Mar 13, 2016

New blog site

My blog has moved to Worldpress. Please find me at

Feb 28, 2016

At the lake

I was down in Mangochi this week, the southern tip of Lake Malawi, for a work conference. It was blistering hot for most of the time, but I only managed one dip in the lake. We were staying at a hotel called Sun n Sands, which has clearly seen better days. It felt like a dated hotel in 1980s Margate, a relic of a bygone era. This one was huge, and sprawling, with two olympic sized swimming pools, one which had several kiddy slides, a massive play area for kids with safari animals made out of what looked like paper mache, and its own private beach. 

Only thing is, I didn't see any tourists. There were maybe 30 people staying in a hotel that could comfortably serve 200, 20 of those were from Save, the rest from the UN, who were also having a work conference. The beach itself was dark sand and gritty, and the lake murky, possibly due to the two effluent pipes that jutted out into the lake, although I didn't see anything coming out. On a walk one morning, I passed dozens of women and children washing in the lake, themselves, their pots and pans, their clothes. I thought how ridiculous it was - I was out for a walk to get some exercise - they had already walked more than I would the entire week, just to get water from the lake.  

On my first workday just over a month ago, I attended a workshop where staff were discussing how to improve our organisational performance. I wrote in my journal that night how impressed I was at the professionalism of some of the staff; they expressed concern about the missed deadlines and about the churlish behaviour of some staff, and spent hours discussing ways in which to improve. They spoke eloquently and knowledgeably about the need for systems and checks, and passionately about making missed targets a performance issue.  I remember thinking, ‘wow, what’s there for me to do here? I might as well start booking my weekend safaris now!’.

Oh, what naiveté!
Last Monday, I decided Malawi was a bit of a ridiculous country. And not just because the top headline was that opposition politicians were reportedly using whatsapp to plan a coup, with the connivance of the US ambassador. Well, at least they didn’t employ a tank to obliterate the opposition members’ homes.

No, but because the smart dressing, the eloquent English, the prevalence of BMWs and Jaguars in Lilongwe and the forced civility is all just a facade. This is not a developed country. And many of the people with whom I work are not consummate professionals; they just know how to act like one (caveat: some of the people I work with are absolutely brilliant!).

For example, if you need something to be done by deadline, you are always told it can be done, even if you ask the question several times in several different ways “are you sure we can meet this deadline? It’s not a problem if we can’t. Better to have a realistic timeline we can meet, than one we can’t”. They assure you it’s possible. And then on the day it’s due, they are conveniently sick, or they hide or they don’t answer your phone calls. If you chastise them, they sulk! Oh, the sulking!! If you say, no, I want it done this way -  and hey, I’m the manager, I get to say that – they argue and argue and then they sulk! Ok, so in South Sudan, they sulked a lot too. But the country had been at war for 40 odd years, many of the staff had lived in refugee camps for most of their lives.  They had brothers, sisters, aunts and uncles who died of preventable illnesses all the time. I have never had so many deaths in an office before. So, I give them a bit of leeway.  But in Malawi, there’s really no excuse.

The country is peaceful and beautiful; land is arable; roads are tarmac; there is no sectarian or ethnic conflict; and it has a massive fresh water lake that takes up nearly a third of the country. But it’s poor, one of the poorest countries in the world, and it is getting poorer, as the local currency, the kwacha plummets on the back of reduced demand for tobacco, and the effects of climate change leave some 2 million at risk of starvation. The main subsistence crop here is maize, and it’s grown everywhere; anywhere you can plant a seed. Driving across the country, it stretches as far as you can see – a multitude of people’s crops – it grows along roads, in backyards, in vacant plots in the city centre. When the rains are delayed, as they have been across much of Southern and Eastern Africa, the maize fails, and people starve. Smallholders supply the entire country with a staple food, and they rely on rains. Ridiculous.

While tobacco and sugar plantations (cash crops) have been subsidised to develop an irrigation method using the lake, the country has not done this for it’s main food crop. 

What’s even more ridiculous is that decades of aid in Malawi and not one donor has tried to help the country develop a sustainable industry, or an irrigation system. Well, the World Bank is trying to do this now, but still, why has the government of Malawi not said, ‘hang on, we don’t need yet another project trying to get more girls into school, what we need is to make our country more food secure and an irrigation system for smallholders?’ the answer is because no one asks the government of Malawi what it wants. Oh sure, we consult with them, but it’s more like, we want to do this project, it will bring x amount of money into your country, do you want it or not? What are they going to say, no?

And so instead of acting like a government, and delivering services for its people, it sits back and allows the NGOs and donors to do this, and uses its tobacco money to build well-manicured roundabouts, and install a couple of traffic lights that work only sporadically. But this is the danger of aid. We create generations of dependants (both at government and citizen level); people who look sharp and know all the latest buzz words, but won’t ever take action or responsibility for their own development. Oh, actually, that’s not fair, in a bid to lure more investors, the government just lifted a ban on exploration for oil and gas in Lake Malawi. Georgia and Kazakhstan have expressed interest.

