Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Hello sister

I love cities, even untidy, half-finished, sprawling ones, and Dar es Salaam is certainly not neat.
Nor is it the capital of Tanzania as I thought, which just shows how ignorant I am of African political geography. That responsibility lies with Dodoma, which became the country’s official capital when the national Parliament moved there in 1996.
According to my very useful Bradt guide book, Dodoma was mooted as the capital as far back as 1959 for the undeniably equitable reason that it was the country’s most centrally located large town.
But political logic alone does not make a capital city, people and geography play a big role, and Dar retains the buzz and energy of the capital city it was before losing out to modest Domodo.
I write this from the tenth floor of a hotel that has floor length windows offering views of the Indian Ocean, although the workmen building a high rise block a few yards from my window keep distracting me.
No, I am not having a Diet Pepsi moment, I am simply amazed that none have yet fallen to their certain death, so careless are they of their personal safety.
Our studio is so large I can hide my stash of Mars Bars from Nigel without fear of him confiscating them, there is a cream leather chaise longue which wouldn’t look out of place in downtown Manhattan, as well as broadband, BBC Prime and of course the aforementioned views of the Indian Ocean.
We are only here for three nights and went off budget as a mid-adventure treat to ourselves. Come Friday, and our trip to Moshi in the north,  and we will be back in the “moderate” range of hotels and hostels – but until then I am going to enjoy every marble tiled moment of 0ur Harbour View executive suite.
And that means cooking meals instead of eating out in indifferent restaurants.
The city’s fruit market is just a few streets away from our hotel and this morning I stocked up on life’s essentials including red ripe tomatoes, tiny baby aubergines and avocados so large – and ripe - they are almost unrecognizable to someone used to buying tiny ones which defiantly refuse to ripen no matter how much I coax them.
Tonight we are dining on fresh bean soup, feta and tomato salad and bread, followed by fresh fruit. Actually I will probably skip the fresh fruit and have a Mars Bar, but you get my drift.
The fruit market is like the city, at first glance it looks quite chaotic, but is actually as efficiently organised as any major supermarket, and a lot more cheerful.
Stall holders smiled when I declined their offer of bunches of greens, cassava roots and large bags of potatoes. They were happy for me to pick through their produce, taste the herbs and local spinach, and they all grinned at my attempts to speak Swahili.
“Jambo, jambo,” I cried at every stall. I concluded every purchase with an effusive “asanti sana, asanti sana” and was touched when I was greeted in return as sister and not madame.
There is no more uncomfortable salutation than an African man or woman calling a white woman Madame. It stinks of colonialism and bestows a status that none of us deserves. I hate it. Sister, on the other hand, is a greeting between equals.
Tomorrow I plan to extend my vocabulary beyond hello and thank you very much - brother seems a good place to start.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Gossip in paradise

The first leg of our southern Africa tour is almost at an end. On Sunday afternoon we leave Malawi and fly to Dar es Salaam where we will explore some of the many delights Tanzania has to offer.
“Are you going to climb the mountain?” asked my friend Thoko when I told her we were planning to visit Kilimanjaro.
I laughed, the steep hill from her house in the Chilomono area of Blantyre leaves me breathless. Climbing Africa’s highest mountain was never in our plans. Looking at it, now that is a different matter.
Then we are off to Zanzibar and for some reason I can’t get Bob Hope and Bing Crosby out of my mind. For those readers who are slightly younger than I, Hope and Crosby were Holywood royalty in the olden days.
Think George Clooney and Brad Pitt, only uglier but funnier. They made a series of movies called The Road to…, Zanzibar is the only one I can remember.
But before we leave the warm heart of Africa we are enjoying a weekend at the lake, this time near Mangochi.
What is left to say about Lake Malawi that hasn’t been said before, many times? 
Sparkling clean sand, gently lapping waves, blue skies, warm sun, friendly vervet monkeys, sea eagles swooping overhead…paradise.
And gossip too. Malawi is agog at the story of a senior banking executive who has been enjoying a torrid extramarital affair with an accountant who works for an internationally renowned firm. Her husband also happens to be a prominent lawyer.
The chap stored some 47 compromising pictures of him and his lover on his business laptop. The said laptop was then put in for repair. You can guess what happened next.
Yes, someone copied the images on to a DVD and distributed around Blantyre. Before you could say Oswald Mosley, the banker and his girlfriend were the talk of the town.
Fast forward a few days and the poor couple are charged with acting in, and the distribution of, pornographic material.
His life, and that of his lover, lie in ruins.
And as if the prospect of a notorious court case was not sufficient punishment for being, quite frankly, stupid, according to Thoko, the photographs reveal that the poor chap in question has “a stout belly and a small member”. His humiliation is complete.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Mais non, this is Africa

