Footprinter report: Emma Patton in Malawi

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Unlike other African countries Malawi has always been known to be relatively safe in comparison. The ‘Warm Heart of Africa’ where the people are always friendly and welcoming, it certainly lived up to the name during my last visit and I not only felt safe but I felt at home. Don’t get me wrong I always had it in the back of mind my mind that I was an azungu (white person) living in one of the poorest countries in the world so I have always been cautious by keeping things like my money belt safely hidden. This year I have learned that I have possibly taken the safety aspect of Malawi a little too much for granted as we felt slightly untouchable living in the village surrounded by all our friends and what I would call my extended family.

The initial crack in the facade happened a short way down the road from my house and close to where one of Tikondwe’s nursery schools is located, Namalaka Village. Keeping in mind that there is never a clear cut answer in Malawi as stories tend to materialise from rumours, we were told by members of the project that a young boy had been accidentally killed by a njinga driver (bicycle driver) and then the story soon developed to him being murdered by his uncle so we were a little unsure of what to believe. The less plausible of those two stories actually turned out to be the truth, apparently the 7 year old child had taken too much of the families relish when eating his dinner and the uncle chased him and beat him to death against a tree before fleeing after the crime.

The news shocked me as I never expected to hear about such violence so close to home and over such a meagre act from such a young child. It highlighted the struggles families in Malawi face when it comes to food and how lucky I am to always have more than enough to fill my plate. Although a police issue, the charity decided that we must not ignore the issue at hand and take immediate action by coordinating an anti-violence day.

Unfortunately yet another incident shattered my perfect little Malawian bubble before the anti-violence day could even take place. This is probably something that many of my friends and family have heard about through my mum but have not heard in much detail…

Ironically I had an almost perfect day, quite literally the calm before the storm. I had taken my camera to nursery school and taken lots of photos and videos with the children who went a little bit crazy when they seen it, always something to put a smile on my face. During my break between school I went to visit the local pastor and his family as his wife had just given birth to a little baby girl, Promise. Medson being a proud father had done nothing but talk about Promise every time I seen him and he continuously invited me to come and meet her.

I went with fellow volunteer Georgie and took some baby clothes and spaghetti (don’t ask – Malawian’s seem to love spaghetti) as a gift for the family. She was a beautiful little bundle of joy wrapped up in the biggest bundle of blankets ever and I felt so privileged to hold her. Afternoon school was also a success as I enjoyed taking the younger children in the class and going over simple addition and subtraction on the small chalkboards. People always ask how I communicate with the younger Malawian children who don’t have good English, trust me there is ALWAYS a way even if it does mean many hand gestures or thinking outside of the box.

I left school 10 minutes early to travel to Hayo Village for dance lessons with some of the other volunteers, not much needs to be said about that considering my absolute love for dance and this particular group of boys. Myself and Georgie decided to walk back from Hayo while the other volunteers got njingas back, some of the Hayo boys escorted us to the main road.

Michael, Austin and Mulinde taught us some Chichewa on the walk and only turned back when we met two of our friends Ted & Stanley who would accompany us the rest of the journey back to my house. Conversation with Ted & Stanley (also known as Tedley) is always amusing as although they are only 16 years old their understanding of the English language is excellent, meaning they are full of jokes. Ted is also my sisters future husband (even if she doesn’t know it yet) as he plans to finish school, become a doctor and then move to Scotland to marry her, it really is the sweetest thing.

Sorry if I embarrassed you there Rachel but he really is a keeper, even if he is 4 years younger than you haha! The two boys left us to go home for dinner when we arrived at the local shop close to my house. I was having dinner at the orphanage that night and as we were a little late due to our walk and hadn’t helped with any of the cooking, we decided to buy a crate of Fanta & Coke for all of the volunteers.

I had been having problems with my phone during calls (to be expected when you buy the cheapest phone in Malawi) and so my friend Merci had taken it to try and fix. I happened to bump into him on my way back from the shop and he handed me my newly fixed phone. He encouraged me to put my sim card back in to fully check that it was working properly but I told him that I trusted him and that I would put it in when I got to the orphanage as my hands were full and it was somewhere in my bag.

The orphanage is pretty much in the middle of nowhere. From my house it is down a dirt road which consists of only 4 houses and is surrounded by maize fields. Coming from Scotland I’ve never really seen maize grow and didn’t quite realise how tall it can actually get. When the maize is high the road to the orphanage can feel slightly claustrophobic especially in the dark as it limits your visibility in the immediate surrounding area.

There have been many times when the dogs have been running through the maize and suddenly come bounding out of nowhere, something which can be very scary in the pitch black. Myself and Georgie held the crate between us, one hand each, the other hand I used to hold my phone which has a torch on it to try and light the path ahead.