What else is ridiculous? Well, while Malawi has a three pin sockets, the same plug as the UK, all its electrical items are imported from South Africa, which has a different plug. And can you find an adaptor anywhere? No! So, I spent the afternoon slicing off S African plugs, and fitting on three pin ones.

I’ve just moved into my new house. It’s massive. Three bedrooms, three bathrooms, over two gargantuan floors. I feel a bit ridiculous knocking around in here on my own. All I have so far is a bed and a sofa and chair. 

You really have three choices for shopping here. You can buy your items at GAME, which is a South African store a bit like Walmart or Asda (without the groceries).  Most of the furniture is plastic or plastic looking. But it has towels and sheets and cutlery etc. Or, you can have furniture made. I had a carpenter make me a bed (£60) and another woman make me a cane sofa and two chairs (£300) or you can find someone who is leaving Malawi and wants to sell all their furniture and items, which is also what I did at the weekend. Although I haven't been able to find a mattress. The mattress shop everyone keeps recommending is only open Monday to Friday 9-5! 

I have met one of the neighbours. A young Indian guy – who looks about 15 – and his wife and kids, his mother and her mother. And their dog FeeFee.

The house is on the edge of the city. I say city, but Lilongwe is really like a big park with a few tarmac roads. I am just off the tarmac road, where it turns into a red mud road. I rented a car for the weekend, and was amazed at how easy it is to drive here. Virtually no cars on the road, except on Saturday morning when everyone is out, and then it’s just a few long roads and some roundabouts. 

I rented a car because it turns out the one I tried to buy was not legally registered, and there’s a new system in place where the previous owner has to be in the country to sign over the ownership, and in this case, the owner was not in the country. So it's back to the drawing board. 

Feb 21, 2016


Muli Bwanji (the first greeting I have learned in Chichewa)

These past couple of weeks, I’ve been living in a different guesthouse; just 5 minutes drive from the office, and half the price of my old one.  It’s pretty here, and I have the most extraordinary room, with a four poster bed and chaise lounge; balcony that is large enough for me to do yoga on, and which overlooks a trellis of hyacinth; two walk-in cupboards that seem excessive for my eight hangers’ worth of clothes and a bathroom the size of most single rooms.

It’s also got a beautiful courtyard with a towering tree rising up through the middle, and it’s here where I sit in the morning to have my poached eggs and fruit salad, or write this blog; leaves occasionally falling onto my plate, or keyboard, with such force you’d think it was a nut. There is also a pool, although so small that you could probably reach the other side in two strokes, a gym, with rusty and dilapidated equipment and a spa (where it professes to do massage and pedicure, but I have yet to see anyone working there).

What is also different about this hotel is the clientele. Where Ufulu Gardens, or home number 1, as my taxi driver Andrew calls it, was full of families (small children) searching for a home, Madidi (home number 2), where I am staying now, draws a different crowd, mostly travellers pouring over their “Zambia, Zimbabwe and Malawi” Lonely Planet, as they sup on the local brew, Green Carlsburg (yep, there’s brewery here). They stumble down stairs for breakfast as I’m just about to leave for work, and there’s a tang of envy I can taste, of their freedom. Not that I don’t love what I do, but really, who enjoys going into an office each day? And when surrounded by national parks teeming with wildlife just a few hours away, can you blame me for wanting a bit of freedom to explore?

But overall, work is going well. I now remember about 80% of the names of the 100 plus staff in the Lilongwe office, mostly because I have to greet everyone by name, every time I see them for the first time. So every morning, in the office, it’s “Good, morning Cassie, how are you? Me: I’m good thank you, how are you (Lexon, Prefer, Bester, Felix, Mervis, Masford, Kalako, Angel, Snowden, and my particular favourite .. Elvis)?” Sometimes I forget. The other day, my friend came to pick me up in a taxi we regularly use. As soon as I got in the car, she and I launched into a long discussion about her last day at work. When we had finished, Andrew, the taxi driver says: “Cassie, you haven’t greeted me, yet!”

But it’s the same on the street; men cycling up the narrow paths will call out, “Hello Madam, how are you?”; women selling pineapples by the side of the road will call me over and first ask, “Hello madam, how are you?” before launching into the price negotiation; even the beggar, sitting with twisted legs by the side of the dusty road wants me to first ask how he is before he hits me up for some spare kwacha.  

Cultural sensitivities. They also mean that it’s hard for me to criticise anyone, or point out what they are not doing/should have done, without risking a full on sulk, or refusal to work (if they don’t complain to my boss about me that is). I’ve spoken at length to some expats about it, and it’s a common enough trend. One person who has been here a couple of years, says the best advice she has to offer is that you have to spend a lot of time praising local staff, and then you can add in one negative comment for every four good things you say.

Sheesh. This posting will teach me patience, if nothing else.