Malaŵi: what did 20 years of ‘development’ do?

British imperialists picked some fine spots from which to supervise their dominions. The colonial administration of Nyasaland, a 900 kilometre long strip of south east Africa that has been known as Malaŵi since independence in 1964, was headquartered on the lower slopes of Mount Zomba. Salubrious breezes ruffle the trees and flowering bushes that surround a cluster of early 20th century brick buildings, quaint and dinky now, making one wonder how so much power could be exercised with so little concrete. A dilapidated Gymkhana Club, built in 1923, looks out over a wide lawn that probably doubled as a cricket and polo pitch. It is easy to imagine the few dozen colonial officers and their wives gathering here for gin and tonic at sundown, some brightly planning an amateur performance of Charley’s Aunt in the surprisingly ample hall behind, others complaining about the insufferable stupidity of the houseboys and yearning for home.

A little further down is quite a grand Presbyterian church in orange brick, completed in 1898 and with a few stained glass windows added later. On the wall inside we find a metal plaque that captures some of the pomp and yet also the pathos of empire:


How sad to end with an epitaph that merely recalls illustrious forefathers: the baronet granddad in his Gloucestershire seat; the dad sent out, one supposes, to contain the unruly Irish, not quite becoming a full general but at least earning a Victoria Cross; whereas little Captain Johnny—if we can guess that he inherited the family Christian name, for it is here deemed no more worthy of mention than his mum’s—doesn’t even get a crack at the Boers, no chance of glory under Lord Kitchener in that campaign of terrible precedence for the 20th century (for it saw the dual invention of concentration camps and scorched earth warfare.) Ah well. Let us hope at least that Johnny had his moments of minor glory at the Gymkhana Club before succumbing to the fever.

We dine on the veranda of Annie’s Lodge, which might once have housed the District Officer for Public Works but is now a small hotel. Our vegetable curry tastes mainly of salt. The only other diners are a confident young Dutchman who appears from his frequent phone calls to run some sort of volunteer agency and, with him, a meek Malawian man, a “local partner” no doubt, who has less to say.

A Toyota Land Cruiser with a Unicef logo pulls into the car park and from it descends an elegant albeit no longer young woman of uncertain origin: Asian, for sure; Malay, one might think, but with an accent that doesn’t quite fit anywhere we know. The driver sits with the engine idling while the woman enquires about lodging and is shown a couple of 50 dollar per night rooms. One of them opens on to the veranda right by our table, so we have to shuffle about to make way, getting a peek inside the room in the process: a big bed, embroidered cushions, looks nice, nicer than the decidedly simple B & B place we have booked into. But the prospective guest is not satisfied. She calls out anxiously to Joseph, the driver, not to abandon her yet (for the much cheaper accommodation whither he is doubtless bound), and she goes to inspect other rooms round the back. A chambermaid walks behind with the lady’s travel bag balanced on her head. The back rooms aren’t good enough either, so Ms. Unicef comes to ask us if we know of somewhere better. Well, not really. There’s the five star Ku Chawe Inn, part of a South African chain, 1,000 metres higher up the mountain on the plateau; and we spotted a signpost near the Botanical Gardens saying “Hotel Masongola, established in 1886,” might be worth trying. She gets back into the Land Cruiser and Joseph drives her off into the night.

The next morning we stroll through the Botanical Gardens—nature turned into a park, classified and civilized in the old European way—which are now as gently unkempt as the old buildings. A couple of dozen Christian charismatics, attired in dark business suits and prim dresses, are standing in small circles “speaking in tongues” as they hold hands to receive the holy spirit. A short way off, a bunch of soldiers in camouflage fatigues are training, crawling on their bellies and dashing for cover behind rocks. Nearby we find the Hotel Masongola, charmingly eccentric, with tin-roofed conical towers and a fat-bellied bay window overlooking a mock English country garden. I do hope, for the sake of taxpayers somewhere, that our lady of Unicef ended up here, not in the really expensive place up the mountain.

