I lived in Mzuzu, capital of the north of Malawi, with my wife Sharon Brady for eighteen months from January 2006. We worked in St. John of God’s, on the outskirts of the city, which looked after the entire, vast, northern region.
On 22nd August, 2006, I sent the Irish Times a proposal for pieces based on interviews, by me and my SJOG colleague and friend Alex Nkosi, with people in north Malawi. Below is the letter I wrote to the Features Editor, which got no reply.
Alex and I went ahead and did a series of fascinating interviews. I still have the tiny tapes in a drawer somewhere.
People we interviewed included Robson Chirwa, a former Malawian Minister who had been acting President when thirty-year post-independence authoritarian President Hastings Banda was incapacitated.
We met Rose Chibambo, a human rights activist and politician who bravely opposed Banda and Chirwa, whose face appeared on a 200 kwacha note after we conducted our interview in her rose garden. We met a farmer, Henry, who grew maize and cabbages on land way out of town, who rarely left his farm and never encountered money.
Sharon and I came upon a shop in Rhumpi, north of Mzuzu, called the God Is Great Grocery. I remember lightbulbing: we have to interview the owner of the God Is Great Grocery. When we write a book, this is what we can title it.
I was texting Alex today, September 26th, and we reminisced about this work. Sadly, we didn’t interview the owner and we didn’t write the book. Although our aspiration was a book, I was depending on Irish Times encouragement to keep going. My recollection is that the lack of an IT reply told my annoyingly self-doubting brain: no-one at home is interested. They don’t live here. Why would they be? So, I let go. I had a lot on, other writing priorities, and I moved on.
Then today for the first time in sixteen years, I read my email to the Times and I was taken aback by how driven I appeared to have been to tell the story with Alex and our interviewees of their lives in Malawi. I’m sorry I didn’t.
I am posting this now because, although contrary to many views of 2022 Malawi, some observations in the piece still ring true: “People live, and they enjoy life. The focus only on horror neglects the truth that even in a culture so directly the opposite of the culture we know and imagine to be necessary, there is vigour and humour and life. People laugh a lot in Malawi. Just now, at three on a Friday afternoon, half a dozen street kids started singing outside my window. I’m not saying it’s great to be a street kid, the opposite is true—but the song happened all the same. And that is the paradox I want to illuminate.”
St John of God Centre,
PO Box 744,
18th August 2006.
Re: The God Is Great Grocery—Stories of Life in Malawi
Dear Features Editor,
I hope I find you well. I am an Irish psychiatrist and journalist living in Mzuzu in the north of Malawi. My writing has appeared in Hotpress magazine since 1993.
I have just begun planning a series of interviews with Malawians from all walks of life. My collaborator on this project is Alex Nkosi, who is a columnist for the Malawi Nation, and a pastor in the St John of God Service. We will conduct the interviews in the next three months, and I will write them over the next few months and into the new year. As the Irish Times is the newspaper that consistently has the broadest and best coverage of Africa, I am writing to ask whether you would be interested in reading our work as we proceed, and considering a sample of it for publication.
The reasons for these interviews are simple and—to us at least!—compelling.
The first is to let the intriguing life stories of ordinary people in this beautiful and complex country tell themselves. The second is to question our assumptions about the lives of people in sub-Saharan Africa.
Malawi is a fairly typical sub-Saharan nation, which is at an interesting time in its development as a democracy. It is more politically stable and transparent than other countries in the region, but this state of affairs is brittle, for any number of reasons—not least poverty. As of 2004, Malawi was, according to one of the two methods the World Bank uses to calculate wealth, the poorest country in the world, its gross national income per capita one-third of the sub-Saharan average. By the other method, it was the sixth poorest. It has not gotten any wealthier, and its debt has not been cancelled.
Partly because of its extreme poverty and HIV crisis, and because of periodic food shortages, Malawi has recently received quite a lot of coverage in the West. (Also—Madonna.) This is good news, with one proviso: the tone of the coverage, representative of that of sub-Saharan Africa as a whole, is almost always apocalyptic—specifically, it’s all HIV, all of the time. A well-read Westerner could be forgiven for thinking that all a Malawian does with his life is to queue up for death. It’s difficult for even the best writers not to leave this impression.
