Friday, 31 January 2014

Helping Is Easy, Part I

Day One: Arrival in Malawi.

It was the wet season and there were misty mountains and green fields, and sudden, solid downpours. Wandering into the centre of town, the streets were crowded with lopsided wooden stalls selling fruit and veggies, mobile phone chargers, local artwork and cheap plastic toys. People's eyes watched me, the foreigner, walk by.
"Hi brother" they called out "come see, looking is free." Bewildered, I walked on.

Minibuses with too many bodies crammed inside cruised past, and there was a man hanging out the open door drumming up yet more business. "Hello brother, where to?" he said.

Coming back to the lodge on the first afternoon I saw a group of kids playing soccer on a dirt patch with a ball made of plastic bags scrunched up and tied together. I'd brought a soccer ball from home, so I ran to my room, pumped it up, and ran back. When the kids saw it they stopped dead. I introduced myself and asked if I could play.

Within five minutes, it had gone from twenty kids to about eighty. They came from nearby huts, they came from the maize fields, they popped up out of the ground to play football with the white man and his ball. From about four years old to fourteen, they all played. It was a joyous madness, a wild mob running and laughing and trying to get a foot to the ball. Then an organiser appeared and broke people into teams and there was a competition.

The smallest kids stayed on the sidelines. There was a cheer squad of boys behind the goals who chanted and sung and when a goal was scored they poured onto the field to dance. Girls of no older than six had babies on their backs - their little brothers or sisters, presumably -  and stood quietly, sometimes stealing a glance at the strange white man.

The boys played with skill, with the body language and intelligent passing that comes with a genuine understanding of the game. The goal posts were made of bamboo sticks wedged together and when the ball struck them, the cross bar fell off. There was an agile climber amongst the junior cheer squad who shimmied up to replace it and the singing continued.

The afternoon wore on and I decided I wanted to give them the ball. The organiser told me they were part of a club, and he called the whole mad mob together for a meeting and explained that the ball was being given for them to share. There was an uproar of cheering and dancing and the kind of smiles you never knew existed until you saw them. I went to bed, that first night in Africa, with my heart racing and my mind on fire.

Friday, 24 January 2014

Ten years today

Today marks ten years since I first set foot on the African continent; in the nation of Malawi to be more exact. What followed was an adventure that lasted three years, and which will no doubt will linger in my consciousness until I'm gone. 

To mark the occasion I thought I'd share some stories from those whirling days. A few of these might be familiar to some, but I hope the indulgence can be forgiven as I'm going back through these stories as much for my own reflection as for anything else. 

I'll start with this one, a golden moment that struck me down. It's a bit long, I'm sorry, I'll try to keep the next ones shorter. 



In the back of the open truck were eighty singing girls, two other teachers, and I. The girls were sitting on the floor, hanging off the edge, standing and leaning into the wind, or clinging to the roof of the cab. I was clutching the rim of the tailgate with eight others. The students were the school football and netball teams, as well as the fifty most vocal supporters, who had been up since three that morning practicing their songs. We were off to play Monkey Bay Secondary School.

For the four hours of the journey the girls sang, clapped, chanted, beat drums and blew on a trumpet which they’d borrowed for the day. All this despite being jammed into a space designed to carry a load of sand, and not being suited to so many bodies. . As we sailed along, cutting a path between fields and plains, villages and baobabs, pure ecstatic joy was exhaled with their shouts and left a buzzing trail behind us.

Several trading posts flashed by: crowds of milling people, the smell of smoke and roasting meat, the noise of chatter and arguments. There were weather-beaten billboards with pictures of condoms talking to one another, and a newer one with a sombre picture of the President reminding us that Speed Thrills, But It Also Kills.

Lines of barefoot people trod the muddy roadsides. Bicycles with loads of firewood stacked impossibly high swayed along the edge of the tarmac, and our speeding vehicle came within centimetres of scattering their load over the road and fields. A table decorated with bright pyramids of tomatoes sat in the sunshine while it’s owner napped in the thick shade of a mango tree nearby. In a field of weeds a crumbling building proclaimed to be an International School of Business.

Over bumps and around corners I feared for my safety and held on tight, but I appeared to be the only one concerned with such trivial matters. The girls waved their arms around, they let the sun warm their backs and the wind cool their faces. Their light green school blouses had been swapped for t-shirts and were now being whirled in the air above them, or wrapped around their head as a scarf. They sang traditional songs, radio hits and hymns, and when they ran out of songs, they sang them all again. They leaned over to beat the side of the truck, they stomped and clapped. People on the roadside stopped to stare at this circus, these travelling loonies who announced themselves with the blast of a trumpet and then sped by with a cloud of music hovering overhead.

