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On pro bono assignment in Malawi....

Liveryman Chris Sutton volunteers as an Accountant at Project Joshua... 

 

I recently spent four weeks volunteering as an accountant at Project Joshua, whose main activity is providing education and day care to pre-school children in rural areas outside Blantyre in Malawi. They have recently won a grant from the Department for International Development (DFID), and my role was to help them to realign their accounts and to create regular reports for DFID on how the grant is being spent.

 

The landscape around Blantyre is very similar to what I experienced last year in Rwanda – hilly, lush green vegetation everywhere and red earth. The city itself is not especially grand - there is a sprinkling of old Victorian era administration bungalows among the generally drab modern office buildings and shops. The main challenge of living in Blantyre is frequent power and water cuts.

 

My homestay was in a large bungalow in its own walled compound on the edge of the city. Patricia the lady of the house is charming, as is her son Frank who is in his 20s and is a manager in the family’s industrial cleaning business. That’s the two of them in the photo. Frank’s 4 siblings all live abroad.

On my first day I was sent out with our driver as he delivered large sacks of porridge to five of the early learning day care centres in his 4x4 pick-up. Main roads have tarmac, but once you get on to the dirt roads the ride gets very bumpy, especially in the rainy season.

These rural communities are mainly subsistence farmers, just close enough also for parents to walk a couple of hours to work in the city. Project Joshua wants to ensure their pre-school children are looked after, and also receive early-years education. The “bribe” is that parents are more than happy for their children to attend if it comes with a free nutritious lunch. It was remarkable that in these poor communities the children all wore pristine clean clothes.

 

At one of the centres where we dropped off porridge, the founder of Project Joshua was on site, talking with some of the volunteer care-workers. Her name is Sylvia;  she is in her mid 70s, and lives half of the year in the UK and half in Malawi.  When I met her, she was trying to encourage some of the care-workers to sign up for more slots on the rota, and finding it a tough ask. There is a competitive market among charities and NGOs. Originally all the care-workers working for Joshua were unpaid;  now they receive a small allowance (more like pocket-money) but Sylvia is finding that other NGOs are offering higher rates.

The centre below was a twenty minute walk through maize fields and across a river. Nice to get out of the 4x4 and walk – then I realised that this is a walk the locals have to do with heavy buckets every time they need to draw water from the nearest well. The lady with the child on her back uses the plastic baseball bat to point to the numbers on the wall, at least when we visited!

 

My job was to help the local accountant to strengthen the accounting processes. But as soon I arrived, I was asked to take a quick look at a spreadsheet containing the results of some aptitude tests they had been doing in January among the pre-school children (IDELA tests) to see if I could find a correlation between age and results. I said yes too quickly, this was an unmaintained spreadsheet originally downloaded from another charity, and many of the formulas were corrupt. The spreadsheet had the scores of some 450 children across 8 centres, and across something like fifty questions. What a nightmare – I ended up spending ages trying to fix the spreadsheet, even before beginning to analyse the results.  I hadn’t realised that I would be going to Malawi to make myself an expert in Pivot Tables…

Primary schools are free to attend, but Malawi has one of the worst performances in the world for primary school 1-3 education, and a teacher is paid the equivalent of just £70 per month. This is one of the reasons for Joshua providing early learning centres, to help give nursery age children a head start.

I have been having a number of conversations about whether or not foreign aid is beneficial and have also been reading Paul Theroux’s book “Dark Star Safari”. Theroux taught in a Malawian secondary school and a Ugandan university in the US Peace Corps in his early twenties, in the 1960s. In the book, written in 2001, he revisits Africa and backpacks from Cairo to Cape Town, passing through Malawi. I am glad I didn’t read the book before I came out, Theroux is unremittingly critical in his perception that things have gone backwards (not just in Malawi) since his time in the 1960s;  governments are largely corrupt; and most infrastructure investment, for example new schools, are not maintained in good condition. He also gives an example of the library at the Malawian secondary school where he taught that is now almost devoid of books, because the children and teachers have purloined and sold them. He records quite a few conversations with old African friends from the 1960s, who agree with his grim assessment.

