Saturday, 21 June 2014

The dog it was that died

The dog came as a surprise.

It had been a long day, a day spent in pretty intensive meetings in Blantyre, in the south of Malawi, followed by a drive of three hours or so to pick up a colleague in Dedza, then another drive of hour and a half to reach our destination, Lilongwe. It was therefore about nine o'clock and had been dark for several hours when we reached the Crossroads roundabout. We drove into the complex to drop off our passenger and five minutes later reached the junction with the main-ish road which would, by various turns, lead to my hotel.

I was comatose, for I had been up at between five and six o'clock most days the previous week and had worked full tilt through every daylight hour and beyond. I was not prepared therefore for what happened next.

We pulled up at the junction behind another four-by-four, chatting desultorily in the way one does when one has already been engaged in deep discussion for several hours and now just wants to get back 'home'.

'Oh, there's a dog on the road,' said my companion as he noted the frustrated hesitation of the vehicle in front. I glanced up and there, sure enough, was a dog, the usual yellow half-feral dog, lying on the tarmac.

Then, 'Oh no!', he exclaimed in horror, 'He's run it over, he's deliberately run it over!'

I glanced up and then immediately covered my eyes, but not quickly enough to avoid the ghastly sight of the back wheels running over the dog's abdomen and then making off to the left. A terrible agonising yelping ensued as the dog tried but failed to raise its broken back off the ground. On the opposite side of the road, other, probably feral, dogs barked excitedly as they too grasped what had happened.

My companion pulled round the site of the 'accident' and we made off in stunned silence.

'That was cruelty, sheer cruelty,' my friend observed.

A few minutes' silence.

'I bet that man goes to church,' he added, to my surprise, for my Malawian friend is a committed Christian and staunch churchgoer. 'It's a problem with Christianity. People think the world belongs to human beings and animals don't matter.'

He was alluding, of course, to the almost universal church membership among his fellow countrymen.

Now, I hadn't seen Christianity in that light at all. On the contrary, I had thought of the Christian universe as one presided over by St Francis, arms raised in blessing above a harmonious fellowship of humans, birds and animals.

Though by no means an excessively sentimental animal lover, my own affection for the species very largely derives from my affection for our family's dogs, an emotional relationship which goes back well over half a century to our first pet, Bobby, a small black and white mongrel. He was followed by our wonderful long-haired half-retriever-half-spaniel, Brunig, and then the loveable but untrainable Cavalier King Charles siblings which my parents still had when I left home.

Even now, dogless myself for some decades, I enjoy my intermittent relationship with my brother's collies and my sister-in-law's terriers, relishing my role as visiting 'aunty'. Never has it ever occurred to me that a religion ostensibly based on love for creation could be responsible for the kind of callousness I saw last night.

But yet, but yet...  My colleague has a point. A country which reads the Bible and takes its words literally will not have failed to have found in God's words to Adam a powerful statement of the essential rightness of a world dominated by human beings.

And God said unto them, "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth." (Genesis chapter 1)

Now, when God used the word dominion, was he bestowing power, or handing over guardianship? That is the crux of the matter.

To those of us who see in Genesis a glorious poetic attempt to explore the origins of mankind through the medium of myth, the question may seem of little relevance. To those, however, who believe that the Bible was dictated by God to one writer as a template for life and a manual to be implemented unchanged until the end of time, it is a very pertinent question. The fact that the word dominion was chosen by the sixteenth century English translators rather than the original Hebrew wordsmiths just makes the debate even more complicated.

There is, of course, another angle that has nothing whatever to do with the Christianity or otherwise of a country's population. I am sure that many British readers of this post, most of whom will be animal lovers to a man and woman, will see the incident as a horrifying if mundane example of the casual cruelty of a country which isn't Britain. Other people - foreigners - just don't love animals as we do, goes the self-satisfied script. From camels in Arabia to donkeys in Spain, only the British really demonstrate love and care for the creatures with whom we share this wonderful world.

Well, actually, no.

