Zambia: The land of diesel and democracy

I’ve always loved visiting Malawi. I’ve been there too many times to count, and Graham lived there for almost two years. It’s a kind and beautiful country, well deserving of the moniker “The Warm Heart of Africa”. But it’s also, as a colleague once described, “relentlessly poor”; something that I would rather not admit but that unfortunately rings true.

In recent months, the situation in Malawi has taken a turn for the worse. The people are angry with their government as fuel shortages become more frequent, the price of food and basic goods skyrocket, and the president becomes increasingly “autocratic and intolerant of criticism”.

Last weekend, we went to Malawi to meet up with old friends and enjoy their company on the shores of Lake Malawi. It was a wonderful weekend…if you disregarded a few minor details.

We were fleeced at the border when we tried to exchange US dollars – a hot commodity in Malawi these days – for Malawian Kwacha; we were nailed with two speeding tickets by some rather unforgiving police officers who seemed more interested in extracting rents than changing driver behavior; and, to avoid buying black market diesel at almost three times the market rate, we stressfully rolled back to Zambia on fumes. Needless to say, we felt some empathy for the people who have to deal with these challenges every single day.

The differences between Malawi and Zambia are starker than ever before. Zambia recently voted in a new president and peacefully transferred power from one party to another. It has also reached middle-income status as deemed by the World Bank. These are remarkable achievements for an African country, and they deserve recognition.

Our experience in Malawi made me realize that while change is a slow and difficult process, it does happen. Four years ago, when I first went to Malawi, I would’ve said the countries were more similar than they were different. That is not the case today. Zambia is the land of diesel and democracy, and Malawi is, sadly, wanting for both.

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2 Responses to Zambia: The land of diesel and democracy

  1. dmcnicholl says:

    I can’t believe you went on to transform your D&D quote into a blog post. As much as it hurts to admit it, you’re right.

  2. Colleen says:

    The Malawian Police situation is interesting. From talking with colleagues working in Malawi and Malawians themselves, it seems that the majority of civil society workers (including teachers, doctors, nurses and police) haven’t been paid in 3-6 months. The situation is starting to get desperate, and in that desperation, they are clutching for ways to extract finances – rent as you put it rightly. While it’s frustrating, I also found it interesting. It meant that buses and taxis that would usually be overpacked with people were less likely to be, since the likelihood of running into a random police blockade and the fines associated with an infraction were higher. It also means, as you experienced, that the police will pick up anything they deem to be out of line, including running red lights that don’t work or don’t exist, as one friend experienced, to extract these fines.

    As with any change, there are good consequences and bad ones. There are predictable responses and unforseen ones. In this case, I see both and I wonder which is better for Malawi in the long term – corrupt police or stronger law enforcement. Unformtunately, since I suspect that the law enforcement will fade with funds returning, it might still be net-annoying, but its an interesting way to force behaviour changes none-the-less.

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