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<i>Ring a Ring o' Roses</i>: Malawi's dance of death

About the author
Chris Marrow was born in 1943 and trained as a merchant navy deck officer. He went on to work in many parts of the world, including owning and operating his own ferries. After twelve years working in marine operations for aid and development, he now runs a fleet of ships on Lake Malawi.
“Ring a Ring o’ Roses
A pocket full of posies,
Attishoo,
Attishoo,
We all fall down.”

So innocuous sounding; so innocent in its associations with young children playing; and yet this nursery rhyme owes its origins to the rose blotches that appeared on peoples’ skins when they caught the great plague, so that they all fell down – dead!

I saw a child with blotches not long ago. At the orphans’ Christmas party in Monkey Bay all the children were revelling in their brief escape from the everyday grind of the poverty and deprivation of their lives. All except one, that is. One little girl lay on a blanket in a corner, feeling very sorry for herself. The deacon lifted her dress to reveal a ring of large blotches across her abdomen. None of us had any idea what could be causing it. “Whatever it is”, said the deacon, “it’s almost certainly HIV-related.”

His comment focused the mind. Around us was a horde of happy children in their best party clothes, laughing and playing, and we had forgotten that so many of them had been born HIV positive. Their lives would be, in the words of Thomas Hobbes, ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short’. Even many of those lucky enough to have avoided being born with the disease probably owed their status of orphan to having their parents carried away by Aids.

Coping with catastrophe

We were thanked by the organisers because we had bought the goats that had provided the meal for the children. I must tell the deacon not to do that. I am lucky to have been born in the right place in the right family. These children had the misfortune to be born in the wrong place, at the wrong time, and in the wrong family. They shouldn’t have to thank me for my own good fortune.

orphaned familyThe nuclear family - 75 year old Evlyn Chigodi with orphaned grandchildren Frank, Happy and Prisca Kaunda, and George and Blessings Fellow, children of her two dead daughters. She grows maize to feed them, but not enough. Photo by Chris Marrow
In any case, we had helped out a meagre forty orphans. How many orphans are there in Monkey Bay – and Masasa – and Chembe – and Mtakataka Turnoff? How many orphans are there in the District of Mangochi? How many orphans are there in Malawi? How many grains of sand are there on the Masasa beach? They are without number.

Our garden boy, Matthews, looks about 18, but is actually a good deal older, and has a wife and children – and then there are the other children. He was one of a family of six, but now is the only one left. They didn’t all die of Aids. The last one passed away a few weeks ago. He committed suicide. Some of them had children, and Matthews and his wife now look after them as well. Fortunately he has a job and is wealthy. He earns $30 a month from which he supports all his extended family. Knowing he has work, neighbours come to him for financial help!

What is African society doing about this terrible scourge? It is doing as Matthews does. When family members die, they take in the children; support the ageing parents. When all those who should be in the primes of their lives have died, then the ageing parents take over.

Every week I go down to see the arrival of our lifeline ship Ilala, coming in with passengers from remote coastal areas around Lake Malawi. Every week I see ageing women alight from the ship with heavy packs on their heads, a young child strapped to their backs and others, slightly older, being dragged by the hand or the voice. It is a heartbreaking scene. Sometimes I have helped lift the packs from their heads so they can duck through the ship’s exit port, and I, who am fit and healthy, find them heavy.

These old women, who should be sitting enjoying their last years as respected elders of the family, have returned to a back-breaking daily grind and once more have become the heart and breadwinner of the family instead. They must work to support all those children who are left. Yet the more people die of the new plague, the fewer are left to produce food. The numbers of needy grow and the numbers of providers shrink.

There, in a nutshell, is southern Africa’s food problem. ‘Famine!’ scream the press and the aid agencies. ‘Drought!’ shout others. But you can’t have a famine in the normal sense when there are full markets. The rainy seasons have been their usual unreliable selves, with too much rain in some places and not enough in others. That is not a drought. If you turn to Angola, war has played its part. In Zimbabwe, economic collapse is making a bad situation worse; but in Malawi there is no war and no economic collapse. If famine there is, it is famine in a land of plenty.

Why? HIV/Aids. It has stripped the country of its peasant producers, leaving the old and infirm to try and support an ever-spiralling number of children. If the remaining providers fail to produce enough, for whatever reason, they get no money from the sale of any surplus. With no money they go hungry. The famine is only for the poor. Eventually the children start to suffer from malnutrition, and eventually they die. Which got them – the hunger or the Aids? No one will know, and does it matter anyway? The one feeds off the other.

Change has to come from within

What else needs to be done to stop the inexorable march of Aids across the land? I asked the deacon. He listed some of the changes needed within African society.

  • Young girls to not have to have sex to make their breasts develop.
  • Young mothers to not have to have sex with another man and spread his seminal fluid on the baby’s legs to make it start to develop.
  • Brothers should not have to provide sexual services for the wife of a dead brother, especially since he may well have died of Aids.
  • Having sex with a young virgin girl does not cure an HIV-positive man of the disease.
  • Casual sex without protection is ultimately a killer.
  • Offers of sexual favours as a means of obtaining some advantage, be it financial (getting your fish free) or developmental (getting higher grades at school), might offer some short-term gain, but at a tremendous long-term cost.
  • Poor women should stop allying themselves with any wealthy and powerful man as a means of obtaining financial support, and wealthy and powerful men should stop abusing their position by having sex with every woman that sees them as a potential meal ticket.
  • Stop the droit du seigneur, which allows male bosses the right to abuse their female employees.