It was a day out, African style. Part of the reason for the girls’ excitement was that this trip was a rare taste of freedom. The compound at St Mary’s Girls' Secondary School (like most Malawian secondary schools, it was a boarding school) was fenced in, and the students weren’t allowed out for the whole term except on special occasions. These included sporting trips, religious gatherings and perhaps they will be allowed out for a few hours on a public holiday (when they race to buy greasy hot chips and have discreet meetings with boys from Zomba Catholic School). Most of them will set foot outside the school only once or twice a term, so when they do go, there’s reason to celebrate.

The girls of St Mary’s didn’t have an easy ride through life. They had seen more than they perhaps should have, and lost much of what was rightfully theirs. Once I had asked Patience, a fifteen year old, how her holidays had been.
“Not fine” she replied.
“Oh, why not?”
“My father, he was sick and I spent the whole time caring for him.”
 “But he’s better now?”
“No. The funeral was yesterday.”
With HIV/AIDS the way it is, she was hardly the only one in such a situation.

Our truck crawled up the hills and sped down the other side. The highway going north from Zomba was well-made, and easy travelling. We passed the police roadblock at Liwonde, then crossed the Shire River. The girls paused in their singing to admire their country’s largest river. The water from here flows south through the steaming lowlands, where hippos and crocs lurk in the shallows, and mosquitoes hover in droves, and further south still into Mozambique, where it meets the Zambezi and eventually enters the Indian Ocean. But that was a world away; none of the girls had seen the ocean. Half of them had never even seen Lake Malawi, only a hundred of kilometres north from here. After Liwonde, we turned right, onto the lakeshore road and immediately entered tropical lakeside territory. Baobab trees, old and gnarled, sat like stationary elephants by the road. Palm and banana trees lined the water’s edge. Mangoes were for sale in baskets, and paw paws and fresh fish. There were stalls selling large woven mats, round or rectangular. The air was hazy and the hills to our left were almost obscured from view.

“Mister Giddo, can you swim?” Rose, perched next to me on the tailgate, asked. She had to shout to be heard above the rushing wind, and several others turned to listen.
“Yes, most people in Australia can swim” I replied.
“What if the water is deeper than your head?”
“No problem.”
“What if the water is ten metres deep?” she asked.
“Sure” I said, which was met with oohs from several others who’d been listening.
“What if the water is one hundred metres deep?”
“I reckon I still could.”
There was scoffing of disbelief, and one voice said “Eeeh, it can't be true. One hundred metres, habali!”

When they arrived at school at the start of term, the girls carried on their head a suitcase containing their bedding, uniform, and a couple of changes of clothes; and in their hand a bucket for their washing. They had no phone, no magazines, no radio and no tv. Some had no pencil to write with, and no soap with which to wash. What entertainment existed was largely up to their own invention. They sang, danced and prayed together. Their favourite hobby was chatting. But once they had scrounged together the school fees, they focussed on education and worked with tireless ferocity to pass their exams. If I walked through the school late at night, I saw them hunched on the cold concrete footpaths, memorising pages of notes from their dog-eared notebooks. There was one girl beneath each of the bare light globes, so they were evenly spaced like marker beacons. In class, they listened with devotion to the words of their teachers and followed instruction to the letter. My job as a teacher was made easy by their self-regulation. If one of them happened to murmur while I was speaking, half the class would turn around and silence the delinquent with an exaggerated shhhhhhh.

In the weeks before the Monkey Bay trip, I had been weighed down by questions that surely come to any visitor to Africa. How is such poverty possible, when others in the world have so much? What does this say about human beings, how can we allow this and believe ourselves the clever species? And what is my place in all of this? I came here to help, a gesture of goodwill, so why do I now feel more guilty than ever? By being here, am I simply reinforcing stereotypes - I am the white man, all wise and caring, let me assist you poor, helpless people? I was collecting worries, filling my pockets with them so they came with me everywhere, and every day I stuffed more in. When my pockets were bulging, I shoved still more under my hat, so that even sitting quietly I was sweating, and had a pain in my head.

In the truck surrounded by raucous singing, looking at the many faces gleaming with smiles in the warm sun, I had an unexpected glimpse into something beyond. Like a thought that flits in during the moments before sleep, this knowledge didn’t have sharp edges or a definable shape, but it left a lingering feeling of goodness and warmth.

I saw that amidst the chaos of life, within the tumble and the uncontrolled falling of events, that there is order, there is a reason, and above all else that everything is going to be alright. Just for a slippery moment, the problems of the universe, the worries of this life, all were gone. 