Theroux is also critical about how many of the brightest and best students leave the African country where they were born, reducing the local talent pool. Then he reserves his biggest criticisms for the foreign aid agencies who swan around in white luxury 4 x 4s (and who incidentally refused to give Theroux a lift on two occasions where his transport had broken down – perhaps giving cause to his ire!). He observes that agencies overpay for local staff, thus tempting much-needed primary school teachers away from schools. The locals have no desire to continue to do the work the agencies were doing after agencies leave; and agencies create a dependency culture which works to the advantage of the more despotic governments.

That book was written in 2001, and there are many other books out there which are very critical of foreign aid agencies. So how much does it ring true with what I saw today? At the house where I stayed, 4 of the 5 grown-up children have moved abroad. But on the other hand, Theroux wrote that in Malawi only government ministers have cars, which is absolutely no longer the case now, albeit the majority of the population does not have a car and is reliant on cramped minibuses for transport.  I also imagine that the more recent introduction of mobile phones, which are now everywhere, has had a good empowering effect for the general population. Whilst I am not here to defend Joshua, they only work where they have community buy-in (although the buy-in is variable by centre) and their transport is a couple of beat-up grey 4x4 pick-ups.

A couple of other illustrations – at one of the Joshua Early Development Centres, a simple playground that was only about 18 months old has pretty much vanished. Was it termites damaging the wood?  or the locals stealing it for firewood. I suspect a combination of both. Joshua distributes free porridge (donated by the local Sikh community) to children via the centres. The formula is intended for growing children only, but it is clear that the caregivers are helping themselves too. I guess that it is always going to be the case, for an aid organisation like Joshua, of hoping you can make two steps forward and just one step backwards, rather than the opposite. The people who founded Joshua, and I assume it’s the same for many similar organisations, accept the limitations but are still driven by the desire to provide direct humanitarian assistance to people who would not otherwise receive it. Would governments step in if the aid agencies disappeared? The experience of Zimbabwe in the later Mugabe years perhaps suggests not.

Malawi is towards the bottom of the world poverty index.  There are a handful of African countries below it. I believe that the index focuses on GDP per head, and favours countries with lots of natural resources, which Malawi lacks. Yet, is the average person in Malawi materially poorer than an average person in an oil-rich African state? Not if the wealth in the oil-rich country only reaches a very small part of its population. Clearly Malawi has problems and corruption; but it is a very friendly country with no recent experience of war.

Reading this blog, I realise that the last few paragraphs have been quite heavy, so I will move to a lighter note. A bottle of beer (local Carlsberg) is cheaper than a cup of tea or coffee, so naturally I have been economising. One weekend I stayed in a lakeside lodge on the shore of Lake Malawi (Cape McClear) which was blissful. This was the view of Lake Malawi from my veranda, with Thumbe island about 1km offshore.

 

Told that there were some wonderfully coloured fish in the lake, I rented a snorkel, mask and kayak and paddled across to Thumbe;  swam about 300m to the rocks to snorkel and saw the wonderful fish, and then swam back again, wishing I had taken the trouble to ask if there were any crocodiles out there.  Quite tired, I realised that I was of course alone on a small island and had to paddle another 1km to get back to my lodge on the mainland. Glad the current helped me along!

 

I also got to visit a couple of game reserves, at Majete and Liwonde. Malawian reserves have suffered hugely from poaching, but these two are now under private management and lions are being reintroduced. The best feature of these reserves is the river scenery.

 

The one creature I did NOT expect to see was the skin of a snake (8 inches long, looked like patterned green cellophane) on the floor of my bedroom at the lodge when I returned from the dawn safari at Majete. I am glad it had not been there before I went to bed the previous evening, because I don’t think I would have got much sleep!

The other “shock” I had was to experience my first ever earthquake, 5.6 on the Richter scale, while sitting at my desk in the office one morning. The building shook and rattled, but nothing moved and no damage was evident. I understand that the epicentre was about 50 miles away on the border with Mozambique.