Ça change, mais pas grande chose

We lived in Malaŵi from 1992 to 1994. So what has changed in nearly 20 years? Well, firstly, there are a lot more people: up from around 8 million to more than 15 million now. This doubling is more notable for the fact that, during our time, Malaŵi was host to more than a million Mozambican refugees—part of Kate’s job at the time was to supply them with water—who have since gone home. Our time also coincided with the height of the AIDS epidemic, which was studiously ignored by the then ruler, the self-declared President-for-Life, Hastings Kamuzu Banda. (Denial of HIV was common enough among rulers at the time, but perhaps especially ironic in Banda’s case since he was a qualified family doctor who had spent many pre-Independence years practicing in working class communities in Britain.) By the early 1990s the virus was making spectacular, unchecked inroads into Malaŵi’s population and it continued to do so for many years. After leaving we feared news from old friends for their letters invariably listed former colleagues who had died. Given these subtractions from the total population, the net addition is remarkable. And there are children everywhere, six, seven, eight or more in many rural families: padding along the roadside, often barefoot; splashing in the lake and cart-wheeling on the shore; rushing out of their mud and straw houses to greet passing traffic with big smiles and that curious hand-wave that begins at the wrist of an outstretched arm; shouting out “How are you?” and, often, as a press the button and see what happens afterthought, “Give me money!”

It used to be “Give me two tambala!”—a hundred tambala (cock-crows) adding up, delightfully, to one kwacha (dawn) in the local currency. But 20 years ago eight kwacha bought a dollar whereas now the official exchange rate is 150:1 and so, unsurprisingly, the humble tambala no longer features in this most charming and disarming form of aid proposal.

These children have better survival prospects than earlier generations. Average life expectancy at birth in 1995 was 40 years, now it is around 52. In 1995 one in five Malawian children died before reaching their fifth birthday, now the figure is down to only slightly more than one in ten. And gross national income has doubled, according to the World Bank, from 1.2 billion (“constant 2000”) dollars in 1995 to 2.5 billion in 2009—although, with population growth, this translates into much more modest per capita gains: from 136 (again, “constant 2000”) dollars in 1995 to 166 dollars in 2009. This leaves Malaŵi still poor by any standards, hovering near the bottom of global league tables. It ranked 153 out of 169 countries in the UN’s Human Development Index for 2010. Yet the figures suggest at least some evidence for the typical aid industry claim that poor countries, as long as they are neither “failed states” nor at war, are “making progress” and slowly pulling themselves out of poverty.

From what we could see, though, “slow” is definitely the operative word for the great majority of Malawians. In 2009, an Australian mineral company, Paladin, opened a uranium mine in the far north of the country, in a deal that gave the government of Malaŵi a 15% stake in the mine but very low production royalties. Yet farming remains the country’s economic mainstay and main livelihood for some 85% of the population. Tobacco, tea and sugar supply around 70% of export earnings. Tea and sugar are produced on sizeable estates where wages for day labourers are miserable: tea pickers we spoke to on the picture-postcard slopes of Mount Mulanje said they were earning an average of a dollar a day during the season; the very best might make as much as two dollars. About a quarter of smallholder farming families grow some tobacco, the biggest export crop, or sell surpluses of beans or ground-nuts in local markets, providing a little cash income. But most farm families, nearly two million of them, still live almost exclusively by growing their own food, mainly maize and cassava, on family plots that shrink with each succeeding generation. Most rural Malawians, I guess, still harbour no aspiration more extravagant than getting enough to eat.

In 2004 Bingu wa Mutharika won Malaŵi’s presidency with an electoral pledge to improve food security. The following year he introduced government subsidies for seeds and fertilisers, against the trend of the late 20th century rich-world economic orthodoxy, which emphasised government withdrawal from the economy and survival-of-the-fittest market competition. (Subisidies had existed in Malaŵi under Banda, but were notoriously political, given at the discretion of officials to reward families loyal to the regime.) Yet the policy has since won plaudits from groups ranging from Oxfam to the African Development Bank and The New York Times . “Without the subsidy the country would sink back to widespread hunger and a 22% child death rate which used to be its lot,” according to Stephen Carr , a much-quoted agronomist who arrived in Africa in the 1950s as a Christian missionary and has spent most of the subsequent decades living in Sudanese, Ugandan and Malawian villages.

Everyone we spoke to confirmed this general picture. There is more to eat now and the hungry season, when the family granary is empty, is shorter.

That is something to celebrate. But not all that much. We do not try to leave the beaten track, but don’t need to go far to re-encounter poverty. Walking by the lake shore in Senga Bay, where people can at least supplement their diet with fish, we pass through a sizeable village consisting entirely of grass shacks: no electricity, even though this is only a few hundred metres from a tarmac road; almost no-one wearing shoes; no latrines; no sound of radios; just plenty of tired-looking people and lots of children and l ots of puddles, perfect breeding grounds for the mosquitoes that carry the fever. We’ve seen plenty of poverty in many parts of the world but it is still somehow shocking to find it unchanged here, to see how very little difference twenty years have made.

