Body in Motion

Malawi Annals
March 30, 2009, 6:32 pm
Filed under: culture, development, elections, Malawi, malawian culture, politics

The Afrobarometer has just released some new data on how Malawians see themselves, their government, the state of the country and their political system and it’s pretty telling.

A quick peek at the new survey data shows that Malawians overwhelmingly see government as their parent – not their employee, that over 70% of those surveyed believe the government has the right to close a newspaper, that 74% claim to have voted in the last presidential election and that food supply is the biggest problem Malawians think is facing the country. And if you want a sneak preview of May’s elections, most say that if the elections were tomorrow, they’d support the incumbent, Bingu wa Mutharika. They’ve even given him an 83% approval rating.

Having lived here for some time, I am not too surprised by these survey results but they do seem to highlight the influence of the early direction a young democracy takes in its development.

Kamuzu Banda, Malawi’s first post-independence leader, did his best to set the stage for many of these beliefs. A 1964 Time article on the fledgling leader, just 9 weeks into his thirty-odd year term as President for Life and Ngwazi (Great Lion), alludes to a ban of public meetings (remember when I mentioned this as the reason that Lilongwe is so spread out?), Banda’s invention of himself as a father-figure to the country, and his autocratic leadership style. Let us not forget: this is the man who banned television.

After an entire generation and then some grew up with these beliefs, it is any wonder that 73% of Malawians believe that the government shouldn’t allow contrary views to its own?

With the elections scheduled less than two months off, it’s worth taking a breath to ask how democracy shapes itself. The root of support for the current president isn’t much of a secret. Malawians list food shortages as their biggest concern; Mutharika started a fertilizer subsidy program that has kept Malawi stocked in maize, the main staple, with enough to left over to keep the export market going and a healthy stream of forex coming. Most people believe the elections will be reasonably free and fair which leads one to believe that Malawians will get the president the majority of them elect.

While support for a politician across regional and tribal lines may be something relatively new around here, it doesn’t mean that a maturing African democracy will look much like what we see in the Northern Hemisphere. Fifteen years into a multi-party democracy doesn’t provide a lot of history to stand on and many Malawians are still displeased by the way primaries were set up for parliamentary and local elections. This year’s presidential race aside, over 70% of Malawian believe it’s difficult to have their voices heard outside of an election year (though I would guess most Americans would say the same).

What’s telling is that 30% of Malawians believe that the country should try another form of government. Banda may have fought hard to keep China out of Malawi, but today’s government has welcomed the Chinese with open arms and coffers. In the post-Cold War era, the lines drawn in the sand between friend and foe look are a different shade entirely.

Chances are, Malawi will continue down the road with some form of democracy -hopefully guided by Malawians themselves- though this Westerner struggles to understand how a democracy with a populace that doesn’t believe in freedom of thought will achieve what its citizens strives for: food security, a water supply, an end to poverty and economic development.


Ode to Rubber
January 28, 2009, 9:22 pm
Filed under: foreign aid, governance, health, HIV/AIDS, politics

When I was younger (and I won’t say how young), condoms were not so easy to come buy. First of all, they had to be bought. I didn’t have a car and was more or less stuck with the local pharmacy where I was well-known. I remember a friend’s father noting that in his youth, condoms were behind the pharmacist’s counter because they were stolen so often, more out of embarrassment than anything else. But that was the option and when condoms were needed, at least we could get them.

Not so many years later, I found myself swimming in condoms and I still am to this day.

So what happened? I started working in international health. While the US federal government has done what it can to keep condoms out of the reach of ‘kids’ -going so far as to prohibit federal funding for school sex-ed programs that were not abstinence-only- the US government remains one of the LARGEST purchasers and distribution-funders of condoms globally. Go figure.

In my world, condoms are everywhere. In the bathroom at work, handed out at the health center and at concerts, on display in people’s offices. The irony, of course, is that I’m not longer so interested in them on a personal level.

I wish I could explain the bizarre anomaly that is the difference between US government foreign and domestic policy when it comes to these slippery little buggers. Whether you chalk it up to Americans’ puritanical nature when it comes to their own backyard, an altruistic desire to halt the spread of HIV/AIDS or a more nuanced drive to limit world population growth, the paradox remains.

Whatever the logic, it would be nice to see the new Administration* change the domestic climate so condoms truly are available readily and freely to those who want them.

It’s the demystification I’m looking for, outside of the small circle for global healthers with condoms taped to their office doors. The sense that condoms are normal and wouldn’t horrify someone if accidentally left on the dining room table.

But whether you get your condoms from the local pharmacy, a freebie at work or the Happy Banana condom shop in Lomé, Togo, don’t forget to put it on before you get it on!

*Obama’s Administration’s first move to put family planning changes forward has already been shot down.

January 21, 2009, 11:21 am
Filed under: africa, elections, governance, home, Malawi, politics

Yesterday marked the inauguration of Barak Obama, the first president since Woodrow Wilson a century ago to have a parent born outside of the United States. We tend to refer to Obama as an African American (more literal to the phrase than is the norm), which reminds me of how segregationists one defined a negro as anyone with even ‘a drop of blood’ that wasn’t white.

But from where I sat watching the inauguration, at an out-of-town lodge surrounded by Malawian colleagues at the end of a long day of policy discussion, the view was different. Obama is a man who knows something, however much, about where we sat in the middle of the rainy season on the shores of one of Africa’s Great Lakes. Obama knows something about the largest Muslim nation in the world, where he lived early in his life.

Ironically, four years ago when John Kerry ran as the democratic candidate, there was not much discussion of his wife, Theresa Heinz’s extensive foreign experience. Theresa Heinz grew up just across the lake from us in Mozambique, where her father was a doctor. She went to university in South Africa, where she protested against apartheid at a time when the West paid it little mind. In fact, Heinz was not particularly popular, seen as a hardened woman who -gasp- hadn’t taken her husband’s name.

