Not your average travel blog
Before disappearing up a watery gash in the landscape to explore where one of the northern rivers flows into Lake Malawi, we catch our breath and take a chance to soak up some of the scenery near Ruarwe. The village is a typical, lake-shore place. It’s dusty, full of brick buildings with straw roofs. A few solar panels are dotted around. Small businesses offer cleaning products, cooking utensils, scratch off phone credit, various plastic bumf and string. There is a cafe and a bar, as there are very few places here where you can’t buy a Carlsberg or a cheap sugar cane spirit! There is also a constant hum of noise over the regular thudding sound of someone either chopping wood, pounding food or thrusting a sharp tool into the ground. Cassava root is dried in the sun ready to be made into a flour, and fish are dried on the beach on top of rickety wooden racks.
Dotted around are nods to a time when charities or businesses once tossed some ideas and projects into town. Resembling drab, over-washed t-shirts, their tag lines and logos are now only faded stencils on the sides of small buildings. Sadly, it’s common to see extinct charitable projects, thrown by foreigners into small communities, having been initiated without serious enough consideration for local logistics or culture. They come and go in Southern Africa as often as the football season.
Many large charities, unless reacting to an immediate natural “disaster”, just look good from afar. They are driven here by foreign conscience as the media pushes them as worthwhile projects, only really nurturing the “feel-good” factor back in the west. On the ground, we see that they are often lacking in common sense and practical management. Most of the money is ill-spent and is siphoned off before it reaches its obligated end point. Unless you see these attempts in their failed glory, people who make donations in the west have no real sense that their money merely a tool for the marketing machine that most huge charities have become. Some would be better just sticking to emergency aid.
To iterate the point some more….When you see the organisations fail so often here, you pity them, are frustrated by them, and feel for the people who ultimately receive nothing from their free handouts – but they keep coming! Unfortunately, most charities (especially the larger ones) create huge rugs with money, to seemingly sweep common issues under in one fell swoop. However, they perpetually fail to make a difference because there never seems to be any kind of investment whatsoever in research of localised logistics or consideration for cultural differences. It sounds harsh, but ask any ex-pat or the many locals that live here, and there are dozens of examples that can be reeled off in seconds. Put simply but controversially; after seeing examples for myself as well as hearing about how the untruthful charities successfully document themselves in public media in order to raise more funds; I have no love for the likes of Unicef or Oxfam etc. It’s also their faded logos strewn around the rural communities I so often see. Sadly, it breeds similar charitable effort (or lack of) down the fund-raising echelons to smaller organisations. Governments aren’t any better at distributing policy or showing obligation either, and why should they be? Their country gets free handouts without them having to lift a finger. They’re laughing at us. It’s a sad situation and we’re so far removed from it in the west.
There is however a thriving small community centre called Nyumba Ya Masambiro (House of Learning), and medical clinic in Ruarwe. In the next few months it (www.phunzira.org) will have its five year anniversary. It is about to be handed over to the community to be run by the villagers and is an excellent example of a successful, charitable, and engaging organisation. With empathetic, pragmatic and tactical management, a hands-on approach to local logistics, and a sensible obligation to help a community build something operational (rather than tossing freebies out) it is testament to what can be done.
I hate the word “charity”. I can’t imagine being thrilled if someone came to my house and started giving out freebies because I’m viewed as a charity case. Why should it be any different for the people in Malawi, or anywhere else in the world? Deliberately leaving out the problems of war-refugees (as that IS where charity and aid can really step up); of course there are countries which have agricultural, environmental, health, economic, and employment issues, but nobody likes to be seen as a charity case. While donations can be put to good use, there is no long-term, positive result of receiving something for free. Most of the communities which continue to struggle while freebies are regularly given to them by some of the huge charities here, are testament to their failure. Even the people who receive handouts understand that it isn’t helping their long term situation. Help is appreciated, but people the world over want to be able to work their own way to a sustainable solution.
Electricity has reached Ruarwe within the last twelve months and from the lake, one large street lamp can be seen for miles out on the water. We’re far from being in a Malawian city, but it’s evidence that technology is spreading to rural communities. Phone signal is non-existent, newspapers are a rare thing in remote society and the main (and fastest) transport into the village (unless on foot) is still the lake. When the ferry comes each week the beach is a hive of activity and in a place where there is no television it’s also a villager’s best access to any kind of soap opera entertainment. Loading up a ship and unloading onto dug out canoes and rickety boats is quite a spectacle, especially when something or someone inevitably ends up getting very wet.
Compared to many small bustling, rural villages, Ruarwe seems a little special. Maybe it’s because it is so remote and off the beaten trail, maybe it’s because it’s the last stop for the ferry, or maybe it’s because it has had so little influence from the modernising world – which like everywhere on the planet today, is inevitably fast-changing. A mile along the shoreline is Zulunkhuni River Lodge, which is owned by our mate, Charlie.
This morning, we were woken by the falling thuds of ripe mangoes coming out of the skies. They make quite the statement when they hit the grass roofs of our shacks. The vervet monkeys stuff their faces early and clamber around the trees and lodge where there are only a few staff members for the sun to rise with. The lodge accommodation comfortably sleeps over twenty and has a couple of romantic retreat houses available on the top of lakeside rocks. It’s quiet and wildly-idilic. It’s one place where the monkeys know they can interact relatively close to humans without having things thrown at them or being butchered in front of a crowd of locals. Monkeys simply aren’t revered here, quite the opposite. They eat local crops, they can carry disease, and they can be unpredictably dangerous to interact with. Much like pigeons or urban foxes back in the UK, they’re not everyones favourite. It can be a very distressing sight, but it isn’t surprising that they can be so volatile. When some locals catch a monkey they won’t think twice about clubbing, beating or ripping it to death. They don’t have guns to kill it quickly and the monkeys are too destructive and dangerous to let wander through town. It’s like they are giant, furry locusts. I have noticed that Ruarwe doesn’t seem to have the same aggression towards the monkeys as some places we’ve been, and at least at the lodge they can be as mischievous as they like while respecting communal space.
We also sometimes see the (security) dogs leap up and bolt off into the rocks and brush, chasing after at least a solid footlong of rustling lizard. Huge, strong, ancient and looking like some sort of stealthy-mafia, covered in a scab-like leathery onesie, they’re a treat to admire. The dogs never catch them. Importantly though, you can trust the instinct of most dogs; to some degree, I like that they enjoy giving chase in a game good enough for any time of day. The dragons are good at taking care of themselves.
Mango for breakfast as soon as it falls off the tree; I feel like I’ve had a months worth of sugar intake, but I’m glad my stomach is handling it. I don’t think I have eaten any greens for weeks now, but there’s not much better than tree-fresh wild mango after a couple of short rain storms!
We spend a couple of hours going through and organising our kit for the pending expedition into the bush. Although not far from the lodge, we’ll be in untouched territory and nobody really knows what we’re going to find, or how long it will take us to find it. Bjorn and Charlie have wanted to find the source of the river for years and it’s deep in the jungle somewhere. Google Earth details that it’s in a denser, darker green area of the forest, but there are definitely some waterfalls to get past before it’s found. It could be a week to get there, maybe more.
After getting all our equipment together; it might be lunchtime before we leave today, but one thing is certain – we all want to get going…