Malawi, a multi-party democracy since 1994, is about to hold elections for president, national parliament and local councils, writes Susan Dalgety.
Scotland is not the only country to enjoy an election in a few days’ time. Malawians are gearing themselves up for only the sixth multi-party election in their history.
“It’s too close to call,” says everyone I ask to predict the result. “This time we don’t know what will happen,” confirms Lewis, a political consultant and long-time friend, who is, much to our mutual amusement, a big fan of Jeremy Corbyn.
“Let democracy thrive,” commands the leader column in The Nation, one of the country’s two main newspapers, while congratulating the Malawi Electoral Commission for building confidence in the electoral process.
It is no mean feat to organise a tri-partite election – for president, parliament and local government – in a country where many of the 5,000 polling places are in remote, rural areas, and where the concept of voting is still relatively new.
Multi-party democracy was introduced here in 1994, 30 years after Malawi gained its independence from Britain, and after three decades of one-party rule.
This time there are three main contenders for the Presidency and control of the parliament: the current incumbents, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP); the Malawi Congress Party (MCP), the party that won independence, but lost the confidence of the people after 30 years of authoritarian rule; and the new kids on the block, the United Transformation Movement (UTM).
Saulos Chilima, the leader of the UTM, is an interesting character. He was chief executive of Malawi’s leading telecoms company, Airtel, before entering politics, and received his PhD in knowledge management from the University of Bolton.
At 48, he is much younger than the sitting President, the DPP’s Peter Mutharika, who is nudging 80. A few days ago, Mutharika was forced to declare that he was not dead, after rumours of his demise began circulating on social media.
“Some people are speculating I am dead,” he boomed at a rally in Salima, near the shores of Lake Malawi. “You have seen me. Am I dead? Are you seeing a corpse? It is them who will die first...” he added with a rhetorical flourish.
Chilima is standing on a platform of economic transformation, better public services and tackling corruption, and his red-shirted supporters wear the party’s slogan – Tsogolo Lathu (Our Future) – with obvious pride.
Campaigning is much more colourful here in Malawi. Women wear traditional chitenjes emblazoned with their party’s logo, and campaign t-shirts are much sought after. Even the candidates ditch their business suits for jackets or dresses bearing their party’s message. Standing in the grounds of a community centre earlier this week, I found myself dancing along to the beat of the drums as a candidate for the council elections, Issa Jafali, another friend of mine, gave a passionate speech to his supporters. I had no idea what Issa was saying – my Chichewa extends to around 20 words – but the rhythm of the drums was unmistakable. It is the sound of Africa, the beat that drives our popular music, from R&B to pop. It makes everyone, even Theresa May, want to dance. And it transforms a dull political event into a party.
Earlier that day, I visited a remote village with Issa, where I met a woman whose home had been destroyed in the recent storms and floods.
Patumo Kandulo grabbed my hand and pointed to the remains of her modest home. “Gone,” she said, with a fatalism that was startling. I can’t begin to imagine how I would feel if my tenement flat was raised to the ground, and I had no insurance to rebuild my home.
“Where do you live now?” I ask, and Patumo points to a tiny, red-brick outbuilding a few yards away. “Kitchen,” she says, matter of factly.
Patumo has no husband. No paid work, beyond growing maize to eat. And she still has two children at school.
“How does she survive?” I ask Issa as we walk back to the car, through pumpkin gardens alive with scarlet butterflies. “People look after each other,” he replies, as if it is the most natural thing in the world.
It is in Malawi. It has to be. Most of the 18 million population live in extreme poverty, in villages where there is no electricity, water is pumped from a communal bore-hole, and a family’s very survival depends on the weather.
But even in the towns and cities, where there are jobs, and Wi-Fi, and shops selling big screen televisions, family is paramount.
“Family is very important, and the home is the centre of that,” explains Busiwese as she stands outside her grandmother’s home on the outskirts of Blantyre, Malawi’s commercial heart.
She is refurbishing the home that her granny, Homba, built in the early 1960s, in the wake of independence. Homba, now 91, is still alive, but her lively mind and wicked sense of humour is trapped in a body all but destroyed by a series of strokes. The house, once a magnificent five-bedroom bungalow, had fallen into serious disrepair over recent years. “I had to fix it,” said Busiwese, who moved from the capital city, Lilongwe, to care for her grandmother.
“It will be very slow, by phases. First the roof, then the electricity, and finally the plastering. The timing depends on my resources,” she explains. “But we need to secure the family’s future.
“You can deal with the bad things that happen to you in the world if you know you have the shelter of your family to return to for protection, and this house is that place.”
On Tuesday, nearly seven million Malawians – more than half of them under 35 and the majority women – will vote for a new government, in the hope that the politicians they choose will offer them some degree of protection from the harsh reality of a global economy that favours the rich.
A world order that regards women like Patumo or Homba as nothing more than collateral damage in the drive for even more riches for a favoured few, like Trump or Putin.
No matter who wins, they will face a complex set of economic and social challenges that make Brexit seem inconsequential. Even the most thoughtful of politicians, an Obama or a Merkel, would struggle here in Malawi.
But change is possible, hope is alive, and on Tuesday, the young people and the women of Malawi, will decide the next phase of their country’s future.