It’s just Africa…..




There is no doubt that the Africa factor is cumulative. You don’t realise how it niggles away underneath until something goes wrong and that happens a lot, it is just a matter of how wrong the something is that goes.


I think you have to be a certain kind of person to live in the Third World as a long-term expatriate. We are coming up for four years in Malawi and as a hardship posting, the norm is two to three years so this is getting to be long.


You do develop a sense of humour and plenty of pragmatism and flexibility, otherwise you would go mad. Maybe that happens anyway and you are so mad you just don’t notice anymore. There is a madness to such places but whether it is because it attracts the kind, develops madness in certain people, makes the mad even crazier I don’t know. Of course it is not us! We know we are sane. Well as sane as anyone ever is living in a generally insane world.


That may sound harsh but you have to live in such places to know what I mean and if you don’t or haven’t there is not much point explaining.


And you learn to laugh a lot. To not take things too seriously and to understand that really, compared to the problems people face in such places, those of us fortunate enough to come from and return to and live in the developed world do not have problems, only minor inconveniences in the main.


Sure life can be hard but not as hard as it is in Africa.



Photo: Polished Denza bricks on the floor.


One could argue that people are used to it and that applies sometimes, perhaps a lot of the time, but people are people and they feel and care in the same way if they suffer under injustice, corruption, illness or cruelty. In the Third World it is intensified by the powerlessness with which most live. One could and does only wish it were other. But it isn’t and it probably won’t be for a very long time.


It is what it is, remains a useful thing to remember generally in life, but never more so than here where often, there really is nothing you can do.


On the bright side the water and power cuts have eased drastically and it is quite a novelty to think: Oh, I might cook such and such, and not have to navigate real or possible power or water cuts.


But the internet continues to be erratic despite having a new service. In the past few weeks they have changed the modem, changed the antennae, re-adjusted the antennae, three times, and still it is erratic, off and on, and needs to be replaced with a more reliable dongle. Having said that, and perhaps I speak too soon, today it has actually been working okay for five hours. We shall see tomorrow if we can run two laptops at the same time as that has not previously been possible.


We have a new gardener, Samson, who seems to hover a lot, perhaps having heard that the old gardener, Fred, got a top-up each month, a situation we inherited from the previous tenants who were kind and compassionate and instituted a payment each month to help.


I am sure such payments help and one certainly does not begrudge the money, but it becomes another job on the long list of Africa. We did not continue the monthly payments when our guard service was changed and we are not going to give Samson a payment either, no matter how expectant he looks.



Photo: The garden.


What we will do is give all of them a very, very generous Christmas bonus since that helps them and works best for us given how often we travel and are not around when monthly payments need to be made and as with all of us, they become dependent on the money and it is spent before it arrives and so when we are late with money it actually makes their lives harder, not easier.


And Samson has reasonable English and has taken on board the maxim: Nothing gets cut without asking. Pruning in Africa takes on a ‘vengeance is mine saith the gardener’ quality with the general view being that if something needs pruning it should be slashed within an inch of its life, or a bit higher, close to the ground. Roses do not mind this but most other things do. Less is more is not a maxim here when it comes to trimming plants.


And half the time they don’t have the right equipment anyway with a machete being the general universal tool and hacking, as a result, being the general universal approach. Twice I have returned from Australia to find the garden decimated by the annual prune. No doubt it will happen again – it is just the way of it.


A friend has established a vegetable garden and has been growing wonderful lettuce, something which is hard to get here, and all sorts of greens and filling bags for us as well. It has been such a treat. However, they discovered a few days ago that one of the gardeners had decided to cut back the greens, supposedly because the cook had requested some, and had cut the plants down to stubs, in essence ending their lives as opposed to regularly removing a few leaves, and so the garden will have to be re-planted.


Now, there is a very good chance that the cook and the gardener looked at all that greenery and heard the sound of Kwacha dropping into their pockets and so, over the weekend, they harvested the lot and sold it! However, if there had been some thought involved they would have realised less was more and taking some, not all, some of the time, and not destroying the plant in the doing, would have brought a regular income which might not have been noticed.


But that would be thinking and it didn’t happen and so now, chastised, with a more vigilant watch in place, they are unlikely to be hawking lettuce around the streets of Lilongwe again.


Andrew has been scatter-brained this week so I am not sure what is going on in his life. His grasp of English seems to appear and disappear and I don’t think it is my accent since that does not change and he should be used to it. Sometimes his brain seems to switch off and he either does not listen or processes what he is told in very strange ways.


