Cultural problems

It rained hard all night long and this morning the green lawn is carpeted in red petals from the jacaranda tree. The low sun is already hot and the lake seems to be perspiring – cormorants and hammerhead storks flying through steam. Fishermen are pulling in their catches, balancing awkwardly on rough-hewn heavy log canoes. Women are sprawled on the sand, chatting and sorting the fish, while kids play around them, the older ones throwing the smaller ones off their shoulders into the lake. In the distance, someone is drumming while others sing a high, lilting tune with a raucous chorus.

My fevers have mostly gone now and I’ve finished the artemisin treatment, although I am still taking double-dose doxycyclone for the next few days to make sure all the malarial parasites are really gone. In this village, 95% of child deaths under 5 years are from malaria, not Aids, even though the ACT treatment is free and easily available. The main reason, says Sam, our fantastic campsite owner who also runs a clinic here, is that parents first take their kids to the witch-doctor for cure. By the time Sam sees them, it’s often too late to do anything – the malaria has gone cerebral and they have hours to live. Which, of course, underscores the belief that modern medicine is no better than the traditional practitioner at curing this terrifyingly common disease.

For all that people bang on about the importance of respecting traditional culture – something that to me is as nonsensical as blindly following every latest fashion – some of the most deeply entrenched cultural practices are killing people. It is no surprise that sub-Saharan Africa has the highest incidence of HIV in the world when, for example, the majority practice ‘dry sex’, which involves drying the vagina with leaves or salt so that it rips during intercourse.

In Malawi, which has a very high incidence of HIV, when girls first start menstruating (between age 9 and 12), they undergo an initiation ceremony, which involves being taught ‘how to pleasure a man’ by the village chief, who will often have HIV. The result of these ‘lessons’ is often a pregnancy, which is shameful and must be kept hidden if the girl is ever to marry (non-virgins cannot marry). The ‘orphan’ child is sent away to relatives elsewhere, until they can’t cope/afford to feed it, when it returns to the village and is looked after by its grandmother. As a consequence, the villages are full of older women with very young children. Others end up in orphanages. Malawi has a large number of ‘orphans’ – foreign donors are much more likely to help support lots of orphans than lots of illigitimite children.

The country is one of the world’s biggest recipients of foreign aid. The main reason for this is its politically stable history – no civil wars or insurgencies, and a democracy nicely in place. Donors know that the country isn’t going to suddenly become embroilled in a coup or violent regime change that could leave the donor’s name unfortunately associated with a military dictatorship, for example.

The result of all this money coming in is that the government has been able to experiment with ideas like road improvement and schools. Perhaps the most revolutionary idea, though, has been agricultural subsidies. African countries agreed in the 1970s to World Bank and IMF rules that they wouldn’t subsidise agriculture – the idea being that this would allow a competitive commercial market to develop, which would be sustainable. Of course, the West, including the US, Britain, Europe and Australia, continued heavily subsidising their farmers, and also operating protectionist export markets, so that African produce is impossible to sell at a fair price in the EU, for example.

After suffering a terrible famine in 2005, on the back of several years of mounting hunger problems, President Bingu Wa Mutarika (formerly Minister for Agriculture, so he knew his stuff) decided on a radical programme of subsidy from seeds to fertilisers. The result was spectacular and immediate: Malawi went from reliance on emergency food aid to becoming a net exporter of produce. This year, the country exported a 1.1 million tonnes surplus of maize. People have enough to eat, some to store and some to sell. It’s a success I’ve not seen anywhere else in the region.

But is it sustainable? Like most poor countries, the government doesn’t reap much from taxation – most people don’t pay tax. More than 60% of the national budget is donor aid. Germany, for example, has more than doubled its donor money to 64 million euros over the next 2 years. But in general, donor money has dwindled recently because of the global economic crisis. If the donor money continues to flow in, then subsidies should remain sustainable. But Malawi’s market is other poor countries, like Tanzania, Mozambique and Zimbabwe. In fact, much of the maize export this year went to Zim. And how did Mugabe afford this? Simple, Malawi loaned Zimbabwe $100 million to buy its maize. Hhmmm.