The girls clearly knew this already; they had a grasp on something I struggled to understand. They knew that life is hard with misery never far away, but there are undoubtedly sweet things to savour on the journey. These are not necessarily big, complicated things – an old friend to chat with, a green avocado to eat, an afternoon free of classes - but that couldn’t diminish the delight of the girls. They understood that the more simple the things you’re delighted by, the greater your chances of being delighted.

They had food. They had friends around them. They had hope for the future, and now there was this day of sunshine and freedom. Theirs was a life unfiltered, and they knew how to show delight.

St Mary's girls. Form 2, 2006.


Sunday, 19 January 2014

Even as I was writing the previous post, misgivings were forming in my mind. While my main point, about observing and appreciating all sorts of weather, was valid enough, my privileged position in the world was made apparent and I now want to add a few further thoughts.

Only someone living in the developed world, with the means to buy anything possibly needed, could have the luxury of seeing the weather simply as a phenomenon to be enjoyed.

There are many in a less fortunate position who know that the weather, in all its merciless forms, can have greater consequences, even being the difference between life and death.

In Malawi 85% of the population are subsistence farmers. A wet season which does not deliver enough rain will mean the family, the region, the whole country, will not harvest enough maize for the year, and before the next harvest is due hunger will take hold. Famine lurks that close.

Even rain at the wrong time can spell disaster. If the rains come early, before the crop has had time to dry, it will be ruined and there will be shortages.

I read recently about the Sundarban Wetlands between Bangladesh and India. The largest river delta in the world, it is home to four million people. During cyclones the area is inundated with salt water, rendering the normally fertile soil barren. Suddenly, four million hungry people.

Image from

We in the developed nations rely more heavily on the natural world than we may perceive. From where does our food come? Our fresh water? If there is drought, if there is flood, then where will our food come from? Bushfires in Australia, unprecedented snowstorms in the north of the US, floods in Europe - they all show us that even the rich world's technology and infrastructure may be swept aside by the might of the planet's changing weather.

With the terrible spectre of climate change looming, it seems a little glib to write about loving and appreciating all sorts of different weather.

Instinct tells me there's nothing wrong with observing and enjoying the weather I wake up to each day, I think it's in my nature to do so. But herein lies one of the the paradoxes of living. How to hold a joyous wonder at this world of beauty, while remaining in unflinching awareness of the injustice and sadness that is everywhere, every day?

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

One of the things I love about being out in nature is how the same place can show so many different faces, depending on its mood at the time. Think of a beach on a lazy summer evening, when the sea breeze has calmed to a whisper and the last of the orange sun glistens off the water as breakers tumble in, inviting you to splash and dive in their healing playground. Then think of the same beach on a blustery winter’s day, with a sharp southerly wind whipping the ocean into a foamy whitewash, as seagulls squawk and struggle against the bitter wind, and an icy rain stings your face as you lean into the gale, hands in jacket pockets and eyes squinted.

I love both these scenes. Not for me is the complaining about the ‘bad weather’ any time it dares to rain. Give me variety. Give me roaring wind, give me thunderstorms, give me a week-long soaking. Give me a hot westerly, a cold southerly, give me sunny cicada-drenched heatwaves. Lay it all on me and let me notice and appreciate it all.

Different times of day can reveal different moods. Sunset near Lucky Bay, WA. 

On that Barrington Tops trip I had the chance to see a couple of different places in a couple of different moods...

On the way up the scarp there was a gap in the trees enabling a view over a deep valley whose curves and clefts wound around, their dense green walls rolling off into the distance. I sat to rest and admire the blissful view.

On the descent two days later I passed the same place. A grey mist shrouded the landscape. I could see the shadowy outlines of two or three of the nearest trees but apart from that, nothing. A mysterious blank slate. The only thing moving in the smothering stillness was the mist itself, gently wafting up towards me. From within came the melancholic screech of a single black cockatoo, like the Australian kin of Middle Earth's Nazgul. Better move on, I thought, before I'm turned to stone to pass the ages locked in stillness.


A sunny afternoon lying on the grass by a bright bubbling creek. Hiking boots were off and feet dipped in the water in the afternoon warmth, as I read and dozed, listening to birds call and leaves rustle.

In the morning I woke up and saw my breath coming in thick clouds. The tent was covered in a thin layer of crackly ice, the grass was frosted white. As I waited for the water to boil I did star jumps to warm up. The sun finally emerged and glistened off the icy landscape, bringing the promise of life after all. 

Warm afternoon campsite

The creek in afternoon sun

Icy morning view