We get a little shock too when Diana Cammack, a friend of long standing with whom we stay in Lilongwe, empties her latest research findings over her dining room table. She sent young women into the city’s markets to consult purveyors of herbs and pharmaceuticals, saying that they were pregnant and needed something to lose the baby. This raised no eyebrows for it is evidently quite a common request. The invariable prescription was a random cocktail of drugs, a good fistful wrapped up in a plastic bag, with instructions to swallow the lot in one go. Diana hasn’t identified all the drugs yet—they seem to include everything from tranquilisers to iron tablets—but it certainly looks like chemical warfare on a scale sufficient to provoke abortion, if not maternal death. Perhaps this is, after all, no more brutal a “remedy” than the knitting needle or pint of gin and scalding bath that were the chosen instruments of desperate British women for much of the 20th century. Still, it’s wrenching to see the end of shelf life debris of the pharmaceutical industry being used for such a wretched form of “family planning”.

Sustainababble development

Apart from selling a few kilos of their harvest, other sources of petty cash for necessities that subsistence farmers cannot grow–salt, soap, candles, clothing, tools—are the cutting and sale of firewood and charcoal. As in Uganda, where we now live, the trade in charcoal is technically illegal but impossible to prevent in reality—and there’s little sign of anyone bothering to try—because most people have no other source of cooking fuel. The evidence is everywhere to see. Malaŵi’s landscape, on our four-day tour of the south, is as spectacular as ever: huge vistas, huge skies, plains dotted with outcrops of rock rolling away to distant mountains, all laid out with the astonishing clarity that comes at the end of the rainy season. But the tree cover on plains and mountain slopes alike is all too visibly sparser than it was. In Zomba, there is a steady trickle of women coming down from the mountain with bundles of firewood on their heads and, worse, men dragging substantial trunks that they have hacked through with a simple machete.

We hired Thomas, a 28 year old father of two whose own father once served as a Forestry Bureau officer, to guide us to the Emperor’s Viewpoint on the Zomba mountain plateau. The viewpoint is a spot where, according a weathered signboard, Haile Selassie once spent several days in prayer and contemplation. On the day we make the ascent clouds have rolled in and nothing except the signboard is visible, but Thomas does a good job of telling us what we would see if the clouds happened to lift. When we ask about woodcutting he tells us that it is carefully controlled, and that people have to buy a licence to cut. But then he changes the story completely and says that the government has laid off most of the forest guards and now it’s pretty much a free for all. This seems like a paradigm case of the trap—people forced to mine their environment for short term survival in ways that will make the future much harder—that fired sustainable development debates well over 20 years ago. Yet the uptake of “sustainability” in Malaŵi is evidently lagging well behind the penetration of sustainababble. Thomas, who says he once had a part time NGO job “counselling youth,” tells us that he also sells carvings, casually referring to this as “my IGA” (Income Generating Activity). Big words, small deal.

Even smaller of late, Thomas says, since the tourism industry has taken a big hit from the rich world’s financial crisis. It’s low season now, and the luxury Ku Chawe Inn, set atop the plateau in luxuriant gardens etched out of the remaining forest around the mountain’s 2,800 metre peak, is almost empty. Its only other customers, when we call in for coffee, are a group of trade ministry officials attending a seminar. A few days later we call at the Livingstonia Beach Hotel, owned by the same chain, and a mere stone’s throw from the squalid, lakeside village that we had passed through. Here there are a few well-to-do Malawian families frolicking on the beach (which is enclosed to keep the locals out). But they are outnumbered by two tablefuls of conferees, tapping away at laptops in the poolside bar, whose conversation and T-shirts proclaim them to be strategists of disaster preparedness and response. One cannot help wondering whether this will produce anything more useful than another splurge of development jargon.

Suburbs sans “urbs”

If subsistence farmers are still having a tough time, there has been more visible change in the urban centres, where an expanded “middle class”—more accurately, in fact, an upper class—now has better access to shopping and recreation. (It’s hard to know how they can afford it since many consumer prices, especially for imports, are double those of equally landlocked Uganda.) This is not a momentous change—having spent 13 of the 17 intervening years in China, how could we find a cineplex and a few shopping malls momentous?—but it is a significant one. It’s hard to resist the conclusion that the development trajectory here will echo that famously promised in China by Deng Xiaoping: some will get rich first—in Malaŵi’s case, not many—and others will follow: in Malaŵi’s case, slowly, as opportunities open up in building houses and amenities for the better-off and in servicing them with rural produce, housemaids, security guards, etc. But the better-off population is still too small to need much servicing, which is why stuff is so expensive—no economies of scale for the South African supermarkets, no sign of the Kenyan investors who are conspicuous in Uganda, where the “middle class” market is bigger.

