Uncertainty Reigns on the Rift’s Edge

Malawi lies at the southwest edge of Africa’s Great Rift Valley – and it’s this that led me to title this post this way. 

It has been an interesting year.  And I do not just mean what we have seen so far from the 2020 calendar year, I mean the last 365 days.  A year ago we here in Malawi were preparing for the country’s tripartite elections in May.  It was a busy time, but as the political officer at the Embassy (and a first-time political officer), it was also exciting.  Elections are a political officer’s bread and butter.  I was lapping it up.

The lead up to the elections was exciting, as was polling day itself, and the immediate days afterward.  I worked extra hours, dug into the politics, analyzed the results, and wrote reports.  After nearly two years in the country, I felt I really understood the situation, the players, and it was all culminating in this election.  The elections had shaped my tour since I arrived in August 2017, and I thought I would head off on my mid-tour home leave and return to a post-election environment with newly elected representatives and a new focus for my second consecutive Malawi tour.

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Tear gas wafts in front of the U.S. Embassy in June 2019 (photo from Nyasa Times)

But that was not to be.  The hotly contested election resulted in a court challenge of the presidential election results.  And demonstrations.  First by the opposition parties who alleged the misconduct by the electoral commission, and then by human rights activists.  During the summer, the police deployed tear gas multiple times in the vicinity of the U.S. Embassy (the main opposition party’s headquarters is next door).  At the end of his first week on the job, my summer intern and I were caught outside the Embassy while at a meeting during another tear gas display.  On another day  I could hear from my office the thwoop thwoop thwoop of the canisters being repeatedly deployed.  Estimates were some 90 canisters fired in an hour.  I never felt in danger, but things were definitely not normal.

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My own terrible iPhone zoom photo of a military escorted demo heading my way (and after taking the photo, I turned around)

By August the court case had begun.  But it dragged through the fall.  The end of every multi-week session announcing the next.  The human rights activists continued their demonstrations, though the military joined with them to provide security and there was less use of tear gas.  There were other demonstrations too, by truck drivers, by teachers, by civil servants.  Then on February 3, the Constitutional Court (a five-High Court judge panel convened especially to hear and decide on the presidential election nullification case) released its decision.  It was a day of suspense — with the lead justice reading out the 500-page decision on the radio over the course of ten hours.  And at the end he announced the landmark judgment for the opposition parties; only the second time on the African continent that a court had overturned an election.

It was exhilarating.  The country was electrified.  There were news articles around the world on this historic decision.  But it was short-lived.  Because now there are to be new elections and here we are back where we were a year ago.  Only the stakes seem higher. February felt like a really long month, approximately six weeks long.

Enter: Coronavirus.

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The CDC map of countries with confirmed cases as of 12:00 March 30

As of today, March 31, 2020, there are no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Malawi.  As I have been thinking about writing this over the past week, I have experienced a sense of apprehension that as soon as I might write that down, it would cease to be true, a case would be confirmed.  But most of us in the diplomatic community and the government of Malawi are operating under the assumption that there are cases here, we just do not definitively know it.

The Africa Report Africa Risk for COVID-19It might seem odd that Malawi seems to stand alone, that with over 170 countries and territories affected, it sits there, a greyed out area in a sea of teal. But Malawi is not only at the edge of the Great Rift but also is sort of the end of the line.  Malawi is not a transit country (I mean sure, for economic migrants, yes, but for international travel, no); it is not a major tourist destination, not even really a minor one.  It is off the beaten track.  It is landlocked and even connections to its neighboring countries are relatively limited. I found this really neat graphic online that demonstrates Africa’s risk in terms of individual countries’ connectivity with China. But it might as well be connectivity to really anywhere in terms of Malawi.  There are only a handful of international flights a day, and connections only to South Africa, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Tanzania, Kenya, Mozambique, and Ethiopia.

