Life in Malawi

When the going gets tough, do the tough get going or maybe sometimes get the message, up tent and pegs and get the hell out of Dodge. This was our dilemma on May 2, 2011
We had come to Malawi, for the first time, just six years ago and feel we have made unbelievable progress (for us) with the poorest rural people you are ever likely to see anywhere. Rural poverty is different than the urban variety in that rural people generally survive better: they should be able to feed themselves at least, if they have any tradition of farming, and sell a little to buy necessities, but Aid, bad advice and poor governance have robbed them of their dignity and courage. Many people here, men mainly, have lost the spirit to survive and if there is any hope, it’s with the women.
I mention aid as the first blight, in that people have become dependent and wait for the €70,000 white jeeps to arrive and get them out of another spot, the Government having previously exaggerated the need, wasted much of the money on reports (done by white consultants) and sent what remained with the delivery boys.
In the past six years we have spent our time trying to inspire, educate and challenge villagers to get off their asses and do it for themselves, pushing ahead with communities who have taken the first steps. Our top attention goes to the provision of clean drinking water close to villages. The community (the men) dig the wells sometimes up to eighteen metres deep (the height of a four story apartment block), supply and build the bricks, sand and labour. We supply a simple, very sustainable and repairable pump, which we make in Mzuzu, and the cement.
To be honest most wells are six or seven metres deep and the average cost to us is about €130 per village meaning water for life can cost less than one Euro per person.
Clean water has a phenomenal, life changing impact. Water related illness disappears immediately. Words like diarrhoea, a bigger killer than aids, disappears from the vocabulary. Cholera, an almost instant killer vanishes, and women get back some rudiments of a life. Girls can get to school, bad and all as it might be. Women can grow gardens, often with our help and a horrific life becomes a little more bearable.
All this seems like something we’d want to stay for, and continue, but Malawi has changed in recent times. Suspicion and paranoia about the activities and influence of foreign NGO’s is all around us, and there’s a view abroad that we’re going back to the latter years of the reign of the dictator Kamuzu Banda, who ran a hoard of community spies, and not so nice people, who reported to the powers that be, lots of people were disappeared, some reported to be fed to the crocodiles in the Shire river and any semblence of law evaporated in the hot Malawi sun.
I’m not saying in any way that we have got that far, but a recent edict directed the President’s supporters to deal with dissenters and anyone critical of the current regime.
It’s interesting that today (May 2) the president announced May 14 as a National Holiday to honour the former president of Malawi, Kamuza Banda, and anyone who has read even the most abbreviated history of Malawi, and his illustrious reign, will appreciate what I mean. The comment that Malawi can live in prosperity if it learns from this great son of the land and decide to live by the values he stood for (from a full page Ministry Advert in the Daily Times ) maybe even the slightest bit of misleading. Now it is true that many of the older village men would concur with this but with maybe with just the slightest touch of selective amnesia, rose tinted glasses or even a bit of alzheimers. Maybe it’s more of a reflection on the current state of the country rather than a factual recollection of what was.

I suppose at this time rulers all around the world are looking at North Africa and what may be loosely called people power. Autocratic rulers everywhere are under scrutiny from all angles and must be worried about their collective futures .
If I look at one particular case: the UK, who had to welcome home their High Commissioner from Malawi, having been thrown out because he told it as it is, something that every canine conversation is about, on the streets these days. Like most of the developed world the UK has financial problems, taxes and interest rates will go up, they are spending ship loads of money on humanitarian aid, in places like Malawi and have now the cost of bombers in Libya. If I were a Health worker in Malawi, I would worry about my future, as the UK is the biggest funder of healthcare and medicines. Maybe getting rid of the British High commissioner was a stroke of genius. Being powerful enough to be first country in the commonwealth to ever send home an ambassador (even Mugabe didn’t go that far) has to show that Malawi’s sun has indeed risen.
During the past three weeks, not alone did we have had to visit Emigration and Government Information Services (the stazi) to give an account of our movements, we had Inland Revenue crawl all over us: all this mainly, I feel, at the instigation of a single individual.
There are thousands of foreign NGO’s in Malawi, we are tiny and they’re on our case, so what’s going on? More than vague suggestions are always made of arrest, eternal damnation or expulsion.
Maybe this rant should end with a laugh.
Two weeks ago, one of our employee’s, who looks after 5 rural preschools and visits one each day, was on his bike at about 7.30am and while passing a read block was detained by police. He was charged with speeding and told that they would keep his bike until the fine (€10) was paid. He left his bike, walked 2 miles to the school, 2 miles back and eventually when he confirmed that he had no money, and was walking away, they threw his bike at him.