A popular television programmes in our animal-loving country follows the activities of a team of inspectors who follow up cases of animal cruelty and neglect. Week after week they come across beaten dogs, tortured cats and poisoned birds.

Every few months our news broadcasts tell of farms where starving horses are left to die. Reporters describe kennels which churn out psychologically damaged puppies torn too early from their mothers. The impatient brutality which runs over a dog because it doesn't get out of the way quickly enough is really no worse than the gradual neglect and abandonment of pets which have merely become inconvenient. Turning a puppy out of doors in January because it has nipped the children or left a mess on the floor is just as callous as running over it, it is just that the victim dies round the corner out of sight.

The more I visit other countries, the less easy I find it to cast judgement even in situations such as the one with which I started this post and which left me shaking with horror and disgust. I learnt my lesson when we left Uganda eighteen months ago. We had spent the previous few months seething with rage as we observed the blatant corruption of that country's political regime and public services wreck the lives of its citizens, particularly the weak and vulnerable, and above all the children. As our placement drew to a close, the fetid tide had crept gradually closer and closer, eventually even soiling our own toes. We came back to Britain sorry to leave such a beautiful country but relieved that we were back, as we thought, in a land where gross injustices of the kind we had witnessed did not take place.

As you might expect we were wrong, and not just wrong but naive. We came back to a city council whose entire Buildings Department had been accused of taking bribes and to a country where corrupt dealers fixed the currency rates, where reckless bankers juggled with the savings of trusting customers and where tax-dodging millionaires blamed the poor for the nation's financial difficulties.

Cruelty, callousness and greed are not qualities which can be ascribed to any country or culture in particular. Sadly, they are human qualities and have been among our characteristics, no doubt, since the beginnings of time - or the creation of the world, depending on one's perspective or beliefs. Fortunately, human society is made up of more than the exemplification of our worst characteristics. Of our positive features I am sure I will have more to say in subsequent posts.

But for now, I just regret to say the dog it was that died.

The title of this post and its final line are taken from An Elegy on the Death of a Mad Dog by Oliver Goldsmith.

Friday, 13 June 2014

Where have all the children gone?

There were hardly any children at school yesterday. There were hardly any the day before either. Assembly was a paltry affair, just a handful of children lining up in the compound when morning school started at 7.30.

In a country where large classes are the norm, I came across rooms which were half empty. Barely a third of the children had come to school. One or two trickled in late, but that was all.

One of my colleagues told me that at the primary school he visited yesterday, out of 2,600 pupils, only 800 turned up.

Why was this?

Well, it is bitterly cold in Dedza just now. It fell to about 10 degrees Centigrade yesterday. First thing in the morning, on our chilly hill, the wind cut at our legs and, no doubt, at the legs of all the barefoot children scampering along the path. Some wore anoraks and ski jackets, cast offs from the west. More wore cotton chitenje wrapped round their shoulders. A few had come with just their normal school uniform, with, if they were lucky, a Tshirt underneath. Perhaps it was just warmer to stay at home, and who can blame them?

However, others were quite probably at the market, helping their parents, for Thursday is market day. We had passed it on the way, tomatoes and potatoes carefully balanced in neat pyramids.

What does market day involve? Principally carrying produce down the path to the main road, hitching a lift in an over-crowded pickup and off-loading the produce at the destination. Alternatively, you push it all the way there on the family bike. Once at your destination, there are customers to attend to and then the same process on the way home, though, hopefully, with lighter sacks but, perhaps, also with some purchases.

Women and children do most of the carrying in Malawi. Never underestimate the weight of some of their loads: sacks of maize, bundles of firewood, containers of water and, of course, their younger brothers and sisters. Yesterday I watched while a little girl, six or seven, not much older than my granddaughter and scantily dressed, literally ran with a heavy pot of water on her head, clearly desperate to get home out of the bitter cold. As she ran, the water started sloshing around, soaking her clothing. She stopped, distressed, for the wind must have chilled her to the bone through her wet garments. Then she was off again, running as fast as her legs could carry her.

What other tasks do children do?

