Politics always comes down to straightforward choices – Susan Dalgety

An array of pretty trees or firewood for an impoverished population? Whether its Africa or Scotland our politicians are often faced with competing alternatives writes Susan Dalgety

Caption: Mzuzu's famous jacaranda trees in full bloom, before they were controversially cut down last year. (Pic: Nigel Guy)

Alexander looked slightly embarrassed. “What happened to the trees?” I asked. “You know, the ones down the main street, the beautiful jacaranda trees, the ones that made Mzuzu famous?”

He looked away, then turned and shrugged. “The council agreed to cut them down last year, when the road was being upgraded.

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“Some people said they were old and dangerous. They could fall on cars. But I think it was an excuse…” he tailed off.

Alexander is my friend. We met through work. I help run training courses for councillors in Malawi, and for five years, from 2014, Alexander was a councillor on Mzuzu City Council. For two years, until the May elections, he was the city mayor. “Could the council plant new trees?” I asked. “Yes, but of course it would cost money,” he replied. “Not much, but councils in Malawi have very few resources, and trees on the Orton Chirwa Avenue are not a priority. But I can find out if you like.”

So, a week ago, over a cup of Mzuzu coffee, Alexander and I decided to raise the money to replace Mzuzu’s famous trees. Three days after our Saturday morning chat, he sent me a memo from the city’s director of environment. It was a budget for planting new trees, including transport and labour.

“It’s only 1.8 million kwacha,” I told my husband. “Around two thousand pounds. We can do that, surely?” He agreed, and so did Alexander, which is why we have embarked on a fundraising campaign to restore Mzuzu’s main street to its former glory.

Already, a dear friend in Scotland, who has connections in the tree world, is exploring options. Alexander and I are working on the message for a crowdfunding campaign, and my work colleague Danny, who is broken-hearted about the loss of the old trees in his favourite city, has promised to help.

Raising money for trees might seem a strange thing to do in a country where there are so many urgent, life-threatening challenges that need hard cash. But trees matter. They are not only beautiful, adding life and personality to cityscapes and rural areas alike, they are an essential element of our ecosystem.

Malawi used to be heavily forested. Its land mass is the same size as Scotland and Wales, and only thirty years ago, forty per cent was forest. Now, less than a quarter is covered in trees. People cut them down because they need the land to grow food and for firewood to cook their nsima. Only 11 per cent of the population live in homes with electricity.

But the impact of deforestation can be disastrous. As soon as trees are cut down, the top soil is exposed to Malawi’s heavy rains and washed down into the rivers and Lake Malawi, leaving behind infertile earth, so farmers struggle to grow healthy crops.

And the build-up of soil in the lake affects already dwindling fish stocks, reducing them even further.

“Ethiopia planted two million trees in one day recently,” I reminded Alexander as we parted last week. “Surely we can plant thirty down the high street.” He laughed.

Five years as a councillor has left him slightly cynical about public service, but despite his battle scars – party politics in Malawi is remarkably similar to the shenanigans that go on in our political tribes – he remains convinced that politics is a noble profession. As do I.

“But we need good people in politics,” he said recently, over another coffee. “People who want to improve their city, or their country, not people who want to enrich themselves.”

One of the biggest challenges facing any politician, whether the leader of Edinburgh City Council or the Mayor of Mzuzu, is deciding on spending priorities, then convincing the electorate that your decision is the right one – for them, as well as the city.

“The hardest thing for me was getting people to pay their local taxes willingly,” said Alexander. “They say, ‘why should we pay tax when we don’t have services, like good refuse collection?’

“I tell them, the council can’t give you public services if you don’t pay tax, that is how it works. But it is tough,” he smiled, somewhat ruefully.

“The job of a councillor is tough,” I told twenty newly elected ones on Thursday.

My colleague Charity and I led a two-day workshop in the capital Lilongwe to introduce participants from across the country to a new political mentoring programme.

Thanks to a grant from the Royal Norwegian Embassy, we have recruited 20 councillors elected in 2014 to mentor their new colleagues as they embark on their five-year stint as local politicians. As far as we know, this is the first time that such a scheme has been tried in Malawi, though it has proved successful in the UK.

“Our councillors are a precious resource,” said one woman who decided not to stand again in 2019. “I did my duty,” she laughed. “So we should pass on our experience to our new colleagues, even those we campaigned against.”

The cross-party camaraderie we enjoyed this week is in stark contrast to the political warfare playing out on the front pages of the national newspapers, on the streets, and in the courts.

“Just like at home,” I told the Malawi councillors, rather ruefully.

I am not the only Scot to be sharing my hard-earned political experience with my Malawi peers. Last week, two Scottish politicians, Maureen Watt MSP and MP Patrick Grady were members of a UK delegation to Malawi. They spent two days with MPs in Lilongwe, sharing their experiences.

“There are many similarities in terms of process and procedures for scrutinising legislation,” says Patrick. “The Malawian system is adapted from the Westminster model.

“But there are differences and challenges as well – elected members in the UK are not expected to pay school fees, or buy coffins, for the families of constituents, which is a constant pressure for their Malawian counterparts.”

And a few weeks ago, just after Malawi’s elections, Margaret Curran, doyen of the Scottish and Westminster parliaments, and now a global political guru, took part in a week-long orientation programme for the 2019 intake of MPs.

She shared her experience of balancing her constituents’ needs with competing priorities when she was in government, and campaigning against austerity when she was in opposition.

“It is much tougher than people think,” she smiled. “And I don’t know how my Malawi colleagues cope, they have so few resources, either nationally or at a local level.”

But in the end, politics comes down to straightforward choices, such as “should we cut down the trees?” or “should we leave Europe?”

We don’t always make the right decision.