A Bit of A Revolution….


I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Malawi in 1992.  People  who are not  travelers & volunteers  often wonder about what we do.  There are a bunch of books that RPCV  (that would be Returned Peace Corps Volunteers) have published on  their ‘experiences’.

2 very good books are Land Without Time, but John Sumser, who is RPCV Afghanistan.  His account is  truthful and humorous, and you understand from his description of his time of service that most of us are not do-gooders, but adventurers.  Paul Theroux also wrote, My Secret History, which contains his account of volunteering  in Malawi.

For the most part, our lives are pretty mundane except for the aggravations caused by lack of infrastructure, lack of  real support from Peace Corps staff, and  constant cultural  & language based misunderstandings.  When you are a Peace Corps Volunteer, you learn the difference between a problem and an inconvenience.

When I was in  high school (I graduated in 1971), it was difficult to get real information about social and political dynamics of  Africa—indeed—about anyplace not either Europe or America was extremely exotic

.  It’s not that there was no body of literature.  It’s that the way our educational system is set up in America.  Anything that doesn’t relate to European culture and history is ignored. I stumbled across an article about the Yoruba of Nigeria, in an American Heritage magazine, & the impact it had on me was dramatic.

Since then, I know that there are English literature teachers  teaching from Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (another classic), but ‘back then’, we were taught that Africans had no culture, no language, no history, and the white people who enslaved them actually did them a favor by civilizing them.  Hard to believe?  I also came of age during the Viet Nam War, and the stuff we were led to believe about the Viet Namese (not loving their children, stuffing their diapers with bombs and throwing them at soldiers) was also quite amazing.

White Americans tend to think we have the market cornered on intelligence, maturity, and sophistication. and integrity.  We are the new Russians.  Arrogant &  ignorant on the ways of the world.

I wanted to major in Black Studies & Forestry in college, but my parents wouldn’t hear of it.  So, I became a dog groomer.

Years passed.  I went to Tanzania in 1985.  At the time, they had a 90% literacy rate, because Julius Nyerere put all his development money into education—-but nothing into infrastructure.  A great place for a safari, but a frustrating place to live.

2 years later, I went to Kenya, with Operation Crossroads Africa, Inc.  I spent about 4 weeks, with other American students, making bricks at the AIC Girls Inland Primary Boarding School in Kajiado, in Maasailand.  That was an awesome experience.  We thought we were making bricks for a classroom building, but I quickly realized  we’d maybe have enough bricks for an outhouse (I’ll write about that in the future).  Our value was, really, that the Africans had never seen white people (wazungu) do physical labor.

Anyways…Malawi.    I ended up  majoring in anthropology in college , and concentrated my research on topics  relating to East Africa, with a bit of Indian studies thrown in.    I got into grad school, graduated with concentrations in land use & community development. There were no jobs, so I decided that was the time to join Peace Corps & get some international experience. I had vague ideas about a career in either foreign service or development work.  Still naive…

After I got back from Malawi, I worked as a consultant for a friend’s educational company. What his company did was contract with Peace Corps & hire the trainers who trained Peace Corps Volunteers in their countries of service.  At the time, he did this in Senegal, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Honduras, Costa Rica, Paraguay, and a few other places.

One day, we were working, and my friend got a phone call from the General Accounting Office. They were auditing Peace Corps contracts.  The auditor wanted to know why he opened an account in Honduras, and closed the account 3 months later.

My friend told the auditor that the project there was completed, so he repatriated the money.

The auditor didn’t understand…sort of implying that he was laundering money.    I remarked that the guy had probably never been a Peace Corps Volunteer & had his money devalued 30% overnight.

Peace Corps volunteers aren’t paid, but they do get a living stipend.  It is deposited directly into a bank account, and you are expected to pay your food, utilities (if they are available), clothing, transportation, & expenses out of that account.  Peace Corps  makes sure you are provided housing & health care.   I don’t know if it is still true, but the money is transferred into your account in local currency.  In the case of Malawi, this was the Kwacha.  You were advised to , once  the transfer was made,  change  this into dollars. There  generally was no charge for this, but you had to go down to the bank & stand in line, & this could take up the better part of the morning or afternoon.  & I never did it because  the Kwacha had been stable for over 20 years:  3.3 to the dollar.

