A tiny village at the foot of the Zomba plateau in Malawi and the UK’s second-biggest trade union have formed a new partnership described as a ‘miracle’ of modern technology, writes Susan Dalgety.
I pulled up my trouser leg and showed Jean the array of fiery red, infected bites.
“Ha, ha, ha,” she shrieked, “Bingu, Bingu, from last time. I remember.” Two weeks ago, Jean and I had stood outside her modest restaurant, discussing life, as women of a certain age are wont to do, when I was attacked by a horde of tiny, black, biting bugs.
“We call them Bingu,” explained Jean at the time, with a big grin. “They come from the maize.”
Bingu was the name of Malawi’s third President, who, while much loved across large parts of Malawi, is less respected in Zomba district, home of his successor, the former President Joyce Banda. In Malawi, everything is political, even the insects. I had returned earlier this week to Jean’s restaurant in the Domasi trading centre to meet up with my old friend Councillor Issa Jafali, who had lost his seat in last week’s elections.
His party, Joyce Banda’s People’s Party, had fallen out of favour with the voters, which meant that even his proud record of bringing development to the area, including a new maternity clinic, could not save him from defeat.
“The MP, Joyce’s son, lost his seat too,” said Issa, glumly. “I haven’t slept all week, worrying about how I am going to find a job now I am no longer a councillor. I have school fees, there are three children still at primary and one at secondary. It is pressure ...” he trailed off.
Our chat on the steps of Jean’s restaurant was interrrupted by a man who signalled to Issa he wanted to talk. Issa went over and had a chat with him, in basic sign language. The man smiled broadly, waved and walked away.
“He is deaf?” I asked. Issa nodded. “Where did you learn sign language?”
He looked slightly abashed. “I learned it from the news on MBC television, I followed the signers on there. It is nothing.”
My admiration for him went up another notch. He would be an excellent addition to any company. His CV includes a decade as a lab technician in a fish farm, which closed down when the funding ran out, followed by a spell as the manager of a boarding school, before giving that up to become a full-time councillor.
He is a self-taught digital communications wizard, bashing out stories about his community on a beat-up Chinese smartphone, and was chair of the council’s agriculture committee for most of his five-year term. But at 46, and without a degree, he will struggle to find work. There are over nine million people of working age (15 to 64) in Malawi, according to the government’s most recent census, and only 11 per cent of them have a formal job.
Most other people work on the land, growing maize for their own consumption, or employed on one of the large tobacco, sugar or tea estates.
Malawi needs all the food it can grow, and more. It has one of the fastest growing populations in the world, with more than 18 million mouths to feed.
The United Nations suggests that by 2050 the country will be home to 43 million people.
There are 2,000 babies born every day in Malawi. Over 700,000 a year, and growing. In the maternity clinic close to Issa’s home village, there can be ten births or more each week.
The clinic has only two beds in the basic labour ward, but sometimes there can be three or even four women in labour.
“We put a mattress on the floor, spread their macintosh (a plastic mat) on it, then a cloth on top and we lie them there. Some days we can have more than three patients, we lie those in the corridor and she delivers there.” explained one of the midwives.
But help is at hand. Thanks to a fundraising campaign led by UNISON Scotland member Gordon MacKay during his recent term as the union’s lay president, the community will get a new, bigger and better maternity unit.
It was Issa’s determination to tell the world about his community through Facebook that inspired Gordon and his team, including nurse and Unison activist Wilma Brown, to raise over £20,000 for a new clinic. As he explained to me recently, “When I found out the great work that is being done at the Machinjiri clinic, under really difficult circumstances, I knew I wanted to do something during my term as president to support the staff, mothers and babies.
“I am genuinely moved about how much support the campaign has had from Unison members, and after my recent visit to Malawi, I am confident that this will be the start of a long relationship between us and the Machinjiri community.”
Work on the new clinic will start soon, and while Issa may no longer be the local councillor, he will stay involved with the project.
“It will be a very proud moment when it is finished,” he says, picking up his phone. “And to think it is this thing that makes it possible. It is a miracle really.”
I am not sure that Mark Zuckerberg’s billion-pound social media behemoth could really be described as miraculous, but the partnership between the tiny village of Machinjiri at the foot of Zomba plateau in Southern Malawi and the UK’s second-biggest trade union was nurtured through Facebook and WhatsApp.
And Issa will document the clinic’s construction on his phone, sharing progress with the hundreds of NHS staff who helped make it happen.
As I said goodbye to Jean, who was gutting a local chicken to make a stew, she exclaimed, “Tell me when you’re coming back and I will make you goat and nsima. I am on WhatsApp now. My son got me a WhatsApp phone to follow the election, he said, so don’t forget to tell me when you’re coming back.” Social media may have given gangster governments like Russia an opportunity to disrupt democracy in the USA, and most likely the UK during the Brexit campaign, but it also offers an opportunity for people – not politicians – to connect with each other in a way never before seen in human history.
As the old political elite struggles to survive, perhaps we are about to witness the birth of global people power fuelled by smartphones. Issa and Gordon certainly think so.
Find out more about Unison Scotland’s Malawi appeal