I am easily seduced. The website for the Hostellerie de France promised a wine list that wouldn’t be out of place in central Paris, let alone downtown Blantyre – that is Blantyre, Malawi, not Blantyre, Lanarkshire.
Nigel was more impressed by the room rate, which was well under our too-tight budget and so we booked a studio, complete, said the website with a kitchen and private garden.
Why, oh why do I believe hotel websites. Sure, the wine list was real, but its author Jean Michel and his wife must have drank dry it a few years back because all we were offered was chilled, yes, chilled red wine served in brandy glasses.
The studio apartment was big enough, but the kitchen consisted of a two-ring hot plate, a bashed frying pan and a few mismatched glasses.
The shower only worked on alternative days and the private garden was a shared strip of geraniums, which the huge Alsatian guard dog used as his own private parade ground.
Don’t get me wrong. I know Malawi. I don’t expect the Ritz. The electricity supply can be erratic. Water is a precious commodity, so needs to be used carefully, and who needs expensive red wine when there is Kuche Kuche.
But Jean Michel’s whining response to our complaints: “mais madame, this eez Africa, nothing works” was baloney, as well as insulting to his adopted country.
The shower didn’t work because he had skimped on the plumbing. The so-called kitchen had been bought on the cheap and the wine list was nothing more than a cruel trick to persuade suckers like me to give him my hard earned cash to fund his retirement in the sun.
This is not Africa, this is a cheeky Frenchman, which is why I am now sitting in the Malawian-owned and run Mount Soche, eating home-made cake, drinking Mzuzu coffee and savouring a view to die for.
Jean Michel, this eez Africa.

Friday, July 18, 2008

A banking miracle

As the cash machine swallowed our one and only credit card I stood transfixed.
No card, no cash was all I could think. All we had left were a few hundred kwacha (latest exchange rate is around 280 kwacha to the pound), a Maestro card that is worse than useless in Malawi and forty euros left over from our European tour.
The bank had just closed its doors, it was Friday afternoon and we were due to travel to Blantyre at 7.00 am the next morning.
My panic got worse. No credit card meant we had no way of paying our hotel bill. How would we pay for meals? It was 3.15 pm and we hadn’t even had lunch yet. Now the prospect of dinner was receding as fast as my pulse was racing.
“What happened?” asked Nigel, clearly trying hard not to panic.
“A message came up about the card reader or something, then our card disappeared,” I said.
I ignored him when he asked what that meant. How would I know, I can’t even balance the cash in my purse.
Then I saw it.
A notice next to the cash machine which read: If you have technical difficulties with this ATM please call the National Bank of Malawi on 01831485.
So I did.
“How can I help you madame,” asked Tanya. I explained what happened.
“Oh, so your card was captured. Where are you now?” she asked.
“Standing outside the front door of the bank,” I said.
“Let me call you back shortly, I will get this fixed,” she said cheerfully and hung up.
Nigel looked at me. I looked at him. “What are the chances of getting our card back?” he asked.
“None”, I said, “it was a call centre”.
Then a miracle happened. The bank door opened, we were ushered inside and told to wait for the manager. Note the manager of the capital city’s biggest branch. Not a teller, or a salesperson, or the cleaner. The manager.
He appeared, laughing. “I have had a call from our call centre in Blantyre. Your card is stuck in our machine. Let me get it out for you.”
He called an assistant and she cheerfully extracted our wayward credit card from the back of the machine.
“Thank you so much, zikomo kambiri, zikomo, zikomo,” I spluttered.
Now we could eat and pay our hotel bill. We may even have a Malawi gin or two.
As our taxi approached the hotel, my mobile phone rang. It was Tanya.
“Hello, I was just checking you got your card okay, and have a good weekend,” she said cheerfully.
A call centre that called back. I was stunned into silence.
Sir Fred Goodwin et al please note.
A bank that helps its customers instead of trying to sell them financial products they don’t need and usually can’t afford. What a novel idea.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

