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    A visit to Africa

In 1996, we (Eunice and Edward)  visited Africa.  We have some notes on
National Parks  (Victoria Falls ,Chobe National Park in Botswana,
                             and Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe)
and Malawi  (with sections on economics and politics).
Some of our pictures are at  Ofoto.com (Malawi Pictures)  (no easy return link, use BACK)


       I have a cousin who works for the US foreign aid program (AID); his wife is in the Foreign Service (State Dept.).  Because they are in two different agencies, they don't find it easy to get job assignments in the same place at the same time, and sometimes therefore accept assignments in relatively obscure or undesirable locations. They have, for example, worked in both Mogadishu (Somalia) and Kigali (Rwanda), both before the great disasters that overcome those countries. And being an expert in difficult places can lead to assignments that are important, perhaps in the sense of the old Chinese curse, ‘may you live in interesting times'; he is presently (Mid 2001) pretty high up in the US Foreign Aid program in Kosovo.
       My wife and I have had the privilege of visiting them a few times ‘on location', and in 1996 we went to visit them in Malawi, one of the small, poor, overpopulated, landlocked countries of Africa, located along Lake Malawi (formerly Lake Nyasa) just northwest of Mozambique in southeastern Africa.

Some Animal Parks

        On the way to Malawi we stopped to visit Victoria Falls and the adjacent tourist area of Zimbabwe, and went out animal watching for a few days each in Chobe National Park in northeastern Botswana and Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe.
        Chobe is located along the Chobe River, which is really part of the Zambesi system. A distinguishing feature was the extremely number of elephant herds. Now that these are fairly effectively protected, they are getting to be a real problem.  Seasonally the interior of the part dries out, forcing animals to congregate near the river (It makes wonderful photographic opportunities).  But as the elephants have multiplied, they have eaten all the vegetation near the river and for miles back, in a great many cases even killing the trees.  This means animals must come to the river to drink and travel far from the river to eat, with little vegetation available for cover in between  (the area near the river is becoming almost a strip of desert.)  The result is of course hard on the smaller animals and in many cases population of other species is dropping.  One logical solution might be to move the elephant herds but this is horrendously expensive (I think South Africa has managed to airlift one or two herds to other countries that are short of elephants). Because elephants are highly intelligent and highly bonded within a herd, apparently you can't just move (or kill) a few elephants from a herd or you run the risk of the remaining animals becoming anti-people, not an acceptable situation if you depend on eco-tourism.
    Killing off a herd of elephants (to reduce overpopulation) might also make sense but since the parks in Botswana are heavily dependent on contributions from agencies like the World Wildlife Federation, they don't dare kill animals; this might cut off one or more major streams of contributors.  So they are in the odd position of watching some species die back as the overly populous elephants destroy the vegetation.
       In Hwange (Zimbabwe) somewhat more money is available; there they have been able to install wells and pumps and keep more of the small water holes from drying up during the dry season. This means the animals can be more spread out rather than concentrating at a river.
       In South Africa, we are told, they are even less dependent on foreign donations and better able to document what they do; they have been able to move whole herds, and in some cases they have killed whole herds rather than have over population threaten an ecosystem. This leaves them with warehouses of tusks which would help finance the park system but which, of course, they are legally unable to sell.
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Malawi 1 - economics