In July, in a nuanced and moving piece in the Times, Rosita Boland wrote, “We have Spars and Centras. In Malawi they have coffin shops.” She cited the sign for Energy Coffins on the main Lilongwe-Mzuzu Road. I know Energy Coffins, and I also did a double take the first time I saw that sign, and she’s right: They’re everywhere. For an Irish visitor, the nearness of death, and the acceptance and advertising of that proximity, is staggering. But I read her piece, and read it again, and thought of the other shops, small businesses and signs that populate that trip north.
Cellphone call-card stalls do business in the villages. Small farmers sell “Irish potatoes” all along the road—spuds introduced by homesick Irish missionaries, queasy at the thought of yet more maize. You see hand-painted signs for Coke and Carlsberg every few kilometres—and then there’s my own favourite, the mêlée of the food market in Jenda, over the hills from Zambia, two hours from Mzuzu. Further north in Karonga, you’ll find the companion piece to Energy Coffins, or the anti-Energy Coffins—the God Is Great Grocery. This is wit: a sign of life, alongside signs for death.
Extreme poverty and the HIV crisis—the obliteration of half a generation—are of course real problems. It feels facile even to write that. They are arguably beyond our grasp as modern Europeans. They are devastating for Malawian society, and devastating for each person affected. But people don’t spend their days being devastated. What would that even entail?
People live, and they enjoy life. The focus only on horror neglects the truth that even in a culture so directly the opposite of the culture we know and imagine to be necessary, there is vigour and humour and life. People laugh a lot in Malawi. Just now, at three on a Friday afternoon, half a dozen street kids started singing outside my window. I’m not saying it’s great to be a street kid, the opposite is true—but the song happened all the same. And that is the paradox I want to illuminate.
Because once you realise that life thrives in Malawi, the interesting question is no longer what it was before—why is this place so awful? (Or, when’s the next plane out?) Instead, the question becomes: Given the everyday struggles for existence here, how do ordinary people get on with their lives? Can people really prosper in a failed state—and what’s their secret?
The only way to answer this question, for a Malawian or an Irishman, is to ask.
Of course the first rule of interviewing, as far as I know, is: don’t ask leading questions. Don’t have an agenda. Let the stories tell themselves. Alex and I will not be visiting villages asking everyone why their lives are so fabulous. We will ask people to tell us about themselves and their families, and their losses and sadnesses and loves and joys and hopes. We can’t and won’t pre-decide the outcome of any conversation, but we’ll listen for stories that others aren’t hearing.
Beyond the human interest, is there a point? I think so.
My friends here are often perplexed at the stories written or broadcast in the West about Malawi, and these include friends who have recently visited Ireland. I worry too that however well-intentioned the apocalyptic pieces about Sub-Saharan Africa are, that they can be counter-productive. The situations described seem so desperate and the people’s lives so different as to be alien from our own. This reporting distances us from the people in countries like Malawi and may inhibit us from acting in the interests of those people, when our instincts are to act. Feeling overwhelmed and impotent, we switch off. (What’s the point?)
The fact is that in every important sense, people in Malawi are just like Irish people. Without wishing to state the obvious—and I will re-state that for Irish people, I believe this is not obvious—most Malawians are busy dropping the kids to school and preparing dinner, and falling in love, and fixing punctures, and checking email, and arguing about politics in the pub, and getting their hair done four times a week. (Also, ringing in sick when the World Cup’s on.)
Bono is in the habit of saying that we must not believe Africans are equal to us—otherwise we couldn’t stand by while endless endemic disasters happen here. He must be right, and I wonder what role the reporting on Africa plays in this when it conveys and re-conveys the message that African lives are just not like ours.
I have been listening to the stories of ordinary Malawians all year, and Alex Nkosi has been doing so all his life. Like Irish life stories, they are fantastic stuff, and people should hear them.
We plan now to conduct 12-15 interviews. Our final list of interviewees is not yet drawn up but we have a longlist: village chiefs and banana farmers, traffic policemen and kids selling paintings on the street, children and ancient grandmothers and the man who runs the God Is Great Grocery. Among others. Our interviews will start next month.
I understand of course that it is too early in the project for you to have any kind of firm response to this proposal, and we will carry out the work anyway—but it would be a big boost to know that back in Ireland, the Times was even embryonically interested. So I look forward to hearing from you. And I apologise for the length of this proposal.
Thanks for taking the time to read it.
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