BLANTYRE – My gorgeous hotel in the heart of Malawiâ€™s largest city, Blantyre, has absolutely no water. The toilet doesnâ€™t flush, and management has slipped a Xeroxed letter under my door alerting me to the problem. Of course, the entire city lacks water because of the failure of the water companyâ€™s main pump, so my hotel has an excuse. Still, my toilet wonâ€™t flush and only a trickle comes out of the sink, not enough to even brush my teeth. Managementâ€™s confession that the hotelâ€™s backup tanks â€“ a full 10,000 liters â€“ have been exhausted wins high marks for candor, but the emergency response â€“ buckets of water brought to oneâ€™s room â€“ seems ominous.
For the visitor to Malawi from North America or Europe, the collapse of essential services in Ryalls Hotel, one of Malawiâ€™s best, is ominous indeed, especially since in my 9 days in the country I have learned that the research and aid programs for this poor African country are determined by the proximity of a first-class hotel to what aid workers call â€œour impact areas.â€ The key to stylish living in Malawi, for aid workers and the agents of the international community who arrive regularly to provide social and technical uplift, turns on the choice of a hotel. Entire aid projects are designed, at bottom, on their proximity to a first-hotel. Clever foreigners struggle mightily to identify an â€œimpactâ€ area that is within 45 minutes drive from the center of Blantyre, Zomba or Lilongwe, the capital. In each of these cities, comfortable lodgings can be obtained from $50 to $150 a night. The Ryalls Hotel and the Mount Roche are the two priciest digs, though prominent aid agencies (The World Bank, United Nations and U.S. A.I.D., for instance, have negotiated special rates that bring the charge close to $100 a night. Esconced in one of these hotels, an aid worker can have a sumptious breakfast before 9 am, spend 6 hours in a hot, dusty and impoverished village a mere 50 minutes away by dirt road, and then return before sundown to the comfort of an air conditioned room, with the latest movies on the telly.
Of course, no project manager would ever admit to organizing their entire programs around the availability of creature comforts of ex-pat staff and visiting experts. After all, Malawi is blessed with a moderate climate and a relatively low incidence of crime. People are friendly, polite and even shy. Malawiâ€™s calm and careful atmosphere already earns it (along with a few other African countries, such as Ghana) the sneering moniker, Africa â€˜lite.â€™ A cynic might conclude that, given the ease of a foreignerâ€™s life in Malawi, that some sacrifices in the name of â€œforeign assistanceâ€ might be incurred by talent imported into the country.
Apparently not. One prominent anthropologist has spent more than 20 years visiting Malawi, all from a comfortable base in the old colonial capital. No nights spent in malaria-infested villages. No meager meals day after day. No sharing a bedroom with farm animals.
I myself have quickly adopted the same approach. I came to Malawi thinking I might sleep in remote villages, fighting off mosquitos and evil spirits during nights spent on foam pads in mud huts. But Iâ€™ve opted for using Western-style hotels as a launch-pad. While Ryalls has no running water in bathrooms, the outdoor pool is still functioning. So is the exercize room and the air-conditioning.
And all for a nightly fee that exceeds 50 percent of the official GDP per capita.
I am not alone. No less a self-sacrificing crusader than Oxfam is holding a staff meeting starting today in the countryâ€™s premier resort hotel, high in Zombaâ€™s picturesque mountains. Oxfam is pondering its â€œstrategic goalsâ€ for poverty reduction, so such elegant surroundings may inspire deep thoughts. Or perhaps not. Perhaps Oxfam should have held its staff retreat in the village of Mapelera, southwest of Blantyre. I spent half the day in Mapelera and its environs, courtesy of some helpful World Vision staff. The village has no running water, no electricity and no air conditioning. But there are plenty of poor people.
True, these people are less poor than they used to be, thanks to a crude, Rube Goldberg-esque irrigation system theyâ€™ve built for themselves, using gravity and earthen canals to steer water from the river that gives the village its name. Oxfamâ€™s Malawian staff, and some bigwigs visiting from London, might not find the creature comforts to their liking. But the everyday suffering they experience â€“ notably the meager food â€“ might help them â€œchannelâ€ the actual mentality of the poor in Malawi. For curiously there are no poor people helping to devise Oxfamâ€™s poverty strategy for Malawi. Actual poor people are too busy being poor to spend weeks in posh resorts or to commute to their impoverished home villages in the way I did today and the way virtually all foreign experts to this Africa â€˜liteâ€™ do the year-round impoverished village a mere 50 minutes away by dirt road, and then return before sundown to the comfort of an air-conditioned room, with the latest movies on the telly.