In Malawi, topics that are totally taboo in America are free game, namely: money, religion, and politics. (Insert Western cringing here.)
It’s been kind of hard for me, accepting that at any given moment, I’m probably going to be asked how much school costs, if I’m a Christian, and if I support the President. Which is not, NOT, something you would ask in the United States, and certainly not to a stranger. But here, it’s totally standard.
I usually find myself going with bland, default answers (expensive, yeah yeah, and sure), or redirecting the conversation. As it turns out, this isn’t hard to do, since Malawi is in the midst of an enormous money scandal that has been deemed “Cashgate,” probably in reference to Watergate, though there is no correlation except for scandal in the government.
Cliff notes version of what happened: it was uncovered about six months ago that a whole bunch of money was just missing from the Malawi government. Allegedly, it was spent by the previous administration (pre-Joyce Banda; her presidency is relatively new). This is really bad for a lot of reasons –
1. Joyce Banda looks bad, since her party is brand new and her presidency is brand new. The scandal came out during her presidency, AND
2. If she can’t crack down on this, then she comes across as weak. Resultingly, she has fired a whole bunch of the cabinet. Awkward. Related, there are billboards all over Lilongwe of President Banda shaking her finger at the masses, promising no more corruption, AND
3. The police stops have become even more ineffective, as the police stop all vehicles in attempts to look for stolen money. More explanation of police stops later, AND
4. Malawi relies on foreign aid in a big way. If they can’t track down all this missing money, then countries are pulling their aid because they don’t trust the corrupt country with all the piles of money. This is arguably the biggest problem resulting from Cashgate.
The numbers have varied a lot about how much actually is missing, and part of this is due to the delayed release of reports and investigations. On top of that, the Malawi Kwacha fluctuates so much that currency isn’t consistent in value.
Anyway, people love to talk about their political views. They will tell exactly what they think of Joyce Banda and her party, or her rivals’ parties, or Cashgate. Today there are demonstrations in Blantyre about Cashgate and government inefficiencies.
But the most interesting thing about the political parties is that they’re printed on chitenges. The beautiful fabric that women wrap around themselves is often printed with the faces of a party member, with a bright color. (Parties here have designated colors and symbols. President Banda’s is bright orange, with a key unlocking a padlock as the symbol). And to win support, party members will hand out free chitenges with their parties on them not only as symbols of their generosity and goodwill, but also as some of the most effective propaganda in Malawi possible – because this party member’s face will be seen literally everywhere, by virtue of how chitenges are used.
It’s kind of genius, really!
(Unrelated. Sorry for the blog post drought. Life happened!)