The Spirit of Malawi

My first book The Spirit of Malawi is published by Luath Press on 21st February. Here’s a preview.

When I emerged from Lilongwe airport for the first time, in April 2005, after an interminable 24-hour journey, I was greeted by a diffident young man, Peter Potani.

My companion, Rachel, and I were the advance party for a forthcoming official visit to Malawi by the First Minister of Scotland, Jack McConnell. Peter was to be our driver for our week-long recce, but he quickly became much more than that. He was our cultural guide, our translator, our fixer, and by the time he dropped us at the airport to start our journey home, he was my friend. He still is today.

Over the years since then, visiting Malawi as a governance adviser working with women MPs and councillors, I have made many more friends, becoming immersed in their lives as they have in mine.

We have celebrated family weddings together, mourned the loss of a much loved agogo (grandmother), laughed at the antics of Malawi politicians, cried at the devastation caused by floods, drought and corruption, shared more than a few Kuche Kuche (local beer) and cooked chambo (fish) together. And we have despaired at the general state of our world, from racism to Trump, misogyny to capitalism, and more recently, the terrible impact of Covid-19.

Economic divide

Of course, there are cultural differences, not least that most Malawians have faith, while the majority of Scots, who, more than 150 years ago, imported their Christianity to Malawi, no longer believe in a god of any denomination.

The biggest divide is economic. I may have been born into a poor family, but my homeland is one of the richest countries in the world. I benefit from a free health service, my sons don’t need to spend half their income on school fees, and my mother enjoys a secure old age.

Life in Malawi, for all but a small elite, is a daily struggle. For many, the challenge from when they wake in the early morning is to find enough food to feed their family. For others, it is the constant stress of finding the money for their children’s education. And as people age, they depend on the charity of others to survive.

Malawi is still striving to recover from the impact of colonialism, seven long decades when my country exploited Malawi’s natural resources and its people for our own selfish ends.

And climate change, global supply chains and digitalisation conspire to test the ability of even the most effective politicians and creative entrepreneurs to build an economy strong enough to support Malawi’s ever-growing population.

Just as Scotland is much more than bearded men in kilts playing the bagpipes against the backdrop of a Highland loch, so Malawi is far more complex than the stereotypical images beloved of well-meaning charities.

The smiling but hungry child, staring into a white woman’s camera, experiences the same emotions and has the same aspirations as her peers in richer countries, but her humanity is all too often portrayed as one-dimensional, nothing more than content for a fundraising campaign.

As my friendships in Malawi matured, and I began to understand better how the country worked, I nurtured an ambition to write a book that captured the essence of contemporary Malawi through the stories of its people.

It was important that the book was not my story. It should not be about my experience of 15 years working in Malawi, including the six months I lived there in 2019, though my visits have helped me better understand the context of people’s lives.

Nor should it be a travelogue, charting Malawi’s many beautiful natural resources, from Lake Malawi to Mount Mulanje; nor a treatise about development, informed by ex-pat ‘experts’ who are paid handsomely for their insights, honed in the universities of Europe, North America and increasingly Asia.

People’s stories

It is Busisiwe’s story, a single parent in her late 30s who runs her medical supplies business from home, juggling family duties with the demands of her business.

It is, as it must be, Clara’s story, a 67-year-old woman who was given a death sentence 20 years ago when she was diagnosed as HIV positive, and who now, thanks to antiretroviral drugs (ARVs), is strong enough in her seventh decade to grow her own food.

It is Chimwaza’s story, who still lives in the northern lakeshore village he was born in more than 40 years ago, but whose family home now has electricity to power a fridge and a hot-plate, instead of a firewood stove.

It is Wezi’s story, who dreams of hosting Africa’s biggest fashion week.

It is Lazarus’ story, who has partied with Madonna, but as an albino was almost killed for his body parts.

The single most important thing that I have learned is the essential truth of our shared humanity, despite all the things that appear to divide us. As Barack Obama writes in the preface of A Promised Land, humanity must now work together or perish; for us to co-operate, first we need to understand each other. And as the Black Lives Matter movement affirms, the colour of someone’s skin must no longer bestow privilege or entrench disadvantage. We are one.

You can order The Spirit of Malawi at Luath Press; Amazon and Waterstones

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