Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Don't go walking after dark.....

Here in the suburbs of Lilongwe each house is built like a fortress.  The walls are high, around six foot, and topped with vicious looking barbed wire.  The gates are made of steel, and watched over by guards and hefty dogs.  No one walks the streets after dark for fear of being attacked.  If you do go out in your car, woe betide anyone who breaks down.  There are no roadside rescue teams here, and if you do get attacked, the police are unlikely to come, and there's not much chance of an ambulance either.  Occasionally you can see an 'armed response' team cruise past, watching over those properties that are wealthy enough to pay the premiums for gun-toting guardsmen.  The streets are dark, Malawi doesn't have working street lights, so any bandits can melt back into the shadows, safe from any inconvenient interruption by the law in any shape or form.

It means that you are essentially living under what feels like a military curfew, only without any soldiers on the street, because no-one is on the street.  People with cars are able to cruise around, but no-one is going to drive any distance after sunset.  I did hear of one person who left it rather late to travel cross country.  He saw a glazed-eyed pedestrian walk in front of his car.  He swerved to avoid the pedestrian, stopped the car but immediately was set upon by a gang.  His passenger was a local man and urged the driver to speed away, which he did.

The other thing to bear in mind, is that as Malawi is so close to the equator, sunset and sunrise are both around 6 o'clock all year round.  This means you have to seal yourself into your burglar-barred concrete bunker quite early in the evening.  It's a seriously weird way to live your life.  All the windows have burglar bars, so you feel like you are in a safe, which isn't that safe, because of course, if there is a fire, you are trapped.  Some gangs apparently have hydraulic cutters, which isn't great news.  If you do get a lift or drive out, all the venues have guards or guarded compounds for your car, so you drive from one hermetically sealed environment to another.

Malawi has a very polarised population.   Poverty has a strangle-hold on a lot of the country, which leads to widespread corruption, from the government (there has been a recent 'Cashgate' scandal) down to the garage mechanics who will mend your car, but swap all the accessories for inferior quality items in order to sell the better ones.

Malawi has beautiful scenery, wonderful people and amazing wildlife and is indeed the 'warm heart of Africa' - but only during sunlight.  Something metamorphoses with the daylight.  What I am not clear about is how real the risk of injury by attack is.  If everyone hides after sunset, and the streets are empty, they are more dangerous.  If everyone ran a 'reclaim the streets' campaign, and all went out to move the curfew to say, 10pm, might it not be safe again?  Could everyone not regain a little freedom?

Nice tree, shame about the barbed wire.
What is really alarming is that the local people think it is normal to live like this, 'Why would you want to go out in the evening and take the risk?' was one comment when I enquired about it.

I hope the UK never gets like this, I really enjoy the very normal act of walking back from places in the dark, at any hour, walking in my local park in the dark.  We mustn't all end up in fortified bunkers, we must love our communities and help each other.








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