David Boyle

The by-election in the bush

Electioneering in Malawi, November 1996 (actually more of a factual description)

 "This is where the chief of the army was shot," said Ali, our minder from the Ministry of Justice. Together with his driver, his daughter and his grandmother, we were making the long drive south down the 'M1' beside the Mozambique border.

His delicately pressed and silent four-year-old daughter sat next to me in the car carefully picking her nose, and gravely wiping her fingers on my beige pressed trousers.

Apparently the road was much safer now, and the raiders only ever attack Izusu land cruisers. It's probably some kind of Pavolovian thing, like dogs and postmen. They see an Izusu and they just can't help it.

To my surprise, Malawi looked like an 18th century English landscape portrait, with its moth-eaten scrub, elderly grass and strange distant mountains like rocks sticking out of the mist at sea. There were enormous skies, like vast experimental pallettes of blue and white, under which Livingstone, Rhodes and the Matabele worked out their various destinies.

I had never been to Africa before and there was something thrilling about it, something pregnant too, something content and something strangely discontent: it is difficult to tell exactly which is which. Something so incredibly creative that it can frazzle you, destroy you or blow you away.

Jeremy and I had been hurried through the torrential rain at Lilongwe airport to the VIP lounge and the care of Ali, who says "Again" when he can't hear, and "Thanks" when he can. We toddled along the highway, past the headless street lamps, decapitated in protest when the UDP won the election in 1994. Lilongwe bore an astonishing resemblance to Skelmersdale. As if somebody has plonked down a range of concrete buildings higgledy-piggledy then sprinkled weedkiller on the surrounding grass.

Jeremy asked an exhausting series of bizarre questions: "what is the percentage of civil servants to the population?" "what is the health policy here?" - and insisted on referring to all the ministers as 'honourable', which gave the proceedings a peculiar Japanese air.

The landscape was flatter as we drove south, with the strange mountains in the distance, some like surprising breasts, some like the mountain goat enclosure at London Zoo, some like something out of Middle Earth. And all the way along, mud houses with grass roofs, piles of baked red bricks, black and white goats running wild, and endless dirty T-shirted happy children, and their mothers carrying enormous golf umbrellas to keep out the sun. There were also signs advertising Vaseline, Coca-Cola, Mtumayami Investments or - on one occasion - 'Herbalist of the Century'.

At Balaka half way there, narrowly missing a small town called Farringdon, we met the first people wearing the canary yellow UDF shirts and dresses, saw the first posters for the candidate Yusuf Mwawa - the by-election is on Wednesday. And we began the long wait for Sam Mpasu, the secretary-general.

The Minister of Telecommunications was inside the regional party headquarters. Policemen and women in ill-fitting uniforms hovered around. Men in land cruisers and Italian suits drove in and out, there was a constant blur of hand-shaking and bright pink gums behind smiles, youths wearing UDF yellow scarves hung around, and next door an almost naked man was sleeping on the floor of his porch.

We went for a brief lunch at an astonishingly dirty restaurant, with flies on the elderly plastic tablecloth, and elderly hardened food stuck to the plates. And then Sam arrived, looking confident, with a small beard and moustache, a tiny portable phone in his breast pocket and a twinkle in his eye.

"We can't do enough for you," said Sam, worryingly.

He had been imprisoned for two years for writing a novel which had upset the Banda regime, during which his new wife left him. And as Minister of Education in the UDF government, he had introduced free primary education, only to be shifted sideways after a scandal ivolving school exercise books and 37 million missing Kwachas.

He really believes in the UDF message of maximum personal freedom, bottom-up development and decentralisation. To my surprise - I had expected all the parties to be much the same -it became clear that the UDF really are Liberals, in a way which would be recognised in London or Ottawa.

Sam and his driver, the diminuative district secretary-general Tuwakali Maeila - plus one hanger-on I couldn't identify who sat on my luggage in the boot, drove us for an hour, along a rutted track past bicycles and women with teapots on their heads and waving children and endless languid goats - to a distant rally in a small village called Katulafula.

