Malawi – The Aid Paradox

A personal journey to the Warm Heart of Africa, Malawi, exposes a raft of questions

Feature by Rosamund West | 01 Jul 2015
  • Elephants in Liwonde National Park, Malawi

Our first sight of Malawi is the sun drenched, arid land I’ve been hearing about since birth. A purple jacaranda blooms over the tiny airport terminal. A queue stretches outside the arrivals hall – ebola is rife in west Africa, and everyone must have their temperature checked before entering the country. The fact that the current outbreak’s hot zone is closer to the UK than it is to Malawi, in southeastern Africa, is irrelevant – this country's health system is tiny, precarious, underfunded, and can’t handle an epidemic, particularly one of such virulence.

My grandparents were married in Malawi, in Livingstonia in the north in the early 40s. Both from the East End of Glasgow, they met in a church choir before my grandfather came out here to manage a tobacco plantation. They were colonialists, a fact that is riddled with ambiguity; but the fact remains, they followed an opportunity and contributed to a country they grew to love.

My grandmother, an English teacher, came out during the Second World War, travelling by convoy through a U-boat-filled Atlantic followed by three weeks standing up in a truck from the Congo on Africa's western seaboard. “And the whole time I was thinking,” she used to tell us, “if he’s not there to meet me, I’m going to turn around and go back.” My mother was born here, and, thanks to her Malawian nanny, bilingual in Chinyanja and English until their return to Scotland when she was 5.

They lived on the banks of Lake Malawi – photos reveal a brick building, a rose garden, chickens, many dogs; views across the water and the rising cloud of the nkungo flies in the centre. Inherited fragments of their letters home reveal an ambiguous relationship with the country at this fractious point in history just prior to the end of British rule. Supporters of the independence movement, they found themselves out of step with much of the European community in Malawi. 

Coming out in the late 90s to see my mother’s birthplace, my parents found the mango grove grandma planted as seedlings and their old house, within a modern nation blighted by AIDS in whose history Scotland played a defining role. They returned to Glasgow and started projects which have had an astonishing impact. The relationship with Malawi is something which, oddly, defines my family.


A new friend connected by my parents meets us at the airport. She’s driven across central Malawi to pick us up, a journey of four hours each way. Acts like this, of almost ludicrous kindness, are frequent during our time in this country. As we cross the ridge of the Rift Valley, she stops on a lookout point, producing a bottle of fizz and some cups from the boot. “Welcome to Africa,” she says, as we survey the bush stretching as far as the eye can see under the baking African sun. It’s an odd and beautiful thing, to gaze first upon land that has been so storied in family history.

Disoriented by two days of airports and a drive across the African bush, arriving at Lake of Stars festival after dark is a strange experience. Friends who took an earlier flight greet us with beers. We sit on a wall and discuss the oddities of being in Africa, surrounded by Scottish voices, swimming in the Lake, the unaccustomed threat of crocodiles. The festival itself is on the beach, on the banks of the Lake. At night it thrums with life, the beats and buzz of music from across the globe – Malawi, Zimbabwe, South Africa, London, Edinburgh… In the day we wander with the rest of the festival-goers, anaesthetised by the sun and the sparkling waters and the ever present Carlsberg green label. It is strange to be in a place we expected to be so other and to be among friends. It is strange that the Danes have chosen to form a monopoly on beer in this tiny African nation. The world is small and the air is warm and the music is loud. Baobabs, the most magical of trees, litter the grounds. And there are no crocodiles.


In a lodge on the slopes of Mount Mulanje, we sip sundowners on a wall and watch that magical African sunset spool out. A group nearby are English speakers, a mix of ages and ghostly pale in the way only we Scots and Irish can really achieve. We eavesdrop – is that a Weegie accent? In the bar, we hear their story. A group of west coasters assemble each year in the Mulange area to do some good, bringing with them suitcases of sanitary towels and a few teenaged girls to help empower the Malawian girls through their example of independence and drive. The girls seem mainly interested in taking selfies and learning new dances from YouTube. We privately wonder about the good of all this aid.

