A man came into Keith and Jenny’s restaurant the other night holding a container under his shirt. Keith was unconscious drunk upstairs, so Jenny talked to the man. In the man’s container was a severed male member. The man was under the impression that Keith, being white, might want to buy it. Probably to sell to pirates who use them to catch magic sharks with gold in their bellies. In fact on previous meetings Keith had given the impression he was interested, plotting entrapment. For Jenny the member was going to cost 300,000 kwatcha (about ₤1,200). Jenny had to go to the cash machine. The man waited. She drove to the police station but the only police there were drunk. She tried to call the police chief but was out of phone credit and when she found a phone to borrow the line was dead. So she drove around town until she saw the police pick-up parked outside a bar. The police chief was relatively sober. They jumped in Jenny’s car, drove to the station, picked up their guns and returned to the restaurant. The man approached the car, pleased to see Jenny had come back. The police jumped out. The pick-up arrived. The man was bundled into the back. One of the policemen had left his rifle in Jenny’s car, and she was needed for interview, so she followed them to the station. The man was beaten up and admitted to planning the assault with a friend. They’d spent the day drinking local brew with his uncle and on their return home had attacked him with a rock and a razor blade. The uncle was found, still alive, in the bush. He died later that night in hospital.
When Jenny recounted this to me I had just finished reading The State of Africa by Martin Meredith. If ever there was a book to match with a sweeping political narrative the personal pessimism I felt then about Africa, The State of Africa is it. It details crime after crime against the African people. From the horror of King Leopold’s Congo, through dictator after dictator, incompetent economist after misconceived communist, through Rwanda’s ignored genocide, through Mbeke’s illogical arrogance and Mugabe’s insanity, to Sudan’s stage managed famine, the recent history of Africa becomes one of the impositions of ‘big men’, the resultant corruption, the failure of the rule of law, the retreat into localism, fatalism and subsistence.
Politics is so far failing to really tackle the problems. The owner of another Kasungu restaurant used to be a very rich man. He’s pretty much broke now. His downfall? Politics. He was said to fill balloons with cash and float them over the crowds at his political rallies. Malawi, and Africa, doesn’t need more of this kind of politics.
Education too appears to be grinding along, out of step with the needs and realities of the country. Paul Theroux postulated in Dark Star Safari that African leaders keep their populace uneducated because that way they’re easy to govern.
By some accounts humanitarian aid even is hindering the situation. In a middle class curry house in the capital I listened to a brutal take on this argument. A Canadian aid worker explained coolly the damage western donors have done to ‘natural population controls’. She then illustrated this nearly ambiguous statement, by, matter-of-factly and almost approvingly, describing the ‘natural’ situation she’d seen in which an aids-orphaned baby was starved with water and kasava by his poverty stricken grandparents to speed an early death.
The Canadian was grossly and immorally wrong. It’s apparently relatively common among long-stay development workers: a glazed, disillusioned view that sees problems and local apathy as so entrenched that nothing but the most extreme of structural solutions will make any difference, and that at the same time forgets any concept of the worth of the individual. It’s an extreme response to one of the international developmenter’s conundrums: Do you propose structural solutions and risk a utilitarian choice, or do you ‘do what you can’ and risk perpetuating a sticking plaster society?
If a place like Kasungu in Malawi is ever labeled ‘medieval’, sometimes it’s with good reason. The prevalence of superstition, the dreadful infrastructure, the short-termism of a pitiful life expectancy, the desperation of poverty blight Malawi and sometimes seem to crowd out all hope. Certainly I wasn’t sure the structural solutions I thought I’d seen (an entrepreneurial society, social networks etc.) stood up to that single act of brutality at Keith and Jenny’s or the fifty years of history according to Martin Meredith. I was beginning to conclude that there’s little reason for optimism here, and nothing that one volunteer can do to make a difference.
Then I found a disk of the Tim Robbins film Dead Man Walking. The film’s subject is just that perennial tension between some ‘big picture’ and the tiniest of acts of humane goodness. But in the course of the film the choice is proved a false one. Revealed as the coward’s excuse, the dichotomy is blasted away. The tiniest of acts are the big picture.
Questions over the efficacy and unintended consequences of aid must always be asked and societal structures must always be addressed, but without a deep conviction of the worth of every individual we risk inhumanity perhaps worse than that which we are attempting to redress. With that conviction, there is perhaps still hope.