Sunday, 25 June 2017

Everlasting - the book!

Everlasting is nearly here - and yes, I have decided to call my ebook about Malawi ‘Everlasting’. Partly because he's such an extraordinary man. And partly because the challenges faced by Malawians feel endless.

This has been a hugely difficult book to write. Not only have I gone through the usual process of unscrambling my diaries and unpicking the story behind them. I have also had to wrestle with some deeply conflicting opinions, and tried to find a way to give them all enough space to be thought about.

I went to Africa with deep convictions about the importance of overseas aid: its role in eradicating poverty and providing people with a dignified standard of living. It is an opinion that was challenged  from the day I arrived. I found stories about the abuse of overseas aid almost everywhere I went. I also encountered numerous small projects, often funded by passing tourists but run by and for local people in their villages, that are making a huge difference to the lives and aspirations of Malawians. I came home with more questions than answers - and I hope the book reflects that. I shall be interested to see what you make of it.

So where is it? Somewhere between here and kdp. I've no idea what the problem is, uploading the manuscript, but apparently there is one. It will be sorted - and then I can give you the link.

Sunday, 18 June 2017

Post for those who think Britain is the centre of the world.

I can’t bear to write about Grenfell Tower. Besides, I don't believe anything I wrote could approach the horror that so many families are living through. 

Behind that tragedy, the political shenanigans continue - both here in the U.K. and across the Atlantic in America. And there is a risk, with all the media attention on the comings and goings, that we believe we are the most important people in the world.

Meanwhile, riots continue in Venezuela. The country has one of the richest oil fields in the world, and still people are starving. The western press, at last, are following the riots - but will we ever really know how many people have died there?

Mugabe is still in power in Zimbabwe. It is a beautiful country with brave, resourceful people - who are still living from hand to mouth … if they are lucky. There is no freedom of speech - so can we ever really know how many people are dying of hunger?

Some years ago I went to Laos. It is the most bombed country in the world - there are more unexploded bombs there than people. They can be anywhere: beside the road, behind the villages, in school playgrounds. How do people carry on living with that?

Refugees still flee from Syria and conflicts in Africa. The lucky few are made welcome in new countries. Some find themselves in camps, waiting for some nameless authority to make decisions about them, as if they are no more significant than luggage. Many are wandering and frightened and alone. Nobody chooses to live like that.

As many of you know, I was in Malawi in the winter. It's the first country I've visited which left me pessimistic about the depth of the poverty and the lack of co-ordinated efforts to address it. Over eighty per cent of the population is deemed to be in need. My efforts to highlight the plight of Malawians will soon be published.

While we're busy (and we need to be busy making sure our politicians are accountable) people across the world are suffering. One of the things I've learned from my travels is that we all need the same things: enough to eat, somewhere safe to sleep, and to love and be loved. Surely those of us who can take that for granted can find the energy to think about men and women all over the world, from Grenfell Tower to Caracas to Lilongwe, who wake without knowing when they might eat again.

Sunday, 11 June 2017

Democracy is a messy business.

I was, as some of you know, in Malawi in the winter.

In 1964, Malawi emerged from the British Protectorate and became a fully independent country. After years of protests, Dr Banda stepped into the role of President. My guide, Everlasting, worked for him at one stage - I think he was a mechanic looking after the Presidential vehicles and he was in a prime position to observe the machinations  of the system. He told me at length about Dr Banda's diplomatic skills, notably his efforts to bring the apartheid regime in South Africa back into the international fold. Everlasting was, however, reticent if I raised the question of Dr Banda's abuses of power at home.

In 1994, under pressure from within and outside Malawi, Dr Banda agreed to a referendum to introduce a parliamentary democracy and this launched the current multi-party system. There is, now, a proliferation of parties - but rarely a transfer of power. If an election produces a surprising result, ministers simply change parties so they can stay in office. Roads leading to ministerial homes are maintained while others are full of potholes. Ministers' friend and family live in luxury while it is common for teachers and other public servants not to be paid. None of this is hidden; I heard people discuss is openly and read stories of mislaid funds and unpaid teachers in the newspapers.

'So,' I asked, 'was life better under Dr Banda - before the multi-party system?'

Everlasting thought for a long time. 

'Now we have freedom of speech,' he said eventually. 

And that's the point. Now he can complain about his government and its incompetences. Yet even now he can't talk about the atrocities of the Dr Banda years, though he must have known about them.

This is democracy. It's messy and imperfect and can expose deep divisions. But it's precious. So maybe we should celebrate our current chaos - it's what we have the privilege of voting for. 

Sunday, 4 June 2017

Time to write, reluctantly, about the election.

Can I bear to write about the election? My first reaction, when her Mayship announced her change of mind and summonsed us to the polls again, was the same as Brenda from Bristol. (For those who haven't met her, you can see her here)

But, whatever the rights and wrongs of yet another poll, we are where we are. So it will be off to the polling station on Thursday, to put my cross on the ballot paper - and then to prop my eyes open until the small hours, to see the first results come through. (I always remind myself the result will be the same if I wait until the morning to find out who has won - but somehow the anticipation of those early results keep me awake long after I should have snuggled under the duvet).

For six weeks we have been drowning in electioneering. At first there appeared to be clear water between the two main parties; as I write this there is barely half a length between them. I've lost track of the leaflets that have plopped onto my mat. To be honest, I've barely glanced at them. It seems to me that most politicians make promises that they can't possibly keep.

So - how to decide which way to vote? 

I was on a local bus on the day her Mayship announced that her party was thinking about withdrawing universal winter fuel allowances for 'wealthy pensioners' (whatever that means). A group of older women on the bus were vociferous in their condemnation of the policy.

'No fuel allowance, no vote,' said one. Nobody challenged her.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the policy, what depressed me most about this comment was the implication that the prime motivation in deciding who to vote for was self-interest. Are we really a nation of egoists?

None of us wants to pay more tax. But surely, when we come to vote, our priorities should rise above, 'What's in it for me?' Even if, like Brenda from Bristol, we might like to scribble on the ballot paper to show our irritation with yet another election, we owe it to our families, to the families down the road, to all the families in villages and towns and cities across the country, to mark our ballot paper in the belief that the party we vote for has the welfare of us all at heart