Sunday, 26 March 2017

Electricity, luxury or necessity?

I don't know about you, but I take electricity for granted. Apart from the obvious fridges, freezer and washing machine, I have a plethora of gizmos and gadgets. Some of them are useful and some are just fun. And they all need plugging in and charging on a regular basis.

I have to think differently about electricity when I'm travelling. If there's none at all, well - I know where I am. Everything is charged in good time, and I'm careful with essentials. In Nepal, the government deals with a shortage of electricity by 'load shedding' - predictable power cuts which mean most people in the towns have electricity some of the time. People know where they are, and plan accordingly.

In Malawi, the supply of electricity seems completely arbitrary. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn't. And many hotel rooms have just the one plug.

I know I could do everything I need to do on my phone - take pictures, go online, read books, as well as sending texts and making phone calls. But I use separate gadgets, because if one goes wrong I still have the others. (A useful policy on this last trip when the charger for my iPad packed up). Which means that I had four things needing charging, and no idea when the power would be on, or for how long.

Some hotels had generators which they turned on in the evening. That helped. On other occasions I simply had to turn the chargers on whenever I could, and hope for the best the rest of the time.

All of which, of course, is a First World problem. Being realistic, what would have happened if my camera or kindle had run out of power and I couldn't recharge them? I'd probably have a bit of a hissy fit, but that's all. I'd still have enough to eat and somewhere safe to sleep. For my gizmos  are basically, toys.

But Malawians, who must live with this all the time - what is this like for them? This erratic electricity provides light to some of the towns and trading centres. (Many villages have none at all). But things like fridges are out of the question. Okay, so talk of fridges seems superfluous when so many don't have enough to eat. But I highlight fridges because of their potential to make lives so much easier for women: if they can store food safely they don't need to go to the market every day, which frees time in which they can look for paid work - which will buy the food to put in the fridge and a bit extra to help with books for the children. An electric cooker would be a complete luxury, and  mean she wouldn't have to collect wood for her fire, nor choke on woodsmoke as she stirs her soup.

Of course, such 'luxuries' are beyond the budget of millions of people in Malawi. Maybe even thinking about them is frivolous. Priorities must be food and shelter. But nothing will change unless people want them to, and believe that can. And there is no point in anyone even aspiring to change without reliable electricity.

Which puts my grumbling about trying to charge my phone into a different perspective.

Sunday, 19 March 2017

My first, sketchy, thoughts on the poverty in Malawi.

I will, in due course, write at length about the poverty in Malawi. I've met poverty before, of course, in India and the Far East, and am beginning to realise that it has a different meaning in different countries. For instance, in India the poverty feels embedded in the caste system; and there is, now, enough money in the economy to tackle its extremes. Conflicts in the Far East have left whole populations with a country to rebuild, and the determination to do just that.

And in Malawi ... I came away feeling that the poverty is so entrenched, with millions of people reliant on food aid and no prospect of earning enough money to support their families, that it will take miracles for anything to change.

For instance, this is a typical roadside market:



Heaps of green vegetables, under tarpaulins, at the roadside. Which is fine in the rainy season, when there are green vegetables to sell.

Or tomatoes:



In contrast, this market stall looks fairly prosperous, with its carrots and beans and peppers:



I was in Malawi in the rainy season, and vegetables were relatively plentiful (though the variety  is still limited). But when the rains stop, and the ground dries and vegetables shrivel, what then? Millions are dependent on what they have grown themselves and stored (which varies from year to year, depending on the rains), or the sacks of maize donated by the World Food Programme. Of course we can't leave people to starve. But as the years go by and people are still dependent on food aid, there is less urgency to tackle the poverty problem themselves.

What about work? There's work for the lucky few, and even then wages are low. Everyone else lives from one rainy season to the next.

The Malawians are kind, generous, welcoming people. They deserve better.

Sunday, 12 March 2017

Cave paintings from Malawi.

Any idea what this is:


I know, it's not instantly obvious. But how much that is created these days is going to survive for 10,000 years?

For this is a cave painting from Malawi. Men and women lived in these caves, hunting and gathering, and painting on the walls. There are spears and hoes - so we know a bit about their tools. There are animals - deer and zebra. There is a wonderful giraffe, which I can't show you as I couldn't get far enough away to get the whole thing in one picture. But the painter must have had some sort of ladder (or there were several people sitting on each other's shoulders!) to reach about 5metres above the ground to paint the head. The guide suggested that it was simply decoration, to make the cave more homely.

What stunned me most was the sheer existence of these paintings. There are eight sites, close together - suggesting that several families lives alongside each other in these caves. They're reached along a dirt road that is often impassable during the rainy season, so I was lucky to get there. They are found in a granite outcrop on the lower slopes of some significant hills - my guide (the faithful Everlasting) believes there must be many more yet to be discovered. There may be a metropolis of paintings in the mountains.

But it's more than that. These paintings gave people pleasure. The same pleasure that I get from the pictures on my walls and photographs of my family. Just like the people who lived here, 10,000 years ago. We're not so very different.

Sunday, 5 March 2017

The Planter's Daughter - in print!

Will I write about Malawi? Yes, but as usual it will take time. I've diaries to reread and think about - the usual preamble to shaping a book. But this post isn't aboit Malawi.

For my Planter's Daughter is, at last, a print book.



