Scotland’s unique friendship with ‘the warm heart of Africa’ – Susan Dalgety

Susan Dalgety still remembers the ‘stomach-turning burst of sheer joy’ as she fell in love with Malawi, a moment that would change her life forever.

The then First Minister Jack McConnell on a 2005 trip to Malawi when Susan Dalgety fell in love with the country (Picture: Donald Macleod)

It is 160 years ago that David Livingstone, a working-class boy from Blantyre, first set foot in what is now Malawi.

Livingstone, a clever, stubborn man, who dreamt of worlds far beyond his Lanarkshire birthplace, arrived on the shore of Lake Malawi in September 1859.

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His diary entry was to the point. “17th Sept. Reached Lake Nyassa from which the Shire emerges.”

And with those prosaic words, a unique friendship between Scotland and Malawi was forged, one that has survived colonialism, two world wars and three decades of authoritarian rule in Malawi.

It has seen Scottish missionaries, medics and teachers share their skills with their peers in Malawi. It has inspired Malawi schools, trade unions and universities to join with their counterparts in Scotland to learn from each other.

It has been the catalyst for individual endeavour too, like Olivia Giles of 500 miles who, working with the Malawi Ministry of Health, has transformed Malawi’s prosthetic service in a decade.

And, thanks to the Scotland Malawi Partnership and its sister organisation in Malawi, more than 100,000 Scots and 200,000 Malawians are now linked in practical, community-led partnerships.

In 2005, the Scottish Government, led by the then First Minister Jack McConnell, took the partnership to a new level when he signed a co-operation agreement between our two countries.

This bond remains as strong today, prompting the new International Development Secretary, Rory Stewart, to describe Scotland’s relationship with Malawi as a “very exciting way to do development in the 21st century ... it shows how these human connections give us the legitimacy and centre to make progress.”

All because a headstrong Scot was determined to explore the Zambesi River.

It is also why I am sitting here in a soulless airport waiting for a much-delayed plane to Malawi, where my husband and I will live for the next six months, researching and writing a book about the country.

I remember the exact moment I fell in love with Malawi. It was April 2005. I was sitting in the front passenger seat of a battered old Land Rover, with a colleague from the Scottish Government, Rachel, in the back.

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My window was down, the African sun hot on my skin. As our young driver, Peter Potani, drove through the slow-moving mid-morning traffic of the capital Lilongwe, I suddenly felt a stomach-turning burst of sheer joy.

I was in love. Not with a person. Or an idea. But with a country. Twenty-four hours after I had landed for the first time on African soil, I knew that Malawi was going to be a big part of the rest of my life.

I had no concept of what that would mean. No idea how I was going to build a relationship with people I did not know, in one of the poorest countries in the world. Not a clue about how Malawi worked, beyond what little research I had done before this trip.

I was naïve about the level of poverty that plagues the country, stunting the growth of millions of children, and killing many before they are five.

But I was ignorant too of the country’s rich culture, history and potential for growth.

I was not an international development professional; my career centred round Scottish politics and journalism.

And I had a growing family in Edinburgh. A husband. Two sons, and a new grandchild. Africa had never featured in my life plan ... until now.

Fourteen years later, I am still in love with Malawi and its people. It is a central part of my life. Some of my best friends live there. Photographer Govati Nyirenda and his wife Thoko are as much part of my family as my siblings and their partners.

Last year I took our eldest grandchild Kyle to Malawi to meet them. Tomorrow, I will meet their first grandchild, Clarissa Viwemi, who was born only ten days ago. She, along with the 2,000 babies born every day, is Malawi’s future.

I have cried and laughed, and cried again, with the Galimoto family, as their family survives the trials of growing up poor in Malawi. Clara, 66, who is HIV positive, is my sister. Gifted, her first born, is my surrogate son, and Kyle, Clara’s 14-year-old grandson, is named after our first grandchild.

And Homba Mbkeani, 91, who left Durban in 1954 to live in Malawi with her new husband and his family, is my African mother.

She is bedridden now, trapped in a body paralysed by a series of strokes.

She can barely talk, but each time we meet, our eyes lock, and she whispers her familiar greeting, “I’m alive”, and all is well.

I have travelled all over the country, from the mountainous north to the arid south. I have, like David Livingstone 160 years ago, marvelled at the myriad of stars that light up Lake Malawi at night.

I have argued with politicians and despaired at the stinking, filthy poverty that reduces human life to nothing more than basic survival.

I know journalists, shop-keepers, farmers and councillors. I love nothing more than a gossip with my good friend and colleague, Maggie Banda, over supper or spending time with Councillor Jafali in his ward, a few miles from where David Livingstone first landed.

And my heart soars every time I go through customs at the airport to be greeted by my old friend, Mabvuto Salirana.

“Hello Bwana,” he laughs, holding out his hand. “Hello Big Bwana,” I respond, pulling him close for a hug. “I’m back.”

And Peter Potani? The young man who guided two naïve white women, gently but firmly, through their first week in Malawi, is still my oldest friend in Malawi, even if we have gone through some tough times together.

I will share my experience of living in Malawi with you every week, from the delights of Malawi gin to the more exotic taste of fried mice and flying ants. Malawi had its own “artisan” gin long before Scots distillers made gin hip. And it’s only £3 a bottle.

I will tell the stories of big-hearted Scots who are making a difference in a country whose government has an annual budget of only £1.5 billion a year, and a population of 18 million people. The Scottish Government has a budget of £42.5 billion a year for five million people. But above all, I hope to share with you some of the spirit of Malawi that inspired its nickname, “The Warm Heart of Africa”, and gave birth to a 160-year-old friendship.