Day 310: It’s All About The Money

Wed. 19th June 2013

With some new friends!No travelling today and something approaching a lie in (though our bodies are getting so accustomed to early starts that even this is relative). As an included activity within the Acacia trip we have a tour of the nearby village this morning. We’re not entirely convinced we want to do it (it could be quite ‘gringo’) but equally we do want to understand more about local life and so we go along with half of the rest of the group.

Our upgrade! (We were in no. 19)Its a decision that we regret as soon as we step out of the camp site and onto the beach as we are mobbed by a group of locals. They have a deliberate strategy of separating us all and then 2 or 3 locals appointed themselves as our unofficial guides and shadow us as we walk to the village. It really is not very comfortable and my hackles and defences are up as I expect an immediate hard sell. And so, when asked my name and where I’m from, I make the mistake of claiming to be Arthur from Ireland. (Learn a lesson, guys, don’t tell porky pies!)

New arrival at the Mphatso NurseryOur first stop is at the Mphatso Nursery which is a day care centre just down the beach from the campsite. We meet Robyn, the Aussie who moved here and founded the centre 9 years ago after having come to Kande on holiday and seeing the conditions and the deprivations suffered by the children. She now has a string of 10 nursery schools in the area. The aim is to give children a start on their schooling and to help the very poorest with some basic foods. (Malawi’s population of c. 16m only has a GDP of $14bn – i.e. $2.4o per person per day).

Not sure what to make of usAs if to reinforce the point, a mother and her baby arrive at the centre. The baby is showing signs of being malnourished and the mother has walked 18km to get here for some help. Robyn was able to put the baby on a feeding programme and give the mother a big bag of maize meal and some money for a bus back home. The contrast with the comfortable lives that we lead (even whilst camping) is stark and we do respect Robyn for the difference that she is making (and not drawing any salary whilst doing it). It gets even better when we go and see one of the classes.

Bustin some moves in the NurseryThe kids are in a big circle and they are singing and dancing and generally having a whale of a time. There are tunes that we assume are local, a song that seems to introduce each child as in twos or threes they go to the centre of the circle and do a little dance. There’s even Frere Jacques but with African words. We get to join in the circle – the words are beyond us, but we can clap and lead on a rendition of ‘The Wheels on the Bus’. You can’t help but be moved and feel that Robyn is making a real difference.

Cassava cropsOur next stop is at the Health Centre in the neighbouring village about a 30 minute walk away. Our shadows immediately rejoin us and separate us up again. ‘Top of the morning, Arthur’ goes Blessings, one of my shadows. At least I told a lie that I could bluff my way around subsequent questions about life at home. We talk as we walk past Cassava fields – small plots of land, neatly tended with the Cassava plants growing along the peaks of ridges or mounds of soil. Blessings points out his father working in the field and explains a little about local life here.

In the school libraryAt the Health Centre, at least the queue in the waiting room (area) is familiar from home. Little else is. In one of the offices (consulting rooms?) we have  talk from a couple of the Assistant Doctors and here we really start to have mixed feelings. Other than that their No. 1 problem is malaria and that there is a shortage of malaria nets there was very little information about the Health Centre or what it does. What we got instead was a big pitch for our money and a wooden box to put it in. We do appreciate that we have so much more but there are better ways to go about getting donations from us.

This is just one classIt was a similar story at the Primary School where we got a talk from the Headteacher that was 75% a plea for money (and another wooden box). At least here we did learn a little about the school – there are 1,500 kids aged 6 to 14 and just 12 teachers. When we go and see a class, sure enough, there are 120 kids all sitting on the floor with just a single teacher. Now we really cause a big disruption as the kids all start clamouring to show us their homework books and to have their photos taken with us. Looking at their workbooks, the big surprise is the high standard of work (Maths and English), how neatly done it was and how proud the kids were of their work.

Feeling like the pied piper leaving the Primary SchoolAs we leave the school, our shadows once again pick us up and separate us out. Now we just get a full on sales pitch for their paintings and wood carvings. Despite having a ‘not buying anything’ pact with Janet, I weaken and (over)pay for a wooden ‘Mama Africa’ fridge magnet. We have struggled to find fridge magnets in Africa and I felt a little bit guilty about maintaining the pretence to being Arthur from Ireland. That summed up the morning really – a big guilt pitch for money. It was interesting (and humbling) to learn about local life but we really resented being treated like a walking money machine.

Cassava drying on a matIn the afternoon, as the wind and the waves had dropped a little, I signed up to have a dive in the lake. As well as being fresh water, Lake Malawi is at around 500m altitude and so this counts as an ‘altitude dive’ – I can spend less time at less depth without needing a decompression stop before surfacing. In practice, 500m altitude does not change the dive planning significantly whilst the fresh water means that I am much less buoyant and so need very little weight for the dive.

The inflatable found it hard to get going off the beachThe dive site is off Malawi Island around 800m directly off the shore from the camp site. There are 5 of us diving and one snorkeller and so the little inflatable boat has to shuttle us out in two groups. For the first time in my diving career, I am the most experienced diver in the group (apart from the Dive Master) and so asked to bring up the rear along with my dive-buddy Duncan.

Getting the boat in after our diveDespite the wind having dropped, the visibility at the bottom is only 2 or 3 metres with a combination of the waves and the divers in front churning up the sandy lake bed. Lake Malawi is famous for having great diversity of fish species (Cichlids). We got to see a few fish, some of them in bright blue colours, but they were only small and not in the shoals or the variety that I got to see in Gili back in February. Also on the lake bed was a sunken dinghy, a dugout canoe and a jeep – I could just about fit into this latter with my fins and air tank and have an (imaginary) underwater drive. Little amuses the simple!

This little piggy was very tastyToday we get a let off from chores as well as from travel as a couple of locals have offered to come in and do the cooking and the dishwashing for us. Even better they have a pig roast set up for us – a few of our group went off with them first thing in the morning to select and kill the pig for tonight. Despite the gap in ages (everyone else is in their mid-late twenties) we now feel a proper part of the group. With everyone relaxed and relieved to have a day off travelling the rum and cokes start to flow. After the dinner we all retire to the bar and for the second time on our trip (and my life) I seem to end up dancing on the bar. A sign of a good night!

So, a day that broadly got better as it went on; a day that we saw more of the real Malawi and the tough lives that the Malawians have; and a day that really reinforced how lucky we are. But does it really help to feel that when a local looks at us, all they see is money?

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