Sandi Thom: Malawi changed my life

My brother Chris and I set off for the airport today. In true suburban style we are rushing at the last minute, drying clothes with a hairdryer, forgetting where we left the keys…you know the drill; you try to prepare as much as humanly possible and then at the last minute it all goes wrong (well at least that’s how it is for me).

Anyway we gather ourselves and our bags and jump in the cab. For me today seems like any other, since my music took off I’ve travelled so much that I’ve felt like my second home was Heathrow. And so just like old times we arrive late, struggle through the laborious check in and finally after marvelling at the duty free we venture our way to the gate. Also true to form our gate just happens to be five million miles from civilisation. And so it begins. I step on the plane filled with both anticipation and excitement and instinctively I know this journey will be like no other.

Three movies later and a lot of broken sleep we arrive in the capital Lilongwe. A little bleary eyed and a bit muddled I set foot on African soil for the first time in my life. As we travel to the hotel the first thing I notice is this one particular tree like no other I’ve seen before. They’re everywhere sprouting up like mini miracles through the dry and arid soil. I later find out that this wonderful little tree is called the ‘Jacaranda’, also the name of a pub I used to drink in as a student in Liverpool.

We arrive at the hotel glad to dump the bags. I join my brother later at the bar and we get talking to the barman Trevor. We talk about local customs, delicacies, Malawi gin and the current president of Malawi, Dr. Bingu. It seems everywhere I go right now the leader of the country is a particular hot topic.

The next morning we head to the main Oxfam site in Lilongwe, we are introduced to the guys there and we begin to talk about the many reasons for the situation here. In the space of three hours my jaw has dropped, my heart is heavy and my mind feels like spaghetti with the plethora of information being fed to me. Listening to these people talk of the trouble here can only be compared to the heartache of losing a loved one, it’s truly devastating.

Twenty four thousand people die of hunger in Africa every day…twenty four thousand people. Its not the death toll that’s the hardest part to swallow, it’s the reasons why.

As we are all aware the price of food has gone up around the world. In Malawi food is everything for the poor, food is how they make their money and all the money they make they spend on food. I’m not talking about dialling a Domino’s or grabbling fish and chips, I’m taking about maize; the main source of sustenance here. It’s simple grain cultivated by farmers.

I guess the question we all have to ask ourselves is why is the price of food rising? One of the main reasons over the last few months is the rising price of oil. Oil is used in so many different facets of technology so the price of oil affects the price of everything else.

When we head down to the supermarket to find the price of our groceries has gone up its because Sainsburys or Tesco or whoever have to up the price of their products to combat the rising cost of oil. So to keep business thriving, in the end, we’re the ones that suffer and it’s exactly the same for everybody across the globe.

Except in Africa however, some people already exist on less than a dollar a day to feed a family of ten so if the price of food goes up it becomes catastrophic.

That night after a four hour jeep drive through rural Malawi we arrive in Blantyre, named after David Livingstone’s home town in Lanarkshire, Scotland. We also pass a furniture store called ‘Uncle Thom’s’ which my brother and I have a good laugh at.

On the way down the journey is mesmeric. What I see is both stunning and shocking. The land is gorgeous, vast rolling mountains, bright blue skies and an ever stretching plain of beauty. But it breaks my heart because as we drive slowly through the towns, we find people everywhere suffering, living in squalor, trying desperately to make ends meet.

We stop at a market because our Malawian host, funnily named ‘Elvis’ wants to buy some Irish potatoes, he says he likes them roasted…ah sounds familiar.

Anyway we get out of the car and walk around. As soon as I emerge there’s about twenty people crowed round me inspecting my hair and freckles, thrusting carrots and onions in my face. There’s so much to see here and I desperately want to take pictures, but somehow it feels disrespectful, so I stop.

The next morning we assemble bright and early to venture out before the midday sun comes up. It’s very hot and with my skin it’s probably a good idea that I get out there before the sun gets me. We travel out of the city into a region called rural Blantyre. A few miles out and the road becomes very rocky.

