27th July 2013

Girl Power in Malawi!

10 days ago I woke up in the Northern city of Mzuzu to a cool, crisp morning. It’s winter now in Malawi and as I struggled to climb free my half-pipe inspired bed (pocket spring mattresses can be found in be land of nod only - it’s tired foam all the way here), I hurried to pull on my fleece, thick socks and woolly hat before scurrying down to breakfast. Mzuzu is one of the highest spots in Malawi so is especially grim in winter, with grey skies and a bitter chill in the air, especially at night and early morning. It was therefore regrettable that the guesthouse’s only tables and chairs were located outdoors, but as it happened I didn’t have long to sit and shiver. No sooner had my eggs and coffee been served, I began to hear what sounded like a large crowd of women gathering together, chatting excitedly and sporadically breaking into celebratory song. Intrigued, I ate my breakfast quickly, picked up my bags and made my way to the front of the building where the sounds had come from.

Crowding around the front entrance and spilling out onto the street was a large gaggle of ladies clearly in party mode, all dressed identically in fitted dresses and headdresses of matching orange chitenji fabric, embellished with photographs of President Joyce Banda as well as her emblem of an open padlock, with her political slogans of “unity, equity and development" around the borders. Intrigued, I smiled at one particular lady who appeared to be their leader and asked what they were up to. “We have come to celebrate the arrival of our President Joyce Banda here in Mzuzu!", the lady cried in perfect English, her face a picture of excitement and rejoicing. I asked if I could take a photo of her in all her splendour, which she agreed to most enthusiastically. Then, bidding me farewell, she returned to her ladies, who broke into yet another song, and began to lead them in musical procession down the road, presumably in the direction of President Banda herself.

Alone in the relative silence that had taken hold since this enthusiastic departure, I began to ponder what I’d just seen. These women were clearly thrilled at Joyce Banda’s arrival, but was it actually spontaneous? Their attitude seemed so at odds with the majority voice, who are growing deeply frustrated and resentful at Banda’s profligate spending and endless travelling. Only the night before, we had struggled to enter the local petrol station as 20 army green Hummers and Land Rovers were busy filling up, ready for another day on the road ensuring Banda’s safety and security. I had managed to bag the last guesthouse room in the whole city as practically all others were filled with various members of Banda’s entourage, cronies, security, or journalists - my colleague had ended up driving 30km out of the city before he’d found a room available. Shockingly enough, this is not an unusual day for Banda - she is on the road every day in Malawi, opening a maternity wing here or a school there - and barely ever sitting in her office, actually doing her job. A great number of Malawians are growing impatient at such wasteful, self indulgent spending in the face of so much genuine need in her country (she had already begun canvassing for next year’s elections while she is on tour) that most intend to vote her out next year. In this way it seemed so at odds to have met these women dressed head to toe in pro-Banda clothing.

While I was sitting on the front porch, waiting for my colleague to come and pick me up ready for the day ahead, I got talking to another woman who had also witnessed this remarkable spectacle. I asked her what she thought of the President’s visit. At first she was balanced, saying that “some people" thought Banda was doing a good job, before pouring forth a full account of what “other people" think - about how since taking power 2 years ago, she has lost all sight of the excellent policies she once put forward and has lost grip on reality in the most wasteful fashion. “You saw these women who were here before?" She asked me. “Well, they are paid to be dressed like that. They follow Banda wherever she goes and make a big party whenever she arrives somewhere to try to bring the crowds into a positive spirit about her. It’s pathetic. You know these women, they aren’t from the countryside. No, they have been sent from every corner of Malawi at great expense. All have businesses with government and of course they are all hoping that their contracts are renewed on very good terms." Nauseating stuff.

I didn’t have long to ponder all this information before my colleague Marciero arrived. I should perhaps mention that this is a colleague from Microloan, the microfinance charity where I’ve been volunteering for about 6 weeks. The charity relies heavily on its fleet of about 80 motorcycles to reach communities in the remotest parts of Malawi, and had asked me if I could help share some of my motorcycle maintenance tips with them in order to help managing their burgeoning repairs bill! I’d already created a step by step “love your motorcycle" maintenance manual and now it was time to embark on my first of 3 regional workshops in an effort to train all the branch managers in that region.

In any case it was a very short drive that morning to the regional office and there I was greeted by Vinny, the regional manager, and about 6 other staff, all keen to learn and ask lots of questions! Within 3 hours, we’d washed air filters, tightened slack chains, assessed loose spokes and plenty more, with each person having a go themselves at one of the bikes we had to hand. Very satisfying and it has to be said, great fun too! I love those moments when you see that one of them has “got" what you are trying to say - one particularly good example was when I was trying to explain why it’s good to squeeze a little oil through the cleaned air filter in order to help trap the dust from moving into the engine. “Ah, like ear wax!" one branch manager cried, struck by his very own eureka moment. “Er yes", I said, screwing up my face a little in contemplation. “That’s a bit disgusting but yes, basically good logic!" I replied with a grin.

Once the session was over it was time for my own treat - riding out with Vinny, the (lady!) regional manager to visit a group of women who Microloan lend to. (Microloan almost always lend to groups rather than individuals as it reduces the chances of loans “disappearing" as well as providing the women with their own support group). I was really excited about this ride out as it was to be the first time I’d seen Microloan’s work in action and I was really keen to meet the women who are the heart of this charity. There weren’t enough bikes for me to ride myself so I hopped on the back of Vinny’s Yamaha DT125 and followed Amos, the loan officer responsible for this particular group, who led the way.