I had heard rumors that London Club (this would be the European donors–the colonialists who have propped up the African governments they  formerly managed) was strongly urging devaluation, but it was just a rumor.  Radio was censored in Malawi.  You might get the BBC for 5 minutes at dawn or dusk, and it might be mentioned.  Some of the elites had satellite dishes and had access to CNN—but when did I see  elites?  Newsweek magazine? Please.

But anyways, things were not going well on the ground.  I was an urban planner, and I had been slated to work on a United Nations Development Program scheme to provide recycling services & trash pickup in several squatter communities.    Not only would this create jobs, but if the communities go themselves organized, they would have  more access to  improved water services.  This involved doing a bit of community organizing, and I knew exactly  the people to do it:  the Homecraft Workers.   These were women, trained as social workers (of sorts)  who were sort of community grandmothers.  They were very highly respected in their communities.

The problem was that NOBODY did ANYTHING that the MALAWI CONGRESS PARTY didn’t tell them to do. It was sort of comical.  I had been given permission by key players in the government. They wanted the UNDP money—they were prepared to take all the credit for the community improvements.  However… trouble was brewing among the loyal opposition, and  at just about the time I had the meeting with the Homecraft Workers, a bunch of Malawi Young Pioneers (you know—the ‘regulars’—the employees of the machine) got beat up.  It was clear to the expatriates in town what was happening,  but the Homecraft Workers were not going to make a move until they were directed to by a Malawi Congress Party bigwig.  & they were laying low.

So, there I was, with essentially nothing to do besides nag people to pay their development fees (part of the reason I was there, in Blantyre, was because there was a problem with the concept of transparency and respect for rule of law…this isn’t just Malawi.  When I first got there, my counterparts—Luka & Nkoma—, told me I was from America—I didn’t know what it was like.  I told them, “Actually, I am from Chicago. We’ve had a single party system for over 50 years.  I know exactly what it’s like.”)

I was in a ‘tail wagging the dog’ situation, where of my staff of 40, 35 were spending virtually all their time either  trying to sabotage any improvement to the system or flat out not working. But that’s another story.

So, I got up one morning, turned on the radio, & the news is that the currency has been devalued 30%.  & since my money was in Kwacha, not dollars, 30% of it had essentially disappeared.  Peace & Calm , Law & Order prevailed…

That’s how it started.  This was on Monday.  I went in to work & told Luka  and Nkoma what happened.  Oh, well, life goes on.   So does the rumor mill.  In a country with only 35% literacy, & only 15 % of households owning radios, you get ALL your information via rumor.  Nobody really knew  how this was going to impact us all,except that hard currency was going to be extremely dear.

On Wednesday, I went to the Polytechnic to see the weekly download of the ABC (American) news feed, & on my walk back to my office,  there were  truckloads of men in work jumpsuits  driving around shouting, “Strike!”.  By the time I got back to the office,  the rumor was that middle managers salaries were being raised 30%.  Ok, that’s about 200 people in the entire country. What about the regular folks?  Nobody knew…& they were innumerate anyways. That’s why there was tension

The next day, Thursday,  all hell broke loose.  Those workers driving around  shouting “Strike!”  Were from the industrial park.  The rumor was…later that  Wednesday afternoon, Carlsburg Beer workers went out, & the rest of the plants  fell like dominoes…they were all right next to each other, so they all went out.  Our  office campus was about a mile away, and when I got to work on Thursday morning, we had hundreds of people milling about. We were the local authority—-just Blantyre City government.  But when you’re illiterate, you don’t know from city or country—-all you know is government.  & suddenly, there was military, with tanks and guns, on our campus.  We were in the midst of a general strike.

I tried calling the Peace Corps office in Lilongwe (which was about 2 hours away in a fast car, or 6 hours by bus), but the lines were busy, so I called the USAID contact at the embassy.  I told her we were having a general strike, and  she said—I am not joking, “What’s a general strike?”

It was obvious that no work was going to be done that day. Anyways, I was going to go to Zimbabwe in 2 weeks, & I needed dollars…and another charming thing about banking in Malawi was that they’d only let you take $100 out of your account at one time—so I had to go every day to accumulate my now  expensive dollars.