Today we are visiting a village called Galufu, mostly made up of a tribe called Manganja. As we pull into the entrance, in our big white jeeps, we are welcomed with a performance like no other. The whole village from the little kids to the old grannies are singing and dancing.

Elvis tells us that they’re singing about how much they’ve been looking forward to us coming and how today, for them, is a great day because they believe we bring them new hope.

I feel both honoured and awkward. I start clapping to make an attempt at joining in and at this point I’m having major flashbacks of being a wallflower at the school disco. But it becomes so very apparent that us British folks are so very reserved. The Manganja tribe however, have no inhibitions and are so full of joy to see us that they keep dancing and singing for a good ten minutes. It’s a tradition that I think we should adopt back home. I wonder if my folks would burst uncontrollably through the door moving and shaking, wailing at the tops of their voices about how happy they are to see me. Hmm. Too good to be true?

Anyway we sit down in a perfect row of chairs under the cool shade while the villagers gather round us in the scorching sun, some of them sitting on the ground, some sharing benches. I feel terrible and don’t agree with the fact that I’ve been allocated a chair but the chief woman of the village, Lydia Bisitoni, assures me it’s fine.

Still revelling in the shock of our welcoming reception the various members of the community begin to stand up and introduce themselves. There is a newly built childcare centre here which Oxfam have made possible and so it’s given the children and the young women and men a chance at a better start in life.

One by one they stand up and explain what they do here. There are homecare helpers, youth workers and teachers. It all seems like a normal schooling environment. But the fundamental difference between this school and the schools that you and I are used to is that half these children are orphans under the age of five, some of them are likely to have HIV or Aids and most of them are surviving on one serving of maize a day. Can you imagine that?

But despite all of this, despite the fact that they’ve lost both their parents, living in one roomed houses with no furniture, beds, showers, electricity and nothing that they can call their own they display a greater strength of human spirit than anyone I’ve ever known. It’s incredible really. The phrase ‘laugh in the face of adversity’ has new meaning to me.

After a few more songs and a little performance from me by way of thank you, the village chief Lydia shows us what they’ve been doing to generate a new food supply. First of all they show us a garden full of unplanted indigenous trees. She says there are fifteen thousand of them and the villagers will plant every one of them by hand.

The reason for the trees is so they can replace some of the millions that have been cut down by man in the last century. The trees will primarily provide nutrients for the soil, which will help harvest the crops. They will also use the wood to burn in kilns; a giant oven capable of binding soil and water together to produce bricks by which they can build houses with.

Next we travel by foot through the fields, to show us a giant bore hole; a massive deep pit with water layering the bottom. Elvis explains to me that contractors dig the holes and that these contractors are experts in sourcing the location of water. This particular borehole I’m told cost approximately three thousand pounds.

The water that is sourced here is used solely for the harvest and coupled with fertilizers, subsidised by the government, can produce a healthy crop. But remember this is still living on just maize.

Next we have a bit of a meet and greet with a few families from the village. The first lady we are introduced to goes by the name of Katerina Sakiako, born in 1956. She has had four children, two of which are dead. One of her children died as a baby and her eldest son passed away four years ago from Tuberculosis.

She has seven grandchildren and two remaining daughters. Her husband, she says, died in the same year as her son, the cause of death was meningitis.

Around these parts you are most likely to die from Aids, Malaria, Yellow fever, Tuberculosis, Polio, Diphtheria or meningitis and the life expectancy is around 35-40, because there is limited access to public healthcare. So Katerina (or Catherine as she likes to be called) is doing well at 52.

But she looks old. The lines on her face are deep, her eyes are dark and tired and she speaks with a degree of sadness in her voice. Only to be expected from a woman who’s lost two children and her husband. I can’t imagine that, can you?

We asked her about the crops. She says that erratic weather patterns and unpredictable rainfall is causing a whole host of problems. She says that in the past seed was planted in April and the rains came in October. It used to be very reliable but now something has changed.

The rains are falling in unpredictable patterns, sometimes too late, sometimes too soon. But in some cases it’s not even a shortage of rain that causes the problems, it’s too much rain, which washes away the fertilizers. The question I ask myself is whether this is simply bad luck for Katerina and her family or is this by-product of climate change?

