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Automatic rifles and welcomes

One of the smallest and poorest countries in Africa, landlocked Malawi’s 17million people are largely subsistence farmers. Natural disasters – both droughts and floods – are frequent, hampering efforts to minimise reliance on international aid. Thirty years on from independence and ten from the first effective multi-party democracy, government-led reforms in health, education and agriculture are slowly gaining traction. The stats say that in recent years the country has become a net food exporter.

On the shores of Lake Malawi the earth is parched to dust and the lake can offer up only the smallest of harvests in return for hours of team effort. Tourism and craft workshops offer a glimpse beyond the dust for some, but the contrast between local living standards and our ‘just visiting’ experience feels almost insulting. At our temporary home there is a commitment to working with the local community and providing retraining to keep locals in jobs – kitchen staff and cleaners were once labourers, testified by the ease with which two slender women swing our bags onto their heads.

Further north in the Chelinda Highlands, our increasing elevation starts to make an impact. My morning walk through an ill-considered pine forest (a British ‘economic development project’ of the 1950s that has spawned an all too familiar wildling pine problem) sees me puffing without the excuse of baggage ferrying.

Like much of southern Africa, waves of settlement have added texture and, inevitably, tension over the centuries. Bantu from the north, Arab slave-traders, Portuguese, British (Livingtone passed through in 1859 and recommended the downlands near Lake Nyasa for British settlement). The country is currently striving to generate a stable economic base that will allow it to find its place in the world – not that they are currently without one. At Karonga the Air Traffic Controller recalls his several visits to New Zealand during his years working in Search and Rescue. Children greet us with enthusiasm and their elders are invariably friendly – even the ones searching our bags on the hot tarmac with automatic rifles slung over their shoulders.

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