I’ve been back from Malawi over a week now. Enough time to get over the rather unpleasant food poisoning that blighted my last couple of days. Much as the meal at a rather oddly secluded Ethiopian restaurant was pleasant at the time, the aftermath was pretty unpleasant. Especially when suffered through a 20 hour journey.
I’ve had a bit of time to consider the trip in the whole and to reach some early conclusions about what I think. The first is that the Malawian President, Dr Bingu wa Mutharika (popularly known as ‘Bingu’), is a very impressive man. But possibly more impressed by himself than other people are with him. The ferocious debate about how punitive the laws against homosexuality should be and the debate about whether to change the flag are clearly a distraction. I’m worried they are a distraction from a creeping autocracy.
And what buy in those debates have… I was amazed to find that the main focus of conversation is how to stamp out the terrible imported phenomenon of homosexuality. Peter Tatchell has been doing some work on this, and it’s important that we all pay attention. It’s simply not acceptable that the sort of deeply unpleasant homophobia I saw is allowed to be promoted by the government.
Ironically for someone not unused (having grown up in Belfast) to debates about flags I was quite taken aback by the attention being paid to changing the Malawian flag. It currently shows a rising sun. Bingu is suggesting a risen sun to symbolise Malawi’s transformation to a developed nation. I’m told it’s also because the opposition use the colours in the flag, and Bingu wants to have it in his party’s colours.
These debates seem very trivial to me. I was astounded to find that Bingu (an economist by training) believes Malawi to be developed. And that’s where I couldn’t understand the politics. It’s clear to me that much more could be done to reduce poverty. While Bingu was good in his first term – promoting food security and moving away from the kleptocratic habits of his predecessor.
What was really missing was a bit of class politics. Like the north of Ireland, Malawi would benefit from a move beyond the politics of colonialism and decolonisation. It would benefit from a focus on agricultural and industrial development. And it would benefit from less attention being paid to persecuting gay people and the flag.
The NGOs that I worked with in the training courses (or ‘trainings’ as they’re called) had lots of good people. But the culture is still quite deferential. A representative of the regional assembly addressed a meeting I was at. His point was that NGOs should ‘compliment’ regional assemblies. I’m not sure if that’s a spelling mistake or not – he went on to say that the problem with NGOs is that they’re not accountable and unreliable. In Scotland, he’d have left rather promptly and been pursued by some angry people. Most of the Malawian NGOs just took it. But some of the younger people in the room did challenge the outrageous slur. It’s sad they seem often to be the last to speak and the last to be listened to.
Of course, the deferential culture is more understandable having seen what happened to Eye for Development. In his re-election campaign Bingu promised a youth development fund. Having been re-elected he decided this should be for his party (the DPP) youth wing. Eye for Development criticised this – quite rightly. Their staff were promptly arrested for inciting violence against DPP Youth. Not the actions of a liberal democracy and not actions likely to strengthen civil society.
Members of CONGOMA (the Malawian NGO umbrella) that I met while at the Lake seemed pretty unhappy about this. And many NGOs seemed noticeably more guarded speaking in public than in private. It’s not a great situation. And it needs more resistance, more commitment to dealing with poverty and more serious political debate. All a bit like Northern Ireland, then.