For those who have forgotten, this novel has grown from a vignette I came across in New Zealand. Barbara Weldon was born in Ireland, and travelled to the bleakest, coldest corner of New Zealand via England and Australia in the mid-nineteenth century. I'd chosen to go there ... but what about her? What took her across the world? How did she travel? What did she find there? Did she have lovers? Children? Although the vignette implied a very troubled woman, I so wanted her to have lovers.

Research brought only the sketchiest details. But I couldn't let go of her story. So I made it up. Well, most of it. And what fun I had - wallowing in research, wandering round Ireland and Liverpool, wallowing in more research. And finally writing the novel. I've kept the bones of her story and a few unexpected details; but this is definitely fiction. (I've blogged about the publishing decisions somewhere - so won't go over that again.)

The ebook came out before Christmas and has two wonderful reviews, plus some verbal feedback that made me blush - and requests for a print book. There simply wasn't time before I left for Malawi to get that show on the road, but now, at last, I can hold a real book in my real hands.

I know the 'writing journey' is a cliche, but this has felt like an expedition. And I'm relieved - and a      teeny bit proud - of having finally produced the book!

Here  it is, on Amazon.

And, to celebrate, and for one week only, the ebook is down to 99p!

Sunday, 26 February 2017

More pictures from Malawi

As promised, another selection of pictures - this time nothing but creatures, arranged from biggest to tiniest:

I was in a boat, and this elephant was on the bank, so I wasn't as alarmingly close as this looks!


We were also in a boat when we saw these hippos, running into the water. What a splash! And a cry from Everlasting, 'Don't tread on the baby!' (It's very close to its mum, at the front - in case you can't see it.)


The buffalo, taken just before we decided to turn tail!


Do crocodiles really smile? This chap looks absurdly pleased with himself!


A zebra crossing. It's not my best pic of the zebras, but I couldn't resist the corny joke. Sorry.


This is a fish eagle. Isn't it lovely?? Well, I think it's magnificent - they are huge, and fly low across the water, and I thought they were one of the most exciting things I saw!


At the other end of the bird-size scale, this is a tiny kingfisher.


Brownie points to anyone who knows what this is. It's about an inch or so long (I do know the answer - and never thought I'd actually see one, let alone take its picture!)


Sunday, 19 February 2017

Malawi - with photos, as promised

I must begin by introducing Everlasting - he has agreed I can write about him, and use his picture. Which is a good thing, because he is a story in himself. 



This is the M1, heading north. It used to be known as the Great North Road. It's a bit busier in the south, but the major hazards are people on bicycles and potholes.



Over 85% of Malawians live in huts like this, in the villages. This hut has a grass roof; those with a little more money have tin roofs, which last longer but are hot. 



This is a typical market - heaps of vegetables on the ground (it's hard to see all the detail here, but there are heaps of cabbages under tarpaulins, on the ground. It's mostly women who sell fruit at vegetables, on the ground. 


This is a roan antelope, up on the Nyika plateau. He is rather wonderful!



This is a typical dugout canoe, used for fishing.



And this is a Catholic mission house - one of the first built in Malawi. The missions have been hugely important,  providing schools and hospitals, and housing the nuns (most of whom come from overseas) in buildings like this.



Next week - there'll be more!!

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

Looking for Lions!

I've spent the last couple of weeks in the south of Malawi, travelling from Zomba to Mulange to Blantyre and then the remote Reserve of Majete. Although the population is denser here than in the north, most people still live villages, growing food for themselves and a little more to trade in the markets.

At first glance the markets are ramshackle, chaotic affairs. But there is a logic: fruit, vegetables and dried fish are in the shade of the trees. Heaps of second hand clothes are on tarpaulins in the sunshine, divided roughly into men's and women's. Tiny stalls sell pots and pans. There are tailors and cobblers and barbers.

Close by are the trading centres: small shops in brick-built or concrete structures with locking doors. They have names like Jesus Saves Groceries and God is Love Hardware. Though I was a bit flummoxed by Blessed Fanny Investments!

And so to Majete. This is the one reserve, at the moment, that is officially home to a pride of lions. (They occasionally wander across from Mozambique, but are unwelcome in the villages!) But this park is huge and so far there are just eight lions - they were reintroduced five years ago. So finding them was bound to be a challenge.

We saw eagles and vultures, swallows and bulbuls, kingfishers and orioles. A praying mantis hitched a ride on the truck. We saw impalas and water bucks and kudus and elephants. Hippos and crocodiles were at home in the river. We saw fresh lions tracks, and heard them roar. But the bush is dense with in the rainy season. I've no doubt they could see us, but they weren't coming out to play.

But then ... not a lion, but an enormous male buffalo, wallowing in a water hole. We edged closer (in a truck, of course); and closer, till we were about fifteen metres away. For a while he watched us, and then looked away, as if we weren't worth bothering about. Then he looked again. He shuffled his back leg, muscles rippling along the length of his back. Slowly he stood, and gave us a side view, so there was no mistaking the size of him. And then he turned, inch by inch, to face us. He lowered his head, to give us a view of his magnificent shoulders and the length of his horns. It was time for us to leave!

This, it seams, is his Park. I have one more chance to see a lion before returning to Lilongwe. But who needs lions when I've been face to face with a buffalo!

(I'll be home in a couple of days and I promise photos!)