To educated people, especially from the west, it all seems pretty obvious; but even societies which claim to value education are riddled with nonsense as well. There is an expression for it – ‘old wives’ tales’. Think of the vast human resources that are brought to bear on every fad and fancy that comes along. Every disease, it is imagined, can be cured with the rub of a foot or the massage of a head or the sniff of a potion. Old wives should not take the blame. There are also barmy business fads which would have to be called ‘old businessmen’s tales’, or mad medical matters – ‘old doctors’ tales’.

children at playDoomed to lead lives that are "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short" - except nobody told the children. Photo by Chris Marrow
I was brought up being told to put butter on a burn, even though I could see as a teenager that it was patently the wrong thing to do. Fortunately, better sense prevailed in due course. However, one thing would have delayed the outbreak of reason. If large numbers of outsiders had arrived demanding that butter on burns should be outlawed, out of pure stubbornness a sizeable and vocal group would have demanded the right to maintain our own way of life, including the right to delay healing our burns by putting butter on them.

What is the relevance of this to behavioural change in southern Africa? The point is that white-skinned, cleanly-dressed people in expensive four-wheel drive vehicles are not the ones to enter a village and tell the young girls that they don’t have to have sex to make their breasts grow. This must come from within the community, and all those who are trying to pass the word from inside African society are worthy of our support.

Apart from anything else, smartly dressed white people in 4x4 vehicles do seem to have an appalling understanding of what is going on in Africa. Over the last months we have been subjected to some of the most ludicrous media coverage imaginable. I have seen a reporter telling the world that, although the people he was filming did not look skeletal, the proof of how hungry they were could be evidenced by the fact that they were eating rats. Malawians who saw this guffawed with laughter. Field rats are a delicacy. Many people who feel peckish on their way home from their day’s toil may, if they have money, think, “I could just fancy a nice rat!” Indeed, if McDonald’s had an outlet in Salima, whence came this piece of journalistic nonsense, they might well think it commercially viable to put McRat on the menu.

The following day the same news channel apologised that the people didn’t look hungry but showed footage that it claimed was further evidence of how hungry people were. A food distribution was going on, and chubby women were shown running towards it.

This, of course, proved nothing of the sort. If you wish to make an analogy, ask yourself what would happen on the streets of Edinburgh if you suddenly started to hand out free bottles of whisky. Once the rumour got round, traffic would be brought to a standstill as people ran towards the location. The desire to get something for nothing is a very powerful human motivation.

Policy must be based on reality

Combine this misinformation with images of skeletal children that I have seen on other TV programmes and in the publicity documents of aid agencies about southern African famine, and I am forced to the conclusion that between them the aid business and the media are drumming up a false crisis. I fail to understand why they are doing this as there is a real crisis of HIV/Aids. The reason must derive from among the following:

  • ignorance of what is really happening;
  • an overwhelming need to have a nice easy crisis so that they can call for more money;
  • a cynical view that a famine makes raising money easier than if they have to explain the real problem.

None of these is acceptable.

Meanwhile, however, Africa’s nightmare goes on. The little girl with the rash is presumed to be HIV positive. One man has a strange fungal infection on his feet, causing them to swell enormously. No one says anything, but we assume his auto-immune system is deficient because he has Aids.

Then the wife of a business contact dies young. “Must be Aids,” we think, but say nothing. We have seen the husband at bars with numerous different young girls. It is rightly called the disease that dare not speak its name. A venerable-looking ship’s captain in his 50s sits supping a beer while looking out over the beautiful lake. “I don’t know why I am still here!” he says. “All my friends are dead. We all slept with the same women, and I don’t know why they are gone and I am still around!”

There truly is trouble in Malawi and many parts of Africa and it is heartbreaking, but it is not famine, as such, and it is not drought. Change is needed within society to defeat Aids, but it is painfully slow. It will not come about as the result of misreporting and a failure to analyse the true nature of the problem. Neither, I suspect, will it come about in the wake of $50,000 Land Cruisers.

I am putting my money on those from within African society who are working for change; people like the pastor who had organised the Aids orphans’ Christmas party. Let us identify them and support them.

Over the last couple of months there has been more talk in the media of HIV/Aids but reports of famine have continued to predominate. It is certainly true that there is hunger, even though markets remain full of food. None the less, this is a cycle as old as Africa itself. The months of the rainy season are hungry ones as last year’s supplies are finished and food from this year’s harvest won’t be ready until April. Anyone caught in an area where the vagaries of the climate have not been kind will be badly affected and many do indeed need assistance.

Yet again the scare stories are starting. I read that 3.3 million people in Malawi face starvation if international funds are not made available. There may well be 3.3 million vulnerable people, but that is not the same thing.

Do reports of this kind represent an admission that we must overstate and simplify a problem before we get anyone to take any notice? Are we saying that only by exaggerating the need can we fund the good work of feeding those people who are genuinely hungry? Are we in danger of force-feeding aid on people and economies and to hell with the structural consequences? And next year when there are problems again – and inevitably there will be problems – will they be blamed on another famine? Will we believe it? Or will we ignore it as they ignored the little boy who cried, ‘Wolf!’?

“Attishoo, Attishoo, They all fall down!”

Before long the children fell down as well.


View of Monkey Bay, Lake Malawi. Photo by Chris Marrow


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