In 1974, Hastings Banda moved Malaŵi’s national capital from Zomba to Lilongwe. This was in part, perhaps, an act of modernist conceit, and in part, no doubt, a patronage gift to the Chewa people, of whom Banda was one, and in whose heartlands the new capital lies. But maybe it was also an act of foresight. It made a certain sense, Lilongwe being roughly in the middle of this long, thin country, whereas Zomba lies well to the south, close to the main commercial city, Blantyre. It left plenty of room for future growth (after local peasants had been relocated eastwards to Mchinji). And it probably pre-empted the agglomeration of Blantrye and Zomba into a single metropolitan sprawl of the kind that now seems likely to engulf Kampala, as it grows along the transport corridor to and merges with Entebbe, Uganda’s former colonial HQ and approximate equivalent to Zomba.

In the early 1990s, Lilongwe was still a strange kind of non-city. “Old Town” comprised a few pre-Independence commercial streets, fairly bustling, dominated by Indian storekeepers who had recently been prohibited from running businesses in smaller towns. There was a mosque, an old hospital and a large, walled market over whose gates Malaŵi Young Pioneers would sometimes mount watch, ensuring national unity by allowing people in and out only if they could display, or buy, Malaŵi Congress Party membership cards. Beyond the market lay the Falls Estate, simple brick houses for lower-grade civil servants. In the other direction were the Post Office, the Golf Club, the Lilongwe Hotel (brimming with upper-grade “bar girls”) and the leafy, residential “Area 3”, where spacious bungalows in mature gardens were inhabited by a mix of elite Malawian families, Asian traders, white African émigrés from Mozambique and Zimbabwe, and us. (We had tried to live in a more modest place, but Kate's NGO employers wouldn't have it, insisting that we be ensconced with the elite for the sake of "security.")

“Capital City” lay several kilometres away, divided from Old Town by a wooded “nature sanctuary” that gave sanctuary mainly to a pack of hyenas who would stray onto the road at night. The new city centre comprised a handful of well-constructed mid-rise administrative buildings, including a rhombus shaped Reserve Bank that was deemed emblematic enough of Malaŵi’s shiny future to appear on the back of the national banknotes (the front bearing the official portrait of His Excellency the Life President). As I recall, the construction had been done by South African contractors, for one of Banda’s enduring strategies, building on Malaŵi’s history of supplying labour to South Africa’s mines, had been to remain a black friend of the pariah apartheid state. Adjacent to the ministry buildings and office blocks were a few rows of decent, modern townhouse apartments and, further afield, sedate residential zones of varying ranks, indentified by number rather than name—“Area 10”, “Area 12”, etc. The overall appearance of orderly prosperity was abetted by the fact that, apart from the servants who lived in the “quarters” of well-off houses, ordinary working people were confined to outlying, peri-urban townships, spending hours each day walking to and from their city jobs.

Today, Lilongwe’s essential pattern remains the same, but many of the open spaces have been developed to accommodate a population that has grown from around 400,000 to around a million. Whole new areas, each with their dreary number, which previously existed only in the planners’ imagination, have now come into being. These remain socially segmented but include and have joined up with some respectable but less affluent areas—intermediate terrain between the haves and have-nots, offering the notion and hope of upward social mobility. There are now enough private vehicles on the road to create peak hour tail-backs at the Old Town bridge over the Lilongwe River. And there’s a Shoprite, coffee shops, an upmarket restaurant and bar area that is on the way to becoming chic.

The Capital City centre now feels less disconnected from its residential satellites and is graced by a monumental new parliament building. This was China’s first gift to Malaŵi, completed with characteristic speed after Bingu wa Mutharika de-recognised Taiwan in favour of the Peoples Republic in 2007. Right next to the new parliament the Shanghai Construction Company is well on the way to completing a high-rise five star hotel and conference centre. I can only imagine that these new buildings would warm Hasting Banda’s heart if he were still alive to see them. They must give some satisfaction to Beijing’s foreign ministry too, for the conference centre occupies the site of a former Taiwanese “people’s friendship park” which was utterly deserted the only time we visited it, back in 1994 (with the cook and waitress from a Taiwanese restaurant, who taught us our first, stumbling words of Chinese.) A sports stadium, a University of Science and Technology, and a new road linking Karonga and Chitipa, in the uranium mining area, are also on the Beijing drawing board.

