Saturday, 17 October 2015

Something good-ish happened today

Something good-ish happened today, though it didn’t look like it at first.

My Saturday routine, when I’m staying in Malawi’s capital Lilongwe, involves a leisurely morning wandering around the chaotic city centre buying and sending postcards and small presents; a soporific lunchtime eating excellent South Indian food at the Old Town Mall; and a relatively active afternoon at the Golf Club doing lengths in the swimming pool. The post-prandial swimming is necessary to counteract the calorific effects of the delicious dosas and bhajis.

This morning went uneventfully enough and by two o’clock I was walking along the dusty road towards the chaotic junction which demarcates the main routes in and out of Lilongwe’s Old Town. The Old Town is basically a bustling trading centre where everything interesting in the capital goes on. One route goes east to Salima by Lake Malawi; one climbs a slight hill past the Old Market and Old Town Mosque and on to Dedza and Blantyre in the south; a cul-de-sac leads west to the District Education Office for Eastern Lilongwe, where Link (the organisation I work for) has its main office; and, finally, a busy road climbs another hill past the 'bus station' and towards the Golf Club.

It was at the corner of this frenetic junction that my self-indulgent Saturday started to go a bit awry. For there, sitting in the filthy dust at the side of the road and next to a deep and foul drain was a young woman with two tiny toddlers, all three bare-footed and dishevelled. Both infants looked about eighteen months old, though it is difficult to judge ages in a country like Malawi where 40% of children under five are stunted by malnutrition.

Whatever their chronological ages, the two youngsters looked quite fragile. As for their mother, there she sat in the dust, swaying half-unconscious, completely unaware or uncaring that her skimpy top was falling off her shoulders and uncovering her breasts. She was bending to give her children some filthy water, her eyes almost closed but with her spare hand resting open, perhaps for the charity of a benevolent passersby. Malaria? HIV/AIDS? Both? Whatever her illness, she didn’t look long for this life.

I think I have seen more beggars during this trip to Malawi than I normally do. The population is entering the ‘hungry season’, the dry period between harvests when families are dependent on what is in their granaries. The landless and urban poor, of course, have no granaries.


Already, the major international organisations are alerting the world to the risk of major food shortage in Malawi. Maize crops are down by 30% or more following the severe drought and terrible floods which destroyed crops and made thousands of families homeless. Both were a direct result of environmental degradation and climate change. About three million people are at risk of starvation.

Furthermore, inflation is running at more than 23% and food inflation at 26%. Business is suffering under interest rates of 25%-35%.

Until 2011, 40% of Malawi’s budget was provided by international donors. Following unbelievable levels of embezzlement and corruption during Cashgate and similar scandals, donors have withheld that budget support, though they continue to support specific projects, channeling funds through NGOs rather than the government. The country is reported to be in dire financial straits.

This a country where the President is being accused of taking 100 hangers on to the UN General Assembly earlier this month, Malawi Electoral Commissioners have demanded a 170% pay rise, taking their salaries above those of Cabinet Ministers and two high-level politicians have been claiming expenses for second homes which are actually their main residences. (Oh, I forgot, until recently our politicians used to do that too!)

This morning I had already handed out some small change to various desperate-looking beggars as well as the ‘doggy bag’ containing my leftover lunch which the attentive waiter had insisted I take with me.

What are the accepted conventions for giving to beggars? This is such a difficult topic in any country.

Many people I know do not give at all, for very good reasons. It is demeaning for the recipient and places the donor in a position of unmerited ‘superiority’.  Begging may also discourage people from seeking gainful employment or be associated with trafficking or exploitation.

However, Malawi has an unemployment rate of about 80%. Most people just ‘get by’ through informal roadside trading of old clothes, boiled eggs or sweet buns;. They may act as porters for traders or drive ‘taxis’. Taxis can be anything from a battered minibus which shuttles among townships, to an ancient saloon with bits dropping off, no brakes and four ill-matched tyres. Or it could be a pushbike with a passenger saddle. Women may leave their own children with neighbours and become maids caring for other people’s children.


For many people self-employment of any kind is impossible and there is no social security safety net. They may be too old and frail to work. Far more are physically disabled than in Britain. They drag useless legs behind them or are parked limbless or sightless by the sides of the roads. Physical conditions and illnesses which are easily dealt with in the west, go untreated in sub-Saharan Africa.

