Malawi – Friday 12th March

We finished off our stay in Mzuzu with a rather nice meal in an Indian restaurant with Symon, our driver. Sadly, Symon normally has to eat separately to us, as he gets a lower allowance than the other staff. But Eva and I were glad that on this occasion he was able to eat with us. He was keen to talk about his vision for community empowerment and development in Malawi. It’s a pretty inspiring vision, and we were keen to talk it through with him. He wants Malawians to be able to make the most of their fantastic natural resources, while retaining what’s good about life in Malawi. It’s refreshing to hear a Malawian value the aspects of his life that might seem very mundane when faced with the opportunity to own a car, or a laptop, or a mobile phone. Too often development becomes a choice. Either you value a good family life, the opportunity to pursue friendships and the ability to enjoy landscape and wildlife. Or you value material possessions. It’s not a real choice. The real choice is whether to abandon the things that give life value or not.

Of course, there needs to be change in global trade, aid and debt systems to make more choices available to more people. But even now, it’s possible to retain much of the best of what Malawians have, while improving the vital material standards of life.

Symon lives in a village and is the only wage earner in his family, so has to support his mother, sister and brother in law. Sadly there seems to be very little social mobility in Malawi. This isn’t just bad for people like Symon. While the country is desperate for people who are able to take forward a vision like Symon’s, it seems very difficult to for them to get into positions to make a difference. It’s something that European countries did well during the period from 1945 to the late 1970s.

My own parents were beneficiaries of this rise in social mobility. As was the country. It meant people were able to rise to the level of their ability. Unfortunately this was accompanied by marked differences in wealth. Where we should have shared wealth throughout society, the existing wealthy shared it with this new meritocratic class. And as a result there has been a consolidation of the new wealthy and old money.

For Malawi, and for Western Europe, it’s vital we recapture that spirit of social mobility of the post war period. It’s also vital that we combine it with a more redistributive system to allow a more effective balance of quality of life with social and infrastructure improvement. It would be tragic if people like Symon weren’t given the chance to realise their vision.

Thursday saw us go from Mzuzu to Senga Bay, near Salima on Lake Malawi. The journey took four hours, and Eva eventually twigged that if she wanted to stop me asking her questions, she’d better give me something to read. So I read her short guide to Malawi, and she had a break. It’s something my parents took a lot longer to realise!

It’s much hotter here. And our first attempt at getting a bed for the night was a disaster. Like that lavatory in Trainspotting with “The Worst Toilet in the World” on the door, the rooms we saw should have had “Nastiest Room in the World” on the door. So we moved to a hostel next door. It wasn’t much better – while my room was ok, Eva’s suffered from an appearance of a troupe of cockroaches. Still, after an 11 hour sleep I felt much better.

It was also good to see what kind of lives most Malawians live. It’s not a standard any of us would even approach accepting. Not anywhere, and not for anyone. While we have the means to escape, Malawians don’t – and while I think it’s very important to maintain the values that make life worth living, it’s also vital to give people a decent material standard of life. So that’s a plug for the Robin Hood Tax and Millennium Development goals, I suppose.

As you’ll be aware, I’m keen on good coffee. Sadly, despite the fact that Malawians call filter coffee “Mzuzu Coffee” there wasn’t any to be had in Mzuzu. So I was delighted to be presented with a cafetiere at breakfast this morning. Luxury indeed!

We’ve moved to the Sunbird Livingstonia hotel, where we’re sharing a room. It’s a lot more expensive, but the price is well worth it to avoid the huge number of mosquitoes and another cockroach invasion.

We’re here until Monday morning, and I’ve had the opportunity to write a paper on “Rights Based Approaches to Public Services” by the pool. Much nicer than the converted crypt that I normally work in.

I’ve got some other things to get done here, but I’m hoping to go to ‘Lizard Island’ in the Lake, and see the gigantic, and so I’m told, very friendly lizards…

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