It was half past 7 and extremely dark by the time we set off down the road to the orphanage. It was also slow progress due to the crate bumping off our legs. Halfway down the road and close to the last house before the orphanage one of our dogs came bounding out of the maize to greet us, she was more hyper than normal which is really saying something. She was yelping and nibbling on our clothes trying to pull us in the same direction as her, when we shook her off and kept moving she stayed in place and howled. I even said to Georgie, “I don’t know what the hell is up with her tonight, she just tried to bite my hand”. I didn’t realise that little Rosie was only trying to give us a warning of the danger ahead.

I was busy chatting away to Georgie about our travel plans when I heard the rustling of the maize behind us. Naturally I spun around to the source of the noise and the light from my phone landed on a man standing at the edge of the maize field, the surprise of finding a man staring back at me instead of a dog had me startled. “Oh my God you gave me a fright!” I said out of relief. I then asked him how he was; “Muli bwanji?” I got no response which I found highly unusual.

He started walking towards us and initially I thought that we had frightened him as much as he had us and then he was just going on his way which happened to be in the same direction as us. It did take me a while to register that he was headed not past us on the road but directly for us. I asked “Muli bwanji” one more time, just in case he hadn’t heard me though this time much more nervously. As he neared us I noticed how tall the man was, he towered over me which is highly unusual for a Malawian villager. The response I got this time was not a cheery “Ndili bwino kaya inu?” (I’m fine and you?) Instead he said, “Give me your phone!”. At first I was a little slow to react, maybe I misheard him? Maybe he didn’t understand English fully? Maybe he spoke Chichewa to me and it just sounded similar? Or maybe what I heard was exactly correct and he was trying to steal my phone?!

“What?” I stuttered. He repeated it again, clear as day; “give me your phone”, there was no mistaking it this time around. To add to the confirmation he raised a machete which he had been carrying unnoticed at his side. My heart flew into my mouth as I realised the seriousness of the situation. I was suddenly too aware of my surroundings and the lack of human presence if I did have to call for help. The machete took up all my focus, it was raised right in front of my face.

What do you do when a machete wielding man confronts you in the pitch black with no one around in the middle of Africa? You comply and give him your phone of course!

I held out the phone for him and he was in the process of taking it out of my hand when he took one step closer to me and motioned to use the machete. I screamed and jumped back. “Just take it! Here, take it!” I screamed. We heard movement from further down the hill and seen a light coming towards us, although still very much in the distance. The man took one look at the light, one look at me and then grabbed my phone and ran into the maize to my absolute relief. Looking back on the situation I think both myself and Georgie must have been in shock as instead of immediately running for the safety of the orphanage or to get help we picked back up the crate of drinks and started walking.

The torchlight on my phone was still switched on so I could see the direction the man took in the maize and I kept an eye on it. The direction soon changed and he started running parallel with the road. This is when the panic started to hit me as I had visions of him jumping out on us further down the road again. We abandoned the crate and made a dash for it, full speed, flip flops in hand. We almost ran into the source of the light that had saved us, it was a njinga driver with a torch attached to his bicycle. I don’t think he spoke much English as he couldn’t seem to make sense of our mad rambling although I’m not sure anyone could have understood us at that point. We gave up almost instantly trying to explain what happened to him and took the shortest route possible to make it into the orphanage grounds. Unfortunately that route was full of stones and jagged plants on the ground that cut into our bare feet. I wouldn’t have stopped for anything in that moment though so I ignored the pain until we found the safety of our fellow volunteers.

Although this event had a huge impact on me, I do realise that this could have happened to me anywhere in the world, in fact, it’s probably more likely to happen in Glasgow. The rains were late the previous year and this effected the villagers crops, meaning that while they were waiting for harvest there was a limited supply of food. I feel like this was probably an act of desperation and considering white people are seen as wealthy the man must have seen it as an opportunity as a short term fix to improve his quality of life. Malawi is a wonderful country with many wonderful people and there was no way that this incident would affect my opinion of that. Unfortunately there is good and bad everywhere in the world and I just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Following on from that, we took the anti-violence day as a great opportunity to talk to the community about what happened with the backing from the village chiefs. We made it clear to the locals that they would have to step up and help with the protection of the volunteers in order for the projects continued support. With regards to the incident with the young boy, people from different areas of the country came to give talks about the way children should be treated and to encourage the community to protect children from this type of violence. I feel like the day was a success and hopefully the importance of safety and anti-violence was highlighted enough for the villagers.

Now I have a beautiful relaxing week at Lake Malawi followed by three weeks with my maasai family in Kenya to look forward to!

Emma

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