Coming out of Malawi into South Africa is always a bizarre experience. Only two hours of flight separates these two countries, but the difference between the two is so vast as to be almost different continents. Whereas Malawi is dark and electricity scarce, South Africa is light. Where roads in Malawi are lined with 6 foot maize, South Africa’s are lined with illuminated billboards and vast brick walls to control crime.
Malawi is mostly uniform, a country occupied by the artificial, colonial construction known as Malawians. It is a patchwork of tribes and ethnicities that has, for the most part, morphed into a people defined by their national identity, a welcome but rare phenomena in post-independence Africa. South Africa has yet to truly coalesce into a unified group. Rather, it clings together in the way that the patchwork of Americans does, a loosely linked union under a progressive political system, but vastly divided at heart. Malawians seek to improve Malawi for all Malawians, South Africa still fights along racial and ethnic lines over resources and opportunities, in the very same ways that Americans do.
The economic differences are less apparent when making the step down from the US to South Africa to Malawi, but incredible the other way. Though both countries have vastly hopeful futures, South Africa’s is especially bright. Malawi’s future may creak under the weight of bad governance, misguided economic policy and world superpowers using it as a battleground for their own selfish sets of agendas. President Bingu has gone insane. We can only hope that his brother, Peter Mutharika, St. Louis Washington University Law Professor, thought by many to be a shoe-in for the next presidency, follows the path of common sense and sanity.
There is good reason to be optimistic about Africa’s future, having an increasingly educated populace and a rising middle class seeking better opportunities for their children, and having been thoroughly exhausted by warfare. The anchor of an economy like South Africa’s could even be the engine that propels the Southern part of the continent to the next level, assuming that embarrassing stalwarts like Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe finally kick off and allow the country to move forward.
Mostly though, sitting at the the Jo-Berg airport, aware of having to exit this incredible place, I think about what I get out of being in Malawi (and Africa in general) and how much bigger my world has become in the past few years. It seems like it was just yesterday,that I was some punk kid trying desperately to get out of Mississippi.
Leaving Africa, though, it’s hard not to think about what gets left behind. I’ve decided that the most important and meaningful thing you can do to get along in life, is to remember the name of everyone you meet and greet them like they are your best friend, no matter how brief or long ago your first meeting was. Shake hands with everyone, multiple times, if possible. Look everyone straight in the eye and treat them with respect. It’s really basic shit. If the US would learn or relearn these basic lessons, we’d probably all get along a little bit better.
My friend George, the head of the Malawian Secular Humanist Society, was kind enough to take me to the Maula Prison in Lilongwe to visit people who have been imprisoned on witchcraft related offenses. Readers may remember that a couple of months ago, George had arranged for the release of some of the oldest “witches”, paid their fines and returned them safely to their homes.
George has deep connections to this place. He was imprisoned here for 18 months during the Banda regime. A former civil servant, George returned from Zimbabwe to find police waiting for him at the airport, who immediately took him to prison. No formal charges were filed and no reasons for the imprisonment stated. That’s just how life was under the dictatorial Hastings Banda.
The prison structure in Malawi, like all Malawian services, is rudimentary and poorly funded. In a country where most people live on less than $1 a day, tax revenues are scant, and competing needs such as health care, roads , schools and Bingu’s publicity machine don’t leave much for prisons. Walking up to the prison gate, I can’t figure out which would be easier to walk through, the wide open gate, or the eroded 3 foot space underneath it. Two unarmed guards sit at a makeshift desk, while two prisoners play cards next to them under a tree.
I couldn’t get any pictures of the interior of the prison. Cameras are strictly forbidden. George says we can’t even bring cell phones, and he leaves his own in the trunk. I would push it and perhaps keep a recorder in my pocket, but I don’t want to jeopardize George’s ability to visit the prison. As I could not take photographs, I have opted out of brevity in this post, and have tried to preserve as many details as possible.
George is greeted by the guards, explains who it is he is here to see but they already know. A heated argument ensues. I can only make out that they are arguing over when someone is to be released but nothing more. I am afraid that my presence is somehow troubling to the guard, but, thankfully, the word “azungu” never appears. George throws his hands up, walks away against the protestations of the guards and we proceed in. Our entry is so loose, that it feels more like we are walking on to a school campus than a prison.
We stop by the prison store before we visit the prisoners. Three guards are outside drinking beer and playing cards. Yes, guards in Malawi are able to drink beer on their breaks. All of them know George and look up from the beer to greet him by name. The shop is like any small shop in Malawi. Bread, drinks, soap, sugar and other staples are sold here for families to take to the prisoners. Soccer posters and chalk-written scoreboards adorn the walls. I buy some soap, sugar and bread to be taken in and given to the people we have come to visit. It seems like a small thing. Maybe I should buy more. I stick with what I have, though I feel guilty for not doing more.
The guy running the store pokes at George: “I’ve been bewitched! My back is hurting me terribly!”
The prison grounds are a concentric series of barbed wire fences. A larger fence surrounds the compound and is easily circumvented through the rickety front gate. There is a center administration building and a outdoor kitchen area. Beyond that is a 10 foot barbed wire fence that surrounds the main holding area with several smaller buildings inside.
