviewee in my forthcoming book about Malawi. He supplied the photographs – and the title – for it, and when it is published next year, we will celebrate together. He, teetotal, with mango juice, me with a Malawi gin and tonic.
Our families have become entwined. When his eldest daughter Vitumbiko married three years ago, we took our grandson Kyle to the wedding. Thoko, Govati’s much-loved wife, is one of my best friends, our love of shopping cementing our relationship. And the invitation to their second daughter’s wedding sits forlornly in my inbox.
I won’t be dancing at Vilerani and Moses’s wedding on 1 November, but I am posting their wedding gift early next week, and we will celebrate together over pizza the next time I visit Malawi.
Govati is embarking on a new project – a book about photography in Malawi – and I am helping with the research. Imagine our delight when we discovered that Malawi’s first photographer, Mungo Murray Chisuse, probably learned his craft from renowned Scottish photographer, Francis Caird Inglis, in his father’s Calton Hill studio during a stay in Edinburgh in 1897.
The links between Scotland and Malawi now stretch over three centuries, as Malawi’s new President, His Excellency Lazarus Chakwera will remind members of the Scotland Malawi Partnership today at their annual general meeting, held, of course, on Zoom.
“The bond between our two countries is one I personally hold in the highest esteem,” he will say. He will also call for an increase in the number of people involved in the partnership – from 300,000 to half a million, and for Scotland to host a major conference to progress the co-operation between the two governments, with a particular focus on strengthening governance in both countries.
And he will urge Scotland and Malawi to work together to tackle climate change, “I am eager to see this partnership between us become an example to the world of two nations approaching climate change with a sense of urgency in the spirit of collaboration.”
It is this spirit of collaboration that makes the Scotland Malawi Partnership and its sister organisation, the Malawi Scotland Partnership, unique in international development, where global charities and rich donor countries dominate.
The members – who range from academics to primary school teachers, entrepreneurs to MPs, teenage activists to pensioner’s clubs – work together as equals. They don’t have big budgets for marketing, so their work often goes unsung, but it is remarkable all the same.
Take the work of Malawi’s College of Medicine. Under the inspirational leadership of Professor Mwapatsa Mipando, the college is in the process of establishing Malawi’s first dental school with support from his friend and colleague, Professor Jeremy Bagg, head of Glasgow University’s dental department.
And the college is also home to the Blantyre–Blantyre project, unique research into the unexplained causes of low life-expectancy in Glasgow. Malawi could yet find the answer to a social problem that has plagued Scotland for a century.
But the bond between Scotland and Malawi has not always been so productive or respectful. As the two networks recognised in a statement earlier this year about the Black Lives Matter movement, Scotland “was indisputably an integral part of colonial rule across the globe, with all its appalling injustices... it is important we understand the historic harm done by the British Empire, its institutions and systems, the language and culture it imposed, and the legacy this damage continues to have today. It is essential that we look to understand this history, to highlight the wrongs that have been done and learn from them and use the contemporary Scotland-Malawi relationship as a powerful force for good, driven by both nations.”
Noble words, but do they resonate in Malawi with the great, great grandchildren of a proud people colonised by often hostile strangers?
And what does Black Lives Matter, which emerged from the streets of America, mean to an African?
I messaged Govati on WhatsApp. “Black Lives Matter is a reminder to white people that the colour of our skin does not make one human different from another. We need to treat each other equally, without racism,” he replied.
“That is why the Malawi Scotland Partnership is so important. It is not about who is wealthier or has a more advanced economy. It is about working together, learning how to deal with emerging challenges for the benefit of both our countries.
“And it’s about friendship, like ours.”
Coronavirus has shown the world that we are all vulnerable to nature. Trump’s white skin did not make him impervious to Covid. America’s economic strength cannot stop California burning.
Our survival will depend not only on governments working together, but on mutual solidarity between people, black and white, north and south.
On Tuesday, the Scottish Parliament will debate the future direction of Scotland’s international development support in light of the pandemic and Black Lives Matter.
The unique partnership between Scotland and Malawi shows what people power can achieve. It just requires, as Govati would say, a little faith from politicians.
Find out more about the links between Scotland and Malawi at scotland-malawipartnership.org.
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