Malawi, one of the poorest places in the world, is seemingly surplus to requirements in a world run by populist autocrats and billionaire spivs, writes Susan Dalgety.
“My sister, my sister,” Clara shouted as she ran towards me, arms outstretched. We hugged under the hot midday sun, and hand-in-hand headed into the coolness of her home, followed by at least a dozen members of her family.
“Sit, sit,” she commanded, pointing to a set of four new cane chairs in the middle of the otherwise empty room. Clara, who is 66 years old, lives in a house owned by her brother, the local chief.
From the outside it is an imposing, concrete structure, its yellow and blue paint still visible under a thick coating of Lilongwe’s red dust.
Inside, her house is bare, a wooden dresser the only remnant of her life as a “city wife” when she lived in Mzuzu with her husband Stexie, an accountant. Her bedroom contains a single wooden bed, while the other rooms are used to store bags of maize and farming tools, including a collection of hoes.
READ MORE: Susan Dalgety’s Letters from Malawi
Like most Malawians, Clara’s kitchen and toilet are outside. She cooks nsima (maize porridge) over a charcoal burner. A pit latrine and plastic bucket are her bathroom.
But she is lucky. She has electricity, so she can charge the mobile phones of everyone who lives nearby and the village borehole is a few metres from her home. “I don’t have to walk far for water,” she explains, with a laugh.
Escaping a death sentence
Clara is also HIV positive. She was tested positive nearly 20 years ago as her husband lay dying in hospital. After his death, she retreated back to her home village with her seven children, a penniless widow, and prepared to die.
Last week, listening to her and her eldest son Gifted explain their plans for planting their next maize harvest in the rich, red soil that surrounds Clara’s home, it is hard to imagine that she was once under a death sentence.
Clara is fitter than most 30-something women I know. She can still wield her hoe, breaking new ground every year. She is not plagued by the aches and pains that we desk-bound oldies suffer, and her diet, which now includes plenty of protein, keeps her slim.
Her recovery is down to Malawi’s astounding record in tackling the HIV & Aids epidemic that once threatened to destroy the country. She was one of the first to receive free ARVs (anti-retroviral drugs), and like the one million other people now taking this miracle treatment, her life expectancy is back to normal.
“I am stronger than ever,” she tells me as we say our goodbyes. “See you next year.” I have spent the last six months thinking about Malawi in a way I have never thought about my own country.
I have delved deep into the economic research which shows that, in 1964, when Malawi won its independence from a colonial British government, its gross domestic product per head was bigger than China’s. It is now one of the poorest countries in the world.
I spoken at length with Malawi politicians, academics and civil society leaders about why their beautiful, peaceful country is so poor. “A lack of good leadership,” they all said. “And the low quality of our education,” they all added.
“The poor are too passive, and the elite don’t care,” said more than one. Several hinted at the legacy of colonialism but were too polite to tell me to my face that my country was part of the problem.
Ex-pat development experts shrugged when I asked what can be done. “Malawi is a mess,” said one. “Nothing works.”
“But the HIV programme does,” I countered. “Malawi is on track to be one of the first countries to get rid of the disease. Surely that is something to build on.”
“Maybe,” came the jaded reply.
And I spent a lot of time with ordinary Malawians, whose lives have barely changed since David Livingstone first caught sight of the Lake of Stars in 1859.
Bright, articulate, funny, engaging, thoughtful human beings, who – because of an accident of birth – are destined to live their life in extreme poverty. And so, it seems, are their grandchildren.
“We are better off than we were when I was a child,” muses Chimwaza, 43.
“Many people have iron sheets instead of grass for their roof. And we have more clothes, thanks to the second-hand ones from Europe. When I was a boy, we had one pair of shorts, which we had to wash in the lake each night for school the next day. Now our children have two, even three pairs.
“But there are no jobs. The men here still go to South Africa for work. And if our harvest fails, then we don’t eat. And yes, our toilet is just a hole in the ground, covered with grasses,” he laughs when I quiz him a bit more about village life. “And some people still use the bush,” he grimaces.
World run by billionaire spivs
I try to reconcile Chimwaza’s life – the norm for the overwhelming majority of Malawians – with the glamour of a white-washed boutique hotel in downtown Lilongwe, where 20-something aid workers type furiously on their MacBooks before cooling off in the sparkling pool.
A room in this hotel, much favoured by international donors, costs around £220 a night. In 2017, the average income per person in Malawi was £263 per year.
This is the inequality that will destroy our world, and that is keeping the people of Malawi from flourishing.
In the 55 years since Malawi’s independence, there has been a revolution in the global economy. Trillions are traded every day by algorithms. Chimwaza has never had a bank account.
Experts suggest artificial intelligence will boost global economic output by around $13 trillion by 2030. Clara still uses a handmade hoe to prepare the ground for planting.
China, the country that lagged behind Malawi in GDP per person in 1964, is now within spitting distance of becoming the world’s biggest economy. And Chinese traders are systematically stealing what little mineral resources there are in Malawi, on the pretext of testing.
Malawi seems surplus to requirements in this selfie-obsessed new world, driven by populist autocrats, billionaire spivs and social media, where individual identity and personal wealth matters more than community and shared prosperity.
But, sitting in the cool, tiled sitting room of a retired Presbyterian minister, a man who once preached in Perthshire, I detect a wind of change, at least in Malawi.
“Malawi has always been peaceful, with people accepting their lot,” says the Reverend Maxwell Banda.
“But there comes a time when people say enough is enough, we cannot go on like this. I think that time has come.”
But is it too late?
Susan Dalgety’s book ‘The Spirit of Malawi’ will be published by Luath Press in 2020.