Friday, March 18, 2016

Lilongwe - the city and its markets

Like I mentioned in my previous post, this was a work trip, which means I barely had any time to have a look at Lilongwe, Malawi's capital. And forget about even seeing anything beyond the city! Fortunately, one of the translators for our event was more than happy to show us around in the half day we did have free before our flights out of Malawi, and we made the most of it!

I must say, Lilongwe and Malawi (what little I saw) impressed me. Depending on how you measure it, it's either one of the poorest or one of the five poorest countries in the entire planet. Life expectancy is just over 50 years. About 14% of the adult population and 10% of the infant population is HIV+, and just about half of them receive anti-retroviral medications. There's corruption, there are flood problems. Someone who works for the United Nations Development Programe there told me there is at least a lynching a month of people who have been caught committing some crime, that food prices have trippled, and that the situation is rather dire. And if you look at the Gini Index (which indicates the degree of inequality in the distribution of income) Malawi is doing worse and worse, which means a small percentage of the population is getting a lot more wealth while  a significant percentage stays poor.

And yet - AND YET - Malawians struck me, through the little contact I could have, as warm, personable, friendly people. And things do not look - at first glance - as if they're as bad as they actually do sound. I looked up the country's ranking in the World Happiness Report. Guess what, they rank 132 amongst 157. Sure, not a shining win, but with all their problems they're still doing better than  25 other nations. 

And they have eight ethnic groups. And they have an important Muslim population (25%) and a not insignificant "other religious affiliation" minority (5%), the rest being Christian. Their IIAG (Ibrahim Index of African Governance), which ranks the quality of governance in African countries, places them in 17th place out of 54 countries. So there is also some social stability, some national identity, and better governance than in most of the continent.

Needless to say, the complexity and multi-layered reality of Malawi was truly eye-opening (especially since it was followed by a layover in Amsterdam, but more on that later).

Wow, I digressed big, eh? So, back to our half-day in Lilongwe. First, a short drive from our hotel (in a fancy, isolated part of town) to the real city. 

And then, a walk around the market, with colourful cloth for dresses and shirts. Sure, I know quite a bit of the material was made in China or by Chinese companies. But still, the patterns were African through and through.

And spices and food...

And interesting barbershops with dozens of haircuts especially designed for the cool and the hip Malawi man. 

And frankly rather basic-looking doctor services. And mingling of Muslims and Christians. And pots for cooking soup and baskets.

And faces, many fascinating, bright, deep faces.

Then we headed for the crafts market. Nothing that would fetch shocking prices at snobbish upscale developed-world shops. But most definitely local crafts by local people, which I really appreciated. Plus, bargaining is a part of life here, right? So, though I avoided my cut-throat techniques from China, I still had a good time haggling the prices down a bit and got a couple of trinkets. 

Sure, the capital of any country is no real reflection of the whole of any country. But as my only approach to the real Malawi outside the super fancy (and Chinese-built) hotel we were at, this made for a very special, very real, very enlightening experience. 

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