Well, of course, they have to collect the water in the first place. If they're fortunate, like these girls here, there's a borehole not far from their home. I watched while the girl on the left hung on the handle, legs swinging, in order to get it to move. Hard work but not hardship, I guess, for they are used to it.

Women are responsible for growing the family's food and their children are therefore indispensable in the 'garden'. They dig, hoe and harvest. It is harvest time now and we watched lines of children passing with huge bags of maize on their heads. They watch animals, herding goats and sometimes cattle along the roadsides. These are the tasks they do before and after school. Often, however, they do them during school hours and arrive late, or not at all. Difficult to know what the alternative is in some circumstances. If you are a pregnant  woman close to delivery, it is your children you turn to when you need help with household tasks or to look after younger siblings.

In many countries it is very hard to distinguish between the normal domestic tasks which all children should be expected to carry out, and those which fall within the category of 'child labour'. There are also 'in-between' tasks which seem unjustifiable in real terms but are just accepted as part of normal life.

The day before yesterday all the children in the school we were visiting arrived bearing large bundles of grass - not the short green sweet-smelling grass which is used to make hay in Britain, but tall dried stalks of elephant grass. They scratch the arms and legs and are tough to cut down. You use pangas (machetes) for this, Children of all ages wield these pangas, slashing the knife backwards and forwards. Of course, there are terrible accidents, as you may imagine.

Despite having been around and about areas of Africa for some years now, I still make stupid mistakes.

'Are they brooms?' I asked naively.

My colleagues roared with laughter. It turned out that every child in the school had been told to bring a bundle of dried grass to thatch the teachers' outhouses and build their fences. Incidentally, they had also made the bricks of which the teachers' houses were built. Many children arrived late, having been out into the bush to cut the grass first. Those who failed to bring any grass were not allowed to attend school. We came across some lurking behind the building. After a long uncomfortable walk to school, they were not going to be allowed in. My colleagues were angry but not surprised. It is not at all unusual for teachers to exploit children in this way.

The Kalondolondo Programme, which is supported by UKAID, reports that even community action to improve schools often ends up with children doing the work to which their parents have committed themselves. The Programme also found many examples of teachers exploiting the pupils by demanding that they carry out building projects.

Now what brought all this to mind?

Yesterday, June 12th, was World against Child Labour Day. Most of the newspapers made some mention of the occasion and one, The Nation, had a substantial supplement which I found made interesting reading. Apparently, in the Asia-Pacific region and in Latin America and the Caribbean, child labour has been declining over recent years. In sub-Saharan Africa, however, it is rising.

In Malawi, a quarter of all children aged 5 to 14 work in agriculture, Malawi's main area of production, for there is as good as no manufacturing. Indeed, 80% of the population work in farming, most at subsistence level, just providing for their families.

However, many of the children employed outside the home work in the tobacco fields, an important source of revenue for Malawi. This month the kwacha continued appreciating against the dollar and euro, thanks to proceeds from the tobacco auction houses.

Children are involved at all stages: weeding, spreading fertiliser, harvesting, curing and transporting the leaves. They may suffer from health conditions brought about by contact with strong agro-chemicals, skin irritation from contact with wet leaves and may strain their immature physical frames through heavy lifting. For this kind of work, a child might receive a monthly wage of K5,000, about £7.40. Some children may also be trafficked from the south of Malawi to the North and Central regions to do this work.

However, it is not just in the commercial farming sector that youngsters are employed well beyond what is acceptable. A recent BBC Focus on Africa programme featured a boy of 14 who worked from seven in the morning until four in the afternoon, seven days a week. He was employed as a cattle herder and slept in a hut next to the cattle in order to protect them from theft.

There is as yet no functional Child Labour Policy in Malawi, nor a national Child Labour Monitoring System, according to the Director of Save the Children in Malawi. However, Malawi is making progress, more progress says the International Labour Organisation (ILO) than most other countries in Africa. A few years ago, 37% of children were involved in child labour. Now the figure is 29% and expectations are that the drop will continue.