We are family

It took three-year-old Bill Potani – a city boy - three times before he dared stick his big toe in Lake Malawi.
Clutching his father’s hand tightly he took a shaky step towards the surf, then another, and then finally stood with both feet planted firmly in the sand as the waves swirled over him.
“That’s it, that’s it,” he cried in triumph as he beckoned the waves towards him.
All fear now gone in the excitement of the water, he took some persuasion to leave the lake an hour later as the sun began to go down and the wind grow stronger.
It is wintertime in Malawi, which is not quite the same as Scotland. The temperature during the day is around 25 degrees, though it does get colder at night. It can rain, and often without warning a wind will whip up, blowing the leaves off the trees and tiles off roofs.
But as this is an African winter a day at the beach is a very pleasant way to spend a Saturday.
Senga Bay, where we spent the weekend, is an hour and half drive from Malawi’s capital, Lilongwe. We went with our good friends, Peter and Debra and their two children Lindy and Bill, and passed the time walking on the beach, sharing photographs and memories and drinking Kuche Kuche and Cherry Plum.
The only low point came when little Bill threw up his Fanta orange all over the dinner table, but a quick wipe down and he was tucking into his egg and chips as if nothing had happened.
On the way home we debated the root of Senga Bay. Peter insists it is not a Chichewa word, or even Angoni - his tribe, so the most likely explanation we could come up with it was that this most beautiful of bays was named after some long dead missionary’s wife from Scotland.
I hope it is true, because if it is, then that Scottish woman unknowingly helped cement a friendship between our two countries which still flourishes today, thanks in particular to the efforts of Scotland’s longest serving First Minister Jack McConnell.
Once we had tired of speculating about Senga and her bay, we turned to beer. Peter, whose favourite tipple is a Special – a considerably weaker version of the Carlsberg Special sold in Scotland, as he discovered to his cost two years ago when he spent a fortnight with us in Edinburgh.
He pointed out an advert for Chibuku – “The People’s Choice”.
“It is brewed from maize,” he explained. “And you can’t buy it in shops, only in taverns.”
“The name comes from the world buku – book. When men have no cash, they would go to the bottlestore and ask for a beer, and it would be entered into the buku. Chibuku means big book.”
“A slate,” I cried, “It is the same in Scotland”.
And we settled back to listen to the Black Missionaries and Robbie Williams as we sped home to Lilongwe, content in each other’s silent company.
Two countries, separated by five thousand miles and a global economy that favours the north, but in the things that matter, we are family.

We can end poverty

There are times, when I am sitting by the pool in the Lilongwe Hotel, lounging on their vintage 1960s pool chairs and watching the sun ripple across the water’s surface, that I forget I am in the capital city of one of the world’s poorest countries.
But as soon as you step outside, on to the streets of Lilongwe’s old town, the scale of Malawi’s development challenges becomes all too clear.
A young man crawling along the ground with his hands in flip-flops, his under-developed legs flap uselessly behind him.
An old woman, her face ravaged by poverty, begs silently for pennies by the front door of the supermarket.
The street children are more vocal in their requests. “Help Mamma,” “Money boss”, “Mammie”, their hands outstretched, their dark brown eyes challenging you to ignore them.
Leave the city behind and deep in the country, where the majority of the country’s 12 million (and counting) people live, and you will witness an existence that has changed little in centuries. Families struggling to eke out a living growing maize for nsima, Malawi’s national dish, while coping with malaria, HIV/Aids, dirty water, cholera…whatever nasty surprise nature can throw at them.
But Malawi is not a poor country, it has one of the world’s most beautiful natural landscapes, with the magnificent Lake Malawi at its heart.
Rains permitting, it is a fertile land, where aubergines, bananas, tomatoes and greens grow without really trying.
And its citizens are energetic, optimistic and above all else, resilient.
It is its economy that is poor, that is struggling to grow in a global market where the selfish interests of the north are enshrined in treaties and emerging economies such as China forge ahead with a relentless ambition last seen in the hey day of the British Empire.
The government of Malawi has made great strides in the last three years to grow the economy, and the slogan for the recent Independence Day celebrations showcases the country’s ambitions: Building a Nation of Achievers.
But Malawi will not succeed on its own, just as the UK, or China, or France cannot succeed on their own.
We are all in this together.