    We spent about two weeks in Malawi, including the Fourth of July, 1996.  This is landlocked, very overpopulated, very poor (per capita income about $1 per day). Very large families; not uncommon for a woman to have 12 children and 5 to 7 to die of malnutrition in infancy.  Mixed Moslem and Catholic, the two groups seem to get along very well.   Many families farm a plot on the order of 1/4 acre, raising maize (the staple food) using a short handled hoe as the only real tool.  The farming is so intense that most trees have been cut down. People are so poor that the phone line from Lilongwe, where the President is, to Zomba, where the legislature is, is down something like three days a week because the locals find telephone poles to be an excellent source of firewood.  This means there is little hope for rural electrification, and the economy is such that batteries are often not available for sale (and, if they are, may be dead batteries being resold); the government has great hopes for the wind-up radio as a medium for education in rural areas when it becomes cheap enough.
     Loads ( e.g. water or firewood) are normally carried on the heads of women and children. A few years ago a major country foreign aid program attempted to modernize by introducing the ox cart but this was rejected by the locals as being far too new and radical. If you are rich enough to own an ox, it is a form of wealth to be displayed; the owner would be demeaning himself to allow it to work.
       Malawi has a great deal of AIDS and other diseases. There is a drug resistant form of malaria - we were told that even with all the protective shots and other precautions, US Peace Corps members in Malawi get malaria at the rate of about 10 percent per year.  We visited a French medical mission station about a half hour's drive away from the paved road, on a good dirt road with bu s service.  Their most serious problems that they could help with were malaria and malnutrition. They did give shots: they sterilized needles in a home pressure cooker, over a wood fire on the ground outdoors.  It is indicative of the Malawi economy that when we were planning the trip and asked what to bring as gifts to people, we were told: For locals, soap. For diplomats, batteries. For medical missionaries, aspirin.
       Tolkien fans may be surprise to know that The Shire actually exists - it is located in the southern part of Malawi; Tolkien lived in Malawi and local names occur in his writing.  When we were there The Shire was a major disaster area. In the early to mid 1990's there was a major civil war in Mozambique and over a million refugees poured into southern Malawi. They ate everything that could be eaten and burned everything that could be burned, leaving a virtual desert behind.  Malawi has remarkably little wildlife remaining; most has been eaten. There is a long border with Mozambique and the one significant paved road in Malawi runs for a long way within sight of that border -- in 1996 you could still see piles of rubble and bullet riddled walls on the Mozambique side of the street, intact but poor villages on the Malawi side, for many miles.
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Malawi 2 - an experiment in democracy