After a few kilometres through town, we took a sudden left turn and began our journey over the dirt roads. Here, the dusty, rocky tracks were lined on each side with roughly assembled wooden huts with twig roofs. Outside some, small pyramids of red ripe tomatoes were displayed for sale on tables, while on other stalls men tinkered with upturned bicycles or sawed wood ready for oxen carts or coffins. Children ran chaotically through the dirt barefoot, dodging goats and startling chickens and everywhere I looked was rich with life. After a couple of kilometres, Amos gestured with his hand that we should slow down and very shortly we saw why - before us the land gave way into a deep 45 degree gorge, deeply rutted in hard baked earth. Without a doubt, this was something of a brown-trouser gorge and I was quite relieved when Vinny pulled to a stop. “Would you like me to get off now?" I asked. This was a monster of a descent and climb - I know I wouldn’t have relished it on my bike let along on a little 125 with a lumbering great passenger on the back. Vinny nodded, I disembarked and as she tackled the challenge ahead, I removed my helmet and set to on foot. I climbed down the descent and as I went to begin the uphill climb, a little boy in ragged clothes sprang as light as a nymph up the slope ahead as if it was nothing at all. “Hello!" I called out to him with a big smile - he turned and it was then that I saw that he only had one eye. I tried not to look shocked and dreaded to think what could have caused it.

Back at the top of the hill, Vinny was waiting for me and once again we set off on our way. After a kilometre or so, Amos took a sharp left turn and parked up next to a mud hut. We did the same and followed him through to a small dirt courtyard where 20 or so women were all sitting on grass mats on the floor. The women greeted us all warmly and invited us to take seats of honour on some plastic chairs that they had provided. In many ways I would have much rather sat on the floor with them but I didn’t want to cause offence by rejecting their hospitality so duly took my seat. Once all the introductions were made, I was invited to ask any questions I liked, with Vinny acting as interpreter. First of all I asked if they would each introduce themselves and explain a bit about how much they had borrowed and what they were using the loan for. It was a delight to hear each of their stories. Loan sizes varied from £20 to £80 to be repaid every 2 weeks for 4 months and were used to build on businesses trading anything from fish, vegetables and charcoal. The profits from these businesses went towards all kinds of individual projects, ranging buying tin roofs for homes (a life-changing upgrade from twigs come the rainy season) and concrete floors to building up savings and sending children through secondary school. I asked Vinny how many of these ladies had been to school. “None" she replied. I was amazed - to have had no formal schooling at all and still to be able to run a business to a level where a woman can send several kids to secondary school is a huge achievement! But how did they manage their passbooks if they were illiterate, I asked. “We teach those we can basic reading and writing, and those who can’t sign with their thumbprints". I was massively impressed by the tenacity of these ladies and the commitment to changing their children’s lives.

Once we had finished our chat, I asked if I could take a photo. They all screamed with laughter and agreed to have one of their group and then they also wanted one taken with me! Babies were rearranged on knees and bums were shuffled along in the dirt until a big enough space was made right in the middle. I gingerly stepped through the crowd to the vacant space and shared a few laughs with these fantastic women while Amos snapped away. It felt great to be there.

Once we were finished, I thanked the women for having me, waved them all goodbye, clambered onto the back of Vinny’s bike and set off once again down the track. In no time at all, we came to a slow stop and once again were staring down at the nenesis before us - brown-trouser gorge - and it didn’t look any prettier from the other direction. As we sat at the top of the descent, it felt as though the whole village had stopped what they were doing and were now watching us with baited breath, waiting to see if we’d be mad enough to go for it. It really was a horror. “Vinny", I called out, “Shall I get off now?", already beginning to disembark. “No", Vinny replied very calmly. “Let me try", she said. And in that moment, even though I had to gulp hard before I said it, I realised that of course the answer to that has to be “sure - go for it!". Because that’s what all this is about - giving any woman who believes in herself the chance to have a go. Let her try.

Nevertheless, my heart was in my mouth as Vinny clicked into gear and set off down the slope, bumping slowly but surely over ruts and crevices, picking a sure line all the way to the bottom and then without a moments hesitation, doing exactly the same all the way up the opposite bank until - quite unbeliebably - we were at the top of the opposite bank. We’d made it!!! “Well done Vinny, that was amazing, great stuff!!!" I yelled, possibly even more excited than I was when Murray won Wimbledon. She really had pulled off a fantastic bit of riding! Vinny laughed and replied a modest “thank you", then tootled onwards back to the office, quietly beaming with pride.

All in all that day is one that will stay with me for a very long time. The depressing juxtaposition of one woman’s gutting failure to honour the enormous opportunity to deliver major change in her country fell sharply against the incredibly hopeful signs of vision and change bubbling up from some of the poorest and most disenfranchised women in the country. I just wish Joyce Banda might forget her big entourage one day and hop on the back of Vinny’s motorbike instead - I know it would never happen but I love to just imagine what might happen if she did.

With great thanks to Microloan for welcoming me so warmly into the team and sharing some of the magic with me.