Rob Trask writes from Malawi:
Malawi. Day six.
An hour or so south and we are in Mzimba for an early morning meeting with a group of religious leaders. On the approach to the church we stop to pick up a Christian pastor who is walking with two female Islamic leaders. If this wasn't novel enough, the subject for today's meeting is HIV/AIDS.
Discussions were open and frank. We talked about condoms. We talked about gay sexual relations. We talked about extra marital sex. Nothing was taboo and all of this happened inside a church.
This group are shaking up the traditional views on HIV/AIDS held by their respective communities. Perhaps it is pragmatism, perhaps it is realism, ultimately it doesn't matter what the motivation is as this approach will save lives - and lots of them.
This is not to say that the religious communities are not without blame. Their response was well overdue and still the majority of faith leaders are unwilling to change their stance. But let's not forget the scale of this achievement - it truly is radical reform and will no doubt be a long and hard journey.
If yesterday was a tough day, today was heartbreaking. We visited a nursery school in a village not far from where the meeting took place. As soon as you bring children into the equation it provokes an emotional reaction (just ask any charity's fundraising department). This is where the dynamic of the HIV debate is changing I think. As more and more children are being born HIV positive the traditional view that this is a 'dirty' disease caused solely by promiscuity, loses any credibility that it had.
My lunch time order was a brave choice. I followed Thomas, Progressio's Country Manager in Malawi, in ordering nsima and 'local' chicken. Nsima is the staple food of Malawi and is made from maize flour. Its taste is difficult to describe, but its consistency is somewhere between porridge and mashed potatoes. To be authentic I rolled up my sleeves and tucked in with my hands, rolling the nsima into balls and dipping it into salsa whilst mixing with mouthfulls of chicken. The chicken is virtually all bone and the meat is tough. Thomas describes it as a "good runner", I think that says it all.
So it was with some trepidation that I moved onto the next meeting. TOVWIRANE are another partner organisation of Progressio and yet another shining light. These organisations are dynamic, they can mobilise quickly and they are right there, on the ground, working directly with their communities. There is little bureaucracy and little wasted money, as a donor you get real bang for the buck.
Thereafter we drove back to Lilongwe, this time in the true light of day and it became clear that the deforestation was much worse than I had thought. There are piles of wood everywhere, overloaded trucks full to the brim carry the pine back to the capital. I am not sure how much of this is legal, and I suppose part may be the hangover from the previous government (where valid concessions were granted which are yet to expire). There are road blocks every so often on the way home where police check the logger's paperwork, but there are rumours of bribery.
There is also a common misconception that as a natural resource, the trees will just grow back. The one for one scheme (whereby a new tree is planted for each which is felled) cannot be happening. I only saw one small field of saplings compared to acre after acre of tree stumps. Environmental sustainability is by no means my area, but from an outsider's perspective some serious analysis needs to be done - and quickly.
On the final approach into Lilongwe we passed the site of Madonna's school. She famously adopted two children from Malawi and then as things got nasty, promised to build a girls' academy as part of a PR smoke screen. Today the plot lays barren. I don't know the detail, perhaps she was ill-advised. One thing I would warn the material girl (she is no doubt reading this blog) is that her album sales in Malawi may under-perform...
Rob Trask is a finalist in the Guardian International Development Journalism Competition and is visiting Malawi with Progressio to write about the role of faith in responding to HIV.
Photo: Religious leaders attending the meeting. Photo by Rob Trask.
Read Rob's previous blogs from Malawi: