Before I got to Malawi, a flurry of well-traveled friends informed me that it was sure to be my favorite country ever. Being a bit of a contrarian (to be honest, a total hard-head), I was pretty sure it wouldn’t be … couldn’t possibly be after all the intense love affairs with other countries that I’ve had this year. But once I arrived in this desperately poor, achingly sweet country, I can clearly see why it’s called The Warm Heart of Africa.
At 45,000 square miles, Malawi is home to a densely-packed 14 million people, 85% of them smallholder farmers. Bordered by Tanzania, Mozambique and Zambia, Malawi is one of the least developed countries in Africa, with no wealth of natural resources (although promising oil and mineral exploration could change that in a hurry), and only 6% of its people have access to electricity.
Malawi’s biggest crop is tobacco, which it exports primarily to China– but with climate change inexorably increasing droughts, a long history of government corruption, and almost a 50% currency devaluation this year, it’s fair to say the Malawi economy is in shambles. And of course, the poor always suffer disproportionately in bad times: 46% of Malawi’s children suffer from stunted growth and the average consumption of meat is about 10 pounds/person a year.
New president Joyce Banda is giving people hope of a better future, but she has a long, tough road before her. Granted, we were there in the end of the dry season when everything looks particularly parched, but life seemed very hard.
Despite all those challenges, we met a lot of highly joyful people –which is the conundrum I always feel in Africa. You want development to lift the people out of poverty and hunger, but you also know that with industrialization and urbanization come a lot of side effects that aren’t so beneficial. (Which is one reason I love the Heifer model so much, with its emphasis on improving smallholder farmer productivity, environmental integrity, and community solidarity.)
Malawi got its great reputation because of its people, I’m quite sure. They are quiet, peaceful and polite (“If somebody is arguing and causing a ruckus, they are probably from Zimbabwe,” a proud Malawian confided to me.)
In the north (where we didn’t visit) the people are obsessed with education and the literacy rate is almost 95%, but the southern part of the country (where Heifer works) has a more laissez-faire approach and it’s not infrequent for girls to be pulled out of school and married in their teens – which drove me and my friend Pattie Ross totally nuts. (Pattie is Vice President of the Coca-Cola Scholars Foundation and my outrageously fun travel companion on this trip).
Heifer is relatively new to Malawi – with 5 projects in 3 districts since its introduction here in 2008—but it’s already established good working partnerships with organizations like CARE, the Norwegian government, and local community groups that are working together to help empower Malawians to feed and educate themselves, conserve their land, and develop their great potential. Once you’ve fallen head over heels in love with the beautiful people of Malawi (and it’s impossible not to), you know that can’t happen soon enough.