So, this relative isolation has contributed to how I have perceived the pandemic.  While so many of us around the globe have labeled this experience surreal, I have felt both affected and oddly detached.  I have watched the panic buying, the press conferences, the number tallies from a distance.  We have had meetings (many, many, many, meetings) at the Embassy, beginning in February and increasing in frequency in March.  Especially as the news around the globe worsened, as cases crept closer to home.  As the measures were slowly put in place.  My boss voluntarily self-quarantined for two weeks beginning in early March after returning from a European country that the government of Malawi had just designated as a country of concern.  From last week my daughter’s international school went entirely to distance learning — the decision made a week or two before the President announced on March 20 that all schools in the country would close – and the Embassy has gone to Team Office / Team Telework.  One week one team may be in the office (though they do not have to be) while the other solely teleworks, then the next week the teams switch, and to quote one of my favorite poets, Kipling, “never the twain shall meet.”  Well, except in Zoom meetings.

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We are still flush with TP — for now

Last week I was Team Office and still spent much of my time at the Embassy.  Not only as the political officer but also the Acting Consular Officer, because our primary consular officer opted to return to the U.S. for health and safety reasons while the option remained open.  I went home each day for lunch, an option I rarely take, so that I could also log my daughter on for her daily Google Meet session with her teacher and classmates.  The homeschooling was rough for sure, more akin to co-dependent torture than learning, but I felt useful and efficient at work.  This week I am on Team Telework and it is only day two but it is like everything has fallen apart.  Well, homeschooling is on the upswing and work is, um, on the opposite trajectory.

I do not quite know how to describe how I am feeling; I am sure I am not alone in this.  I am not worried about the virus for myself or my daughter.  And while I am working with my family to put into place measures to make my elderly parents safer, I am not all that worried about my friends or family.  I expect that some might find this callous.  Although I can be an emotional person, I feel I am approaching this situation more as a pragmatist.  I think it may be due to my experience in Singapore during SARS.  Singapore handled that pandemic well and is by all reports doing the same this time around.

I know COVID-19 is not SARS. I felt I needed to say that. But there are some similarities.

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Handwashing station – similar to what most places I frequent have set up

Not that I personally handled the time during SARS in Singapore all that well.  It was not an easy time.  While I sent back some thoughts to friends and family (summarized in my two blog posts on the time), I went back to look at my journals for the time period and found nothing at all written in them over a 2.5 month period.  That in and of itself is telling.  It is rare for me to go for more than a week without writing.  What I do remember is that at first the situation was novel, even exciting, but over time it really began to drag on myself and my friends.  I even sought out counseling.

There are concerns about the virus coming to Malawi.  As one of the poorest countries in the world, the health system is already incredibly limited, and would likely quickly be overwhelmed by a pandemic.  Also, social distancing is just not something that fits well with the culture and customs here.  Malawians are very social.  They enjoy group meetings, family gatherings, attending church or mosque.  In the few walks that I have taken around my neighborhood, I still see Malawians greeting one another touching hands, walking closely together.  And the reality of poverty is that people live, travel, and work together in very close quarters.

And yet I think I am doing better this time around for a number of reasons.  Perhaps it is because I am here in Malawi, with our relative isolation and delayed case confirmation, but also because I have my incredibly lush and calming yard full of birdsong.  Also, I have meaningful work that keeps me busy, I have been meditating almost daily for over two years, and I am here with my daughter, and everything is better with her.

These feelings are valid as of today.  Things will continue to be uncertain for the foreseeable future.  If COVID-19 follows a trajectory similar to SARS, then it is likely peaking, but will continue well into June.  July 2 is currently the date for the “fresh” (as all the papers here like to call it) presidential election.  My daughter and I are opting to shelter in place here in Malawi, our home, and though it will not be easy, I expect us to be fine.  Despite all of the uncertainty and challenges my friends and I faced in Singapore during SARS, it did pass, and those feelings faded.  So I know that this too shall pass.

 

 

 

Malawi Elections: Politics Front and Center

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The stage is set for the third and final Presidential debate

I generally do not blog about my job.  Not that I do not have an interesting one, I do, but my blog is instead about myself, my daughter, our travels, our life abroad.  And my job enables much of that, but its not all I am about.  One thing I like to write about though is what I see around me, the everyday of Malawi.  And right now my job and the everyday are one and the same.