But here we stand today, amid identity politics as the first person of color enters the White House as a resident. And there I was, listening to the rain outside, watching George W. Bush shake hands with Obama on the Capitol steps.

Here in Malawi, presidential elections are less than 6 months off. Malawi has a history of peace, although the first 30 or so years were under the heavy-handed leadership of Hastings Banda, self-proclaimed president for life. But recent elections have been more democratic and an attempt by the previous president to change the constitution to allow him to remain in office past his two terms was thwarted.

Some say the outcome of May’s elections is a foregone conclusion, that the incumbent, Bingu wa Mutharika, will retain his seat – not because of poll-rigging but because people have generally been happy with his first term. Others say there is still support for Muluzi, the former president intent on a come-back.

I couldn’t tell you myself, since I don’t have much contact with the majority of Malawians, 85% of whom live in rural areas and speak primarily Chichewa.

What I can tell you is that Obama’s inauguration is on the front page of Malawi’s Nation today for a reason, that Malawian blogger Steve Shara noted well some months back that Obama’s election would certainly be significant for Africa.

But more than that, the vision of an inauguration where the former president shakes hand with the incoming president cordially and the only weapons present are the age-old canons, which fire at the conclusion of ceremonies, is something to watch.

Having been through elections in DRC in 2006, I have experienced the excitement of elections that decays into the promise of violence. Malawi is most certainly a different country but I’ll tell you that nothing is a foregone conclusion. Here’s hoping that Malawi’s elections will be both peaceful and democratic.

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February 5, 2008, 5:27 pm
Filed under: elections, governance, kenya, politics, travel

It was in the matatu on the was to Ol Kalau in the Central Highlands that I first saw the Great Rift Valley. I’m not quite sure what I expected – perhaps something in the nature of the Grand Canyon, maybe just an enormous crack in the surface of the Earth. It was so green and so vast and there were peaks that rose up from within the valley. Dormant volcanoes. As we descended down the road carved into the escarpment, there were baboons on the side of the road, lazily watching the Friday afternoon traffic go past. The winding road finally spread out across the floor of the valley. As we passed Lake Naivasha, I saw zebras grazing alongside cattle and trees whose branches reached out toward each other. Although the road was only barely tarmacked, thinking back I feel myself gliding along the bottom of the valley. It’s all a euphoric haze that cannot be matched.

Don’t think I haven’t been paying attention. Rafiki zangu, don’t think I haven’t been watching.

I wrote the above on the Great Rift Valley some years ago now. It was my first trip out of Nairobi on my first trip to Africa. My first zebra sighting. And the beginning of what can only be described as life-altering infatuation. In short, I fell in love the way you do when you are 20 and seeing the world beyond your doorstep for the first time.

I lived with a Kenyan family and ate ugali and tried to speak Swahili on a good day. I drank Pilsner baridi (being sure to throw a few drops from my glass to the ground for the ancestors) and stayed out at Carnivore til all hours. I tracked rhinos with the rangers in Nakuru Park. I attended NGO meetings in Kibera slums. I went down River Road.

Daniel arap Moi was in power. Kenya was a post-Embassy bombing multi-party democracy. World Bank was still trying to reform the civil service. No one had cell phones yet and internet cafes were still expensive. Raila Odinga was the main opposition leader.

Watching Kenya’s elections and stability unravel over the last five weeks has been heart-breaking. Kenya was my first home in Africa and I still consider the people I lived with there to be jamaa yangu (my family). I have sat down many times to write this blog post, combed through horrifying and depressing newspaper articles, spoken with Kenyans and I knew then and now, and wondered how to begin.

If you ask me whether I saw this coming, I could tell you that tribalism was alive and well when I was living there (I could have easily written a post similar to this on Kenyans). I could tell you that crime and corruption has shaken the credibility of what should have been a model African government. I could tell you that two years ago, I learned that the US government was watching Kenya for signs of political fragility.

But none of that really matters, because I would have told you that I did not believe Kenya would be willing to let herself collapse like this. Even now, watching the country crumble, I still can’t believe it. M, an award-winning Kenyan blogger whom I admire greatly, has seen it with his own eyes and it is well worth reading his thoughtful and sage words.

As for myself, ‘euphoric’ is no longer the word that comes to mind when I think of Kenya.

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In search of…
January 11, 2008, 7:02 pm
Filed under: fuel, politics

I’ll admit it. I’m not that well- adjusted semi-integrated expat that reads the local paper every morning. In fact, I’m not even sure I could name the local paper without taking a pause to rack my brain. So when a friend mentioned the fuel shortage the other night over a glass of wine, I hadn’t the foggiest clue what she was talking about.

But sure enough, she was right. When I pulled up to the trusty BP after work, there were bright orange cones in front of all the pumps and I heard from a colleague that there were lines of cars stretching down the road outside the gas station at Crossroads (Malawi’s answer to a shopping mall).

There seem to be several theories about exactly what has caused the crisis. The first story I heard was that the tankers with Malawi’s regular petrol supply were being held in Zimbabwe and that the Malawi Revenue Authority had flown down to Harare in an effort to rescue them.

Then I was told that the sad troubles in Kenya has stopped ships from coming into the port at Mombasa, creating a shortage of supplies all the way down to land-locked Malawi. But that too was dispelled when I was told that Malawi’s petrol supply usually comes into the port at Dar es Salaam, Tanzania or Beira, Mozambique, notably closer than Kenya.

All I can tell you for the moment is that the Total station at Foodworth shopping plaza has petrol. And they haven’t even jacked up the price. Yet.