It's a long hard process, though. The issue is a familiar one on the continent: systems are put in place but take a long time to be implemented and make a real difference. The National Child Labour Policy has been produced but has not yet been approved by government. Malawi has got a national plan for eliminating child labour and has published the Malawi Growth and Development Strategy. But plans and strategies are all very well. Effective action is also needed.

The ILO is about to start a monitoring exercise in two districts of Lilongwe and Ntcheu, supported with funding from the US Department of Labour and Japan Tobacco International (JTI). Communities will gather the data which will be sent to the District Labour Office for analysis. (Information from The Daily Times, 13 June 2014)

So, much is being done to deal with the issue of child labour, both nationally and globally. That combined approach, with action being taken within the country supported by international donors, is a good one. Malawians are not helpless or uninterested in the circumstances in which their countrymen and women live. However, for a poor country, carrying out monitoring exercises and other such activities takes resources it may not have. The number of local NGOs is proof of genuine concern, even though some may be more effective in taking action than others.

In Malawi, the ILO supports various local organisations working to eliminate child labour. It notes, however, that only one in five of working children is in paid employment. The vast majority are working for their families without payment. A sub-group, ECAM (Employers Consultative Association of Malawi) lobbies within the business community. ECAM points out that far from the employment of children making businesses more profitable, in fact, it inhibits the development of well-trained and productive adult workers.

A network with the acronym CLEAR brings together a number of international human rights organisations such as Save the Children and local groups and NGOs such as Youth Network and Counselling (Yoneco), Creative Centre for Community Mobilisation (Creccom) and Total Land Care (TLC). CLEAR works to take children out of the labour market and refers them to educational, health and psychosocial support. 10,000 children now have access to educational services of this kind. CLEAR provides poultry and other livestock to help make families more independent. It sets up schemes such as the Village Savings and Loans Scheme to help them plan their expenditure more effectively. CLEAR works with employers to assess the hazards associated with particular industries to which young people might be exposed.

The tobacco industry also has its own project called Eliminating Child Labour in Tobacco Growing Foundation (ECLT). The project's baseline study found the incidence of child labour in specific areas to be about 27%.

None of these acronyms exactly trip off the tongue, but the organisations concerned seem to be making a difference.

The Malawi government is beginning to ratify some key international legislation, such as the Minimum Age Convention, and Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention.

Child labour is an outcome of family poverty, so this is what the most effective action targets. Social Cash Transfer programmes help to support child-headed and other desperately poor households. These programmes provide small amounts of cash so that families can buy goods locally, hence improving the local economy, rather than hand out free or subsidised food. Social protection helps families to become more resilient through the provision of basic welfare such as health care and income security. The aim is to help them withstand personal crises such as unemployment, sickness or injury or agricultural crises such as drought, floods or crop failure. Social protection programmes particularly target vulnerable children, including orphans and those affected by HIV/AIDS or from marginalised groups.

CLEAR builds classrooms, drills boreholes and provides farm animals to families to encourage them to keep their children in school. Complementary Basic Education programmes are delivered in children's homes and local centres to help improve literacy levels. Where such projects are being delivered, school enrolment and attendance have increased significantly.

It will take a long time for child labour to be eliminated. At the end of the day, it is probably a matter of persuading families that they have more to gain in the long run from helping their children to acquire an education and through it reap the rewards of more secure employment, than from forcing them into premature and hazardous employment which brings only minimal and short-term benefits.

Teachers too have a role to play, not only by not exploiting free child labour themselves, but also by following up and tackling the absence of so many children from their classes.

Where here have all the children gone? Sadly, to the fields.

World against Child Labour Day

Sunday, 8 June 2014

Hitting the shops in Lilongwe

My husband is not a fan of shopping. My husband thinks that trousers should be worn until the fabric has worn to invisibility at the crotch and the sleeve of every shirt has a fringe of loose threads dangling from the cuffs. Then, and only then, will he 'hit the shops'. Leith Mills in Edinburgh is his favourite establishment, for there his golfing outfits - preferred wear for all occasions, seasons and locations - are barely a third of the price it is everywhere else. If the shopkeepers of the capital had to depend on Stuart's custom for survival, they would all go to the wall within a week. One article of clothing a year will never keep any tailoring establishment in business.

