People in Malawi put up with a lot, like the conditions in boarding school dormitaries, writes Susan Dalgety, but allegations of election tampering are testing their traditional forebearance.
Stoicism is a defining national trait here in Malawi. People display an unnatural calmness even under the most intense pressure.
A slight shrug of one shoulder may be the only sign that someone is irritated or upset, but even then, they are probably batting off a passing fly.
People rarely raise their voice in anger, and swearing is simply not acceptable. I have had to curb my tendency to punctuate every second sentence with the f-word, a hard habit to break I can tell you.
Even in the most slow-moving of traffic jams – which happen every evening in the capital Lilongwe – there is no cacophony of car horns, no curses shouted through an open window.
Road rage is simply not a thing here in a country with one of the worst traffic accident records in the world. Around 1,300 people are killed every year on Malawi’s roads, according to figures released recently by the police, more than three people a day.
“It’s part of life,” people say with an unnatural forbearance, just as they accept the high number of toddlers who die each year from malaria, boreholes that break down soon after being installed, leaving villages without drinking water, or the rampant corruption that steals from the poorest.
But in recent weeks, the most unlikely object has moved even the most phlegmatic Malawian to display public emotion, anger even. Step forward the humble bottle of Tippex.
The correcting fluid, beloved of typists in the days before Microsoft Word and the delete button, is at the heart of an election scandal which dominates every conversation, grabs every headline, and even threatens the country’s already fragile economy.
The two main opposition parties, the MCP and the UTM, have launched a court action arguing that the recent Presidential result, which saw the 78-year-old incumbent, Peter Mutharika, win a second term, was rigged.
Polling clerks the length and breadth of the country applied Tippex liberally to correct “mistakes” on the tally sheets used to collate the election results, prompting MCP spokesman Eisenhower Mkaka to say in the wake of the ballot: “This is a serious red flag. It is an indication that someone was trying to tamper with the results.”
The chairperson of the Malawi Electoral Commission, Dr Jane Ansah, a Supreme Court judge, has consistently denied any malpractice, telling a journalist earlier this week that it is up to the courts to decide the matter.
“Correctional fluid, if you check in the dictionary, it corrects errors,” she conceded, adding, “Tippex can be used for positive and negative purposes and that is for the court to find out.”
The court case will start in full on 29 July. In the meantime, Malawi is agog with speculation.
“The government bribed the data entry clerks with 18 million kwacha each,” I am told by one friend. “The President’s closest advisers have told him to resign,” whispers another. “The elections will have to be re-run,” says almost everyone I speak to, from leading members of civil society to taxi drivers.
Tippex has become the unlikely symbol of a national resistance against a result that, whether rigged or not, the majority of Malawians are unhappy with – President Mutharika won with only 38 per cent of the popular vote. As Malawians – and we Brits – are finding out the hard way, democracy is a fragile thing ... Boris Johnson anyone?
While the country rages over the Tippex elections, the nation’s luckiest teenagers have just completed their Malawi School Certificate of Education (MSCE) exams.
These exams, sat at the end of four years of secondary school, are the passport to a better life – yet according to the UN, Malawi has one of lowest number of students completing secondary education in the world.
Thirteen-year-old Bill hopes to be one of the lucky ones. Blinking through his glasses, his calm expression giving little away, he told me last week that while he likes his teachers – “they are very good” – the food at his boarding school is “terrible, we cannot eat it”.
Secondary education is not free, with even the most basic government secondary schools charging “development” fees, and the standard of their teaching is variable.
The competition to win a place at one of the better government-aided secondary schools is fierce, so a range of private boarding schools, often faith-based, have grown up across the country.
Parents like Bill’s have and will continue to make huge personal sacrifices to send their children to a private secondary school, but these institutions bear no resemblance to Eton or Fettes College.
Dropping Bill off at his school, a two-hour drive from his home in Lilongwe, I was shocked at the state of his dormitory.
Ancient cast-iron beds with filthy foam mattresses were piled higgledy-piggledy across the dirty room. Bare wires hung limply where light switches should have been, the plywood walls scarred with years of teenage graffiti.
Bill shares this desolate space with 11 other boys. “We are form one, so we get the worst hostel,” he says. “And we have no showers, they are all broken, so we use a bucket to wash.
“It’s okay,” he shrugs, with typical Malawi stoicism. “The teachers are very good,” he reminds me, which in Malawi is all that matters.
Friends of mine here will recount, with relish, horror stories of their years at boarding school where, like young Bill’s, the food was inedible and the toilet facilities less than basic. But all agree that education is the route out of poverty. “We will do anything to get a good education,” says one.
We left Bill with a carrier bag full of instant noodles, sweets and ginger biscuits, treats to take away the taste of the boiled kidney beans on offer every night for dinner. Food so bad that a few weeks earlier the students had staged a sit-down strike in protest.
But Bill is one of the fortunate few. In three years’ time, he will sit his MCSE exams, and if he passes, his future is more or less assured. Suddenly those boiled beans seem a lot more appetising.