Monday 23 May 2011: Duncan, the Mobile Plumber

When we arrived at the factory this morning, after 7.30, Duncan was loaded up and ready to roll, to fit two pumps. One was a broken pump which hadn’t worked for years and the other was on a new well .
Haven’t seen him since, but I’m sure the news is good.
In the wake of ever increasing fuel costs and the lack of fuel for long periods as a result of forex problems, we have decided to keep the show on the road and bought a new bike for our new guy Duncan.
He loves the job and the bike and the whole affair.May 2011

You can laugh (or cry) at the following email

Here is my report plus the G,P,S details of some pumps that we have installed so far.
We went to Ekwendeni following up those letters you left plus other new wells namely; Makalanje, V H Simon, Halazie, Shonga and Engcongoleni.
On 14 June I went to maintan a pump in Thandazga,
On 15 June I was with steve digging a well at the factory,
Today I went to Chimwemwe Kazando to take the mesurement of the new well, I will go there before Friday to make a cover and show them how to construct the whole well.


1.Village name;E,E Ngoma
No of people;28
GPS: S 11*28.410 E033*59.106 Depth,6.8m

2.Village name;Vwenya Mzumla
No of people;128
GPS; S11*24.325 E033*57.880 Depth;4.6m

3.Village name;V,H Luguba Mhlanga
No of pple;196
GPS; S11*22.601 E034*00.765 Depth;3.9m

4.Village name;Kam’khwalala
Location;Chimwemwe Kazando
No of people;357
GPS; S11*28.811 E033*57.445 Depth;3m

When things are going well in Malawi, it’s time to worry. This came from Duncan today: He finishes
The traffic policeman told me that not to carry pipes on my bike any longer failing which I will be arrested.
Duncan Reporting.

If we check with the police there will be no law, statute or mention of such. But because of corruption, stupidity or plain badness, this is their law, one man’s law and unless we pay them off this is THE ONLY LAW.

In one week, this young man (21) has helped 4 villages and gain access to safe, clean drinking water for the first time and some brainless f***** in a uniform has invented a reason to intervene, in the hope of collecting a bribe.
This is everyday life in Malawi and it’s at all levels from the top down.
Millenium Development Goals my ass.

DIT volunteers

DIT Volunteers in Malawi

DIT Students in Malawi


Fourth Annual group of DIT Easter Volunteers

A number of years ago Mary read me a passage from a book called the Secret, one of those positive thinking style compositions that went something like this.
If you work with all your heart and soul for something positive, the Universe colludes to help you. Well feel is that the Universe certainly colluded and brought us into contact with the students in DIT. For those of you who haven’t heard of The Dublin Institute of Technology, it is the biggest Third Level educational establishment in the country with 23,000 students and an amazing array of disciplines.
We have had our fourth annual group of Easter Volunteers and like the others before them they were astounding. Each and every one of them made their own unique and lasting impact on people who have just the most tenuous link with existence imaginable. It just leaves me speechless each time they come, as to how they relate to the world’s poorest as if it is something in the Irish psyche that bonds us to those who are seeing the poverty of our ancestors. Or maybe those chosen to come are, in themselves, open to doing good, or maybe both.
What we ask of our volunteers is to inspire, educate and challenge, to be themselves and walk with the people. What we try to do is provide opportunities without handouts, and give back their dignity to some amazing, remote, rural women, most of whom have no formal education

I feel that this Easter 2011, one volunteer got the idea and wrote:

“Going home, I know why I am here. I am not here to do the jobs that the Malawi people could do in half the time. I am not here to teach or to preach, to lead or to be followed. I am here to work with the people, to build friendships, a network of support and encouragement that can be continued long into the future. I know that while I may be back in Ireland soon, Wells for Zoe will continue to be here in Malawi, and will continue to be a community of people that will always be there, that will always offer help and support, that will always extend the hand of friendship and that will never give up.”

The DIT students who come make a huge commitment, they raise their own funds, give up their time, pay their way and do it all with a smile. They do very early mornings, work all day and plan for the next day in the evenings. They analyse and advise and suggest ways of spending any donations they bring. We fully realize it’s a big challenge to go to such a poor country, not to go to the hotel and beach, but to work with the world’s poorest in their homes and schools and villages, playing with their children, eating their food and empowering then. It’s a big challenge, but no bother to these bravehearts

I am not a fan of the volunteering as it is commonly perceived and practiced by many nowadays. Come when you like, commit to nothing and take no responsibility, after all you’re not getting paid for it. My view is, that if you volunteer, it’s the real deal, you must be totally committed as if you were the most highly paid imaginable.
I also have a problem where people raise money from the general public to fund trips for volunteering purposes, where the output is often way short of the expectations of the donors.

I often wonder is my own quest the best way of spending my money, or should I send it to the village and stay at home myself. In reviewing the past six years in Malawi, I have now defined something of a philosophy:
I feel 40% of my effort was helping the villagers to remember what they knew themselves; 30% was encouraging them to believe in the skills and abilities they had rekindled; 25% was the pure spirit of Northern Malawian women; remote rural women, who are strong, intelligent, determined, bright, cheerful and powerful, against all the odds. Maybe I get 5% for showing up.

