by Jessica Weyell, University of Southampton Master Student
Seven years ago, I was fortunate enough to visit Malawi as a part of the charity, Malawi Education Link, set up by Caroline Hansford. Caroline was a teacher at my school (Hinchingbrooke Secondary School), who took a team of students to Malawi annually. The aim of our trip was to build teachers houses, schools and decorate the schools with educational aids. This year, I returned to a different region in Malawi, to conduct research alongside the ASSETS project. When visiting with school, I stayed in Dwangwa, by Lake Malawi, where I would regularly lye on the beach looking at the stars and wake up early to watch the sun rise over the lake with the fishermen securing their first catch of the day. This time we are staying in the Zomba district, a bustling and vibrant town in the picturesque south of Malawi surrounded by mountains.
Whilst I have no idea what Dwangwa is like now, Malawi seems very different today compared to seven years ago or, at least how I remember it being seven years ago.
The greatest difference so far is the number of mobile phones!! When I came with school, very few Malawians owned a mobile. There would be one person in each village that owned a phone. If people needed to use the phone, they would pay this person to use their mobile. Today, nearly everyone owns a mobile. Frequently, during a participatory rural appraisal, discussion will be disrupted by someone’s phone ringing. This change has made arranging visits to villages much easier as you can ring to make arrangements the next day rather than relying on a message being passed-on or a promise being kept. The latter is sometimes hard because of plans changing uncontrollably, such as a funeral having to take place.
Another striking difference is the value of the kwacha to the pound. When I visited with school, the exchange rate was around 270-280kwa to the pound. I would regularly think that something sounded so expensive when it was 600kwa, but would quickly remember that this was less than £2. Today, the exchange rate is around 500-520kwa to the pound. Despite only spending four weeks in Malawi previously, I still find this hard to remember and when items are priced at 1000kwa it takes a moment to remember that this is still only around £2. Further to this, the cost of living has also gone up. Previously, a glass bottle of coke would cost the equivalent of ~10p today; it costs the equivalent of ~25p. I have no idea if wages have changed to compensate for this increase in cost and it is difficult to judge as the wealth of the regions appear to be quite different. However, it would still appear that to purchase a glass bottle of coke is an expensive purchase for the rural villagers. Although, when I visited before, it was cheaper to buy soft drinks such as Coke, Fanta and Sprite that it was to buy water. Today, whilst water is still slightly more expensive, prices are far more comparable. In addition to the value of the kwacha to the pound, Malawi has also changed their notes since I visited last. Consequently, I still have money as a memento of my previous trip as they stopped excepting them in May of this year. The notes used to be much bigger and varied in size depending on their value. Today, they are all uniform size.
Furthermore, the region I visited in the past was fairly rural and relied quite heavily on fishing in Lake Malawi and sugar cane farming for their income. The area had a large sugar factory, which I was lucky enough to visit, that had fields and fields of irrigated sugar cane. In the villages I visited, there appeared to be mainly subsistence farming. I was lucky enough to sit with a group of people as we took the maize off the cob ready to grind into flour. I spent most of my time off the beaten track in the bush, moving bricks from kilns and transporting them to schools that were located away from the villages so as to be positioned centrally. Today, the area I am visiting is more urban, with a University nearby. The villages rely on farming for their income and it is focused around rice and maize. However, all the villages so far appear to have a diverse range of crops and, even livestock, for additional income and subsistence. Schools are also often located within the villages we are visiting. Consequently, the villages I am currently visiting appear to be wealthier than where I visited previously. However, I do not feel I have been able to get to know the areas as well due to conducting focused research.
Another difference between the regions is the facilities available. Zomba is lined with bakeries, clothes shops, chain-stores and even contains a permanent market. It also has medical centres, restaurants, numerous banks and more petrol stations in a mile long stretch than fast food chains in a UK city centre. Due to it being such a busy region with a university, there are many white faces and our group is not a novelty. Further from the centre of town, the roads are lined with many little tuck-shops and bustling markets. Dawangwa, on the other hand, was virtually empty in comparison offering only one grocery store and a modest market two days a week with no petrol stations or bakeries. It was not a very touristy area and people frequently thought we were painting ourselves white when putting on sun-cream as they rarely saw white people. However, in both regions, the rural populations still shout “mzungu” after us as we drive through.
Despite the many differences between both places and time, the similarities are the most striking to me. I am pleased that the nostalgia from my previous trip is perfectly justified as many of my observations and experiences from Dawanga have been the same in Zomba. Nights are filled with avoiding mosquito bites and, dining on colourful and tasty African cuisine. Mornings are populated with monkeys waking you up whilst running on the roof and, cold showers to wake you up. However, the best similarities take place during the day. I am extremely fond of the “African Massage” that I have received twice a day, driving on bumpy roads on car seats with little padding. Villagers live in the most modest of houses, with the vast majority lacking access to electricity and running water. Many children walk bare foot, dressed in clothes with rips but their faces are nearly always fixed with a smile. The villages have a great sense of community and treat people with the greatest respect and politeness. They are always pleased to greet us and, are eager to provide us with new knowledge.
As a nation that appears to have so little in comparison to us, they are some of the most happy and inspiring people you could meet. They work hard to obtain what they can and appear to be so pleased with the little they do gain despite the hard effort. They are humble and generous and I am pleased to see that Malawi still lives up to its name as the warm heart of Africa.