‘We can all do something, through our churches, community groups, yes even politics,’ a former Labour MSP and Malawi veteran tells Susan Dalgety.
The blue lorry, heavily laden, came hurtling towards us, on our side of the road. My husband, not for the first time that morning, steered our vulnerable little Japanese car on to the side of the road, to avoid a head-on collision.
“Bloody hell,” he breathed, “that one was close” before mounting the tarmac again. “One of these days we will run out of luck,” he predicted.
He may well be right. The road from our cottage in the northern shores of Lake Malawi, where we are spending much of the next three months, is a beautiful route along the lake shore down to Lilongwe, the capital city, and on to Blantyre, the country’s commercial heart.
It is also extremely dangerous, with HGV drivers careering along the narrow, pot-holed road as if it was Le Mans. “It’s not a good road, drive carefully,” warned our friend and professional driver Mabvuto before we set off two weeks ago.
We do drive carefully, at least my husband does. But some drivers in Malawi do not practice the same due care and attention. According to Edward Duncan of Stirling University, the country is one of the most dangerous on Earth for driving. The statistics bear him out. Malawi’s road traffic fatalities are twice the global average, at 35 deaths per 100,000 people, and they are on the increase. Last year road accidents went up by more than a third. The Malawi Police Service has still not revealed how many people were killed in 2018, but in 2017 there were nearly seven deaths a day (2,459 people).
READ MORE: Susan Dalgety’s Letter from Malawi series
A unique partnership between Scottish and Malawian clinicians, academics and NGOs is determined to change people’s behaviour.
Safe Roads Africa is a collaboration between Stirling and Edinburgh Universities, Glasgow School of Art, Malawi’s College of Medicine, Chancellor College, Malawi Polytechnic and the Pakachere Institute for Health Development and Communication.
The team is determined that, by training local people as road safety champions, they can begin to reduce the terrible waste of lives. And, they argue, if their approach works in Malawi, it can work elsewhere in the region.
“The sooner the better,” gasps my friend and former Labour MSP, Karen Gillon, who joined us earlier this week for the precarious drive south. “We had to drive up this road last week, in the dark. I have never prayed so hard,” she added.
Karen is a Malawi veteran. She first visited the country in 2005 with a delegation from the Scottish Parliament, and, by her own admission, she fell in love.
Since that first visit, with help of friends and family, she and her mother, Edith Turnbull, have raised tens of thousands of pounds to support orphaned children in Malawi. “My mum makes great tablet,” she laughs. “And the folk at home are really generous.”
She is now associate secretary of the Church of Scotland’s Guild and is in Malawi with a small team of Guild members, here to strengthen the already vibrant partnerships between the church and the Church of Central Africa Presbyterian (CCAP).
The link between the Church of Scotland and Malawi dates back to 1875, when the first Scottish missionaries, led by Dr Robert Laws from Aberdeen, travelled to Lake Malawi.
Malaria killed many of the young Scots, so – armed only with their faith, and travelling in ox carts – they moved twice along the lake shore before finding a healthy haven in a plateau 3,000 feet above Lake Malawi.
Here, Dr Laws and his team built Livingstonia, a self-sufficient community. It boasted a church and a post office complete with clock tower, There was a school, a technical college and a hospital. Laws even introduced a hydro-electric supply to power the community.
Livingstonia still stands today, a testament to the bond between Scotland and Malawi. It is now home to one of the country’s newest universities, which specialises in theology, education and applied sciences.
Karen and her colleagues are not quite as ambitious as Dr Laws, as she explains. “Our work here is not on the same scale, but it is built on the same values of respect and love.”
Guild members support a range of projects in Malawi, from a maize mill at Bandawe, the site of Dr Laws’ second mission before he moved to Livingstonia, to a tailoring shop which makes uniforms for the Malawi women’s’ guild.
Karen was particularly impressed by the irrigation scheme the Guild supports in the Rumphi district. Malawi Fruits, another Scottish charity, provides small-holder farmers with solar pumps so that they water their crops regularly.
“It means that instead of one crop a year, they can get two, or even three,” explains Karen, shouting over the horn of an impatient driver, desperate to overtake on us on a blind corner. “That means farmers can grow produce to sell for food processing, instead of just trading by the side of the road. They can even charge their phone on the pump,” she grins.
Her colleague, the Guild’s general secretary, Iain Whyte, believes the church in Scotland has a lot to learn from its sister church. “Most people in Malawi live in villages, and it can be quite a trek to get to church on a Sunday. The CCAP have prayer houses in the community, where three Sundays every month people gather for a service. Then once a month everyone comes together in church for Holy Communion. “Malawi has empowered lay people to preach. We do a little of that at home, but Malawi has shown us that we could do so much more. Bring the church to the people.”
As we approached Blantyre, where Karen was going to spend the weekend with Wilson, Aubrey and Norman, the teenage boys she first met in 2005 as toddlers in the Open Arms orphanage, I asked if Malawi had changed her.
She turned round in her seat. “You can’t be involved in the Scotland-Malawi relationship and not be changed. I have just spent a week on the lakeshore, where the Scots who tried to live there had to move in 1894 because they were dying from malaria. Yet in 2019, thousands of Malawians every year still die from a disease that should be curable.
“I suppose it has made me more determined than ever to do what I can to reduce inequality. And we can all do something, through our churches, community groups, yes even politics.”
She laughs, loudly. “Politics has a terrible reputation just now, and rightly so, but if we could get away from the tribal politics, in Scotland as well as Malawi, and focus on what really matters, the world would be a better place.” Amen sister.
Find out more about the Guild’s work at www.churchofscotland.org.uk/serve/the_guild