I am a political officer, so my job is to understand the political situation in a country – how the structure of government, the methods of decision making, the form of representation, the formation and implementation of policies come together to shape the country and its domestic and international relationships.  As a traveler, I have always been intrigued by more than just the tourist sites, but also the interplay of history, politics, and culture.  Elections brings politics front and center and give one a fascinating peek into the character of a country.

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Makeshift voting booths in a school courtyard in the October 2017 by-elections

Malawi will hold its general elections on Tuesday, May 21.  Ten days from now, Malawians will go to the polls to elect their President, Parliamentarians, and Local Councilors.  This will be their sixth democratic election.  And I am here to see it happen.

Actually, this whole shebang has been unrolling since I landed in Malawi.  Within weeks of my arrival in August 2017, the Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) held six by-elections for parliamentary and local councilor seats that had been vacated.  Already, the rivalries for 2019 were on display.  Like the good ole U.S. of A, Malawi starts campaigning real, real early.

With my observer identification, I had an opportunity to visit several polling sites to observe the process.  Although I have voted in a good many elections in the U.S., I have almost always, by nature of my nomadic overseas lifestyle, done so by absentee ballot.  On only three occasions have I voted in person and two were small local elections.  In 2008, I voted in person in a presidential election.  At the time I lived in Washington, D.C., and I found it thrilling to stand in a line that spilled outdoors and around a corner.  For the first time I truly felt the thrill of exercising my right to vote.  Watching Malawians do the same was at least equally exciting, perhaps more so given how much more Malawians have to go through in order to vote.  There is no early voting, no absentee ballots.  Polling stations are often at schools, many in poor shape.  October is hot and dry, there may be little or no shade.  Though these were just by-elections in a few constituencies, and turnout was not high, I was nonetheless impressed, even moved, by those who made the considerable effort to vote.

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Seeing election fever first hand (from left to right) Democractic Progressive Party youth supporters; dancers open up the People’s Party convention; United Transformation Movement supporters show off the new party clothing

As the pre-election season continued I attended many election-related events.  The MEC launched its electoral calendar; I was there.  Some government events turned into political rallies; I was there.  After April 2018 by-elections in the southern district of Mulaje turned violent, the Multi-Party Liaison Committee, a district-level conflict management group made up of district election officials, traditional chiefs, political party representatives, local police, and more, met to hash out what happened; I was there.  When the current Vice President defected from the ruling party to launch his own; I was there in the crowd.  And when the People’s Party held its convention and re-elected former Malawi President Joyce Banda to lead the party again, there I sat, just one row behind her, the only mzungu (“white person” in Chichewa) in the audience.

As the country moved into its voter registration exercise (prospective voters cannot register whenever they want but only during specific two-week timeframes in their respective constituency), I too had the opportunity to observe the process.

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I was thrilled to be in the audience at the final Presidential election, the signing of the national peace pledge by presidential candidates, and attend the National Prayer Breakfast held at State House, the equivalent of the U.S. White House.  I have met in person two of the presidential candidates (the President of Malawi and the leader of the Malawi Congress Party), the former President Joyce Banda, and the wives of the Health Minister and the current Vice President (both accomplished women in their own right).  Sometimes I have to pinch myself.

There is so much excitement and pageantry in Malawian elections.  While in the U.S. we have a two-party system, in Malawi there were 52 registered parties at the beginning of this election season.  In reality, many of those are small “briefcase” parties, but there are seven running for President (one Independent) and 14 contesting parliamentary seats.   Supporter clothing is vibrant, and often in traditional fabric called chitenje; its so much more than just red and blue.

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The three main contenders — get these to hang on your rear view mirror

I feel incredibly privileged to be here in Malawi at this time, to watch a young and vibrant democracy in action, in a country that serves as a model in the region and the continent.  It is of course my job to cover these issues, and as such I have had greater access than most, but my interest goes beyond my career.  This is history in the making and the outcome — no matter who wins (and its anyone’s game at this point) — will shape this country for years to come.