So Lilongwe is beginning to feel like a city, albeit still far from a dense one, and we were delighted to find there a handful of people who we knew before, and who are not just still alive but, for the most part, thriving. Mercy was a polytechnic student of engineering in 1993 when Kate gave her an internship on the water programme, followed by a full time job when she graduated. She was probably the first Malawian woman ever employed as an engineer. After several years in the field she took a Masters degree in the UK and is now working as the country representative of Sightsavers International. Martha, an accounts clerk in Kate’s office, also did a Masters in the UK, and is now working for UNFPA. But closest to us was Khondwani Zimba, who was assigned as Kate’s driver for 18 months after her first driver, Vincent, died in the three-week process that became so familiar to us—“malaria” or “flu” followed by “pneumonia” and/or “TB” rapidly followed by death, which no-one would openly attribute to HIV. This happened so often to colleagues of Kate’s that it made us almost fear to become close to any of them. Yet Konnie, who came from a distinguished family of traditional leaders in the northern region of Mzimba, was such a gentle and thoughtful young man, and such a big hit with our two little boys, that he became a firm friend—accompanying us on various family outings and also once scooting round Lilongwe with me on a journalistic outing, following the action when the Malawian army took on the paramilitary Malaŵi Young Pioneers in a 48 hour shoot-out.

Konnie is still gentle and thoughtful and we are pleased to find him well, running a modest but successful car rental business of his own—which is doubly pleasing because he now lends us one of his cars for our southern tour—and also working as a research assistant for people like Diana. He is now married to a civil servant in the agriculture ministry (yet another MA graduate from a British university) and they have two cute little boys. We go to look at the house they have been building for the last five years, brick by brick, room by room, as they get the cash to invest, on an ample plot in one of the new areas. The ladder to “middle class” affluence may be inaccessible to most Malawians but we are heartily glad to see Konnie scaling it.

Un microchip sur l’épaule

In Blantyre, we stay with Dannie Phiri, who used to look after ICT in Kate’s office, back in the days of green-screen computers, and who also helped me create a newsletter about Malaŵi’s “transition to democracy.” As one of Malaŵi’s earliest digerati, Dannie has always been easy to keep on our radar. He is one of the world’s most energetic facebookers, with about thirty zillion friends, and is a prolific blogger to boot.

He takes us on the town with an ICT consultant friend of his. (Blantyre, although not big, has long been a real city, the commercial centre for the tobacco, tea and sugar estates, with a bit of light industry to boot, a bit of real downtown, and suburbs for the captains of industry. About 700,000 people now call it home.) We go first to an extraordinarily flashy bar, Mustang Sally’s, which has a swimming pool next to a dance floor on a carefully contrived upper level. Wow. It’s very well done, but reminds me of the kind of place you find in south east Asia, full of ageing white sex tourists in “Hawaiian” shirts, with Hotel California pumped through the sound system at regular intervals. The owner of this place is an ageing and somewhat seedy Englishman but the night is too quiet, and still too young, to gauge the clientele. We proceed to Chez Maky’s, an upmarket west African restaurant with fine views over the suburban hills. The meat dishes are reportedly excellent. It’s less good for vegetarians, but Maky has at least trained his staff not to rely exclusively upon salt for seasoning.

The conversation runs to Malaŵi’s politics, a big catch-up for Kate and me, since we can’t claim to have followed the details over the last 17 years. This much we already know: in 1992, with the Cold War over, the new Western thing became demanding “good governance” of client states—non-Arab ones, that is—and donors decided that Banda’s 28-year rule should be put to an electoral test. Under donor pressure, a referendum on multi-party democracy was held. The people chose pluralism. Political parties sprang up overnight, mostly with some variant of the word “democracy” featuring in their names, mostly with some barely concealed regional affiliation, none with any clear political programme. Bakili Muluzi, a former cabinet minister in Banda’s regime and a native of the populous south, emerged as the frontrunner for the United Democratic Front (UDF). He won. About the last time I saw Dannie was when he went with me in 1994 to interview Muluzi—the first interview he gave as President, though I’d met him often when he was a mere aspirant—in Blantyre’s grandiose State House. (The country has a total of five State Houses, grandiose in inverse proportion to the state’s actual resources.) Muluzi was in a jolly mood but said almost nothing worth reporting.

His two terms in office are briefly recounted tonight. Dannie describes the man as a jovial but sleazy opportunist who “wasn’t too bad,” more or less leaving the country to its own devices as long as he got his cut. Denmark stopped its aid programme, alleging corruption, and there was a scandal over the export of strategic grain reserves, for cash that never found its way into government coffers, just before a drought and famine. During his second term, after dubious elections that provoked violent protests in the perennially disenfranchised north, Muluzi tried to remove the two-term limit set on the presidency in the 1995 Constitution, but he was too politically weak to push this through. Instead, he made himself Chairman of the UDF, a new post, and anointed a relative outsider, Bingu wa Mutharika, as its next candidate for the presidency, presumably expecting to steer from behind the throne.

