Finally we have made it to Malawi, a country which is two-thirds lake, famed for the friendliness of its people and known as one of the poorest countries in Africa we cannot wait to discover what it has to offer.
Ever since reading The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, by William Kamkwamba, we have both wanted to come to Malawi. The book tells the story of a young Malawian boy (Kamkwamba) whose parents have to pull him out of school when a famine hits the country, because they barely have enough money to feed the family. Despite this, his interest in school is irrepressible (he even tries to gatecrash classes in secondary school until he is kicked out by a teacher who discovers that his parents have not paid the fees!). One day he is captivated by a picture of a windmill in a science textbook, thus begins his unrelenting quest to build a replica from scrap.
Ignoring the relentless ridicule of his neighbours which lasts for months on end, he succeeds in erecting a windmill which brings electricity to the village for the first time, earning the respect of the naysayers and piquing the interest of a journalist who stumbles upon the wacky contraption. Once his story makes it to the wider world, the boy’s life is turned upside down; he receives a scholarship to a university in South Africa, gives a lecture on TED and travels the world telling his story.
Fast forward to our visit to a village near Kande Beach, Lake Malawi, on 11th May. We are seated in a small classroom with an alphabetic rainbow running along the wall, maps of Malawi hang near the blackboard; the obligatory picture of the president glares down at us. The Head Teacher, the vocal incarnation of Louis Armstrong (no, he did not sing!), introduces us to the school in his husky baritone. Serving 1500 primary school children in the area, each of its 10 classrooms holds an average of 150 pupils in a space which would be deemed fit for 30 students in the West.
Primary education is free, but not compulsory in Malawi. Secondary school costs $150 per year, yet the average income in the village is approximately $600 per annum. Consequently, most families struggle to send a single child to secondary school.
Before we leave, we meet a young trainee teacher finishing up for the day, her final task for the day is to finish a poster with some example sentences in English. She explains that her only felt-tip pen has dried out; she is waiting for the ink to drip down to the tip so she can finish the sentence. A feeling of indignation and pity overwhelm us as we listen to this smiling woman, resigned to her fate. Defeated before she has even begun, she is trying to do her job without the tools of her trade. This is one of the better schools in the district, but it is a wonder that any pupil ever makes it into the top 10%, the essential requirement for admission to university.
The village clinic is an austere place, sporting a few sun-bleached posters warning of the risks of HIV/ AIDS infection, one of the primary killers in Malawi. A gaggle of pregnant women wait on wooden benches outside the nurse’s office, toddlers crawl beneath their feet, babies are strapped to their backs; distended bellies protrude from their bright kikoys.
The nurse greets us in slurring English, firing off statistics about the clinic: it serves 25,000 people (an average of 300 per day); most of the patients are pregnant women and people with malaria (sometimes referred to as Malawi’s number one export); few patients are ever admitted to the clinic as there is a shortage of beds; serious cases are referred to the main hospital an hour or so away. Given that she only has one colleague to help her attend to the 300 or so patients per day (a doctor visits once a month), she has mastered the art of cutting consultations short. She ends abruptly with a request for donations to be placed in the wooden box on her desk.
The sun fades quickly as we make our way with William, the chief’s son, to the chief’s house. Everywhere we go, a gaggle of children grip our hands, beg us to swing them high into the air and beseech us for pens (why is it that nobody ever asks for paper?) and empty pet bottles (William explains that they are the latest status symbol at school).
Teenaged boys dressed in the ubiquitous hand-me-downs donated to charity by well wishers from distant shores. To the newcomer they appear wealthy, but that is a deception; these boys in football shirts and Adidas tracksuit bottoms reside in the basic mud huts scattered about the village. Their staple food is cassava; meat is a rare treat (once yearly or reserved for weddings and visitors like us). Many have no formal work earning just a few hundred Kwatcha here and there by carving souvenirs for tourists. The women are largely silent as they encounter us at the water pump or heaving heavy loads in the dying embers of the scorching day.
Soon dinner is served on the floor of the courtyard, the children are brought in to perform some rousing songs which echo through the inky night, perforated by the scant sliver of a developing crescent moon, which envelopes us here in the middle of nowhere.