The ubiquitous greeting in Malawi is not always informative; “Ndili bwino kaya inu?” says a young man to a doctor in Blantyre’s central hospital. He says he is fine. He is not. The doctor lifts his bed sheets to reveal a bullet wound in his left leg. The tissue is not viable, it is becoming gangrenous and will be amputated above the knee later that day. The young man’s country is not fine either.
Historically, Malawi has been alternately exploited then ignored by the wider world. Ravaged by the slave trade during the 19th century, it is now resource poor and economically irrelevant. Tobacco provides sixty per cent of the ‘for export’ market which, since the Malawian Kwacha is a closed currency, is crucial for buying fuel and foreign imports. However, the price has crashed in recent years leaving the country bereft of US dollars and unable to buy oil. This has led to fuel shortages which have further exacerbated the nation’s economic problems.
The President, Bingu wa Mutharika, had been praised for his anti-corruption stance, his zero-deficit budget and for going against IMF and World Bank advice in subsidising Malawian farmers. However, since winning a strong majority in the 2009 elections, Mutharika’s behaviour has become increasingly erratic and he appears now to be quickly metamorphosing into the nepotistic, kleptocratic caricature of an African dictator. This year he has expelled the UK ambassador, lost millions of dollars in aid money, and ordered live ammunition to be fired on crowds in four Malawian cities where people had gathered to protest against Mutharika’s corrupt and hapless rule. Eighteen people were killed.
The President’s popularity appears to be plummeting, but, should Mutharika be overthrown, it remains unclear what sort of replacement Malawi could find. Corruption has been intrinsic in the system for a very long time and a generation is now growing up which has never known anything but nepotism.
It is difficult for people to know anything else. The Malawian education system is poor and most of the nation’s cultural treasures lie in the hands of private collectors (the largest exhibit in the national museum was a cardboard cut-out depicting the production of milk.) This robs most Malawians of their sense of connection with the past and leaves them trapped within their own epoch, largely unable to change their lives.
But there are some signs of hope. A number or NGOs, including the Red Cross, are working with the government to reduce the burden of Malaria and mother-to-child HIV transmission. Economically, moves are being made to diversify the Malawian economy and focus on subsistence food production instead of cash crops.
Materially, Malawi offers little to the world. And that is why the world has little interest in it. But in the quick smiles and thorny resilience of its people, in the vividness of both their suffering and their joy, Malawi gives the world something of its colour and teaches us the humbling lesson that people can live with hope and with dignity even in one of the poorest nations on Earth.