Jackie Farr: ‘Warm heart of Africa’ shows what friendship is

Links between Malawi and Scotland started more than 150 years ago remain trong today. Picture: Contributed
Links between Malawi and Scotland started more than 150 years ago remain trong today. Picture: Contributed
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This summer Jackie Farr had the opportunity to travel to Malawi to experience first-hand the warmth of friendship that exists with Scotland

There’s been a lot said about the long-standing links between Scotland and Malawi in recent years: links that began more than 150 years ago with Dr David Livingstone. It’s estimated that 46 per cent of Scots have a friend or family member involved in a Malawi partnership, across hundreds of churches, schools, hospitals and universities – so there’s no shortage of Scots passionate about this small African country.

I first visited Malawi fresh out of university – my first trip to Africa –with no idea of what to expect. I was overwhelmed at the warmth of the welcome I received and the kindness of the people I met, so when the opportunity came up to visit Malawi again, I jumped at the chance. I wanted to see whether the enthusiasm that exists in Scotland for these partnerships is still matched in Malawi, and whether the many links that exist are delivering real change.

When I arrived into Malawi I was struck from the outset once again by the friendliness with which I was greeted. I was made to feel like a friend returning after a long time away. I know Malawi is called the ‘warm heart of Africa’ but I was pleased to see it still lives up to its reputation. Scots –and I’m sure others as well- really do get a fantastically warm reception the moment they arrive in Malawi.

The first project we visited was First Aid Africa. Based in Ekwendeni, in the north of the country, they’ve been working since 2009 to teach hundreds of children and local community leaders basic first aid. While there, we watched the local after-school club graduate from their first aid training. It was inspiring to see the pride and excitement that these young people had for their new life-saving skills: I don’t doubt for a moment that, right now, they’re back in their villages across Malawi teaching others how to save a life.

Moving up the country, along a very bumpy and dusty road, we reached the small village in Dowa in the central region, the site for a Scottish Government supported Sustainable Energy Project, run by Community Energy Malawi. This project involves environmentally and economically efficient clay cooking stoves, made locally and sold locally, providing a more sustainable and energy-efficient method of cooking and income for the community. Astoundingly, less than 10% of Malawians have access to electricity, and only 1% in rural areas such as Dowa. This project in Dowa is just one example of a wider Scottish Government funded Malawi-Scotland initiative that’s looking to change this through increased community access to renewable technology. It’s wonderful to think that even in the most remote parts of Malawi there are lights that have been installed in partnership with Scotland, thanks to support from the Scottish Government.

Next it was south to Blantyre, named after the town in Scotland where Dr David Livingstone was born, to meet an old friend. I first met Monica Dzonzi at the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games where she was Unicef Youth Ambassador for Malawi. Monica had told me then all about the Youth Centre she works at, so of course I had to pay a visit.

AYISE – Active Youth Initiative for Social Enhancement – gives young Malawians a safe place to play sports or just hangout but, crucially, it also has a computer lab and provides training in ICT skills. More than half of all Malawians are under the age of 18, soon half will be under 16. It’s hugely important that young Malawians have the right skills-sets to find employment and this brilliant project is doing just that.

For each of the projects I visited, the first thing anyone said to me was usually about the people they knew from Scotland. “Please tell them I say hello”, “Are they doing well?”, “I hope they visit us soon!” were common phrases I heard again and again. Despite all the hundreds of churches, schools, charities, universities and hospitals involved, this isn’t a bilateral relationship driven by links between organisations but by friendships between real people. It’s easy to be sceptical about things these days but I really was struck once again by the warmth and friendship I experienced across Malawi. These weren’t projects being run by armies of ex-pat Scots enjoying their time in the sun but by Malawians, rightly proud of what they were achieving for their own country. All of this is driven by a sense not of charity but of genuinely dignified partnership with Scotland. I just can’t wait to return.

• Jackie Farr, Media and Communications Officer for the Scotland Malawi Partnership.