People mill about everywhere. Prisoners who are dressed in white uniforms do work outside the inner prison area. They are allowed to tend the grass, do cooking and maintenance jobs, and whatever else is required of them by the prison guards. Presumably, they are allowed this privilege for good behavior and unwillingness to escape. Some prisoners have CD players and radios to listen to while they work outside and nearly all will greet you as you pass by, just like any Malawian.
We approach the main area to visit with the accused “witches.” Within the barbed wire fence of the prison area is yet another barbed wire fence of the same variety. They aren’t the machine made fences of the west, but rather iron poles thrust into the earth below. The posts have barbed wire horizontally and vertically hand strung between them that is rusty and easily broken. The gate is somewhat more sturdy, but between the gate and the fence sits a foot wide gap that someone like myself could easily squeeze through. Prison builders merely wrapped more barbed wire to cover it.
The women’s’ area is largely empty. Presumably, the imprisonment of women is a rare occurrence. A few female guards come to greet us, and apparently all are on friendly terms with George. One calls out and an older woman comes hobbling out to the fence and sits on the ground. She is merely 8 years older than I am, but looks to be nearly 70. A conversation begins (in Chichewa). I can make out that another of the group has recently stepped on a bottle and injured her foot severely. She will be out shortly, she says.
Another older woman ambles out from the grounds with a bandaged foot. Behind her, we can see a woman on crutches who quickly falls to the ground. This is the oldest of the three. I try to say that she doesn’t have to come, but another prisoner kindly loads the old woman onto her back and carries her over.
Namakhalepo Kamphata is over 80 years old, an incredible age in a country where the average life expectancy is only about 45 years old. Though aged beyond belief here, despite her mobility problems, she is talkative and alert, and complains to the joy of everyone around her. Africans respect old people. All around will dote on even complete strangers as if they were their own parents. The guards and the other prisoners clearly make every effort to take care of Namakhalepo.
We give her soap and bread and some extra money to buy whatever she needs. She miserly counts the money to make sure that no one has pocketed any of her share.
Namakhalepo, despite her incredible age and frail state, has been imprisoned for “pretending witchcraft.” She was sentenced to three years in prison for using witchcraft to kill a small child. Her accusers were members of her own community. Truly, if she had magical powers, she would have flown out of the prison a long time ago.
The other two are sisters, Margaret Jackson (60) and Eviness Elifar (50). They have been accused of teaching witchcraft to children and must remain in prison for five years. Their accuser is their own brother, who is a village leader. Both have several children. Eviness is epileptic and experiences frequent seizures. It is common for epileptics to be accused of being possessed by spirits or of being witches.
The atmosphere is so friendly, that the only thing reminding me that we’re in a prison is the barbed wire. We could be in a friendly home for aged women. Despite that, this truly is prison, and the conditions are generally deplorable. Prisoners only get as much food as will support life. Vegetables have to be bought by individual prisoners themselves. Meats and sources of protein are non-existent here. The Norweigian government recently donated shower and improved sleeping facilities for the female ward, but the lives of prisoners are still miserable by any measure. That these women have been imprisoned in this state on charges of practicing magical acts is comedy on the one hand and a gross and disgusting violation of human rights on another.
We proceed to meet Alubano Alibereko, a gentleman who was accused of practicing witchcraft after relating the contents of a dream to his friends. He has been sentenced to 18 months in prison. We approach the men’s section.
The first thing that you notice as you move from the relatively tranquil women’s area toward the men’s section is the incredible stench. The barbed wire becomes more concentrated and tangled, haphazardly wrapped around the tops of fences likes mottled hair. Approaching, you see thousands of men packed onto the prison grounds, many standing near the fence and shouting out to their families who have come to visit them. Many stand up and look at me, and should out “Hey, basu”, just like Malawian guys do on the street.
The conditions are absolutely inhuman. There are more than 2000 men packed in to this small compound, and sleep 200 to each 20*30 building. A quick calculation makes you realize that these men would have to sleep sitting up to be able to fit in the buildings. Some men, in prison whites walk freely in and out of the compound, which looks more like a concentration camp than a state run prison. Most of the men are young, in for petty offenses. Stealing a $12 goat will get you two years in this hellhole. Some guys play soccer with a home-made ball.
There are some seriously scary looking dudes here. Some try to get me to give them money. One of them is the largest Malawian I’ve ever seen. He’s almost six and a half feet tall and has to weigh nearly 300 pounds. Most of the guys look fairly healthy, but it’s well known that HIV and TB run rampant here. Malnutrition and violence make survival for the weak unlikely.
The man we have come to see, Alubano, is thin. He looks either malnourished or in the throes of HIV. His teeth are nearly gone. He converses freely, but I doubt that he will survive his sentence. He says that he is very worried about his four children back in the village and bring two of his friends who have just arrived. They look frightened to death.
Tough guys walk all around. It’s clear that this prison, like all others, has created informal hierarchies of prisoners, with the strong dominating the weak. A gentleman wearing an ivory cross comes to talk to us, standing in between the prisoners and us, clearly aiming to prove his position as an informal prison captain. Alubano’s frightened friends are likely targets for incredible abuse and beg on their knees for help. George apologizes and says that there isn’t much he can do for them, as they aren’t there on witchcraft related crimes.