Mulange is the magic mountain, a massif sprouting from the surrounding flatlands, giddy vertical ascents topped with a vast and labyrinthine plateau. People get lost here, regularly. Legend says that the ghosts take the foreign spirits, a Hanging Rock-esque mythology that may be a convenient front, a creative narrative hook for tourism, or good old-fashioned ill-prepared walkers getting lost on a big mountain.

The side of Mulange is constantly smoking. Our guide on a walk to Likhubula waterfall tells us that these fires are illegal charcoal production. Deforestation in the country is a huge issue – the landscape is being reduced to desert, fertile soil replaced with dust and the omnipresent blue plastic bags given away with each and every purchase embedded in the dirt. Here on the Mulange hillside the trees are burned to provide direct income for people living hand to mouth. They can sell this charcoal and buy their children food. Elsewhere, they’re burned to make bricks, a building material introduced by the Europeans and generally regarded to be much less efficient than the mud that they replaced. No one really stops people from burning the trees in any case. The fires are lit then left to burn for days. It's impossible to police, especially up on the maze of the plateau, especially with a public sector that has been stripped of its assets through multi-level corruption.

It is a beautiful country, Malawi, warm both climatically and emotionally – few who visit escape with their hearts unscathed. But it is also a country of brutal, devastating poverty and a large-scale aid effort which, paradoxically, often manages to exacerbate existing problems. There are a million orphans, thanks in large part to HIV, and lack of female reproductive determination. Girls are forced into prostitution at a young age to pay to attend school, then are forced from school when they fall pregnant.

The missionaries want to help, but instead help to spread AIDS by preaching against either sex out of wedlock or condoms. An NGO sees the plight of women and creates a project to help only women; so the men, disenfranchised and excluded from the project, destroy its fruits. A slow growth project spends years in a community teaching about water sanitation, using a two bucket system so there is clean water for drinking and water for washing hands and dishes; a do gooder with a saviour complex installs a filter on the village pump and tells the community they don’t need to worry anymore, there is clean water for everyone. The village stop using separate buckets, and water borne diseases rear their head again. And no one was taught how to clean the filter.

On the flipside, stories abound of projects that slowly create a difference, led by communities. A library is being built, slowly slowly, by local fundraising. The hospital constructed for a comparative pittance has reduced the local death rate by 70%. A mobile app that triages infants, such a basic thing to those used to European healthcare, has processed thousands of children and significantly reduced the mortality rate from meningitis. Outside Lilongwe, a model village is growing, resurrecting traditional mud building techniques.


Liwonde National Park is as close to the Garden of Eden as anything I have seen or imagined. Visitors stay in luxurious pitched tents across the hippo and crocodile-filled Shire river. A mother croc gestates her eggs on the bank opposite our verandah. It is terrifying and simultaneously exhilarating. Thrice-daily safaris take us into the bush, onto the water, through the crocodiles and the hippos. At dusk, sipping the obligatory sundowners, we see our first elephant, a teen male making his way alone to the watering hole. 

Our guide, Williams (a surprisingly common name) tells us how he, as a Malawian native, became a guide. There is little formal training in the country to assist in gaining the knowledge necessary to be the expert on the African flora and fauna required to show tourists around the bush. Most of the guides are westerners with an exhaustive understanding of the Latin names and the genus from their university textbooks. A couple of these guides join us on safari one day, and gently rib Williams about his formal understanding. But he grew up here, and has observed the animals all his life. He knows the Chichewa names, and the relevance of the creatures to local tradition. Williams is proud to have worked his way up to be a guide. It seems odd to be lectured upon one’s own home by people who learned about it in textbooks.

On the water safari we see herds of elephants at the water hole, babies joyously rolling in the mud, each adult accompanied by its own personal egret to tend to its bugs. The Lonely Planet cameramen in our boat – who previously suggested tempting crocs by sticking their arms in the water – want us as close as possible to an enormous bull elephant on the shoreline, eyeing us warily. We sit, awestruck, three metres from him, until he starts to stamp.