I imagine if the crisis in Sub Saharan Africa could be solved easily, it would already have been done alrady, after numerous studies, reports, strategies, plans and billions of dollars. But it’s not easy. It’s complex, confusing, frustrating annoying, amazing, challenging but never boring or bland.
The rural women we work with deserve canonization, considering what they achieve with nothing. Imagine what they could they do if they didn’t have to spend their lives having and feeding squads of kids, spending untold hours carrying water, and firewood, having to cook and clean and till and sow and harvest.
These thoughts come after twenty two visits to these communities. We have worked through a programme, seen joy, sorrow and frustration. I now realise it’s not about imposing what I know or can do, but finding what they can and are willing to do, and then inspiring them to move on. We have started on a path to understanding, trust and respect, and patience on my side. It takes time and effort and I’m pretty sure that little could be achieved by one whirlwind, volunteering visit by anyone. But that said, the way DIT groups slot in to an existing strategy, has an instantaneous and lasting impact

In Zola Zola School

Bishop Zuza sermon stuns Mutharika at National Prayers

Bishop Zuza sermon stuns Mutharika at National Prayers
Bishop Zuzu is our friend and nearest neighbour, in Mzuzu.
A farmer’s son from the Central Region, he is a straight talking man with a direct and common sense approach to life. He is delighted that Lucan has now a bypass, remembering his time in Maynooth and squeezing through the traffic jams every day. Got this from the Nyasa Times

By Nyasa Times August 16, 2011 ·
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By Evelyn Chibwe, Nyasa Times

President Bingu wa Mutharika had a rude awakening when head of the Catholic church in Malawi, His Grace Bishop Joseph Mukasa Zuza bluntly said in his presence that he should stop gagging the civil society, the media and the faith community, saying they had a role to play in safeguarding the hard-won democracy and the rule of law.

He made the remarks at the National Day of Prayers whose theme was “A Nation Seeking God’s Intervention in Forgiveness, Reconciliation and Peace,” which were held at Comesa Hall in Blantyre on Tuesday.

Delivering the English sermon at the event, which was also attended by the First Lady, Calista Mutharika, Bishop Zuza said that the current social, political and economic problems were “of our own making depending on our respective roles”.

The Bishop said more often than not, stakeholders tend to point fingers at each other for the worsening problems the country is facing, but said more worrying is that those with “more authority” threaten others.

Bishop Zuza: Let us extinguish the fire

“They tell us (clergy) not to interfere with politics; we are seen as intruders. They say that the civil society organizations were not elected; yes they were indeed not elected but they are working for the good of the nation,” said the man of God.

The Chairperson of the Episcopal Conference of Malawi added that the media has not been spared in the smear campaign, but observed the media was doing a commendable job to inform the people what is happening.

The Bishop also admonished others who blame government and leadership for what is taking place, saying such people usually say “this government started very well” but it has derailed and that the leadership has stopped “listening”, “what kind of advisors does the president have?”

Zuza . who heads Mzuzu Diocese said all this was counterproductive and that instead, Malawians must examine their consciences, saying all human beings have weaknesses and strengths.

“When Adam and Eve had sinned to God, Adam blamed Eve, ‘the wife you have given me oh Lord’, and in turn, Eve shifted the blame to the snake. Let’s not be like Adam and Eve but accept our weaknesses and turn them into strengths,” the Bishop said.

In a more blunt tone, Bishop Zuza said any person who thinks is always perfect is wrong, saying that Malawians merely have the responsibility to find lasting solutions to the “current” storm. He said that those that believe are perfect than others are even worse.

“God helps those that help themselves. Let’s work together to restore the peace that Malawi has always enjoyed. You Excellency, the DPP, the opposition, the NGOs, let’s extinguish the fire,” he said.

The Bishop concluded by reiterating that the Catholic Bishops and the clergy at large would continue to carry out their prophetic role by pointing out any ills that the society suffers under its rulers.

He said that they were always closer to the people and “they tell us what they feel,” saying he had accepted “wholeheartedly” when he was approached to give a sermon during the special prayers.

Giving his sermon in vernacular Chichewa, Pastor Frackson Kuyama of Seventh Day Adventist said by tradition and culture, Malawians are a peaceful people and urged on all Malawians to maintain peace and tranquility in the face of the current problems.

Reverend Malani Mtonga, Chairman of the Church Foundation for Integrity and Democracy (CFID) commended the clergy for organizing the prayers.

“This is what we’ve been advocating for as CFID that the way things have been going, Malawi needed divine intervention. It is only through prayer that we have authority over Satan to thwart his plans, put down his strongholds and release his captives,” he said when Nyasa Times sought his comment on the event.

Rev. Mtonga went on to say that prayer can change Malawi and can “open closed doors and that prayer can also make dictators to become democrats and that with prayer we can put down and raise up leaders”

The prayers were organized by the Malawi Council of Churches (MCC), Episcopal Conference of Malawi (ECM) and the Muslim Association of Malawi (MAM) as a “moment of reflection on the turn of events surrounding July 20, 2011 public demonstrations”.

On that day, what was supposed to be a peaceful demonstration regarding economic and governance issues was marred by court injunctions, violence, loss of lives and looting.