Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Tumultous Times

I live in Malawi. I didn't grow up here but I have always been from here and have now returned and settled in.

It is a place of remarkable contrasts in some ways and mind-numbing sameness in others but it's home and that has come to mean so much more in light of the events of the past week.

There is a saying that aptly describes what has happened; The worm has turned.

As the entry for it on xomba explains, it is a common idiom used in reference to a situation in which a downtrodden individual or group turns on it's oppressor. The metaphor originated in the sixteenth century and is best known for its appearance in a Shakespeare play: "The smallest worm will turn, being trodden on."

Experience growing up in Kenya and living in Zimbabwe in the late 90s and early 2000s has taught me that it is on the whole safer to remain apolitical except when it comes to voting time but then again another adage comes to mind: 'Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.'

A quick snapshot of life in Malawi in 2011 is required. Fuel shortages that make life harder (and more expensive) for just about everyone; the other day I could barely find a bus back to Lilongwe from my hometown Mzuzu because they all ran out of diesel. Forex shortages that exacerbate the fact that we are a net importer. Electricity outages that affect industry and more personally are an inconvenience I would much rather do without. A parliament that passes bills without due scrutiny and with superficial consultation. Laws that infringe the very rights they are meant to uphold. A political landscape that is increasingly more fractured, where even the colour of your clothes will determine how you are treated. A disregard for diplomatic norms and international opinions that ultimately only disenfranchises the very poorest of the poor. Media outlets that are either lauded for spouting drivel or experience punitive measures for reporting objectively. Drug shortages, faltering markets. A crushing sense of loss at opportunity missed .

How quickly the euphoria of a landslide election victory and the optimism that a new and strong government with a mandate to implement its promises has turned into disillusionment and mistrust, disgust even. All the more so when the day before planned peaceful demonstrations youth from the ruling party took to the streets of Blantyre in party vehicles and colours brandishing machetes and spewing vitriol.

So I boldly got up on the 20th of July 2011, donned my red regalia and set out to add my voice to the rumble of the disgruntled masses. As I arrived at the bus depot I found a troubling situation. The very same police force that had only the evening before announced they would not hinder the peoples' right to peacefully demonstrate were arresting them and beating them if they resisted! As the reality of the fact that we would NOT in fact be allowed to march settled in, pent up frustration started to manifest with roadblocks of burning tyres being set up to hinder the police vehicles that were careening around with officers armed to the teeth and in camouflage as if embarking on a military campaign. The situation deteriorated quickly where I was and as the reports came in of similar unrest in Mzuzu, what had merely been spats turned into running battles.

Having been in similar situations in other countries before I decided to get while the getting was good. An injunction to stop the demonstrations had been granted to a misinformed individual the night before and was the cause all the current fracas. This was being battled in court and would soon be lifted. With no guarantee and the first indications of looting beginning I retreated to the safety of my home with the full intention of returning to march when the go-ahead came.

Yet as I listened to the radio my spirit sank. Full riots were breaking out and as is the nature of riots the destruction of property had taken the forefront. Forceful retaliation with live ammunition had already resulted in some deaths. Chaos reigned. A close personal friend of Asian descent called me in tears having just watched his investment vanish before his eyes.

Suddenly radio silence. A quick foray onto the Internet yielded results. Private media had been issued a gagging order by the regulatory authority. Meanwhile on the national broadcaster a public lecture had begun. In a stroke of pure poetic justice the power cut out at the State House from where the events were being broadcast. It was restored in short order and I watched in disbelief as the lecture continued as if all present were oblivious to what unfolding nationwide.

Night swiftly came and went, reports of more violence came in, targeted destruction of property, even whispers of xenophobia as Asian and Burundian businesses bore the brunt of the looting.

Curfews were imposed and calm gradually restored but even now there remains an underlying tension that is palpable in its intensity. As the press statements fly and speeches are made the worry becomes how long it will be until the worm once again turns?

To whom do lions cast their gentle looks?
Not to the beast that would usurp their den.
The smallest worm will turn being trodden on,
And doves will peck in safeguard of their brood.
-Shakespeare (excerpt from Henry VI, part 3)

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