It’s certainly safe to say that in the last decade we’ve experienced increasingly dramatic shifts in the weather patterns and everywhere across the world we have suffered the effects. For example what’s going on with British summer time? In my opinion it’s nowhere near as predictable as it used to be and can you remember the last time it was guaranteed that snow would fall at Christmas? But lets not forget the natural disasters we’ve witnessed in the last few years such as the African droughts of 2003, the Tsunami of 2004, the Cashmere earthquake of 2005 and the Cyclone in Bangladesh and many more. Could these be a result of climate change?

Well it would appear to be very obvious that the more man messes with mother nature, mother nature will most certainly mess with man. Is it possible that the western world and countries that have a large carbon footprint are tipping the earth’s natural harmonious balance off the scale? Is the ‘circle of life’ as Elton John so aptly put it being tampered with too much?

Well unfortunately I believe that the “Lion King” is most certainly fantasy in this case as the poorest people continue to pay the highest price for the mass of human error. Do you think it’s fare that Katerina and her family should have to pay for this with their lives? Considering she has one of the lowest carbon footprints in the world I think the answer to this question is clear.

The next family we meet is in an even worse state than the last. The head of the household is a lady called Lucy Maluwa, born in 1952. She has had six children, two of which are dead, and nine grandchildren. Lucy’s husband like that of Katerina’s is also deceased. She expresses pretty much exactly the same problems as Katerina. She also says that the rains are unpredictable and the crops are failing coupled with the fact that the price of maize has almost tripled in her area; it’s making it incredibly difficult for Lucy to provide for her and her family. At the moment they are living on ‘death benefit’, a one off payment for the death of her daughter given to Lucy by her deceased daughter’s previous employer.

I ask her what she will do when it runs out, she replies “I Don’t Know”.

Each one of Lucy’s children and grandchildren are surviving on one meal a day, as is Lucy and she is painfully thin. The four and a half year old girl’s growth is stunted so badly that she’s practically the same size as my six-month-old nephew, believe me, it would break your heart.

After spending the best part of six hours in the village it’s time to leave. We say goodbye, shaking hands with everyone with such vigour, as if to say; well done for being such outstanding resilient people, living with such tragedies, facing hunger daily and yet still finding hope. I think now I understand what people mean by the spirit of Africa.

That night in the hotel I start reading a book largely based on two British doctors’ experience of the Aids epidemic. According to this book ‘A Malawi mosaic’ there is a theory that it was originally dormant in monkeys, known as SIV (Simian Immunodeficiency Virus). But as humans cut down more and more trees the monkey habitats disappeared and it is thought that the first case of HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) was detected in Cameroon in 1929. The rest, they say, is history.

We all know how fatal the Aids virus can be and that scientists all over the world continue to search for a cure or a vaccination. But in a country where 1.8 million people are HIV positive and only 30% of the population have access to healthcare, how on earth will it be possible to distribute this vaccination if one were to be found?

The only way forward is for organisations such as Moni Malawi to provide help but Moni Malawi is a charity and survives on donations. The other question is I’m sure on everyone’s minds is why haven’t people been educated on the practice of safe sex? Well in my opinion, it would seem that this is largely due to the church. Most of the population of Malawi are either Catholic or Christian. Don’t get me wrong, I am not opposed to faith, I myself am a Christian, baptised in Liverpool at the age of nineteen but this is not God’s fault, it’s the churches.

I am appalled at the ignorance of some of the churches here in Malawi to the positive impact they could have if only they sent out the right message.

It’s no good preaching absolution or pretending it’s not happening. People are quite obviously having unprotected sex and it’s understandable in my opinion. Consider yourself. If you were penniless and hungry what would you have left if not Love?

However, there is a light at the end of the tunnel as some churches, for example the Church of Scotland, are facing up to the reality and taking positive steps to prevent it from spreading further.

There are programmes here totally dedicated to the prevention of Aids and they’re doing great things, but they need continued funding, it needs our help.