But Mutharika turned out to be nobody’s stooge. After winning office (in another dubious election), he left the UDF and formed his own Democratic Progressive Party. Muluzi was arraigned on corruption charges, accused of salting away a (relatively modest) 12 million dollars of donor funds. The case has dragged on for years. Muluzi’s lawyers now say the elderly defendant needs medical attention in South Africa before he can take the stand again; Mutharika’s state insists that medical attention in Malaŵi will suffice.

There has, meanwhile, been a trend towards populist authoritarian rule in the old style of Hastings Kamuzu Banda, who has been resurrected as a national hero—the name “Kamuzu” once again conferred upon the international airport, the main referral hospital and the national stadium, and the old man’s corpse now lying in a state mausoleum. The seed and fertiliser subsidies were enough to give Mutharika (and his DPP) a second term in which he is becoming quirkily high-handed: buying himself a presidential jet; introducing a new national flag (in the which the sun, shown as rising on the old flag, has now fully dawned, signifying that Malaŵi has achieved “development”) and threatening to jail anyone who displays the old one. This February, the country was the subject of a rare flurry of international press and blogging commentary when a Bill brought before parliament was interpreted as an effort to ban farting in public—a seeming throwback to the strange thread of Presbyterian moralism in the Banda regime, when women were banned from wearing skirts above the knee and heterosexual couples banned from holding hands in public. (Men friends were allowed to hold hands, and very often did; but this expression of friendship seems less common now, perhaps because of the government-promoted homophobia which, as in Uganda, has attracted considerable international attention.) Less widely reported, the Penal Code has been amended to allow the government to shut down media they regard as “contrary to the public interest.” Restrictions on public assembly have also been introduced, and members of a Human Rights Consultative Committee were arrested for trying to stage a demonstration protesting at fuel and foreign exchange shortages. Western donors are not amused, muttering about trimming budget support. No sign of work slowing down on the Chinese aid projects though.

A few days before our visit, Mutharika told a rally in Blantyre that he was fed up with whingeing from opponents and called upon young supporters to “discipline” his critics. A hint, many of those critics concluded, that a renaissance of some sort is planned for the Malaŵi Young Pioneers, Banda’s 2,000-strong group of armed, loyalist thugs.

Also just before we arrive, an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Chancellor College in Zomba was summoned by the Inspector General of Police and ticked off for allowing a classroom discussion of mass protests in Egypt. (The sensitivity of this topic is compounded by the widespread belief that, if he can’t get himself a third presidential term in 2114, Mutharika is planning instead to install his younger brother, Peter, currently the Minister for Education and already reportedly occupying one of the five State houses.) Lecturers across the country have since been out on strike, protesting at spies in the classroom and the erosion of academic freedom. Perhaps this is why those soldiers were out of their barracks and crawling around on their bellies at the foot of Mount Zomba the other day, a little reminder of the force that the state has at its disposal, and which Mutharika, in his prime, can count upon with more confidence than Banda in his sunset years.

It’s a depressing story. Malaŵi’s politics seem to have moved on even less than its economy, with many of the old cast still prominent. Hetherwick Ntaba, the Minister of Health in Banda’s cabinet and the most plausible face of that ancien regime, is now Mutharika’s chief spokesman. John Tembo, Banda’s right-hand man, the Uncle of his “official hostess” and widely believed to be the strongman behind the torture and disappearance of dissidents, still heads the Malaŵi Congress Party which, after the casual disdain of Mutharika’s walking away from the UDF, appears once again to be the main opposition party. Meanwhile, Mutharika’s creation of his own party starkly reveals that these are not political “parties” at all so much as platforms for their leaders.

There is, perhaps, a somewhat stronger “civil society” than in our day: lecturers getting stroppy, some valiant human rights organisations and individuals trying to constrain the power of the invariably grasping politicians. The national press, however, remains dismal on the whole, despite one or two brighter spots such as the online Nyasa Times.

Overall, it is hard to resist the conclusion that, even if one grants that it is more than just an illusion created by Western donor money, this “civil society” is developing only in proportion to the size of the urban “middle class”—which means that it is bigger and more vocal than 20 years ago, but still quite a way off the kind of critical mass that would be needed to change the prevailing political culture. And while that remains the case a majority of the “middle class”, including much of the intelligentsia, just keep their heads down, hoping to minimise whatever shit (never mind the farting) falls on them from above.

This is immensely frustrating for educated, thoughtful, capable and engaged people like Dannie. It explains, I think, why his writing and speaking is so infused with cynicism, always laced with irony. He’s doing okay, I guess, facebooking by night while looking after ICT for the World Food Programme as a day job. But we can’t help feeling that he, like the rest of Malaŵi, deserves more.