Then let us pray that come it may
(As come it will for a' that),
That Sense and Worth o'er a' the earth,
Shall bear the gree an a' that.
For a' that, an a' that,
It's coming yet for a' that,
That man to man, the world, o'er
Shall brithers be for a' that.

And if Robert Burns hasn’t convinced you, read Jeffrey Sachs. His books, The End of Poverty and The Common Wealth are just plain common sense – a rare and precious commodity among economists, development experts and politicians.
For starters try the lecture he gave in Edinburgh last May. 
We can end poverty if we want, we just need to want enough.


Tuesday, July 8, 2008


After twenty four hours travelling – nine of those spent squashed in the back of a plane with a horde of girls from Mallory Towers on their way to a safari camp in Tanzania – we landed in Malawi around lunchtime on Sunday.
As the plane shuddered to a halt I felt tears starting to gather – not of relief, though I was damn glad to be finally at our destination, but through the sheer joy of being back in this small, landlocked African nation.
Three years ago I knew almost nothing of Malawi, save that its erstwhile President, Dr Hastings Banda, had been educated in Scotland and that Dr David Livingstone had been the first European to travel there.
Six trips, seven if you count this one, later and I feel at home here. I have made precious friendships, learned a few words of the language and am beginning to understand the immense development challenges facing a country, where the majority of its citizens exist on less than a dollar a day.
Since my first visit, I have struggled to understand what made me fall in love with Malawi, for that is exactly what my relationship with this country feels like.
Yes, it has beautiful landscapes – from the cloud covered Mulanje mountain in the south to the stunning northern shores of Lake Malawi, one of Africa’s largest freshwater lakes.
Its citizens have a deserved reputation for being among the friendliest people in sub-Saharan Africa – hence its name, the Warm Heart of Africa. Or Africa for Beginners as some more cynical travel writers have dubbed it.


There is almost a spiritual quality to the place. This has nothing to do with the thousands of churches and mosques that are scattered across the country, often no bigger than a garden shed. Nor the fact that almost everyone believes in God, or Allah.
“What do you believe in, if you don’t believe in God?” a young Malawian journalist once asked me as we discussed our countries relative relationships with faith.
“Nothing,” I said, and she looked at me as if I were mad. Here, belief is as part of life as water, and often more readily available.
I still don’t believe in God, or Allah, or Shiva, or Jehovah, but I think I fell in love with Malawi because it confirmed my faith in the essential goodness of human beings.
I don’t have a rose-tinted view of the country and its people, there are nasty people here – just as there are in Scotland and every other country in the world.
There is nothing romantic about having to walk five miles to get a bucket of dirty water for drinking, or dying from malaria because you don’t have a bed net.
And the development challenges facing this country are immense. So immense that just listing them is almost meaningless.
But here in Malawi the difficulties – and joys - of daily life are shared. Friends look after each other and family bonds are strong, almost unbreakable.
When we landed in Lilongwe on Sunday, our good friend, and Malawi Photographer of the Year 2007, Govati Nyirenda was there to meet us. 
He had got up at 6.00 am that morning and spent nearly five hours on a bus just so he could welcome us back to his country.
His cousin, Kambani, whom we had never met, had left the wedding celebrations of a close friend to drive us to our hotel, and had to be persuaded to accept money for fuel.
And today, another good friend, Peter Potani, the first Malawian I met when I arrived here three years ago, has spent his precious lunch hour searching for a decent car for us to hire.
Peter and Govati and our other friends here have given me much more than the precious gift of friendship.
They have made me believe, not in God, but in life.