One Sunday I visited the small branch of the African Evangelical Church where my driver is the pastor. It takes place in a school classroom;  you can see how small the building is if I tell you that these photos were taken from outside through the window. I think there were about 70 people in total. The service was short by African standards, just an hour and a quarter, with plenty of singing and dancing. One very endearing feature was that when the women in the congregation got bored with the pastor speaking, they simply stood up and began singing!

My final adventure was to go on a 30 mile hiking trip to Mt Mulanje, the third highest mountain in Central Africa. It is a massif about 20 miles by 10 miles, which rises vertically from the tea estates on the plains. There are loads of mountains like this in this part of the Rift Valley, called “inselbergs”, but Mulanje is by far the biggest. There are a dozen or so rocky peaks, above a high plateau. On the plateau the Malawi Mountain Club has constructed six bothies where you stay overnight.

 

At 0830 on Saturday I met my guide Grey and his shoeless twelve-year-old son Philip (trainee guide, photo at one of the steepest parts of the route – honest, he is sitting on the middle of the path) at the appointed location at the bottom of the mountain, and a porter to carry my borrowed rucksack. We spent the next 7 hours climbing through steep forests and gullies up to the plateau and on to the Chisepo bothy where we slept overnight.

 

 

The hike up the Chisepo Direct route was tiring because of the steep ascent and the heat but made a bit more interesting about 10 minutes after the start.

There is no video to accompany this little farce, but imagine my guide trying to straddle a six-foot gap between two banks of a small rushing river. He reaches out for my hand to help me jump across, and we both end up fully immersed in the river. Refreshing to say the least! In the process I lost my glasses, but we couldn’t stop for long to look for them in the river. Fortunately, I also had my prescription sunglasses in the rucksack. I said to the porter that I would give a £10 reward if anyone could ever find my glasses and left it at that. My porter was descending again the same day, as the guide wanted his barefoot son to carry my rucksack on the way down (keeping the hard-earned cash in the family).

The next morning, I was up at 0500 because we had planned to climb to the highest summit (Sapitwa, 3002m) just above the bothy, before descending from the plateau. But it had rained heavily overnight which made the rocks leading up to the summit too slippery for safety. So, I went back to bed, and at 0830 we started the descent along the plateau and down the Skyline route, another 7 hours to the car.

Dawn view from the bothy:

 

Above the clouds on Sunday morning…

 

 

No difficult rivers to jump over on the way down, but the rocky descent was really steep and slow going.

The main season is April - September. There are six registered guides, and work is divided equally between them. They are only paid piece work as and when they have a customer, and I was the first customer my guide had had since September. Their rate for guiding is £20 per day. A porter is half that. When you consider places like Rwanda which now charges USD1500 to spend an hour on the mountain with gorillas, Malawi is seriously underselling itself. These guides are totally necessary;  the narrow paths are very overgrown, and every few years it happens that an overseas visitor decides to walk up alone and is never seen again.  I have met people in Blantyre who knew well the people who went missing.

In the rural subsistence economy of Malawi, there is a huge need to collect firewood for cooking. This has resulted in significant deforestation. The unique Mulanje red cedars have almost become extinct – just SEVEN of these cedars left on the plateau at the last count. This is a conservation tragedy right in front of our eyes. We witnessed four different men carrying 20-foot-long red cedar planks on their heads, negotiating tiny steep paths. Apparently the going rate for such a plank is £30. The short term need to make a living outweighs long term thoughts of conservation amongst the rural poor, and politicians are said to be getting a cut of the revenue and so won’t clamp down on the locals.

On a happier note I was absolutely delighted at the end of my hike to find the porter holding my lost glasses. That’s the best £10 I have spent in a long time!

Would I be tempted to move to Malawi? Well, someone clearly is. The strangest sight I saw on a road in Blantyre was a very smart large white removal van, emblazoned with the logo of a removal company in Redruth, Cornwall! What a journey that must have been…

Thanks for reading!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chris Sutton, Liveryman