Pauvre Monsieur Stevens

We head off for Cape Maclear, a remembered jewel of a place jutting into the southern reaches of the lake, sweet blue water spangled with tropical fish.

It’s pleasant to cruise in holiday mood along the empty tarmac roads, enjoying the scenery. The main road network was always good, and is now even better. If roads sufficed for development, Malaŵi would be booming. There are many more bicycles than before, Chinese and Indian boneshakers with firewood or farm produce stacked on the back rack, often high above the cyclist’s head, wobbling deferentially onto the verge whenever they hear an engine. And there’s an almost constant flow of pedestrians padding along, even in places that seem far from any habitation. But not a single cheapo Chinese or Indian motorbike to be seen, and hardly any other cars or trucks.

At the turn-off to Cape Maclear the tarmac runs out and Kate ploughs boldly into a long, long puddle left by a fierce rainstorm last night. Kids rush out from “the bush” on all sides in a frantic ambush, signalling us to stop. This is no puddle, they explain, but a flooded culvert, and just up there it will go well above your exhaust pipe and eeeeh! what trouble! We think consider turning back but cannot resist the kids’ scheme for getting us across. They tie plastic bags around the exhaust pipe and push us for fifty metres, with Konnie’s perfectly maintained engine switched off and two stripling boys wading ahead to mark the narrow bridge at the deepest point of the flood. It’s such a jolly rescue and such a royal progress that we don’t quibble over the fat fee they demand. A cheery lad of about 20, who directs the operation, promises that if it rains again tonight they will all be there waiting for us in the morning.

Eighteen kilometres down the track we reach the fishing village of Chembe, on the far tip of the peninsula, and experience the disappointment of return. I first visited this place in 1985, years before we lived in Malaŵi. At that time there stood upon the beach a single rest house, half a dozen breeze-block rooms with hurricane lamps and mosquito nets, established by an energetic villager, Mr. Stevens, who had foreseen profit in the backpacker trail. He had taught someone to cook banana pancakes, omelette, fish and chips and a rather good tomato and onion sauce. Twice a day he drove a clapped-out pick-up to Monkey Bay, 25 kilometres off, to collect a new batch of clients from the Blantyre bus, along with the beer they would spend the night consuming, a happy bunch of youngsters swapping tall tales of close shaves with wildlife and how they’d been in some village somewhere where “they’d never seen white people before.” White folks just can’t help thinking themselves unusual.

By the early 1990s a couple of local competitors had sprung up but Mr. Stevens’ place was still way out front, with several rooms added and even shower facilities for those who wanted more personal hygiene than a swim in the limpid lake ten metres from the door.

Now there is a veritable strip, well over a kilometre long, with at least twenty lodges, hotels, chalet compounds, nearly all of them owned by foreigners, and catering to pockets of several sizes. They are tasteful enough for the most part, for foreigners know foreign taste, how to adapt thatch and wattle into African chic with good plumbing and pretty bedspreads. The worst of it is, though, that this has effectively privatised the beach, cutting off the sizeable village from the waterfront save for a couple of empty lots at 500 metre intervals where the locals can go to wash, collect water and launch their dug-outs into the lake.

Half-way along the strip we find Mr. Stevens’ place still standing, still in tasteless breeze-block, still with the same menu, and we find Mr. Stevens himself, elderly now but tranquil, his domed head shining, tiny flecks of white visible beneath his shirt on the hairs of his chest, as if he has just come in from a snowstorm. He politely pretends to remember us and we sit over coffee reflecting on the strangeness of change and the rise and fall of his business model. “Ah yes” he keeps saying thoughtfully, and “You are right.” He had eight children, he mentions several times, and we infer that they didn’t inherit his business skills. In front of us is a half completed block of rooms, his last expansion effort, several years old now and abandoned, roofless. It seems he only gets the overflow trade nowadays, when everywhere else is full.