I got on a bus (the buses were still running), & halfway to  the CBD (that would be downtown business district), the bus stopped, & people started getting off.  The street had been blocked by flagpoles (this is also  interesting—via the Malawi Congress Party ‘hotline’—they’d get the ‘regulars’ out to put up flagpoles with flags of the country of visiting dignitaries from other African countries…we were expecting some bwana from Tanzania).

I took a photo of this, and noticed hundreds of people walking  away from the business district. Whatever, I was going to the bank.  Along the way, one of my staff  was coming my way.  He asked me where I was going, I told him, and he laughed, and said, “Robyn!  The bank’s not open! There’s shooting in town!”

I didn’t hear any shots. We were outside Queen Elizabeth Hospital  at the time.   Midway between Blantyre ‘city hall’ (my office) & the bank.  He kept walking east, I was still walking west.  I took maybe 10 more steps & heard the shooting, and realized I had to get to a safe place.

I walked to Phil & Sharon Erros’ apartment, about 100 feet more. Sharon, a nurse, was at work, but Phil was at home because he had been working on an independent project.
“There’s shooting,”  I said to him, as he let me in.  ”  I’ve heard.  What do you think we should do?” he asked me.

“Let’s call the Peace Corps Office & see if they are going to evacuate us.”  I knew they weren’t.  Blantyre is in a valley.  The only 2 roads into town would surely be blocked.  But we had nothing to do, so we called, & the Country Director told us to just stay there.  I don’t think he believed us.   Malawi was the calmest country in Africa.

Now, remember, the government owns  THE radio station, so there is just regular programing.  NO TV.  Nothing. All you can do is sit.  The bullets were flying quite close to the house…& this went on till about 1 in the afternoon.  I was getting antsy. When it had been very still for a couple of hours, until about 3, I told Phil I was going to walk home.  As I was leaving, Sharon came in, from the hospital. They had been sort of under lockdown, but now NOBODY  was on the streets.

It was about 2 miles to my house, but that’s what I did.  I walked home, filled the bathtub with water (you do that  in case they shut down the water works), took all my decorations off the wall & packed my big bag,  hung around, read a bit, & went to bed.

Friday morning—it was dead out. I  decided to go into work.  The campus was dead except for my department.  My employees showed up!  At least my key people.  So there we were.  I told Luka & Nkoma I was bored, and that I didn’t want to stay around all weekend,  and that I was going to go to Zomba (Zomba is a college town about 30 miles away, and I had friends there).  They both decided that it might not be safe out on the street for a mzungu, and  decided to check around & see if the buses were even running before allowing me back on the street.

The coast was clear, so I went to the bus station & on to Zomba.  My friends, Sam & Florence Chikwembani, had been in grad school at Northwestern. That’s how I knew them. and Sam was  totally beside himself.  It turns out the  newspaper—the government paper—was reporting on the rioting.  So was the BBC.   As Sam pointed out to me, this had NEVER happened in Malawi.  We learned that the word had spread to BIWI—the industrial park in Lilongwe, and there were demonstrations (rioting?) there on Friday.  So. of course, after the excitement died down (by Monday),  Peace Corps wanted to know how I knew…& I had to tell them that I live with these people, duh!

The upshot?  The London Club–particularly the British office of Overseas Development Assistance (their version of USAID), froze all foreign assistance.  That put a stop to several development programs.  They were pushing for free, multiparty elections and a free press, & would not resume aid until changes were made.

USAID?  nothing. That’s not how we work.  In fact,  there was a drought, and people were starving, & I bought empty USAID  food bags in the Limbe market.  Where was the corn that was in those bags?  The government of Malawi transferred the food into their own bags, and gave it to the starving people, courtesy of Dr. Banda, the Life President.  All the Peace Corps volunteers knew this was going on, but the  elites—U.S. govt. embassy & USAID staff were oblivious.  They were doing business with this decaying government as though nothing was amiss.

So, the  ‘revolution’ petered out, and the exiles remained mostly in Zambia.

Elections didn’t take place until 1996.  I returned for a brief visit then, and people were optimistic. The economy was thriving and there were several newspapers.  I asked Luka & Nkoma which paper they trusted. They told me none of them.  You still had to read between the lines.

Malawi isn’t the most corrupt country in Africa.  However, I am in no position to say how transparent  government is.  I still live in Chicago, and we still have a single party system.

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