I, on the other hand, am a strong believer in supporting the local economy. I do this regularly and conscientiously in Edinburgh, but am in my element when shopping abroad - and nowadays I am never more 'abroad' than in Malawi. Having filled our Edinburgh flat with a tasteful, comprehensive and conversation-provoking array of Ugandan artefacts from our two years living on the equator, and, by so doing, saved that country's economy singlehanded, it is now my mission to do the same for my new 'second home'. However, whereas our family bank account has still not recovered from the airline's punitive charges for overweight luggage in December 2012 (they seemed to think that our six suitcases and five pieces of hand baggage were being used to export large blocks of granite), I am now in the lucky position of being able to drip feed my Malawian purchases into the family home, modest suitcase by modest suitcase, every three or four months or so. This has the added advantage that I am able to sneak them quietly up the stairs behind my spouse's back, discretely producing them one by one for public viewing, once Stuart has come to terms with previous acquisitions. This, then, is the context for my shopping expeditions in Malawi.

So, what is it like, hitting the shops in the capital, Lilongwe? Indeed, what are the shops themselves like?

Well, it has to be said, many of them are very like the thousands of other bland department stores and supermarkets all over the globe. Malawi being in Southern Africa, many of the modern shopping centres are owned by South African businessmen who have realised that neighbouring and nearby countries are worth considering for investment. In Uganda, it was largely, but not entirely, Kenyan entrepreneurs who dominated. Odd how particular countries take lead positions within their own regions.

Here is the Old Town Mall - a misnomer if ever there was one - all plate glass and shops with useless but decorative objects.

And here is a picture of the Nico Centre, on Kamuzu Procession Road at the heart of Lilongwe's Old Town, so called because the original buildings were there before the building of Capital City, from which the country is governed.

The Nico Centre's car park bears witness to the social composition of its clientele... does the road leading into and out of the complex, thronged as it is by the four-by-fours favoured by expatriate representatives of donor organisations and wealthy local residents.

Yet, the flaunted wealth is not all there is to see. The pavements, where there are any, are dotted with treacherous traps for the visually-challenged.

Clearly far more money goes into the private pocket than into the public purse. Alternatively, no sooner has it got to the public purse than it jumps swiftly out again.

In-between the cars weave less wealthy shoppers, some with babies strapped to their backs, some barefoot, many with heavy loads.

Their shopping is not done at the Nico Centre. Here a small group of women gather round a plastic bucket full of recycled plastic water bottles containing a muddy-looking liquid. It wasn't petrol and it wasn't honey or cooking oil. What was it? Who knows. Home-brewed beer, perhaps?

Women like the one on the right above set up small stalls selling airtime scratch cards at the entrance to the Nico Centre. A destitute old woman is begging from her, but to no avail.

Well, but what about me, though? Where do I do my shopping? Well, I have to admit to having frequented Game and Shoprite, the two outlets most often patronised by bazungu, mainly for products like European shampoo which doesn't relax my hair (it needs all the help it can get and has never been in any danger of developing tight curls), soap which doesn't lighten my skin (westerners want to look brown!) and a wider choice of fruit.

I didn't buy my fruit from there this time, however, but from vendors outside Old Town Mall, selling strawberries grown out at Bunde Agricultural College. They were sweet and flavoursome, but do not, I think, yet form part of the diet of ordinary Malawians.

However, most of my shopping has been done directly across the road from the Nico Centre.

In front of the Post Office is a large informal market where over-enthusiastic stall holders ambush unwary tourists and sell them local crafts at exorbitant prices. Of course, I am exceedingly wary, but that doesn't stop me falling prey time after time after time. The point is, these are genuinely hand made crafts, though the huge number of them may look as if that is not the case. Many of the entrepreneurs are students trying to pay their school fees, high school drop outs struggling to scratch a living and real wood carvers endeavouring to find a market for their products. Here you can buy many different kinds of wooden artifacts, some brought from the Dedza/Mangochi area where wood carving is a local speciality. From Dedza region come the wooden cars and lorries. There are traditional wooden chairs, as in this picture, elephant carvings and intricate bowls.

