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A visit to Africa
In 1996, we (Eunice and Edward) visited Africa. We have some
National Parks (Victoria Falls ,Chobe National
Park in Botswana,
and Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe)
and Malawi (with sections on economics
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
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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
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
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
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,
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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