Loving my country

The Brighton taxi driver who took us on the first leg of our journey to Malawi had a ponytail longer than Rapunzel’s. His face was even longer.
“To tell you the truth darling,” he said, when I asked him if he liked living in Brighton, “I grew up in this town and it ain’t what it used to be. I would love to live somewhere else.”
Twenty three years as a taxi driver, twenty two of them on the night shift, may have coloured his view of Britain’s best seaside city, but I got the impression it was the more than that.
The very thing that makes me love Brighton - the feeling that anything and everything goes is probably the same thing that made him weary of his native town.
He cheered up when he dropped at as the bus station for the coach to Heathrow.
“You off anywhere nice darling?” he asked.
“Africa,” I grinned.
“So I took you the first leg of a very long journey,” he said, apparently cheered up by his contribution to my trip. Either that or it was the 30 per cent tip I gave him.
I once said, only half jokingly, that if Scotland ever became independent, then I would move to Brighton.
Excuse me while I indulge in a little bit of personal politics here, but I love being British.
I am proud that we were the first country to develop a National Health Service, that we stood up the Nazis, that we have the best street fashion in the world, and that our small island produced such geniuses as Robert Burns, William Shakespeare and Lennon and McCartney.
I feel at home in Manchester, Stoke, the Lake District as well as Glasgow, Dundee and the Highlands.
I support Manchester United and Hibs.
I cheer for England when Scotland is not around, and 28 years ago I joined the Labour Party because I wanted to be part of a movement that had social and economic justice at the core of its being.
My husband says I am a closet Marxist because I insist that class is at the heart of all politics. I say I am simply someone who wants every child, regardless of their background, to grow up confident that they can be the best they can be – the best brickie, the best father, the best friend.
That is who I am, and I make no apologies for my beliefs.
I don’t believe that Scotland will vote for independence – so I may have to relinquish my dream of living on the Sussex coast, but I will do that cheerfully if it means I get to stay in the UK.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Brighton rocks

We arrived in Brighton just as Wendy Alexander resigned as leader of Scottish Labour and Amy Winehouse touched some bloke at Glastonbury.
I feel sorry for both women, both misunderstood in their own way, but only one sings like an angel, and it ain't Wendy.
The so-called fan who has spent the last couple of days whining about being “elbowed” by Amy is surely in the running for wimp of the year.
How hard can a frail, drug addicted, six stone girl elbow anyone? Not that hard I don’t imagine, unless he was standing between her and some crack cocaine, which he clearly wasn’t.
Secondly Glastonbury is not the Royal Opera House or your local multiplex. People push and shove, get down and dirty in the mud, crap in boxes, get arrested…it is a music festival for God’s sake, - anyone remember Altamont. Now that was serious.
To veterans of punk, when fans were fans and not headline junkies, the hoo-ha surrounding this incident is laughable. 
In her heyday Siouxsie of the Banshees thought nothing of giving fans the odd nudge or two.
Did you hear them complain? Far from it. Indeed to be on the receiving end of Siouxsie's’s bad temper was a badge of honour for a fan, not a reason to go running to the press.
James Gostelow - get a life.

Brighton is simply the best city in the UK - sorry Edinburgh and Glasgow, but Brighton rocks in a way other cities can only dream of.
If you have never been, jump on a train as soon as you can. The city welcomes everyone: young, old, middle-aged, fat, skinny, gay, straight or not-quite sure. 
It has a great beach: think smooth shingle, traditional deck-chairs and ice-cream, with a twist of hippy, hip-hop chic. There are wonderful restaurants, good fish and chips, and when the sun shines, as it has since we arrived, it (almost) beats Greece for summer fun.
It is too hot to write any more, I am off to bag a blue and white striped deck chair, and finish my book.