Many of the artifacts are a dark brown or black.

'Ebony', says the stallholder, lying confidently through his teeth.

'Shoe polish,' I respond, for I had seen them massaging it lovingly into the grain of the wood.

Last time I was here I watched while the craftsman carved my grandson's name onto a small block of wood decorated with a chambo fish, the national fish of Lake Malawi.

He held the wood between his feet and used homemade hand tools to chisel away at it. I worried for his toes!

Cotton is grown in Malawi, though in the past the prices have been undercut by cheap British, and now cheap Chinese goods and ghastly secondhand clothes. However, a wide range of chitenje - women's wraparound skirts - are sold at the Post Office and elsewhere and that is where I got the fabric I bought last time.

Charming Noah's arks stand beached on the red earth, their beautifully carved prospective guests queuing two by two as they inch towards Mr and Mrs Noah. I am a connoisseur of Noah's arks and have chosen as one of my life's missions the purchasing of the perfect Noah's ark for my grandson (Tim, don't let him read this post!). The trouble is that each time I see one I like, I panic that I'll never see as good a one again, so I buy it on the spot. I then see an even better one.

As a result, I am now the proud owner of three Noah's arks. Two I bought last time. The third, a miniature version, I bought yesterday, completely unable to resist the young boy who was selling it, who said he had carved it himself, and I'm pretty sure he had. Like all Malawian Noah's arks, it contains a fatal design flaw. The animal-loading entrance is located below the waterline so the elephants will almost certainly have to spend all the voyage bailing out.

The apple is to give an indication of its size. The tiny animals are lovingly carved, male and female carefully delineated. The bigger the ark, the more animals there are and hence the wider the variety. Nevertheless, I am quite taken with the over-sized frogs which could give the giraffes a run for their money.

I have already seen the best of all the Noah's arks, a lovely big chunky boat with equally chunky animals, but I would have to leave behind most of the contents of my suitcases and possibly pay yet more overweight fees to get it back home. Sorry, Jeremy.

This time my purchase wasn't made in front of the Post Office but in the Nico Centre car part where there was a stall run by an organisation called Chance for Change. Its aims are to encourage young entrepreneurs, so I had no qualms about my unnecessary purchase of a surplus Noah's ark.

Oh, and I also bought a pair of sandals for my granddaughter.

These are not the only things I bought my grandchildren, of course. Every time I go to foreign country I buy my granddaughter a local doll. The last time I came to Malawi, however, was an exception. Having been used to the meticulously sewn dolls in Uganda and Tanzania, I was disappointed last time I came by the comparitively crude equivalents in Malawi. Now, you have to remember that few, if any, Ugandan, Tanzanian or Malawian children will own a doll, or if they do it will be cheap plastic with pink body and yellow hair and made in China. Handsewn local dolls are for the children of expatriates or for tourists who take them home and display them in their sitting rooms. My granddaughter, however, said she would like to have a Malawian doll, despite its possible limitations, so a Malawian doll she should have.

My friend and I spent quite some time trying to choose the least physically challenged of the dolls on offer, the one which would at least not terrify its owner. So here is what we found, the small doll on the left for my baby grandson, the mother with baby on her back on the right for my granddaughter.

Beauty, as they say, is in the eye of the beholder.

So those are the outcomes of my shopping trips in Lilongwe. They don't tell you much about the shopping experiences of local residents or about the purchasing of the staples of life for ordinary families. What they do tell you about is the privilege of having money to spend on relative luxuries, unlike so many of the local population, and the pleasure to be had from purchasing well-made (well usually!) local products.

As one stallholder said after I had yet again paid well over the odds for a bagful of necklaces made out of seeds (imagine what my husband said!). 'You are a good woman. You are helping the families of Malawi!'

I realised then that I had paid far far too much. They really had seen me coming!