I guess it’s no different to what the West does when it loans the poor world money to buy its overpriced farm produce, but the West can better afford this game. Of course, there is the whole issue of whether a country should be forever dependent on donor money in this way. Certainly, Bingu much prefers money from donors and NGOs than investment from foreign companies who might want to see a return on their investment. A few investors from cigarette companies to cotton manufacturers have been chased out of Malawi in recent months. The government likes to retain absolute control, and is starting to get rid of white farmers too.

One of the problems with free money is that it can seem limitless (which it pretty much is, here). So, the fuel crisis, which has been semi-resolved, stems from the fact that the government coffers were completely empty of foreign currency, so there was nothing to pay Tanzania with This might have something to do with the fact that $3 million went on ministerial Mercedes cars last month, and then Bingu treated himself to a $15.9 million private jet – is he starting to sound a little like his neighbour Bob?

Perhaps one reason that democracy doesn’t work in Africa is back to the cultural tradition issue. Village culture is a mini dictatorship, where everyone knows his place and at the top of the tree is the chief – in the local village of Senga Bay, where I am, he’s a youngish man called Dalankwanda. So, you can have a national idea of democracy, where everyone gets a say, but back in your real everyday village life, the government is irrelevant – it’s a dictatorship ruled by the chief. This dichotomy permeates all the way through to the government. Meetings between ministers are divided between the ‘traditional culturalists’ and the ‘Western progressives’. But ministers only rarely vote on their principles – they want to be on the winning side always. So, while it works in their favour, they will go with the idea of democracy. When it doesn’t, they’ll call foul: “But it’s against our culture”.

Most wars and insurgencies in Africa are not pro democracy or equality, they are in support of their tribe or faith. The people fighting or voting, are supporting more rights or powers or a better position for their tribe, not equal representation for all. This is an important distinction, I think, in comparison to other continents. It means that even in a democratic election, people will vote for their tribal representative – who is expected to uphold their interests above others’ – and if he is not elected, they will either wait their turn or forcibly remove the guy from power. There is no notion here that the leader is the servant of the people, either. Even if he is voted in, he is expected to rule with impunity – hence the corruption, which is expected. South Africa, which was recreated on the basis of a fight for equal representation, is a notable exception. I haven’t yet been there (it’s coming!), but I understand that democracy there is not just a tool for getting your tribal guy into power, but a stronger philosophy along Western lines.

It’s not a purely African thing this. I see similar struggles with the meaning of democracy in parts of Eastern Europe. Arguably, unfamiliarity with a non-dictatorship model of governance was the reason for Hitler’s success in Germany.

As Malawi grapples with its current cash crisis, the government has absurdly become obsessed with a new way to spend vast amounts of money: changing the national flag. It was announced a few weeks ago that the flag, which currently depicts a rising sun – the name ‘Malawi’ means sun rising over the lake – must be changes as a matter of urgency, because it is a national disgrace: Malawi’s sun is not rising, it has risen! As a proud nation, the flag should show a round sun in the centre of the flag, rather than the embarrassing still-rising sun. The newspapers have been full of this for the past week, devoting at least 5 pages every day t the various reasons for this necessary change, with full-page endorsements from various politically ambitious ministers and businessmen. This utter nonsense will cost billions, but luckily, the country has plenty of donors…

2 thoughts

  1. Hi Gaia, I hope you get well soon. I have visited Malawi twice this year as part of “Girls Go For Health” they come under “Mother Group training” by FAWEMA. I took out professional camera equipment to train 6 girls as professional photographers as part of their Enterprise work for Girls go for health. The idea is that they can take wedding photos, the profit buys sanitary products to enable the girls to attend school during menstruation and to support each other at school. The long term goal is sustainable projects that enables girls to continue their secondary education whilst providing business skills. The project is in St Joseph’s CDSS Mendulo, Mulanje District, about an hour from Blantyre. I’m quite sure school is still on holiday, but I thought you’d be interested as the girls are showing amazing enthusiasm om a wprld that doesn’t offer much to them. Good luck with the trip, take care. Jacqui Bradley

  2. “For all that people bang on about the importance of respecting traditional culture – something that to me is as nonsensical as blindly following every latest fashion”

    Again you are saying something completely wise, bravo!

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