I was disturbed to find myself ushered into a seat next to Sam in the long line of seats of important party people. Opposite us were a bongo band and about 100 dirty smiling children, in ancient dilapidated T-shirts bearing slogans like Nintendo and, for some reason, Huddersfield Junior Rugby. They had been keeping vigil under the mango tree until we arrived. We were three hours late, but it didn't seem to matter.

The bongos began and a small group of young women, mostly in UDF yellow shirts, started dancing round and swinging their hips. And as they began people seemed to appear down the dirt tracks, from behind the mango trees and jacarandas with red Autumn leaves, and from the mud houses. The children and women massed on the right, and the men sat looking sage on benches on the left - with one determined women clinging to her whicker chair in spite of the whispered protestations of the men around her.

"... when the Malawi Congress Party were torturing us," sang the band happily and the growing circle of swinging women. It was infectious. "Swinging hips!" said Sam next to me with relish. "I am going to give them a token of my appreciation." And he advanced on the band with an outstretched wallet.

This was UDF country, of course - though one suspected that similar enthusiasm would have been shown for the MCP. Even the MCP area chairman had defected to the UDF, Sam told me, as we waited what seemed like hours for the meeting to begin. He couldn't be there because he had what he described as "runny tummy".

Elderly women and men came in a line like a wedding procession to shake my hand with enthusiasm, taking it in both of theirs. "Ireachenene", I said: Sam Mpasu had told me it meant "Are you well?" They seemed delighted and responded with a torrent of words.

At last the meeting began, with prayers from an old man in a cap and what seemed like pyjama trousers. Then a long list of local party officials were introduced, and the first of a series of chanted slogans: U! UDF! UDF! Woma! - which means 'government' - and the party's distinctive two-fisted overhead salute, Afford has a V-sign and MCP a thumbs up.

The area secretary-general went through the same ritual, including long downward swishing motions for the MCP, which the crowd - now numbering about 300 - copied with great enthusiasm. "They are going like a deflated tyre," said Sam in my ear.

Sam's own speech began with a song, accomapnied by clapping and swaying, like a rector with a mellow bass voice introducing his sermon in plainsong. "What is the name of the candidate?" he shouted.

"Mwawa," chanted the crowd.

"Who is the president?" The crowd shouted back the answer.

Then an introduction. "Get up," he hissed. I got up and acknowledged the unexpectedly tumultuous applause. Jeremy did the same, bowing rather more than he meant to I think. The crowd laughed delightedly. I wasn't sure why, but preferred to think it was Jeremy's fringe. Jeremy is not a good advertisement for the British Way of Hair.

The rest of his speech was long and hard to understand, though the words 'area chairman', 'constituency', 'branch chairman' seemed identical. There was also an expansive hand signal as he gestured towards us, which evidently meant "Look, now people come to see us from all over the world".

The crowd seemed to drink this all in uncritically, and over their heads the breeze ruffled the leaves in the pale late afternoon sunshine. It could have been Sunday evening in an English September, I thought, feeling charmed - even across this crowd of colourful, beautiful and disfigured people, with the blind and the girls with ricketts, and the toothless grins.

Then it was all over. The crowd gathered round, reaching out to shake my hand all the way to the car. "What is the word for goodbye and thanks?" I asked.

"Just say segum", Sam said.

"Secombe," I said, and the eyes of the people around me lit up. "Oh secombe, secombe!" they exclaimed as they made out my no doubt bizarre accent. I didn't know what secombe means, but maybe they were fans of Sir Harry's rendition of We'll Keep a Welcome in the Hillsides. It was absolutely delightful and I felt exhilarated.

For miles along the roads, people recognised Sam's yellow shirt and gave our Land Rover the familiar two-handed UDF salute. This was a strongly UDF area, but I couldn't help wondering whether they did the same for the Congress Party cars. And for all the great realisable Liberal ideals of the UDF, there is something missing from political life.

Jeremy probed and probed: "How many constituencies to an area region?" "What percentage of those return UDF candidates consistently?" "Is that the same in the rainy season?" And I long to ask questions like "Do people love each other more deeply here?" "Do lions play in the full moon?" But I never did. We never do, do we?


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title: books by David Boyle
Broke Voyages of Discovery Money Matters Blondel's Song Leaves World to Darkness The Little Money Book Funny Money The Tyranny of Numbers