Warm experiences in the Heart of Africa
I recently returned from a visit to Malawi, also known as “The Warm Heart of Africa” (as much for the warmth of the hospitality as that of the weather).
It was an exhilarating adventure: exciting, enlighening and emotional. I would like to thank Charles Fawcett of the North Lanarkshire Healthy Living Partnership for his encouragement and help in organising the trip, and the pupils and staff from St Andrew’s High School, St Margaret’s High School, and Coatbridge High School, along with Kenny McKay of STV Airdrie, for being such excellent travel companions.
Last but not least, I would like to thank everyone I met in Malawi. I hope someday to return.
Below is my blog for STV Airdrie.
Having been dropped off at Glasgow airport in the company of pupils, teachers, and a journalist, I was apprehensive.
I mean, as a politician, I like pupils, respect teachers, and tolerate journalists, but the idea of spending two weeks in their company was deeply worrying. Still, at least I would have a calm and relaxing flight to think up a coping strategy. Or so I thought.
The start of the journey went reasonably smoothly, but due to an incident at Nairobi airport, we were diverted to Entebbe, in Uganda But we need not have worried. After only a brief interlude (12 hours) sitting on rickety chairs in a hot and dusty airport, we were off again. We finally arrived at our destination at about midday on Thursday, having left Scotland two days earlier.
What made all this bearable was the excellent company in which, I soon discovered, I was lucky enough to find myself. The pupils and teachers from St Andrew’s, St Margaret’s, and Coatbridge High School were polite, friendly, and a joy to be with. Kenny (our resident journalist) proved that, Leveson inquiry notwithstanding, even journalists aren’t all bad.
But the question I have been asked repeatedly since I returned is, “did you enjoy it?”
It’s a strange question to be asked upon returning from Malawi, a third world country with examples of extreme poverty that defy the western imagination. What is perhaps even stranger, however, is that without a moment’s hesitation, my instinctive answer is “yes”.
The only way I can explain this is by asking some questions of my own. How could I not enjoy the sheer enthusiasm of all those that we met in Malawi, their desire to learn about us, our language, culture and country? How could I not be inspired by the fact that all the young people we met seemed to be smiling?
They smiled when they said hello, they smiled as they said goodbye, and they smiled as they ran alongside our bus as we departed from their village.
How could I not have enjoyed the generous hospitality I experienced in the hotel where we stayed, and the many schools we visited, the dancing we enjoyed and the food we were served (including nsima, the staple food of Malawi, which was fantastic)?
There is so much to enjoy about Malawi. However, and despite my many wonderful experiences, I would be lying if I did not confess to having seen things that I found deeply distressing.
Visiting homes where the roof is made of tin, where there is no furniture and a bucket for a toilet, drives home the reality of life for millions in Africa, and reinforces the extent to which we in the West are incredibly privileged. In one prison I visited, forty women and five children were accommodated in just two cells, in incredibly cramped conditions. They shared one toilet and an outside “kitchen” which consisted of a giant boiler encased by bricks. No one should have to live in this way.
The sense of frustration and impotence when visiting schools with no furniture, no running water, and no pens to write with, was almost overwhelming. Yet the children seemed oblivious to the paucity of their conditions.
Nothing could have prepared me for my trip to Malawi. It was exhilarating and harrowing, inspiring and shocking.
I am incredibly grateful to have had this opportunity, and I would like to thank the North Lanarkshire Healthy Living Partnership for allowing me to take part in the visit, to witness the Girls Go for Health initiative and Mother Groups in action.
I hope the story will not end here: I can’t wait to return to Malawi, a country that is rightly called the Warm Heart of Africa.