We go snorkelling at Otter Point. Here, 17 years ago, Konnie splashed in the shallows with our little boys while we gawped at the little fish, brilliant yellow and blue, nibbling at the rocks. There are still a few blue ones but the yellows are now much rarer. The Point is a couple of kilometres along the strand from Chembe village, and you have to pay an entrance fee to reach it, for, as an old signboard announces, this is “the world’s first ever freshwater national park, established in 1992,” endorsed and supported by WWF, the Global Environment Facility, UNESCO, etc. Back then there was a modest government-owned lodge and campsite here, one of Mr. Stevens’ first competitors, the Golden Sands Hotel, but it was later closed down as a “conservation” measure. This, anyway, is what we’re told by a young man who we pay to guard Konnie’s car (from a colony of yellow baboons who inhabit the point) while we snorkel; but he adds that the government is looking for a private investor to take it over and refurbish it. Among the ruins of the restaurant and chalets stands a dilapidated “museum” and “conservation centre” built with WWF and GEF support, closed for lunch now although nominally still in business, but we can see through the windows that the rather basic displays have not changed since we were here last. Well, there’s conservation for you. The young man who looked after the car and a couple of Rastafarian-styled youths who have joined him try to sell us specimens of “artwork” that, they say, they were taught to produce in a GEF sustainable livelihoods programme to discourage fishing around the Point. All too clearly the programme didn’t work, for there were dug-outs fishing close to the spot where we snorkelled, and the artwork is the most awful tat, nothing that, however kindly disposed, we can bring ourselves to buy.

On the way back to Chembe village we pass a group of pregnant women, thirty or more, perhaps coming away from an antenatal class—well, that’s good!—each with a sweet little baby strapped to their back, balancing the bump in front. The village has doubled in size and seems relatively prosperous in a laid-back, easy living way. Some of the jobs in the foreign-run bars and lodges have gone to migrants coming in from other parts of the country, but there is now an Association of Local Tour Guides which fixes prices, displayed in the various hostelries, for the standard outings: boat trips to a nearby island, a sunset “booze cruise” etc. It seems a reasonable arrangement, and the prices are not low, 30, 40 dollars per person per trip. But these substantial earning opportunities have had little evident impact beyond immediate consumption: the houses look just the same, only there are more of them; there’s no sign of investment in any local businesses other than paddling visitors to the island; the roads in the village are still unmarked tracks, and there are no public buildings. Oh well. Maybe the locals are spending their money sending their kids to college. (The lad who guarded the car passed the time sitting under a tree reading a book.) And most people seem more or less content. Those pregnant women, the bright flash of their perfect-teeth smiles, the perennial mystery of the friendly native, even after all these years.

We stay the night, disloyally, in one of the mid-range foreign-owned places with good vegetarian options, comfy beds and a great view of the shoreline as evening gathers over the lake, that restful hour. A small gaggle of kids prance up and down the beach, offering to sing for tips. A European family, staying in the cabin next to ours, films them as they give a rumbustious and enormously good humoured performance of a funny little greetings song:

Muli bwanji – ’Ow are you?
Ndile bwino – Fine, you too?

The affable, talkative, re-anglicised Australian who manages this place—it belongs to a Dutch couple but the Australian, who usually lives in London, is out for a few months of hotel-sitting to give them a break—strolls over to our table to deprecate the show with the knowing air of the old African hand. It’s the only song in their repertoire, he says, and he’s heard it far too often. The locals are allowed to walk on the sand, he tells us, but they mustn’t hassle the guests, that’s the rule. We ask about who actually owns the land we’re sitting on and this triggers a worldly-wise account of the trials of doing business in Malaŵi. The Dutch couple pay rent to a village family whose elder sons turn up every month expecting free beer and early payment. No interest in doing anything, just expecting money to fall out of the sky. Take the road to Monkey Bay, there are kids who sit in the shade all day and when a car comes along they jump up with their hoes and pretend to be mending a pothole, and then they flag you down and ask for a tip for their efforts! Such debonair insights into the African “mentality.” And what marvellous continuity there is in history—for, I’m sure, these are the very same insights that, along with some talk of the weather and poor Captain Johnny’s fever, made up the chit chat in Zomba’s Gymkhana Club.

On the way to Monkey Bay next day we pass a couple of youths—far from any shade, actually—mending potholes in the road, and we screech to a halt to tip them. It did not rain last night and the flood has receded at the junction with the tarmac, but the gang of car-pushers is there to receive us anyway, having nothing else to do with their time, I suppose. Also, we had commissioned the bright lad, the director of flood relief operations, to procure carvings of two little fish with my grandsons’ names, OMAR and ZAYN, inscribed into them. There’s a minor problem because a redundant letter E has been added to Zayn’s name. Bright lad runs off to sort it, while we fend off other carver-salesmen, their most notable offering being well-executed models of the Land Rover Discovery range, fully kitted out with safari paraphernalia, quite an improvement on the insipid wildlife stuff—crouching lions, grazing deer-type things—of yesteryear. Bright lad bounces back with the redundant E neatly excised from little fish number two. That was quick. Quite the entrepreneur, he is. And I wish him better luck than Mr. Stevens.

Kampala, April 12 2011