This article was first published in the The Scotsman on Saturday 5 October 2019.
Chimwaza kicked the sand that had leached from the lakeshore up to the big house. “The winds did that,” he laughed. “It’s climate change. Now I believe it is real.”
“We never have weather like this in October,” he goes on. “But the winds, eeeh, and the rain. It is not right. It must be climate change.”
Last Sunday, we arrived back at our lakeshore cottage after two weeks working in Malawi’s biggest cities, Lilongwe and Blantyre, where we had enjoyed all the delights on offer, from hot baths to ‘smashed avo’ on toast.
Sitting huddled over my husband’s MacBook, typing as quickly as I can before the charge goes – the power has been off for 12 hours and counting – it is hard to remember the summer heat of last week.
The lake is angry, its waves crashing onto the shore, sending sand in every direction. There are no children squealing with laughter as they splash in the warm water.
Two days ago, a gospel group shot a video on the white sands in front of us. Now the beach lies deserted, pock-marked by the cold, heavy rain.
The fishermen’s weather-beaten dug-out canoes sit silently. “When the lake is angry, we don’t eat,” explains Ronex, from the village across the road. He popped in this morning for a glass of juice and a gossip about the weather. “There will be no fish, and no money.”
He nibbles on a ginger biscuit. “I love living by the lake,” he says. “But we depend on the weather, and it should be hot just now, not raining,” he shrugs, looking at the portentous grey skies which promise more misery.
Even our adopted cat, Major Tom, is unhappy, sneaking into our cottage to shelter in his makeshift bed on the bottom shelf of the bookcase, where he sleeps precariously on top of a pile of yellow plastic folders.
Terrible truth about climate change
Climate change is a terrible fact of life in Malawi. Sixty people were killed earlier this year in the southern region, drowned in floods caused by unseasonable heavy rains. Thousands of families lost their homes, and tens of thousands more lost their crops, and with them their food supply and income for the year.
And the problem will only worsen. Over the next couple of decades, temperatures will rise, and the earth will become too hot for some of Malawi’s staple crops. Rainfall will become more even more erratic and concentrated, causing regular floods and damaging harvests.
“Climate change will reduce the food supply and have major implications for human welfare, harming development progress across sectors,” says USAID, America’s national aid agency. Yet its boss, one Donald J Trump, refuses to accept climate change is real.
Last year, the UK government committed £70 million over five years to help 1.7 million of Malawi’s poorest people cope with the impact of environmental degradation, and by next year, the Scottish government will have spent more than £3 million helping rural communities in Malawi find ways of adapting to this new, terrible reality.
But watching the fishing canoes lie empty, and listening to the winds crashing across the lake, I wonder if a few million pounds, even if it is carefully targeted and monitored, will make a lasting difference. The earth is angry, and we humans may be unable to assuage her.
I find myself agreeing with Prince Harry, who warned during his recent visit to southern Africa, including Malawi, that our planet faces “a race against time which we are losing.”
I cheered when he wrote that caring for our environment is not “hippy” and called for all of us to overcome “greed, apathy and selfishness” to guarantee our very survival.
And I almost shed a tear when he told a group of young Malawians, on the last day of his 3-day tour here, to “hold on to your dreams.”
Many dismiss the prince and his wife as, at best naïve, at worst a spoiled rich couple, dripping with hypocrisy as they board a private jet to the south of France.
I tend to think of him, and other young campaigners such as Greta Thunberg, as our planet’s only hope. The corrupt, old men in charge have failed us. They sold our grandchildren’s future for a mess of oil.
The future of Malawi
Standing in a dark school library the other day, a few miles down the road from our cottage, I came face to face with Malawi’s future. Teenage girls, all students of Bandawe Girls Secondary School, and each a recipient of a Mamie Martin scholarship.
The fund was set up by Margaret Sinclair, the daughter of Mamie Martin, a young Scots woman who travelled to this part of Malawi with her missionary husband Jack in 1921.
Mamie died of blackwater fever nine years later, a few days after giving birth to a boy, who also died, and their graves lie a few yards from the school.
Margaret, then 15 months old, was sent home to Scotland to be brought up by her grand-parents, and in 1993 she decided to mark her mother’s life by helping young girls “hold on to their dreams” through education.
Three years ago, Margaret died, aged 89, and her ashes are now buried next to her mother’s grave, mingling with the red soil of her birthplace.
This year, the fund supports 137 girls across six schools, including one for deaf girls in Embangweni. “Without the bursaries, the girls simply wouldn’t go to school,” explains Ernest Chirwa, headteacher of Bandawe Girls.
During our time here, I have grappled with the concept of white privilege, of our unearned entitlement that gives us a lifestyle far beyond the dreams of Ronex or the girls at Bandawe.
I have cringed when watching young white people pose piously amid a throng of Malawi children dressed in rags, instantly becoming social media saints.
I have pondered the ethics of me, a white woman, not born of privilege, but still rich by dint of my birthplace, writing a book about Malawi. Surely Malawians should tell their own story.
And I wonder – sometimes out loud – about aid. Is it any different to colonialism just because it is wrapped up in warm words of solidarity and partnership?
But as the earth heats up, and a self-satisfied elite grows ever richer on the backs of the world’s poor, I realise all we have left to save our common humanity are our voices.
You can’t always choose your prophets. So keep shouting Greta. Keep shouting Prince Harry. And young Malawi, start shouting.
Find out more about the Mamie Martin fund here