The next few posts may be more like glorified journal entries, but because Internet cards cost quite a bit of kwacha, this is the best way to share an update on my arrival and orientation to Malawi. Stories to come once I get a few interviews under my belt and after I start at the Daily Times on the 23rd.
I’d been in airport land for 18 hours, all of it white-painted vaulted ceilings and chrome, fluorescent lights, terminal talk, slippery linoleum floors that my shoes couldn’t get a respectable grip on, the crushing weight of six-months-worth of luggage, broken sleep, “please buckle your seatbelt and return your chair to the upright position.” Like that from Pearson to JFK to Jo’burg. I cannot convey how much I was beginning to long for more than airport conveyor belt sidewalks. And then we were over Malawi.
Standing atop the portable staircase stationed outside the exit door of the plane after landing, looking out at the Kamuzu Airport airstrip, all I could think about was how soft the air felt; soft, warm, heavy and scented with the local flora and carrying the song of local fauna. Soft and heavy like the gentle sway of a backyard hammock. Whether it was overtiredness or true feelings of euphoria (probably a combination of both), I was smiling like a fool.
My JHR in-country coordinator Omega greeted us at the airport and our group split into two cars to drive to the Korea Gardens hotel, our home in Lilongwe for the next few days of in-country orientation.
We drove along the narrow roads, which have a speed limit of 50 K that no one seems to adhere to, windows down, passing children in school uniforms or plain-clothes, walking, running or cycling, men walking in business casual attire (almost always business casual attire here), women walking nonchalantly or dutifully with heavy-looking baskets on their heads. In market areas there were women attending stalls lined with food, crafts or imported products and men standing with their wares in hand. One man offered a rooster to our passenger seat window when we slowed to take a sharp corner, another man held a small kitten in such a comic way that I had to laugh – he stood with his feet square to his shoulders, hips forward and shoulders back, his right arm locked parallel to the ground and his index finger and thumb around the underarms of the dangling kitten with the most unimpressed look on his face! Luckily the kitten was doing a better job of selling itself. It looked so alarmed and confused that soon-to-be Zodiak FM JHR intern Desiree swore she would have bought it if we’d had the time to stop.
We saw everything on the drive to Korea Gardens from thatched-roof huts to stately international embassies and posh hotels. Malawi has many more expansive and expensive-looking fences cutting through the lush green foliage than I’m used to seeing in Canada – telling of the country’s problems with petty crime and underlying that, poverty.
Korea Gardens is a nice place, with lots of trees and friendly staff, set to the soundtrack of songbirds in the morning, crickets at night and a mash-up of reggae and forgotten 90s hits in between. The six JHR trainers staying here, myself included, have a bungalow called the “bronze room”. Bronze is enough to get you four walls and a roof, but the common room isn’t completely enclosed and the shared sink tubs are outdoors. We each have our own room (and our own mosquito net for the “mosies”.) There is an indoor lounge with a bar and beautiful, vibrantly coloured lounge furniture, as well as a pool, a restaurant and one of those typical, tall and expansive fences armed by a guard around the clock.
On our first day we were treated to dinner with Luke Tembo of the Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation (CHRR). He joined us at Korea Gardens and spoke about the work that CHRR does and the most pressing human rights issues facing Malawi. Omega’s sister Natasha, who works with the Peace Corps locally, also joined us.
He talked about the mandate, education and advocacy work of the CHRR, and took our questions. My pitch list doubled in size – the disconnect between the Malawian constitution and penal code, and the impact of HIV/Aids on the family dynamic, creating an immediate and unmet need not only for orphanages but also assisted living institutions, and the need for shelters for battered women.
According to Tembo, women’s shelters are virtually non-existent in Malawi, with the only option for women who escape from domestic abuse being temporary victim support provided by the Malawi Police Service (MPS). Tembo even said that he has seen the same women who reported their husbands for battery ultimately going to the MPS and asking for their husband’s release, because they have no means to support themselves after the arrest is made.
Tembo answered my questions about the emergent uranium mining industry in the north and the human rights issues embroiled in the new industry. With issues ranging from neglected Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) to displacement to working conditions and labour rights, I’m considering writing a series instead of just one story. I went to bed planning to use my two weeks allotted vacation time to bus up to Mzuzu and the rural areas of the north to work on the series.