So, what, if any, support do I give to beggars?

I give to the most ancient looking and to those with the worst disabilities, particularly albinos who struggle along almost blind and covered in terrible sores and tumours caused by the sun. I rarely give to children as they may be being exploited, particularly on weekdays when they should be at school.

However, I do give to mothers with very small children, not every time, but when they look desperate. Inconsistent, I know. Whatever the wisdom of others, I find it very difficult to walk past when I have so much.

So, I stuffed some crumpled notes into the woman’s hand and walked off to the swimming pool. And forgot.

When I emerged a few hours later, the woman was still there, comatose, head on her chest, while her minute charges sat patiently in the dust beside her, cars and buses streaming past only a foot or so away. A British toddler would have staggered onto the road hours before, but these were docile African infants, used to sitting still for hours on end. But when would hunger, thirst or curiosity get the better of them?

The situation clearly couldn’t go on. This was now no longer just a medical issue or, indeed, a financial issue; it was a child protection issue.

What to do? It was getting on for five o’clock on a Saturday afternoon, and people were rushing past the little group to get to their buses. I looked around. A few people noticed the family at their feet, but nobody stopped or helped.  This woman needed urgent treatment and her children needed to be rescued. What could I - a foreigner who didn’t even speak the language - do to resolve the situation?

Fortunately, this busy junction seemed to have attracted a lot of policemen going from car to car checking paperwork. Pickings must be more lucrative on an early Saturday evening. Would a traffic policeman be of any help? I had my doubts. They looked far too intent on imposing fines to be interrupted.

However, my eye fell on two other policemen, standing behind a decorative hedge, on guard outside a government building. Most unusually for Malawi, each smartly uniformed young man was armed with a serious-looking sub-machine gun. They stood stern and upright, their weapons ready for use. They clearly had important duties to perform.

Now, remember that I wasn’t in my own country where few of us would hesitate to ask for help from a policeman. Furthermore, I had lived for some time in Uganda where armed police throng the roads and you would have to be crazy to accost them.

I crossed the road and asked one of them for help. He listened carefully as I explained my concerns. Would I pay for transport to the nearest medical facility and any treatment?  Of course. He was as good as his word. He crossed the road, engaged the woman in some kind of discussion and returned with his suggestion.

Now, this isn’t a dramatic story where lives are saved against all odds thanks to the intervention of a dea ex machina.

No, the policeman had ascertained that ‘friends’ were coming to pick the woman up. We agreed that my help was not needed and I went off to my hotel.

Should I have taken her to the hospital anyway? Would a woman dressed as poorly as that have had friends who could afford proper healthcare? She certainly wouldn’t have had medical insurance. Was she afraid that she might be separated from her children? Should I have pressed a more serious amount of money into her hands? Should I? Should I?

No, I don’t think so, though, believe you me, I was seriously tempted.  This is Malawi. The Malawian community should look after its own in the way it has traditionally done. If she had malaria, treatment at a pharmacy is cheap and effective if sought promptly. If she was in the last stages of AIDS, then little would save her.

And in-between? Well-meaning do-gooders like me cannot interfere all the time and by so doing undermine and disrupt community relationships and the ties which bind people to each other. Without the 'friends' I would have done it. With the 'friends', it was inappropriate. No, I do not know if they did eventually come or even if they really existed.

Furthermore, on a more strategic level, Malawi’s supporters, be they international donors, NGOs or charities, cannot keep descending from on high to wave their magic wands. The politicians and civil servants of Malawi themselves have to accept responsibility for the welfare of the people they represent. At some point they have to stop plundering the country's finances and use them for the purpose for which they are intended: promoting the good of the people. The more we bail Malawi out, the less these people will care.

So, it was a good-ish outcome. An aggressive-looking policeman was sufficiently mindful of the needs of a fellow countrywoman to try to resolve the situation. He spoke to her sensitively and with courtesy, as far as his body language indicated. I hope the woman’s friends arrived. If not, the police had my name and that of my hotel and, yes, I would then have intervened.


Well, perhaps, something good-ish happened today.

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