Tuesday, 9 August 2011
We are facing a bit of a dilemma. The plan all along was we were to stay here at Butterfly until around the middle of August. Our visa actually expires on the 13th which falls on a Saturday so in order to renew it, we would have to probably visit the local immigration on Thursday just to be on the safe side. Since the initial visa into Malawi is free, subsequent renewals are quite costly for the additional 30 day stay. Under normal circumstances that really would not matter since we have budgeted for visa expenses which can add hundreds of dollars to the cost of any trip abroad. Here in Malawi, things are moving away from normal. Though it received little, if any, press in either the UK or the USA, there was a major event back on July 20th. Huge protests broke out in the 3 major cities of Malawi. Blantyre, the largest, Lilongwe, the capital, and Mzuzu, which is only about 45km's from where we are at here in Nkhata Bay. People demonstrated against the current president. He was elected into office several years back on a platform of being a man of the people. Over his first term, he had actually implemented several policies that the general population liked including a huge fertilizer subsidy program that has helped many of the impoverished farmers around the country. It seemed that Malawi was heading in the right direction. He was in fact so popular that back in 2009 he was elected for a second term along with a parliament that gave his ruling party a super majority. That is when the real trouble began. Shortly after his re-election it was discovered that the president had been accumulating mass amounts of wealth including a huge farm outside of Lilongwe. This, despite the fact, that he was only receiving a fairly modest salary as president. Immediately, many of the NGO's that have been operating in Malawi began to question these improprieties. Many started realizing that some of the funds that were allocated as aid to this impoverished country had disappeared and actually ended up in his pockets. In late June the UK decided to pull it's high commission from Lilongwe and also put a stop to it's aid coming in to the country. This was followed shortly thereafter by the USA following suit and halting most but not all of their financial support. The effects of these actions have had a HUGE impact on the fledgling economy. Gas and diesel shortages abound throughout this tiny nation. We have talked to several people including a few travelers that have been forced to wait in lines up to 7 or 8 hours just to buy fuel. This, in turn, has led directly to a sharp increase in prices across the board. The effects of which are becoming more and more pronounced. Things finally came to a head back on July 20th as thousands of people took to the streets throughout the country. Demonstrations were wide spread and the grossly undermanned police force and army had an extremely difficult time controlling the masses. Several people were shot in various locations with the majority of the casualties happening just up the road in Mzuzu where 16 people were gunned down and scores more were hospitalized with gun shot wounds. Hundreds of businesses were looted, many having been burnt to the ground by the throngs of demonstrators. The mob mentality snow balled to incite the masses. People were angry and rightly so. Though the demonstration happened only on the 20th of July, shops and businesses were closed for several days afterward. We noticed even here in Nkhata Bay that many of the shops were closed and only about a third of the amount of vendors appeared on the streets. The government was successful in the meantime shutting down most if not all communications throughout the country including radio stations, newspapers, TV, internet and even closing the airport for a couple of days to prevent people from getting information. Since that time, things on the ground have begun to deteriorate even more. Petrol has become more and more scarce leading to many of the long distance buses and minivans to be canceled. The ones that are fortunate enough to be running sometimes become stranded in the middle of nowhere for the lack of fuel. This leads up to our dilemma. We really do want to stay here until around the 21st of August. We feel we are able to accomplish quite a bit and are really enjoying our time along this idyllic lakeside location. However, it seems that people and underground groups are planning for more mass demonstrations on the 17th of August. They are demanding that not only the president step down from office, but that a whole list of grievances be addressed. The president has been quoted in the newspapers that he is willing to make compromises but yet he has no intention on stepping down. This could be a major problem. People are angry with just cause. As the August 17th deadline approaches, daily life has become a bit more interesting. Personally we have noticed a larger police presence even here in tiny Nkhata Bay. We have also seen a sharp increase in prices such as basic staples including rice and vegetables. The shared taxis and minibuses have been forced to buy petrol on the black market. Daily scenes of gas siphoning are not uncommon. We have also noticed that far fewer vehicles are out on the roads and that the taxi cues are about half the number of what they were only a few short weeks ago. The pickups that we are dependent upon to get up to the small villages where we fetch our special needs kids, have even tried to charge us double the usual price but since all of the locals that have ridden with us protested we too have argued vehemently that we would only pay the normal 50 kwacha price. But as fuel becomes more scarce, we may have no alternative but to pay these inflated prices. Both of us have talked between ourselves and to others trying to get a feel for what may or may not happen. The overwhelming opinion is that Malawians are a very peaceful people. If anything does happen it will be an extreme minority and everyone has said that we have absolutely nothing to worry about.
Neither one of us want to get stuck in Lilongwe or any other big city without an exit strategy. We really do not want to leave this beautiful spot prematurely because we feel we have so much more to give but we may not have a choice.