A part of the problem, as it was in India, is that generally people are not allowed to think for themselves and so they cannot think for themselves. They function on rote learning and just keep doing the same things no matter how illogical it would appear if they actually thought about it.


Then again, given the outcome for Limited who was able to think for himself and thought himself into getting sacked because of what he did when we were away – bringing girlfriends and women into the house for sex and bribing guards so he could, mostly with our liquor – it is perhaps best if too much thinking does not happen. Although some would be good.


I went down to make a cup of coffee as I usually do about eleven and nearly skidded across the kitchen floor because Andrew had just washed it. Clearly he forgot to wash it earlier before we got up and decided to do it then, not thinking, or remembering that this was a time I was likely to be walking into the room. After going arse over turkey in Namibia a few weeks ago and cracking my head hard on the tiled floor after the cleaner mopped the floor with a liberal overdose of detergent, in that African way, I was not impressed.


I don’t get angry with him, annoyed a bit sometimes but not angry, and I just stated quite clearly that it was dangerous and in future floors needed to be washed early, so they were dry before we walked on them.  Well, the kitchen floor does because it is terrazzo while the rest of the downstairs is polished brick which is not so smooth and where there is plenty of grip. They are quite lovely these floors, made of local bricks from a town called Denza, about an hour south of Lilongwe.


But it has been an exciting week for Andrew because his employment has been formalised and he now gets his salary paid into the bank and gets a bankcard to get it out and the company is providing health cover and superannuation as part of his package. He was not previously on the company payroll. He also gets a bit more money so it is probably enough to have him distracted.


He has had to go into the bank with Sharon the office manager a few times to get it all sorted out and it is strange to see him dressed up in a suit and well-polishes shoes since most of the time he is barefoot or in thongs. He dresses up when he goes to church as I have seen him after special meetings. It is easy to forget but in Malawian terms he is very well paid and one of the more fortunate with a very nice house provided and water and power included.

And in that way of Africa, he went in two weeks ago to open an account and went in a few days ago because his salary had been paid and he wanted to access it, only to be told his account had been closed because he did not use it, which is just an excuse for saying, ‘we have lost your account.’ The search began and he returned two days later to find the account and his money. So it goes.

We went to a UNHCR refugee aid function the other night and it was something of a shambles in that the date was changed for the event and we only found out because we checked and most people did not so the hundreds they expected and for which they catered, was reduced to a couple of dozen. We arrived on time although the time had also been changed from six on the original invitation to seven, and they were still setting up, hanging flags and getting ready for something which had been planned for weeks. But it is the way of things around here, last-minute everything.

The number of times an invitation arrives for a function the night before or even the morning of, where someone is expected to give an address, grows and grows. Planning, along with foresight and strategic thinking seem not to be valued. The entertainment consisted of a rather wonderful drum performance by Burundi refugees, a very long and not very good poem and an account of one refugee experience. Yes Malawi has refugees and many thousands more than Australia is handling.

The approximately 18,400 refugees and asylum-seekers in Malawi originate mainly from Burundi, the DRC and Rwanda, and reside in Dzaleka camp. The number of new arrivals from the eastern DRC rose in 2013 to an average of 600 per month, about three times more than had been initially projected. Finding the resources to move asylum-seekers from the border entry point to Dzaleka, which is some 600 kilometres away, is a challenge. Upon arrival at the camp, many women and children are in need of psychosocial support.


Photo: Burundi drummers.


We have a new government in Malawi and are hoping for changing times after the Cashgate scandal where hundreds of millions of donor aid dollars were stolen – even to the degree of people driving out of Government offices with billions of Kwacha in their boots.


I would just say that billions of Kwacha is easier to achieve than billions in dollars.   For instance, $100 AUD equals 37,000 MK  and the basic wage in Malawi is K5,000 a month. But billions of Kwacha for an ordinary Malawian is the equivalent of billions of dollars for us, perhaps more so.


The major donor countries, the US, UK and various European, got so pissed off they pulled the plug and said no more funds would be forthcoming until Malawi cleaned up its act. Let’s hope they do.


Although even if they do it will probably be temporary. Most of those in power in Africa, as South Africa also so clearly demonstrates, seem incapable of caring about the good of the people or the State and focus purely on lining their own pockets. It is as always depressing but probably has more impact on us because we know differently and we expect differently as the saying goes, ‘you don’t miss what you haven’t had.’


Then again, you need to be able to think about your situation and what it might be to ‘miss’ anything. And that does not happen much here. It’s just Africa…..

About rosross

Editor, writer, poet.
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