       Malawi was Nyasaland in British colonial days up to about 1960; Britain hoped to form a federation of the two Rhodesias (Northern, now Zambia, and Southern, now Zimbabwe) with Nyasaland but the local tribes (which differ dramatically, but get along fairly  peacefully with one another) felt they'd lose out in such a large country. Dr. Banda was a local boy who went to work in South Africa, then to college and to Medical School at Meharry Medical College, the black medical school in Nashville, Tennessee. He practiced for awhile in England, becoming the leader-in-exile of the Nyasaland independence movement. When his license was revoked in England (Politics? Performing an illegal abortion?) he returned to Africa, became the leader of the independence movement, became President upon independence, and remained president / dictator for thirty years with the title "President for Life and Destroyer of the Federation"  for his role in preventing union with the Rhodesias.
        In the early 1990's the Catholic Bishops of Malawi decided the time for change had come (I think there had been church-led demonstrations against the government of Zambia earlier).  At the start of Lent (in 1993? I may be off a year) they issued a Lenten letter read from the pulpits. It started with praise of the Virgin Mary, turned a hard right to denounce birth control and particularly condoms (AIDS is a very major problem in Malawi) and then turned a hard left to point out that the economy was a disaster, progress was not being made, the government was not democratic, etc.  This was read Sunday morning in all the Catholic Churches and large numbers of copies, in all the local languages, were given to parishioners to distribute to every house on the way home. By the time the government became aware, it was too late for censorship to stop the distribution.
       Dr. Banda reacted surprisingly. "Well, I've worked all my life for the good of Malawi. If you don't appreciate me, maybe I should retire and let you try to get along without me." He announced an election in six months on the single issue of whether he should continue as President, and announced a relaxation of press censorship so that that issue could be discussed. In the election, the people voted he should retire. He then announced. "OK, all censorship is off as of tomorrow. You can form political parties. I'll call a constitutional convention to decide what offices to elect, the first elections will be in six months."
      It worked. They elected a president, a lower house of the legislature (no upper house, they hadn't been able to agree on apportionment), and appointed judges all the way from local judges up to a Supreme Court, all from scratch. (In the past, disputes had been decided by tribal chiefs or by Banda personally. On the rare occasions when they actually needed a ‘judge', such as a dispute between the government and a foreign corporation, they had hired a British judge to come in on a case-by-case contract.)  The American Embassy laid on crash courses for new judges to explain how courts worked and the tripartite system of government.
       One minor problem: Banda had not kept the country's books very separate from his own personal books. He claimed personal ownership of some dozen Presidential palaces around the country and about one third of the national economy.   So one of the early tasks of the new legislature was passing a law to take possession of a large part of Banda's personal holdings on behalf of the country.
       Banda didn't flee, didn't make trouble, didn't (so far as anyone knew) have a Swiss bank account. He calmly appealed to the newly created courts that this was unfair. The case leisurely worked its way up to the freshly appointed Supreme Court, and had arrived there in 1996 when we were in Malawi.  I only got to see parts of the decision, which was serialized in the daily paper, but it was wonderful to read: you could see how carefully the Chief Justice had studied the decisions of John Marshall in practically every sentence, and also see how new at things he was. He said things like: "Counsel for Plaintiff cites New York State Court of Appeals  (case name, volume, page) which he says shows that... and Counsel for Respondent cites Scottish High Court (case name, volume page) which he says shows the opposite. Since I don't know how to get copies of either of these decisions, I'm going to have to go back to first principles..."
      The Chief Justice obviously felt that it was too early to decide a case this complex, and he needed a chance to both delay and establish the authority of the court (compare the major U.S. Supreme Court precedent Marbury vs. Madison). He studied the constitution. It asserted that for the Legislature to begin deliberations,  a quorum of two thirds  was needed. Most people thought this meant the new government couldn't function until they'd manage to elect that many legislators and figure out how to get them to Zomba, no small achievement itself.  The Chief Justice decided it meant you needed two thirds of the legislators present -every morning-, and there weren't that many present the day this law was passed. So he told the legislature they had to repass the law with two thirds of the members of the lower house actually present.
          There was a majority party, but it had less than 2/3 of the seats. The smaller parties now realized that they could hamstring the government simply by going home, and did so.  (This was much to our benefit. Malawi has very few European style hotels, and the departure of the legislators made it possible for us to get a hotel room for a week in Zomba and for me to give some talks at Chancellor College, the Arts and Sciences College of the University of Malawi.)
           How could the Speaker of the Parliament get people to come back?  Constitutionally, he could not cut off their pay.  He finally decided that in the absence of a quorum, the Speaker had the right to unilaterally change the committee structure, and change who was on which committee.  He did so. Minority party legislators started showing up at the airport to go to meetings of the Organization of African Unity, study tours to South Africa, etc., and being told at the airport that they were no longer on the committee and their tickets had been canceled. They screamed that this was unfair, the Speaker was exceeding his powers.
          Late in our stay, the speaker held a wonderful press conference. "These people say I am exceeding my powers as speaker", he said, " and you know, it may very well be that they are right.  I expect that the first day there is a quorum in the legislature, someone will move to overrule the Speaker and cancel the things he has done. And I think that that motion will probably carry. And I hope they all come in a hurry to meet and vote to overrule me, because we have a lot of other things we need to vote on that day, too."
        Educated Malawi citizens we spoke to were sometimes embarrassed at the ways their government seemed (to them) to be doing an amateurish job of figuring out how things worked. None of them had enough US history to have heard of Aaron Burr and his misadventures (e.g., was the Vice President exempt, by virtue of his office, for being arrested for killing the Secretary of the Treasury in a duel?) and seemed much reassured when we told them that it seemed to us they were doing much better than the US government had done in its early years.
         Dr. Banda remained in Malawi for the rest of his life, living comfortably, riding in parades, speaking at high school graduations, and playing the admired older statesman. The courts managed to put off deciding that the government could retake most of his property until after he died a natural death of old age.

[A side story, perhaps a Malawi urban myth.  Late in Banda's term as President for Life,  a high school teacher told his biology class that "Women can bear children only up to a certain age, but men can father children even when they are very old."  He was reportedly arrested for impugning the morals of President Banda.  I personally don't believe that Banda would have promoted such an arrest -- but I can believe that a local police chief in Malawi might have done such a thing.]
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 (C)     Edward T. Ordman  1999

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