Malawi is so far the smallest country I visited on this expedition. It is also the country where I spent most time traveling. When I looked at the map, without a plan, when crossing the border I thought I would give it about two weeks before heading up to Tanzania. Yet, three weeks later here I am, back in the capital Lilongwe only just getting ready to explore the north.
This little gem in southern Africa is said to be the poorest country in Africa, it also has one of the highest rate of children per women in the world (average is about 5 children per woman) and it is also a country with some of the warmest people.
In the article on ‘How poor are poor countries’ I tried to explain why it is good to treat the statistics and numbers with caution. After all, although the researches try their best at estimating and calculating the statistics for population growth, economy, mortality rates etc. Many of those are still hard to gather, since those numbers are changing fast, are under/over reported or reported with a delay and even definitions or specifications of the cases are often misleading. (In rural areas the cause of death is sometimes just a guess, as it is not always in the doctors’ capacity to check for the cause of death, the definitions of child mortality also differs, from country to country even within European countries…).
Anyways, as you can see it is hard to present a reliable picture of what a country is like. I will still try to give you a personal, subjective experience of Malawi in the last few weeks.
Malawi is poor. Yes, by the Western’s standard, if you come to this country you will see that often side walks are missing, you will find a lot of plastic and rubbish lying on the streets and in the villages or among the road still many relatively young children working and helping their parents instead of attending school. However, this is just one side of the coin.
This description would be accurate if we would agree that the way we live and ‘developed’ in the West it’s the only way and the model for countries to go. But it is not and should not be. In Europe we live in Tomorrowland, in Malawi (and many parts of Africa) people live in Todaysland. Malawians are happy, merry, hospitable, warm and friendly people. They live their Panono-panono (slowly – slowly) lifestyle, they prefer to greet a friend and or help a stranger than to rush to work. They would, as many people on this continent, stay in the moment if they enjoy it for the sake of a good time, rather than work harder, invest, save up for the sake of probably having better Tomorrows.
In Europe we are meant to believe that we should rest and enjoy our lives when we are old. When we deserve it after bringing up few kids and working hard the whole life, we are to get retirement and enjoy ourselves while our grandkids are running around. We live our lives for the future. Responsibilities first, then fun. It is like this because we build up our society the way that provides us with security and predictability. For a long time, we could predict that this should work and so people followed it. But we forgot, that tomorrow never comes.
Well, the predictability of their situation is (was) not the same for a very long time in many African countries so the culture developed differently. Due to harsh climate (or climate change) farmers could not always predict if they will harvest and thus have food the next year (every few decades climate phase called El Nino decimates part of Africa). And even if they did, due to colonialism, slavery, political instability or other factors, the general population was always living on the edge. Never knowing what will tomorrow bring. People here never experienced having the certainty of future and stability. When colonialist powers were making their way out of the continent (or trying to keep on it for that matter) nobody knew what was going to happen, many regions became understandably instable and after that for decades people were still fighting for political or economical power (nothing that we didn’t do, after for example the break down of the Soviet Union in Europe). Investment became impossible and risky. Why would you invest in something, that might not exist tomorrow? Would you be spending your last money on trip to hospital, if you know that they might not have the medicine? Would you spend more money on electronics and house equipment if you know that government cannot provide you with regular electricity or running water? Or were you a farmer, would you invest in new technology when you do not know if white farmers or Chinese business man will take your land tomorrow? Basically, tomorrow was uncertain, today was gift. (that is why it is called present :)
And this is the life here. People value the real experience, the now moments more than our European future-hunting. Maybe that is why, after three weeks, I hardly saw half the country. I was immersed in so many here and now moments, that I forgot about having to plan for ‘my future’ (travels, my visas, my job-hunting…).
I had amazing time climbing up the highest peak of Malawi. Chilling with my guide, overlooking the vastness of Mulanje massif and wildness of its rivers. I walked tens of kilometres inside tea plantations, on top of Zomba’s plateau or through small streets and villages. And instead of pushing away the beach boys who try to sell you some souvenirs to make living I became friend with them. We spend a day making banana pancakes, sitting by the beach and talking.
They never left the region, they probably don’t know any of our philosophers, we did not talk about how to make world peace, neither it was an intellectual discussion about how to end corruption in Malawi. They had ideas about how to improve their livelihoods. They had their big dreams and they would mention them. They would also invest in them in one way or another. They would, however, not devote their lives to them completely. They lived now.
After some days in the mountains and some days on the beach, the reality of a toothache brought me back to the capital city. I started by saying that Malawi is poor. Yes, indeed on average, if put in our statistics – it is. This does not mean that as a traveller you cannot get quality service, eat at fancy restaurants, or get a five-star health treatment. It is all here. As in all the countries around the world. One big stereotype to break would be that if an average person is very poor, that must mean that the whole country is like that. Malawi like I guess all the countries, also has upper and middle class, and although it may be much smaller than in European countries, they still have their top services. So, I had no problem finding a good dentist, getting some X-rays and ending up getting some root canal treatment done. It is unfortunate, that such things are inaccessible to majority of the population, nevertheless, this does not mean that countries do not offer such services.
After all, is it not the same for all the travellers going to South East Asia?